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Last night I was a panelist on the monthly FDA podcast (link to follow once it is on iTunes) discussing the question of whether or not political parties based on religious principles should be allowed to form in democratic countries. Besides me, there were a couple of representatives from the Party of Concerned Christians (Artur and Jim) that do indeed base their platform directly on the Bible, one very excitable member of FDA (Dan) and the moderator and founder of FDA (Stephen).

An interesting topic, but I think the question is ill-formed. I have no problem with the formation of any political party regardless of platform (within the limits set out on free speech). I think placing any unreasonable limitations on what a political party can stand for (again, with the same caveats) is fundamentally and fatally antidemocratic. Dan was the only dissenter on this, and I think he’s plain wrong. What he’s afraid of is theocracy. No argument there, particularly if one uses the Bible as the basis of political platforms. The two Christian members of the panel disagreed, of course, but offered absolutely no substance in rebuttal. Let’s face it – the Old Testament is strong evidence of a patently evil god and if that god were to exist there is no way I would possibly even consider worshiping it. Read More »


Oh, happy day! No, possums… I am not having a religious experience. I am not finally seeing the light (I think I already have, thanks). But president and CEO of the Calgary Flames Ken King finally has. Hey, Ken! What the hell took you so long?

I was at our local pub with my wife last night playing NTN when I happened to notice a splash screen on TSN that showed Darryl Sutter’s resume as GM (the first point on it, the only positive one, had more to do with his coaching than GM duties – the amazing run to the Stanley Cup finals in 2004). But there was no sound, so could not confirm my hopes and dreams had indeed come true till later.

Darryl’s head had been removed. The boom has fallen. The king is dead. Well, his position as GM is over, anyway. But for a die-hard Flames fan, this is big.

I’ve been calling for his head for years. I consider him to be one of the worst GMs in hockey history, and in recent years has made some of the most ridiculous trade decisions I have ever seen. To be fair, he’s made some good ones. He was responsible for acquiring Mikka Kiprusoff from San Jose, who is now as much a Flames icon as team captain Jerome Iginla (who has a street named after him in Las Vegas, but that’s another story). Indeed, I have always thought that the Kipper is the only player on the Flames who’s game is on night after night.

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This is an organization whose members purport to take an active interest in the welfare of those who place their trust in the Roman Catholic Church, but it is clear that it is a purely self-interested group that cares far more about how it looks to the outside world than caring for those who follow it. If there are two things I would ask the pope were I allowed this, they would be these:

1. Why on earth would you lie about condoms not being an effective public health care policy in the fight to stop the spread of AIDS in Africa?
2. Why is it that it is secular institutions – and not the Church – which creates public and open inquiries into the alarmingly large number of cases of sexual abuse by priests?

To Catholics who might read this, I ask: Do you feel safe allowing priests around your children without supervision? And don’t give me the lame “Oh, but the priests at our parish would never do that”. Parents of children who were abused thought that too. And the even more lame “Only a small percentage of priests commit the crime of pedophilia” doesn’t wash either. Why put your children unnecessarily in harm’s way? Why enter a lottery you don’t want to win?

We’ve seen a pope who, while known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (archbishop of Munich), approved treatment of confessed child abuser Peter Hullerman and then simply returned him to active duty as a priest. Six years later Hullerman began a prison sentence for child molestation. A decade later, while Ratzinger was head of the Vatican office charged with investigating accusations of pedophilia (once called the Inquisition, no less), intervened in the defrocking of Lawrence Murphy who sexually assaulted 200 boys at a Wisconsin school for the deaf. Two hundred! Murphy wrote to Ratzinger pleading “I simply want to live out the time that I have left in the dignity of my priesthood.” Ratzinger, showing vastly more consideration to this monster than to its victims, complied. Murphy spent not one day in court, let alone prison, for his heinous crimes. The man who would be pope took away even the meager justice of defrocking from those Murphy assaulted. No closure for the victims yet again. Ratzinger similarly resisted defrocking California priest Stephen Kiesle, urging “as much paternal care as possible” for the sexual predator. Kiesle began serving a six-year sentence in 2004 and is a registered sex offender.

More recently, the Vatican has finally said law enforcement should be notified. “Civil law concerning reporting of crimes to the appropriate authorities should always be followed,” the Vatican guidelines said. Ya think? Why did any of these bishops need to be told this in the first place?

Jeffrey Lena, the Vatican’s U.S. attorney, has argued that there was nothing in the canon law that guides the church that precluded reporting.

“It’s beyond dispute that the canon law does not mandate non-reporting,” he said. “These guidelines may help clarify that point for people who are less familiar with canon law.”

Let me say something here: When it comes to reporting crimes – especially those involving abuse! – why the fuck would anyone even consider “canon law”? Who cares? This is exactly the kind of thinking that got the Vatican into this mess in the first place! And why is it that where a physician has knowledge or or even suspects incidents of sexual or physical abuse is mandated BY LAW to notify law enforcement agencies and the clergy is not? That must change. The Church has policed itself for far too long and is completely unworthy of any trust in this matter.

And now some high-up clown in a funny hat, the Vatican’s Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone has come out to say that it is homosexuality and not celibacy that is to blame…

“Many psychologists and psychiatrists have demonstrated that there is no relation between celibacy and pedophilia. But many others have demonstrated, I have been told recently, that there is a relation between homosexuality and pedophilia. That is true,” he told a news conference. “That is the problem.”

Let me get this straight… He was told this so it must be true? Told by who? What published studies can he point to which actually show a link between homosexuality and pedophilia? These people must get stoned on all that incense.

Nor is this at all relevant. I wouldn’t care if there were indeed a relationship (there’s not) between the two. This is a smoke screen. The problem lies with covering up sexual assault and not dealing properly with those committing the crimes. Heck, they coddle them. There is only one appropriate and morally justifiable action to take, and it’s nothing to do with the centuries old “how will the Church look”. The perpetrators must be brought to justice for the sake of the victims and the victims themselves aided through their pain. Defrocking is an afterthought. It’s not even a real punishment.

Robert Cornellier, whose brother was assaulted in the 70’s has some great advice. In a Canada AM interview, he said

“It’s a PR reaction because the world is reacting to what has come out in the past weeks,” he told Canada AM from Montreal. “I say to the victims, don’t go to the bishop or the clergy, go to the police, that’s the only way people can get some kind of justice”

Amen. This is particularly relevant in light of the FACT that children in Ireland who were abused were coerced into vows of silence. The head of the Catholic Church in Ireland – Cardinal Sean Brady – was present during these blatant attempts at hiding these crimes. This link has an overview of allegations of abuse and cover-up in a number of countries. The sheer magnitude of the whole thing when seen together like this makes me sick.

And now it’s the media’s fault. An interesting defence. Is it the media’s fault that priests assaulted children? No. Is it the media’s fault that the Church failed in its moral duties to bring these cases to light and willingly make restitution to the victims? No. And the pope’s weak apologies are hardly worth mentioning. Much more than an mere apology is needed. “So sorry. Too bad you are going through a rough spot. Stiff upper lip, old chap! Ta ta!” I sense nothing sincere or contrite in the pope’s apologies.

I’m not talking necessarily about financial restitution, though that should be an option. Counseling for the victims – no matter how long ago the assault occurred! – would be nice. And these should be given without resorting to legal action. Getting anything out of the Church – no matter what its representatives did to their victims – shouldn’t be like a modern-day Sisyphus story thousands of times retold.

A recent Vatican editorial says the claims were an “ignoble” attack on the Pope and there was no “cover-up”. I don’t actually believe that there was a cover-up in the sense that there was some arch-conspiracy from the get-go. I do think that there were many incidents of cover-ups resulting from a shared mindset that the image of the Church was paramount, even over the welfare of those its representatives harmed. And that is where the insidiousness of all this lies. While it may not be written down anywhere, it is a de facto doctrine that how the Church looks takes precedence rather than the welfare of its flock. This leads to poor and sometimes criminal actions aside from the sexual assaults by officers of the Church. To describe them as “well-meaning” would be misguided and can only be viewed as such from within the Church itself, not from outside. It’s just another (and ongoing) example of how religion poisons everything. But to say that the pope was not involved and didn’t share this mindset that pervades the church hierarchy is demonstrably nonsense. I urge the Vatican to get out of this damage control activity and just do right by those it wronged.

Ever had the question, “If you don’t believe in God, how do you explain ‘free will’?” The question itself presupposes that the asker actually knows what ‘free will’ is. Indeed, just as we have a strong perception of the dual nature of humanity, we have this strong perception that we have ‘free will’. Long considered the domain of theology (and later philosophy), science has been reluctant to answer questions regarding ‘free will’. I’m not one to take philosophy in the absence of evidence in support seriously at all. My mantra has always been “Show me the evidence, or go home!” I don’t give philosophy alone the time of day. Some, like William Lane Craig, consider philosophical arguments as the gold standard and that it is up to others to prove his philosophy wrong. Phah! That’s just a burden of proof shift. It’s up to him to provide evidentiary support for his arguments. Craig is a good debater, but as a philosopher he’s a failure. How much of a failure? When I mentioned his name to a colleague at a CFI meeting, a member of the faculty of philosophy at the local U, her response was delicious: “Who?” (I had to put a dig in there on Craig. Anyone who can justify genocide is going to get hounded for life from me.)

But perceptions can be deceiving, and the perception of ‘free will’ is no exception. We have this belief that we control our actions which are initiated by conscious decision making processes. But, at the risk of lapsing into philosophy, consider what would happen without a huge amount of background processing by the brain. We would all be paralyzed into inaction by the sheer number of choices we would make in actions we don’t even consciously think about. The act of walking in bipedal fashion is a marvel of real-time sensory feedback processing only now being duplicated in robotics (and not all that well, either). Why on Earth would we be so arrogant as to believe that decision making isn’t just as automated?

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It’s been a while, my children. As a prominent member of the Center for Inquiry Alberta (a meaningless thing to say, since I have had little to do yet in my capacity aside from contributing ideas at meetings), I will be attending (and perhaps becoming part of) a presentation about atheism/secular humanism in a local mosque. I don’t know how much I can say about it at this time, so I will leave it there. It should be interesting and I will be putting my thoughts about that here when I can. This invitation by the Islamic community is a sight better than Bishop (insert favorite expletive here) Henry and his brand of intolerance towards atheism. Well, coming from a guy who places the moral health (read: imposes what he believes is moral) of young women above their real health by making access to Gardasil (a vaccine against some strains of HPV, a major cause of cervical cancer), I’m flattered!

But I digress. At our last CFI meeting, we discussed what we are potentially going to be asked at this presentation during the QnA part. We think the first question asked of us will be (bets, anyone?):

Isn’t God necessary for the existence of morality?

If we atheists ever talk about our atheism with the religious – and it is an inevitability when we do- this response is devastating: the Euryphro Dilemma. In a previous post on morality and why neither god nor religion are my moral compass I dealt mainly with the evolutionary development of moral behavior and the significant body of evidence behind it. If there is a single response to the claim that God is necessary for religion, it is Plato’s Euthyphro Dilemma

Is something moral because it is commanded by God, or is it commanded by God because it is moral ?

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We’re not sure if it will be Monday or Tuesday, but the ads are being made now and will be put on the buses this weekend. The message will be the same as for similar projects in other cities: “There’s probably no God. So stop worrying and enjoy your life.”

Let the wailing and gnashing of teeth of the sheep begin! (C’mon! If you are offended by such a mild message, how strong can your faith at all be?)

I shall pour a libation to one of the greatest scientists to have ever graced humanity. Maybe I’ll try that black forest cake martini again.

For any Calgarians out there, the Center for Inquiry Calgary will be meeting at 7 pm in the basement of Twisted Element for the celebration.

The other day I wrote a blog on the nurse who was suspended without pay last December for asking an elderly patient (who apparently did not solicit the invitation) . Caroline Petrie is now free to go back to work as a bank nurse (a nurse who is called in as needed on an hourly basis). There was a great deal of public pressure brought to bear on the hospital for the suspension, mainly out of a misunderstanding about what was going on. Some bloggers feel that this is a Christian being thrown to the lions, a martyr in the making.

Baloney. This was never about Petrie, but rather it was about patient care and upholding ethical standards. Simply put, Petrie violated a code of conduct to which she is professionally obligated to follow. If she has a problem with not abiding by a pretty standard section of medical ethics, she’s free to choose another career path.

It’s a bit easier to see the problem when the context is changed a bit, particularly for those who share Petrie’s religion of choice. For instance, if she had been a practitioner of voodoo and offered to sacrifice a chicken to Baron Samedi, I’m sure a very different brouhaha would have resulted. As Richard Sloan points out in his book Blind Faith: The unholy alliance of religion and medicine, there are just some boundaries a health care worker should not cross (and presents a few scary real-world examples of such outrageously unethical behavior by health care workers – I highly recommend the book).

Professionals are available to deal with a patient’s spiritual needs and if – and only if! – the patient requests such services, she could refer the patient to one of them. This is the professional way to handle such things. But Petrie (and many people who have no knowledge of medical ethics) think that acting in such an unprofessional manner is okay. Being Christian is not an excuse to violate codes of ethics.

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Many people might think this is okay –

Community nurse Caroline Petrie, 45, says she asked an elderly woman patient during a home visit if she wanted her to say a prayer for her.

I don’t. Nor would most health care professionals, religious or not. And unlike others who have blogged on this, I have the guts to leave my comments open.

A health care practitioner works in a hospital to provide one thing – health care. This can range from medical therapy to a good bedside manner. But offering religious services is outside any health care provider’s purview. Prayer is not a part any standard of care that I am aware of (and I have worked in a hospital setting). Such intercessory prayer has been extensively studied, with the largest (the STEP1 and MANTRA2,3 studies) showing almost no effect whatsoever. I say ‘almost’ because the STEP paradigm was of a clever design and was able tell show that people who knew they were being prayed for actually had worse outcome.

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This blog journey begins with a talk given by Hal Bidlack (Skepticality #057 – On being a Skeptic of Faith, Dr. Hal Bidlack, Ph.D.) aired on the Skepticality podcast. He begins by complaining that because he is a high-profile deist he is continually accosted by atheists at skeptic meetings (such as The Amazing Meeting, to which I must make a pilgrimage soon). They simply can’t understand how he can maintain a belief in a deity (no matter how nebulous such a deity might be) and try to convert him. 

I sympathize with both sides. I do not condone the actions of such atheists (we should really be above this kind of unethical thing), but I also share their mystification. Bidlack has every right to believe in a deity, but can he be a ‘good skeptic’ while doing so?

First, I will define what I mean by skepticism by taking the most appropriate meaning of the word given in the Wikipedia entry on the subject: 

Skepticism: a method of obtaining knowledge through systematic doubt and continual testing.

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