Secular Right | Reality & Reason



Clearing a Path for Christ (on Mars)?

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martian-chroniclesOver at Foreign Policy, James Poulos frets that, in the event that Elon Musk’s Mars mission ever gets off the ground, Musk (who admittedly has some strange beliefs: he appears to think that we are all living in some type of computer simulation) might pick the wrong sorts to settle the red planet. While Musk hasn’t given too much guidance as to who these future colonists might be, Poulos worries that they will turn out to be the kind of people who see our species’ arrival on the fourth rock from the sun as part of a broader scientific evolution:

According to this version of destiny, the purpose of space colonization is fully tied up with the purpose of scientific progress in general, complete with transformational changes to our bodies and minds that don’t just augment or twist our experience of being human but break with nature completely, turning us into post-humans. People dreaming this dream have good reason to prefer that our first Mars colonists would see themselves as being on the frontier of such technological progress and committed to pushing it forward — to making the post-human dream as much of a reality as possible, as quickly as possible.

That may be overegging the pudding. If I had to guess—and if history is any precedent— early ‘private sector’ colonists of Mars will be a mixed bunch with mixed motives. If some of them are into a spot of genetic tweaking or trying to turn themselves into cyborgs, that’s fine. They are highly unlikely to be as ‘post’ human as Poulos imagines— or they themselves might hope.

But Poulos has another vision:

[T]here is another dream out there — a much older one, with even deeper resonances in society’s collective heart and soul. Humans have always spent a lot of time pursuing and experiencing new “worlds” right here on Earth. The traditions of humanism and religion we’ve inherited from ancient Athens and Jerusalem also treat the natural world as a type of “base reality” against which our collective history can take place. Those traditions allow old myths and social orders to be honored and new ones to be founded — fresh starts, but by no means blank slates, where the best of what came before can be retained and given promise on new soil. In this sweeping journey of civilizations, what was begun with the exodus from Egypt and the founding of Rome continued, more or less, right up through the Pilgrims’ arrival on Plymouth Rock, Abraham Lincoln’s “new birth of freedom,” and on, perhaps, to the present day.

That’s to paint a very pretty picture both of “new worlds” (which, after all, is what the Bolsheviks—to name just one of a long series of monsters— thought that they were creating) and of the motives of those who, often accidentally, create them: there are more conquistadors and chancers than there are pilgrims.


From this standpoint, the exciting thing about colonizing Mars (and tomorrow, the galaxy!) is not the prospect of accelerating humanity past the point of humanity. Instead, it’s continuing the grand journey of humankind, wherein sacred traditions can be imitatively repeated and re-founded. A colony on Mars, then, is not like a personal trainer, pushing us through some artificial but valuable exercises that end up taking us to a higher plane of aliveness otherwise unavailable to us. Humanity’s achievement of interplanetary life wouldn’t allow us to break with the past and level us up into a new reality. It would humble us in recognition of a newfound, enduring mission — to create new ways to honor our human essence and praise what has allowed it to be sustained over time, whether we call that nature, nature’s God, or something else.

What we call that is nonsense.

Crusades, cults and civilizations come and go. Sometimes we move forward, sometimes we go into reverse.  Mankind has no ‘enduring’ mission.  There is no ‘grand journey’. There is merely a muddling through the millennia.

As for the rest, well, in the end Ozymandias.

Back to Poulos:

“What’s clear is that Earth no longer invites us to contemplate, much less renew, our deepest spiritual needs”.

Quite what the evidence for that is, I do not know.

Never mind, Poulos wants the move to Mars to be transformed into a “pilgrimage”, an act of “progress from the shadows of ignorance and apartness from God”.  Just managing to live all those millions of miles away is, apparently, not enough. There has to be some greater mission, some grander meaning. There is, apparently, going to be a “debate over Mars and our human destiny” (there is?) and it’s “going to recast our awareness of how faith and freedom really do work together — or can”. It is?


[It] means asking and answering initially awkward questions, like, would we be best off if our first Martian colonists were religious observers? Especially today, nature and freedom won’t defend themselves, and they’re certainly not taken as a given by some of Earth’s more powerful people. But it turns out that even today, and in the far-flung future, many of those who see our cosmos as supernaturally real are still their best defenders. There may not be much to recommend for life on Mars if we don’t clear a path for Christ on Mars.

Only time will tell, but if I had to guess, the law of averages will mean that any Martian colony would, like just about any other human settlement, eventually have a large contingent of people who believe in the supernatural including, perhaps, Musk. How else to describe his faith in that computer simulation–an invisible organizing principle–of his? And (I would assume) there will turn out to be more Christians than a simple caricature of nerds on Mars would suggest.   There would be no need to clear any paths for Jesus – or for any religious test for prospective colonists.

As to what happens then, well, let’s just say that Ray Bradbury is badly missed.




Church and State, God and God Gene

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edward-vii-coronationWhether or not God exists there cannot be much doubt about the existence of (to use a crude shorthand) a ‘God gene’, the innate propensity of  most people to believe in gods and/or the supernatural and, at least to a degree, to base their behavior on those beliefs.

The fight of the Dawkins brigade against ‘sky fairies’ is thus, in most cases, a waste of time. What matters is not God, but the particular god that people worship. Whatever the sentimental, empty-headed or (hullo, Karen Armstrong) propagandists might claim all religions are not simply varying routes to the same ‘truth’. The difference between religions matters, and it matters a great deal. Some are benign, some are not, some leave the rest of us alone, some do not.

In that connection, it was interesting to read this in the course of an interview by Spiked Review with writer Anthony Gottlieb, the author of The Dream of Enlightenment, an account, as Spiked puts it, of “that ‘150-year burst’ of intellectual energy that begins in Northern Europe after the Thirty Years War, and stretches up to the eve of the French Revolution”:

Several of the thinkers in The Dream… are quite rightly seen as pioneers or antecedents of forms of secularism, of the idea that church and state should be kept separate. Nowadays, when we think of the separation of church and state, we tend to think of it in terms of the First Amendment, where Americans hold that there should be no state religion.

But for the pioneers of secularism, church and state are not so easily parsed. Take Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), for example. They’ve both been characterised as being in favour of the separation of church and state, of getting rid of a state religion. Yet, in fact, both believed that it was important to have a state religion. And that’s because they, like many of their intellectual brothers in arms, were concerned not with getting rid of state religion but with weakening the power of the priests, the power of institutional religion. They wanted to take away the church’s power and give it instead to the state.

That’s because, as they saw it, the best way of ensuring that religion didn’t lead to all sorts of trouble was both to police it, and to make sure that the state religion was peaceful, non-disruptive, and not run by these mad priests. So Hobbes and Spinoza ended up advocating state religion, rather than opposing it….

There’s something to that, especially if that state religion is mild, unassuming, tolerant– light on superstition and with a proper sense of its place: At its best the Church of England comes to mind.

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‘3-Parent’ Babies: A Controversy That Shouldn’t Be

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ThreeParentBabiesThe New York Times:

A few months ago, after a fertility procedure at a Mexican clinic, a healthy baby boy was born in New York to a couple from Jordan. It was the first live birth of a child who has been called — to the dismay of scientists who say the term is grossly misleading — a three-parent baby.

“This is huge,” said Dr. Richard J. Paulson, president-elect of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, after the birth was reported on Tuesday.

The method used to help the couple is one that reproductive scientists have been itching to try, but it is enormously controversial because it uses genetic material from a donor in addition to that of the couple trying to conceive. The purpose is to overcome flaws in a parent’s mitochondria that can cause grave illnesses in babies.

And why exactly should this helpful procedure be ‘enormously controversial’?

Part of the answer lies in that term ‘three-parent baby’, rightly described as grossly misleading.

The New York Times:

Mitochondria, the cell’s energy factories, are separate from the DNA that determines a child’s inherited traits. But mutations in these little organelles can be devastating, resulting in fatal diseases involving the nerves, muscles, brain, heart, liver, skeletal muscles, kidney and the endocrine and respiratory systems that often kill babies in the first few years of life.

The technique that led to the healthy birth was to move the DNA from an egg of the mother, who had mutated mitochondria, and place it in the egg of a healthy egg donor — after first removing the healthy donor’s nuclear DNA from her egg cell. Then that egg, with its healthy mitochondria and the mother’s DNA, could be fertilized….

The Guardian:

A small number of children each year are born with faults in their mitochondrial DNA which can cause diseases. Mitochondria are small structures that sit inside our cells and provide them with energy. They have their own set of 37 genes which are separate from the 20,000 or so genes that shape who we are.

… On a genetic level, all of the 20,000 genes on the child’s 23 pairs of chromosomes come from the child’s mother and father. The donor only contributes DNA that sit in the mitochondria, less than 0.2% of the total.

The New York Times:

“Mitochondria,” Dr. Paulson said, “do not define who you are.” The genes for traits that make up a person’s appearance and other characteristics are carried in the nuclear DNA. If a white woman got mitochondria from an Asian woman, for example, her babies would be white, with no traces of the Asian mitochondrial donor. The ban, said Dr. Paulson, “is not scientific, not rational, not evidence-based.”

“Not rational”.

Enter religion.

The Guardian:

The Catholic church opposes one form of mitochondrial transfer, called pronuclear transfer, because a fertilised egg from the mother is destroyed in the process. Catholic ethicists have also complained that mitochondrial transfer introduces a “rupture” between mother and father and “dilutes parenthood”.

Roman Catholic objections to that first form of mitochondrial transfer are consistent with that church’s opposition to abortion, and in that sense are understandable.

But there is a second method, called mitochondrial spindle transfer (MST).

The Guardian explains:

In this, doctors use standard IVF procedures to collect eggs from the mother. They take the nucleus from one of the eggs and drop it into a healthy donor egg that has had its own nucleus removed. The reconstituted egg contains all the normal genes from the mother, but her faulty mitochondria are replaced by those from the healthy donor. The egg is then fertilised with the father’s sperm. The resulting embryo has the usual 23 pairs of chromosomes that hold the mother and father’s DNA, but the 37 mitochondrial genes, about 0.2% of the total, come from a third person, the donor.

So no fertilized egg is destroyed.

Problem! Enter those ‘Catholic ethicists’ talking about  a “rupture” between mother and child as grounds for objecting to all types of mitochondrial transfer. Their evidence for this ‘rupture’ is what exactly?

Let’s not forget that this is a church that, when it’s not opining on the scientific basis for exorcism, is also a church that claims to be a scientific authority on climate change.

It is also a church that likes to proclaim its compassion.

The Guardian:

Mitochondrial diseases tend to strike in childhood and get steadily worse. They often prove fatal before adulthood. The parts of the body that need most energy are worst affected: the brain, muscles, heart and liver. Conditions include Leigh’s disease, progressive infantile poliodystrophy and Barth syndrome. Faulty mitochondria have also been linked to more common medical problems, including Parkinson’s, deafness, failing eyesight, epilepsy and diabetes…There are no cures for mitochondrial disorders.

The New York Times:

When Dr. Zhang [the doctor who led the team that carried out the procedure] told the Jordanian couple about the technique, they hesitated. They already had a child who was terribly ill with Leigh syndrome, a mitochondrial disease, but there was a chance they could have a normal baby on their own — a quarter of the woman’s mitochondria were mutated, but mitochondria are distributed at random in eggs. If an egg with mostly good mitochondria happened to be fertilized, the baby would be fine. They decided to take their chances.

The couple returned to Jordan and had a baby. But the baby had the same mitochondrial disease, Leigh syndrome. It is a terrible disease, Dr. Zhang said. Babies progressively lose their ability to move and breathe. The baby had a tracheotomy and a feeding tube, he said, and the parents had to suction the baby’s lungs every hour.

The first baby died at age 6; the second baby at 8 months.

And so far as the church is concerned, that’s sad, doubtless, but not something that can be helped.

The New York Times:

The couple returned to Dr. Zhang, ready to try the mitochondrial transfer technique. New Hope Fertility Center has a clinic in Mexico, so he suggested doing the procedure there because it is effectively banned in the United States. More than a decade ago, the Food and Drug Administration ordered clinics to file an application to do such work. Later, Congress attached a rider to a bill making it impossible to fund such research.

By six months of pregnancy, the woman said she knew this baby was different. It kicked constantly — the others, affected even in the womb, had hardly moved. Now the boy is 5 months old and healthy, and has normal mitochondria. The birth was first reported on Tuesday by New Scientist magazine.

Reproductive scientists who have been frustrated by the ban were both gratified by Dr. Zhang’s success and angry that it took so long. Britain recently allowed research on mitochondrial transfers to proceed, but nothing has changed in the United States.


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the-exorcistThe Daily Telegraph:

sharp rise in the number of people dabbling in Satanism and the occult is fueling a growing demand for more exorcists on both sides of the Atlantic. Speaking in tongues, levitating and vomiting nails may seem far-fetched to most people, but experts from the Catholic Church in Italy and the US claim there is an urgent need to recruit more priests as exorcists in order to combat sorcery and black magic.

Valter Cascioli, a psychologist and scientific consultant to the International Association of Exorcists, which is endorsed by the Vatican, described as an “emergency” the lack of priests capable of fighting the forces of evil.

“The lack of exorcists is a real emergency. There is a pastoral emergency as a result of a significant increase in the number of diabolical possessions that exorcist priests are confronting,” he told La Stampa newspaper.

Dr Cascioli teaches courses in exorcism at the Pontifical University of Regina Apostolorum, a Vatican-backed university in Rome. “The number of exorcists has increased in recent years, but there are still not enough to deal with a dramatic situation that affects, above all, young people who use the internet a lot.

The Internet, always guilty….

Back to the Telegraph:

“There is a broad spread of superstitious practices, and with that a growing number of requests for help from people who are directly or indirectly struck by evil.

“It is dangerous to underestimate a phenomenon that is caused by the direct actions of the devil, but also by a decline in faith and values.”

He called for the establishment of a permanent training college or university where Catholic priests would be taught how to counter the malign influence of the Devil. “There doesn’t exist a training institution at university level. We need an interdisciplinary approach in which science collaborates with religion, and psychiatrists work with demonologists and exorcists.”

He said it was important not to confuse cases of diabolical possession with psychiatric illnesses. Only one per cent of people who claim to have problems with demons have real need of an exorcist, he said.

Still, one percent represents, I suspect, quite a number.  Who knew?

Father Gary Thomas, whose training in Rome was chronicled in the book The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist, and Father Vincent Lampert, whose work has featured on the television show Paranormal Witness, said demonic possessions were the result of an increase in drug and pornography addiction.

That the former can be associated with severe psychological problems is, of course, only a coincidence, while the reference to pornography as, in a real sense, an ‘addiction’ is a sign that we have entered territory where the science is not—rigorous.

The Telegraph:

They also pointed to a rise in the  popularity of “pagan activities”, such as using a Ouija board to summon the dead, the failure of the mental health care system, a spiritual void in the lives of Americans and the diminishing authority of the Church.

It’s worth paying attention to that reference  to the ‘diminishing authority of the church’. There’s some truth to that. The decline of established religion has meant that people are willing to go elsewhere to satisfy their spiritual needs, and on occasion, sadly, to some highly unsavory destinations. But Satanism is not proof of Satan.

What we do see in this  story is the church using the Devil as an argument against behavior, from drugs to porn, to overdoing it on the Internet, of which it disapproves.

And, none too subtly, it is, in a  way, also using the Devil as a recruiting sergeant to fill its own pews.

That’s not to argue that many senior churchmen do not believe in the Devil (some more literally–and, so to speak, frequently–than others) but sometimes all that talk of the threat Old Nick allegedly represents does seem very convenient.

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The God of War

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 Ahead of his day trip to Assisi to participate in a World Day of Prayer for Peace, Pope Francis said that the gathering of women and men religious from around the world is not a “spectacle” but simply a prayer for peace in a world at war.

“Today the world will have its center at Assisi, for a day of prayer, penitence and crying, because the world is at war,” he said on Tuesday. “God the father of all, Christians and not, wants peace. There’s no god of war, this is done by the devil.”

Well, that rather depends. God is, as I’ve noted before, in the eye of the beholder and if that beholder decides that his God wishes war, then a God of war is what He will be, much as that might embarrass the Pope.

Gabriel Said Reynolds, writing in the Daily News in 2015 (my emphasis added):

A video shot earlier this month in which Libyan militants line up 21 Egyptians on a beach and cut their heads off provides a window into the killers’ motivations. This one, complete with dramatic music and images of the sea turned red from blood (it was likely shot elsewhere and manipulated to look like it took place by the sea) ends with one of the militants pointing a knife in the air and proclaiming in English: “We will conquer Rome, by Allah’s permission.”

…The militant movement imagines itself to be at the beginning of an apocalyptic battle with Christians. An anticipation of that fight is what has attracted thousands of young Muslims from around the world to take up arms.

….[When] the ISIS militant declares, “we will conquer Rome,” he has in mind an end-times scenario in which the forces of Islam will confront and defeat an army of Christians in an apocalyptic battle in Syria and then proceed to take Istanbul or Rome (there is some confusion here because classical Islamic traditions describe Constantinople — today Istanbul — as the capital of “Roman” territories).

ISIS’ obsession with this scenario explains why the fourth issue of Dabiq — the movement’s flashy online magazine — features an image of St. Peter’s basilica in Rome with the black flag of ISIS flying above it.

Yes, a God of war.


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Pope Francis: the Man with the Answers

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Pope Francis Leads The Solemnity Of The Most Holy Body And Blood Of ChristCross-posted on the Corner.


Pope Francis has encouraged Europeans to welcome refugees, calling authentic hospitality “our greatest security against hateful acts of terrorism.”

Francis Saturday spoke to alumni of Jesuit schools in Europe who were in Rome for a conference on refugees.

There’s a lot I could say about this, but I won’t.

Just ask yourself what it says about the judgment, and, perhaps, more than just the judgment, of the man who is now Pope.

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Climate Change: Sarkozy Goes There

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nicolas_sarkozyCross-posted on the Corner. 

Count me skeptical about former French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, but I had to warm, so to speak, to this comment (via Politico):

Sarkozy, who hopes to secure the center-right Les Républicains party’s presidential nomination, told business leaders earlier this week that “climate has been changing for four billion years” and “you need to be as arrogant as men are to believe we changed the climate.”

Sarkozy is nothing if not an opportunist, so it’s interesting to read that he sees the opportunity in a spot of blasphemy.

Cue: outrage.

Cue: Brendan O’Neill, with some commonsense:

The swiftness and ugliness of the response to Sarkozy’s comments confirm that questioning climate change is to the 21st century what querying the divinity of Christ was to the 14th.

There are decent arguments to be made to support the claim that man is changing the climate, but those arguments have been replaced by appeals to faith.


 In the speech [Sarkozy] said, ‘People [talk] a lot about climate change… but the climate has been changing for the past 4.5 billion years. Man is not the sole cause of this change.’ He then said something that struck me as reasonable but which is apparently mental and unutterable: ‘Sahara has become a desert — [that] isn’t because of industry.’

…The most revealing comment came from Valerie Masson-Delmotte, who is on the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change, a kind of eco-version of the Holy See, only less open to criticism and debate. She said our ‘developed societies’ have been ‘built on a pact between scientists and politicians’ and Sarkozy risks breaking this pact. In short, politicians must now heed, and certainly not openly knock, the claims of climatologists. These people have a cavalier disregard not only for freedom of speech, but also for democracy. A politician’s responsibility is to push his ideas, and try to win public support for them, not to read obediently from turgid scientific documents and instruct the throng on how to think about the climate and improve their eco-behaviour.

The fury over Sarkozy’s sensible comments — even if you think, as I do, that mankind has had some impact on the climate, you surely recognise that climate has always been changing? — shows how intolerant the eco-outlook has become. Whether they’re branding people ‘deniers’ or suggesting climate-change denial should be made into a crime, greens have a strange and terrifying urge to silence dissent; to circumscribe debate; to elevate The Science (they always use the definite article before the word science, speaking to their transformation of it into religion) above public debate.

Why so touchy? If they’re so sure they possess the truth, why do they seek to crush anyone who questions them? Because behind all the scientific posturing, what we have here is a deeply ideological outlook, one which views mankind as destructive, progress as a stain on the planet, and putting the brakes on industry as the only solution to pollution. And this ideology cannot be undermined. Sarkozy’s crime was to suggest that mankind isn’t the destroyer of worlds. The misanthropes will not stand for it.

“Why so touchy?”

That is the question that counts…

Meanwhile, The Daily Telegraph reports:

Plastic crockery and cutlery is to be banned in France unless it is made from biologically sourced materials. The law comes into force in 2020. It is part of a French environmental initiative called the Energy Transition for Green Growth, part of a package aimed at tackling climate change.

Ah yes, few religions are complete without a list of what is forbidden….

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The Clowns of Salem?

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twilight-zone-season-1-22-the-monsters-are-due-on-maple-streetOnce upon a time it was alien abductions, and not so long before that, the Satanic panic of the 1980s, a wave of hysteria that spilled over into some of the child abuse  prosecutions of that era with sometimes appalling consequences.

Now there is this.

The Independent reports:

Sightings of creepy clowns trying to lure children away are spreading across the US, with no-one sure whether the whole thing is a hoax or a terrifying new trend in abductions.

Four states have now reported the sinister sightings.

They began in South Carolina, before spreading to North Carolina and have since surfaced in Georgia and Alabama….

In Georgia, police said they had received numerous reports of clowns trying to talk to children as well as a threat by someone promising to dress up and kidnap school pupils….

Officers finally solved part of the mystery on Thursday, saying they had charged two people with making false police reports after they say the pair called 911 to report that people dressed as clowns were trying to lure children into a white van.

Police who responded to the calls found found two people in a white van who had run out of gas, and found no clown masks or costumes, and the 911 callers admitted the whole thing was a hoax.

The reports are not entirely new, however.

Bakersfield was among the towns in California that was gripped in2014 by dozens of reports of clown sightings including some saying they were armed.

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Fifteen Years



Even Muslims Think British Police Might be Overcompensating

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Just as the level of trust in the West’s governing institutions is at or near all-time lows, the Daily Telegraph reports that British officials in the vicinity of Birmingham are considering allowing female officers of the Islamic persuasion to don…burkas:

A police force could become the first in the country to allow officers to wear the full-face veil after it launched a recruitment drive to increase diversity. West Midlands Police said it has “no barriers” relating to the burka as they announced that they would discuss allowing the traditional Islamic dress to become part of a policewoman’s uniform.

Chief Constable David Thompson said he would look into employing officers who wear the burka if the issue arose, as the force tries to increase the percentage of black and minority ethnic (BME) officers in the region to 30 per cent.

But this mindless attempt to signal anti-racism (note the now automatic conflation of religion and race) even to the point of completely jettisoning common sense was rejected by none other than the Muslim Association of Britain (the UK’s CAIR). The MAB believes the move would prove too unwieldy.

“We appreciate that West Midlands Police are trying to open up and recruit more ethnic minority backgrounds,” said the MBA’s Omer Elhamdoon. “But we feel wearing the burka would restrict duties, so the role might just be confined to being based in an office.”

Mr Davies, a Conservative MP, added: “It’s hard to believe that anybody with a strong religious view about how they react to men is going to be able to suddenly jump on a man and handcuff them, or rip off their shirt and offer them resuscitation. [Furthermore] The burka is a symbol of oppression for women and not something that a modern police force should be supporting.”

Note that it takes a conservative to point this out in the post-nothing, upside down-everything West.

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