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Church and State, God and God Gene

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

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


 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

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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A Raid in Argentina

ciliceWe’ll have to see what emerges from the eventual prosecution, but this story (reported in the Daily Telegraph, with my emphasis added) from Argentina may be interesting for the light it casts on the Christian fascination with suffering (discussed here the other day) and also by the claim that the church should be above the law, a claim that also runs through the arguments sometimes made for the absolutist version of ‘religious liberty’ now  being peddled in the US.

A Carmelite mother superior in Argentina faces prosecution for alleged torture after one of her former charges told a TV show that she had gone through “hell” before managing to escape from a convent. The 34-year-old nun, whose face was blacked out during the interview on the channel El Trece, claimed she had endured “physical and psychological” torture during her 10-year period of reclusion in the convent, including enforced self-flagellation, the wearing of a wire garter, being gagged for up to a week and locked up in isolation. “With Mother Superior Isabel I was subjected to the gag. Then there was a whip called discipline which was dipped in molten wax to make it harsher. We performed self-flagellation, beating ourselves on the buttocks, every week as a rule,” the former nun from the Barefoot (or Discalced) Carmelite convent in Nogoyá, northern Argentina said.

The woman, who said she had entered the order at the age of 18, also said they were forced to wear a cilice, a “crown of wires strapped around the leg that draws blood”, three times a week during Lent. But she said the worst torture she endured was psychological, being locked up alone in a cell and hearing voices telling her that others nuns’ illnesses, such as one sister’s tumour, were curses wrought upon the monastery due to her sinful nature.

Two nuns have reported the mother superior, identified by the authorities only as María Isabel, claiming she kept them against their will in the gated convent grounds. In late August police raided the convent, forcing the door open after the mother superior allegedly refused to allow them to enter.

The officers seized instruments of the alleged torture, including whips, cilices and gags. Prosecutors have recommended charges with a penalty of 15 years in prison for the mother superior, who was to face an investigating judge on Wednesday. Church leaders have justified the use of such instruments as penitential aids. “It’s not punishment, but rather discipline,” said Ignacio Patat, spokesman for the Archbishopric of Paraná, which oversees the convent.

“Let’s not forget that monasteries have different rules. This is the law of Saint Teresa, shall we say the old way of life that the Carmelite sisters follow”, Mr Patat told a radio station.

The austere order of the Barefoot Carmelites was founded in 1593 following the teachings of two Spanish saints, Teresa of Ávila and John of the Cross. Mortification and penance are considered useful as aids to deep prayer.

“The Church has the right to rule itself,” read a statement by Argentina’s Society of Canon Law. “The state should enforce respect for religious freedom and not compromise it because some things seem incomprehensible.”

Crux magazine appears to disapprove of the raid, taking time to defend the use of the cilice:

Although the practice to use the cilice is not as widespread as it once was, some of history’s greatest saints wore them, either in the most common modern form of a spiked chain which irritates the skin or as an undergarment made of hair as it was customary in the past. For instance, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Ignatius Loyola and St. Therese of Lisieux are known to have used them, as well as soon to be declared saint Mother Teresa, St. Padre Pio, and Pope Paul VI….

The sisters have remained silent, yet the local Catholic hierarchy has expressed its concern over the way the situation was handled. Archbishop Juan Alberto Piuggari of Entre Rios, the diocese where the convent is located, said the papal representative in the country and the bishops conference considered the raid to be disproportionate…Piuggari also denied that the Mother Superior had refused to let them in: “She told them to give her a minute to call the bishop and they broke down the door. Is that refusing [to let them in]?”

The prelate also said that the procedure should have been “different,” and that Archbishop Emil Paul Tscherrig, the papal representative in the country, should have been informed beforehand since the monastery reports directly to the Vatican.


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Mother Teresa and the Cult of Suffering

TeresaMother Teresa has been canonized today.

The new saint’s record is more complicated than either her critics or her fans like to acknowledge, but this balanced piece by Mari Marcel Thekaekara in the Guardian is worth a look.

Towards the end, Thekaekara, a formerly fierce critic of Mother Teresa, concedes this – and understandably so:

I cannot in conscience criticise a woman who picked people off filthy pavements to allow them to die in dignity.

But it does appear that Mother Teresa was one of those Christians who subscribe to the morbid idea that suffering is some sort of blessing (I’ve posted about this phenomenon here, here, here and here).


Mother Teresa didn’t deserve Christopher Hitchen’s unadulterated, poisonous vitriol. But her vintage, “There’s something beautiful in seeing the poor accept their lot, to suffer it like Christ’s Passion,” left me fuming too. How dare she trivialise poverty? But she could. She did. And the world lapped it up. She once comforted a sufferer, with the line: “You are suffering, that means Jesus is kissing you.” The infuriated man screamed, “Then tell your Jesus to stop kissing me.”

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Trump on God

bible-onlineCNN (from last year):

“Well I say God is the ultimate. You know you look at this?” Trump said, motioning toward an oceanfront golf course that bears his name. “Here we are on the Pacific Ocean. How did I ever own this? I bought it 15 years ago. I made one of the great deals they say ever. I have no more mortgage on it as I will certify and represent to you. And I was able to buy this and make a great deal. That’s what I want to do for the country. Make great deals. We have to, we have to bring it back, but God is the ultimate. I mean God created this, and here’s the Pacific Ocean right behind us. So nobody, no thing, no there’s nothing like God.”

God is, as always, in the eye of the beholder.


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ISIS, God and The Devil

ISISAusten Ivereigh’s defense of Pope Francis’ response to ISIS appears to be, well, evolving.

Just the other day, he was arguing this:

[ISIS] is a wholly modernistic creation, a vehicle of power, the “technocratic paradigm” of domination and exploitation, applied to an ancient faith. ISIS militants are engineers, IT experts, lawyers and literalists; they are utterly Western, utterly modern, utterly unreligious.


First, the Islamic State might recruit mentally-ill teenagers from the banlieus, but it is far from being a bunch of psychopaths. Islamism is a violent ideology drawn from a purist Islamic fundamentalism. It is a version of Islam which radically differs from, and is rejected by, most of the Muslim world.

Second, a war with Christianity is key to its worldview. The Islamic State awaits the army of “Rome,” whose defeat at Dabiq, Syria, will initiate the countdown to the apocalypse

Of course ISIS recruits far more than “mentally-ill” teenagers, but Ivereigh’s recognition that it is a religious movement (however repellent) is a welcome acceptance  of reality.

Ivereigh goes on to explain that Francis has a “six-fold strategy in response to the Islamic State provocation”. Apparently it’s “well thought out, and it is effective”. I’ll leave you to read the full piece and judge for yourselves, but this, well:

For the radicals, violence is sacred, sacrificial, divinely-sanctioned – it is precipitating Armaggedon and the celestial triumph of Islam.

So when Francis declares that its violence is, as well as being evil and abhorrent, “senseless,” as he described the Nice massacre, or “absurd” as he said of the violence that slayed Hamel, he is dealing Islamic State a significant blow: the world’s leading religious authority has denied them the legitimacy of a religious justification.

This is a strategy, but it is, also, genuinely, demonstrating what true religion is.

Well no. The idea that ISIS or, for that matter, many of the people inclined, however remotely, to sympathize with them will pay the slightest attention to the opinion of a “religious authority” for whom they have no respect is, to put it at its kindest, naïve.

As to what a  “true religion” is, well, let’s just to say that religion takes  many forms, not all of them benign.

And then:

As a longtime discerner of spirits, Francis has a keen awareness of the workings of the diabolos, the great divider, and the subtle ways evil can persuade ‘good’ people to set themselves over and against ‘bad’ people.

Did Ivereigh felt the need for a little Greek, with its suggestion of erudition, to conceal the primitive beliefs that it describes: The Devil. No less.

Superstition, wishful thinking and denial do not a good “strategy” make.

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“Paris Vaut Bien Une Messe”


Trump met with hundreds of evangelical leaders in New York earlier this week, and while some well-known figures — such as Liberty University’s president, Jerry Falwell Jr. — have endorsed the candidate, others are more hesitant to do so.

However, Dobson, a Christian psychologist and founder of the Focus on the Family group, said he knows “the person who led [Trump] to Christ. And that’s fairly recent.”

“I don’t know when it was, but it has not been long,” Dobson said in an interview with Pennsylvania megachurch pastor Michael Anthony following that meeting in New York. “I believe he really made a commitment, but he’s a baby Christian.”

….“I’ve been a Christian, and I love Christianity and the evangelicals have been so incredibly supportive,” Trump said in the private session with evangelicals this week, according to audio obtained by POLITICO. “Don’t forget, when I ran, and all of a sudden I went to states that were highly evangelical, like as an example, South Carolina, and they said, ‘Well, Trump won’t win this state because it’s evangelical’ … not only did I win, I won in a landslide.”

All this is another reminder, as if one were needed, that Jesus is in the eye of the beholder.  And, of course, it’s also a reminder of that religion is about much more than its teachings, not least the extent to which its bolsters a sense of group identity: ‘our team’, come what may, Donald Trump ‘baby Christian’.

As for Trump, whatever one might think about him (generally not much…), his cynicism in this respect is worth a smile, and perhaps even a round of light applause.

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