Author Archives | garrickbercero

What We Can Do in the Age of Fascists

As the world watched the meteoric rise of eventual presidents Duterte and Trump, Filipinos could not shake the pair’s family resemblance. Both were seen as clowns who only lacked the ridiculous facial hair to complete the cartoon villain caricature. But, when Duterte cussed and bullied all the way into Malacañang, that should have been a clue to us that Trump would do a lot better than what the polls were saying.

Now that Trump has won despite all the ridicule and naysaying, there has been a lot of finger-pointing and self-flagellation among liberals and Democrats. Chiefly, we shouldn’t have been so smug, painting Trump supporters as racist inbreds.

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Frequent users of the SJW epithet were quick to blame progressives for being overly sensitive to the Trump campaign’s overt racism and misogyny. Anti-globalists with particular disdain for the United States pointed to “neoliberalism’s” neglect of the American working class. Political nihilists blamed Hillary’s being a corrupt Washington insider for failing to convince independents to vote against Trump.

It is true to some extent that odious self-righteousness is a turn off and does little to convince fence-sitters. But, just like Ken Bone, people who were on the fence about Trump and about the values he validated weren’t fence-sitters for lack of reasonable arguments for either side. Breaking down the Trump voter demographics, it is clear that his base was not full of people left behind by eight years of Obama.

The median yearly income for Trump voters is $72,000, above the $62,000 median for Clinton’s.  Singling out Trump’s poorer voters, only 14% earned less than $50,000. And, as Trump whipped up anti-immigrant sentiment, a Gallup study showed that his average voter was “no more likely to be unemployed or exposed to competition through trade or immigration.”

This false narrative of revenge-against-the-elites should remind Filipinos of the lie that the Duterte vote was an anti-elite, anti-oligarch vote. As with Trump, the wealthier you were, the more likely you would have been a Duterte voter. Rather than being victims of the Aquino administration’s “neoliberal” economics, Duterte’s supporters flourished more than their countrymen. Add to that, among Filipinos living abroad, Duterte and Marcos polled highest.

Rather than an uprising of the victims of capitalism and globalization, the wave of nativism and fascism sweeping the world: from Duterte to Brexit to Trump, is a backlash from the privileged classes: the male segment, in particular. It used to be that men could comfortably make misogynistic, homophobic, and racist comments without much pushback. Now, progressives can be relied upon to cast light on what used to be socially acceptable but bigoted behavior. In response, there is resistance from the privileged class against “political correctness,” which has now become shorthand for, “I’m not allowed to speak my mind about people outside my group.”

Progressives have been playing identity politics for much of the past ten years, and it has finally blown up in our faces. We forgot that the ruling class can also play identity politics, and play it they did.

We have to realize that though we think we are right to call out oppression, the other side, well-to-do (white) men, are still the ones in charge. And though we feel empowered as the momentum in the politics of language is on the side of progressives, politics itself is still largely out of the hands of the underprivileged, women, and people of color.

To be sure, moralizing has not worked. Even before the elections, Duterte critics unceasingly reminded Filipinos of the carnage he had wreaked on Davao and would wreak on the rest of the Philippines. Every day now, we see photos of people, generally poor, murdered in the streets. Over 4,000 Filipinos have been killed so far and his support has not wavered. And this is on top of Duterte’s misogynistic behavior. In the US, liberals constantly picked apart Trump’s misogyny and his supporters’ racism and racial resentment.

It may seem to many of us that state-sponsored killings, misogyny, and racism are self-evidently wrong, but 2016 should show us that, no, they are not. And, we should have known this from the start.

We were seduced by the religious certainty of moralizing. Yes, you can probably argue from many moral frameworks how homophobia is wrong or how vigilante justice is a net negative on our social institutions, but politics on either side is rarely about reason, but emotions.

Duterte’s key supporters are richer than their neighbors, and so are Trump’s. They are largely isolated from those most affected by murders and racism, respectively. As long as the oppressed remain hypotheticals to them, they will not empathize.

Like Harry Potter’s Dudley Dursley complaining about having 36 presents when he had 37 last year, the privileged classes are lashing out against having fewer words to say and, dare I say it, fewer pussies to grab. It doesn’t matter what you think is fair. If the privileged classes experience the insecurity of their status, they will reliably lash out in the way they have in electing Duterte and Trump.

Schadenfreudists have been satisified in calling liberals smug, and saying that Clinton/Roxas/Poe/etc. offered no alternative, while Trump/Duterte at least offered something new and different. And yet, schadenfreudists have offered no alternatives either.

So, what is left for progressives to do in the face of obvious oppression? If calling bigots bigots and fascists fascists does not work, do we just let Duterte call diplomats white monkeys and faggots (the more appropriate translation of “bakla” when said in contempt)? Do we just let him ogle the Vice President’s legs and cat-call reporters? Do we just let him threaten our right to due process? Do we just let American racists tell non-white citizens to go “home”?

I believe that there is room for multiple approaches. And though we shouldn’t stop pushing back against fascism and call it out when we see it, we must also recognize that it is not a given that our opponents share our values for fairness. This is a lesson we should have learned when we were on its receiving end from religious conservatives. They call contraception murder and secularism immoral. To them, these issues have consequences as heavy as heaven and hell. But, these concerns are incomprehensible to secular progressives.

Some people have called for constant dialogue, though I think that this is not as effective as it makes us feel better about “going high.” What is left to say on the matter of state-sponsored murders? What is left to say on the matter of barring Muslims from the US? I believe that the strongest argument against the fascistic urge, rather than play their winning strategy of populist dishonesty and demagoguery, is quiet perseverance.

We organize. We defend our institutions, our environment. We stop congratulating ourselves over recognizing our faults. We have to fight against the normalized fascism we already see in the Phlippines and will soon see in the United States. And, critically, we have to do better than Hillary Clinton. We have to do better than Mar Roxas or Grace Poe. We have to offer something better than status quo.

Trump’s and Duterte’s voters did not vote against a better future. They believed they were making the best choice available. And, I am sure both administrations will improve on the previous in some, perhaps many ways. Nevertheless, a vote for a fascist is a vote to define who gets to share and who does not in that better future.

Yes, quiet and continued perseverance is not sexy. It’s not noisy. And it’s not going to promise anything big by 2020 or 2022. But, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. In the long view, the world is only getting better. Let’s not forget that over a million people more voted for Clinton than Trump and Duterte won by plurality, not by majority. We just have to make sure the world exists long enough for it to get even better.

Posted in Politics, Society0 Comments

The Many Faces of Pope Francis

As the arrival of Pope Francis draws near, his visit has been heralded by all sorts of papal kitsch. Apart from the strange painting of the pope being surrounded by local celebrities dressed up as farmers (a piece of work that would have been biting in insight, had it not been so sincere), several media outlets have also come out with their own T-shirt designs with sayings attributed to the popular pontiff.

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People have grasped onto one particular quotation from the pope: “Who am I to judge?” You can buy a shirt with this printed on it from whichever TV channel you feel loyal to. This quote has resonated strongly with people with the Catholic Church who have been aching for any semblance of change. Pope Francis’ predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, after all said that the “homosexual inclination” was an “objective disorder.” It is certainly a breath of fresh air in a Church legendary for its glacial pace of progress… if Francis had meant that homosexuals were finally accepted by the Church.

Of course, the people Pope Francis was referring to were gay priests—people already required to be celibate. And not only that, he hedged that if a gay priest were “seeking God”, then who would he be to judge him? In so many words, Pope Francis was not accepting homosexuals, rather he was describing a person who was aware that it was wrong to act on homosexual desires. Who was he to judge a contrite homosexual priest who would never again act on his homosexuality? This is worlds apart from how the phrase has been used since then.

Had people listened a little more to what Pope Francis actually said, they would have heard the following. “The problem is lobbying by this orientation, or lobbies of greedy people, political lobbies, Masonic lobbies, so many lobbies. This is the worst problem.” To be fair, I don’t think this would have fit on a T-shirt.

So, how can such an accepting message be construed from such a specific and narrow meaning? For one thing, the quote is so compact and slogan-worthy that it, like all other clichés, has lost its context. But, the far greater reason is that people are reading into Pope Francis whatever they want to believe.

 

You’re so vain

In a 1999 study, Raymond Nickerson of Tufts University found that people assume that the knowledge they have is, by default, shared by everyone else. And, because of this, people tend to think that other people would have the same beliefs as they do.

A 2009 follow-up by researchers from Columbia university showed that not only do people project their beliefs onto others, they particularly do so on people they admire and, especially, God.

When asked about what they thought the opinions of God, George Bush (someone with well-known beliefs), Bill Gates (a well-liked person with largely unknown beliefs), Barry Bonds (a disliked person with largely unknown beliefs) and the average American were on controversial matters such as abortion and same-sex marriage, participants in the study considered the beliefs of Bill Gates and God to correlate well with their own beliefs. That is to say, when the participants admired someone, they tended to assume that they probably believed the same things they did.

I contend that the same thing is happening with the so-called “People’s Pope.”

 

Holding out for a hero

On the outside, Pope Francis appears to have rocked the Church to its foundations. He has abandoned many of the luxuries of popes, such as the papal limo and the papal apartments, which people had seen as extravagant and disconnected from the realities of the suffering of Catholics worldwide. He has been seen kissing babies and taking selfies with teenagers. This pope certainly appears more in touch with believers on the ground.

And yet, after each seemingly progressive statement by the pope, the Vatican would come out to backtrack, or rather clarify. After a synod that seemed to contain language friendly to LGBT persons (“homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer the Christian community”), later versions of the document came out without this statement. And, after the pope appeared to have opened the possibility of atheists going to heaven, the Vatican came out to say that people “cannot be saved” if they knowingly refuse “to enter [the Church] or remain in her.” So, yes, atheists can be saved, if they renounce their atheism and join the Catholic Church.

Lest it be said that the pope is trying to move the Church forward while he is being held back by conservative elements, it should be noted that when it comes to certain progressive matters, Pope Francis is a lot less vague than “who am I to judge” and more direct, like in calling abortion, euthanasia, and IVF “playing with life,” which is “a sin against the Creator” and in saying that children ought to have both a mother and a father. On the matter of women priests Pope Francis has said, “The church has spoken and says no… That door is closed.”

The epidemic of child rape that has plagued the Catholic Church shows quite clearly what kind of pope we really have. While the pope has criticized and apologized for those who have helped shield rapists from prosecution, he has gone ahead and appointed as top Vatican prosecutor a person who had failed to report a notorious child abuser. We see a pattern in Pope Francis’ Church—vague but impressive words, followed by clear but contradictory actions.

The fact is, Pope Francis has either been against progressive advocacy issues such as women’s rights and LGBT rights or just plainly silent about them. And in this absence of a clear narrative, people have made graven images of their own Pope Francis and ascribed to it their own beliefs, which they think the pope must certainly also believe.

The bigotry of low expectations underlies the popularity of Pope Francis. So much so that even matters such as whether pets go to heaven are misconstrued and lied about. The Church has had such a terrible reputation that even the most obvious pandering is enough to impress. This is unsurprising since the largely silent bloc of progressive Catholics have been famished for someone like Pope Francis for a long time. Even atheists have joined the bandwagon of wishful thinking. After years of burying their heads in their hands, sitting through anti-RH and anti-LGBT sermons in church, here comes the representative of Jesus Christ Himself and he seems to be the change that they’d been waiting for. Finally, the Church is going to change into the way they want it to be.

 

Look at all these rumors

But, this all seems to be some illusion induced by that same hunger. In the gaps of the feel-good platitudes from the pope, progressives try to find wiggle room in an institution that was never built for them. For if the Church were to surrender that maybe God can change his mind about homosexuality, maybe He can change his mind about condoms or women priests. And that’s not going to happen, not under Pope Francis and not under whoever comes after.

Compounding the trouble of people ascribing to the pope their own beliefs is a psychological phenomenon called “the backfire effect.” Researchers Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler found that when people are shown definitive facts that refute misconceptions, they are even more likely to hold fast to their false notions. In effect, this creates the whole endeavor of correcting pointless, which, in turn, makes articles such as the one you’re reading now practically Sisyphean. But, the optimist in me wants to believe, even against evidence, that through reading the pope’s actual words and seeing his actual deeds, some people will see through the many faces hiding the true one of Pope Francis.

Cardinal Tagle quoted the pope as saying that he hopes that he would not be the focus of his visit to the Philippines. It’s hard not to find this statement ironic as our traffic enforcers prepare to wear diapers in anticipation for the pope, as flights have been cancelled, as holidays have been declared, and as roads have been closed. He could easily have sent word that the Philippine government had gone overboard, but he hasn’t. No other head of state will be welcomed as Pope Francis will be. And why wouldn’t he be? No other pope in history has been as clever in creating an image. The trick was to let the people make it for him.

 

Image Credit: Tânia Rêgo/Agência Brasil
Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Brazil

Posted in Politics, Religion, Secularism3 Comments

Killing for Faith

Killing for Faith

A woman prepares a lethal cocktail of pharmaceuticals. It’s for her partner’s two children. She had been listening to a sermon just the other day about Isaac, Abraham’s son. God tested Abraham and led him to offer Isaac as a sacrifice. But this time, God doesn’t call out to stop her as she tries to kill the children.

A two-year old girl is now dead and Kimberly Lucas is facing charges for her murder.

In Lucas’ alleged suicide note found by the police, she referenced the sermon she heard from Pastor Lea Brown, “Lea’s sermon really, really touched me yesterday, but God never told me to stop!”

Kimberly Lucas

Kimberly Lucas

A family friend described her note as “the writing of someone who is really disturbed.” Indeed, other people listened to Lea Brown’s sermon and did not spend the next day trying to reenact the sacrifice of Isaac. Millions of people have read the verses in the Bible without facing any criminal charges.

Clearly, what happened to the two-year-old girl is out of the ordinary. But, why is it?

The other child survived. When the ten-year-old boy woke up from his drug-induced loss of consciousness, he found a locked bathroom. He forced the door open with a knife and found his two year-old sister dead in the bathtub. He tried saving her with CPR.

Lucas’ attorney has suggested that previous traumatic injuries may have led to the mental state that allowed his client to allegedly poison two children and herself.

The prevailing narrative among those affected by this tragedy is that Lucas was not operating like a normal person. However, though what happened may be a rare occurrence, it is not so unthinkable. Parents all over the world have denied their children access to vaccines, operations, and life-saving chemotherapy, all for religious reasons. Lucas was on the extreme, but she at least claims that her reasons were also religious.

Why is it that people immediately conclude that any person who acts violently and attributes their actions to religion is somehow unstable? Yes, in many cases, it is a safe assumption. But it is so only because modern believers have decided that only disturbed people ought to behave with utmost faith.

The Bible clearly shows that God has tested the faith of people with violence. But, in our world, anybody who performs comparable acts of violence are crazy. If an “adulterous” woman is stoned in Pakistan, Muslims in other parts of the world can call it heinous. If an abortion care provider is shot dead in the American South, Christians can call the man a deranged murderer rather than a hero.

These shocking examples of religious adherence should not be shocking at all, if we are to take religious faith on face value. There is a bewildering doublespeak from religious people who condemn certain acts that their religious texts clearly represent, if not out-and-out endorse. What makes their version of their religion not crazy?

If a Christian refuses to stone men who have sex with men, why is he the standard for laudable Christian behavior, when the Bible explicitly commands him to be violent?

The world has civilized religion to a large extent, but it can never let go of their ancient baggage. It’s the Word of God, after all. And, to the degree that believers dwell within modern standards of human decency and deviate from their ancient barbarism, they are considered good human beings.

Rightly so, let us rehabilitate those among us who believe it is right to own other people as property, so long as they are not of our tribe. Rightly so, let us rehabilitate those among us who believe that a woman’s place is to be a baby factory and that they should be denied education, upon pain of death. But, these are views that would merit ostracism, if not execution, had the religions never adapted to modern ethical standards. We live in a world where, largely, it is not the violation of religion that is most considered, but the rights of other persons—rights that we, as a species, agreed upon with our common reason, and not our various faiths.

Of what value is religion, when even believers agree that it is those most faithful to its origins who ought to be ridiculed, condemned, and considered deviants from The Truth?

Image Credit: NBC News

Posted in Religion, Society0 Comments

Cosmos Returns

Rebooting any beloved piece of popular culture always courts cynicism and dread. (Not to say that previous experiences have been successful at silencing the pessimists.) In popular science, there are very few touchstones as revered as Carl Sagan’s Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. So, its revival under the helm of Family Guy’s Seth MacFarlane raised not a few eyebrows—regardless of his creative caliber.

Sagan’s A Personal Voyage delivered to the general public the story of the universe in a manner that captured its romance without sacrificing the integrity of science. Carl Sagan, after all, was the most famous science communicator at the time. His impact on the world still ripples to this day.

Over thirty years have passed since the original Cosmos. As a product of the 80’s, it carries the tropes of its time—the grainy chroma keying, the sharp synths, and the cheesy 3D graphics. Viewing it today, these hallmarks seem to only emphasize the depth of Sagan’s message and that it retains its value even through eyes spoiled by modern special effects. Set against the backdrop of the Cold War, A Personal Voyage was more than a cavalcade of science factoids. It cemented in popular consciousness the importance of science in culture and philosophy.

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

Neil deGrasse Tyson hosts this generation’s Cosmos—subtitled, A Spacetime Odyssey. After Sagan’s death, Tyson has become the perennial science communicator and his taking over for Carl is not only appropriate, but almost necessary for the new show.

Sagan’s co-writers, Ann Druyan and Steven Soter, reprise their roles. In the first episode, A Spacetime Odyssey revisits, but not retreads, much of the original. They retain key metaphors that have stood the test of time, such as the Cosmic Calendar, which reframes the universe’s 13.8 billion year history into twelve months of an Earth year. And yet, they pay homage to rather than dwell on the writing of A Personal Voyage. Druyan and Soter could have rested on the now-classic turns of phrase they used decades ago, but their poetry here is as impactful and refreshing as ever.

What will be missed, however, are A Personal Voyage’s live acted dramatization of historical events. A Spacetime Odyssey instead uses cartoons. The animation is not as fluid or appealing as I would have liked, but the matter they presented more than made up for any lack in its technical prowess.

The first episode relates the story of a man not as popular among the heroes of science, Giordano Bruno. He is portrayed as a man who refused to follow tradition and faith when evidence clearly pointed away from them. In his studies of Copernicus and Lucretius, he was convinced that not only was the Earth not at the center of the universe, our Sun was just another star in an ocean of other suns, surrounded by their own earths. For this, he was burned alive.

The show presents all these without apology and without sentimentality. This is how the world treated people who thought differently and were not shackled by dogma. In showing Giordano Bruno’s story, A Spacetime Odyssey dares to go further and more bluntly than the original in challenging conventional unscientific thinking. As anti-science movements get more and more virulent with the power of modern media and indoctrination, shows like these provide a vital prophylactic.

Much of the science that reaches the masses has been neutered by the subtle bigotry of the expectation of propriety from the religious majority—the unspoken rule that science shouldn’t ruffle feathers lest it turn away more people. But science works by questioning everything and refusing to be satisfied by what others merely insist upon without evidence—values that A Spacetime Odyssey repeats throughout the first episode.

It cannot be stressed enough how important it is that MacFarlane brought this show to America through Fox, a big network television channel accessible to anyone there. Here in the Philippines, it is carried by National Geographic, on cable TV. One can only hope that one of our own over-the-air networks will carry it someday as RPN-9 did for the original.

Standing Up in the Milky Way, the first episode of the new series ends on a fitting tribute to Carl Sagan but, avoiding the risk of becoming indulgent and saccharine, does not linger on it. Instead, it uses the tribute to invite the viewer to continue on the voyage that Carl introduced to millions a generation ago. Science improves and develops over time, giving us more things to love about the things we thought we knew. And that’s exactly what Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey has done in its debut.

Image Credit: National Geographic Channel Asia

Posted in Entertainment, Religion, Reviews, Science0 Comments

Doge and Lazy Cynicism

Doge and Lazy Cynicism

In Grand Theft Auto V, Trevor Philips complains, “sarcasm is the blight of this country.” This is especially ironic, given that the GTA series is an often unsubtle satire of America and pop culture. Despite this, Trevor is well-aimed in his self-aware shot at the cynicism that has become the sickness of our times.

GTAV topped not a few 2013 Game of the Year lists, but 2013 also brought to our collective attention a pop culture fad that captured the spirit of lazy cynicism—Doge.

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This innocent Shiba Inu seized our lives in 2013. The appeal is not puzzling. Doge is a fat dog with a dopey grin: surrounded by purposefully bad spelling and grammar in reviled Comic Sans colored text. The meme has all the makings of funny.

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Doge has strange origins, but it has come to its essential form as a dog having awkward inner monologue. This usually involves dealing with the consequences of doggy mischief.

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But, as memes are inclined, they mutate, they adapt to their environments—they evolve. And in the competition for limited mindshare, Doge became 2013’s apex predator. Doge now feasts on the overflowing sustenance provided by impotent social media rage*.

In the exclusive club of people who are perpetually unimpressed, Doge has developed into the secret handshake of inarticulate cynics. Starting off as hapless absurdity, doge captions have detached from the image and now entirely compose what are apparently serious critiques of politicians and crummy social circumstances. Conflicts between people that used to be addressed with thinly veiled passive aggressive sentences, now enjoy the concise convenience of, “wow. such stupid. much bad.”

As with sarcasm, the snappy potshots in Doge meme form leave much of the content up to the reader to piece together. After all, how much information can you really derive from “wow. much injustice. very surveillance” that you didn’t already know on your own? There is, of course, a time and a place for sarcasm, but it is worrisome when such things take frequent precedence over fully professed opinions that may often be half-baked, but put enough out there for others to take apart and improve.

Granted, the validity of criticism is not rooted in the wordiness of a diatribe (like this piece you are reading). But, the prolificness of the Doge shorthand has diminished what could otherwise be expressions of original and piercing insights. Using Doge as a constant crutch, we can snipe at things without fear of serious rebuttal. After all, it’s just a stupid joke. In Internet parlance, the abundance of Doge-form criticisms makes up an exasperated circlejerk. People validate each other’s opinions so throughly that they don’t even have to articulate the substance of their beliefs. You already know their opinion: it’s whatever yours is!

Steve StockmanThomas Massie

In the evolution of Doge, it adapted to our shared fear of rejection for being different. When the fad sours, as all memes inevitably do, something else will occupy Doge’s mental niche. We will then use some new catchphrase to signal to each other, “It’s safe to come out. Nobody here will challenge what you say. Everyone here believes the same things you do.” And when that happens, it will reveal that it is not poor Doge that’s really to blame for lazy cynicism—it’s our own self-imposed intellectual exile.

The use of Doge as ironic shorthand often comes from genuine idealism, if exhausted and bruised from constant defeat. This leaves us to find comfort hiding behind memes, in the safety of our self-made social media bubbles, where we only read and interact with people we already agree with and never expose our ideas to criticism.

*Incidentally, Impotent Rage is a cartoon you can watch inside the GTAV world. It depicts superficially passionate liberals, who are sated by doing brief acts that are more showy than they are effective.

Image Credits: Know Your Meme
Gawker
Steve Stockman Twitter
Thomas Massie Twitter

Posted in Politics, Pop Culture, Society0 Comments

Freddie Aguilar and Special Rights for Muslims

Freddie Aguilar and Special Rights for Muslims

The matter of 60-year-old musician Freddie Aguilar’s marriage to his 16-year-old girlfriend has courted a firestorm of both defenders and critics. Indeed, the knee-jerk reaction to an intimate relationship with such an age gap would often be disgust. Granted, such initial feelings are seldom rational, given their strong emotional motivation. What Aguilar defenders seem to miss, however, is that there is much more cause for concern here than just the private relationship of a public figure. Exempting themselves from secular Philippine law, Aguilar has decided to convert to Islam, despite describing himself as a “born-again Catholic,” to marry his underage girlfriend.

Negative reactions to Aguilar are commonly rebuffed by pointing out the shallow and tabloid nature of the issue. This defense is only supported by the crass and insipid nature of Aguilar critics painting him as a pedophile or a “dirty old man.” Both apologists for Aguilar and his detractors completely miss the far more nefarious implications of Aguilar’s marriage.

However simplistic it may be, Philippine law requires that marriage involve persons aged 18 and above. Given this, Aguilar and his lover have chosen to enjoy the special laws and privileges given to Filipino Muslims by Ferdinand Marcos’ Presidential Decree 1083—the Code of Muslim Personal Laws of the Philippines.

This special law so deeply controverts the Constitution’s principle of secularism that it overbearingly points out that “The provisions of this Code shall be applicable only to Muslims and nothing herein shall be construed to operate to the prejudice of a non-Muslim.” Not only that, should any conflicts (such as those regarding marriage and divorce) arise between secular law and this special law, the Code shall prevail and that secular laws should be “liberally construed” in order to accomplish the provisions of the Code. The Code establishes special Shari’a courts that are appointed to adjudicate and mete out the appropriate punishment for violations of Islamic laws, as recognized by the Code. Between a Constitution that declares that “No religious test shall be required for the exercise of civil or political rights” and a law that literally requires belief in Islam, something has to give. Unsurprisingly, in the good old Republic of the Philippines, religious privilege wins out.

Among other provisions, the Code also includes the sexist decree—a belief shared by Catholic opponents of the RH Law—that it is the male in a heterosexual marriage that must exercise authority over the family: “In case of disagreement, the father’s decision shall prevail unless there is a judicial order to the contrary.”

Non-Catholics in the Philippines have long suffered under the tyrannical majority of the Catholic Church and these special rights for Muslims are, ironically, a side effect of this tyranny. While masking as benevolence, these special rights are rooted in the same xenophobic entitlement as the common patronizing expression, “mga kapatid nating Muslim (our Muslim brothers).” This saying paints Muslims automatically separate in any discussion.

Instead of fully recognizing the diversity of religious belief and non-belief, the Philippine state instead split the baby and framed much of our laws under Catholic prejudice, while creating these special exemptions for Muslims—leaving everyone else out of the social contract. This flies in the face of any expectation of justice and the belief, however naive or clichéd, that the law applies to all, or none at all.

The secularist indignation against Aguilar is only inflated by just how insincere Aguilar seems to be in his conversion. It’s bad enough for one religion to enjoy rights not afforded to all Filipinos. Here we have what appears to be the disingenuous and opportunistic exploitation of an already unjust and backward legal system.

Image Credit: Christopher Sundita

Posted in Religion, Secularism, Society2 Comments

An Open Letter to All RH Supporters: A Response

Dear Pro-Life Philippines,

It is undeniable that in the protracted fight for women’s rights, both sides of the RH debate have had their fair share of mudslinging and cynical caricaturing. I do not doubt at all that the anti-RH mean well. I believe in the sincerity of your positions, though I do believe that these positions are often misleading and often scarily absurd. I have no illusions that your side will reconsider any of these positions regardless of evidence, but in the interest of goodwill, I will sincerely address the statements in your open letter.

First of all, you claim that you share our concern for the health of women. Again, I do not doubt this, but I do question the way you act on this concern. The RH Law does provide for increased funding for maternal health services. You do not seem to be opposed to that, only that you are hung up on the matter of contraceptives.

It is totally unnecessary to lie about cancer links to oral contraceptives, since your opposition to the RH Law is founded on dogma, not medicine or scientific research. You would oppose the law even if it would only provide for barrier contraceptive methods, such as condoms. If you want a civil discussion, let us not pretend that the argument is really about abortion or about cancer concerns.

Citing cancer links only serve to weaken your position, when better studies have refuted then. You cite the International Agency for Research on Cancer’s classification of oral contraceptive pills as group 1 carcinogens. As the Mayo Clinic clarifies, this classification was based on studies on old OCP formulations. While studies did show links between breast cancer and OCPs, these links completely disappear in studies on modern formulations.

In the largest modern study on current lower estrogen and new progestin formulation oral contraceptive pills involving over 9000 women, no breast cancer links were found. It is plainly intellectually dishonest to pass off old data as current.

Science improves through time, and old positions are discarded in the face of contradictory evidence. I understand that this method of revising and improving ideas is foreign to faith, but it is no excuse for when anti-choice advocates try to speak on matters of science.

Second, you claim to respect the right to choose. This is simply not true. Forgive me for lumping the actions of the Catholic Church hierarchy and its government allies with yours, but let’s not pretend that your ideals are not identical. If this is an inaccurate statement, then feel free to denounce the following.

The Catholic Church and its members have worked tirelessly to restrict access to contraceptives, even just in recent memory. The city of Manila, under the mayoralty of then-Pro-Life Philippines President Lito Atienza (your president), banned the provision of contraceptives in city hospitals and health centers, which the poor had relied on. A stronghold of the Opus Dei and the Saint James the Great Parish, the Ayala Alabang Village, banned the sale of all contraceptives to anyone without a prescription, even for barrier methods. There were also several copycat ordinances in other parts the country.

With your own then-president implicated, as well as your Mother Church, saying that you are not against choice and the freedom to acquire contraceptives is clearly a sin against the eight commandment. (That’s the one about lying.)

The issue of choice is also not simply having contraceptives available for sale. To pretend that it is betrays a level of privilege that is inexcusable for a supposedly charitable organization. It goes against the very notion of social justice. This is like pretending that any poor person has the free choice to be a doctor or a lawyer, without the assistance of scholarships and educational subsidies.

You seem to be oblivious to just how deprived of choice the poor are. Otherwise, ignorant statements like, “A law cannot give the people something the people already have,” would never even merit a moment’s consideration. But if it needs to be said, let me say it. The poor cannot afford meals, let alone contraceptives. No, they did not have a choice before the RH Law, and they still don’t, thanks to the status quo ante order against the RH Law.

Third, you claim not to be against the poor or progress. You claim that the solution to poverty is job creation, feeding programs, and education. I am certain that these are not bad ideas, but to advocate these to the exclusion of reproductive health is absolutely short-sighted and unsustainable.

Six out of every ten pregnancies is unwanted. This is particularly relevant to poor women who have a greater problem of achieving their desired family size. It takes little logical effort to figure out that abortions stem from unwanted pregnancies. If you are truly against abortion, reducing unwanted pregnancies should be your primary concern.

Poor women are especially burdened with having to provide for, feed, and educate unplanned children, when they do not even have the resources to feed themselves, let alone the other children they already have. I’m sure many of these parents grow to love their unplanned children, but this does not diminish the fact that families suffer because of having even less to divide among family members. This is a recipe for abuses, such as child abandonment and child labor.

Let us have a society where every child is wanted and is born to a loving family that will care for their well-being. That doesn’t have to be a controversial wish, but it is in the Philippines.

Women deserve a life where they can pursue happiness, however they define it. Incidentally, that definition usually does not include having a child too young or when finances are tight.

It is true that both sides of the debate share the goal of seeing the Philippines flourish. I do not believe the caricature that the anti-RH are against the law for the selfish reason of putting more people on pews. I believe that you want to help people, but understand that we want to help people in this life, not in some imagined afterlife that punishes people for all eternity.

Your concern for the faith of Catholics is not, and should not, be shared by the State. Your concern should not burden the Filipino people who, by an overwhelming majority, baptized Catholics and non-Catholics alike, want to take control of their reproductive choices.

You claim that it is “so easy” to distribute condoms and pills to the poor. On the contrary, it is not. Reproductive health advocates have fought for the right to do so for over a decade now because of the oppressive tactics employed by you and your Church. What is easy, though, is to pay lip service to providing education and employment to people without considering the realities of unwanted pregnancies. It is easy to misrepresent the RH movement as deludedly offering a silver bullet to poverty. That is not what the RH Law is about. It is not supposed to address all the problems of poverty. The law aims to help families achieve the family size they want. It aims to provide economic and personal freedom to women who cannot afford the opportunity costs of pregnancy.

It is easy for a privileged and powerful institution to talk about “empowering” the poor, then oppose one of the surest ways to achieve empowerment—freeing a society’s women from the shackles of forced pregnancy. People of means never have to worry about carrying a pregnancy to term while worrying about how to feed yourself and your already starving other children. If you want to talk about easy things, compare your lives to those who have less than you.

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Posted in Advocacy, RH Bill4 Comments

GMOs and Science Denialists: A GMO Primer

Liberals often have a smug sense of superiority over conservatives when it comes to science literacy. True enough, a lot of conservatism is coupled with antagonism to science, which we have seen throughout the RH debate, locally, and evolution and climate change denial, globally. But this smugness is unwarranted, as progressives have their fair share of science denialists.

An anti-GMO group that calls itself “Sikwal-GMO” destroyed GM crops in Camarines Sur, last Thursday, August 8, 2013. The plants were Golden Rice varieties being studied by the International Rice Research Institute.

While the use of terror and violence to derail scientific research is not unknown in the history of science, it is exactly this sort of thing that belies any rational motive from the anti-GMO. If indeed there is all evidence pointing toward the harmfulness of GMOs, why not counter research with that evidence? Well, it’s because there is none, so violence and terrible argumentation is exactly what we should expect from them.

There is broad scientific consensus that currently existing genetically modified foods pose no greater risk to humans than regular old food. This is backed up by global science bodies such as the World Health Organization and the International Council for Science, whose members include 111 national academies of science all over the world. It is important to note that this consensus refers to currently existing GMOs, because that is how GM foods are assessed—as individual products.

Genetically modified organisms are used by anti-science luddites as a catch-all for “scary Frankenfood” but, in reality, genetic modification methods vary and gene targets vary. Therefore, the products vary in features, as well. There are many variables that affect how confident we can be in assessing the safety of a GM variety. But, the bottom line is, these products go through years of evaluation, when the latest fad diets and small-scale locally grown crops and breeds can go through none.

There is a lot of misunderstanding about what GMOs are. It is critical that we remove all of these misconceptions, not to blindly support genetic modification, but to cut out all the terrible and nonsensical reasons we have against GMOs. While anti-GMO beliefs are not exclusively a progressive issue, it is a strangely popular one among the left, which is traditionally more scientifically literate.

The genetic modification of food has been critical in the history of human beings. None of the food we regularly eat today existed before humans and they would never exist outside of “unnatural” human intervention. Our foods today were selectively bred to produce traits that we found ideal—traits such as size, taste, resistance to pests, and ability to grow during more times during the year.

What were selected and bred here were genes, since genes dictate traits. Problem is, with this rudimentary form of genetic manipulation, we don’t exactly know what other genes we are bringing along. We see a trait we like; we breed them to multiply their numbers.

 

The genetic history of the potato

The potato that we eat is the root part of the plant. It is a swollen mass where the plant collects the sugar it produces as starch. It didn’t always look like the large Idaho potatoes we now consume. They grew in South America and used to look like thin finger-like growths. They were very bitter and not at all tasty. Through selective breeding methods, our ancestors picked the fattest and tastiest spuds. After generations of breeding, we now have the modern potato.

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This is basically blind genetic engineering. We have a vague idea of what we like (we want a large tasty potato) and we plant the potatoes that reflect these traits. Our ancestors didn’t have the technology to isolate the genes that produced these traits, so the breeding process also magnified some unwanted genes. For the potato (as well as its cousin, the tomato), the breeding also came along with glycoalkaloids, a naturally-occurring pest tolerance compound. It is a steroid that is harmful to humans, which can be produced post-harvest by potatoes in lethal doses due to simple stresses such as sun exposure and insect presence. Regulatory bodies and large-scale producers of potatoes have to test whether the strains they produce create a toxic level of glycoalkaloids. These regulatory bodies and large-scale producers are often painted as corrupt or misguided by proponents of small-scale and unregulated “natural” produce.

Glycoalkaloids make potatoes more likely to survive, regardless of whether they kill people, which is why the heartiest potato varieties create the toxin. After all, the only concern of potatoes is to survive long enough to make more potatoes. This makes opposition to another GM crop, the Bt corn, particularly ironic.

 

Bt corn and “toxins” in GMOs

Corn had a history much like the potato. Our modern strains of corn descended from the American teosinte, a grain no bigger than a pinky finger. Selective breeding gave us the plant with several rows of large golden kernels.

Maize-teosinte

The European Corn Borer is an invasive species that has been wiping out corn crops for decades. It is an insect, which used to feast on European millet, but has since migrated to the Americas due to human activity. It has destroyed the livelihoods of many corn farmers because the insect, being an invader, has no natural predators in America.

To combat the corn borer larva, which eats through corn plants, scientists have employed another foreign organism. The bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis produces a protein-based toxin that selectively targets a subset of insects, such as flies, beetles, and moths, including the corn borer. Scientists used the bacterium’s gene coding for this toxin and inserted it into a variety of corn, creating Bt corn.

Unlike glycoalkaloids and broad-spectrum pesticides, the GM Bt toxin has no harmful effect on humans. Though the bacterium itself produces toxins that are toxic to humans, the specific insect toxin gene inserted into corn genetic material makes sure that only the insect-specific toxin is produced by the GM corn. This is a result that is impossible for conventional breeding, not only for being cross-species. It is impossible because modern genetic engineering, as opposed to conventional breeding, only introduces genes we want to introduce.

Scientists in the Philippines are also studying Bt eggplants.

 

What is Golden Rice?

Golden Rice, which is being researched here in the Philippines, is even far less problematic as it provides a nutrient, rather than insect resistance. And yet, it is the target of many anti-GMO groups such as Greenpeace. When New York University Dean for Science Michael Purugganan asked the lead Golden Rice researcher about their methods, they said that they introduced beta-carotene enzyme genes into the rice—a gene carrots have. This beta-carotene is metabolized by humans to produce Vitamin A, a nutrient that is sorely lacking in the diets of many poor children. Beta-carotene also gives the rice (and carrots) its characteristic orange color. Vitamin A deficiency can lead to blindness, a weakened immune system, and even maternal mortality.

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Arguments inevitably crop up that suggest that poor children have other sources of Vitamin A, such as fish and vegetables. Of course, such suggestions betray embarrassing privilege, since, no matter how cheap vegetables may be, the poor often can only afford rice as a daily meal. Such arguments are so reminiscent of conservatives pointing out the cheapness of contraceptives that it is shocking when these anti-GMO justifications come from pro-RH liberals. The International Rice Research Institute expects Golden Rice to cost the same as regular rice, once it has undergone proper regulatory tests.

 

Conspiracies and corporations

Sikwal-GMO defends their destruction of scientific research by branding Golden Rice as “nothing but a ploy of agrochemical transnational corporations like Syngenta to satisfy their monopoly on seeds and rake more profits.” While Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas justified their actions as “legitimate resistance by farmers against Golden Rice.”

Some more thoughtful critics of GM technology often concede, as they should, that the science shows that regulations have kept GMO foods safe. They instead criticize oppressive practices by large biotech firms such as Monsanto, particularly regarding patenting genes. I share much sympathy for these criticisms as I believe patenting genes is a rather odious practice. I see it as having little difference from pharmaceutical profiteers that inflate costs for life-saving treatments. Not to mention, many patented genes were simply found in already-existing organisms, without significant modification.

However, it is not a rare occurrence that opponents of big corporations use the science denialists as shields to “legitimize” their opposition, by failing to criticize them and even coddling them. This is similar to religious extremists who hide behind moderates when their religion is criticized. What instead happens is a false image of large public outcry against GM, as a science, rather than biotech firms, as profit-motivated entities. In the case of the Golden Rice research, which had its samples so totally destroyed that it must restart the trials, the technology was given away royalty-free for not-for-profit use. This would have made Golden Rice a particularly potent tool for NGOs fighting against malnutrition. Sadly, the violent action by “protesters” has set back this goal for a while.

In researching this piece, the vast majority of search engine hits I got for GMO-related queries turned out anti-GMO sites. This is sad, but typical for most anti-science movements such as those against evolution, climate change, and vaccination. Thus there is often a misplaced confidence among science opponents from all sides of the political spectrum, since they are a very vocal pocket of the Internet. Inevitably, in any “controversial” science discussion, strange websites of questionable repute crop up to purportedly show evidence against scientific consensus. Nevertheless, in the matters mentioned, scientists who actually work in these fields, who actually solve these problems and review these claims, are the ones to refer to. Criticism and doubt are always necessary in science, but conspiracy theories and unverified claims have no place in a scientific discussion.

Image Credits: International Potato Center, John Doebly, International Rice Research Institute

Posted in Science, Society9 Comments

Will RH Limit Freedom of Religion?

Outside of the completely false pseudoscience, misguided economics, and absurd natural law reasons presented in the Supreme Court, the only argument that the anti-RH side has is that concerning freedom of religion.

We can expect more of the same tired and debunked arguments in the coming Supreme Court sessions challenging the constitutionality of the RH Law. But, let us focus on something that might actually have some substance.

 

Will the RH Law Limit Freedom of Religion?

On the side of the Filipino public, the complaint that the RH Law curtails religious freedom holds no water. The RH Law coerces no citizen to pursue family planning, let alone use artificial contraceptives. “True” and faithful Catholics who refuse any sort of artificial contraception can continue without concern. Contrary to their fears, they won’t be force-fed estradiol under the RH Law.

On the side, however, of the Filipino medical community, there might be some conflict. The RH Law provides that health workers who are required but refuse to offer RH services on religious grounds must refer the patient to another who would. (Sec. 23(3)) The anti-RH side argues that this would still violate the freedom of conscience of the worker since they would be enabling an act they believe to be immoral.

In his Philippine Daily Inquirer column, Fr. Joaquin Bernas, SJ, however questions why a health worker would even remain in a job that violates their own principles, “…considering that this inability to perform a legal duty strikes at the very heart of the purpose for which the health center exists, is it reasonable or even just for the person to cling to the job?”

 

Religious Freedom to Torture Animals

In a similar case, philosopher Peter Singer has argued for outlawing the ritual slaughter of animals in the Netherlands even if it bans halal and kosher meat, which require killing by slashing the throat of a fully conscious animal. The animal cannot be stunned first and would be completely aware until their blood drains to the killing floor, from their brain through their neck.

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Singer explains that Muslims and Jews are not required by their religion to eat halal or kosher meat, only that if they eat meat at all, they must be ritually slaughtered. Jews and Muslims don’t have to eat meat, at all. So, they can opt to be vegetarians under the ban and remain faithful religionists. In this way, the ban does not curtail their freedom of religion. It might make their religion a bit more inconvenient, but when has religion been about convenience?

As a compromise, the Dutch parliament allowed the ritual slaughter methods, provided that the animal loses consciousness forty seconds after its throat is slit. In doing so, the suffering of the animal is reduced (but not by much). A few other nations in the European Union completely ban the cruel practice.

 

Freedom to Disobey the Law?

Singer’s argument provides a fair test for conflicts between religious freedom and public interest. It is in the nature of faith that beliefs cannot be tested or improved. It is therefore easy to be insincere and abusive of religious freedom, at the expense of a nation’s well-being. We, as a society, must then find a way to respect freedom of religion, while still avoiding becoming victims of abuse.

Further complicating the anti-RH complaint, the majority of Catholics they speak for don’t even agree with them. Surveys show that 71% of Catholics supported the RH Bill’s passing. So, when they argue that the law is against religious freedom, it only refers to 29% of Catholics, or about 23% of the Philippine population.

Even so, religious freedom is a fundamental right that is not subject to majority rule. However, just like ritual slaughter for Jews and Muslims, Catholicism does not require members to work as health care professionals. They can remain faithful “true” Catholics as workers in other professions (such as law or business). Why then, as Bernas questions, would a person choose to be in a job that goes against their religious beliefs? And why should we expect a company to retain a person who cannot do their job effectively?

Seventh-day Adventists do not expect to be employed as Armed Forces members. Vegetarian Buddhists do not expect to work as butchers. Jehova’s Witnesses do not expect to work as med techs at the blood bank. And yet anti-contraceptive Catholics expect to work as obstetricians, nurses, or pharmacists?

There are even other health professions that will not likely encounter the problem of compromising conscience for the law. There’s radiology, dentistry, and so many other fields, if one insists to work in health care. Adventists, Buddhists, and a host of other religions have found balance between their faith and the country’s interests. Why can’t conservative Catholics?

Image Credit: Riad Shehata

Posted in Politics, Religion, Society1 Comment

When Does Life Begin? Revisited

It seems that every “debate” (a term I use very loosely) on the Reproductive Health Law will always devolve into dogmatists bellyaching about one question: When does life begin?

This happened during the debates in Congress and it is happening again in the debate in the Supreme Court. In both cases, government officials have voiced out that it was not for politicians and non-scientists to decide on the matter. And yet, we can fully expect that this question will be raised over and over even after the Supreme Court decides on the constitutionality of the Reproductive Health Law.

I had written a piece on when life begins three years ago outlining a scientific attempt at answering the anti-choice challenge. In the following, I will revisit and clarify the obscurantism of conservatives on the question. There is a lot of ambiguous language that conservatives employ to muddy the real issue and their intention in asking the question in the first place. Most confusing of all is how they conflate “life” with “personhood.”

 

Who cares about life?

Life is an ill-defined concept even in the science that studies life, biology. There are many attempts at defining it, but mostly we have the pornography standard. That is, we know life when we see life. Some attempts at defining life include the following criteria: having structural organization, being able to produce energy by decomposing organic matter, being able to respond to stimuli, being able to reproduce. These are not to everyone’s satisfaction, so the debate goes on.

But, just because something is alive, does not mean it is worthy of protection. We eat living things. Even vegans and vegetarians eat living things. We kill living things, such as bacteria, parasites, and pests. Clearly life has begun for these organisms, but we shed no tears at their demise.

Perhaps there is something unique, then, to human life? Consider that even the Catholic Church allows human beings with functioning bodies but incapable of conscious experience, what we would call “brain dead,” to have their organs extracted for the benefit of other humans. John Paul II called these brain dead humans as having lost the “integrative capacity” to have a unitary “personal self.” From this, we know that the specialness of humans can’t possibly be from just having the DNA or the body of a human being.

 

Who are the people?

The critical concept of “personhood” is at the core of the whole disagreement. Life is not equivalent to personhood. We do not treat life in general as important as we treat persons. Judging by the Church’s acceptance of harvesting organs from the brain dead, permanently terminating the organism’s metabolism, it is okay to end the metabolic life of a human being… as long as that human being is brain dead. We can see that the Church does not see the brain dead as persons worthy of equal protection.

So, it is persons that are important. We shouldn’t be asking when life begins. We don’t really care about life. We care about persons. But what makes a person? Clearly a brain dead human is no longer a person, even by Catholic standards. Where’s the difference between brain death and brain life? Well… the brain.

We consider brains as critical in calling a person, a person. A person is capable of suffering, of having aspirations, of planning for their future. But, can only humans be persons? Well, no. Non-human animals can have highly advanced capacities for conscious experience. Dolphins and whales are known to have deep self-awareness, so much so that they are considered “non-human persons.” And yet, you won’t see the Catholic Church hunting down whaling vessels even though they say they defend personhood.

Licensed under Creative Commons, Vince Smith

The trouble is, sperms, eggs, and embryos have no brains. They are incapable of conscious experience. Fetuses, with their just developing neural systems, are certainly less capable of conscious experience than even the pigs and cows we casually slaughter. So, if sufficiently complex brains make a person, then sperms, eggs and embryos are not persons! Easy, huh? Well, not so fast, says the Church.

There is a whole debate on the potential of future personhood that the Church employs to argue that since embryos can become persons then they must. This line of argumentation does not interest me, so I will not waste too much time on it. But I will at least explain why it is uninteresting. The argument from potentiality is a slippery slope that terminates on absurdity. If you take it to its logical conclusion, every proton in the universe has the potential to become part of a person. Every carbon atom in your body came from some other thing. As technology progresses, we will be capable of not just producing humans from embryos, but from any cell. We are doing this now with induced pluripotent stem cells—turning one kind of cell into another. Then every cell has the potential to become a person. You won’t be able to pick your nose and scrape skin cells without committing a mortal sin. So, when does the Church choose to terminate this slippery slope? At embryos—exactly where they wanted it to. How convenient. So embryos are worthy of protection because they have the potential to become persons. Although other things can become persons, embryos are special because we say they’re special. Talk about assuming your conclusion.

 

Confused? The soul is the key!

This all can be confusing, but bear with me, dear reader. There is a key to this puzzle that will make everything fall into place. The key is—the soul.

There is a lot of dubious mental gymnastics used to justify the complicated and inconsistent position of the Church on life and personhood, but they are all clear when you consider the doctrine of the soul. The Church believes on faith that the soul, crafted by God and unique to every human being, enters the embryo during fertilization. Dolphins are not persons, even though they are quite intelligent and have self-awareness, because they don’t have souls. Only humans have souls. And the soul leaves the body once it has ceased to have a functioning brain. This is what John Paul II meant by having lost the “integrative capacity”—the soul and the body are no longer unified. The soul will now float out into the spirit world with all the angels and trumpets and baby saints.

This all leads to questions that seem to yield no answer. If embryos gain their souls during fertilization, then do identical twins share one soul? Would it be okay to kill one twin since the same soul still resides in the other body? If two embryos fuse and form a chimeric embryo, do two souls share one body? Then is marrying a chimeric person actually bigamy?

Yes, this all seems silly, but this is what the Catholic Church actually believes. This is the basis for all the silly reasons they give out in court. If we are to have an intellectually honest discussion about the RH Law, it is about time to end the “When does life begin?” facade. All this talk about life is actually just conservatives beating around the bush. What they really mean is, “When does the soul enter the embryo?” But they can’t admit this, because it is not a medical, or even legal, question. It is wholly a theological one—a question that the government has no business answering.

Image Credit: Vince Smith, licensed under Creative Commons

Posted in Philosophy, Religion, RH Bill, Science1 Comment

From Bibles to Baboy: The Problem of Christian Privilege

From Bibles to Baboy: The Problem of Christian Privilege

In reaction to student outrage at the distribution of Bibles in University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB) by its Office of Student Affairs (OSA), its Chancellor, Rex Cruz described the incident as merely the “giving away [of] freebies.” Several apologists had similar reactions, saying that students were free to refuse the Bibles. In his interview with the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the Chancellor even suggested that they throw the Bibles away if the students didn’t want them.

Still others invoked the Christians’ right to freedom of religion. Indeed, Christians are free to express their religious views and evangelize, even in UP. In fact, one of the key features of the religion is that they spread it all over the world through proselytizing. This tactic has been so effective that Christianity, in all its flavors, has become the de facto state religion of many nations, including our country for the past 400 years.

Christianity has enjoyed a hold on the majority in our country for a long time. So long that many Christian Filipinos seem to be unaware that they share this land with non-Christians. There is an embarrassing lack of empathy from many Christians that leads them to say statements like, “you don’t have to take the Bibles if you don’t want them.” This lack of empathy is so fundamental that the government can go around distributing Bibles and it would still be treated as a non-issue.

 

The government gave Bibles away, that’s the problem

Yes, of course, students can refuse the Bibles. Though I’m sure that if they threw them in the trash en masse, that would suddenly make the story into one about sacrilege and persecuted Christians. The issue is not about Christian doctrine. The problem is that government officials distributed Bibles. And, based on reports, the director of OSA Leticia Afuang directly preached about the values of Christianity to incoming freshmen.

The mere fact that a person of authority gave religious materials to subordinates already implies coercion. It doesn’t matter if they were told they could refuse. These were students, and freshmen at that. A superior gave them a document. It is not the same as a street preacher giving away Bibles. You can ignore the preacher without fear of consequences.

It doesn’t matter if the OSA intended no harm or threat. It doesn’t matter if they wouldn’t really care if the students threw the Bibles in the garbage. There will always be the lingering fear that disobedience will lead to punishment, precisely because of the power dynamic between student and school administrator.

This power dynamic is the very reason OSA distributed the Bibles. OSA gave the Bible distribution activity credibility. It gave it the weight of the state University behind it, making students more receptive. There is a reason The Gideons (the apparent Bible donors) did not distribute the materials themselves and in their own event. Even on campus grounds with proper permits, that wouldn’t be a violation of secularism. Instead, a public office endorsed and distributed a sectarian document. I’m sure their intentions were good, but it cannot be glossed over that it is far more effective to have the University itself distribute the Bibles.

 

“You don’t have to read it!”

To apologists, the problem always seems to be with non-Christians being whiny than Christians abusing their power.

“Why don’t they just throw the Bibles away? They don’t have to believe! Nobody is forcing them to convert!” These are statements that can only be said by people blinded by privilege. The Christian majority don’t ever need to worry if their interests are considered. They are always the standard.

As excellently put by David Gaider, privilege is when you think something isn’t a problem just because it isn’t your problem. Christians, especially Filipino Christians, don’t ever have to face the prospect of having government officials give away copies of Bertrand Russell’s “Why I Am Not A Christian.” They don’t ever get mandatory school-sponsored lectures on the irrationality of the doctrine of redemption. Non-Christian problems aren’t their problems, therefore non-Christians can’t bitch and moan about these non-problems.

Consider Pol Medina Jr and his long-running Pugad Baboy strip. He wrote about the hypocrisy of Christians and their bigotry against lesbians and gays, all the while taking their money in exclusive private schools. For the strip that named St. Scholastica’s College as an example, the Philippine Daily Inquirer promptly apologized for Medina and suspended his strip. Though Medina did himself apologize, he also resigned from the Inquirer, after 25 years of publishing there.

Catholics complained that Medina’s comic was offensive. And yet, and yet, nobody from the Inquirer ever told them, “you don’t have to read it.” Catholics don’t have to read the comics section of the Inquirer, and they don’t have to read Pugad Baboy. Of course, that won’t satisfy them. Medina must suffer. He needs to be put in his place as a critic of Christians.

What’s worse is that the Inquirer is a private enterprise where “you don’t have to read it” would actually be a legitimate answer. UPLB is a public university. Our taxes pay for its operation. It is an institution that should reflect the secular principles, if not practices, of our nation, as a nation of both Christians and non-Christians.

 

May I have my rights, please?

Continuing with Gaider’s view on privilege, privilege is the luxury to not understand. Though the term is usually used in feminist contexts, the concept is quite appropriate here. The Christian majority can live their lives worry-free, not understanding what non-Christians have to deal with. While, non-Christians are always reminded to be sensitive to Christian beliefs.

The problem of Christian privilege prevents many Christians from seeing that secularism protects them as much as it protects non-Christians. If Christians could empathize with the minority, they would see that religions being equal in the eyes of the government protects their rights, rather than curtails it. Since Christians will be in the majority for the foreseeable future, it isn’t their problem, yet.

I don’t really know how to appeal to the empathy of Christians to at least consider the rights of the minority. If we had a properly functioning government, I wouldn’t have to.

Posted in Religion, Society9 Comments

Ignorance is Not a Class Issue

Elections and mean-spiritedness go hand-in-hand. This past election was no exception. However, as John Gabriel’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory predicts, give a normal person anonymity and an audience, they will tend to act like fuckwads. This fuckwadery, the technical term for such behavior, was greatly amplified this year by the massive echo chamber provided by social media.

Nancy Binay was undeniably this election cycle’s online punching bag, but the subtext was always that poor people, who are painted as gullible and simple-minded enough to vote for any inexperienced dope with a recognizable name, would carry her all the way into the Senate. So, as the early election returns predicted a strong finish for Ms. Binay, social media unsurprisingly turned into an it’s-the-poor’s-fault blame game.

Of course, such a view is shallow and lacking in the complexity necessary to sift through the dynamics behind any electoral outcome. Sure enough, level heads would come to point this out. However, some critics of the blame-the-poor narrative just as easily fell into the other extreme, which is similarly (if not equally) vapid.

Many, such as the Christian Union for Socialist and Democratic Advancement (CRUSADA) criticized the “bobo voter” as a “myth.” They seem to have taken it, though, that when people say “bobo (or rather ignorant) voters,” they actually meant poor voters. I do not deny at all that this is probably what people mean when they sneer at Nancy Binay’s top 5 finish. However, denying at all that ignorant voters exist is an empty view that panders to middle-class guilt more than it offers a thoughtful rebuttal to the cynics and the disillusioned.

It has almost become heresy to offer the view that human beings can differ in intellect or understanding. Such a view invariably elicits being called, “elitist.” And when one is called “elitist,” the discussion ends. Elitists can’t possibly offer anything worth listening to. But all the trouble actually stems from a fatal assumption that both sides of the argument fall prey to, which is the belief that “ignorant” can only describe the poor. So, if you call someone ignorant, you are calling someone out for being poor. This is not the case at all.

It is true that the poor are disenfranchised and are disproportionately deprived of information that is necessary for a reasoned decision. This is an institutional problem that must be corrected. However, this does not imply that the poor are incapable of reasoned decision, it simply means that they are forced to unfairly work harder than richer people (as in all other things). Access to information is a class issue; ignorance is not. It is often the case that people who have the privilege of access to limitless information simply reject it on principle, because of dogma, superstition, and blind allegiance to authority.

 

Wealthy ignorance

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Anti-Ordinance Protester at Ayala Alabang

A couple of years ago, the well-heeled Ayala Alabang Village’s local government unit came out with a draconian ordinance that required prescriptions for contraceptives as innocuous as condoms. The ordinance was, unsurprisingly, spearheaded by the ultraconservative Catholic residents of the affluent village. Several copycat ordinances also came out around the country.

This election year, the village’s Parish of St. James came out to endorse the theocratic Ang Kapatiran Party, along with other staunchly anti-choice candidates. Now, given the vast evidence supporting the effectiveness of proper sex education and accessibility to contraceptives in curbing abortions and generally promoting economic freedom for women, I would unequivocally call anti-choice views ignorant and wrong. I also view the desire to keep LGBT as second class citizens as ignorant and wrong. And having residents of a powerful wealthy village to espouse and promote such views goes to show that wealth does not imply enlightenment, neither does ignorance imply poverty.

 

Real and objective consequences

CRUSADA describes the path to truths as “asymptotic”—a view that I deeply share. I don’t think anyone, no matter the degree of effort, will ever have perfect and certain knowledge. However, an asymptotic path implies that some real value that exists is being approached. It is not an anything goes kind of relativist pluralism. It is not a denial of the existence of objective truths. There are right answers and wrong answers. There are answers that are closer to the truth than others (hence “asymptotic”). To know whether our ideas are sound, we test our ideas using the tools of reason and evidence to cut away inaccuracies, fabrications, and illusions in our thinking. These tests favor no social classes.

We can, in principle (if not in practice), compare the social consequences of views, such as homophobia and social liberalism, using metrics that are empirical and science-based. (If you doubt that there are objective differences between the two and that neither view is more worthy of our time, I invite you to live in Sudan.) Those who claim that such objective views of ethics are “absurd” have no intellectual basis to denounce violence, injustice, and oppression.

There are better ways and worse ways to vote, because some ways of voting will lead to more suffering than other ways. Does this imply that there is only one way to vote, one perfect ballot? Not in the least. There could be many, but equally optimal configurations of a ballot. They may be fundamentally different in composition, but they can lead to outcomes that similarly increase well-being in a society. We don’t usually get much in terms of choice during elections, but even if the best options available aren’t very desirable, there is still a difference between the best options and the worst. Having a plurality of acceptable answers does not mean that all answers are acceptable. Let us disabuse ourselves of the cowardly instinct of respecting ideas for the sake of respect. Let us see ourselves as beings capable of critical thinking, accepting and rejecting ideas based on reason and evidence.

We can all share the goal of desiring a functioning society that benefits the people. And I do believe that people who voted for Nancy Binay or JC de los Reyes share this goal, though I strongly disagree with their ideas on how to reach this common goal. That’s what it means to be a democracy: we can disagree about how to reach our goal, but we do our best to work together to build a nation.

But, if we are to take a real step toward a flourishing nation, we must first admit that some people, regardless of class, have ideas that fail the test of reason and evidence. We have to reject the more pernicious myth: the anti-intellectual myth that anyone’s ignorance is just as good as anyone else’s knowledge.

Posted in Politics, Society4 Comments

Dwindling Church Attendance, Statistics, and Grief

A recent Social Weather Systems survey has the Catholic Church up in arms. The survey, based on 1200 face-to-face interviews nationwide showed that 9.2% of Catholics have considered, at least sometimes, leaving the Roman Catholic Church. The study also showed that from 64% church attendance in 1991, only 37% of Catholics go every week to Mass now. The Church response has been quite the display of classic informal logical fallacies.

The initial public reaction from the Church to the survey was outright denial. Peachy Yamsuan, Communications Chief of the Archdiocese of Manila pointed to the quite repugnant, yet popular, practice of holding a supposedly solemn Mass in the middle of a shopping mall (mall giant SM was singled out by Yamsuan). Yamsuan, rather ironically, questioned the survey, saying that the Church couldn’t accept statistics without “real evidence.”

Apart from Yamsuan, several bishops, such as Jaro Archbishop Angel Lagdameo used his cathedral’s Mass attendance to attempt to refute the study. This was essentially the same response from Msgr. Clemente Ignacio, rector of the Quiapo Church, as well as from the bishops of Marbel and Cubao, as reported in the Inquirer piece.

Church in Jaro

The common strand you can gather from their responses is, “my local parish seems to be doing fine, so the study must be wrong.” This is a classic fallacy of composition, where what is true for a part is assumed to be true for the whole. Now, I’m not a big fan of cheaply calling out fallacies, but the defense of the Church against the survey seems to hinge so specifically on this fallacy, that it simply begs to be called out.

In a follow up piece, the Inquirer records Basilan Bishop Martin Jumoad repeating the same fallacious argument, “So, I don’t see here in Basilan the results of their survey.” The bishop from Sorsogon says the same thing, “I do not believe in that [survey] because the number of people going to Mass is going up. Last Holy Week, we had so many people in church. So as far as Sorsogon is concerned, I don’t believe in that survey.”

The thing is, it was not a survey of Sorsogon, Basilan, or Cubao. It was a nationwide survey, meant to reflect a national trend. And a national trend 27 percentage points deep is certainly not going to be refuted by off-the-cuff statements made from bishops’ anecdotes—especially since bishops tend to hold court in the largest, most opulent churches. As an aside, numbers during Holy Week are most definitely not going to be representative of typical Church attendance. Even atheists get dragged along to go to special Church holy days of obligation by relatives.

So, were these bishops lying about their observations when the trends greatly disagree with them? I wouldn’t be so quick to assume malice. One explanation that would easily agree with all pieces of evidence that we have, considering the CBCP anecdotes as well as the SWS survey, is that church attendance is dwindling, but it is also consolidating. That means that people are leaving smaller parishes and those that are left are flocking to the big churches (and malls), where bishops are more likely to see them. It is also likely that, while a larger proportion of nominal Catholics no longer regularly attend Mass, the great increase of our population from 1991 to 2013 due to a lack of a reproductive health program accounts for the bishops’ anecdotes. These do not excuse the bishops’ failure to understand basic statistics, but they just might explain it.

If the first stage of grief is denial, the next is anger, and this is now where the Church stands. Former CBCP President Oscar Cruz is now questioning the motives behind the statistical study. He is now branding the Aquino Administration, which championed reproductive health, as the “culprit” behind the study. “The Catholic Church in the country must be a big pain in the neck to the present administration… It has therefore become imperative to undermine the Catholic Church—such as the supposed survey result of Catholics becoming non-Catholics,” says Cruz.

It will be interesting how the Church will handle the bargaining and depression stages of grief. The last stage will be acceptance—acceptance of the possibility that maybe, just maybe, the Catholic Church is fading into irrelevance.

Posted in Politics, Religion, Society3 Comments

I Never Asked Jesus to Die (And Neither Did You)

Years ago, in my ironically state-run science high school, the Optional Religious Instruction program held a screening of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. As I sat through a torture porn-level scene of Jesus getting the bejesus kicked out of him, I noticed people sobbing around me. At first, it sounded like the deep inhaling from a hearty laugh, until I turned around to look. I saw students weeping profusely into handkerchiefs while a man was being beaten to a pulp onscreen. The reason was clear to me even then—these kids believed they were responsible for the man being executed.

The doctrine of Original Sin, Adam and Eve’s disobedience to God at the Garden of Eden, culminates on Easter, at Jesus’ resurrection. According to Christian belief, we inherited this sin from the first people, and because of that, we are condemned to die. In his letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul wrote, “For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Jesus’ resurrection was meant to be victory over death, and that meant cleansing mankind of sins, including the Original one.

I never asked for this.

 

Vicarious atonement

As written in Isaiah, interpreted as fulfilled by Jesus, “But he was wounded for our transgressions… with his stripes we are healed.” The Judeo-Christian faith believes in vicarious atonement. That is to say, it is possible to make up for one’s sins by having something else pay for them. This is the root of “scapegoating,” when the Jews cast out a goat on the Day of Atonement, to die in the desert. This goat would carry their sins and its removal from the tribe showed God’s forgiveness. Jesus’ death and resurrection is this ritual taken to the extreme—God Himself as the sacrificial lamb (another related idiom) for the forgiveness of sins.

But it is not enough for Jesus to simply die. He must overcome death and resurrect. The resurrection is key to the Christian mythology. As Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians, “And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.”

 

Vicarious guilt

This is the Christian faith: that Jesus died for our sins that we may have eternal life, if we believe. This is why my fellow students were crying in that auditorium. They felt the crushing guilt of having a man’s death on their conscience. Perhaps the guilt was never that real to me, but I completely understand that what they did was the most appropriate thing to do—if they truly believed that God Himself was tortured and crucified for their sake. In their eyes, we put Jesus on the cross. We were to blame for the horrific scene we were witnessing in bloody detail. Our sins killed Jesus.

Then again, I never asked Jesus to die, and neither did they. It is asserted by Christians that we owe God our lives because he saved us from the fires of hell. But the entire metaphysics of sin leading to death and the inheritance of sin itself—this is all God’s handiwork. When the first couple supposedly sinned 10,000 years ago, sometime after the invention of glue, none of us were there. And yet, it has been ordained that every child born would have the stain of their sin—a stain that can only be cleansed in Christian baptism.

A baby that dies before baptism is sent to limbo. Since they have no sins apart from the Original, but did not receive salvation, innocent babies are sent to this no-man’s land outside of Heaven, Hell, and Earth. (Incidentally, limbo as a doctrine is not an official Catholic teaching. It remains a “theological hypothesis,” one of the most bizarre contradictions in terms ever produced by the human mind.) The bottom line is, if you are not saved by Jesus in his religion, whatever the case may be (even for geographically isolated tribes and mentally challenged humans), you are going to suffer somehow. There are some theological gymnastics used to wriggle out of the despicable belief of hell for all non-Christians, of course. Nevertheless, the only surefire way to avoid hell still is and always will be toeing the mainstream Christian line. As Jesus said, in the Gospel according to John, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.”

 

Holy blackmail

It is this strange and extreme case of emotional blackmail, where God will condemn you if you do not love him, that is at the core of the Easter celebration and, consequently, at the core of every mainstream Christian faith. And the blackmail’s not even for something we did!

I never asked Jesus to die, and neither did you. I would never ask a person to die for my own sins. I certainly would never expect someone’s child to pay for their parents’ sins (much less their descendants thousands of years from now). These are basic things we expect from every sane and ethical person. Christianity expects us to believe that God is the exact opposite of a sane and ethical person—and we are supposed to worship Him.

Image credit: Still from The Passion of the Christ

Posted in Religion51 Comments

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