Sunday, August 28, 2011

Would the World Be Better Without Religion?

OPINION: Religion & Society

My point is not that religion itself is the motivation for wars, murders and terrorist attacks, but that religion is the principal label, and the most dangerous one, by which a "they" as opposed to a "we"can be identified at all.
Richard Dawkins, evolutionary biologist,
noted atheist, and popular speaker,
The Devil's Chaplain

My religiosity consists in a humble admiration of the infinitely superior spirit that reveals itself in the little that we, with our weak and transitory understanding, can comprehend of reality. Morality is of the highest importance—but for us, not for God.
Albert Einstein [1879-1955]

Some people put forward the idea that religion is the root cause of all the world's evils. Thus, as the thinking goes, and this is in its simplest form, if all religious belief and practices were eliminated from the face of the earth, then, ipso facto, hate and wars would be eliminated.

It's obvious that discussions revolving around religion cause a lot of pain and anguish in people. The reasons, I suspect, are always almost personal. (It's certainly true in my case, as I struggle with my religious faith and practice.)

To be sure, atheists have every right to broadcast their views, make them known and convince others of their merit. It's good for democracy. In an open democracy, debate is welcome, where opponents and proponents ought to be able to speak in a forceful yet courteous and civil manner on any discourse. Ad hominen attacks, however, do little to advance a point of view and only cause rancour and anger. It does little for democracy.

Yet, the atheist position is weak.  On the position of morality, for example, one could question whether atheists adopted a morality from the culture in in which they were residing, thereby benefiting from a kind of halo effect. That is, the surrounding culture informs everyone's morality. (Atheists, of course, argue differently.)

Equally important is looking at the history of surveillance, repression, and mass murder of dissidents in socialist states, such as the Soviet Union, the eastern bloc, and the People's Republic of China during the Cultural Revolution, when atheism was the official state ideology. (There are many articles, books and papers coming out on this dark period in history, notably in Russia, as writers, journalists, historians and academics continue searching through the once-secret archives.)

Leaving the issue of morality for another time, I offer the following thoughts.  One can undoubtedly point at the atrocities committed in the name of religion throughout history. And it's likely that no major religion is immune from this charge. Yes, major acts of horror and barbarity have been committed in the name of religion, religious belief and faith acting as its justification.

No one of sane mind and sober intellect can condone such wanton hatred and violence. I join those who are committed to its elimination.

But, then again, the record of secular, or non-religious, leaders has hardly been worthy of honour or esteem. The list of mass murderers include the likes of Messieurs Hitler, Stalin. Pol Pot and Saddam Hussein, all devoted secularists, whose record of mass murder, destruction and ethnic cleaning is unparalleled in modern times.

One can easily summon a list of people—both of the faithless and the faithful—who have used their position of supreme authority to commit torture, mass murder and other evil acts. That only proves that hate and murder are universal evils that are extremely stubborn and difficult to stamp out.

Da Vinci's Mona Lisa: Leonardo  Da Vinci is the quintessential Renaissance Man.  What a poorer world it would be without such masterpieces. DaVinci's religious views informed his work, including one of the world's most-famous paintings.[This is a photographic reproduction done by Amandajm, June 2010. The original painting can be found in the Louvre in Paris, France].
Christianity remains the religion with the highest number of followers, claiming 2.0 billion followers, reports, or about one-third of the world's people. It's small wonder, then, why Christianity becomes a lightning rod for criticism: It's the majority. And this also explains why scientists, many whom were  brought up to some degree in the Christian faith, feel a need to attack it and dismantle its apparatus.

Yet, such thinking is without merit, and I say this as someone who is not a Christian, yet respect its culture and history. I say this, as well, as someone who has neither a particular axe to grind nor a religion to promote. Consider what, for example, the Christian world of art, music and literature has given us.

Would we be richer without such works as DaVinci's "Mona Lisa," or Handel's "Messiah" or Milton's Paradise Lost, to name only a few great examples? How about the great works of literature and poetry by Dante, Dostoevski and T.S. Eliot that bring so much meaning to people's lives. This argument ought not to be dismissed or easily discarded.

As for scientists who claimed Christianity as their religion, the list is too numerous to mention. Suffice to say, you can include Newton, Galileo and DaVinci among the leading lights whose work and thinking advanced science. Albert Einstein, who might not have been a man of great religious faith, was certainly no enemy of it either.

What I suspect the advocates of a world without religion want is an unfettered ability to carry out their scientific endeavors without any religious objections, and to reside in a world in peace. The former needs further examination and discussion, and any raised objections to scientific progress ought to be looked at judiciously, and not only by scientists, as there is too much at stake. The latter, on the issue of peace, I join them. I too long for a world devoid of hatred and violence. I too long for fairness and justice. I too long for a lasting peace.

Yet, pointing the finger at Religion is no solution. Even so, it is highly unlikely that religious belief would ever vanish, given that about 80 per cent of the world have declared some religious affiliation. And to use scientific language, the probability of success is low. That shows most people cannot find meaning solely in a rational materialistic universe. Most people need transcendence, and religion provides that comfort to many of the world, notably to the world's poor, beaten and downtrodden.

Even if atheists were somewhat successful in their campaign to eviscerate religion from its foundations or neuter it, such actions would add nothing to repairing or improving the world, even for scientific inquiry. It might result in a lot more harm, following the law of unintended consequences.

Truly, the problem lies elsewhere, and not solely at the doorstep of religion.

This article first appeared at Perry J. Greenbaum

Vaccines are the Smart Choice

Book Review

Title: Deadly Choices: How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All
Author: Paul Offit, MD
Date: 2011
Publisher: Basic Books: New York City, NY

The modern American anti-vaccine movement was born on April 19, 1982, when WRC-TV, a local NBC affiliate in Washington, D.C., aired a one-hour documentary titled DPT: Vaccine Roulette.
Paul Offit, Deadly Choices, p. 2

To the contrary, I was pro-vaccine. But I was pro-vaccine safety. I was knowledgeable enough to know the history that many more people's children and adults have been saved by vaccines than have ever died from them.
John Salamone, who effectively changed polio-vaccine policy in the United States after his son, David, suffering a crippling side-effect from the Sabin vaccine.
—Deadly Choices, p.81

Parents need to understand that when they choose not to vaccinate, they are making a decision for other people's children as well.
Brendalee Flint, whose daughter suffered bacterial meningitis in Jan 2008. They resided  in Minnesota, which had seen a sixfold increase in parents refusing to give their children the Hib vaccine.
—Deadly Choices, p. 214

In Deadly Choices, Paul Offit pushes back against the threats, allegations and fear-mongering of the anti-vaccine movement. His weapons of choice are historical evidence, reams of scientific studies and court cases, which individually and collectively prove, with acute clarity, that vaccines in general are not only considered safe, but are necessary for the sound health of our children and society in general

Offit's well-balanced book offers us a detailed example how ignorance and distrust of science and medicine, ignited by grass-roots politics, has led to a step backwards in health-care policy and prevention, notably in the United States. Throw in a few medical doctors and health officials raising the alarm bells, and fear-mongering from a willing media, and an entertainment industry built on sensationalism, and you have a witch's brew that has had and will continue to have deadly consequences for children.

Much of the credit for the modern anti-vaccine movement dates to 1982, when an NBC station in Washington, the nation's capital, aired a program, called DPT: Vaccine Roulette. Its focus was on the dangers of the pertussis vaccine, used to immunize children from whooping cough. The  program showed many images of children, both mentally and physically handicapped, easily provoking viewers to draw the conclusion that the pertussis vaccine for whooping cough caused this. Case closed.

Except for one thing. The show's images of children were as compelling as the science behind it was false. Scientifically False. It would take fifteen years of epidemiological studies in England, Sweden, Denmark and the U.S. to show no causal link between the vaccine and any long-term consequences.  But it would also take a 1988 court case, (Loveday v. Renton and Wellcome Foundation Ltd.), a class-action lawsuit that included two hundred other children in England to put the matter to rest.

The ruling by Lord Justice Murray Stuart-Smith concluded: "On all the evidence, a plaintiff has failed to establish, on a balance of probability, that pertussis vaccine used in the United Kingdom and administered intramuscularly in normal doses could cause permanent brain damage in young children." Another landmark case in Canada came to a similar verdict.

As for the likely cause of the seizures and mental retardation noted in Vaccine Roulette, Samuel Berkovic, a neurologist at the University of Melbourne and director of the Epilepsy Research Center, determined that a genetic defect in a gene (SCN1A) that regulates the transport of sodium in brain cells was primarily responsible. It was an important discovery, and such results ought to be good news for all parents, especially those who second-guessed themselves for vaccinating their children.
Berkovic wrote, "The identification of a genetic cause of encephalopathy in a particular child should finally put to rest the case for vaccination being the primary cause."
But, of course, there's money to be made. In this case, billions of dollars to doctors, lawyers and other special-interest groups, when accusations can be made and legal proceedings instituted against Big Pharma. Another example cited in the book is the MMR-autism controversy. One of the persons responsible for stoking the fears is Andrew Wakefield, an academic gastroenterologist and a medical doctor, who had published a controversial paper in the respected British medical journal The Lancet in February 1998, linking the MMR vaccine with autism.

It would take solid investigative journalism in England and a court case in the U.S. to again prove no causal link between the MMR vaccine and autism, which has no known cause. After a thorough investigation, first by the media (Brian Deer for the Sunday Times) and then by the General Medical Council (GMC), which licenses doctors in Britain, 12 years after initial publication, the paper was retracted by The Lancet on February 2, 2010.

Equally important, Wakefield has been struck off the Medical Registrar and may no longer practice medicine in the U.K. (For more information see On Vaccines: a Matter of Life.)

In 1988, the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, or VICP, was set up by the U.S. federal government to protect vaccine makers from expensive civil lawsuits. Under VICP, cases are heard in what has been called Vaccine Court, a no-fault forum for legal proceeding in front of special masters.

The result? None of the allegations have been proven in this court in what was essentially a class-action lawsuit involving 5,000 cases and tens of thousands of pages of documentary evidence. In its first ruling, on February 12, 2009, all the masters unanimously "rejected the notion that MMR plus thimerosal-containing vaccines caused autism, finding not a shred of evidence to support the theory," Offit writes.

In the second ruling, on whether thimerosal alone was responsible for autism, the Vaccine Court, on March 12, 2010, called the plaintiff's arguments "scientifically unsupportable." Yet much damage has been done, clouding if not outright confusing the issue for parents.

In his book, Offit boils down the problem to one of trust: :
Unfortunately, nothing will change if the push to vaccinate comes only from doctors, vaccine advocates, public health officials, and hospital; administrators. Some parents will always view these groups as biased; and it hasn't been hard for anti-vaccine groups to appeal to the sentiment that they can't be trusted.
Undoubtedly, this has been the case thus far. Yet, it can change if parents make informed choices on the importance and necessity of vaccines. Offit's book in its purest form is a plea to parents to make a fully informed choice, based on scientific evidence, and to weigh this evidence against the fears and hysteria offered by anti-vaccine advocates. (Anti-vaccine movements have appeared periodically throughout modern history, first in England in the 1860s, and then in the U.S. in the 1890s.)

Herd Immunity

The necessity centres on reams of statistical data from credible sources, which posits that a certain percentage of the population are required to be vaccinated to take advantage of the protection afforded by herd immunity. If we want to avoid any epidemics of diseases like measles, mumps and diphtheria, the only proven method are vaccinations. And the scientific data supports this contention. Yet, too many parents remain unconvinced.

Conspiring against herd immunity are a number of important factors, including 1) The prevalence of international travel, in which travelers returning from nations with low immunization rates, increasingly are returning to North America with cases of such diseases; 2) Lack of scientific literacy; and 3) The success of the anti-vaccine movement in lowering vaccine rates, thus depriving the population, which includes you and I, the protection offered by herd immunity.It's also important to remember that no vaccine is 100% effective.

In herd immunity, a proven scientific concept, if more people are immune to a certain virus, either through vaccination or having already had the disease, then more people in the population, even if they themselves aren't immune, are protected from the disease.The greater the percentage of people vaccinated, the smaller chance of having an epidemic. Diseases are typically transmitted from a person who's been infected to another person. If that person has been vaccinated, he does not become a transmission point.

That percentage of the population that requires vaccination varies, from 85% for mumps, rubella and diphtheria to 95% for measles and pertussis or whooping cough. Because of emphasis on vaccines in the 1960s and 1970s, many of these diseases, once considered a rite of passage for childhood, were considered almost eliminated in North America.

But then came the assiduous efforts of the anti-vaccine movement, and their success in convincing parents of the validity of their message has translated to lowering vaccination rates, Offit says:  "Some aren't giving any vaccines at all; since 1991 the percentage of unvaccinated children has more than doubled."

On a personal note, I experienced first-hand on the effects of Offit's subtitle: How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All. When  children remain unvaccinated, others remain unprotected as herd immunity breaks down. I contacted  chickenpox (varicella) at a conference for families in Schroon Lake, New York, in June 2002, at age 45. My oldest daughter (then 12) and wife had already had chickenpox as young children, before the varicella vaccine became licensed for use in the U.S. in 1995. My four-month-old son had garnered immunity from my wife's antibodies while being breastfed.

My reaction was far more serious. It left me debilitated for almost four weeks, where I suffered hundreds of vesicular lesions, or blisters, over my entire body, a fever hovering above 40 degrees Celsius (104 F) and general discomfort. After I recovered, I found out that the consequences of adult chickenpox are more severe than in young children, sometimes leading to pneumonia, transient hepatitis, and encephalitis.

That experience marked me for life. I have always been convinced of the need for vaccinations, but after that I was an advocate. Equally compelling, I had thought that everyone, especially parents, favored vaccines. But I was wrong and ill-informed. Unknown to me at the time was that the effects of the anti-vaccine movement was being felt across the United States.

Paul Offit:"The fear of vaccines, the choice to act on that fear, the consequences of that choice, and the voices rising in protest are the subject of this book."

Recent Outbreaks

Here's only a few examples that Offit has mentioned in his book:
  • Washington: An outbreak of pertussis (whopping cough) on Vachon Island, a small commuter island in Kings County, home to ten thousand people, most wealthy and and well educated. About one in seven children are unvaccinated. In 1994, 48 cases of whopping cough were reported. It increased to 263 in 1995, and 458 in 1999.
  • Indiana: In May 2005, a seventeen-year-old unvaccinated girl from Indiana traveled to Romania on a church mission. She visited an orphanage and hospital in  Romania, which was then undergoing a measles epidemic.On the way home, she felt ill, but unaware that she had contacted measles and  excited to share her overseas experience, she went to a church picnic attended by 500 people. Of the 35 unvaccinated people at the picnic, 31 contacted measles. "The girl who had contacted measles in Romania—after spending only a few hours in a crowd of 500 people—had managed to infect almost every person susceptible to the disease," Offit says.
  • New York & New Jersey: In June 2009, there was an outbreak of mumps among Hasidic Jews in New York and New Jersey. An eleven-year-old boy traveled to England and contacted mumps. Then, thousands of British children had not received the vaccine for measles-mumps-rubella (MMR), afraid that it caused autism. The boy flew back to New York, attended a summer camp for Hasidic Jews, and, unfortunately, started a massive epidemic. By January 2010, fifteen hundred people had been infected with mumps, the book's author says: "When it was over, mumps was found to have caused pancreatitis, meningitis, deafness, facial paralysis, or inflammation of the ovaries in sixty-five people; nineteen were hospitalized."
And the cases continue.

The Changing '80s

How things have changed. Vaccinations, once considered the gold standard of a health-care prevention policy, are now often looked at suspiciously by parents, who want the best for children. When most of the developed world were once looking at the United States with awe and envy at how they improved the lifespans of children, they must now wonder what is going on.

When the U.S. was once at the forefront in the battle to eradicate many of the diseases that debilitated children, including measles, mumps, rubella, diphtheria, pertussis and polio, many parents have decided to not vaccinate their children.

Pharmaceutical companies, so-called Big Pharma, have made mistakes in manufacturing vaccines, particularly in the early history of production. In his book, Offit cites cases where huge mistakes were made, resulting in severe outbreaks and death.
Yellow fever vaccine: American soldiers receiving this vaccine in the 1940s were inadvertently given a vaccine that contained hepatitis B. Offit writes: "In March 1942, the US Surgeon General's Office noted a striking number of recruits were infected by hepatitis; more than three hundred thousand soldiers were infected with what we now know as hepatitis B virus; sixty-two died from the disease."

Polio vaccine: When the Salk vaccine was licensed for sale, one of the three manufacturers, Cutter Laboratories in Berkeley, California, had done a horrible job, in 1955, of producing the Salk vaccine, failing to inactivate the live polio vaccine. "As a consequence, Offit writes, "one hundred and twenty thousand children were inadvertently infected with a vaccine that contained a live, potentially deadly poliovirus: seventy thousand suffered mild polio, two hundred were severely and permanently paralyzed, and ten died. It was one of the worst biological disasters in American history."
Two things resulted from this disaster: Cutter Laboratories ceased making polio vaccines (It was bought by Bayer in the 1970s), and the creation of a vaccine regulatory system. As well, not cited in the book since it's not about a vaccine, but about an antibiotic, penicillin, is the recent discovery of research experiments conducted on prisoners, mental patients and soldiers in Guatemala during the 1940s and 1950s to test the efficacy of penicillin.

This was done without informed consent, despite stringent regulations in effect after the drafting of the Nuremberg Code in 1947 (see Unwilling Participants).  Such are the issues that tarnish the otherwise exemplary work going on in today's medical- research establishments.

The Evidence is Solid

Despite such mistakes, they are rare, and many controls are in place to reduce such incidents. For persons who hold particular ideologies, facts don't generally persuade them. Yet, their solution of zero vaccines falls short of a sound and proven health-care policy, and is be a menu for epidemics that would result in many more family tragedies and deaths.

Consider the following: If you speak to an older generation of adults, those born before the 1940s, before the widespread availability of vaccines, you will get a different picture. This generation is thankful for the benefits that vaccines offer to humanity.

Dr. Offit does an excellent job of explaining the history of vaccines and why they are necessary, effective and safe. For this, he ought to be commended. His book is well-researched and well-documented tour-de-force on his area of expertise.

He is a scientist with not only a fine mind, but a well-operating heart. He would prefer that people were united, and refers to the tragedy of September 11, 2001, as a time when people were more united toward a common good. "And if we can recapture it—recapture the feeling that we are all in this together, all part of a large immunological cooperative—the growing tragedy of children dying from preventable infections can be avoided."

As a writer and journalist, I recommend this book for anyone who wants to be well informed on vaccines and the history of the anti-vaccine movement. As a parent. I recommend this book to other parents who want to be well-informed on making the best choices for your children's health and well-being.


Paul Offit, MD, is the chief of the division of infection diseases and the director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. He is the Maurice R. Hilleman Professor of Vaccinology and a professor of pediatrics at University of Pennsylvania's School of Medicine. Dr. Offit is a founding advisory board member of the Autism Science Foundation, to which he is donating the royalties to this book. He resides outside Philadelphia.

On Euthanasia

OPINION: Ethics & Society
Euthanasia is a grave violation of the law of God, 
since it is the deliberate and morally unacceptable killing of a human person.
Pope Jean Paul II

This is a precious possession which we cannot afford to tarnish, but society always is attempting to make the physician into a killer to kill the defective child at birth, to leave the sleeping pills beside the bed of the cancer patient ... It is the duty of society to protect the physicians from such requests.
Margaret Mead, anthropologist, 
as quoted in Maurice Levine. Psychiatry and Ethics.
New York: George Braziller Publishers. 1972: 325.

The fundamental question about euthanasia: Whether it is a libertarian movement for human freedom and the right of choice, or an aggressive drive to exterminate the weak, the old, and the different, this question can now be answered. It is both.
Richard Fenigsen, Dutch cardiologist

Euthanasia or physician assisted suicide is legal in only a few nations, and in two states of the United States (see map). Even so, there is a push among some groups in industrialized nations to make it more wide-spread, citing the arguments of freedom of choice, right to die, and right to happiness. The central question is whether euthanasia is really a valid moral choice.
Romulus and Remus: The painting depicts Shepherd Faustolo (on the right) finding Romulus and Remus nursed by a wolf (center).
Painter: Peter Paul Rubens [1577-1640]; 1616. At the Capitoline Museums (Musei Capitolini) in Rome, Italy.
Source: Wikipedia

In Ancient Greece, parents left deformed, unhealthy and unwanted babies to die in the elements. The babies were put in a clay pot or jar and deserted outside the front door or on the roadway. In ancient Greek religion, this practice took the responsibility away from the parents because the child would die of natural causes, for example hunger, asphyxiation or exposure to the elements.

Such explains many of the Greek myths, the most famous being Oedipus, who is left to die as a baby in the hills by a herdsman ordered to kill the baby. Of course, he survives and grows up to unwittingly marry his biological mother, after unknowingly killing his father, with unhappy consequences for all. Then there is the Roman myth of Romulus and Remus, who were suckled by a wolf in the wilderness, but afterward, again, are found by a shepherd.

This practice lasted for hundreds of years. Infanticide became a capital offense in Roman law only in 374 CE, shortly before Christianity became an official state religion in the Roman Empire. But even then offenders were hardly prosecuted. Yet, Christianity's persuasive ways made the practice less culturally acceptable.
Practical Ethics

Euthanasia is a Greek word that roughly translates as "good death," one that is quick and painless. "The first apparent usage of the term euthanasia belongs to the historian Suetonius who described how the Emperor Augustus, 'dying quickly and without suffering in the arms of his wife, Livia, experienced the euthanasia he had wished for,' " Wikipedia says.

Such might describe how Peter Singer views things. He doesn't want to leave babies out in the elements, or out in the roadway. His is a more humane end of life option, under the rubric of child euthanasia. Professor of bioethics at Princeton University, Singer argues from principles of utilitarianism—the greatest good for the greatest number— that killing a "deformed" newborn baby could be acceptable. His reasoning can be boiled down to this: newborns and infants lack the characteristics of personhood: rationality, autonomy, and self-consciousness. I quote from Practical Ethics (1993) and the chapter, "Taking Life: Humans":
Parents may, with good reason, regret that a disabled child was ever born. In that event the effect that the death of the child will have on its parents can be a reason for, rather than against killing it. Some parents want even the most gravely disabled infant to live as long as possible, and this desire would then be a reason against killing the infant.

But what if this is not the case? in the discussion that follows I shall assume that the parents do not want the disabled child to live. I shall also assume that the disability is so serious that - again in contrast to the situation of an unwanted but normal child today - there are no other couples keen to adopt the infant. This is a realistic assumption even in a society in which there is a long waiting- list of couples wishing to adopt normal babies.

It is true that from time to time cases of infants who are severely disabled and are being allowed to die have reached the courts in a glare of publicity, and this has led to couples offering to adopt the child. Unfortunately such offers are the product of the highly publicised dramatic life-and-death situation, and do not extend to the less publicised but far more cormnon situations in which parents feel themselves unable to look after a severely disabled child, and the child then languishes in an institution.

Infants are sentient beings who are neither rational nor self- conscious. So if we turn to consider the infants in themselves, independently of the attitudes of their parents, since their species is not relevant to their moral status, the principles that govern the wrongness of killing non-human animals who are sentient but not rational or self-conscious must apply here too. As we saw, the most plausible arguments for attributing a right to life to a being apply only if there is some awareness of oneself as a being existing over time, or as a continuing mental self. Nor can respect for autonomy apply where there is no capacity for autonomy.
In utilitarian thinking, practical considerations always govern, and the rationale behind decision-making is whether the decision will lead to happiness. (Martha Nussbaum, professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, has a good article on the limitations of the happiness or positive psychology movement, Who Is the Happy Warrior? Philosophy Poses Questions to Psychology.) In the case of the disabled child, the happiness of parents are allegedly diminished since the burden to care for such a child is great. Using such an approach it makes perfect sense to increase one's happiness by reducing the locus of the unhappiness. To wit: get rid of a disabled infant. Or an elderly parent.

While this type of intellectual debate is taking place, we are witnessing a diminishing of humanity's dignity, At the same time, there has been a growing concern for animal rights, in particular to the area of animal cruelty, which in some cases is merited and morally justified (e,g., hunting and using animals for sport, such as bull-fighting, cock-fighting and dog-fighting). This is due in part to Peter Singer's Animal Liberation (1975), a book which has become one of the main texts of the animal-rights movement.  When the love of animals supersedes that of humans, it means that such people have essentially given up on humanity and have transferred their allegiances and fidelity to animals, seeing in such creatures nobility and purity lacking in humans. For such people, who are good-hearted, animals need an advocate. Perhaps so.

Junk News

But humans, despite the tendency to commit many evil acts and atrocities, still have the capacity for good. In many cases, it lies dormant, ill-nurtured and ill-fed by a society that has been fed a steady diet of junk news. By this I mean news that does little than defeat the spirit, the soul. The news sellers are selling a product and offer little in the way of comfort or answers.

An over-reliance, or some would say reliance... period, on junk news with their panels of self-important pundits, leaves people ill-equipped to make sound moral decisions. It leaves people vulnerable, and weakens independent thinking. So, the old, the infirmed, the weak are left to the professionals to think about and be taken care of.  To be warehoused in institutions. To use a cliché, "out of sight, out of mind." And that is the reason why enlightened persons with an operating heart and soul take that as a need to protect and nurture small children, the infirmed and the elderly. The opposite thinking is what results when you use pure reason, and only pure reason, to arrive at a particular idea.

In addition, that's what happens when you take utilitarian ideas, seemingly good, obviously taken from rational arguments—doing good for the greater number of people. Except is not good at all. It's deception of the self and others. It seems that people like Prof. Singer, whose grandparents (at least three of them) all died at the hands of the Nazi killing machine, a most efficient and rational apparatus of the state, have failed to make the right distinctions. It's a moral failure on their part, no doubt, that generally stems from ignoring the hard questions of religious morality.

Religious Morality

I raise this issue because the morality and ethics from philosophical thinking is not always in agreement with the morality and ethics from religious sources or narratives. Moral philosophy is essentially a child of the scientific method, having its origins in Ancient Greece. Religious morality, on the other hand, is a child of the Torah, or Jewish Bible, and has its origins in Judaism. Some might disagree, seeing this distinction as overly simple, but it will have to suffice for now. (You are welcome to send me a rebuttal.)

In Judaism, for example, the sanctity of life is the chief operating and guiding principle, over-riding individual freedom or liberty, which marks, for example, the laws of the American Constitution. (Now, in all fairness to jurists, they make rulings from law, or at least that's the intention.) As a Jew, I will quote Jewish law:
Suicide in Jewish law is forbidden. A person's soul is not his to extinguish, and he cannot not direct someone else to assist him in ending his life.
Regarding assisted suicide and the activities of Kervorkian, Jewish law is clear and definite. Under no circumstances may a doctor directly kill, or indirectly provide the means for suicide. Any form of active euthanasia is strictly prohibited and condemned as plain murder. The fact that the patient is in unremitting pain and pleads for assistance in ending his life does not change the law. Murder is one of the three cardinal sins prohibited by the Torah, and anyone who kills a dying person is liable to the death penalty as a common murderer.

Jewish law maintains that one has no absolute ownership of one's body. We are given a body for a fixed time. We are obliged to guard it for safe-keeping and to make rational decisions about its care. We have no rights to tamper with life except for the purpose of preventing its destruction or loss.
There is a good article discussing more details on Jewish law and its interpretation of the Torah.  The religions of Christianity and Islam have similar edicts prohibiting euthanasia in all its forms, including assisted suicide.

The Angel of Death: A common Western image of death carrying a scythe. The advocates of euthanasia want to have a direct line to the Angel of Death. But however appealing the prospect sounds under the guise of individual freedom, this would be a grave error for humanity and the dignity of the person. "To destroy the boundary between healing and killing would mark a radical departure from longstanding legal and medical traditions of our country, posing a threat of unforeseeable magnitude to vulnerable members of our society. Those who represent the interests of elderly persons with disabilities, and persons with AIDS or other terminal illnesses, are justifiably alarmed when some hasten to confer on them the "freedom" to be killed., say the. U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops
Source: Wikipedia

 Can't Avoid The Ugliness

No doubt, death and the process of dying is a nasty business. It bothers us and makes us uncomfortable and we tend to avoid discussing it unless we are directly confronted with it. It's not a happy affair. It probably has always been the case, since the will to live and survive is a primal instinct, and in the healthiest of us is the strongest instinct. In our modern society, which has done much to alleviate pain and suffering and diseases, people are living longer and more healthier. Science and medicine continue to push the boundaries of life ever closer to the biblical marker of "may you life to 120." Yet, it's also true that advances in medical science has left society with a moral dilemma of what to do with older persons who are alive, but not cognitively alert or active.

These include those suffering severe forms of dementia or Alzheimer's disease.Or younger persons, including babies, who are medically diagnosed as so severely disabled as to give the view that they are not actively living, lacking speech, movement and other mental activities associated with being human? The parents of such children, and the children of such parents think otherwise, willing to do anything, pay anything to prolong the life of the one they love. Some say the money is wasted on such a person, better spent elsewhere. Of course, the issue of money is always raised by the pragmatists. I wouldn't expect otherwise of prisoners locked in a cell of their own making.

Undoubtedly, it's truly hard to see your mother, father, sister, brother, good friend suffer in the final throes of a debilitating illness. It makes one uncomfortable and uneasy to see death and decay, especially when set against the prevailing ideas of the happiness and positive psychology movements. I have seen it twice, first with my father then with my mother. I was uneasy and felt a range of emotions, including pity, sadness and anger at the injustice of it all. I didn't want to see my father suffer with cancer in 1980, and my mother from the complications of a botched surgery of a broken hip in 2006. But I did.

My story is told countless number of times. It would seem like a good sane idea if humans, with all its intelligence, avoid all that pain and suffering that the dying person is undergoing. And to avoid the pain and suffering of the persons viewing this last stage in a person's life. What is the purpose of pain and suffering?

I admit the option of euthanasia seems to make perfect sense in such circumstances, if you are limited to practical considerations and a standard measurement of happiness. I am not going to bring up the slippery slope argument, which has some validity; or the historical example of Nazi Germany's extermination program. These have strong moral presence and validity. I have raised the moral argument above, mainly because it has kept us anchored as a civilized people for thousands of years. Remember, euthanasia is not a modern idea of the modern mind. It predates modern civilization, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Haskalah, the giving of the Law (Torah) at Mont Sinai.

Calls for euthanasia pop up during various stages in human civilization, notably when pragmatism becomes the overarching view of society's leaders and thinkers. Such might be the case today. Yet, there is something brutish and nasty, even creepy and less than human about the whole business of allowing machine-like thinking to make decisions on life and how it ought to end. It might just be that death, and the horrible business of life's end, has a purpose that is beyond practical considerations. To wit: to make us remember our humanity, our dignity, compassion and our limitations.

So, to make death simple, painless and antiseptic might be the worst choice for us, taking away another part of the mystery of humanity. And its dignity. How we treat the weak in society is a fairly accurate measure of a society's health and morality. Individual happiness should not be the end goal of a society, as it usually benefits only the select few. I am reminded of what Albert Einstein said:  "The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift."

This essay was originally posted on Perry J Greenbaum as Calling the Angel of Death.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Prodigal Son: A Story About Jewish Return

COMMENTARY: Religion & Society

For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven."

—Matthew 5:20, Christian Bible

twelve Jesus sent out after instructing them: "Do not go in the way of the Gentiles, and do not enter any city of the Samaritans; 
but rather go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel."
—Matthew 10: 5-6, Christian Bible

But He answered and said, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel."
Matthew 15:24, Christian Bible
Return of the Prodigal Son: "The Holy One, blessed be God, said to Israel: 'My children, present to me a single opening of repentance, small like the eye of a needle, and I will open for you entrances through which wagons and carriages can pass.'" –Shir Hashirim Rabbah 5:3
Painter: Pompeo Batoni [1708-87]: Painted in 1773
Source: Wikipedia
A common theme in literature is teshuvah, or return and repentance. One of the most famous stories that focuses on this theme in the Christian faith is The Prodigal Son. It is a touching parable attributed to Jesus of Nazareth about a wayward son who asks for his inheritance when his father is still alive—a real slap in the face of tradition—squanders it living the high life, and ends up destitute and feeding the pigs, an unkosher animal that symbolizes non-Jewish ways and traditions. He eventually makes it home, expecting to be treated with contempt, but is instead received in kindness and joy as a king.

In the Christian tradition, the story is significant in that it speaks about God's patient and enduring love for humanity in general and his love for his own, in this case, followers of the Christian church in particular. There is no getting way from that reality when one reads the Christian interpretation of the story, even from the most liberal and Judaic-knowledgeable and -aware sources.

Even so, the conventional Christian interpretation, as full of humanity and humility it contains, surely misses the mark. Unfortunately, this view, even shared by Christian scholars and theologians of first-rank minds, fails to take into account a few essential points. In short, the whole social and cultural history of the parable and frame it within the proper context. As a Jew I thought I must wade in and offer a Jewish view on the famous story.

That being said, I would like to add another interpretation of this famous and well-liked parable. A midrash so to speak, in a sort of inquiry to the narrative's meaning. I am not a biblical scholar or a Judaic studies scholar, but I am fairly familiar with the biblical narratives contained in the main books of both Judaism and Christianity and the traditions that inform them. So I say this not without knowledge or thought. The story of the Prodigal Son is actually about Jewish teshuvah or return to Jewish ways and values.

That is, the story is directed at Jesus' co-religionists at the time, his fellow Jews. His message is directly aimed at the idea of  maintaining their Jewish ways and traditions, even in the face of opposition and the temptation to assimilate in the larger surrounding culture of Hellenistic Greece, which still had resonance in Roman-conquered Judaea.

Return of the Prodigal Son:  "To bring another to repentance, I go down all the steps until I reach his level. Then I bind the roots of my soul to the roots of his soul, and together our souls repent." –Rabbi Zusya of Anipol
Painter: James Tissot [1836-1902]. Painted between 1886 and 1894.
Source: Brooklyn Museum in New York

The Jewish Context

At the risk of offending some Christian sensibilities, and I expect I will against my best intentions, there is some important context that is missing from the conventional Christian reading. Such happens often when a reader interprets a particular narrative with preconceived conclusions about the text's meaning. In a sense, reading into the text ideas and traditions that matured later, when the text was emended to conform to the later Christian tradition and practices. Thus explains the conventional Christian reading of the text, found in the Christian New Testament, about a people (Christians) that yet did not exist.

Yet, the centre does not hold. After Jesus of Nazareth was executed by the Romans for sedition for seemingly calling for an insurrection against the established order, a conclusion that fearfully and naturally came to those leaders when he publicly declared himself King-Messiah of the Jewish People, he became another Jew brutally executed by the Romans. The long-hoped and -awaited outcome of the Messiah's power to bring about peace and justice never materialized for the Jewish People. Or for any people for that matter. Nothing really changed for centuries.

Thus, given such context, here are some points to note:
  • Jesus of Nazareth was a practicing Pharisee; as were his disciples.
  • As a Pharisee, Jesus was never against Pharisees; nor was he in the main against the traditions of normative Judaism. He spoke harshly only against certain ceremonial laws and traditions that burdened people.
  • Jesus' mission, for want of a better word, was only to Jews, to the "House of Israel," as he put it. Jesus of Nazareth displayed a marked chauvinism toward his people, which would be expected from a Pharisee from Galilee under Roman oppression.
  • All his parables were directed at his fellow co-coreligionists, the Jewish People. 
  • Jesus of Nazareth had no desire to start another religion. He operated within the bounds of Judaism and the Laws of Moses, which he kept. I sense that he would have been horrified to see the handiwork of Paul of Tarsus.
Such is a good starting point to discuss the parable and derive a meaning from it. To a great degree, Jesus of Nazareth, viewed himself as the long-awaited Jewish messiah, and would have been surprised, if not shocked, to see a new religion, apart from Judaism, founded in his name. Such is well-argued by Hyam Maccoby, a Jewish scholar, in The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity (1986):
Jesus and his immediate followers were Pharisees. Jesus had no intention of founding a new religion. He regarded himself as the Messiah in the normal Jewish sense of the term, i.e. a human leader who would restore the Jewish monarchy, drive out the Roman invaders, set up an independent Jewish state, and inaugurate an era of peace, justice and prosperity (known as "the kingdom of God.") for the whole world. Jesus believed himself to be the figure prophesised in the Hebrew Bible who would do all these things. He was not a militarist and did not build up an army to fight the Romans, since he believed that God would perform a great miracle to break the power of Rome (p. 15).
So, if Jesus of Nazareth didn't have a new religion or way in mind, who did? That distinction goes to Paul (or Saul) of Tarsus. If you read the the text critically, you will come to the same conclusion. Many scholars, including Maccoby, have argued, and I think rather successfully, that Paul invented Christianity "as a new religion, which developed away from both normal Judaism and the Nazarene variety of Judaism. In the new religion, the Torah was abrogated as having had only temporary validity" (16).

Another Jewish scholar who wrote a ground-breaking work almost one hundred years ago was Joseph Klausner, a professor of Hebrew history and literature at Hebrew University. In Jesus of Nazareth: His Life, Times, and Teaching (1922), Klausner placed Jesus within the framework of First Century Judaism as a great teacher of morality, who was pure in his teaching while expounding undiluted Hebraic thought, free from any prevailing ideas of the surrounding culture:
Jesus of Nazareth, however, was a product of Palestine alone, a product of Judaism unaffected by any foreign admixture. There were many Gentiles in Galilee, but Jesus was in no way influenced by them. In his days Galilee was the stronghold of the most enthusiastic Jewish patriotism. Jesus spoke Aramaic and there is no hint that he knew Greek—none of his sayings show any clear mark of Greek literary influence. Without any exception he is wholly explained by the scriptural and Pharisaic Judaism of his time. (p. 363).
Jesus is not many, if not most, of the things that the Christian tradition has ascribed to him, including him being divine, an affront to the teachings of the Torah and the Shema. Despite what even well-meaning Christian writers have said, the Jewish People could never accept such a teachings two thousand years ago, nor could they accept it today, so great is the distance from traditional Judaism.

Judaism has a much longer history and tradition, rich in writing, argument and literature. So where does Jesus fit in? Klausner places him in the proper place: "But Jesus is, for the Jewish nation, a great teacher of morality and an artist in parable." (414)

So, that being clear, we can now we return to the parable of the prodigal son, and its place within the literature of Judaism and Christianity. So, where does that leave the Gentiles in the story? one may ask. At the same place Gentiles have always been. Within a set of beliefs and traditions within a structured narrative. I would be foolish to think the arguments I put forward in my simple midrash will change someone's views, let alone two thousand years of Christian tradition. That would be impossible, and it's not my intent.

The intent here is to bring about a Jewish perspective from someone outside the Christian tradition. And to make people consider other points of view. To Think. To Review. To Discuss. In the Jewish tradition, Jesus of Nazareth is looked upon with suspicion, hesitation, fear and hostility. Such are natural, normal and expected responses to almost two thousand years of persecution in the name of Jesus. The result has been that Jews have been reluctant to discuss such things, and it's understandable why many don't.

That the Pauline writings, anti-Jewish sentiments and Christian tradition the last two thousand years have conspired to divorce Jesus  from his Jewish soul, or neshamah, and turn him into something foreign is assuredly outside his doing or control. But recent scholarship in the last century—some of which I have cited— has changed such views, albeit gradually, perhaps grudgingly. Jesus of Nazareth comes into sharper view.

Jesus of Nazareth was a man who considered himself a zealous messiah for his people. This is in addition to him being a Pharisee and a follower of the Laws of Moses. He fits in squarely among the great moral teachers of his time. This is clear if you read his sayings and the historical accounts with a clear and honest eye and mind.

Teshuvah, the Return to the Jewish Way

The parable of the prodigal or lost son might have universal resonance as a message of love, hope, redemption and forgiveness. But that might not be the parable's original intent, when one considers that it was delivered by Jesus of Nazareth, the Galilean Pharisee, to a Jewish audience in a form of a parable to hide its meaning from non-Jewish ears.

If that is understood and accepted, then the story becomes clearer. much like a negative put in developing solution. It's about maintaining the traditions of Judaism and the ways of the Jewish People in the face of opposition, both physical and spiritual.

Moreover, the parable becomes a reminder to the Jewish audience that the dangers of assimilation and integration are real and great, but one can either resist or not and always return to the Jewish fold, as the prodigal son did, and reap the rewards of the Jewish Way. The reward, for the Jews, is to live in conformance to the thousands of years of hard-fought and deeply thought traditions, from Moses downward.

Equally important, the text shows that Jesus of Nazareth was sincere about himself being the instrument to bring freedom, justice and peace to his people and usher in the messianic age. That he failed is also undeniable. So did many others, who claimed the mantle of Jewish Messiah. Jesus of Nazareth was one of the first of many. But he failed as a Jewish Messiah. That is an important and fair distinction to make.

As is the way one ought to view the story of The Prodigal Son. It's a Jewish story in every respect, and readers who want to understand Jesus of Nazareth ought to keep that in mind. It makes all the difference in the world.


A version of this essay originally appeared in Perry J Greenbaum.

Water: A Human Right

Science & Society

Water is fundamental for life and health. The human right to water is indispensable for leading a healthy life in human dignity. It is a pre-requisite to the realization of all other human rights.
The United Nations Committee
on Economic, Cultural and Social Rights

More than eighty countries, with forty percent of the world’s population, are already facing water shortages, while by year 2020 the world’s population will double. The costs of water infrastructure have risen dramatically. The quality of water in rivers and underground has deteriorated, due to pollution by waste and contaminants from cities, industry and agriculture. Ecosystems are being destroyed, sometimes permanently. Over one billion people lack safe water, and three billion lack sanitation; eighty per cent of infectious diseases are waterborne, killing millions of children each year.
—World Bank, 1999

Whoever stops up his ears at the cry of the poor will himself cry, but not be answered. 
Proverbs 21:13. Jewish Bible 

View of the Earth: A shot taken from Apollo 17 on December 7, 1972. Water covers 71% of the Earth's surface; the oceans contain 97.5% of the Earth's water. The Antarctic ice sheet, which contains 61% of all fresh water on Earth, is visible at the bottom.
Photo Credit: NASA. Photo taken by either Harrison Schmitt or Ron Evans (of the Apollo 17 crew).
Source: NASA

I reside in a suburb of Montreal on the western side of the island that this summer has restricted water use, namely, the watering of lawns. The reason for the ban is that the current demand for water exceeds supply, so the municipality is doubling the capacity of its water plant, a $75-million project that is expected to be complete by June 2012. That's the only restriction—no lawn watering. Some of my neighbours are quite upset about it and have voiced their displeasure to the mayor, to no avail.

Undoubtedly, sprinklers going full tilt is a common site, notably in suburbia, where lush emerald-green lawns are a testimony to the homeowner's status. Quite honestly, it has no effect on our family's well-being, since we usually allow nature to water our lawn. It might also be that in comparison to some of the large "monster homes" in my neighborhood, our house is modest, as is the parcel of land of about 3,500 square feet (325 square metres) on which our house sits. It is, however, sufficient for our needs.

I raise this issue for a reason. While suburbanites in North America worry about brown lawns, many others worldwide worry whether they will get any quality water to drink. Some people say that there is not enough drinking water for all the earth's inhabitants. numbering almost seven billion people. Recent scientific estimates say that almost one billion people, one in seven persons, do not have access to quality drinking water. There are equally a number of sobering statistics of the consequences of this: poverty, sickness and death.

Note that humans require, on average, 2.4 litres per day of drinking water and between 20 and 50 litres per day for basic needs such as cooking, bathing and cleaning. A person can survive up to 30 days without food, but only up to seven days without water (A full set of interesting statistics can be found here and here for those interested.)

Drought and famine are an all-too common occurrence, notably in sub-Sahara Africa. For example, there is currently a famine, brought out partly by drought, in the Horn of Africa, with Somalia bearing the brunt of it. The photos of emaciated children are hard to ignore and rich nations pledge money. Some of it trickles its way to the persons affected; most doesn't. The cycle continues as does the cynicism. But yet we hope that things will change one day for the poorest of the poor. We feel helpless in the face of such overwhelming poverty, asking if it must always be this way. Some of the problems are man-made, but not all. It has everything to do with how much water we have access to and how it is distributed.

The Water Cycle:
The water cycle is the only way that Earth can be continually supplied with fresh water. The heat from the sun is the most important part of renewing our water supply. This heat soaks up water from the oceans, lakes, rivers, trees and plants in a process called evaporation. As the water mixes with the air it forms water vapor. As the air cools, the water vapor forms clouds. This is called condensation. Most of the water is immediately returned to the seas by rain (precipitation). The rest of the water vapor is carried inside clouds by wind over land where it rains or snows. Rain and melted snow is brought back to the oceans by rivers, streams, and run-off from glaciers and water underground.
Credit: US Geological Survey
Source: Wikipedia

Less than One Per Cent of the World's Water is Drinkable

Although, about two-thirds of the earth is covered with water, 97.5 per cent of it in the oceans and is salty and thus not drinkable or usable for our consumption. That leaves 2.5 per cent for freshwater use. But two-thirds of that amount, or 1.7 per cent, is locked in permanent snow and glaciers. So, less than one percent of the world's water is easily accessible and drinkable. Even so, UN-Water reports that we have yet to access all the world's water resources: "The world's six billion people are appropriating 54 percent of all the accessible freshwater contained in rivers, lakes and underground aquifers."

For some nations it makes perfect sense to tap into the world's oceans and it huge saltwater reserves. Desalination technology is available, but expensive to operate on a wide scale, at least for now, since it uses a lot of energy in the form of steam to to produce clean drinkable water.  There are, of course, environmental concerns of using such technologies. "According to International Desalination Association 2009, there are 14,451 desalination plants in operation worldwide, producing 59.9 million cubic meters per day (15.8 billion gallons a day)," Wikipedia says.

Most are, not surprisingly, in the Middle East, where in the desert groundwater is scarce. Costs are coming down, however, as technology gets better, more efficient. For example, in Israel, the cost is US$0.53 per cubic meter. Costs in other parts of the world are comparable. It is expected that costs will eventually come down with technological improvements. (For a technical look at the desalination process see "The ABCs of Desalting," put out by the International Desalination Association.) The consumer costs of bottled water are comparably much higher.

Water has to be managed, even in the industrialized west, or else we'll run out of it. Large concerns are taking care of the water supply and management, since they argue, they are best suited for such matters. That is the simple truth that some scientists say we will have to contend with shortly.

Science and technology might eventually solve the technical problems. Technical and technological consideration aside, there are other things to think about. Here's another simple truth from Jon Luoma, in “The privatisation of water," published in The Ecologist (March 1 2004):
Multinational companies now run water systems for 7 per cent of the world's population, and analysts say that figure could grow to 17 per cent by 2015. Private water management is estimated to be a $200 billion business, and the World Bank, which has encouraged governments to sell off their utilities to reduce public debt, projects it could be worth $1 trillion by 2021. The potential for profits is staggering: in May 2000 Fortune magazine predicted that water is about to become 'one of the world's great business opportunities', and that "it promises to be to the 21st century what oil was to the 20th."
Some of the language is alarmist. While I don't agree that the comparison to oil is necessarily valid, the article does raise a few questions on how water will be managed in the fairest way possible. Corporations operate with the intention of making a profit, and such is understandable. But when it comes to a basic resource like water, corporations ought to rethink and reconsider how they operate, if they wish to be good corporate citizens.

The Practical Choice/The Moral Choice

Even so, this scenario raises a few questions. If this is happening, why is it so? Why has water, which no one really should own, become a commodity, possibly controlled by the few. The short answer is that it takes huge investments to set up a water network, and companies have the right to not only recoup their investment but make a profit. Is this a morally defensible position? The problem is not greed, per se, a vital force that can be harnessed for good, if directed in the right fashion, such as making new technologies for profit.

It's the greed that is selfish and unchecked by opposing forces of goodness and goodwill for the less fortunate that is problematic. It's true that individuals can come together at conferences, such as the UN and FAO, Unicef and others, to work out some ethical framework of a personal or corporate nature and do good. Pledge money, Deliver aid. It's all good and well. It works, somewhat, at least for now, even in the face of thugs and thieves who steal from their own people. Yet, the cycle seems never-ending: drought, aid, theft, poverty, death.

Because it is logical, rational and utilitarian, it serves the needs of the situation. Thus, on a grander scale of humanity and for its betterment, it will likely fail and fail in a miserable way, bringing with it misery to many. The reasons are the ones that have always plagued us. A lack of long-term good will to help those who need help the most, chiefly because there is no real benefit other than doing good.

In the end, we might solve the technical problems, but the human problems are much more difficult. Cynicism and realism are two sides of the same coin, ultimately leading to defeat of the spirit,  This approach, the moral one, will happen  when we believe it is the only possible solution.

Until then, it's likely business as usual.

This article originally appeared on Perry J Greenbaum.