Archive for September, 2014

Shattering the Myth of Mother Teresa

In all the universe of religious experience, few figures are so beloved as the Catholic nun known to the world as Mother Teresa. The official biography holds that she selflessly devoted her life to ministering to the poorest of the poor in the slums of Calcutta, suffering through poverty and deprivation nearly as great as that of her patients without complaint, and asking no reward except the knowledge of doing God’s will. She was a beloved figure to millions and a trusted counselor to powerful leaders and celebrities worldwide, was showered with rewards and honors during her life, and attracted huge crowds as she lay in state after her death.

As I said, that is the official story. But atheists and freethinkers, more than any other group, should recognize how pious words are so often used to conceal ugly acts of inhumanity, and to gloss over the disreputable elements of stories presented as inspirational and noble. Teresa’s story is perhaps the supreme example of this. In this post, I intend to look past all the uncritical praise and point out some unsettling facts about her life and her mission that devotional biographies tend to avoid.

Teresa was a friend to vicious dictators, criminals and con men. As Christopher Hitchens documents in his book The Missionary Position, Teresa was acquainted with a startling number of unsavory characters. Two such were the Duvaliers, Jean-Claude and Michelle, who ruled Haiti as a police state from 1971 until they were overthrown in a popular uprising in 1986. (They looted the country of most of its national treasury when they fled.) Teresa visited them in person in 1981 and praised the Duvaliers and their regime as “friends” of the poor, and her testimony on their behalf was shown on state-owned television for weeks. Bizarrely, she also visited the grave of brutal Communist dictator Enver Hoxha in 1990, laying a wreath of flowers on the tomb of a man who had viciously suppressed religion in Teresa’s native Albania. The list also includes the Nicaraguan contras, a Catholic terrorist group who unleashed death squads on the civilian population in their bid to conquer the country.

Teresa was also a friend to Charles Keating, a conservative Catholic fundamentalist who served on an anti-pornography commission under President Nixon. Keating would later become infamous for his role in the Savings & Loan scandal, where he was convicted of fraud, racketeering and conspiracy for his involvement in a scam where customers were deceived into buying worthless junk bonds, resulting in many of them losing their life savings. Keating had donated $1.25 million to Mother Teresa in the 1980s, and as he was awaiting sentencing, she wrote a letter to the court on his behalf asking for clemency.

The prosecuting attorney, Paul Turley, wrote a reply to this letter. In his reply, he explained what Keating had been convicted of, and observed, “No church… should allow itself to be used as salve for the conscience of the criminal.” He also pointed out that the $1.25 million Keating had donated to her was stolen money, and suggested that the appropriate course of action would be for her to give it back: “You have been given money by Mr. Keating that he has been convicted of stealing by fraud. Do not permit him the ‘indulgence’ he desires. Do not keep the money. Return it to those who worked for it and earned it!”

Teresa never replied to this letter.

Teresa cloaked a reactionary right-wing political outlook in false protestations of innocence and naivete. Although she insisted on several occasions that her mission was resolutely apolitical, Teresa’s true interests were anything but. Like the right-wing conservative Catholic she was, she traveled the world to lobby against the legality of abortion, contraception, and even divorce.

When the International Health Organization honored Teresa in 1989, she spoke at length against abortion and contraception and called AIDS a “just retribution for improper sexual conduct”. Similarly, when Teresa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, she proclaimed in her acceptance speech that abortion was the greatest threat to peace in the world. (Hitchens cuttingly notes that when the award was announced, “few people had the poor taste to ask what she had ever done, or even claimed to do, for the cause of peace”). In 1992, she appeared at an open-air Mass in Ireland and said, “Let us promise Our Lady who loves Ireland so much that we will never allow in this country a single abortion. And no contraceptives.” She also campaigned in Ireland to oppose the successful 1995 referendum to legalize divorce in that predominantly Catholic country.

The connection between overpopulation and poverty seemed never to occur to Teresa, who said on another occasion that she was not concerned about it because “God always provides”. (The very existence of her mission would seem to cast doubt on that.) In upholding the irrational dogmas of Catholicism, she failed to recognize – or perhaps chose to disregard – the obvious conclusion that inadequate access to family planning services was and is one of the greatest causes of human destitution.

Teresa’s free clinics provided care that was at best rudimentary and haphazard and at worst unsanitary and dangerous, despite the enormous amounts of donations she received. Multiple volunteers at Teresa’s clinics, such as Mary Loudon and Susan Shields, have testified to the inadequate care provided to the dying. Despite routinely receiving millions of dollars in donations, Teresa deliberately kept her clinics barren and austere, lacking all but the most rudimentary and haphazard care.

Volunteers such as Loudon, and Western doctors such as Robin Fox of the Lancet, wrote with shock of what they found in Teresa’s clinics. No tests were performed to determine the patients’ ailments. No modern medical equipment was available. Even people dying of cancer, suffering terrible agony, were given no painkillers other than aspirin. Needles were rinsed and reused, without proper sterilization. No one was ever sent to the hospital, even people in clear need of emergency surgery or other treatment.

Again, it is important to note that these conditions were not the unavoidable result of triage. Teresa’s organization routinely received multimillion-dollar donations which were squirreled away in bank accounts, while volunteers were told to beg donors for more money and plead extreme poverty and desperate need. The money she received could easily have built half a dozen fully equipped modern hospitals and clinics, but was never used for that purpose. No, this negligent and rudimentary care was deliberate – about which, see the next point. However, despite her praise for poverty, Teresa hypocritically sought out the most advanced care possible in the Western world when she herself was in need of it.

Teresa considered converting the sick and the poor to be a higher priority than providing for their actual needs, and believed that human suffering was beneficial and even “beautiful”. The following quote from Teresa says it all:

“I think it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot, to share it with the passion of Christ. I think the world is being much helped by the suffering of the poor people.”

On another occasion, Teresa told a terminal cancer patient, who was dying in extreme pain, that he should consider himself fortunate: “You are suffering like Christ on the cross. So Jesus must be kissing you.” (She freely related his reply, which she seemed not to realize was meant as a putdown: “Then please tell him to stop kissing me.”)

Despite the widespread perception that Teresa sought to relieve the suffering of the poor, the truth was anything but. As Hitchens documents, she actually considered suffering to be beneficial. This is why she kept her clinics so rudimentary – not so that sick people could be cured, but so they could get closer to God through their suffering. As critics like Michael Hakeem put it: “Mother Teresa is thoroughly saturated with a primitive fundamentalist religious worldview that sees pain, hardship, and suffering as ennobling experiences and a beautiful expression of affiliation with Jesus Christ and his ordeal on the cross.” To her mind, they were not evils to be relieved, but blessings to be glorified.

But, of course, suffering like Christ was of no benefit if the sufferer did not actually accept Christ. To this end, Teresa’s clinics were run as conversion factories. Ex-volunteers have testified that Teresa taught her followers to secretly baptize the dying – people who could not resist, or were not aware of what was happening to them – without their consent. As ex-volunteer Susan Shields wrote, “Material aid was a means of reaching their souls, of showing the poor that God loved them… Secrecy was important so that it would not come to be known that Mother Teresa’s sisters were baptizing Hindus and Moslems”.

It seems that Teresa’s true ambition was to found a Catholic religious order on a par with the Franciscans and the Benedictines. (Her Nobel prize money was used to this end.) She may well get her wish; her Missionaries of Charity organization numbers as many as 4,000 nuns and 40,000 lay workers. If she wished to create a convent whose mission is to glorify human suffering, then it is for Catholics to decide whether they want to support that mission. Secularists and humanists, however, should rethink whether we want to support an effort that is so manifestly at odds with all that we stand for.

Read more: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism/2008/05/mother-teresa/#ixzz3Eo26pJ79

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It’s Official: Religion Doesn’t Make You More Moral

A recent study comparing views on morality of religious and non-religious people found something surprising: Religion doesn’t make our everyday lives more moral.
Suppose you actually do have an angel over your shoulder telling you the right thing to do. That angel probably wouldn’t tell you anything you didn’t already know. A recent study in Science aimed at uncovering how we experience morality in our everyday lives suggests that religious people are no more moral—or immoral—than non-religious people. Whether or not we believe that divine precepts give us guidance, our behavior is remarkably similar.

The fact that atheists are apparently as moral as believers will be counterintuitive to some. In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Dmitri Karamazov famously worries, “But what will become of men then…without God and immortal life? All things are lawful then, they can do what they like?”

In late 2007, when Mitt Romney was still uncertain whether he could win the GOP presidential primary, he made a speech on religion to reassure a leery electorate. His Mormon faith was no reason to reject his candidacy, he argued. What really mattered was that he was religious, and thus had the same moral beliefs as other religious people. “Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom,” he said, insinuating that a free but godless people might form an unruly mob. Later in the speech, he added, “Whether it was the cause of abolition, or civil rights, or the right to life itself, no movement of conscience can succeed in America that cannot speak to the convictions of religious people.”

Yet Dmitri Karamazov and Mitt Romney are likely wrong. People who don’t fear that justice will be meted out in an afterlife are apparently no more vicious, cruel, or licentious than a believer.

The current study breaks new ground in a few different ways. Perhaps most importantly, previous psychological studies of moral responses relied on observations in laboratory settings. This study, however, uses a method that allows researchers to escape the lab and catch glimpses of how participants think about morality as they go about their lives. Researchers using the method, known as “ecological momentary assessment,” periodically contact participants to report their feelings.

In this study, over 1,200 people were texted five times a day over the course of three days. The texts asked if they’d committed, experienced, or heard moral or immoral acts in the previous hour. If a participant answered yes, there were follow-up questions that prompted him or her to describe the event and some of his or her reactions to it. The researchers collected over 13,000 responses, almost 4,000 of which described a moral or immoral event. The acts ranged from the mundane to the unexpected: Assisted a tourist with directions because he looked lost. At work, someone stole my partner’s nice balsamic vinegar while he was off shift and most likely took it home with them. Hired someone to kill a muskrat that’s ultimately not causing any harm.

While both groups reported experiencing similar moral emotions, such as shame and gratitude, religious people who described their feelings were somewhat more intense.
“There have been hundreds of morality studies, and the vast majority have involved presenting people with hypothetical scenarios or dilemmas and directly asking them to make moral judgments,” wrote Jesse Graham, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Southern California, in an email to The Daily Beast. “This has told us a lot, but it hasn’t told us much about how morality plays out in daily life. This study’s use of smartphone technology allows for a more ecologically valid picture of what kinds of moral events and situations people actually encounter outside the lab.”

Daniel Wisneski, a collaborator on the study and assistant professor at St. Peter’s University, said that “heightened ecological validity was a goal of the study.” He added that “the method is not a better method, but complementary to other methods.” Eric Schwitzgebel, a professor of philosophy at University of California at Riverside who maintains a blog on the philosophy of psychology, wrote in an email, “Since the literature on moral cognition has so far been dominated by laboratory studies and online surveys, with relatively few studies of moral behavior sampled in everyday contexts, I think it’s exciting to see researchers expanding their methodology in this direction.”

The main notable difference between religious and non-religious people was that while both groups reported experiencing similar moral emotions, such as shame and gratitude, religious people who described their feelings were somewhat more intense.

But there is reason to be cautious about the results. The study relies on the participants in the study to self-report honestly and accurately, and participants might be embarrassed to reveal immoral acts. People also have a tendency to overestimate how moral they have been. Schwitzgebel believes that there are inherent problems with self-reported studies, but they can offer valuable research nonetheless. “It’s a matter of weighing concerns about the inaccuracy of self-report against concerns about how representative laboratory behavior is of behavior in non-laboratory contexts,” he said.
Wisneski agreed that the concern about self-reporting is a “valid critique” of his study. He observed, however, that many participants report committing immoral acts such as adultery, which is encouraging (at least as far as the accuracy of the study is concerned).

The study did not limit itself to comparing views of religious and non-religious people. It also compared the views of people with different political ideologies. According to one recently proposed psychological theory, the Moral Foundations Theory, there are several different grounds for finding an act moral or immoral. One act may be considered immoral because it harms someone. Another act, however, may be considered immoral not because it is harmful but because it evinces disloyalty. Previous laboratory experiments using the Moral Foundations Theory framework had shown that liberals and conservatives emphasize different moral foundations. For example, conservatives are more likely to cite acts that exhibit respect for authority as moral, while liberals are more likely to consider acts that exhibit fairness as moral. The current study confirmed these differences between liberals and conservatives outside the laboratory, but not to a striking degree. “Moral Foundations Theory found some support in theoretically predicted directions, but this was dwarfed by a huge amount of overlap between liberals and conservatives,” said Wisneski. “If we watch Fox or MSNBC, we might think that liberals are from Mars, conservatives are from Venus. But there are far more similarities.”

The researchers deliberately refrained from defining “moral” and “immoral” for study participants. Leaving the definition of “morality” open enabled the researchers to see the variety of acts that some people considered moral or immoral. “There’s always the tradeoff between the clarity of telling participants exactly what you’re looking for, and the risk of missing important aspects of their moral lives,” said Graham. “For instance, if I think morality is fundamentally about fairness and justice, and define it as such for participants, then I will get a more precise and specific set of moral events from them, but I will miss a lot of what they find morally good or bad.”

There’s some reason, though, to think most people were pretty much on the same moral page. All the moral and immoral acts that participants texted to researchers were each independently rated by several judges who did not know the purpose of the study nor anything about the participants. There was a remarkable level of agreement. The judges in aggregate differed from the participant in their opinion of the morality of an act less than 1 percent of the time.

In all, Schwitzgebel thinks that this study has been an important step forward in empirical research of morality. “In studying as complex a phenomenon as moral and immoral behavior, one wants to employ a wide variety of different methods with their various complementary advantages and disadvantages. There’s not going to be any one single perfect method,” he said. “So it’s terrific to see the literature expanding in new methodological directions like this.”

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