Tuesday, April 30, 2002


  • 1854 - Catholic Church defines doctrine of the Immaculate Conception
  • 1870 - Catholic Church defines doctrine of the Infallibility of the Pope
  • 2002 - Catholic Church declares that 'man-boy love', feeling up young girls, and groping 6 yr old boys in the confessional are Bad Things

And that, I'm afraid, appears to be the sum-total of last week's hoopla in Rome. American Cardinals, they of the liability insurance and the PR firms and the tough-cop zero-tolerance rhetoric, are summonsed to the Vatican. There, in another country and another century, they are told by no less an authority than His Holiness that - guess what, will you? - sexual abuse of children is a crime. "Whoa!" don't you hear them saying, slapping their red-capped heads as the truth sinks in, and everyone scurries to pretend that the Emperor has just put on a few clothes.

Let's give His Holiness some points, for at least and at last calling a crime a crime, and stating that there is "no place in the priesthood ... for those who would harm the young." Now, doesn't this seem clear to you? But having announced this new direction, the Pope appears to have left its implementation to the Cardinals; the very people responsible for causing the problem.

Anyone who has ever worked for a large organization during a market downturn has been to the company crisis meeting where some Business Manager honcho declares that hey, things are tough, he's going to give it to us straight, but hey, working together we can all turn this around. Then, a bit of brand tweaking here, a new logo and mission statement there, and off you go, a pat from the CEO and the board, and no need to really dig too deep and find causes you'd rather not know that might take a bit of real fixing. The Catholic Church is just so corporate sometimes about so many things; it's a real pity they don't have that ultimate organizational redress - the shareholders' meeting, when they can vote out the whole pitiful board of directors.

Sort of on that topic, in the torrent of press on last week's Vatican anticlimax are plenty of people, nuns, lay Catholics, and liberal priests among them, expressing surprise and hurt that the hierarchy has neither sought nor heeded their views on the current crisis, and is in fact actively seeking to oppress them.
I wish all these bold reformers well, but... really, duh! The Catholic Church takes pride in being and has never pretended to be anything other than an autocratic patriarchal hierarchy. Where did they think they were?

Bird brained

An American Cardinal always sounded to me like a species of bird. A cardinal is "a crested thick-billed North American finch having bright red plumage in the male." However, although there exist American Robins, American Tree Sparrows, and American Woodcocks, there appear to be no American Cardinals, only Northern Cardinals.

This is fortunate, as it saves bird-lovers from having to demand a name change, like German Shepherd dogs became Alsations during the war.

Sorry, but sex and Catholics just got too boring. A flock of avian cardinals would have more sense than their ecclesiastical counterparts, these days.

One example will suffice to illustrate how less than nothing has been achieved by the American Cardinals. "The American prelates said they would recommend a special process to defrock any priest who has become "notorious and is guilty of the serial, predatory sexual abuse of minors." But they made a legal distinction in cases that are "not notorious" and said they would leave it up to the local bishop to decide whether an accused priest is a threat to children and should be defrocked".

As if we needed more illogic brought to this situation - in a kind of victim's roulette, the more 'notorious' your abuser, the more likely you are to get justice for your abuse. When your local bishop has finished counting angels on the head of a pin, he can adjudicate on exactly how much priestly physical contact constitutes 'notorious' abuse.

But verily, the most notorious of them all is the ghastly Rev. Paul Shanley, pedophile and VD clinic regular. ""One of the first things I do in a new city is to sign up at the local clinics for help with my VD. . . . There is next to no confidentiality - your name is bellowed out for all to hear (I meet a lot of old friends this way)," Shanley wrote."

Surely, this piece of garbage has to be first in line to be defrocked. What a pity we don't consider castration as a punishment.

But yesterday, Cardinal Law responded to a lawsuit brought against Shanley by blaming the then 6 year old victim

"In his first legal response to charges that the Rev. Paul R. Shanley began molesting a Newton boy when he was 6 years old, Cardinal Bernard F. Law has asserted that "negligence" by the boy and his parents contributed to the alleged abuse."

Cardinal Law, of course, would know all about negligence. He disgraces his church, his community and his country.

Monday, April 29, 2002

One man's fanatic...

While Australian children have gone back to school today, in other parts of the world Israeli troops have run over and mutilated the bodies of 14 year old Palestinians with a tank, and Palestinians disguised in Israeli police uniforms have broken into Jewish homes and killed among others a 6 year old girl, who was hiding under her bed. The TV news here showed her teddy bear sitting sadly on the bloodstained blankets.

It's thirty years since then Israeli PM Golda Meir made her famous and rather disturbing quote of 1972:

    "We will eventually forgive the Arabs for killing our children; but we will never forgive them for making us kill their children."

No-one is holding their breath for much forgiveness for anything, from either side. Erasmus said that, "Folly is perennial" - I don't know if that's a comforting thought or not.

Fanaticism is a term frequently these days employed against the Palestinians, suicide bombers in particular. The problem is, fanaticism on one side on a conflict will always sooner or later provoke fanaticism on the other.

Here's a quote on the topic from Bertrand Russell, very resonant to today's world. As if in proof that Fanaticism is also perennial, irrespective of its cause, this was written in 1920, about the spread of Bolshevism, and what loomed as a war between Capitalism and Communism. Russell supported the social aims of Bolshevism, but disliked its religious overtones, its "elaborate dogmas and inspired scriptures." [Marx and Engels]

    "It cannot be denied that, over any short period of time, dogmatic belief is a help in fighting. If all Communists become religious fanatics, while supporters of capitalism retain a sceptical temper, it may be assumed that the Communists would win, while in the contrary case the capitalists would win. It seems evident, from the attitude of the capitalist world.... that there is no depth of cruelty, perfidy or brutality feom which the present holders of power will shrink when they find themselves threatened.

    "If, in order to oust them, nothing short of religious fanaticism will serve, it is they who are the prime sources of the resultant evil. And it is permissible to hope that, when they have been dis-possessed, fanaticism will also fade, as other fanaticisms have faded in the past."
The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism, 1920

Wednesday, April 24, 2002

Lest we forget

Tomorrow is ANZAC day, a sombre public holiday in both Australia and New Zealand.

ANZAC stands for 'Australian and New Zealand Army Corps', a combined force that made its military debut as Churchill's cannon fodder at the Turkish peninsula of Gallipoli on 25 April 1915, where, thanks to some spectacular political and military incompetence, huge numbers of ANZACs were slaughtered for little gain.

Other countries glorify their great military victories, but not the ANZACs. Despite its abject failure, Gallipoli is commemorated for the heroism and resourcefulness of the ANZAC soldiers. ANZAC has come to stand, in the words of the historian, C.E.W. Bean, "for reckless valour in a good cause, for enterprise, recourcefulness, fidelity, comradeship and endurance"

Indeed, it's sometimes said that ANZAC is the true religion of Australia, and to a great extent I find this is true. As far as traditional religion goes, Australians are admirably casual, and people of diverse and no faiths co-exist better than they seem to anywhere else. Making fun of the established churchs won't ruffle too many Australians, but the legend of ANZAC is sacrosanct, from the near deification of the Gallipoli veterans - there is only one left now, at 104 years of age - to the Mass-like sacrament and rites of the ANZAC Dawn Service.

ANZAC day also has its "hymns" including a moving tribute from Turkey's first president, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who led an Ottoman regiment in defence against the ANZACs.

I agree we certainly should have a day that honours the Australian servicemen and women who have died for their country. The fact that most of them have been needlessly sent to the other side of the world to do someone else's dirty work - I mean really, what on earth was Australia doing in the Boer War, or Vietnam, or the Falklands? - doesn't negate the bravery of the individuals involved.

But what I do object to is the selective view of history by the current Australian government, which wallows in the ANZAC glory - the nobleness and courage of the lads at Gallipoli reflecting on us all, blah blah - while disowning any collective responsibility for more recent and less palatable eras of Australian history, such as the forced removal of Aboriginal children from their own families. But that's another issue.

I'll be away for a couple of days, and when I return, we'll need to check on those Catholics again. The Pope has spoken, and branded child abuse a crime, not merely a sin. I don't know if I'm impressed or underwhelmed - both, I think. Interesting times are ahead.

Heal thyself...

"No religion is suddenly rejected by any people; it is rather gradually outgrown. None sees a religion die; dead religions are like dead languages and obsolete customs: the decay is long and -- like the glacier march -- is perceptible only to the careful watcher by comparisons extending over long periods."
Charles Bradlaugh, Humanity's Gain From Unbelief, 1929

Charles Bradlaugh (1833 - 1891), founder of the UK National Secular Society, was an atheist and secularist during an era when such public opinions were not always even legal. (Never afraid of an unpopular cause, he also championed republicanism - in the UK of the 1870's!)

When we do watch religions over long periods, some of the language, at least, barely changes:

    "It is not Romanism, but secularism, that is the most dangerous enemy of true religion today."
The Rev. R. J. Campbell, Liverpool, 1929. (By "true religion", the Rev. was, we can assume, referring to the Church of England)

Over the decades, the Roman Catholics have come in from the cold and joined the chorus:

NY Cardinal O'Connor "...said he saw "secularism" as "the most pernicious of all the threats" facing the Church."
interview with Fr James Murray of The Australian (28 October 1997)

A almost identical statement, citing secularism as the greatest threat to the faith. has been made in recent weeks by the Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Archbishop George Pell. The Archbishop has been saying this for years: in 1994, he wrote:
    "The religious tensions today in Australia are not Protestant versus Catholic, not Christian versus other religions, but Christian churches/values versus neo-pagan secularism.'

It's obvious to anyone half awake that the greatest threat to the Catholic Church today is not 'neo-pagan secularism', but the conduct of the Church hierarchy itself. As fun as it is to point out the logical flaws in much religious reasoning, religion is an emotional attachment for most people, not the least those who have been indoctrinated since birth, so much so that even someone who can admit,

    "As an American woman in her 30s, I have always felt equal to men in the workplace and at home. Only at church do I feel an injustice and powerlessness that I encounter in no other area of my life. Only at church am I marginalized."

can also go on to say,

    "I remain Catholic, very simply because I believe that beneath the misguided theology, misogyny and paternalism, there is truth."

But many are not remaining, and not because they run across the ideas of Charles Bradlaugh while net surfing, either.

    "THE first question Boston priest Paul Shanley asked the distraught and fragile young man seeking his counsel was this: How big is your penis? Arthur Austin can still hardly believe it all these years of depression and lost opportunity later. ..."

    "... In 1998, he told the church what had happened, and received an apology and the news that he wasn't Shanley's only victim. Austin says he cried with relief. But when the church sought his silence in a legal settlement, he rebelled. He wanted kindness and healing - "I wanted Christ" - but saw it was really about shutting him up.

    ""The Cardinal and his henchman achieved what Shanley could not - they drove me from the church," he says."

Friday, April 19, 2002


I will be away for a few days, and will return mid next week. Out of cyber range for school holidays. perhaps it will indeed prove 'fabulous not to know what was going on in the Middle East,' that 'strange tragedy from parallel universes.'

On today's political and religious orthodoxies, I leave you with this, from Bertrand Russell:

    "Give me an adequate army, with power to provide it with more pay and better food than falls to the lot of the average man, and I will undertake, within thirty years, to make the majority of the population believe that two and two are three, that water freezes when it gets hot and boils when it gets cold, or any other nonsense that might seem to serve the interest of the State.

    "Of course, even when these beliefs had been generated, people would not put the kettle in the ice-box when they wanted it to boil. That cold makes water boil would be a Sunday truth, sacred and mystical, to be professed in awed tones, but not to be acted on in daily life.

    "What would happen would be that any verbal denial of the mystic doctrine would be made illegal, and obstinate heretics would be 'frozen' at the stake. No person who did not enthusiastically accept the official doctrine would be allowed to teach or to have any position of power.

    "Only the very highest officials, in their cups, would whisper to each other what rubbish it all is; then, they would laugh and drink again."
An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish, 1943

Thou shalt not...

I know, we weren't going to rant about child abuse again until there was new news, but I couldn't resist this look at the Catholic problem from the point of view of God's laws i.e. the Commandments. The Catholic hierarchy has broken quite a few:
  • "Those letters [from his Cardinal, praising man-boy love advocate Rev. P Shanley] were as untruthful as the testimony of a mobster on the stand. And what went through my mind was I read them was: You shall not bear false witness."
  • "You shall not commit adultery. If infidelity to one's spouse is a grave sin, how much graver is infidelity to God, to Whom these men took a vow of chastity?"
  • "You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain. God's name is disgraced whenever religious people, and especially clergy, behave immorally."
  • "You shall not steal. Theft is not only the stealing of money and property. It is also the stealing of innocence."
  • "You shall not covet your neighbor's wife. Or your neighbor's sons or daughters, either. The crimes of these men didn't begin with improper fondling or risque suggestions. It began when they let their lust for the forbidden dominate their thoughts."

Oh, and remember too, Thou shalt not kill... "The Chief of Staff of the Dutch army resigned yesterday, a day after the entire cabinet quit in atonement for the role of the Netherlands in the worst massacre of the Bosnian war. .. The government of Wim Kok, the Prime Minister, resigned on Tuesday, admitting that it could have done more to prevent the slaughter of Bosnian Muslims by Serb forces."

The Bosnian Serbs were Orthodox Christians, yet this genocide is never described in the major press as a 'massacre of Bosnian Muslims by Bosnian Christians.'
Supporters of Islam post Sept 11 point out that, "The massacre of 8,000 unarmed Muslims at Srebrenica never led to a stream of pieces about the violence of Christianity".
Supporters of no faith wonder if airbrushing the murderers' Christianity out of the picture was a collective conscious or subconscious decision. While like the Middle East, there are more than just religious conflicts throughout the Balkans, it does seem a bit weak-stomached.

News is never more than a few degrees away from the Middle East. Here's an old but well researched article from the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, rightly castigating the Dutch for their sins of ommision and commission in Srebrenica. However, the article has another purpose - to provide verbal ammunition for Israeli officials to rebut criticisms of Israel doing bad things (e.g. Jenin), on the grounds that the UN and modern Western countries like the Netherlands also do bad things (e.g. Srebrenica).

    "So-called moralists both in Israeli society and abroad frequently claim that Israel should only do things which are internationally acceptable, conveniently ignoring the systematic double-talk of the international community. Another claim is that Western countries are governed by enlightened moral principles, to which Israel should measure up. The Netherlands is one of those most often commended as a shining example of such leadership."

    "... The Dutch double standard may also be viewed from a different angle. Nothing sticks to The Netherlands: their colonial misbehavior; the Dutch authorities' widespread assistance to the German occupiers in arresting and deporting over 100,000 Jews to their deaths during World War II; ... The myth of the benign Dutch is false, but their public relations are excellent. For Israelis who are the victims of double standards, this is something that can be learned from the Dutch."

    "In the coming years, Israel and the Jewish people will have to systematically document and expose the double standard applied against them. Fighting this is becoming a key challenge for Israel. Hopefully, this analysis of the Srebrenica case is a small step forward on this road. ... No Israeli diplomat should be sent abroad without a good knowledge of the literature on the Yugoslav war, which contains a practically unlimited amount of useful information for presenting Israel's case.'"

Well. Still, if crimes are sins, then they can be at least partially absolved by repentance, and "never before has there been an era of such public contrition as that for the mistakes and atrocities of the 20th century."

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan "apologized in Bosnia last October [1999] for the opportunities to "achieve peace and justice that were missed." He singled out the massacre of 7,000 Muslims in Srebrenica by Serbs, saying that tragedy "will haunt our history forever.""

"Mr Annan has also been moved to visit Rwanda, to apologize for failing to staunch the 1994 genocide there that left 800,000 dead." Well, it got him a Nobel Peace Prize, pity about all the dead, though...

Thursday, April 18, 2002


I'm a person of the here and now, and you won't find any deep 'ism's here. With so much of human interest happening each day, I get impatient with sites where authors just endlessly examine their own navels, or worse, their inner thoughts. But I'm in the minority - most people have a definite preference for 'looking for what isn't there' over 'looking at what is there.'

In these complex times, enrolments to study theology are booming. However, the numbers are coming from lay people in search of meaning - of more than 1800 students in Melbourne, "nearly all of them have no wish to wear a dog collar. In a twist to tradition, theology, the study of religion, has gone from being a preparation for preaching to a way of wondering how to live."

"Christian faith is not a necessary prerequisite.

"Hamish Duncan, 29, still has doubts well into his course. "I have a deep feeling for what I think of as God, but I don't know whether I'd consider myself a Christian," he said. Like the others, Mr Duncan, a former casino hand, works parttime to finance his exploration of ideas he believes are ignored by popular culture.

"[College Dean] Dr Reid thinks theology offers a more sophisticated view than that offered by the churches. He said the sex abuse scandals had turned students off the clerical life.

""They're studying purely for their own purposes, not a job," he said.

"The lay boom is not reflected among ordinands, but it touches all denominations. Just 70 of the 230 students at East Melbourne's Catholic Theological College are seminarians. A decade ago, according to college master Father Austin Cooper, the figure was about 100. "The emphasis is now on personal enrichment," he said. ...The focus has shifted from young people seeking ordination to older people wanting an academic basis for their faith."

It can only be an improvement that at least some lay people are no longer taking their faith on faith, as it were, and 'studying theology' has a definite gravitas to it, but it seems to me no more than nostalgia for the old undergrad Comparative Religion and Philosophy 101 days, an emotional support group for those fortunate enough in matters of body to be able to devote time to debating matters of spirit.

And what of the non-Christians studying theology? One supposedly typical student: "She likes the idea of applying academic rigour to such questions as: Does God exist? Well does He/She? After four years studying theology, she still cannot say, but that does not seem to worry her. "I haven't got the answers and, in a way, it doesn't matter. The point is to get a more sophisticated idea of what truth is," she said."

Pardon me asking, but if you don't know whether or not God exists, what are you doing at Theological College? If theological study has degenerated into some kind of secular agnostic self-discovery mission, why not just keep your day job, and hang out where they wallow in this kind of profound meaningful meaninglessness - say, Eve Tushnet's 'Questions for Objectivists'

People who study at Theological College only to conclude that God exists but He is something other than one of the Big Four probably think they have reached a profound conclusion, but they're nowhere near the bounds of free thought.

Bertrand Russell applied his considerable academic rigour to this same question - Does God Exist - and came to the conclusion that he did not. Russell used logic to defeat the common arguments for the existence of God, but freely acknowledged that what really moves people to believe in God is not any intellectual argument at all, but emotional factors including, 'the wish for safety, a sort of feeling that there is a big brother who will look after you.'

Wednesday, April 17, 2002

Life begins at...

Australia is only now having the debates on human embryo research that have been 'resolved' in countries like the UK. The emotiveness of the issue turns chiefly on whether or not you regard the early embryo as a human being.

The Age reports today that, "This disagreement runs through the religious communities. Faiths disagree among themselves on the issue, churches within the same faith disagree with each other, and even the leaders of some churches disagree with their colleagues."

The article also draws on the findings of the British House of Lords select committee that examined the ethics of this issue. (Why a bunch of over privileged superannuated hereditary peers are qualified to examine the ethics of anything is another matter, but somebody's got to do it.)

To summarize the various positions regarding the early embryo:
  • The Anglican Primate of Sydney, Archbishop Peter Carnley, has drawn a line in the sand, or rather, in the petri dish. Before 14 days, an embryo is "human genetic material" but not, he says, a "newly conceived human being" - that is, a person.
  • The Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, the Most Rev Peter Jensen: "once the embryo has come into existence it is a human embryo and ought to be given the rights and respect as a human person".
  • Muslims and Hindus: the embryo is a person from the moment of fertilisation (or fertilization if it is an American embryo)
  • UK Court of the Chief Rabbi: "Personhood, with its attendant rights and responsibilities, begins at birth,"
  • Church of England: "developmental view of the emergence of personhood"
  • Catholics, everywhere: the "moment of conception" is, in fact, fertilization

If you get the feeling that this is not going to end rationally, you're right.

The article concludes:
    "The Lords committee was canny enough to appreciate that moral principles are not always observed to the letter by those who preach them. Thus, for instance, Catholic authorities have never required burial rites for miscarried or aborted foetuses and they don't busy themselves baptising stored embryos. If, as the Pope insisted earlier this year, the embryo is to be regarded as an "individual human being with its own identity" then the church seems somewhat careless about attending to its spiritual needs. This kind of inconsistency between principle and practice is not conclusive proof of anything except that absolute positions are not always held absolutely. Moreover, even moral absolutes can conflict."

Australian author Germaine Greer, much of whose most biting prose was actually on reproductive matters rather than gender relations, had already made this exact point nearly 20 years before. In her 1984 book, Sex and Destiny. she wrote the following, (and if you're at all prudish, please don't read it; I've warned you, so don't complain):

    "There are millions of people who believe that the immortal human soul comes into being at the moment that the sperm fights through to the nucleus of the ovum; what happens in the petri dish is as wonderful as the Transubstantiation... and therefore they argue passionately that such an event ought not to take place at a biologist's whim.

"It would be consistent to learn from the example, to concern themselves with all circumstances in which conception takes place only to be aborted, all unknown to the parents, who would be horrified and contrite if the fact was brought to their attention.

"A Catholic biologist may baptise the contents of his petri dish before he washes them down the drain. A Catholic woman losing her blastocyst at menstruation has never been told of the possibility that a human life has just ended. It may seem very complicated to keep a jug of holy water beside the lavatory bowl to baptise sanitary napkins with, but it is no more elaborate than many of the rituals which believing people all over the world practise several times every day of their lives.

"It would certainly dramatise the fact that Catholics take life before birth very seriously. The fact that they do not carry out rituals of this kind suggests that in fact they do not really believe what they maintain in polemic. There is after all nothing intrinsically improbable in the idea that the soul comes into existence at the moment of fertilization, but if such a view is to be held, it must be held rigorously as a matter of personal conviction and not simply brandished in arguments with unbelievers."

I... don't think I can add anything to that, so I won't try.

Monday, April 15, 2002

Quote for today:

    "We want to stand upon our own feet and look fair and square at the world - its good facts, its bad facts, its beauties, and its ugliness; see the world as it is, and be not afraid of it. Conquer the world by intelligence, and not merely by being slavishly subdued by the terror that comes from it. The whole concept of God is a conception derived from the ancient Oriental despotisms. It is a conception quite unworthy of free men ..."

    "... We ought to stand up and look the world frankly in the face. We ought to make the best we can of the world, and if it is not so good as we wish, after all it will still be better than what these others have made of it in all these ages."

    "A good world needs knowledge, kindliness, and courage; it does not need a regretful hankering after the past, or a fettering of the free intelligence by the words uttered long ago by ignorant men. It needs a fearless outlook and a free intelligence. It needs hope for the future, not looking back all the time towards a past that is dead."
Bertrand Russell, Why I Am Not A Christian, 1927

Sunday, April 14, 2002

Through a prism, darkly

Here's an interesting article on how someone's faith can color their views on an issue. The scary thing is, the someone is the born again President of the US, and the issue is the Middle East. Journalist Michelangelo Signorile:
    "...the more plausible explanation for why this administration tragically bungled the Israeli- Palestinian conflict for weeks is simply that the solutions require creative thinking, something contrary to the black-and-white absolutism of "born-again" evangelical Christianity. Some might think it’s a cheap shot, even intolerant, to bring up Bush’s faith in this regard-but it is Bush himself who has made his faith a public and political issue, exploiting it in speeches about the war on terrorism, referring to God and religion and attacking "evil.""

Everyone's an expert, everyone's a critic. Yes, definitely, being unable to see outside the confines of your faith is a major handicap. But it's hard to see how anyone of any faith, or none, could do anything to defuse the Middle East at the moment.

The blending of Christ and Caesar

Why, a couple of people have asked me, don't I write anything nice about the good things that Catholics do? Answers:
a. Because, gentle readers, you are simply visiting the wrong web site
b. OK, many Catholics have done a lot of good, but this still doesn't mitigate the culpability of much of the current Church leadership - these people have betrayed not only their direct victims, but their own congregations, many of whom are far better Christians than their priests will ever be.

Many bloggers can say cool things like, 'From where I write, I can see the smoke rising from Ground Zero.' The only exciting thing I can see from where I am is the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras parade, and this year, as well as the usual Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, it really lampooned the Catholics quite viciously - it'd been a bad year, with Rainbow Sash members refused holy communion and so on.

Afterwards, a lot of Catholics were quite indignant, pointing out that the many gay HIV/AIDS patients in St Vincent's Sacred Heart Hospice - on the very parade route - are cared for lovingly and non-judgementally by Catholic nuns. In the first article above, it's said of a local councilor: "Although he understands that the nuns attempt to mock repressive attitudes in traditional Christianity, he feels there are better ways to get this across. Pointing to the heroic work many real nuns have done in such areas as HIV/AIDS care, he suggested that other targets of wrath, such as dressing up as bishops and cardinals, would be more appropriate." I agree. I'll tell you what happens next year.

And now, being neither gay nor Catholic, I will leave that increasingly tedious field to Andrew Sullivan and his imitators. (Until the next irresistible scandal, of course.) I think Bertrand Russell summed up Catholicism, that most oddest of faiths, very well thus:
    "The Catholic Church... represented a blending which would have seemed incredible if it had not been actually achieved, the blending of Christ and Caesar, of the morality of humble submissions with the pride of Imperial Rome."

United they stand

I promise not to turn into someone who just regurgitates and reposts Andrew Sullivan, but today he provides an example of something that puzzles me. Which is, the phenomenon of a normally lucid and logical thinker, (whether you agree with him or not), losing all reason when his personal take on his religion is challenged.

What has raised Mr Sullivan's ire, in an entry from Friday, April 12, 2002, is a Wall St Journal article (link requires registration) by Phillip Lawler, editor of the Catholic World Report. In it Mr Lawler decribes the fall from credibility of Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law, in the wake of new evidence that he protected man-boy love advocate the Rev. Paul Shanley (see previous posts).

    "The scandal in Boston--like similar stories elsewhere--exposes a grave pattern of institutional corruption. Too many bishops have been serving the interests of their office rather than the needs of the faithful.

    "The fact that this crisis for Catholicism revolves around sexual misconduct is not coincidental either. For too long Catholic pastors have given lip service to the more controversial Church teachings on sexual behavior while quietly tolerating the violation of those norms. Most prelates have chosen to ignore the abundant evidence that many Catholic married couples use contraceptives and that many Catholic priests are active homosexuals. The gross inconsistency between public teaching and private practice has given rise to a culture of hypocrisy and secret vice.

    "I am not ashamed of the Gospel," wrote St. Paul in his Letter to the Romans. And I, for one, am not ashamed of the church's teachings on sexual morality. Like many other Catholics, I am looking for leaders who can say the same."

Now, this is one of the most honest evaluations I've read on the situation by anyone, Catholic or not. However, the author gets lambasted thus by Mr Sullivan:

    "One wacky right-wing Catholic suggests the real problem is that straight Catholics haven't been told firmly enough they need to stop using contraception. ... That's a warning to the straight people struggling to make sense of the Church's teachings on sexual morality: you're next, guys. Even if we have to empty the pews completely to make our point."

"Wacky right-wing Catholic" ! Don't you just love Catholic factionalism? I adore it. The entire ideological spectrum plays out within the Catholic Church - wacky right wingers, liberals, moderates, conservatives, establishment figures, dissidents, reformers. Why does the Catholic Church ape the political scene in a way that other denominations don't - why are we never treated to the views of such as dissident Episcopalians, or far right wing Presbyterians?

And what does it mean? To me, it highlights the fact that the Catholic Church is a creation of men, not of God - and the faithful, clergy and laity alike, regularly mistake the serving of the Church for the serving of God.

Back to the article, and I never thought I would come racing to the defense of a right wing Catholic, but he has a point. The Catholic Church, sensibly or not, bans contraception. It has an each-way bet on homosexuality - loves the sinner but hates the sin - but celibacy is the rule for all priests, regardless of orientation. So, thems the rules; no sex for the priests, no birth control for the faithful, every sperm is sacred.

No Catholic can fail to know this, and yet, what do we have? The majority of Catholic congregations and a fair number of the priests are violating these rules and, nudge nudge wink wink, turning a blind eye to everyone else breaking them too. What kind of basis for sincere worship is it:
  • When you can pick and choose what you like from the rules and then lay the rest of the rules down for everyone else?
  • When some church teachings are expected to be obeyed, whereas others, well, don't ask and don't tell, we all understand how difficult it is, nudge nudge...

You knew the rules when you joined the church. I do realise that most Catholics didn't have any choice about joining, but you're still turning up every Sunday and this, as they say, indicates your acceptance of the terms and conditions. The rules on sexual conduct may be reactionary and outdated, but your entire organized Church is reactionary and static, and it is therefore entirely consistent that if you love the Church as you say you do, then you accept all its rules, and you had better obey them to the letter.Anything else is pure hypocrisy.

And I'm tired of and amused by in equal parts, Catholics who keep threatening to leave their church because it doesn't make sense. Just do it, find a decent church and get on with life. There are plenty of churches around who aren't obsessed with the sex lives of their clergy or congregation. I have news for these bristling Catholics - your Church isn't going to care if you all do leave. Organizations like the Catholic Church exist for the primary benefit of their own administration, as the last few month's news has made abundantly clear.

Friday, April 12, 2002

Princes of peace

As if 'Yassar Arafat receives the Nobel Peace Prize' didn't already sound like the outline of a Monty Python skit, George Bush today referred to Ariel Sharon as, 'A Man of Peace.' Honestly, some of these men of peace, like some of these men of God, are a real menace to everyone.

The US press, a few mavericks excepted, is strongly, conservatively anti-Palestinian, from the mainstream papers to the bloggers, some of whom are at least original - see AsparaGirl on Wednesday, April 10, 2002.
    "So when I hear Palestinians screaming in the streets or interviewed on the news saying they want Israel to get the hell out of the West Bank, but who also have no internal system in place, not even a nascent one, for potentially dealing with the resulting power vacuum that would create, much less running a country some day, it's telling. Who do they think is going to run the place once they don't have the Israelis to kick around anymore?"

    "What say we give the Arab world a little rope in the form of an independent Palestine? We remove the Israeli- Palestinian smokescreen they use to hide all of their troubles. We say look, they're on their own, just like they wanted, and they have nothing to show for it but infighting and pointing fingers. We remove ourselves from their world just as they've demanded, and with that, not coincidentally, all traces of democracy or hope for a fair legal and judicial system evaporates too. And who will get blamed then? The Palestinians should be very careful what they wish for; they just might get it."

Americans do seem to bring a lot of baggage to writing about the Middle East. Their country is Israel's ally, its democratic mentor, its benefactor to the tune of billions of dollars a year, its partner in zillions worth of arms deals, the Great Satan, the Great Bully, the lightening rod for fanatical Arab anti-everythingism, taken for a sucker by the duplicitous Saudi anti-Semites. So, you can comprehend their 'ride in with a posse and kick butt,' attitudes - and I happen to agree they should do something very like that - but they do get tedious to read.

For Jewish-American commentators, it must be even more difficult to eye the conflict coolly. Here are two entirely different views of the conflict from two Australian Jewish writers.

    "What is a Jew with a moral conscience meant to do in these dark days of "Arik" Sharon's Palestinian putsch?... Do I keep my mouth shut as we witness the amazingly disproportionate use of force by the Israeli Defence Forces against what are essentially the wrong targets? ... Is it "breaking ranks" to be Jewish and to criticise Israel's terrible government now that Israel has unilaterally declared war on the Palestinian Authority? Or is standing up for what is right still seen as a positive attribute?

    "While Sharon spends much of his nation's resources fighting the Palestinian Authority, the facts are that most of the terrorist suicide bombings have been by Hamas and/or the smaller Islamic Jihad. ... So every time the religious fundamentalists kill a score of Israelis, Israel responds by attacking Hamas's secular rivals. It is, indeed, a bizarre policy ...

    "The revisionist descendants of Ze'ev Jabotinksi have a bottom line of "whatever it takes". They do not see parallels between their behaviour and that of other oppressors, and they scream the loudest when the words genocide and ethnic cleansing are applied to their policies, particularly when it is true."

    "Still no one protests as Jews are killed ... Between 1933 and 1945, six million Jews were murdered in full view of the entire world. Hitler banked on world indifference to the plight of the Jews in his plan to destroy them, and the world did not let him down. ... Why were the Jews of Europe abandoned by the whole world?

    "It is this indifference to Jewish suffering that lies at the heart of both the approach by the Israeli
Government to the wave of terrorism that has seen the slaughter and maiming of countless of its citizens in the past 18 months and the cynicism of world Jewry to the biased and hypocritical responses to Israel's actions.

    "The cry "Never again!" that resonated in the death camps and ghettos of Europe after their liberation at the end of the Second World War can again be heard in the streets, schools and homes of the state of Israel."

Office romance

The Melbourne Anglican Church is taking a dim view of relationships between clergy and their parishioners.
    "The Catholic Church is not the only one going to inordinate lengths to try to prevent clergy sex abuse. Though the charges against their clergy have been many fewer, the Anglican and other Protestant churches have also developed wide-ranging rules to ensure the correct behaviour of their priests and ministers.

    "Most of the new requirements are entirely proper, but one protocol is causing concern in the Anglican Church, at least. Single clerics, the rule says, may no longer form romantic attachments with a member of their congregation. If they do, either the lay person must leave the parish or the clergyperson must resign from the position, as the Melbourne Anglican Church's code of good practice for clergy, published last year, makes clear."

The author argues this is a bad thing - where else can a priest find someone so spiritually in sync than among his own congregation? Good priests will respect both their position and their partners, and bad priests will use their pastoral authority to lure people into bed, and if there's one thing we know, there are good and bad priests everywhere.

Speaking of bad priests, another Catholic Priest Sexual Offender Suicide, this time in the US, buried with a full Catholic Mass and a weeping congregation.

How can Catholics treat innocent children so badly and their perpetrators so well? Don't tell me about compassion - there was precious little compassion from the Church for the child victims who dared to complain over the years.

Thursday, April 11, 2002

Let no man put asunder

Tunku Varadajaran, in todays WSJ, deplores 'Another troubling marriage of Muslim backwardness and high technology.' He's not thinking of nomadic tribesmen wielding Stinger anti-aircraft missles, but a Muslim man who divorced his wife by email.

    "There's a dark side to the interface between faith and the Internet, and much of it has to do with the crossover of politics into religion. Religious hatred is much more easily spread in cyberspace, as is intolerance of theological dissent, or of unorthodox variations on religious convention. And there is, sometimes, a wholly disconcerting juxtaposition of the primitive or medieval (religious bigotry) with the modern (swiftness of communication).

    Yesterday, I came across one such creepy incongruity, the example of a Muslim man who e-mailed the words Talaq, talaq, talaq--the Arabic for "I divorce thee, I divorce thee, I divorce thee"--to his wife, and successfully carried off a divorce that was entirely in accordance with Islamic law. Although the specific case appears to be benign--and involves a highly educated Muslim couple who agreed to the transaction for mutual ease--I fear for the consequences of such quickie "e- divorces," should they catch on, on the generally oppressed women in the Islamic world. Under Islamic law, a man need do no more to divorce his wife than utter Talaq, talaq, talaq in the presence of two witnesses. Alternatively, he can simply convey the three words to his wife in written form, and here no witnesses are required."

After a Muslim women has been served with Talaq. talaq .talaq, however it happens, there is in theory at least no religious bar on remarriage. This is clearer than the situations within some other religions, there being a 'bewildering range of prohibitions, restrictions, customs, laws and rituals' in the area of divorce, remarriage, and religion.

If other people's sex lives are intensely interesting to the religious, their marital lives seem hardly less so. ReligiousTolerance.org, a peculiar site where Christians share space with Wiccans, Pagan, NeoPagans and Scientologists, has data on the comparative divorce rates between faiths. Atheists and Agnostics, according to what sounds like something of a dodgy survey, have a lower divorce rate than both conservative and moderate Christians.

    'Ron Barrier, Spokesperson for American Atheists remarked on these findings with some rather caustic comments against organized religion. He said: "These findings confirm what I have been saying these last five years. Since Atheist ethics are of a higher calibre than religious morals, it stands to reason that our families would be dedicated more to each other than to some invisible monitor in the sky. With Atheism, women and men are equally responsible for a healthy marriage. There is no room in Atheist ethics for the type of 'submissive' nonsense preached by Baptists and other Christian and/or Jewish groups. Atheists reject, and rightly so, the primitive patriarchal attitudes so prevalent in many religions with respect to marriage."'

I worry about these 'American Atheists', just as much as I worry about the Catholics. Avoiding dogma and moral superiority is good advice for everyone.

Wednesday, April 10, 2002

Middle.... of nowhere

Just as some commentators had begun to opine that the latest Israeli offensive had stilled the suicide bombings, BOOM, there goes another one - 10 commuters killed in a bus explosion in Haifa.

There are zillions of words printed on the Middle East conflict, yet it's hard to find much agreement on anything, even - especially - on the basics, such as how did all this start, and whose fault is it. The causes surely go back centuries, yet columnists will often point to, as suits their story, one recent happening that started it all.

As for who's right or wrong, although there are only two sides, one or other of them suits almost every major prejudice. If you're uninformed and:
  • anti-Semitic
  • anti-Zionist (some argue this is not the same as the above)
  • anti-Arab
  • anti-Muslim
  • anti-American
  • anti-Imperialist
  • always on the side of the underdog
then it's no secret whose side you'll be on, and whichever one it is and why, you'll find plenty of commentators to agree with. Since many people exhibit more than one of these biases, their position on the Middle East will depend on which one is stronger.

This also occupies the columnists. How often, really, can you write the same things about revenge, retribution and escalation? Much more interesting to shoot at your ideological opponents, and there is much dogma, religious and otherwise, among commentators on either side of this conflict.

Bertrand Russell regarded 'dogmatic creeds' as the main enemy of free thought, and while religions were the main dogmatic creeds to which he objected, he counted Communism and Nazism as 'religions' also, to which today we might add the many flavors of Middle Eastern nationalism and self-determinism. Russell's last writing, two days before his death at the age of ninety-seven, was a message to the International Conference of Parliamentarians in Cairo. It condemned Israel for bombing Egypt, and noted that to "invoke the horrors of the past to justify those of the present is gross hypocrisy."

Book 'em, Danno

Even in the most provincial corners of far-flung Australasia we get an endless diet of American cop and lawyer shows. but despite this cultural heritage I really can't see how Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law, that great protector of pedophiles, is keeping out of jail, let alone keeping his job. America is the most litigious place on earth - we all know that only in America, you can sue McDonalds because your hot cup of coffee is hot. So, seriously, why is Cardinal Law not facing big time criminal negligence charges?

A NYT article from the weekend, Abuses by Clergy Become New Focus for Prosecutors (link requires registration) reports that the gloves are starting to come off. ""I've watched law enforcement deal with church authorities for decades, and a monumental change has swept the country in the last few months," said A. W. Richard Sipe, a retired psychologist who has appeared as an expert witness in more than 50 sexual abuse trials. "Prosecutors are not acting as timidly in the face of the church as they once did."

Indeed, a few Catholic prosecutors are bringing a missionary zeal to their task. 'In Sonoma County, the district attorney, J. Michael Mullins, has pursued priestly abusers with unusual determination. "God intends me to do my duty under the law," Mr. Mullins, who is Catholic, said.'

Now, more damning evidence has appeared over Cardinal Law's core role in defending another priestly abomination, the Rev. Paul Shanley. The Boston Globe reports that, "Documents from the church itself, released under court order, show definitively that church officials were aware of Shanley's predatory sexual practices with young boys in his charge over a period of decades and did almost nothing about it. Despite repeated warnings of Shanley's depravity, the archdiocese took only evasive action, shifting him to a Newton parish, placing him on sick leave, and finally shunting him off to a California parish with a note from Bishop Robert J. Banks, top deputy to Cardinal Bernard Law, certifying that Shanley was ''a priest in good standing.''"

Today's NY Times give us details of the Rev. Shanley's activities:
  • Gave public and impassioned defenses of pedophilia, including comments at what was apparently the formative meeting in Boston of the North American Man-Boy Love Association in 1979
  • Is quoted as saying, about pedophilia, "The adult is not the seducer — the `kid' is the seducer, and further the kid is not traumatized by the act per se, the kid is traumatized when the police and authorities `drag' the kid in for questioning."
  • Called 6 year old boys out of catechism classes, to molest them in the bathroom, the rectory or the confessional.
  • 'Came on to' a hospital patient by explicitly discussing sadomasochism
  • According to the Globe, once transferred to the unsuspecting San Bernadino diocese, Shanley and another priest operated a bed-and-breakfast for gay customers 50 miles away in Palm Springs, rented to gay patrons and advertised in gay publications.

I am not making this up; I only wish I was. The Reverend is currently on 'sick leave'. 'Reverend', incidentally, means 'worthy of respect, adoration, and veneration'. Sick, sick indeed.

Monday, April 08, 2002

Suffer the little children...

Sometimes this seems like a dedicated anti child abuse site, but that's the lot of anyone writing about religion in the news nowadays. On Saturday, the Vatican accepted the resignation of Irish Bishop Brendan Comiskey, of the southeast diocese of Ferns, after he admitted having mishandled years of complaints of sexual abuse by priests, in particular the Rev. Sean Fortune, who faced 66 counts of molesting and raping teen-age boys when he committed suicide in 1999.

In NY Times article Scandal and Social Change Leave Irish Church Adrift (link requires registration) author Dan Barry writes:

    "As American Catholics struggle with revelations of child molestation and cover-ups by the clergy, they might glimpse their future here: where modernization and scandal have cost the Catholic Church in influence and participation; where religious orders are relinquishing convents and property to appease adult victims of childhood abuse; and where some Catholics see a "fire in the forest" opportunity for the seeding of a more inclusive church."

Barry uses the phrase 'post-Catholic Ireland'. I had not heard of 'post-Catholic', but I guess we can expect a wave of post-Catholic weblogs any day now.

Ireland, that most quintessentially Catholic of all countries, has had some sick abuse cases, and not all of the 'misunderstood repressed gay overcome by the power of healthy youth' variety. "In 1992 the country learned that Eamon Casey, the well-known bishop of Galway, had fathered a child 18 years earlier, deserted the mother and child for years, then used diocesan funds to try and buy their silence."

Of Father Fortune himself, the article reports, 'Before washing down barbiturates with whiskey, he dressed in his priest's garb and placed a poem he had written, "A Message From Heaven to My Family," on a dressing table, along with instructions that it be read at his funeral Mass.'

Give a poor atheist a break, but isn't suicide a mortal sin? Shouldn't raping boys be a mortal sin, if in fact it isn't? Aren't sinners supposed to go to Hell, not send us messages from Heaven? Was the Father hoping to enter Heaven on some tide of forgiveness and compassion from his mourners? Say fifty 'Hail Mary's, and also say this fifty times, fifty thousand times, until you and all your co-worshippers get it:

    'Child abuse is a crime to be punished, not a sin to be absolved.'
    'Child abuse is a crime to be punished, not a sin to be absolved.'
    'Child abuse is a crime to be punished, not a sin to be absolved.'

God Save the Queen, somebody save her Church

Sometimes, modernization just serves to highlight how archaic an institution really is. The death of the Queen Mother, as well as causing a torrent of grief and hagiography, has also reportedly allowed the Queen to move ahead on some pretty radical reforms including, "Daughters of the monarch would gain equal rights to succession and the 300-year-old ban on Catholics sitting on the throne would end."

Gracious me, women and Catholics, they don't make royal families the way they used to. Britain's Mail on Sunday newspaper said that, 'the Queen had waited for her mother's death before moving because the Queen Mother had believed there was no need for change.'

'It is understood that Prince Charles supports lifting the ban on Catholic monarchs, which would break the link whereby the king or queen automatically becomes head of the Church of England.' It will be most interesting, if this happens, to see how the head of the Church of England will be appointed. And females or not, the sucession is still hereditary. A Catholic monarch would have to come about by, say, Prince William falling for a lovely Catholic lass, and agreeing to bring up their firstborn in her religion, as a Catholic. Or, Prince William or one of his children converting to Catholicism. The mind boggles.

'The winds of change are already blowing, with Princess Anne last week breaking with tradition and marching with male members of the royal family behind her grandmother's coffin.' Defying the old fogeys to pay your personal respects to your own grandmother - go girl! Princess Anne, of course, is no stranger to the silliness of things. When she remarried in the early 1990s, she was forced to do so in the Church of Scotland, since the Church of England, of which her own Mum is the boss, officially forbids the remarriage of divorced people.

If Prince Charles, himself enamoured of the divorced adulteress Camilla, somehow became King but not head of the C of E, then its ban on remarriage could be lifted by someone else, without Charles having such an obvious personal conflict of interest. Entertaining times are ahead.

Sunday, April 07, 2002

Out and Proud

Just one more exercise,and we're done with the word processor. Take this article called Coming Out, and change all instances of 'Atheist' to 'Gay'.

Huh, what? American Atheists offer this lengthy, serious and sad advice column on how atheists might cope with 'outing themselves' and coming out to their spouses, families and friends.

"'Coming out of the closet' is a term most associated with gays and lesbians announcing to the world that they are homosexual. Few regret it, having found their way toward a more open and satisfying life. But there is another closet which is hiding a different minority: atheists. Many of us, like many gays of previous decades, hide in the shadows due to fear of hostility and aversion to confrontations."

Well, you could have fooled me, from the huge online presence of self-titled atheists, humanists, rationalists, secularists, agnostics and freethinkers, the last two terms being, in the author's opinion, terms that people use to 'soften the blow' of being an atheist. The article lists in ascending order the degrees of 'outness' for an atheist, ranging from:

"Degree 1:Completely closeted. Not even your spouse knows. You tell everyone you're a believer, and you may even attend church services to convince those around you. You're living a lie, terrified that someone may learn the truth."

  all the way to

"Degree 5: Completely open. Every time the subject comes up, you state your disbelief with pride and frankness. Anyone who doesn't like you because of your atheism is a bigot and is not your concern. You've written letters to the editors of newspapers on the topic, and you may have an atheist bumper sticker on your car."

and includes a guide to 'Coming out: How, when, and how soon.' It's totally bizarre, the concept of atheists as oppressed victims terrified into silence. Perhaps in some of the very conservative areas of the US it may be like this, but I suspect atheists everywhere else - and their spouses, families and friends - are totally relaxed about it.

If the prose fits, wear it

Still, you can take the word processor to much religious criticism. Take this comment from a New Humanist article:

    "In one of his early works the traditionalist writer Frithjof Schuon makes an acute observation about the mentality of Muslims: `The intellectual - and thereby the rational - foundation of Islam results in the average Muslim having a curious tendency to believe that non-Muslims either know that Islam is the truth and reject it out of pure obstinacy, or else are simply ignorant of it and can be converted by elementary explanations; that anyone should be able to oppose Islam with a good conscience quite exceeds the Muslim's powers of imagination, precisely because Islam coincides in his mind with the irresistible logic of things'. (Stations of Wisdom). How true this is will strike anyone who has tried to have a rational discussion on religion with a Muslim born of Muslim parents and raised in a Muslim culture."

If I replace Muslim with Christian, does it still strike me as true? Um... yes. I have known some Christians like this, and I have also had many polite and respectful discussions on religion with Christians. But having a 'capital R' Rational discussion with a member of any organized religion is both by definition and by my own experience an impossibility - not because they are raving and ranting, but simply because they are willing to suspend logic and I am not.

Here's someone else who won't suspend logic - Thomas Doubting (sure) of the Secular Web has tables illustrating the popular Christian denominations' divergence on core Christian matters such as salvation, hell, and the Holy Trinity. Muslims, of course, think Christians are polytheistic for having a Holy Trinity at all. Things would certainly be clearer if all the 'people of the book' were reading from the same book.

On salvation, 'not only are Christians in disagreement regarding how one is saved, they can’t seem to reach agreement on what one is saved from or where the faithful go after they are saved. Moreover, every denomination I researched has millions of followers, so no matter how you cut it, many people who think they are Christians are going to a yet-undefined hell.'

Everyone's a critic

Some topics have been talked to death recently. The sexual deceit of the Catholic church is one of them, and another is the violence perpetrated by adherents of Islam, that religion of peace.

Any Bertrand Russell fan analyzing the shortcomings of Islam will soon learn of Ibn Warraq's book, 'Why I am not a Muslim', its title taken straight from Russell's 1927 classic essay, 'Why I am not a Christian'. When I first heard of this book I thought the idea was hilarious and imagined some guy at a word processor, doing a 'Replace All' of the string 'Christian' with 'Muslim'.

Ibn Warraq didn't actually do this - though some topics aren't too tightly organized, his book is thoroughly researched and includes chapters on issues like the Salman Rushdie fatwa. Some of his criticisms of Islam closely parallel Russell's criticisms of Christianity, but if both Christ and Muhammad had character defects and if both the Bible and the Quran have major authenticity problems, who can help that?

Oddly enough, very few of the book's reviews mention the author's debt to Bertrand Russell, even though Russell's influence is clearly obvious in much of Warraq's writing, including this Guardian article shortly after Sept 11:

    "Aldous Huxley once defined an intellectual as someone who had found something in life more important than sex: a witty but inadequate definition, since it would make all impotent men and frigid women intellectuals. A better definition would be a freethinker, not in the narrow sense of someone who does not accept the dogmas of traditional religion, but in the wider sense of someone who has the will to find out, who exhibits rational doubt about prevailing intellectual fashions, and who is unafraid to apply critical thought to any subject. If the intellectual is really committed to the notion of truth and free inquiry, then he or she cannot stop the inquiring mind at the gates of any religion - let alone Islam."

Judging by Amazon, sales of this book have boomed since Sept. 11, but it puzzles me why as far as I remember there was no huge Muslim fuss about its publication in 1995. It is unsparingly, scathingly, heretically critical of Islam, a magnitude more so than the turgid 'Satanic Verses' that caused such a massive international Islamic hissy fit.

So where on earth these same people when Warraq went into print, claiming that, 'that Muhammad never existed, and if he did, he had nothing to do with the Koran. Rather, that holy book was fabricated a century or two later in Palestine, then "projected back onto an invented Arabian point of origin."'

Ibn Warraq is the pseudonym of an Indian-born author living, supposedly, in Ohio, but surely people fanatical enough to march and chant fatwas in the quiet streets of suburban Sydney, Australia, as they did, could have tracked this guy down. He appeared at a book signing just last week, at an American Atheists convention.

Saturday, April 06, 2002

No goat like an old goat

Variety is the spice of life - and of clerical sex abuse cases. Today in Melbourne, Australia,
'Three young women fell pregnant to a Buddhist monk, 82, who abused them while acting as their spiritual adviser, a Melbourne court has heard. Ajarn Manivong used his reputation as a healer and Buddhism teacher to induce five victims, aged 13 to 24, to engage in various sexual acts with him, the County Court was told.

Three of the victims became pregnant as a result of his offences, which took place between 1998 and 2001, the prosecution said. He was originally charged with 45 counts, including rape and sexual penetration of a child. He has instead pleaded guilty to five counts of procuring sex by fraudulent means, which carries a lesser maximum penalty of five years' jail.

Defence barrister John Saunders conceded that his client's conduct was reprehensible and involved a serious breach of trust. However, he argued that Manivong - who had explained his offending as "a moment of weakness" - lived an otherwise exemplary life. He argued 'that Manivong's crimes were at "the lower end of the scale" and in view of his age and previous reputation, urged the judge to consider imposing a sentence that did not involve an immediate jail term. The Crown did not dispute this submission.'

Apart from being disgusting, there are several things wrong here. I know lawyers who accept child rapists as clients are pretty low in the moral order, but since when was a near-80 year old forcing a 13 year old into sex 'the lower end of the scale'? How can someone charged with rape of a child be allowed to plead to a lesser charge? How does this creep's exemplary reputation lessen the impact of his crimes on his victims?

I venture to suggest that if this monk been, instead, a Catholic priest, he'd have been treated much, much tougher. Sex abuse and Catholic priests are linked in the public mind at the moment, whereas Tibet's so groovy and we tend to have a more benign stereotype of Buddhist monks. Also, just perhaps there's some kind of subconscious male admiration - the criminal legal practitioners in Australia are overwhelmingly male - for the virility of this old goat, who at the age of nearly 80 can still get it up, when he should be tucked up in bed early with a cup of tea reading the thoughts of the Dalai Lama. Who knows.

Organization theory

Who knows, also, what an industrial psychologist would make of the various religious org charts. Does it work out better to have one infallible guy at the top, like the Pope? Nobody argues that he's the boss, and he makes the rules, though when he's old and tired, it can look like no-one's minding the store.

That still might be better than modern-day Islam, where militant Mullahs and Imams and Muftis seem to pop up everywhere, echoing distant proclamations of jihads, fatwas and general hate-mongering. Our Islamic Fifth Column is an old article, but a scary one. The Muslim opposition to fanatical Saudi Wahhibism, while genuinely there, is decentralized - there is no single internationally recognized authority to thump the table and declare, for the sake of the whole Islamic family, that some if its members should be thrown out of the compound.

The Buddhists have a novel approach - the positions at the top are few and well-defined, but you have to get reincarnated into them. As you can imagine, this can prove problematic - establishing beyond doubt that a particular child genuinely is the seventeenth Jebtzun Damba or whatever it is is fraught with obstacles, ranging from simple fraud to arcane obfuscation.

And I'm coming back as Nicole Kidman

The problem with not having an exact science is nowhere better illustrated than by the case of the Panchen Lama, or rather, the two Panchen Lamas. One is the 'real' 13 year old Panchen Lama, recognized by the real Dalai Lama, who is reportedly being held as a political prisoner by the Chinese. The Chinese have chosen to recognize an alternate Panchen Lama, who may someday supervise the search for the next Dalai Lama. This Panchen Lama they parade around regularly, and like those toy dolls, he has a button which you press and he spouts Chinese Government orthodoxy. A sort of 'Man in the Iron Mask' tale in the making.

In another old but classic piece, Christopher Hitchens, having skewered Mother Teresa, give his take on the state of Buddhism:

'Steven Seagal, the robotic and moronic "actor" who gave us "Hard to Kill" and "Under Siege," has been proclaimed a reincarnated lama and a sacred vessel or "tulku" of Tibetan Buddhism. This decision, ratified by Penor Rinpoche, supreme head of the Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism, was initially received with incredulity by Richard Gere, who had hitherto believed himself to be the superstar most favored. "If someone's a tulku, that's great," he was quoted as saying. "But no one knows if that's true." How insightful, if only accidentally.'

''While he denies being a Buddhist "Pope," the Dalai Lama is never happier than when brooding in a celibate manner on the sex lives of people he has never met. "Sexual misconduct for men and women consists of oral and anal sex," he has repeatedly said in promoting his book on these matters. "Using one's hand, that is sexual misconduct." '

That, and sex with 13 year olds.

Thursday, April 04, 2002

An old fight, but a good one

Today, the Australian Prime Minister John Howard announced that he supported using embryos left over from IVF in stem cell research. Or, as they put it on TV, he 'came down on the side of science,' against opposition from, of course, the churches. This surprised many people, Mr Howard himself being a socially conservative Methodist.

Science versus religion, with ethics thrown in - what huge fun! While stem cell research is a serious topic, the recent debate in Australia has been quite entertaining, with all the usual suspects coming out of the woodwork:

    Some Archbishops have proposed that people be allowed to adopt the embryos. Sydney's Anglican Archbishop Peter Jensen has compared stem cell research to human cloning experiments by wartime Nazi doctors. (Somehow, an issue just isn't complete until someone's mentioned the Nazis. Those of you who came to weblogs via newsgroups will know of Godwin's Law, which says that whoever first mentions the Nazis has automatically lost whatever argument was in progress.)

    The Catholic Health Australia CEO says, "It's basically that in these circumstances it's OK to destroy human life." (Northern Ireland, anyone?) In fact, the embryos involved are used only with the permission of their donor parents, and if not used for research, would be destroyed anyway.

    Sydney's preeminient Rabbis, Rabbi Raymond Apple, Rabbi Moshe Gutnick, say that, 'Human life, even potential life, is sacred and must be respected.' (West Bank, anyone?)

    The New South Wales State Premier (like a US State Governor) goes boots and all over to the other side, "It is almost time, I think, to recollect what happened to other great scientists pushing the boundaries of research, such as Galileo. History shows we must honour scientific inquiry over unbased fears."

Churches are such an easy target at the moment that it's almost unfair, and their attempts to moralize over this issue have raised a few hackles, with the sexual abuse scandals still very much on the radar. (In Australia recently, the worst fuss over clerical child sex abuse has involved the Anglican Church, and one day soon I will tell you all the cautionary tale of Australia's Governor General, the ex-Archbishop of Brisbane.)

But as one SMH reader says, 'Do church leaders believe that by lobbying to "save" embryos, they will somehow receive absolution for the abuse of children under their care?' Unarguably, the churches have only themselves to blame, for such a fall in their moral authority.

And it's almost funny to watch an organization that finds it impossible to present a consistent moral stance on the most simplest of reproductive technologies (ie. have sex regularly, and babies will keep coming along) grapple with the ethics of reproduction in the age of IVF and genetic engineering. It's too boring to go on about the Vatican's ban to this day on artificial methods of birth control. But you don't see Catholic families of 8 or 9 or more kids these days, and we know that abstinence doesn't work for man or priest, and someone has doubtless done the figures on the failure rates of the Rhythm and Billings Methods and figured out that we should at least see some slightly larger than average Catholic families, but we don't.

Let's leave these things to the professional ethicists, and that does not mean the churches - or the scientists either. Here's a sensible article by the director of the Monash [University] Centre for the Study of Ethics in Medicine and Society, saying 'We should openly acknowledge that these debates raise difficult issues to which there are no definitive solutions. This means we need to find complex, negotiated compromises that respect different views and sensitivities.'

And the last word goes as always to Bertrand Russell:

"The fact is that religion is no longer sufficiently vital to take hold of anything new, it was formed long ago to suit certain needs, and has subsisted by the force of tradition, but is no longer able to assimilate anything that cannot be viewed traditionally.'
Prospects of Industrial Civilization, 1923

"And science, while it diminishes our cosmic pretensions, enormously increases our terrestrial comfort. That is why, in spite of the horror of the theologians, science has on the whole been tolerated."
In Praise of Idleness, 1935

O little town of Bethlehem

Right now, in the very birthplace of Jesus, a Christian priest is pleading for the lives of the Muslims and Christians who have sought sanctuary in the Church of the Nativity, now under seige by Jewish troops. There is a horrid symbolism in all this, though of what I can't say.

WWJD - What would Jesus do? - is often invoked by Christians in difficult situations. I don't mean to be flippant, but I believe I know what Jesus is doing. He's in a pub somewhere in the hereafter, and he's with Karl Marx, and they're both crying on each other's shoulders about how it all seemed such a good idea at the time, until we all came along and terminally screwed things up.

Catholics in (cyber) space

Peter Nixon, of one of the few readable Catholic blogs, 'Sursum Corda' mails me of 'a good friend who became an atheist after reading Bertrand Russell.' This is quite cheery news, when you consider that it normally goes the other way - people convert after reading one or other of the holy books.

I knew as a child that I was not a Christian, but it wasn't until my twenties that I discovered Bertrand Russell, and the delight of someobody eloquent beyond my dreams, who was saying everything that I had always thought.

In 1960's New Zealand, where I went to school, there was no division between religion and state education, and nuns would come to our primary school once a week. They lent us little books - blank books containing only four pages, colored black, red, white and gold, and we turned the pages as we droned the following: "My heart was black as sin, I let His blood run in, It washed me white as snow, I walk the streets of gold." In the absence of any other supporting information from the nuns, this did not prove at all enlightening to me as an 8 year old, and it wasn't long before I concluded that whatever it was that these odd people believed, I didn't.

Why are there so many more Catholic blogs than other Christian - (what do you like to be called?) - faiths, sub-faiths, denominations, sects, cults? Perhaps all those Catholic schools are teaching them all to write so well.

Wednesday, April 03, 2002

Of little faith

Faith, I'm told, is why people remain loyal to the religious institutions which ignore, exclude and demean them. Gays, women, the divorced, the remarried, the unmarried parents, a huge swathe of the faithful are regarded with profound disrespect by their own churches. Gays are denied communion, women are denied ordination, divorcees are denied acknowledgment. People are treated in a way that they would never tolerate from their employers, their government organizations or even their own families; yet they go back every Sunday for more.

To an atheist, this is worrying behavior. If the Catholic Church was a public company, in its current state and with its current CEO, you'd be shorting your shares, not bringing your newborn children to this institution and asking it to protect them. Faith, whatever it is, evidently provides comfort and compensation all its own, but some of the most logical people are quite dotty on matter of faith, and I can't help thinking that whatever faith gives you, it takes a few of your brain cells to pay for it.

As Bertrand Russell says:
"We may define "faith" as the firm belief in something for which there is no evidence. When there is evidence, no-one speaks of "faith". We do not speak of faith that two and two are four or that the earth is round. We only speak of faith when we wish to substitute emotion for evidence. The substitution of emotion for evidence is apt to lead to strife, since different groups substitute different emotions.'
Human society in Ethics and Politics, 1955

'..religious apologists are engaged in blunting the edge of logic, appealing to the heart instead of the head, maintaining that our feelings can demonstrate the falsity of a conclusion to which our reason has been given.'
The Scientific Outlook, 1931

Tuesday, April 02, 2002

Don't mention the war

Evil changes face, and Adolf Hitler does not come often to my mind these days, except for last week when two very different articles appeared, one referring to him as a Christian and the other, as a pagan.

In a rave in the weekend Guardian, rebel UK journalist Julie Birchill accuses Adolf Hitler of being a Catholic, and 'accuses' is an apt word here, as Ms Burchill has a very low opinion of Catholicism. On Hitler:

    'And how do Catholics explain the fact that so many of their European co-religionists fell in behind Hitler (himself a Catholic), while the far more racially pure - and Protestant - people of Scandinavia behaved so excellently?'

Earlier in the week, Robert Bartley in the WSJ argues that 'the Nazi leaders and ideologues were not Christians. They were pagan, some quite explicitly.'

Hmmm... explicit paganism and Christianity are far from mutually exclusive, and many of the best-loved rites and symbols of Christianity are of
pagan origin. Easter itself is adapted, complete with eggs and bunnies, from a pagan spring ritual.

The WSJ article also describes Nazi plans for '..the National Church. Its altars would have only a copy of "Mein Kampf," with a sword to the left. The Christian Cross would be removed, replaced "by the only unconquerable symbol, the swastika."'

OK, so now we are getting pretty pagan. This sounds like nothing so much as a scene in a 70's B movie. It's good, actually, that the mystique of Nazi imagery can debase with time into the realm of corny airport thrillers.

Once on the topic of Nazis and Mein Kampf, one's thoughts turn towards.. the late Queen Mother. Now, while I support an Australian Republic I nevertheless offer my condolences to the British Royal Family, while at the same time wishing all elderly ladies everywhere her comforts and advantages.

Just one last comment on pagan rituals - Prince Charles has chastised the venerable BBC because their newsreader was not wearing a black tie when he made the live announcement of the Queen Mother's death on BBC Television. Duh?

Goodness knows what the Prince would make of some of the current complaints, in Australia at least, about the overly saccharine and grovelling obituaries for a lady about whom the best that can be said is that she did not monumentally screw up her position of privilege.

Many of the tributes credit the Queen Mother and her husband, King George VI, with a major role in encouraging wartime Britain to stand alone against the Nazi onslaught. The truth is far less flattering, as Sydney writer Gerard Henderson points out:

    'These days the Queen Mother and her late husband, George VI, are most often praised for rallying the British during World War II. There was the courageous Winston Churchill (as prime minister) and the King and Queen standing up against the might of Nazi totalitarianism. The task was even more difficult due to the fact that, during the early part of the war, Germany was in an alliance with the Soviet Union and the US was neutral.

The plot is accurate enough. But some of the actors are miscast. The King and Queen are famous today for the role during World War II only because their advice was rejected by a majority of British politicians. The fact is that in the late 1930s George VI and his wife were among the main cheerleaders in favour of Neville Chamberlain's policy of appeasing Hitler. Had the monarchy's advice been accepted, the Nazis would have conquered continental Europe.The full (sorry) tale is spelt out by Andrew Roberts in his book Eminent Churchillians.'

    '...in November 1939 she sent Halifax [who, along with PM Chamberlain, was stongly in favour of appeasing Hitler] a copy of Hitler's Mein Kampf. In her accompanying letter, the Queen Mother made reference to Hitler's "obvious sincerity". Really.'

Monday, April 01, 2002

Advice from the past

News stories this weekend mention the unique difficulties that Catholic clergy worldwide are having with the 2002 Easter message. Normally time for a message of hope, this year the disgrace of the Church's complicity in child abuse stands like the proverbial elephant in the middle of the living room, and to their credit, most Catholic leaders are at least no longer even attempting to ignore it.

In such internal struggles for meaning, an outside view is useful, and who better from than the 20th century's greatest thinker, Bertrand Russell. Russell was a rationalist and an atheist - would that religious leaders today had even half his grasp of morality.

"The first and greatest change that is required is to establish a morality of initiative, not a morality of submission, a morality of hope rather then fear, of things to be done rather than things to be left undone. It is not the whole duty of man to slip through the world so as to escape the wrath of God. The world is our world, and it rests with us to make it a heaven or a hell."
Bertrand Russell, 1916

Happy Easter, Mr President

George W's speechwriter has evidently heard my complaint. NYT reports that "President Bush reached out today to Christians and Jews celebrating Easter and Passover with some of the most religious language he has ever used in public.. ...Mr. Bush often mentions God and faith in his speeches and public remarks, but rarely as emphatically as he did today. As if mindful of that, Mr. Bush took care to point out in his remarks, however briefly, that "many good people practice no faith at all."

A sincere Thank You, Mr President. Certainly, he has his finger on the pulse of public opinion!

The article goes on 'Mr. Bush once again cast the war against terrorism as a struggle between good and evil, overseen by a god who had long ago taken sides.' Who was it who said that religious wars were just a competition to see whose imaginary friend was the best?

To be scrupulously inclusive, this weekend is only Western Easter. Orthodox Easter this year is not until May 2002. What do Orthodox Christians do all this weekend when people wish them Happy Easter - do they get fed up with explaining? It is probably overly pedantic of me to point out that if Christ died and was ressurected only once, surely Christians can agree on the date. Nevertheless, if it applies to you, Happy Easter and Passover.