Faith(lessness): March 2008 Archives

Amber helped me catch some big mistakes in the way I understood Bishop Gianfranco Girotti’s recent interview regarding new “social sins.” I’d correctly picked up on the fact that the media was totally wrong in claiming that the “new” sins were endorsed by the Vatican, or the Pope, but I’d been totally misled into thinking that Girotti had been using the language of “mortal sin,” when that’s clearly not what was being suggested (c.f. original interview, PDF).

Catholic writers have been working overtime trying to clarify the widespread confusion.

That said, I agree with Liliana Segura, in that though I disagree with some of the list, I’m still a little bit disappointed that Girotti wasn’t putting forward the proposition that fostering social and economic inequality or environmental destruction might be a fundamental theological no-no, as opposed to just a really bad thing to do.

There’s a lot to be said for the evolution of core values. Take the US Constitution; I like the fact that we can edit the text to end slavery and guarantee voting rights (on paper, anyway). It can even evolve outside of the text, as in our emergent right of privacy, only indirectly mentioned in the Constitution but now a core American legal principle, critical in our winning cases like Griswold v. Connecticut, Roe v. Wade, and Lawrence v. Texas.

Unfortunately, one can’t amend religious beliefs the way one can the Constitution. Thankfully, most sufficiently rich religious traditions are broad enough that followers can draw on one idealogical strain or the other, depending on changing cultural mores. Supporters and opponents of slavery read different parts of the Bible. Supporters and opponents of sati and untouchability had different understandings of Hindu values and traditions. But could you ever convince the Dalai Lama to withdraw the claim that people get reincarnated when they die? Some points of theology just seem to fundamental to edit.

But just because it’s difficult, or awkward, doesn’t mean it may not be a good idea. I’m glad virtually all American churches ignore literal readings of the Bible’s positions on slavery and the role of women. The LDS Church is better for accepting men of African descent. I admire the Episcopal Church for its acceptance of same-sex couples. The majority of Generation Y accepts the dignity and equal rights of LGBT people; religious groups will need to revisit homophobic doctrine and practices in decades to come. I wish it were possible to hardcode these directly into core doctrine, rather than treating them as changing interpretations (imagine one could delete the unpleasant bits about slavery and women’s servitude from the modern Bible-as-practiced).

Not all shared value systems are difficult to edit and revise to meet contemporary understandings of the world. The Humanist Manifestos, issued in 1933, 1973, and again in 2003, try to do exactly that.

I really like the first and second manifestos, particularly the way that the second begins with a very human cry of distress about Nazism. I don’t read these as universal values set in stone for the ages, but time capsules and discussion points, reflecting the best that people of goodwill know about the world and how to live in it at a certain point in time.

Unfortunately, the third, and latest, manifesto takes a different approach, focusing on six genuinely universal values potentially applicable at any point in time or space; as much as I admire the effort, the document comes off as dry and lifeless. By designing a kind of science fiction meta-ethics, it shrinks away from confronting the most important issues of its day, unlike the core tenets of most religious traditions at their birth.

Between that and Girotti’s list of new social sins, I’ll pick Girotti any time; I may not agree with everything on his list, but at least it tells me something about the world I live in.


It depresses me that there exists a strong South Asian folk belief in black magic. I’ve had family members tell me about the reputed power of “tantriks,” even suggesting that my health problems may be linked to long-distance black magic caused by hostile tantriks.

Indian rationalist/humanist movements working to combat superstitious or irrational belief systems have been growing over the past several years (e.g. the Indian Rationalist Association, Science and Rationalists’ Association of India, Indian Skeptic, as well as the umbrella Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations).

I enjoyed reading about Indian skeptic Sanal Edamaruku taking on a tantrik on live TV. The challenge? “Pandit” Surinder Sharma, a high-profile tantrik, was asked to magically “destroy” Sanal on TV. Sharma apparently believed in his own powers; he made a fool of himself on TV, chanting mantras, engaging in complicated “magic” practices, utterly failing to harm his intended victim. The distressed pandit complained that the atheist Sanal must be secretly worshipping a powerful god, and suggesting that he could try using stronger magic at night. The TV station dutifully fulfilled his wishes by offering a nighttime rematch, where he failed again.

Read the whole story about the great Tantra challenge…

(via Sepia Mutiny News)

A senior official at the Vatican recently discussed his list of seven mortal “social” sins:

  • “bioethical” violations such as birth control
  • “morally dubious” experiments such as stem cell research and DNA manipulation
  • drug abuse
  • polluting the environment
  • contributing to widening divide between rich and poor
  • excessive wealth
  • creating poverty

“A person that commits a mortal sin risks burning in hell unless absolved through confession and penitence,” (emphasis mine) per AP’s description of Catholic theology. The media’s been particularly fixated on the environmental angle.

While the list doesn’t carry the weight of the Pope or the Vatican as a whole, it’s interesting to see a massive 2000-year-old institution working to amend points of theology, particularly those of personal sin, to adapt to changing understandings of the world. Not all Church policy positions (e.g. opposition to the Iraq War) get dealt with at the level of God-will-condemn-your-soul-to-hell mortal sin.

(And isn’t it fun to be able to change God’s rules as you go, like when the LDS Church suddenly declared in 1978 that men of African descent—but not women of any race—could become priests?)


Anirvan Chatterjee is a San Francisco Bay Area tech geek and bibliophile.


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This page is a archive of entries in the Faith(lessness) category from March 2008.

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