Vaccine Good Friday, Resurrection, and a year in the desert

Jesus only had to spend 40 days in the desert and 3 days in the tomb before his resurrection. We’ve been cloistered for more than a year, and even with a dose of the vaccine we spend between 2 weeks and 2 months in the “tomb” of waiting for immunity. I received the first dose of the vaccine on Good Friday, and it feels like I’m waiting for Easter.

We’re all waiting. We spent a long winter in the desert, seeing deaths and illnesses mount, watching loved ones struggle from afar. Now we’re in the tomb; we’re not free yet, and we don’t know if we will be. But the promise of resurrection is on the horizon, and in three short days we’ll rise anew.

What is life like after being resurrected from the dead? Jesus floated around for some dramatic appearances before zapping into space. For most of us, although we’ll return to a life that may look similar to pre-pandemic times, we’re now forever transfigured by our experience.

A year in the desert is transformational. For many like me, our lives and careers stopped. We turned to long-distance friends and solitary entertainment. Some were able to slowly return to a sense of normalcy, although I do not envy them. Given the time to pursue whatever I’d like, I was forced to question what my purpose truly is. Stuck in the desert of meaninglessness, what do we choose to pursue?

I’ve found that external affirmation is hugely important psychologically. It is the primary thing I’ve been missing, as the external signifiers of worth and achievement have been stripped away. I’ve also realized that, although it feels good, doing things for the praise and respect of others is fundamentally a hollow pursuit! Staking one’s own meaning on the opinion of others is at best empty and at worst self-destructive.

The desert reminds us how small we are, how vast the sandy expanse of life is, how little the wind or sun cares for our very existence. The tomb reminds us that darkness and nothingness are pervasive and eternal. Resurrection teaches us that we can find joy in existence despite these things. Resurrection doesn’t provide us with meaning to live, but it does afford us the opportunity to enjoy the search for meaning, or, at the very least, enjoy the lack of meaning.

I’m feeling optimistic this Holy Week. It usually has that effect on me, but even without being in church in person I’m still buoyed by hope. Happy Easter.

Wither Atheists

The new polling news from Gallup shows an even more pronounced trend away from religion and churchgoing. It isn’t surprising, as polling data for the past 20 years have demonstrated this trend, but the data shows the trend line passing over the notable milestone of 50%; now fewer than half of Americans go to church.

Pundits might have you believe that this is due to the malicious influence of Satanists and Atheists (or Communists, or devil-lap-dancing pop singers, or whomever is the villain du jour). If this were true, we’d be seeing Atheist affiliation skyrocket, and yet the number of atheists has barely budged. These formally church-going people don’t seem to become atheists, they instead get lumped in with the religious “nones,” that is, people who don’t claim any sort of affiliation.

Based on how defamed and vilified atheists are, this isn’t that surprising. Atheists are just unpopular, and they always have been. But it seems somewhat inescapable to me that if you begin to devalue or reject religion that you then must turn to some other worldview, which by definition becomes atheism or agnosticism. That people, in large numbers, aren’t making this logical jump indicates to me that they’re living in an even more relativistic metaphysical space than we’ve previously imagined. Lots and lots of people, in growing numbers, now refuse to say there is no God, and yet also refuse to support the existence of God in the guise of a religion. It is a liminal space between theism and atheism, a grey area. And we love grey areas! But it is hard to live in one regarding your fundamental belief about the nature of the universe.

One other note: this research says that 4% of religiously unaffiliated still attend church regularly. These people are the very definition of Catholic Atheists! Hey everyone!

Death by a Thousand Harmless Torturers; why Religious ethics were so effective

The thought experiment originally offered by Derek Parfit about the “harmless torturers” pops up now and again in so many different circumstances, which is why its such a good thought experiment. Take this old article from the New York Times where its applied to online behavior and what we would now call cancel culture, for instance. Parfit’s experiment shows some of the shortcomings of both deontology as well as consequentialism, the main ways philosophers have thought about ethics.

It goes like this: there’s a person in a torture cube (think the Agonizer from the Mirror Universe in Star Trek) and the torturer has a knob which increases the level of pain to the person in the device. One torturer can turn it all the way up, killing the person, and this (stripping away any question of why the person is in the Agonizer in the first place) is clearly wrong. But it is possible for the knob to be adjusted at an imperceptible level; one torturer may turn it up with no obvious effect or consequence and then leave. Imagine, thousands of torturers all have separate access to this control and the thousands of adjustments are equivalent to one person turning it up thousands of times, so the person dies. The ultimate amount of pain and death to the victim is the same, but in the thousand torturers instance each individual torturer didn’t cause any perceptible amount of pain.

The consequentialist says, “well, the individual torturer isn’t doing anything wrong,” since their contribution didn’t result in any real results. The deontologist says, “inflicting pain is wrong,” regardless of the ends or results. The contractualist asks, “well, did you have any sort of agreement about this?” The egoist says, “hey, not my problem as long as I’m not the one in the pain booth.” And so on.

Religion gave us a tidy way to embrace deontology; we have a set of commandments, and they don’t change based on the circumstances or the outcome. Further, religion created a sense of self-interested consequentialism within this deontology: although the ends never justify the means, the ends will bring about a good consequence (heaven) for you personally in the afterlife. Furthermore, by its ubiquity, it created a social contract: all people of faith agree to act the same way, and when they break the rules they know they’ve done wrong.

When we remove the dictum from on high, religious ethics fall apart. Why are certain things bad if it isn’t God that’s telling us the rules? Furthermore, removing the consequence of hellfire, the only real ground for post-supernatural religious ethics is the agreement of all of those religious people about what rules they’ll follow. That’s one reason why contractualism seems to have developed in the 20th century, alongside the death of God and a decreasing reliance on the supernatural. It’s also why the Catholic Church has become so deluded about it’s own approach to ethics.

It’s also why atheists are viewed as bad. They can’t possibly have any ethics at all, the theist says, because there isn’t a rule from on high, a consequence for their action, or a community of people with whom they made an ethical agreement. This is, of course, very silly! Atheists can be moral, by any standard one applies.

The torturers experiment applies so neatly to our current global crisis, too. Individual risky actions (like gathering in a group or shunning a facemask) doesn’t necessarily effect any change in isolation, but everyone’s insignificant choices can have massive effects on public health over all. Voting, too, is closely linked to the thought experiment: one vote never made a difference and one person choosing not to vote will have insignificant effects on the system, but the aggregate of nonvoters makes for an untenable structure.

Catholic Ethical Considerations and a Morally Bankrupt Church

Ever since the sex-abuse scandal the Catholic Church has struggled to maintain its station as moral arbiter. Of course, the Church was slowly falling from grace in that area long ago, but the breadth and severity of the scandal has permanently tarnished the Church’s reputation in the modern era. How could anyone possibly look to the church on more nuanced ethical topics when it couldn’t even get it right in one of the most obviously easy ethical quandaries?

That’s why its funny to see the Catholic Church equivocate on moral issues that are far less dire. The Church’s statement on the Johnson and Johnson COVID-19 vaccine is almost laughable, not for what it concludes but for what it doesn’t say. It doesn’t say, for instance, that since the vaccine was developed using stem cells from aborted fetuses that it is immoral to accept. It doesn’t say the vaccine is immoral. It doesn’t say the research was immoral. The cell lines themselves are “morally compromised,” but we don’t know the circumstances of the harvesting of those cells.

The document does say that other vaccines made from stem cells are morally acceptable, like the Rubella vaccine. There is no alternative to that vaccine, though, and there is to the Coronavirus vaccine, which is how the Conference of Bishops arrive at their conclusion.

Traditional Catholic morality is founded on a Kantian sort of deontology: God tells us what is right and wrong. The ends do not justify the means. Abortion, for instance, is a moral wrong, not because of the consequences, but because it is wrong, full-stop. It doesn’t matter if terminating the pregnancy makes life better for other people, or if the child would unreasonably suffer by being born, it is simply an ethical precept that abortion is immoral.

Yet the Bishops here are asking us to decide that using a particular vaccine is on some scale of morality based on how many people might be saved in so doing. It doesn’t matter if the development process was morally compromised if it is the only vaccine and the only way to prevent that suffering. Even if there are other alternatives, those are only “preferable,” not moral requirements.

Catholic morality has never worked this way, and to see the Bishops slowly arrive at a consequentialist meta-ethic is an incredible demonstration of the collapse of traditional religious teaching, much more so than if the church were to finally catch up to modernity on, say, same-sex marriage. It means that there is no right or wrong, only utility. It means that we can abrogate moral precepts if the ends justify the means. It means that “morally compromised” science (or people or situations or whatever) are acceptable if the outcome is good. Good for whom? The Catholic Bishops, presumably.

Is the cool communist Pope maybe not so cool?

Pope Francis has been a refreshing liberalizing force in global Catholicism and a welcome change from Benedict’s regressive ideology. This Pope is a certifiable communist and seems more concerned with the actual lives of humans in the world than the minutia of canon, which is a big change over most Popes in history. So why is the Vatican again condemning gay-marriage?

By Deisenbe, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=76694488

It is especially baffling that the church continues to pursue this condemnation of same-sex marriage in light of the overwhelming support for it. Vast majorities in the US and Western Europe support gay-marriage and have for a decade, and even South American countries are beginning to show majority support in polling. So just who is the Vatican appealing to by issuing these sort of statements? The articles on the decree interestingly point out that it isn’t clear who “asked the question” in the first place.

The stock answer would be that this is to shore up support in South America, but polling about homosexual acceptance in most South American countries shows the trend working against the Vatican on this topic. Perhaps it is meant as a play to appeal to African congregations, but Catholicism in Africa isn’t exactly thriving these days. At the very least, why not simply stay silent on the issue, so as not to alienate the growing numbers of people who believe in equal rights for all people?