Sure you’re not meant to take it seriously

On June 2, 2015

Caravaggio_-_The_Incredulity_of_Saint_Thomas(1)

It’s a little over two years since my first post for physicsfocus and I’m sad to say that this one is going to be my last. I found out last month from Chris White – the physicsfocus editor, self-confessed word monkey, and the bloke who’s been in the unenviable position of having to edit and upload my ranty, vitriol-fuelled posts for much of the time I’ve been writing for the blog – that the site is going to be discontinued in the very near future. *Sob*

I was invited to contribute to physicsfocus in late 2012 by Kelly Oakes, who established the blog and whose infectious enthusiasm for, and commitment to, the project played a major role in my decision to start blogging. (Kelly moved to take up the role of Science Editor for Buzzfeed towards the end of the first year of physicsfocus.) Prior to physicsfocus I had eschewed blogging with the usual, somewhat sniffy, “I could never find time for that” excuse, which, as my physicsfocus colleague, Athene Donald, points out, is a far from compelling reason not to blog.

I owe a great debt of gratitude to Kelly for the invitation to write for physicsfocus. Over the last two years I’ve found blogging to be not only a great form of catharsis, but an especially useful way to hone my writing and to train myself out of the staid, formulaic style that is the hallmark of the academic paper. (You know the type of thing, “In recent years, phenomenon X has become of increasing interest…”. Yawn.) And, more simply, I just enjoy blogging, even if I agree entirely with Douglas Adams: “Writing is easy. You only need to stare at a piece of blank paper until your forehead bleeds.” (I’ll add a belated #TowelDay hashtag in honour of Adams. I’d very likely never have signed up to the burble of Twitter either if it weren’t for physicsfocus.)

Given the title above, and the preceding few paragraphs, you could be forgiven for thinking that this is going to be a rather light-hearted swansong post. ‘Fraid not.

Something absolutely momentous happened last month in Ireland and I could never forgive myself if I let the moment go without getting my thoughts down on paper (well, in pixels at least). I was in tears at times as I followed the #MarRef tweets, and overjoyed by the final result: 62.1% yes to 37.9% no. (1,201,607 votes to 734,300 with a turnout of 60.5%). I found this tweet particularly affecting:

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And this brought another lump to my throat:

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I was raised in the heart of rural Ireland, in the 70s and early 80s, in a border county (Monaghan) and in a strongly Catholic environment: rosary every night, mass as often as was humanly possible, First Holy Communion, Confirmation, Catholic primary school followed by an all-boys Catholic secondary school (nicknamed The Sem because it used to be a seminary), sacraments, the Stations of the Cross, confession. (Christ. Confession. I still shudder when I think about walking into that darkened – and too often dank – cubicle to confess my sins.) In other words, I experienced the full gamut of the pomp and circumstance that is the Catholic faith.

And I despised it.

The dismissal of my faith, such as it ever was, happened when I was a teenager. As a young child, I was, however, deeply confused and concerned because I simply couldn’t understand what was wrong with me. Why couldn’t I just believe like everyone else at school? Why did I have these doubts? Surely I was destined for hell if I didn’t just accept what I was told in church? After all, Jesus was clearly not best pleased with Thomas when he asked for evidence (John 20:24-29).

Thomas was rather an inspiring character for me. He did exactly what the majority of us would have done in his situation: he refused to put his trust in hearsay and asked for evidence of the resurrection. And yet, throughout my days at school and church, Thomas’ entirely reasonable doubt was portrayed as a major character flaw – something to be avoided by true believers. Jesus certainly saw it as a problem: “Then Jesus told him, ‘Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed’.” (For those who would argue that science and religious mythology should coexist happily, they need to tackle Jesus’ clear admonition of Thomas using rather more compelling arguments than the type outlined here. Faith is anathema to science. This letter in New Scientist a few weeks ago makes the point rather well.).

As a young boy the fact that I could strongly identify with Thomas’ scepticism, despite the fact that his justified doubt was very much frowned upon by priests and teachers, continually worried the bejaysus out of me. It was, however, a couple of defining, and unsettling, moments in class that began to set the seal on my rejection of Catholic beliefs and dogma (and, ultimately, of religious mythology in general). The first of these I describe in the video below, filmed by Brady Haran almost five years ago and which – as you’ll see if you visit the YouTube site – has now accrued well over 12,000 comments. (I’ve noted before that Brady’s videos often attract comments and discussion ‘below the line’ which are significantly more intelligent and better informed than is the norm for YouTube comments sections. This, unfortunately, is not quite the case for the “Do physicists believe in god?” video.)

The second, particularly unnerving, episode at primary school happened when the teacher asked the class the following question (I can’t remember in what context): “If you could be anyone for a day, who would it be?”

Hands shot up around the classroom. “Superman”. “The Six Million Dollar Man”. “The Bionic Woman”. “Luke Skywalker”.

My answer?

“God, sir”.

I truly believed that my teacher would be really happy with that answer – after all, who was the most important being in the cosmos? Who had we been told was the most wonderful, all-loving father? On that basis, who wouldn’t want to be God for a day and experience all that love?

My teacher’s response? “Satan wanted to be God”.

I was nine. I had nightmares.

A common response to these anecdotes goes something along these lines: “Oh, dear. That’s shocking. But that was a problem with your particular over-zealous teacher, it’s not a problem with Catholicism/faith/religion per se. Our faith is all about acceptance, love, and reasoned belief”. Except, demonstrably, it’s not.

The events surrounding the same-sex marriage referendum in Ireland have brought home the appallingly divisive and prejudiced attitudes that are often borne of religion. What reason, other than prejudice – bolstered, if not engendered, by religious belief – could there be for a no vote? (This is a genuine question and if you have an answer, please let me know in the comments section below. But please don’t tell me it’s about the supposed negative effects of same-sex parenting on children. My fellow Dublin City University alumnus, David Robert Grimes, dealt with this issue conclusively in The Guardian on the day of the vote).

How can anyone claim that religion invariably provides a superior ethical/moral framework to humanism when the Catholic Church has said that Ireland’s yes vote is a defeat for humanity? How can anyone who would like to establish a fairer, kinder, more equal society – i.e. the very virtues Jesus proclaimed (and I can quote chapter and verse if you’re interested, one of the questionable benefits of spending a good part of thirteen or so years on your knees in the name of Catholicism/Christianity) – identify with that type of prejudice? Why in the name of the Almighty Zarquon would anyone with any scrap of compassion and respect – let alone love – for their fellow humans vote no if it weren’t for the stranglehold of religious faith?

The title of this post is taken from the insightful musings of the delightful Fr. Dougal McGuire in the very first episode of Father Ted: “Sure it’s no more peculiar than all that stuff we learned in the seminary, you know, heaven and hell and everlasting life and all that type of thing. You’re not meant to take it seriously.” (Coincidentally, Ardal O’Hanlan also grew up in Co. Monaghan.)

Dougal further expounded on his difficulties with religious faith in a discussion with Bishop O’Neill in the Series 2 episode entitled “Tentacles of Doom”. Here we can clearly see that his doubts are not just related to Catholicism but are truly ecumenical in scope:

Bishop O’Neill: So Father, do you ever have any doubts? Is your faith ever tested? Any trouble you’ve been having with beliefs or anything like that?

Father Dougal: Well you know the way God made us, and he’s looking down at us from heaven?

Bishop O’Neill: Yeah…

Father Dougal: And then his son came down and saved everyone and all that?

Bishop O’Neill: Uh huh…

Father Dougal: And when we die, we’re all going to go to heaven?

Bishop O’Neill: Yes. What about it?

Father Dougal: Well that’s the part I have trouble with!

I would very much like to believe that Father Ted played a big role in helping to secure the Yes vote. Others have certainly pointed out the importance of Ted in accelerating the decline of the church in Ireland: “a comedy that affectionately mocked the old ways while simultaneously, mercilessly exposing them”.

At this point those of you familiar with WB Yeats’ take on the Irish – “Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy” – may well be nodding sagely to yourselves. I’ll admit that it does seem rather mean-spirited to be berating Catholicism to this extent when it was so soundly defeated last month. But the issue here is much, much broader than just Catholicism.

This upsetting article is from the Guardian last week. We live in a world where we can communicate virtually instantaneously with friends and family across the world, observe the universe as it was roughly 13 billion years ago, and mimic the conditions present only fractions of a second after the big bang. And yet a huge proportion of humanity remains in thrall to Bronze Age/Iron Age/New Age myths (of a staggering variety of hues).

“An abiding sense of tragedy”? Yep. Yeats was spot on.

I’ve really enjoyed reading my colleagues’ posts, and occasionally venting my spleen, for physicsfocus. I’ll miss the site immensely. I’m going to sign off with the signature closing words of the late, great, and brilliantly acerbic Dave Allen: “Thank you, good night, and may your god go with you”.

Image: The incredulity of St Thomas, by Caravaggio

About Philip Moriarty

Philip Moriarty is a Professor of Physics at the University of Nottingham, where his research focuses on nanoscale science. He is a member of the Science Board of the Institute of Physics and coordinates the multi-partner ACRITAS European network. He has participated in a number of research council-funded public engagement projects, including Giants of the Infinitesimal, and was a member of the Programme Committee for the controversial “Circling the Square: Research, Politics, Media, and Impact” conference held in Nottingham in May 2014. He is also a regular contributor to the Sixty Symbols video series.

7 Responses to Sure you’re not meant to take it seriously

  1. If you plan to continue blogging elsewhere, please post it here or through one of Brady Haran’s hundreds of youtube channels. I was lucky to happen upon your writing through Brady, and I’d hate to miss it if you carry on in a new location.

  2. Perhaps the most interesting question is why it took so long in Ireland? Most other staunchly Catholic western societies liberalized decades ago. A classic case in point is Quebec, which 60 years ago would have been very similar to Ireland both in terms of its Catholic nationalism and cultural isolation. Yet Quebec went through a rapid “quiet revolution” in the late ’60s and is now one of the most liberal societies in the west.

    • Very interesting comment, Hamish. I would argue that Ireland was beyond “staunch” for a long, long time. Catholicism was woven directly into the fabric of Irish life. The vicious sectarianism associated with The Troubles also, of course, helped to embed very entrenched views.

      Despite the Yeats quote above, I remain absolutely joyful that the peace process survived. If someone had suggested back in the early eighties (hunger strikes, Bobby Sands, H-blocks etc…) that Gerry Adams would ever write this: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/sep/12/ian-paisley-northern-ireland-sinn-fein, they;d have been sectioned…

      Philip

  3. I have enjoyed immensely your posts over the years, which have contained much food for thought, humour, and a refreshingly frank and honest critique of the nonsense that surrounds scientific research. If only there were more voices like yours, and people brave enough to stick their head above the parapet.

    I hope that your blogging continues elsewhere.