Four lessons in brilliant PR from the new Pope

July 29, 2013

If ever you wanted to learn how to be a master at public relations, there’s no better individual to learn from than Pope Francis. This guy is such a good salesman, he could sell mink coats to PETA. 

So far, he’s managed to distract the press from the child sex abuse crisis that dogged Joseph Ratzinger throughout his entire administration. But that’s not all.

He’s also taught us all four simple, yet brilliant, tricks to capture the imaginations of an insanely naive and credulous media to avoid addressing embarrassing realities of the Catholic Church:

1. Get a photo-op where you’re seen washing women’s feet as a symbolic gesture that the press will fawn all over you as a feminist despite your having done nothing to change your church’s insanely misogynistic policies that don’t even allow women to become priests, let alone be considered for the position of pope. 

2. Make big speeches about fighting poverty so the press will fawn all over you for caring about the poor despite the fact that, while being possibly the one person on the planet with the power to single-handedly end global poverty tomorrow, you give less to charity than Mitt Romney.

3. Say atheists can get into heaven despite their evil, despicable nature so the press will fawn all over you for being so open-minded without noticing you’re actually insulting atheists and ignoring the fact that they don’t believe in heaven to begin with.

4. And finally, Pope Francis’ latest PR move:  saying it’s not your place to judge gay people despite their evil, despicable nature so the press will fawn all over you for being so open-minded without noticing you’re a bigoted asshole who’s actually insulting gay people and despite your having done nothing to change your church’s insanely homophobic policies and political views.

How effective was this last tactic? He’s got the press declaring him a friend to gay people just three weeks after condemning gay marriage. Now that takes serious balls. 


Media fingers wrong ‘Man of Steel’ character in Jesus analogy

June 15, 2013

Unless you’ve been living on Krypton lately, you’re probably aware that the latest Superman film, “Man of Steel,” has hit theaters. And over the last few days, it seems like every entertainment reporter has jumped on the “Superman is an allegory for Jesus” band wagon while seemingly convinced they’ve uncovered some brand new interpretation to the world’s first superhero (Also see: here and here among others).

Their argument goes something like this. Superman sacrifices himself for humanity at the age of 33. Jesus sacrifices himself for humanity at the age of 33. Superman has god-like powers. Jesus has god-like powers. And there certainly are several other not so subtle visual cues sprinkled throughout the film. So I guess it’s case closed, right? If only these reporters had more hands on which to pat themselves on the back in a way that could properly express the level of their self-satisfaction!

Unfortunately, like a poor marksman, they missed their target. They fingered the wrong Jesus! (Writer’s note: that last sentence was not intended to sound as dirty as it did.). Let’s take a closer look at both these fictional characters and see if they really do have as much in common as I keep hearing.

1. Mission – Superman’s mission in “Man of Steel” (here on out referred to as MOS) is to protect the Earth and the human race from total destruction. According to the Bible, Jesus’ mission is to end the world.

According to Genesis 6, god already tried to exterminate humanity once before with a flood. The Bible clearly explains that The Second Coming of Christ will bring about a final solution commonly referred to as the “End of Days” or “Final Judgment,” where both the still living…and obviously the resurrected dead, will face God’s judgment. Even self-proclaimed Christians will be judged (Matthew 7:21-232 Corinthians 5:10). Those righteous will be granted eternal life while the wicked will…also be granted eternal life, only they’ll be tortured during all that eternity (Matthew 5:29-3025:31-46Mark 9:43-48). So really, since everyone’s getting an eternal life regardless of their behavior, the righteous get nothing…except freedom from senseless torture. Cause god so loved the world…yada, yada, yada. According to the apostle Paul:

We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad. (NIV, 2 Corinthians 5:6-10)

So part of Jesus’ mission is to make everyone submit to him…you know, kneel before God. But mostly it’s to end the world. Not exactly the same thing Superman’s after.

2. Response to adversity – Though Superman is willing to kill if absolutely necessary to protect humanity, he really kinda doesn’t wanna. In fact, it’s a pretty big deal with him. Not only does Superman avoid killing whenever possible, there are numerous examples in MOS where Superman restrains himself from so much as throwing a single punch even when individuals flagrantly harass him and those around him. Even when harassers taunt him to fight back while pushing him seemingly almost to his breaking point. Superman doesn’t even throw a punch. And it of course would be so easy for him to do so. He wouldn’t even have to ball his fist. A simple flick of his finger could sever a man’s head from his body. And yet, even at his angriest, Superman chooses not to fight back.

Jesus, not so much. According to the Bible, eating shrimp warrants the death penalty (Leviticus 11:10). Lot’s wife is transformed into salt for committing the crime of turning her head (Genesis 19:6). God floods the Earth simply because humans and angels started sleeping together (Genesis 6:1-6). God says disobedient children should be stoned to death (Deut. 21:18-21). God thinks all ten of The Ten Commandments are punishable by death. Hell, god sends down bears to murder 42 kids whose only crime was making fun of a bald man (2 Kings 2:23-24). One would have a hard time thinking up an offense god wouldn’t think warranted death. And then of course the fun doesn’t end with death. God also thinks that all sinners should then be tortured for eternity. Eat shrimp; eternal torture. Own any possessions at all; eternal torture. Hardly very Superman-like, if you ask me.

3. Sacrifice – In MOS, Superman willingly surrenders to his adversary, Zod, knowing full well it could likely lead to his own death. Superman so loved the world that he was willing to sacrifice his one and only life to protect them. If Superman believed in any kind of afterlife, there’s no indication in the film.  This is it for him. Superman literally puts everything on the line. So that we can live and the Earth will be safe. Jesus on the other hand, does not dramatically come out of hiding to turn himself in to his adversaries. He is arrested, tried, convicted, and executed against his will (well, except for his whole being part of the very god that made it all happen in the first place). Then Jesus sacrifices his mortality in order to return to being master of the universe. Talk about your first world problems. Am I right? Hold your horses, Mel Gibson. I know. I know. it was a really painful weekend. Tell that to all the Filipinos who actually willingly go out of their way to be crucified every Easter without the reward of becoming the most powerful god in all the Biblical pantheon at the end. Some sacrifice! Hey Jesus, next time let me take your place. I’ll happily trade my mortality to become a living god for the price of one shitty weekend.

4. Writers’ lack of subtlety – Not much rhymes with Superman. Buperman. Duperman. Blooperman. But you know what rhymes with God? I’ll give you a hint. Like Jesus, he too wants to end the world. Like Jesus, he too believes in killing his adversaries. Like Jesus, he too was tried, convicted, and sentenced to what was expected to be a certain death for the actions he took trying to save his people.

zod


The basis of all morality

May 17, 2012
Plato

Cover of Plato

I feel like I’ve written this article several times before. But since it’s been awhile, since I got into a lengthy exchange with a commenter on the topic of morality, and since reading a recent piece on the moderate Christian site, Think Christian, I’ve decided to return to this subject of morality and hopefully go a bit deeper on the topic than in the past.

Though religion typically takes credit for morality, it’s really philosophy that has made all the true breakthroughs in this arena. And though many religious folks insist that objective morality can’t exist without a divine dictator, it’s the opposite that’s true. The presence of some divine dictator who unilaterally decides good and evil on his/her/it’s own is anything but objective morality. Further, the very concept of an absolute moral standard is antithetical to justice. As Captain Jean Luc Picard so eloquently said, “There can be no justice so long as laws are absolute.” And of course Plato dispensed with this whole hypothesis 2,400 years ago with the Euthyphro Dilemma. But since Plato, many philosophers have contributed to how we think about ethics such as Aristotle, Kant, Hume, Rousseau, Locke, Mill, Rawls, etc.

For a much richer discussion than I can provide here on the most prominent schools of ethical thought, contemporary philosopher Massimo Pigliucci has written a lengthy series on the subject:  “On ethics, part I: Moral philosophy’s third way”, “On ethics, part II: Consequentialism”, “On ethics, part III: Deontology”“On ethics, part IV: Virtue ethics”“On ethics, part V: Contractarianism”, “On ethics, part VI: Egalitarianism”, and “On ethics, part VII: the full picture”. I’m not going to get into these distinctions here, however. But that should at least give those who like to think morality begins and ends with “for the Bible tells me so” something to consider.

The three topics that even the most liberal religious followers seem to have the most difficult time accepting without appealing to a third party deity are:  something from nothing or “first cause”, meaning or value, and of course morality. Hell, if you ask Kirk Cameron, he’ll tell you that without a god, his specific god, there would be no reason to not just rape and murder people indiscriminately. The idea that one might actually think of good reasons on their own for not doing so seems to utterly baffle him to no end. But of course that’s because Kirk Cameron is an idiot. Or just a terrible liar. Either way though, it kinda gets us back to idiot.

What it really seems to come down to for the religious, in my opinion, is they don’t seem to like the idea that the universe is chaotic. As the commenter who inspired this piece argued:

Why does chaos result in biology sprouting a moral stem, and us its flower? Niether [sic] Aristotle, Kant, Hume or any other philosopher can give us a WHY, without a ‘God’, without INTENTION.

I’d say it’s so because we want to survive and thrive in our environment. Why would you choose behavior that wasn’t advantageous to your survival? It’s easy to look at homo sapiens and say look how good we turned out, but what about all those millions of species that failed to learn how to work together and perished as a result? And even humans have hardly mastered the art of cooperation. We risk our own extinction as a result.

There is no objective morality in the sense that the religious often mean it. It is a chaotic world with no inherent morality but that which we define for ourselves as a social species. Morality has two main elements as far as I can tell:  the biological and the the social.  Social species realize that their survival depends on social dynamics of cooperation and trust. The universe is a struggle for existence. Social species must learn very quickly that if they are to survive, they’re going to have to work together and form cooperative groups such as herds, packs, prides, schools, societies, etc. Then they must quickly learn that if these cooperative enterprises are to be maintained, they must form rules to govern behavior as to guarantee the safety of the individuals within the group. It’s this that we call “morality.”

All morality, more or less, can be summed up as our trial and error process of figuring out what’s most advantageous for our survival and flourishing, as in the survival and flourishing of society. It’s like traffic law. There was no god of traffic who decreed that we must have stop signs. We just figured out as a group that stop signs were useful. Same with the rules we came up with for governing who has the right of way at a 4-way stop. In a short-sighted Randian objectivist society where everyone just does what they want and “don’t stick my neck out for nobody,” as Rick Blaine from Casablanca would say, a 4-way stop would likely just invite collisions. But we recognize that rules governing our behavior on the road is advantageous for all motorists in that it will facilitate less traffic and less accidents while making everyone’s travel more efficient. I contend that traffic law is a microcosm for all morality in that way. There was no need for an outside third party to devise it but it was designed by us within the system. Our laws are certainly not perfect. But they tend to gradually improve over time as we learn. And improvement is generally defined in this sense as working more efficiently and effectively for the community they govern.

Again, here’s how my commenter responded:

Fair enough, a compelling argument for beasts, but for the human individual, schooled in science, entirely irelevant [sic]. Our one mortal existence is all we shall know, and all we can get from it. The past, the future, pride and pack mean little more than what we can get from them, so long as we are individually victorious.

I said morality derived from both biological and social forces. I’ve just discussed the social aspects. This is where the biological components come in. We, like the proto-RNA we started as, are genetically programed with the drive to replicate or reproduce. Now as we evolved higher order thinking and grew more social, that drive has begun to mutate. Our programing used to drive us to spread our own genes. But once we developed social structures like herds, packs, and societies built around reciprocal altruism, it became less important for individuals to protect and spread their own genes and more important for individuals to protect and propagate the genes within the pack, whether they belonged to that individual specifically or not. Now because there was no guiding hand behind this social grouping, many social species further developed a sense of empathy for those outside of their pack or even outside of their species altogether. This is why we’ll sometimes see chimps and monkeys protect birds or see dogs protect humans, or humans protect whales, etc. Through an evolutionary misfire, we’ve come to identify with other species and empathize with them.

This expansion of herd mentality goes beyond just including other species in our sense of the herd but also allows some people to not have the same drive to propagate their own genes at all, leaving the application of the survival instinct to others in the society. There’s no separating beasts from humans because humans are beasts. We’re just really, really social ones, a trait that puts us at the top of the food chain and allows us to dominate this planet over all other species.

So while it’s almost certainly true that I get only one life, neuro-biological processes I have no control over make me care about the continued survival and flourishing of the species and other species after I’m gone. And those instincts to propagate human genes are as ingrained in me as any other aspect of my personality. But while that may be important to me as a human, the universe has no such affection for humanity or the Earth. The universe has the feelings of a dining room table. It didn’t smile when we were born and it won’t cry when we die, and it won’t miss us when we’re gone. It looks on us, as Richard Dawkins once wrote, with “pitiless indifference.”

Can an individual choose to forgo the society and choose an “every man for himself” lifestyle? Sure, but as millions of non-social, now extinct species would tell you, the odds do not favor the uncooperative individual. If there is an ultimate morality, then it’s live together or die alone.

Again, my commenter:

Amen. But what matter if you die alone, if you had a rich and powerful life? What matter if the rest of you species goes extinct, if you are but your mortal life and the power and pleasure you derive from it? You admit life is amoral, then speak as if it there are some kind of moral balances that tilt toward us living together, but where are those balances? What makes it favourable for us to live together? You are getting dangerously close to a God here, my friend.

I’d say it doesn’t matter, at least not in any larger, cosmic sense. Though in the grand scheme of things, being the king ant on a tiny blue dot in an unremarkable sector of the universe for shorter than blink in the existence of the cosmos is a far less ambitious goal or at least a less impactful one than helping to build a legacy that will greatly outlive you. But to each his or her own, I suppose. You can decide that in the face of an absurd universe, nothing matters or everything matters. Your choice.

NOw I thought I covered what makes it favorable for us to live together. To quote an old obscure movie from the 80’s, “it’s cheaper, faster, much, much safer.” You didn’t have to build your house or your car. You don’t have to hunt for your food or build a fire to cook it. Or sow your own clothes to keep warm in the winter. We have developed a complex system that allows everyone (at least ideally because let’s keep it real here) to get what they need by compartmentalizing and delegating labor responsibilities. This is massively advantageous and has allowed us the time to make countless technologies and discoveries we would never have otherwise found the time for. Some of which, like medical science, allow us to live much longer lives, which if your goal is survival, is kind of a no-brainer advantage.

Last year, I attended a lecture by Patricia Churchland, who wrote the book, Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us About Morality, where she took a look at the evolution of moral behavior common to all mammals. In that talk, she emphasized this combination of biology and social components by suggesting trust and attachment are the platform for moral values, aided by oxytocin and vasopressin. Mammal evolution produced an expansion of the pre-frontal cortex, which gives us our inhibitions or self-control. Oxytocin decreases defense postures and  fear responses from the amygdala, increases the level of trust and safety signals, and decreases autonomic-arousal. She continued that cooperation is the result of a general platform of trust and that all highly social animals take care of others:  kin, herd, or species. Mercats and wolves, she said, only have one reproducing couple in the group and any others are killed.

Other areas Churchland discussed included in-group bonding and how as a population grows, benefits can come from expanding trust relationships and the emergence of institutions that enforce their trust-conventions. She cited a case of an orangutan and dog who befriended each other and became inseparable as a demonstration of how group bonding can emerge between species.

In conclusion, I could go on but I don’t think I need to. The facts overwhelmingly show that what we think of as morality is simply the name we call the bi-product of biology and social dynamics relating to trust, attachment, and cooperation. Non-social species don’t display a sense of morality while all social animals that we have observed do. It has nothing to do with any supernatural third party dictator who makes grand pronouncements about how we should or shouldn’t live our lives, and calling an action immoral or evil divorced from any actual societal harm is simply incoherent. Life is struggle. And if we hope to live long and prosper, the best long-term strategy is to work together. Live together or die alone. And that is the nature of all morality.

Though I’m also quite fond of this quote from John F. Kennedy:

A man does what he must, in spite of personal consequences, in spite of obstacles and dangers and pressures. And that is the basis of all human morality.

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Bill Donohue reveals himself to be one of the Three Stooges, the dumb one

April 13, 2012

Bill Donohue‘s in the news again. And surprise, surprise. He’s OUTRAGED about something in the media. So what trite and meaningless target has he picked this time? It’s the new comedy film The Three Stooges, because it features a sexy nun character in a swimsuit and Larry David’s portrayal of a nun character. Whether David plays some sort of male nun or whether he’s supposed to be playing some hideous-looking female nun, I don’t know because I haven’t seen the movie due to its looking really stupid. Though now that I know Bill Donohue doesn’t like it, I might just buy a ticket after all.

So why do I bother to give this sickening pile of excrement more of that attention he desperately craves? Well, because it gives me another excuse to post my favorite audio clips of Donohue applying for the role of worst person in the world. In the following two clips, we hear Donohue on a radio show passionately defend nothing short of mass child rape.

Donohue tries every trick in the book and it all goes so horribly bad for him because he happens to be talking with someone who was themselves a victim of rape by a Catholic priest and who is incredibly well versed in the damning report of abuse in Ireland schools.

We hear Donohue deny the undeniable facts and make up a host of his own, followed by him being called out on his repulsive lies and truly despicable attempts to re-frame the whole scandal to paint the rapists as the true victims while painting the child victims of rape as greedy liars who made up their accusations. And when it’s pointed out to Donohue that even Catholic Church officials themselves have accepted more responsibility for these atrocities than Donohue is willing to allow, he actually insists that the Church is lying because they’ve been “beaten down” by some phantom media conspiracy to destroy the Catholic Church. If ever there were more proof that Donohue is a committed fanatic, that’s got to be it. To actually deny even the involvement that the Church itself has admitted to and suggesting the very people who would have the most to lose from admitting guilt are lying—that’s just bonkers!

The spokesman for Fox did an excellent job of responding to Donohue’s complaints about The Three Stooges film:

Fox disagreed that Three Stooges diverges from the original series. “The movie, in keeping with the spirit of the original TV show and its stars, is a broad, slapstick comedy,” a Fox spokesperson said.

“As the Stooges have proved over time, laughter is a universal medicine. The nuns that Mr. Donohue alludes to, are in fact, caring, heroic characters in the movie, albeit within the framework of a very broad comedy,” the spokesperson continued. “And as far as the nun attire, I think we did the audinece a favor by letting Kate Upton wear the nun-kini rather than Larry David — it could have gone either way. We invite you to see the movie and decide for yourselves.”

So let’s be clear here. Child rape is a-ok with Bill Donohue, but dressing a nun character in a sexy swimsuit is UNACCEPTABLE! Way to prioritize, Bill.

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News From Around The Blogosphere 10.27.11

October 27, 2011

1. Skeptical zombies ignored by James Van Praagh – In possibly the best PR stunt the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) has ever come up with, their president, DJ Grothe led an army of zombies on a mission to get self-proclaimed “psychic” James Van Praagh to finally take the JREF’s Million Dollar Psychic Challenge. Not surprisingly, Praagh’s goons kept the zombies from meeting with him but of course that doesn’t matter as this story is getting a lot of press.

2. Church’s bogus AIDS cure causes 3 deaths – Though this is an isolated incident, this is precisely the kind of tragedy that can be expected in a culture that demands unquestioned belief and condemns skepticism.

3. 60 Minutes pisses off anti-vaxxers – As part of their Steve Jobs-centered episode this week, 60 Minutes ran a segment on the remarkable benefits that iPads and other tablet devices have demonstrated for people with autism. And somehow by simply highlighting an important, practical tool in helping autistic people communicate, they’ve pissed off Age of Autism. And bravo to Age of Autism’s commenters for declaring war on Temple Grandin of all people. That takes serious balls. Maybe their next target will be blind nuns, adorable puppies, and AIDS-infected orphans. I’m just shocked Age of Autism didn’t rant about the fact that Pfizer is a major sponsor of the show.

4. ‘Sybil’ admits she never really had multiple personalities – The most famous alleged case of multiple personality syndrome, or what’s now known as Dissociative Identity Disorder was based on lies and manipulations.

5. Atheists doing volunteer work – This is something I want to see more of in atheist groups. This is one of the ways we’ll change people’s negative stereotypes about atheists.

 

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To celebrate our surviving another apocalype: comedy

October 22, 2011

Yes, shockingly Harold Camping got it wrong…again. So since I’m still not burning in Hell, what else is there to do but laugh at religion?

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Ireland breaks up with the Catholic Church

July 27, 2011

Ireland seems to have had it with the Catholic Church’s child rape scandals and now are giving the Vatican the it’s not me, it’s youdefinitely you routine:

The airwaves are full of bitter remarks supporting Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s attack on the “disgraceful” Vatican, and recommending every anti-church measure from the dissolution of the monasteries to the expulsion of the Papal Nuncio and the severing of all links with the Holy See. (The recall of the Papal Nuncio this week marks the lowest point of relations between Ireland and Rome.)

One correspondent wrote that it was his ardent hope that the Catholic Church would follow the example of the News of the World, and hold a “last Mass” before shutting down.

The Taoiseach, meanwhile, has been met with standing ovations for his salvo against the Vatican for failing to respond with sufficient concern to the clerical sex abuse scandals as described in the Cloyne report.

This is a far cry from two decades ago when Sinead O’Connor was almost universally hated for declaring the previous Pope “the real enemy” while ripping up his picture on Saturday Night Live.

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