Pro-Family Christians Support Child Kidnapping, Continued

I never thought I'd say this, but I think the Catholic church is actually relieved to be dealing with a scandal that, for once, doesn't involve priests raping children with the protection of their higher-ups. How else to explain their abject contrition over the discovery that, in Australia, they abducted tens of thousands of children born to unwed mothers in Catholic hospitals and gave them up for adoption without consent?

Australia's Roman Catholic Church has issued an apology for its role in the forced adoptions of babies from unmarried mothers during the 1950s, 60s and 70s, a practise that has been described as a "national disgrace".

It is estimated that more than 150,000 young women across Australia had their children taken away at birth without their consent, often never to be seen again.

Women subjected to forced adoptions in Catholic-run hospitals have described being shackled and drugged during labour and prevented from seeing their children being born or holding them afterwards.

..."We acknowledge the pain of separation and loss felt then and felt now by the mothers, fathers, children, families and others involved in the practices of the time," the apology said.

"For this pain we are genuinely sorry."

Like the Magdalene laundries of Ireland, this horror had its roots in Christianity's wicked theology of original sin and human depravity. Doubtless, young unwed mothers were assumed to be sinful, immoral, the "wrong" kind of people; and of course, in the church's eyes, that meant they had no human rights and could be treated like slaves.

What's remarkable is that this practice continued even after society as a whole had become more enlightened. The article mentions that, by this time, Australia offered state-paid benefits to single parents in recognition of the fact that there's more than one kind of family. But even after the country as a whole had recognized that these less-conventional family relationships deserved protection and support, the Catholic church continued to act like a medieval dictatorship, treating women and children as if it was entitled to decide their fates with or without their consent, and splitting up mothers from their babies in the interests of forcing them into the "right" kind of family.

Now that the truth has come to light, the church's tattered moral standing has taken another blow. I said earlier that they were contrite, but maybe I spoke too soon. After all, they're still displaying their usual sense of entitled superiority, acting as if others should bear the burden of compensating the victims of the wrongs they committed:

As well as issuing an apology, the Catholic Church has called on the government [emphasis added] to establish "a fund for remedying established wrongs" and a national programme to help mothers and children who were harmed by the forced separations.

Notably absent from the church's apology is any offer to help identify the people who organized and participated in this act of mass child kidnapping so that they can be prosecuted. Given the time involved, many of them are probably dead by now, but it's an avenue that should at least be pursued. As with the child rape scandal, it appears that the Catholic authorities are willing to make a symbolic show of apology only as long as no actual punishment follows for any of their wrongdoing.

* * *

In other news, there's this cheering story wondering whether the Vatican's relations with Ireland have been permanently damaged. In the wake of the Cloyne report, public anger against the church is at a high-water mark, with some going so far as to hope that the church will follow the News of the World's example and shut down permanently. And the Pope isn't helping, with a stiffnecked response that can best be summarized as "How dare you peasants act so ungrateful after all we've done for you".

Even when the facts of the situation would seem to dictate sackcloth and ashes, the church continues to take the path of defiance, acting as if it's not subject to the laws of the nations in which it resides. Granted, opinions change so slowly inside the Vatican, they may not have realized that this is in fact no longer the case. But, I have to say, I'm very much looking forward to seeing the Irish government and people jolt them into the present!

July 29, 2011, 5:43 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink21 comments

Ireland Versus the Vatican, Continued

I've mentioned in the past that Ireland, which gave the Catholic church more privileges and greater deference than almost any other country in Europe, was rewarded for its devotion with one of the highest per-capita rates of child rape by priests than any other nation else in the world. That scandal continues to unspool, and today there's another big update.

In 1996, in response to public outcry, a committee of Irish bishops drew up a policy which would have made it mandatory to report suspected sex predators among the clergy to the police. As I wrote back in January, the Vatican expressed strong reservations about this policy, warning that full disclosure of accusations to the civil authorities could interfere with internal church investigations (which, of course, it considered more important).

As a result, the mandatory-reporting policy, although it technically remained in force, was shelved by the bishops and never enforced. What happened next is no surprise: predator priests continued to abuse children, and the church continued to do nothing. As recently as 2009, parishioners were lodging complaints of abuse and molestation by members of the clergy. An independent investigative committee has just released its most recent report, which only covered the rural diocese of Cloyne; but even so, it turned up allegations against 19 priests since 1996.

"That's the most horrifying aspect of this document," Frances Fitzgerald, Ireland's minister for children, told a news conference on Wednesday. "This is not a catalogue of failure from a different era - this is about Ireland now."

The Irish government is furious, as well they might be, but as usual, the Catholic church has shown little sign of concern. Bishop John Magee, who resigned last year but was in charge of the diocese during the period covered by the Cloyne report, offered more empty apologies but nothing else. In response, Ireland's prime minister Enda Kenny summoned the Vatican's ambassador for a harsh dressing down. As Ophelia Benson put it so aptly, reading these words was like music to my ears:

"There's one law in this country. Everybody is going to have to learn to comply with it. The Vatican will have to comply with the laws of this country," Gilmore said after his face-to-face grilling of the ambassador, a rare experience for the pope's diplomats anywhere, let alone long-deferential Ireland. (source)

This is great stuff. Even better was the announcement that the government plans to introduce a law which would make it a crime for anyone, church officials included, to fail to report allegations of sex abuse to the civil authorities:

"The law of the land should not be stopped by a crozier or a collar," Kenny said.

These are good first steps, but Ireland needs to go further. When the abuse scandal first broke, the government made a disastrous decision to protect the church by assuming almost all the liability for settlements to abuse victims. I hope they're giving serious consideration to reversing that decision by seizing and auctioning church property to pay compensation to the victims. (And if it hasn't occurred to them yet, I hope some freethinking Irish voters will suggest it.) I also hope that Irish officials will consider following the lead of the Philadelphia grand jury that recently returned indictments against church officials for protecting child molesters. There ought to be more than enough evidence already to file charges.

These are harsh measures, but the bishops have proven again and again that nothing less will suffice. They've shown countless times that they'll never act against child molesters on their own initiative. Their only loyalty is to the institution of the church, not to the people who attend it, and whenever anything happens that could embarrass the church, their first response will always, always be to deny, delay and cover up. They'll never take action unless they're forced to by the threat of criminal sanctions - arrests and prosecutions of bishops, seizure of church property to pay compensation to victims, and the like. The Catholic authorities are in need of a sharp reminder that they're subject to the law like everyone else, and I hope Ireland gives it to them.

July 20, 2011, 6:00 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink43 comments

Paving the Way for Equality

Wedding bells will soon be ringing in New York, thanks to the legislature's historic passage of marriage equality which goes into effect on July 24. And the echoes of that victory are still being heard. Soon after the passage of the NY bill, Rhode Island legalized civil unions, joining the several other states that have done so. (Despite the fact that the Democrats control both chambers of the state legislature, as well as support from independent Gov. Lincoln Chafee, true marriage equality stalled in the face of opposition from M. Teresa Paiva-Weed, the president of the state senate. No surprise, she's a Roman Catholic.)

The Rhode Island bill, though it's a step in the right direction, is especially disappointing in how far it goes to appease bigots. It grants significant rights to same-sex couples under state law, but permits religious organizations to completely refuse to recognize them - thus allowing, for example, a Catholic hospital to block visitation rights or ignore care directives of a same-sex partner. With polls finding that broad majorities in Rhode Island support full equality, we can hope that these flaws will be corrected soon. (Note, however, that the Catholic church and other anti-gay groups are demanding that the bill be entirely repealed; even this small step is too much for them to tolerate.)

Meanwhile, as marriage equality takes effect in New York, we're seeing something that made me happy: the inevitable
wave of resignations
from bigots working in state government who can't stomach the thought of having to treat gay couples equally:

Laura L. Fotusky, the town clerk in Barker, N.Y.... drafted a letter to the Town Board and said she would resign on July 21, three days before same-sex marriage becomes legal, because she could not in good conscience issue marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples.

"I believe that there is a higher law than the law of the land," she wrote. "It is the law of God in the Bible."

If you believe in a god who wants you to hate, Ms. Fotusky, then more power to you, and good riddance! The only people who should serve in government are the ones who believe that all people deserve the full and equal protection of the law. If you want to take a stand for discrimination and prejudice, you should do it as a private citizen.

Seeing the homophobes resign en masse is, at least, an improvement over the tack they've taken in so many other states - the petulant stance that their religious beliefs excuse them from complying with the law. And to their great credit, New York state officials are taking a hard line on this and making it clear that a person's religious beliefs don't constitute a reason not to do their job:

On Long Island, the Nassau County district attorney, Kathleen M. Rice, sent a sternly worded letter to clerks last week, warning that they could be subject to criminal prosecution if they declined to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

"I want to ensure that our local officials appreciate that there will be ramifications in our county for exercising a personal, discriminatory belief, rather than doing their job," Ms. Rice said Tuesday.

"The law is the law; when you enforce the laws of the state, you don't get to pick and choose," [Gov. Cuomo] said at an appearance in Manhattan, adding, "If you can't enforce the law, then you shouldn't be in that position."

It's not often you hear such clear words of common sense from elected officials. But with New York as an example and a trendsetter, we have good reason to hope we'll hear similarly rational statements from more state governments in the near future.

July 18, 2011, 5:51 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink25 comments

New on AlterNet: What Atheists Actually Agree About

I'm pleased to announce that my second column for AlterNet, 6 Ways Atheists Can Band Together to Fight Religious Fundamentalism, has now been posted. My first column, asking why nonbelievers haven't become a political force, drew rejoinders from a lot of people saying that it's impossible for atheists to organize because we don't agree about anything other than the existence of gods. Well, I decided to answer that criticism by listing the things that most atheists actually do agree about. Read the excerpt below, then click through and see the rest!

If atheists were as politically organized as the religious right, we could accomplish a world of good in combating theocracy and standing up for human rights and secularism. But whenever an atheist political alliance is proposed, the objection is inevitably raised that "atheists don't all agree," and that this would be an insurmountable obstacle to forming a unified political movement.

I believe, however, that this objection overstates the difficulty we would face. In fact, atheists have more in common than most people realize...

Continue reading on AlterNet...

July 13, 2011, 9:30 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink35 comments

Islamic Sexism and the Sense of Entitlement

Does this remind anyone of anything?

On Jan. 16, Warda was nearly raped. It happened in early afternoon, in the heart of central Cairo, in an elevator.

A man with short black hair entered, Warda recalled. "We didn't really look at each other; I was reading some messages on my phone," she said. The elevator, big enough for four people, stopped suddenly, and the lights went out. The electricity was cut, nothing unusual in some neighborhoods of Cairo. They called for the bawab - the caretaker - but no one answered.

"Then I felt the hand of the man in my pants. I asked him to stop, but he said I better shut up or he would take his knives out," she said, fighting back tears. He opened his pants and pressed himself against her for what felt like hours, she said. Luckily, the lights came back on. "He stopped and let go of me. I just didn't want to look into his face."

As I've written about before, for women in the Middle East, pervasive, aggressive sexual harassment is a fact of life. My esteemed co-author, Sarah Jane Braasch-Joy, wrote about her own encounter with it during a legal internship in Morocco:

I was shocked from the moment the plane landed at the reaction I elicited. I had never felt so sexualized and objectified. It was a suffocating and overwhelming deluge of incessant, aggressive, unwanted male attention. Taxi drivers tried to kidnap me. Soldiers harassed me. Strange men tried to lure me into their shops, their homes, their beds. I was baffled at the rudeness of these men who felt absolutely no compunction in trying to touch and grab me.

Another quote from the Times article:

Heba Habib, a law student from Cairo, said she "couldn't take it" anymore. "Every day, dirty comments, the grabbing when you ride on the bus."

Once, she said, a cab driver started recounting his sexual fantasies. "I was so ashamed and tried to overcome it by laughing," the 22-year-old said, flicking her long dark hair behind her left ear. "When I got out of the car and wanted to pay him, I saw that his pants were down and he had been masturbating."

She threw his fare on the seat and left. "You feel every day less and less like a human being."

The idea that women ought to be sexually available to any man who desires them is heavily entrenched in these societies. It's the end result of a longstanding cultural and religious tradition that treats them as objects rather than people. (A piece of fruit doesn't object to being eaten. Why should a woman object to being assaulted, groped or catcalled?) Even in Egypt, in the aftermath of a democratic revolution where women played a major leadership role, it's too much to expect that this will change overnight.

I mention this because the atheist blogosphere has spent the last few days blowing up over a prominent male atheist who asserted that Western feminists have nothing to complain about, that the most they have to put up with is creepy advances and undesired attention, versus the vicious sexism that women suffer in the Islamic world. Well, I've got news for anyone who thinks that: These aren't different problems; they're different manifestations of the same problem.

These are points on a spectrum, to be sure. It's perfectly clear that women in Morocco or Egypt, in general, are subjected to more and worse sexual harassment than women in America. But what I saw so often in the aftermath of that blowup is the attitude that a man is entitled to solicit a woman's attention wherever, whenever, and in whatever manner he chooses, and if that makes her feel annoyed or upset or harassed or afraid for her safety, too bad, because his desire to hit on her trumps any desire she has not to be hit on. And that's the same attitude that motivates street harassers in the Middle East and that underlies so many of the other injustices inflicted on women in that region.

The most common complaint I've heard from men in response to this is that they can't be "mind-readers", that they can never know in advance whether a woman would welcome their attention. Well, here's a novel suggestion: If you want to know what women like or don't like, ask them. In the aftermath of the elevator incident, many women explained in great detail just why that situation would have made them uncomfortable. And, in general, that pattern holds: if you want to know the best ways to approach women, go and ask some women! It won't make you telepathic, it's true, but I guarantee that what you learn will come in handy in social situations. I suspect that what some of these men really mean is not that they can't imagine how a woman would feel, but that they don't want to make the effort to learn.

I said that harassment of women in the Middle East and creepy, unwelcome advances on women in the West are manifestations of the same problem, the same sense of entitlement, and they have the same solution as well. Men need to stop taking the attitude that they should be able to do what they please as long as they don't actually assault or rape anyone. If you make advances on a woman and she feels harassed, you are in the wrong, and you need to stop, take a step back, and evaluate what you can do differently. Where sexism and harassment have the sanction of religion, this consciousness-raising is going to be a long and difficult process, but skeptics and rationalists don't have even that much excuse.

July 8, 2011, 5:49 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink130 comments

Religion Is Dangerous to Women

Last week, the legal news service TrustLaw released a poll of the most dangerous countries for women. Based on a survey of 213 experts on women's issues from around the world, the poll ranked countries on the basis of six categories: health threats, sexual violence, non-sexual violence, cultural or religious factors, lack of access to health care and other resources, and human trafficking. Summing these factors up, the top five worst countries to be female are Afghanistan, Congo, Pakistan, India (!) and Somalia.

Although this poll was an important effort, I found its methodology to be frustratingly opaque (it would have been nice to see the runners-up), and certainly questionable in some respects. For instance, India's willingness to be transparent about crimes like human trafficking, female infanticide and dowry violence probably earned it a worse ranking than countries that cover up the extent of their problems. Personally, I was amazed that Saudi Arabia didn't make the top five - if religious and cultural factors that oppress women are being considered, how much worse could you get than a country whose every female inhabitant is legally enslaved and imprisoned in her home?

Still, this is a valuable reminder of how dangerous it is to be a woman, even today - and not just in anarchic failed states like Somalia, or war zones like Congo or Afghanistan, but in allegedly modern, democratic countries. In tribal societies governed by village councils, when two families quarrel, the gang rape of a woman belonging to one family by the men of the other is often considered a legitimate means of settling the dispute. In some cultures, if women spurn men's advances or defy arranged marriages, they may have acid poured on their face or have their noses and ears cut off, if they're not murdered outright by male relatives seeking to cleanse their family honor from the shame of a disobedient female. (This isn't limited to Third World slums; it almost happened to an actress from the Harry Potter movies.) And there are millions of women subjected to human trafficking - which is an antiseptic phrase for what it really means: women abducted or sold into slavery and forced to be prostitutes, usually with "persuasion" in the form of drugs or beatings.

But these headline-grabbing acts of violence, shocking as they are, tend to overshadow a more mundane, yet more deadly, reality of everyday discrimination and neglect that takes a constant toll. In poverty-stricken regions lacking access to modern medical care, death in childbirth is still a routine occurrence. In cultures where women are considered less valuable, daughters may be starved or denied medical care because their parents don't want to spend the money to take good care of them. Lack of education, lack of literacy, lack of legal protections, and lack of any control over finances also conspire, in countless subtle ways, to degrade and shorten women's lives.

I recount this litany of horrors not to plunge you into despair, but to emphasize how far the world still is from true gender equality. Over the last hundred years, the feminist movement has made enormous strides, but even those great achievements are just the first step in a long journey that still remains to be walked. Therefore, let no one deceive you by saying that the battle for equality has been won, that feminism as a movement has outlived its usefulness. It's still an urgent cause for all people of conscience and reason to support.

And here's something the TrustLaw survey didn't dwell on: in nearly all cases, especially among the worst offenders, misogyny and violence are rooted in religious beliefs about the lesser worth of women. Ever since the first Jewish scribe wrote that menstruating women are unclean, ever since the first Christian priest preached that it was women who brought sin into the world, ever since the first Muslim imams preached polygamy and the veil, religion has been used as a weapon to keep women in subjection. (These are just the examples from Western religions; there are just as many from eastern belief systems like Hinduism.)

By contrast, in which country does religion make the status of women better? I doubt there are any that can make that claim, which is why the spread of atheism has the potential to be a huge boon for feminism - and vice versa. As I've speculated in the past, the misogyny of religion is probably rooted in religious leaders recognizing that controlling reproduction is the key to perpetuating their own beliefs, which means that the success of the atheist movement and of the feminist movement are inextricably linked. By defending both godlessness and women's rights, we can fight the brutality of patriarchal faith on two fronts.

June 22, 2011, 5:53 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink79 comments

Do the Right Thing, New York!

I wrote in May about the legalization of civil unions in Delaware (which has now been signed into law), and the ongoing push to pass a marriage-equality law in my own state, New York. Although New York already recognizes same-sex marriages performed in any of the neighboring states that allow them, passage of the bill would be a huge symbolic victory and would give more momentum to the national push for equality.

As I write this, the bill hangs in the balance in the State Senate, where Republicans hold a 32-to-30 majority. Three of the Democrats who voted against it last time have changed their positions, making Sen. Ruben Diaz Sr. of the Bronx the lone Democratic holdout (unsurprisingly, he's an ordained minister). Two Republicans have also announced they'll switch their votes to yes, leaving us just one vote short, and several others have suggested they may change their minds. By the time you read this, we may know what the outcome is. (And if we don't, and you're a New Yorker, call your senator!)

What's most noteworthy about this story is the wavering and uncertainty of the Republicans, who sense that gay-bashing is losing its force as a touchstone culture-war issue. Equality is becoming the accepted position, and the vocal bigots are dwindling in number. On the other hand, some groups are firmly cementing their stand on the wrong side of history. Chief among them is New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, who said about the proposal:

Last time I consulted an atlas, it is clear we are living in New York, in the United States of America – not in China or North Korea. In those countries, government presumes daily to "redefine" rights, relationships, values, and natural law. There, communiqués from the government can dictate the size of families, who lives and who dies, and what the very definition of "family" and "marriage" means.

This confused diatribe would have a point if the government was forcing citizens into same-sex marriages who didn't want them. But it's completely clear, to everyone except head-in-the-sand bigots like the archbishop, that the push for marriage equality is coming from the people: human beings who seek the freedom to pledge their commitment to each other and receive the same legal rights and protections granted to opposite-sex couples. Passing marriage equality isn't "dictating" anything to anyone, but legitimizing the choice already made by millions of people in love, which is already real regardless of whether the Catholic church admits it.

But in one respect, the archbishop is more right than he knows: we do indeed live in the United States of America, a secular republic whose governing authority comes from we the people, not from holy books or churches who presume to speak for God. The analogy he uses is completely backwards: it's the religious groups, like the archbishop himself, who wish to act as an omnipotent, absolute authority dictating to the rest of us how we may live our lives, how large our families may be, how we may be born and how we may die. In that sense it's the anti-gay bigots, not supporters of marriage equality, who resemble the despotic tyrants of China and North Korea.

Marriage is not simply a mechanism for delivering benefits: It is the union of a man and a woman in a loving, permanent, life-giving union to pro-create children.

This is farcical, false, and historically illiterate. Procreation is not a precondition of marriage. We don't test prospective partners for fertility or make them sign an affidavit declaring their intention to have children, nor have we ever.

And as the learned archbishop should know, marriage as the union of "a man and a woman" is a recent development. In many times and places, including in his own Bible, marriage has been defined as the union of a man and one or more women, and often in the manner of the man as the purchaser and women as the property. We've changed this to make marriage more like a partnership of equals, and instituting marriage equality will approach this ideal closer still.

Before we consign the archbishop to history's dustbin, one more quote:

Yes, I admit, I come at this as a believer, who, along with other citizens of a diversity of creeds believe that God, not Albany, has settled the definition of marriage a long time ago.

Although it's nothing we didn't know already, it's nice to hear confirmation that opposition to marriage equality is purely religious in nature and has no secular justification. The Catholic church, like all religious fiefdoms, can set whatever rules it wishes for its own members. But its writ extends no further than the church walls. It has no right to enact its peculiar prejudices into law and demand that everyone else be forced to live by them. That's the meaning of living in a secular nation, which is something that the Catholic church and all other aspiring theocrats in New York will, I hope, find out soon enough.

EDIT (6/24): Tonight, love won. Congratulations, New York!

June 16, 2011, 5:57 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink30 comments

New on Alternet: Atheists as a Political Force

Today I'm very happy to announce that I've become a contributor to AlterNet, the award-winning online progressive news and opinion magazine. My first essay is titled "There Are 10 Times As Many Atheists as Mormons: When Will Non-Believers Become a Political Force?" Read an excerpt below, and then click through to see the rest:

The propagandists of the religious right shout it aloud as their battle cry: "America is a Christian nation!" And in the trivial sense that ours is a nation populated mostly by Christians, this is true. But in the sense they mean it, that Christianity was intended to occupy a privileged place in the law -- or worse, that Christianity was intended to be the only belief professed by Americans -- it couldn't be more false. Although religion in general and Christianity in particular, play a dominant role in our public life, ours is a secular nation by law. And befitting that heritage, America has always played host to a lively tradition of freethought, unorthodoxy and religious dissent, one that dates back to our founding generation.

Continue reading on AlterNet...

June 13, 2011, 12:09 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink30 comments

Justice for the Victims of Faith Healing

I'm still working through a backlog of interesting stories that accumulated during my vacation, so here's the first of them.

As freethinkers know too well, claiming that your religion requires you to do or not do something is an almost all-purpose excuse for immoral behavior. It's frustratingly rare for believers to be punished for wrongdoing when they invoke their faith as a shield. That's why I'm so unexpectedly pleased to see that rationality is getting a foothold in Oregon, where more and more parents are being prosecuted for withholding medical treatment from their children in preference to faith healing.

Most of the attention is on the Followers of Christ, a small sect that, like the larger Christian Scientists, completely rejects modern medicine and "treats" disease only with prayer. Unsurprisingly, members of this church have a tendency to die of curable illnesses - but if they really want to throw their lives away, that's their choice, as stupid and senseless as it is. Far more troubling is that their minor children, who can't give rational assent to these beliefs, are also being allowed to suffer and die for the same reason.

The Followers of Christ first came to light in 1998 when local media reported that the church had a graveyard full of dead children, many of which could easily have been saved if they'd gotten medical attention. Prosecutors wanted to intervene, but their hands were tied by an Oregon law which protected parents who relied exclusively on faith healing. Showing some commendable good sense, the legislature repealed this exemption soon after, but it's taken years for the police and prosecutors to begin moving cases through the pipeline. The first one was in 2008, and more are coming, like this appalling example:

At birth, the girl, Alayna, was a pink-cheeked bundle, but by 6 months, a growth the size of a baseball had consumed the left side of her face, pushing her eyeball out of its socket. The Wylands, members of the Followers of Christ Church, a faith-healing sect whose members shun medicine, would not take her to a doctor.

These parents are rightly standing trial for this horrific neglect, and their daughter was taken away from them to get the care she needed so badly. In another case, a couple was prosecuted and convicted for allowing their teenage son to die - of a blocked urinary tract, for truth's sake, something I'm guessing any doctor could have cleared up in five minutes.

But Dr. Douglas S. Diekema, a medical ethicist at Children's Hospital in Seattle, says that more harm than good may have been done to Alayna Wyland... "For me, the real question is, could you not have done that without taking the child from the parents?" he said. "I think you could accomplish getting some of these kids treated by getting a home health nurse -- and if you need a police officer there, that's fine. But taking a child away from their parents for two months causes harm. People don't understand that."

This is a truly absurd suggestion - that sick children of faith-healing cults should be kept at home, while the police show up every time a treatment is needed to restrain their parents. This is a ridiculous waste of scarce police resources, and shows how some people will bend over backwards to protect the unearned and undeserved privilege accorded to religion.

Under most circumstances, I'd agree that it's better for children to be left with their parents, but these aren't most circumstances. These couples are a clear and present danger to the lives and health of their children; they've proven themselves unfit to be parents, just as we consider drug addicts or violent abusers unfit parents. The motivation may be different, but the end result, unless the state intervenes, is the same: children dead, for no good reason or purpose.

Nor would sending parents to jail change their preference for faith healing, Dr. Diekema said.

That may well be true, as it's well-known that religious fanatics consider their beliefs to trump the laws of democratic society. But so what? You might as well say that it's pointless to jail al-Qaeda leaders because it won't persuade them to renounce terrorist violence. Justice demands that people who've done wrong be punished accordingly, whether or not they admit the wrongfulness of their conduct.

I was happy to see that this article quotes Rita Swan, who's made it her life's work to protect children from being harmed or killed by faith-healing delusions, and equally happy that her campaign is bearing fruit. It takes time and persistence, but people's opinions can be changed. For the children who badly need society's protection from the dangerous delusions of their parents, that change can't come quickly enough.

June 2, 2011, 6:00 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink28 comments

The Baffling Era of Religious Suicide-Massacres

By James A. Haught

Osama bin Laden achieved a remarkable feat: He mobilized the power of religion to spur devout young men to kill themselves in order to murder defenseless strangers. Grotesquely, the suicide-killers felt they were performing holy acts that would please God and assure them martyr rewards in paradise.

The annals of faith-based killing are long: human sacrifice, the Crusades, the Inquisition, witch-hunts, Reformation wars, drowning of Anabaptists, jihads, pogroms against Jews, China's Taiping Rebellion, Mexico's Cristero War, and many modern ethnic conflicts fueled by "religious tribalism." A new phase was led by bin Laden, who orchestrated the 21st-century phenomenon of Islamic suicide-bombing. Mercifully, his personal chapter ended when Navy Seals stormed his Asian hideout on May 1.

The modern Islamic "cult of death" - the worst menace of current times - baffles most Westerners. Logical minds cannot comprehend why idealistic young men, and a few women, volunteer to sacrifice their lives to slaughter unsuspecting, unarmed folks. It makes no sense. Pundit Anthony Lewis wrote: "There is no way to reason with people who think they will go directly to heaven if they kill Americans." Columnist William Safire said the volunteers do it because their "normal survival instinct is replaced with a pseudo-religious fantasy of a killer's self-martyrdom leading to an eternity in paradise surrounded by adoring virgins." Columnist David Brooks wrote that the bizarre phenomenon is "about massacring people while in a state of spiritual loftiness."

These fanatics lack normal empathy for fellow humans. While in foreign lands or amid dissimilar ethnic groups, they don't see surrounding families as affectionate mothers, fathers and children, but as "infidels" deserving death. If the suicide-killers ever acquire nuclear devices, the unthinkable will be upon humanity.

The raid that ended bin Laden culminated a three-decade saga of "blowback." Inadvertently, the Reagan-Bush White House in the 1980s unwittingly helped ignite the Muslim terror movement that now hurts America. Here's the record:

In the late 1970s, radical reformers seized power in Afghanistan and created a Western-style government that began educating girls. Horrified, Muslim extremists and armed tribes rebelled. One of the rebel leaders was warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, an extremist known for throwing acid on unveiled schoolgirls while he was in college.

Such mujahideen (holy warriors) were on the brink of toppling the new Afghan government when the Soviet Union sent its Red Army in 1979 to suppress the uprising. Globally, the Cold War was seething. To damage the Soviets, the Reagan administration secretly sent the CIA to arm, train and pay the rebel tribes to kill Russians. Hekmatyar's group got millions of U.S. dollars.

Meanwhile, ardent young Muslims from many lands rushed to Afghanistan to join the "holy war." One was Osama bin Laden, 17th son of a rich Saudi contractor who had a dozen wives. A pious Wahhabi Muslim, bin Laden used his wealth to recruit and pay fighters.

The combined CIA-zealot resistance worked. The Russians were driven out and Afghanistan's modern government was crushed. Warlords like Hekmatyar took over, but soon fought among each other. Then an Islamic student group, the Taliban, seized control and created a cruel theocracy that stoned women to death and inflicted other extreme Puritanical strictures.

Covertly, bin Laden assembled numerous former Afghan volunteers into a shadowy international network, al-Qaida, dedicated to waging jihad (holy war) against the West. His suicidal operatives helped kill U.S. soldiers in Somalia in 1993, blow up two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998, and bomb the USS Cole in 2000.

Bin Laden issued a fatwa (sacred edict) calling on "every Muslim who believes in God and hopes for reward to obey God's command to kill the Americans and plunder their possessions wherever he finds them and whenever he can." He was indicted by U.S. authorities and put on international "most wanted" lists.

Then 19 al-Qaida suicide volunteers perpetrated the historic atrocity of Sept. 11, 2001, when they hijacked airliners and crashed them into U.S. landmarks, killing 3,000 Americans. It was the most horrifying day in the memory of most U.S. residents.

The holy killers left behind a testament they had shared among themselves, saying they were doing it for God: "Know that the gardens of paradise are waiting for you in all their beauty," they assured each other, "and the women of paradise are waiting, calling out, 'Come hither, friend of God.' They have dressed in their most beautiful clothing."

Idiocy. Infantilism. It's sickening to realize that 3,000 unsuspecting Americans died because of this adolescent male fantasy. To believe that God wants mass murder is lunacy. As famed British biologist Richard Dawkins wrote:

"The 19 men of 9/11 - having washed, perfumed themselves and shaved their whole bodies in preparation for the martyr's paradise - believed they were performing the highest religious duty. By the lights of their religion, they were as good as it is possible to be. They were not poor, downtrodden, oppressed or psychotic; they were well-educated, sane and well-balanced, and, as they thought, supremely good. But they were religious, and that provided all the justification they needed to murder and destroy."

The mastermind of this crackpottery is dead in a hail of Navy Seals' gunfire. But the suicide-martyr phenomenon he fostered probably will continue impelling idealistic young men to sacrifice their lives in massacres.

Bin Laden wasn't the sole creator of the Islamic cult of death. His Egyptian partner, Ayman al-Zawahiri, pioneered it in the 1990s. Since then, many far-flung Muslim extremist groups adopted suicide-bombing - often using it on fellow Muslims of opposing sects, or against disapproved Islamic governments. Some researchers list as many as 17,000 Muslim terror attacks since the 9/11 horror, with a total body count beyond 60,000 victims. That's an average of five murder missions per day - so many that news media ignore smaller assaults. The phenomenon has a boundless supply of righteous-feeling volunteers eager to throw away their lives to kill for God and their faith.

As Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg said: "For good people to do evil things, it takes religion."

(Haught is editor of West Virginia's largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette, and is author of two books on religious violence: Holy Horrors: An Illustrated History of Religious Murder and Madness, and Holy Hatred: Religious Conflicts of the '90s.)

May 31, 2011, 5:40 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink27 comments

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