500th Anniversary of the Reformation: Who is remembering? and why?

StephenBrowncropped-300x300The year 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s promulgation of his 95 Theses. Commemorated worldwide as the beginning of the Reformation, this event was both the result of, and a catalyst for wider-ranging social, political, and religious developments. The waves from Wittenberg reached far beyond the borders of Germany, marking not only what became the Lutheran tradition but also the wider Christian community, including the Roman Catholic Church, whose identity was forged in this 16th-century confrontation.

“What does it mean to look at the events century from the perspective of women as active participants? Were Luther’s anti-Jewish writings…aberrations of his later years, or…a central element of his theological thought?”

Meanwhile, the Reformation was an event embedded in global history, coinciding with changes in trading patterns and economic activity, the confrontation between the Ottoman and Hapsburg empires, the beginnings of the colonization of the Americas, Africa and Asia, and the “Christianization” of Europe, reflected in the expulsion of Muslims and Jews from the Iberian Peninsula.  Anniversaries such as that of the Reformation prompt the question “What is being remembered?” What does it mean to look at the events century from the perspective of women as active participants? Were Luther’s anti-Jewish writings, which exercised such a nefarious role, especially in his German homeland in the 20th century, aberrations of his later years, or, as some researchers now suggest, a central element of his theological thought?  Commemorations also prompt us to ask, “Who is remembering?” and why. Only in 1617 did the publication of Luther’s 95 Theses a century earlier begin to be celebrated as the foundational event of the Lutheran Reformation, amid a looming conflict with the Catholic powers that would erupt the following year in the Thirty Years’ War. Since then, Reformation anniversaries have often been moulded by contemporary interests and concerns, prompting the reflection: how will future historians look back on the 2017 commemoration?

* Dr Stephen G. Brown is editor of The Ecumenical Review published by Wiley on behalf of the World Council of Churches (www.oikoumene.org).


Read the issue on the Reformation from The Ecumenical Review

The Facebook Scandal that Wasn’t – By Udo Schuklenk



Udo Schuklenk

PNAS, the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, published on June 24, 2014 the results of a study involving Facebook (FB) users. The authors wanted to ‘test whether emotional contagion occurs outside of in-person interaction between individuals by reducing the amount of emotional content in the News Feed.’ The researchers investigated this question by manipulating the newsfeeds of a few hundred thousand randomly selected FB users. Some received more positive messages, and some received more negative messages. The identities of these users were not known to the researchers in question. FB permitted social scientists to mess with some of their users’ brains for the purposes of a research project. It’s something that FB does frequently. The contents of its news-feeds are manipulated all the time, its algorithms changed often. FB users have agreed to this since 2012 when they signed up to a user agreement for the free service stating:

… we may use the information we receive about you … for internal operations, including troubleshooting, data analysis, testing, research and service improvement.’

For reasons I still fail to understand fully, some high-profile US bioethicists came out in the typical fashion bioethicists have become notorious for – expressing outrage in various forms and shapes about the supposedly unethical nature of the study. My esteemed colleague Robert Klitzman, for instance, described the study as ‘scandalous’.

My own view of the study is that it isn’t scandalously unethical, even though it would have been better had the research participants been informed about being targeted for research purposes. It seems absurd to me that there are no complaints from these ethicists if FB does exactly the same thing (manipulating its news-feed algorithms to change its users – mine for crying out loud! – state of mind while we use their service). However, grandiose hand waving is triggered if researchers do the same in order to address important research questions. From a consequentialist perspective, this doesn’t make a great deal of sense. More than that, we FB users are informed that ‘information we receive about you’ may be used for ‘testing’ and ‘research.’ Bioethicist Art Caplan, meanwhile, thinks that telling us that we might be subjected to research projects is insufficient for us to truly comprehend that we might be subjected to research projects. Really!

Well, to cut a long story short, Michelle Meyer and other bioethicists – myself included – came together to pen a response to our outraged colleagues, defending the research in question. Nature, of all publications, took our commentary. Check it out some time, be it just to reassure yourself that bioethicists aren’t all about seeing scandal and problems in every corner of the universe. Since we wrote our piece, a number of bioethicists, including Dan Brock, Peter Singer, Dan Wikler and others have signed on to our statement.

Let the debate begin.

Whistleblowing – are we even allowed to dare?

Repression photoPaul Brookes, an associate professor at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York, dared to be a whistleblower.  According to an interview he gave in the Magazine Science, he was author of the now defunct blog science-fraud.org. Like oh so many, he tried to achieve that via the internet. After realising that a lot of the scientific literature that is published contains faults in the form of wrong data, wrong or missing sources, and more, he decided that it was high time to speak out against bad writing and publishing practice. In order to protect his university and himself, he wrote about the problems anonymously. But with the way the internet actually functions, it was not that hard to blow his cover. Somebody apparently tracked back his IP Adress, and since his blog was uncomfortable for more than a few fellow scientists, someone, yet again anonymous, send an email to his university and to other institutions, exposing him and threatening with a law suit. Brookes subsequently declared his authorship the next day and removed the blog from the internet. Fortunately, the university, although not being particularly happy about Brookes actions, led him hold on to his job and Brookes is still blogging about faulty papers. Now under his own name and strictly in his private time. Continue reading “Whistleblowing – are we even allowed to dare?”

Is it us or is it them?

ImageThe US-German friendship is stable, right? Or is it? How much is a friend allowed to know and how much of this knowledge is a friend allowed to gain without the other person’s knowledge? Apparently, friendship does not equal friendship and some people have more rights than others. What I am referring to here is obviously the NSA scandal. So much has been said about it already, that I actually did not want to write about it anymore. However, the recent development with regards to the German Chancellor Angela Merkel do make me really angry. I am not angry about the NSA spying on Mrs. Merkel in particular. I do not think it is correct to spy out your own citizens without a good reason, let alone people in other countries. I am angry, because Mrs. Merkel did not say much when the NSA scandal broke several month ago, hence showing that she essentially was in accord with the NSA and saw no fault with the action, but she is bitterly complaining now. But is there a difference in the NSA spying on her or spying on random citizens? Politically there is a difference, and I am well aware of that. Continue reading “Is it us or is it them?”

How much do we value our freedom?

Benjamin_Franklin (1)For some reason that I am not even aware of anymore, I believed that countries who spy on their citizens are not democratic ones but only those which are governed by a dictator who suffers from an understandable fear of the people he is actually governing. Apparently I was obviously very wrong about that. Edward Snowden, the US ex-NSA (National Security Agency) technician, turned whistleblower on the government, has showed to all of us, that for the US, spying, and not only on its citizens but also on the citizens in many other countries, seems to be quite a normal procedure. (Even though the NSA now states that it mainly spies on people in other countries. Somehow, for me living in Germany, that does not make it on bid better.) Snowden revealed that the NSA has a system called Prism that is designed to track phone and internet connections, and is able to reveal every information about its use and the attached user. It is supposed to work with big companies like Google and Facebook, Microsoft and Apple. “The NSA has built an infrastructure that allows it to intercept almost everything. With this capability, the vast majority of human communications are automatically ingested without targeting. If I wanted to see your emails or your wife’s phone, all I have to do is use intercepts. I can get your emails, passwords, phone records, credit cards.” Says Edward Snowden in an interview with the Guardian that was conducted Monday the 10th of June in Hong Kong. Since then Snowden has checked out of the hotel and is believed to be hiding in Hong Kong.
James Clapper, Chief of the NSA has said that the system was not a snooping device to spy on people outside the US but an internal system of the government that is only used to counter terrorism. Unfortunately, even this leaves a lot of room for interpretation and can be widely used if the NSA deems it appropriate. So, the public does not really know how Prism functions, nor what it is actually targeting. Does a red flag on some system come up when I write the word “bomb” three times? Does a red flag come up as soon as I publish this blog because I voice criticism towards the NSA and the US government? Do I have to be afraid now? Even if I would be, and let me say, I am not, I would write and publish my criticism. It is unbelievable how our personal freedom and our liberties are treated since 9/11. As well as I can understand the fear, the way we are behaving, the terrorists have already won, because they have struck perpetual terror in our minds. And they use our fear very cleverly, because now someone like Edward Snowden cannot voice his opinions anymore without having to fear, not some terrorists, but his fellow countrymen who want to prosecute him for saying the truth and for explaining to the public how it is treated by those who claim that they have a claim and a right to protect us. And even though I can imagine that Snowden was probably sworn to secrecy when he was accepted as a NSA employee, it must be possible for each and every individual to follow their conscience and to stand up and speak out. I cannot give you a good answer as to where to draw the line between liberty and security. But I can quote Benjamin Franklin “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” And to end with a thought of my own, I am deeply unhappy that this wisdom is still not adhered to. How many more liberties and freedoms do we have to lose to understand that this is not worth all the security in the world?

World Philosophy Day

World Philosophy Day2012 marks the tenth anniversary of World Philosophy Day, an all-day event sponsored by UNESCO with international, national and local events centered around the theme of “Future Generations.”

According to UNESCO, this year’s theme is particularly timely, as “global concern for sustainable development has given increased pertinence to the interests and moral standing of future generations.

These questions are profoundly philosophical. They concern communication between beings who cannot talk to one another; identities, as extended in time and space; the scope and power of the moral imagination; and of course the ethical issue of responsibility.”

Also, check out the online event that we ran last year as part of World Philosophy Day; a series of five leading-edge opinion pieces exploring the theme ‘The Future of Philosophy’, from Robert Stern, Vincent Hendricks, Tim Mulgan, Matti Eklund and Luciano Floridi.

Pussy Riot – or what is (religious) freedom to you?

ImageFor months and months the Russian punk rock band Pussy Riot has dominated the news in various ways. Pussy Riot is an all-female band based in Moscow. The members all wear balaclavas when they are performing, because they are protesting against the Kremlin and against the Putin-led government and were and are afraid of the police arresting them. On March 4th, it has happened. The group performed, on February 21st early in the morning, in the Orthodox Cathedral in Moscow, Christ the Savior, and three members were subsequently arrested. Maria Alyokhina,24, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova,22, and Yekaterina Samutsevich,29, spent the last seven and a half month in a prison in Moscow being tried for hooliganism motivated by religious hatred. Yekaterina Samutsevich was released on appeal, while her two band mates were convicted and sentenced to two years of prison camp respectively. Putin claims that the sentencing was not politically motivated and that he had no voice in the sentencing process. He even goes so far as to claim that he had no knowledge of the group before the video shoot in the Cathedral. This claim seems hardly to be believable. Putin normally knows pretty well what is going on in his country and especially in Moscow and most especially if it involves an entire group of young people, most of them in their twenties and maybe thirties, who are consistently protesting against the government. Continue reading “Pussy Riot – or what is (religious) freedom to you?”