The Sciences

Moral Authority

Cosmic VarianceBy Sean CarrollNov 13, 2008 8:29 PM


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The first things we noticed, as we climbed into the back seat of the taxi, were the books. A tiny six-volume library, tucked between the driver's and passenger's front seats -- just a bit of reading material offered to customers who would rather read through a silent journey than chit-chat with the driver. Interesting books, too: I noticed Natalie Angier's Woman: An Intimate Geography, as well as Ambrose Bierce's The Devil's Dictionary. None of the American taxis I had ever been in had sported anything more literary than glossy magazines packed with ads. We had just landed in Ireland, and despite the literary offerings, the taxi driver had no intention of letting the ride pass in silence. He inquired what had brought us on the long trip from Los Angeles, and I explained that I was participating in a debate at the Literary and Historical Society of University College, Dublin. That was a mistake, as I should have seen the next question coming: What was the debate about? Well, it was going to be about the existence of God; the L&HS revisits the topic every year, and I was one of a handful of visitors they were bringing in this time to defend either side of the question. And which side was I on? Trapped, I confessed that I was on the "does not exist" side. It's not a discussion I like to force on people, but he did ask. Our taxi driver took a moment to reflect on this information. Then he came back with: Well, you know Ireland has traditionally been one of the most religious countries in Europe, with an extremely strong Catholic tradition -- but in the last couple of decades it had become increasingly secular. I hadn't actually been familiar with the situation; despite my name (which I was politely informed should really be spelled "Seán"), I don't have much connection with Ireland. But I did have a remarkable cab driver, who was willing to fill us in. His theory of Irish religious consciousness began with the very early Church, which had co-opted many of the existing pagan traditions. Druidical rites, women priests, celebrants running around naked, that kind of thing. The turning point, he explained, was the Synod of Whitby in 664. (Whitby Abbey is actually in Northumbria, northern England, but apparently the repercussions of this event spread through Celtic society.) The ostensible focus of the synod was fairly narrow: how do we calculate the date of Easter? The choices were between the algorithm favored by the indigenous church, and that advocated by the catholic hierarchy in Rome. So it wasn't really a controversy over the Easter Bunny's work schedule; it was a power struggle between the locals and the establishment. Needless to say, the establishment won; the synod agreed to calculate the date of Easter using Roman methods.

Thus began (our loquacious driver continued) centuries of Catholic dominance over Irish religious life. And he pinpointed the peak of that dominance quite precisely: the 1979 visit of Pope John Paul II to Ireland. The Pope was treated like a rock star, speaking to audiences of hundreds of thousands of cheering supporters. But it was the beginning of the decline. The years to come would witness a dramatic collapse of religious devotion in Ireland generally, and in the influence of the Catholic church in particular. What happened? Our cabbie had a theory, and it had nothing to do with the implications of natural selection or the logical status of the ontological proof for the existence of God. It was simple: Loss of moral authority of the Church. (Back home and consulting the Google, I find that Kieran Healy agrees.) And the loss of moral authority could be traced to a constellation of issues centering on ... sex. On the one hand, the Church in Ireland took its usual predilection for sexual repression to extremes -- while Americans debated over the right to have an abortion, in Ireland it was illegal to use any form of contraception as late as 1978. On the other hand, it was increasingly clear that clergymen weren't always the best examples of sexual morality. Cases of priests fathering babies with their housekeepers or abusing young children (and then being protected by the Church hierarchy) were rampant. And so, while most Irish continued to symbolically profess the Roman Catholic faith, the populace converted gradually from fervent believers to modern secularists. It's very chagrining for we believers in logic and rationality to be confronted with the real reasons why people often change their minds about things. Belief in God isn't something about which most people start with a completely open mind, sit down and carefully weigh the options, and reach a conclusion based on reasoning and evidence. More often, they believe in God because it serves a purpose in their lives, offering purpose and meaning and structure and guidance that is otherwise hard to come by. When Shadi Bartsch and I taught a course on the history of atheism at the University of Chicago, we certainly had no plans to proselytize, but we had some concerns that a vigorous to-and-fro concerning the existence of God might strike an emotional chord for some of the students. That was a naive worry; students could be intellectually engaged and rigorous when talking about philosophical arguments for or against atheism, no matter what their personal beliefs happened to be. But we covered one topic that some people weren't comfortable hearing about: how the Bible was written. Sure, they may be willing to accept that the Pentateuch wasn't really penned by Moses himself. But when you start digging into the details of the documentary hypothesis, demonstrating that the Bible is just like any other collection of essays, culled from disparate sources with incompatible agendas and stitched together by more or less conscientious editors -- human, all too human, in other words -- it really hits home. For most believers, their belief is not a logical conclusion, it's a mode of living. And the erosion of that belief will typically not, for better or for worse, be accomplished by the presentation and examination of evidence; it will be through telling a better story than the one told by religion. One that helps make sense of the world, provides a template for a fulfilling life, explains the difference between right and wrong, and brings meaning to people's experiences. That was the most erudite and educational cab ride I've ever had. The next evening we had the actual debate, which was more amusing than enlightening; the visitors such as myself trotted out various shopworn arguments, while the student speakers showed flashes of genius, skewering our stolid positions with wit and verve and only marginal attention to which side they were supposed to be upholding. A vote was taken, and reliable eyewitnesses will uniformly testify that the "God does not exist" side came out handily ahead, although the result was recorded in the record of the Society as the other way. Divine intervention, I suppose. And then we repaired to a pub across the street, to drink Guinness (a miracle forged of human hands) and tell jokes and swap stories and share small slices our varied experiences. Living life.

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