Friday, January 29, 2010


Canto: As we know, our friend Luigi Funesti-Sordido, founding secretary and sole member of the USSR [the Urbane Society of Skeptical Romantics], will soon be giving his first video presentation, based on our thought-provoking conversations. This current conversation will be the basis for that first presentation.
Jacinta: Yes, Luigi's videos will look at religion from a skeptical perspective, and at science from a romantico-skeptical perspective, if that makes any sense.
Canto: And of course it does. The best science writing - for example the many snippets in the Richard Dawkins edited Oxford book of modern science writing, and Richard Fortey's Trilobite! - is full of the romance and adventure of scientific exploration, as well as of the skepticism so necessary to real knowledge acquisition.
Jacinta: So we're going to talk about a book we've read, Believers, by Paul Collins, author and Catholic commentator for Radio National, inter alia.
Canto: Yes, Collins is a liberal Catholic, very much influenced by the Vatican II reform movement, and a strong critic of the papacy of John Paul II and of his successor. Believers is his account of the state of catholicism in Australia today, and as such it's quite informative and useful.
Jacinta: Yes, it can make for depressing reading, in parts, if you're a Catholic. An ageing priesthood, overworked and almost grotesquely underpaid, if Collins's figures are a guide; a lack of interest in priesthood as a vocation among the young; a turning away from traditional rituals, such as the Latin Mass; an education system that has been forced to make compromises to remain viable; divisive issues such as celibacy, homosexuality, the role of women, and of course sexual abuse; clashes with an intransigent, out-of-touch hierarchy, and so on. For non-believers like us, witnessing the struggles of a beleaguered enemy, feelings are naturally mixed.
Canto: Collins's sympathies are very much with the local parish priests, and the workers, often volunteers and often women, of the St Vincent de Paul Society [many of whom, it should be added, are not even Catholic or Christian]. Vinnies is Australia's largest charity, and I think Collins is right in pointing out that it carries out its work largely 'under the radar', with little fanfare. Though there might be exceptions, it carries on its charity work without linking it to prayer or proselytising.
Jacinta: So, yes, the work of many coalface Catholics might well be admirable, if you don't look at their beliefs too hard, but looking at beliefs as hard as we can is what we're all about. In Believers, Collins touches from time to time on the metaphysics of his faith, but only superficially and without a smidge of skepticism. This is hardly surprising, and we don't want to be unreasonable in our expectations, but it seems typical with liberal Christians like Collins that when they move away from their field of expertise [in this case internal Catholic affairs] to an area of unfamiliarity and discomfort, such as the challenge of the soi-disant 'New Atheism' [a term I personally reject], they take the most hilarious or embarrassing pratfalls, depending on your perspective.
Canto: So here is Collins's one and only foray in the book into this 'new atheist' field: of the focal sources of modern angst is the attempt to live without any sense of God or the transcendent, without faith in anything. This has become particularly virulent with the recent publication of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens' tomes attacking all forms of religious belief and equating mainstream faith with fundamentalism. These authors actively oppose God and set out to to explain reality as the product of evolution, without any sense of transcendence or spirituality. In the process they cut off any possibility of hope and creativity for a better world. Modern anxiety constitutes one of the basic ministerial challenges for Catholicism: to offer a sense of trust in God to the wider world.
Now this is quite an extraordinary set of claims. Hard to know where to begin, but let's start somewhere in the middle, where it's claimed that Dawkins Hitchens seek to explain reality as the product of evolution. Really? What does Collins mean here? If by 'evolution' he means the theory put forward by Alfred Russell Wallace and Charles Darwin 150 years ago, surely nobody is claiming that such a theory 'explains reality'. It was only intended to explain the interconnectedness of living things on a minuscule planet within an almost inconceivably vast universe. Or perhaps by evolution he simply means change? Reality is the product of change - yes, I can make sense of that, and what's more I don't think it's particularly contentious.
Jacinta: But of course he then adds 'without any sense of transcendence or spirituality'. That's to say, no sense of 'otherworldliness', a world beyond paltry concerns for evidence, coherence and testability. The trouble, though, with other-worldly phenomena, beyond these paltry concerns, is that you can make up any story you like about them, and then all you have to do is get lots of other people to believe in your story, either by friendly persuasion, by connecting it with kind treatment - 'if you accept our story, we'll share all our worldly goods with you, and we'll be friends for life', or by burning people at the stake if they don't accept the story. In lieu of evidence, there are many options available to ensure belief. In the case of Catholicism, the story you're asked to accept, on faith, is that the creator of the universe was apparently male, or at least preferred to be addressed as such, and that he chose to make himself known to humans somewhere in the region of Palestine a few thousand years ago, by, amongst other things, helping a local tribe slaughter other tribes in order to create more living space. This god, who many years later became known to us as 'God', thereby, by a piece of semantic legerdemain, rendering all the other gods, numbering in their hundreds, merely local and insignificant, this god later had a son who lived in the same general region for about thirty years before being crucified, which was all to do with God's plan, as he wanted his son to die for our sins. What this actually means is hard to explain, but just ask your local priest. Further, this god and his son and another related entity called the Holy Spirit [ask your priest] should be worshipped together as One, and Three at the same time. Also, you need to celebrate the glory of the son [of God] by drinking wine and eating wafers, which, through some kind of sacramental invocation, actually become the body and blood of this son of God, which apparently has some disinfectant properties.
Canto: All of which sounds eminently sensible and way beyond the need for evidence. No wonder Collins points out that if you don't put your faith in this story, or any similar other-worldly story, then you won't have faith in anything, and you'll be full of moral angst.
Jacinta: Well the idea of moral angst is really the most offensive thing in the above quote.
Canto: But also the most preposterous. The idea clearly is that if you don't accept the metaphysical, unable-to-be substantiated claims of Catholicism, or of Islam or Hinduism, or any other religion, then there must be something wrong with you. You must have emotional or psychological problems. Leaving aside the profound arrogance of such a claim, let's note that Dawkins, in particular, lives in a world of science, where, as he has often pointed out, virtually all of his friends are non-believers. Let's recall just a few of the illustrious rejectors of these metaphysical stories in recent times; Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, Linus Pauling, Carl Sagan, Richard Feynman, Francis Crick and James Watson, Steven Weinberg, Julian Huxley, Richard Leakey, the names go on and on. If these people have anything in common, it sure isn't moral angst. As Dawkins has pointed out, the scientific community is heavily loaded with atheists, and the further you move up the food chain, up to the nobel prize winners and the most eminent contributors to their field, the less likely you are to find a believer amongst them. On the other hand, it's hardly surprising to find that in places where there are virtually no non-believers, countries like Afghanistan for example, the rates of illiteracy are amongst the highest in the world. You don't get many debates in Afghanistan between creationists and evolutionists, because the theory of evolution just has no real purchase there.
Jacinta: So much for moral angst then - without wishing to downplay the real angst that some people feel after abandoning the comforting metaphysical stories of faith communities, as well as abondoning, or being abandoned by, the faith communities themselves. Those are real issues, but they don't go to the truth of how the world actually is. The other point Collins tried to make was that without what he calls 'transcendence and spirituality' you 'cut off any possibility of hope and creativity for a better world'.
Canto: Is he talking about this world, or that other world beyond evidence, testability and coherence?
Jacinta: Good question, but I think, for the sake of sanity, we'll focus on this world. How does believing in transcendence and spirituality make this world a better place, or give us hope for making this world a better place? I really have no idea, and Collins isn't forthcoming with any explanations. Apparently, for him, it's so self-evident that it requires no explanation. However, I can say that there is plenty of hope and creativity for a better world amongst non-believers. After all it's 'this-worlders', those who are invested in discovering the properties and behaviours of this world, who are the most creative spirits we have, and often the most optimistic. And why shouldn't they be, since, collectively, they've revolutionized our understanding of our biosphere and our planet and where our planet fits with the universe, and how our universe works. In the meantime, the Catholic Church has clung fast to its old metaphysical myths and its belief that, if you're not inspired by these myths, you're morally confused if not degenerate. It's an insult to the intelligence. So, the issue, Paul Collins, isn't moral angst - far from it. It's the relevance of your belief system in an increasing sophisticated and richly questioning world.

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