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The Government That Prays Together Steals Together

Senate Prayer

How does one know that a politician accused of plunder is a devout Catholic? Don’t worry — they’ll tell you. One even put a Bible quote on a shirt — Bong Revilla’s had the following on his the day he surrendered:

“The LORD is on my side; I will not fear. What can man do to me?”

This kind of religious gesture is usually shorthand for, “I’m not corrupt, I’m Catholic, for Christ’s sake!”

But a recent study concluded that if you’re a Catholic politician in a predominantly Catholic country, you’re probably corrupt. I had read several studies that confirm the correlation between religiosity and other signs of societal dysfunction.

But this most recent one, titled “A Cross-National Investigation into the Effects of Religiosity on the Pervasiveness of Corruption,” went a bit further. It argues that religion, instead of just being correlated with corruption, actually promotes it.

Secularism and Societal Health

A few weeks before Revilla’s surrender, Alex Gonzaga, a celebrity contestant of reality show Pinoy Big Brother, preached about the virtue of theism and the vice of atheism. She said that while believers solve their problems with God, nonbelievers “deteriorate,” trying to solve their sins with yet other sins.

But such statements can only come from someone who doesn’t know about Scandinavia and other secular societies. Study after study has shown that when it comes to countries, a strongly religious population is rarely a good thing. The more religious the population, the higher the incidence of, among others, poverty, crime, corruption, inequality, infant mortality, inability to access education and a decent standard of living — the list goes on. The least religious countries are better at most, if not all, of these measures.

However, correlation does not mean causation. Just because strong religiosity usually coexists with high crime rates does not mean one causes the other. When it comes to causation, I share the conclusion of the sociologists at the World Values Survey. They argue that what causes both high religiosity and low societal health is existential insecurity. When you live in a society where you can’t count on your government for survival, you’re more likely to pray to God for help or to get the help yourself — regardless of the legality of the means.

But this doesn’t quite explain why politicians — particularly those who are rich enough to own private jets — would plunder millions, especially while professing belief in a God that sees and judges everything they do.

Hamid Yeganeh & Daniel Sauers of Winona State University, USA, provide an explanation.

Corruption By Catholic Privilege

Even after controlling for the effects of socioeconomic development — making sure that how developed a country was didn’t significantly influence the outcome – they concluded the following:

“Considering the variety of corruption measures, the reliability of data, and the large number of included countries, we have to conclude that religiosity not only does not impede corruption but tends to promote it… The fact that religious denominations did not have considerable effects on the level of corruption suggests that religiousness inherently increases the occurrence of corrupt business behavior.”

But isn’t religion supposed to make people more moral and less corrupt? Yeganeh and Sauers argue that “while religiosity provides guidance on morality, some of its characteristics practically promote corrupt business behavior.”

The first of these characteristics is the creation of “a hierarchical socio-cultural structure promoting the elites’ discretionary power that ultimately endorses corruption.”

Consider clerical child abuse. The abuse of children and adolescents had been happening for centuries before it was brought to public awareness. Then it was discovered that systematic cover-ups and cleric shuffling made it difficult for the proper authorities to get involved.

I emphasize “proper” because the Catholic Church claimed that abuse cases were handled by their internal courts. They thought that whether the abuses should be handled by external authorities were up to their discretion. Because they could ensure the victims’ silence with threats of excommunication, they alone could decide whether to report the crime to the police. And the decisions usually favored the priests over their victims.

Now consider the psalm on Revilla’s shirt: “The LORD is on my side; I will not fear. What can man do to me?” This sentiment was shared by Vatican and its bishops when it decided that their authority alone was enough. What can man (the law) do to one with the Lord on his side (Catholic official)?

Thus bishops and politicians see themselves as privileged. But they wouldn’t have any power if the population didn’t actually share this perspective. Unfortunately, this is the case. The more religious a country, the more faith citizens have in both priests and politicians. These privileged people deserve more special treatment, more respect, and more trust.

On the other hand, secular societies are more skeptical of authority. They realize that there’s nothing special about priests, politicians, or any other person of authority. The more power they have, the more scrutiny and skepticism they are subjected to. Because the idea of faith is more foreign to secular societies, reason and evidence hold more currency. In the researchers words, “rationality, without too much emphasis on morality, wordlessly and effectively hinders corruption and supports ethical behavior.”

Religion: Sedation, not Solution

Another characteristic of religion that promotes corruption is the doctrine of forgiveness. In the researchers’ words, “the function of religion with regard to corruption is to provide sedation rather than a solution.”

If the allegations of plunder are true, then condemnation should be the least the people could do to ensure that justice is served. Yet CBCP President Villegas found it necessary to ask Filipinos not to condemn the alleged pork scammers.

You may think that there’s no way the public could be that stupid. Surely Filipinos would never forgive, never forget. But what kind of country would make Revilla consider running for president right after his arrest? What kind of country would elect a president impeached for corruption as Mayor of Manila? What kind of country would have so many of its people forget the atrocities of Marcos and elect his family into power?

A country that can forgive a corrupt politician seventy times seven.

The Government that Prays Together

To this day, the supposedly secular Philippine Senate starts every session with a prayer. Most, if not all, of them are implicated in either the PDAF or DAP scandal. A lot of Filipinos ask, “How can a government that is so religious be so corrupt?” If you’ve read up to this point, I hope you’ll agree that the correct question is, “How could it not?”

___

Image source: kickerdaily.com
Author’s note: This article was previously titled, “The Government That Prays Together Plunders Together.” “Preys” was also suggested, but “steals” sounds better (and sounds closer to “stays”).

Posted in Politics, Religion, Secularism, Society8 Comments

A Letter to CSB on the Recent Hazing Incident

Dear College of Saint Benilde,

In the University Mall, next to my alma mater, DLSU, I once saw a 6-foot fratboy punch a much smaller guy in the face. Immediately after, he ran to his “brothers” excited to show them his hand, red and bleeding from a small wound, because the tooth of the guy he punched grazed his knuckles. He rushed to his brethren and said, “May sinapak ako! May sinapak ako!” Then, everyone got excited and they grouped up, around 8 of them, and they surrounded 3 guys to tell them, “Ano, babalik pa kayo? Babalik pa kayo?”

A fratboy once saw me laugh with his “brother’s” ex-girlfriend as I was walking next to her, a classmate of mine, from the smoking area to our class. Later, six people surrounded me around L. Guinto street, and I was randomly accused of “talking shit” about her ex. Whenever I denied it, one of them would slap me across the face and call me a liar, until I said, “Yeah. I was talking shit,” at which point I was sucker punched by the ex. Then, they left.

Here’s what I want you to know, people join fraternities for two main reasons: they want to satisfy their need to belong, or they don’t want to be bullied. Between those reasons, the latter is a more deciding factor.

In my high school, around 3-5 students in each section was a member of the same fraternity. Either you were one of them, or you weren’t. My classmates who were bullied by fratboys ended up joining the fraternities that bullied them. Almost overnight, the bullied is suddenly the one doing bullying. To be honest, the only thing that stopped me from joining a fraternity in high school is the fact that I was a member of the Taekwondo varsity team and the soccer club. It would have been impossible for me to train with injured legs. Otherwise, I might have joined.

I have been invited to join fraternities althroughout my academic life – from elementary to college. I’ve had friends who were fratboys, and friends who have been assaulted, bullied, extorted, sexually assaulted, and intimidated by fratboys.

At the end of the day, regardless of what bullshit excuses fraternities make for why one should join their “brotherhood,” fraternities are about violence. The currency of fraternities is violence: violence you are willing to commit (for a brother, a turf, a reputation), violence you are willing to endure (hazing, sexual coercion, institutionalized rape), and violence that you want to avoid (bullying, etc.).

The initiation rites of these organizations is not the only problem with fraternities. Hazing is just a natural element of a culture that functions through violence.

The site insidehazing.com explains that hazing is a rite executed to determine who’s “fit” enough to join the group. Furthermore, the site explains that the purpose of joining such a group “is for protection from outsiders; and by joining, one is assuming that the members of the same group will be protective towards one another.”

There are many studies that attempt to explain the nature of and logic behind hazing:

It creates cohesiveness within a group – you’re definitely going to bond with someone you spent an evening paralyzed from the waist down with. You’ve gone through the same trauma. You and a “brother” both know what it took for the other to survive the ordeal, etcetera, etcetera.

It’s designed as a slippery slope. An initiate’s willingness to consent to torture does not happen overnight. It happens over a period of weeks. An initiate’s tolerance for abuse gradually increases, in small increments, as he or she is assigned mundane tasks (cleaning, homework) at the beginning, but later escalates to more extreme forms of dehumanization. As mentioned in an article called, “The Psychology of Hazing,” “Even when we realize that we may find ourselves in the midst of hazing rituals, we may not step away because giving up at this point may feel like a sunk cost. We’ve already put in effort that we cannot get back, so isn’t it better to keep going than to feel like it was all for nothing?”

Another purpose of hazing is to destroy a person’s sense of self-worth through systematic abuse. After suffering through the humiliations you are forced to endure, you start to feel that the only people who can understand you are those who went through the same suffering – those who were spat on, beat, paddled, and sexually assaulted.

Sexual violence is one of the hallmarks of fraternity culture. Stacey Copper and Elizabeth Grauerholz conducted a study called, “Sexual Victimization Among Sorority Women: Exploring the Link Between Sexual Violence and Institutional Practices.” In that study they learned that, “24% experienced attempted rape, and 17% were victims of completed rape. Almost half of the rapes occured in a fraternity house, and over half occured either during a fraternity function or was perpetrated by a fraternity member.” Even in the Philippines, it’s not unusual for sorority members and initiates to be “gifted” to members of a brother fraternity.

When I was in high school, I was warned by a friend, a “brother,” not to court a girl, because many “brothers” already had their way with her as part of her initiation. They called it “hirap o sarap,” an institutionalized form of sexual abuse where an initiate is given the option to suffer physical injuries or provide sexual favors.

In many cases, these arrangements, these assaults happen in the presence of “sisters” and “brothers.” I don’t have intimate knowledge about fraternity logic, but I do know that most people consider it wrong to sexually assault your “sister,” or to watch your “sister,” get sexually assaulted by your “brother.”

Arguing for or against violent hazing rituals is pointless. It’s a moot point. Even the most naive freshmen know that there’s something wrong with being tortured for hours, or being coerced to fuck, and no one thinks that these are pleasant experiences. The question we should be asking is, “Why would anyone willingly endure hours of pain?”

The answer is simple: They are willing to endure a few hours of pain, in the hope that they could avoid years of pain.

Fraternities, despite all the negative consequences they cause young people, provide members with the illusion of safety. They are “supposedly” there to provide a young individual with everything his family, his community, and his school has failed to provide: security and a sense of belonging. The truth is, being accepted by, and being a member of, a group that has a reputation for violence immediately exempts one from being bullied.

Although fraternities have varied mission/vision statements, no one really cares what those are. A young person joins a fraternity because he doesn’t want to be beat up by a fraternity, without being able to retaliate. Violence is an issue schools have failed to address for decades.

The institutions that are supposed to protect the student can’t do its job properly, so young people are forced to look for alternatives. I mean, what statement did you, the prestigious College of Saint Benilde, release after another death due to hazing?

Well, you offered some very cheesy and useless advice:

“Brotherly Care not Brutal Hazings

and Real Friendships not Ruthless Frats.

Therefore, choose God not Gangs.”

Really? That’s your solution? Choosing God? When a kid gets his ass kicked over some dumb shit that probably involves women, money, or territory, it’s not God who helps him out; it’s his gang.

As much as you would like to pretend that your God, being the ultimate bully, will protect your students or retaliate on their behalf, He won’t be around when your students are mocked and humiliated by their peers. God won’t be around when your students are extorted and intimidated. Where I came from, gangs and fraternities provided confused, suffering, depressed, frustrated, young people the illusion of sanctuary from violence, something that this your invisible God couldn’t provide.

God wasn’t around when Guillo Servando was killed. No one was around; not his gang, not his school, not CSB’s God.

frat image

No one warned Guillo Servando about how fraternities used systematic violence to reduce his sense of self-worth and increase his dependence on the organization. No one told Guillo Servando what he could do if he made the mistake of joining a fraternity and wanted to withdraw from his initiation. No one told Guillo Servando that they could help him or protect him from those who threatened him when he wanted to quit. That’s your God’s job, right? Well, He’s not doing it, and neither are you.

There are all of these articles saying the same shit they’ve been saying for decades: “Hazing is dangerous.”

DUH.

Everyone knows that, and you’re missing the point. The point is that some kids think that joining a fraternity, with all its brutal initiation rites, is safer than going to school without one. That’s what you have to fix. CSB, in all honesty, “your house” does not have the structure to eradicate the institutionalized abuse happening in your own backyard. And the half-assed approach of encouraging students to “choose God” is not going to improve your odds.

*Addendum (July 10, 2014):

My response to some of the comments are found here — “On the Hazing Article: A General Response to Comments

Posted in Religion, Society82 Comments

FF Podcast (Audio) 43: Should Progressive Catholics Leave the Church?

FF Podcast (Audio) 43: Should Progressive Catholics Leave the Church?

Filipino Freethinkers Podcast (Audio) 43 - Should Progressive Catholics Leave the Church?

This week, we talk about the Vatican report that said that a majority of Catholics disagree with the Church’s teachings on sex. We talk about whether dissenting Catholics should just leave the Roman Catholic Church.

You may also download the podcast file here.

Filipino Freethinkers Podcast (Audio) feed

Filipino Freethinkers Podcast (Audio) feed

Filipino Freethinkers Podcast (Audio) on iTunes

Filipino Freethinkers Podcast (Audio) on iTunes

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FF Podcast 43: Should Progressive Catholics Leave the Church?

FF Podcast 43: Should Progressive Catholics Leave the Church?

This week, we talk about the Vatican report that said that a majority of Catholics disagree with the Church’s teachings on sex. We talk about whether dissenting Catholics should just leave the Roman Catholic Church.

You may also download the podcast file here.

Filipino Freethinkers Podcast feed

Filipino Freethinkers Podcast feed

Filipino Freethinkers podcast on iTunes

Filipino Freethinkers podcast on iTunes

Posted in Media, Podcast, Religion, Society, Video0 Comments

FF Podcast (Audio) 41: Alex Gonzaga and Anti-Atheist Bigotry

FF Podcast (Audio) 41: Alex Gonzaga and Anti-Atheist Bigotry

Alex-Gonzaga

This week, we talk about Alex Gonzaga and her prejudiced rant on Pinoy Big Brother about atheists.

You may also download the podcast file here.

Filipino Freethinkers Podcast (Audio) feed

Filipino Freethinkers Podcast (Audio) feed

Filipino Freethinkers Podcast (Audio) on iTunes

Filipino Freethinkers Podcast (Audio) on iTunes

Posted in Audio, audio podcast, Pop Culture, Religion, Secularism, Society0 Comments

FF Podcast 41: Alex Gonzaga and Anti-Atheist Bigotry

Alex Gonzaga rants about atheists

This week, we talk about Alex Gonzaga and her prejudiced rant on Pinoy Big Brother about atheists.

You may also download the podcast file here.

Filipino Freethinkers Podcast feed

Filipino Freethinkers Podcast feed

Filipino Freethinkers podcast on iTunes

Filipino Freethinkers podcast on iTunes

Posted in Media, Podcast, Religion, Society, Video15 Comments

The Lord Works In Mysterious Ways

Photo Credit: an untrained eye via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: an untrained eye via Compfight cc

I had the pleasure of meeting one of my readers this week. His name is Edgar. He wrote me the longest response I ever received for my article, Irreligious. That started a brief email exchange which culminated in a book exchange and a pleasant chat over coffee.

Edgar is a Christian.

In one of my emails, I mentioned: “I do not reject the idea that God is good, just and compassionate. It’s just that if he really is all that, then that’s not the God being described in those books because the God there seems like a petty, immature spoiled brat who goes on a rampage if things get too much for him.” In this sentence, I was referring to several instances in the Old Testament where God goes on killing sprees (think Noah’s Ark, Sodom and Gomorrah, Jericho, Saul and the Amalekites, etc.)

Edgar responded by giving a hypothetical situation where I’m in a safari, looking at some magnificent elephants when suddenly I see a couple of people shooting and killing them with high-powered rifles. Of course, I get outraged and demand that they stop what they’re doing.

It turns out, however, that one of these people is the park master, who explains to me that they are practicing a system called “culling” which balances the ecosystem in the park. The elephant population has become so large that it was endangering many of the other species in the park. It was a drastic measure and one they found no pleasure in doing, yet it had to be done for the good of the park.

The point then, was that God may have reasons for doing what he did, but I just don’t understand them, that I don’t know enough to judge the situation. In his words, “our perspective is limited. We don’t see enough. We don’t see the whole story, the larger perspective, the bigger picture.”

I am not unfamiliar with this line of thinking. I call it the “The Lord Works In Mysterious Ways” argument. Its flaw, however, is that it doesn’t really explain anything. It can be used as sort of a magic formula answer to every possible situation.

Why did God, at certain instances, command the Israelites to wipe out an entire race — including the women, the elderly, children and infants? The Lord works in mysterious ways. Why does God allow natural calamities to wipe out entire families and deprive people of their lives and livelihood? The Lord works in mysterious ways. Why does God allow charlatans to preach in his name and amass wealth by spreading lies? The Lord works in mysterious ways. Why does God allow supposed faith healers to do real harm to people by promising healing and giving false hope instead of offering actual, life-saving medication? The Lord works in mysterious ways.

Saying that we can’t really understand how God works doesn’t really improve the situation much. In other fields of study, we do not accept that answer. Science strives to always understand more and more. Not knowing enough is not an excuse not to work towards knowing more, or inventing reasons and preaching them as fact, which is what some do.

In the given example, the park master was on hand to give an explanation, which calmed me down and made me understand. Yet, where is the divine “park master” to explain what is going on in the world? I do not hear any explanation save from secondhand sources who have themselves not heard from the park master himself.

A better example, perhaps, that more closely matches our reality, would be that I see the elephants drop dead one by one. So I don’t know why they’re dying, and neither does anyone else who sees them. Some of the observers offer conjectures — for example, that there is a hidden park master shooting the elephants with a silenced rifle for the reasons given in the original example. Some of these arguments are silly, but I also grant that some are intelligent arguments worth considering (and I do consider them seriously, which is why I even have conversations with people like Edgar, otherwise, why bother?) — but however intelligent these arguments are, they are conjectures nonetheless, and I have yet to hear from the sniper (who may or may not exist and who may or may not be the park master — who knows?) himself.

Yes, there are many things we do not know, and many things our reason can’t grasp, but that doesn’t mean we shut it down and stop trying to understand. History will attest that reason, logic and the scientific method are by far the best tools we have developed to ascertain truth and reality.

As we were about to part and shake hands, Edgar told me about how C.S. Lewis (best known for the Chronicles of Narnia as well as being a stalwart Catholic apologist) described his own conversion: “I was dragged kicking and screaming into the kingdom of God, eyes darting left and right for some means of escape.” What he meant to say was that at the end, he was seemingly left with no choice. He didn’t want to believe, but he had to, because for him, that was the only logical thing to do.

I have not yet reached that point, and still see some logical and reasonable alternatives worth pursuing and worth attacking to see if they will really stand the test of reason. And if I am to once again recover my faith, it will most likely in a manner similar to Lewis’ own kicking and screaming. My commitment to truth demands no less than an honest and brutal appraisal of the best arguments on either side.

What will happen in the end, I wonder? Who knows? The Lord works in mysterious ways.

Originally appears in Sunstar Davao.

Also published in Freethinking Me.

Want free coffee? Send me your thoughts and I might just treat you to one. Email me at [email protected]. View previous articles at www.freethinking.me.

 

Posted in Religion2 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

FF Podcast (Audio) 39: Should Church Officials Return the Napoles Money?

FF Podcast (Audio) 39: Should Church Officials Return the Napoles Money?

Filipino Freethinkers Podcast (Audio) 39 - Should Church Officials Return the Napoles Money?

This week, we talk about Father Ramirez, who allegedly received millions in stolen taxpayer money via Janet Lim-Napoles. Church officials, including Cardinal Tagle, have now come out in defense of the priest.

You may also download the podcast file here.

Filipino Freethinkers Podcast (Audio) feed

Filipino Freethinkers Podcast (Audio) feed

Filipino Freethinkers Podcast (Audio) on iTunes

Filipino Freethinkers Podcast (Audio) on iTunes

Posted in Audio, audio podcast, Politics, Religion, Society0 Comments

FF Podcast 39: Should Church Officials Return the Napoles Money?

FF Podcast 39: Should Church Officials Return the Napoles Money?

This week, we talk about Father Ramirez, who allegedly received millions in stolen taxpayer money via Janet Lim-Napoles. Church officials, including Cardinal Tagle, have now come out in defense of the priest.

You may also download the podcast file here.

Filipino Freethinkers Podcast feed

Filipino Freethinkers Podcast feed

Filipino Freethinkers podcast on iTunes

Filipino Freethinkers podcast on iTunes

Posted in Media, Podcast, Religion, Secularism, Society, Video0 Comments

Secular Morality and the Is-Ought Problem

The topic of morality has always fascinated the freethinker in me that I’ve been reading, writing, and debating about it for years. But what fascinates me most is the realization that just when I thought I had it all figured out, there remains a gap that just can’t be bridged.

My position had been that we can be good without God, and that science and reason are all we need to chart morality.

Today I no longer hold that position.

But not because I no longer believe that science and reason can answer the question why we act in ways that are considered good, but because science and reason simply cannot answer the basic question of what is “good.”

Richard Dawkins as well as other scientists have shown how evolutionary biology can explain altruistic behavior, why we help others when there is no obvious benefit to ourselves or even when it would actually harm us, but they fail to explain why altruism is “good” to begin with.

Sam Harris has shown how science can objectively measure well-being and flourishing, but he fails to explain why we “ought” to pursue well-being and flourishing in the first place.

This is the argument of the philosophical theists, which happens to be more challenging to rebut than those of the fundamentalists who say that the Ten Commandments or the Bible (or the equivalent holy book of their religion) is the true moral code. Not unexpectedly, whenever an atheist blogger criticizes religious morality and asserts that secular morality is better, philosophical theists would accuse him of attacking a strawman and go on to say that he utterly has no idea what he is talking about.

Any attempt at establishing a moral code not derived from religion inevitably runs into the is-ought problem, an unbridgeable gap between what is and what ought to be. For example, there is nothing in the statement “people are suffering” that allows for the conclusion that we ought to find ways to alleviate their suffering – even though it feels like the most natural, instinctive, intuitive, and “moral” thing to do. That may sound absurdly callous and inhuman, but there is also nothing in the statement “that is absurdly callous and inhuman” that establishes why we ought not to be callous and inhuman at all.

Philosophically speaking, there can only be an “ought” when such ought is inherent; oughts are not emergent, that is, they cannot be derived from an “is.” And, philosophical theists would contend, the only way to have a moral ought is to have it built into us by a creator: if God created us and laid down certain rules, we ought to follow those rules not because of the fear of eternal punishment or even out of gratitude for the gift of life, but because that’s what we were created to do.

While the term ought is currently used to indicate duty or obligation, its etymology traces back to “owe” and “own.” In other words, one could say that we ought to obey God (assuming he exists) out of moral duty because we owe him our lives and he owns us.

But then here comes the Euthyphro dilemma: “Is what is morally good commanded by God because it is morally good, or is it morally good because it is commanded by God?” If it is the former, then there is higher standard of morality to which even God must adhere; if it is the latter, then there is nothing to stop God from giving arbitrary commands that are capricious and oppressive because whatever he commands will always be morally good, whatever that means.

The philosophical theist, however, addresses the Euthyphro dilemma by postulating that God is the good, or God = good, so he cannot therefore command anything that is not morally good, and at the same time he is not subject to a higher standard of morality because God is moral goodness itself.

The only problem with this argument is that the contention that “God is the good” is a bare assertion, a matter of arbitrary definition and not a universally accepted fact or a logical conclusion derived from verified premises.

722px-The10CommandmentsOne can imagine that a perfectly objective and binding moral code is something written by a perfectly moral creator and directly handed down to all humanity, that is, not through prophets or some self-proclaimed divine messenger.

This is where both religion and philosophical theism fall short. Religions cannot agree among themselves what God’s laws are or even who or what God is; philosophical theists, on the other hand, merely assert that there is a moral law not found in any holy book but somehow written in our hearts, but they fail to establish that it is our God-given conscience talking and not our own selfish manipulative wills considering that there seems to be no consensus among the hearts of men and women.

Philosophical theists like to boast that their morality is superior to secular ethics because it has an ontological base (i.e., God), meaning they have an objective basis for conceptualizing such moral system. They do have a point, but unfortunately such ontological base is simply assumed. Take away that assumption or challenge it by demanding proof and the base crumbles, leaving their morality hanging by the thread of a bare assertion.

Of course, philosophical theists like William Lane Craig would say that the existence of God is an altogether different debate, and that all they are claiming is that “if God exists, then we have a sound foundation for objective moral values and duties; if God does not exist, then we do not have a sound foundation for objective moral values and duties.” Craig himself pointed out that these are conditional claims, so until they conclusively win the debate on the existence of God and, more importantly, prove that God not only created us but indeed wrote his moral law in our hearts, theistic morality remains sitting on one huge assumption.

And while secular ethics also makes an assumption that well-being is good without explaining why it is good, it appeals to the moral nihilist which I seem to have become. With all this talk of the is-ought gap, I no longer use the term “moral” without qualifying it. Instead, I prefer to use the term “civilized.”

While civilized is a relative term particularly when used to refer to society (e.g., societies of decades past considered themselves civilized but some of their practices like discrimination are barbaric by today’s standards, just as future generations will surely have something to condemn about today’s norms), I like how civilized societies continuously expand their circle of awareness, granting rights to more and more displaced groups and individuals (and even animals), taking care of their well-being.

I may not be able to explain why we “ought” to be civilized, but it feels good to me as it apparently does to a lot of people – civilized people, that is, people who do not require an ontological base or demand to bridge the is-ought gap before deciding that it is the moral thing to do.

Eventually, the secularist will have to admit that his morality is not objective insofar as his moral values are not founded on something that transcends humanity. But this is not to say that his concept of right and wrong is determined by nothing more than the norms of society notwithstanding how civilized or compassionate a particular society has become.

Whether society matures or degenerates into a dog-eat-dog world where “might makes right,” secularism offers the following principle laid down by George Jacob Holyoake, who coined the term secularism: “Individual good attained by methods conducive to the good of others, is the highest aim of man, whether regard be had to human welfare in this life or personal fitness for another.

Such principle may not have an objective foundation in the sense that it is nothing more than one person’s assertion regardless of how many others may have intuitively come up with it on their own or how practical it may sound (e.g., personal welfare achieved to the detriment of others is often short-lived), but once internalized, it is a straightforward ethical code to objectively judge and guide people’s actions in an ever changing society. Opponents of secularism may easily point out that we have not established what “good” is, but it would take a lot of semantic acrobatics for them to argue that we cannot objectively define what welfare is.

Once we decide that we’ve had enough philosophizing over the is-ought problem in relation to the moral value of what we take for granted as good, we can focus on how to pursue our welfare by means conducive to the welfare of others. If you consider such pursuit good without obsessing on why we ought to pursue it, it can be said that you’re a compassionate, practical, and civilized person. But if you can’t subscribe to secular ethics because it lacks an ontological base – because there is nothing in the statement “people are suffering” that allows for the conclusion that we ought to find ways to alleviate their suffering – then congratulations! You are a philosopher.

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Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Posted in Philosophy, Religion, Secularism4 Comments

FF Podcast (Audio) 36: Watching Your Words

FF Podcast (Audio) 36: Watching Your Words

Filipino Freethinkers Podcast (Audio) 36 - Watching Your Words

This week, we talk with Carlos Celdran about an encounter with the anti-RH and about watching your language around children.

You may also download the podcast file here.

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Filipino Freethinkers Podcast (Audio) feed

Filipino Freethinkers Podcast (Audio) on iTunes

Filipino Freethinkers Podcast (Audio) on iTunes

Posted in audio podcast, Religion, RH Bill, Science, Secularism, Society0 Comments

FF Podcast 34: Habeas Corpuz and What Parents Can Do to Kids

FF Podcast 34: Habeas Corpuz and What Parents Can Do to Kids

This week, we talk about the odd names Filipino parents give to their kids. Then, we discuss what sorts of things parents should not do to their kids.

You may also download the podcast file here.

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Filipino Freethinkers Podcast feed

Filipino Freethinkers podcast on iTunes

Filipino Freethinkers podcast on iTunes

Posted in Media, Podcast, Religion, Society, Video0 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

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