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The trick is to make your nonsense sound as though you know what you’re talking about.  You can conceal your ignorance by using big words and philosophical and scientific concepts even if you yourself would be hard-pressed to define them.  People have been getting away with the absurd concept of “transubstantiation” since the 11th century, and the authentic concept of “space-time continuum” since the early 20th.  The difference is that the former is gobbledegook, the latter a reality at the heart of Einstein’s theory of General Relativity.  (I hardly need add that I know more about the former than the latter …).

Audiences at a debate like Pell’s with Dawkins on Australian TV in 2012, want to believe that their champion masters his/her subject.  For his fans, it is enough for Cardinal Pell to try to back up the bit about bread transubstantiating into the Body of Christ, by referring to a distinction that goes back to Aristotle.  The Greek philosopher, 2350 years ago, did in fact distinguish “substance” from “accidents”, the core essence of something from its external appearance and properties.  But he never  said that one “substance” could be changed into another while its “accidents” remained the same.  Even if he had, it is hard to see what difference that fantastic proposition, totally devoid of evidence, could make.  Martin Luther scoffed (sneered ?) at the “pseudo-philosophy of Aristotle”, and spoke of  transubstantiation as a “monstrous word for a monstrous idea”.  This preposterous, gratuitous Catholic claim for the Eucharist inspired the British comedian Tommy Cooper to use his “magic” to transform two scarves into rabbits, insisting with a perfectly straight face that by another even greater feat of  magic he had made them to continue to look like the scarves they had been instead of the rabbits they now really were.

Pell’s pals in the audience would have been none the wiser had they read Aristotle.  But it is a pity they never saw Tommy transubstantiate.  His Eminence said the consecrated (former) bread was now Jesus’ body, so it must be true.  His barracking believers collectively incarnated credulity. “Abracadabra” is amusing.  “This is My body” is deadly serious. It is no coincidence that the origin of “hocus pocus” is, precisely, “Hoc est enim corpus meum”.

                                            RIDENDA   RELIGIO





I heard the invitation today, not on my Basque beach in Bidart nor pool-side at the home of a friend whose swimming-facilities are somewhat more modest than my Atlantic Ocean. No, I heard it on local television from the Rector of the Basilica in Bayonne, inviting locals and tourists to escape the heat during the annual Summer Fêtes de Bayonne by profiting from the cool inside his Cathedral. Not a bad idea, really. Baby, it’s hot outside !

People, including unbelievers, often visit these enormous Gothic structures, even in Winter. Not for the temperature : it costs a fortune to heat such volumes, and outside Mass-times, don’t count on a warm welcome. But many are attracted by the silence, the dim light, the stained glass, the statues, the architecture, and join the other rare souls come to find peace and quiet and maybe comfort and consolation from the unique atmosphere of these Pillars of the Earth. And during the dog-days (in French we call them the “canicule”), why not the refreshment of their cool interior ?

The priest was no doubt totally disinterested in offering the hospitality of his empty refuge from the heat of July in South-West France. He is proud of his Cathedral, and has nothing to lose in having people discover its beauty and grandeur. He does not expect a rash of Summer conversions, but is happy to make this beau geste to the festive crowds during the heat of the day. If only more of them would come to Mass. That would be really cool.



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I was recently taken to task by a highly respected fellow “old boy”, an alumnus of Marist Brothers Kogarah, “not so much for peddling atheism as for the fact that you have forgotten, or at least chosen to eschew, a fundamental principle of argument”. He reminded me of a statement made by G.K.Chesterton in 1933 :”As a matter of fact, it is generally the man who is not ready to argue, who is ready to sneer. That is why, in recent literature, there has been so little argument and so much sneering.” He dares apply the accusation, eighty years later, to Hitchens and Dawkins, and does me in passing the undeserved honor of comparing me with the masters, seeing in my writing, like theirs, “prime evidence” of GKC’s principle.

Readers may be interested to discover the following excerpt from my reply to the Lord High Commissioner, the Grand Inquisitor, in my autodafè (those last words just to bring a little water to his mill). We are here in what another famous Catholic author called “The Heart of the Matter” of this Blog :

“GKC was a genius who was once one of my personal reasons for believing. Master of the “bon mot”, he is, in my book (so to speak) up there with Mencken and Wilde, though on the other side of the divide. Articulating aphorisms is an art (alliteration is not). The one you quote is typically as clever as it is incisive. Some people sneer, mock and ridicule when they are short on arguments, or lack the capacity or the courage to use them. A bit like my story of the church-cleaner who after the Sunday Masses discovered the PP’s sermon notes in the pulpit (or the “bullpit”, as some of the irreverent clergy call it), revealing that that morning’s homily was a rehash of an earlier one : there were handwritten marginal notes alongside the typed text. One read : “Argument weak here; shout like Hell !”

“Dawkins never descends to sneering (or shouting), though sometimes he cannot conceal his shock at the absurdities he hears expressed by his opponent. A famous example was seen in his debate (ABC TV, “Q and A”, April 9, 2012) with Cardinal Pell, who at one point spoke of our Neanderthal “ancestors”, who were, as everyone else knows, in fact our cousins ! (This was not a “lapsus linguae” : the Cardinal went on, thinking to score a point, by asking Dawkins why, if they were our cousins we had never met a Neanderthal. His Eminence has a sense of humor, but he was not joking, just putting his ignorant foot in it !). Richard Dawkins, the gentleman, did not sneer – he just let it ride. As we say here in France, one should not shoot at ambulances.

“Hitch had an equally sharp mind (and impeccable accent), but not Dawkins’ politeness, and amused his fans, already won to the Cause – and infuriated his foes – by his sometimes venemous one-liners. However to suggest that either of them did nothing but sneer without presenting solid arguments for their atheism, is to do them and their oeuvre a gross injustice. But here the accusation, whatever about them, is that I apparently am content to sneer and am not ready (or probably qualified) to argue.

“If by “arguments” you mean yet another dissection of Thomas’ Five “Proofs”, or an analysis of the implications of the BEH boson, or debates about the historicity of “events” in the supposedly “inspired” Sacred Scriptures – subjects on which I touch, seemingly too briefly for you – I plead guilty, your Honor. It has all been said, brick wall to brick wall, before – and to no avail. Rather than engage in the exchange of worn-out arguments, I prefer to point out how silly religions’ beliefs, rules and rituals are, instead of pursuing interminable, dead-end discussions of First Causes, blind watchmakers, birds’ wings, the human eye and that damned molecular motor that drives the bacterial flagellum, all of which, by the way, are to be found in my book and blog. Nasty of me, you will say, but my principal choice of argument is reductio ad absurdum : I pity people like Bishop Robinson who believes that Mary really did achieve Lift-Off because his Mum told him so. Hard not to “sneer” at such highly intellectual argumentation (for more of the fun, check out my “From Illusions to Illumination”, page 67).

“I’ve got your back up enough, my friend, not to add more fuel to that fire beneath my stake (“well done, please”). You must find it difficult to believe that I sincerely respect believers, non-atheists like you, as persons, when I have no respect whatever for your beliefs. I myself shared those beliefs for half of my eight decades. I am now committed not to arguing with, and even less trying to convert unconditional, convinced and committed Catholics like you and Alan and Jim and so many others (1.2 billion !), but to reinforcing the doubts in people I call Believers on the Brink, who have already jettisoned many of the myths but hang on in there, trying to ignore how ridiculous their religion really is.”

Quod erat, amici mei, demonstrandum.




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I think that I can safely claim to be the first person in the world to propose to the Vatican a revolutionary aid to marketing the Eucharist, inspired by an item in …NEXT week’s TIME Magazine (July 28, 2014). Some will say that the Eucharist needs no marketing; it is already the central act of Catholic worship. But in a world dominated by technology, the professional and social media, and the revolution in photography which has permitted instantaneous worldwide diffusion of images, including selfies produced by a smartphone, the Church would do well to exploit these means to reinforce belief in the Real Presence of Jesus in those circular wafers of bread become His Body.

A novelty company, according to TIME (7/28/2014, page 49), has unveiled a new product which allows you to personalize your toast. The toaster is called “Toasted Selfies” (TM), which makes it possible for you to burn a photo of your face onto a slice of bread (more detail on the Web, “Geek Alerts”, July 15). I imagine Mass-goers receiving Holy Communion, the consecrated host, in their hand, saying “Amen” to the words “Body of Christ” – and seeing a likeness of Jesus right there on each wafer. The words “Mass production” would take on a whole new meaning.

In comments on earlier posts concerning the Eucharistic miracle of Lanciano, where bits of Christic flesh are said to have been seen to appear stuck onto the host, our dear departed Jim/Helen brought this solemnly approved miracle to our attention. There is nothing miraculous or even technically complicated about putting an image of the face of Jesus on the wafers, or even His whole body (not the one on the Shroud of Turin, which has the downside of making Jesus look very dead, but a picture, say, of Him rising from the tomb).

I do not expect royalties or even a Plenary Indulgence for coming up with this inspired idea. But it’s an idea whose time – wait for it ! – has come. (Maybe the hosts could be given an edible chip, electronic not potato, with a recorded message activated by saliva as the host touches the tongue : “Enjoy !”, or “Bon Appétit”, or “Buon Apetito !”. I’m only trying to help.)

                                                                         RIDENDA   RELIGIO


“Ein und swanzig”, “drei und swanzig”, “Big Mac and fries”, “Bob’s your uncle”, “tempus fugit”. If you start counting the seconds, you’ll soon go nuts. “La pendule au salon qui dit ‘oui’, qui dit ‘non’, qui nous attend.” Time ticks on, and there’s nothing we can do about it. I knew you’d like to learn that.

Kids and people the better side of thirty never wonder how much time they have left. People my age, hitting eighty, do. I don’t. I’ve got too much to do to worry about how much time I have left to do it. God, life is great, as long as it lasts ! And mine has been a lot of fun. It will soon be over, but I’m in no hurry to see it end. Que serà, serà. Now I have to get back to writing something a little less trite. Carpe diem, mates; let’s get on with it.



The question is Lord Carey’s, His Grace the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury 1991-2002, in an article he wrote in the “Daily Mail”, reported in today’s “The Guardian”, in which he admits that he has “changed his mind” about his Church’s teaching on assisted dying.  He is now “less and less certain of (his) opposition to the right to die”.

When will the Pope and the Catholic Church make such a public confession ?  An eminent rabbi, Dr Jonathan Romain, welcomed this “sweeping away” of “theological dust”.

While we can only applaud the belated enlightenment of blind churchmen leading the blind, it is somewhat pathetic that their opinion on such matters matters.  I used to be one myself, a Franciscan priest-theologian, but am now committed as an atheist to exposing in my Blog the illusions I had and preached forty years ago.

I posted the last two sentences above in today’s “The Guardian”, July 12, 2014 at 8:44 a.m.

                                   RIDENDA   RELIGIO  


There are many Catholics who have often wondered about the “Real Presence” of Christ in the Eucharist. Even priests have been known to have their doubts about the bread they are supposed to have transformed into the Body of Jesus. Protestants, of course, have rejected the literalist Catholic doctrine for five hundred years. As I have already have had occasion in this Blog to remark, respected Catholic theologians sometimes speak of the Eucharist’s “symbolic reality”, which I have always considered a somewhat jesuitical way of denying the Real Presence without getting into trouble with Rome. The Sydney priest-theologian who wrote the book on that concept was himself the Archdiocesan official Censor whose approval was necessary for publication …

But you Believers on the Brink out there, even if you still buy the bit about transubstantiation, there are some doctrines which you have already ditched. Maybe it’s the Ascension of Jesus or the Assumption of Mary or the officially approved miracles necessary for canonization or those miraculous cures at Lourdes declared to be authentic. Why do you still accept certain doctrines and feel comfortable rejecting others ? Surely it must have occurred to you that the whole ball of wax is a fabrication ! I really don’t understand how you can pick and choose. Reread my post on Cherry-Picking.




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He used to be the “Big A”, the most feared gangster, assassin and drug-dealer in contemporary Copenhagen. Abderrozah Benarabe is his name. Recently he got religion, and is now “doing the Jihad” with Al Qaida against Assad. The reason for this extraordinary metamorphosis (though murder is murder, whether in Denmark or Syria; in a video he says he wonders what Allah thinks about those he has already committed) is worth noting. Apparently he promised Allah that if his brother recovered from cancer, he would walk the line, stop slitting Danish throats and become a model Muslim. Naturally his brother no longer has cancer and the righteous rebels have a new recruit.

Such a conversion, such a pact, such a covenant, is not without precedent. I have already in another post referred to a Sydney priest who was an Australian naval chaplain during World War 2 in the battle of the Coral Sea. Floating in said Coral Sea and in danger of drowning in his uniform after his ship went down under, he promised the Virgin that if she saved him he would build a church in her honor. She did and he did, and I once preached in his church in the Sydney parish of Penshurst, where every year the U.S. Seventh Fleet was represented in the annual commemoration of the Coral Sea battle, dedicated to thanking God and His Mum for the victory and to reinforcing Australian-American friendship.

One cannot but think of other contacts and contracts with the Deity and its delegates, Mary and lesser Saints. Lourdes would never have happened had Bernadette not had her visions and agreed to have a basilica built. The history of France would have been significantly different if the Maid of Orleans had not heard those voices urging her to oust the Brits with her own precocious “Aux armes, citoyens !” (Even Grand Opera would have been different and much poorer without the legend of Faust and his pact with the Devil.)

Like NDEs – Near-Death Experiences – personal supernatural revelations and experiences forge unshakeable convictions, especially when they involve “proof” of their authenticity. When God holds up His side of the bargain by working the miracle requested, the beneficiary feels a certain obligation to hold up his, like the Big A and my sacerdotal colleague. St Francis of Assisi, Saint Teresa of Avila, Padre Pio are among the many models for the credulous who believe they too have had a direct contact, and even a contract, with God. How many of them try to cajole Him into working a miracle for them ? When it works, their faith is set in concrete.

There is little hope of shaking such faith. One can only applaud conversion from immoral, dishonest, cruel or criminal behavior, at least when it does not result in murderous fanaticism. But surely rational, sensible people will recognize how infantile and stupidly naïve it is to believe that they can negotiate with a creation of their own imagination.



Once again we are indebted to Thom for the following post. Everything he writes is worth reading, as not only readers of his numerous comments on this blog can attest, but the millions of his readers of the Sydney Morning Herald who for years have appreciated his limpid prose and pertinent, penetrating perceptions. His anonymity will not be affected by this affirmation of my admiration. For one thing – well, two – his writing is always apropos and, More-over, avoids abusing alliteration. (“Sapienti sat.”) He is a master of tongue-in-cheek, but can be, as he is here, as serious as he is insightful.

“The film ‘Calvary’ opens dramatically in the darkened confessional of a small Catholic Church in Ireland. An unidentified man tells the priest that he will kill him in seven days because he was sexually abused long ago at the age of seven by another priest who is long dead. The film charts the interaction of the priest, brilliantly acted by Brendan Gleeson, over the following days.

One critic described the film as a black comedy. There are moments of levity in the dialogue but otherwise little to laugh about in this coruscating critique of the seaside community’s lived experience of their Catholicism. The film is not necessarily about the sexual abuse mentioned in the opening scenes. It is about an experience of Catholicism in a particular time and place. The film will not therefore be the experience of Catholics everywhere, but the fact that it will resonate with some anywhere is cause enough for concern. All the characters in the film are damaged in some way – the unstated implication is that their unhappiness is rooted in their experience of their religion. The word ‘Calvary’ necessarily denotes suffering – the sacrifice of the Cross. There is suffering aplenty in this brilliant film. A black, black comedy indeed.”



It is a striking coincidence that right after posting “Macrocosm, Microcosm” in which I speak at some length (as usual) about dying, news arrives from Down Under of the death of a very dear, unique friend, John Haswell. He died, “after a long battle with cancer”, yesterday, Independence Day. The word defines the man.

His name appears on a couple of occasions in this Blog, the very existence of which owes more to him than anyone else. I shall try to be brief, but his passing, and especially the life of a classmate who became an eminent scientist, a militant atheist and my gifted co-author, deserves to be recorded here.

John was a timid, self-effacing, brilliant man who was, during the eight years we spent together at Marist Brothers Kogarah from 1945-1952, always at the top of the class. Fast forward fifty years : the first-ever reunion of the “Yahoos”, the 1952 Leaving Certificate class, celebrating its Jubilee at the Rocks in Sydney in 2002. I had not seen John and many other former classmates for half a century. The reunion renewed acquaintances, “mateship” and a measure of mutual appreciation of the sexagenarians we were. With John it was the beginning of a bond that held strong for the last twelve years, until yesterday.

John and I rapidly discovered our separate and very different histories, as well as the itinerary we had in common, which ended in atheism. Before long we decided to co-author a book, which we were to entitle “From Illusions to Illumination. The Itineraries of a Scientist and a Priest from Catholicism to Atheism”. Faithful readers of this Blog will recognize a certain similarity with the title of the book I later published solo. The lady who had edited one of Richard Dawkins’ books told us that our joint-venture was not publishable. “Le style c’est l’homme”, and the cohabitation of ours within the same covers did not work. Hence the book of which this Blog is the extension.

John would not have wanted me to write a eulogy here. He asked his wife Rita not to organize even a funeral. (I have expressed my own Last Will and Testament in the book, page 95.) John Haswell was the incarnation of our title “From Illusions to Illumination”. I have lost not only a friend but an interlocutor as precious as Dr (Professor Emeritus) Ron Vernon and our esteemed engineer-legal eagle, Thom. My deep regret is that the three of them never met : all erudite gentle-men of science with remarkable talents and a tolerance totally undeserved by your bereaved blogger.



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