The Judgement of the Dead

There are a number of reasons Christianity seems absurd to many people. In the third century, the pagan philosopher Porphyry blamed its speciousness on the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead, the “disgusting idea that bodies will be raised fom the grave,” with bits of desiccated flesh flying through the air like a fast rewind of an Egyptian plague. He poses the case of a boatload of Christian fishermen (recalling the fact that Jesus’ followers earned their keep that way) being wrecked at sea, their bodies eaten by sea creatures, regurgitated or defecated and swirled into the ocean depths where they mingle with sand and broken shell. Will these be raised up? Does the Christian God not have better things to do–because the Greek gods certainly did.


Since Porphyry’s day the treasury of Christian doctrine has increased dramatically, largely though not exclusively on the Catholic side: entries like the Real (physical) presence of Christ in the Eucharist, forgiveness of sin, and, related to both, the stature of the priest as an avatar of Jesus. Then there’s the Assumption of Mary (proclaimed 1950) not to be confused with the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin (proclaimed 1854, and about her, not Him), and the doctrine of Purgatory, a tribute to why bad things happen to good people, based on a medieval credit-rating system where almost everyone had scores between 300 and 550 and had to pay back the debt in millennial installments of woe and agony. –Unless the Church intervened. And yes, still very much on the books.

Mind you, most Christians and many Catholics don’t believe these things anymore. According to a 2010 Pew Research poll, 45% of Catholics hadn’t heard of the real presence, which means that almost half of practicing Catholics have no idea what they’re practicing. To hide their embarrassment, parishes are laying on weekly “Eucharistic Adoration” opportunities, the kind of labor my birthright-Irish grandmother found intrusive to her complacent religious life, thus not likely to attract the Facebook crowd to fall on their knees. Large numbers of Catholic girls think the Church’s teaching on abortion has an opt-out provision, or varies from diocese to diocese or priest to priest. They confuse it obviously with the celibacy rules.

I’ve often thought I’d like to give a course called “What You Don’t Know That You’re Expected to Believe Anyway,” as a balance to the Church’s course in “What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You, So Let’s Not Talk About It.”

Which is exactly what’s happening in the Church. Since there has to be some connection between doctrinal literacy and belief, it isn’t shocking that the Church, along with its evangelical allies, has chosen to fight the battle for relevance in the forward trenches of sexual ethics and not on behalf of positions its adherents find boring–so early-second millennium.

Of the number of women having abortions who self-identify religiously, the statistics for Catholics and Protestants are dead-even at around 32% each. For Jews, less than 2%, but for other reasons. No wonder the cunning and soon-to-be saint John Paul II started his Gospel of Life movement, a recipe for being against war, capital punishment, murder, violence, and (by cross-ranking inclusion) abortion. His sainthood will be based on changing the subject from obedience and doctrine to love and peace. (For it!) and creating the illusion that almost everything else is a mystery and a symbol–though in this he has a very long tradition to fall back on. Hating abortion is the key symbol, and has hence become the core doctrine.

With respect to traditional doctrine, the sort of thing that had to do with fighting the devil and getting your soul to heaven, Catholic Christianity has become an episode of Fawlty Towers –the one where (confronted with German tourists but trying his best to be English about it) Basil reminds his staff, “Don’t mention the War.” Likewise, in these inattentive times, when Christianity is all about loving God through hating a woman’s right to choose, it’s important not to mention eschatology: Death, Judgement, Heaven, Hell, the core of Christian faith.

So I want to mention it. Eschatology. The four last things.

Let’s talk about the second, since the first is pretty obvious and the third and fourth depend on the second. They are worth talking about because this is what the Church has a right to talk about, and also because in a shruggish kind of way many Jews believe it too, and in a much more robust way Protestants and Muslims believe it. We will be judged.

Let’s say that if you don’t believe in this, no fair calling yourself a Christian, whereas whatever you think about abortion is contingent on a theological principle. Its moral character is not self-explanatory without other ideas behind it. Abortion is a real decision, made by real people in real time, with real consequences. The church can declare it is wrong, sinful and hateful to God, but without judgement, the teaching is a bit toothless, isn’t it? You see my point.

The Christian church worked itself into a corner very early. The early and medieval church couldn’t promise heaven right away because they knew that the bodies of dead Christians weren’t spared the ravages of the grave. They looked just like dead pagans and Jews after six months. The doctrine of the soul, which the church copped from various writers and cobbled together over time (it isn’t biblical, not even New Testament) and blended with Jewish ideas of “resurrection,” was a great help: Bodies die, souls fly off somewhere, but if this is true they need to be judged quickly for what they’ve done “through the body.” Through the body–whose corrupt state pretty much tells you all you need to know about human nature.

Thus was born the Two-Judgement Theology of the Western Church. We are so important to God that he has time to judge us twice. A first, or particular judgement at the moment of death, a final judgement when body and soul are recombined on the Last Day.

The Last Judgement is not an appeal process. It’s reckoned that first and last will be identical in verdict and punishment, though the soul gets a head start on the body in enduring everlasting pain. The only reason for there being two is the distance between the reality of death (now) and the uncertainty of the time of the end of the world and Christ’s coming (then, when?). The Now is dull, personal and predictable. The Then is fiery and spectacular (cf. Mk 13) and brings with it that realignment of soul and body parts that caused Porphyry to break out in fits of laughter.

If this sounds complicated, imagine the capacity of an unpaid Irish nun to explain it to a skeptical twelve year old. Scenario: “Well, Joseph, you just ask too many questions, don’t you?”

The particular judgement has no textual support though there is a “source” that Christians tried to introduce into the mix by making people think it was old and Jewish, called The Testament of Abraham. It probably comes from the third century CE (AD) though some scholars want it to be older. It’s an entertaining fantasy of how an aged Abraham gets visions (very Christian visions) of angels and heaven–and judgement. He meets Michael, the “captain of the angels” (archangel) who is perpetually darting back and forth between the Oak of Mamre and heaven with messages. Heaven has gates. A tiny gate for the chosen few, a big gate that seems to be an elevator door to the netherworld:

“And Abraham asked the chief-captain Michael, What is this that we behold? And the chief-captain said, These things that thou seest, holy Abraham, are the judgment and recompense. And behold the angel holding the soul in his hand, and he brought it before the judge, and the judge said to one of the angels that served him, Open me this book, and find me the sins of this soul. And opening the book he found its sins and its righteousness equally balanced, and he neither gave it to the tormentors, nor to those that were saved, but set it in the midst.”

The tale even has reality TV-emanations: Abraham witnesses the judgement of a woman who is condemned for having sex with her daughter’s husband, killing her daughter, and then claiming she remembers nothing. Boooo! said the ancient studio audience.

The later history of the “particular judgement” is bland. It includes Tertullian’s idea that the distance between death and final judgement is a waiting period for the soul, full of excruciatingly conscious thoughts about where it fell short–but leaving open the possibility of a surprise reprieve; Hippolytus’s notion that the judgement is really like sorting beads, for future reference, when God decides to make the necklace; and–of course–Augustine. Liking structure more than evidence, he decides that at death souls are sorted into bundles (four in all) ranging from blessed to damned–but unlike Tertullian, no waiting–first come first served for the unambiguously saintly or beastly, like the 4.45 PM Seniors’ Special at a Florida restaurant. But note: there is no agreement here. Not one of these writers has any idea what he’s talking about. There is no control group, there are no interviews. Not even a good text worth debating. It is belief heaped on belief.

The discussion of Judgement up through the medieval period looms large. It connected to every other important doctrine, from saints, to sacraments, to what the Church could dispense to you through its “treasury of merits”–a fund of superfluous grace achieved by holy men and women who didn’t use up all they had–and the sale of indulgences. At the Reformation, largely due to Calvin, the growth of speculation and imagery was brought under control, but the belief that souls are judged after death (Calvin said, “consciously, so that they know their fate”) was retained.

Indulgence Certificate

The Big Deal, of course, is not merely what happens after you die but what happens when everything explodes and the Son of Man appears in the sky to call you home. That much, at least, is biblical–the core of Christian belief in the second coming, complete with a perennial Protestant temptation to pinpoint doomsday (the Old English word dome/doom means judgement) and humiliate your opponent with statistics drawn from the Book of Revelation, which he will call Revelations.

The Last Judgement was at least “Biblical”–which means simply that the idea of it could be located in scripture. Matthew 25 contains a significant passage about separating the sheep and goats, and there is a disturbing passage in Revelation 20.11-13 about the “dead” coming before a great white throne. As to how you get there, St Paul worried that the Corinthian Christians were asking too many questions. In one piece of guesswork (1 Thessalonians, maybe his literary debut) he thinks that we will all be swept up “to meet the Lord in the air”–frightening prospect; in another, that we will need a change of clothes before the interview, and so “will be changed [into a new kind of flesh] in the twinkling of an eye (1 Corinthians 15.51-2). Either way, spectacular.

The Church fathers were limited in their guesswork by scriptural controls that didn’t apply to the “particular judgement” and the central belief that certain passages in Daniel and Isaiah could be used to prove that, at the time of judgement, the dead would be raised for the purpose of giving an account of themselves. Matthew gets so excited by the idea that (27.52-54) he has a few of the dead being raised “prematurely” at the time of the crucifixion, but then puts them on hold until the resurrection of Jesus, when they’re permitted to enter Jerusalem in their burial cloths.

And so, back to Porphyry. Why are the dead raised? To be judged. Why are they judged? Because death is not bad enough. The God of life, who made you to die, wants more from you. Wakened from a neural sleep they are roused to undergo torture or experience the pleasures of heaven–always unimpressively and unenticingly described in Christian thought.

Paradise, Persian

There are no virgins, or their male equivalents, or grapes, or nonintoxicating intoxicating beverages–no Paradise in the voluptuous Middle Eastern sense, not even in the Genesis Garden of Eden sense. Nothing that would make you want to be there for a minute, let alone eternally. The “vision of God,” that later became the reason for wanting to go to heaven, was Christianized platonic faddle from the early Middle Ages. Mark Twain had it right.

Worst of all, there will be lines. Long queues extending for centuries. Maybe the angels will let women who were at least six months pregnant when they died go first. –The ones who died because they killed themselves rather than tell their parents they were pregnant will go to hell. The ones who ended their pregnancies will go to hell. The ones who died because they were told they had to deliver a child, and ended up with pulmonary insufficiency because they couldn’t sustain a pregnancy at twelve years old will go to heaven. Such is the divine mystery. Such is the will of God.


What I ask is that the Church start talking about this again: something it has taught for two millennia. Something it claims to know about because it invented it. Talk about the texts. Talk about the disagreements, the stories, the history, the imagery. Talk about how Judgement happens, what to expect. Talk about the evidence. Do not say it is a mystery of faith, like the Eucharist. If it is, then say you don’t understand it either and stop talking about it. You cannot talk convincingly about the price of “sins” like abortion if you can’t explain this.

If I convert to Islam or profess my atheism loudly enough, can I be diverted to the Wide Gate and get started on my punishment? I would prefer that.

If I feel that I’m at least as virtuous as my church-going neighbor but happen to be a Buddhist, is there room for appeal?

And before anyone says I am asking silly questions and it is all much more complicated and mysterious than I am making it: ask your friendly priest or minister to explain what he believes, what his church teaches, and then get back to me.

Minding the Flock: The Ordinariate

"You won't mind if I take a few sheep back with me?"

If you’re paying attention, the Pope is rolling out the red carpet to Tiber-crossing Anglicans. Having been offered a special corner in the Latin Church called the “ordinariate,” conservative (who like to be called “traditional”) Anglicans can now flee their postmodern Church, that Babylon where even women can be ordained priests and bishops, and not have to worry about their souls turning pink. It’s all good.

According to The Telegraph citing (the Catholic) Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols:

“Hundreds of Anglican churchgoers will join [five bishops and uncounted numbers of priests] in the Ordinariate – a structure introduced by Pope Benedict XVI to provide refuge for those disaffected with the Church of England. The number of worshipers who leave the Church is predicted to double as the new arrangement finally begins to take shape.”

Of course, this is not what John XXIII and Paul VI had in mind when they talked about “ecumenism” in the last century. But two things have since become clear: One is that the Catholic Church is still the “Hippopotamus” of T.S. Eliot’s famous poem on the topic of slow change. –Not quite the rock of ages, but ageless in other ways.

The second is that the Church of England has other ideas. Change and adaptation to the culture prevent religion from ossification. (Look at the religions that don’t change, runs the argument). And if consultation with Rome was ever a condition of implementing change, it hasn’t been evident in the last generation of stalled “unity” discussions between Canterbury and Rome. Given the choice between As in Rome and As at Home, the English as a rule will pick home.

In fact, the C of E has always been more protestant than Catholic, in a uniquely British kind of way, since its sixteenth-century founding. It was born of dissent, tested in the political fires of the English reformation, and doesn’t necessarily regard its martyrs as any less Christian than the ones Rome stubbornly insists on canonizing for their fidelity to the Catholic cause–a cause that included in its day a hit list with the Queen’s name on it.

So let us not be fooled by the pointy hats and outward appearances of Christian charity that were on display during the papal visit in September. The Pope and the Archbishop do not like each other. Why should they? The pope was in town to beatify the nineteenth century’s most famous escapee from the Anglican Church, John Henry (later Cardinal) Newman and to reinvigorate devotion to the English martyrs like Edmund Campion and bishop John Fisher.

If you ask me, the cameras didn’t hide the tension very well: at the entrance to Westminster Abbey–the first pope ever to set foot in the place, the media intoned with wearying regularity, serenaded by the vastly-superior-to the-Sistine-Choir Westminster boys–the pope looked for all the world as though their rendition of Max Reger’s postmodern, atonal “Benedictus,” was a musical joke. (Has he tasted the liturgical wares in Detroit recently, I wondered.) And I have no doubt that when he prayed side by side with the Bish at the tomb of Edward the Confessor, whose bones are the centerpiece of the whole stone pile, Benedict was praying for the conversion of England–or at least for the success of his scheme to poach traditionalists from his host’s field.

We come in peace, for the lambs.

But never mind all that. Ecumenism isn’t dead simply because, when confronted with an invitation to snuggle up with foreign princes, the English heart flies back to the passions of the Reformation. All over, that. Time to make up, have done, move on–stout fellow. After all, the English do not hold grudges. Not like the Italians, I can tell you. And the Germans! Don’t mention the Germans.

Ecumenism is dead because in Rome’s view the English church has an obedience problem. It isn’t simply that the Archbishop of Canterbury is not a pontifical figure in the “worldwide Anglican communion” (cough), but that he is not a significant authority-figure in the Church at home or anywhere else.

Who was surprised when after the Pope’s third reference to himself as the “successor of Peter,” sitting opposite the splendidly mitred Rowan Williams, the Archbishop took a tutorial moment to remind his guest that “Christians differ as to the significance of the Petrine office.” Unspoken: (Pope) “My bloody predecessor sent Augustine here when the people on this soggy island were worshiping stones.” (Archbishop): “We’d have kicked your sorry arse back to Rome two centuries earlier if Becket hadn’t managed to get himself killed and become so damned popular.”

Of course the immediate reasons for the death of ecumenical dialogue are meant to be much more obvious: saith the Telegraph quoting Bishop Andrew Burnham, one of the episcopal poachees whose bags are packed:

“…Clergy have become dismayed at the liberal direction of the Church of England and the way traditionalists have been treated…There’s only a certain amount of time you can accept being described as the National Front of the Church of England…We’re seen as out of date for not accepting women’s ministry as equal, but the debate concentrates on sociology rather than theology… [And] there is no doctrinal certainty anymore. It has become more relative. “I’m sad about leaving as I owe a lot to the Church of England, but this [the Ordinariate] is a joyful opportunity.”

The creation of the ordinariate, created unilaterally with no conversation between Rome and Lambeth Palace on the move (though discussions between disaffected Anglican bishops and the Vatican had been going on for some time), is probably just a lid on the pickle barrel of a nice 1960’s idea: ecumenism belongs to an era of poster-philosophy and the cozy belief that there’s more that unites Christians than divides them.

All over, that. Have done, move on–stout fellow.

Atheist Nation Celebrates the Holidays

The Intellectual Highground

Nothing puts atheists in a worse mood than the holiday season. All these dimly-lit people and brightly-lit window displays, making merry over things that never happened, spreading lies, propagating falsehood, singing their rancid carols, and worst of all teaching impressionable, if rather preposterous, children to believe in intellectual crap when they could be playing Megaman 11 or Worms Reloaded–which they got last Christmas. How obscene, how humiliating: Behold, little Buddy praying by his bedside for Megaman, versions, 12-16 (“conveniently boxed as one item” from to a non-existent deity, having just lodged the same request with the sex-offender in the Santa suit at the mall. No wonder America is going to the red dogs and blue dogs. “Isn’t anybody listening to the Voice of Reason?”

God to a six-year old

Help is on the way.

To combat the forces of Darkness and Superstition, the American Humanist Association and some allies have launched a new ad campaign to put the Grinch back into Christmas. An article by Laurie Goodstein in the New York Times charts the new ecumenical spirit of the quest, spearheaded by the same blithe folk who brought us the “Good without God” bus-o-rama and the “Just be Good for Goodness Sake” billboard extravaganza. The campaigns are financed by “a few rich atheists” with money to throw to the wind, and buoyed by research being done by the Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion and Public Life (Trinity College), headed by the eminently reasonable Mark Silk and based on Barry Kosmin’s American Religious Identification Survey, showing that as many as 15% of Americans are “Nones,” i.e., have no religious identification or association.

It is pretty obvious and at the same time hopelessly obscure how Nones relate to atheism (atheists hope they do: this is largely, sad to say, a recruitment push for membership and dues), but as Goodstein points out in her article, the combined membership of the sponsoring organizations numbers only in the thousands. The best course might be to see whether Nones can be divided into groups: Certainly Nones, Possibly Nones, and None Just Now, Thanks–but I mix my politics and religion, which is never a good thing.

Possibly None

I will be blunt: This whole business is idiotic. It is hard to imagine that people like Todd Stiefel, one of those well-endowed atheists with cash to burn, are really on a rampage because of passages like the one he cites from the Bible:

“The people of Samaria must bear their guilt, because they have rebelled against their God. They will fall by the sword; their little ones will be dashed to the ground, their pregnant women ripped open.” (from Hosea 13:16, New International Version).

Reassuringly if a little obtusely Stiefel says that “It [our democracy] has not been based on [verses like these] and should never be. Our founding fathers created a secular democracy….We must denounce politicians that contend U.S. law should be based on the Bible and the Ten Commandments.” I agree. Anyone who wants Hosea 13 added to our Bill of Rights should be tied to a chair, gagged, blindfolded, and made to listen to Diane Rehm read slowly through the whole Book of Leviticus. Presumably (or is it implicitly?) he is willing to throw serous money at billboards so that America does not become a country that kills babies. He will find many friends among Catholics and Evangelicals on that score.

Diane Rehm

If you think ripping open pregnant women is bad, read the story of the wandering Levite in the Book of Judges (ch. 19) where a consummately self-absorbed kidnapper–a Hebrew–offers his concubine to some Village- of- the- Damned- crazed youth who want to have sex with him, gang rape her, leaving her for dead–whereupon the Levite butchers her semi-conscious person into twelve pieces and forwards a limb to each of the twelve tribes of Israel. Please: Don’t quote Hosea to me when there are passages that would make Tarantino wince.

The Levite's Discovery

But to be serious: Do the sponsoring organizations (which include besides AHA the American Atheists and the Freedom from Religion Foundation) think that these stories are read to Christian (or Jewish) children at bedtime? Is it bloody likely that a craven priest in Spokane is going to substitute the Legend of the Lethiferous Levite for St Luke’s Nativity story on Christmas Eve? I know that atheists feel they know a great deal about the mindset of the religious principles they reject, but one has to wonder why this isn’t reflected in their anti-Christian strategies?

Or are the campaigns only a reflection of the sponsors’ shocking ignorance of ancient myth and legend, whereof the Bible is a treasure hoard. I get the sense that the sponsors need to begin with the Brothers Grimm and then read backward in literary time to get a sense of how the grotesque has been used in history for both entertainment and moral instruction. Most “reasonable” people who are slightly sophisticated about the contours of culture know this. Many very nice religious people know this. They know that scaring people to death has been used by religion and nasty aunties for a long time to get people to change their wicked ways, clean up their act, and lead a better life. The question is, why don’t atheists know it? The shock of discovery seems entirely their own; it will not surprise the educated or awaken the irreligious passions of a Certainly None.

We don’t do that any more–scare people to death to make them good. Even very religious people don’t do that any more. The last really good sermon on hell was preached in 1917 by the torture-obsessed priest in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist. And I can’t name the last time I heard a robust sermon on Hosea 13.16. Given that real life lascivious priests are frightening enough, it seems unnecessary to reach back to the first millennium BCE for material.

Hell as you like it...

The intellectual isolation of the atheist from wider cultural movements and shifts in perception is one of the great stories of our time. Almost no one is covering it. If the question they are asking about religion is, Don’t these damned believers know what’s in the Bible, the answer is somewhere in the range between probably not to possibly so; but even if they do, they probably know that the Bible is not recommending carving up your girlfriend. And probably can guess that when you find blood and gore of this magnitude the story is about something else. Phrases and words like “symbolism,” “surface meaning,” “allegory,” “folk legend” and “myth” come to mind. Put it under the heading “Things Atheists Missed in College,” along with a good course in comparative religion, ancient history, mythology, and anthropology. It’s only people who have never studied myth who can write in such a yawningly banal way about religion being one.

I find myself constantly challenged on panels with atheists to lecture them on their understanding of words like “superstition,” the “supernatural” and above all “myth.” They in turn find me niggling and pedantic. But really, does the average atheist, village or city style, assume that the toxic texts of scripture are “in” the Bible for moral edification or because they reflect a time and culture different from lunchtime in Chicago?

Richard Dawkins lectures me, London 2007

Which brings us to the question, Who are these ads for? We’re told that a key reason for the aggressively confident style of the campaign (not to mention the unusual spirit of ecumenism that currently reigns in the atheist camp), is owing to their determination to get their “market share [of the Nones].” Leaving the most grievous puns aside, they are also inspired by the need to resist the Myth of the Not Lying Down Dead Horse, that America is a Christian Nation. And as we all know, there is nothing like a Billboard over the Lincoln Tunnel that announces, “You know it’s a Myth. Believe in Reason.” to get uncommitted people thinking and committed people scrambling for the nearest AHA meeting. Add a Hosanna to that and you’ve got something. (Tip for vandals: Spray paint “I’m Lucifer, and I approve this message” on the sign.)

In a particularly poignant way, weary commuters will also be treated to the cheery salvo of The United Community of Reason (not to be confused with Christians United to Oppose Rationality), a group in Washington. Their idea of decorating for the holidays includes spreading the good news of Reason on billboards and ads on bus shelters in about 15 cities: “Don’t Believe In God? Join the Club.” Fortunately, number-wise, the club can actually meet in the bus shelter. Add a few Nones and they can meet at a subway stop, except in cities where there are subway stops no one gives a rat’s whisker about organized atheism.

Far be it from me to lecture atheists. But please accept, along with an eggnog salute, the following advice. Grow up. Learn a little about what Being Clever means. I know we live in a world defined by short attention spans, coffee mugs, T-shirts and bumper stickers. But it’s completely unclear to me whether your ad campaigns will change a single mind, or even whose single mind your campaign is designed to change.

This is not a “struggle.” The upward march of unbelief is not the forces of liberation against the sources of slavery and oppression. I’m afraid religion beat you to that metaphor. It’s called Exodus. No one is paying attention because no one except your club members actually cares about the private conclusions of people who want to turn being disagreeable into a civil rights event.

Launch of Consider Atheism Campaign: Attended by Several

The slogans are insipid and can only have been vetted by very small committees of Like-minded People–and that’s a real problem, The modern atheist seems to get off on being distaff, minority, contrary, and ornery–the legate of a long free-thought heritage. Would your heart beat faster if you could persuade society that overturning a Salvation Army worker’s collection pot is an act of charity–extra points for snatching the bell? Would you praise a convert who defaced a nativity scene at Christmas, or saved a turkey’s life at Thanksgiving. Don’t be ridiculous, you say: that’s not what this is about. Don’t be ridiculous, I say: this is what you have made it.

Two last things in this little lecture:

Give up using the name humanism. You’re ruining it for people like me who don’t mean by it what you want it to mean. Equating atheism with humanism is a cheap trick, a cop behind the billboard (maybe one of yours?) kind of trick. Be proud of being an atheist. I know I’m not. You are not the American Humanist Association. You are full- frontally and outwardly the American Atheist Association.

And stop this ridiculous invocation of secular saints from Socrates to Einstein. Virtually none of the people you pray to became famous for being atheists and you know it. Not even Darwin. Certainly not Socrates. And Einstein: who knows?

“Yes, you can call it that,” Einstein replied calmly. “Try and penetrate with our limited means the secrets of nature and you will find that, behind all the discernible laws and connections, there remains something subtle, intangible and inexplicable. Veneration for this force beyond anything that we can comprehend is my religion. To that extent I am, in fact, religious.” (Quoted by Isaacson in Einstein, 2007)

1933, on a deserted beach in Santa Barbara, California

But the point is, you cannot claim the intellectual upper hand in arguing against “God and religion” and then resort to the authority-argument to win your case. Even if you were joined by all the Nones in America, yours is a lonely lot. Especially at Christmas. Accept it. Live with it. And take down those absurd posters.

Sins of Omission

Catholic theologian and former priest Paul Collins, as every one who has previewed this book has recognized, has a tough job. After saying flat-footedly that “those of us born after World War II will be among the most despised and cursed generations in the whole history of humankind,” it behooves him to say both why this is so and what we can do about it. (Judgment Day, University of New South Wales Press, 291pp, $34.95)

Ecotheology has been around for more than a generation and its themes have become stereotyped. They depend on a particular reading of the creation myth of Genesis that understands mankind as being placed in a stewardly or custodial rather than a dominant position towards nature. It was given to us in perfect condition: we messed it up.

Using myths in this way is perfectly permissible as far as I am concerned, as long as we understand that the Genesis story doesn’t actually teach us anything you can take to the bank or use in constructing environmental policy. According to Genesis 1.26-32, God is quite emphatic to Adam about fertility, productivity, and “dominion” over the earth. –A whole school of theology has taken its name from verse 28, which sees this dominion or authority extending beyond the natural world to politics and society. Whether out or not, most conservative Christians, especially the Tea Party variety, espouse some form of dominionism. Their numbers will grow in the wake of the American congressional elections of 2010.

According to a different account of creation in Genesis 2.15ff., Adam was created as a live-in caretaker of the Garden God had planted for his own pleasure and relaxation. He likes to stroll there in the cool of the morning (Gen. 3.8) and can be heard humming. Adam’s benefits (in kind) include free use of the property except for the tree of life (2.9) and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil–two trees whose magical fruit mythically explain God’s moral powers and longevity to the Hebrew writers who tell the story. And just to mention it, the story is not entirely consistent. Adam’s job description is that of an unskilled labourer, in or out of the garden. His punishment for being a bad caretaker (what if some other god or a mere mortal got hold of the fruit?) is just to transfer him to Arkansas with a shovel and a scolding. His status remains unchanged. The real estate changes.

Scholars see the second creation story as an etiology, a story told to explain not just the origins of agriculture and “sedentary” (non-nomadic) existence, but of the tribulations of crop failure and lack of irrigation. Things were much better back in Babylon, even Egypt-land according to Genesis 12.10ff; not so good in Canaan.

Paul Collins is deeply sensitive to his own better lights in seeing the biblical story, and the traditions it spawns, as a kind of “creation theology.” After all, didn’t God say that what he had created was good, and aren’t we the ones who have made it bad? What Collins especially dislikes is “development”, a trend he sees extending from ancient China in the east and Sumer in Mesopotamia (close to the mise en scene for Genesis 2) when the human race became “irrigation crazy.” And for Collins, irrigation is just the most primitive form of technological and industrial development.

It’s no good saying that at any stage along the way we have ever given a thought to the environment: not in the Middle Ages when the vastness of the earth was being intuited; not in the Age of Discovery, when greed for gold and possessions ruled the heart and inspired armies; not in the Renaissance when our planetary smallness became obvious, nor in the industrial era, nor in the nuclear age, and not nearly enough today. The term biocide did not exist before the twentieth century, but religion (not only Christianity) has been one of the great facilitators of killing the planet in the Name of its creator.

Is material development moral? Should leases be given to BP and other “oil giants” for deep water drilling, after the Deep Water Horizon catastrophe in which–it becomes increasingly clear–human greed and shortcutting and not merely human error played a significant role. How do you go about convincing a fickle electorate that the sin-deaf political party that gave us Dick Cheney (who gave us the vamped up Halliburton behemoth that gave us the cement that led to the rig that Jack built exploding in Jack’s face) should not be returned to power, just when we are becoming aware of the price the earth has had to pay for bleeding so much oil for so long, for so much money?

Collins’s thesis is that everyone should be indignant, but Christians (he thinks) especially so, because they have a mechanism for dealing with what’s going on. It is called sin. And sin is what God looks at, according to traditional theology, when he judges the world–and what we have done with the world.

Because we are both selfish and fickle, but don’t regard selfishness as particularly sinful, it is easy to think of sin as an equivalence-game–to focus on other people’s trespasses compared to our own meager wrongdoing and lapses. Who me? No, that’s you, not me. Better yet, it’s him, not us.

The planet is a very big thing. BP is a very big thing. But private sinners are something you can get your head around–or at least your nose into their business. It is why we love reality TV, Desperate Housewives, Jersey Shore, the Kardashians. They have the courage to be so much more sinful than we have the time or money to be, brave enough to make their private sins public so that we can enjoy them with tortilla chips and beer. Thievery, murder, backbiting, bare-faced lying, serial adultery–the “individual sins” that Protestants are grateful Jesus paid the price for (it saves us so much work), and Catholics can reference on mental index cards during their infrequent confessions–enumerated, of course–are hugely entertaining. Add to these hatefulness and attitude. It is difficult to judge what we have come to love, or the things that have seduced us, as Augustine once sighed reflecting on a boyhood theft at the age of sixteen: “It was foul, and I loved it. I loved my own undoing. I loved my error — not that for which I erred but the error itself” (Conf. 2,5)

But the thrill of other people’s sins, and the voyeuristic mind-set that ensures its success as entertainment, is really not what sin is about. Collins is deeply sensitive to the way in which the Church has trivialized and individualized sin. Christian teaching is that the world itself is under judgment. We are under judgment for how we treat it–world both in the metaphysical sense (“world, flesh, devil”–delight) and in the physical way–its beauty and bounty. Sin is not just who you’ve slept with, you bad boy, or lied about not sleeping with, you clever dog, but lying to yourself for your own irresponsibility for the social, political and corporate sins you conveniently overlook. All sin in encapsulated in crimes against the idea of “world.”

It is difficult for the modern believer to vindicate God’s destruction of the “world” by flood “in the time of Noah,” except for this: it never really happened, and the story is told —de pilo pendet–to show that creation hangs on God’s favor, a grace that mankind has abused recklessly through that most biblical of words, “wrongdoing.” No one would argue with the story if, for God, we substituted the word “Planet” and saw the catastrophe as the consequence of inaction, greed, and stupidity. Only the most obtuse literalist can take exception to the need for stern correction of a race that has fallen miserably short, like the mythical Adam, of the role creation requires of it.

Once upon a time, there was a healthy sense of this: In Paul’s declaration that “The good I would do I do not and the evil I would not do, I do.” And in Cranmer’s eloquent rendering of the sentiment in the Book of Common Prayer, turning it into a general confession of responsibility:

“Almighty and most merciful Father, we have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep,: we have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts, we have left undone those things which we ought to have done and have done those things which we ought to have done.”


Or in the Catholic church’s ancient catechism,
“…quia peccavi nimis cogitatione, verbo, opere, et omissióne — “in thought word, deed, and omission.” Or in Martin Luther King’s aphorism, that “In the end we will not remember the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

The numerical approach to sin favored by conservative Christians and dominionists will always be at odds with the social construct, the idea of a world under judgement for social failures and private indifference, especially when verses such as Genesis 1.28 can be used as an entitlement to wear and tear–drill, pollute, waste and wreck, or Adam’s punishment can be interpreted as an argument for better tractors and antiperspirants. “Development” is no more a neutral word than the word “weapon,” which forces to our consciousness the correlation between a greedy man and a murderer.

It is a tribute to the stupidity of Adam’s children that we can wring our hands over whether we are passing a trillion (three trillion, six trillion?) dollar debt to our grandchildren, but not worry too much about clear lakes, blue skies and green pastures. As Collins recognizes, generations of Christians (including a great many in the “dark ages”) used these very symbols as a cipher of God’s grace, beauty and bounty. Many of the Psalms could not have been written without a sense of the transcendental power of God in nature.

“… Sing praises to our God on the lyre, Who covers the heavens with clouds, Who provides rain for the earth, Who makes the grasses grow on the mountains, who gives the beast its food, and food to the young ravens which cry…. He makes peace in your borders; He satisfies you with the finest of the wheat.”

No one needs to believe in this sentiment descriptively, or in this God prescriptively. But it seems to me, the image of a God who provides for and cares about the world is at least as important as the image of a God who cares about stealing, adultery, how you feel about your neighbor’s wife. Or oxen. As the Church’s attention to sin has now shrunk to focus almost entirely on the uterus, the social, political, and environmental sins against the world receive proportionally less attention. Conservative Christians who believe in the “uterine sins” but cannot turn their attention to the skies, the air, the melting glacial fields, the rapid spread of ignorance and poverty by irresponsible parenting really need to have their baptismal certificates revoked. The only problem is, the Church condones and encourages their ignorance. It tells them to be good Christians by not having sex, or being very careful when they do. When this does not work–in Uganda or Bangladesh or Wasilla, Alaska, it is–reproachably–attributed to the will of God. And yet no one keeps track of how many deaths the culture of life evinces through poverty, disease, starvation, ignorance. The Catholic Church and missionary protestantism do not answer the door when the collection agent presents the bill for the culture of life.

The biblical writers made a close association between sin and destruction. A tormented first-century writer, Paul of Tarsus, sees the whole world order “passing away” as the eschatological reality of his time. It’s corrupt like an apple is rotten: to the core. There is nothing permanent about it.

The literature of judgement–called apocalyptic–can be amazingly detailed about how uncreation will work at the time of judgement; the images range from stars losing their place in the sky to mountains crumbling and seas overflowing the boundaries that were set for them in the beginning, a dizzying succession of events that resembles a super-fast rewind of creation saga. Instead of births, there will be miscarriages–because there will be nothing left to take care of. We will have become unnecessary. The world will end, but badly.

The apocalyptic vision, all of it frantic and fanciful of course, continues to fascinate the most literal believers because of this grotesque detail. They see themselves being scooped up to heaven with the angels because they were, after all, better than the desperate housewives and avoided the fleshpots of Reno. But for the creators of the genre, and the Christian copycats who followed them, it was all about sin and judgement. The world had got very bad. People had lost focus. The Law was being forgotten. The prophets had stopped prophesying, their work done. The unjust triumphed over the oppressed and the weak. Politics then as now, was rough, raw, corrupt, and open to the highest bidder. Eden’s apple lay rotten on the ground as a token of what cost our ancestor his job: abject failure to tend the garden. “Let thy Kingdom come” is a perfectly rational prayer under the circumstances.

It did not come. Jesus did not come. Salvation of the sort expected anyway–the incursion of a divine power from above–did not come. As Loisy once said the Church came instead. But what Christianity in the widest sense did possess is an ongoing sense of judgment and accountability.

It has not solved the problem of the cheap-grace Christian who is still obsessed with the uterine sins and calls herself “pro-life.” The church is now, and has been for a long time, in the reflexive mode of taking counter-cultural positions that it deems unpopular and therefore correct. It has pronounced secular culture evil and knows that other voices are competing for listeners. But in focusing on the “uterine sins,” it has lost track of the larger idea of sin and salvation and traded the chance to be a truly prophetic voice for the far easier task of singing the song it has always sung.

But secularists should take no comfort in the Church’s failure and shortsightedness. A consciousness of judgement, something equating to the ancient religious vision, might be necessary in assessing what anthropologist Thomas Berry calls “our inability to deal with the devastation of our planet.” Ironically, this failure of cognizance and will comes at a time when we know more than we have ever known about our wasteful and wanton habits, the effects of millennia of predation on the earth’s goodness and bounty.

It may be difficult to fathom, knowing what we know about the dangers of overpopulation, starvation, disease and poverty, why conservative religion’s remedy for this failure is to preach against birth control and family planning. But but is also difficult to know what the secular-moral alternative is. In a review of Collins’s book by John Birmingham, published in The Australian for October 9th, 2010, the following paraphrase struck me as significant:

Secular humanism and rationalism, which led us to the edge of destruction, offer little in comparison because, having driven God from our moral discourse, that discourse has become difficult in secular democracy, which has ‘neither the ethical apparatus nor the rhetoric necessary for it’.”

Is it the case that there are no good naturalistic arguments against raping the planet for fun and profit? Or, if it is too easy to say “Don’t be silly” to that question, is it the case that the dual role of applied science in the contemporary period has been contradictory and conflictual, especially for those of us who are not scientists but reap its benefits every day: to guarantee our pleasure, our longevity, our convenience and comfort by extending the outreach of technology, while pausing occasionally to warn us that the reach cannot be extended indefinitely. The warnings are not usually framed as moral caveats. They seldom involve the idea of “judgment”; they are framed as arguments about non-renewable energy resources and diminishing capacity. They are arguments for greater ingenuity and more development.

Drill, Baby, drill!

I do not see a consistent ethic of responsibility on the secular side. And like Collins, I find the vocabulary so far developed to be vacuous and uncompelling. It lacks what philosophers might once have called a “telic focus”: we need to know why oiled pelicans off the coast of Louisiana are an evil. We need to know why it is ever so much worse to pass on black rain and unbreathable air to our descendants than a trillion dollar deficit. We need to to know that in some way we are judged, not just that we need to be careful when we buy our next car.

sins of the flesh

Science as a facilitator of human pleasure, the life span, the ethics of convenience, can issue perfectly sane warnings about this urgent state of affairs–much as the ancient apocalyptic writers once made promises of judgment to overreaching kings and idolaters. But now, as then, consequences postponed do not constitute effects. Long range predictions are not threats. They are merely mystifying to most people in a distractable age. The delay between an eternal God’s anger and his punishment for wickedness extends back three millennia and promises to reach into futures we cannot imagine, because it will never take place in history and time. Our situation with respect to judgement for sins against Nature is more dire because there is no God to save us and no God to judge us. Scholars have found that the favourite prayer added to the numerous litanies developed during the Black Death in Europe was a a modified version of the ancient prayer, “Agnus Dei“: “Lamb of God who takest away the sins of the world, spare us O Lord.” But we have to help ourselves.

The consequences that science envisions are real enough. And without the moral equivalent of God, we need to develop ways and words to make the consequences and the judgement of our own irresponsibility plain and real: a people guilty of lethargy, hardheartedness and inaction–the sins of omission, a world under the judgment of universal conscience, a betrayal of the knowledge we might possess, and do possess, shoved to the margins of our collective vision.

Darkness, Doubt, and Dante

Augustine: Having seen the light...

What do Augustine, Thomas de Quincey, Leo Tolstoy, and John Henry Newman (now Blessed) have in common? That’s right: confessions. Relatively speaking, Tolstoy might have chosen to blog about his plight rather than write through it in longhand, de Quincey would have done well on, and Newman called his confession an apologia because he had been put in a defensive mode. But they all wrote about their spiritual troubles and how they solved them. To quote de Quincey in a somber moment:

“Christianity is that religion which most of all settles what is perilous in scepticism; and yet, also, it is that which most of all unsettles whatever may invite man’s intellectual activity. It is the sole religion which can give any deep anchorage for man’s hopes; and yet, also, in mysterious self-antagonism, it is the sole religion which opens a pathless ocean to man’s useful and blameless speculations.”

Historically, accounts of journeys from periods of doubt and anxiety (and addiction) to periods of what Newman called, at the time of his trade to the Catholic church, religious “certitude,” occupy considerably more space on library shelves than the journey in the other direction.

Religion has had the upper-hand in promoting itself as closure (isn’t that what “certainty” is?). Unbelief is saddled with images of confusion (isn’t that what doubt is?) and discontent–aimless searching.

“As the sentence [of the scripture I was reading] ended, there was infused in my heart something like the light of full certainty and all the gloom of doubt vanished away….Thou hast prompted him, that he should delight to praise thee, for thou hast made us for thyself and restless is our heart until it comes to rest in thee (Augustine, Confessions, Book IX.29; I.1)

Naturally this irrational but culturally potent association between doubt and darkness drives unbelievers crazy. The question is, Why does it arise at all?

Holman Hunt, The Light of the World

Because of an ancient theft of images. Religion has had the advantage of being imagined as a light on a hill, the “radiance” (as in John 14.6) that overpowers the darkness. That is the way Augustine imagined the Church of his day when everything else was, in fact, pretty dark–Rome declining, unable to sustain its institutions, hounded by unwelcome tourists from the north.

Christianity was a kind of theological alternative to demoralization and decline, though as a populist movement it could do very little in the western empire to forestall the inevitable “fall,” which later generations of historians would falsely ascribe to pagan immorality and corruption. To accept Christ, the light of the world, meant different things to different people. But for the Church’s early intellectuals it meant moving out of the darkness towards knowledge, towards wisdom, towards God, love and grace. To move in the other direction was not an appealing option, not even very rational.

The Church has had its way: darkness, hatred, sin, death, and final destruction of the spirit lay like the turbid waters of the Acheron at the end of the atheist’s quest. Who would knowingly move from truth toward a lie, from splendor towards dullness, from Palestrina and Bach toward Janacek? Since long before Dante consigned atheists to the inferno, setting your face against God has been seen as a lonely journey, driven by pride and a corrupt will that puts self in place of the Good. But the Church also traded on its philosophical bounty, especially Platonism, which saw rejection of the Good, now equated to the Christian God, as a rejection of reason.

Jesus enthroned in the Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom)

“Atheism” did not actually lose control over or forfeit the imagery of light and truth. It has never really owned it. The theft was evolutionary rather than revolutionary: No (orthodox) philosophers died as a result of the heist, no secret coven of atheists was rooted out by posses of churchmen with a license to kill unbelievers. That point will appear jejune until you recall that such posses were empowered by Rome and local bishops to deal with heretics, well into the sixteenth century. Such unbelief as there was had to exist within the Church because that is where poets and professors earned their meager living.

When atheism has been considered at all by Catholic Christianity, it has been linked with heresy and apostasy as a special category of error–yet (oddly) not as serious as the other kinds because while atheism (by Anselm and the medieval theologians, for instance) is seen as a form of mulish stupidity (Ps.14.1), it is not a threat to the unity of the Church, like heresy, or as willful rebellion against God and his Church, like apostasy. That is to say, atheism doesn’t rise to the same degree of malignancy in the theological calculus, because then as now atheists were a lonely crew of poets and intellectuals and could not organize themselves into parties or schools.

Augustine refutes a heretic: note the toppled Church

Even Dante does not consign atheists to the darker levels of hell–merely to the deficient form of heaven, Limbo. Here you can find all the right people anyway: Horace, Julius Caesar, Ovid, Socrates, Cato, Vergil, Avicenna, and Averroes–whose common flaw is that they were unbaptized.

What did atheism do to deserve this patronizing neglect?

In the power vacuum created by the decline of the western Church and in the battles waged against heretics by the more powerful theologians in the eastern empire (Byzantium, where the creeds would be written), the ecclesial victors stole the imagery of philosophy and decorated their God like a Christmas tree with attributes that had been, basically, speculative in Greek thought. It was all about light, truth, and wisdom–their own, primarily, metaphysically projected outward onto their new triune God.

The Christian church deserves some credit for this. Hardly a philosophical image is left unexploited: goodness, infinity and eternality, immutability, omniscience (a kind of cheat, but that’s complicated), beauty, love, symmetry and perfection. Their grab-bag of ornaments included smatterings, ripped out of context, from Plato, Plotinus and Porphyry and assorted other philosophers. While condemning “paganism” (and with it, in many cases–for example the second century writer Justin Martyr–their own classical educations), they found the biblicism of their own tradition intellectually weak and aesthetically defective. It would take another century or two to find cradle-Catholic theologians who could pass up the temptations of pagan philosophy because, by that time, the usable bits had been brought in under the roof of the church. There was hardly any light left outside.

At the other end of this transformation, let me be pretty blunt, the Bible was transformed from an uneven collection of stories, poems and prophecies into an icon–if not a relic–while “tradition”–a word that looks innocent enough but refers to the creation of doctrine (teaching) of biblical interpreters–won the day. The artifact of this process, by the way, is the popular “protestant” belief that Catholics don’t read (or know) the Bible. They didn’t need to: the Church knew it for them.

It took until the sixteenth century for a few adventurous spirits to take the book out of its jeweled casket to see if the Church was anything like the book said it should be. But by then the damage (if that’s what it was) had been done. Not only was the Church a lot more complicated, richer, and better dressed than the one in the New Testament, but its God didn’t look very much like the biblical God either. Frankly, however, the Reformers were not all that consistent: the God of the Bible had already been retired in creeds they defended from the fourth century–“God from God, light from light, true god from true god, one in substance with the Father”–when the bishops were speaking of a man named Jesus.

Cardinal in full dress regalia....

With so much light going to the orthodox, there wasn’t much left over for atheists. The creed I just quoted was barely thirty years old when Augustine was born, and even though he quotes massively from sacred scripture, the way he does it leaves no verse unturned, no verb unextrapolated and no simple noun standing in its rightful place. The church had begun to speak allegory, and that would remain its official idiom until nineteenth century protestant theologians added paradox to the tool kit.

Granted, it’s a bit late for atheists to worry about getting back the light that was stolen from philosophy: eleatics, Socratics, skeptics, stoics, epicureans and sophists, all with highly rationalistic if not (exactly) atheistic tendencies. The final nail in the crucifixion of this-worldly knowledge was the teaching that the wisdom of this world (that would include science) is darkness and folly, and that the “true light” is essentially a way beyond, a path to heaven charted by the church.

The word that would come to describe this light is faith (πίστις). And the key thing about faith is that the Church was thought to possess it and (along with grace) dispense it. It was the faith, not faith in a verbal sense as a kind of assent. Much later, the reformers would try to restore an older, and what they thought was a more biblical understanding of St Paul’s favorite word. But it was a quibble. Whoever or whatever possessed it, it was thought be superior to reason; whether you accessed it through a change of heart or through the sacraments, you did not access it in your head. You surrendered to it because you had no other choice.

This is a kind of final-strawism. Thomas Aquinas, as we all know, argued that God could be known through natural reason, to a point, and his five ways or arguments for God’s existence all seem superficially reasonable. But in the long run, the finer things about God–that he is all good, for example–can only be known by faith, because the world we live in is full of ugliness and sorrow and pain and seems to contradict the goodness of God, except as a sadist might define it. The light of truth comes shrouded in darkness. It is the duty of the church, he thought, to reveal it. “Ubi fides est, ratio fallitur.” Where reason fails, faith prevails.

The artistic culture of the west has been a prolonged illustration of religion’s monopoly on light, certainty, closure and truth. Think Paradise Lost, Pilgrim’s Progress, Dante’s Paradise, Thompson’s Hound of Heaven, Gretchen’s salvation in Faust. And beyond that, think of every Cinderella story, rags-to-riches-epic, chick-flick. These don’t have to be religious as long as the protagonists end up in love and at the castle.

Now think of Waiting for Godot, Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, Kafka’s Metamorphosis, the absurd and existentially restless genres of the twentieth century. On the one hand, the drama and music of the period tolled in the death of God and certainty, illustrated by atonality and abandonment of form and the unities of classical aesthetics. On the other hand, we already see this art as periodically limited to the discovery of psychology and the aftermath of nuclear confusion. In fifty years it will be unreadable except by literary professionals interested in last-century movements. If it means anything in the twenty first century, it underscores David Hart’s comment, “The world is dying of metaphysical boredom.” Atheism is hard pressed to be a solution to that situation, at any level.

Even if by some freak chance atheists in 2012 would grow to 20% of the American population they are still hamstrung by a tradition of seeing skepticism and doubt as a menu for spiritual starvation and human incompleteness. They do not seem to be helped by the attempt of a few aggressive atheists to monopolize the term “Brights” to reclaim their right to the image, or by public displays of blasphemy which seem to attack dogmas that an increasingly illiterate laity don’t know are sacred anyway. (45% of Catholics in a recent poll did not know their Church taught the doctrine of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Imagine how they’d explain the virgin birth).

When atheists attack religion, it seems to many bystanders that they are attacking the solution to a problem, proposing doubt as a cure for certainty, or despair as a remedy for hope. When they do so in obnoxious ways, they just seem to be grousing about the fact Dante doesn’t give them the choicest rooms in his hell. It hardly seems fair that the unequivocal denial of God shouldn’t be the thing that God hates the most.

Is there a way to revive a debate that was really over before the fifth century of the modern era? To give atheists a chance to negotiate God out of his right to adjectives the Church won fair and square in a game of chance? I can’t answer that. Most atheists I know aren’t even interested in trying.

Is Religion Good?

The Library at Alexandria: Hours, M-Th 9 am - 4 pm

You can vote on the question today at the Center for Inquiry website. That’s right, the people who offered you Blasphemy day and the Cartoon Cavalcade and the Campaign for Free Expression now want you to “take” a quiz! It’s simple: don’t do any research. Go with your gut:

On balance, is religion beneficial for humanity?

* Yes, definitely.
* Yes, probably.
* Probably not.
* Definitely not.
* Don’t know/can’t answer

I avoid such surveys because like this one they are usually loaded dice, like the ones we will be treated to by CNN or MSNBC this week asking whether we think Christine O’Donnell is a good witch or a bad witch.

Christine O'Donnell

They create the illusion that Big Media care about what you think, when they don’t, or that you have something interesting to contribute to a controversial topic, when you haven’t.

As I read this little MCQ I recollected (or perhaps in Lockean terms “I associated it from”) my eleventh grade classroom, when a nun asked, sniffing the air, “Who farted?” There is something very funny about hearing a heavily habited woman say “fart.” So funny that six of us wanted to take credit. And there is something even funnier about six people wanting recognition for one small event, five eager boys and one dishonest girl flapping their hands just to be told to find a toilet.

It doesn’t matter a fart however whether you think religion is beneficial to humanity or not. It is like asking if Houyhnhnms are beneficial to Yahoos.

“Religion” (to use a term that has become categorical for superstition and stupidity in the CFI lexicon) and humanity are joined like horse and carriage. Beneficial, therefore, to the extent that you want to be driven forward in history

Can't have one without the other....

Most people would want to begin by saying that religions gave us, directly or indirectly, primitive science.

But that isn’t the only criterion for benefit: Whether we are talking about Sumer, Mohenjo Daro or the ancient Babylonians or Aztecs, early astronomy, calendars, mathematical notation, literacy in the form of liturgy and prayers, and myths–religion is there.

Mohenjo Daro, Sindh (Pakistan) 2600BCE

Religion gave us the primitive (“priestly”) elites that shaped and modified scrawls and pictures into more familiar writing systems. In the west, through the Scholae monasticae at Padua, Bologna, Oxford, and Paris, religious life was responsible for the first universities and the very development of what we now call scholarship: systematic study of individual subjects. Learning. From writing we developed a copyist tradition; that is how learning in all fields was mediated. It is true that monks prayed a lot. But it is also true that they copied everything. That is why we have it.

The forerunners of what would become the sciences, the arts, philosophy, serious astronomy, letters and music are grounded in ideas of mystery and dignity that came from religion and were mediated by its institutions–not by hermit atheists in the hills above Rome just waiting for their chance to be heard. We all moan (and should) at Galileo’s fate, but almost never recall his conviction that his “instrument” would be useful for biblical interpretation.

And it isn’t just the early and medieval west where religion was hitched to learning. In pre-Islamic India, Vedic culture raised the idea of reading and teaching to the highest rank among the Brahmins. Islamic culture took leaps ahead when it encountered their mathematics, art, political organization and architecture, beginning in the eighth century CE.

In the Islamic world, the original idea of the madrasah was similar: al Azhar (10th century), al-Qayrawan and Timbuktu produced seats of learning, where the idea of religious duty propelled the learning of secular subjects like botany, biology and medicine, not to mention technical subjects like engineering and hydraulics. The Qayrawan mosque held the most complete collection of treatises on botany in the ancient world–in four different languages.

In a positive way, religion fueled the renaissance with amazing works of psychology and devotion–Pico’s Oration, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Hobbes’sLeviathan, More’s Utopia. Bacon wrote his Novum Organum, on scientific method, in 1620. Erasmus had published the first critical Greek edition of the New Testament in 1516. Both were made possible because the century prior to Erasmus, printing had become available throughout most of Europe. Newspapers, broadsides and Bibles were everywhere, on street-corners and in parish churches by 1611; but most people who wanted to know how to read learned to read the Bible. That is what German peasants and American slaves have in common.

Page from Gutenberg Bible, 1455

In a negative way, the creation of the printing press fueled the most important theological debates of the Reformation. At the long side of those debates, and also because of a pressing religious dilemma, a small edifice to learning was founded on the eastern shores of New England in 1636:

After God had carried us safe to New England, and we had built our houses, provided necessaries for our livelihood, reared convenient places for God’s worship, and settled the civil government, one of the next things we longed for and looked after was to advance learning and perpetuate it to posterity; dreading to leave an illiterate ministry to the churches, when our present ministers shall lie in the dust. And as we were thinking and consulting how to effect this great work, it pleased God to stir up the heart of one Mr. Harvard (a godly gentleman and a lover of learning, there living among us) to give the one-half of his estate (it being in all about £ 1,700) toward the erecting of a college, and all his library. After him, another gave £ 300; others after them cast in more; and the public hand of the state added the rest. The college was, by common consent, appointed to be at Cambridge (a place very pleasant and accommodate) and is called (according to the name of the first founder) Harvard College.

To be honest, I am flummoxed that any organization that thinks it has anything serious or interesting to say about religion or secularism can be so persistently ignorant, so unashamedly dumb about details. Is there a model of historical development that has been kept from us? One in which religion plays no “beneficial” role? Has the Spirit of Light been imprisoned by the forces of faith ere these many centuries?

Alas, that last question is not entirely facetious. A lot of atheists follow a strange line of historical progress:

Ancient stuff, whatever
Plato and Aristotle (secular humanists)
The Dark Ages (Library of Alexandria destroyed by drunken monks)
The Crusades (jury out: kept Muslims in their place)
The Inquisition (bloody horrible intolerant religion at work)
The Renaissance (not bad, but too much religious art)
The Reformation (the what?)
The Enlightenment (prisoners of conscience set free; America founded)
Darwin (messianic age begins)
Everything later,
Except 9/11 (more bloody horrible religion at work)

And, no, the library at Alexandria was not destroyed by drunken monks. You have three choices: (a) Julius Caesar in 48BC, who underestimated what the burning of the Egyptian fleet would mean to buildings close to the harbour of Alexandria; (b) the Christian bishop Theophilus, in the process of Christianizing a pagan temple to Serapis (the popular story told by Gibbon and ever after by everybody else); or (c) the Muslim caliph Omar in 640CE. Omar allegedly was provoked to to this when he said, “These [books at Alexandria] will either contradict the Koran, in which case they are heresy, or they will agree with it, whereby they are superfluous.” It comes as no surprise that the source of this information is the thoroughly despicable Christian bishop, Gregory bar Hebraeus, who spent most of his idle time making up nasty stories about Muslims.

It is not often you get a choice of religions to blame for the destruction of all the world’s learning, which, by the way, Alexandria certainly wasn’t.

My strong recommendation is that this be the topic of CFI’s next pop quiz:

Who do you think burned the Library at Alexandria? The only rule is, don’t consult any sources. Go with your gut.

Pater Noster: The Very Ordinary of the Mass

In the spirit of liturgical upgrade, I offer the Dad Prayer (“Hey Dad”) to mark the forty-fifth anniversary of the adjournment of Vatican II (December 8, 1965).

Hey Dad!

You’re there and I’m here.
It seems to turn out this way,
I guess,
You being so far away,
and me so, well,

I love you dad.
I think you’re the greatest
Dad ever.
Wish you’d come home.
Because I’ve only heard the stories,
And I wish you were

For one thing,
we can’t afford groceries,
Not even bread.
We owe everybody money.
The phone rings all the time,
Those 800-PayMe numbers
But we’ll be ok
for a day or two.

Mom jokes that
she could do tricks
And I could hustle, brick mainly,
But Mom says No,
your father wouldn’t approve
If he were

What can anyone say about the Council that Tom Lehrer didn’t say then? Its effects now extend from liturgical catastrophe, membership drift, doctrinal torpor, the end of ecumenism, to, metaphorically speaking “Belgium.” If it’s Tuesday, it must be pedophilia.

Occasionally the Vatican tries to get real again about the question of renewal, as it (hilariously but inadvertently) did in 2008 when it decided to “modernize” the Seven Deadly Sins. A few years earlier, the no doubt ill-advised John Paul II, proving the Church did not sit still, had added a few mysteries to the Rosary–perhaps the most numbing devotion ever created in the name of religion–and pasted a superfluous “fifteenth station” to the stations of the cross thereby corrupting the drama of the whole exercise. (I don’t like devotions mind you, but I like my metaphors unmixed and tragic endings unmachinated).

Old Mass

The “New Deadlies” were flat and pedestrian, fixed in the greasy nebula between things no one can disagree are “evil” (like poverty) and things that many people think are beneficial–like genetic research: To jog your memory:

1. genetic modification

2. carrying out experiments on humans

3. polluting the environment

4. causing social injustice

5. causing poverty

6. becoming obscenely wealthy

7. taking drugs

So far, no Dante has arisen to do them justice.

These were then followed by a forgettable (bet you already have) list of “Driver’s Commandments” of which the top five were:

1. You shall not kill.

2. The road shall be for you a means of communion between people and not of mortal harm.

3. Courtesy, uprightness and prudence will help you deal with unforeseen events.

4. Be charitable and help your neighbor in need, especially victims of accidents.

5. Cars shall not be for you an expression of power and domination, and an occasion of sin.

Never mind the lack of parallelism, the change of what grammarians call “voice,” and the fact that the “commandments” sound as though they were pulled from a fortune cookie. The real question is what level of authority this putrid prose is claiming–since it looks, for all the world, like the nakkie-doodles of Dominican nuns at coffee rather than an amendment to the Sinai code. Presumably, Moses could not fire his writer, but the pope could have sacked this one.

One of the reasons I quit the Church was because its custodians had lost all sense of beauty and what used to be called the lex orandi–the parallelism between what was prayed (as in the Latin mass, which language was Latin because it conveyed, it was thought, the timelessness of its object) and what was believed (lex credendi). The expression could be summarized just as easily by saying, If you believe what you say, say it as well as you can.

My theological crisis was real enough as an intellectual event, but was driven by yawpish liturgy, priests in a hurry to get to lunch, infantalized nuns who grew into postmenopausal monsters, catechism quizzes over meaningless propositions, and doctrinal lassitude enforced by officiants who were (as we now know) seeking other outlets for their spiritual energy. Of course they preyed on the young. What did an altar boy know? His spiritual dissolution and religious disappointment was years away–an appetizing certainty for a randy man in a cassock who’d already concluded his life is a masquerade.

The life of a bad priest is a life lived in the hypocrisy of unacknowledged gracelessness disguised under starched surplices. But this not-being-what-you-seem, we learned as kids, is how the devil behaved. Real evil comes as an angel of light. The specifics of the problem, even its extent,were not surprising: the symbolism was profound and somehow natural.

We are now being told by the crisis managers that measures are afoot to repay, pay and atone for the “moral transgressions,” though the matter of the suicides in Belgium is harder to put right (and transgression is such a paltry word for rape, isn’t it?).

But the Church seems determined to squander the whole treasury and the remaining good will before it says goodbye. It does this in the deflective way religions have of pointing to the church as a river of truth, a pure and certain stream that a few sick souls have polluted over the years. Implicitly they raise the question of why the whole river isn’t streaming sewage, and expect the answer, Because the source is basically good, and it is a magic river–it has the means to purify itself.

The image goes back to the earliest days of Christianity when the heretics were the offenders and it was their pissing in the stream the bishops worried about. They invented “orthodoxy” (theological truth) as their standard of purity, and the magisterium (teaching authority) of the church as the means of purification. This theological conceit–the essential purity of Holy Mother Church–makes it possible for bishops to talk about child abuse and advocates for women priests and contraception in the same document, as though the issues were simply different streams of pollution. It makes the Church itself the victim of impurity, not its source and thereby locates the problem outside the institution–an ogre that afflicts men (and women) as men, not because they are priests.

And maybe that is how it has to be: The Church will end a victim of bad ideas and bad expression, the mansion emptied of all goods and chattel, including plumbing, before the estate can be settled against an age that considers its moral witness hypocritical, its ethical positions medieval, and its liturgical compensations ludicrous and ugly.

An institution that has preached itself as the solution to the Fall should be the first to know about its contaminating effects–that’s what original sin was supposed to be all about. Instead, it seems to want to perpetuate its errors in re-worded doctrines, parsed definitions, and liturgy that instead of soaring skits shakily along the ground like a wounded bird.

When the conservative intellectual William F. Buckley reviewed the aesthetic effects of the Second Vatican Council in 1970, he decreed that a proof of God’s goodness is that he would be in his casket the next time he set foot inside the Latin-starved Catholic Church of Sharon, Connecticut. To bide the time he spied out (what were then) traditional Latin parishes in hard to find places. He dithered with the title of a never-quite-published book, Why I am a Catholic after deciding Why I am Still a Catholic was a bit too aggressive. There were a few attempts at resistance early on–Garry Wills Bare Ruined Choirs (1974) and Thomas Day’s (superb, under-read) Why Catholics Can’t Sing (1992), which targeted “church-wide narcissism [as] a serious threat to individuals as well as to the institution.” It was Garry Wills, in 2003 who finally wrote Why I am a Catholic, which after reading raises the question all over again.

Some people have said that the great tragedy of Church renewal, especially liturgical renewal at the time of Vatican II–was that it was done by committees, translated by accountants, implemented by guitar-stroking seminarians at Maryknoll and Weston, and passed off as authentic to a generation of illiterati before anyone knew the harm was done. There was no Cranmer, as there had been for the Anglicans. No Luther, as there had been for the Germans. There was a Babel of languages, not only one to do justice to. These were the seventies, man. Lift up your hearts. And up yours, too.

A Church that used to talk about its musical treasures, from Gregorian chant to Palestrina to Mozart, now had to admit that they had been packed in trunks and sent to the crypt until further notice.

There were no poets or great prosodists. In fact, the underlying and horrific assumption of the most radical reformers was that the age of poetry had passed and that the future of the Church was in paraphrase and simplification. Vatican II would produce no Boethius, no Aquinas (not a bad poet), nor any Dante to bring the two together in an poetic liaison. “Catholic” poetry after V-II got us the Berrigans with trenchant feel like this

So I pray, under
the sign of the world’s murder, the ruined son;
why are you silent?
feverish as lions
hear us in the world,
caged, devoid of hope

At the risk of diagnosing what went wrong, it is that when Vatican II happened the issue was really no longer “renewal” anyway. It was belief. What was not fully grasped, at least not very vocally, was the “reality of distance”: that the translation of tenth- century ideas into sixteenth-century language at the Council of Trent was a piece of sponge cake compared to translating tenth-century beliefs into a twentieth century dominated by sex, drugs and rock and roll. The new project was seen to be re-wording faith for an age of skepticism, relativism, and doubt, but doubt is hard to paraphrase and the lexicon had not yet been developed. It still hasn’t. The era of soft truth had arrived.

It was the notion, held by some of the younger theologians and consultants, that if you squeezed the core ideas out of their old clothes, tarted them up a bit, made the people talk out loud instead of “following” the mass in their prayer books, and teach them a few tuneful protestant hymns, the pews would be bursting with new and returning mass-goers. It didn’t happen.

JFK funeral mass 1963

When John Kennedy died in 1963, his Latin Requiem Mass televised nationally to a curious country, pews were full all across America. When Robert Kennedy died in 1968, his funeral mass was conducted almost entirely in English, and the pews across America were emptying out. No one was singing. (Just like today). Perhaps it’s a tribute to the natural stoicism of Catholics–the folks that gave us purgatory because earthly pain isn’t enough–that they have tolerated the New Order of Mass while refusing to conform to its demand that they actively participate in it.

The revisers and reformers were silly enough to think that by playing with words and gestures, by letting Catholics hold hands at the Our Father, by scrapping Latin (“Let the angels have it,” I remember a youngish priest saying to me one day when I lamented its passing out loud), and getting a pop-rainbow of sexes and colours around a squared altar table–belief would follow.

Where's Father Waldo?

All would be renewed. (Hands up all you Catholics who remember the “Renew” banners rustling in the April breeze when Catholics went briefly charismatic in the 1980’s? “The vibrant singing,” the brochure said, “radical surrender to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all parts of life, a strong adherence to the Gospel and the teachings of the Catholic Church, and the pursuit of strong friendships centered on Christ.”

I was startled recently to hear a younger (and still-observant) friend of mine, when I mentioned the “old church,” begin to describe how great she had felt at the Renew meetings of her teenage years: For her, that is the “old church.” Post-Vatican II experimentation is now Catholic nostalgia. Totally, I said, so as not to appear out of touch with developments of only twenty-five years ago.

The post-ecumenical saga of post-Vatican II Catholicism is a sad story of other denominations, less encumbered by tradition and canon law, rushing across the apses to embrace each other, smooth over theological differences, change polity, admit women and gays to their ordained ranks, while Catholicism remains stuck using the already dated references from 1963 to “our separated brethren” and excoriating changes in doctrine and ministry as things Jesus wouldn’t have wanted.

The mainline liberal protestant churches that had presented the best opportunity for dialogue in 1969 were blending with the one philosophy that Catholicism could not bargain with: secularism and humanism. Rebuffed as a crooked dealer, when the Church turned to find other dance partners, there were (of all people) the evangelicals, the Pentecostals, the charismatics: theologically unformed, liturgically and often personally offensive, but morally as fixed in place as the rock of ages. This was Catholicism at its weakest and most pleading and it is no accident that the moral-political alliance on questions like abortion, genetic research and divorce was forged between these theologically hostile groups after it became clear that the liberal among the separated brethren wanted nothing to do with Rome.

[Part One of III]

Other Christs as Paedophiles

I was an altar boy. Most of the abuse cases now being brought against the Catholic church date from the time when I served Mass, polished candlesticks, smoothed the linen on the altar, filled cruets with wine and water, helped priests on (and off) with their vestments and rang bells at the consecration.

By age ten I could rattle off both the priest’s part and my own in Latin without understanding a word. By age fifteen, a little less fervent, and with other things on my mind, the Mass was drifting irrevocably into English. By age twenty, the Latin Mass was a museum piece and I was an un-outed atheist.

So were lots of priests, or if not atheists exactly they had privately lost their faith. –Plenty of precedent for that, especially among the best-educated priests–and the Church has always had a healthy share of intellectuals and apostates-in-training. I once edited a book by Alfred Loisy, the famous French Jesuit, who claimed that, having lost faith first in the gospel and then in the Church, he was only able to mutter the prayers at the altar and chime in with good conscience at the phrase “suffered, died and was buried,” at the creed. That was in 1928, after he was excommunicated (vitandus) in 1908–as one of an international ring of intellectuals that the Church had come to believe was a conspiracy, called (appropriately enough) “Modernists.”

How many priests, before and since, shared Loisy’s doubts but didn’t possess his honesty? Hundreds? Thousands? How many more thousands after the reforms of the Second Vatican Council turned the rock-hard surety of Catholic doctrine into putty in the hands of Vatican theologians far removed from the dullness and torpor of parish life?


Modernists were not atheists. But then, belief in God was frankly not what the Church demanded anyway. The Church of the nineteenth century insisted that you believe in the holy, Catholic and apostolic Church, its sacraments as the sole means to achieve grace, forgiveness, and salvation, and the hierarchical delivery system codified (once and for all) at the Council of Trent in 1563.

Nothing much had happened before Vatican II to challenge the ossified system and the doctrine of the priesthood that came out of Trent. When he was asked in the late 1950’s (on the edge of the Council that was called to reform the system) what he thought of the “role of the laity”–the men, women and children who put dimes and dollars in the collection basket, pay the meager salaries of priests and nuns and keep the church roof from leaking–the formidable Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani answered, “The laity?–ah yes. Their role is to pray, pay and to obey.”

Cardinal Ottaviani

If grandma believed that, and your father a little less so, but still sort of believed it, what was a twelve year old to do at 6.30AM in the church sacristy when confronted by a randy priest who asked to see how much he’d “grown.” No, that little boy was not me. It was my best friend (who has never brought a charge against the Church, went to seminary and became a priest himself–a good one I think.) But I know it could have happened to me if I hadn’t been a little smarter, a little faster washing up and slamming the back door of the church.

I knew the priest. Several of my friends from our Catholic high school made a special trip to visit him in his abbey toward the end of his life, where the diocese finally sequestered him. He was a broken and depleted man–not because he’d been removed from the parish–I suspect that was huge relief–but because long before that he was condemned to live out a theological lie. The church had trained him, taken him into minor seminary (from about age thirteen), helped him to realize his vocation, and thereby made him unfit for any other profession. Unlike Loisy, he was neither educated enough, clever enough nor versatile enough to do anything else. He was taught he was a personification of Christ, but he no longer believed it and he must have hated the fact that there were still those who did. Those who did believe it may have been more dangerous. They were the ones who thought they had proprietary rights over the children of the parish and could do as they pleased.

Given the definition of the priesthood that was normal in those days, that the priest is alter Christus, another Christ, why should anyone be surprised at the moral implosion of Catholicism? Religion “experts” like me make a living by describing cults as the products of aberrant doctrine and extremes of “normative” belief. But who decides “normative”? What could possibly be more abnormal than teaching grown men and women (and children) that a man of flesh and blood “in his own person represents Jesus Christ at the altar.”

What Jesus supposedly did–turn bread and wine into “his own body, blood, soul, flesh and divinity”–this man is ordained to do at the Eucharist. That’s what the Church taught and in so many words still teaches. Do we have any evidence that members of the Lundgren Mormons or the Cult Davidian or the Ark Church believe more absurd things? If the biblical ethics of the marginal groups result in perverse outcomes, the Catholic world recoils in horror. But Catholics until very recently have not been able to draw a line between their beliefs and similar effects. Now they have to.

The “crisis” in the Catholic church is not fundamentally a legal problem. Of course the media has to paint it that way because the media is a cyclops. It encourages rubbernecking, tsk-tsking and scintillation while posing as an objective resource for moral discrimination. It is so obsessed with the that of abuse by priests that it can’t get its camera around the why.

But many Catholics and ex-Catholics like myself know that what is happening is really much more profound. It is the end of priesthood. At least it is the end of the symbolism of priesthood and the tokens of office that came with the job. Once upon a time it was, under canon law, a grave sin to accost a priest or to strike him–a crime tantamount to striking Christ himself. The Church knew that the wall between laity and clergy was belief in the sanctity and authority of the priest.

Jesus the High Priest


There was no parallel rule against a priest inviting a boy to take down his trousers. Part of the outrage among the most fervent Catholics is that they have watched this scandal unfold without realizing its subtler effects as a demolition of the symbolism and (thus) the system of priesthood itself. They have watched the wall come tumbling down.

They are angry and humiliated, but not just because crimes went unreported and bishops behaved like caliphs, distributing justice on whim. Priesthood was nothing without the archaic trappings of celibacy, purity, snow white vestments, and clean hands holding the host aloft at Mass–a kind of physical orison of Christ’s earthly incarnation–for the faithful to adore. The thought of the same hands, in secret, doing black and unspeakable things to the least of Christ’s brethren broke the bond of trust forever.

For the ones whose job is only to pray and obey, the priests and their bishop-protectors (who, don’t forget, are merely super-priests) are not only guilty of sin (a Catholic idea) and crime (sin translated into the penal codes of secular states). They have exposed a deeper spiritual hypocrisy that will not be covered up by incense and icons.

Surely people have a right to worship the God they believe in in their own way and to choose mechanisms for expressing their belief. The Catholic church has always been happy to provide one of the more sumptuous options for that expression–symbols of ancient pomp and power, smells and bells.

But with so much riding on a tradition that depends on authority, it’s doubtful that Catholicism can survive the smashing of its altars and thrones. The image of a God who reigns above and a vice-regent who rules below over armies of souls struggling for salvation may seem an odd metaphor in the twenty first century–not one that Joe Catholic thinks much about when he goes to communion at the 6PM Mass on Saturday evening to keep Sunday free for golf. Still, that’s the image: the “Church Militant” (on earth) joined through the saints to God and through the souls in purgatory to generations of dead Catholics that have believed throughout time what you believe now. The belief in the “communion of saints” gave Catholics a well-ordered spiritual cosmos that extended as a link between the parish–and the parish priest–right up to the top. The higher up on the spiritual ladder you were the greater the support system of like-minded men, the easier it was to believe in the historical legitimacy of the tradition that made you a bishop a cardinal, a pope. Rank has a way of assuaging even grievous fits of reason and theological doubt.

The easier it became to forget that the foot-soldiers, the priests, the men in black, leading increasingly isolated lives–intellectually and personally–were the weakest link. Not only could they not hold the line against sin and temptation while their superiors drank the good wine, they had ceased to believe it mattered. Liturgically confused, threatened by ecumenism, their catechism relegated to the attic with their birettas, uncomfortable at pancake breakfasts, rarely acknowledged by higher-ups and confronted with a growing inventory of financial woes, closing schools and consolidated parishes–last but not least, even the “good” ones–the object of suspicion, mistrust, and Mrs Murphy’s hearsay. I am not saying the actions of priests are excusable. I am saying that they were inevitable.

Like a lot of ex-Catholics, I feel in a nagging kind of way that I owe the church something, at least my education. I don’t mean to sound conceited when I say that no one who says he got a “Catholic education” since about 1975 has the foggiest idea what the phrase really means. Catholic schools, especially in America, were the first to suffer from the loss of vigor and direction which in other areas led to the emptying of seminaries, rectories and convents and to the widespread loss of faith reflected in the banality of liturgical and doctrinal reform. What I owe the church as a memento of that education is this essay.

We’re now told that this pope is pulling the Church back to basics. But it will never work. The moral center is missing and may have been a myth all along. Dostoevsky thought so. Loisy thought so. The damage cannot be calculated in the percentage of “guilty” men who are brought to justice, or measures being taken to protect children from sexual opportunists. Will the Church now make sure that a thirteen year old going to confession is accompanied by a responsible adult at all times?

The cure is unavailable to a Church that does not understand that its core doctrine, its whole symbolic garment has been unbuttoned by fake Christs who are no more the real thing than the communion wafer is his body.

The Church’s Right to Choose

Bishop Tobin

The edict of the Roman Catholic Bishop of Rhode Island, Thomas Tobin, denying Patrick Kennedy the right to receive communion in his Church is the latest evidence of the Catholic Church’s irrelevance in contemporary ethical discussion. It is sacramental blackmail, demanding that a Catholic legislator suspend judgment and conscience in order to promote the interests of his Church above the interests of the women and men, Catholic and not, who elected him to office. Worse, it ratifies the dark suspicions of fifty years ago when non-Catholics wondered out loud whether the dogma of the church rather than the principles of secular democracy would govern the decision-making of a Catholic president. Oddly enough, it is the Church itself rather than any Catholic politician that has renewed and perhaps answered the question.

In 1960 everyone able to vote in my Catholic family voted for JFK because Catholics (like most Jews and African Americans) were Democrats. Catholics believed in the Trinity, going to confession, the rosary, and the special license of nuns to inflict pain on adolescent knuckles.

On Sundays they were treated to hideous renditions of Mozart and Palestrina by undertrained choirs with shaky voices and priests whose anguished faces at a sung Latin mass left no doubt about the existence of Purgatory.

There was a “thing” called Catholic Culture, preserved in parish schools, loosely enforced by diocesan bishops, reinforced by the anti-communist television sermons of Bishop Sheen in Life is Worth Living. Being an American Catholic was easy because your Church and your country had a common enemy, even if no one could quite decide what to do about it. Communism was “evil” to religious America because it was atheism, the finer points of dialectical materialism being lost on the good citizens of St. Paul and Kansas City.

In 1960 John Kennedy wasn’t kidding when he said that, if elected, Rome wouldn’t tell him what to do–the so-called “Protestant Scare.” For most American Catholics, the Vatican was far away (especially for Irish Americans) and the pope had the same status as meatless Fridays: he came with the territory as the price of baptism. But in general the authority of the pope was pretty obscure and the non-existence of satellite television and the internet made his authority more theoretical than real.

There was a picture of John XXIII in my eighth grade classroom, positioned close to the crucifix, close enough to encourage the belief that perhaps he had lived at the same time as Jesus.

Nobody talked about abortion, homosexuality (of the clergy or in relation to marriage rights) or (much, anyway) about divorce, though all of these things were part of a darker culture that we knew about—usually in the form of an “unmarried” aunt who came to Christmas dinner but didn’t go to mass regularly.

Politics was easy because protestants didn’t talk much about these things either. When modern conservatives talk about a “broad moral consensus” missing in American society they are talking mainly about a religious convergence of social-sexual attitudes that existed before 1968, or thereabouts.

That’s when Paul VI spoiled our theory of the non-existence of the pope by publishing Humanae Vitae forbidding Catholics to take advantage of new techniques of contraception—the pill. It was a tough year to be an undergraduate dating a liberal Episcopalian.

From that day on, Catholicism was less and less about frequent communion, the trinity, and the virgin, more and more about hating abortion and strongly disapproving of gays—despite the irony of an emerging pedophile culture in seminaries and rectories.

Sad, that when this consensus broke down, Catholics by and large were forced into an ethical corner– forced to choose between church and conscience, between a kind of laissez faire allegiance to the principles of Catholic teaching and a strangely robust “moral” voice coming from a church in liturgical disarray and sacramental crisis.

All of a sudden, your best religious friends were not the ones who shared your tradition (tradition?) but the ones who agreed with you that abortion is murder, that homosexuality is a sinful, correctable practice, and that sex between loving but unmarried individuals of different sexes is morally wrong.

All of a sudden, the weak voice of faraway Rome and meatless Fridays seemed preferable to the New Church, a church that had decided to take its stand not at the altar but in the bedroom.

But the real problem in all of this is one our culture doesn’t yet have its head around. It is the way in which the Catholic Church has forced some of its most loyal sons and daughters, especially those in political life, to leave home.

No one knows whether, given the same set of moral variables in 1960, John Kennedy would have been the first Catholic president or could have achieved the delicate balance between convincing Catholics his religion mattered and non-Catholics that it didn’t.

But the balance is gone, thanks in part to changing social realities and changed laws and attitudes, and in part to a cultural backlash that hasn’t stopped lashing.

Unlikely as it seems, confronted with a progressive Catholic candidate in 2012, as we had in 2004, the claim of the Church’s non-interference and disinterest in American politics will no longer be convincing. We see that in the brokering of “acceptable” bishop-approved health care legislation in the U.S. Congress. We saw it in the sad final days of Ted Kennedy, in his letter of “qualified” contrition to Benedict XVI. Now we see it in the virtual excommunication–literally, being cut off from the sacrament–of Patrick Kennedy.

It proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that Catholic lawmakers now are expected to apologize to their church for the free exercise of conscience and the right to frame their ideas within the liberal tradition of American politics.

The issue in 1960, when the phrase had everything to do with belief and almost nothing to do with personal ethics, was whether a candidate was “Too Catholic.” For Catholic voters in the future, unless dramatic change occurs in a Church not known for upheaval, the question will be “Catholic enough?”

Atheist Tantrums: The New Loud


What do you get when you cross a new atheist with a Jehovah’s Witness?
Someone who knocks on your door for no reason at all.

This will be brief. Blasphemy Day, God love it, has come and gone. Soon the giggling will stop. Dogs, horses and Episcopalians will be left wondering what the point was. The few Pentecostals who can read a newspaper will say, “See, told you so,” and head for the basement before the anti-Christ rides through town.

I was musing yesterday why, as a pretty fervent Roman Catholic in the 1960’s, I fell on the floor in paroxysms of laughter when a friend (also Catholic) played Tom Lehrer’s “Vatican Rag” for me for the first time. I still laugh when I hear it, even though most twenty-first century Catholics don’t know what a kyrie eleison is or bother to stand in line for confession. In college, a little less fervent, I knew priests (many of whom aren’t any more) who knew the song from front to back. We used to break it out on cue at Charlie’s Beef and Beer (RIP) at Harvard.

So if irreverence can be funny (and I love irreverence as much as I love Mahler) why do I think Blasphemy Day was such a fuckwitted idea?

Well for one thing, as I said in my two posts on the topic, bad art, bad jokes, and behavior designed to be stupid and offensive are seldom funny except to insiders.


A competition to see who can come up with the worst art, the worst joke, and the most self-referentially stupid behavior will have to be judged by how funny the insiders think it is.

I’m guessing the atheist insiders peed their pants. As for those standing outside the circle (those dogs, horses and Episcopalians), let the cattle judge.

An NPR story on the subject tried to link the Center for Inquiry-sponsored event to a growing rift between old school and new atheism.

If I bought the distinction, I would be expected to say that the “old atheism” as represented by ardent secularists like Paul Kurtz was warm and cuddly whereas the newer form, usually thought to be incarnate in Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris (et al.) is tactically less subtle, more aggressive, unkinder.

But I don’t buy it. The old atheism was full of cranks and angry old men, but some of them were clever. Many of them (as my grandmother used to say) knew a thing or two. The big distinction between the old and the new is that the old atheism depended on a narrative, based in philosophy, and linked itself to a long tradition of rational decision-making. Not choosing to believe in God was an act of deliberation, not a foregone conclusion. At its best, it was studious and reflective. At its worst, it was purely negative, abrasive and sometimes nihilistic.

The best form of the old atheism had a lot in common with certain theological trends, ranging from nominalism to religious realism and minimalism–the sort of stance you get from Don Cupitt’s best writings. The worst, rejectionist stream of atheism, was marked (or marred) by intolerance and a lack of table manners. It was an atheism for the unsophisticated young and the dispirited old. Wedged between were Philistines of all ages, one big unhappy family.

What’s now being called “new atheism” or atheist fundamentalism is really nothing more than the triumph of the jerks. Unsubtle, unlearned (but pretentious), unreflective (but persistent). They have heroes in super-jerks like PZ Myers (yes, the one who drives spikes through communion “crackers” as he calls them, and Korans) because

Edgy is what young people like….They want to cut through the nonsense right away and want to get to the point. They want to hear the story fast, they want it to be exciting, and they want it to be fun. And I’m sorry, the old school of atheism is really, really boring.

Did you get that: really? Presumably Mr Myers has tenure, but I for one would love to see his teaching philosophy unpacked when it comes out in book form. Students may also like it raunchy, naked, and loud. And that’s why we used to think a university was a good place to lead people out of the tribe and toward civilization. Not PZ. Give him a hammer and he’ll follow you anywhere.

Almost as bad is the point made by CFI executive Ron Lindsay who says that his “research” organization will “take the high road, the low road, country roads, interstates, highways, byways, — whatever it takes to reach people.” Sounds strangely like Jesus, except the bit about the low road.

To the extent this highways and hedges approach works, imagine the good news: “Rejoice greatly: for unto you this day is born in the City of Right Reason…absolutely Nothing.”

Here is my prophecy. The raw atheism of the raw atheists who have given us Blasphemy Day and probably have other delights in store for us is loud because they already know no one is listening, at least no one who matters.

The shrill tones of the movement have to be amplified for the same reason cinemas now have to pump up the volume to drown out the hundred private conversations that are going on during the film, person to person, cell phone to cell phone, tweet to tweet. It is shouting, pure and simple because loud wins. Stupid and loud is even better, and outrageously stupid and loud is best.

But while all this is going on, there are many who style themselves humanists and are not believers in any conventional sense who want to say, “Shut up-I’m watching the movie.” (More precisely, “Shut up, we’re trying to think.,” or maybe read. What we need is an intellectual resource for thoughtful humanists, the thoughtful seekers who don’t think it’s cool to “repent” of your baptism by having a hairdryer pointed at your head.

What I miss about the old atheism–even though I still find its central premises wobbly and unconvincing–is that thinking was permitted. The conversation continued. There was no infallible source of confidence. Skepticism reigned.

The new atheism is a catechism of conclusions reached, positions taken, dogmas pronounced. It is more like the Catholicism I giggled to see parodied, a church too sure of itself and its exclusive ability to save souls and reveal the kingdom.

A Prayer:

Oh Thou who hast no name and many…and may not even be there:

Bring back clever.

Smite with a bolt of intelligence all enemies of parody and good satire.

Bring low the self-assurance of the Brights, and unto the Dims give light.

With a stroke of your mighty pen lay waste the stupidity of your deniers and confound the certainty of your defenders.

Render mute, O heavenly Conundrum, the loudness of the gainsayers and the loudness of the speakers in tongues. Do it soon.

And do Thou, O King, or Something, of the Unseen Regions of my Brain, grant me the endurance to suffer religious fools as gladly as I suffer the Atheist. And failing that, send a scorching fire upon the earth, if it isn’t asking too much.