You may notice a big blank space after the last two posts. Dunno where the gap came from. No worries – the other 750 posts are still there. Scroll, rock and roll !
You may notice a big blank space after the last two posts. Dunno where the gap came from. No worries – the other 750 posts are still there. Scroll, rock and roll !
I’m 81, and people keep telling me I look 27. Well, more likely 75. My Dad at 59 looked older than I do at present – and no one ever tried to flatter him by saying he looked younger. But there are people out there who tell us that our planet Earth not only looks young but is. “Young Earthers” – a bunch of crazies more numerous than you might think (see Footnote) – actually claim that the Earth is a mere 6000 years old, notwithstanding the existence of ancient fossils and the consensus of the scientific community that our world is in fact 4.5 billion years old.
Such a fantasy might be dismissed as readily as that of the Flat Earth Society which is satisfied with appearances rather than evidence, except that the Young Earthers have proof ! It goes back to Archbishop James Ussher of the Church of Ireland in 1650, when he published the results of his biblical study of the age of creation, “Annals of the Old Testament”. The good Archbishop calculated that in fact the Earth was created at midday on October 23, 4004 B.C. ! Two hundred years later, in 1859, Charles Darwin in “On the Origin of Species”, offered different data but with similar exactitude : the Earth, he wrote, is 306,662,400 years old. (Bryson, who tells the story, points out that “Darwin loved an exact number. In a later work, he announced that the number of worms in an average acre of English country soil was 53,767.”). It took another century for scientists to agree, in 1953, that even Darwin was way off the mark : the definitive age of the Earth is 4,550 million years (that’s 4.5 BILLION !) (Bryson devotes several whole chapters of his “A Short History of Nearly Everything” to detailing the progress in both precision and length of time.)
Ussher would be just a quaint historical oddity, were it not for the brazen wrong-headedness of the Young Earthers and other myopic Fundamentalists. But their blindfaithblindfolly serves at least to underline what distinguishes religious credulity from atheism. Non-atheists base their faith on imagined divine revelation. We atheists base our conviction on verifiable fact, and reject religion because of its lack of scientific evidence. Anyone ready to suggest that God, 6000 years ago, created those old rocks with the fossils already in them cannot be taken seriously by sane, rational people.
Wikipedia, under “Young Earth Creationism”, states : “A 2017 Gallup creationism survey found 38% of adults in the U.S. held the view that ‘God created humans in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years, when asked for their views on the origin and development of human beings – which Gallup noted was the lowest level in 35 years’.” I guess that’s the good news : fewer people are being conned since the seventies.
In case there is someone reading this who has still not heard the one about Woody Allen and Rapid Reading : When he said he had, thanks to Rapid Reading, read Tolstoï ‘s novel in thirty minutes, and was asked what he thought of it, Woody replied : “It’s about Russia.” For the rest of my readers, let me begin by saying that this post is not (about Russia).
I have just finished reading Ken Follett’s 900-page “Fall of Giants”. It took me a little longer than half an hour. It is, as one of its heroes, Welsh sergeant Billy Twice (his name was William Williams) would have said, “a bloody good read”. To quote Mr Allen – who never said it – it’s about the First World War. Right now I am not only impressed by the literary talent, historical erudition and creative originality of the author. I am staggering from being immersed over this last week in the absurdity and horror of war – and the fragility of the short-lived peace that followed the disastrous Treaty of Versailles in 1918, exactly one hundred years ago.
No one alive today ever experienced the hostilities or the suffering of the tens of millions of that war’s victims. And the rare surviving veterans of the Second World War that was its sequel, its second chapter, are all in their nineties. The rest of us have seen, however, a slew of Hollywood movies about both wars, as well as filmed coverage of real battles and their aftermath, their multitudinous casualties and the devastating material destruction they wrought. We have seen war in the comfort of our living rooms. Most of us have managed to escape participating in the many other wars that have continued to happen since 1945 and to enjoy seven decades of “peace”.
Everything worth saying about war and peace has already been said, and though much of it deserves to be repeated and never forgotten, I will content myself here with a single reflection, in keeping with the objective of this Blog.
“Gott mit uns”, “God is with us”, “God is on our side” : wars’ most ludicrous lies (“There are no atheists in fox-holes” is not far behind). This year’s centenary commemorations of the Armistice of 1918, like the annual versions of that event and the many others dedicated to victims of the multiple wars that followed it – “lest we forget” – will honor the dead with another lie, when participants pray that they may “rest in heavenly peace” and that we ourselves may enjoy “peace on earth”. Mouthing such nonsense may continue to bring solace and hope to some. But surely the absurdity of war is enough, without adding that of addressing a deity totally indifferent to our fratricide, for the simple reason that S/He/It does not exist, any more than the peace promised in an imaginary after-life, or the one so difficult for us to achieve and maintain here and now.
This has always been the challenge for Catholic apologetics. The reasons for its success are – or used to be – legion. Foremost, of course, was ignorance (in both senses of the word) of scientific and historical fact. A close second was telling people what they wanted to hear, a message that gave meaning to their lives and even to their deaths. A third was the mastery of the art of communication, including perhaps the persuasiveness of preachers but certainly the power of the professional packaging which ritual gave to their message. “Propaganda” is a favorite term in the Roman Catholic vocabulary; there is even, in Rome, a “Pontifical College of Propaganda”.
Today the scam continues to work in countries and with people more credulous than others. Africa and South America will continue to provide encouraging statistics for Catholicism, but in Western countries the rot has begun to set in. The decline which would have been unbelievable in the vibrant Church of the first half of the 20th century is not only a credible possibility in the first half of the 21st, but an increasingly visible reality. John Lennon, had he lived to see it, would be singing :
“Imagine all the people, freed from their illusions . . .Imagine no blind faith, and no more blind folly !”
Imagine empty churches ? No need to imagine. They are already everywhere.
Only Shakespeare can compete with the Bible in the number of quotable, immediately recognizable, quotes used in English. Mark Twain and Oscar Wilde don’t come even close. Others – like Churchill, de Gaulle and I – have to be content with one or three at best. (My own favorite is : “I’ve always been proud of my modesty.”)
The thought behind the title’s quotation came to mind when, out of curiosity, I recently attended a Sunday Mass (a Ripley “Believe it or not ” !). I’ve visited plenty of chapels, churches and cathedrals over the years, and occasionally, as chance would have it, some religious service was being conducted, including a Mass. But this time I made a deliberate decision to join a congregation for the celebration of the Eucharist, commonly called the “Mass” – a word derived from the priest’s dismissal of the attendees at the very end of the liturgy : “Ite, missa est.” “Go, you are sent.” Go figure.
I was, of course, just an observer, not a participant let alone celebrant of the Mass. Exactly fifty years ago, 1968, I celebrated my last Mass in Paris. My first Mass, in 1961, was a concelebration with my two brothers, ordained five and ten years before me, at our home parish church of St Patrick in Kogarah, a suburb of Sydney, Australia. That somewhat spectacular Mass had, of course, a congregation which packed and in fact overflowed the church. In the early sixties, parish churches were filled several times (in large parishes sometimes up to five or six times) every Sunday. The Mass I recently attended was not a weekday Mass where congregations have always been small, even in the pious past of my youth. This was a Sunday Mass, but the church was virtually empty. I could not help thinking of a cinema, a concert hall or an auditorium where only a handful of people turn up. People vote, as we say, with their feet.
Sitting in my pew towards the back of the church, my thought was not limited to wondering what the scattered old ladies, the occasional retired gentlemen and the two young couples with children – there were no adolescents – felt about the emptiness of the vast edifice. I could not but wonder what the priest-celebrant was feeling about the paucity of participants as he came out of the sacristy, decked out in his gothic chasuble, alb and maniple (a useless bit of embroidered cloth over his left arm) and began the introductory prayers. I had done this myself every day for seven years in my twenties. Now in my eighties, I not only wonder why I did it, but especially why the poor dude up there in the sanctuary is still doing it. (What if they had a war and nobody came . . . ?)
Before he began to speak to the people (instead of to God, as he had been doing) – from the sanctuary, the pulpit having been left unused for years – I wondered what on earth he was going to say. I wondered whether he had really prepared a sermon, or was about to wing it. And, in any case, I wondered whether he could possibly say something he had not said multiple times before. Above all I wondered how long voices like his would continue to be heard in the wilderness of empty churches.
Naturally, there were no surprises. He rambled on about what the Gospel text said Jesus had said or done, and attempted to encourage the good folk to do what Jesus was said to have commanded them to do – in this case, to forgive their enemies. With all due respect to both the preacher and his passive audience, the former was not very convincing nor the latter particularly convinced. But this was the drill, and it would go on like this until there are neither priests nor congregations to go through the motions. I was sitting on the deck of the Titanic.
I did not bother to stay for the rest of the Mass. I felt pity for the priest, sadness for the blindfaithblindfolly of the tiny congregation, and . . . glad I got the hell out of the priesthood at 31 years of age, fifty years ago, and found the courage to give myself a life. God knows what I would have become had I stayed as an officer on the sinking ship that is the barque of Peter, the luxury liner “S.S. Vatican”.
Both nouns in the title are double-barreled. Viruses are both real and metaphorical. Ignorance denotes lack of knowledge as well as the decision not to pay attention, not to take someone or something into account. The little I know about physical viruses I owe largely to Bill Bryson’s “A Short History of Nearly Everything”. I know, through a life of personal study, a lot more about metaphysical viruses like the world’s religions.
2018 is an appropriate time to reflect on both types of viruses. We use the word and its derivative a little too nonchalantly when we hear at the pharmacist’s that “there is a flu virus going around” – which is intended to induce both a kind of fatalism and the avoidance of the pointless, excessive, dangerous use of antibiotics : “What you’ve got you can’t do much about. Tough it out.” And then there is the fact or fantasy or photo that has gone “viral” on Facebook – meaning it has been disseminated in quasi-real time virtually universally.
The time is ripe to talk about viruses, if only because this year we commemorate the centenary of one of history’s most lethal viral epidemics, that of the Great Spanish Flu of 1918, originally a non-lethal swine flu that mutated into the catastrophe that claimed as many lives as the Great War that had just ended – at least 20 million. That killer virus came and went … into hiding (somewhat like a not-yet-martyr terrorist); both can emerge to strike again at any time. Other viruses since 1918, among the 5000 we know, continue to claim millions of lives : rabies, yellow fever, ebola, polio and AIDS. “Smallpox alone”, wrote Bryson, “in the twentieth century killed an estimated 300 million people.” Fortunately for all of us, after destroying countless lives for 3000 years, it was declared eradicated in 1979.
The 20th century also gave us a virus of a different kind, but one potentially just as, if not more, dangerous : a new version of religious fanaticism we call Islamic Terrorism. Already it has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, including those of its principal victims, Muslim co-religionists. And like Ebola, AIDS and even Spanish Flu, it is ready to come out of hiding at any time, leaving pools of innocent victims’ blood and sowing the fear that is intended to terrify us all into . . . submission.
We have no choice but to continue to search for remedies for both physical and spiritual viruses, and to invest whatever it takes to eliminate, or at least limit, the death and disaster they wreak. This Blog is my way of contributing to the elimination of religious illusion, the source of murderous fanaticism. Not much maybe, but I feel it is my duty. People familiar with my personal history know why.
He was one of 20,000 radicalized Islamic potential terrorists alive and well and living in France. Two days ago, Friday March 23, 2018, in Carcassonne and a nearby town, he went on a suicidal rampage of murder and mayhem, leaving four dead (including a heroic gendarme who volunteered to replace a hostage) and fifteen wounded, and a whole country reminded – five months after the last attack – that Daech is still capable of activating its sleeper-militant would-be martyrs to kill you and me anytime and anywhere they like. The murders in the supermarket were just a reminder – lest we forget . . .
The madness – there is no way such attacks will frighten us into converting to radical Islam – should remind us also of a fact we forget. This French-Marocan vicious fanatic believed he was doing God’s work for the same reasons some of you reading this believe and practise your religious faith. His conviction was based, like yours, on sacred books supposedly divinely inspired, and on centuries of fervent tradition, like yours. Yours, of course, cannot be compared with his. Are you sure ? What makes yours authentic and his delusional ? You have just as little reason to believe in your religion as he in his. Had you been born in Marocco, you would very probably have shared his faith – and possibly his fanaticism. You continue to think we are the good guys and they are the baddies. If I were still a Catholic, Islamic terrorism would long ago have made me question all religious credulity and do whatever I could to contain its translation into terror.
The molecules of this Remarkably Intelligent Professor, born of star-dust, are now available to the world at large, as were his genius and exemplary courage throughout his life.
I suspect that most atheists do not realize how fortunate we all are to have lived at a time when atheism has found spokesmen as admirable and as articulate as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Krauss, Harris and Dennett. Hitch, whose devastating, off-the-cuff repartee made him the Wunderkind of the circuit stage and video screen, overshadowed Dawkins perhaps as a performer. But Dawkins is not only a brilliant scientist but also a first-rate speaker, with a remarkable record of quotable quotes to his credit, as well as a number of notable notches on his shotgun, marking his memorable oratorical, scientific and philosophical victories in duels with opponents claiming the title of “Defensor Fidei” from George Pell to Wendy Wright.
A Dawkins “must-see” is his hour-long YouTube video, “The God Delusion”, which is not at all a rehash of his book but a hard-hitting attack on the three monotheisms. Here’s a sample :
Richard Dawkins, still with us, is a pearl of great price (I am not referring to his well-deserved honoraria). His books, his interviews, his lectures have marked him as the most effective “Destructor Fidei” of our life-times.
For once, Trump got it right. Of course, he was talking about CNN, but Hell really is fake. At least the one that apostates like me are told will be our eternal torture-chamber. But though both an everlasting Heaven and Hell are pious fictions, Hell really does exist – in Syria. It has something in common, besides fire and brimstone, with the Gehenna of the Bible. Both are the creations of Religion. If Sunnis and Shiites could agree to live in peaceful cohabitation, at least one of the Hells on earth would no longer exist.