Survival of the kindest?

From The Atlantic:

Whatever the evolutionary underpinnings of generosity, Olivia Judson concludes that human beings are in a unique position to make the most of it. Bees swarming in a hive must resign themselves to lifelong roles as drones or workers or dominating queens, but human society is highly flexible. Thanks to the complex pathways of the human brain, enemies can become allies, underdogs can be elevated, and the noblest aspects of human nature can be passed along to future generations.

An excerpt from her interview with Jennie Rothenberg Gritz:

Q. I find it thought-provoking that you describe altruism as a kind of primal urge, not a rational behavior but a basic instinct like lust.

A. I think it is primal. Evolutionary biologists get very excited about things like suicide because if you commit suicide before you ever have offspring, your genes get removed from the population. In terms of cooperation, helping somebody else raise their own children and never having your own is a kind of genetic suicide, so evolutionary biologists get very excited about that. The question is, from a genetic perspective, why do these small acts of niceness happen?

I think it’s part of the evolution of social groupings. But maybe it has a bigger benefit, or maybe it just makes the creature feel good. Certainly our conscious explanation for why we do things isn’t usually that it allows us to have more children. Our conscious explanation is that we get a nice, warm, fuzzy feeling. And maybe baboons get warm, fuzzy feelings.

Read it all.

Is it okay to eat your dog?

If your dog is killed in an accident, is it okay to eat it? Jonathan Haidt, associate professor of psychology at the University of Virginia examines people's reactions to this sort of question to explore the interplay of emotions--such as disgust--and reason in the formulation of moral standards.

On the issue of dog eating he writes:

In my dissertation and my other early studies, I told people short stories in which a person does something disgusting or disrespectful that was perfectly harmless (for example, a family cooks and eats its dog, after the dog was killed by a car). I was trying to pit the emotion of disgust against reasoning about harm and individual rights.

I found that disgust won in nearly all groups I studied (in Brazil, India, and the United States), except for groups of politically liberal college students, particularly Americans, who overrode their disgust and said that people have a right to do whatever they want, as long as they don't hurt anyone else.

These findings suggested that emotion played a bigger role than the cognitive developmentalists had given it. These findings also suggested that there were important cultural differences, and that academic researchers may have inappropriately focused on reasoning about harm and rights because we primarily study people like ourselves—college students, and also children in private schools near our universities, whose morality is not representative of the United States, let alone the world.

He identifies four principles currently emerging in the field of moral psychology:

I

recently summarized this new synthesis in moral psychology with four principles:

1) Intuitive primacy but not dictatorship. This is the idea, going back to Wilhelm Wundt and channeled through Robert Zajonc and John Bargh, that the mind is driven by constant flashes of affect in response to everything we see and hear.

Our brains, like other animal brains, are constantly trying to fine tune and speed up the central decision of all action: approach or avoid. You can't understand the river of fMRI studies on neuroeconomics and decision making without embracing this principle. We have affectively-valenced intuitive reactions to almost everything, particularly to morally relevant stimuli such as gossip or the evening news. Reasoning by its very nature is slow, playing out in seconds. ....

2) Moral thinking is for social doing. This is a play on William James' pragmatist dictum that thinking is for doing, updated by newer work on Machiavellian intelligence. The basic idea is that we did not evolve language and reasoning because they helped us to find truth; we evolved these skills because they were useful to their bearers, and among their greatest benefits were reputation management and manipulation.

Just look at your stream of consciousness when you are thinking about a politician you dislike, or when you have just had a minor disagreement with your spouse. It's like you're preparing for a court appearance. Your reasoning abilities are pressed into service generating arguments to defend your side and attack the other. We are certainly able to reason dispassionately when we have no gut feeling about a case, and no stake in its outcome, but with moral disagreements that's rarely the case. As David Hume said long ago, reason is the servant of the passions.

3) Morality binds and builds. This is the idea stated most forcefully by Emile Durkheim that morality is a set of constraints that binds people together into an emergent collective entity.

Durkheim focused on the benefits that accrue to individuals from being tied in and restrained by a moral order. In his book Suicide he alerted us to the ways that freedom and wealth almost inevitably foster anomie, the dangerous state where norms are unclear and people feel that they can do whatever they want. ....

4) Morality is about more than harm and fairness. In moral psychology and moral philosophy, morality is almost always about how people treat each other. Here's an influential definition from the Berkeley psychologist Elliot Turiel: morality refers to "prescriptive judgments of justice, rights, and welfare pertaining to how people ought to relate to each other."

....but....

Most traditional societies care about a lot more than harm/care and fairness/justice. Why do so many societies care deeply and morally about menstruation, food taboos, sexuality, and respect for elders and the Gods? You can't just dismiss this stuff as social convention. If you want to describe human morality, rather than the morality of educated Western academics, you've got to include the Durkheimian view that morality is in large part about binding people together.


Read it all.

Cain on trial

This past Saturday, D.C. Superior Court Judge Zoe Bush opened her courtroom to a mock grand jury. Their charge? Whether to indict Cain for the murder of Abel.

The courtroom was filled with families who got to see the familiar story played out in a modern context. But the event was more than a contemporary retelling of the Genesis story, according to Bush:

The judge said in an interview during a recess that the hearing underscored the importance of parents' communicating stronger values.

"I hope that this exercise will be productive so that people can think not just reactively to murder and emotionally to murder, but what gives rise to it," Bush said. "And what you can do ahead of time to put services and interventions in place so that people have alternatives to just acting out without thinking."

Bush, who has been on the bench for 13 years, presides in juvenile court. She said that for every child who commits a crime, there are several factors that contributed to the problem.

"Children are not just acting out because they are bad, they are acting out because they are not getting the proper direction," Bush said. "A lot of our children are traumatized for being in violent settings, and they react to being under that constant stress."

Following the proceeding, the grand jury voted, 11 to 1, to indict Cain. In two months there will be a trial, Moten said. They plan to invite crime victims, perpetrators, clergy and scholars together to examine the issue in more depth.

As found in the Washington Post.

Juno, Jamie Lynn and the rules of engagement

This item was prompted primarily by a desire to tell as many people as possible what a wonderful movie Juno is, but to give it a little more intellectual respectability, we included a link to Ruth Marcus' recent column on talking to her daughters about sex. And that's when things got complicated.

She writes:

This is the conundrum that modern parents, boomers and beyond, confront when matters of sex arise. The bright-line rules that our parents laid down, with varying degrees of conviction and rather low rates of success, aren't -- for most of us, anyway -- either relevant or plausible. When mommy and daddy didn't get married until they were 35, abstinence until marriage isn't an especially tenable claim.

Nor is it one I'd care to make. Would I prefer -- as if my preference much matters -- that my daughters abstain until marriage? No; in fact, I think that would be a mistake. But I'm not especially comfortable saying that, quite so directly, to my children, partly because that conversation gets so complicated, so quickly.

She moves on to the pregnancy of Jamie Lynn Spears, and then concludes:

And so the message I choose from Spears's pregnancy--and the one, once I recovered my composure, I ultimately delivered, is this: It could happen to you--even if you're the kind of "conscientious" girl who, as Jamie Lynn's mother described her, is never late for curfew. And so, whenever you choose to have sex, unless you are ready to have a baby, don't do it without contraception.

This is not only good advice, but probably all of the good advice one can manage in a 700 word op-ed piece. Still, there is protection and there is protection. Sexual relationship go awry in any number of ways less dire than an unwanted pregnancy, and young people need to be prepared for potential emotional as well as physical reprecussions. Such conversations are even more difficult to conduct with the necessary honesty and delicacy than The Talk. Yet they are so important, so worth having, that parents must be willing to have them badly.

Matters of life and debt

The Church of England has compiled a post-Christmas debt check for consumers worried about how much their wallets have been hit by Christmas and New Year spending. It has also published a range of prayers for people living with debt.

“If a household can say ‘yes’ to any of the statements on the checklist, it may be on the verge of encountering serious debt issues, and should carefully consider taking some of the advice included in the pages of Matter of Life and Debt,” says the Church of England’s National Stewardship and Resources Officer, John Preston, who put together the Post Christmas Debt Check, and co-authored Matter of Life and Debt.

1) You need to get an extra credit card or to increase the spending limit on your current credit cards…..

2) You tried to get a higher credit limit on your cards recently, and have had your application turned down…..

3) You will only be able to pay the minimum on your credit cards this month…..

4) This month you will need to use one credit card to pay off another card…

5) You can’t face adding up your total debt, because it scares you…

6) You are keeping the cost of Christmas, or your total debts, hidden from your partner or your family…

7) You often feel anxious about money, in particular, how much you owe…

8) You used to have savings, but they’ve gradually disappeared…

9) This month you’re having to use credit cards for things you normally pay for with cash…

10) You’ve checked your credit card statement from a year ago - and you owe more now than you did then…

If you answer yes to 3 or more of these it is recommended that you consult a debt counselor. Check to be sure that you have contacted a non-profit or government sponsored agency - not a company that consolidates your debt by charging you even more money.

Read the article here.

HT to Episcopal Life Online.

The moral instinct

Steven Pinker, the Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard University and the author of “The Language Instinct” and “The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window Into Human Nature,” has an essay in today's New York Times Magazine that is well worth a read.

He discusses the current state of science (from a variety of fields, including genetics, psychology and neurology) about our moral instinct. He does more than merely describe the science--he also notes that science is itself affecting our moral debates:

We all know what it feels like when the moralization switch flips inside us — the righteous glow, the burning dudgeon, the drive to recruit others to the cause. The psychologist Paul Rozin has studied the toggle switch by comparing two kinds of people who engage in the same behavior but with different switch settings. Health vegetarians avoid meat for practical reasons, like lowering cholesterol and avoiding toxins. Moral vegetarians avoid meat for ethical reasons: to avoid complicity in the suffering of animals. By investigating their feelings about meat-eating, Rozin showed that the moral motive sets off a cascade of opinions. Moral vegetarians are more likely to treat meat as a contaminant — they refuse, for example, to eat a bowl of soup into which a drop of beef broth has fallen. They are more likely to think that other people ought to be vegetarians, and are more likely to imbue their dietary habits with other virtues, like believing that meat avoidance makes people less aggressive and bestial.

Much of our recent social history, including the culture wars between liberals and conservatives, consists of the moralization or amoralization of particular kinds of behavior. Even when people agree that an outcome is desirable, they may disagree on whether it should be treated as a matter of preference and prudence or as a matter of sin and virtue. Rozin notes, for example, that smoking has lately been moralized. Until recently, it was understood that some people didn’t enjoy smoking or avoided it because it was hazardous to their health. But with the discovery of the harmful effects of secondhand smoke, smoking is now treated as immoral. Smokers are ostracized; images of people smoking are censored; and entities touched by smoke are felt to be contaminated (so hotels have not only nonsmoking rooms but nonsmoking floors). The desire for retribution has been visited on tobacco companies, who have been slapped with staggering “punitive damages.”

At the same time, many behaviors have been amoralized, switched from moral failings to lifestyle choices. They include divorce, illegitimacy, being a working mother, marijuana use and homosexuality. Many afflictions have been reassigned from payback for bad choices to unlucky misfortunes. There used to be people called “bums” and “tramps”; today they are “homeless.” Drug addiction is a “disease”; syphilis was rebranded from the price of wanton behavior to a “sexually transmitted disease” and more recently a “sexually transmitted infection.”

Indeed, as Pinker notes, if morality is hard-wired in our brain, why should we consider our moral choices as fixed? Pinker offers some thoughts on why we should view morality as existing apart from our biology even if we accept that our moral instincts are indeed hard-wired in our brains::

Here is the worry. The scientific outlook has taught us that some parts of our subjective experience are products of our biological makeup and have no objective counterpart in the world. The qualitative difference between red and green, the tastiness of fruit and foulness of carrion, the scariness of heights and prettiness of flowers are design features of our common nervous system, and if our species had evolved in a different ecosystem or if we were missing a few genes, our reactions could go the other way. Now, if the distinction between right and wrong is also a product of brain wiring, why should we believe it is any more real than the distinction between red and green? And if it is just a collective hallucination, how could we argue that evils like genocide and slavery are wrong for everyone, rather than just distasteful to us?

Putting God in charge of morality is one way to solve the problem, of course, but Plato made short work of it 2,400 years ago. Does God have a good reason for designating certain acts as moral and others as immoral? If not — if his dictates are divine whims — why should we take them seriously? Suppose that God commanded us to torture a child. Would that make it all right, or would some other standard give us reasons to resist? And if, on the other hand, God was forced by moral reasons to issue some dictates and not others — if a command to torture a child was never an option — then why not appeal to those reasons directly?

This throws us back to wondering where those reasons could come from, if they are more than just figments of our brains. They certainly aren’t in the physical world like wavelength or mass. The only other option is that moral truths exist in some abstract Platonic realm, there for us to discover, perhaps in the same way that mathematical truths (according to most mathematicians) are there for us to discover. On this analogy, we are born with a rudimentary concept of number, but as soon as we build on it with formal mathematical reasoning, the nature of mathematical reality forces us to discover some truths and not others. (No one who understands the concept of two, the concept of four and the concept of addition can come to any conclusion but that 2 + 2 = 4.) Perhaps we are born with a rudimentary moral sense, and as soon as we build on it with moral reasoning, the nature of moral reality forces us to some conclusions but not others.

Moral realism, as this idea is called, is too rich for many philosophers’ blood. Yet a diluted version of the idea — if not a list of cosmically inscribed Thou-Shalts, then at least a few If-Thens — is not crazy. Two features of reality point any rational, self-preserving social agent in a moral direction. And they could provide a benchmark for determining when the judgments of our moral sense are aligned with morality itself.


This is a very rich and useful essay--and is well worth a read. Read it all here.

Is Fairtrade fair?

Ekklesia reports that consumers worldwide spent £1.1 billion on Fairtrade products last year, a 42% increase since 2006. Is this positive news and does it really make a difference or is it just a way for the affluent to soothe their consciences? A panel has been assembled to discuss these issues.

Does the Fairtrade initiative to put more money in the pockets of farmers in developing countries really make a difference when it comes to challenging prevailing international trading structures?

To mark Fairtrade Fortnight, JustShare, a coalition of churches and other development agencies seeking to engage with the City of London on issues of global and economic injustice, and Fairtrade educational charity Trading Visions, are hosting a special debate on the matter.

A panel of Fairtrade farmers, business and Church leaders will question whether Fairtrade is more a niche ethical sector, soothing the consciences of rich consumers and raising supermarket bank balances, than it is a real catalyst for change.

Read it all here.

How Americans define sin

A study by Ellison Research says more Americans consider adultery (81 percent) and racism (74 percent) sin, than homosexual activity (52 percent--the same as cheating on your taxes) or getting drunk (41 percent.)

According to the survey:

Protestants are more likely than Roman Catholics to include most of the thirty different behaviors as sin – sometimes dramatically so. The biggest differences include gambling (50% of Protestant churchgoers define this as sinful, compared to just 15% of Catholics), failing to tithe 10% or more of one’s income (32% to 9%), getting drunk (63% to 28%), gossip (70% to 45%), and homosexual activity or sex (72% to 49%). Catholics and Protestants are equally likely (or unlikely) to list as sin having an abortion, spanking, and making a lot of money, while Catholics are more likely than Protestants to believe that failing to attend church is a sin (39% to 23%).

Evangelical Christians are far more likely than almost any other group to include numerous behaviors under the definition of sin, and the difference between evangelicals and other Americans is often quite large.

Have a look.

Whose morality comes first; the doctor's or the patient's?

From a press release by The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice:

"In Good Conscience -Guidelines for the Ethical Provision of Health Care in a Pluralistic Society," which was released in 2007, was conducted with Protestant, Roman Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim clergy, ethicists, theologians, healthcare providers, and healthcare advocates. A major finding was that American religious and secular values hold that medical professionals have a responsibility to provide timely and adequate medical care and that, while an individual's conscientious objection must be protected, it cannot be at the cost of good patient care and it cannot control or restrict the legal and moral decisions of the patient.

ACOG's [American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists'] principled and sensible policy would leave untouched a physician's right to refuse to provide abortions--a right that has been spelled out in law since 1973--but would ensure that the patient received the services she needed and wanted. [HHS] Secretary Leavitt's dogmatic indifference to the patient is bad medicine, misguided ethics, and political pandering. A great nation must make room for diverse beliefs--especially a nation founded on the principle of religious freedom.

The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice includes the Episcopal Church, United Church of Christ, three bodies of the Presbyterian Church (USA), two agencies of the United Methodist Church, Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist Judaism, Unitarian Universalism, Catholics for Choice, and other groups.

Read it all here.

Traces of the Trade airs tonight

PBS will air the national broadcast premiere of Traces of the Trade on P.O.V. The film was also shown at the Sundance Festival.

Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North is a unique and disturbing journey of discovery into the history and "living consequences" of one of the United States' most shameful episodes — slavery. In this bicentennial year of the U.S. abolition of the slave trade, one might think the tragedy of African slavery in the Americas has been exhaustively told. Katrina Browne thought the same, until she discovered that her slave-trading ancestors from Rhode Island were not an aberration. Rather, they were just the most prominent actors in the North's vast complicity in slavery, buried in myths of Northern innocence.

Many Episcopalians who attended General Convention in 2006 saw the first cut of this film. It is a moving story that ranges from Rhode Island to Africa as her family tries to come to terms with its complicity in slavery.

As the film recounts, the DeWolf name has been honored through generations, both in the family's hometown of Bristol, R.I., and on the national stage. Family members have been prominent citizens: professors, writers, legislators, philanthropists, Episcopal priests and bishops. If the DeWolfs' slave trading was mentioned at all, it was in an offhand way, with reference to scoundrels and rapscallions.

The film is scheduled for 10 p.m. June 24. Check your local schedule for times in your area.

Read more here.

Interview with filmaker, Katrina Browne here.

More on another member of the family in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer here.

...Hale, a Superfund project manager with the Environmental Protection Agency in downtown Seattle. She was curious and felt compelled to explore the moral questions Browne raised. But it was not a trip she undertook lightly.

"I felt the heaviness of it," Hale said. "It felt complicated. I was kind of ashamed to tell people where I was going and what I was doing. It's not something you wear with pride."

Viewers will share that sense of disquiet as Browne's quiet, somber storytelling lays bare the tangible horrors of the slave trade and the extent of Northern involvement. It's impossible not to be moved, for example, by the sight of Cape Castle, Ghana, where a grim, windowless dungeon held 1,000 captives at a time for delivery to slave ships.

Equally powerful is the effect on the DeWolf descendants, who grow frayed and emotional as the trip wears on. At one point in the film, Hale dissolves into tears, fearing the group is just a bunch of "pathetic" white people trying to absolve their guilt.

All the lonely people....

Every year thousands of recently deceased people are buried not by their loved ones, but by their local council - often because they have no known family to make the arrangements. Who attends these funerals and how are they organized, asks the BBC Magazine.

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The emerging moral psychology

Dan Jones of Prospect magazine writes:

Philosophers, psychologists, neuroscientists, economists, primatologists and anthropologists, all borrowing liberally from each others’ insights, are putting together a novel picture of morality—a trend that University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt has described as the “new synthesis in moral psychology.” The picture emerging shows the moral sense to be the product of biologically evolved and culturally sensitive brain systems that together make up the human “moral faculty.”

and

A pillar of the new synthesis is a renewed appreciation of the powerful role played by intuitions in producing our ethical judgements. Our moral intuitions, argue Haidt and other psychologists, derive not from our powers of reasoning, but from an evolved and innate suite of “affective” systems that generate “hot” flashes of feelings when we are confronted with a putative moral violation.

This intuitionist perspective marks a sharp break from traditional “rationalist” approaches in moral psychology, which gained a large following in the second half of the 20th century under the stewardship of the late Harvard psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg. In the Kohlbergian tradition, moral verdicts derive from the application of conscious reasoning, and moral development throughout our lives reflects our improved ability to articulate sound reasons for the verdicts—the highest stages of moral development are reached when people are able to reason about abstract general principles, such as justice, fairness and the Kantian maxim that individuals should be treated as ends and never as means.

But experimental studies give cause to question the primacy of rationality in morality. In one experiment, Jonathan Haidt presented people with a range of peculiar stories, each of which depicted behaviour that was harmless (in that no sentient being was hurt) but which also felt “bad” or “wrong.” One involved a son who promised his mother, while she was on her deathbed, that he would visit her grave every week, and then reneged on his commitment because he was busy. Another scenario told of a man buying a dead chicken at the supermarket and then having sex with it before cooking and eating it. These weird but essentially harmless acts were, nonetheless, by and large deemed to be immoral.

Hat tip: Arts and Letters Daily.

Christans and Living Wills

An article by one of our regular contributors here at the Cafe, discusses the moral questions a Christian might encounter in drawing up a living will, or in acting on a loved one's desires expressed in one.

Originally published in Raleigh News and Observer.

By Greg Jones

Q: What is the Christian view of the following provisions in a living will?

* Withdrawing artificial hydration.
* Withdrawing artificial nutrition.
* Withdrawing life-prolonging measures.

Are any or all of the above considered to be killing or suicide?

---

There are, to be sure, a variety of responses to these questions in global Christianity. I have found a great deal of similarity among the various denominations -- ranging from Southern Baptist to Roman Catholic. In my own, the Episcopal Church, our General Convention in 1991 resolved to encourage the use of living wills, which might include provisos to withdraw hydration, nutrition or extreme life-prolonging measures in limited circumstances. The key issue for us resides in our understanding from God's revelation of a few key truths.

First, we believe that all human life is sacred and that God's commandment "Do not kill" is authoritative. Second, we recognize too that death is part of the cycle of our natural life. As Ecclesiastes says, "There is a time to be born, and a time to die." Third, we proclaim that in the birth, death, Resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ, God transforms our earthly deaths into eternal lives. As Paul writes, by Christ "has come the resurrection of the dead."

With these three points before us, we do not believe it is morally acceptable to intentionally kill someone who suffers from an incurable illness. Our covenant in baptism to honor the dignity of every human being encourages us to seek palliative treatments for those in pain.

And, if the time has drawn near, we want to allow people to die with dignity, without artificially prolonging the act of dying. This might include the removal of hydration and nutrition or other artificial measures.

Because the decision to remove life-sustaining systems still has a tragic side, it is a decision that must ultimately rest with the patient or his/her surrogates. The decision is best made in prayer, with family and friends, to the merciful God who suffered and died as the Christ and who by grace restores us to wholeness.

Is homophobia the new anti-Semitism?

Writing for the Web site of the American Prospect magazine, Michelle Goldberg asks whether global homophobia is akin to anti-Semitism:

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Rethinking abortion post-Tiller

Debra Bendis at Theolog:

Most of us won’t be affected by today’s closing of Women's Health Care Services Inc. Until Dr. George Tiller was murdered, I thought little about the Wichita clinic or, for that matter, about late-term abortions; if pressed I would say that late-term abortion is the place to “draw the line” in abortion legislation, unless the mother or child is in physical danger.

Now I’m reading the stories of women whom Dr. Tiller aided, of their situations and their decisions to abort their pregnancies. While these stories don’t cancel the need for Christians to wrestle with abortion and possibly to support restrictions through legislation, the stories shake us loose from any moral high ground we thought we had reached in our own decisions—and sensitize or resensitize us to human suffering.

They also persuade me of Dr. Tiller’s moral commitment to these women even when he was under constant threat of death. I honor both his compassion and service, and I honor the suffering of these women, men and their families.

The Wrath of Angels relevant again

Jessa Crispin at The Smart Set contemplates the return of violence to the anti-abortion movement:

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The science of morality

Tom Heneghan of Reuters reports from Neuroscience Boot Camp:

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South Florida Episcopal school charged with age discrimination

A federal civil rights agency says that St. Mark's Episcopal School may have violated the law when the headmaster fired four older female teachers and replaced them with younger women.

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Kids everywhere draw similar moral lessons from life

Universal concerns, not cultural values, may shape kids’ developing notions of right and wrong, writes Bruce Bowers in Science News:

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Benedict visits Roman synagogue

Pope Benedict visited Rome's main synagogue over the weekend. The visit comes as tensions are growing between the Vatican and Jewish leaders over the Pope's decision to honor Pius XII by moving him closer to sainthood. Pius, Pope during World War II is frequently criticized for his lack of action and his silence in response to the Nazi's "Final Solution" to the Jewish People.

The Pope's visit was cordial though the host spoke directly to Benedict of the pain that his recent decision has caused.

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Endurance of faith systems may be what keeps us going

Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, catches our eye with a piece in the Times Online about how the Judaeo-Christian ethic has managed to survive the changing moral climates of many eras.

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Are we judges or lawyers?

Paul Bloom in Nature says while modern psychology may be have it right that a moral sense is biological, it cannot explain how morals evolve:

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Moral negotiations occur in head

It's called moral licensing:

We drink Diet Coke -- with Quarter Pounders and fries at McDonald's. We go to the gym -- and ride the elevator to the second floor. We install tankless water heaters -- then take longer showers. We drive SUVs to see Al Gore's speeches on global warming.

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Hate is hate no matter the cause

The Bilerico Project discusses the problem with confronting hate with more hate and how there is a better way.

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Cleanliness is next to judgmentness

Freakonomics reports on research that if you are told to wash your hands you'll be more judgmental:

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Halloween and evangelicalism: old nightmare or new institution?

When it comes to Halloween, having a sense of humor helps. Forget for a moment of this day as the Vigil of All Saints, and wonder.

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Authoritative text of Benedict XVI interview on contraception

From outside the bright lights and headlines, here is the broader context for Pope Benedict XVI's remarks about condoms, gleaned from the blog of Pia de Solenni, reporting from pages 117-119 of Peter Seewald's book Light of the World: The Pope, The Church, and The Signs Of The Times.

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'Outrage, great sadness': Clergy attempt to preempt a visit from Westboro

The Rev. Deacon Lorraine Mills-Curran, attached to St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, Framingham, Mass., and a member of The Episcopal Church's Standing Commission on Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations, is one of 15 signers on a letter hoping to preempt activities designed to stir up hate.

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Marriage in America much more common among educated

A new study done by a group associated with the University of Virginia correlates marriage with poverty levels in the U.S. What the study finds is that contrary to past studies, today the more educated a person is, the more likely that person is to be in a stable marriage with children after the wedding. The less educated, the less likely a person is to be married, the more likely they are to have children out of wedlock and the more likely they are to live in poverty.

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Taking Loughner seriously

At Truthout, Steve Striffler writes that while accused Arizona shooter Jared Lee Loughner may have acted out of a jumble of motivations drawn from odd (or even seemingly contradictory) resources, that doesn't mean he's alone - and therefore his amalgam philosophy should be taken at least as seriously as the action it might have spurred.

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The last word - for the moment - about Jim Wallis

Jamie L. Manson has a point worth making in the ongoing conversation over who gets to speak for you in the "progressive evangelical" debates of the past week.

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Further taxation for the wealthy or merely sharing the burden?

Rev. Dr. Mariann Budde, rector of St. John's in Minneapolis and bishop-elect to the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, shares the following thoughts on her church's blog under the heading "Shared Sacrifice."

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Silence is golden

Christianity teaches that repentance is essential to the life of faith. But what about people who confess to crimes they did not commit? The Economist reports on the phenomenon of false confessions:

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Stop blaming only the poor for the riots

Barry Morgan, the Archbishop of Wales has strong words from establishment figures in the U.K. who are blaming the August riots solely on the lack of morals amongst the poor. He challenges the "elite" to put their own house in order first, and to see to their own moral compasses before they call for the adjustment of others'.

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Rikers Island prisoners locked up and left behind

Solitary Watch reports

“We are not evacuating Rikers Island,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in a news conference this afternoon.

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Should religious change be driven by technology?

Is culture, driven to change at a breakneck speed by revolutions in technology and communications, moving so quickly that faith and religion are about to drop out of sight? Can (should?) religion in America change quickly enough to keep that from happening if it's a real threat?

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The execution of Troy Davis

After a back and forth day of an execution being on and on hold, Troy Davis was put to death by lethal injection as he proclaimed his innocence.

Beyond questions of whether the death penalty is ever warranted (The Episcopal Church has affirmed over and over again a position against the death penalty), the very least that can be said concerning this execution is that there are many conflicting opinions as to Davis' guilt.

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Encountering the text in jail

On his "Experimental Theology" blog, Richard Beck writes of the experience of reading the Bible aloud to the members of a prison Bible study - how the text is so self-sufficient, requiring neither spin nor supplementation.

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Bishop Packard says he will occupy Trinity Wall Street property

An interesting confrontation is brewing between Bishop George Packard, retired Episcopal Bishop to the Armed Forces and Chaplaincies, and the leadership of Trinity Church, Wall Street.

In his most recent blog entry, Packard writes:

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21 photos to restore your faith in humanity

This seems to be getting some viral purchase. It's worth a look:
http://www.buzzfeed.com/expresident/pictures-that-will-restore-your-faith-in-humanity

Episcopal priest asks Publix to pay 1¢ more for tomatoes

Ocala.com reports on the Rev. Les Singleton and the campaign to help tomato workers have fair wages:

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Unnecessary roughness: moral hazards of football

The Christian Century explores the question of football and morality of violence:

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The faith of Boomers: advancing with age?

The Baby Boomer generation's fabled relationship with religious institutions hasn't exactly been hand-in-glove - more suspicion than participation, or so the story goes.

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A psychologist and historian of morality reflects on the conventions

Gareth Cook of Scientific American introduces us to Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. Haidt, he says, "is concerned, like many Americans, with the way our country has become divided and increasingly unable to work together to solve looming threats. Yet, unlike most Americans, he is a psychologist and specialist on the origins of morality. In his book, Haidt examines the roots of our morality, and how they play out on the stage of history. Cook asked Haidt what he made of the recent political conventions, and he said:

I was mostly struck by how much the culture war has shifted to economic issues. These days it’s fought out over the three moral foundations that everyone values: Care/harm, Fairness/cheating, and Liberty/oppression. The Democrats say that government must care for people, and that government programs are necessary to make America fair – to level the playing field, and give people the basic necessities that they need to enjoy liberty, especially education and health care. George W. Bush once called himself a "compassionate conservative," but Republicans in the Tea Party era don't talk much about compassion. For them, government is the cause of massive unfairness – taking money from taxpayers (the "makers" and "job creators") and giving it to slackers and freeloaders (Romney's "47 percent"). Government is seen as the principle threat to liberty. The private sector is much more trusted. This is a huge shift from the period between 1992 and 2004, when the culture war was fought out mostly between social conservatives, particularly the religious right, and the secular left. It was fought out primarily over the three moral foundations that we call the "binding" foundations, because they bind people together into tight moral communities: Loyalty/betrayal (for example, issues of patriotism and flag protection), Authority/subversion (for example, respect for parents, and whether parents and teachers can spank children), and Sanctity/degradation (which includes most bioethical issues pitting the sanctity of life against a more harm-based or utilitarian ethos). This older culture war re-emerged briefly with Rick Santorum's turn in the spotlight, but then it faded away. The Republican Party in particular has changed, and the moral arguments made in this Republican convention were very different.

I can't say I noticed that. Your thoughts?

Hat tip Andrew Sullivan.

Justice, poverty and Sandy

Omid Safi asks some hard questions at Religion News Service:

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A couple of Davids cut from the same cloth?

What parallels do you see, if any, between King David and scandal-plagued war hero David Petraeus? David Baker of Religious News Service writes:

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Brian McLaren's open letter to Uganda

Brian McLaren posted an open letter to Rebecca Kadaga, the Speaker of the Ugandan Parliament. Kadaga has stated that the proposed Ugandan law against gay persons is something Ugandans want "as a Christmas gift."

Excerpted from his letter:

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Sheep and goats - today

Yesterday, The Lead ran a video on wealth disparity in the U.S. It has gone viral. Susan Thistlewaith comments at Occupy the Bible:

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Supreme Court to hear gene patent cases

The Supreme Court is going to consider the questions around gene patenting. What ethical and moral issues are arising. Where should the church stand? The New York Times reports:

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After the murder...

The University of San Francisco (Jesuit) alumni magazine tells the story not of redemption, but of transformation and the ability to change: the story of Leonard Rubio, who at the age of 18 murdered his girlfriend.

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10 things you can't do and follow Jesus

Mark Sandlin lists 10 things you can't do while following Jesus. Sojourners carries the story:

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How women bring out the best in men

Adam Grant writes in the New York Times about how women influence men to be more generous:

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The pitfalls of investments by churches

Andrew Brown writes in The Guardian on Welby, Wonga and the moral dilemma of financial investing:

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Churches launch campaign for garment workers in Bangladesh

A campaign to support Bangladeshi garment workers will be launched next week by churches around the world and led by the Church of Bangladesh, a part of the Anglican Communion, according to Anglican Communion News Service

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Dealing with the "Poor Father" syndrome

Mark Silk at Religion News Service writes about clergy sexual abuse and misconduct in Dealing with the "Poor Father" Syndrome:

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My son is not a poster child for the right-to-life movement

Emily Rapp, author of Poster Child: A Memoir about her own experience of disability and being a poster child for March of Dimes, writes to those who would use her experience and her son's life and death to promote the "right-to-life" cause. From Salon:

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Brandon Marshall and the culture of the NFL

The last week has seen a lot of discussion of bullying in NFL locker rooms and the effects on players as highlighted in the incident featuring Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin. Brandon Marshall, receiver for the Chicago Bears and mental health advocate, has made a strong statement about the need for the culture of the NFL needs to change. He says for that to happen there needs to be a cultural shift for men and boys.

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No such thing as "porn addiction"?

Religion Dispatches links a new report that seems to indicate the syndrome called "addiction to pornography" has been invented by religious groups:

“Transgression as Addiction: Religiosity and Moral Disapproval as Predictors of Perceived Addiction to Pornography,” published February 12, 2014 by Archives of Sexual Behavior, concludes essentially that people diagnose themselves as addicted to porn and suffer from the belief that they are addicted, even when they are not, because their churches so pathologize porn consumption.

As the report puts it:

“religiosity and moral disapproval of pornography use were robust predictors of perceived addiction to Internet pornography while being unrelated to actual levels of use among pornography consumers.”

Secret life of W.H. Auden

New York Review of Books tells of the secret life of W.H. Auden:

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Tengatenga on homophobia, the Anglican Communion & his future

From the San Diego Gay & Lesbian News:

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Task Force Study on Marriage Report

The Episcopal Church Task Force on the Study of Marriage has issued the following report:

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Churches doing the right thing - Three examples

Religion gets a bad rap in the media for all manner of sins, but William Saletan at Slate.com offers three examples of church leaders doing the right thing. He starts by commending 200 religious leaders who condemned Georgia's new law to allow firearms just about everywhere. Read about his other examples, and then please offer your own.

Mirror, mirror on the wall: thinking one is attractive supports inequality

A new study from Stanford seems to indicate that "Thinking that one is attractive increases the tendency to support inequality:"

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