There’s a new bible story film adaptation. Will you see it? This week, we talk about Christian Bale calling Moses, his character in Exodus: Gods and Kings, a schizophrenic and a barbarian.
You may also download the podcast file here.
Posted on 03 November 2014.
There’s a new bible story film adaptation. Will you see it? This week, we talk about Christian Bale calling Moses, his character in Exodus: Gods and Kings, a schizophrenic and a barbarian.
You may also download the podcast file here.
Posted on 01 November 2014.
Are you going to watch Moses on the big screen? This week, we talk about Christian Bale calling Moses, his character in Exodus: Gods and Kings, a schizophrenic and a barbarian.
You may also download the podcast file here.
Posted on 22 May 2014.
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.
One 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.
* * * * *
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Posted on 10 July 2013.
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.
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 on 17 November 2012.
After months of pompously brushing aside accusations of plagiarism, Senator Tito Sotto has finally been forced to take matters seriously. Of course, this was only after the daughter of his highest profile victim stepped forward to join the chorus of condemnation.
What Kerry Kennedy, daughter of the late Senator Robert Kennedy, found most appalling and “twisted” in Sotto’s sin, is that not only did he plagiarize one of the most famous speeches in the English language, he wielded the late statesman’s words to deny women reproductive rights.
Unsurprisingly, Sotto’s apology to the Kennedy family was quite visibly insincere. Instead of acknowledging any wrongdoing on his part, Sotto said he was sorry if the Kennedys were offended. This is a textbook non-apology and the kind of victim-blaming one would expect from an opponent of reproductive rights. Sotto also predictably lashed out at his critics—the academics and writers who filed an ethics complaint against him in the Senate. (Disclosure: I, personally and along with Filipino Freethinkers, Inc., am one of the signatories of the complaint.)
Sotto was quick to label the complainants as RH advocates and, indeed, most of us are advocates for reproductive rights. This should be expected, since Sotto’s series of plagiarized speeches were made against the RH Bill. It takes little imagination to see that the people most closely watching his arguments would be RH advocates. Listening to the other side is only the intellectually honest thing to do in a debate, something Senator Sotto might not be aware of.
Conservative Catholic groups were also quick to make the same connection to RH as Sotto did and rush to his aid. One of the first to formally defend Sotto against the complaint is Romulo Macalintal, who claims that the RH Bill has nothing to do with his defense of the Senator. You may remember him from the Manila Cathedral incident when his group, Pro-Life Philippines, accosted reproductive rights advocates and tried to exorcise non-existent demons from them. Macalintal is also one of the lawyers trying to pass off BUHAY Party-List as a marginalized group in order to be registered candidates for the 2013 elections.
Not to be outdone, no less than the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, the biggest opponents of reproductive rights in the Philippines, had several of its leaders come out to defend Sotto (and his anti-RH ally Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile). CBCP’s Father Melvin Castro said he admired Sotto’s “principles.” Malolos Bishop Jose Oliveros dismissed the charges against Sotto as “trial by publicity.” Riding on their coattails is Filipinos for Life, which released a statement saying that they held Sotto “in the highest regard” and that the group was at his “disposal.”
While it makes sense that the complainants are mostly RH advocates (who were the first to notice the plagiarized passages), it does not follow that defenders of Sotto ought to be RH opponents. The content of our complaint of plagiarism has absolutely nothing to do with the merits of the RH bill. The evidence of plagiarism is incontrovertible, and to deny it is to reveal either unbelievable ignorance or unparalleled duplicity. That RH opponents almost exclusively rallied to defend an obvious and inexcusable transgression betrays their true intention of making Sotto’s plagiarism case a proxy war on the RH bill. In doing so, they are not defending a principle, rather, they are defending their anti-contraceptive club: a club that ostensibly uses any means necessary to achieve their ends, even if it is against their so-called principles. It is this same exact tribalist mentality that is used to justify the protection of rapists in the Catholic Church.
The narrative that the conservative Catholic establishment has always thrust upon the RH discussion is on morality—specifically, the medieval Catholic brand of ethics that they use to divine God’s apparent hate for contraception. It is quite curious, then, that they would casually ignore a clear ethical breach in order to pursue an anti-contraceptive agenda. It is not even that they believe that Sotto is innocent. Macalintal readily admits that Sotto used Robert Kennedy’s speech, shamelessly asserting that the late New York Senator would have been “proud” that Sotto used his words to shut down a bill that would provide women access to modern family planning.
This is moral expediency par excellence, which is particularly odd coming from these Catholic dogmatists. The Catholic ethical system specifically denies that morality can be seen in shades of gray. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, human acts are “either good or evil.” There is no in between. Their system has no room for the moral inconsistency practiced by those defending Sotto. Whether or not the consequences of their actions would bring about a Catholic ideal (which would be a ‘good’ consequence), if it is done with the ‘evil’ intention of lying, then it is still ‘evil.’ As the chief philosopher of the Church said, “An evil action cannot be justified by reference to a good intention.” By abandoning consistency in their absolutism and supporting the dishonesty of a public servant, these conservative Catholics have shown that not only is their ethical system out of step with the real world, even they don’t believe in it.
Image Credit: GMA 24 Oras
Posted on 10 September 2012.
Today on ANC’s Headstart Representative Lucy Torres-Gomez has stated that she is against the RH bill because she worries about the bill disintegrating the moral fiber of Philippine society. Perhaps she should ask herself, is this moral fiber worth protecting? Is this wonderful moral fiber doing more for our country’s reproductive health than an RH bill would?
According to this social moral fiber, Filipino teenagers should not be having sex. What the Philippines has instead is one of the highest incidences of teenage pregnancy in Asia. Clearly this moral fiber has not been doing a very good job in stopping teenage sex. Contrast this with the sex education that is part of the RH bill. It’s been found that giving teenagers sex education delays teenage sexual activity. Informed sexual behavior serves our youths better than a moral fiber that denies what is happening in reality. Should we put a moral fiber that has not been working up on a pedestal to the detriment of our youths?
If this moral fiber is better than the RH bill, then this moral fiber ought to be stopping abortions. Its an undeniable fact that abortions happen in the Philippines. According to the national estimate, the number of abortions each year is around 400,000 to 500,000. When contraception has been shown to reduce abortion, then the people who decide to stand behind moral fiber instead of passing the RH bill are effectively saying they do not care enough for the women who feel forced to undergo abortion to do anything to lower that number. They care more for the moral fiber that hasn’t been working than they do for actual women.
The moral fiber argument against the RH bill becomes even more morally bankrupt when you actually have to use your moral courage. Can you do the ethical thing even if it means going against those who claim to be the keepers of “moral fiber”?
Maternal deaths are on the rise. It speaks volumes about your moral fiber when you choose not to do anything about deaths so easily preventable with a comprehensive reproductive health program. It says even more about your actual moral courage when you can defend your decision to do nothing by citing “moral fiber”.
Lucy Torres-Gomez speaks of social moral fiber. What does it say of our society’s moral fiber when abortion is so looked down upon that some health care professionals will shun women who require post abortion care, will have no empathy for these women in need of medical attention? A society of higher moral fiber would be able to put aside their judgement and condemnation and see a woman in need of care.
Critics of the RH bill who say they are defending “moral fiber”, or “Filipino values” need to actually examine what it is they are defending. Morals, values, and ethics are not static things. As we find out more about the human experience we progress in the way we think about things. Do the values you defend reflect the best of what we understand? The best that we can do to make the lives of our fellow human beings better?
Posted on 26 April 2012.
I’ve been outed. In a recent interview, Bishop Bacani revealed the truth that although I identify as an atheist, I actually believe in God:
Bacani insists that many atheists still believe in God and just don’t know it:
These so-called atheists love with a great altruism, they really love their fellow man and even have a passion for justice and what is right and good,” he said. “Those people really believe in God in their hearts, but they will not admit that (emphasis added).
– Bishop Bacani, Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP)
In short, if I do good, my actions betray the fact that I’m more religious than I realize — I’m really a theist in my heart.
I wouldn’t have admitted it to myself without the help of Bacani, so I feel indebted to him. And as a good theist, who believes in God in his heart, I’ll return the favor by paying it forward.
In the spirit of great altruism — and justice, and what is right and good — I will help some who work in the non-religious sector realize that they are more religious than they know or choose to admit.
These so-called parents, teachers, and other authority figures, who betray the trust of the children under their care by sexually abusing them — they’re really Catholic priests in their hearts.
These so-called crime syndicates, corrupt government officials and military personnel, who abuse their power to commit and cover up their crimes — they’re really Catholic bishops in their hearts.
These so-called dictators, such as the late Kim Jong Il, who coerce their followers to fear and obey them and to believe that what they say is Truth — they’re really Popes in their hearts.
And what about so-called Bishop Bacani? Although he likes to meddle in legislation, he’s actually more political than he realizes. Because the way he parades his piety and makes a show of moral superiority, while showing nothing but prejudice, intolerance, and bigotry toward those who don’t accept his Truth — Bishop Bacani is really a Senate Majority leader in his heart.
* There are so-called Catholic priests and bishops who refuse to spread the Church’s anti-women, anti-science, and anti-choice dogma, and instead choose to focus on helping parishioners with the things that will truly help them in life. These so-called Catholic leaders may not know it, but it’s obvious that they’re actually nuns in their hearts.
Posted on 30 March 2012.
Every conscious thing we do or choice we make is somehow motivated by the pursuit of pleasure or the avoidance of pain. The only variables are the kinds of things that bring varying degrees of pleasure and pain to each individual, the premises on which expectations of pleasure or pain are based, and the ability to delay gratification.
For example, many nature lovers go to work instead of spending the entire week at the beach because the former guarantees some future comfort that outweighs the immediate fun the latter brings. Some smokers quit because they’ve decided that the pleasure they get from cigarettes cannot compensate for the pain of a present or potential respiratory illness. Most people do not normally steal because the initial gain will be quickly neutralized if they get caught (or their conscience takes the fun out of taking things that don’t belong to them). And if they believe in an afterlife, getting away won’t even matter.
Which brings us to a common theistic argument against naturalism-based morality: If there is no eternal punishment, there is no ultimate justice and evil people like Hitler and Stalin can get away with atrocities. But there are many answers to this. One, the fact that there can be no ultimate justice without an afterlife does absolutely nothing to support the existence of either Heaven or Hell. Two, if most people believe in the afterlife, civilized societies will have less reason to be vigilant in preventing another Holocaust because they can just leave justice to God. Three, if Christianity is true, a serial killer who rapes and tortures his victims can still enter Paradise if he repents and accepts Jesus as his personal Lord and Savior just before he dies (while his atheistic albeit innocent victims’ suffering will resume in the Lake of Fire).
As the Holy Week approaches and Christians prepare to meditate on the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus, many of them claim to worship Christ not out of fear of damnation or the expectation of eternal reward, but because of an overflowing gratefulness for His great love and “ultimate sacrifice.” If this is really the case then why won’t they worship the sun as well, or at least give it some devotion with the same level that Catholics give to the Saints considering the sun is the ultimate sustainer of all life on Earth and that we all get to survive because it burns itself up? Could it be because the sun can be expected to rise every morning and set every evening regardless of what people do or don’t do? If they argue that the sun is just mindlessly burning itself without intending to sustain life while Jesus purposely died so we could be saved, would such salvation be available to those who reject Christ?
No matter how people rationalize worship and obedience to God’s supposed commands, it still all boils down to pleasure and pain. It’s just a matter of adopting the premises set by one’s chosen religion and delaying gratification by giving up on earthly pleasures for the sake of some greater eternal pleasure in the next life. As a response to this, my fellow freethinker Andy wrote a short but profound piece on materialism:
The master passed by a minister preaching against materialism. He was exhorting the congregation on the virtues of sacrificing their earthly desires for the rewards of heaven.
“Our treasure does not lie here on earth,” he said, “But it lies in the bosom of our heavenly Father.”
“Interesting,” remarked the master. “You preach against materialism but yours is even worse because you desire to bring it to the next life. You tell people not to cling to their possessions here by guaranteeing that they will have all those and more in the next life. You are after intangible rewards, but a reward nonetheless. What is so virtuous about that?”
Indeed. And as Bertrand Russell said, “The people who are regarded as moral luminaries are those who forego ordinary pleasures themselves and find compensation in interfering with the pleasures of others.” In this country, people who officially gave up sexual pleasure preach that couples should not have too much fun while avoiding pregnancy and the consequential responsibilities and sacrifices that come with bearing and raising children. But in fairness to them, they are probably just acting on good faith based on the premise that God does not want us to enjoy life in this world too much because His plan is to give us the ultimate pleasure in Heaven. I just wish that our supposedly secular government would treat this premise with a little skepticism especially when crafting our reproductive health laws.
Image by Jong Atmosfera
Posted in ReligionComments (0)
Posted on 10 January 2012.
The feast is characterized by literally millions of devotees (largely comprised of children dragged along by relatives, the elderly, the infirm, the disabled, and the poor) moving along with an over 400 year-old statue of Jesus throughout the streets of the city of Manila. As in the tradition that St. Veronica (derived from the Latin for “true image”) wiped Jesus’ face as he marched to his execution, true believers scrimmage to wipe white cloths on the statue. The devotees shuffle and push against each other just to get a touch of the Black Nazarene wooden idol, which is believed to have magical powers of wish-granting.
Millions, particularly the poor, skip out on work (which likely earns them barely enough for a living) in the hope that the statue will turn their fortunes around. Of course, they are only met by rains and crushing stampedes. We can, naturally, expect at least some of the devotees to have a lucky day. It is practically certain that at least one of the poor and sick people marching in the streets of Manila will enjoy a significant cash windfall or be healed of a serious affliction—just by random chance. In fact, if none of the 3 million reported attendees had at least a marginally interesting anecdote of supposed providence, then something would be quite peculiar about the Feast of the Black Nazarene worthy of deeper investigation.
The familiarity of the Jesus story has anesthetized us from what is at the heart of the ritual. Millions of men, women, and children are parading around with a wooden statue of a bloodied victim of torture, capital punishment, and God-sanctioned human sacrifice. The Black Nazarene is an ironic pornographic celebration of violence—the overt violence of the past and the more subtle violence of the present.
The media attention to this event is huge, as expected for any congregation drawing millions. However, it is quite disgusting how society has made a spectacle of the poverty, ignorance, and anguish. And though, like the Feast of the Black Nazarene, the supposed terror threat appears to have been based on zero intelligence, the broadsheets praised not the fact that the threat was not plausible and celebrations were able to commence safely, but that the devotees ignored the warnings regardless of credibility. (In fact, some devotees relished the prospect of mass murder as an opportunity to test their faith.)
It is taken as a badge of honor that the devotees suffered for 22 hours—from the mild discomfort of crowding and walking barefoot to the intolerable pain of being trampled—in a desperate appeal for things to change for the better, if only they could get to touch an old block of wood. Stories such as those of the man with a disability, unable to walk on his two legs, are elevated as exemplars of faith and worthy of emulation. Suffering is glamorized as a bargaining chip, in exchange for which, God will grant them respite from the day-to-day torment of poverty and illness. Life on earth is reduced to a theological economy that runs on agony.
There is an often misquoted observation by Karl Marx that “religion is the opiate of the masses” or some other paraphrasing. The quotation in context reads: “Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”
Marx was not merely comparing the addictive and reason-diminishing qualities of the drug to religion. He was pointing out that religion is an illustration of despair from those whom state and society have failed. It is the imaginary relief for those who have been prevented access to real consolation.
Those who flock to briefly brush against the Black Nazarene are those whom our society has forced to take solace from fictitious sources. That we celebrate and glorify the misery and debasement of our fellow human beings—whether in the form of one Jesus Christ or three million of his devotees—is vile.
Image credit: GMA News Online
Posted on 02 November 2011.
Based on true events, “Paalam, Soledad” follows the struggles of Sister Soledad with her faith and her principles amidst the realities of Santa Clara, a small town ruled by closed minds, false hopes and repressed sexuality. [YouTube’s block has been resolved; this video is now viewable.]
First Act: Baptism (11:28)
Second Act: Marriage (31:22)
Third Act: Funeral (46:49)
Posted on 31 October 2011.
It is apparently controversial to say that science will be able to tell us what is important in life. Science, as paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould said, tells us how the heavens go, while religion tells us how to go to heaven. And for the most consequential things, it seems that science must yield to faith when considering what it means to have a good life.
But there is something gravely wrong with this kind of thinking. What it says is that reason cannot be used to distinguish right from wrong, happiness from suffering. But, even if reason, evidence, and methodical thought fail to illuminate our understanding of what constitutes a life worth living, what are our alternatives?
The mere suggestion that science can determine how we ought to behave understandably irks religious conservatives. For the faithful, this is an act of war against religion, which has always claimed for itself the realm of ethics and human values. That this assumption of moral authority still holds sway, when religions have failed in accurately representing practically anything in the world, is baffling. If religious traditions have been completely wrong about what goes on in the universe, why would they suddenly be unquestionably correct about what goes on in the mind?
A morality that is not based on authoritarian precepts is merely the acceptance that the world is not black and white and actions can have unforeseen consequences. And a science of morality would have to agree with what religious demagogues have been saying all along: there are moral truths to be found and there are objectively wrong ways to act. It seems especially strange then that, while they decry moral relativism, conservatives try to explain away the disgusting depravities in the Bible by calling for them to be placed in “context.” This precisely argues for a relativist morality—justifying mass murders (by Yahweh himself), rapes, and social outlooks by the culture at the time.
Saying that there are objectively good acts means only that there is a difference between an action that can bring about happiness and another that results in suffering. We can be right or wrong on whether homophobia is conducive to well-being. We can be right or wrong on whether misogyny is a good principle on which we should run our society. Our beliefs regarding these matters are, essentially, claims about conscious experience—how the brain responds to stimuli and how well-being is realized in the brain. And in this realm of facts, as in all others, there is no reason to put religious claims on a pedestal.
As we study more about the brain, our opinions on ethics will become increasingly constrained by psychological research and neuroscience. Findings such as those on the effect of corporal punishment on children and on the structural differences between the brains of normal and psychopathic human beings will change how we relate to each other and how we organize our societies. Our traditional views on parental roles and on how responsible people are for their actions may be altered as we continue to investigate how the evolved mind interacts with its surroundings. We might find that our justice system is not conducive to a peaceful society. We might find that our economic system inevitably leads to abuse and suffering. We might find possibilities for moral awareness that were never available to our pre-scientific ancestors or contemporary religious leaders.
There is public trust in science for many things that we’d never look to religion for answers, such as in believing in corrective glasses over faith healing. But, why is it that when the stakes are highest, when we are considering lives and the happiness of conscious human beings, science, reason, and logic take a back seat? The question on what makes a life worth living is, to say the least, hard to solve, but there are answers: based on facts and not on the musings of men who thought that all animals used to be herbivores.
Not only is science considered impotent when contemplating the deeper questions in life, it is generally believed that rationality ruins romance.
Consider the classic challenge against atheists. When questioning the existence of God, atheists are invariably asked to compare God with love. That is, love is said to be intangible and it admits of no rational inquiry, but we know it’s there. We can just feel it. While the analogy is false (love is realized in the brain as the sum total of specific neural activity and, thus, exists in the natural world), it reveals a common perception that scientific scrutiny is incompatible with an awareness for wonder in this world.
But that is clearly not true. The chemical process that results in feelings of love is itself a thing to behold and appreciate. That there is something material underlying our affection for others or art takes nothing away from our experience. And here we can expand our moral circle beyond even just humans.
Since our capacity for love and moral action evolved (not to say that morality should reflect the cruelty of Darwinian natural selection), it necessarily implies that other animals have similar, if not identical, capacities for compassion and cooperation. And here is where Christianity, in particular, is extremely impoverished. That humans (and specific kinds of men) are set apart by God is nothing short of speciesism and bigotry. Though there are cognitive differences between humans and other animals, that is what differentiates our moral responsibility to each other and not the entitlement assumed to be bestowed by a creator.
A non-supernatural outlook emphasizes the importance of our relationships in the here and now. We should thank doctors for healing us; we should thank farmers for providing for us food; we should thank our friends and families for comfort and companionship. These are the people who should matter to us, and attributing our happiness to something that isn’t there steals away from what other people rightly deserve.
Many believe that one day the world will end and that this would be the greatest thing that could ever possibly happen. Every action we do here in life is meaningless outside the goal of eternal paradise. This nihilism is why we must rid ourselves of religion wholesale. How could we ever endeavor to build a lasting society when our neighbors secretly yearn for doom and destruction, leaving all us suckers who never bought into religion to burn in perpetual torment. These are beliefs that are not conducive to mental health, let alone peace and human flourishing.
Science allows us to comprehend the world around us in a way our ancestors never could. Still, many choose to bind themselves to the follies of the past, relying not on evidence but on the servile desire to let other men think for themselves. It is a shame, when available to us now are methods and insights that will allow us to not only have greater knowledge, but a deeper and more meaningful understanding of what it means to be alive and how we must act.
The acceptance that all that there is is this natural world requires from us the understanding that there is no delaying justice to an afterlife. There is no point in deferring mercy and charity to a final judgement. If we yearn for anything that would resemble heaven, our only choice is to create it here.
Posted on 29 September 2011.
Morality is such a divisive issue. In simple terms, morality is “the quality of being in accord with standards of right or good conduct.” The divisiveness lies not in whether an act is in accord with certain standards of right and wrong, but on which standard should the rightness or wrongness of an act be judged.
In society, Church morality and secular morality often come into conflict with each other because their standards, and especially their underlying premises which dictate these standards, are as different as night and day. As such, their moral conflict is essentially a matter of premise, as follows:
With such opposing premises, it is of no great surprise that the Church blames secularism for destroying the morals of society, while secularists accuse the Church of trying to impose a misogynistic and bigoted moral system straight out of the Middle Ages.
For instance, on the issue of birth control, the Church asserts that it is God’s will that the unitive aspect of sex cannot be isolated, through man’s initiative, from its procreative purpose, meaning sex should not be done only for the sake of pleasure and bonding while avoiding the responsibility that comes with bearing children. And on the issue of gay marriage, the Church insists that God designed marriage to be the exclusive union between a man and a woman.
Secularism, on the other hand, operating on the premise that no one really knows the will of God – assuming he exists – has no objection towards contraceptive sex as long as the state laws on marriage, rape, and abortion are not violated. As for gay marriage, secularism has no opposition to its legalization as long as it is between two consenting adults.
If a moral system is based on the premises of the Church, it is easily justifiable to ban contraception and gay marriages since both are condemned by God, and the pleasures as well as the sacrifices of this life are nothing compared to the potential happiness and suffering in the next. But as the blogger Philosophy Bro once tweeted, “‘Because God said so’ isn’t a bad excuse if He really said so – proving that is the hard part.”
Since it is clear to the secularist that this life is the only life we really know exists, welfare and happiness in this life should take precedence over any imaginable but unverifiable condition after death – especially since we have absolutely no idea how to secure an advantage in the next life, if there is one. What’s wrong with passionate sex without the possibility of pregnancy if both partners are enjoying it and hurting no one, not even a fetus or a zygote? What’s so objectionable about two people of the same gender falling in love with each other and wanting nothing more than to publicly proclaim such love and enjoy the legal rights and benefits of a state-sanctioned union?
These intimacy and relationship issues appear to go beyond the appreciation of the Church hierarchy, who in turn seem intent on imposing a great deal of self-denial on others not only by preaching against hedonistic sex but by actually blocking laws that help poor couples enjoy sex without having more children than they can feed. As Bertrand Russell said, “Religions, which condemn the pleasures of sense, drive men to seek the pleasures of power. Throughout history power has been the vice of the ascetic.” Indeed, what can one expect from powerful men whose own institutional tradition bound them to become lifelong virgins?
Posted on 23 September 2011.
Senator Miriam Santiago’s theological argument for the Reproductive Health Bill relies on the Catholic doctrine called “primacy of conscience.” But some conservative Catholics think her understanding is flawed, one of her many “booboos” intended to “mislead faithful Catholics.”
Is Sen. Santiago misleading Catholics when she argues that primacy of conscience allows Catholics to dissent on the RH Bill? Or are conservative Catholics just defensive because she found a loophole that allows Catholics to be progressive in such issues?
The answer is complicated, so I’ll try to state it simply before expounding. Primacy of conscience means that a Catholic must act consistently with her conscience. However, a Catholic must also have a conscience that’s consistent with the teachings of the Church. Taken by itself, primacy of conscience gives Catholics freedom. Taken in context, it gives Catholics freedom to do what the Church tells them.
Consider contraception. The Church teaches that contraception is inherently evil. Catholics have an obligation to believe this — to make it part of their conscience. When a Catholic fails to believe this — or hold it as definitive — she is fully responsible for this sin (failure to believe) and is no longer in full communion with the Church. When she uses a condom, she acts according to her conscience. Due to primacy of conscience, the sinful action cannot be fully blamed on her — she’s only fully responsible for the sin of doubt.
Yes, she had freedom to use contraception — she does have free will (another complicated doctrine) — and was even right in doing so according to primacy of conscience. But she did not have freedom to believe that contraception was OK — primacy of conscience only applies to actions, not beliefs.
In a nutshell, it was right to act according to her conscience, but wrong to form her conscience independent of the Church.
If I failed to explain that simply enough, you can’t blame me — primacy of conscience is one of the most easily misunderstood Catholic doctrines. This is why Cardinal George Pell, Archbishop of Melbourne, has been fighting against the doctrine for years:
“The doctrine of the primacy of conscience should be quietly ditched . . . because too many Catholic youngsters have concluded that values are personal inventions.” Furthermore, the primacy of conscience is “a dangerous and misleading myth.” In fact, according to Pell, “in the Catholic scheme of things, there’s no such thing as primacy of conscience.”
Cardinal Pell is not alone. Although he doesn’t want to ditch the doctrine, Pope John Paul II understands how misleading this doctrine can be:
There is a tendency to grant to the individual conscience the prerogative of independently determining the criteria of good and evil and then acting accordingly… To the affirmation that one has a duty to follow one’s conscience is unduly added the affirmation that one’s moral judgment is true merely by the fact that it has its origin in the conscience.
— Pope John Paul II, Papal Encyclical Veritatis Splendor
The Vatican also acknowledges this confusion by warning of the “mistaken notion of autonomy of conscience, rejection of the Church’s authority and her teaching [emphasis mine]” which leads to erroneous judgment.
As Pope John Paul II explained, the confusion comes from extending primacy of conscience from the realm of actions to the realm of beliefs. And because one acts as one believes, Catholics have the obligation to educate their beliefs first:
Although each individual has a right to be respected in his own journey in search of the truth, there exists a prior moral obligation, and a grave one at that, to seek the truth and to adhere to it once it is known. As Cardinal John Henry Newman, that outstanding defender of the rights of conscience, forcefully put it: “Conscience has rights because it has duties”
Here Pope John Paul II explains that Catholics have a right to follow their conscience because they have a duty to follow the Church. And in case you’re wondering why I equated seeking the truth with following the Church, he made it very clear:
The Church’s Magisterium also teaches the faithful specific particular precepts and requires that they consider them in conscience as morally binding… When people ask the Church the questions raised by their consciences, when the faithful in the Church turn to their Bishops and Pastors, the Church’s reply contains the voice of Jesus Christ, the voice of the truth about good and evil.
But what about the current pope? Like many progressive Catholics, Sen. Santiago often uses Pope Benedict’s following statement:
Above the pope as an expression of the binding claim of church authority,” writes Ratzinger, stands one’s own conscience, which has to be obeyed first of all, if need be against the demands of church authority.
But that’s only part of the picture. Taken by itself, it does seem like the pope’s statement allows Catholics to dissent. But taken in context, Pope Benedict’s statement is consistent with those of Pope John Paul II and official Vatican teaching. He explains that although following conscience is a duty and is never wrong, informing conscience is also a duty, and neglecting to do so is always wrong:
It is never wrong to follow the convictions one has arrived at—in fact, one must do so. But it can very well be wrong to have come to such askew convictions in the first place… The guilt lies then in a different place, much deeper—not in the present act, not in the present judgment of conscience but in the neglect of my being which made me deaf to the internal promptings of truth. For this reason, criminals of conviction like Hitler and Stalin are guilty.
— Pope Benedict XVI (then Fr. Ratzinger) while serving as Chair of Dogmatic Theology at the University of Tübingen in 1968
There are two variables at play here. Let’s call them the two duties of conscience:
Primacy of conscience only applies to the second duty, and fulfilling it is not complicated: following your conscience is right, not following it is wrong. But primacy of conscience does not apply to the first duty. For this, primacy of Church is the rule: believing the Church is right, not believing it is wrong. With this, we come up with the duties of conscience according to the Catholic Church:
And if your conscience is consistent with what the Church says — and Catholics have a moral obligation to ensure this — then we finally have this:
Where did the primacy of conscience go? This is what our investigation has finally revealed. In the words of Cardinal Pell, “in the Catholic scheme of things, there’s no such thing as primacy of conscience.” At least not in any meaningful sense that actually grants Catholics freedom. Because as Rosa Luxemburg said, freedom is always the freedom of dissenters.
In the Catholic scheme of things, Catholics have a duty to obey the Church. But the clergy won’t tell you this. They’d prefer to tell the laity that their only duty is to believe, and I think progressive Catholics would prefer this, too. Why? Because Catholics are proud and even honored to be called believers. What do you call someone who is bound to obey?
 I’ll use the female pronoun because it’s RH and also to remind you that we’re celebrating 100 years of International Women’s Day.
 The Catholic Church requires all Catholics to accept three kinds of truths:
You must be wondering why truths should even be categorized. Isn’t something either truth or not truth at all? The reason is there are different degrees of acceptance required for each truth — and corresponding punishments for failing to do so:
Posted on 11 August 2011.
A new SWS survey confirmed old findings – most people support choice in family planning, including methods declared evil by some church leaders. But can legislators do what’s right and vote on the RH bill now, regardless of the parochial interests of their churches?
Will Congress finally do their duty, or will they be bullied once more into inaction? As Rep. Kimi Cojuangco of Pangasinan said,
I think it’s time for the House of Representatives to think, why are we there? Who do we represent? We are representatives of our constituents. We are not representatives of the Church.
Ironically, a well-known parable of Jesus celebrates the acts of a person who transcended his parochial interests and biases to simply do what’s right. He has no name, but is widely known as the Good Samaritan.
The story goes that a Jewish traveler on the road to Jericho was attacked by bandits and left half-dead. Later, a priest saw him but decided to just pass on the other side of the road. A fellow Jew came and did the same thing. Finally a Samaritan – a member of a people in conflict with the Jews – passed, saw the stricken man and helped, and probably saved his life. In the biblical account, Jesus replied with the parable when asked, “You tell us to ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ but who is our neighbor?”
The RH bill is like the wounded traveler to Jericho. It has been attacked as a bringer of death, illness, corruption, immorality and all things evil. It has been on this deadly road for over 10 years now. Legislators of many congresses have studied the proposed law, or at the very least heard the pros and cons of the most publicly debated measure of recent history, only to walk away and bypass the bill without even a vote. The current congress is now nearing half of its three-year term, and 30 or so politicians are still in line as interpellators, with the obvious goal of delaying the process so that the bill gets bypassed again.
Lives and dreams are lost as the RH bill gets bypassed. While it is true that RH has unfortunately become a difficult battleground of values and beliefs, legislators can still choose. They can act like the scared, uncaring priest who failed the test of being a true neighbor despite his pious exterior and position of power within the dominant religion. Or they can follow the Good Samaritan.
Image above: El bon samarità by Pelegrí Clavé (1811–1880), from Wikimedia Commons
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