Pat Gunn (dachte) wrote,
Pat Gunn

From curled leaf to coral reef

Interest: history of science of boats. Humanity has had boats of various kinds for thousands of years, but I imagine understanding the basic science behind them came considerably after their initial construction; a curved leaf with a pebble on it in the river hints at a rather different kind of system than a twig floating in the river and we can't expect insight into the latter (relative density) to have helped make boats until long after the "dent the surface, brinksmanship style" boats had been around. This might be an example of a kind of engineering preceding foundational science, as early medicine presumably was.

Thought was inspired by my attempt to visit Carnival - apparently not enough goats have been sacrificed to Zeus, yielding gobs of rain that has visibly damaged some booths and closed the carnival area. I was there for a bit yesterday - the booths seem to be bigger this year. I almost forgot to go at all - it seems I'm no longer on the announcement lists for things happening around campus (missed SCS day because of that). Every year I've gone I've felt even more disconnected - hopefully I won't still be around for another one. I guess going to events and feeling enough that nobody wants me around that I should sit alone doesn't fulfill my continuing socialisation credit need.. Meh.

Iran has effectively banned former president Khatami from international travel, presumably for his role supporting the reformist parties in last year's election. As you may recall, his vice-president Mohammad Ali Abtahi was sentenced to prison for six years for treason, probably mostly for this post on his blog where he called the election a big swindle.

On two topics relating (however tangentally in one case) to Atheist movements,

  • A lawsuit by the Freedom From Religion Foundation (a secular group I've known for some time - I've been to a few of their events) led to the National Day of Prayer being declared unconstitutional. I'm not sure how much we ought to care about this - it's a win for church-state separation, but a very mundane one that doesn't really change anything and was likely ignored by most people who care. If they wanted something slightly more relevant of that sort, they'd restore the pledge of allegiance to its original form (the "under God" was added in the 50s or 60s as part of an anti-Communist Conservative upsurge) and restore the original national motto (also replaced during those years for the same reason). As-is, we have a lot of stupid days/months/years of recognition, and so this accomplishment is of very little interest to me (if I had ever donated money to the FFRF, I would be irritated to have them waste it on this).
However, I guess religion is a kind of sacred cow in our society, and it's productive to have atheists be unashamed of being who they are and pushing for reasonable secularism with whomever else is willing to stand with us on that issue. The more that people recognise that we're real people, the less likely we'll be the convenient bogeyman criticised behind our backs at the pulpits of various faiths. Over my life, I've known many religious folk who think they understand atheism (as if it were a single philosophy!) despite have met and spoken with either zero or one atheist over their lifespan - in the case of the first, they usually accept whatever slander their (surely good-intentioned but propogandising to keep people in the flock) religious leader paints of atheism, and in the case of the second, they usually have found some random person who hasn't really thought things through and projected that person onto everyone they know. If you search the web (or youtube) for articles using a phrase like "answering the atheist", you'll find both flavours, with elaborate arguments to go against either an imagined atheist or a single random one - it's not really fair, as a truly random person of any religion isn't likely to have a sophisticated philosophical understanding of their faith (to be fair, Judaism and Islam are much better about this than Christianity, for those who take their faiths seriously - their religious cultures take inculturation seriously). Atheists coming out of the closet will both aid secular philosophies and lifestyles in their efforts to interest people and will make it easier for religious people to find those of us on the other side of that line to ask questions and figure out who we are. Attaching faces, creeds and organisations to us will help - despite the broad (and often hilarious) misunderstandings across religious boundaries, I believe that at least people of Abrahamic faiths have at least a very bare map of what the other religions are about and perhaps what their creeds look like. If we were somewhere on that map too (rather than in the corner with the caption "Here be Dragons!"), it would be a positive step.

  • Second stanza, there's been some press about Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens call for arrest of Pope Ratzinger in an upcoming visit to Britain. I may have written a bit about this before (so pardon for the possible repeat or reformulation). Dawkins/Hitchens' call has been controversial, both among religious and seculars. PZ Myers has taken a firm stance on it as well. To recap a bit:
    • The arrest would be presumably regarding conspiracy to obstruct justice, focusing on Ratzinger's obstruction of efforts to defrock certain specific priests who molested children. His letter in one case rejecting the defrocking effort said (as far as I can tell - they are in Latin and I can't read Latin) that the dignity of the church was at stake and that more caution and delicacy in handling of the situation was warranted.
    • The church also was known to threaten excommunication of anyone who went to the authorities over the molestation, and the church itself never contacted authorities over this, leaving most cases unreported to police
    • There is a policy problem in the Church's demanding that priests be celibate (which is an unhealthy state of affairs for people, by modern psychology), although this is probably not an issue for trial (should it be? if so, how? If a group demands that its members deny human nature in a way that those efforts mentally unbalance them and nudge them towards criminal acts, should the group be liable?)
    • The pope, by convention, has sovereign immunity as he is usually recognised as monarch of a country (the remnants of the papal states, now reduced to the very tiny Vatican City). Sovereign Immunity is not as strong a tradition as it might once have been, either within nations or between them (Saddam Hussein's execution might have otherwise been legally problematic - I maintain that his removal was a terrible mistake). Any claims of Sovereign Immunity might in theory be dealt with by suggesting that Vatican City does not meet some standards for being a country (I'm not familiar with the arguments they might make - is it that they're not properly in the UN, that they have no real civilians, or ... I guess it's uncontroversial that they're more of an organisation-state than a state of people - even Monaco and Andorra (two nations that I really think should be stomped out, effectively removed from any EU protection and programmes, or forced not to act as tax havens and homes for the very rich) have residents proper).

With background, let's consider the issue. The key distinction is mens rea - I imagine we have two likely perspectives distinguished by that (there are of course other possibilities, but I find these most likely and feel they offer us the best consideration for analysis):

  • First, Pope Ratzinger, in his role as Cardinal and possibly later as Pope, was never motivated by anything but fairness in the cases of alleged abuse, and while embarassment of the church was a possibility, he was focused primarily on protecting the innocent. He neither instituted or enforced the keep-the-police-out-of-it-or-be-excommunicated practice
  • Second, Pope Ratzinger was aware of the likelihood that some priests had molested and likely would molest again, but used administrative coverups to try to keep handling of the affairs within canon law and private penance, preferring to shuffle priests away from contact with children rather than remove them from the hierarchy and possibly embarass the church.
Actually, maybe mens rea isn't exactly right here - the issues in (mostly) the second case would really boil down, as far as I understand, to:
  • Are concerted efforts to keep these matters out of the secular legal systems of the relevant countries acceptable/legal/moral?
  • To what extent might the pope's actions constitute conspiracy? Does the church bear liability for the actions of its members when those actions are ones it condemns and wishes to prevent?
  • Should the church be treated as a nation (because of its land and its extraterratoriality claims in past and present for its churches in some relevant nations) or as an organisation? (ties into "can the pope be arrested")
  • Is bad policy actionable (in terms of "we want to handle this ourselves") ? Or does this kind of policy create things that amount to criminality?
Thought experiment: If Microsoft comquered SeaLand (or bought some tiny island nation) and paid all denizens to leave, replacing them with top Microsoft employees, might they be able to claim sovereign immunity for their "company-ish" actions that country to become recognised by other nations? Is this actually analogous to Vatican City and the Roman Catholic Church?

Unfortunately, I haven't really reached a strongly felt conclusion. I am lightly inclined to think that it's fair not to treat Vatican City as a legitimate state because it is effectively an organisation that happens to have land (even if it is a continuation of a "government" that once actually did have land - the papal states). I believe that if the pope really was considering embarassment of the church as a factor in how to handle particular instances of this, that was inappropriate (even if it's very human - we all tend to get that way when it comes to saving face). I believe that the countries in question should take very seriously any efforts to keep things out of the courts and if they can make a very clear case that that has happened, it would be appropriate to disband the church in their territories or haul them into court (threats to rule of law don't quite amount to treason, but they're on that track as they delegitimise the legal system). I am not sure what the pope might be liable for nor if suing him for actions of the church is appropriate (he has an eerie amount of liability if that's the case). I don't know if that particular letter amounts to something lawsuit-worthy regardless of which of the two above beliefs we might take over it.

Oddly, I understand that Pope Wojtyla was considerably softer on the matter than Ratzinger.

Is this really an Atheist issue? I don't think it is, or at least it's tangental. It hinges on what might be terribly bad (maybe criminal?) policy on claims about the church espoused by various church leaders, but it only touches religious tradition insomuch as priesthood celibacy is a terrible idea, and as far as I understand that's not likely to come up in any lawsuit. That we need make zero effort to bridge over differences with many Roman Catholics on this issue suggests that it's really just a broad ethical issue, with very little particular relevancy to any causes atheist movements have. Any interest we have in it is really more as individuals or members of particular movements committed to reasonable rule of law and elimination of the harms caused. Branding it as an Atheist issue is a terrible mistake, first because those who do so look like the opportunist leaping on every misstep of another as a squirrel jumping on the last acorn on Earth, and second because it limits our ability to coordinate with others on the matter to provide a united front against the harms caused by this. I would like to believe that were we religious Roman Catholics, we would be just as outraged by this now that it's come to light.

Hooray for long-winded blathering. If you can't get enough (ha ha), I sometimes babble on Politico too (although their comment system leaves something to be desired - you know your comment system is awful if Youtube's is better).

Maybe I'll try to go to carnival again tomorrow - might make the weekend slightly less lonely.


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