Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Marijuana - Legalise or not?
Information Collection

Websites in Malta have recently been inundated by news and opinions about marijuana and Malta's harsh sentences meted out to those who use it. This was triggered by the 11-year sentence to Daniel Holmes for having two plants in his house in Gozo. The emotionally-loaded comments posted by both sides reminded me of the Divorce War in Malta. Just as divorce had been linked with everything from family breakdowns to earthquakes and weeping madonnas, it seemed to me that the same thing was happening here.

So, just as I did with divorce, I decided to find things out for myself. Fortunately, there is a flood of information available - more so than in the case of divorce since the divorce issue had already been settled long ago almost everywhere else.

Here is a page with the best material I found. I have tried to keep everything objective - I included both pages for and against legalisation - but I'll say up front that what I found led me to conclude that marijuana should be legalised.
I will be updating this page with more information as I find it.

Reports, Studies and Articles
Global Commission on Drugs Policy Report
This commission studies the impact on drugs and comes up with a set of proposals for formulating drug policies. The commission recommends "End the criminalization, marginalization and stigmatization of people who use drugs but who do no harm to others", and "Encourage experimentation by governments with models of legal regulation of drugs ... This recommendation applies especially to cannabis ..."

What can we learn from the Portuguese Decriminalization of Illicit Drugs?
This report from the British Journal of Criminology describes the result of Portogal's decriminalisation of ALL drugs in 2001. From the abstract: "It concludes that contrary to predictions, the Portuguese decriminalization did not lead to major increases in drug use. Indeed, evidence indicates reductions in problematic use, drug-related harms and criminal justice overcrowding." (click the "Full Text" links for the entire report - payment required).

Time Magazine: Drugs in Portugal: Did Decriminalization Work?
"The paper, published by Cato in April, found that in the five years after personal possession was decriminalized, illegal drug use among teens in Portugal declined and rates of new HIV infections caused by sharing of dirty needles dropped, while the number of people seeking treatment for drug addiction more than doubled."

Cannabis and Cannabinoids (US National Cancer Institute)
This website describes findings about the use of cannabis for the treatment of cancer. The above link is quite technical but there's another link on the page with simpler information for patients. This page describes how cannabis is effective both in attacking the cancer itself, and in alleviating the side-effects of chemotherapy.


1. Clearing the Smoke - the Science of Cannabis
This is a full-length documentary produced by the PBS in Montana, USA. 

2. When we grow, this is what we can do

3. BBC: Cannabis: What's the Harm? (part 1 of 2)

4. National Geographic: Marijuana Nation (part 1 of 5)

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

How generous is the church really?

In response to the recent report that the church is broke and getting broker by the minute, lots of people have spoken out in defence of the church, saying how it takes care of the old, orphans etc. However when I looked at the accounts published recently I was struck by the fact that these actually form a very small percentage of the church's expenses. In fact, the Pope's visit of last year cost 6.6 times as much as all children's homes combined.

The church's income comes primarily from donations, collections etc. I wonder whether the people making the donations are thinking that they are donating towards orphanages and homes. Do they know that, if they donated €50 last year, €2 from that went to finance the pope's visit, compared to the 30 cents that went to children's homes, or the 38 cents that went to old people's homes?

The church is not generous. Nor is it ungenerous. The church is an organiser - it collects money and redistributes it. The generosity comes from the Maltese people - they're the ones who earned the money. They hear of poor people and they donate. They donate to a church charity just as they donate to L-Istrina and to the Inspire foundation and other worthy causes.

If I found out that one of the secular humanitarian charities I donate to spent €1 million out of a grand total of €26 million to send their CEO on a trip somewhere, I'd immediately stop patronising them because I'd feel that they had betrayed their mission. If they spent 1.5 times as much on the media as they spend on the homes I'd say they have their priorities wrong.

I'd also say that if someone wants to help the needy, there are better entities than the church to ensure that your money is primarily used for that purpose.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Creationism: why it is dangerous

Some time ago I went to observe a presentation given by a creationist from the UK. I did this out of concern about the first signs of this phenomenon in Malta. Some people don't see any problems with creationism. It's just a belief, they say. I would like to point out why creationism is a dangerous phenomenon.

First however I should clarify what I mean by creationism. All Christians and most religious people believe that God created the universe, and technically this is creationism. However the creationism I have in mind, and the creationism presented by this visiting speaker, is the belief that the entire universe, including the world and every form of life on it, was created over a literal 6-day period, approximately 6000 years ago. It generally includes the belief that, some time after this, the entire surface of the planet was completely covered by water, drowning every living thing except for the contents of one large boat, and that it is from the animals and humans that were on this boat, that all life on earth today is derived, from kangaroos in Australia to polar bears at the North Pole, from tigers in India to grizzlies in the US, from Inuit to Somalis to Nepalese.

Most Christians do not believe these things literally of course, but there is a strong lobby in certain parts of the world, notably the United States. It is from here that most creationist churches hail, and they have established "missions" around the world - including Malta - to spread their particular beliefs.
I'm all for religious freedom, but most religious beliefs are relatively harmless. Creationism is different. Consider for a while how many areas of science are contradicted by creationism: It explicitly contradicts evolution, which is a fundamental area of biology. It contradicts geology due to its insistence that the entire world is 6000 years old. It contradicts cosmology, since it insists that nothing can be more than 6000 light years away. It explicitly contradicts the big bang and the age of the universe. It contradicts radiometric dating, especially carbon dating. It even contradicts local prehistory - the age of the early megalithic temples would have to be rewritten, not to mention Għar Dalam and other remains.

Now, if someone is a pensioner, they can believe anything they like about the above and it's unlikely to affect their lives. If he or she is an adult with an established career that does not involve any of the above areas, they are unlikely to be affected either. However children are a different matter. Creationism contradicts almost all branches of science, which means that children would be denied a very important part of their education - education that ultimately translates into good potential careers, such as medicine, microbiology, physics, several areas of engineering and many others. After all, when people go to a doctor they want someone who believes in medicine, not someone who insists that the bacteria cannot possibly be evolving a resistance to antibodies.

These problems caused directly by denying science is only one aspect of the dangers of creationism. In the United States and other places, a more insidious danger is becoming more obvious. Creationism has created an atmosphere of "us versus them" between students and teachers. Students, especially teenagers, are already naturally inclined to rebel. When they are getting constant encouragement from their parents and priests to reject and ridicule the science that their teachers are trying to explain, this attitude affects all areas of education, and educational levels plummet across the board.

Of course, even creationists have abandoned several arguments they used to use, and steer clear of others. The creationist organisation "Answers in Genesis" has a webpage containing arguments that they feel are so discredited that their use is actually detrimental to their cause, and no creationists today argue that the world is flat. And yet, the Bible implies this in Matthew 4:8, where we have a mountain which is so high that you can see the entire world from it. Similarly, few Christians today literally believe that rainbows were placed there by a god who might otherwise forget his promise and drown everyone in the world again. Today we know a thing or two about optics, refraction, water droplets and so on, so we accept rainbows for what they are - colourful, beautiful but quite natural phenomena.

The problem with creationism is that it imposes a strict precondition on knowledge. Everything has to agree with a literal interpretation of every part of the Bible. Any evidence that does not is rejected, or must somehow be reinterpreted to fit. Rather than going for the most obvious and reasonable explanation, one must go to extreme lengths to fit the Biblical account. A simple example is, how did all the animals from the ark get to the various places around the world without leaving any individuals behind - no koalas or walruses in the middle east for instance. When asked what did the lions eat in the ark, some will even insist they were vegetarians back then. After all if you only have two gazelle you can't afford to let the lions run amok.

With science, by comparison, one starts with the evidence, and finds explanations to match. If the evidence is not what you expect or want to find, you have to accept that and revise your expectations. Just a couple of days ago as I write this, scientists working at CERN and Italy published preliminary results that indicated they may have seen a particle exceed the speed of light. This discovery, if confirmed, is shocking and will bring a significant chunk of physics crashing down, because they are based on the premise that nothing, nothing, can exceed the speed of light. And yet as this news sent shock waves through the entire scientific community, there is no sense of animosity. Certainly many have expressed doubts and speculated that we might still discover that it was some kind of mistake in the measurements, but if it is confirmed, then the affected areas will be revised or, if necessary, discarded and rewritten.

It is this willingness to admit to mistakes and correct them that sets science apart from creationism. By starting off with the assumption that they cannot possibly be mistaken in their, creationists attack the evidence and resist learning anything new.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Some comments following Xarabank's homophobia feature

The Bible is a thick book and it contains verses to support and oppose any position you care to choose. Slavery? It's accepted - even in the new testament - as well as condemned (especially when the Hebrews were the slaves). There are verses about forgiveness and love, as well as violence and destruction.

Gaydar Gordon is good at selecting verses he likes at times while also insisting he agrees with it from cover to cover, insisting on context (and then inventing the context himself). He uses the Bible as a weapon and as a lure.

The Bible is not a source of morality. WE are the source of our own morality and then some people select verses from the Bible (or Koran, or other scriptures) to support that position and give it legitimacy. Perhaps one of the most glaring examples of this is shown in the film The Ten Commandments. The director was a devout man, but clearly he was not happy with the bit where "God hardened Pharaoh's heart" repeatedly and then punished the people of Egypt for it. So he invented a character that's nowhere in the Bible - "Nefertiri", a woman who hardened Pharaoh's heart instead because of her jealousy and malice. Essentially, although he might not have seen it this way, he judged the Bible based on his own sense of justice - and found it lacking.

The Bible in English and Maltese has lots of verses about homosexuality, although many of these references are not to be found in the original ancient Greek texts. There are no references to lesbianism anywhere, and the only clear condemnations of male-male sex are found in the same part of the Bible that also condemns eating pork, wearing mixed fibres, planting different crops in the same field, and so on - things that are no longer followed by modern, mainstream Christians (including Gordon's). No reasonable explanation is given as to why the verses condemning homosexual sex should remain "valid" while the verses that prohibit eating octopus or oysters are not, or why it's now ok to plant two crops in the same field. Jesus never spoke a word against or about homosexuals, although he spent quite a bit of time talking about judgemental people.

Of course some "famous" verses that are used against homosexuality are rejected by the Bible itself. Top of the list is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Few know that later in the Bible (Ezekiel 16:49-50), there is a list of the 5 sins that brought about Sodom's destruction, and homosexuality (or indeed any sexuality) is not among them. Arrogance and pride, on the other hand, were. Romans 1 in the new testament is rather odd - Paul describes observing a group of people who, despite being taught about Jesus, insisted on worshipping idols. As a result, God made them gay. Now that's a bit odd isn't it? God miraculously making people sin even more? Most likely what Paul observed was an orgy that was part and parcel of religious groups who clearly didn't have the word "prudery" in their dictionary. Still it's amusing to imagine the expression on his face when he saw everyone fling their togs off and engage in this romp. In other new testament verses, Greek words like arsenokoites were rendered as "homosexuals", although in other texts it means male prostitutes. The word "malakos" literally means soft, and can mean both physically soft as well as someone who refuses to defend against an aggressor. That was translated as "effeminate".

We can't go back in time to ask what they meant exactly. We don't have the other side of the conversation - remember that these were letters, and each one was addressed at a specific group of recipients in a specific place. They were never intended as a general guide for everyone.

What we're left with is our own innate sense of justice and our capability of reason. It is through our reason that we must achieve a sense of morality, not by relying on a collection of writings that were written in a different time and for people living in very different conditions. Such a book can provide insights, but we must still use our minds to apply this to our modern world, and sometimes that means abandoning something that used to be a pillar of civilisation. That's how we got rid of slavery and burning witches. That is how we'll get rid of homophobia.

Sunday, 29 May 2011

The evil church of Malta

If there was any doubt left about the evil nature of the Catholic church, it should have been dispelled by its actions during the divorce campaign, with the bishops rubbing salt into the wound by issuing an apology after it was too late to affect the results - although MaltaToday bravely decided to risk legal consequences by publishing it despite the embargo.

If you apply the Catholic Church's own rules on confession to this apology you'll see their hypocrisy. It's like someone is involved in planning a robbery and omits to mention anything to the priest at the confession until after the robbery is completed. Would the confessor consider that as a genuine confession of someone who is sorry for what he did?

The bishops could have published the apology on Thursday. The fact that they didn't means that, despite knowing the harm that they were doing, they intentionally let it continue until it was too late, then apologised after. Is that a real, genuine, heartfelt apology or is it damage control?

I have no doubt that many people will still follow the church, just as there are people who still follow Angelik despite knowing he used his own blood and kitchen oil on the statue.

Malta's greatest enemy at this point in time is the Roman Catholic Church. It has many Maltese people blinkered so that they cannot see the chains that bind them. I only hope that in this dirty campaign, some blinkers fell off.

It is clearer now than ever before that the constitution of Malta, which entrusts the Catholic church with teaching which principles are right and which are wrong, needs to be revised. The church has shown time and again that it does not deserve this honour. For any entity to teach morality it must first practice what it preaches.

The church has shown its true face. It's all smiles and warmth when things are going its own way, but when the going gets tough, even the Sicilian mafia can learn a thing or two from these men of the cloth.

Thursday, 31 March 2011

The church's 12 points against divorce

The church is sending out a leaflet to all Maltese households outlining in point form why they should vote against the introduction of divorce in the May referendum. Here they are in point form, together with my counter-arguments.
1. If battered wives are granted the right to remarry, so too will their abusive husbands.
How thoughtful. Let the victim suffer. It's her fault for marrying him, isn't it? Now why don't we apply that to other situations? We could handcuff muggers or rapists with their victims, to ensure that they don't strike again.
Except that it wouldn't work in this case would it? If the abusive husband can beat his wife, what's to stop him from doing the same to another woman that he moves in with, just because they're not married? Incidentally, isn't it a teensy bit sexist to assume that only men are abusive?
2. Although people have a right to marry, there is no such right to divorce, according to a 1986 judgment of the European Court of Human Rights.
The ECHR doesn't recognise your right to ride a bicycle either. Some things are considered fairly obvious, and marriage and its termination tend to go hand in hand.
3. Catholics who vote against divorce are not imposing their values. They have a right to vote according to what they think is best for society.
They would be doing both. Certainly they have the right to vote as they please, but voting to deprive someone of a right to divorce is still imposing their values. Sometimes, having a right and doing the right thing are not the same. If someone were to suggest a referendum to deny the right of black people to live, would you say that it's ok to vote for that because they're merely exercising their right to vote?
By comparison, voting in favour is not imposing a value because each couple can then decide whether or not to resort to divorce once it's there. Catholics who agree with the church's prohibition of divorce can still vote to give that right to others and refrain from resorting to it themselves.
4. The Church allows priests to leave the priesthood and get married because celibacy is a Church law, not a law of God like the indissolubility of marriage.
How very convenient. In any case we're talking about civil divorce here. The church will retain its right to not recognise divorces, or to refuse to marry divorcees in church weddings.
5. Divorce weakens the marriage bond, leading to fewer people getting married.
No, divorce does not weaken the marriage bond. If the only thing that's keeping a couple "married" is the unavailability of divorce legislation, that's not a marriage in any real sense and is not worth protecting. The referendum question is for divorce after four years of separation, and any couple who could not resolve their problems after four (or more) years are very unlikely to ever succeed.
Besides, what about those young people who are looking at their options and are receiving the message that if they get married and they made a mistake, they're screwed for life, whereas if they merely cohabit they can rectify mistakes. Isn't that an incentive not to get married?
6. If you do not vote it means you do not care about the family or your children.
Perhaps, but people who care could and should vote in favour of divorce. Or do you think that children born to the new couple are lesser mortals just because their parents were once married to someone else?
7. In all countries with divorce, cohabitation increased, marriage decreased and more people fell below the poverty line.
And in all countries WITHOUT divorce, cohabitation increased, marriage decreased and more people fell below the poverty line. Statistics show that this is a trend which is happening everywhere, irrespective of divorce.
8. There is nothing wrong with Malta being an exception in the world. Malta has the most churchgoers. Unlike the US, it does not have the death penalty. Should those things change too?
Being almost the only such country, it's reasonable to wonder whether it's likely that we're the only ones who are right and everybody else is wrong. Another point to keep in mind is that no country that introduced divorce removed it. By comparison, many countries have removed the death penalty (as have many US states). Countries can and do change their laws, but divorce is one thing they all kept.
9. Divorce increases marital breakdown by 20 per cent. For society’s benefit, sometimes individuals must suffer. For example, people might have to give up their land to make space for an airport. All efforts must be made to reduce their suffering, but the land must be taken for common good.
There is no study that suggests that divorce increases marital breakdown. Truth be said, it's impossible to produce such a study since you'd have to compare a country with divorce with the same country, at the same time, without it.
The argument that individuals must suffer for society's benefit is a dangerous one. It's been used to justify all sorts of things, including slavery (black people suffer so that the white majority benefit) and the holocaust (aka "solving the Jewish problem"). No, individual rights must not be revoked for the convenience of others.
10. People who remarry civilly after a divorce cannot receive Holy Communion or go to confession.
That is, of course, an entirely internal matter for the church to decide. However, I wonder whether the church applies the same measures to people who use a condom or any other contraceptive. After all that too is prohibited by the church. What about people who separate from their spouse and move in with someone else, or who have sex before marriage? Besides, denying communion and confession... doesn't that sound a lot like "excommunication"? Reminiscent of the "interdett"?
11. The Church is against abortion, condoms, sex before marriage and divorce because these are all negative actions. However, it is in favour of positive actions.
No, the church is against these because once it declared itself against them, its supremacy in its followers' minds would be compromised if it changed its mind. It took 350 years for the church to formally admit that Galileo was right, and it did so because by this time its position became totally untenable. I have no doubt that it will eventually admit its error this time too, but in the meantime there are real people here who are suffering, real lives held in stasis just to protect the church's ego.
There is nothing negative about condoms, divorce or sex before marriage. Abortion remains a divisive issue.
12. The number of children born out of wedlock increases in countries with divorce because cohabitation increases.
The rate of cohabitation decreases slightly with the introduction of divorce, although the absolute number increases. There are many couples who are cohabiting right now not by choice but because the law leaves them no other option. Once they are given that right, they will start the proceedings to get their divorce and get married. Add to these the couple who are uncomfortable with the idea of marriage because of the unforgiving nature of the laws, who will feel better about it. For a while there will be a drop in cohabitation and an increase in marriages, before the rates stabilise again at a slightly reduced rate.

Isn't it obscene if it's in the Bible?

The Attorney General has appealed the court's acquittal of Mark Camilleri and Alex Vella Gera.

If the AG finds "Li Tkisser Sewwi" shocking, what does he think of the Bible? Verses like Ezekiel 23:20: "There she lusted after her lovers, whose genitals were like those of donkeys and whose emission was like that of horses.". What about Genesis 19:30-38 where Lot gets both of his daughters pregnant while drunk? What about the many concubines, and slaves who are given by wives to their husbands to impregnate? What about Deuteronomy 21:11-14, where the "chosen people" are instructed to capture whichever women they fancy from other tribes, have sex with them and then, if they don't like them, discard them? How about Deut 22:23-24, where if a girl is raped after being promised to someone else and doesn't scream loud enough to be heard, she should be killed? On the other hand if she wasn't promised to someone, all that the rapist must do (if caught) is pay 50 shekels and marry her (22:28). I'm sure she'd be thrilled to marry her rapist. How about Judges 19:25 where a man gives his concubine to a mob who rape her all night until she's dead?

Not even Li Tkisser Sewwi's unpleasant character goes that far, and yet... it's in the Bible so it's ok. They complain that Ir-Realtà might have fallen into the hands of younger students but then they ENCOURAGE young children to read the Bible. Hello? Is there anybody out there? Am I alone in thinking there's something wrong with this picture?