Flawed Theos survey claims Catholic values are common in the UK

A new Theos survey about the Pope’s visit is doing the rounds today, and statistics are flying in all directions. The BHA are pointing out that a large majority of Britons are uninterested in (not hostile to) the Pope’s visit, which seems a fair conclusion. Theos says the public generally agreed with the poll’s 12 Catholic statements of values, and ask whether this means Britain is much more Catholic than we think. This, to put it politely, is dubious.

The value statements are almost all nothing to do with Catholicism. Some are ambiguous platitudes, but where it’s specific there’s nothing every major religion, plus countless moral philosophers, haven’t produced independently. And worst of all, anything that would make the list uniquely Catholic is conveniently omitted – there’s nothing about contraception, abortion, treatment of women, or treatment of gay people. The statements are instead mostly shared human values that fall out of thinking and caring about the world around you, and it’s massively dishonest to posit that widespread agreement means ‘the public rather likes the Pope’s social teaching’. It’s transparent cherry-picking, and Theos should know better.

The statements were taken from the Catholic Church’s Caritas in Veritate, an open letter from the Pope to the world. Here’s the full list of statements the poll asked people about:

Moral evaluation and scientific research must go hand in hand

Yes. Kinda. Depending on what you mean. But I think most scientists would broadly agree with this statement, and most scientists aren’t Catholic.

An overemphasis on rights leads to a disregard for duties

I think this is too vague for people to give an informed opinion. I don’t know what it means – what ‘duties’? I can come up with specific interpretations where I agree, but I suspect the Church’s version of duty is somewhat different from mine. The CiV has some worthy statements about rights and duties (para. 43), but it’s also lacking specifics.

It is irresponsible to view sexuality merely as a source of pleasure

Yes, I agree with the raw words in your sentence, but we all know what you’re getting at – stop being oblique and just say it. Para. 44 of the CiV goes into more detail, assuming its own ideas on birth control as inherently correct, and saying that ‘viewing sexuality merely as a source of pleasure’ means ‘individuals are ultimately subjected to various forms of violence’. So it all gets a bit weird.

Update: Cristina Odone thinks this is obviously a statement of Catholic doctrine, and the high agreement percentages mean people agree with the Catholic approach. I doubt that. The poll almost certainly didn’t identify the statement as a Catholic declaration – it would surely have defeated the point to have done so – and there’s no reason people would jump to thinking about contraception without the Catholic link.

The natural environment is more than raw material to be manipulated at our pleasure

Yep. I think most people can agree with this, unless you’re an oil executive.

Investment always has moral, as well as economic significance

Yep. People have been saying this for as long as investment has been around, haven’t they?

The economy needs ethics in order to function correctly

This is a circular argument both here and in the CiV – ‘correctly’ seems to mean ‘ethically’ – but ditch the last five words and it stands. I refer you to the last 300 years of British economic history.

Technologically advanced societies can and must lower their domestic energy consumption

Yes. Scientists have been saying this for decades. This is a bit odd, actually – it’s not like the Catholic Church figured this out first – they’ve looked at the scientific evidence over the past few decades and rightly concluded that something needs to be done. Which is good. But it’s as much a Catholic value as ‘don’t smoke’.

We must prioritise the goal of access to steady employment for everyone

Badly phrased – prioritise, how? – but the Caritas in Veritate is clear that it means steady employment is a good thing. Do many economists disagree with that?

Poverty is often produced by a rejection of God’s love

This is the only statement where the vast majority of people disagreed (agreement was in single figures). Probably because it’s creepy, and transparently controlling. I suggest any Catholics who genuinely (in their heart of hearts) think this is true go read something about economics. Unless you’re using some weird question-begging definition of ‘poverty’, which is entirely possible.

The consumer has a specific social responsibility

Vague, but again the obvious meaning is the one in the CiV. And, again, every religion and non-religious moral-philosopher regularly says the same thing. Not to mention lobby groups, humanitarian organisations, newspaper commentators, NGOs, pop stars etc..

One of the deepest forms of poverty a person can experience is isolation

In the CiV (para 53) this is intrinsically linked to poverty being a rejection of god’s love, and it all gets a bit tricksy, though there’s plenty to agree with. I tend to think isolation isn’t nice, but not being able to afford food or water is a lot worse. Plus, some people just like being alone. So I wouldn’t know how to respond to this in a poll.

Food and access to water are universal rights of all human beings

Who disagrees with this?

Agreeing with much of the above no more makes you Catholic than agreeing that cats are strange makes you catbinlady.

I’m sure these values do fall out of Catholic ideology, but the ideas that make said ideology unique are missing in action. Most humanists agree with much of the above, but you couldn’t suddenly claim most of the public agree with humanist ideas (you’d need a completely different kind of question to tease apart humanists. Which, incidentally, has been done. (though it’s a bit contentious)).

The statistic I’d be concerned about is the reaction to ‘I don’t approve of the Pope’s visit to Britain’: 24% of people agree. That’s a bit sad. I don’t like the Pope’s views on many things, but he gets to come here, and we get to protest. It’s actually a pretty good state of affairs, with the only major source of contention – in terms of the Pope’s visit in particular, rather than his views – being the state-sponsored nature of the trip.

Both sides have actually been very civil. The only problem, as ever, is the shouty elements making a nuisance of themselves. The debate on Wednesday had some problems with loud, annoying secularists shouting the Catholic speakers down. This wasn’t impressive. That said, I saw exactly the same from Catholics at Protest the Pope gigs earlier in the year, by which I don’t mean some vacuous ‘we’re as bad as each other’, just that I think both sides would agree the loud fringes don’t help anybody, and simply allow the media to paint a picture of us all as a bunch of loonies. Which is my biggest worry about the whole enterprise.

This Theos survery doesn’t help counter that narrative. If you’re going to argue the stats, you have to make an honest effort.

The Pope’s festive priorities

Here’s a charming festive message from that glorious leader of mankind, the Pope:

Pope Benedict XVI has said that saving humanity from homosexual or transsexual behaviour is just as important as saving the rainforest from destruction.

What. A. Dickhead.

He wraps up his bigotry in transparent nonsense about gender theory, and blurring the lines between male and female leading to the end of the human race, whatever that means. As if. What he really means, of course, is ‘ewww I don’t like it don’t make me think about it gross’.

This is the problem with getting your morality from the millennia-old demented ramblings. You can’t be trusted. You get ‘don’t kill people’ and ‘be nice to your neighbour’, which is lovely, but at exactly the same level of importance are ‘don’t wear hats on a Thursday’, ‘budgies are unclean’ and ‘eeewww ickky gay stuff it should be banned’. And (in some religions) most people ignore all the latter, because it’s transparently insane, but the leaders can’t, so you get this kind of bigotry splashed all over the media when it should be in the gutter where it belongs.

It’s 2009 in a week. That’s THE FUTURE. In the future, nobody pays attention to pathetic homophobic dickheads.

God Trumps

I used to play Top Trumps at junior school. I mainly stuck to the deck of superheroes (shocking, I know), in which Captain America won every time, which is clearly ridiculous.

Much more sensible are New Humanist’s God Trumps cards:

New Humanist God Trumps - Humanist New Humanist God Trumps - Humanist

Sounds about right. They’ve a selection representing all the major belief systems. Agnostics are, as ever, a bit crap. And one card trumps all by making everything NOT FUNNY.

Catholics and cancer

The Catholic Church didn’t want schoolgirls to be given anti-cancer-STI vaccines, because doing so would encourage sexual behaviour. As a compromise, the Church has now agreed to support the vaccines, provided the schoolgirls receive no advice on contraception. Said advice would explain that the vaccine only works against two strains of cancer-causing STI, and others are out there. This policy will apply to all schoolgirls in Scotland.

Just so we’re clear, here’s the previous Catholic hierarchy of Things That Are Important:

  1. Not using contraception
  2. Not using a ‘sex-encouraging’ vaccine
  3. Not dying of cancer

And here it is now:

  1. Not using contraception
  2. Not dying of cancer
  3. Not using a ‘sex-encouraging’ vaccine

What a wonderful compromise they’ve made.

If this is your worldview, you are a raving lunatic. Your right to express your opinion does not extend to anybody paying you attention, let alone consulting you on health/education policy.

This is why secularism is so important. Lunatics can and will try to harm children. Non-secular governments will let them.

RIP Cracker

The cracker is no more. It’s gone to heaven, or it’s still alive, or whatever. The post is only a few hours old, and there are already over 1000 comments.

I’ve seen plenty of comments over P.Z.’s cracker controversy, with lots of generally sensible people adopting disapproving tones. I think Rebecca Watson gets it right (as ever):

A percentage of the omgrude crowd is upset because they do not think PZ’s words help further the skeptical movement because he won’t convince any of the hardcore group that they are crazy. I agree that he probably won’t convince many true believers, but I disagree that he doesn’t help rational people. Just about any time someone dares to point out the absurdity of irrational thinking, he does a great service to many other rational thinkers who were too scared or unsure to say so themselves.

Did Trey Parker and Matt Stone convince any true believers when they called John Edward the Biggest Douche in the Universe? Probably not many, but I bet they influenced a lot of young people who might have been on the fence. There’s no one right way to communicate skepticism, and for every Trey & Matt we need a Carl Sagan. For every PZ, we need a Julia Sweeney or a Hemant. If one isn’t to your taste, you’re free to ignore him, but it’s short-sighted to claim that person is hindering the “skeptical movement” just because he’s not your bag.

I’d only add that it was the church who initially tried to impose their fantasies on the real world. That the real world pointed and laughed is only to be expected.

Maybe, just maybe, this will put an end to the whole thing. Heck, even Jesus has had enough.


Last week a student took a cracker from his local church, and the Internet exploded.

Some Catholics think the cracker is actually – literally – the body of Jesus, and say it’s a hate crime to hold it hostage. A hate crime! The US Catholic League has gone bananas, hurling fire and brimstone (and bizarrely coming out as anti-evolutionists, despite their church’s ‘official’ position) and suggesting the student should be expelled. Of course, if he’d taken the cracker and chewed it up, that would have been just fine. Their little world is really quite gross.

The insanity ensued after science/atheist blogger P.Z. Myers posted about it, in typically entertaining style. He asked for crackers to hold hostage on his blog, and he’s had to close various posts after literally thousands of comments threatened to take down his server. The Catholic League is in shock that anybody would want to hurt the baby Jesus, and so is telling people to email the head of P.Z’s university with their complaints. P.Z. has tenure, but I think he and everyone are somewhat shocked at the escalation of muppetry in just a few days.

One the one side you’ve got many many people taking advantage of an excellent opportunity to take the piss out of the Eucharist. I don’t blame them at all. The Eucharist is so conspicuously stupid that it’s almost a duty to bring it up whenever the opportunity arises.

It is a bit weird that the Eucharist is still around, if you ask me. Religions have been quite good at abstracting out all the fantastical stuff so it’s vulnerable to logical fallacy. Miracles conveniently happened thousands of years ago, because humans for whatever reason think old stuff = wise. God acts in mysterious ways = the ultimate argument winner. Jesus died for our sins makes no sense, but it’s mysterious, and humans for whatever reason equate mystery with virtue. All pretty obvious. But the Eucharist doesn’t bother. It just says ‘this here cracker literally becomes the body of Jesus Christ’, and that’s it. No equivocation. They’ve got as far as using fancy words to make it sound Big And Clever: a cracker = ‘The Host’, magic spells and voodoo = ‘The Eucharist’, doing something the Catholic Church doesn’t like = ‘Desecration’. But that’s it. No spin, just magic spells and cannibalism. Really, at some point it’s got to be phased out.

I guess I find it hard to believe that most Catholics, in their heart of hearts, really think it’s literally true. I mean, most religious nonsense I can empathise with. There are plenty of reasons people believe wrong things. But the Eucharist? Come on. The cognitive dissonance must be epic. The whole concept makes no sense – why do you want to eat Jesus? what part of his body does it become? Is he alive or dead? WHY DO YOU WANT TO EAT JESUS? – and I suspect most people just take it as highly symbolic.

Which is why the other side of the argument is probably just your standard mental minority. But they’re very very loud, totally paranoid, lack any kind of sense of humour, and have been sending death threats. At which point it stops being funny. Although, having said that, the average YouTube videographer gets death threats – “this video sucks, die in a fire” – so while it’s serious, I suspect that’s just the way things are on the Internets. You get the impression they’re quite new at this lark, and watching them try to take on creationist-hardened skeptics is almost painful.

Still. The Eucharist itself = pretty funny. I only know one Catholic – I must ask what she thinks…

This post was longer than intended. I really just wanted to point towards Ophelia, who made me laugh.

The churches and the women

The big non-story of the weekend was the Church of England debating female bishops. They voted to allow the practice in principle, but the final vote won’t happen until 2011/2012. Or something. I don’t care.

Really, it’s like freemasonry. Freemasons are funny, with their Right Worshipful Brothers and and all that. They have their clubs with their rules and their games, and I generally see no reason to take any interest. If that’s what people want to do, no worries – I’d play Dungeons and Dragons if I could talk my friends into it. But freemasons aren’t fond of women either, and so piss me off. The first phrase that springs to mind is ‘stupid little club for stupid old men’. Which feels mean, and maybe isn’t fair – I know someone who’ll defend them for their charity work – but I’m happy to mock those who rationalise away Neanderthal sexism. You don’t deserve attention if you’re this backward. Pity maybe, but not attention. It is 2008.

Church of England = the same. I’m not interested in their little power struggles. They can do what they like. It’s not like this is the one remaining obstacle between them and rationality. But then I’ll remember that these people, these people tearing themselves apart over whether women should have the same rights as men, sit in the House of Lords. They can affect the law. And this is obviously worth screaming to the hilltops over. It is 2008.

But still – a weekend’s news coverage of old sexist dudes? Not worth the effort. But then. Then the Catholic Church stuck its oar in, and things became Very Funny Indeed.

The Vatican has a ‘Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity’. Sounds worthy, doesn’t it? Think of all the good things that could be done by unifying Christians! Here’s what its head said about the CoE’s decision:

For the future, this decision will have consequences for dialogue, which until now had borne much fruit.

Yes. Thanks for sorting out Northern Ireland, by the way.

Such a decision is a break with apostolic tradition maintained in all of the Churches in the first millennium, and is therefore a further obstacle for reconciliation between the Catholic Church and the Church of England.

These people who issue edicts on behaviour. These people who claim to be a force for good in the 21st century. These people who continually witter on about their mischaracterisation by ‘militant atheists’, and who claim their religion is not the hate-filled, medieval backwater of the ‘extremists’. These people who would have us believe they can build bridges with other faiths and solve the world’s problems.

These people think it counterproductive that their competitors don’t treat women like shit. Competitors who believe in the same deity, read the same magical book, and are only a different religion in the same way Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant are different Doctors. The only ‘obstable for reconciliation’ is the stupid old men and their stupid little rules.

Their Bible says Jesus’ apostles were men. I note that said apostles were also all from the Middle East. And (somehow) white. And won’t have worn deodorant. Or watched televisions. And didn’t wear totally ridiculous hats1. But none of this matters – it seems the most important thing about the apostles was their genitalia.

It’s not really Very Funny Indeed. Innocent people, for perfectly understandable psychological reasons, pay attention to these whackjobs. They matter. Yet it’s 2008, and they still can’t handle women’s rights. Pathetic.

  1. NOT that there is anything wrong with wearing ridiculous hats. In fact it is one of the pleasures of life. If I were Pope I’d wear a ridiculous hat too. I suspect it is the main reason people become Pope []

Not once Kirk gets there, they won’t

I’ve been itching to know the Vatican’s thoughts on extraterrestrial life. Good news!

Writing in the Vatican newspaper, the astronomer, Father Gabriel Funes, said intelligent beings created by God could exist in outer space.

They know this from all the astronomy mentioned in the Bible, as well as their extensive questioning of astronomers.

Just as there are multiple forms of life on earth, so there could exist intelligent beings in outer space created by God.

…well, no. That’s a bit circular, really. The Times has the exact quote:

Father Funes said that just as there existed a “multiplicity of creatures on Earth”, so there could exist “other beings created by God, including intelligent ones. We cannot place limits on God’s creative freedom.”

Immovable objects; irresistible forces. Just saying. Anyhow, we haven’t got to my favourite bit yet.

And some aliens could even be free from original sin, he speculates.

Planets where they don’t have fruit? Where God didn’t take his eye off the ball? Where there isn’t a power-hungry cult trying to control people’s every thought? I lose my sense of humour when people start talking about original sin. It doesn’t take more than a moment’s thought to see original sin for what it really is, and those who preach it lose their right to be treated politely. Twisted, manipulative bastards.

I think it’s a mistake for the Vatican to start looking to the stars. They should stick to vague historical claims that can’t be proven one way or another. There’s more wonder in astronomy than the world’s religions combined, and space has the annoying habit of supplying fresh data. It’ll only veer towards comprehensible, and the Vatican should know to stay away from comprehensible. Like Perry DeAngelis used to say: if you’re going to believe in a God, you have to give him something to do.

The new deadly sins

Have you seen the Vatican’s list of modern sins? Is most helpful. If you’re catholic, this is divine guidance on how to avoid going to hell. If you’re not, it might seem like an overgrown cult trying to induce guilt so people will go running to church, but let’s not be so hasty. Maybe we can all learn something – let’s examine the scourges of our time:

Environmental pollution

Yep, pretty bad. I’d like some quantitative measures, though. I mean, I should clearly go to confession if I leave the heating on while on holiday, but what about putting too much water in the kettle? Will God hate me? Is there a pits-of-hell-seconds / milliwatt-hour conversion table?

Drug trafficking and consumption

Let’s assume this means illegal drugs and not aspirin, or Tesco is totally screwed. Trafficking illegal drugs is indeed not good, but the evils of consumption are somewhat dubious. You could come up with hypothetical situations in which nobody is being harmed: if I grow my own marijuana, smoke it in an enclosed room and never tell anyone or endorse the product in any way, will God still hate me?

Inflicting poverty

Fair enough.

Accumulating excessive wealth

Seriously? Getting rich is in the top seven evil things? What if you bequeath it all to good causes? What if you’re Bill Gates, and you use your fortune to get direct access to important people who can help you give billions of dollars to charity? What’s ‘excessive’, anyway? I agree there may be a moral case against hoarding money, but it’s pretty low on my list of Things To Fix.

Genetic manipulation

That’s just ignorant. Genetic manipulation could and probably will save billions of lives, by producing varieties of food that can be grown in areas of most need. Any opposition that isn’t “I’m just making sure this is properly regulated” is medieval and verging on the bonkers. I’d also point out that having sex means random splicing of genetic information -far from the carefully controlled small numbers of genes manipulated in labs – and God doesn’t seem to mind that (providing you don’t have any fun in the process, obviously).

Morally debatable experiments

If this were ‘morally wrong experiments’, I’d call the argument circular. What’s evil? Evil cats! As it is, the argument is not only circular but completely insane. Anything morally debatable is a sin?! Based on the Vatican’s debating team, presumably. I’d like to give this pregnant woman a new drug to prevent her dying in childbirth; of course, as with any medical procedure there’s a million-to-one, unforeseeable chance her four-week-old feotus could react against the drug and die. Can I still do it? Can I try feeding millions of starving people with this genetically modified grain, granting that the scientists who created it are evil sinners? Can I use these embryonic stem cells, that were going to be thrown away anyway, to help cure disease and alleviate suffering worldwide? Can I compare the energy usage of normal and energy-saving light bulbs, given that the experiment will add extra environmental pollution?

Violation of fundamental rights of human nature

Well, yes. And these are…? I was aware that bad things are bad; this seems somewhat broad and already covered by commandments and things. Clarification would be appreciated. I don’t know what they could possibly be referring to, here, so let’s pluck something out of the air…say ‘freedom of religious belief’. Well, it’s clearly wrong to outlaw religious belief, yes. Oh, wait, you want ‘freedom from anything that insults our religious belief’, too? That’s not logically possible I’m afraid. Sorry.

Frankly, this list isn’t much use in avoiding eternal torment. Bad cult. Must do better. 

These sins are better than the previous seven, as they aren’t uncontrollable human instincts and laughably obvious ploys. But they’re all redundant or self-serving. It’s also unclear how any of these ‘mortal sins’ relate to the commandments: they’re the only official lists of ‘grave violations of the Ten Commandments’, but neither list contains, say, ‘genocide’, or ‘don’t fight with protestants’.

Papal Indulgence

Exciting news!

Pope Benedict XVI has authorised special indulgences to mark the 150th anniversary of the Virgin Mary’s reputed appearance at Lourdes.

What are indulgences? Have a guess. Go on. Bear in mind it is the 21st century. Give in?

Catholics visiting the site within a year of 8 December will be able to receive an indulgence, which the Church teaches can reduce time in purgatory.

I am not making this up.

The pontiff also said believers who prayed at places of worship dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes from 2-11 February next year – or who were unable to make the journey – would also be able to receive indulgences.

I am not making this up. 

Note: “would also be able to receive’. You don’t think they’ll cost anything, do you? Because that would be what’s colloquially known as ‘a racket’. They wouldn’t dare, would they?

Hey, I’ve just remembered: I’ve a voucher offering 10% off at Tesco. It’s only valid this weekend, though. Not sure why I thought of that.

While some might consider indulgences an outdated concept, great spiritual importance have been assigned to them by Benedict XVI and his predecessor, Pope John Paul II.

I am not making this up.

Going to head to Tesco right now, actually – for some reason I fancy a carrot. Also, a stick.