Oct 25, 2013

Bishops Behaving Badly

Catholic bishops are making headlines again and not in a good way. This week saw the suspension the "Bishop of Bling." It's a decisive action from the new pope that shows him actually putting his money where his mouth is, so to speak. One hopes it is a harbinger of things to come and that Pope Francis will start backing up more of his lovely rhetoric with decisions that reflect it. For a pope who seems to take the vow of poverty very seriously, the German bishop is downright embarrassing.

When Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst of Germany traveled to India last year to minister to poor slum dwellers, he reportedly flew first class.

This year, renovations of the Roman Catholic bishop's church-owned residence in the city of Limburg ran massively over budget to cover $620,000 worth of artwork, $1.1 million in landscaping and last-minute design revisions -- $42 million in all, billed to the Vatican and German taxpayers, Hamburg's tabloid daily Bild reported.

Dubbed the "Bishop of Bling" by European media that have been avidly tracking the bespectacled clergyman's lavish lifestyle, Tebartz-van Elst was suspended from his post by Pope Francis on Wednesday in a clear sign that the new pontiff is serious about diverting resources from the "princes of the church" to the paupers in its congregations.

Because Tebartz-van Elst is a bishop in Germany, there's more to this case than the obvious hypocrisy. For Germans, donations to their church aren't voluntary. Germany does not separate church and state and German church-goers pay taxes to support their churches.

In Germany, churches are largely funded by taxes – there is no direct prohibition between mixing Church and State as there is in the United States. The origins of the so-called “church tax” can be traced back to the Middle Ages.

Here’s how the “church tax” or Kirchensteuer works: taxpayers register affiliation with a church or religious group on a Lohnsteuerkarte (kind of like a form W-2). Registration indicates where and how much tax you’ll pay: the rate is 9% for Catholic and Protestant churches in most of the country with a slightly lower rate of 8% in the heavily Catholic states of Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg (a similar tax, the Kultussteuer, applies to the Jewish community). If you aren’t a member of a church, you can apply to opt out of the tax – but prepare to prove that you’re actually avoiding church and not taxes. It will also cost you money if you want to leave the church: you have to register and pay a fee (depending on the location, it can run about $50). Failure to pay the tax, however, doesn’t come without consequences: if you don’t pay into the Catholic Church, you may not receive sacraments (except before death), work in a church or church-related entity (including hospitals) or serve as a godparent; it’s very nearly like excommunication though the Catholic Church really doesn’t like to use the word.

Why all of the pressure to pay into the system? The tax is a lucrative source of income for churches in the country. In 2013, the Catholic Church alone collected €5.2 billion ($7.18 billion US) in church taxes. The revenue is thought to represent nearly 70% of church funding inside Germany – though the numbers are a bit clouded due to a lack of financial transparency.

Such legally compelled tithing definitely ups the ante when a steward of the church is caught soaking in a $20,000 bathtub.

In another case of mind-melting hypocrisy, it was revealed earlier this month that a Bishop who resigned in July, over the paternity of a child, pleaded with the birth mother to have an abortion. As the Catholic Church tirelessly drives global policies on abortion and birth control that result in staggering maternal death rates all over the third world -- not to mention Ireland -- a bishop in Peru not only, violated celibacy rules and knocked a woman up, but then begged her to break that country's laws.

Ex-Bishop Guillermo Abanto has officially recognized the paternity of the two-year-old daughter he fathered with a young woman that he met though his work as a priest.

. . .

However, Alexandra Daniela de la Lama, the child’s mother, has also come forward with unflattering details about the case. De la Lama alleges that Abanto asked her to abort the pregnancy, telling television program Punto Final, “Yes, he asked me not just one, but several times. He said ‘Are you sure you want to have it, that you don’t want to have an abortion?’”

Abortion is illegal in Peru except in cases where the life of the woman is endangered by the pregnancy. Furthermore, abortion is prohibited by the doctrines of the Catholic church.

So why was a sitting bishop so willing to dispense with a central doctrine of his faith? Well, the whole thing was just so bloody inconvenient and it might have forced him to actually make changes in his own life. De la Lama explained.

"When I got pregnant, he began to mourn, he did not know what to do. I expected him to drop everything and take responsibility. But he screamed at me and said 'You're crazy! So, stop being a priest, marry you, and live with you?!' So, I decided to find another solution", Lama further disclosed.

Bitches, man. They slow a playuh down.

Meanwhile, another Peruvian bishop was removed due to sex abuse allegations.

Gabino Miranda, auxiliary bishop in Ayacucho, Peru, has been removed from his post after allegations surfaced that he sexually abused children. Little is known at this point about the nature or number of the accusations, but church officials have confirmed to the press that Miranda’s dismissal was the result of allegations of sex abuse.

Bishop Emeritus of Chimbote Luis Bambarén told RPP Noticias that the swift action by church authorities can be credited to Pope Francis strict policies on sex abuse scandals: “It’s what the pope said— zero tolerance […] Those are very serious crimes, especially when it has to do with a bishop.”

By Vatican standards, that's beyond swift. It's the rough equivalent of breaking the sound barrier. So once again I am guardedly optimistic that Pope Francis may be really serious about change. It should come as no great surprise that such a proactive response to an accused pedophile has resulted in some grumbling.

It is heartening to see that Pope Francis is holding bishops to account on some of the issues that matter to the little people -- almost as heartening as it is annoying to see that some of the Vatican's harshest punishments are still reserved for those clergy who support women's and glbt rights.

An Australian priest vocal in his support of women's ordination has become the first person excommunicated for such beliefs under the papacy of Pope Francis.

Fr. Greg Reynolds of Melbourne, Australia, told NCR by email late Monday night his initial reaction was "shock" upon learning of his separation from the church. Australian media have reported he is the first member of the Melbourne archdiocese excommunicated and the first priest from the area laicized for reasons other than pedophilia.

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Oct 20, 2013

Stealing Malala

An excellent write-up in Salon takes on Sam Harris's disturbing crush on Malala Yousafzai.

In an era of narcissistic self-obsession, there’s something to be said for the value of self-awareness. This week, atheist philosopher Sam Harris leapt forward to claim Malala Yousafzai as another trophy in his one-man jihad against Muslims and the weak-kneed “Muslim-apologists” he perceives on the left.

That Harris has been denounced as a crude, pseudo-intellectual bigot for his various tirades about the monolithic evil of Muslims didn’t do much to deter him; but what was most interesting about his latest missive was its complete disregard for Malala’s actual words and opinions. Either he didn’t listen to her words at all before plastering her face on his website or he was too contemptuous of her to think it necessary.

According to Harris:
Given the requisite beliefs…. an entire culture will support such evil. Malala is the best thing to come out of the Muslim world in a thousand years. She is an extraordinarily brave and eloquent girl who is doing what millions of Muslim men and women are too terrified to do—stand up to the misogyny of traditional Islam
It’s worth pausing here to listen to whether Malala thinks that she is standing up to her own evil culture and the misogyny of “traditional Islam”:
“The Taliban think we are not Muslims, but we are. We believe in God more than they do, and we trust him to protect us…..I’m still following my own culture, Pashtun culture….Islam says that it is not only each child’s right to get education, rather it is their duty and responsibility.”
Whatever one thinks of this, given that these are Malala’s beliefs, anyone with a modicum of decency or respect for her would not go ahead and use her suffering as a tool to attack the very things she is fighting to defend. Yet Harris takes up this opportunity with great vigor. For him it doesn’t matter whether Malala believed she was defending traditional Islam, because anyone who tries to differentiate Islam from the acts of extremists are part of the “tsunami of stupidity and violence breaking simultaneously on a hundred shores … the determination that ‘moderate’ Islam not be blamed for the acts of extremists.’”

Another way of saying that is that Harris's blog post doesn't make a lick of sense. As I said when I first read it last week, if Muslims like Yousafzai are standing up to the Taliban and demanding education for girls, how is Islam the problem?

In Harris's world, no "Moderate Muslims" have ever pushed back against extremists before -- just Malala. She apparently sprung up out of nowhere to become the lone voice in the entire Muslim world to stand up for a girl's right to be educated.

Throughout its roughly twenty year history, the Taliban has targeted education for women and girls, closing schools, forcing professional women out of their jobs and into burqas, and confining all females to their homes. A logical person, even with no real knowledge of the Muslim world, would deduce from that basic and well-known set of facts, that countless Muslim women in Afghanistan and Pakistan were educated and working in a range of careers long before the Taliban came along. Sam Harris, on the other hand, somehow deduces that Islam has been oppressing women and keeping them from getting an education for at least a thousand years. Huh? What then does the Taliban keep closing down?

Harris's post, entitled "No Ordinary Violence," goes on with such fact-free, ahistorical leaps in logic for many florid paragraphs. Muslims kill because they are Muslims. Period. They're deluded by promises of paradise. Iraq, Afghanistan, drone attacks... all irrelevant. In fact, all that military action would be unnecessary but for their religion-fueled, as opposed to clinical, insanity. No. Really. He says that.

Yes, our drone strikes in Pakistan kill innocent people—and this undoubtedly creates new enemies for the West. But we wouldn’t need to drop a single bomb on Pakistan, or anywhere else, if a death cult of devout Muslims weren’t making life miserable for millions of innocent people and posing an unacceptable threat of violence to open societies.

Blithely ignoring the fact that his new-found heroine is a passionate Muslim, Harris exploits her iconic status to bash the religion she loves.

Shortly after Harris posted his paean-to-Malala/anti-Muslim-screed, it was reported that she had told President Obama that, actually, the drones? Kind of a problem.

“I thanked President Obama for the United States’ work in supporting education in Pakistan and Afghanistan and for Syrian refugees,” she said in the statement. “I also expressed my concerns that drone attacks are fueling terrorism. Innocent victims are killed in these acts, and they lead to resentment among the Pakistani people. If we refocus efforts on education it will make a big impact.” 

Since then, not a peep from Harris about how his golden girl went off the script that exists only in his head and told the leader of the free world that it might just be ordinary violence after all.

Amazingly enough, this is not the worst thing Harris has ever said about Muslims. He has a long, documented history of bigotry masquerading as intellectual enlightenment. Even among New Atheists, his animus toward Muslims is extreme. And New Atheism has created a lot of slickly packaged Islamaphobia.

When criticism of religion morphs into an undue focus on Islam - particularly at the same time the western world has been engaged in a decade-long splurge of violence, aggression and human rights abuses against Muslims, justified by a sustained demonization campaign - then I find these objections to the New Atheists completely warranted. That's true of [Richard] Dawkins' proclamation that "[I] often say Islam [is the] greatest force for evil today." It's true of [Christopher] Hitchens' various grotesque invocations of Islam to justify violence, including advocating cluster bombs because "if they're bearing a Koran over their heart, it'll go straight through that, too". And it's true of Harris' years-long argument that Islam poses unique threats beyond what Christianity, Judaism, and the other religions of the world pose.

Not only has Harris aligned himself ideologically with European fascists who dream of turning Muslims "into soap," he opines in The End of Faith that, "Some propositions are so dangerous that it may be ethical to kill people for believing them."

I think it's safe to say that when one begins advocating genocide, one has given up the moral high ground.

The rabid anti-Muslim bias of New Atheists has come under increasing scrutiny as their fundamentalist zeal to rid the world religion has gained ground. They simply don't disparage all religions equally. Dawkins, for instance, has made numerous statements along the lines of “Religion poisons everything, but Islam is in a toxic league of its own.”

Dawkins has also refused to distance himself from Harris's many outrageous statements, saying at one point:

You mean the Koran and the Hadith don’t say what Sam claims they say? I’m delighted to hear that, but can you substantiate it? I do hope you can, then we can all sleep easier. If, on the other hand, Sam is summarising Islamic scriptures accurately, why should I be ashamed of myself for simply quoting Sam’s accurate summary?

What may be evident from that statement is something that he's also admitted publicly. He's never read the Quran.

Dawkins, in a recent rant on Twitter, admitted that he had not ever read the Quran, but was sufficiently expert in the topic to denounce Islam as the main culprit of all the world’s evil: “Haven’t read Koran so couldn’t quote chapter and verse like I can for Bible. But [I] often say Islam [is the] greatest force for evil today.” How’s that for a scientific dose of proof that God does not exist?

A few days later, on March 25, there was this: “Of course you can have an opinion about Islam without having read the Qur’an. You don’t have to read “Mein Kampf” to have an opinion about Nazism.”

It’s an extraordinary feat for an Oxford scholar to admit that he hasn’t done the research to substantiate his belief, but what’s more extraordinary is that he continues to believe the unsupported claim. That backwards equation — insisting on a conclusion before even launching an initial investigation — defines the New Atheists’ approach to Islam. It’s a pompousness that only someone who believes they have proven, scientifically, the nonexistence of God can possess.

As we know from years of seeing Dawkins and Harris in action, whatever scholarly standards they may apply to work in their own fields of science go right out the window when they start talking -- and writing -- about religion. They are scientists. Therefore everything they do is scientific, even when it isn't, seems to be the reasoning. As Terry Eagleton observed, "Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology."

That problem of ignorance masquerading as scholarly rigor can only be compounded when they start holding forth on a religion in which they were not raised. That they have a childlike grasp of Judaism and Christianity can carry them a ways in bashing both. But, notably, they've both made a great deal of apology for both of those religions as compared to the Islam of which they have zero experiential knowledge.

Now, into the thick of that fiercest of ironies, Sam Harris has dragged a devout Muslim, magically transforming her courage and faith into a testament to his lack of both. Hasn't she suffered enough?

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Oct 14, 2013

Once Upon a Time There Was a Chymical Wedding

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"Stories are medicine. I have been taken with stories since I heard my first. They have such power; they do not require that we do, be, act anything -- we need only listen. The remedies for repair or reclamation of any lost psychic drive are contained in stories." ~ Clarissa Pinkola Estés in Women Who Run With the Wolves

I'm a little late to this party -- two years to be exact -- but I have recently fallen in love with Once Upon a Time. Once again I tried to curl up with a little diversionary fluff and was instead abruptly pulled into the heart of the mysteries. As ever with these pop culture creations I am left to wonder if the writers are just randomly pulling these profound archetypes out of their deep subconscious, totally unaware of the implications, or if it's a carefully scripted foray into Gnosis.

The central plot is clever and entertaining. The evil queen from Snow White, she of the poison apple, takes her revenge by casting a spell that drags a myriad of fairy tale characters into a small town in Maine. There they live trapped in time and unable to remember who they really are. But the curse may be undone by the daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming, who was secreted out of the enchanted forest before the curse fell and predestined to return at the age of 28. Twenty-eight years later Emma Swan is living a lonely life in Boston until a young boy claiming to be the son she put up for adoption pulls her to Storybrooke. He insists she must fulfill her destiny and break the curse cast by his adoptive mother, who he is quite sure is the evil queen in his very unusual book of  fairy tales.

Each episode weaves together the complimentary narratives of the characters' lives in Storybrooke and their history as fairy tale creatures. It's skillful, if somewhat predictable, storytelling. But it's in the imagery that the creators tip their hand. They speak the language of symbols far too well for me to take the series lightly. From the first episode I was struck by the subtle but brilliant use of sacred geometry, character names, and striking tableaux. 

It is essentially a mystical story employing the most basic numerical code to appeal to conscious oneness.

Oct 10, 2013

TEDx Gets Punk'd

While some of us were focused on TED's censorious and insular nature, the many people who don't care about that were noticing something else: TED has simply jumped the shark. Snooty articles are popping up all over the place opining about the fact that the once clever packager of ideas has devolved into self parody. TED hate is the new black.

And so the stage was set for the self-important TED talk to be lampooned by an ostensibly serious TEDx speaker.

Everyone is annoyed by TED Talks these days, those vacuum-sealed idea nuggets. So comedian Sam Hyde sneaking onto an (independently organized) TEDx program at Drexel University last weekend and delivering this incomprehensible 20 minute talk on the "2070 paradigm shift" must be seen as a symbolic victory in the war on bullshit, even if it gets kind of old after minute 10. (Which is, I think, part of the joke.)

The best part: "What inspire me, is teaching African refugees how to program Javascript. What inspires me is finding out how to use MagLev trains to get resources to the moon. These are the challenges that tomorrow's going to face."

And on it went:

“Guys, pat yourselves on the back right now, okay? I’m not gonna let you stop until I see everyone do it,” he began. “That pat on the back is for saving the world.” Hyde launched into a discursive presentation that touched on the “trash economy,” described a future in which gay men will develop the ability to procreate, and recounted his experience traveling to Africa with Elon Musk to give iPads to the impoverished:

“Now, we looked at the data, and what we found surprised us. What we found was that culture is a sewer. We’ve got lewd media, nasty bedroom things on TV. And they’re sexualizing young girls and it’s getting to the point where even I have a problem with it. And it shouldn’t be that way.”

. . .

“Great ideas come in all shapes and sizes,” Hyde said in his talk on Saturday. “9/11, September 11th. We’re gonna use some reverence here and not be silly about this, but look at what they accomplished with no weapons and just 11 guys who didn’t even speak English? And that proves that sometimes great ideas are actually horrible ideas.”

Fifteen minutes of this shite, delivered by a lunatic in a sweatsuit and a gladiator breastplate that looks like it was nicked from a college theater department discard pile. It is at once insufferable and hilarious.

So how did Sam Hyde get past the door? Apparently with a pitch perfect pitch to TEDx organizers so drenched in narcissistic bullshit that they couldn't tell the difference.

One wonders if the organizers of TEDx whiffed on vetting Hyde, which wouldn’t have taken more than a few minutes of Googling. [Dhairya] Pujara was not immediately available to comment afterward, but Hyde allegedly fed them a good story. Hyde said: “I told them I had just returned from Mogadishu where I was shooting war journalism following this group of women cleaning up the neighborhood, and by picking up trash, they had lowered crime rate. So it’s like broken window theory there, or whatever the fuck. A little Malcolm Gladwell. [They] wrote back and said, ‘Wow, that’s exciting. We got some real hard hitting stuff here.’”

I can't help noticing that he titled his talk with the phrase that should have made him an easy target for TED censors: "paradigm shift." But I guess as long as he wasn't talking about non-local consciousness or the correlation between nutrition and health, he could squeak by.

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