I’ve been making my way through my second collection of Stephen Jay Gould essays, Leonardo’s mountain of clams and the Diet of Worms, published in 1998, having read his 1993 collection, Eight little piggies, a couple of years ago, and I was surprised to come across ‘Non-overlapping magisteria’ as number 14 in the collection. I read it today. I’d heard that he promulgated his famous – or infamous, depending on your perspective – thesis on NOMA in a book called Rocks of Ages, so I wasn’t expecting such a treat, if I can put it that way, when I turned over the page to that essay.
As it turns out, Rocks of Ages, subtitled Science and religion in the fullness of life, was published in 1999, immediately after the collection I’m reading, and it presumably constitutes an elaboration and refinement of the earlier NOMA essay. So maybe one day I’ll get to that, but meanwhile I’m itching to get my teeth into this first ‘attempt’ – reminding myself of the original meaning of the term essai, in the hands of Montaigne.
Gould begins his essay with a story of a conversation he has, in the Vatican – half his luck – with a group of Jesuit priests who also happened to be professional scientists. The Jesuits are concerned with the talk of ‘Creation Science’ coming out of the US. One of them asks Gould:
‘Is evolution really in some kind of trouble, and if so what could such trouble be? I have always been taught that no doctrinal conflict exists between evolution and catholic faith, and the evidence for evolution seems both utterly satisfying and entirely overwhelming. Have I missed something?’
Gould assures them that this development, though big in the US due to the peculiarities of evangelical protestantism there, is quite localized and without intellectual substance. He wonders, in the essay, at the weirdness of an agnostic Jew ‘trying to reassure a group of priests that evolution remained both true and entirely consistent with religious belief.’
This was the first point at which my (highly primed) sceptical sense was roused. First, the priest had been taught, or told, that no doctrinal conflict existed between Catholicism and evolution. One hardly gets the impression that he’s nutted this out for himself. What about the doctrine of the human soul? What about the absolutely central Judeo-Christian idea that humans were specially created in their god’s image? Can anybody honestly say that evolution casts no doubt upon these notions? To me, making such a claim would defy credibility. I mean, isn’t that precisely why so many Christians, of every denomination, have such difficulty with evolution? Second, Gould tells us that he was able to reassure the priests that evolution wasn’t under threat (fine, as far as it goes), and that it was ‘entirely consistent with religious belief’. Eh what? Did he show them or just tell them? Of course we get no detail on that.
Gould gives other examples of his fatherly reassurance, e.g. to Christian students, of the complete compatibility of Christian belief with evolution, which he tells us he ‘sincerely believes in’, but still without providing an argument. Finally he claims that, notwithstanding fundamentalism and biblical literalism, Christians by and large treat the Bible metaphorically. He seems to feel that this smooths away all incompatibilities. The six days of creation, ensoulment, original sin, humans in god’s image, salvation from sin through Jesus, his resurrection, his virgin birth, his miracles, etc etc, these are just stories. Is that what most Christians believe? Or just that some of them are stories, some of the time, for some believers? This question of literalism and metaphor is in fact a great can of worms that Gould doesn’t even glance into. It’s important, for isn’t literal truth also empirical truth, and doesn’t science have something to say about that?
In any case, having ‘established’, to his satisfaction, all this compatibility, Gould moves on to his central thesis:
The lack of conflict between science and religion arises from a lack of overlap between their respective domains of professional expertise – science in the empirical constitution of the universe, and religion in the search for proper ethical values and the spiritual meaning of our lives. The attainment of wisdom in a full life requires extensive attention to both domains – for a great book tells us both that the truth can make us free, and that we will live in optimal harmony when we learn to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly.
This is NOMA in a nutshell, together with some unobjectionable remarks about harmony, justice, mercy and humility, all vaguely associated with religion. Yet I’ve read a lot of history, and this has made me sceptical of the role of religion in promoting such values. If you examine sermons and priestly speeches through the centuries, you’ll find them very much parroting the ethics of their time – with a certain lag, given the inherent conservatism of most religious institutions. The Bible, that multifarious set of texts, is ideal for quote-mining for every Zeitgeist and Weltanschauung, but really we don’t need history to inform us that our ethical values don’t come from religion, a point made by many philosophers, anthropologists and cognitive psychologists. Religion is essentially about protection, hope and human specialness, all emanating from a non-worldly source, and all of these elements have been profoundly buffeted by the scientific developments of the last few centuries, precisely because the domains of scientific exploration and religious conviction overlap massively, if not completely. As Gould writes in another essay in this collection:
‘Sigmund Freud argued that scientific revolutions reach completion not when people accept the physical reconstruction of reality thus implied, but when they also own the consequences of this radically revised universe for a demoted view of human status. Freud claimed that all important scientific revolutions share the ironic property of deposing humans from one pedestal after another of previous self-assurance about our exalted cosmic status.’
Another, simpler way of putting this is that science – which after all is only the pursuit of reliable, verifiable knowledge – is perennially confronting us with our own contingency, while religions, and most particularly the Abrahamic monotheistic religions, seek desperately to keep us attached to a sense of our necessity, our centrality in God’s plan. It’s hard to imagine two activities on a more complete collision course.
Gould’s first essay on NOMA was apparently triggered by an announcement of Pope John Paul II to the effect that his Church endorsed evolutionary theory and found it compatible with Catholic dogma. This was much hyped in the media, and Gould considered it much ado about nothing, as it merely repeated, or so he thought, an earlier papal proclamation:
I knew that Pope Pius XII…. had made the primary statement in a 1950 encyclical entitled Humani Generis. I knew the main thrust of his message: Catholics could believe whatever science determined about the evolution of the human body, so long as they accepted that, at some time of his choosing, God had infused the soul into such a creature. I also knew that I had no problem with this argument – for, whatever my private beliefs about souls, science cannot touch such a subject and therefore cannot be threatened by any theological position on such a legitimately and intrinsically religious issue.
Now, it seems to me, and to many others, that this question of a soul, possessed only by humans, is an empirical question, unless the soul is to be treated as entirely metaphorical. If empirical, all our understanding of humans and other mammals, derived from evolution but also from zoology in general, tells against the existence of such an entity. We see clearly, and can map, through neurophysiology, genetics and other disciplines, the continuity of humans with other mammals, and with earlier hominids, and there is no trace of, or place for, a Homo sapiens soul. If metaphorical, the religious implications are enormous, for if the soul, which supposedly lives on after the body’s demise, were metaphorical, wouldn’t that make heaven, hell and the afterlife also metaphorical?
This is a real problem for the believers in such an entity, and a source of some amusement for non-believers. In a debate with Richard Dawkins a while back, George Pell, the Catholic archbishop of Sydney was apparently challenged on the exclusivity of the human soul and came up with the view that souls inhabit all living things but that the human soul was ‘infinitely more complex’ than those of other organisms. So now we know that white ants do indeed have souls, as well as blue-green algae and amoebae. This sounded like a physiological claim to me, and I wondered how well synchronised it was with official Catholic doctrine on the matter – or is that non-matter? It seemed much more likely that the good archbishop was making it up as he went along, just as Dawkins accuses such authorities of doing.
Gould, though, congratulates Pius XII, because he ‘had properly acknowledged and respected the separate domains of science and theology’. We get here a whiff of the authoritarian arrogance of Gould, which grates from time to time. He presents separate domains as virtually an established fact and ‘proper’, and so takes on the role of chiding those who don’t subscribe to it, because he himself has ‘great respect for religion’. He also claims, but without any evidence, that the majority of scientists think like him. It was a questionable claim in 1998, and is even more so in 2013.
Still, Gould recognises that there’s a problem, because, according to him, the two non-overlapping domains are not widely separated, like the USA and Australia, but share a troubled border, a la Pakistan and Afghanistan. This seems a concession, but it goes nowhere near far enough. Gould himself uncovers the problem while probing the detail of Pius’s Humani Generis, and finding that the fifties pope was rather less well-disposed towards evolution than he’d thought. What’s more, Pius seems aware of the conflict Gould is so keen to avoid, as he writes of ‘those questions which, although they pertain to the positive sciences, are nevertheless connected with the truths of the Christian faith.’ Pius elaborates on these questions by castigating claims, in particular as regards evolution, that might not be in keeping with ‘divine revelation’, which naturally he regards as some kind of truth. One of these truths is that ‘souls are immediately created by God’, which contradicts the evolutionary idea that all that is human is derived, through incremental moderation, from previously existing creatures. Gould provides a gloss on this by essentially claiming that Pius is patrolling the border between science and religion, intent on preserving the integrity of religious territory. I’m not convinced.
Gould then turns to the more recent statement on evolution by John Paul II. John Paul makes the point that in the 50 years or so since Human Generis, the strength of evolution as an explanatory theory has grown to the point that it’s pretty well unassailable. So he seems to have none of the qualms of Pius, yet still he makes empirical claims about matters ‘spiritual’ while claiming them not to be empirical, something which Gould prefers to obscure with a lot of self-congratulatory language about respect for ‘that other great magisterium’. Here is a slab of John Paul’s argument:
‘With man, then, we find ourselves in the presence of an ontological difference, an ontological leap, one could say. However, does not the posing of such ontological discontinuity run counter to that physical continuity which seems to be the main thread of research into evolution in the field of physics and chemistry? Consideration of the method used in the various branches of knowledge makes it possible to reconcile two points of view which would seem irreconcilable. The sciences of observation describe and measure the multiple manifestations of life with increasing precision and correlate them with the time line. The moment of transition to the spiritual cannot be the object of this kind of observation.’
It’s a nice try, but the ontological difference described here is ‘just saying’. But the ‘just saying’ has a lot of religious energy behind it, because so much of monotheistic religion is tied up with human specialness, and even necessity. We are in the creator-god’s image, we’re the ultimate end-point of the universe, and other hubristic clap-trap. What John Paul is trying to ‘say into being’ is the spiritual realm, no less. The ‘spiritual transition’, the emergence of soul-stuff, is real but beyond scientific observation. Thus it is both empirical and non-empirical, which is impossible.
There’s a good reason why Gould’s claim about NOMA is bogus. All we have to do is look at what he claims these ‘magisteria’ cover. To quote Gould:
‘The net of science covers the empirical realm: what is the universe made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value.’
That the second sentence in this quote is false should be obvious to everyone after only a moment’s reflection. The central thesis in all monotheistic religions is surely that their one and only god exists and is real. We can’t possibly be talking in metaphorical terms here. Thus, an empirical claim lies at the very heart of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, and there’s just no way of arguing yourself out of this. The fact that this empirical claim appears to be unprovable doesn’t make it any less of an empirical claim. The statement ‘Unicorns exist’ is also an empirical claim that is essentially unprovable. We can be pretty certain that unicorns don’t exist on our planet, but how can we prove that a creature fitting that description has no existence in the whole universe, or the multiverse, if there is a multiverse?
What’s more, religion is much more about empiricism than it is about ‘moral meaning and value’, because what is absolutely central to the monotheisms is that moral meaning and value derive from that real and existent being, and as such are themselves real and existent. That’s certainly the point that William Lane Craig bangs on about in all his debates – the empirical reality of his god, and of the values this male being espouses and somehow bequeaths to us.
In fact, on reflection, the statement that ‘God exists’ is not quite of the same type as ‘Unicorns exist’. It’s much closer to the statement ‘Dark matter exists’. Unicorns can only be contingent entities – they may exist in some corner of the universe, but if they suddenly went extinct on the planet Gallifrey it would make little difference. However, dark matter is necessary, as far as I’m aware, to the standard model of the universe and its mass. That’s why the search is on, big-time, to find it, to identify it, to learn more about it. To the religious, their god is also necessary, and it becomes a matter of urgency to ‘find God’, to know him, to understand him, etc. That’s why proof of their god’s existence is important, and always will be. Of course, the religious obviously believe they already have the proof, but an increasing percentage of inhabitants of our western world are unimpressed with such claims.
Well today I’m just going to rabbit on for a bit, which I don’t often do, and maybe don’t do enough. It might also be good for me in that I’m trying to improve my touch typing skills, after years of two finger plod.
Today’s Anzac Day, and I’ll later be attending a humanists meet-up with war and peace as the general subject of discussion. For my overseas readers, ho ho, ANZAC stands for Australian and New Zealander Army Corps, and the day was chosen to commemorate the ill-fated landing at Gallipoli in 1915,to launch an offensive against the Turks in WW1. It was the brainchild of Churchill, and it was a failure, not to put too fine a point on it, resulting in huge loss for no apparent gain.
This day has come to mean, if any easy meaning can be given to it, a day of reflection on the sacrifices made, largely by young men, in the various theatres of war Australians have engaged in. For myself, as a largely pacifist anti-nationalist, who loathes guns with a passion and sees war essentially as a whole lot of suffering endured by the largely innocent at the bidding of a powerful and belligerent few (viz Vietnam, Iraq, and of course WW1), I greet the day with very mixed feelings. It’s a good time, though, to contemplate the horrors of war and to unpick the myths, and, frankly, to be grateful that we live in a generally better-informed, more co-operative and more international age, unless I’m kidding myself (and of course it’s not true for all of our species). I saw a little news feature yesterday in which a group of Aussie secondary students retraced some of the steps of their forebears in the Passchendaele campaign. For them, as they well realised, it was just a little taster, conducted in much pleasanter weather than the real thing, with lighter backpacks and far lighter hearts, yet it clearly had a large emotional impact, which is all to the good – there’s no more valuable lesson we can give to the young than empathy and a visceral understanding of others’ experience. I wondered, though, how much they’d been given to reflect on the point of it all. I still hear schoolchildren solemnly parroting the sad nonsense that ‘they died so that we could be free’. In fact, those young, able-bodied, fresh-faced boys died because they were naive, feisty and adventurous, and had been fed on a diet of patriotic, imperialist pap – the standard diet of the era. Of the Passchendaele campaign, the generally judicious Lloyd George had this to say, in his memoirs written 20 years later: “Passchendaele was indeed one of the greatest disasters of the war … No soldier of any intelligence now defends this senseless campaign …”. As to Gallipoli, the term ‘cannon-fodder’ could’ve been invented for it, and I don’t recall the Turks having any plans to invade Australia at the time.
So we should indeed recall those sacrifices, for they did ultimately serve a purpose – the larger purpose of teaching us to be wary of authority, and of teaching ordinary working people, the sort of people who are called upon to do the dirty work on these occasions, t0 be more aware, to be more educated about what they’re letting themselves in for, and to put pressure on their political leaders to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, or to face increasingly dire consequences for their callousness or incompetence.
And to me it’s simply an outrage that the perpetrators of the Iraq war, or rather the Iraq slaughter – George W Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and the rest, have never been brought to justice. So much innocent suffering to satisfy a bullying administration intent on restoring its nation’s rep as the invincible tough-guy on the block. So much blood for such childishness.
Today I want to write about a subject I know bugger all about but which has always fascinated me – hypnotism. The first encounter with it that made an impression on me was as a schoolkid coming home for lunch, as we did every day – our parents were both at work – and catching some of the midday variety show, which regularly featured a bearded and mildly exotic hypnotist who, with nothing more, apparently, than snappings of fingers, intense gazes and a voice of calm command, got ordinary people to crawl on all fours and bark like dogs, or some other form of mild humiliation, to the incredibly complacent amusement of the studio audience – or so it seemed to me.
This was all very flummoxing to my nascent scepticality. Could this really be real? If so, the consequences, it seemed to me, were enormous for a person’s autonomy, or sense of self-ownership. More important, could this ever be done to me? My impulse would be to fight such an outrageous invasion of, indeed takeover of, what I held to be more dear to me than anything else – my independence of thought and action.
So I drew two conclusions from these observations. First, that it couldn’t be real – that there must be at least some fakery involved. Second, that if it was real, I, if not the entire human population, needed to be protected from such outrages, by law. If we could be made to bark like dogs, why couldn’t we be made, by an evil genius, to rip out each others’ throats, to murder our loved ones, to fly planes into buildings or to press nuclear buttons? In fact, if this power to control minds was real, no human law could prevent it from being abused. It followed, according to the Law of Wishful Thinking, that this power couldn’t be real.
But as life went on, the urgency of this issue receded, though the questions raised were never resolved. A lot of nasty things happened, people ripped each other apart, either physically or psychologically, and people murdered those they loved, and flew planes into buildings and declared wars that slaughtered thousands, but the motives seemed all too clear and basic and perennially human. No evil geniuses needed to be posited. Manipulation might be suspected at times, but of the common and garden type. Hypnosis appeared surplus to requirements, so much that I never really considered it.
The old questions resurfaced on listening to Brian Dunning, of skeptoid.com, presenting a podcast on hypnosis, which provided some interesting historical background, for example that the term ‘hypnosis’ was coined by an English surgeon, James Braid, in the 1840s. Braid became obsessed with the practice after seeing a stage performance, and worked on utilising it for medical purposes. He even wrote a book about hypnotism which, according to Dunning, still stands up well today.
Dunning also addresses an issue that has always vexed me – that of susceptibility to hypnosis. In the 50s, Stanford University developed a rough measure of susceptibility which they named the Stanford Hypnotic Susceptibility Scales. Here’s Dunning’s description:
It’s a series of twelve short tests to gauge just how hypnotized you really are, scored on a scale of 0 (not at all) to 12 (completely). They are responses to simple suggestions like immobilization, simple hallucinations, and amnesia. Most people score somewhere in the middle, and nearly everyone passes at least one of the tests. There’s even a script you can follow to hypnotize anyone and put them through the scales, with a little bit of practice.
Not only do people score very differently, there’s been little progress made in predicting what types of people are most susceptible. Subjects’ suppositions about their own susceptibility don’t correlate at all with test scores. Supposed predictors like intelligence, creativity, desire to become hypnotized, and imaginativeness also have no correlation. Most likely, you yourself are a decent candidate who will score near the middle of the scale, regardless of whether you think you will or not.
These findings are not reassuring. Maybe it’s a male thing (and one of the reasons males are less willing to visit the doctor), but I’ve always wanted to be, and so felt myself to be, ‘in control’ of my physical and mental health. For example, I didn’t need a doctor to tell me I was creeping up in weight towards obesity, with all the attendant health issues. I realised it myself, took control, reduced my general food intake, introduced an exercise regime, and brought my weight back to normal. Similarly, with issues of getting older, such as the possibility of dementia, I reckon that keeping mentally active, learning new things, firing up new pathways, is the self-help solution, and with hypnotism, the defence is a strong mind and a profound unwillingness to be hoodwinked by any evil geniuses out there. But I’m not silly, and I’ve always known that I’m at least partially kidding myself, and that I can’t fully bullet-proof myself against cancer, dementia, or even mind control. So maybe I should subject myself to the above-mentioned susceptibility scales, and face the facts.
For the susceptible ones, there are certainly medical benefits in the application of hypnosis, in relieving stress, in pain management, and in preparing patients for, and managing them through, surgery. Attempts have made to use hypnotherapy, and to analyse its success, in weight loss programs and in treating addictive behaviour, with mixed results.
But what of that worst-case scenario, where the susceptible are manipulated into performing dastardly deeds? Dunning’s conclusions on this seemed reassuring. The susceptible clients certainly reported losing their memory of actions performed under hypnosis, and they certainly did perform those actions, or ‘see’ things they were commanded to see, but, according to Dunning ‘only so long as they were consciously willing to go along.’ He ends with a recommendation to try hypnotism, saying ‘you can’t lose control’ and that ‘you might just have a really wild ride’, two statements that might seem to contradict each other.
But these reassurances were all blown away by Derren Brown’s program on hypnotism, one of a series he presented on how the human mind can be made to believe things and do things that aren’t always in its best interest. Brown is a thorough-going sceptic and an atheist, and so on the side of the angels. I was primed for a dose of debunking, but, frankly, was left with far more questions than answers. I have to rely on my memory here, but the program began with some references to Sirhan Sirhan, the killer of Robert Kennedy in the sixties. Sirhan’s lack of remorse over the years has told against him at parole board hearings and the like, but since he bizarrely claims to have no recollection of the act, his lack of remorse would in that sense be consistent. Without going into too much detail about the assassination (conspiracy theories abound), Brown plants in our minds the germ of an idea that this could’ve been a mind-control event. The rest of the program involves an elaborate set-up in which Brown hypnotises a susceptible subject into ‘killing’ Stephen Fry, with a gun, while Fry is performing onstage, and the hypnotised subject is in the audience. Fry, who’s in on the act, plays dead, and the audience – well, here’s where my memory fails me. I seem to remember shock and confusion, but I don’t recall any heroes grappling with the gunman, or reacting as the gunman stood up and took aim at Fry. Maybe that’s just the behaviour of well-primed security guards. After all, shooting someone when they’re onstage, though theatrical, is hardly a real-life scenario. In fact I don’t recall it ever having happened.
More importantly – in fact far more importantly – the scenario, if we’re to believe it, completely disproves Dunning’s claim that you can’t be persuaded to do something entirely uncharacteristic when under hypnosis. The young man who ‘shoots’ Fry seems to be a pleasant, gentle soul. In an after-event interview with Brown, at which Fry is also present, he has no recollection of firing the gun, though he does remember attending the show (if my memory serves me correctly).
I was really shaken by all this. I tried to wriggle out of the conclusions. Obviously the shooter was using a toy gun – or maybe a real gun with blank bullets. Could it be that he wouldn’t have gone through with it had it been a real gun? That didn’t make sense, really – the gun was in its own case, and looked real enough to me, inexpert though I am (I truly loathe guns). It was no water-pistol or cap-gun. But maybe the whole set-up was a sham? In this and in other Brown shows I found it incredible that subjects could be so easily put into a hypnotised state. In fact ‘ludicrous’ is the word that springs to mind. There’s a part of me – quite a big part in fact – that just wants to dismiss the whole thing as arrant bullshit, a kind of sick joke. How can the human brain, the most complex 1300g entity on the planet, be so easily hijacked?
Well, apparently it can. One has to accept the evidence, however reluctantly. And of course it’s not accurate to say that the entire brain is hijacked. Or rather, just as you don’t have to have complete control of every aspect of a plane in order to hijack it, you just have to control the pilot, so hypnotism must involve control of some kind of consciousness-controller in the brain. Something like what we describe as ‘the self’, no less. A big problem, especially when some psychologists, neurologists and philosophers deny the very existence of the self.
But I’ll leave an exploration of how hypnotism works from a neurophysiological perspective for another post. I suspect, though, that not much progress has been made in that area. Meanwhile, I’m left with a much greater concern about hypnotism than ever before. As if there wasn’t enough to worry about!
Okay, to continue my survey of religiosity in more or less arbitrarily selected nations. Most of this data comes from Wikipedia, which has a series of entries, ‘Religion in (name your country)’, so I haven’t bothered with the time consuming process of linking to every source.
As you might expect, with the ‘Papa’ nerve-rackingly nearby, most Italians identify as Catholic Christians – with recent polls ranging from nearly 92% to 77%. The 2005 Eurobarometer poll, quoted in my summaries of other countries, found that:
- 74% of Italian citizens responded that they believe there is a God;
- 16% answered that they believe there is some sort of spirit or life force;
- 6% answered that they do not believe there is any sort of spirit, God, or life force.
Italy’s 1947 constitution guarantees freedom of religion, and under a revised accord with the Vatican in 1984, the disestablishment of the Catholic Church was made complete. However, the dominance of the Catholic church has continued to be problematic, with Protestants being persecuted even up to recent times. There have been protests against the displaying of Catholic symbols in state schools, with governments and courts evading the issue by claiming these are ‘cultural’ rather than ‘religious’ symbols. However, in an entry on freedom of religion in Italy, Wikipedia reports this:
In 2009 the European Court of Human Rights, in a case brought by an Italian mother who wanted her children to have a secular education, ruled against the display of crucifixes in the classrooms of Italian state schools. It found that ‘The compulsory display of a symbol of a given confession in premises used by the public authorities… restricted the right of parents to educate their children in conformity with their convictions’ and that it restricted the ‘right of children to believe or not to believe’. This ruling was in marked contrast with the position of the Italian courts that had ruled in 2005 that crucifixes were allowed to be present in polling stations and, in 2006, that display of crucifixes in state schools was allowed on the basis that the crucifix symbolised core Italian social values.
The same Wikipedia entry states that according to a 2006 poll (but no details are given), four million Italians are atheist or agnostic, a much higher number than for any other religion apart from Christianity. We should also be sceptical that those identifying as Catholic are anything other than nominal Catholics.
I’ve picked this country out at random as an Eastern European country. Needless to say, there’s no such thing as a typical Eastern European country. Bulgaria does have a religious question in its census, and the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, a variant of eastern orthodoxy, is the prevalent and traditional religion in the country, with 59.4% of the population identifying with it in the 2011 census. No previous censuses are recorded, sadly. Some 9.3% identified as atheists, and 21.8% didn’t answer the question. 7.8% identify with Islam, a result of years of Ottoman rule, and interestingly neither Protestants nor Roman Catholics can claim even 1% of the population. The number of Jews in Bulgaria is minuscule, and anti-Semitism appears to be rife. Also, the number of practising orthodox Christians is quite low, and likely falling, though I have no figures on that.
I was born in Scotland, so this region still interests me, in spite of the transcendental cosmopolitan plane that I now inhabit. The situation there is much the same as in other western European countries – predominantly Christian but with church attendance dropping sharply in the late twentieth century and still declining, and with immigration bringing an increase in other religions, but from a very low base. Anglicanism became the established religion in England thanks to the shenanigans of Henry VIII, but Scotland has remained, at least until recently, largely Presbyterian. There’s been much talk about disestablishing the Anglican church in England in recent times. I think it’s inevitable. It has already been disestablished in Wales and Ireland. Wikipedia presents census figures for England for 2001 and 2011, which shows that identification with Christianity has dropped from 71.7% to 59.4% in 10 years – a really significant drop. Various other surveys show lower figures though, indicating again that the framing of the question makes a big difference. Everything suggests that a large proportion of the population identifies with Christianity out of habit rather than conviction. This can perhaps be more accurately described as cultural religiosity, which, as I’ve reported, is a common feature of Catholicism. Finally in Britain, as elsewhere, secular law is becoming less deferential to the claims of religion. The Equality Act of 2010 is making life more uncomfortable for denominations that continue to discriminate, though it remains to be seen how the law deals with the rise of largely unenlightened religions such as Islam.
I’ll finish where I started, with an Asian country that appears to have embraced many western values and practices, including secular democracy. Needless to say I’m not doing justice to the enormous complexity of religious tradition in any of these countries, but it seems that Koreans, like many of their Asian neighbours, have been eclectic in their religious practices over the centuries. Korean shamanism, or Muism, goes back a long way, and has been overlain with Confucianism, Buddhism and more recently Christianity, which had its heyday there from the sixties to the nineties, leaving South Korea the most Christianised Asian population apart from the Philippines and East Timor. The South Korean National Statistical Office reported these figures in 2005: 46.5% non-religious (but many of these apparently maintain shrines to traditional religions in their homes), 22.8% Buddhist, 18.3% Protestant, 10.9% Catholic. The Wikipedia entry here points out the difficulties in measuring religious practice and adherence, with Confucianism, for example, being practically impossible to measure. There is also a proliferation of smaller religions in Korea that are likely to be under-reported. The late Sun Myung Moon started up a new Christian-based religion in South Korea in the sixties, hailing himself as the new Messiah, etc. It enjoyed moderate success in his home country and in the USA in the seventies, possibly because of its strong anti-communist rhetoric. It seems that in recent years Christianity has been fading, and there has been some slight resurgence in traditional Muism, but I can’t find any figures on religious trends in general.
So that’s a few blurry snapshots of religious trends in an assortment of countries, which show I think that Christianity at least has peaked in western Europe and in some Asian countries. I’ve also heard, in the wake of the new Latino pope, that Catholicism is on the wane in Latin America, a trend that this papal election is unlikely to substantially reverse. Generally it seems that Christianity sells well in poorer countries these days, but starts to fade as the nations find their feet economically, and their inhabitants get access to a decent education. Many of the world’s poorer countries are in Africa and the Middle East – but nations like Pakistan and Afghanistan are too doctrinally Islamic to be much of a hunting ground for Christians. Rural China remains a promising area of course, but the scenario changes daily. My attitude is that we shouldn’t be too impatient, we should just keep plugging away with our fascination with this world, the only one we have.
I wrote a piece a while back on what the Australian census tells us about religiosity in this country, and in that piece I talked also about trends, comparing the censuses of the past. I also wrote more recently on the overall trend away from religiosity in the west, quoting some interesting recent figures out of the USA.
So, as I find this quite an exciting and encouraging topic, I’ve decided to look at more countries to get a broader and deeper perspective on religiosity and how it’s faring, particularly in the west.
This is a country I’ve long wanted to find out more about, because it’s so often cited as a non-religious country, or the least religious country in the world, and so forth. The traditional religions of Japan have been Shinto and Buddhism, and more often than not a combination of the two, but these entwined religions have faded from the landscape over the last century, and especially since the war. Wikipedia tells us that about 70% of Japanese ‘profess no religious membership’, and it cites 2 sources for this claim, the first being a newspaper article in the Seattle Times (which itself doesn’t cite any source), the second being a rather more interesting meditation on religion and spirituality in Japan, from 2008, in an online mag called Japan Society. It contains the statement, ‘polls tell us that two thirds of Japanese profess no religion’. A number of other figures are mentioned from censuses and surveys, and obviously the figures vary depending on the wording of the questions, sample sizes and so forth, but it’s equally obvious that the trend is towards secularization., and it’s safe to say that more than half of the Japanese population are not religious. Apparently religion is measured in the Japanese census, as Wikipedia tells us ‘In census questionnaires, less than 15% reported any formal religious affiliation by 2000′. However, I can find no Japanese census figures online. As to Christianity, only 1% to 2% of Japanese have succumbed to that peculiar persuasion.
To get a clear trend, you need to keep the sample stable, and the question stable, over time. A stable sample, for example , would be the entire adult population of a nation, as in a typical census. I can’t access these censuses, so I can’t find out whether the same question has been asked over time, and the other surveys mentioned are all over the place in terms of sample sizes and questions asked. All I have to go on is the quote above – 15% with no religious affiliation by 2000, which, if reliable, proves a clear trend away from religiosity in one of the world’s least religious countries.
In May of last year, the Norwegian government voted almost unanimously to disestablish its state religion, the Evangelical Lutheran Church. The Vikings of Norway had become Christianized by 1050. In the sixteenth century, the nation moved firmly away from Catholicism, and has since, it seems, moved firmly away from Christianity. A 2005 Gallop poll conducted in 65 countries found that ‘Norway was the least religious country in Western Europe, with 29% counting themselves as believing in a church or deity, 26% as being atheists, and 45% not being entirely certain’, which is quite an interesting finding (I mean the uncertainty factor). Interestingly Norway has phased out questionnaire-based censuses, conducting its last in 2001, and I haven’t even been able to find out if religion was part of the census. A Eurobarometer poll of 2010 has different results, though, with 22% of Norwegians believing in God, compared to 18% in Sweden and Estonia, and 16% in the Czech Republic. The same poll finds that 94% of Turks and Maltese and 92% of Romanians believe in God. Islam is now the second most practised religion in Norway, though still at very low numbers. However, this is definitely a cause of dissension, as it is in neighbouring countries.
France is typical of the European, or at least western and northern European trend towards reduced observance of religion. Again, a wide array of polls is mentioned in Wikipedia, with some funny findings. For example, a 2006 Le Monde poll found that 51% of French people claimed to be Catholic, but only half of these said that they believed in God! I mean, wtf!!! Seriously, though, a number of other polls probing Catholic beliefs in France raise questions about Catholicism everywhere, as clearly many of them are wedded to the religion for non-religious reasons, if that makes sense. There has been a lot of violent religious conflict, leading governments from the early 1800s to move to a more secularised political system. In 1905 a law was passed separating church and state, which clarified and regularised ideas first put forward in the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. Nevertheless the law caused Catholic riots, as it profoundly affected Catholic prestige and funding. The government does not maintain any official figures on religious belief. The most recent private poll, from 2011, finds 45% to be Christian, 35% to be ‘irreligious, atheist or agnostic’, 10% not answering the question, and the remaining 10% dispersed among various other religions. Most French Christians are Catholic, but a recent poll amongst Catholics found that only 4.5% of them attended mass once a week or more in 2006, compared with 27% in the early fifties.
Germany brought in new constitutions in 1919 and 1949, guaranteeing freedom of faith and religion. It has never had a state religion, being in any case a newish country, growing out of nineteenth century Prussia and the complex Germanic and middle European principalities of earlier centuries. The most recent poll in 2011 (the same poll that I referred to in the France section) has 50% of Germans identifying as Christian, 38% identifying as non-religious, and 6% not stating, but again other polls give different figures, though always with Christianity trending downwards in recent times. The Christian population is divided more or less equally between Catholics and Protestants, with more Protestants in the north and more Catholics in the south. The west is more Christian than the east, probably due to the influence of communism in the former East Germany. As an amusing aside, the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt, Martin Luther’s birthplace, is now the most non-religious state in Germany.
I actually don’t mind a day off from pubs, restaurants, shops and, of course, work, on one day of the year – holidays, days of chillaxin every now and then are well worth having – the ancient Romans loved em I hear – but to commemorate the putative crucifixion of someone who, as the incomprehensible narrative goes – died for our sins, or that we might be set free or have eternal grace, because he was a god or the son thereof but at the same time a human being or a symbol of all the sufferings of humanity and so on and on, well I get a little resentful of having that sort of shite imposed on me. So I’m just wondering, as this country’s Christian religiosity diminishes day by day, how much longer the good Friday saga will last. At least this morning’s ABC news breakfast program was much more about easter eggs than crosses, though it did feature a kindly Father Bob, a Catholic apparently, and a tireless worker amongst the poor Of Melbourne. In recent years he’s become something of a media celebrity, especially on radio. In the breakfast program interview, which I admit to only half listening to, he heaped praise on the new pope and then presented a somewhat incoherent metaphysics of faith. Well, long may he continue in his good work.
Easter has been with us for quite a while, but not, of course, from the day of crucifixion. However, though the gospels are more or less completely unreliable as history, they’re a little more date-conscious, or at least time-of-year conscious, in respect of Jesus’s death than they are with respect to his birth. Jesus’s birthday could’ve been celebrated at any time, so vague and contradictory are the two gospel stories of that event. The one possible seasonal reference was to shepherds watching their flocks at night at the time (Luke 2:8), which would count as evidence against a December birth in the northern hemisphere. The mention of a census conducted at the time, which required people to move to their birthplaces (but this story is almost certainly false, there’s no evidence of any Roman census ever requiring such movement), also argues against a winter birth. You just wouldn’t ask people to move around en masse in the depths of winter in those pre-electric, pre-public transport times.
In any case, the date at which December 25 was fixed as Christmas is unclear, and there were many competing dates in the early years (and dating methods in any case were various and messy). In fact some early Christian thinkers, such as Origen, rejected the very idea of celebrating Jesus’s birthday, claiming that birthday celebration was a nasty pagan practice. So, long live that one. Jehovah’s Witnesses today, by the way, refuse to celebrate Christmas presumably for the same reason as Origen, but who knows, and who cares?
But let’s return to Easter, whose events were much more significant to early Christianity. As it happens, the gospels give two slightly different accounts upon which to base the dating. John 19 presents the decision to crucify Jesus as having been made at ‘the preparation of the passover’, which might be the eve, though it also says, ‘about the sixth hour’. Sixth hour from what, midnight? Some translations change ‘sixth hour’ to ‘noon’, suggesting that it’s the sixth hour from dawn – in any case before the paschal or passover lamb is slaughtered, which had to be between 3pm and 5pm according to ancient Judaic law. This gives time for Jesus to be taken off to Golgotha and ‘sacrificed’ in the afternoon. The lamb had to be eaten by midnight on the same day (Nisan 14, according to the Hebrew calendar). The synoptic gospels on the other hand present the death as occurring on Nisan 15, with the Last Supper being in fact the Passover meal, and a huge amount of scholarly ink has been wasted in reconciling every mention of the hour in each of these texts.
To me, as a thorough-going sceptic, it seems bleeding obvious that Jesus’s death was written by these gospellers as occurring at Passover, the most holy day in the Jewish calendar (though another piece of nonsense, as it celebrates an event that is entirely mythical – the escape of the Israelites from Egypt, and their subsequent slaughter of the earlier inhabitants of the ‘promised land’). New religions are generally keen to take over the most important dates of a religion they’re keen to supersede, and that is surely why Jesus is made to refer to himself as ‘the lamb of god’ (John 1:29, 1:36), sacrificed for a very different purpose than the paschal lamb. It’s significant that this description is in John, because the chronology in that gospel fits perfectly with Jesus being killed at the same time that the lamb is killed. John, the later gospel, ‘got it right’ improving on the synoptics who merely tried to hijack the passover meal for the purposes of the last supper, an occasion which could never be as important as the actual crucifixion. In other words the dating and timing of Good Friday was all about symbolism, not about truth. Of course there’s no evidence, outside of the gospels, that Jesus was crucified at all, let alone that he just happened to be crucified at the most important time of year for the Jews, against whom the new sect wished to assert themselves – most unpleasantly by describing them as killing their hero (John 19:14-16, Mark 15:9-15, Matthew 27:21-26, Luke 23:20-25). Matthew drives it home: ‘All the people answered, His blood is on us and our children!’ (Matt 27:25).
So it’s worth remembering this on Good Friday. It’s dating was, from the start, designed to stick it to the Jews, and to stake Christianity’s claim as a rival religion, and of course the Good Friday story, recounted in each of the gospels, marks the beginning of two millennia of Christian anti-Semitism.
Well, having just completed the onerous task of ‘debating’ William Lane Craig, it’s time to refresh with something new, and local – or at least national. Or perhaps local, because one of the leading writers behind this story is Tory Shepherd, who writes for Adelaide’s Advertiser and The Punch, and who is always excellent on pseudo-science, religion and many other issues, as well as being a far more entertaining writer than myself, as for example in this enjoyable but thought-provoking article on alcohol and anti-social behaviour (but don’t bother reading the comments, they’re mostly depressing, and give me the distinct impression that most people who comment on news articles are rather sad, angry souls who nobody else would want to talk to after five minutes).
Shepherd has recently written this piece on proposed new federal laws to deregister bogus medical treatments with the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods. The opposition has provided in-principle support, which is great, as it might allow a smooth path to legislation in late June. However, if the opposition sniffs a vote in opposing it, there could be trouble. I’d like to keep an eye on this one. She also wrote this interesting piece in early February, about setting up a quackometer-style website to expose medical frauds, though I felt a bit confused about how it might work, funding-wise, and I can’t quite believe that quack peddlers would fall into the trap of getting listed on such a site. They’re pretty canny operators.
Let’s look, though, at the proposed legislation and why the government’s trying to act. Shepherd quotes Dr Ken Harvey, of LaTrobe Uni, a public health advocate and campaigner against bogus treatments, as welcoming the move, but with warnings about loopholes and various ways and means for the companies pedalling these products to dodge regulators (and there’s considerable concern about the rise of ‘fatblaster’ products, where big money can be made, and where the claims made are pretty extraordinary). I haven’t kept up with these issues, but a bit of research into Dr Harvey reveals these treatment peddlars to be more than just sneaky. The director of a company called Sensaslim Australia Pty Ltd, manufacturers of a completely bogus ‘slimming spray’, tried to bring a lawsuit against Harvey for defamation, citing a ridiculous amount of money. The whole thing eventually collapsed as more of the company’s shonkiness was revealed, but not before having caused much distress to the doctor. Shades of the Simon Singh case. But this case and others have highlighted weaknesses in the way the Therapeutic Goods Administration deals with the ever-increasing number of dodgy cures in the market-place.
The Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods (ARTG), which comes under the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), which in turn comes under the federal government’s Department of Health and Ageing, is a compulsory register for anyone wanting to sell therapeutic goods (defined on the TGA website) within Australia or for export. A click on the website tells me that some 25 products were registered yesterday (March 28), and if that’s an average day, that’s an awful lot of products – thousands per year. There’s a lot of info on the TGA website relating to counterfeit medicines and complementary medicines, a lot to get my little head around, but I note they have a two-tiered system in which a medicine or device has to be either registered or listed. Heavy-hitting stuff, including all prescription medicine, has to be registered, which means going through an assessment process for quality, safety and efficacy. Most OTC medicines have to be registered, as well as some complementary medicines, but within the registration process is another two-tiered system, ‘high risk’ and ‘low risk’. Clearly the more low-risk the treatment, the less it will be scrutinised, but this means that treatments which are ineffectual but without evident risk, such as homeopathy, irridology, reflexology and the like, get through the system with minimum if any scrutiny largely due to their inefficacy. They do no harm, so they’re ‘okay’. What needs to be strengthened is the scrutiny of goods that just don’t do what they claim to do. There also needs to be an active recognition that dodgy products are harmful precisely because of their false claims, so that unsuspecting consumers buy them instead of more genuine products. The new legislation will provide stiff penalties for false and misleading information, as well as deregistration, which in effect would be an official ban on sale. Does this mean homeopathy might be banned in Australia soon? Don’t hold your breath on that one. One way that the homeopathy industry flies under the radar is by avoiding claims on its labels, and relying on word-of-mouth and its reputation, especially among the ‘new age’ and generally disaffected-with-mainstream-medicine crowd, to maintain sales. My (minimal) research suggests that this ‘medicin douce’ is listed rather than registered, and the TGA probably doesn’t have the resources or teeth to verify low-risk listed products for efficacy.
However, there are other government agencies such as the ACCC (Australian Competition and Consumer Commission) and the NHMRC (National Health and Medical Research Council) ready to do their bit in protecting consumers. The NHMRC is currently reviewing the effectiveness of homeopathy in a systematic ‘review of reviews’, and will be asking for public feedback in mid 2013. This will be part of an overview of various CAM modalities, with a view to possible changes to the government rebate on private health insurance for natural therapies. Interesting, but with the slowness of this process, and the likely demise of this government come September, we can’t expect too much.