Thursday, May 28, 2009

Mother Teresa Was No Saint

The Case Against Mother Teresa

Recently, I have debated some Facebook friends regarding Mother Teresa. In that discussion, I took the unpopular position that Mother Teresa is no saint and that in many ways, she contributed to the misery of those for whom she cared. Needless to say, this has generated a great deal of heat from her supporters. In this brief essay, I will outline my case against Mother Teresa.

Without a doubt, Mother Teresa is one of the most loved and admired figures of the late 20th century. Her efforts to provide care to the most impoverished people in Calcutta, India are very well documented. In 1979, she received the Nobel Peace prize for her efforts. I will not dispute in any way the fact that Mother Teresa was a kind, humane, caring person. I will not dispute that she provided mercy to those who so greatly needed it. I do admire her compassion and believe that if everyone shared this level of compassion for their fellow man, the world would indeed be a better place.

This is all well and good until you consider what she failed to do once she rose to international fame. Mother Teresa had a platform from which she could have advocated an end to this misery. However, she did not. Instead, she used this platform to advocate for and against issues which, in fact, continue and exacerbate human suffering and misery. Mother Teresa was a noble figure against the symptoms of poverty. She provided important palliative care for the poor. However, she also had an opportunity to fight against the causes of poverty which she did not take. For that reason, she should not be considered saintly by any definition at all.

Several years ago, I participated in a large study which examined the roots of poverty, failed states, and economic collapse in the post World War II world. In this study, historians, economists, and political scientists researched several case studies with the hope of being able to better describe the conditions and causes of global poverty. While the circumstances around each case were specific to that case, we were able to identify a list of items which when many were absent from a country usually signaled poverty and misery. When many of these items were present in a country, it usually indicated a much greater degree of stability and far less poverty. While we do not have time here to discuss all of these factors, I would like to look at a few which relate to this discussion.

A key factor in the lessening of poverty can be seen in how women are treated in a society. Societies where women have greater rights and autonomy generally have far less poverty. Sub-points of women’s rights include reproductive autonomy, physical autonomy, and economic autonomy. Reproductive autonomy indicates that a woman has the right to choose how and when to participate in reproduction. Things which indicate levels of reproductive autonomy include access to birth control, access to abortions, and access to medicine specific to female reproduction. Physical autonomy describes the right of women to control their movements. Indications of this are the ability for women to live outside of a patriarchal home (whether that is a father or husband.) The ability travel at will is also an indicator of this autonomy. Finally, economic autonomy describes a woman’s ability to access jobs, money, and other economic resources. Education, relatively free access to the workplace, and the ability to personally own property are all indicators of economic autonomy. While women’s rights are only one of many factors in identifying poverty, they are clear indicators of it.

Mother Teresa was not an advocate of women’s rights. In nearly all of her public discourse, she spoke out against women’s rights. Mother Teresa was vehemently opposed to abortion and birth control. In being so, she was also against reproductive autonomy for women. Mother Teresa public statements also promoted the “traditional” family and “traditional” family values. Traditional family values describe a home where the woman in subservient to her husband and her traditional role is to be a caretaker for the family. Traditional family values are, at their very best, neutral to physical and economic autonomy for women. More often, they are antagonistic toward physical and economic autonomy for women. Thus, Mother Teresa did not advocate physical and economic autonomy for women. In no cases, did Mother Teresa push an agenda which would support these things. In no cases, did Mother Teresa adopt a position which would made positive changes in the overall culture of poverty that gripped large sections of India and the world. Rather, she was willing to provide palliative care for the ailing but was unwilling to participate in the cure.

It should be noted that Mother Teresa was staunchly supporting the larger Catholic positions on these issues. Outside of that dogma, Mother Teresa may have been very different. However, her efforts were tempered by the fact that she had to curry favor from God and the Pope along with provide merciful care for the sick. In being a devout Catholic, she was unable to participate in efforts which would have granted greater autonomy to women and would have help cure the problem. Her desire to help was largely cultivated by her faith. Ironically, her ability to help was greatly hamstrung by her faith. Thus, no matter what we want to believe about Mother Teresa, we have to understand that she was not the saint that we wish her to be. Given the platform that she was, Mother Teresa had the ability to help cure poverty. Instead, she advocated for policies which continued it.

Friday, May 15, 2009

On a More Personal Note

Hey everyone. A friend wanted me to share this with you -- so I will humor him. Last fall, I had to have a procedure to fix a little defect in my heart. Really, it was not a big deal, but I had to actually write and submit some sort of advanced directives and living will to the hospital. Not having enough time to really sit down with an attorney and so something formal, I decided to turn this one in:

Brian J. Dyk
CPR Directive, Medical Power of Attorney, and Living Will

CPR Directive
I direct that any and/or all medical procedures be used to sustain my life and/or stabilize my condition to the extent that it can be sustained and/or stabilized, in other words, "Yes Please."

Limited Medical Power of Attorney
In the even that I am unable to make medical decisions for myself, I authorize Dylan Dyk to make decisions on my behalf. In the highly unlikely event that Dylan Dyk is unable to make these decisions on my behalf, and only in such case where she is unable, I authorize Sheldon Newman to make medical decisions on my behalf. In the even less likely event that Dylan Dyk and Sheldon Newman are unable to make these decisions, I authorize Kevin Dyk to make medical decisions on my behalf. If none of these people are available, it means that the world has blown up and this is all a moot point anyway.

Once I have regained my capacity to make decisions for myself, this limited power of attorney will revert directly back to me. Don’t overstay your welcome in my affairs.

I require, however, that all decisions be made in accordance to my Living Will.

Living Will
Now, with that all out of the way, let’s discuss what I want.

1. I want everyone to remember that I am not dead yet. If we are working with the Living Will, it means that I am still alive. Let’s stay focused people.

2. I want medical, scientific, and medical ethics information to be used as the basis for making decisions on my behalf. I believe that by using this information, you will be able to make the most informed and humane choices for me.

I do not want the following people or deities to have any input about decisions on my behalf:

· God, in any form or incarnation, unless such deity can walk into the room and prove beyond any shadow of a doubt that he/she/it is God. If that extraordinarily unlikely scenario should happen, then let’s give God the benefit of the doubt.

· Any agent of God. No priest, pastor, Pope, minister bishop, shaman, monk, nun, or any such agent shall have input on this matter. It’s goofy enough to consult God, but even goofier to consult someone who acts on God’s behalf. It is very much like asking someone to consult their make-believe friend to make decisions for me. Let’s not have Elwood P. Dowd consulting Harvey on my behalf.

· Congress. If Congress or any political figure tries to take up my cause and make decisions for me, it has gone way, way too far. Pull the plug just to spite those sanctimonious idiots.

3. I want to remind everybody that quality of life is as important as quantity of life. If I am in a chronic vegetative state or other similar condition, and after consultation with at least 3 qualified physicians, it is clear that I have little or no chance of making a recovery, let’s go ahead and pull the plug. If, however, there is a reasonable chance that I can recover to a point where I am certifiably mentally aware of my surroundings, let’s go ahead and wait it out for a little while to see if I improve. If I do not improve over the course of a medically prescribed period, and after more consultations, it becomes clear that I will not improve, please pull the plug.

I understand that medicine and science are not infallible. However, I would like to give the doctors their due and believe that they are doing their best. If they say it is not reasonably possible for me to recover, I will trust their word on it. I also understand that there is a chance, however remote, that someday medicine and science could possibly reverse my condition. Let’s be real folks. That is not today. It may never happen. Hope is a great thing and perhaps the best thing. False hope is the worst of things. I would rather die with dignity than wait around for something that may never happen. Also, I do not want my family to spend all of our resources and energy pursuing a treatment that is unlikely to be discovered any time soon.

4. Let us not confuse chronic vegetative states with my condition on Sunday afternoons watching football. If I am on my couch watching football or any T.V. at all, and show enough capacity to utilize the remote control, please do not pull the plug. That would just irritate me.

5. No one may consult my Last Will and Testament before making decisions on my behalf. I just don’t have that much nice stuff to give away, and what I do have is not worth pulling the plug for anyway. You have a much better chance of getting good stuff from me if I am alive and still drawing a salary.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

ag-i-tate 1. To move with sudden force of violence. 2. To upset emotionally. 3. To stir up public interest in a cause. (Webster’s Dictionary.)

Over the years, I have become more and more militantly atheist. I have been more and more willing to take my views into the public square and present them for discussion. Furthermore, I have often used hyperbole, rhetoric, and even some inflammatory statements to start and participate in these discussions. To such ends, I have taken to task by many different people for my militancy. Obviously, the religious set (particularly Christians) have taken umbrage with my statements and stances. At the same time, some atheists, skeptics, and other free-thinkers have chided me as well. While the religious offense should be self-evident, I have always wondered why there would be offense from my own side. It has really caused me to think, to ponder, and to try and formulate a reasonable answer to this. This post is my best attempt at this answer.

As a part of this discussion, I feel that it is necessary to define some of our terms and labels. It will help us to better understand my case. I also need to state that these labels and descriptions are created via my experiences and meetings with various people. I do not presume to be the “definer” of any one person. In no way am I attempting to build a straw man through these definitions. I also know that there is a great deal of crossover from position to position and that more than one label may apply to an individual and that the definitions can be more nuanced that those I have given here. Rather, in my experiences, many of the free-thinkers that I have met fall primarily into one or more of these labels.

Atheism: A lack of belief in a theistic based system or worldview.

Agnosticism: The lack of knowledge or evidence that god(s) exist.

Anti-theism: A direct opponent of religious or theistic thoughts. Opposing religion.

Rationalist: One who uses tools of logic, rational thought, and evidence to form opinions, statements, and ideas.

Skeptic: One who doubts any claim which does not provide sufficient evidence to support its claim.

Free-thinker: One who forms their world-views without the aid of religion.

If I were to label myself, I can see all of these in me. Some, however, are more prevalent. Let me describe myself inside of these definitions. The order presented here also ranks the level to which I see myself.

1. Agnostic: There has been no evidence provided to me which suggests that any god(s) exist or have ever existed.
2. Atheist: Without this evidence, I have no beliefs which are based in a theistic worldview.
3. Free-Thinker: Without religion, I am allowed to form my own world view.
4. Rationalist: I form my worldview paying homage to logic, rational thought, and evidence whenever possible.
5. Anti-theist: I find myself in direct opposition to religion especially in the realm of public policy.
6. Skeptic: I am dubious of unfounded claims.

I suspect that most atheists would be able to define their worldview within these basic definitions. However, many would rank their priorities differently. What I have found is that the concerns expressed to me have usually been those who tend to define themselves around a more rationalist/skeptic mindset speaking out against my anti-theism. Specifically, they frequently suggest that anti-theism can be antithetical to rationalism. While I understand their arguments (and my inner rationalist actually agrees with them), I believe that there can be a case made for my militancy and anti-theism.

Limits of Skepticism and Rationalism
To start, I love rationalism and skepticism. I believe that many of the great thinkers in this world start with a healthy skepticism for conventional wisdom. I also think that rationalism is the foundation for the construction of good ideas. However, when stretched to their limits, both skepticism and rationalism start to show flaws. Furthermore, in many cases, attempting to establish a purist skeptical/rational worldview is a wonderful thought exercise, but is very impractical to live by in the real world. Let me give two examples.

Skepticism taken too far will approach absurdity. For example, when I go to sleep at night, I am sure that I will wake up again in the morning. I am so sure that I will rise again, I tell my wife, my children, and co-workers that I will see them in the morning. I make plans for tomorrow and the future. There is plenty of evidence to encourage my confidence – most notably the fact that I have always arisen from my bed in the morning. However, there is no direct evidence to suggest that I will. Any number of things may strike and prevent me from getting up in the morning. Most skeptics, will as I do, are willing to put a little faith into the idea that they will not die in the night. See, the key is that there are many decisions, events, and other things in life in which we have to exercise some faith. I accept on faith that my wife will not cheat on me when she goes out with her friends. In 17 years of being together, there is precedent which buoys this faith, but ultimately I have to have some trust and faith in her. Skeptical purists would suggest that my faith in getting up or my faith in my wife based upon precedent is not real assurance that the same will happen in the future. True – but what sort of reality do we live in without some modicum of faith? I certainly concede that there is a gulf of difference between blind faith and a modicum of precedent supported faith. However, pure skepticism won’t even allow that. Using this one simple example, I would suggest that skepticism has its limits.

Rationalism also has its limits in the practical, real world. I love rationalism. I love looking at evidence, creating argument, and searching for truths in logic. However, I have found that taking rationalism too far also has flaws. In the first few years of our marriage, my wife and I used to argue bitterly. She would get mad at me about something (usually something stupid.) We would start to bicker at each other. I used to sit and just pick her arguments apart using a disciplined rationalist approach. In nearly all cases, I would be able to win the argument – but somehow I lost the fight. Even though I could pick each of her accusations to pieces and I could get her to concede that I was probably not as much at fault as she accused me of, I would always wind up on the couch and in her doghouse. I learned over the years that when she started to bicker at me, no matter how easily I could pick her apart, I needed to shut up, apologize, and move on. It worked – our fights were less bitter and fewer and farther between. The fact of the matter is that most of her fights were not at all rational. She was very emotional about something. Trying to use pure rationalism to get out of trouble only got me in more trouble. Again, while rationalism certainly is my preferred way to assess a situation, it’s effectiveness is limited in certain cases.

By exploring the real world limits of skeptical/rationalism, I am not at all trying to suggest that they should somehow be less valued. What I am trying to point out is that when we deal with the world around us, there are some limits to skeptical/rationalism. I am a skeptical/rationalist in many, if not most cases, but sometimes I need to step out of the discipline of those approaches and use other tools to make my points – especially when playing the role of the agitator.

The Case for the Agitator
As many of you know, I often wear my anti-theism on my sleeve. Many of my Internet post (blogs, comments, FB, etc.) reflect the general antagonism I feel toward religion of all kinds – but especially towards Christianity. It is sort of funny because people who know me personally would report that I am generally quiet, thoughtful, and gentle spirited. They would say that I reserve judgment on many things and carefully state my opinion when it is needed. Ultimately, I am a pretty laid back sort of guy. As I posted earlier on this blog, I was not always a militant atheist. In fact, I was pretty much a live and let live sort of guy. If they wanted to spend their time and money on something that did not exist; that was their imperative. Who was I to interfere?

Ultimately, however, I was reluctantly drawn into the anti-theist and militant mindset for a number of reasons. Here are just a few:

· The growing influence of the religious right in America over the past decade has become frightening. When religion and politics become enjoined, key public policy decisions are made via the reasoning of WWJD. This is no way to create a pluralistic, equitable, and charitable public policy.

· The ability for man-kind to destroy itself exists. Can we afford to have nuclear codes in the hands of people who make WWJD decisions or as Bill Maher has often stated, “In the hands of people who believe in talking snakes?”

· We have the ability today to increase human rights, to offer unprecedented aid to those who need it, and to ultimately raise the standards of living for all people. Which groups are the most vehement in their opposition to these things? Theistic groups.

· Most religions consider my little girls to be second class citizens. In these theistic world views, my daughters exist to serve the needs of men and to provide and care for offspring. Outside of that, they are expendable. I cannot allow my daughters to be treated in such a way.

· In the U.S. we are still having the incredibly asinine debate as to whether or not evolution should be taught in schools, and then we wonder why our students lag behind much of the rest of the industrial world. Why is this even a debate? Why do we let the theists make science something that we could possible vote on? Am I the only one who thinks this is crazy?

My list of complaints against religion can go on and on.

While the public discussion of these issues is ongoing, the free-thinking voice has often been muted. Certainly there are, and have been, great skeptics/atheists/rationalists who have engaged in this discussion. Russell, Hitchens, Ingersoll, Dawkins, and many more. However, the popular face of atheism has largely been lacking. With the growth and development of Internet networking, this popular face certainly has increased, but it is still dwarfed in the face of theistic thought. I believe that if I am to improve my position in this debate and ultimately improve the conditions of my fellow humans, I have to speak often and speak loudly wherever possible.

Ultimately, I found that to accomplish this, I could adopt the role of the agitator. As an agitator, I have set out to accomplish the following:

· Inspire thinking on a variety of topics. I am not particularly interested in having everyone adopt my views on any particular topic. I just want to see people use their brains more. Thinking is quite often the antidote to blind faith.

· Inspire other closeted free-thinkers and atheists to come out and express their thoughts.

· Challenge the idea that blind faith is somehow a virtue. The whole idea that one can shut off thought, exploration, and debate and be considered virtuous is an anathema to me. This is not a virtue – it is a waste of good, hard working brain cells.

· Add my contribution to the betterment of the world. If I can force some thinking, if I can create discussions, if I can push people out of their comfort zones, then we are more able to develop more creative decisions for the problems that face the world.

Throughout history, every notable social movement has had its agitators. We are the people who spark the fights, discussions, and who rally the base. I would never, ever compare myself to the great agitators in history. I only say that I believe I can add my part to the atheist movement by being one. Being an agitator does sometimes mean that I will eschew rationalism to make a point. Being an agitator does sometimes mean that I will annoy my rationalist/skeptic friends. I guess I am okay with that. We all have a part to play in this – and this is my part: the agitator.

Chat at you all later!!