Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Daniel Goleman: Ecological Intelligence

Ecological Intelligence: Do Humans Have What it Takes to Survive?
By Daniel Goleman article link
Posted on February 19, 2010 Broadway Business

The following is excerpted from the Ecological Intelligence by Daniel Goleman, published by Broadway Business, an imprint of The Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. Reprinted with permission. Copyright © 2009 by Daniel Goleman.

For over a thousand years Sher, a tiny village in Tibet, has clung to its existence despite its dire location, perched on a narrow shelf along a steep mountainside. This site on the dry Tibetan plateau gets just three inches of precipitation a year. But every drop is gathered into an ancient irrigation system. Annual temperatures average near freezing and from December through February the mercury can hover below that mark by 10 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit.

The region's sheep have extra-thick wool that holds heat remarkably well; locally spun and woven wool makes clothes and blankets that help villagers endure the excruciatingly cold winters with little heating other than a fire in the hearth.

The stone-and-wattle houses need to be reroofed every ten years, and willow trees planted along the irrigation canals provide the roofing. Whenever a branch is cut for roofing, a new one is grafted to the tree. A willow tree lasts around four hundred years, and when one dies a new one is planted. Human waste is recycled as fertilizer for herbs, vegetables, and fields of barley -- the source of the local staple, tsampa -- and for root vegetables to store for the winter.

For centuries Sher's population has stayed the same, around three hundred people. Jonathan Rose, a founder of the movement for housing that is both green and affordable and a builder himself, finds instructive lessons in the clever ways native peoples have found to survive in perilous niches like Sher. Says Rose, “That is true sustainability, when a village can survive in its ecosystem for a thousand years.”

Tibetans, of course, are not unique in their remarkable ability to find simple solutions to the daunting challenge of surviving, even thriving, in the most dire of environmental surrounds. From the Arctic Circle to the Sahara Desert, native peoples everywhere have survived only by understanding and exquisitely attuning themselves to the natural systems that surround them and designing ways of living that best interact with those systems. The tiny hamlet of Sher depends on three forces for its survival: sunlight, rainwater, and the wisdom to use nature's resources well.

Modern life diminishes such skills and wisdom; at the beginning of the twenty-first century, society has lost touch with what may be the singular sensibility crucial to our survival as a species. The routines of our daily lives go on completely disconnected from their adverse impacts on the world around us; our collective mind harbors blind spots that disconnect our everyday activities from the crises those same activities create in natural systems. Yet at the same time the global reach of industry and commerce means that the impacts of how we live extend to the far corners of the planet. Our species threatens to consume and befoul the natural world at a rate that far exceeds our planet's carrying capacity.

I think of the brand of wisdom that has kept that tiny Himalayan village alive for these centuries as "ecological intelligence," our ability to adapt to our ecological niche. Ecological refers to an understanding of organisms and their ecosystems, and intelligence connotes the capacity to learn from experience and deal effectively with our environment. Ecological intelligence lets us apply what we learn about how human activity impinges on ecosystems so as to do less harm and once again to live sustainably in our niche -- these days the entire planet.

Today's threats demand that we hone a new sensibility, the capacity to recognize the hidden web of connections between human activity and nature's systems and the subtle complexities of their intersections. This awakening to new possibilities must result in a collective eye opening, a shift in our most basic assumptions and perceptions, one that will drive changes in commerce and industry as well as in our individual actions and behaviors.

The Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner reinvented the way we think about IQ by arguing that there are several other varieties of intelligence besides the ones that help us do well in school, and that these other intelligences also allow us to do well in life. Gardner enumerated seven kinds, from the spatial abilities of an architect to the interpersonal aptitudes that make teachers or leaders great. Each of these intelligences, he argues, involves a unique talent or ability that helped us adapt to the challenges we faced as a species and that continues to benefit our lives.

The uniquely human ability to adapt our way of living to virtually any of the extremes of climate and geology the earth offers would certainly qualify. Pattern recognition of any kind, Gardner suggests, may have its roots in the primal act of understanding how nature operates, such as classifying what goes in which natural grouping. Such talents have been displayed by every native culture in adapting to its particular environment.

The contemporary expression of ecological intelligence extends the native naturalist's ability to categorize and recognize patterns to sciences like chemistry, physics, and ecology (among many others), applying the lenses of these disciplines to dynamic systems wherever they operate at any scale, from the molecular to the global. This knowledge about how things and nature work includes recognizing and understanding the countless ways manmade systems interact with natural ones, or what I think of as ecological intelligence. Only such an all-encompassing sensibility can let us see the interconnections between our actions and their hidden impacts on the planet, our health, and our social systems.

Ecological intelligence melds these cognitive skills with empathy for all life. Just as social and emotional intelligence build on the abilities to take other people's perspective, feel with them, and show our concern, ecological intelligence extends this capacity to all natural systems. We display such empathy whenever we feel distress at a sign of the “pain” of the planet or resolve to make things better. This expanded empathy adds to a rational analysis of cause and effect the motivation to help.

To tap into this intelligence, we need to get beyond the thinking that puts mankind outside nature; the fact is we live enmeshed in ecological systems and impact them for better or worse -- and they us. We need to discover and share among ourselves all the ways this intimate interconnectedness operates, to see the hidden patterns that connect human activity to the larger flow of nature, to understand our true impact on it, and to learn how to do better.

We face an evolutionary impasse: the ways of thinking that in the ancient past guided our innate ecological intelligence were well suited to the harsh realities of prehistory. It was enough that we had a natural urge to gobble as many sugars and fats as we could find to fatten ourselves against the next famine, sufficient that our olfactory brain would ensure that toxins triggered nausea and disgust in response to spoiled food, and that our neural alarm circuits made us run from predators. That hardwired savvy brought our species to the threshold of civilization.

But ensuing centuries have blunted the survival skills of the billions of individuals who live amid modern technologies. Career pressures drive us to master hyperspecialized expertise and in turn to depend on other specialists for tasks beyond our realm. Any of us may excel in a narrow range, but we all depend on the skills of experts-farmers, software engineers, nutritionists, mechanics-to make life work for us. We no longer can rely on our astute attunement to our natural world nor the passing on through generations of the local wisdom that lets native peoples find ways to live in harmony with their patch of the planet.

Ecologists tell us that natural systems operate on multiple scales. At the macro level there are global biogeochemical cycles, like that for the flow of carbon, where shifts in the ratios of elements can be measured not just over the years but over centuries and geologic ages. The ecosystem of a forest balances the entwined interplay of plant, animal, and insect species, down to the bacteria in soil, each finding an ecological niche to exploit, their genes evolving together. At the micro level cycles run their course on a scale of millimeters or microns, in just seconds.

How we perceive and understand all this makes the crucial difference. “The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way,” wrote the poet William Blake two centuries ago. “Some see Nature all ridicule and deformity, and some scarce see Nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, Nature is Imagination itself. As a man is, so he sees.”

When it comes to seeing nature, these differences in perception have huge consequences. A polar bear stranded on an ice drift or a vanishing glacier offer powerful symbols of the perils we face from global warming. But the inconvenient truths don't stop there -- only our collective ability to perceive them does. We need to sharpen the resolution and broaden the range of our lens on nature, to see how synthetic chemicals disrupt the cells of an endocrine system as well as the slow rising of ocean levels.

We have no sensors nor any innate brain system designed to warn us of the innumerable ways that human activity corrodes our planetary niche. We have to acquire a new sensitivity to an unfamiliar range of threats, beyond those our nervous system's alarm radar picks up -- and learn what to do about them. That's where ecological intelligence enters the picture.

The neocortex, the thinking brain, evolved as our most versatile neural tool for survival -- what the hardwired reflexive circuits of our brain cannot help us understand, the neocortex can discover, comprehend, and marshal as needed. We can learn the now hidden consequences of what we do, and what to do about them-and so cultivate an acquired ability to compensate for the weakness of our pre-programmed ways of perceiving and thinking.

The variety of ecological intelligence humanity so urgently needs demands that this generalist zone work along with the brain's prededicated modules for alarm, fear, and disgust. Nature designed the olfactory cortex to navigate a natural universe of odors we rarely encounter today; the amygdala's neural web for alarm innately recognizes with effectiveness only a limited -- and largely antiquated -- range of danger. Those hardwired areas are not easily reprogrammed, if at all. But our neocortex -- through what we intentionally learn -- can compensate for our natural blind spots.

Smells are just combinations of volatile molecules wafting from some object and reaching our nose. Our olfactory brain assigns a positive or negative valence, separating the desirable from the repulsive, the putrified meat from the fresh bread. But life now requires learning that the scent of newly applied paint or that distinctive aroma in a just-bought car comes from volatile, manmade chemical compounds, which act like low-grade toxins in our body and should be avoided. Likewise we need to acquire a learned early warning system for toys laden with lead and gases that pollute the air we breathe, and to dread toxic chemicals in our foods that we cannot taste or see. But we can “know” these are dangers only indirectly, through scientific findings -- a different order of knowing. What may eventually become a learned emotional reaction must begin with intellectual comprehension.

Ecological intelligence allows us to comprehend systems in all their complexity, as well as the interplay between the natural and man-made worlds. But that understanding demands a vast store of knowledge, one so huge that no single brain can store it all. Each one of us needs the help of others to navigate the complexities of ecological intelligence. We need to collaborate.

Psychologists conventionally view intelligence as residing within an individual. But the ecological abilities we need in order to survive today must be a collective intelligence, one that we learn and master as a species, and that resides in a distributed fashion among far-flung networks of people. The challenges we face are too varied, too subtle, and too complicated to be understood and overcome by a single person; their recognition and solution require intense efforts by a vastly diverse range of experts, businesspeople, activists -- by all of us. As a group we need to learn what dangers we face, what their causes are, and how to render them harmless, on the one hand, and, on the other, to see the new opportunities these solutions offer -- and we need the collective determination to do all this.

Evolutionary anthropologists recognize the cognitive abilities required for shared intelligence as a distinctly human ability, one that has been crucial to helping our species survive its earliest phases. The most recent addition to the human brain includes our circuitry for social intelligence, which allowed early humans to use complex collaboration to hunt, parent, and survive. Today we need to make the most of these same capacities for sharing cognition to survive a new set of challenges to our survival.

A collective, distributed intelligence spreads awareness, whether among friends or family, within a company, or through an entire culture. Whenever one person grasps part of this complex web of cause and effect and tells others, that insight becomes part of the group memory, to be called on as needed by any single member. Such shared intelligence grows through the contributions of individuals who advance that understanding and spread it among the rest of us. And so we need scouts, explorers who alert us to ecological truths we have either lost touch with or newly discover.

Large organizations embody such a distributed intelligence. In a hospital a lab technician does one set of jobs well, a surgical nurse another, and a radiologist still another; coordinating all these skills and knowledge allows patients to receive sound care. In a company the sales, marketing, finance, and strategic planning departments each represent unique expertise, the parts operating as a whole via a coordinated, shared understanding.

The shared nature of ecological intelligence makes it synergistic with social intelligence, which gives us the capacity to coordinate and harmonize our efforts. The art of working together effectively, as mastered by a star performing team, combines abilities like empathy and perspective taking, candor and cooperation, to create person-to-person links that let information gain added value as it travels. Collaboration and the exchange of information are vital to amassing the essential ecological insights and necessary database that allow us to act for the greater good.

The way insects swarm suggests another sense in which ecological intelligence can be distributed among us. In an ant colony no single ant grasps the big picture or leads the other ants (the queen just lays eggs); instead each ant follows simple rules of thumb that work together in countless ways to achieve self-organizing goals. Ants find the shortest route to a food source with simple hardwired rules such as following the strongest pheromone trail. Swarm intelligence allows a larger goal to be met by having large numbers of actors follow simple principles. None of the actors needs to direct the group's efforts to achieve the overall goal, nor is there any need for a centralized director.

When it comes to our collective ecological goals, the swarm rules might boil down to:

1. Know your impacts.
2. Favor improvements.
3. Share what you learn.

Such a swarm intelligence would result in an ongoing upgrade to our ecological intelligence through mindfulness of the true consequences of what we do and buy, the resolve to change for the better, and the spreading of what we know so others can do the same. If each of us in the human swarm follows those three simple rules, then together we might create a force that improves our human systems. No one of us needs to have a master plan or grasp all the essential knowledge. All of us will be pushing toward a continuous improvement of the human impact on nature.

Signs of the dawning of this shift in collective consciousness are amply visible globally, from executive teams working to make their companies' operations more sustainable to neighborhood activists distributing reusable cloth shopping bags to replace plastic ones -- wherever people are engaged in creating a way of interacting with nature that transforms our propensities for short term trade-offs into a long-term, saner relationship. High- profile investigations into the innumerable dangers human activity poses to our planet's ecosystems, like the growing study of global warming, are a bare beginning. Such efforts help raise our sense of urgency. But we can't stop there. We need to gather the on-the-ground, detailed, and sophisticated data that can guide our actions. That takes a thorough and ongoing analysis, determined discipline -- and the pursuit of ecological intelligence.

Daniel Goleman is author of Ecological Intelligence published by Broadway Business, an imprint of The Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.

© 2010 Broadway Business All rights reserved.

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John W. Whitehead: The National Biometric ID Card

The National Biometric ID Card: The Mark of the Beast?
By John W. Whitehead article link
4/19/2010 The Rutherford Institute

“This calls for wisdom. If anyone has insight, let him calculate the number of the beast, for it is man's number. His number is 666.”--Revelation 13:18

As technology grows more sophisticated and the government and its corporate allies further refine their methods of keeping tabs on the American people, those of us who treasure privacy increasingly find ourselves engaged in a struggle to maintain our freedoms in the midst of the modern surveillance state.

Just consider the many ways we’re already being monitored and tracked: through our Social Security numbers, bank accounts, purchases and electronic transactions; by way of our correspondence and communications devices--email, phone calls and mobile phones; through chips implanted in our vehicles, identification documents, even our clothing. Data corporations are capturing vast caches of personal information on you so that airports, retailers, police and other government authorities can instantly identify and track you. Add to this the fact that businesses, schools and other facilities are relying more and more on fingerprints and facial recognition to identify us. All the while, banks and other financial institutions must verify the identities of new customers and make such records of customer transactions available to the police and government officials upon request.

In recent years, this information glut has converged into a mandate for a national ID card, which came to a head with Congress’ passage of the REAL ID Act in 2005. REAL ID requires states to issue machine-readable drivers’ licenses containing a wealth of personal data. However, because the REAL ID Act has been opposed by many states due to its cost and implementation, we have yet to be subjected to a nationwide implementation of a national ID card. That may all change depending on what happens with the immigration reform bill now before Congress.

A centerpiece of the immigration bill as proposed by Senators Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) is a requirement that all U.S. workers, citizen and resident alike, be required to obtain and carry biometric Social Security cards (national ID cards under a different name) in order to work within the United States. Attempting to appease critics of a national ID card, Schumer and Graham insist that “no government database would house everyone’s information” and that the “cards would not contain any private information, medical information, or tracking devices.” However, those claims are blatantly false. Indeed, this proposed biometric card is nothing more than an end-run around opposition to a national ID card.

Civil and privacy rights advocates, as well as liberal-, conservative-, and libertarian-leaning organizations, have long raised concerns that a national ID card would enable the government to track citizens and, thus, jeopardize the privacy rights of Americans. President Reagan likened a 1981 proposal to the biblical “mark of the beast,” and President Clinton dismissed a similar plan because it smacked of Big Brother.

Most recently, The Rutherford Institute and the American Civil Liberties Union, along with a host of other organizations, voiced their opposition to the biometric ID card. In a letter to both the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate Judiciary Committees, Senate Finance Committee, House Ways and Means Committee and the White House, this coalition of groups declared that such a national ID card would “not only violate privacy by helping to consolidate data and facilitate tracking of individuals, it would bring government into the very center of our lives by serving as a government permission slip needed by everyone in order to work. As happened with Social Security cards decades ago, use of such ID cards would quickly spread and be used for other purposes--from travel to voting to gun ownership.” And the national biometric ID card would “require the creation of a bureaucracy that combines the worst elements of the Transportation Security Administration and state Motor Vehicle Departments.”

At a minimum, these proposed cards will contain a memory device that stores distinct--and highly personal--physical or biological information unique to the cardholder such as fingerprints, retina scan information, a mapping of the veins on the top of your hand, and so on. Eventually, other information, such as personal business and financial data, will probably also be stored on these cards. For the cards to be effective, an information storage system and central database, which will be managed by the government and its corporate handlers, will be required. That means a lot of taxpayer dollars will be used to create the ultimate tracking device to be used against American citizens.

As journalist Megan Carpentier reports, “The federal government wants to spend hundreds of millions of dollars, and force employees and employers still suffering from a recession to do the same, to create and make accessible to every employer a national database of the fingerprints of all Americans from the time they are 14 years old. And they want to do it in order to keep an estimated 11.9 million unauthorized immigrants -- less than 4 percent of the total population of the United States -- from accessing the job market.” Under threat of substantial fines by the government and in what promises to be a cumbersome, bureaucratic process, employers will have to purchase ID card scanning devices (or visit their local DMV) in order to scan the cards of every individual they wish to hire before that individual can be employed. What this amounts to, essentially, is a troubling system in which all Americans would have to get clearance from the federal government in order to get a job.

Furthermore, the law’s requirement that machine-readable technology be incorporated into the card opens the door for radio frequency identification (RFID) tags to be placed on the cards. RFID is a tiny, automatic identification system that enables data--in this case the private information of American citizens--to be transmitted by a portable device. This will provide the government with unprecedented access to American citizens’ personal information. In addition, RFID tags emit radio frequency signals that allow the government to track the movement of the cards, as well as the cardholders. In other words, wherever your card goes, so do the government monitors.

When all is said and done, the adoption of a national biometric ID card serves one purpose only: to provide the government with the ultimate control over the American people. As one commentator has remarked, this is a “naked government power grab.”

The time to resist is now. If we don’t, eventually, we will all have to possess one of these cards in order to be a functioning citizen in American society. Failing to have a biometric card will render you a non-person for all intents and purposes. Your whole life will depend on this card--your ability to work, travel, buy, sell, access health care, and so on.

What we used to call science fiction is now reality. And whether a national ID card is the mark of the Beast or the long arm of Big Brother, the outcome remains the same.

©2010 The Rutherford Institute

Under the regulations of the United States Internal Revenue Service, The Rutherford Institute is incorporated as a 501(c)(3) tax exempt nonprofit organization. Donations to support The Rutherford Institute’s legal and educational work help to safeguard the constitutional rights and religious freedoms of all Americans. Donations are tax-deductible. In compliance with general industry standards of a nonprofit organization, the Institute is audited annually by an independent accounting firm.

Founded in 1982 by constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead, The Rutherford Institute is a civil liberties organization that provides free legal services to people whose constitutional and human rights have been threatened or violated.

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Mikey Weinstein: Why We Object to Franklin Graham's Islamophobia

Why We Object to Franklin Graham's Islamophobia
Monday 26 April 2010 article link article link
by: Mikey Weinstein | Newsweek

Let's just face it: Franklin Graham is an Islamophobe, an anti-Muslim bigot and an international representative of the scourge of fundamentalist Christian supremacy and exceptionalism. As a result, he fails in the worst way as a role model for Constitutional American citizenship. How can Graham or anyone prejudge/brand all members of a specific culture, religion and/or ethnicity? Such prejudice and racist cretinism is nothing new. It's as old as our species and has been the direct cause of the brutal end of untold multitudes of our species.

Graham has a history of describing the whole of the Islamic faith, and thus the whole of its Muslim practitioners, as "evil", violent", "false" and "wicked". I often wonder how painful it must be for U.S. citizens of the Muslim faith to hear Graham's universal, Father Coughlin-esque condemnations of Islam? Indeed, and how much worse still for the grieving families of recently fallen American servicemen of the Islamic faith like U.S. Army Corp. Kareem Khan, U.S. Army Spec. Rasheed Sahib, U.S. Army Maj. James Ahearn and U.S. Army Capt. Humayun Khan?

Islamic fundamentalists must cherish Graham as a propaganda tool. For terrorists, jihadists and insurrectionists, Franklin Graham is the gift that keeps on giving. His rejection of Islam can be likened to having an acute case of fundamentalist Christian Tourette's syndrome; the only good Muslim is a Christian-converted Muslim.

Graham's profession of "love for the Muslim people" is transparently disingenuous and totally predicated on their "flexibility-cum-willingness" to dump their own fatally flawed faith and convert to Graham's own version of the Gospel. There can be no doubt that his "all Islam is all evil all the time" bigotry has buttressed the direct and indirect efforts of Islamic extremists to maim, kill and otherwise spill the precious blood of our honorable young men and women in uniform and in harm's way in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This was bad enough even before the Pentagon unilaterally crowned Graham as the de facto King Proselytizer-For-a-Day for its upcoming National Day of Prayer Task Force (NDPTF) event scheduled for Thursday, May 6, 2010. Those of us at the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, a nonprofit civil rights organization I founded several years ago to directly confront religious fundamentalism in the United States military, felt Graham's appearance had to be canceled swiftly and publicly by the Pentagon. MRFF sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates demanding the immediate rescinding of Graham's NDPTF speaking invitation, copying all three military service secretaries, all five members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and President Obama. We wrote on behalf of our brand new MRFF clients; a courageous community of Islamic U.S. armed forces members directly and indirectly assigned to the Pentagon.

Our MRFF clients were understandably outraged that Graham had been invited to preach. They asked MRFF to intervene on their collective behalf. This was not our first rodeo. Speaking such truth to power is not only very hard, it is very dangerous. Which is why over 17,000 active duty U.S. sailors, soldiers, airmen and marines have come to MRFF. Why, yet again? As one MRFF soldier client put it, "to be the voice I am not allowed to speak with". Amazingly, 96 percent of our members are Christians often denigrated by their superiors for being "not Christian enough". Think about it. In MRFF's letter to Gates, we laid out irrefutable arguments as to why the invitation to Graham was a scandalous outrage not only because of his anti-Islamic bigotry, but also because the invitation would cause the Pentagon to blatantly violate at least two of its own most important internal regulations and directives.

The first prohibits the endorsement of a non-federal entity like Focus on the Family's spinoff, the National Day of Prayer Task Force (NDPTF), and the second prohibits the Pentagon from providing a "selective benefit" or preferential treatment to any organization like the NDPTF. We also forcefully pointed out the breathtaking unconstitutionality of the Pentagon's tryst with an entity like the NDPTF, which, now get this, actually requires all of its event participants to ascribe via written assurance to a classic, fundamentalist Christian, sectarian "Statement of Belief" so narrow in scope it would exclude many devout Christians themselves. But it doesn't stop there.

Perhaps even more shockingly, all NDPTF event coordinators are required to restrict its staff production participants to Christians only. Now, if done privately, without Pentagon or related government complicity, these activities would be just fine. But as it stood, such actions were glaringly unethical, unlawful and unconstitutional. Period.

But, of course, we knew that our firebrand missive alone would not be enough. So we retained aggressive trial lawyers and gave them the green light to prepare to go into federal court to seek a temporary restraining order to stop this NDPTF event. Our timing was greatly aided by the propitious and superb decision U.S. Dist. Court Judge Barbara Crabb handed down in Wisconsin only a few days prior to our letter, declaring that the National Day of Prayer itself was unconstitutional. We told the Pentagon that we would withdraw our planned litigation if and only if they withdrew the prestigious invitation to Graham.

The calculus of our MRFF victory went something like the following; clearly the combination of our demand letter and our imminent litigation promise carried the day to provide the requisite "heat" to quickly "educate" the Pentagon about the multi-dimensional domestic and foreign "catastrophe" which would swiftly ensue if it did not timely withdraw Graham's invitation. The Pentagon withdrew Graham's ill-conceived speaking honor, with MRFF's lawyers on the federal courthouse steps, just 48 hours after we launched our demand letter. At least on that fine day, Lady Liberty smiled.

Graham's fellow fundamentalists don't seem to be taking the defeat too well. MRFF has been literally flooded with thousands of threatening and vile hate e-mails and ugly phone calls distorting the civil rights of Muslim Americans and evincing an egregiously biased hatred and tortured ignorance of Constitutional law and American history. One boastfully proclaims that "Islam is evil and anyone who practices Islam deserves to be shot on the spot."

Behold, the product of Franklin Graham's "Christian love."

Mikey Weinstein, a member of Truthout's Board of Advisers, is President and Founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, which has been nominated for the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize.

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Sara Flounders: The Pope, Pedophilia and the Class Struggle

The Pope, Pedophilia and the Class Struggle
by Sara Flounders article link
Global Research, April 26, 2010
Workers World - 2010-04-25

More than 150 years ago Karl Marx explained that “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle. Patrician and plebian, lord and serf, in a word oppressor and oppressed.” The struggle is an “uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight.” With modern society come “new conditions of oppression and new forms of struggle.”

A fierce struggle has gripped the Catholic Church for the past 25 years as some of the most oppressed survivors of childhood sexual abuse have increasingly demanded an accounting against individual priests and ultimately against the powerful church hierarchy, including bishops and cardinals who consistently protected the abusers.

This demand for justice erupting from below has now done the unthinkable. It has exposed the role of the present pope, Pope Benedict XVI, in a monstrous international criminal cover-up.

Marxism is a science for understanding the class issues that underlie social developments which can seem obscure and far from the immediate workers’ struggle. The present controversy, although hidden in clerical garb, is in every way a class struggle within the Catholic Church. It is one small part of a global class struggle for full equality, rights and empowerment.

What was once accepted, because there seemed to be no recourse, has become intolerable. Thousands of the survivors raising the charges of pedophilia were loyal working class believers who were utterly powerless until years later to resist or even tell their own families of the crimes being committed. They were abused as children in orphanages, reform schools, schools for Deaf and disabled, local parish schools and churches.

This challenge from below against secrecy and repression was a sharp break from the past. Abuse had been unchallenged because religious authority was unchallenged. In many parish schools, although sexual abuse was hidden, physical and psychological abuse and humiliation were so routine that they seemed part of the curriculum.

As survivors began to speak out, any priests who sided with the abused were silenced and removed from teaching or positions of authority. But the church hierarchy, a small grouping that holds absolute religious authority, has not been able to silence or stop this movement.

Almost every exposé has come not from the outside or from secular authorities, who were fearful of offending such a powerful institution, but from presumably powerless Catholics within the church who refused to remain silent. They filed grievances, depositions and finally lawsuit after lawsuit. They called press conferences, set up websites, organized demonstrations and support groups, and leafleted Sunday services. Whether they see themselves as part of the larger struggle for rights and dignity or not, they have used many of the same tactics that countless other struggles have used.

The church hierarchy, in fighting to defend its undisputed authority, wealth and privilege, has demanded absolute silence, threatened excommunication of those raising the charges and demanded that secular officials comply. This effort to maintain the absolute authority of the priesthood is part of a larger internal struggle over whose interests this powerful religious institution should serve.

This international scandal rocking the Catholic Church now involves detailed evidence of tens of thousands of cases of child rape and sexual abuse, committed by thousands of priests. The charges span decades. The struggle erupted in its fiercest form in cities that previously had the strongest religious believers in the U.S. Next it broke out in Ireland, followed by Italy and then parts of Germany with large Catholic populations.

What is new and now receives almost daily media coverage is the evidence seeping out from every side showing the personal responsibility of the present Pope Benedict XVI in decades of suppression, cover-up and quiet reassigning of sexual predators. The strongest condemnations are coming from those who still consider themselves part of the Catholic Church.

Liberal Catholic theologian Hans Keung described Pope Benedict XVI’s role in allowing the abuse to flourish, covering it up and ordering silence: “There was not a single man in the whole Catholic Church who knew more about the sex-abuse cases than him, because it was ex officio (part of his official role). ... He can’t wag his finger at the bishops and say, you didn’t do enough. He gave the instruction himself, as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and repeated it as Pope.”

The National Catholic Reporter editorialized on March 26: “The Holy Father needs to directly answer questions, in a credible forum, about his role — as archbishop of Munich (1977-82), as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (1982-2005), and as pope (2005-present) — in the mismanagement of the clergy sex abuse crisis.”

Before his elevation to the top of the Catholic hierarchy in April 2005, Pope Benedict XVI was known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. His opponents referred to him as a pit bull and as “God’s rottweiler.” Ratzinger was an extremely right-wing political appointee of Pope John Paul II, who was determined to enforce discipline, conformity and church authority in an institution in the midst of a profound upheaval.

For 24 years Ratzinger headed the most powerful and historically repressive institution in the Catholic Church, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. This body was known for centuries as the Holy Office of the Inquisition. It was the church institution responsible for establishing religious courts for the charging and torture of tens of thousands of people accused of witchcraft and heresy. It led the pogroms and mass expropriations of Jews and Muslims. Through this office within the church Pope John Paul II tried to install a modern-day Inquisition.

Documents expose vast cover-up

The scale of the criminal international conspiracy of silence to protect serial molesters and to put church interests ahead of child safety and well-being was fully revealed over the past year in the handling of sexual abuse in Ireland, an overwhelmingly Catholic country.

After years of demands by abuse survivors for church action and government prosecution, and a series of exposes in the Irish news media, the Irish government commissioned a study that took nine years to complete. On May 20, 2009, the commission released a 2,600-page report.

The report drew on testimony from thousands of former inmates and officials from more than 250 church-run institutions. The commission found that Catholic priests and nuns had terrorized thousands of boys and girls for decades and that government inspectors had failed to stop the chronic beatings, rapes and humiliation. The report characterized rape and molestation as “endemic” in Irish Catholic church-run industrial schools and orphanages. (www.childabusecommission.com/rpt/)

The scale of the abuse in Ireland and the force of the movement demanding an accounting forced Pope Benedict to issue a weak apology on behalf of the Catholic Church that blamed local Irish bishops. This abdication of all responsibility for his own well-known senior role that had insisted on silence enraged millions of sincere and believing Catholics and further inflamed an opposition that has grown inside the church for decades.

Preaching in Springfield, Mass., a long-time critic of the church cover-up, Rev. James J. Scahill, responded to the weak apology by describing some in the clergy as “felons” and calling for the resignation of Pope Benedict.

“We must personally and collectively declare that we very much doubt the veracity of the pope and those of church authority who are defending him or even falling on the sword on his behalf. It is beginning to become evident that for decades, if not centuries, church leadership covered up the abuse of children and minors to protect its institutional image and the image of priesthood,” said Scahill. (New York Times, April 12)

Scahill said he began to speak up after his own parishioners came to him in 2002 during the exposure of decades of sexual abuse in Boston and told him that something had to be done.

Cardinal Bernard Law of the Boston Archdiocese clearly played a role in protecting child-molesting priests from punishment by religious or secular authority and quietly transferring them. This became a national scandal in 2002 when a judge in Massachusetts permitted the release of thousands of pages of documents, memos and legal depositions. The documents showed a clear pattern of cover-up, protecting perpetrators and marginalizing victims, revealing that more than 1,000 children had been abused by 250 priests and church workers in the Archdiocese since 1940. Cardinal Law was forced to resign his post in disgrace and the Boston Archdiocese was ordered to pay a settlement of between $85 million and $100 million to settle 552 cases.

This multi-million-dollar settlement, growing scandals in other cities and the media coverage forced the U.S. bishops to issue a “Charter for the Protection of Children and the Young People” that declared a “zero tolerance, one strike and you are out” policy for offending priests. It did not propose any action against bishops who covered up the crimes.

Even this modest effort to develop a clean-up policy by U.S. bishops was opposed by then-Cardinal Ratzinger at the Vatican. He demanded that all abuse charges be referred to the office he headed — the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — before priests could be expelled from the priesthood. One of his first acts as Pope was to elevate Cardinal Law of Boston to a prestigious Vatican post.

In an often quoted, infamous letter sent to bishops in 2001, Cardinal Ratzinger used his position to order that sexual abuse allegations be kept secret under threat of excommunication. Priests accused of sex crimes and their victims were ordered to “observe the strictest secret” and be “restrained by perpetual silence.”

Former Vatican lawyer Father Tom Doyle denounced this top Vatican policy by saying: “What you have here is an explicit written policy to cover up cases of child sexual abuse by the clergy and to punish those who would call attention to these crimes by the churchmen. When abusive priests are discovered, the response has been not to investigate and prosecute but to move them from one place to another.”

Negligence or criminal complicity?

How extensive are the sex abuse crimes committed against youth? Are the church hierarchy guilty of ignoring the problem — meaning criminal negligence? Or are they guilty of criminal complicity by refusing to take action even when crimes were brought to their direct attention?

A memo personally signed by Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, when he headed the powerful Vatican office where all charges of abuse were centralized, was exposed this April and has aroused a new outcry. Ratzinger overrode and stopped any action against the predator priest Rev. Lawrence C. Murphy.

Reverend Murphy was accused of sexually abusing more than 200 boys at a Milwaukee School for the Deaf, despite appeals for his expulsion even from his bishop. For decades the former students had used sign language and written affidavits in meetings with bishops and secular officials to demand that Father Murphy be charged and prosecuted.

At the same time, the story broke in Italy that 67 former pupils of another school for the Deaf in Verona had accused 24 priests, brothers and religious laymen of sexually abusing them from the age of 7 years.

In Germany, more than 250 suppressed cases of abuse have surfaced in the last two months, including in districts directly overseen by Pope Benedict when he had been the bishop.

International publicity surrounding the Boston suit over sexual abuse of children and the multi-million-dollar settlement gave many other victims of abuse the courage to also speak out and seek justice. More than 4,000 priests have been accused of molesting minors in the U.S. since 1950 and the Catholic Church here has paid out more than $2 billion in settlements to victims of abuse. In 2007 the Los Angeles Archdiocese announced a $600-million settlement to about 500 plaintiffs. Six dioceses have been forced into bankruptcy and many dioceses have been forced to sell substantial church assets to pay settlements.

Many of these cases are detailed by an organization called SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. SNAP describes itself as the oldest and largest support group for clergy abuse victims.

Not only children have been the victims of abuse. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch of Jan. 4, 2003, a national survey conducted by researchers at St. Louis University was paid for, in part, by several orders of Catholic nuns. It estimated that a “minimum” of 34,000 Catholic nuns, or about 40 percent of all nuns in the United States, have suffered some form of sexual trauma.

It is important to take note that overwhelmingly the testimony, lawsuits, inquiries and exposés of sexual abuse have come from within the Catholic Church itself, from survivors of abuse. Many other ordinary, but outraged, Catholics have joined in demanding an accounting from a privileged, clerical hierarchy bent on protecting their position, authority and wealth and not on protecting children.

Throughout Europe there is a growing call to criminally prosecute Pope Benedict at the International Criminal Court (ICC) on the grounds that protecting the church, not its victims, is a criminal offense. Geoffrey Robertson, U.N. Justice Council member and president of the Special Court in Sierra Leone, says he believes it is time to challenge the pope’s immunity.

In an article in the London Guardian of April 2 headlined, “Put the pope in the dock,” Robertson wrote: “Legal immunity cannot hold. The Vatican should feel the full weight of international law. Pedophilia is a crime against humanity. The anomalous claim of the Vatican to be a state — and of the pope to be a head of state and hence immune from legal action — cannot stand up to scrutiny.”

Of course, it is important to remember that the International Criminal Court has to date brought charges only against four African countries that are targeted by imperialism.

U.S. war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as Israeli crimes against Palestinian and Lebanese civilians have been ignored by the ICC. A bulwark of U.S. imperialism on a global scale, it is unlikely that the Vatican will face charges any time soon.

War on global movement for justice

What role does the Vatican play in class society that is of particular value to U.S. imperialism?

While absolving, covering up and transferring thousands of priests who were guilty of child abuse, Pope Benedict XVI used his position for 25 years as head of the most powerful church institution, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to remove from parishes, schools and all positions of authority thousands of priests, bishops and religious persons who were in any way progressive or concerned with advocating for the rights and dignity of poor and oppressed people.

Dissident Catholic theologians, teachers, writers and intellectuals were prevented from writing, publishing and teaching in church institutions. Bishops who attempted to use their authority for social change were investigated for loyalty and forced to resign. They were replaced by the most politically reactionary clergy who were concerned mainly with preserving religious authority and dogma.

This was a right-wing effort to stamp out a progressive religious current known as “liberation theology,” which sought to align the church with the liberation movements and anti-colonial and revolutionary struggles sweeping Africa, Asia and Latin America and the civil rights movement in the U.S.

Priests such as Father Camilo Torres in Colombia, who wrote, spoke and organized around the effort to unite revolutionary Marxism and Catholicism, were considered a direct threat to capitalist exploitation. Father Torres joined the armed struggle against the U.S.-supported dictatorship and died in combat.

Activist nuns who led the sanctuary movement to provide assistance and safe transit to Salvadoran immigrants fleeing death squads were targeted. So were Philip and Tom Berrigan, priests who continually risked arrest and served jail time with a militant Catholic grouping opposed to the Vietnam War.

Liberation theologians, such as the charismatic Leonardo Boff of Brazil, were prohibited by the Church from speaking or writing. Priests who sought to serve the poor, like Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide of Haiti, were expelled from their religious order and forced to resign for the crime of “glorification of class struggle.” Bishop Samuel Ruiz of Chiapas, Mexico, was ordered to refrain from “Marxist interpretations.”

It was a witch-hunt and a purge that targeted anti-racist and social justice activists. Yet the reactionary breakaway Bishop Richard Williamson, who publicly denied the Holocaust, was welcomed back into the church.

Faced with growing opposition on every level, this powerful institution that has for centuries protected the property and privilege of the Western ruling classes increasingly chose to elevate the most fanatically reactionary forces to do battle with those urging change, opening, equality and attention to the needs of the poor and oppressed.

Under Pope John Paul II and then Pope Benedict XVI, the Catholic Church was a staunch ally of U.S. imperialism opposing socialist construction in Eastern Europe. In turn the powerful U.S. media played an active role in promoting and giving favorable coverage to the church while demonizing Muslims and other religions of oppressed people.

In 2006 Pope Benedict gave Catholic support to the anti-Muslim propaganda that Washington had consciously enflamed in order to justify war and occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan. In a major papal address he quoted a 14th-century Byzantine emperor who said that the Prophet Muhammad had brought the world only “evil and inhuman things.”

The alliance with U.S. imperialism forced the Catholic Church to revive the most reactionary excesses of its own dark past. Members of groupings tied to death squads and military dictatorship throughout Latin America and to fascism and extreme reaction in Europe, such as the secretive Opus Dei and Legionnaires of Christ, were promoted to top offices in the Vatican and around the world.

Two fascist clerics, Josemaria Escrivá, who sided with Hitler during World War II and organized fascist gangs to hunt down communists and revolutionary trade unionists in Franco’s Spain, and Cardinal Aloysius Stepinac of Croatia, who helped establish extermination camps for Jews, Serbs and Roma people, were proposed for sainthood.

It is not a contradiction that priests who abused children were protected and hidden while those religious forces who sought to defend the rights of the oppressed and ally with their movements were forced to resign. Leniency to criminal thugs and harsh repression of progressives are two sides of the same class policy of defending the authority of the established hierarchy. The same approach played out on every social issue.

Repressive view of all sexuality

From the Roman slave state to European feudal society and then as a major instrument of imperialist conquest, this is a religious institution rooted in class society and patriarchy. This patriarchal heritage is the basis of its repressive views toward all forms of human sexual expression. Gay or straight, married or unmarried, the Catholic Church asserted the right to legislate to society as a whole all forms of human sexual expression.

While taking no action against sexual predators because this threatened the authority and sanctity of the priesthood, Ratzinger was the leading enforcer of archaic religious doctrines on sexuality and the subordinate role of women in the church and in society as a whole. No liberalization on issues of birth control, abortion, divorce or recognition of homosexuality was allowed. Within the church these rules were enforced through focus on sin and guilt. Gay Catholics, Catholics who remarried, practiced birth control or had an abortion were denied the sacraments, barred from the church or excommunicated.

The full weight of Church institutions with large amounts of funding and political leverage were aggressively used in secular society to oppose liberalization of divorce laws and a woman’s right to birth control and to abortion. The Catholic Church organized and funded political campaigns against same-sex marriage and adoption of children by gay couples. But while proclaiming their religious duty to protect the “unborn child,” they refused to protect children directly under their control.

As the storm of protest over the attacks on children under their care grew, this reactionary grouping tried to turn its criminal cover-up into a struggle against gay people by linking pedophilia, meaning sexual abuse of young children, with homosexuality between consenting adults.

On April 14, Pope Benedict’s top appointee, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, blamed pedophilia on homosexuality, which he called “a pathology.” Pope Benedict in a well-known letter to bishops in 1986 described homosexuality as an “intrinsic moral evil.” He went so far as to justify and even encourage violent attacks on gay people by stating that “neither the church or society should be surprised if irrational and violent reactions increase” when gay people demand civil rights.

These crimes against all movements of oppressed peoples must be included in the anger directed at the church hierarchy.

The years of repression, witch-hunts and organized bigotry have given the Catholic hierarchy less and less a basis of support. They are more out of touch with their own congregation and totally out of touch with the values of society as a whole.

Despite every effort, they cannot go back to their absolute hold of 500 or even 100 years ago, when priests and bishops did not have to account for crimes against women or against slaves, serfs, peasants or illiterate workers.

Carefully crafted apologies that accept no blame and scripted public relations meetings with a few selected abuse survivors will not solve the crisis facing the reactionary leadership of the church.

Today those who have suffered abuse have found their voice and have found allies.

The writer attended/survived 14 years in Catholic schools.

Sara Flounders is a frequent contributor to Global Research.

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Saturday, April 24, 2010

Saul Landau: The Decline of the Church?

Can the Pope be Prosecuted?
The Decline of the Church?
By SAUL LANDAU article link
April 23 - 25, 2010 CounterPunch Weekend Edition

Scandals distract the public from focusing on key issues. Sometimes, however, they also provide insights into the character of leading cultural and political figures -- and their institutions. When the story finally broke -- after perhaps centuries of cover-ups -- about priests abusing youthful members of their flock I smirked, not of shock, but from recognition.

As kids we would tease Catholic school students. “Hey, did the priest check you for hemorrhoids and hernias today?” The Catholic kids didn’t laugh. Indeed, prevailing street wisdom assured us that such jibes contained basic elements of truth -- although we had no proof. Some Catholic school kids hinted at perverse behavior, but Church intimidation stopped them from telling. Several generations later the story poured out when thousands of the formerly abused told their stories.

Priestly misbehavior ranged beyond the United States. Recently, scandals emerged about Irish and German priests diddling -- or worse -- the young and vulnerable. As in the United States, the church hierarchy ignored or covered up the criminal activity of its errant cadres. Cardinals and Bishops routinely reassigned the accused priests to other parishes no matter the evidence against them; some got sent to religious rehab classes from whence they went to new parishes to resume intimate contact with the youth of their flock.

Over the decades, Cardinals and the Pope himself, before and after his coronation, received detailed reports of this widespread affliction. The U.S. Church paid off some formerly abused parishioners. But as the media made details public, the Vatican refused to assume full responsibility. Instead, the church elite tried to finesse the facts until the media’s repeated reports made it impossible. Did high church moguls have a duty to report the priestly criminals to the police? Their answer, by deduction: it is more important to maintain the Godly reputation of this ancient institution than to reveal the depths of perversity within its ranks and take serious steps to combat this rampant behavior.

The scandal has reached the Pope. Given the rigid hierarchy of the institution, one has a hard time believing that German Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, did not know of the pederasts inside the German Church, and those elsewhere as well. The defenders of the Pontiff can no longer rely on the power of their word as high priests to combat decades of lying and many thousands of angry victims as well.

In what seemed like an act of desperation, the pope’s personal preacher, Father Raniero Cantalamessa, in an April 2 sermon in St Peter’s Basilica, compared attacks against the Church and pope over sex abuse to “collective violence” against Jews. He said he got this idea from a letter from a Jewish friend.

This remark, however, came from a “Church that for centuries prayed for the conversion of the Jews, who were held collectively responsible for Jesus’ death.” (Reuters, April 4, 2010) I was seven when a group of Catholic kids surrounded and beat me. Their motive? “You killed our Lord, kid.” The local parish priest had so instructed them.

Then, the Vatican did not remove bad priests, nor stop Reverend Lawrence Murphy from abusing 200 U.S. deaf boys between 1950 and 1974. The Vatican and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, according to the New York Times, received warnings about Murphy’s pedophilia but neither informed police nor defrocked him.

On Easter Sunday at the Vatican, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, dean of the College of Cardinals, told the pontiff: “Holy Father, on your side are the people of God.” Sodano dismissed the abuse and cover-up charges as “petty gossip.” (New church definition of sodomy?) (Frances D'Emilio, AP, April 5, 2010)

The ongoing revelations of sexual abuse and the failure of church governors to act responsibly have landed in the Pope’s lap – where they belong. The Catholic Church teeters on the edge of losing its holy image and its moral credibility.

In England, some lawyers claim the principle of universal jurisdiction allows for prosecution of the Pope. Under this concept judges can issue arrest warrants for visitors accused of serious crimes, like genocide, torture and crimes against humanity. Do systematic cover-ups of abuses by pedophile priests count as such a crime?

A 1998 precedent exists. England arrested former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet on a Spanish warrant for crimes against humanity. British police kept Pinochet under house arrest until 2000, when the government released him because he was ruled physically and mentally unfit to stand trial.

No such claim will assuage the more than 10,000 people who have “signed a petition on Downing Street's web site against the pope's 4-day visit to England and Scotland in September.” (AP, Paisley Dodds, April 4, 2010)

The traditional Easter Sunday ritual offered the Pope his chance to address the grievances of tens of thousands of sodomized parishioners. Instead of speaking to charges that he had participated in moving priests to different parishes rather than staining the Church’s reputation by turning them into the police and defrocking them, his Holiness blamed the “vile” media attack.

Has the decline of this powerful Church begun?

Saul Landau is an Institute for Policy Studies fellow whose films are available (roundworldproductions.com). He is the author of A Bush and Botox World.

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Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Eugene Robinson: The Eradication of Trust

The Eradication of Trust
By Eugene Robinson article link
Posted on Apr 19, 2010

Trust might as well be a four-letter word. American public opinion seems to have become an unguided Weapon of Mass Suspicion, and it’s not hard to understand why. But those who would exploit distrust, dissatisfaction and anger for political gain had better worry about collateral damage.

The overhyped tea party phenomenon is more about symbolism and screaming than anything else. A “movement” that encompasses gun nuts, tax protesters, devotees of the gold standard, Sarah Palin, insurance company lobbyists, “constitutionalists” who have not read the Constitution, Medicare recipients who oppose government-run health care, crazy “birthers” who claim President Obama was born in another country, a contingent of outright racists (come on, people, let’s be real) and a bunch of fat-cat professional politicians pretending to be “outsiders” is not a coherent intellectual or political force.

But even people who wouldn’t be caught dead at a tea party rally have lost trust in powerful institutions that are supposed to be working in the public’s interest—with considerable reason. Just look at the headlines.

There’s obviously no reason to trust Wall Street. Theoretically, the only reason for the financial system to exist is to service the economy—and the American people—by channeling capital to its highest and best use. The charges filed last week against Goldman Sachs illustrate the extent to which capitalism’s precepts have been turned on their head by financiers who believe the economy exists to service them.

The allegation, basically, is that John Paulson, a hedge fund mogul who wanted to place a billion-dollar bet that the housing market would deflate, convinced Goldman to round up patsies who would bet the other way. Then the transaction was allegedly rigged so that Paulson would almost surely win his wager, which he did. Goldman denies the allegations of fraud and says that, in any event, it lost money on the deal.

Leave aside for the moment whether Goldman’s action fell just inside or just outside the line demarcating what was legal. What possible socially redeeming value did the transaction have? How did the concoction of a “synthetic collateralized debt obligation” benefit anyone except the lavishly compensated traders at Goldman and the outrageously compensated John Paulson? Is this a system the rest of us could possibly trust?

Another story that won’t go away is the pedophilia scandal in the Roman Catholic Church. On Sunday, during a visit to Malta, Pope Benedict XVI prayed with eight adult victims of childhood sexual abuse by priests and reportedly expressed his “shame and sorrow.” But practically every day, there are new revelations of pedophile priests having been transferred to other parishes rather than being defrocked and reported to authorities.

A CNN poll showed that 56 percent of U.S Catholics disapprove of how Benedict has dealt with the crisis. Even the judgment of the Vicar of Christ is being questioned.

Perhaps most striking of all is a new Pew Research Center poll showing that the public’s trust in the federal government has plummeted. Just 22 percent of Americans say they can trust the government all or most of the time, Pew found. Only 19 percent of respondents say they are “basically content” with the government, while 56 percent are “frustrated” and another 21 percent describe themselves as “angry.”

According to the Pew survey, Americans have negative views of many large institutions—banks and financial firms, Congress, large corporations, the national news media, federal agencies, the entertainment industry, labor unions. The nation still has a positive view of colleges and universities, churches, small businesses and technology companies. Respondents were evenly divided on the Obama administration, with 45 percent being positive and 45 percent negative. Given the current climate, the president might be tempted to claim a moral victory.

There are some contradictions in Pew’s findings. Americans strongly believe that “more government control over the economy” is a bad idea. But by a much bigger margin, they believe that “stricter regulation of financial companies” is a good idea. This is the needle that Congress—with an all-time-low 25 percent approval rating—is now trying to thread.

Republicans have been actively encouraging this groundswell of distrust on the theory that it’s bad for incumbents, meaning Democrats. Indeed, the approval rating for the Democratic Party has plunged to 38 percent. The problem is that approval of the Republican Party has also fallen—to 37 percent.

The moral here, for giddy GOP strategists, is the one about people who live in glass houses.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.

© 2010, Washington Post Writers Group

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David Palmer: A Thesis on the Nature of Religion

A Thesis on the Nature of Religion
by David Palmer article link
December 30, 2008 Global Research

No supernatural being or beings exists that is or are responsible for the creation of the Universe or for its continuing functioning. (This is the fundamental axiom of an atheist’s viewpoint but it is a necessary starting point if the writer is going to be honest with anyone who might read this thesis.)

There are Laws of Nature that do determine the functioning of the physical universe but those laws are inanimate, unconscious and not purposeful. But they do have universal effect.

Desire for the perpetuation of life is a genetic characteristic of all living things. Any species that does not possess this characteristic will not survive. This is also known the survival instinct.

Love is a universal phenomenon. It is necessary for survival inasmuch as many species, including humans, are unable to survive without the support of others of their kind. Being loved is essential to survival. Loving another is essential to ensure reciprocal love in return. Loving and being loved are therefore essential to human survival. The survival of someone who loves you is therefore essential to your own survival.

Belief in a supernatural being or beings is very widespread amongst the human race, almost universal.

Belief in a supernatural being or beings is a psychological construct, a pure creation of the human mind. (This is my fundamental thesis and it flows naturally from the initial atheistic axiom).

Human beings have created the psychological construct of religion essentially as a defence mechanism to enable them to cope with the realization of their own mortality. (This is a basic hypothesis of this theory).

The essence of this coping mechanism is the hope that death is not the end of an individual human’s existence but merely the end of this particular phase of existence. Death is a readily apparent phenomenon. The hope of life after death is therefore an extension of the survival instinct.

Concern over the welfare of loved ones is also a universal phenomenon. The loss of a loved one is a traumatic and threatening psychological experience for any who experience it. It is therefore universally sensible and attractive to believe that a departed loved one is not gone but merely residing in another place. This is a psychological defence mechanism to assuage one’s sense of loss. As such it is a natural part of the grieving process.

No human being knows how to make the hoped-for transition from this phase of existence to the next. None who have died and are presumed to have made the transition have returned to tell those still living what the afterlife is like. Nor have they been able to explain to potential travellers how to make the journey. Since no human knows how to do it, it is necessary to create a non-human facilitator who can effect or aid that transition.

Since no human being has the power to facilitate such a transition it is necessary to endow the created facilitator with supernatural powers to enable that entity to successfully undertake the task.

The replacement of a lost lover by a surrogate is essential for continued psychological, if not physical, health. Where no human surrogate can be found, it is necessary to create a non-human lover. A mythical being can fulfil this psychological need for if no living surrogate can be found. This provides a psychological defence against the loss but it cannot provide material support. Other mechanisms are required to provide material support to the survivor.

Each human civilization has evolved and is evolving within a unique geographic and temporal space. As a result each civilization creates, endows and articulates the nature and attributes of its conception of the supernatural facilitator in a context that is understandable to its contemporary population.

The universality of these concepts is accomplished through the mechanism of a deeply felt and widely accepted psychological phenomenon. It is the collective psyche of huge numbers of people, whole civilizations. (This is another central plank in this theory). I call this phenomenon: Universal Understanding.

Universal Understanding embodies the hope of, if not the belief in, the possibility of an immortal life. It also embodies the hope of, if not the belief in, the existence of a mechanism for achieving it.

Since the conception of a supernatural entity requires that such an entity must have supernatural powers to be able to perform its primary function, the facilitation of the hope-for transition to the next phase of existence, it is sensible, reasonable and convenient to assume that such an entity is also able to deliver other extraordinary benefits besides the phase-transition. These supplemental benefits include: rescuing individuals from danger; protecting loved ones; delivering favourable environmental conditions; bestowing rewards for meritorious acts; and delivering a feeling of being loved to those who feel unloved.

Universal Understanding incorporates the shared visions, myths, concepts and ideas of all groups that have been in contact and have interacted with one another. It accepts, incorporates and instils these concepts into each civilization’s own cultural and temporal context because they appeal to the deep yearning of all human beings for fulfilment of their basic psychological needs. These needs include: a sense of being special, belongingness, self-worth, security and enlightenment.

The appeal of these concepts is so pervasive because it promises the fulfilment of basic psychological needs that are common to all human beings.

The understanding of and belief in these concepts is transmitted between separate and distinctive human groups – within and between, tribes, peoples, races, cultures, nations and civilizations – through the various communications media that exist, and have existed, over time and space. These media have allowed ideas and artefacts to be exchanged between diverse groups. They include such media as: language, art, symbols, writing, mythology, history and memory. They are included both in contemporary exchanges and the transmission of meaning over time. (This is another central plank in this theory).

Meaning is transmitted through the physical senses not through any spiritual or telepathic media. Much of this communication is sub-conscious including such mechanisms as: body language, ambience and subliminal cues. These phenomena are well know to psychologists and are widely used by politicians, clergy, advertising agencies and other communications practitioners.

Religions differ in their conceptions of deities, of life after death and of the mechanisms of the phase-transition because of: the divergent physical demands of the respective habitats of their devotees; the degree of contact of those devotees with the devotees of other civilizations; and with the unique historical journeys of their respective peoples.

Each religious tradition has evolved a distinctive set of rituals that are administered and policed by a special fraternity that is sanctioned and authorized to do so by its society. This is the priestly class.

The political structure of each human group is afforded enhanced legitimacy by securing religious approval from its priestly class for the empowerment of its political elite. The crowning of kings by bishops and popes, the swearing in of political leaders by religious leaders, the establishment of basic laws and regulations such as the Ten Commandments, and the Quar’an, are examples of this authorization.

Hence, the religious and political elite of each tradition has a vested interest in reinforcing belief in its particular conception of the supernatural being and in the enforcing of its particular rituals to the exclusion of other competing ideologies. Acknowledging the legitimacy of other traditions actually undermines the legitimacy of the ruling elite and calls its authority into question.

Religious intolerance actually promotes, encourages and reinforces the legitimacy of the privileged position of the political and religious hierarchy of a particular elite group over its subjects. Religious tolerance actually presents those subjects with an alternative to their current ruling regime.

The principle control mechanism of the priestly class is the threat of excommunication of the laity from the deity. This severance denies the laity both access to contemporary benefits emanating from the deity and to the transmission services of the deity after death. That is, the priestly class controls access to contemporary supernatural benefits and also access to immortality.

The principle control mechanism of the political class is the threat of and actual application of physical violence against the laity for non-compliance with its dictates.

Religion denies the laity the right of appeal to the deity to redress this violence because the deity via the approval of the priestly class has already sanctioned and approved the elite’s use of violence.

All law is based on the threat of violence by the political hierarchy for non-compliance of its dictates. Where this threat is ignored the actual use of violence is authorized by the law. Religion provides the ultimate authorization for the application of the law by the political elite as anointed by the priestly class on behalf of the deity.

Divine authorization for the empowerment of the elite is the preferred mechanism for social control because it is presumed by the laity and actually claimed by the priestly class that the deity operates from a higher level of knowledge, wisdom and understanding, coupled with supernatural powers, than that of ordinary human beings, individually and collectively. The deity is also presumed and claimed to be incorruptible. These are both highly desirable characteristics for most people. Who would not wish for, admire, even love, a benevolent overlord with such characteristics?

The central problem with religion, however, is that neither the priestly class nor the political elite has been able to demonstrate or prove the actual existence of a deity or deities. Neither have they been able to prove that any entity, divine or otherwise, has such characteristics. Moreover, the promised benefits of the deity are not necessarily bestowed by the deity on the laity when requested.

If religion is essentially based on wishful thinking, then it cannot be relied upon as the basis for either law or morality. Therefore, mankind will need to develop other mechanisms upon which to base legal and moral principles. Those principles will need to be universally agreed if corruption and manipulation by unscrupulous and self-serving individuals is to be avoided or remedied.

Since the promise of an afterlife cannot be fulfilled, human endeavour must be focused on: the greatest level of fulfilment for all people currently living and the creation of a world environment that will ensure the greatest level of fulfilment of the lives of future generations.

To ensure the survival of the human species God cannot be the ultimate authority to which mankind is answerable. Humanity collectively must be.

David Palmer is a freelance writer living in Perth, Western Australia . Before his retirement in 2003 he practiced as a Management Consultant specializing in Strategic Business Planning.

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Saturday, April 17, 2010

Michael Shermer: Why Belief in God Is Innate

Why Belief in God Is Innate
By MICHAEL SHERMER article link

According to Oxford University Press's "World Christian Encyclopedia," 84% of the world's population belongs to some form of organized religion. That equals 5.7 billion people who belong to about 10,000 distinct religions, each of which may be further subdivided and classified. Christians, for example, may be apportioned among over 33,000 different denominations. Among the many binomial designations granted our species (Homo sapiens, Homo ludens, Homo economicus), a strong case could be made for Homo religiosus. And Americans are among the most religious members of the species. A 2007 Pew Forum survey of over 35,000 Americans found the following percentages of belief:

God or a universal spirit 92%
Heaven 74%
Hell 59%
Scripture is word of God 63%
Miracles 79%

So powerful is the belief that there must be something else out there that even 21% of those who identified themselves as atheists and 55% of those who identified themselves as agnostics expressed a belief in God or a universal spirit.

Why do so many people believe in God? Although there is much cultural variation among different religious faiths, all have in common the belief in supernatural agents in the form of God, gods or spirits who have intention and interact with us in the world. Four lines of evidence point to the conclusion that such beliefs are hard-wired into our brains.

In his 1871 book, "The Descent of Man," Charles Darwin noted that anthropologists conclude that "a belief in all-pervading spiritual agencies seems to be universal; and apparently follows from a considerable advance in the reasoning powers of man, and from a still greater advance in his faculties of imagination, curiosity and wonder." Why would religion and belief in God evolve? Darwin suggested that it might accentuate group cohesiveness in the competition against other groups: "There can be no doubt that a tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage and sympathy, were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection [of the group]."

Around 5,000 to 7,000 years ago, as bands and tribes began to coalesce into chiefdoms and states even before the invention of government, religion was the first social institution to codify moral behaviors into ethical principles. God evolved as the ultimate enforcer of the rules.

Human universals are traits shared by all peoples, such as tool use, myths, sex roles, social groups, aggression, gestures, grammar and phonemes. Many are related to religion and belief in God, including: anthropomorphizing animals and objects, belief in the supernatural, beliefs and rituals about death, and beliefs about fortune and misfortune. Although such universals are not totally controlled by genes alone (almost nothing is), there are good reasons to believe that there is a strong genetic predisposition for these traits to be expressed within their respective cultures. That is, your culture may dictate which God to believe in, but the belief in a supernatural agent who operates in the world is universal to all cultures because it is hard-wired in the brain.

Several studies on twins support this conclusion. In one study of 53 pairs of identical twins and 31 pairs of fraternal twins, each reared apart, researchers at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis looked at five different measures of religiosity and found that the correlations between identical twins were typically double those for fraternal twins. The finding suggests that genetic factors account for approximately half of the observed variance in their measures of religious beliefs.

This finding was corroborated by two much larger twin studies out of Australia (involving 3,810 pairs of twins) and England (involving 825 pairs of twins), which compared identical and fraternal twins on numerous measures of beliefs and social attitudes. The researchers concluded that approximately 55% of the variance in religious attitudes appears to be genetic.

They also concluded that people who grow up in religious families who themselves later become religious do so mostly because they have inherited a disposition, from one or both parents, to resonate positively with religious sentiments. Without such a genetic disposition, the religious teachings of parents appear to have few lasting effects.

Of course, genes do not determine whether one chooses Judaism, Catholicism, Islam or any other religion. Rather, belief in supernatural agents (God, angels, demons) and commitment to certain religious practices (church attendance, prayer, rituals) appears to reflect genetically based cognitive processes (inferring the existence of invisible agents) and personality traits (respect for authority, traditionalism).

Why did we inherit this tendency? Long, long ago, in a Paleolithic environment far, far away from the modern world, humans evolved to find meaningful causal patterns in nature to make sense of the world, and infuse many of those patterns with intentional agency, some of which became animistic spirits and powerful gods. I call these two processes patternicity (the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless data) and agenticity (the tendency to infuse patterns with meaning, intention and agency).

Imagine that you are a hominid on the planes of Africa and you hear a rustle in the grass. Is it a dangerous predator or just the wind? If you assume the rustle in the grass is a dangerous predator and it is just the wind, you have made a Type I error (a false positive), but to no harm. But if you believe the rustle is just the wind when it is a dangerous predator, you have made a Type II error (a false negative) and there's a good chance you'll be lunch and thereby removed from your species' gene pool. Because we are poor at discriminating between false positives and false negatives, and because the cost of making a Type I error is much lower than making a Type II error, there was a natural selection for those hominids who tended to believe that all patterns are real and potentially dangerous. This is the basis for the belief not only in God, but in souls, spirits, ghosts, demons, angels, intelligent designers and all manner of invisible agents intending to harm us or help us.

Of course, there is a big difference between an inanimate force (the wind) and an intentional agent (the dangerous predator). Most animals can make this distinction on the superficial life-or-death level, but we do something other animals do not do. As large-brained hominids with a developed cortex, we have a Theory of Mind—the capacity to be aware of such mental states as desires and intentions in both ourselves and others. We "read minds" by projecting ourselves into someone else's shoes (as in empathy) or by imagining someone out to get us (as in fear).

Theory of Mind is part of a larger mind-brain dualism, in which we tend to think of the mind as something separate from the brain. We speak of "my body" as if "my" and "body" are dissimilar. We revel in books and films that are dualistic, as in Kafka's "Metamorphosis" in which a man falls asleep and wakes up as a cockroach with the man's personality intact inside it, or in the movie "Freaky Friday" where mother and daughter trade bodies with their essences unbroken. This belief in mind and essence is a byproduct of the brain's inability to perceive itself. Thus, we can "de-center" ourselves and imagine, say, being on a beach in Hawaii, which most people tend to see from above looking down on themselves as if out of their bodies.

Gods are agents and agents are essences, and agenticity is everywhere. Subjects watching reflective dots move about in a darkened room (especially if the dots take on the shape of two legs and two arms) infer that they represent a person or intentional agent. Children believe that the sun can think, and in pictures often add a smiley face to give agency to sol. A third of transplant patients believe that the donor's personality or essence is transplanted with the organ, and studies show that most people say that they would never wear the sweater of a murderer, but that they would wear the cardigan sweater of the children's television host Mr. Rogers, believing that it would make them better persons.

We believe in the supernatural because we believe in the natural and we cannot discriminate between the two. We create gods because we are natural-born supernaturalists, driven by our tendency to find meaningful patterns and impart to them intentional agency. The gods will always be with us because they are hard-wired into our brains.

Michael Shermer is the publisher of Skeptic magazine, an adjunct professor at Claremont Graduate University and the author of "The Mind of the Market."

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Gregory Paul: Why Belief in God Is Not Innate

Why Belief in God Is Not Innate
By GREGORY PAUL article link

It has become fashionable to assert that, far from being dead, belief in God is so deeply ingrained in the human psyche that it is universal and perpetual. This opinion influences the thinking of theists and scientists alike.

In "Jesus Was a Liberal: Reclaiming Christianity for All," theologian Scotty McLennen contends that because humans are hard-wired for religion, it must be reformed rather than refuted to better fit the modern world. The hypothesis that people are genetically preprogrammed to be pious because it confers a selective advantage that enhances reproductive success is advocated by Nicholas Wade in "The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures." The Templeton Foundation and Oxford University have announced a multimillion-dollar project intended to answer why religion is pervasive. Yet a growing body of psychosociological research has already overturned conventional wisdom as it uncovers the actual leading cause of popular faith: dysfunctional socioeconomic conditions.

If a behavior is such a core means of survival that it must be strongly genetically fixed, then it will be truly universal. DNA preprograms humans to learn language so well that by age 5, children engage in intelligible conversations. The fully opposable thumbs that make humans distinct from other primates evolved for the materialism that more than anything else pushes the ambition and achievement that drives civilization. Around the globe language flourishes and the vast majority craves material goods; they are genuinely universal.

The same cannot be said about popular religiosity, which is highly variable in ways that have important implications for human societies and the nature of belief. According to Gallup and other surveys, the number of Americans who believe in something paranormal (eight in 10) is about the same as those who believe in God. However, it is the latter opinion that counts in the cultural and political wars.

How consistent is serious religious worship in humans? Even in hunter-gatherers there is remarkable divergence. While the !Kung bushmen of southwestern Africa have a well-developed complex of beliefs, the Hadza of eastern Africa have minimal religion that does not include belief in an afterlife. Religion is easily cast off in the face of modernity. Among Western nations, religion is a strong majority influence only in the U.S. In other advanced democracies, religion is in such sharp decline that majorities are skeptical that there is a God in some Western European countries, including France and Denmark, as well as Japan. Church attendance fell rapidly in Europe in the closing decades of the last century, declining up to sixfold in nations like Belgium and Holland. Phil Zuckerman's "A Society Without God" shows how many Western Europeans casually and nonideologically dismiss the possibility of gods or an afterlife. British sociologist Steve Bruce has shown that Western de-Christianization has not been countered by a commensurate rise in alternative beliefs. And surveys have shown that Western scientists are more atheistic than the general public.

The loss of faith in advanced nations has often been dismissed as an aberration in a human sea of piety, but it is a sociological gold mine that provides the critical information needed to solve the religion puzzle. The only one of the big religions making proportional gains on the global scene is Islam, largely because of rapid reproduction. Christianity has been stuck at a third of the planetary population for a century. The nonreligious are the only group able to expand by large-scale conversion. In the Western world hundreds of millions have lost their belief in religion since the world wars despite the absence of atheist organizations comparable to the churches that work to maintain the faith.

Because the popularity of spirituality is so variable and subject to loss, it cannot be as strongly genetically programmed as its frequent nadir, materialism. There is, therefore, no "God Gene" that compels almost all to have faith in the gods. Nor is a "God Module" in our brains making us all believe. Because the number of nonbelievers is growing, fear of death or hell and desire for a blissful afterlife cannot be the crucial factors either. The same is true when it comes to a desire for social community, otherwise churches would be packed. That means the primary determinants of the popularity of faith must be found in the human environment.

It has long been known that prosperity and security tend to suppress religiosity—that's why the Bible warns against the spiritual dangers posed by material wealth. But even though the U.S. has nearly the highest per capita income in the world, it is about twice as religious as the Western norm, according to the Pew Research Center.

As shown by Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart in their classic work, "Sacred and Secular," and confirmed in subsequent studies, there is a strong correlation between higher levels of income disparity and greater religiosity in prosperous democracies. To investigate this correlation, I constructed the Successful Societies Scale, a uniquely comprehensive comparison of socioeconomic conditions in the Western world. In every prosperous democracy that features universal health care, job and retirement security, and low levels of social ills such as homicide, incarceration, juvenile and adult mortality, divorce and so forth, the middle-class majority has abandoned the churches in droves because they no longer feel the need to seek the protection and assistance of supernatural powers.

The U.S. has the highest financial inequality, is the only Western country without universal health coverage and scores the lowest on the Successful Societies Scale. In no other advanced democracy are cities afflicted by such high rates of murder and juvenile mortality, or are ordinary citizens subject to sudden financial ruin because of overwhelming medical bills.

That the popularity of faith is largely a side effect of socioeconomic conditions means that other factors play secondary roles if any. The harsh conditions suffered by early humans had more to do with the initial development of supernatural beliefs than did genes. In the 21st century most people continue to care much more about the mundane but vital issues of their daily lives that really drive their opinions than they do about grand ideological wars—there is little doubt that if Americans lived under socioeconomic conditions more like those in Canada we would be similarly irreligious, and there would be no intense culture war.

As it is American religion is showing signs of distress. Pew finds that only one in two Americans have no doubt that a personal God exists, and estimates that the U.S. already is half as religious as some less prosperous nations. Bible literalists have swiftly declined from four in 10 around 1980 to less than three in 10. According to the classic Gallup "do you believe in God or a universal spirit" question, nonbelievers have tripled since the 1960s, and surveys designed to overcome Americans' reluctance to admit nontheism indicate that skeptics may match Catholics or evangelicals in numbers.

If America becomes increasingly secular, the country can be expected to adopt social and financial policies that encourage further secularization. Faith is proving unable to thrive in well-run democracies, and its abandonment can occur with startling speed when conditions become good enough.

Gregory Paul is an independent researcher and consultant whose work on the interaction of religion and society has appeared in Evolutionary Psychology, the Journal of Religion and Society, and Philosophy and Theology.

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