Saturday, February 25, 2012

Religious Freedom and Misleading Numbers

I've discussed how statistics can both create a more honest objective look at a situation, but also be misused if they are taken out of context.

Recently, there has been a lot of talk about dissent on contraception among Catholics related to the recent Obama administration ruling regarding requiring employers to cover it on their health-care plans, and the subsequent "accommodation" (how gracious of the government to humor us with one! ::rollseyes::) requiring the insurance companies to provide it directly to plan-holding employees who want it.

The accommodation, of course, allegedly takes the employer out of it by requiring insurance companies to directly provide contraception for "free" to any employees already holding a plan. Except the problem I (and the bishops) see with this, is that this notion of the insurance company dealing "directly" with plan-holders and saying that takes the employer out of the equation is mere sleight-of-hand; if only plan-holding employees get the "free" contraception from the insurer, and if the employer paid for that plan in the first place, then (wherever the funds come from; I tend to believe "segregated funds" in general is a rather silly concept) the employer giving them a plan is still like giving them a virtual entitlement to contraception. It's just facetious and a linguistic game to claim "You pay for the ribs, the salad bar is free," in a restaurant unless the salad bar is free for anyone in the world, even those who don't buy anything, not merely those who buy an entree.

For example, I'd certainly feel uncomfortable and like my conscience was violated if I had to give employees a gift-certificate to Planned Parenthood, even if it could be argued "They might not use it on an abortion, they might just get a pap smear!" Even if it was billed specifically as a "certificate for a pap smear" only, if I was being forced to distribute them during some sort of promotion where Planned Parenthood was giving out a free abortion with every pap smear, I obviously would not feel comfortable giving out certificates for the pap smears, exactly because of the "bonus" they would, in the context of that situation, imply and to which they would create an entitlement; in that case, the certificate for a pap smear is equivalent to a certificate for an abortion. I mean, similarly, is the government going to start accepting the argument that prostitutes give the sex for free and that you're only paying them to leave afterwards?!

No, the fact is, unlike money that can buy anything, and which furthermore creates no specific right to be sold any particular product if no one wants to sell it to you, this accommodation still requires employers to provide employees with something that creates an entitlement to something they find objectionable. The accommodation really does seem, then, like an accounting trick. The only way for it to work would be if insurance companies were required to provide the free contraception to anyone, whether they held a plan or not.

Now, when it comes to statistics about dissent, for some reason, the liberals seem to think that if a large number of one's co-religionists support something, that makes it okay to force those who don't to be complicit in it. I guess that means that if most members of a church support or allow for war, we can say that the conscientious objection of a pacifist among them isn't valid?? This notion of the State getting to determine what does and doesn't violate our conscience is very dangerous.

It's true that the Catholics providing insurance to employees in this system (as they already do in several States) might only constitute remote material cooperation and, especially under duress, not be a sin. But it's not for the government to make that analysis. If we say we're against a policy, we don't need to provide any "explanation." I mean, what if a religion centered around an oracle who said things were wrong or right in an entirely arbitrary manner? They'd still have a right to their religious freedom; it is very dangerous to act like conscience-claims need to be justified to the State or like there has to be some sort of proof of internal consistency.

Religious freedom should be sacrosanct as long as no one else's rights are violated (and I think claiming a positive right to have someone else pay so that you can get your jollies is just absurd, and certainly it shouldn't trump conscience claims). This isn't "about" contraception, then. I think there must be a general conscience clause allowing employers (whether their business is religion-related or not) to not provide for things they to which they object, whether this is Jehovah's Witnesses objecting to blood transfusions, or Christian Scientists objecting to medical care period. Frankly, I already think the notion is odd of speaking in terms of positive rights to be provided anything other than ones due wages by an employer when one doesn't even have a "right" to be hired in the first place! Why not have people buy their own insurance with their wages?

However, liberals seem to think that a religious position being unpopular means that popular demand for meaningless sex can trump the objections of those who don't want to provide the means for it. Even though this should have nothing to do with the religious liberty question, I have seen many times in the past month the statistic that 98% of sexually active Catholic women have used contraception (as if that somehow trumps the conscience rights of the 2% who haven't?)

But, more immediately, I want to know where the hell this 98% number is coming from for contraception. Saying 98% of sexually active Catholic women have used it could be wildly misleading. First, that doesn't take into account that more Catholic women may not be sexually active. It says nothing one way or another about the pool of Catholic women who have either embraced a life of celibacy, or who are waiting chastely until marriage. Secondly, it doesn't divide between married women and non-married. Of course people who are already fornicating are going to use it! But it's not like they're good examples of Catholic morality anyway.

Furthermore I would add that just because you've done something, doesn't mean you think it's okay. I'd bet that 99.9% of Catholic men have masturbated...that doesn't mean we all agree with the morality of it. No one claimed holding a moral teaching as an ideal means living up to it perfectly (and is it really that hard for people to mention one more thing in confession??)

And actually, when it comes to theoretical agreement on orthodoxy, I think one finds the numbers are much less dire, though still troubling. This article from a few years ago indeed suggests that 88% (still less than 98%) of all self-identified Catholics disagree on contraception, but among weekly churchgoers (the group who might be seen as "otherwise good Catholics," and who still represent 44% of the total sample of Catholics, though this proportion can be misleading itself) a full 45% support the Church's traditional teaching. And I think that's the group who really matters; if you're not even following the Precepts of the Church...well, there are bigger fish to fry than whether you are orthodox about contraception, homosexuality, or women priests!

Of course, only 45% orthodoxy among even practicing Catholics isn't great, but it's certainly not so wildly dismal as the liberal agitators want you to believe with their extremely misleading 98%-dissent-on-contraception idea. "Everyone else is doing it" or "everybody else thinks so" is already a stupid reason for doing something or believing in something; appeal to popularity is not a valid argument. But when furthermore you have to lie about the actual popularity in order to convince yourself of the already faulty appeal...that's just laughably self-justifying.

Update! This article explains the ridiculously narrow criteria used for getting that "98%" figure:

The figure comes from an April 2011 Guttmacher Institute report based on the 2006-2008 National Survey of Family Growth. Twenty-five percent of the respondents to the survey self-identified as Catholics, but 40 percent of those said they never attended Mass or attended less frequently than once a month.

The survey looked at women between the ages of 15 and 44 and asked about contraceptive use only among those who had had sex in the three months prior to the survey and were not pregnant, postpartum or trying to get pregnant. Ninety percent of those women -- and 98 percent of the Catholic respondents -- said they had used some form of contraception at least once in their lives.

The survey did not ask the women about their current contraceptive usage.
So of the already biased crowd of women of fertile age having sex but not pregnant or trying to get pregnant, 98% of the "Catholics" (even though 40 percent were not practicing) had used contraception at least once in their lives, but said nothing about whether they currently did or whether they currently thought it was moral (another point: I'm pretty sure many people get more conservative about sexual morality once they get married or hit menopause themselves; it's easier to look at the theoretical questions objectively when they are no longer "personal" and past experience can be dismissed as youthful indiscretions.) So...big deal. This really proves nothing, and certainly doesn't form some sort of justification for the insurance mandate.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012


This is sort of a follow-up to another post.

It is interesting to reflect on fame in the Internet Age, the concept of the "internet celebrity," who can be a niche interest or unknown to the mainstream media.

Just last night, for example, I discovered the cult of Spieling Peter (not his real name; some people say he is the actor Andrew Ducote...others say that is blasphemy, that it is best left a mystery, that he is only Peter Pan!)

From his article in Neverpedia, the Peter Pan Wiki (yes, that exists, and, yes, he apparently warrants his own article):

Around the holidays of 2009/2010, a "cast member" playing Peter Pan at Disneyland became something of an internet celebrity, due to his mischievous smile and his delightful on-the-job antics. The tights probably help too. He interacts playfully – in character – with guests and with other cast members (especially Wendy Darling, Captain Hook, Alice, and other Wonderland characters) at the park. He is actually just one of several young men who portray Peter at Disneyland and the other Disney resorts. He apparently worked there as far back as 2007, originally working as Terrence, one of the Tinkerbell fairies.

Videos and photos of him have been posted to video and photo sharing sites, and he became the obsession du jour of many adolescent girls, some guys, and probably quite a few others. He is also known as "Ginger Dude" (for his probably-dyed hair color) and "Spieling Peter" (apparently a nickname given by a Disney employee to differentiate him from the other "Peter"s). He has been perhaps most obsessively stalked at:
The first tumblr has over 61 pages of photos and videos people have submitted from their trips during the period he worked there! And it is still being updated with new content, as recently as yesterday!!

You can find plenty of videos on Youtube as well:

Friday, February 10, 2012

When High School Girls Fight

It can get naaaaaaasty:

Claims of a bizarre plot to assassinate Pope Benedict XVI are reverberating through Italy in what observers say signals the latest twist in an increasingly cutthroat internal Vatican power dispute.

The Italian daily Il Fatto Quotidiano published the sensational "mordkomplott" letter detailing an alleged plot against the pope on its front page on Friday. Despite a Vatican spokesman's claiming it was "nonsense not to be taken seriously", the content of the anonymous warning letter, dated 30 December 2011, was reported widely in Italian and German media.

The letter was delivered in early January to the Vatican secretary of state, Tarcisio Bertone, and the pope's private secretary, Georg Gänswein, by Cardinal Darío Castrillón Hoyos of Colombia, according to Il Fatto Quotidiano. The paper suggested it had been written in German to avoid attracting the attention of certain Vatican officials while communicating clearly and directly with close advisers to the pope, who is German.

Labelled "strictly confidential for the Holy Father", the detailed letter reports several conversations that Cardinal Paolo Romeo, the archbishop of Palermo, allegedly had with Italian businessmen in Beijing on a trip last November during which he predicted the pope would die within 12 months and suggested his replacement would be Angelo Scola, the archbishop of Milan.

"This seems something so far from reality and not serious that I don't want to even comment," the Vatican spokesman, Federico Lombardi, said when asked for comment by the paper.

But Castrillón Hoyos felt the threat was serious enough that he suggested the Vatican open an inquiry into exactly what was said during the mysterious China trip, which, if it happened, was not widely reported publicly. Hoyos is older than the 73-year-old Romeo, and part of the more traditionalist wing of the church.

According to Il Fatto Quotidiano, these latest revelations are further proof that a messy internal power dispute is unfolding inside the Vatican. Earlier this month, four clerics publicly defended their management of the sovereign, 108-acre Vatican City, in the heart of Rome, after a former deputy governor levelled harsh criticisms of corruption over how bids and contracts were managed.
I'm sure we'll hear more about this. If it were true, it would be rather scary, the stuff of a Dan Brown novel even. As it is, it seems like some sort of poison pen type intrigue. I can just imagine some Cardinal doing his nails and watching an Italian soap opera while dictating it to his minion...

Wednesday, February 8, 2012


I don't know if anyone saw this yet. I've really stopped reporting on every little thing that comes out of the abuse crisis because, well, it looked like the clergy's strategy ended up working: hit us with so much bad news that we just get accustomed to it and stop being as outraged as we should.

However, I thought these comments were interesting:

Hiding behind a culture of "omerta" -- the Italian word for the Mafia's code of silence -- would be deadly for the Catholic Church, the Vatican's top official for dealing with sexual abuse of minors by clergy said Wednesday.

Monsignor Charles Scicluna made the unusually forthright comment in his speech to a landmark symposium in Rome on the sexual abuse crisis that has rocked the Church in the past decade.

"The teaching ... that truth is at the basis of justice explains why a deadly culture of silence, or 'omerta,' is in itself wrong and unjust," Scicluna said in his address to the four-day symposium which brings together some 200 people including bishops, leaders of religious orders, victims of abuse, and psychologists.

Rarely, if ever, has a
Vatican official used the word "omerta" - a serious accusation in Italian -- to compare the reluctance of some in the Church to come clean on the abuse scandal with the Mafia's code of silence.

"Other enemies of the truth are the deliberate denial of known facts and the misplaced concern that the good name of the institution should somehow enjoy absolute priority to the detriment of disclosure," Scicluna said.

Victims groups have for years accused some bishops in the Church of preferring silence and cover-up to coming clean on the scandal, which has sullied the image of the Church around the world, particularly in the United States.

"No strategy for the prevention of child abuse will ever work without commitment and accountability," Scicluna told the symposium at the Jesuit Pontifical Gregorian University, called "Towards Healing and Renewal."

Scicluna, a Maltese whose formal title is "justice promoter" in the Vatican's doctrinal department, is the Vatican's point man for dealing with cases of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy.

The symposium's participants are discussing how the Church can become more aware of the problem, make a commitment to listen to victims and prevent future cases of abuse.

Groups representing abuse victims say the Church must do much more to own up to the past, when known pedophile priests were shuttled from parish to parish instead of being defrocked or turned over to authorities.

It must also make greater efforts to prevent future cases, they say, accusing the Church and the Vatican of a cover-up.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Extraterrestrial "Intelligence"

One story that gets dug up every so often on a slow news day is that some priest or official at the Vatican Observatory have said something (positive, usually) about extraterrestrial life and its compatibility with Faith (usually the headline is sensationalistic and misleading...)

In itself, I see no real problem there, but think speculation is useless. We'd really have to see what "they" were like before we reached any conclusions. If there are myriads of bodiless spirits in the angels (and demons), why couldn't their be other material creatures with immortal souls? We would then have to re-examine our definition of man as a "rational animal" and see whether these other races, not descended from Adam presumably, had fallen themselves, whether they had been given some other Revelation or other "dispensation" of salvation from us, etc.

If the angels can exist as a separate spiritual "race" with a somewhat different dispensation, I see no reason why aliens with bodies couldn't also exist. Tolkein, as a "sub-creator" in fiction, imagined a possible world with many races on earth with different dispensations from God, and Aquinas even seems to hold out the possibility that God could have incarnated more than once, or in a Person other than the Son (or even two or three of the persons taking on the same created nature; see questions 5, 6, and 7 especially.)

So, really, who knows. Likely they'd be so far away that barring something like the invention of a real hyperdrive, we'd never actually meet before Judgement Day (and, if they're out there, won't we all be so surprised, to find out we were not alone after all, to meet our brothers after all those vast eons!) Though, surely, if it did happen, First Contact would be the most important event in [secular] history if it happened, and would probably constitute a massive paradigm shift and revolution in consciousness for many people (in a way that might threaten religion and have other massively unexpected results, so we should prepare).

However, lately I've been thinking that I'm not even sure it is meaningful to expect "intelligent" life to be found out there in the cosmos. Not for scientific reasons (most scientists seem to expect the universe to be teeming with civilizations), but for metaphysical reasons.

A friend recently pointed out to me this salient quote from Solaris by Stanisław Lem:
We take off into the cosmos, ready for anything: for solitude, for hardship, for exhaustion, death. Modesty forbids us to say so, but there are times when we think pretty well of ourselves. And yet, if we examine it more closely, our enthusiasm turns out to be all a sham. We don't want to conquer the cosmos, we simply want to extend the boundaries of Earth to the frontiers of the cosmos. For us, such and such a planet is as arid as the Sahara, another as frozen as the North Pole, yet another as lush as the Amazon basin. We are humanitarian and chivalrous; we don't want to enslave other races, we simply want to bequeath them our values and take over their heritage in exchange. We think of ourselves as the Knights of the Holy Contact. This is another lie. We are only seeking Man. We have no need of other worlds. A single world, our own, suffices us; but we can't accept it for what it is. We are searching for an ideal image of our own world: we go in quest of a planet, a civilization superior to our own but developed on the basis of a prototype of our primeval past. At the same time, there is something inside us which we don't like to face up to, from which we try to protect ourselves, but which nevertheless remains, since we don't leave Earth in a state of primal innocence. We arrive here as we are in reality, and when the page is turned and that reality is revealed to us - that part of our reality which we would prefer to pass over in silence - then we don't like it anymore.
I've only seen the movie, but it raises the spectre of alien "intelligence" that is totally, well, unintelligible to us. Whether because it is so far "above" our own, or because it is simply different.

I am not sure there is any reason to expect that we will find life that will be mutually intelligible with us in the cosmos. Because our notion of intelligence is conditioned by our categories, which are mental, and another sort of creature may well have incomprehensible categories.

What I mean is based on some other things I've been thinking about lately related to Idealism (the philosophical school) and the knowability of God from natural reason. Like, is "number" really a feature of the external universe? Or is it just a category in how human brains organize/construct reality in a way that another species may not have? Same/different, more/less, good/bad, etc...who is to say that these dualities of human thought would be any part of the syntax of the "programming language" of extraterrestrial brains? And yet, of course, such categories, such Forms, are what render the universe intelligible to us. We simply can't think outside the limits imposed by the box of our own system of thought.

When people speak of finding extraterrestrial intelligent life, they seem to be imagining ultimately human brains just put in weird looking bodies on weird planets, but assuming that the Forms will be constant and in the end "translate" across all intelligences. For those who believe there is a God, there is some more basis for believing this, at least; it is much less clear to me why atheist scientists would make this assumption (by analogy: try to input Java code into a C++ engine.) It can be difficult even for two human cultures to be entirely mutually intelligible to one another, so why should we expect any sort of empathy or communication or mutual understanding would be possible with aliens?

So, yes, I think people are looking for Man out there. And I see no reason to expect that we will find him. We may well find life, very complex life even, and life that creates highly advanced [inorganic] "technology" (as do chimps, and bees, and termites, and human beings). But I am not sure it makes sense to expect these creatures whose brains evolved totally separate from ours will be meaningfully intelligent in the human sense we would recognize (perhaps they don't even have a concept of intelligence! Or of living vs. dead!)

I think 2001: A Space Odyssey makes this point wonderfully and hauntingly: HAL, the Artificial Intelligence, bore man's image, because it was created by man. It has super-human computing capacity, of course, but ultimately it is programmed on the model of human thought, human intelligence, human categories (and so fittingly expresses very human flaws). On the other hand, what we assume is alien life in the last simply wholly Other. There is something totally sublime as it blows our mind. It's "intelligence" cannot even really meaningfully be called that, as it is not comprehensible to us.

And why should we expect it to be?