Two pieces in the last three days have opened my eyes to a new reality.  Being opened to a new reality doesn’t happen every day, probably because as you get older there are fewer realities that are actually new.  Just things you have forgotten that seem new when you rediscover them.

One article which was good enough to repost in its entirety came from Jacques Berlinerblau, who often says wise things and should be heeded when he does.  Jacques has commented frequently on the need for secularists and even atheists to learn table manners and not rely simply on the assumed rectitude of their position while trying to influence people and win converts.

They could learn a lesson from that old time religion, Christianity, where instead of just shouting at people, like John the Baptist did (and look what happened to him), St Paul professed to become all things to all men in order to win souls to his cause.  Eventually, that strategy made Christianity the majority faith of the Roman empire.

Of course, the atheists old and new don’t believe there are souls to be won.  But there are political values at stake, and elections, and demographics which atheists and “seculars” do claim to care about.  But so far Americn secularism hasn’t had the savvy to know how to preach its gospel in a way that (really) ups the numbers.

For Berlinerblau, this has something to do with an historical incompetence at every level of the secular movment: Without naming names that could be named, he cites

“…a colossal failure of leadership and strategic vision. Those who advocated on its behalf in the 1970s and ’80s had little understanding of who their irate, coalescing adversaries actually were. In the secular mindset these “Fundies” were just a bunch of yokels, sitting on their front porches, cleaning their guns to the musical accompaniment of Pa strumming the gutbucket. In reality, however, the movement had scads of charismatic and savvy, if not incendiary, leaders. …Secular leadership, by contrast, was static and moribund.

Which brings me to the second piece, by E J Dionne, a truly liberal soul.  The always bluff Freedom from Religion Foundation, which sees itself as a “radical” conservator of First Amendment rights, has outed liberal Catholics for being hypocrites and challenged them to do the right thing: leave the Church.  Writes Dionne:

Recently, a group called [the FFRF] ran a full-page ad in The Washington Post cast as an “open letter to ‘liberal’ and ‘nominal’ Catholics.” Its headline commanded: “It’s Time to Quit the Catholic Church.”

The ad included the usual criticism of Catholicism, but I was most struck by this paragraph: “If you think you can change the church from within — get it to lighten up on birth control, gay rights, marriage equality, embryonic stem-cell research — you’re deluding yourself. By remaining a ‘good Catholic,’ you are doing ‘bad’ to women’s rights. You are an enabler. And it’s got to stop.”

Yes, it does sound just like the nun who told you to give up looking at dirty magazines during math class. Or maybe I have given away too much of my eighth grade year at St Joseph School.

But there is a pattern here that displays itself, as in neon lights, through the shouting.  I have commented more than three times on this site about the ugliness of the American Atheists’ (and others’) billboard campaigns and the way atheism itself is promoted by using a strategy that depends, basically, on repeating one hundred times the mantra:  “Wake Up Stupid: Nobody is at Home Up There.”

This is supported by the infinitely reasonable proposition that if there is no Santa Claus, no big bad wolf, and no such thing as ghosts, there is no Sky Fairy either. Anyone who says there is is just using up the oxygen that smart people need to grow brain cells.

But guess what?  Many people who would call themselves religious–like E J Dionne, and even the resoundingly secular Jacques Berlinerblau–are not at all stupid.  And they wonder why the advocates of freethought and secularism don’t get that.  Why is a secularism that flows from principles of religious tolerance more suspect than a secularism that flows from atheist suppositions?  It is a good question, because in those countries where a dogmatic atheism has been imposed from the top, tolerance has not fared well.  Restrictive practices based on the godlike perfection of the state–witness Chen Guangcheng– have.

And that leads me to conclude: there is a troubling religiophobia going on here.  The shouters and ultimatum-givers are not just in favor of separation of church and state, or freedom of (or from) religion, or secularism or the right not to believe in God and say so openly.

There is profound stress and anxiety about religion in these movements.


Is this a teenage anger pathology that comes from a passive fear of the gods? A bad church experience that stems from the awakening that Pastor Bob (or Sister Mary Therese) lied to you about…everything? The possibility that despite social approval of your atheism, your private doubts sometimes clash with that approval and put unreasonable and seductive thoughts in your head–a hankering for a ten o’lock sermon or a quick Mass at St Aloysius?

Probably none of the above.  It’s probably more easily explained as your anxiety over the existence of what you have come to believe is SPS–Stupid People Syndrome:  your feeling that the co-existence of atheists and believers has only been paralleled in human history by the brief co-existence of Neanderthal and modern humans.  And it would, after all, be so much easier if social disapproval could be generalized and society were rid of religion once and for all–its lures and seductions driven from the world and the gods into the fiery pit.   Maybe then you could get some sleep.  And stop being so Angry.

Homo Religiosus

Until the day that happens and the First Amendment is repealed, which is what the solution would require, reading Seneca and a little Marcus Aurelius or Lucretius on the gods would help:  They had this phobia mastered long before Christian thinkers like Boethius took up the question.   The gods are lazy blighters who don’t care about you. They only care about themselves. You are on your own.

The point is, religiophobia leads to aggression and aggression often manifests itself in stupidity and rash behavior.  I am not certain, given the religious perspective that God takes care of everything, that religion exhibits fear in quite the same way–which is a poor way of saying that fear of the gods (theophobia) is different from fear that there are no gods (religiophobia).

Oh, I know: you atheists out there will tell me I am making things up and that every atheist has the courage of his convictions and isn’t afraid of the big bad wolf or the big old sky fairy or any of those things.  And I say: Good for you, Pinocchio.  Then stop worrying about what goes on in the heads of religious women and men, or their being hypocrites for believing some of the things you no longer believe.

–And read some Seneca.

Catholics and the Contraceptive Conscience

The Catholic bishops think that they have a right to an opinion about contraception and abortion.  They do.  They also think that when they speak in the name of their Church, as custodians of its moral philosophy, to people who want to listen, they have a right to be heard.  They do.

Unfortunately they think as well  that when they are heard they deserve deference and to be obeyed.  They don’t.

The right of a church (or a religion) to teach is not the same as the obligation of the people to listen, especially when listening would mean setting aside one of the core principles of a constitutional democracy: the health and welfare of its population regardless of what any individual or group, religious or secular, considers sacred truth .

In the United States, among the 43 million fertile, sexually active women who do not want to become pregnant, 89% are practicing contraception.  Whatever else the bishops might want to preach about, contraception is the least likely to result in obeisant listening: the failure of Catholics to heed the absurd teaching of Paul VI’s panicked “birth control encyclical” (Humanae Vitae, 1968) is impressively documented in every survey done since 1970.

If abortion remains a controversial topic for some ethicists, the court of public opinion gave the verdict on birth control a long time ago.

But obedience is the trademark of the Roman church, as it was originally of the Roman Empire.  When the bishops of Rome first assumed the title pontifex maximus or supreme pontiff in the late fourth century, they did so using the imperial idea that the emperor was the bridge (pontus) between the gods and mankind.  Beginning with Augustus, Roman emperors were venerated as the sons of god: it’s one of the reasons Jesus gets the title in his christological role as “king of kings,” and why in their inspired mode, ex cathedra–from the throne of Peter–popes are thought to be infallible when teaching on “matters of faith and morals”–something no protestant, never mind an agnostic or a United States congressman, is required to believe.

Welcome to America, Land of the free and home of the politically vacuous. If anyone needs to be indignant about anything in the Obama administration’s effort to secure contraceptive protection for women as part of health care coverage by employers (including corporations owned by the Catholic Church), it should be the congressional leaders who are now screaming about the government’s “intrusion” into matters of conscience.  They should be telling the Church to calm down, hush up, and learn to be American.  Congress is entrusted with the legislative function of government, yet a significant majority of American legislators, or at least those who can read, are banefully ignorant of the secular character of the document that describes their job.

Whose conscience? What teaching? By what authority? This isn’t China,  or the Europe of the Middle Ages. It’s the world’s oldest (yes oldest) continuing republic.  It is supposed to be the place where the pretensions of hierarchical religion and monarchical rule were set aside in favor of a secular constitution that guaranteed freedom of religion but not its dominance over the welfare of its citizens.  The fact that a plenum of backward politicians, if that is not a tautology, happen to find that their antediluvian religious views and political needs coincide with the teaching of Rome on this matter should have no bearing on the discussion of contraception, health care, and reproductive rights.  None.

But naturally, in  hyper-religious America, any program that seems to challenge the unwritten catechism of the Christian right is construed as an assault on the freedom to worship, on religion itself.  The Sean Hannitys and Laura Ingrahams of this old world with their rabidly anti-gay, anti-woman, anti-science agenda and traditional-Catholic fear of sexual freedom dominate the discussion with a mixture of political illiteracy, brusque stupidity and the sort of dull sophistry that we usually associate with salesmen working on commission at Radio Shack.  But they have an audience, and they have homo Americanus’ natural gift for missing the point in their favour.

If John Kennedy were a candidate for the presidency in 2012, given what likely would have been his views on contraception and abortion, he would have been trashed by the Catholic media and the bishops for being a disloyal son of the Church.  In fact, that’s just what Rick Santorum, that most mule-faced and mulishly stupid of Catholic rightists, called him.

The Church as church has every right to its doctrine and its view. But religious doctrine should not stand (in countless cases has not stood) when a religious organisation (for example) advocates child marriage, or the abuse of children in the form of corporal punishment, or life-threatening health practices that would restrict emergency treatment to minors.  The Catholic Church has lost significant moral persuasiveness in recent years by preaching on stage its gospel of life and sermonizing about the rights of the unborn, while behind the curtain abusing the born, the vulnerable and the old as “human weaknesses” that the laity should learn to comprehend and forgive.  The denial of contraceptive rights to women as a fundamental part of health care is just another example of this malignant behavior.

Deciding women's futures

Because of its antiquity, the rules and pronouncments of the Catholic church are not often compared to those of other denominations; after all, in addition to being the  world’s largest owner of private hospitals it is the world’s most ancient monarchy.  To a large extent, its theology has defined both the institution of marriage, the nature of the family, and the conflicting duties individuals face in their religious life and as citizens.

The church has argued and will continue to argue that the City of Man is the imperfect representation of the City of God–to which the church stands nearer because of its privileged position as guardian of timeless truths.  Once again, the Church is free to believe this.  It is not anyone else’s duty to accept it as true.  The Church’s position on contraception and abortion is derived from particular traditions regarded as sacred by its teachers.  By their very nature, therefore, they are not binding on the conscience of those who regard those truths as damaging, irrational or destructive.  The secular state is under no more obligation to accept the Church’s teaching on reproductive issues than it is to accept the Church’s teaching on the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.  If American legislators would howl at the latter example, why are they lined up behind the Church in opposing freedom of choice.  After all, the church is supposed to know more about eternal than temporal things, and nothing is more temporal then reproduction.

But the church as an owner of corporations is not acting in the same role as the Church as the avowed dispenser of God’s grace through teaching and the sacraments. Its ecclesiastical privileges cannot extend into its social involvements and projects.

What the Church claims to do for the salvation of souls is one thing: if you believe it, and it doesn’t hurt animals, by all means continue to do it.

But contaception is  matter of the flesh, for men and women who have presumably decided not to heed the jeremiads of two hundred aging celibate prelates who will never be pregnant, never suffer a miscarriage, never have to consider the risks of giving birth, or of giving birth to a child with a genetic disorder.

Most sickening of all of course is the bare teeth hypocrisy of the politicans who want to see the Obama administration’s decision about contraceptive care as a violation of the First Amendment, an infringement of the free exercise of religion.  It is the government “telling religion what to do,” they say, with the assured self-satisfaction of a high school debater who’s just scored a point against the team from the next county.

Well, exactly.  That is exactly the way our system works.  It tells religion when to climb down.  It says a Presbyterian can believe in God’s prevenient saving grace and a Catholic can believe in actual grace earned through merit and priestly offices.

It says the government couldn’t care less unless the two want to fight it out with guns (cf. Amendment II) at dawn. It says a woman can believe in a hundred gods or in no god at all and still run for elected office.  It says that a Church should not be licensed to be a hospital but might own hospitals that meet specific standards for health care. Those standards are not doctrinal but empirical, measurable, scientific.  That hospital is not required to perform abortions. It is required to provide the same standard of  care for its employees–not all of whom are Catholic–as they might expect from a hospital that was not subject to the Church’s magisterium.

If the bishops and the Christian Right and their Republican mouthpieces win this one, the Constitution loses.  But most Americans won’t know that and many won’t care.

Talking Points from Rick Santorum’s Ethics Playbook

1.  No fetus should be denied health care.

2. My mother Cathy used to say, God love her,  The best solution for unwanted pregnancy is to learn to want it.

3.  All men are created equal.  All women are created  to be mothers and teachers or nurses.

4. Life begins at conception and ends with a funeral.

5.  Marriage is between one man and one woman, Mormon losers.

6.   Abortion is a sin because the Bible says “Honour thy father and thy mother,” and how would you even be here if they had aborted you, pervert?

7.  Despite what my critics say, I do not believe everything the pope says is literally true.  For example, he might say “It look like rain” when it doesn’t.

6. Our Constitution gives people of the same sex all kinds of rights. And it gives people of different sexes different rights. Same – Different, is that too hard for you you socialist bloodsuckers.

9.  Marriage is not a right.  It is a privilege.  Except it can’t be taken away once you accept it.  It’s really complicated.

10.  Monogamous, heterosexual relationships are what make America “the shining city on a hill,” like St. Augustine John Kennedy Ronald Reagan so famously said.

11.  It hurts me to see so many Catholics turning their backs on the teaching of the bishops. I think we can all learn something important from the bishops about how to teach our children, family values, protecting the young so many things.

12.  I’m not saying I’m a perfect Catholic.  God didn’t make us perfect.  I’d only say that I am the only Catholic politican who can go to communion with a clean conscience.

13.  What a disaster John Kennedy was as the first Catholic president.  I’ll bet if abortion had been legal then he would have been for it.

14.  People ask me, “Why do you think you’ve got a direct line to the Almighty?”  I’ll tell you why, if you tell me why you’re so gay.

15. Do I believe in evolution?  Let me put it his way. I believe God has a right to change his mind.

So, Atheism is Just a Belief?

ELL, what did you think it was?  Let me guess.  You thought it was about not believing–and naturally not believing something is the opposite of belief.  And since the opposite of belief is fact, well there we are.

Of course atheism is just a belief.  One of my favourite websites says it best:

Strictly speaking, atheism is an indefensible position, just as theism is indefensible, for both are systems of belief and neither proposition has been (or is likely to be) proven anytime soon.

The rational position for the non-believer to take is to say that there is almost certainly no god, because no credible evidence exists to support the claim that god exists. This is a stronger position than agnosticism, which holds belief and non-belief on an equal footing.

So the debate between atheism is about the evidence and not about the status of propositions.  Oh, and what beliefs are in relation to personal identity.

Which question brings me to a recent post by Joshua Rosenau at his website— that often touches on some really interesting stuff.  This interesting stuff is directed against a not very interesting notion by Ophelia Benson that “beliefs are not really a part of identity and should not be treated as though they are. ”

Rosenau says that

 What’s especially odd about Benson’s claim is that New Atheism is all about belief. The defining difference between New Atheism and other sorts of atheism is that the gnus don’t just want to assert their own belief that there is no god (or their lack of belief that there is a god, depending). They want to assert a belief that other people’s belief in god(s) is dangerous ipso facto. When folks say that belief is only bad if it leads people to do bad things, they reply by emphasizing just how important belief is in shaping personal identity, and arguing that belief matters on its own.

Of course, this has to be true if you are going argue, for example, that bad beliefs cause people to do bad things, and the Gnus think that this correlation goes a long way in explaining why Muslims behave irrationally and why fundamentalist Christians are personally annoying and politically dangerous.

Atheists having their identity revoked in unbaptism: Fun!

Systematized bad beliefs, in the form of doctrine, are the worst because a fully constructed Catholic, or Muslim, will buy wholesale what his faith sells on the subject of sexual morality, suicide bombings, abortion, and who owns Palestine.  When someone says he’s a Catholic he’s making an identity claim, code for any number of agendas stock full of beliefs.  When someone says she’s a good Muslim, same thing.  There are no category errors here, unless you swallow the giddy notion that atheism is not a belief but a non-identity-imposing non-strait-jacketing opinion about belief.

I want to say that Rosenau’s point is elementary, in the sense that it’s fundamental to understanding that religion is identity-shaping.  Is the reason for this sly turn away from seeing belief as identity-forming purposeful among the Gnus?  Maybe it’s a slip of the keyboard: if so there is still time to back away from this preposterous claim.  But if it’s meant as a serious suggestion, somebody’s got some explaining to do.

Isn’t it true that Gnus have a catechism in the making and thus, you should pardon the expression, a fetal identity of their own?  Even though it may be short of the intellectual range of the Catholic Church or the Torah, at least their movement is beginning to resemble the bylaws of a local Masonic Temple. Every movement has to start somewhere.

More important for future development it has in common with these other systems the basic identity-shaping construct that all religions start with: We’re right. You’re wrong.

The ‘Catholic’ Thing and the Allegory of the Leggy Brunette

Two articles on the “value” of Catholic education got me thinking about my own recently.

Both pieces are nostalgic and mainly wrong.  One, from former LA mayor Richard Riordan spearheads a drive for $100,000,000 for Catholic schools in his region, thrumping the well-known fact that inner city public schools have failed, that charter schools are expensive and aren’t much better, while Catholic schools send most of their graduates on to college and provide “beliefs, values and standards that children will carry all their lives. They provide a safe learning environment for those from high-crime neighborhoods as well as structure and a faith-based education.”  Does anyone see a stop sign here?

What Riordan doesn’t want to stress is that in the last forty years, and in Los Angeles like everywhere else, Catholic schools lost all of their nuns (who, by the way, were indentured teachers), most of the curriculum that made their brand distinctive, fully half of their student population nationwide (in one Miami school, St Monica, from 368 students in 2004 to 196 in 2008 when closure was mandated), and much of the financial support of their parishes.  If there ever was a golden age of Catholic education, the age is long gone. New school closures, consolidations and transfers from parochial to charter school status are announced every month.

Rescuing parochial schools is not a way to rescue public education; it’s a way to sink both. My younger daughter, in fact, benefited from a “Catholic education” in the largely dysfunctional innards of Buffalo, New York, a few years ago.  That education set me back about $10,000 in a single year, not including loafers.  But this was not your average parochial parish school–the kind I  went to, virtually for pin money.  It was a private Catholic “convent” school for girls, a sister institution to the academically reputable Jesuit boys academy, Canisius  Prep. Even here, Catholic “identity” was a romantic notion: other than the school president and a confused and veilless retired nun  who showed up at special events, the convent was empty and Catholic consciousness was mainly limited to the school uniform and a graduation Mass.

The average downtown parochial school suffers from the same uncertainties, tensions, and personnel issues that most public city schools suffer from–underpaid faculty, multilingualism, economic distress, to which has to be added despair and increasing irrelevance.  Throwing gobs of money at the sinking ship won’t raise it. Throwing city kids into the remaining parish schools–a remedy that might have worked a generation or more ago–won’t work now.

But most of all, throwing Catholic values at the public system (without any discussion of what these values might be) is just a very bad idea–one which once upon a less desperate time would have met with stiff political resistance.

Better days?

Perhaps the cynicism of asking non-Catholics to entrust saving city schools to Catholic education is obvious.  Less obvious is the premise put forward by Paul Wallace in his reaction to comments made by Richard Dawkins concerning the religious “identity” imposed on children by parents.  Dawkins’s comments coincide with the founding in Britain of the first “atheist college” by A.C. Grayling and some of his associates (really an option for degree validation within the sprawling and often academically sketchy University of London) and, of course, the publication of his children’s book, The Magic of Reality.

The faith-values that Riordan thinks might benefit intellectual deadened and deadend “inner city youth” (and which Dawkins thinks amount to the imposition of magical thinking and indoctrination in unsupportable beliefs), Wallace says are essentially benign. Moreover, they are “values” that no child is going to avoid merely by receiving a  science-friendly education: the competition for attention and credence is intense in our culture, the argument runs, and “no child can stand above the fray of competing worldviews and let reason eliminate all but the best, like a cautious consumer.”

Recalling a classroom experience with a certain Father Kavanaugh who encouraged students to question the core premises of their belief, Wallace says,

Imagine it! Who are you? Do you disbelieve in God? Why? Do you disbelieve in God because your mother disbelieves in God? Do you believe there’s no God because smart people told you so? Precisely what God do you not believe in? Might there be another you could believe in?, etc.

What many Catholics know, and what Richard Dawkins appears not to, is that the idea of children moving through life without serious intellectual and moral direction—in this insane world, of all places—is a terrible joke and a recipe for social catastrophe.

In reality, Wallace’s argument is the intellectual equivalent of Riordan’s economic one: “Catholic education” offers students the tools for critical thinking: it begins from faith but does not ask people to stop with faith.  Catholicism, it’s argued, has a long history of asking questions about itself,  questions not substantially different, even if differently intoned, by atheists: Who are you? Do you believe in God? Why? Why do you believe God loves you? Do you believe God loves you because your priest told you so? As the destination is at least as important as the starting point, why should a student choose unbelief over belief as the only right road for getting there?

It’s a fair but I think fatally flawed question and since others are answering it with favorite stories from their days at St Ignatius School for Recalcitrant Youth, let me have a turn.


I escaped from the designs of Irish-born nuns and randy priests unmolested (knuckles intact, surplice unruffled) but not unaffected.  My Catholic training–like the sort described by Julian Baggini in his little Oxford introduction to Atheism–was basically benign. In primary school, I loved religion classes.  In high school, what we had begun to call “theology,” (and now, where it exists, is called religion) and in university, philosophy.  It seemed a natural progression.

I make no grandiose claims or  accusations about the role of the Church in education. Catholicism contrary to popular belief did not “cause” the dark ages and without the university system incumbent in the medieval monasteries, things would have been dark a lot longer.

Professional Catholic-haters–and there are many–point not just to a history of psychological and physical abuse during the worst episodes of church history–Jew-killing, inquisitions, Magdalene laundries, and predatory pastors for starters–but to the ongoing role of the church in opposing scientific research, women’s reproductive rights, and the intimidation of Catholic politicians who differ from their Church’s theology on a range of issues that have nothing to do with Rome’s vaunted magisterium: its teaching “authority” in matters of faith (relatively unimpactful) and morals (the bedroom).

The acceptable modern argument against Catholic education, however, really goes back only to Pope Pius IX and his campaign against “modernism” (read: modern scholarship and science) in the Syllabus of Errors, promulgated in 1864.  It was then that Catholic universities took a southward turn, failed to promote the natural sciences, and found themselves in thrall to a papacy whose greatest contribution was to pronounce itself infallible.  There is no doubt that the legacy of Pio Nono was the Church’s most shameful intellectual moment since the Inquisition.  By the same token, it corresponded to the death throes of a church that had lost power, prestige, land, and authority all over Europe–the beginning of the secular era. Not coincidentally, Catholic or “parochial” education as it came to exist, especially as an alternative school system in Britain and the United States, dates from the same unpromising period.

Pope Pius IX

And yet. In a world where Ted Kennedy, John Kerry, and Martha Coakley can be threatened by their Church with excommunication for their stand on abortion –but not Rick Santorum (who is renowned for having introduced a dead fetus to his living children as their brother), or Scott Brown, a good Catholic boy from a lapsed family that had turned divorce into a recreational activity–the very idea that Catholic education produces mono-opinionated troglodytes is clearly absurd.

But it does seem to produce an unusual number of intellectual apostates and satirists.  I submit that the reason the Church has produced comedians like George Carlin, Bob Newhart, Julia Sweeney and Bill Maher is that Catholic training is a survival lesson in enduring contradictions. Would you walk across the street to buy a ticket to see a “Christian” comedian?  Not likely.  Protestant comedy is inherent in the seriousness with which its practitioners take their dogmas.  A Muslim funny man? Pfffft. Remember Denmark?

Jewish? of course, fellow sufferers in being smart, guilty, alienated and irreverent.  In fact the only difference between a Catholic comedian and a Jewish comedian is that the Catholic is told he has to feel contrition for his abuse of the Church while the Jew is simply plunged into a perpetual state of unforgivable remorse for not being Jewish enough.

But the key thing (and why isn’t anybody getting this?) is living with contradiction.  Catholics perfected this more than a thousand years ago when they started talking about faith and reason being compatible means of getting to the same intellectual end: certainty about God.

It was never an even match: Ubi fides est ratio fallitur (“Where reason fails, faith prevails”), and there was always a penchant for mystery when reasons weren’t at hand for particular beliefs–like the Trinity.  But reason had a place at the table, and reason was an honorable way to get to God.  It would take until the Reformation for faith to take center position and stay there in a way that leads finally to Michele Bachmann.

Faith is what made this country what it is.

In my academic work, I never miss a chance these days not to re-read Aquinas on the subject of faith and reason, and you can bet on the fact that most Catholics, whenever they passed through the system, but especially those who went through after about 1975, have never read a paraphrased tiddle of his work.  Yet it’s Aquinas whose transformative work on Aristotle still forms the fundament of christian doctrine in the Roman tradition.  Try these on for size:

Because we cannot know what God is, but only what He is not, we cannot consider how He is but only how He is not.  God should not be called an individual substance, since the principal of individuation is matter.

or this:

Because philosophy arises from awe, a philosopher is bound in his way to be a lover of myths and poetic fables. Poets and philosophers are alike in being big with wonder.

–and especially this (are you reading Rick perry?)

Beware of the person of one book.

According to the most learned voices the church has produced, the human race is essentially ignorant of God’s attributes and the Bible is a book of poetry that cloaks his identity in allegory. Yet the Catholic faithful have had to wrestle with some of the most explicit images of God (and Jesus as his incarnation) ever manufactured–think Michelangelo, think Botticelli and a hundred others.  Catholic churches are stuffed with images ranging from the merely explicit to the grotesque–Jesuses hanging on the cross, weighed down with the sins of the world.  To complete the dramatis personae, there are images of his family (blessed, persevering mother, carpenter father) and an array of saints “who have done his will throughout the ages.”  Plenty to keep the eyes occupied and the mind numb.

This is an impressive explosion of love, though sadistic and highly invalued around the edges.  It is also highly specific.  Not taking account of regional variations and post-Vatican II injunctions about keeping things iconically simple, walking into a Catholic church is a little like taking out your family album.  You already know who’s in it because you’ve seen it all before.  But it’s nice to visit, nice to feed your memory.

God the father (1654) in papal attire with the whole world in his hands

Yet the official philosopher, that lover of wisdom and angelic doctor, Aquinas tells us that this God “is not even an individual substance.”  Not even knowable as an integer but only in terms of what cannot be said about him.  You see what I mean: contradiction–a long history of squirmy little boys and girls paying homage in the light of flickering candles to images and formulations that the church officially teaches have no greater relevance to the reality of the subject than the shadows in Plato’s cave to the world beyond.

Many of these children, with respect to what they think is the core of their religion, will remain children their whole life long.  The lucky ones will leave and become comedians. The unfortunate ones will become politicians and try to have their Church and leave it too.

It’s as if to say: Today class we are going to discuss Wisdom.  Wisdom is beauty in the mind. It is seductive.  It is desirable.  It is what we all long to possess, the object of all our intellectual drive and energy.  The only thing that will give us satisfaction.  Do you see this picture of a leggy brunette? Look closely.  Wisdom is nothing like that.


And that of course is just the problem;  Catholicism does not resolve the Platonic allegory for believers.  It preserves it.  It encourages it.  From the time of the church fathers, the founders of the church’s intellectual tradition, the church of the orthodox bishops was not the same church as the church of believers.  From time to time they would gently remind the flock (the word speaks volumes) that they were not to actually worship the images.  But in the same breath they would condemn to the pains of a nonfigurative hell anyone who refused to believe that a little bread and wine held aloft by a priest was, in actuality, the body and blood of Jesus Christ.

At the core of Catholicism is living with appearance and reality, with the contradiction between what our eyes and minds tell us and what we are told is true.

These contradictions are very old, and they have now become the familiar devotions of a billion people, more or less, around the world.  Their propagation does not render them harmless, and their historical success does not make them a recipe for educational practice.

Given that the educational goal set by Plato was for the prisoners to escape from the world of appearances into the world of knowledge where they would see the shadows for what they are, and the enforced darkness of an institution that still goads people to view the images as good enough, which model would you choose for your children?

Quodlibet: Of Gay and Plural Marriage

Does the irreversible trend toward legalizing same-sex marriage augur good tidings for proponents of polygamy, especially the reconstruction Mormons (Reorganized Church of Latter Day Saints) and other groups who support the practice?

An article in the July 20 New York Times raises the question, and another by Joanna Brooks, who was raised a conservative Mormon, hints at how lively this discussion is going to be—or already is.

Or will the noise stop when the definition of marriage contained in the “Defense of Marriage Act,” which defines a legitimate marriage as a union of one man and one woman is repealed.

Until the twelfth century the Christian church was not very interested in marriage, and when it got interested in it it was mainly because there were financial implications for the Church.

Rome needed to ensure that estates and the financial holdings of lords and barons were legitimately passed on and that anything due to the church came to the church.  Some of these dues (called benefices) were paid to bishop-princes under the feudal regime, so it was to the Church’s advantage to have a trusted priest or bishop as the church’s official “witness” (the term still used in the Catholic protocol for matrimony) on the scene to seal the deal.

“Holy wedlock” was a church-approved contract; whatever else being a bastard meant, it meant primarily that the church did not recognize a boy as the rightful heir of his father’s property, money, or titles.

As for the common people, the Church took on marriage as a sacrament somewhat grudgingly after centuries of being happy to let the peasants do it the way they had done it for ages, on the ruins of the Roman empire: at home, in bed, with relatives drinking and cheering the couple on.

The glamification of marriage is a relatively modern affair.  Without the development of the “romantic theory” of matrimony, it’s hard to imagine anyone picketing for the right to take on the burden of a permanent opposite-sex relationship.

In Judaism and Christianity, and later in Islam, it had been primarily a contractual matter—easier to wriggle out of in Judaism and Islam than in Christianity because of some highly problematical words that were misappropriated to Jesus (Matt. 5:32 ; 19:9;  Luke 16:18; Mark 10:2-12) about divorce  in the Gospels.  Paul has no use for marriage, and the church fathers regarded it as a necessary evil for people who didn’t have the spiritual stamina for celibacy and virginity.  –If you were wondering about why the Catholic church has maintained its weird two-track system for ministers and ordinary folk, it goes back to the Church’s early contempt for the married state–a contempt that reaches exquisite spasms of intolerance in writers like Tertullian, the most hateful of all Christian writers, and  Augustine.

Wives should be veiled but not pregnant

True, marriage was popular among protestants from the 16th century onward, but it wasn’t a sacrament.  Luther defends it ( Estate of Marriage, 1522) as an “ordinance”—an arrangement—given by God for the production of families.  In fact, Luther’s famous treatise on the subject reminds the Church that for most of its history it regarded marriage as a second class ritual, useful for relieving aches, pains and passion and primarily good for populating the world with new Christians.  He also entertained three reasons for divorce: impotence, adultery, and refusal to fulfill conjugal duty.  In other words, whatever doesn’t lead “naturally” from sex to legitimate offspring.

Which brings me to the point.  A great deal of the same-sex marriage defense has been framed in romantic terms: Why should two people who love each other not be permitted the freedom to be together, sleep together, share lives and income and tragedies and life’s joys together?

The answer is (has to be in the modern, secular sense) No reason at all.  The state has no reason and probably no justification for impeding the pursuit of happiness. To arrive at this answer, however, the state is obliged to redefine marriage in strictly secular terms, and to reject most of the symbolism and above all the “properties” that have been part of the popular understanding of marriage, an understanding heavily tinctured by theological canons and legal thought.

What has been going on in the legislatures of New England, New York and elsewhere is as much a process of rethinking as insisting, but rethinking the definition in historical context needs to be done if we want to avoid the impression that being pro-same sex marriage is simply being iconoclastic towards the “institution” itself.  If something goes, does everything go?

The old, legalistic and Aristotelian thinking behind the “sacrament” of marriage dies hard.  So does its biblical sanction, or justification.   A lot of conservatives will point to the Adam and Eve story as  a tale of the first marriage.  That’s hogwash of course.  God does not marry them, he just “makes” them (in two very different tales) and they do the rest, according to command (Gen 1.28).

But “the rest” is probably what matters most in the biblical context: they have children, lots of children.  When God gets tired of their habits and floods the world, he starts out with a “good family”, Noah and company, whose proficiency at carpentry is only exceeded by a commitment to repopulating the devastated earth.

Noah’s Family: Time for multiplying

When the Hebrews first become aware of their minority status in a hostile environment, they looked to  a patriarch whose preoccupation is with having descendants—the story of Abraham and Sarah and Haggar and Sarah, again, is all about developing the critical mass of Hebrews needed to make God’s name strong among his enemies (Genesis 26.4ff). Increase is everything in threatened or endangered groups.  Ask any anthropologist.

The paradigms of reproductive success, however, are the kings: David with his wives and lovers, and Solomon with his international harem of 1000 women.  No self-respecting Jew aspired to such bounty, but (like Tevye) he could admire it.

Reverence for large families as a symbol of doing your duty for “the people of Israel” emerges as the primary justification for marriage.  It also explains why stories about barrenness and impotence feature so proiminently in Hebrew lore: what could be worse than a father who can’t do his bit for the tribe? What can be more humiliating (think Job) than losing your spawn?  What is more disgraceful than a barren woman, like (at least temporarily) Rebecca or Sarah? The fear of childlessness even sneaks into the New Testament in the pilfered story of Elizabeth (Luke 1.36), mother of John the Baptist.

It’s well known that religious minorities, especially tribal minorities, have always followed similar logic, though not always in clear cut ways.  If Jesus said anything about marriage it was probably forgotten in the eschatological fervor of the early community.  That’s why Paul make so little (or inconsistent) sense when he talks about it.

But by the time the second century rolls around, a man writing in Paul’s name, and against the “heresy” of radical anti-marriage sects like the gnostics and Marcionites, is teaching that”a woman is saved by childbearing” (1 Timothy 2.15). Marriage becomes important, in other words, because the church recognized that its future (almost tribally construed) depended on a stable supply of cradle Christians— something the more puritanitical and perfectionist bishops didn’t provide.  Interestingly, the non-celibate writer of 1 Timothy thinks bishops should be married–to one woman.

In every place where Christianity flourished centuries later, especially in colonial and missionary cultures, the ideal of a large family had everything to do with the “sanctity” of marriage: this was its primary definition. Love had nothing to do with it.

Which explains a great deal about Mormonism.  As an old “new religion,” Mormonism could draw on its own desert and exodus experiences: Ohio, Missouri, Illinois (where Joseph Smith was killed),  Utah.  The myth of a persecuted remnant drove them on; they created their own class of martyrs ( just like the ancient Hebrews and early Christians) and took care of keeping the numbers up through “plural marriages.”

Before it was finally repudiated in 1904, the practice was an “open secret” in the denomination. But there was nothing un-Biblical about it.  We have no idea whether all early Christians were monogamous and some reason to think some weren’t.  What we do know is that when monogamy has become a norm in religion—as in most parts of Islam–it is attached to financial rather than moral considerations.

What we also know is that from Genesis onward, and from the religious traditions that correspond with it, marriage is a fertility covenant. Adam does not love Eve, and we have no idea how Solomon felt about his 700 wives and 300 concubines—in fact, only one, Naamah the Ammonite is given a name. David gets Bathsheva pregnant after arranging her husband’s death, and receives as punishment not forty lashes but this: “Before your very eyes I the Lord will take your wives and give them to one who is close to you, and he will sleep with your wives in broad daylight (2 Samuel 2.10ff.).


Personally, I think history tells us a lot about human nature but very little about how “institutions” and the definitions that describe them can be transformed.  I doubt there is any logical argument within the current thinking about same-sex marriage that entitles us to think that what’s good for gays is good for Mormons, or others who espouse plural marriage.

The rationale for plural marriage belongs to the sociology of the practice at a time when threatened minorities considered procreation a method of survival.  That rationale is no longer persuasive, no longer needed: religions that are losing members will end with a whimper and will almost certainly not be able to sustain themselves by reformulating their marriage codes.

Having said this, it is no accident that the religion that still extols marriage primarily as a fertility covenant (and has stressed this doctrine in its Gospel of Life theology) is also the one most viciously opposed to same-sex marriage.

The defense of gay marriage is something else: it reflects the development, over time, of love and emotional attachment as the primary criteria for the right [sic] of marriage and at least implicitly rules out fertility and procreation—the old biblical and ecclesiastic rationales—as defining properties or necessary ends.  That is where we are in history.

Michele Bachmann’s Antichrist Problem

You saw it, right?  Michele Bachmann, God’s little darling, quit her Church. Her gay-hating, anti-Jew, anti-Catholic, anti-Black, anti-choice, anti-science Church.

Those of you who thought that Southern Baptists and the Assembly of God had the monopoly on Weird Religion, think again.  America is multi-cultural, after all–like Bill Murray (as John Winger) reminds us in Stripes,

“We’re all very different people. We’re not Watusi. We’re not Spartans. We’re Americans, with a capital ‘A’, huh? You know what that means? Do ya? That means that our forefathers were kicked out of every decent country in the world. We are the wretched refuse.”

If that doesn’t quite compute with what you thought the Pilgrim Fathers brought to these shores–all that beeswax about freedom of worship and conscience–then you didn’t deserve your B- in American history.  Come to think of it, you wouldn’t have learned this in American history because the schools actually don’t teach it.  Nobody (in America anyway) wants to think of America as Europe’s dumping ground for religious misfits and zealots.  It spoils all our stories about grandparents, forty acres and a mule and Ellis Island.  And it’s only when their crazy descendants surface in modern political debates that we’re reminded of what it means to be wretched refuse.

The fact is, most of multidenominational America was monocultural at the start.  America was a big enough country to make room for Dunkards and Mennonites and Amish farmers, apple-butter-making, wine tippling German Benedictines in Missouri and tight-lipped Presbyterians in North Carolina.  No one in 1850 would have been surprised at the repetitious ethnicity of the surnames on church rolls.  Just like no one cared much about what the pols were doing in Washington as long as it didn’t reach into the hills of Tennessee or the woods of Maine. Churches weren’t melting pots or even pots to melt thinks in: they were mechanisms for preserving ethnic difference, family custom, ancestral languages, inherited prejudices. –Special ways of loving the God who died on the cross for your sins and invented the shotgun so’s you could protect your special interpretation of what that meant and sing the songs your grandpa sang.

A midwestern Benedictine of Conception Abbey

Their apartheid from each other was taken for granted. Their separateness from the federal government, on the other hand, had to be guaranteed by Constitutional authority, spelled out by a generation of pretty smart men whose influence did not last much into the following century except on the coinage.  Mark Twain’s famous experiment  in ecumenism says it all.

Which brings me to the latest example of cultural atavism: Michele Marie Bachmann, née Amble, of Iowa-Norwegian-Lutheran stock.  (Where did you think those cute, semi-round vowels and troubled, vacant blue eyes come from?).

The stock went down when it was reported that the particular branch of Lutheranism that MB and her Christian counselor-husband Marcus belonged to, the Wisconsin Evangelical Synod of the Lutheran Church, was a sect caught in a time-warp of seventeenth century religious polemic.  Rumour has it that German sociologists were convinced that the last traces of their kind were wiped out in the Thirty Years War, which ended in 1648.  But no, they survived and swam all the way to Stillwater, Minnesota to form the  Salem Lutheran Church, a retail outlet of the Wisconsin Synod consisting of 800 smiling, toothy, salvation-confident members.

In the main, they believe in all the things other Lutherans believed four hundred years ago before there was a United States, or a Charles Darwin or a Hubble Telescope. Among these things they believe that Christians should be “obedient” to governing authorities–not because the Constitution recommends it, but because the Bible says so:

“We believe that not only the church but also the state, that is, all governmental authority, has been instituted by God. “The authorities that exist have been established by God” (Romans 13:1). Christians will, therefore, for conscience’s sake obey the government that rules over them (Romans 13:5) unless that government commands them to disobey God (Acts 5:29).”  Being a good citizen is a concession to the state, which insofar as it has any right to govern at all gets it from God.  This puts the citizen in the stressful condition of always needing to remind the state of its obligation to the Church, which is, of course, not something the First Amendment talks about.

Importantly, Luther was able to side with the divinely appointed authorities against the zealous, protestant German peasants because Luther thought the state represented God, just like Michele Bachmann thinks the Republican Party does today.

Luther also believed the Pope was the antichrist.  So does Michele Bachmann’s minister, er–ex-minister–and so does her Church.  Luther wore the plain brown robe of an Augustinian monk.  The pope got to dress up, drink better wine, and create new doctrines and sacraments.  In historical context, the contempt between Luther and the papacy was personal (the pope called him a goring German boar, though it sounds better in Latin), so a little hyperbole can be forgiven.  But something tells me that the use of the phrase in the Salem Lutheran Church doesn’t bother to mention this.  And even Lutheran theologians who aren’t Salemites end up spewing gibberish when they try to explain:

“Luther’s point was, that in his view, the pope was so obstructing the gospel of God’s free love in Jesus, even though he wore all the trappings of a leader in the church…He was functioning as the New Testament describes … the Antichrist.” (Valparaiso religion professor George Heider).  All clear?  Benedict XVI is not the antichrist.  He just plays one on TV.

America has been blessed with a rich array of religious craziness, so why pick on this sect, numbering about 420,000 adherents nation-wide, with over 60,000 of those located in Bachmann’s homestate of Minnesota. After all, they can’t be as bad at the homophobic Westboro Baptist Church or the Dove World Outreach Center, storefront for the antics of the reverend Terry Jones.

At the risk of misstating the obvious, it’s because neither of those groups or their simian cousins has yet produced a viable presidential candidate.  One by the way who was permitted to slither away from her cultural-religious home and into a more mainsteam evangelical church (Eagle Brook Church) in Stillwater, one than openly opposes lynching.

Her erstwhile pastor “accepted” her resignation on June 27, 2011–within arm’s length of her announcement of wanting to be the next commander-in-chief of God’s armies.  The resignation is characterized by that free exercise of conscience and aspiration to go where God leads that typifies Ms. Bachmann’s commitment to the creation of a Christian republic.

I’m not sure I agree with Christopher Hitchens that religion poisons everything.  But it does make things rancid.  In fact, I’m not really interested in what Wisconsin Synod Lutherans believe because we have a document that protects us from it.

But a lot of what they believe is incarnate in Michele Bachmann: her positions on global warming (hoax, because not mentioned as a sign of the apocalypse in Mark 13); health care (interference with God’s schedule); same sex marriage (you’ve got to be kidding); abortion (your comment here), and the Constitution (the writ of Christian men, like John Quincy Adams [sic] not to be distinguished from the Pilgrims of Plymouth colony in their aspirations).  Bachmann’s entire social policy and cultural framework has been shaped by the Synod she’s just left behind.

What is even more repugnant however is that Bachmann calculated her move fairly skilfully, so as to preclude it being an issue in a political contest.  She knows that Minnesota is not all Lutherans.  Those wine-making German monks occupied land not otherwise reserved for protesant dairy cows–and Catholic faithful are a powerful electoral force.   Stillwater is a skip away from St Paul, the Catholic twin of Minneapolis, where every Sunday a priest will hold forth from the magnificently rennovated pulpit of the cathedral with a sermon about protecting unborn life being the first duty of a Christian.  Catholic politicians who vote otherwise and against the wisdom of Holy Mother Church?  Screw ’em, and don’t use a condom.

Michele Bachmann knows that she is toast within her own state without the Catholic vote, or more exactly that insofar as there is a Catholic vote any more it is an anti-abortion vote, an anti-gay vote–a “family values” vote.  That’s why when pressed at a forum about the pope being antichrist, Bachmann said passionately and completely mistakenly,

“Well that’s a false statement that was made, and I spoke with my pastor earlier today about that as well, and he was absolutely appalled that someone would put that out. It’s abhorrent, it’s religious bigotry. I love Catholics, I’m a Christian, and my church does not believe that the Pope is the Anti-Christ, that’s absolutely false.”

Much as Ms Bachmann’s bigotry flickers beneath this denial, it’s nothing compared to the Catholic traducers who are trying to rescue her for the cause.

In a recent statement on Bachmann’s religious views, The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights  said “It’s regrettable that there are still strains of anti-Catholicism in some Protestant circles… But we find no evidence of any bigotry on the part of Rep. Michele Bachmann. Indeed, she has condemned anti-Catholicism. Just as President Barack Obama is not responsible for the views of Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Rep. Bachmann must be judged on the basis of her own record.”

Jeremiah Wright

The same Church that threw Ted Kennedy to the wolves and vowed to keep John Kerry from receiving communion in the Boston archdiocese has made Michele Bachmann an honorary Catholic.  And why?  Because she has become a champion for the moral and cultural backwardness that Catholic orthodoxy has come to symbolize.

But that’s not the most noxious part of the Catholic League’s endorsement. They want us to see a moral equivalence between the Jeremiah Wright crisis of 2008 and Bachmann’s potential religious liabilities in 2012.

There’s a problem with this “equivalence,” of course.  It’s that Barack Obama didn’t believe most of the things, at least most of the angriest things, Jeremiah Wright spouted in his sermons, and everyone knew it.     Michele Bachmann believes almost everything her church teaches about the Bible, sex, sexuality, evolution, creation, government–you name it.

In fact, she probably believes it more strongly and is in a position to do more about it than any pastor or member of her denomination.  The ancient virus of a regressive American protestantism flows in her blood and influences every part of her social agenda.

She can’t resign from that.


Call me a Manichaen, after you look it up, but whatever I may think about God, my faith in the devil remains unshaken.  He’s my guy. He rocks and rules.

The Manichaens thrived in all parts of the Middle East and North Africa, and as far away as China and Europe, from the third century onward.  So popular were they that the church fathers tried to make people believe they were a Christian heresy. But their real roots are in the dualistic thinking of ancient Persia, stretching back to the prophet Zoroaster.

Their appeal was huge, however, and Mani’s culturally omnivorous followers availed themselves of all sorts of religious ideas (and possibly even Christian writings) in formulating their philosophy.  In turn, the Christian gnostic sects used it freely and imitatively, so much so that it’s sometimes difficult to sort out Manichaen and “purer” gnostic forms of teaching.

Not to mention that even the most “orthodox” Christian teaching got a heavy dose of Manichean ideas. The most famous of the early church writers, Saint Augustine, was a Manichean throughgout most of his formative period.  And some cynics have noted that he only converted to Christianity in 387–after the emperor Theodosius, worried about the influence of Manichaen thought on Christianity throughout the empire, issued an edict (382) ordering the death of Manichaens.  A coincidence, to be sure.

What I like about the Manichaens is that they based their teachings on the simple observation that there is more evil than good in the world, and that two eternally opposed powers of good and evil preside over everything from the cosmos to the individual soul or will.  Giving to charity and lying about your tax liability to the IRS are perfectly natural expressions of your humanity. So is patience with children and wanting to beat the crap out of the guy who just cut into your lane, missing your car by inches.  It keeps us in a constant state of stress and imbalance, and if this weren’t so the stars would fall out of the sky.

Good and evil are simply modes of the universal struggle and the impulses that govern the individual life. Since we live in a world governed by material things, the downward trend of our desire for pleasure, sex and riches is more or less guaranteed. Let’s not call it sin.  Let’s call it human nature.  Because when writers like Augustine get hold of the idea, they’ll equate the two and we’ll just feel sorry for ourselves.  Christianity is the great confusion of a much simpler, earlier dualism.

True, their myths are far more complicated than I’m letting on,  and the light and dark imagery and personages who populate their stories (like the quasi-gnostic Mandaens of Iraq) can be a bit obscure and exhausting–a bit like Hinduism.  There is also the problem of knowing which of the sources we possess, interspersed as they are with all kinds of religious teaching ranging from apocalyptic Judaism to Buddhism, are really representative of Manichean religious thought.  But that just makes them more interesting–in my humble opinion.

Manichaeism remained highly vaporous, dangerous, and a little sexy. Orthodox Christianity pinned everything down to definitions and ended up sounding like Daffy Duck.

The big advantage over orthodox Christianity is that for Manicheans there is no real problem of evil.  Evil (as Nietzsche and Richard Strauss saw, philosophically and musically) is just a mode of reality.  Good and evil are correlative forces creating the basic tension in the universe.  In the basic myth of the Manichees (there are many), God is not all powerful, so he couldn’t subdue evil if he wanted to, and humanity itself is a byproduct of the struggle–a mythological way of saying that our personalities are symptoms of eternal, unresolved swirl and restlessness. Like Jessica Rabbit, we’re not bad; we’re just drawn that way.

The Christians meantime taught that Satan was relatively puny, a tempter, slanderer (diabolos, devil), adversary (Satan), or lesser angel of light (Lucifer) who infiltrated creation, spoiled its primordial goodness, and then had to pay the price of his mischief through the coming of a “redeemer” who could satisfy the devil’s demand for the payment of a debt God had incurred in a game. God the almighty had lost the world in a wager when Adam “fell” from grace. History becomes the staging ground for getting it back.

No, I am not making this up: almost all the church fathers taught that Satan had won the world to his side in the Garden. Even the concept of original sin is developed in the light of this belief.  God is seen as a gambler who invents the stratagem of salvation: producing a god-man who belongs to the devil by right (all humans do, according to Christian theology) but not by nature, since he is “truly God,” and hence more powerful than a speeding devil.

Jesus harrows hell where the saints have been waiting patiently

The belief that between the crucifixion and resurrection Jesus paid a visit to hell and “caught” Satan by surprise (“with the bait of his humanity on the hook of his divinity,”  Irenaeus and Basil liked to say) is actually preserved in early christian creeds, like the one curiously called the Apostle’s Creed written late in the fourth century by Ambrose of Milan.

Slightly embarrassed by this highly mythological way of looking at why Jesus came into the world (bait? hook?), the church finally turned to philosophy, where it tried to make roads and ended up creating the system of potholes we call Christian theology.

In this system, the devil still exists but plays no real role in the drama, leaving God vulnerable to the all-good, all-powerful, all-knowing trilemma.  –The one the Manichaens never had to confront, as their divine powers were fairly equally matched, at least in this cycle of creation.

The theologians’ God (as distinct from the God of the Bible, lore, and early legend) had to account for the fact that the deity, being omniscient, must have known creation would turn out wrong (evil) and being all good must not have wanted it to turn out that way and being all powerful could have prevented it, yet didn’t. No matter how you de-horn this preposterous beast it’s still mighty ugly.  Every theologian from Augustine to Plantinga and Hick have had a try at solving the problem that James L.  Mackie saw as Christianity’s fatal intellectual flaw.  I recommend reading them only if you have ten years in solitary confinement to kill, and even then get plenty of exercise.  –No wonder that this branch of Christian theology, “theodicy,” is often misspelled “theidiocy.”

My real proof that the Manichaens are right however is not that orthodox Christianity looks wrong, it’s that the pure force of evil within the Church is plain as the nose on your face.

My guess is that for two thousand years the Church has been a kind of hothouse for evil.  The process reached a pre-climax in the Crusades and later in the Inquisition.  But only in our own time has the complete success of the evil forces been clear.

Still not convinced? I offer the following exhibits:

1.  Mother Teresa of Calcutta.  A woman so in love with poverty that she did everything in her earthly power to propagate it on a global level.    Especially successful was her campaign against family planning and HIV-AIDS education, calling abortion, in her 1979 Nobel Peace Prize address,”the greatest destroyer of peace in the world.”

2.  Pope John Paul II (Blessed John Paul II): The charismatic bishop of Rome and soon to be canonized supreme pontiff and successor of Peter (1978-2005) whose “Gospel of Life” and blind eye towards the moral decrepitude of thousands of priests was the Catholic church’s belated contribution to the sexual revolution.

3.  Pope Benedict XVI, right-hand man to John Paul, whose skill at delaying judicial proceedings against the criminal acts of priests and bishops revealed a level of technical proficiency seldom witnessed, even in ecclesiastical bureaucrats.

4.  Bernard Cardinal Law, archbishop of Boston, the first bishop shown to be actively involved in a cover up of the criminal acts of priests accused of child abuse, and duly rewarded for his service to his Church by John Paul II by being appointed to a lifetime sinecure in Rome and archpriest of Saint Mary Major basilica, one of Rome’s cushiest benefices.

6.  Father Paul Shanley, who managed to combine his pastoral work with street people in the 1980’s with plenty of downtime with adolescent boys (at least nine), and after being transferred to faraway San Bernadino, California, where the living and bishops were easy, co-owned a B&B for gay tourists with another priest in Palm Springs. A self-starter, Shanley used his rectorial experience to found the North American Man-Boy Love Association (NAMBLA).  Hymnal appropriately includes “I get high with a little love from my friends.”

6.  Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of Phoenix, who rightfully stripped St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center of its Catholic status after insolent nun, Sister Margaret McBride, assented to a surgical procedure to save the life of a woman in her eleventh week of pregnancy, on doctors’ advice.  In the spirit of the Church’s robust defense of unborn life and its commitment to the spread of poverty, disease and infant mortality in the developing world (cf. the “Gospel of Life,” above), Bishop Olmsted also noted that Sister Margaret had incurred automatic excommunication for her intervention.

7.  Honorable mention.  With its aggressive media, it was almost tempting to think that only the American church had been overcome by devils.  Now we know that the spirit of evil is alive and flourishing in Canada, Belgium, and best of all, around Galway Bay, where Paddy can now be a nickname for Patrick–or something else.

Basically, wherever God thought he had won, there is plenty of proof that he lost–just like in Eden all those millennia ago.  As far as I’m concerned, the Manicheans had it right all along. What a craven poltroon, what a yellow-bellied dastard, what a sissy, a milquetoast, a Scaramouche.  He couldn’t even manage to wipe out the whole human race with the flood, and hasn’t had the cojones to follow through with his promise to do it again only this time for real.

Put your money on the devils.

Atheist Martyrs? Gnus to me.

If revolutionary rational thoughts were expressed in the Age of Reason, they were only made possible because of the long medieval tradition that established the use of reason as one of the most important of human activities.” (Edward Grant: God and Reason in the Middle Ages, Cambridge, 2001)


Roger Bacon, 1220(?)-1290



Have there been atheist martyrs–women and men who suffered and died as a consequence of their rejection of God?

This thoughtful question came up when I recently suggested that I detect a trend in the small but dwindling new atheist community to pad the bona fides of their young tradition with things that didn’t really happen.  We know that real Gnus love science and aren’t too keen on history, especially a history that suggests that Once upon a Time there was a lonely wood-cutter living good without God by the edge of a forest outside Düsseldorf who kept his opinions about God to himself and was never molested, his humble house never burnt down. You have to admit, that’s pretty dull reading.

The Church did not invent martyrdom, but it perfected it in the ancient world. Christians seemed to thrive on persecution, or at least stories about persecution.  The habit of naming churches after saints originates at the gravesites (real and legendary) of the sacrificed.

Every first year divinity student knows two things about the early Christian writer Tertullian: He said something like “I believe because it is absurd.” (Although he didn’t actually say it that way.)  And he said “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church…the more we are mown down by you [pagans] the more our numbers grow,”  which he did say.

Tertullian was an arrogant, heretic-bashing codpiece who was always unfair in rhetorical battle against his heretical opposites, most of whom were dead when he wrote about them.  He would feel right at home in today’s climate. He still has his admirers.

Because they were certain they were right about the religion thing, Christians developed “martyrologies”–stories about martyrs and their brutal torture and dismemberment and rape at the spearpoint of their pagan oppressors.  This no doubt helped fertilize the field of converts in the way Tertullian intended.  After all, what is a martyr but an imitator of Christ, the ultimate sacrificial victim?

Death of a martyr ca 203

To die like Christ was to be holy–a saint–so that the terms (martyr-saint) became virtully synonymous in the early church.  It was a short-cut, a virtual guaranteeing of heavenly bliss.  It could only be compared to patriotism–dying on the field of battle.  Furthermore, Christians thought it drove the Romans crazy, this immense bravery in the face of torture.  –Except in the little that’s survived by way of commentary, the Romans actually thought Christian bravery was a sham because they expected, like the martyrs in the Middle East today, to wake up in glory and bliss before God’s throne.  That was the payoff, to quote Marcus Aurelius, loosely.

It took until Gibbon’s day, in the eighteenth century,  to sort out the strew.  As the Catholic Church was fully in charge of its own story, he reckoned, the number of martyrs was far smaller–even during the reign of the most vicious of the so-called persecuting emperors, Diocletian (d. 311)–than the Church claimed.  Only when other measures at control failed–normal things like ridicule, calling their men yokels and their women prostitutes, did things turn ugly.  The result?  Less than two years after the death of Diocletian the first edict of toleration was passed and by the close of the fourth century the Church was everything Tertullian hoped it would be.  –Including powerful enough to initiate persecutions of its former oppressors.  What goes around.

But the tendency remained strong in Christianity to use martyrdom as a kind of proof of dues-paying authenticity. There were Protestant martyrs–the famous “Boke” by John Foxe (1563) repeats the early Christian stories and then tells the rest as the tale of the Catholic Church’s persecution of Protestants down through the sixteenth century, creating the standard stereotype of the Catholic Church as the reincarnation of Old Rome. The competition to chalk up numbers continued:  Joan of Arc (French, Catholic, a witch to the English cause, a protectress to the French); Miguel Servetus (a rationalist, executed by Calvin’s order in 1533); Johan Hus (Czech, who condemned indulgences, the Crusades, and lobbied for the liberal ideas of another heretic)–namely John Wycliffe, who escaped execution by sleight and a loyal troupe of students and was dug up after his death and his bones burned for his views on the papacy, the nature of the universe (he admired the atomic theory of Democritus) and his ashes scattered in the river Swift.

Execution of William Tyndale, for translating the Bible into English

There are dozens and dozens of Wycliffes and Hus’s who were treated as badly by decress and councils and the Inquisition.  What the Church seems to have learned from its own exaggerated history of martyrs is that, for organizational reasons,  it paid to be more like the Roman persecutors than like the suffering saints.

But I stray.  Surely if Christians preyed on the doctrinal irregularities of their own, they must have sniffed out the most radical opinion of all and punished it? I mean, of course, the “God question.” As well they did.  But the most radical opinion of all as late as the seventeenth century was that God was not a trinity–Socinianism (early unitarianism) named after two Italian thinkers, the uncle-nephew team of Laelius and Fausto, who if they lived today would run a cake shop in Brooklyn.  Both thought the trinity was non-biblical.  Faustus, the nephew, escaped to (then) religiously liberal Poland to be out of the reach of church scrutiny and died there in 1604.  The theology of the Spanish physician Miguel Servetus (mentioned above) was less accommodating but equally severe: he called the trinity a three-headed dog.  Servetus was sentenced to death simultaneously in Geneva by the protestants and by the Catholic Inquisition at Lyons making him officially the first man without a country.

Not far away, or much removed in time, Giordano Bruno died in 1600, a Domincan priest and by all accounts a brilliant scientist.  Bruno taught a version of the Copernican theory and taught it well enough to find himself in exile all over Europe.


Hounded by a reputation for being sarcastic and unable to keep quiet about his unorthodox views, he did what Servetus did: went to Geneva thinking that the Protestant “capital” would be nore liberal than the largely autonomous cities of the Catholic world. Then to Paris, where he was spotted as an excommunicate; then to Oxford and London, where he may have worked as a spy for a very nervous Elizabeth’s secretary of State, Walsingham.  Then to Frankfurt and Padua, where he was denied a chair in mathematics (it went to Galileo) and finally to Venice, where the Church lost patience with his maneuvers and had him hauled back to Rome for trial.

Bruno’s scientific views were not as well devloped as Galileo’s: at his trials in Rome, he was accused of denying the trinity (by now a favourite charge against intellectuals), believing in metempsychosis (reincarnation), denying the virginity of Mary, and the “real presence” of Jesus in the Eucharist.  These were garden variety charges that could be trumped up against almost anyone who had become inconvenient to the Church, so the radical nature of his opinions is difficult to discover.  He was probably also a pantheist and almost certainly a mystic and magician.

From the Church’s point of view he was another heretic at a time when the Church was fighting both ends against the middle, fragmented in Europe, unable to exercise its will against major problems like Luther, and now a spawn of lesser opinions that might have been greater had they developed into full-fledged movements.  Bruno’s challenge like Wycliffe’s involved early scientific ideas that were echoed in the revolutions of Bacon and Newton, neither of whom, alas, had very revolutionary ideas about religion. Before Bruno was burned alive at the Camo di’Fiori, his tongue was nailed to the roof of his mouth “for all the wickedness he had spewed.” The Cardinal who tried Bruno, Bellarmino, was the same who summoned Galileo to the Inquisition sixteen years later.

Bellarmine, the face of Catholic tolerance

Bruno, like Servetus, and Wycliffe, and Hus, and later on the deist Thomas Aikenhead (d. 1696 in Edinburgh) should be commemorated as pioneers in the rationalist tradition that leads from faith and credulity to shades of unbelief and finally to outright atheism. It is a slow progression, and atheism is a consequence, not the match that starts the fire.

Philosophically, these thinkers (even in the case of Hus and Wycliffe) don’t constitute a single opinion but  grades of skepticism that move steadily from rejection of the core doctrine of the Christian faith for 1200 years–the trinity–to a much wider indictment of the Bible, superstition, the papacy, miracles, and the stranglehold of Aristotelian science.

Aikenhead at his trial was accused of all of this: “[He has taught] That the Holy Scriptures were stuffed with such madness, nonsense, and contradictions, that he admired the stupidity of the world in being so long deluded by them: That he rejected the mystery of the trinity as unworthy of refutation; and scoffed at the incarnation of Christ.”

“No defence was recorded, but the prisoner did have defence counsel. On December 24, the next day, came the verdict: “that. . . Thomas Aikenhead has railed against the first person, and also cursed and railed our blessed Lord and second person of the holy Trinity, and further finds the other crimes libelled proven, viz. The denying of the incarnation of our Saviour, the Holy Trinity, and scoffing at the Holy Scriptures.” He was sentenced to be hanged on the 8th of January…before making the long walk, under guard, to the gallows. He was said to have died Bible in hand, “with all the Marks of a true Penitent”.

So to the question: Have there been atheist martyrs.  I think the answer is a conditional rather than a resounding No.  Social marginalization and suspicion is not the same thing as martyrdom, not the same as systematic legal persecution.

I understand that Gnu atheists, like the Christian community that was also Gnu once upon a time, crave the legitimacy that comes from being able to show it has suffered.  But history is against that. Being unpopular and being actually burned alive for your beliefs, or lack thereof, is an option foreclosed to atheists by the bravery of women and men who fought the battle against religious oppression one doctrine at a time, paving the way for the Enlightenment, free speech, and constitutional limitations of the church. That’s the real story. And it neither diminishes atheism nor requires it to “credit” its existence to religion in order to acknowledge it.

Medieval (14th cent) illustration of a spherical earth

Yet this puts atheists in the difficult position of celebrating the work of people they regard as deluded, “faithheads,” to use the aspersion, as though history begins with Hume (maybe a deist, fundamentally cagey), Voltaire (a deist), and Tom Paine (not just a deist but one who wanted to surgically remove Jesus from the atrocity of the gospels).  But none of these men died for their secular, anti- ecclesiastical and anti-Biblical ideas. They held a shred of faith disconnected from the realities of religion.

If we scour more thoroughly, we get Socrates and Jesus and maybe Anaxagoras.  All three were charged with impiety by the dominant religious power of their day.  If we believe Xenophon, Socrates took comfort in the fact that the gods would be pleased with his tranquility and that he was pious throughout his life.  Anaxagoras chose the option of exile to Lampsacus for teaching “odd things” about the nature of matter and mind, that the material world was composed of “a thing of finer texture, alike in all its manifestations and everywhere the same–a subtle agent, possessed of all knowledge and power, especially seen ruling in all the forms of life” (Lucretius).  But in either case, “piety” and impiety were connected to performing acts of ritual devotion, not to an intellectual conclusion about the existence of “God.” A great many historians and psychologists have puzzled that it may not have been psychologically possible, prior to this long progression of ideas, to entertain the sorts of doubts about the gods’ existence that is possible in the modern era. ( I disagree with that, but it’s another topic.)

That leaves Jesus, before he became one–a god that is. Radical doubters and dissenters like Paine, Renan, Loisy recognized Jesus as one of their own. The eminently sensible Matthew Arnold, no friend to biblically-based dogmatism, praised his “sweet reasonableness.”

In so many words Jesus rejected much of the Torah and hardly mentions other sections of the Hebrew tradition at all–though he is accused of violating it.  He substitutes an ethic of love and forgiveness for one of pay-back and talion.  He excoriates wealth in a culture that saw material possessions as a mark of divine favour.  He mingles with women and “sinners” in a time when purity laws were scrupulously enforced and fear of contamination had reached superstitious highs.  He shows compassion for people at the margins of a society that disowned the sick as being stricken by God as punishment for unknown sin.   He, foolishly perhaps,  argues his case openly, even when (like Socrates) he is cautioned not to.

Even if only a shadow of a shade of this story is respected, Jesus is an historical event, at least as much of an event as the historical Socrates who also suffers from his own “biography.” Knowing that his words and deeds are going to get him killed, he presses on.  He’s only human after all. From the standpoint of first century Judaism–which is the only way history can fairly view this event–he dies a blasphemer and a heretic.

It seems to me that atheists should acknowledge that the private thoughts of a lonely woodcutter outside Düsseldorf do not form part of the progression of ideas that get us from Epicurus to Bertrand Russell.

When Professor Dawkins in his now famous remark says that “We are all atheists about most of the gods that societies have ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further,” he is right in one respect (as well as funny) but wrong in another. Because the process of rejecting 99% of the gods and most of what has  been believed about the remainder is not a conclusion that atheism has forced. Unbelief has been forced to the surface of our consciousness by critical processes that are rooted in religion: in the empiricism of Maimonides;  in Aquinas’s disputational method; in Luther’s critique of Catholicism and sacraments;  in Abelard’s stress on the subjectivity of ethics and Roger Bacon’s contributions to scientific thinking.  In so much more.  Perhaps to state what is too obvious to be obvious to many people: in the fact that the transmission of knowledge through books was the labour of clerics and monks.  Atheism historically–where and through what means–the gods began to be disbelieved in–has not been a conversion-experience, a single moment, or a shuddering recognition on a Tuesday that everything you have been taught is wrong.  It’s also got to be about the freedom to reach that conclusion on the shoulders of the very bright people who suffered along the way, none of whom, as far as I can tell, would qualify as atheists today.

Bacon's illustration in his Optics, 1250

It is strange to me that men and women committed to the paradigm of evolution and historical change are often willing to postulate creation ex nihilo or spontaneous generation for their own ideas.

The Sacrament of Penance

It is comforting to know that Pope Benedict last week got rid of three men who raped children.

The famously cautious (in all such cases) pontiff removed three men who served the archdiocese of Boston, long since famous for having a track record in paedophilia.

According to the Globe “The Archdiocese … identified the men as Frederick J. Cartier, Louis J. Govoni, and Frederick Guthrie [and] said in the statement that the men had asked to be removed from the clerical state. …They may no longer function in any capacity as priests, with the exception of offering absolution to the dying.”

Great theology: They can’t say Mass, but they can still forgive a repentant sinner his sins, in an emergency. And in following established recent protocol, the Church has granted their request “to be freed from their ordination,” in the interest of sparing the wretched lot a canonical trial.

Does anyone else see the treachery in this deal-making?

The Globe reported that “Cartier was ordained in 1963, was granted a leave of absence in 1979, and has not been connected to the archdiocese for more than 20 years…. According to, Cartier was accused in 2002 of molesting a 13-year-old while he was serving at a Woburn parish in the 1970s…

“Govoni, who was ordained in 1972, has not been associated with the archdiocese since 1978…. He was accused in the 1970s of sexually molesting boys at Archbishop Williams High School. He was not publicly linked to the allegations until 2003 when his personnel record was made public.In 2003, Govoni was working as a substitute teacher in Duxbury and was fired after the allegations became public, according to published reports.

“Guthrie, who was ordained in 1962, left the Boston Archdiocese in 2001. He later pleaded guilty in New Hampshire to charges that he used a computer to solicit a minor for sex in the early 2000s.”

Now their “resignations” have been solicited and accepted. They have been thrown to the American judicial system as criminals and turned in their collars–well, mostly.

But I say that’s not enough. Not only is the Church still not getting it, the Catholic faithful aren’t getting it either. Laicization is the only serious penalty the Church can impose on a priest, now that raking flesh and the rack are out of season.

But it is not the only thing the Church can do in cases of viciousness. For almost twenty years now, as the horrid facts about predatory priests have become clear, we’ve been persuaded (mainly by lawyers) that the Church needs to realize that these are crimes, not just sins. Offenders need to be tried for criminal offenses. And the penalties imposed should be the same penalties anyone should expect for foul acts committed against children. Agreed. That much is absolutely clear. Treating these acts as sins is not sufficient, especially when the punishment for sin is usually delayed until the hereafter.

The focus has been almost exclusively on treating a priest the same as anyone else. This has turned out to be a conscience-free approach to the issue, however. The Church, to save money and face, is more than happy (except for the lawsuits and bankruptcies) to throw the predators to their victims and their lawyers. It is by far the least expensive thing to do in the long term–especially prestige-wise. A Church in compliance with the law can be seen as a Church that is doing the right thing.

But it’s not.

These men should be tried publicly in ecclesiastical courts according to canon law. No option, no deal, no “May I please have your resignation, Father, sorry to ask but there have been complaints.”

No settling these cases by bureaucrats in offices whose signatures represent justice. That was Joseph Ratzinger’s job, and his signature, before he became pope.

In addition to breaking laws, they have violated their priestly vows, blasphemed against conscience, and every moral commandment the Church is supposed to defend. For those who do not think justice is winged but does have a cash register, perhaps these violations don’t amount to much. But in processing the resignations of wayward clerics over six to a dozen years on for crimes (sins) committed three decades and more ago, the Church is granting a kind of pre-absolution to the guilty. Resignation will do? They have suffered enough? The Church has done everything it can to deal with the situation, including all of the meetings the Pope has had with victims and their families? This is not resolution, or acknowledgement or ecclesiastical due process. It’s a dance. It is the Church saying, yes, of course we must turn these people in to the sheriff, and then (after a time) throw them out. But not in such a way that we are embarrassed by the throwing.

No, I do not know what is in their hearts today. And that is not relevant. Even the church’s forgiveness, as Dorothy Sayers once reminded someone, is merely activated by contrition. It’s satisfied by penance. You pay for what you broke, no matter how sorry you are. The current process insists on neither. There can therefore be no effective forgiveness. The hypocrisy continues: the Church reserves the right to forgive and to absolve on its own terms on the pretext that it invented for its own splendid isolation from the state: that it answers to a higher judge.

Dorothy Sayers

There are Church laws governing the behavior of promiscuous and abusive men; there are procedures for appointing church lawyers, tribunals, admission of evidence, witnesses and prosecution. What the Church knows is that a formal canonical trial (a trial governed by canon law) would be embarrassing and time-consuming. And the result–laicization–would be about the same. Ergo, as Catholic philosophers used to say, let’s make it short and sweet. Go straight to the penalty.

Accordingly, the matters are dealt with in diocesan offices, forwarded to the Vatican, where they are reviewed (slowly) by committees who cajole the priests into resigning.

The effect: the Church saves time, money, procedural paperwork and face. It reduces the men to the “lay state”–except not really because the theology of ordination makes the priest “a priest forever.” What it really does is strike them from the payroll and forbid them to say mass and hear confessions. It restrains them.

Benedict’s predecessor was even more cautious: he ordered then Cardinal Ratzinger to drag his feet in all such cases because of the shortage of priests. Better a bunch of bad apples than no apples at all.

Catholics need to know that the Church can do more to assuage their sense of outrage within the Church than tossing the rotters out. The “office trial” is a modern phenomenon. It happens largely on paper. The priest in question rarely sees a tribunal face to face. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

The Church could insist that such cases are too important to be handled behind closed doors. Transparency of its justice system is required.

It could summon the priest to appear. There can be real interrogations. Until the nineteenth century, this is the way it would have been done. Even in the sixteenth doctrinally dicey priests got their trials and bishops and interrogators were skilled investigators. Martin Luther got several, but never apparently committed crimes against humanity.

The modern rule in the case of a priest accused of serious moral lapses requires a panel of at least three judges for ordination annulment or laicization (can. 1425 §1). Appellate procedures exist, extending right up through the curia (the Pope’s cabinet) and the Pope himself (the papal Signatura, which is final). The procedure is inquisitorial. With permisison, it could be made public.

To avoid this display, the Church has been happy to hide behind the criminal law and secular justice. But this is foul play. I suspect a great many Catholics would welcome the sight of indignant bishops questioning a priest about how many boys he had raped and whether at any point in the course of events he considered that what he was doing was vile and sinful.

Boston's Cardinal Law, author of the priest-shell-game

“Vile” and “sinful” are theological terms. But the Church believes in them, or says it does. It has a method of applying justice and judgement on its own terms. Why aren’t Catholics insisting on it? Because when all is said and done, the money settlements and law suits don’t get to the heart of the hypocrisy. Not nearly. Crime is crime, but sin as Shakespeare said stinketh to high heaven. Church trials would at least be a means of ventilation.

And one final suggestion: Let them be televised on EWTN. It will triple their audience.