Via Dynamics of Cats, the Guardian reports that Pope Benedict is apparently preparing to give official support to creationism in the form of Intelligent Design. Of course this is not exactly the first time the Catholic church has taken an adversarial stance towards science, but it’s a big step backward since John Paul II had effectively accepted evolution. As I’ve noted before, the current pope approves of the way the church treated Galileo, so this development probably shouldn’t be too surprising.
This will make it that much harder to teach evolution in countries where the Catholic church is influential. (In case you missed it, there was disturbing survey data a few weeks ago showing the support for creationism across developed countries, with the U.S. being particularly bad.)
We’ve probably had enough discussion of the problem of evil on this blog, but I can’t help pointing out it’s appearance in the news. Apparently one world leader, upon visiting Auschwitz, had the following reaction:
“In a place like this, words fail. In the end, there can only be a dread silence, a silence which is a heartfelt cry to God — Why, Lord, did you remain silent? How could you tolerate all this?
“Where was God in those days? Why was he silent? How could he permit this endless slaughter, this triumph of evil?”
Indeed, these are questions any religious skeptic might ask, but it’s surprising to hear them from Pope Benedict. It seems like the sort of thing a guy in his position should have the answer to. (Via Majikthise.)
In a slightly parallel story, Mark at Cosmic Variance watches as Billy Graham comes very close to endorsing a skeptical outlook on religious claims. I must say this is a promising trend among major religious figures toward inquiry and empiricism, but somehow I don’t see it lasting very long.
I had a bit of writer’s block with regard to the blog the last few days, so it’s been quiet. But when I need inspiration, I can always turn to Jesus—or rather, writing inflammatory posts about Jesus. Specifically: everyone seems to be talking about this Gospel of Judas that has been discovered, and is now being promoted by National Geographic. This is of course not something that has much relevance to me personally, but it’s interesting to see some of the reactions.
Consider, for instance, this post by conservative blogger Stephen Bainbridge:
If you don’t read the news accounts relating to the much ballyhooed Gospel of Judas carefully, you might come away with the impression that it is a legitimate alternative to orthodox Christian theology. Indeed, National Geographic is essentially billing it as such. In fact, however, what we know about the document suggests that it is yet another example of the Gnostic heresy.
The Gnostic heresy! Sounds pretty sinister. But if Bainbridge is worried about mainstream publications promoting heretical ideas, there is a much larger example of this that someone should bring to his attention. After all, Protestantism is chock-full of doctrine declared heretical by the Catholic church, and it gets a lot more media attention than Gnosticism.
But it’s easy to see why Gnosticism is actually a more dangerous heresy than anything Martin Luther came up with. After all, Protestants may differ from Catholics on certain bureaucratic issues and arcana like transubstantiation, but they still use basically the same Bible and interpret it the same way. On the other hand, Gnosticism is a radically different interpretation of Christianity that actually makes a lot more sense. Well, that’s not really true: there were lots of variants of Gnosticism in the ancient world and the various corresponding doctrines are mostly impenetrable. However, one of the general themes is that the world we live in is a flawed world created by an evil god, referred to as the demiurge. So already they’ve addressed the problem of evil. But in a stroke of brilliance, at least one Gnostic variant associates the demiurge with the god of the Old Testament, and has the god of the New Testament as a different god who will save humanity from the flawed world.
This neatly solves a big literary problem in the Bible where the god of the Old Testament has a vastly different character from the god of the New Testament (as well as changing his mind on a number of issues, which is an odd thing for an omniscient eternal being to do). Until Jesus comes along he’s all about the smiting and the plagues and the wars, and afterwards he’s suddenly a god of love and salvation and forgiveness. (Ok, and the lake of fire for nonbelievers, so some things haven’t changed.) The Gnostic interpretation makes the New Testament god more plausible by disassociating him with the Old Testament, correctly judges the Old Testament god to be evil, allows one to throw out all the silly tribal laws associated with the evil god, and explains the problem of evil. If I were a Christian I’d convert to this instantly.
So one can understand why the church would worry about this. On the other hand, just because some interpretation of the Bible is more plausible doesn’t mean it’ll catch on. After all, my preferred interpretation is more plausible yet than the version above, but somehow the notion that it’s all a bunch of made-up stories doesn’t seem to be very popular in this country.
The Catholicism Cafeteria is getting so popular that even Protestants are dining there. Or not dining, rather: as this Slate piece explains, some Protestant churches are taking up fasting for Lent and other traditionally Catholic rituals of the season.
Over the last few years, more Protestant churches have begun daubing ashes on the foreheads of the faithful on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent in Western Christianity (March 1 this year). Fasting, long familiar to Catholics as a Lenten fact of life, is increasingly popular with evangelical Christians striving for spiritual awakening. A few mainline Protestant churches even conduct foot-washing services on Maundy Thursday—the traditional commemoration of Jesus’ washing the feet of his disciples—that takes place on the Thursday before Easter.
It seems sort of silly at first glance—wasn’t the whole point of the Reformation to get rid of all the arbitrary rules and rituals?—but thinking about it, it makes some sense. Most major religions have an element of asceticism, clearly people find it spiritually appealing, so it’s not surprising that fasting would cross denominational lines. Fasting for Lent has the advantage of being a particularly temporary and limited form of asceticism, so it’s not too much of a sacrifice to adopt.
More interesting was the statistic that one-third of believers change churches at least once in their lifetimes. This number is almost certainly much higher than it once was, as historically people have tended to remain in the sect they were born into. One might expect churches to become more market-driven under these circumstances, and then mixing and matching of rituals like this is a natural consequence. (I suspect one can also attribute the rise of megachurches to the increasing importance of market forces in religion, sort of a Wal-Martization of churches. Or is the Catholic Church the Wal-Mart of churches?)
One more thing—John Calvin deserves some kind of unintentional irony award for this:
In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin criticized Lent as a “superstitious observance.”
Right. As opposed to the empirical science that is Calvinism.
I tend to have pretty harsh words for the Catholic Church, but this deserves applause: Bishops in Britain are actively trying to discourage literal readings of the Bible. Via Pharyngula:
Catholic Church no longer swears by truth of the Bible
THE hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church has published a teaching document instructing the faithful that some parts of the Bible are not actually true.
The Catholic bishops of England, Wales and Scotland are warning their five million worshippers, as well as any others drawn to the study of scripture, that they should not expect “total accuracy” from the Bible.
“We should not expect to find in Scripture full scientific accuracy or complete historical precision,” they say in The Gift of Scripture.
Excellent. Hey, can we get that printed as a warning label on Bibles, like the ones the creationists try to put on biology textbooks?
Oh, this is so lame. The producers of the Da Vinci Code movie don’t want to upset anybody:
Studio officials have consulted with Catholic and other Christian specialists on how they might alter the plot of the novel to avoid offending the devout. In doing so, the studio has been asked to consider such measures as making the central premise – that Jesus had a child with Mary Magdalene – more ambiguous, and removing the name of Opus Dei.
“The question I was asked was, ‘Can you give them some things they can do to change it, to make it not offensive to the Christian audience?’ ” said Barbara Nicolosi, executive director of Act One, an organization that coaches Christians on making it in Hollywood. She said she was approached by Jonathan Bock, a marketing expert hired by Sony for his knowledge of Christian sensibilities, and included in the discussions Amy Welborn, who has published a refutation of “The Da Vinci Code” titled “De-Coding Da Vinci.”
“We came up with three things,” Nicolosi said: the more ambiguous approach to the central premise, the removal of Opus Dei and amending errors in the book’s description of religious elements in art.
What, exactly, do the studio officials think is the source of the book’s popularity? It certainly wasn’t the writing; it was the controversy and the twist on church doctrine. The people who were going to be offended aren’t going to see it anyway, and the people who might actually be interested will be turned off by the “ambiguous” version. And who are these Christians who are so sensitive as to get worked up over this? It’s a bad sign if you think that the plausibility of your dogma can be undermined by a Tom Hanks film.
Fortunately, most the of the Christians I know personally are unperturbed by such things, but sadly there’s a long tradition of this kind of overreaction in Christianity. This goes back through the church’s list of banned books and persecution of heretics, all the way to the founder himself:
Wherefore I say unto you, All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men: but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men. (Mt. 12:31)
So Jesus is only encouraging this sort of thing. Why couldn’t he instead have said “Lighten up, it’s only a movie”?