Monthly Archives: January 2009

Around the World in 80 Faiths – Part 3

Here’s the third episode in this BBC series. Let me know what you think of it.


Leave a comment

Filed under Athesim

Smoked and Cured Meats Linked to Increased Risk of Leukemia In Children

One of the groups whose nutritional and diet information I trust is The Physicians’ Committee for Responsible Medicine. PCRM regularly conducts and reports on scientifically valid research into the health impact of diet. I receive regular updates about recent studies and have decided to pass these along on my blog. Here’s one I received today.

Smoked Meats and Leukemia

Smoked Meats and Leukemia

Leave a comment

Filed under animal rights, environment, health, humanism, science, social commentary, veganism

What Are The Limits of Tolerance?

I have just finished watching the fourth episode of the BBC series, Around the World in 80 Faiths. (There is a Youtube video of Episdoe 1 in an earlier blog entry. You will find Episode 2 embedded at the end of this blog entry.)

I have had several responses to the content of this series. The one I want to focus on here concerns the limits of my tolerance for cultural/religious differences.

It is undeniable that the history of western interaction with other cultures has been heavily tainted by racism, arrogance, and disdain. Colonialism and missionary zeal often worked together to “civilize” the heathen of other cultures, destroying indigenous cultures in the process. Thankfully, in the 2oth century an appreciation of the relativism of cultural norms and practices began to emerge, often culminating in an avowed commitment to multiculturalism. I applaud this development. I am so glad that both my sons grew up in Toronto, a city that the United Nations designated a few years ago as the most ethnically diverse city in the world. They have grown up thinking and experiencing that it is possible for different cultures to co-exist peacefully and even to appreciate each other.

I have also long-believed, however, that culture is not sacred. Although it is not easy to develop and justify a universal ethic, I believe the task is worthwhile. The human race took an important step forward towards that goal in 1948 with the adoption of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. While our species struggles to live up to the demands of that declaration, it at least said that, in principle, certain things supersede culture or religion, human rights being preeminent among them.

And that brings me to the BBC’s video series, Around the World in 80 Faiths. In episodes 3 and 4, a few different religious groups are filmed sacrificing animals during their ceremonies. Being an advocate of the right of all sentient beings to life and liberty, I obviously object to such a practice (as I object to their slaughter here in North America, their use in testing in our labs, etc.). Such practices exceed the limits of my tolerance for cultural/religious diversity.

And that gets me thinking, where are the limits of tolerance for cultural/relgious difference?

For example, I have tremendous difficulty with the idea that some children are being raised to believe that they have a divine right to a particular piece of the world’s geography and that it is God’s will that they defend it by force. I struggle with the fact that some children are taught — in contradiction to abundant, overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary —  that the world is only 6000 years old. I have great difficulty with the fact that some children are being indoctrinated with the belief that there really are witches who are controlled by demons and deserve to die. I have a problem with the fact that some children are being kept from learning the true history of how their ethnic group migrated to a particular place on the globe because it would conflict with the creation myths their group’s religion teaches. And I really have a problem with children’s bodies being mutilated and physically harmed as part of a religious ceremony without the possibility of their consent.

But do I have the right to interfere with the adults who believe, practice and teach such things?

When do we have the obligation to speak up and say that a certain practice is not merely culturally different, but wrong? How do we determine when our opposition to something is rooted in prejudice and when it is rooted in legitimate ethics? When do we intervene and put a stop to practices we judge unethical and when do we use reason and argument to seek change?

I would love to hear your opinions of what you consider to be the appropriate guidelines for dealing with cultural/religious differences that we find morally offensive.

Around the World in 80 Faiths – Episode 2


Filed under Athesim, humanism, politics, religion, social commentary

Pope Reinstates An Excommunicated, Holocaust-Denying Bishop

An article published yesterday in The New York Times reveals that Pope Benedict XVI has reinstated four excommunicated Bishops who were part of a schismatic group that formed in 1970 in opposition to the reforms of Vatican II. Among them is Richard Williamson who has repeatedly denied the holocaust (and claimed that the US staged 9/11 as a pretext for invading Afghanistan).

Reaction from Jewish groups has been understandably hostile.

Once more, the Vatican’s shady history with the Nazi’s raises its head.

Here’s the article:



VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI, reaching out to the far-right of the Roman Catholic Church, revoked the excommunications of four schismatic bishops on Saturday, including one whose comments denying the Holocaust have provoked outrage.

The decision provided fresh fuel for critics who charge that Benedict’s four-year-old papacy has increasingly moved in line with traditionalists who are hostile to the sweeping reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s that sought to create a more modern and open church.

A theologian who has grappled with the church’s diminished status in a secular world, Benedict has sought to foster a more ardent, if smaller, church over one with looser faith.

But while the revocation may heal one internal rift, it may also open a broader wound, alienating the church’s more liberal adherents and jeoparding 50 years of Vatican efforts to ease tensions with Jewish groups.

Among the men reinstated Saturday was Richard Williamson, a British-born cleric who

Richard Williamson, holocaust denier

Richard Williamson, holocaust denier

in an interview last week said he did not believe that six million Jews died in the Nazi gas chambers. He has also given interviews saying that the United States government staged the Sept. 11 attacks as a pretext to invade Afghanistan.

The four reinstated men are members of the Society of St. Pius X, which was founded by a French archbishop, Marcel Lefebvre, in 1970 as a protest against the modernizing reforms of the Second Vatican Council, also called Vatican II. Archbishop Lefebvre made the men bishops in unsanctioned consecrations in Switzerland in 1988, prompting the immediate excommunication of all five by Pope John Paul II.

Later that year, Benedict, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, sought to regularize the church’s relationship with the society. And as pope, he has made reinstating the Lefebvrists an important personal cause.

Indeed, even though the Society has given no public signs that it would reverse its rejection of Vatican II, one Vatican official, speaking on condition of anonymity on Saturday because talks were continuing, said that the Vatican was willing to discuss making the group a personal prelature. Pope John Paul II did the same with another conservative group, Opus Dei.

In a public statement Saturday, the Vatican said that the pope would reconsider whether to formally affirm the four men as full bishops, but it referred to the men by that title. It said talks would seek to resolve the “open questions” in the church’s relationship with the society.

In recent years, Benedict has made other concessions to the followers of Archbishop Lefebvre, who died in 1991. The overtures including allowing the broader recitation of the Latin Mass, which was made optional in the 1960s and includes a Good Friday prayer calling for the conversion of Jews.

Chester Gillis, who holds the Amaturo chair in Catholic studies at Georgetown University, said that both Benedict and John Paul II before him had tried for years to bring these traditionalists back into the church, partly out of concern that their movement might grow and create an entrenched parallel church.

“I don’t think the Vatican doesn’t care about Jewish-Christian relations, but at least it appears that internal church matters trump external relations,” he said. “They’re thinking, let’s heal our own house, whatever the consequences are externally.”

The recent comments by Bishop Williamson, who led a seminary in Ridgefield, Conn., in the 1980s and later moved to a seminary in Argentina, inevitably overshadowed the debate about traditional and liberal strains in the Roman Catholic Church.

In a November interview broadcast on Swedish television last week and widely available on the Internet, the bishop said that he believed that “the historical evidence” was strongly against the conclusion that millions of Jews had been “deliberately gassed in gas chambers as a deliberate policy of Adolph Hitler.”

The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said Saturday that Bishop Williamson’s comments had nothing to do with the pope’s decision to welcome the schismatic bishops back into the fold. He added, “These are declarations that we don’t share in any way.”

Father Lombardi called the revocation of the excommunications a fundamental step toward the unity of the church, after two decades of rift. “We have to consider it very positive news,” he said. He said that Benedict had “greatly suffered” at the group’s excommunication and had long been “a protagonist in relations with Lefebvre.”

Jewish groups criticized the decision to reinstate the men on Saturday, and the decision is sure to complicate talks between the Vatican and Israeli officials about a proposed papal trip to the Holy Land this year.

In a statement, the Anti-Defamation League said that lifting Bishop Williamson’s excommunication “undermines the strong relationship between Catholics and Jews that flourished under Pope John Paul II and which Pope Benedict XVI said he would continue when he came into his papacy.”

Abraham Foxman, the A.D.L.’s national director, added that the decree “sends a terrible message to Catholics around the world that there is room in the church for those who would undermine the church’s teachings and who would foster disdain and contempt for other religions, particularly Judaism. Given the centuries-long history of anti-Semitism in the church, this is a most troubling setback.”

In a statement released Friday, Rabbi David Rosen, the director of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, said, “We urgently call on the Vatican to reiterate its unqualified repudiation and condemnation of all and any Holocaust denial.”

In revoking the excommunications, the Vatican said it was responding to a letter sent in December by the director of the Society of Pius X, in which the bishops said they were “firmly determined to remain Catholic and to put all our efforts to the service of the church.”

The letter appeared to stop short of saying that the society would embrace, or even accept, the reforms of Vatican II.

“This is certainly a major concession to the traditionalists, part of a long effort by Rome to heal the only formal schism after Vatican II,” said John L. Allen Jr., a columnist for the National Catholic Reporter. “Politically, this certainly emboldens the conservative reading of the council and emphasizes what Benedict XVI has repeatedly called the ‘continuity’ of Vatican II with earlier periods of church history.”

In a letter sent to followers on Saturday, Bishop Bernard Fellay, the director of the Society of St. Pius X and one of the four reinstated, said: “Thanks to this gesture, Catholics attached to tradition throughout the world will no longer be unjustly stigmatized and condemned for having kept the faith of their fathers.”

He added that the society welcomed an opportunity to talk with the Vatican “to explain the fundamental doctrinal reasons which it believes to be at the origin of the present difficulties of the church.”

George Weigel, a biographer of John Paul II, said he was troubled by Bishop Fellay’s implication in his letter that the schismatic group represented the tradition, while “the rest of us are, somehow, the true schismatics.”

He added: “It is not easy to see how the unity of the Church will be enhanced unless the Lefebvrists accept Vatican II’s teaching on the nature of the Church, on religious freedom, and on the evil of anti-Semitism, explicitly and without qualification; otherwise, you get cafeteria Catholicism on the far right, as we already have on the left.”

Laurie Goodstein contributed reporting from New York.

Leave a comment

Filed under Athesim, humanism, politics, religion, social commentary

A Poignant and Thoughtful Piece About the Right to Die

The following is a reprint from Times Higher Education.


It is monstrously wrong that patients cannot ask for euthanasia

8 January 2009

Soran Reader, a moral philosopher facing the prospect of losing her life, memory or thought, is outraged that the law bars living wills

Last month I was told I had a brain tumour – a low-grade glioma in my median temporal lobe, to be precise. It is in what the neurosurgeon called “a very eloquent” part of my brain – the part responsible for speech, sensation, thought, memory. It is very mixed up with the surrounding tissue, so surgical removal is not an option.

As this edition of Times Higher Education went to press, I was on my way to have a biopsy, due on 7 January. It carries a real risk of serious complications. I might die. I might suffer brain damage. I might lose large parts of my capacities to think, express myself and remember.

I am a philosopher. I specialise in ethics, particularly “at the receiving end” – issues for the done-to rather than the doer, the patient rather than the agent. So it is interesting, in a macabre way, that I of all people have been given this experience.

I believe with Hannah Arendt that our first duty is to think. To face this surgery, I have to think the real but unbelievable possibility that when I come round, I may be unable to think, remember or speak.

In all that mind-blowing horror, though, the possibility that really threatens to break me is that I may be unable to remember my children. I have already had a glimpse of life without those memories. During recent seizures, I lost my memories of when my daughters were born. The loss of mere dates may seem trivial, but the abyss it has opened to thought is terrifying, a glimpse of my life without my connections and my history.

I am certain that I do not want to live on if that happens. I am terrified by the spectre of loss of self. But I am out of my mind with anger that my own country does not allow me to protect myself and my family from this horror safely. I am anguished at the thought that my children, on top of their grief at the loss of their mother, may have to cope with me as someone else, someone lost in the world or in a vegetative state.

Personal experiences sometimes make ethical issues vivid in ways exercises of imagination cannot match. As a moral philosopher, I am learning a humbling lesson. Until the issue was spelt out for me in the terrifying light of this diagnosis, I had no idea how monstrous our country’s euthanasia policies were. I had seen the stories on TV of people being prosecuted for helping family members die, of terminally ill people travelling abroad to be put down, but I had never put two and two together.

My diagnosis has woken me from my mindless moral slumber on this topic, allowed me to feel the absolute outrage and moved me to start making the arguments.

It is completely wrong that UK law does not enable me to protect myself or my children from the loss of my self by arranging to be killed if the surgery goes wrong. It is completely wrong that no one on my excellent five-person neurosurgery team can agree a living will with me. My compassionate and trustworthy neurosurgeon John Crossman and oncologist Joanna Lewis can say only that they will “make sure I am kept comfortable” if massive complications ensue, and hint that they will not strive officiously to keep me alive. They cannot assure me that they will put me out of my misery if that happens. They cannot soothe my terror in ways that the law of any civilised country must allow them to do.

The law must be changed so that people facing fatal or self-destroying conditions do not also have to endure this agony of not being able to protect their selves and their loved ones. The necessary changes are not dramatic, obscure or complex. Best methods for euthanasia need to be identified. Patients need to be enabled to state their preferences, the circumstances under which they want to be killed. There need to be witnesses to make sure statements are authentic and considered, not coerced or motivated by psychological distress, fear or ignorance. Medical teams need to be enabled to give effect to the preferences the patients state. Friends and family members who help at any stage in the process need to be assured that they will not have to face criminal accusations at the same time as they are suffering grief and loss.

It is not rocket science. It is obscenely overdue. I may not be in a position to press further for changes in the law after 7 January, but I hope this article will persuade others to get this tiny little cornerstone of civilisation set right before too many others have had to bear this.

1 Comment

Filed under Athesim, humanism, politics, religion, social commentary

A BBC Series on Religion – Around the World in 80 Faiths – Episode 1

The BBC is running a program entitled, “Around the World in 80 Faiths.” The host of the show, an Anglican vicar, is planning to experience 80 faiths in 80 days.

The diversity of beliefs is fascinating. I’d love to hear your reactions to the series. I’ll be posting youtube of the series over the next few weeks.  Here’s Episode 1.

Leave a comment

Filed under Athesim, humanism, politics, religion, science, social commentary

Give Peace a Chance

Two weeks ago I had the fortune of meeting a remarkable woman named Glenys Babcock.

Several things impress me about Glenys. She is clearly highly intelligent. She posseses multiple graduate degrees. She has consulted with world-preeminent organizations like the RAND Corporation, the World Bank, the US Army and the Intelligence Secretariat of the Privy Council Office (Canada). She has lived in Canada, the US, the UK and Russia and has travelled the world.

But what impressed me most when we met was her passion for peace.

Out of that passion (first fueled in her university years) has emerged a new non-profit organization, PRAGMORA, of which Glenys is the Executive Director.  This organization is committed to pragmatic, research-based advocacy in pre-, current, and post-conflict situations. Glenys herself has just returned from trips to Liberia and Sri Lanka where she met with key state leaders and conducted extensive on-the-ground research about cementing a fragile peace in Liberia and seeking an end to hostilities in Sri Lanka.

I am excited about the work Pragmora is doing and am looking forward to aiding their pursuits in the future. One of their key needs right now is for funding. To that end, I have attached a brochure below to give you a bit more info about them. I encourage you to check out their (mostly functional) new website and to consider donating.


Leave a comment

Filed under Athesim