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Tsunamis and Ethics

By Victor J Webster (ret. surgeon), Sydney ~

I recently received an email, alluding to the exemplary behavior which had been observed and widely reported following the recent earthquake and subsequent disaster in Japan, which included the following list:
Victor Webster

Not a single visual of chest-beating or wild grief. Sorrow itself has been elevated.

Disciplined queues for water and groceries. Not a rough word or a crude gesture.

People bought only what they needed for the present, so everybody could get something.

No looting in shops. No honking and no overtaking on the roads. Just understanding.

Fifty workers stayed back to pump sea water in the N-reactors. How will they ever be repaid?

Restaurants cut prices. An unguarded ATM is left alone. The strong cared for the weak.

The old and the children, everyone knew exactly what to do. And they did just that.

They showed magnificent restraint in the bulletins. No silly reporters. Only calm reportage.

When the power went off in a store, people put things back on the shelves and left quietly.

One of the persistent arguments offered against atheism is the view that without religious guidance, humanity would descend into a pit of immorality, devoid of ethical conduct. Pundits for the various faiths argue that without the carrot and stick approach of a supreme being with magic powers, humans would inevitably revert to a state where ruthless competition and self interest would be the only logical ways to live one's life. If this were true, it is only logical to assume that these pundits themselves would, were it not for their religious faith, behave like psychopaths - i.e. devoid of any conscience, morality or empathy.

If only we had real examples to test this hypothesis. Oh wait! We do:

Japan is largely an atheistic nation, with 2/3 of the population not believing in any god. Can you imagine this highly moral and ethical behavior occurring in similar circumstances in ANY deeply religious nation - e.g. Brazil, Mexico, USA, Iraq, Yemen or Iran?

Moreover, compare the behavior of the Japanese when they were fiercely religious, believing in the divinity of the Emperor - their God - who dictated what was good and bad. I am referring in particular to the first half of the 20th century, which includes incidents such as the Rape of Nanjing in 1938 when 250,000 citizens (including children) were beheaded, and 50,000 women and girls raped, by the Imperial Japanese army. Such behavior would be inconceivable in post-Imperial Japan.

In Medieval Europe, the influence of what we would now call "Fundamentalist Christianity" permeated all levels of society to a similar degree to that which we still see in the deeply Islamic world of today. It is no accident that this was also the time of the launching of The Crusades, an historical examination of which makes for some truly gruesome reading, particularly on the part of the Christian aggressors. The "Holy" Inquisition into heresy, apostasy and witchcraft came next, and a reading in Sam Harris' The End of Faith of some of the torture methods used, and the massive scale of the crimes, made me feel physically sick - which, for an ex-trauma surgeon used to physical horrors, is not easy.

As an interesting aside, the centuries-old Office Of The Holy Inquisition changed its name - but not its mission - not all that long ago to the more acceptable Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). This was the body which ordered its Bishops world-wide NOT to report child-raping priests to the civil authorities - which is a crime in itself, although a rarely prosecuted one. And, most damning of all, the edict failed to insist that the perpetrators be barred from contact with and authority over children, resulting in multiple re-offending in the majority of cases. This outrageous edict was composed and issued by none other than the current Pope, who for 30 years, as Cardinal Ratzinger, was head of and policy director of the CDF. The nature of the abuse, and the tremendous scale on which it has been (and presumably still is) perpetrated, is breathtaking. This has all been meticulously researched and documented by the internationally respected human rights lawyer, Geoffrey Robertson QC (see below).

In profoundly religious Ecuador, at the instigation of Church authorities and in line with the current Pope's pronouncements in AIDS-ravaged Africa, packets of condoms must by law carry a warning that condoms do not prevent HIV infection. In fact, the Catholic Church prohibits condom use even within a marriage when one partner is know to be HIV positive. In Brazil, again as a result of pressure from church authorities, a law was passed which mandates that women presenting to hospitals with complications of an abortion (which is illegal in Brazil except in extreme circumstances) must be reported to the police, presumably with a view to prosecution. There is no such requirement for bishops to report child-raping priests to the civil authorities.

So much for those religious authorities who ALL insist that our Ethics and Morals are inspired by and derived from their various religions. They contend that atheism would inevitably lead to widespread psychopathic behavior. This view is put forward by Christian apologist William Lane Craig in a public debate with Sam Harris at The University of Notre Dame on April 7 2011. All the evidence, from 9/11 to institutionalized pedophilia to the widespread religious-inspired practice of cutting out the clitorises of little girls, suggests that the obverse is true.

This is why the teaching in schools of that branch of philosophy known as Ethics is, I believe, an urgent necessity. Equally important is the need for the teaching of another aspect of philosophy, Critical Thinking, to give children the ability to critically appraise - and then accept or reject - religious worldviews (all the different ones!) foisted upon them by adult authority figures. In New South Wales, Australia, a recent proposal for the teaching of Secular Ethics in public schools as a voluntary alternative to the current (non-compulsory) Religious Indoctrination programs has been bitterly opposed by the senior Christian clerics, notably the notorious climate-science-denier, pedophile protector and homophobe, Cardinal George Pell... and for obvious reasons.

The best - and indeed only - valid source for a universal objective moral compass is via scientific and philosophical enquiry and this is clearly and irrefutably argued by Sam Harris in his latest book The Moral Landscape. The complete vacuousness, subjectivity and hypocrisy of the alternative point of view is also made painfully evident by Geoffrey Robertson QC in his brilliant expose of the Vatican and so-called Cannon Law in his recent book The Case of The Pope. For example, according to the Catholic Church's ethical and moral code as enforced by Cannon Law, the crime of a Bishop ordaining a woman as a priest, which mandates the maximum penalty, viz. automatic excommunication for both parties, is a far more heinous crime than sodomizing little children, which does not even mandate defrocking (expulsion from the priesthood), let alone excommunication. In the same bracket as child rape, with similar “penalties” is - horror of horrors - having sex with a woman. A typical punishment for child rape, Robertson points out, would be penance (saying prayers) and "therapy", usually in the form of a retreat in a religious community. The victims, sworn to total secrecy with the threat of hellfire, are never offered help - in fact, the "investigating" senior cleric would usually not know the names or even the ages of the children involved.

Readers may gain the impression that I am unfairly targeting the Catholic Church. The reason for this is that I was brought up in a strict Catholic family, and attended a Catholic boarding school, run by the now infamous Marist brothers, in the 1960's. This was an horrific experience, not so much for the sexual predation that occurred, but for the physical violence inflicted on the students, whose parents often lived hundreds of miles away on remote farms. Here I am not talking about a whack with a cane or strap, which is bad enough in itself, but ritualized severe physical assaults, often completely unexpected and for trivial reasons. These assaults always occurred at night or on weekends, when the local kids who were "day-boys" rather than boarders, were absent. I still shudder when I recall little kids - 11 or 12 years of age - being whipped with a cane or a length of electrical cord, until they were a screaming heap rolling on the floor. And even then the beating would not necessarily stop.

Why does such wicked behavior occur? Undoubtedly the core reason is psycho-sexual pathology, from intense frustration and guilt resulting from the clerics' requirement for celibacy combined with the Catholic Church's strict ban on masturbation - breaching either of these rules is a mortal sin, punishable by eternal hellfire in God's personal torture chamber. In other words, as far as priests are concerned, ejaculation (unless occurring involuntarily e.g. during sleep) is punishable by eternal damnation - an absurd situation and, for the true believers at least, a recipe for serious psychological and behavioral disorders. Although the CDF has claimed that the incidence of priestly sexual predation of children is "less than 1%", the known incidence is 5.3% [source cited in The Case Of The Pope], the actual incidence obviously being somewhat higher. Add to this the number of enablers, or pedophile protectors within the Catholic Church (Pope Benedict XVI is one) and we have a large chunk of the Catholic clerisy involved. Joe Cultrera, in his arresting film "Hand of God", documents that, of the Boston Seminary Class of 1960, around 25% were pedophiles or enablers - the latter protecting the perpetrators by not reporting them to the police (a crime) and moving them on to other parishes, where they virtually always re-offended, sometimes for decades. There is no reason to believe that this proportion differs significantly in other dioceses or in other countries.

When I hear (mainly American) Christian apologists, often well educated and seemingly intelligent - such as William Lane Craig - vigorously arguing that without religion, humanity would have no moral compass and would therefore behave abominably, I can only scratch my head and say - just look at the evidence all around you. Why is it that the more atheistic a community is, the lower the incidence of violent crime and other antisocial behavior? Here I'm talking about places like Japan (60-70% atheist) and Sweden (even more so). There is even a statistical difference in the levels of anti-social behavior - and teenage pregnancy - in the "red" vs the "blue" states in America, which have differing levels of religious belief.

As Geoffrey Robertson might say, I rest my case.