Monday, November 21, 2022

Catholic Church Abuse in Maryland

Brian Frosh, the Maryland Attorney General, has developed a 463 page document on his investigation of the Catholic Church in Maryland. Given that some of the details were developed in Grand Jury testimony he cannot release this document without court approval. The Religion News Service has published some of the details of the AG court request for asking for this release. This includes:

  • 158 Roman Catholic priests in the Archdiocese of Baltimore who have been accused of sexually and physically abusing more than 600 victims over the past 80 years

  • While the court filing noted that more than 600 victims were identified, it also said “there are almost certainly hundreds more, as the Department of Justice’s Annual Crime Victimization Report has demonstrated that most incidents of sexual assault go unreported.”

  • “One congregation was assigned eleven sexually abusive priests over 40 years.”

Read the entire Religion News Service article here:

Sunday, November 20, 2022

American Theocracy after November 2022 Elections

 Democracy in our nation dodged a bullet in the recent election. Kay Ivey was the only election denier elected as the Governor of a state. It is not as if the Democratic Party is likely to win Alabama in the near future. To my knowledge there were no state level candidates who denied Biden’s proper election and achieved state level control over future elections. However, there were over 100 Big Lie lunatics elected, mostly to the House of Representatives. The American Taliban remains alive and well.

The primary success of American theocracy remains the systematic dismantling of women’s rights to reproductive choice in at least half the states. Gov. Youngkin very much wants to include Virginia in that group of states. There is a systematic attack on the school systems with claims of critical race theory being used to denigrate white people, libraries peddling LGBT porn, grooming of young children to adopt other sexual identities, book banning, etc. The radical support for the gun nut crowd has resulted in a nation nearly choking on a flood of lethal firepower. This has created a reign of terror with nearly daily mass shootings. We have five dead and 18 injured late yesterday, at a Colorado Springs gay night club. The gays have in many ways won the culture war. They are accepted almost everywhere. Theocrats do not like that. Their hate speech is the foundational reason for this and other varieties of mass shootings. Welcome to the culture war where people actually die.

AG Garland appointed a special counsel to prosecute Trump. It is highly likely that this will result in his conviction and removal as a candidate for 2024. That is my expectation. Ron DeSantis released a preposterous hyper-religious ad declaring that God created a fighter, specifically him. I am sure the Christian nationalists of his base will love this “fighter” for their cause. DeSantis won a resounding reelection in Florida and most people are now saying that Florida is now a firmly red state. I doubt that, but he does have Trump-like charisma and ability to inspire the right wing theocratic base. It is excessively likely that an election between Biden and DeSantis would lock down the White House into Ron’s variety of hate spewing theocracy. DeSantis loves to say, “Florida is where woke goes to die.” Woke is any semblance of compassion or respect for those outside his preposterous world view. Secular liberalism has no one who can own a stage as much as this God inspired travesty of political mayhem.

I have been asserting that our culture, and the wider world, is teetering on the brink authoritarianism analogous the 1930s. Many tens of millions died in the resulting WWII. I am now asserting that our present spin on authoritarian madness can be projected to cause an order of magnitude more deaths. This is implicit in the ecosystem collapse from the climate change crisis mandated by right-wing denialism. I see no possibility for the long term dead to not approach at least a billion if we do not act more forcefully than permitted by these theocrats. We currently have many countries that are on a glide path to becoming failed states ruled by competing drug gangs and private armies. This is not a good thing.

Sunday, November 13, 2022

Blaise Pascal’s argument for truth from faith

 By Mathew Goldstein

Vance Morgan is the author of “Freelance Christianity” on the Progressive Christianity channel of Patheos.  Patheos describes itself as “… the premier online destination to engage in the global dialogue about religion and spirituality, and to explore and experience the world's beliefs.” His most recent post is “The Heart Has Its Reasons . . .: My Evidence Against Atheism”.  He defends Christianity as a “ first principle”, quoting Blaise Pascal.

“We know the truth, not only through reason, but also through the heart. It is through the latter that we know first principles, and reason, which has no part in it, tries in vain to challenge them. Reason must use this knowledge from the heart and instinct, and base all its arguments on it.”

He says “the problem is the atheist’s refusal to accept that there are more kinds of evidence than rational and more sources of belief than reason.”, again quoting Blaise Pascal.

“Principles are felt, propositions are proved; all with certainty, though in different ways. And it is as useless and absurd for reason to demand from the heart proofs of its first principles before accepting them, as it would be for the heart to demand from reason an intuition of all demonstrated propositions before receiving them.”

Of course, we disagree. My take is that Blaise Pascal was mistaken. This is not all that surprising given that Pascal was writing in the 17th century. In the 17th century it was arguably easier to be both a top tier intellectual and be a theist, and maybe even be a self-described Christian, without obvious self-contradictions. This is because our knowledge of how the universe works has advanced since the 17th century, and what we have learned over the last three centuries favors ontological naturalism.

Mr. Pascal decided that salvation was by grace, not by human merit, and he defended overcoming uncertainty by relying on faith. Yet there is no testable evidence favoring any theological concept of salvation. So there are no reliable grounds, none!, for concluding in favor of the theological concept of grace as a path to salvation, all the more so given that grace also lacks supporting testable evidence. Once we go fishing for conclusions about how the universe works without anchoring our boat in testable evidence, the remaining constraints on which conclusions we reach are far too arbitrary and feeble to give us even a reasonable chance of landing on non-fiction. Insofar as atheists recognize this, and theists do not, it is the theists who are mistaken, not the atheists.

Mr. Vance claims that Christianity “provides the best cognitive framework for understanding myself and the world around me than I have ever encountered”. No religion comes close to qualifying as a good framework for understanding the world, let alone the ‘best framework’. This is why scientists are not hired based on their religious credentials, beliefs, or practices. They are hired based on their secular (non-religious) academic training and track record of productive output. The Bible in particular offers a mistaken, pre-scientific, perspective reflecting the ignorance of the people who wrote it. In Genesis we learn why people die (retaliation for Eve and Adam eating an apple, a.k.a. original sin), why there are rainbows (rainbows are a sign of God’s covenant), where rain comes from (the springs of the deep and the floodgates of the heavens), why snakes slither on the ground (retaliation for a serpent persuading Eve and Adam to eat an apple), why there is pain during childbirth (retaliation for Eve eating an apple), why there are thorns (retaliation for Adam eating an apple), why there are thousands of different languages (retaliation for people disobeying God). We also learn that stars are hung in the firmament above the mountains. 

Mr. Vance ends his defense of Christian theism thusly:  “Most importantly, the best evidence in support of faith (or whatever you choose to call it) is a changed life. That’s my own story.” There are many factors that go into “a changed life”. When people who were theists become atheists they sometimes say the conversion changed their life for the better. Is whether or not our life changed a valid measure, let alone “the best” measure”, of the accuracy of our ontological beliefs? Throughout history there are examples of many happy people being wrong, people who arguably could have been happy without being mistaken. It needs to be said that being mistaken, even when well-intentioned, is a potential source of misdirected, and harmful, behavior. 

Principles and ethics are applied to the factual context. Thusly “the heart”, in the sense of principles and ethics, remains intact and an active participant within a facts chronologically first approach. The sequence is first, determine the relevant facts to the best of our abilities, second, apply ethical concerns to our decisions to the best of our abilities. They are not incompatible with each other. On the contrary, we need the facts to get our ethics right, which is why getting the facts right places first chronologically. This linkage with facts is always needed for everything that needs a non-fictional basis.

This does not mean there are no conflicts or complications. Ethical considerations range from clear cut and easy to ambiguous and difficult. There can be uncertainties about the facts, uncertainties about the past, present, and future, uncertainties about the ethics, multiple competing considerations that favor different conclusions, time constraints along with a slew of other constraints, etc. My guess is that there are almost enough non-fictional books documenting human weaknesses and flaws to fill a library. Add the fictional literature and the typical library will probably be short of shelf space. 

Furthermore, facts regarding how the universe works are not in and of themselves ethical. They are two different to categories. There can be a need to actively intervene to pushback against the negative implications of the facts when it is feasible to do so to realize better outcomes. For example, global warming, malaria, plastic pollution, carcinogens, poverty, crime, etcetera are examples of facts we should be pushing back against. Blaise Pascal’s argument relies on a category error and special pleading. He is selectively transferring particular fact category claims over to ethical category claims to exempt those particular fact claims from scrutiny. When we start with a commitment to believing that an all knowing and all good god created the universe we have set the stage for conflating factual claims with ethical claims.

Any ideology, most definitely including secular ideologies, that disregard, that override, that contradict, that denigrate, the best fit with the available evidence conclusions are potential additional sources of misdirected behaviors. Selectively overlooking, or denigrating, both the available evidence and competent epistemology more generally, are distinguishing traits of ideology. Religion has no monopoly on ideology, secular ideologies are equally remiss and culpable. The difference is that all religions are ideologies. Secular humanists should not be exempting secular ideologies from critical scrutiny. Ideologies tend to do more harm than good.

Sunday, November 06, 2022

Good News for People who Eat

The American diet, high in animal meat and fat, isn’t good for people's health or for the environment. It generates a lot of greenhouse gases from energy consumption and animal waste, and it requires fertilizers and pesticides.  It consumes natural resources and soil, so it can’t be sustained indefinitely, especially if everyone else in the world wants to eat the same menu. But there is a solution that may be coming soon.

Several companies are making a plant-based products that are an imitation of meat. The best-known ones are Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, which have products on the market. These products may be more healthful than animal products, although they are highly processed to give the appearance of meat.  

Artificial milk products are replacing a large fraction of the demand for cow's milk with nut or soy milk.  These vegetable "milk" products are also highly processed to make them seem like animal milk.  Some people have the impression that "natural" products are better than processed ones.  Actually, they are made from the same chemicals.  In some ways, processed food is better, because the quality control and uniformity is better and it is possible to control spoilage and shelf-life.

Another kind of food that is under development is cultured-cell meat, which is grown from stem cells of animals in growth medium to make meat products without animals. There are several start-up companies working on this effort.

These efforts make products that can replace the demand for meat. But they require a significant amount of manufacturing and processing to seem real. They use fewer resources than large herds of animals, but they still require significant amounts of energy and resources.  One well-publicized issue is that it takes a gallon of water to grow one almond.

There is an entirely different approach to a new food source that could save a sigificant amount of energy and land. This effort could provide a new kind of staple food that replaces both agricultural animals and plants. It could provide a much more secure food source that is less vulnerable to bad weather or changing climate.

There are two primary companies involved. A Finnish company called Solar Foods ( has produced prototype food they call solien. According to their website, “Solein is 65-70 % protein, 5-8 % fat (primarily unsaturated fats), 10-15 % dietary fibres and 3-5 % mineral nutrients.”

An American company called Air Protein ( has received $32 million in investment. They seem to have a similar approach, but there is less information on their website.

The goal of the companies is to grow edible microorganisms. The species of microorganisms produce energy from metabolism of hydrogen gas, and grow from carbon dioxide and water, as well as some nutrients. The product is high in protein and vitamins.

This approach has multiple advantages. It provides a food source as the base of the food pyramid, even more basic than plants. It doesn’t require using large areas of agricultural land to grow plants, and then even more area to feed animals and dispose of animal waste. Each stage has costs in efficiency of producing food calories, so food from simpler organisms has significant advantages.

The new method also separates light collection from food production. Light can be collected by solar panels or wind generation to produce electricity, which can be used to generate hydrogen. The hydrogen is transported to the bioreactors, which use minimal land area. It isn’t necessary to grow plants in sunlight as light collectors to make chemical energy in plant tissue. This is another improvement in efficiency.

Adoption of this food source on a large scale would alleviate a number of pressing environmental problems. The overuse of agricultural land and water could be reduced and potentially eliminated. The use of fertilizer and pesticides could end, getting rid of environmental run-off with collateral damage to wild creatures and ecosystems. The large land areas devoted to wheat, corn, and rice monocultures could be reduced, returning land to wilderness for use by other species.

It is unlikely that all agriculture would end, because people will still want variety and some selection of plants and animals. Natural products will be used for variety and flavor. But reactors have the advantage of quality control and protection from weather disasters. The food supply will be more secure. Production in bioreactors reduces the vulnerability of the food supply to bad weather. No matter how inhospitable the weather becomes in agricultural areas due to extreme events or changing climate, there shouldn’t be mass food shortages. Energy for hydrogen production can be collected in deserts or over water, without a need for arable land.  This could at last eliminate hunger and starvation.  It could reduce the impact of climate change.

Further in the future, this kind of food source can be transplanted to space colonies or colonies on other planets. It would remove a restriction that keeps people on the Earth.