Financial crisis leads to erosion of religious privilege in Italy

The news from Italy that the Vatican will have to pay property taxes on real estate not directly connected to religious activities has been extraordinary.

According to this excellent article on Concordat Watch, previously Italian law allowed tax exemptions for anything that was deemed “not exclusively commercial”. Thus, by placing a small shrine inside a cinema owned by the Catholic Church, that business then was able to obtain tax-exempt status. The law was so blatantly in favour of the Catholic Church that it prompted calls from the EU commission to investigate the situation and sue Italy. This had been going for some years, but now the financial crisis has finally driven the Italian government to stop protecting the Vatican and the financial benefits could be enormous (even though the details aren’t clear yet).

The annual cost could be up to 720m euros ($945m; £598m) according to municipal government bodies.

Italy’s Catholic Church has 110,000 properties, worth about 9bn euros.

Read also

The Vatican’s grip on Italy

Posted in Catholicism, Italy, Religious privileges | Leave a comment

Marietta Slomka for the win!

So the German government commissioned a 764-page study on the lives of young Muslims in Germany. Somebody leaks the study to the populist Bild tabloid paper, and the main thing they seemed to take away from it was that a quarter of Muslims was opposed to integration (read: assimilation) into German culture. A party colleague of Mr Friedrich’s even called it a “breeding ground for terrorism”. The minister himself seemed to have bought into the right-wing rhetoric, and was pounded for it by Ms Slomka on live TV. At one point when he tried to blame the media for focusing on the minority of Muslims unwilling to integrate, she called his bluff saying basically, “but that’s what you did too, minister”. We need more journalists like that!

Some comments on the study:

  • the study (or major components of it, apparently it is a composite study) is based on 700 telephone interviews. Without looking at it in detail, I can’t judge its methodology, but there are about 4m Muslims (however, of all ages).
  • the study did find: a major obstacle to Muslims’ willingness to integrate is the hostility by the majority to them. It may come as a surprise but hostility and prejudice towards foreigners from the majority population can lead to resentment on part of the minority.
  • The hostility is not just a perception on the part of the Muslim population. The study also found that many Germans support the sentiments expressed in a controversial book by Thilo Sarrazin, that many Muslims are neither able nor willing to integrate themselves. Breakdown by party lines: Liberal Party (FDP) 59%, Conservative Party 51%, Left Party 52%, Social Democratic Party 43%.

Here’s a song about how Germans of non-German descent often feel like they’re strangers in their own country. Like this German of African descent who often gets asked “are you from the United States, or from Africa?” “Actually, from Germany.”

Posted in Germany, Immigration, Politics, Xenophobia | Leave a comment

Quantum entanglement professor speaks out against wooists misusing his name

There is a professor of psychology called Harald Walach at the Viadrina University in Frankfurt/Oder, Germany, who has developed a “weak quantum entanglement” theory which is supposed to account for homoepathy. The claim is similar to how particles can share the same quantum states in quantum entanglement, that substances and the effects they cause (in a human body for instance) can become entangled as well (thus explaining how the dilution process in homeopathy works), and as well as pathogens and its symptoms can come to be entangled as well. (There is a post on Scienceblogs about quantum entanglement in homeopathy)

Now the interesting thing that supporters of homeopathy quote-mine the physicist whose name due to his crucial experiments of it is commonly associated with quantum entanglement , Anton Zeilinger from the University of Vienna, to make it appear as though Prof. Zeilinger supported the quantum entanglement homeopathy nonsense.

The awesome thing is that two days ago, one of the most important newspapers in Germany had a report about this quoting Zeilinger:

  • “Dass ein Bezug zwischen meiner Arbeit und der Homöopathie hergestellt wird, ist wissenschaftlich unbegründet”, sagte Zeilinger Sü “Ich bedaure es sehr, dass mein Name damit in Verbindung gebracht wird.”
    (“It is unfounded scientifically to connect my work with homeopathy”, said Zeilinger to Sü “I regret it very much that my name has been associated with this”)
  • Dafür, dass ein Wirkstoff Informationen in einer Lösung hinterlässt, in der er selbst nicht mehr enthalten ist, “gibt es keinerlei wissenschaftliche Beweise”, erklärt der Physiker. “Homöopathie ist in meinen Augen ein reiner Placeboeffekt.” Auch von der sogenannten Quantenmedizin hält er nichts. “Das ist ein schwammiger, spekulativer Begriff, nicht die Bezeichnung eines wissenschaftlichen Gebietes.”
    (“There is absolutely no scientific evidence” that a substance leaves behind information in a solution in which it is no longer present, the physicist explained. “Homeopathy in my opinion is a pure placebo effect.” He also does not approve of the so-called quantum medicine. “That is a vague, speculative notion, not the designation of a scientific field.”)

The same report also mentions a professor of medicine who did a meta-study which was also misquoted, though he doesn’t completely rule out that homeopathy could be different from placebos.

We need more news like that, especially from the country that gave us homeopathy….

Posted in Science, Woo | 2 Comments

Atheist calls believers in heaven idiots on British TV

A video has gone viral of a British atheist on a Sunday debate show on the BBC calling people who believe in heaven idiots. Here’s the video, and the atheist in question is Kate Smurthwaite, a stand-up comedian and member of the National Secular Society. It seems the debaters were discussing the various ideas about heaven, especially comparing the Muslim and Christian versions of it, and after a detour via the question if aborted babies went to heaven or not (probably a stab at the Catholic dogma of limbo), Smurthwaite said that she didn’t believe in any of it, “because I’m not an idiot”. The gasp in the audience was audible, and then the backlash from the other participants started. Don’t you believe in the faith and credit of your currency, a rather stupid counterargument, as the economy is based upon human interaction, and not on a belief of the almighty. Interesting also the condescending attitude of another participant that she found it rather sad that Smurthwaite was lacking in spirituality…

My initial reaction was positive. Personally, I would never say something like this, but someone needs to move the Overton window. But probably her wording might have been a little bit better. Humans are inherently irrational, it’s not a prerogative of religionists, though religion is something that can play a big role in a person’s irrationality. It might be better to call certain types of religion-induced behaviour idiotic, but humans aren’t religious because they’re religious. Some people on Pharyngula’s Endless Thread also stated that this kind of statements would play into the accommodationists’ hands trying to portray the gnu atheists as harmful to the cause.

I started writing this post a couple of days ago, but didn’t get on with it, so in the mean time, PZ Myers has posted his blog entry and stated his full endorsement of these statements. Well, he seems to disagree about that ;), so the internal debate continues.

What is sad and totally unacceptable, of course, is that after the video went viral, the misogynists came out on full force sending all kinds of threats and in gendered insults to Smurthwaite. But as we have seen this year in more detail than we ever wanted to see, unfortunately not only theists are capable of behaviour like that.

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Was Hitler inspired by Darwin?

Theists like to claim that Hitler was an atheist, and that he was inspired by Darwin’s theory of evolution. In one convenient swoop, they can thus lay the deaths of tens of millions of people on the doorstep of atheism and science. As PZ Myers was discussing in his latest blog entry on Pharyngula, an evolution column by Faye Flam in the Philadelphia Inquirer was arguing against the ideas of historian Richard Weikart, of Expelled fame, that Nazism had been inspired by Darwin’s theory of evolution. Weikart then responded with a number of excuses such as Darwin having been a racist and other strawmen. The bottom line regarding this issue remains:

  • Hitler was inspired by the ideas of Houston Stewart Chamberlain. There is no evidence at all that he read Darwin. Also as is well-known, Darwin’s theory of evolution was put on the index by the Nazis. The Nazis would never have accepted a monogenist view of the human species, as Darwin did.
  • Social Darwinism is a misnomer, as Darwin never espoused views commonly held by Social Darwinists. Also, the concept of Social Darwinism actually predates Darwin’s theory of evolution, with prominent proponents being Thomas Malthus from the 18th century and Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton towards the end of the 19th century.

But I don’t want to repeat that back-and-forth between Weikart on one hand and Flam and other scholars on the other hand, and instead concentrate on one interesting tidbit Weikart gave as “evidence” that Hitler was inspired by Darwin: Hitler used the word Entwicklung(slehre), which means ‘evolution’ in German… This of course piqued my interest as a linguist, so let’s have a look…

Translational fallacies

Part of the problem is that Hitler spoke German, but the discussion is in English. There is usually no complete overlap between words in two languages, and this case is no exception:

  • The noun Entwicklung usually can be translated as ‘development’. However, in certain contexts, Entwicklung can also mean ‘evolution’.
  • That said, in a scientific context, as in the theory of evolution in biology, nowadays, Evolution is clearly preferred, as in Evolutionstheorie. However, this doesn’t rule out the fact that at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, Entwicklungstheorie might have been used more often.
  • Now for verbs, the situation is completely different. While English has a verb ‘evolve’, in German evolvieren is awkward. Thus, a reflexive verb sich entwickeln is used, literally ‘develop itself’. As a transitive verb, entwickeln means ‘develop sth.’. Thus, again we have an overlap here.
Posted in Evolution, Germany, History | 3 Comments

Düsseldorf City Hall refuses to rehabilitate women burned as witches

The last witch trial in Western Germany took place in Gerresheim in 1738, which has been incorporated into Düsseldorf as a district. Two women, Helena Curtens, 16, and Agnes Olmans, 47, were burned at the stake. The City Council was discussing the issue of rehabilitating the two women, supported by the Social Democratic (SPD) and Green Parties.

The city councillor in charge of cultural affairs, from the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) said that City Hall would not be able to grant that request, as it had been a lawful verdict at the time. He said that the court had deliberated for a long time to arrive at its verdict, and the Düsseldorf City Council could not be regarded as a successor to that court. He had sought the expertise of a theologian and proclaimed that it was beyond doubt that the two women were “engaged in superstitious acts”.

This is idiotic on so many levels. Hiding behind legalistic justifications, the good councillor ignores the fact that many other city councils have actually done such a thing. The most outrageous aspect of this farce is that he relied on the advice of a theologian about whether the women in question were burned at the stake for witchcraft correctly. Anyone who has ever studied the history of witch hunts in Europe, it is quite clear that torture was routinely used in interrogations to arrive at confessions (though I do not know the details of the present case).

He did say that naming a street in Gerresheim after the two women would be the best the city could do, though he didn’t sound too enthusiastic about naming a street after heretics either. One would have thought that Düsseldorf, the state capital of the most populous German state, had more class!


Posted in Germany, History | Leave a comment

Church privileges in Austria

The situation of church privileges in Germany is complex, as it is different in each state. In Austria, that might be easier. I have come across a website from a protest movement listing the various privileges the Roman Catholic Church enjoys in Austria. While this is certainly not a disinterested source, the website does list all the laws and treaties invoked for said privileges. This list can give the interested reader an overview of what kind of privileges your average state church in Europe still has.

Tax privileges

  • The Catholic church, one of the biggest landowners in Austria, is exempt from property taxes on its holdings.
  • Church tax paid by the members of the church can be deducted from the state income tax, causing enormous financial losses. Donation are deductible as well, which primarily benefists church institutions (no reason given for this).
  • The collection of the church tax is supported by the state (not explained how), and citizens’ registry data are provided. (NB: unlike in Anglo-Saxon tradition, Continental European nations have a tradition of registering its citizens in every municipality they reside in. You move, you need to de-register in your old town and re-register in your new one.)
  • Although not a privilege per se, since the church is one of the biggest landowners, it also receives a huge amount of EU subsidies related to its economical activities. The 15 biggest church-owned institutions alone amounted for 4m €.

Privileges in education

  • Catholic kindergartens and schools are subsidised by the state, while this is not the case for other private schools. Catholic schools have much easier certification requirements.
  • Theology departments at public universities are financed by the state, but supervised by the Vatican.
  • Even though the theology curricula are controlled by the Vatican, academic titles resulting from those studies are recognised as public titles. (NB: Austrians are known as even more title-crazy than the Germans, i.e. politicians with a M.A. would insist on being addressed as “Herr/Frau Magister”. A recognition of titles is thus of utmost importance to the degree holder).
  • Salaries for teachers of religious education on public schools is paid by the state. According to the protesters, conscientious objection to religious education classes is made difficult by arranging for the classes to be in the middle of the day. An alternative ethics class has not yet been implemented.
  • School diplomas have to show the student’s denomination.

Administrative privileges

  • Concordat of 1933: this is the source of many of the church’s privileges. It guarantees that the church can administer its own matter completely independent of the state, according to canonical law, which has made it much easier for the church to avoid scrutiny by democratic institutions. It also restricts the autonomy of Austria in religious matters and grants the church a quasi-public position.
  • The clergy privilege absolves priests of their civic duty to help combat violent crime.
  • The church has access to the registry information of its members (see above).

Media privileges

  • The ORF, the Austrian Public TV, is obliged to air religious shows, even though demand for this kind of show has been decreasing steadily.
  • The church is also granted representation on the various supervisory bodies of the ORF, giving them a say in making decisions about the lineup and programming in general.
  • The church also has a seat on the advisory board of the KommAustria, the media regulatory authority.

Military service

  • The church makes use of the cheap labour of a great number of conscientious objectors to military service, who have to serve instead with civil institutions, like those of the church.
  • Employees of the church are exempt from military service.
  • The salaries of military chaplains and the military bishop are paid for by the state.
Posted in Austria, Religious privileges | Leave a comment