Tsunamis of information and misinformation inundate us every day through print, broadcast, and social media, more than anyone can possibly wade through. Dealing with any of it intelligently requires a lot of connecting of dots, with not enough help from the media. Let’s look at a few examples.
On January 18, the annual “March for Life” in Washington, D.C., hit the news with a somewhat garbled story about an incident involving a Native American demonstrator and some kids from Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky, many of whom were wearing red Trump MAGA caps. For days, the media flooded the country with mixed messages about what actually happened. But if we connect the dots, the picture emerges of a private sectarian high school letting kids forego classes for a day and transporting them to Washington to participate in a demonstration against women’s rights of conscience and religious liberty regarding abortion. There were no reports on how many other Catholic high schools sent kids to Washington, though the practice seems to be extensive and years old.
Now to connect more dots. The sending of the kids to Washington was sanctioned by the Catholic bishops, the same guys who in the larger scheme of things tolerated and covered up many years of clergy sexual abuse of untold thousands of minors, the same hierarchs who for decades have been pushing for government, national and state, to compel all taxpayers to support their (and other religions’) special-interest private schools through vouchers and tax credits.
But let’s be careful not to overgeneralize or connect dots incorrectly. The overwhelming majority of Catholics in the developed world have long simply ignored their church’s official ban on contraception, and about two-thirds of Catholics have no problem with legal abortion. Last May’s referendum in predominantly Catholic Ireland showed that two-thirds of the voters were pro-choice. Note that the church controls 95 percent of primary schools in Ireland. Further, only about 15 percent of Catholic families in the United States send their kids to church-run K–12 Catholic schools. Since the early 1960s, when the Supreme Court did away with the last remaining vestiges of Protestantism in public schools—details would require another whole column—Catholic school enrollment has declined from 5.5 million to less than two million today. Two Catholic universities found that the decline is due to “changing parental preferences.”
Moving on, we note that the clergy sexual abuse and coverup problem in this country grabbed headlines through much of 2018 when Pennsylvania’s attorney general released a grand jury report on the matter in several dioceses. This was followed by the start of similar investigations in other states. Again, the extensive media coverage failed to link the church hierarchy activity to its drives to undermine women’s rights regarding abortion and to get taxpayer funding for its private schools. (I recently reread the book Methods of Teaching in the Catholic School, published by the National Catholic Educational Association, which clearly spoke of “permeating” the curriculum with church teaching; in 1993 and 2000, Humanist Press published my book Catholic Schools: The Facts, covering much of the same ground.)
Now we come to the greatest controversy of all: the global climate-change challenge. In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported that we have maybe fifteen years to get serious about dealing with this threat to our whole planet. The media have reported on many of the various components and concomitants of climate change, but they rarely connect the dots. Among the components: polar ice melt; rising sea levels; ocean warming and acidification; coral reef bleaching; declining fish stocks; shrinking aquifers and fresh water shortages (China and India have 36 percent of world population but only 11 percent of the world’s fresh water); deforestation; desertification; soil erosion and nutrient loss (half of all agricultural land is used for cattle and cattle feeding); toxic waste accumulation; rapid loss of animal and plant species; and on and on. These components and concomitants are reported on piecemeal, but there is rarely any mention of what is fueling climate change—overpopulation—and who is responsible for international inaction on overpopulation: the Catholic hierarchy and other assorted conservative religious leaders who care little for women’s rights and who oppose universal access to contraception and legal abortion. These steps were recommended by scientists for decades and by the (GOP) Ford administration’s 1975 NSSM 200 report recommending the same. Sadly, tragically, these religious leaders have more influence on pliable politicians than does the worldwide science community.
Apes and Us: More Dots
“Humans Evolved to Be Peaceful. Why Are We Still So Violent?” is the title of the Washington Post’s fascinating review by anthropologist Rachel Newcomb of Richard Wrangham’s new book, The Goodness Paradox: The Strange Relationship between Virtue and Violence in Human Evolution. Among other observations, Newcomb compares our two closest relatives in the animal kingdom, the rather peaceful bonobos and the rather violent chimpanzees. (Note that bonobos were not even regarded as anything other than “pygmy” chimps until about 1930.) Her review surmises that chimps are more violent than bonobos because they must compete with gorillas for food. But having read rather a great deal on the matter, I have a different position. Bonobos live south of the Congo River, while chimps live north of it. The vegetation in bonobo territory lends itself to a vegetarian diet more than does the area inhabited by chimps. Bonobos are vegetarian and chimps eat meat. Bonobos are really into sexual activity, far more than chimps. Bonobos are rather peaceful; chimps tend to be rather violent. Also, I doubt that chimps and gorillas seriously compete for food; gorillas are both vegetarian and less violent than chimps, though bigger and more scary-looking. The relationship between meat-eating and violence needs a lot more study. But with the climate-change crisis in mind, our moving away from eating meat, especially beef, and toward vegetarianism would seem to be a smart move for more than just health reasons.