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.

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.

What happened to online church?

Are you still going to church? Virtually, I mean. Some places are holding physically distant, reduced capacity meetings, of course. Some have experimented with outdoor services, although winter is coming quickly. But the majority of churches are still holding online, virtual services. The people, though, are giving up.

The research from the Barna Group in June gave a pretty shocking picture of the state of faith in America. About half of people were still “attending” virtual church, less than a third were engaging with church leadership, less than 15% were participating in a discussion group or bible study. It isn’t a surprise that people wouldn’t immediately embrace this unusual method of churchgoing, but the shocking part about these statistics is that they are amongst regular churchgoers! That means, even within the church’s most devoted followers, membership is waning in an unprecedented way.

Personally, I was pretty committed to regular Sunday viewing in the spring and early summer. I was definitely one of the “hoppers” that the research mentions, switching freely between several services at congregations which I wouldn’t normally attend. The incredible ease of access to a variety of churches made “attending” different services fun and novel. I would switch between several live, or watch portions of other churches’ later in the day.

That has slowly dwindled, and now I find myself zipping past Sunday without even thinking about booting up a live stream. The incredible variety of online services available was also its undoing: although I enjoyed getting to experience each church’s take on virtual service early on, after several weeks I wasn’t engaged enough to continue. There is only so much novelty a virtual service can offer, after all, and by simply passively watching I wasn’t really engaging with any one church.

I wonder how much the numbers have fallen off since June. One can only assume that my personal experience mirrors a trend. One also has to wonder how this will change churchgoing in the future; it seems equally as likely that churchgoers who have fallen off in virtual attendance will happily return in person as it does that they simply become lapsed practitioners.

One thing is certain: in order to maintain worshipers, churches have to find a way to increase real engagement. Not just getting people to passively watch their productions, but engage in community in a significant way, as they would by attending. Many congregations are constantly innovating new ways to address this. The social and communal aspects of church are lost in a virtual ceremony, and these are the primary factors in retention in a normal church setting. If churches are going to continue to be restricted in their ability to hold in-person services, they will need to find a better way to simulate this communal engagement if they hope to retain parishioners in the short-term.

Alms for the Poor (Church)

If we take as a given that the church is an important institution worth saving, it naturally follows that both parishioners and governments should work towards its preservation financially. That’s why I don’t mind necessarily that many denominations of churches have received large amounts of support funding from the government by way of the CARES act and associated emergency funding.

The part the irks me is the knowledge that, at least for the Catholic Church, much of this funding is used in support of the ongoing lawsuits related to sexual assault. It just seems so horrible and wasteful that people would donate to preserve their beloved religious institution, but that those funds would go to protect and defend sexual predators. It is a similar problem to taxpayer dollars being used to pay for lawsuits related to police misconduct; why should taxpayers fund a defense for a cop who wasn’t acting in the best interest of those same taxpayers in the first place?

Of course, it isn’t that simple. These lawsuits do support and preserve the institutions. They protect the financial interest of the institution and, possibly, protect wrongly-accused employees and clergy. Mostly, though, these legal defenses shield the clergy from the law and protect the hierarchy from paying further restitution to victims. Of course, we can’t just let the legal responsibility for this defense fall directly to the employees in question, and we can’t restrict funds given to exclude their use in legal defense. But if we simply don’t fund the institution then it will certainly fail, and while this might lead to a new and better criminal justice system in the case of the police, the church is an ancient relic which must be preserved.

If there was a good answer to this, we would have discovered it. Ultimately, it is good that churches are getting funded even through programs like the PPP and the SBA. But the idea that taxpayer dollars are being used to defend sexual predators is horrific and inexcusable in a way that I can’t yet reconcile.