God and the Pope under attack (P1)

THAT CERTAINLY IS AN ATTENTION-GRABBING headline that, some critics say, is this newspaper’s flavor. But I assure you, it’s accurate. And it is certainly news in a country where Masses are held even in malls, where prelates pontificate on politics, and where a jogging cleric’s rants are news sound bites.

The 21st century is seeing the most intense attacks on belief in God in general and the Roman Catholic Church in particular. The siege is both on the intellectual level, the subject of the first part of this column, and on the cultural and institutional level, next week’s topic.

In high school, practically the only intellectually rigorous argument against the existence of God was Bertrand Russell’s essay, “Why I Am Not a Christian” (published 1967), which during those times you couldn’t even find in local bookstores.

Not anymore, the first decade of the century has seen a slew of books by the planet’s most respected intellectuals debunking religion, and arguing that God is simply in the genre of Santa Claus, Zeus, or the sky-god Bathala—fairy tales necessary in humanity’s infantile phase, but now unnecessary. Not only that, these have become bestsellers, so widely in demand that they are mostly now in paperback, a sure sign that a lot of people have read them and a lot more are likely to buy the cheaper edition.

UCLA neuroscientist Sam Harris probably ignited current interest with his short “The End of Faith” (2004). It argued that the rejection of reason, which is what religious faith is, has led to humanity’s monstrosities—from the brutal wars waged by the tribes of Israel to the medieval crusades to the latest jihadist car bomber. Even the Holocaust is said to have been justified by the anti-Semitism that the Good Book bred when one Gospel blamed the Jewish mob, not the Romans, for the Messiah’s crucifixion.

Several top-caliber intellectuals and scientists stepped out of their specialized fields to write books debunking religion, among them, particle physicist Victor Stenger (“God: The Failed Hypothesis. How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist”), biologist and consciousness-research pioneer Daniel Dennet (“Religion: Breaking the Spell”); Oxford University evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins (“The God Delusion”); and respected intellectual and journalist Christopher Hitchens “God is Not Great.”

One of the memorable trivia (at least for me) in Dawkins’ book was his ridicule of the pantheon of Catholic saints: “The Catholic Community Forum helpfully lists 5,120 saints, together with their areas of expertise, which include abdominal pains… anorexia… bowel disorders. ” (Fortunately, the Filipino faithful now has its patron saint, St. Lorenzo Ruiz, martyred in Japan in 1637, the sole Filipino saint after five centuries of Christianity, and for a country with the planet’s fourth biggest Catholic population.)

On the other hand, many of Hitchens’ points stupefy this Jesuit-educated columnist. Example: If the Ten Commandments were the word of God, how come it didn’t prohibit slavery and rape, among the heinous crimes all humanity abhors? His answer: The Commandments were simply a tribal code—as all tribes have in one form of another. Slavery and rape were acceptable 4,000 years ago, if inflicted on a conquered tribe.

There have been, of course, a slew of counter-attacks against the atheist books by scholars of Dawkins’ or Dennet’s caliber, notably from University of Cambridge professor of mathematical physics and former priest John Polkinghorne (“Quantum Physics and Theology: An Unexpected Kinship”), former nun and professor of religion Karen Armstrong (“The Case for God”), and perhaps one of the most respected philosophers of the past century, Anthony Flew (“There is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind”).

These, however, actually would give little comfort to Catholics. For instance, it turns out that Flew’s “conversion” means he still does not believe in “the Gods of the Christian and the Islamic Revelations,” but rather in “the God of Aristotle or Spinoza.” That’s an abstract god; you might as well believe in Yoda’s “The Force.”

The rise of atheism and agnosticism do not seem to be a fashion, but the result of the triumph of science starting in the past century as the only tool to attain objective truth. Even 200 years ago, the story of Adam and Eve would have been so easy to believe. Impossible now after Darwin and the reality—not theory—of evolution by natural selection. Science, with mathematical elegance and rigor, is going to the very depths of reality (super-string theories) and to the start of time (the Big Bang). There is no need for the childish creation myths of religion.

And I do not mean only natural sciences. Without the development for instance of anthropology and linguistics, the following claims could never have been brought up:

  • That the word “virgin”, as in Jesus borne out of a virgin, is a mis-translation from the Hebrew almah of the Old Testament which only means “young woman.” And after all, virgin births are almost always a feature of ancient Mediterranean religions, from the Egyptian god Horus to Greek heroes to even the Roman Emperor Augustus. (Cf., James Still, “The Virgin Birth and the Childhood Mysteries of Jesus.”)
  • That “virgin” as in the dozens of “virgins” that a jihadist martyr would purportedly enjoy in the afterlife as his reward is a mis-translation from a word in Syriac (a language other than Arabic used in the Koran) that means “white raisins.” (Cf., Ibn Warraq, “Virgins, What Virgins?”).

(Next week: The cultural and institutional siege against the Church)

From the Philippine Daily Inquirer