About That “House” Banner

You may recall that I sent mail to the church in Ireland that put up the banner shown here, and caused a fair amount of consternation. Today, I got the following reply:

Hi Andrew,

Thanks for taking the time to notice the sign and sorry I didn’t get back to you sooner as we received your mail during the week of prayer. I was surprised how fast the poster circulated on the net as we hadn’t put it on the web. This poster generated some discussion with strong views on both sides – Most really liked it as it generated discussion if read with the irony that was intended – others did not as they hold that is stating that there is no rational people in the Church – It is just one of a series of posters that was used to advertise a week of prayer in the parish between the 15th – 21st Oct and the intention was not to offend but to at least generate a discussion that would encourage people to come and find out for themselves!

I can assure you that the person who designed the poster was familiar with both the character, the series and also the sentiments that the character attached to the quote. Some who commented went as far to say that it “
was serving to make a mockery of the Christian faith”
as unfortunately the sentiment that is behind the quote is a real view that some people have of the Church and “religious” people. I do understand the characters beliefs although I would think that most that hold this view seem to do so without actual experience of
a faith community.

So the poster was an invitation to people to come and see for yourself if this is the case, a point that was not been lost on a number of others who commented on it.

Thanks again for your comments and the week of prayer was a terrific success, and a real experience of community, with a number of people (of all ages) coming along for the first time. Maybe the poster prompted a few to come along that may have never thought of coming?

Kind regards and God Bless

Frank Brown

So meh, decent idea, poor execution. Maybe the problem is that for a concept like this to work, the message should either explicitly say something like “Is this true? Come to our event and find out!”, or else it should be clearly wrong, like Thomas Friedman’s book The World Is Flat: clearly he doesn’t mean that the planet Earth is pizza-shaped, so you have to read the book to find out what he means.

But in this case, the idea that people are religious for irrational reasons is not only plausible, it has been propounded by Christians like Ray Comfort (granted, not the best proponent of any idea, but still). So I’m putting this under “decent idea, poor execution”.

I Send Email

You may have seen this image floating around the web (also at Chez Hemant):

In case you don’t recognize the reference, it’s a photo of Hugh Laurie as Dr. Greg House, saying “Rational arguments don’t usually work on religious people. Otherwise there would be no religious people.” For those who don’t know, House is not only an atheist, he’s also not shy about slamming religion, and never allows theists to get away with saying something stupid. I mention this in case someone thought maybe after the quote above, he went on to say something about the necessity of believing in transcendent spirituality because it’s psychologically true or some such nonsense. He didn’t. He wouldn’t.

So I don’t know what this church was thinking when it put up this banner. But I figure that the best way to find out would be to ask them. So I found a contact address on their web page and sent them mail:

Dear sir or madam,

There is a photo circulating on the Internet, purporting to show a banner outside Rathmine’s Parish, quoting the character House, from the TV show of the same name, saying “Rational arguments don’t usually work on religious people. Otherwise there would be no religious people.” See http://twitter.com/#!/bdbdbdbd/status/124582300972351488

First of all, may I ask whether this is correct? I have no reason to believe that the photo has been edited, but it can’t hurt to ask.

Secondly, if the photo is accurate, then I admit I am as puzzled as the person who posted it to Twitter. It seems to say that there are no good rational arguments for religious claims, and indeed that rational arguments point toward the falsehood of religious claims. Certainly that is what the character meant in the show.

So may I ask why Rathmine’s Parish would display this? Is there some secondary meaning I’m not seeing?

Thank you,

We’ll see what kind of response I get, if any. It’s been two days, and so far I haven’t heard back.

Update, Oct. 28, 2011: I’ve heard back.

Hemorrhaging Catholics in Brazil

The AP reports:

At the start of the last decade, millions of Brazilian Catholics joined flashy Pentecostal congregations expanding in the world’s biggest Catholic country. Now, Brazil’s Getulio Vargas Foundation finds, the country’s Catholics are still leaving the church and at a higher rate than ever, but many younger parishioners, like Maragato, are simply becoming nonreligious.

Color me surprised. I knew (and the article confirms) that Latin America is considered a Catholic stronghold, one of the last places where you’d expect religion, especially Catholicism, to decline. Heck, even in the US, it appears that one reason religion hasn’t declined more precipitously than it has is that it’s being propped up by immigrants from the south. But according to the article, a study has found that 68% of Brazilians were Catholic last year, compared to 90% thirty years ago.

The article suggests several reasons for this decline, including a burgeoning middle class, which certainly goes well with the common notion that as the more well-off people are, the less they need to turn to religion.

This is also in part a self-inflicted wound:

Marcelo Neri, the author of the study, also said he thinks the Catholic decline was sparked by a “female revolution.”

The foundation study discovered that Catholic women, instead of giving up entirely on religion, are largely going to traditional Protestant denominations such as the Presbyterians or Methodists, which are viewed by many as less patriarchal.

This is the point, I think, at which any decent consultant would say that the franchise needs a reboot to remain relevant for modern audiences. Make Jesus a woman, or change the setting from Jerusalem 2000 years ago, to Sao Paulo in 2010. Maybe add a shootout at the last supper. Add corporate sponsorship and tie-ins; instead of bread and wine, have priests turn Big Macs and Coke into Jesus’ flesh and blood. Don’t worry about continuity: the fans will retcon it easily enough.

But of course the Catholic church is nothing if not reactionary. Change of any kind terrifies them. And so they’ll continue to lose the younger generation, the one that lives in this century instead of the fourteenth.

For lifelong Catholic Leila Ribeiro, the church’s misfortunes mark a break from generations of church tradition.

“I was brought up with the notion that religion is passed from mother to child, but I fear for what will happen to the church in his generation,” she said, looking toward her son. “If the Catholic faith isn’t spread within the family, how will it grow?”

Well, they could provide some evidence that their claims of magic people, of a candyland in the sky, and so on, are actually, you know, true. But they’ve been trying that for 2000 years now without success, so I wouldn’t bet on it happening any time soon.

Update, 12:49: More support for the “self-inflicted wound” hypothesis, courtesy of the Washington Post. Not in Brazil this time, but in the US:

New research by the Barna Group finds they view churches as judgmental, overprotective, exclusive and unfriendly towards doubters. They also consider congregations antagonistic to science and say their Christian experience has been shallow.

“Churches are not prepared to handle the ‘new normal,’” said Kinnaman. “However, the world for young adults is changing in significant ways, such as their remarkable access to the world and worldviews via technology, their alienation from various institutions, and their skepticism toward external sources of authority, including Christianity and the Bible.”

Remaining Relevant FAIL

The AP reports:

NEW YORK (AP) — Citing a shortage of priests who can perform the rite, the nation’s Roman Catholic bishops are holding a conference on how to conduct exorcisms.

Organizers of the [two-day training] are keenly aware of the ridicule that can accompany discussion of the subject. Exorcists in U.S. dioceses keep a very low profile. In 1999, the church updated the Rite of Exorcism, cautioning that “all must be done to avoid the perception that exorcism is magic or superstition.

Yes, that’s like Coca-Cola spending millions on advertising to avoid the perception that Coke is just fizzy brown sugar water.

Signs of demonic possession accepted by the church include violent reaction to holy water or anything holy, speaking in a language the possessed person doesn’t know and abnormal displays of strength.

Speaking an unknown language? Like speaking in tongues? Of course, that’s mostly a Protestant thing, so no wonder the Catholics think it’s a sign of demonic possession.

As for displays of strength, should I have a priest on hand at my next Festivus party?

I was going to suggest that they could win James Randi’s prize by demonstrating that demonic possession is a real phenomenon, but they’re the Catholic Church. What do they need yet another million bucks for?

The full exorcism is held in private and includes sprinkling holy water, reciting Psalms, reading aloud from the Gospel, laying on of hands and reciting the Lord’s Prayer. Some adaptations are allowed for different circumstances. The exorcist can invoke the Holy Spirit then blow in the face of the possessed person, trace the sign of the cross on the person’s forehead and command the devil to leave.

Yes, I’m so glad this isn’t magic or superstition.

Casual Superstition

This news item caught my eye because it’s a “news of the weird” type of story:

NEW YORK — A New York City man who plunged 40 stories from the rooftop of an apartment building has survived after crashing onto a parked car.

But then there was this bit:

The car’s owner, Guy McCormack, of Old Bridge, N.J., told the Daily News he’s convinced that rosary beads he kept inside the Dodge saved Magill’s life.

Can we please stop lending credibility to such obvious superstitious nonsense by repeating it uncritically?

If the car’s owner had attributed the man’s survival to a statuette of Ganesh on his dash, or a voodoo amulet, or a lucky Mickey Mantle rookie card, would it be taken as seriously? If not, then why are magic beads more plausible?

ObPunchline: You’re a mean drunk, Superman.

Hope for the Catholic Church After All?

So, yet another priest in the Boston area has been accused of child abuse.

So far, it’s bad, but nothing you haven’t heard before.

What surprised me, though, was this bit from Fox’s coverage:

“The Archdiocese immediately notified law enforcement of the allegations and has initiated a preliminary investigation into the complaints,” Cardinal Sean O’Malley said in a statement released over the weekend.

(emphasis added).

Could it be that — mirabile dictu — they’ve figured out that covering up crimes so as to not make the church look bad might not be the best course of action?

Or am I being a naive optimist?

I notice that BillDo hasn’t leapt to the priest’s defense yet. I’m guessing he’s too busy badgering the owners of the Empire State Building to honor Mother “No painkillers for you!” Teresa in lights.

Nun Excommunicated Over Abortion

The Arizona Republic is reporting that a nun at a Catholic hospital was disciplined and excommunicated for allowing an abortion that saved a woman’s life:

A Catholic nun and longtime administrator of St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix was reassigned in the wake of a decision to allow a pregnancy to be ended in order to save the life of a critically ill patient.

The decision also drew a sharp rebuke from Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted, head of the Phoenix Diocese, who indicated the woman was “automatically excommunicated” because of the action.

The article goes on to say that “The patient had a rare and often fatal condition in which a pregnancy can cause the death of the mother”, and that pulmonary hypertension was involved.

“In this tragic case, the treatment necessary to save the mother’s life required the termination of an 11-week pregnancy,” [hospital vice president Suzanne] Pfister said.

So. Fetus poses a clear and present danger to the life of the mother. First trimester of pregnancy, so the fetus isn’t viable outside the womb. Throw in some rape or incest (which may conceivably have occurred, but the patient’s identity hasn’t been released, for privacy reasons) and you’ve got the textbook description of a justifiable abortion, it would seem.

But still, the Catholic church — run by a bunch of people who’ll never never be put in this predicament themselves, what with not having a uterus — prefers to dogmatically maintain that abortion isn’t acceptable, even under these circumstances, not even as a regrettable but necessary evil.

The article doesn’t say what this policy is based on, save that the fetus is “a human life”. But given the Catholic church’s history of encouraging and abetting the termination of human lives — Saracens, Jews, heretics, Protestants, etc. — there’s got to be more to it than that. Unfortunately, I suspect that the “more to it” is “a bunch of our ivory-tower mental masturbators derived it from our magic book.”

I also can’t help noting some sexism: for decades, men in the organization rape and abuse children, and they get a slap on the wrist before being shuffled off to another parish to avoid embarrassing the church. But now a woman authorizes an abortion — due to, I assume, compassion for the mother — and is immediately reprimanded and kicked out of the club. Would you like to super-size your standard and make it a double?

I remember reading an article about attitudes toward gays in the Catholic church. The investigator found that policymakers in the upper echelons were a lot harsher on teh gays than were priests who dealt with gays in their parishes and heard their confessions. It’s easier to condemn someone when you never have to meet them.

I suspect that something like this happened here. McBride, the nun who was disciplined, made her decision in large part out of compassion for the patient. The bishop who excommunicated her never had to meet the patient beforehand.

If my suspicion is true, then that means that the morality formulated by the higher-ups may look good on paper, but were the rubber meets the road, the rank and file don’t abide by it. That’s a sign of an impractical morality in bad need of a reality check. Unfortunately, if the Catholic church had any interest in reality, they wouldn’t believe in gods and miracles.

Update, Mon May 17 14:10:29 2010: Fixed a missing in a sentence.

The Essence of Crackers

For some reason, I’ve been thinking recently about the eucharist. Specifically, how a piece of flavorless bread can be transformed into a piece of Jesus while still looking and tasting like a flavorless piece of bread. I’d like to think that this is because I try to be fair to theists, but it might also be that I have too much free time.

The best analogy I could come up with was when I bought my house: you could have watched it the whole time I was at the signing ceremony, with electron microscopes and whatnot, and you wouldn’t have seen the moment when “some guy’s house” became “my house”.

What happened, of course, is that by virtue of me signing the paperwork, the rules for interacting with that house changed. The seller and I — and the rest of society — have agreed that once the paperwork is signed, I am allowed to come and go as I please, knock down walls, and take furnishings out to the dump, things that would have been considered breaking and entering, vandalism, and theft before the signature.

It seemed reasonable to conclude that something similar goes on at mass: once the bread has been blessed by the priest, the rules for interacting with it change. By mutual agreement, the congregation treats the wafers like Jesus Pieces.

Then I realized that that’s just a long-winded way of saying that it’s symbolic, and all the Catholics who raised a fuss over Crackergate were quite adamant that that wasn’t the case.

Here’s what the Catholic Encyclopedia has to say (or at least part of it, since the Catholic Encyclopedia can never give a plain and simple answer to anything):

The study of the first problem, viz. whether or not the accidents of bread and wine continue their existence without their proper substance, must be based upon the clearly established truth of Transubstantiation, in consequence of which the entire substance of the bread and the entire substance of the wine are converted respectively into the Body and Blood of Christ in such a way that “only the appearances of bread and wine remain” (Council of Trent, Sess. XIII, can. ii: manentibus dumtaxat speciebus panis et vini).

As I understand it, this means that everything has an essence that makes it what it is. A dog remains a dog even if it loses a leg; an albino ape is still an ape; if you break the arm off of a statue, it remains a statue. What happens at mass is the reverse: instead of the thing changing and the essence remaining the same, the thing remains the same, but its essence, its what-it-is-ness, changes.

Which is all well and good, except that it’s also bullshit.

If you keep breaking pieces off of a marble statue, at some point it stops being a statue and becomes gravel. If you keep changing pieces in a Lego house, it can become a Lego spaceship. If you eat a hunk of cow muscle, its atoms get rearranged and become human liver and bone, as well as a pile of feces. Which brings us neatly back to theology.

The notion that a communion wafer has an essential what-it-is-ness separate from the atoms that constitute it and the way they’re arranged is of a piece with belief in souls that survive the death of the body, and the “it’s still just a fruit fly” argument against evolution. It may look on the surface as though things have a magical essence, but that’s an illusion. Just because we see it, doesn’t mean it’s there. In fact, our economy is based in large part on the notion that things can change from one thing to another — that pile of rocks can become a pile of iron which can become a Ford Taurus; that a fistful of acorns can become a dining table.

The closest thing I can think of to essentialism that isn’t bullshit is intellectual property law. If I draw a cartoon mouse with a round head and round ears, the Disney Corporation will be able to successfully argue in court that I’ve infringed on their copyrighted image of Mickey Mouse®. In effect, they’ll argue that the essence of my picture is something that belongs to them. But even there, if I make enough changes, my picture will stop being Mickey Mouse.

I haven’t looked into it, but I imagine that while essentialism is an illusion, it’s a practical one. It’s useful to put men with beards in the same mental category as men in general, and to think that if a person loses a leg they don’t automatically stop being a person. So it’s a useful heuristic (a heuristic being defined as a rule that gives you something close to the right answer most of the time, but much more quickly that solving the problem properly).

Wafer-to-Jesus transformation clearly falls outside of the realm where the illusion of essence is useful or true. It’s time for theologians to stop twisting themselves into pretzels to pretend that it has any correspondence to reality.

Update, May 5, 2010: Inserted a missing “instead”. Oops.

Pope Calls for Penance

Hermes: What do we do when we break somebody’s window?
Dwight: Pay for it?
Hermes: Heavens, no! We apologize! With nice, cheap words.

Futurama, The Route of All Evil

The pope said today that the Catholic church must “do penance” for its history of covering up child abuse. Reuters quotes him as saying,

“Now, under attack from the world which talks to us of our sins, we can see that being able to do penance is a grace and we see how necessary it is to do penance and thus recognize what is wrong in our lives,”


“opening oneself up to forgiveness, preparing oneself for forgiveness, allowing oneself to be transformed”

This is all very well and good and seems to be a step forward, but I see no mention of actually doing anything useful. It looks as though Benny hopes to put the abuse coverup scandal behind him with “nice, cheap words”.

BillDo Doth Protest

Back on February 23, 1997, the Hartford Courant published an article about Father Maciel, accused of abusing nine children:

The men, in interviews in the United States and Mexico, said the Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, molested them in Spain and Italy during the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s. Several said Maciel told them he had permission from Pope Pius XII to seek them out sexually for relief of physical pain.

(Emphasis added.)

Bill Donohue wrote a letter to the Courant, saying

To think any priest would tell some other priest that the pope gave him the thumbs up to have sex with another priest–all for the purpose of relieving the poor fellow of some malady–is the kind of balderdash that wouldn’t convince the most unscrupulous editor at any of the weekly tabloids. It is a wonder why The Courant found merit enough to print it.”

(I haven’t been able to find this letter in the Courant. The quoted part above comes from BillDo’s article published on Monday.)

As I understand BillDo’s argument, he’s saying “It’s ridiculous to think a priest (including the pope) would give another priest permission to molest boys. Therefore, it didn’t happen. The people who said that Maciel told them that are lying or mistaken, and Father Maciel is innocent.”

At least, that’s all I can make of it. What’s odd is that BillDo is quoting this in a post entitled “DONOHUE NEVER DEFENDED Fr. MACIEL” (shouty title in the original, as befits his character).

Anyone who’s familiar with BillDo knows that he reflexively leaps to defend the Catholic church against any slight, perceived or real. So all I can figure is that he’s now trying to distance himself from his earlier words through Clintonian parsing (“it depends what the meaning of defend is”).