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Blessing the subway

Earlier this month, the new Catholic archbishop of New York, Timothy Dolan, visited a subway construction site in Manhattan to offer his blessing: “Bless this tunnel, those who are constructing it, and those who will use it.”

Such an act has at least two possible meanings, as I see it, one dubious, the other admirable and worthy of emulation.   If Dolan’s blessing was intended or understood as a shield against accident, why isn’t he blessing the entire city or even the world?  And if Catholics do believe that a priestly blessing can have a protective effect, have curiosity and the passion for knowledge ever led them to try to measure when such effects occur?  Or are they happy to simply take it on blind faith that God pays attention to such gestures?   I don’t want to hear that no one ever prays with the intention of calling forth a divine response and intervention; such prayers are the daily currency of belief. 

But Dolan’s blessing could have another meaning as well—simply the expression of such precious human sentiments as gratitude and good will.  And here again I’m led to wonder how the positive social functions of religion can be replicated in a secular context.  Do we need a designated religious figure to express thanks for the labors of our fellow men and the creativity of the human spirit?  If not a priest, who can channel our appreciation and wonder?  Blessing is a noble performative utterance that ought to be separable from a belief in God, but it’s hard to see what non-religious figure would play the official blessing role without looking ridiculous.  Government officials engage in ground-breaking and ribbon-cutting ceremonies; perhaps that is the closest we can get. 

Religious leaders are convenient spokesmen for human emotion.  When the Pope visits the earthquake zone in L’Aquila, he’s not bringing God’s mercy—if God had any, He would not have allowed 200 adults and children to die in the first place—he is bringing human sympathy.  That is a vital function.




Science and public policy

New York Times Deputy Science Editor Dennis Overbye celebrated the alleged “restoration of science” under the Obama Administration this week, sounding a Chris Matthews-ian note of ecstasy about Obama’s ascension.   I agree with most of Overbye’s essay, which makes a beautiful case for the social accomplishment of science.  The scientific enterprise teaches such humane, democratic values as “honesty, doubt, respect for evidence, openness, accountability and tolerance and indeed hunger for opposing points of view,”  Overbye writes.  (Our religious friends  will of course claim that these values are uniquely Christian ones, and that science is parasitic on Christianity.)

But Overbye’s column also hints at the facile conflation of science with favored liberal politics. 

Overbye appears to link the repression of scientific inquiry and democratic expression in China, where a physicist was disciplined for teaching the Big Bang theory in contravention to Marxist teleology, with the scientific and quasi-scientific culture-war battles of the Bush Administration:  “But once you can’t talk about one subject, the origin of the universe, for example, sooner or later other subjects are going to be off-limits, like global warming, birth control and abortion, or evolution, the subject of yet another dustup in Texas last week.” (more…)

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