VATICAN CITY The participants of a first-of-its-kind Vatican conference have bluntly rejected the Catholic church’s long-held teachings on just war theory, saying they have too often been used to justify violent conflicts and the global church must reconsider Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence.
Members of a three-day event co-hosted by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and the international Catholic peace organization Pax Christi have also strongly called on Pope Francis to consider writing an encyclical letter, or some other “major teaching document,” reorienting the church’s teachings on violence.
“There is no ‘just war,'” the some 80 participants of the conference state in an appeal they released Thursday morning.
“Too often the ‘just war theory’ has been used to endorse rather than prevent or limit war,” they continue. “Suggesting that a ‘just war’ is possible also undermines the moral imperative to develop tools and capacities for nonviolent transformation of conflict.”
….Just war theory is a tradition that uses a series of criteria to evaluate whether use of violence can be considered morally justifiable. First referred to by fourth-century bishop St. Augustine of Hippo, it was later articulated in depth by 13th-century theologian St. Thomas Aquinas and is today outlined by four conditions in the formal Catechism of the Catholic Church.
The Rome conference, held Monday through Wednesday, brought experts engaged in global nonviolent struggles to reconsider the theory for the first time under the aegis of the Vatican.
It comes after a number of theologians have criticized continued use of the theory in modern times, saying that both the powerful capabilities of modern weapons and evidence of the effectiveness of nonviolent campaigns make it outdated.
Yes, of course, non-violent campaigns can (mercifully) work, but they work most effectively within a society – and usually a society where the ground rules of dispute resolution are already broadly agreed.
Thus in the West, non-violent protest can be very effective. In, say, the China of Tiananmen Square that was not so true.
Similarly between states, non-violent campaigns are only effective if those states have already agreed that the issues over which they are disagreeing are not the sort of issues over which nations go to war. Many states disagree with Japanese whaling, but they are not going to fight Japan over it. Instead they apply moral pressure.
But there are cases in which there is no agreed ‘non-violent’ mechanism to bring about (or halt) the change that one state (or para-state) wants to see. Non-violence, in the form of appeasement, was tried against the Third Reich. It didn’t work out. Neither the Northern nor the Southern States of the antebellum US wanted to go to war, but, in the end, war was all that was left.
Scroll forward a century and a half. Will ISIS really be stopped by a campaign of non-violence?
National Catholic Reporter:
At a press event launching the conference’s final appeal document — given the title “An Appeal to the Catholic Church to Re-Commit to the Centrality of Gospel Nonviolence” — several of the event’s participants said the church should simply no longer teach the just war theory.
“I came a long distance for this conference, with a very clear mind that violence is outlived,” said Archbishop John Baptist Odama of Gulu, Uganda. “It is out of date for our world of today.”
No, Archbishop, it is not ‘outlived’. And for a man from Uganda, a land ravaged by the horrors of the Lord’s Resistance Army, to say that is disgusting.
And do the Yezidi believe that violence is outlived?
Do Odama’s fellow Christians, martyred in Nigeria, Syria, Iraq and too many other places besides, believe that violence is outlived?
“We have to sound this with a strong voice,” said the archbishop. “Any war is a destruction. There is no justice in destruction. … It is outdated.”
Did the liberated peoples of Europe in 1945 feel that way?
Or read Sherman, that most eloquent, most reluctant warrior of genius:
“I confess, without shame, that I am sick and tired of fighting — its glory is all moonshine; even success the most brilliant is over dead and mangled bodies, with the anguish and lamentations of distant families, appealing to me for sons, husbands, and fathers … it is only those who have never heard a shot, never heard the shriek and groans of the wounded and lacerated … that cry aloud for more blood, more vengeance, more desolation.”
“We can make war so terrible and make [the South] so sick of war that generations pass away before they again appeal to it.”
Back to the conference:
Marie Dennis, an American who serves as a co-president of Pax Christi International, said she and the conference group “believe that it is time for the church to speak another word into the global reality.”
“When we look at the reality of war, when we look at the teachings of Jesus, we’re asking what is the responsibility of the church,” she said. “And it is, we believe, a responsibility to promote nonviolence.”
Dennis also said she understands that people may raise concerns in rejecting the just war theory over needing to stop unjust aggressors. Her group, she said, agrees that violent aggressors have to be stopped.
“The question is how,” said Dennis. “Our belief would be that as long as we keep saying we can do it with military force, we will not invest the creative energy, the deep thinking, the financial and human resources in creating or identifying the alternatives that actually could make a difference.”
“As long as we say that dropping bombs will solve the problem we won’t find other solutions and I think that’s feeling more and more clear to us,” he said….
Even if we accept unchallenged her assumptions about what Jesus actually said (ancient hearsay, after all), there is a certain presumption (a presumption rooted in a sense of moral superiority) running through Dennis’ comments, the presumption that nations rush into war. That’s rarely true. Man is a violent animal, but he knows what war means too. If a country can get what it wants without violence, for the most part, it will. War is generally not the first resort.
And as for combating ISIS with deep thinking….
There is something rather sickening about the spectacle that this conference represents. The priests, nuns and theologians will preen, and lay their virtue out for all to see, but they do so safe in the knowledge that most people disagree with what they have to say.
To preach non-violence while safe behind the defenses that others will man is the behavior of a hypocrite and, worse than that, a hypocrite who freeloads of the sacrifices of those who he or she condemns.
Ken Butigan, a lecturer at DePaul University in Chicago and executive director of the non-profit group Pace e Bene, said: “We have gotten a green light for months that this is something that Pope Francis is excited about moving forward on.”
“We are determined to support that momentum at this historical moment,” he said. “We know Pope Francis has a vision and we’re here to support that vision.”
The same Pope Francis, who just last June said this:
“The great powers had photographs of the railway routes that the trains took to the concentration camps, like Auschwitz, to kill the Jews, and also the Christians, and also the Roma, also the homosexuals,” Francis said, citing the death camp in Poland. “Tell me, why didn’t they bomb” those railroad routes?
Well, no one ever accused Francis of intellectual coherence.
ROME (AP) — Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders said in an interview with The Associated Press that he met with Pope Francis, describing the meeting as a “real honor.”
Sanders said the meeting took place Saturday morning before the pope left for his one-day visit to Greece. He said he was honored by the meeting, and that he told the pope he appreciated the message that he is sending the world about the need to inject morality and justice into the world economy. Sanders said it’s a message he has been sending as well.
“We had an opportunity to meet with him this morning,” Sanders said. “It was a real honor for me, for my wife and I to spend some time with him. I think he is one of the extraordinary figures not only in the world today but in modern world history.”
Sanders said it was a brief meeting at the papal residence. “I told him that I was incredibly appreciative of the incredible role that he is playing in this planet in discussing issues about the need for an economy based on morality, not greed.”
Sanders and wife, Jane, stayed overnight at the pope’s residence, the Domus Santa Marta hotel in the Vatican gardens, on the same floor as the pope. They were seen at the hotel reception, carrying their own bags.
“Carrying their own bags”!
Oh the humility.
The Vatican is loathe to get involved in electoral campaigns, and usually tries to avoid any perception of partisanship as far as the pope is concerned. Popes rarely travel to countries during the thick of political campaigns, knowing a papal photo op with the sitting head of state can be exploited for political ends.
However, Francis has been known to flout Vatican protocol, and the meeting with Sanders is evidence that his personal desires often trump Vatican diplomacy.
“His message is resonating with every religion on earth [and] with people who have no religion and it is a message that says we have got to inject morality and justice into the global economy,” Sanders said.
No, the pope’s message, like Sanders’, is a variant of the same old destructive millenarian nonsense, a vessel for resentment, a pathway to misery for the many, to power for the few. The most important ideological difference between these two old conspiracy-theorists is that one was deeply influenced by leftist authoritarianism, the other by Peronism.
And Francis smiles more often.
Did you know that Easter was originally a pagan festival dedicated to Eostre, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring, whose consort was a hare, the forerunner of our Easter bunny? Of course you did. Every year the fecund muck of the internet bursts forth afresh with cheery did-you-know explanations like this, setting modern practices in a context of ancient and tragically interrupted pagan belief.
The trouble is that they are wrong. The colourful myths of Eostre and her hare companion, who in some versions is a bird transformed into an egg-laying rabbit, aren’t historically pagan. They are modern fabrications, cludged together in an unresearched assumption of pagan precedence.Only one piece of documentary evidence for Eostre exists: a passing mention in Bede’s The Reckoning of Time. Bede explains that the lunar month of Eosturmonath “was once called after a goddess… named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated.”
However, even this may only have been supposition on Bede’s part. In the same section he says the winter festival of Modranecht was so named “because (we suspect) of the ceremonies they enacted all that night,” hardly the statement of a historian with first-hand information.
Eosturmonath may simply mean “the month of opening”, appropriate for a time of opening buds and arguably a better fit for the rest of the Anglo-Saxon months. They tended to be named after agricultural or meteorological events, hence “mud-month” and “blood-month”. Only one other month is, according to Bede, named after a goddess – Hrethmonath – and like Eostre, there is no other evidence of Hretha anywhere.
Known Anglo-Saxon deities like Woden and Thor are paralleled in Norse and Germanic pre-Christian religion, but there are no such equivalents to Bede’s Eostre and Hretha, which strengthens the case for them being inventions. Grimm explored the possibility of a German “Ostara” in Deutsche Mythologie, but in the absence of any primary evidence, all he could produce was conjecture. We’re also left wondering why, if Eosturmonath really was named after a pagan goddess, the staunch Christian Charlemagne chose it to replace the old Roman name of April.
There are no images of Eostre, no carvings, no legends, and no association with hares, rabbits or eggs. Yet a swift Google search turns up heaps of repeated Eostre lore. Even the usually formidable Snopes.com allocates Eostre her customary sacred hare, without any historical justification. So where do the tales come from?
The answer is found in the recent history of modern self-identified paganism. Back in the days when Catweazle was on telly, the movement was inchoate, disparate and in urgent need of roots. It was in the difficult position of claiming moral heirship from ancient pre-Christian religion, but having very few credentials to back that up.
Usefully, though, there was already a tendency (stemming from Victorian anthropology) to imagine repressed pagan roots dangling from anything sufficiently working class and folksy; and though academia had moved away from this, pagan revivalism had not. By asserting Christian appropriation of pagan customs as fact, modern paganism could claim both precedence and wrongful treatment, citing Pope Gregory’s letter as if that settled it.
Pagan origins were thus claimed for everything from Father Christmas to Morris dancing and the Easter bunny was retroactively recast as Eostre’s sacred hare, grafting a faked pagan provenance on to a creature first mentioned as late as 1682. A Ukranian folk tale about the origins of pysanky, painted eggs, was rewritten to star Eostre and her bunny. Some still claim Eostre’s name is the root of the word oestrogen, ignoring that human eggs are microscopic and that the real etymology of oestrogen in fact relates to the gadfly….
Oh well, there is (as I noted in a post entitled—ahem—“Happy Eostre”) always this (from another Guardian piece):
In an ironic twist, the Cybele cult flourished on today’s Vatican Hill. Cybele’s lover Attis, was born of a virgin, died and was reborn annually. This spring festival began as a day of blood on Black Friday, rising to a crescendo after three days, in rejoicing over the resurrection. There was violent conflict on Vatican Hill in the early days of Christianity between the Jesus worshippers and pagans who quarrelled over whose God was the true, and whose the imitation. What is interesting to note here is that in the ancient world, wherever you had popular resurrected god myths, Christianity found lots of converts.
The not always entirely reliable Sir James Fraser had quite a bit to say about Attis in The Golden Bough.
Another of those gods whose supposed death and resurrection struck such deep roots into the faith and ritual of Western Asia is Attis. He was to Phrygia what Adonis was to Syria. Like Adonis, he appears to have been a god of vegetation, and his death and resurrection were annually mourned and rejoiced over at a festival in spring. The legends and rites of the two gods were so much alike that the ancients themselves sometimes identified them. Attis was said to have been a fair young shepherd or herdsman beloved by Cybele, the Mother of the Gods, a great Asiatic goddess of fertility, who had her chief home in Phrygia. Some held that Attis was her son. His birth, like that of many other heroes, is said to have been miraculous. His mother, Nana, was a virgin, who conceived by putting a ripe almond or a pomegranate in her bosom.
…The great spring festival of Cybele and Attis is best known to us in the form in which it was celebrated at Rome; but as we are informed that the Roman ceremonies were also Phrygian, we may assume that they differed hardly, if at all, from their Asiatic original. The order of the festival seems to have been as follows.
On the twenty-second day of March, a pine-tree was cut in the woods and brought into the sanctuary of Cybele, where it was treated as a great divinity. The duty of carrying the sacred tree was entrusted to a guild of Tree-bearers. The trunk was swathed like a corpse with woollen bands and decked with wreaths of violets, for violets were said to have sprung from the blood of Attis, as roses and anemones from the blood of Adonis; and the effigy of a young man, doubtless Attis himself, was tied to the middle of the stem…
There is, of course, nothing wrong with syncretism, so in the spirit of what this day now is: Happy Easter!
Pope Francis on Good Friday:
Pope Francis decried what he called Europe’s “indifferent and anaesthetised conscience” over refugees, during Good Friday prayers in Rome during which he also criticised pedophile priests, arms dealers and fundamentalists.
Tens of thousands of Catholic faithful gathered for the service at the city’s Colosseum, where thousands of Christians are believed to have been killed in Roman times.
“O Cross of Christ, today we see you in the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas which have become insatiable cemeteries, reflections of our indifferent and anaesthetised conscience,” the 79-year old pontiff said, referring to the thousands who set off in unseaworthy boats to reach Greece and the rest of Europe.”
Francis has been hectoring Europeans about migrants (many of whom are not refugees) since, at least, his disgusting, dishonest and demagogic pronouncements in Lampedusa some years back. Yet he seems unwilling to acknowledge quite how many refugees Europe has been taking in of late. It would, I suppose, get in the way of his ‘narrative’.
The Pope also seems unwilling to acknowledge that comments such as his have helped create a climate which have tempted many migrants to take the dangerous route to Europe – with the tragic consequences with which we have become all too familiar.
What was it again that the prewar British prime minister Stanley Baldwin had to say about power without responsibility?
Cross-posted on the Corner.
The Pope’s decision to meet his “brother”, Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill in, delightfully, Havana (you can find some details here of the way that the persecution of Christians has spiked since last year’s Francis-brokered deal between the Cuban dictatorship and the US) says quite a bit about Francis’ equivocal (I’ll be kind) attitude to individual liberty.
As for Kirill, well, here’s David Satter writing in Forbes back in 2009:
The installation of Kirill I as the new patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church last month will not end the subordination of the church to the Putin regime. On the contrary, the church is likely to emerge as an even stronger supporter of dictatorship and anti-Western ideology. Kirill, who was the Metropolitan of Smolensk, succeeds Alexei II who died in December after 18 years as head of the Russian Church. According to material from the Soviet archives, Kirill was a KGB agent (as was Alexei). This means he was more than just an informer, of whom there were millions in the Soviet Union. He was an active officer of the organization. Neither Kirill nor Alexei ever acknowledged or apologized for their ties with the security agencies…
On the day after his accession to the Patriarchy, Kirill elaborated on his ideas for “harmoniously” combining the demands of the state and human rights. He said that he wanted to base church-state relations on the Byzantine concept of “symphonia,” in which a distinction is drawn between the imperial authority and the priesthood, with the former concerned with human affairs and the latter with matters divine. The two are regarded as closely interdependent, and neither is subordinated to the other. Church scholars have pointed out that there is no example of symphonia successfully defining church-state relations in our times, and the recent history of the Russian Orthodox church indicates that, faced with the power of the Kremlin, it has no interest in becoming a moral force.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, the church received official privileges including the right to import duty-free alcohol and tobacco. In 1995, the Nikolo-Ugreshky Monastery, which is directly subordinated to the patriarchate, earned $350 million from the sale of alcohol. The patriarchate’s department of foreign church relations, which Kirill ran, earned $75 million from the sale of tobacco. But the patriarchate reported an annual budget in 1995-1996 of only $2 million. Kirill’s personal wealth was estimated by the Moscow News in 2006 to be $4 billion.
Thus the affair of the disappearing watch. Disappearing watch? The BBC explains:
The Russian Orthodox Church has apologised for showing a photo of its leader Patriarch Kirill that was doctored to airbrush out a luxury watch he was wearing. The gold Breguet watch is estimated to be worth more than $30,000 (£19,000) and was spotted by Russian bloggers.
The watch’s reflection could be seen in the 2009 photo on the church’s website.
Clearly—to borrow Francis’ term—a ‘church of the poor’.
Meanwhile, writing in The Catholic Herald last year, Geraldine Fagan explains how the Kirill’s (superficially spiritual) vision of a “Russian World” (Russkiy Mir, a term also used by Putin) that spreads beyond Russia’s current orders has given support to the Kremlin’s adventures in the ‘near abroad’, adventures that have not been good news for religious minorities:
Although ostensibly upholding religious freedom, the Donetsk People’s Republic [a ‘state’ in occupied Ukraine] retains the right to “protect the population from the activity of religious sects”. These “sects” are not defined by the territory’s constitution – but you only have to watch Russian state television to work out who they are. A popular talk show broadcast on the day of Crimea’s annexation focused on “false religions that have destroyed the Ukrainian nation and soul”, including Baptists, charismatic Protestants and Eastern Rite Catholics. Catholics and Protestants are already reporting difficulties in the pro-Moscow areas.
Protestant communities are particularly strong in south-east Ukraine, following a 19th-century spiritual revival among German settlers originally invited there by Catherine the Great. In the separatist regions of Donetsk and Lugansk, Protestants report confiscations of their churches as well as the Donetsk Christian University, previously among the largest Protestant institutions of higher education in the former USSR.
In one particularly grave incident in June 2014, four Pentecostal men known for their active mission work were kidnapped by separatists in Slavyansk and later found shot dead, their bodies showing signs of severe beatings. A small Catholic convent founded 18 years ago in the Crimean city of Simferopol was forced to close in late 2014, according to Forum 18 News Service. The convent’s three Franciscan nuns – citizens of Poland and Ukraine – were denied extensions to their residency permits. Six of the peninsula’s 12 Roman Catholic priests had similarly been forced out by the end of last year. Forum 18 also reports that only one of Crimea’s five Eastern Rite Catholic parishes currently has a priest. Being citizens of Ukraine, their seven priests may spend only 90 days at a time on Russian territory before leaving the country for a further 90 days.
Doubtless they will have been delighted by the spectacle in Havana.
But the near-universal acceptance of a belief does not prove that it is valid or even meaningful any more than the general belief in witches or ghosts proved the validity of these concepts. What we have to deal with in the case of “social justice” is simply a quasi-religious superstition of the kind which we should respectfully leave in peace so long as it merely makes those happy who hold it, but which we must fight when it becomes the pretext of coercing other men. And the prevailing belief in “social justice” is at present probably the gravest threat to most other values of a free civilization.
Friedrich Hayek, The Mirage of Social Justice (1976)
In this case, however, highlighted by the Washington Post, they have got things right:
An elite panel of scientists and bioethicists offered guarded approval Wednesday of a novel form of genetic engineering that could prevent congenital diseases but would result in babies with genetic material from three parents.
The committee, which was convened last year at the request of the Food and Drug Administration, concluded that it is ethically permissible to “go forward, but with caution” with mitochondrial replacement techniques (MRT), said chairman Jeffrey Kahn, a bioethicist at Johns Hopkins University.
No, I’m not sure why it is up to them to decide what is or is not “ethically permissible”, but still…
But the advisory panel’s conclusions have slammed into a congressional ban: The omnibus fiscal year 2016 budget bill passed by Congress late last year contained language prohibiting the government from using any funds to handle applications for experiments that genetically alter human embryos.
Thus the green light from the scientists and ethicists won’t translate anytime soon into clinical applications that could potentially help families that want healthy babies, said Shoukhrat Mitalipov, a pioneer of the new technique at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, Ore.
“It seems like the FDA is disabled in this case by Congress,” Mitalipov said. “At this point we’re still not clear how to proceed.”
Congress should get out of the way.
The FDA released a statement Wednesday saying it will carefully review the report from the advisory committee, but added that the congressional ban prohibits the agency from reviewing applications “in which a human embryo is intentionally created or modified to include a heritable genetic modification. As such, human subject research utilizing genetic modification of embryos for the prevention of transmission of mitochondrial disease cannot be performed in the United States in FY 2016.”
The new clinical procedures should be used rarely, with extreme care and with abundant government oversight, and they initially should be applied only to male embryos, the advisory panel said. The group delivered its report at a morning news conference at the National Academy of Sciences headquarters in Washington.
The report comes at a time of dazzling advances in genetic engineering and a commensurate struggle to understand the ethics of “playing God,” a phrase uttered twice Wednesday by committee member R. Alta Charo, a professor of law and bioethics at the University of Wisconsin.
Then again, as it’s most unlikely that God played God…
The FDA last year asked the Institute of Medicine, now part of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, to review the ethical implications of MRT since this other method of genetic engineering would result in what has been loosely referred to as “three-parent babies.” British officials have already approved investigatory experiments involving the technique.
Certain serious congenital diseases can be passed from a mother to child via the tiny amount of genetic material contained in the mitochondria, which are small organs within a cell that are often described as the cell’s energy factories or power plants. New experimental techniques involving in vitro fertilization make it possible to replace mutated and potentially disease-associated mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) with non-pathogenic mtDNA donated from another woman.
Mitochondrial DNA contains 37 genes and is distinct from nuclear DNA (nDNA), which in humans has upwards of 20,000 genes. The mitochondrial DNA is not found in sperm, only in eggs, and thus is passed only from mother to child. That’s why the panel recommended limiting the experimental procedures at first to male embryos.
The males-only guideline is intended to prevent the introduction of unwanted, irreversible genetic changes to the human species. Any genetic changes associated with this kind of engineering will meet a dead end in males.
“If there are adverse events, they would not be reverberating down the generations,” Charo said.
The procedure should be extended to female embryos only after the long-term effects of such novel genetic engineering are better understood, the committee concluded.
Nuclear DNA is by far the more significant form of genetic material for determining most human characteristics. As the committee put it, “[W]hile mtDNA plays a central role in genetic ancestry, traits that are carried in nDNA are those that in the public understanding constitute the core of genetic relatedness in terms of physical and behavioral characteristics as well as most forms of disease.”
As a result, the modification of mitochondrial DNA “is meaningfully different.”
But panel members said that they took the philosophical issues seriously, noting that someone with genetic material from two different maternal bloodlines would potentially have to wrestle with questions about identity, kinship and ancestry.
Not really. The babies who benefit from this technology will have about 0.1 percent of their DNA attributable to a third party. It’s a (very) crude way of looking this, but think how many great, great-grandparents away it would take to account for 0.1% of someone’s ancestry….
To describe the donor as a third “parent” is, to put it mildly, a stretch.
And, as a reminder of what this is about:
The donor provides only their mitochondria. Often called the “power plants” of the cell, the mitochondria converts energy from food into energy that can power a cell. When someone’s mitochondria don’t function properly, it’s bad news indeed…
As one ‘ethicist’ notes:
It is not part of what makes us genetically who we are.It doesn’t affect height, eye color, intelligence, musicality. It simply allows the batteries to work properly…
And as to what’s at stake;
Mitochondrial diseases can cause a whole host of life threatening problems, and it’s estimated that as many as 4,000 children are born with such conditions in the United States each year.
Again, politicians should get out of the way.
America Magazine is, in its own way, an entertaining corner of the religious left published by Jesuits. It’s a reliable source of by-the-numbers leftism supplemented by pious distortions, holy evasions, extra helpings of sanctimony and regular hosannas for the Dear Leader, the (more or less) Peronist Jesuit now presiding over the Vatican.
So I suppose it wasn’t altogether surprising to read this there:
Like the Ebola panic of 2014, Zika reminds the complacent of the affluent world of a kind of enforced solidarity with folks in poorer regions, an impoverished and sometimes cruel imposter of the true solidarity we are called to embrace.
And for added points:
Zika joins an unhappy collection of diseases making the jump from tropical regions, where some of the world’s poorest people reside, to temperate zones of affluence. Global warming may be making previously hostile geography more amenable to the major vector for these illnesses, the humble mosquito.
Ah yes, global warming. Of course.
Here’s John Gray in The New Statesman, reviewing God Is Watching You: How the Fear of God Makes Us Human by Dominic Johnson:
An evolutionary biologist trained at Oxford who also holds a doctorate in political science, Johnson believes that the need to find a more-than-natural meaning in natural events is universal – “a ubiquitous phenomenon of human nature” – and performs a vital role in maintaining order in society. Extending far beyond cultures shaped by monotheism, it “spans cultures across the globe and every historical period, from indigenous tribal societies . . . to modern world religions – and includes atheists, too”.
Reward and punishment may not emanate from a single omnipotent deity, as imagined in Western societies. Justice may be dispensed by a vast unseen army of gods, angels, demons and ghosts, or else by an impersonal cosmic process that rewards good deeds and punishes wrongdoing, as in the Hindu and Buddhist conception of karma. But some kind of moral order beyond any human agency seems to be demanded by the human mind, and this sense that our actions are overseen and judged from beyond the natural world serves a definite evolutionary role. Belief in supernatural reward and punishment promotes social co-operation in a way nothing else can match. The belief that we live under some kind of supernatural guidance is not a relic of superstition that might some day be left behind but an evolutionary adaptation that goes with being human.
That’s not true for everyone, of course (as it happens, the idea of a meaningless, indifferent universe suits me just fine) but as a general principle it is convincing. And that means that religion is not going away any time soon, or ever.
In the course of an article for Politix on godless conservatives written a couple of years back, I noted this:
Godless conservatives however are rarely anti-religious. They often appreciate religion as a force for social cohesion and as a link to a nation’s past. They may push back hard against religious extremism, but, unlike today’s “new atheists” they are most unlikely to be found railing against “sky fairies.” Mankind has evolved in a way that makes it strongly disposed towards religious belief, and conservatism is based on recognizing human nature for what it is.
New Atheists (and plenty of old ones too) not so much…
[The] “new atheists” are simple souls. In their view, which derives from rationalist philosophy and not from evolutionary theory, the human mind is a faculty that seeks an accurate representation of the world. This leaves them with something of a problem. Why are most human beings, everywhere and at all times, so wedded to some version of religion? It can only be that their minds have been deformed by malignant priests and devilish power elites. Atheists have always been drawn to demonology of this kind; otherwise, they cannot account for the persistence of the beliefs they denounce as poisonously irrational. The inveterate human inclination to religion is, in effect, the atheist problem of evil.
But what if belief in the supernatural is natural for human beings? For anyone who takes the idea of evolution seriously, religions are not intellectual errors, but adaptations to the experience of living in an uncertain and hazardous world. What is needed – and still largely lacking – is a perspective in which religion is understood as an inexhaustibly complex variety of beliefs and practices that have evolved to meet enduring human needs.
If the religious instinct is always likely to be with us, then, rather than railing against religion as a whole, it is much more useful to weigh different forms of religious expression against each other. All religions are not the same. Some faiths will be more benign than others. Equally there are different ways of following a faith. What a holy book says is one thing, how its followers behave can be quite another. Religions develop over time: what was, so to speak, writ in stone thousands of years ago, may now be read by many of the faithful as nothing more than folklore.
And man, of course, can shape the course of that development. If I had to design a religion, it would be kindly, gently patriotic, theologically broad-minded, a quiet conservator of tradition and order with room (for those who want it) for a spot of the supernatural, but little time for superstition, the navel-gazing nonsense of mysticism or an over-insistence on dogma. In fact, it would look a lot like an idealized version of the Church of England of seventy or eighty years ago, a happy accident of history that is far from likely to be repeated.
But back to Gray:
Practically without exception, the atheist movements of the past few centuries testify to a demand for meaning that has led them to replicate many of the patterns of thinking distinctive of monotheism, and more particularly of Christianity.
For Christians, human history isn’t an endless succession of cycles – as it was for the ancient Greek and Romans, for example – but a story, and one of a distinctive kind. Unlike practitioners of polytheism, who seek and find meaning in other ways, Christians have found sense in life through a mythical narrative in which humankind is struggling towards redemption. It is a myth that infuses the imagination of countless people who imagine they have left religion behind. The secular style of modern thinking is deceptive. Marxist and liberal ideas of “alienation” and “revolution”, “the march of humanity” and “the progress of civilisation” are redemptive myths in disguise.
For some, atheism may be no more than a fundamental lack of interest in the concepts and practices of religion. But as an organised movement, atheism has always been a surrogate faith. Evangelical atheism is the faith that mass conversion to godlessness can transform the world. This is a fantasy. If the history of the past few centuries is any guide, a godless world would be as prone to savage conflicts as the world has always been. Still, the belief that without religion human life would be vastly improved sustains and consoles many a needy unbeliever – which confirms the essentially religious character of atheism as a movement.
Atheism need not be an evangelical cult. Here and there one finds thinkers who have truly left redemptive myths behind. The American journalist and iconoclast H L Mencken was a rambunctious atheist who delighted in lambasting religious believers; but he did so in a spirit of mockery, not out of any interest in converting them into unbelievers. Wisely, he did not care what others believed. Rather than lamenting the fact of incurable human irrationality, he preferred to laugh at the spectacle it presents. If monotheism was, for Mencken, an amusing exhibition of human folly, one suspects he would have found the new atheism just as entertaining.
Read the whole thing.
The Roman Catholic Church has always been somewhat suspicious of the nation-state, an institution it regards as an obstacle to its own claims of universal authority, so this story from the Daily Telegraph comes as no surprise:
The Vatican wants Britain to stay in the European Union, the Pope’s foreign secretary has declared.
Archbishop Paul Gallagher, Secretary for Relations with States within the Holy See, suggested “Brexit” could weaken Europe.
In an interview with ITV, the English cleric who has a weekly meeting with Pope Francis, gave a clear signal of Rome’s view of the best outcome of the forthcoming in/out referendum on continued EU membership.
“The Holy See respects the ultimate decision of the British people – that’s for the British electorate to decide,” he said.
“But I think we would see it as being something that is not going to make a stronger Europe.”
No, Brexit would not weaken ‘Europe’, and, if it dealt a blow to the EU (which is something very different), it might well even strengthen it. The EU, based on post-democracy and an ideology imposed from the top, may appeal to the Vatican, but it has evolved into a catastrophe for the peoples of Europe. Under the circumstances, anything that might ‘weaken’ it (and, regrettably, Brexit could easily have the opposite effect) is only to be welcomed.
As to the Vatican and specific question of Brexit (the UK’s departure from the EU), perhaps it’s appropriate to revisit yet again what the British politician Enoch Powell had to say back in 1972 about Henry VIII’s assertion of English independence from Rome:
The relevant fact about the history of the British Isles and above all of England is its separateness in a political sense from the history of continental Europe…When Henry VIII declared that ‘this realm of England is an empire (imperium) of itself’, he was making not a new claim but a very old one; but he was making it at a very significant point of time. He meant—as Edward I had meant, when he said the same over two hundred years before—that there is an imperium on the continent, but that England is another imperium outside its orbit and is endowed with the plenitude of its own sovereignty. The moment at which Henry VIII repeated this assertion was that of what is misleadingly called ‘the reformation’—misleadingly, because it was, and is, essentially a political and not a religious event.
The whole subsequent history of Britain and the political character of the British people have taken their colour and trace their unique quality from that moment and that assertion. It was the final decision that no authority, no law, no court outside the realm would be recognized within the realm. When Cardinal Wolsey fell, the last attempt had failed to bring or keep the English nation within the ambit of any external jurisdiction or political power: since then no law has been for England outside England, and no taxation has been levied in England by or for an authority outside England—or not at least until the proposition that Britain should accede to the Common Market [the future EU].
Britain did, of course, go on to join that ‘Common Market’, not least because most Britons did not understand that ‘ever closer Europe’ meant what it said.
It’s time to reverse that now.