CAT | Science & Faith
Over 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.
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….
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.”
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.
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.
Writing in the Washington Post, a psychiatrist (Richard Gallagher) essentially gives up on the ability of his profession to understand the complexity of the human mind. Some cases of ‘demonic possession’ are, he has come to believe, real.
For the past two-and-a-half decades and over several hundred consultations, I’ve helped clergy from multiple denominations and faiths to filter episodes of mental illness — which represent the overwhelming majority of cases — from, literally, the devil’s work. It’s an unlikely role for an academic physician, but I don’t see these two aspects of my career in conflict. The same habits that shape what I do as a professor and psychiatrist — open-mindedness, respect for evidence and compassion for suffering people — led me to aid in the work of discerning attacks by what I believe are evil spirits and, just as critically, differentiating these extremely rare events from medical conditions….
The Vatican does not track global or countrywide exorcism, but in my experience and according to the priests I meet, demand is rising. The United States is home to about 50 “stable” exorcists — those who have been designated by bishops to combat demonic activity on a semi-regular basis — up from just 12 a decade ago, according to the Rev. Vincent Lampert, an Indianapolis-based priest-exorcist who is active in the International Association of Exorcists. (He receives about 20 inquiries per week, double the number from when his bishop appointed him in 2005.) The Catholic Church has responded by offering greater resources for clergy members who wish to address the problem. In 2010, for instance, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops organized a meeting in Baltimore for interested clergy. In 2014, Pope Francis formally recognized the IAE, 400 members of which are to convene in Rome this October. Members believe in such strange cases because they are constantly called upon to help. (I served for a time as a scientific adviser on the group’s governing board.)
… But I believe I’ve seen the real thing. Assaults upon individuals are classified either as “demonic possessions” or as the slightly more common but less intense attacks usually called “oppressions.” A possessed individual may suddenly, in a type of trance, voice statements of astonishing venom and contempt for religion, while understanding and speaking various foreign languages previously unknown to them. The subject might also exhibit enormous strength or even the extraordinarily rare phenomenon of levitation. (I have not witnessed a levitation myself, but half a dozen people I work with vow that they’ve seen it in the course of their exorcisms.)
I have not witnessed a levitation myself.
Back to Gallagher:
We are not dealing here with purely material reality, but with the spiritual realm. One cannot force these creatures to undergo lab studies or submit to scientific manipulation; they will also hardly allow themselves to be easily recorded by video equipment, as skeptics sometimes demand.
This is very reminiscent of the arguments used by the Harvard psychiatrist John Mack (I wrote something about him in National Review back in the day) who, at the height of America’s obsession with ‘alien abductions’, began to see such stories as, to a greater or lesser degree, a spiritual phenomenon. That allowed him to dispense with normal scientific discipline and even to caricature it as somehow retrograde, evidence of a narrowly ‘western’ mindset.
Gallagher’s comment about video equipment also reminds me of a joke from that era.
Q: What’s the best way to stop yourself being abducted by an alien?
A: Install video cameras at home and set them to record.
But anthropologists agree that nearly all cultures have believed in spirits, and the vast majority of societies (including our own) have recorded dramatic stories of spirit possession. Despite varying interpretations, multiple depictions of the same phenomena in astonishingly consistent ways offer cumulative evidence of their credibility.
Not so much. Demons, like gods, are a product of the human mind, an evolutionary by-product, an end in themselves, or a bit of both: It would be astonishing if they did not recur in society after society. We are all human.
In the end, however, it was not an academic or dogmatic view that propelled me into this line of work. I was asked to consult about people in pain. I have always thought that, if requested to help a tortured person, a physician should not arbitrarily refuse to get involved. Those who dismiss these cases unwittingly prevent patients from receiving the help they desperately require, either by failing to recommend them for psychiatric treatment (which most clearly need) or by not informing their spiritual ministers that something beyond a mental or other illness seems to be the issue. For any person of science or faith, it should be impossible to turn one’s back on a tormented soul.
Yes, delusion can be used combat delusion (think of exorcisms as a kind of placebo), but the psychiatrist who takes the reality of demonic possession seriously is taking on a heavy responsibility, not only with respect to his patient but, by promoting a belief in this phenomenon, to the vulnerable elsewhere.
Jung talked a great deal of nonsense, but, he was right when he wrote this:
The Middle Ages, antiquity and, prehistory have not died out, as the “enlightened” suppose, but live on merrily in large sections of the population. Mythology and magic flourish as ever in our midst and are unknown only to those whose rationalistic education has alienated them from their roots.
Well, he was not so right about that last bit. A rationalistic education will not, of itself, lead to enlightenment.
Human nature is stronger than that. As Richard Gallagher reminds us.
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.
The Economist, at it again:
THE political masters of the world are gathering in a Paris traumatised by terror to consider another sort of emergency, climate change.
Trivialize much? Exaggerate much?
The magazine’s ‘Erasmus’ goes on to note:
The unusual thing about this gathering is that mankind’s religious guardians have also been preparing for it; their voices have been rising in a crescendo of moral concern.
Unusual? Not really: “mankind’s religious guardians” (a phrase so sycophantic and so syrupy that it beggars, well, belief) were pretty noisy before the failed Copenhagen climate conference too.
But we shouldn’t be surprised by those expressions of “moral concern”. The science of climate change is one thing (I’m probably a ‘lukewarmer’ myself), but the way it is understood is another, and the usual ‘narrative’ of climate change, with its implicit attack on materialism and warnings of an apocalypse to come, fits very neatly into the teachings of any number of faiths. No wonder “mankind’s religious guardians” want to get involved.
Back to Erasmus:
When the French president toured typhoon-stricken areas of the Philippines in February, he brought along Patriarch Bartholomew, the “first among equals” in the Orthodox Christian world and a veteran campaigner for the planet. Then in July, Mr Hollande hosted an eye-catching “summit of conscience” that involved faith leaders of many stripes; they ranged from the Orthodox Patriarch to Sufi Muslim sages; from Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana (speaking for the pope) to indigenous people from fragile parts of Latin America. The co-organisers included R20, an environmental and green-energy movement started by Arnold Schwarzenegger, the former governor of California, and Alliance of Religions and Conservation, a British-based NGO launched by Prince Philip.
With the exception of Hollande (and, once upon a time, Schwarzenegger) these people are, of course, unelected, a reminder that much of the climate change ‘process’ is a post-democratic exercise.
And talking loftily about faith, morality and ‘the planet’ will not change that most inconvenient truth.
The New Atheist’s interview with Salon – a publication largely hostile to the Bertrand Russell-style liberalism of Harris and his ilk – is better read at Harris’s own website, in its unedited form. (A portion of the interview that badmouths Salon was cut by the site, not shockingly.) Below are some choice excerpts.
On American foreign policy and Islam:
You can make the list of U.S. crimes and missteps as long as you want, but it still doesn’t explain ISIS. The fact that we invaded Iraq is merely a background condition for a local explosion of jihadist triumphalism and horror – one that is fully explained by a commitment to a specific interpretation of Islamic scripture. Medical students and engineers, who are second- and third-generation British citizens, have joined ISIS. There is nothing about Western foreign policy, global capitalism, or white privilege that explains this.
I agree that the history of colonialism isn’t pretty, but….there are (or were) Christians living in all these beleaguered countries. How many Christian suicide bombers have there been? Where are the Pakistani, Iraqi, Syrian, Egyptian, and Palestinian Christians who are blowing themselves up in crowds of noncombatants?
On the problems of the multicultural left:
These people are part of what has been termed the “regressive Left” – pseudo-liberals who are so blinded by identity politics that they reliably take the side of a backward mob over one of its victims. Rather than protect individual women, apostates, intellectuals, cartoonists, novelists, and true liberals from the intolerance of religious imbeciles, they protect these theocrats from criticism.
On religion and the GOP:
Ben Carson is a perfect example of how even the process of becoming a neurosurgeon is insufficient to correct for this indoctrination. It’s astonishing: The man is both a celebrated neurosurgeon and a moron. Apparently, becoming a neurosurgeon can be like becoming an electrician or a plumber—you can learn it like a trade, and your mind can remain more or less untouched by the scientific worldview.
I felt that I glimpsed the possibility of Christian theocracy in the U.S. when Sarah Palin addressed the Republican National Convention. She was at the height of her powers, and she hadn’t yet unraveled in those interviews with Charlie Gibson and Katie Couric. This was terrifying—because I knew her to be both a religious lunatic and total ignoramus. The fact that she had any chance of acquiring so much power and responsibility seemed to make a mockery of the entire career of our species.
On the potential of P.C. mission creep to leave only fringy undesirables asking the probing questions:
I worry that such Christian demagoguery could become even more attractive politically because the secular Left has made it so painful to speak about the threat of political Islam. By conflating any focus on Islamism and jihadism with bigotry, there may come a time when only real bigots and Christian theocrats will be willing to address the problem. And they could gain political power because then even sane, secular people might feel that they have no other choice [see the appeal of Marine Le Pen to a surprising number of gay voters].
From First Things, an interesting take on the pope’s eco-encyclical by R.R. Reno.
Here’s an extract: “Everything is connected” is [the Pope’s] mantra in Laudato Si. True to this principle, Francis links his suspicion of science with suspicions about other dimensions of the modern world. Progress has often been characterized as ever-greater prosperity. But economic globalization, a signature feature of the late modern world, and precondition for today’s rapid growth in China and elsewhere, is excoriated again and again. Francis never tires of denouncing “finance,” by which he seems to mean modern banking in all its forms. And of course we’re destroying mother earth. “The post-industrial period may well be remembered as the most irresponsible in history.”
Another feature of modernity and its faith in progress has been a political commitment to liberty, equality, and fraternity. To be modern is to believe that, for all our flaws, Western societies are more democratic, more egalitarian, and more inclusive than any in history. This is not the Pope’s view. The West is rapacious. He quotes one source approvingly: “Twenty per cent of the world’s population consumes resources at a rate that robs the poor nations and future generations of what they need to survive.”
In effect, the present world system created by European and North American modernity—the world made possible by Newton, Locke, Rousseau, Ricardo, Kant, Pasteur, Einstein, Keynes, and countless other architects of modern science, economics, and political culture—is an abomination. Francis never quite says that. But this strong judgment is implied in his many fierce denunciations of the current global order. It destroys the environment, oppresses the multitudes, and makes us blind to the beauty of creation.
Indeed. And it’s worth noting that these are not the first “fierce denunciations” (I’ll stick with that relatively gentle phrase) that we have seen from a pope with something of a weakness for a demagogic, occasionally even paranoid style that would have played well in the Peronist Argentina of his youth, a time when he clearly learnt much and understood little.
But back to First Things:
Today’s progressives are often critical of the West, and in that sense critical of “progress.” Europeans can be hysterical about genetically modified food. They have renounced nuclear energy, the only feasible large-scale alternative to a hydrocarbon-based energy system. Democracy was the signal political aspiration of modernity, but the EU is a post-national political project, a technocratic, post-democratic project. Here in the United States, many are now educated to believe that the history of the West is one long story of oppression and injustice. Optimism has waned, which means that the pope’s pessimism may be received warmly.
Perhaps, therefore, the most accurate thing to say is that Francis offers a postmodern reading of Gaudium et Spes and Vatican II’s desire to be open to the modern world. He seems to propose to link the Catholic Church with a pessimistic post-humanist Western sentiment rather than the older, confident humanism.
There may be a strange genius in this. For more than two hundred years Catholicism has resisted a self-sufficient humanism confident in the triumph of reason and science. Now there are powerful forces in the West that regard the modern project of the West as a failure, and the worst-case accounts of global warming encourage us to draw this conclusion. Thus the encyclical’s apparent focus, which is quickly superseded by a wholesale critique of every aspect of the current global system. Francis encourages the humiliation of modernity and the West, seeing in its failure the seeds of repentance and return to God.
Count me a skeptic. I prefer that approach of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. If global warming poses a dire threat to humanity—and it may—we will need all the moral strength, scientific integrity, economic vitality, and political legitimacy that Western modernity can muster. The same goes for the pressing problems of poverty and development. Instead of the voice of denunciation, we need the Church’s counsel and guidance. We all need to repent. But when it comes to pressing ethical problems, revolution is a dangerous game to play.
Obviously, I’m not with Reno on the need for the guidance of the Roman Catholic Church (readers may disagree!), but his broader point is subtle and very well made. The fact is that Francis is a pope who is profoundly at odds with not just (what we understand as) the West, but with the best of the West.
And, I would add, this encyclical is far from being the only evidence of that.
Or at least it’s getting closer to doing that. This from Reuters/Religion News Service:
California parents who do not vaccinate their children would have to home-school them under a bill passed Thursday by the state Senate, the latest move in a battle between public health officials and “anti-vaxxers” who fear vaccines are dangerous.
The bill, which eliminates the so-called personal beliefs exemption allowing parents to forego vaccinations if opposed to them for any reason, was introduced after a measles outbreak at Disneyland last year that sickened more than 100 people.
Under the bill, which still must be approved by the Assembly, unvaccinated children who do not have a medical exemption would have to study at home or in organized, private home-schooling groups.
Home-schooling has nothing to do with being educated about vaccines of course, but demanding it represents a sufficient enough burden for most parents such that it should definitely help get vaccination numbers up.
Relatedly, the Lifetime Network is doing its part on the vaccine front by showing the stars of “Terra’s Little Family” getting their infant, “Penny,” vaccinated. (Yes, I watch this program. Judge me not!* ) Mom Terra struggles with the decision because she’s “heard” about the literally ill effects of vaccine. But in the end she does the right thing.
It’s good to see the MBA-holding female decision-makers at Lifetime – or Television for Women ™ – doing right by their downscale viewers. Especially because the thrust of the anti-vaccination zeitgeist is coming from the relatively upscale. David Hume has more on that here.
* I’m also a fan of other reality TV, like “Return to Amish.” This while media attention is far more focused on e.g. Mad Men. Here’s why I prefer the former.
For a guy who laments moral relativism, Rod Dreher doesn’t shy away from equating ISIS, though with the expected qualifier, to the folks in Silicon Valley. Upon reading a dialogue between two future forecaster types at Edge.org – who talk about “useless” people (from an economic, military, and intentionally hyperbolic POV, let’s be clear) and the possibility of the very rich cheating death – he’s come away convinced that “slavery” will soon be at hand:
This is the religion of the future. Slavery will come to us disguised as the light of liberty and progress. These are the barbarians coming to rule us — and the masses will welcome them.
If you are not part of a church community that is consciously resisting this vision, then your children, or at best your children’s children, will be lost to the faith. There is no thought more corrupting to the human soul than the Serpent’s promise in Eden: “Ye Shall be as Gods.”
Goodness, er, gracious.
Dreher is disturbed by modernity, period, and for him Silicon Valley is symbolic of everything wrong with the (relatively) rationalist, reductionist tendency in the human affairs of the Global North. He blames the “barbarians” of Silicon Valley for being both elitist – e.g. with their talk of a technological “singularity” and interest in life extension – and down-to-earth in the worst way, by promoting “bread and circuses.” Think Netflix and Snapchat (or to get really granular, the animated gif keyboard).
Some of what Dreher is criticizing is rightly considered problematic (to borrow a term from the left), such as long-term unemployment becoming the norm. And Dreher correctly points out that the trends being noticed in the conversation between Yuval Noah Harari and Daniel Kahneman aren’t necessarily being promoted. But the solution to these and other ills aren’t being obstructed by techno-optimists as much as they are anti-state libertarians (to call out “our” side), or the political dysfunction seemingly difficult to dislodge given increasing ideological rigidity.
In any case, egghead utilitarians deliberating about how the masses will endure the end of work and ample food and entertainment is not at all on par with radical Islam. But that’s just my two cents. Or is that two bitcoins? Whatever.