Student “Kidnaps” Eucharist: Catholic Controversy Conundrum

July 9, 2008

As Webster Cook, a student at the University of Central Florida, tells it, he was attending a Catholic Mass with a friend, was given the communion wafer, and wanted to show it to the friend in order to help explain Catholicism. He was accosted as he attempted to walk back to his seat with the wafer uneaten, and in defiance decided to leave the service with it (he later gave it back). Church officials tell it differently: Cook was never physically restrained, and he basically absconded unprovoked with what they believe is the body of Christ, holding it hostage just to make point about the public funding of religion (the service was held at a publicly funded school).

Worldwide controversy ensues. Bill Donahue calls his act “beyond hate speech.” The local priest calls it “kidnapping.”

PZ Myers has his usual blistering take of course, mostly agog at the seeming absurdity of the whole matter: it’s just a cracker!

I guess I have more sympathy for the outraged Catholics than he allows. Read the rest of this entry »

Obama Against “Mental” Exceptions to Late-Term Abortion Bans

July 4, 2008

Obama’s stance on abortion is pretty much in the mainstream of the Democratic Party, but with one critical difference when it comes to late-term abortions (i.e. abortions post fetal viability). And, luckily, for him, it’s precisely the exception I would make. Obama doesn’t think that “mental distress” should qualify as an exception to bans on late term abortions. This position puts him at odds with pro-abortion rights groups and members of his own party.

Still, I think it’s the right one. Anti-abortion groups have a legitimate fear that sufficiently vague “mental” health exceptions could undermine the point of the ban entirely: any person can develop “tremendous emotional toll” even from a normal pregnancy. But that really doesn’t fall under the same situation as health exceptions in general, and in practice, this exception can basically serve as an end-run around the ban. Groups like NARAL, of course, paint things differently:

The official position of NARAL Pro-Choice America, the abortion rights group that endorsed Obama in May, states: “A health exception must also account for the mental health problems that may occur in pregnancy. Severe fetal anomalies, for example, can exact a tremendous emotional toll on a pregnant woman and her family.”

This is yet another situation in which I wish people on both sides of the abortion divide would just express what they actually mean: what specific conditions is NARAL talking about? Conditions like anencephaly, where the brain essentially has not formed properly, and the baby has no higher brain function and no chance of survival beyond a few weeks? (I’m in favor of allowing abortion in such cases) Or does it mean Down’s Syndrome, a missing arm, or a partially malformed gut? All of the latter could be called “severe anomalies,” but such babies are essentially normal in terms of their capacity to feel and suffer. (I’m against abortion in such cases) The details matter.

In any case, while he’s sure to take fire from liberals on this, Obama has about as much chance of getting any honest credit for his stance as the New York Mets do of winning the Superbowl. Anti-abortion groups are, of course, having none of it:

David N. O’Steen, the executive director of National Right to Life, said Obama’s remarks to the magazine “are either quite disingenuous or they reflect that Obama does not know what he is talking about.”

“You cannot believe that abortion should not be allowed for mental health reasons and support Roe v Wade,” O’Steen said.

O’Steen is technically right here: a companion case to Roe was Doe v. Bolton, which defined “health” exceptions very broadly, including considerations of “emotional, psychological, familial” factors. But O’Steen is still essentially dissembling: the definition, while broad, is also vague enough that someone like Obama could reasonably believe that those other factors could almost never, on their own, justify an exception.

O’Steen, of course, has no reason to be charitable and honest in how he portrays Obama. Even if Obama really is closer to his own stance on this issue (which he already has a decent reason to doubt), Obama’s party taking power in the White House is far far more important to his chosen issue (outlawing abortion) than giving him credit for a minor agreement and risking rank-n-file anti-abortion voters potentially seeing Obama more favorably.

More Misleading Atheist/Theist Surveys

July 4, 2008

Tiny Frog has an excellent post taking a look at a recent poll being shopped around by several Christian news outlets purporting to show that atheists are less moral and sociable than theists.

Putting the subject matter completely aside, it’s a very insightful look into the way that survey results can give highly flawed or misleading pictures of people’s attitudes, both depending on what data you choose to report (and the sociologist in question, Reginald W. Bibby, does seem to make some rather suspicious choices), how you present it, and the questionable implications one might want to draw about causality (as far as I can tell, the survey doesn’t even include any statistical controls, making the claimed social implications nigh meaningless).

I actually wouldn’t be surprised to find that atheists and theists differ significantly in many respects (though I doubt this sort of uncontrolled study, even sincerely undertaken, could reveal much about them). Given Western society’s mixed and highly diverse attitudes about religion, theists and atheists likely have some fairly different experiences. Might be nice if theists and atheists spent more time comparing notes, rather than comparing statistical flufferies.

More Journalists Have Been Waterboarded Than Have Terrorists

July 3, 2008

I’m a staunch anti-torture guy. The recent revelation that our government decided to literally copy the very same torture techniques used on our own soldiers in the Korean War (from a document discussing how the techniques were used to elicit false confessions, no less) is vile and embarrassing.

But I have to admit, despite what an incredibly pompous jerk Freddy Gray is while pointing it out, and as much as I disagree with his ultimate purpose of belittling the issue of torture, there is something sort of amusing and surreal about the fact that the number of journalists who have subjected themselves to waterboarding is probably now higher than the number of terrorists the U.S. used the actually technique on.

Still, forming a satirical group called “Stop Journalists From Waterboarding Themselves” is a bit much.

Medved Can’t Stand Up to Rauch On Gay Marriage

June 30, 2008

I’ve made no secret that I’m a big fan of libertarian Jonathan Rauch. His book “The Kindly Inquisitors” is one of the best defenses of free speech and free inquiry in the modern era. And he made what is probably the best conservative case for gay marriage in his 2004 book, “Gay Marriage: Why it is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America.” Most recently, he had an essay published in the Wall Street Journal, recounting that latter argument in brief: “Gay Marriage is Good for America

Well, talk-show roustabout Michael Medved isn’t impressed by Rauch’s argument. But, as you’d expect from a fellow of the Discovery Institute, bad ideas ensue.

Read the rest of this entry »

Texas Legalizes Abusive Exorcisms… Or Does It?

June 28, 2008

There’s been much dismay in the rational-o-sphere about a recent ruling by the Texas Supreme Court. The ruling concerns a case in which two “exorcisms” were performed on a minor, leading her to be injured and psychologically traumatized. The original jury held the church accountable, awarding the girl a few hundred thousand dollars. The Texas Supreme Court, on the other hand, found that the actions of the church were protected under the 1st amendment.

On the surface, this sounds like a pretty scary ruling: basically saying that a group can claim religious warrant for forcibly restraining someone against their will, injuring them, traumatizing them, and then get off scott free. But as I read through the full text of the opinion, the case looks decidedly more complicated.

Read the rest of this entry »

Jesus Was Wrong: Give Charity in Public, And Don’t Diversify

June 22, 2008

Peter Singer is the sort of philosopher that everyone feels free to sneer at and denigrate… all without ever actually reading his actual writing or seriously addressing his arguments. Which is too bad, because he’s one of the few ethicists out there that sincerely treats moral inquiry as an exercise in figuring out what’s actually right to do, as opposed to simply finding ways to better justify what we already do… or at least already believe is right (our moral habits, as it were).

Along these lines, Singer has recently challenged Biblical instruction of Jesus to give charity in private.

Singer doesn’t deny that the abstract idea of some person anonymously giving large sums of money without any hope of thanks appeals to our sense of what true altruism entails. But the reasons that we find that image so appealing and the actual good that the ideal accomplishes simply may not match up.

The abstract nature of the image the core of its virtue: it’s nice an clean and untroubled in our minds. It allows us to conceptually rule out all possible suspect motives from the person’s action other than either true concern for others and secretly feeling good about oneself. Thus, in our minds, we can be certain that the person’s act was pure and saintly. This was the ideal Jesus was so approving of: an otherwise reasonable disgust with people who give lavishly to impress others rather than to actually help them.

But as Singer argues, people in the midst of disasters don’t need anonymous saints, or require some level of purity in motive. What they need are actual people with faces to help and comfort them and as many charitable resources as possible applied to their problem.

And here’s the key point: everything we know about human behavior implies that people respond to peer pressure when it comes to charitable giving: if they see their neighbors giving, they’ll be more likely to give, and give still more. Thus, the good that setting an example does by far outweighs whatever secret motives someone might have for doing it. Those motives remain as mere thoughts in the head. The aid is still aid, and public knowledge of it sets and example that can be followed.

Singer doesn’t deny that a lot of lavish giving and “nameplate” philanthropy is contaminated with bad motives. But that’s largely because those bad motives lead people not to think very seriously about what charities are really the most important, not because the public nature of giving is itself bad:

Surely, what matters is that something was given to a good cause. We may well look askance at a lavish new concert hall, but not because the donor’s name is chiseled into the marble faade. Rather, we should question whether, in a world in which 25,000 impoverished children die unnecessarily every day, another concert hall is what the world needs.

On that note, economist Steven Landsburg has even more interesting advice about charitable giving: if you want to do the most good, it rarely, if ever, makes sense to diversify the recipients of your charity.

His argument is deceptively simple:

You might protest that you diversify because you don’t know enough to make a firm judgment about where your money will do the most good. But that argument won’t fly. Your contribution to CARE says that in your best (though possibly flawed) judgment, and in view of the (admittedly incomplete) information at your disposal, CARE is worthier than the cancer society. If that’s your best judgment when you shell out your first $100, it should be your best judgment when you shell out your second $100.

So why is charity different? Here’s the reason: An investment in Microsoft can make a serious dent in the problem of adding some high-tech stocks to your portfolio; now it’s time to move on to other investment goals. Two hours on the golf course makes a serious dent in the problem of getting some exercise; maybe it’s time to see what else in life is worthy of attention. But no matter how much you give to CARE, you will never make a serious dent in the problem of starving children. The problem is just too big; behind every starving child is another equally deserving child.

That is not to say that charity is futile. If you save one starving child, you have done a wonderful thing, regardless of how many starving children remain. It is precisely because charity is so effective that we should think seriously about where to target it, and then stay focused once the target is chosen.

And, through, the suspicious sorcery of economic theory, he even translates his argument into mathematics. Landsburg also makes the case that diversification may be a far better gauge of selfish motives than mere publicity:

People constantly ignore my good advice by contributing to the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society, CARE, and public radio all in the same year–as if they were thinking, “OK, I think I’ve pretty much wrapped up the problem of heart disease; now let’s see what I can do about cancer.” But such delusions of grandeur can’t be very common. So there has to be some other reason why people diversify their giving.

I think I know what that reason is. You give to charity because you care about the recipients, or you give to charity because it makes you feel good to give. If you care about the recipients, you’ll pick the worthiest and “bullet” (concentrate) your efforts. But if you care about your own sense of satisfaction, you’ll enjoy pointing to 10 different charities and saying, “I gave to all those!”

The lesson here is clear: if you want to do the most good, give a lot of money to a single cause (one whose problem is huge relative to your contribution, and the one you think most objectively worthy), and tell everyone you know. Maybe they’ll conclude that you’re a bragging, self-aggrandizing sociopath. Who cares? The research shows that they’ll still be shamed into following suit. And for desperate people in need, the issue of what a bunch of first-world philanthropists think of each other is laughably irrelevant.