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ResQgeek

September 2017

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I wrote the following for another site (now defunct) a few years ago:

You are reading an article in your local paper reporting the findings of some recent research, which reports that the study revealed a link between eating some specific food and an increased risk of cancer.  Should you immediately remove that food from your diet?  How you respond to this information depends on how you interpret the findings, and properly interpreting the findings requires you to understand the relationship between correlation and causation.

Causation occurs when a first event *causes* a second event, while correlation is a broader term that only requires that the two events be related somehow.  While events that have a causal relationship will also be correlated, not every correlation is causal.  For example, the first and second event might *both* be the result of some unmeasured third event.  In the hypothetical example in the first paragraph, the specific food item might be associated with some independent activity that increases the cancer risk, so that merely eliminating the food will have no impact on the cancer risk.


A correlation finding is important in scientific research because it shows that there is some type of relationship between the variables.  These findings help show researchers where to focus further efforts to better understand the exact relationship.  The goal, of course, it to determine causation, but that conclusion can only be reached after carefully evaluating and eliminating the possibility of other types of relationships.


Unfortunately, the popular media tends to blur the lines in reporting these findings.  Where a scientific journal will normally be very specific in identifying the exact nature of the correlation, and will likely point out what further questions need to be answered to determine the nature of the correlation, the popular reporting tends to be a bit sloppy in describing the relationship described in the findings.  Combine this sloppy reporting with a general population that does not have a strong grasp of the relationship between correlation and causation, and people will conclude that the results show a causal relationship, even when that is not the case.  Having an awareness of this relationship allows a reader to analyze such an article critically, in an attempt to discern the exact nature of the relationship discovered.  This in turn, allows the reader to respond to the information in a more appropriate fashion.


I was thinking about this again recently because of all the posts I've been seeing on Facebook about the incident where Tim Tebow prayed over a spectator who was having a seizure.  The implication of these posts is that the seizure stopped *because* of Tebow's prayer.  People see the prayer and they see the seizure end, and they link the two causally.  However, just because the two events are correlated...this does not imply anything about whether one caused the other.  Except in very rare (and dangerous) situations, seizures end.  They are almost always self-limiting.  This persons seizure would have almost certainly have ended, even if Tebow hadn't been there. The end of the seizure can be explained by the medical sciences without any need to reference the prayer. There is no miracle here.  Is Tebow's prayer a genuine gesture of compassion? Only Tebow can say for sure what his motives were, but I'm inclined to take it as such.  Is there value in such gestures?  Certainly, in so far as they provide comfort for those involved and bind us a community.  Did it affect the medical outcome? Not at all.  I'm not opposed to prayer.  By all means, pray for the sick and others in need.  But don't expect those prayers to cure people or help those in need.  Don't *just* pray.  Let your prayers be accompanied by *action*.  DO something.  Get medical attention for the sick.  Lend a hand to those in need.  You need to be the instrument that answers your prayers.

There has been a lot of noise about “Religious Liberty” in the public forum over the last couple of years.  I think it started when the US Catholic bishops objected to the provisions of the Affordable Care Act that required that contraception be covered by health insurance plans offered by employers.  The bishops argued that because the Catholic Church believes that the use of contraception is sinful, being “forced” to provide contraception to all their employees was a violation of their religious freedom.  And even after the law was amended to stipulate that the Church would not actually be paying for the contraception coverage, the bishops continued to oppose the measure.  By itself, this objection by the bishops might not have been more than a ripple in the pond of public discourse.


But the bishops had planted a seed that was to blossom into a much broader debate about the role of religion in the public sphere. As the same-sex marriage fight culminated in the Supreme Court’s decision that laws that prohibit same-sex marriage were unconstitutional, the same arguments began to be used by opponents of same-sex marriage. They argued that “religious liberty” gave them and their businesses the right to refuse services to homosexuals.  And now, the same arguments are being used to oppose equal treatment for the transgendered.


The problem with all of these arguments is that it is based on an unreasonably broad understanding of “Religious Liberty”. The concept of Freedom of Religion is all about freedom of conscience.  Everyone is free to believe as they wish, without coercion from others.  However, the concepts of religious freedom do NOT extend to people imposing their beliefs on others.  As with all rights, an individual’s rights only extend to the point where they impinge upon those of other people.


In spite of what some business owners seem to argue, accepting payment for providing services is NOT tantamount to condoning something you believe is wrong.  The morality of doing business is different that individual or personal morality.  The moral good in business is about treating customers fairly and equally, providing goods and services at a fair price, without cheating or lying.  These should be the measures by which we judge the morality of business practices.  The personal beliefs of the individuals involved just shouldn’t matter.


Being forced to treat all potential customers equally is not a form of religious persecution, and the owners of these businesses are not martyrs, as I’ve sometimes seen them called (not the least because they aren’t being killed…).


These issues have faded somewhat from the public discourse, in part because the politicians who supported these positions have found themselves marginalized this year.  However, the issues continue to simmer in the background, and those who feel that their religious values are being threatened are still out there, biding their time, waiting for opportunities to impose their beliefs on their communities, without any consideration for the rights of others.

A lot happened last week, and with all that was on my mind, there was one piece of news that I really didn’t absorb fully.  I first learned that Fr. Patrick McMahon, O. Carm., had passed away on Facebook, where he was tagged in a number of posts announcing his passing (obituary).  It seemed an odd way to learn that bit of news, but it did prepare me to hear his name included in the prayer intentions at mass on Sunday, so at least it wasn’t the surprise it seemed to be to others in the church that morning.


Father Patrick was one of the reasons I changed parishes back in 2009.  At the time, he was teaching in Washington, DC, and, while he wasn’t officially assigned to Good Shepherd parish, he was a regular celebrant of the weekend masses there.  I found his preaching to be refreshing and compelling in its humor, compassion, and call for mercy and empathy.  I later attended some evening lectures he presented at the parish about the history of the Church, and discovered that he maintained a blog, which I began to read regularly.  I found much to admire the depth of his knowledge and the breadth of his vision of what the Church should be in the world.


His blog (titled “What Sister Knew and Father Never Told You”) included long series of posts that explored various points in the history of the Church, but also brought a historical perspective to contemporary Church issues.  He posted anonymously so that he could express personal opinions that might not necessarily be condoned by his superiors.  But he was eminently qualified to speak to the history of the Church and how it might apply to the Church today: He had studied history at New York University, where he earned both a master’s degree and a doctorate.


A few years ago, he was transferred from his teaching job in DC to a suburban parish in New Jersey, so he no longer celebrated mass at my parish.  But I continued to read his blog, looking to him for insight into the actions and message of Pope Francis, and the reactions to the Pope that bubble up in certain parts of the Church.  In fact, I still find myself looking at the blog, almost expecting to find a new posting.  I may have to go back to the beginning of the blog and read the earliest posts (the earliest post, dated January 10, 2011, is about the history of papal conclaves), from before I discovered it.  I’m sure that there is still plenty that I can learn from what he wrote.


Rest in Peace, Father Patrick.  Your work helped me better understand the Church that I call home, even when I sometimes question the things it teaches or does.  You will be greatly missed.
For those who have been paying attention to the Catholic Church and Pope Francis, you may be familiar with Cardinal Raymond Burke.  Formerly the bishop of LaCrosse, WI and archbishop of St. Louis, MO, Cardinal Burke was recently transfered by the Pope from his post on the Vatican's highest court to the ceremonial role as the sponsor of the charitable Order of Malta.  This transfer has been widely understood as a demotion, an exceedingly rare occurence at this level of the Church.  The problem with this demotion is that it actually gives the Cardinal more freedom to express his criticisms of the Pope.

In a recent interview, Burke expressed his views that the decline in priestly vocations and the sexual abuse scandals were caused by a radical feminzation of the church.  I'm not sure what reality the Cardinal resides in, but it must look a whole lot different from the one I live in.  I think the most clear explanation for the sexual abuse was spelled out by Fr. Andrew Greeley, the late Catholic priest, sociologist, and novelist.  In his view the sexual abuse was an expression of of the unchecked power in the structure of the church hierarchy.  He, very credibly, pointed out that similar abuses occur in any social structure where individuals are place in positions of authority and then not held accountable for their actions.  This has nothing to do with feminism or the (all too slowly) growing role of women in the church.  If anything, the increasing number of women in positions of some authority in the church has helped to both reduce the amount of abuse and expose its existence.  Perhaps that is what Burke is referring to...without the women, the abuse scandal wouldn't have happened because the abuse could continue undetected.  I hope that isn't what he meant, but I'm not sure what else he could have meant.

As for the decline of priestly vocations, I want to quote him directly before I comment:


The introduction of girl servers also led many boys to abandon altar service. Young boys don’t want to do things with girls. It’s just natural. The girls were also very good at altar service. So many boys drifted away over time. I want to emphasize that the practice of having exclusively boys as altar servers has nothing to do with inequality of women in the Church.

I think that this has contributed to a loss of priestly vocations. It requires a certain manly discipline to serve as an altar boy in service at the side of priest, and most priests have their first deep experiences of the liturgy as altar boys. If we are not training young men as altar boys, giving them an experience of serving God in the liturgy, we should not be surprised that vocations have fallen dramatically.

The problem with this argument is in the timing.  The numbers of men entering seminary and preparing to become priests had been in steep decline well before girls were allowed to serve at the altar in 1983.  I was an altar boy in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and I remember the priests then complaining about the declining enrollement.  There weren't any altar girls yet, so I don't see how the decline in priestly vocations can be linked to the introduction of girls to the altar.  In fact, I suspect that one of the reasons girls were allowed to serve was because they couldn't convince enough boys to do so.  I can't speak to why the numbers of men entering the priesthood has declined, but I'm reasonably sure that Burke's connection to the introduction of girl altar servers is utterly bogus.

To me, Cardinal Burke represents a style of Church leadership that should have vanished decades (or even centuries) ago.  His vision of the Church is narrow and exclusive, and it smacks of the kind of hypocrisy that Jesus condemned quite clearly in the Pharisees of his time.  For me, the humble, open and inclusive style of Pope Francis shows the kind of leadership that I believe the Church sorely needs more of.
Most people in the US know that the official national motto is "In God We Trust". However, I suspect that many don't realize that this motto was only officially adopted with the enactment of legislation signed by President Eisenhower in 1956, only two years after the words "under God" were added to the Pledge of Allegiance. While the words "In God We Trust" did appear on US coins and currency intermitently prior to 1956, it was not an official motto.

Last week, a number of people posted warnings on Facebook not to accept certain $1 coins because they allegedly omit the national motto. As I pointed out in my response, this allegation is NOT true, as a quick search on Snope.com will show. However, both the allegation and my rebuttal fail to address a more central problem.

I know that some people will (strongly) disagree with me about this, but both the national motto and the inclusion of the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance are clear and unambiguous violations of the First Amendment prohibition against establishment of religion. While neither of these invocations of "God" is sectarian (in that they broadly apply to many, perhaps most, religions), they nevertheless represent an establishment of religion because they necessarily presuppose the existence of some "God". The very notion of 'freedom of religion' requires that we also acknowledge that in some cases this is embodied as a 'freedom *from* religion'. Just as government cannot promote any specific form of religion over any other, the government likewise has no business addressing the very existence (or not) of any "God". Such matters are rightly the domain of religious institutions, and the government has no authority or right to intrude into this realm.

We have had a long history of denying the patriotism of groups of people because of their religious views (or lack thereof). For that matter, we often question the loyalty of those who hold differing political views. Perhaps we should (finally) acknowledge that while we might not share common beliefs (whether religious or political) and our ideas for what might be best for the country may be different, it does not mean that either side is any less loyal or patriotic. I have many friends who are atheists, and I have not found that their lack of faith to be any threat to my own beliefs. I will defend their right to *not* believe as a fundamental component of the principle of religious freedom.

Removing the phrase "In God We Trust" from our money and the words "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance is NOT an attack on religion. Such changes in NO way impose any barriers to the free exercise of religion or harm religious institutions. Instead, it is an acknowledgement that not everyone believes in any god, and that they are perfectly free to so believe. So to everyone out there that has been fussing about the (non-existent) removal of "God" from our currency, please take a moment and honestly ask yourself how such a measure would really hurt you or your faith. As for me, my faith does not require confirmation by the government, and I find any efforts by the government to encroach into this domain to be much more of a threat, because it would endanger my freedom to choose what I believe.