Does God exist?

Does God exist? It’s an important question – perhaps the most important question. Yet there is a huge number of people in the world who regard it as an open question, or simply deny the possibility. Among them are some very intelligent people. Indeed the impression I have is that the greater the intelligence the less likely is the belief.

I am assuming that the majority of the regular readers of this Blog do have that belief. So I am asking which of the various proofs (if proof they be) do you find the most convincing?

The first proofs which come to mind come under the heading ‘how did anything start?’. There are different versions but they boil down to the uncaused cause. Thus, if something moves it has been caused to do so. But that cause must have its own cause – and so on in a backward chain – we come to the first cause: and that we call God. From that conclusion we can derive aspects of the nature of God. For instance since there are intelligent people, the first cause must be an intelligent person. But a particular characteristic must be that the first cause’s nature is infinite in all its aspects – starting from its existence in the first place.

A second approach is the proof from design. The classic example is the pocket watch which you happen to find. You examine it. Your companion claims that it came about as a result of several chances. But you show him how, with all its complexity, it works, and is capable of telling us the time. You rightly claim that it has been designed – and so it must have a designer. And that is even more certainly true for the whole Universe. And that designer we call God.

A third approach is called the ontological proof. We start with the concept of an infinite being. But since existence is greater than non existence this concept necessarily exists. While this proof looks a bit too clever, or even simply playing with words, Bertrand Russell, who was of course an atheist, accepted that it was difficult to refute.

My own approach differs from all of these. I start with the certainty of love. I don’t have to prove that it exists I simply see that in all its forms it is the most important good which we know. (I think of course of love for ourselves, and of love for others.) It is an absolute value. And so I see God as the complete existence and source of love. Here, too, this God must be an infinite person because love cannot exist only as an abstract quality. Everything else from creation downwards is an expression of his love. In particular the ultimate creation is the human being because he or she alone has the capacity to love – or, if you like – to express the quality of God through love. It appears to me to be both rational and likely that God would make known more specifically what the expression of love would be. And indeed the Incarnation and Christianity might well be his way of doing exactly this.

Incidentally, though not unimportantly, it follows that the redemption of every human being is literally true. No matter where he lives, no matter what his creed or none, when he loves he expresses God’s spirit (can’t help himself, there is no other source of love). When we get to Heaven, and you can spare a moment from your chat with Bertrand Russell, expect to be surprised by the company there. And do not be surprised by those, a few in dog collars and a few praying their beads, still waiting outside, while St Peter, a loving man, desperately looks for the tiniest excuse to let them in.

Posted in Philosophy, Quentin queries | Tagged | 52 Comments

Guilty men and innocent women

For several weeks now we have had news stories about men making unwanted approaches to women. And of course we condemn them, particularly when the male is in a senior position and can influence the fortunes of others. Interestingly, it seems to me, allegations of sexual misbehaviour do not require the same levels of evidence needed for other allegations. While we outwardly maintain the principle that someone is innocent until proved guilty, inwardly we suspect that the allegation is true. I wonder if that tendency comes from our awareness of our own hidden sexual vulnerabilities.

Let’s dig a little deeper. Watch any television programme of the life of an animal species. It invariably shows that all the events tend to support reproduction. That’s no surprise because evolution, and therefore the survival of a species, is the major factor in the life cycle. Is it so for human beings?

We are far more complex, and much of the human purpose is concerned with other, and more edifying, values. Yet reproduction and its surrounding circumstances, which we may pretend to hide under the table, still play a huge part. If it didn’t, the human race would have died out millennia ago.

Let’s look at evolution’s plan. It is not hard to identify. First it provides the male as a necessary trigger. This requires an ability to recognise women who have at least an average capacity for child bearing. So features such as good breasts, ideal hip to waist proportions and symmetry attract. Ideally he should subconsciously recognise the signals, such as dilation of the pupils, from a woman who is going through her monthly stage of fertility. He is not required to note any of these consciously, it is enough to be attracted unconsciously. As far as evolution is concerned, the wider he spreads his seed the better.

The woman is complementary. Evolution requires a healthy looking man to impregnate her, and its main task is to find one who will be able to provide for her and her children at least for several years. She looks for capability and potential stability. And she wants to see in him the characteristics which will enable her children to have successful lives. In terms of sexual competition she is offhand or even brusque to men who do not match up. Her negative or positive attitude to partners is more marked at ovulation. And she is skilled enough to give the interrogatively glad eye to qualifying suitors without compromising her external modesty.

I am aware that these male and female characteristics read cynically. While they are necessarily general they are all supported by good evidence. Evolution itself does not have emotions or any moral sense. By its own internal dynamic it necessarily favours the characteristics required to ensure adequate reproduction. And it has another quirk. Because long term relationships are the best background for the success of the young, the desires which are triggered for mating easily expand to broader activities which support the relationship. And here cultural change plays its part.

Until very recently, sexual activity involved the danger of unintended conception, and so the mores of society harshly condemned mistakes. Modern control of conception has largely separated sexual activity and committed relationship. We do not know the long term outcome of this, although early indications suggest that evolution cannot be evaded without consequences.

So when we read of the casual abuse of women we might start by abandoning any automatic assumption that the man is a vile predator and the woman a modest maiden. They are both being strongly influenced by evolution to suit their reproductive needs: she by her unconscious recognition of how the male in question would serve as a long term mate; he by his unconscious recognition of how she would serve as a mother. Both, normally, are able to overrule their instincts so we are right to condemn those who offend. And we condemn more harshly if repeat behaviour is involved – though the solution may more readily come from a psychiatrist than from social punishment.

And we need to be careful about our judgments. It is easy to identify the male predator by what he says or what he actually does. But it will in some cases be his fallible attempt to read the messages a woman is unconsciously sending. The female predator – and, believe me, there are plenty – sends signals of a subtlety which can only be recognised rather than measured, let alone presented in court. But the worst is over for the moment: a recent international study shows a marked rise in sexual interest around Christmas, confirmed by a peaking of births nine months later. Unless you are in a Muslim country: for you it will be Eid-Al-Fitr – which celebrates the end of Ramadan.

(This text is marginally different from what is published in the Catholic Herald.)

Posted in Catholic Herald columns, evolution, Moral judgment, Neuroscience | Tagged | 24 Comments

The obedient Church

In looking at what changes might be needed in the culture of the Church in order to avoid the scandal examined in the Australian Royal Commission we come back to a subject which we have addressed before on these pages: subsidiarity. One reflection of the Commission was the hierarchical nature of the Church. This suggests an acceptance of the virtue of obedience: we simply obey the regulations of our immediate authority. We do not question.

Subsidiarity, as a principle, does not exclude obedience but it requires that, as far as possible, senior authority should not make decisions which can be made at a lower level.

Not only is it a general principle, it is one which has been formally accepted by the Church in its teaching. In practice it depends not so much on a set of rules but on an attitude of mind. Because we are fallen we tend to be reluctant to reduce our power by allowing decisions to be made by our inferiors. We can always find a rationalisation for holding on to our authority. The right attitude of mind is one which constantly seeks ways to increase the responsibility and commitment of those we lead.

And this appears to be a dangerous thing to do. If something, for which we are ultimately responsible, goes wrong, it looks a poor defence to say that the error was made by a junior who had not been given precise instructions. So a good delegator needs to be tough, confident and to believe that in the long run subsidiarity will give the best outcomes. Weak and anxious leaders find it nigh impossible. The neurologists suggest that such people have a greater brain capacity for emotion which has to be controlled through creating certainty wherever possible.

But even those who wholeheartedly accept subsidiarity will know that there still have to be some basic rules. The difficulty lies in distinguishing these from those decisions which should be left to individual choice. Everyone who has been a parent will have to judge similarly as the children grow up. And in this situation the judgment continuously changes as the growing children must learn to take on more and more responsibility.

However the practical instinct of the Church, despite some changes initiated by Vatican II which have not yet gone very far, is to rely on permanent tradition. Unfortunately this carries the danger that we do not easily distinguish between what is true for all time, and what may well be changed because our understanding has developed.

That is, I would argue, why change in the Church’s culture is inherently a problem. Little details can change here or there but since the culture is characterised by the avoidance of change it is hard to see how it might come about. It may teach subsidiarity but its own structure protects it from putting it into action.

Strangely enough the occurrence of great importance is our old friend Humanae Vitae. I am not talking about whether the doctrine is right or wrong but that the verdict was likely to be so damaging that even many bishops felt it necessary to make it clear that conscience – even in a moral doctrine which had been taught for centuries as an absolute demand of natural law – must give way to the authority of conscience. And that a rejection of this solemn teaching was consistent with being a fully paid up Catholic.

Today, it is the conscience of a pope which is at question. Should it ever be possible, under certain circumstances, for a remarried Catholic who will not undertake to forego the act of marriage to receive the Eucharist? I won’t try to answer this. But it seems ironic that the issue is between the traditional understanding of adultery and the traditional understanding of the authority of the pope.

Posted in Advocatus Diaboli, Bio-ethics, Church and Society, Moral judgment, Pope Francis | 38 Comments

The Commission of Shame

“When I went into the confessional, he [the priest] asked me what ‘Father Holmes’ was doing and I told him. His answer was to give me 10 Hail Marys and 10 Our Fathers, and he told me that I was a disgusting girl and I wasn’t allowed to let [Father Holmes] touch me anymore. That’s something I will never get out of my mind – him turning his back on me and not helping me.” (name changed)

My quote is from the report of the Australian Royal Commission on child abuse, which has recently been published. I have to tell you that it is a a sad document for any Catholic who loves the Church, and a triumphal document for those who don’t.

It is a very lengthy report and I must admit that so far I have only had time to skim through the Executive Summary, although I paid close attention to the issues which have been examined in the Catholic Press. It seeks to look at the degree to which the cultures and operations of the Church may have contributed to the many years of widespread abuse which was never brought to light.

While I do not necessarily agree with all the factors which are considered I have no doubt that the structures of the Church contributed extensively to the scandal, and so to the damage done to the young. Unfortunately those structures are not substantially different throughout the Church. It would appear that the Commission was prompted by the extent of abuse in Australia but, if lessons are to be learnt, they will be pertinent throughout. As The Tablet put it in their Christmas issue: “Investigation after investigation, including in the United States and Ireland, has identified a culture in which protecting the good name of the Church came first, the welfare of transgressing clergy second, and the protection of the children a long way third.”

Among the issues noted was the strongly hierarchical nature of the Church. This seem to have led to its ability to conceal bad news and to disregard ’whistle blowers’. It also created a system of protection for individuals perhaps, at one level, as a means of avoiding scandal. But what was happening was not only an internal question, it was against the civil law. Canon Law is certainly criticised. It would seem that the one person whose needs were not properly addressed was the child who was being abused. In civil hierarchies, such as the army, facilities for individuals to protect their rights, even of the most junior, are provided.

The Commission used an interesting phrase: ‘cognitive rigidity’. This refers to an inability to question whatever rules and doctrines apply. In such an atmosphere nothing changes. Instead of the Church providing the secular world with an example of how just organisations should behave, it is positively medieval by comparison.

The Commission recommends that celibacy should be voluntary. I do not accept that celibacy in itself is a cause. But it seems possible that any group of celibates would attract a higher proportion of damaged personalities. This suggests that greater care is needed in initial selection. A further recommendation is that the seal of the confessional should not apply in child abuse cases. There would be an obligation to report. Leaving aside the broader issues of the seal, removing it would, I believe, be counter productive. Nevertheless it remains odd that in this one aspect of society an underage individual can report a serious breach of the law against their person, and it be taken no further. I can understand why civil authority is critical. Perhaps an obligation to offer help outside the confessional might be an alternative.

But, and it’s a big ‘but’, it would be a mistake to think that sorting out this shocking issue will solve the problem, and we can go home to tea. It is simply an outcome of an organisation which is lost within a failed culture. It is true that Vatican II went a long way towards outlining aspects of needed reform, but on the ground it is a long, long way from achieving it. Back in July 1964 (Clergy Review), Donald Nicholl (described in his obituary as “one of the most widely influential of modern Christian thinkers”) used the phrase émigré de l’intérieur to describe the Catholic who has to settle for being a second class citizen in a kingdom that does not have first claim on his heart. That’s 54 years ago, and counting.

The Commision’s executive summary is at

I addressed this general issue in 2016: (“Bad apples or bad barrels?” Find it through ‘search’). It was accompanied by an excellent discussion in which John Nolan, Nektarios, and others, were active.

Posted in Church and Society, Moral judgment | Tagged , , | 82 Comments

Think of yourself

I am too full of Christmas fare to think too deeply. Instead I am providing a routine for mindful meditation. I stress that it is only the routine which I have developed, and which benefits me greatly. It is an amalgam of ideas put forward by the experts.

Regular users of mindfulness report reduction in anxiety or tension, a sense of peacefulness, a boost of creativity and better sleep. I have experienced all these things over several years.

If you don’t do it regularly, try it. If you do, share your additional or alternative ideas. Then gradually develop your own routine. You will find that it takes a week to a fortnight of regular sessions before you begin to feel the benefit, so don’t try to assess it until you have given it a good run.

Sit in an upright chair, ideally with arms. I use the one I would normally use for my desktop computer.
Close your eyes and look through the lids, noticing the colours and shapes.
Sniff up and down your nose, noticing the changing temperatures.
Use your tongue to explore your mouth, teeth and lips.
Listen for sounds. Do not bother about their origin, just note the noise entering you ears.
Wiggle and relax the joint between your neck and your skull; similarly the join between neck and backbone.
Stiffen and relax your shoulder joints. Note the relaxation. 3x
Hard fist your hands, then experience their slow relaxation. 3x.
Become conscious of your fingertips of both hands resting on your thighs.
Put your hand on the top part of your chest and breathe in and out as fully as possible. Then the main part, then the stomach part. 3x each.
Long breathe in from the bottom of your lungs to the very top. 5x.
(Quickly check the routines above to see if all remains relaxed. Be aware of the whole top part of yourself.)
Pull in and relax your buttocks. 3x.
Tense, in turn, your thighs, calves, and feet. 3x each.
Check back all the way. Try to be aware of the whole of your body from top to toe.
Breathe deeply and quietly, remaining aware of your whole self. (Use cooking timer?) The whole process should, with practice, normally take about 10 minutes. Develop the habit of being aware of yourself in this way from time to time during the day – particularly when you feel harassed, stressed or uncertain.

Posted in Quentin queries | Tagged | 3 Comments

Here lies truth

I write this on the day when I read of Theresa May’s deputy, Damian Green, resigning, admitting to “”inaccurate and misleading” statements about pornography found on his parliamentary computer. I suppose I should not be surprised – there have been plenty of misleading statements by those in authority – whether they relate to personal moral questions or to political decisions.

My eyes were first opened when I read Tom Bower’s Broken Vows which described important episodes in Tony Blair’s period as Prime Minister. It seemed to me that honest, clear statements were out of fashion: it was not so much the lies told but the almost invariable capacity of those in charge to shape their phrasing in a way which supported their own views and ending up by deceiving their listeners. And that means us. And of course if a statement turned out to be an embarrassment, a little ingenuity would be needed to show that the statement had been misunderstood.

I am not naive – perhaps all of us have been guilty of deceits in our time – but I am scandalised by the thought that political statements appear to have abandoned any attempt to achieve the truth. All that matters is that the audience is persuaded to favour the speaker. Truth has no a value in the public forum.

Of course this is not a problem confined to the 21st century. Plato and Aristotle both wrote about rhetoric. Plato was attacking the dishonesty of rhetoric, Aristotle provided a handbook on how to make the power of rhetoric more persuasive. Ironically Plato’s attack is a delight to read while Aristotle is rather boring. The best example of effective rhetoric in literature is Mark Antony’s “Friends, Romans, Countrymen”. Since I cannot conceive of a Secondsight Blog user not having a Shakespeare at hand, look it up and remind yourself. (I daresay it’s on the Internet, too.)

I think we accept that telling the truth, or not deceiving our neighbour, is required by natural law: we are by nature social animals and so in order to flourish we must communicate truthfully or, if you prefer, we must avoid damaging our neighbour’s rights by our deceit. The measure, I think, does not lie in the exact words but whether the truth in the speaker’s mind is the truth which is conveyed to the listener.

So now, children, here is your homework. Look out for politicians and similar, whether they are presenting an attractive idea, or attempting to down an opponent, or simply excusing their own malefactions. Try and decide the likely truth behind the statement and see how it has been manipulated in order to deceive you. Then, if you are daring, do the same to your nearest and dearest. And, if you are truly heroic, do it to yourself. Happy Christmas.

Posted in Moral judgment, Quentin queries | Tagged , | 18 Comments

The paternal God

A day or two ago I found myself in discussion with a Catholic friend. Like me, he is elderly; unlike me he is a lifelong bachelor. Where my Catholic work is mainly through writing, his is through Catholic associations and his own busy parish.

We were talking about Catholic moral teaching in our youth. Its structure was simple. Sinful acts were clearly identified and related, if sometimes rather remotely, to the Ten Commandments. And a careful distinction was made between mortal sin and venial sin: the former were ‘serious matter’ and required full knowledge and full consent. The punishment was hell for all eternity. It was later that we learnt about ‘structural sin’: for example that homosexual acts were intrinsically wrong because they flouted the sexual structures which God had created. In fact it was emphasised that any sexual sin, including ‘impure thoughts’ was matter for mortal sin.

I am writing about many years ago. But the basic pattern still exists. There is a greater degree of understanding of course. A good example of this in the Catechism’s treatment of self-abuse – where it is recognised that in many cases it may be at least partially excused. But its evil nature remains.

Looking at this orthodox pattern of Catholic morality, which on the whole I carry now only in the back of my mind, I was struck by its grotesqueness. If we imagine being in front of a magistrate for many equivalent faults we would expect a fine in most cases, possibly a short stay in prison or something of that order. But God apparently would send us to the pains of Hell for all eternity. And eternity is not just the billions of years since the universe was created, it goes on forever. Think of all the really evil people in history, ancient or modern, and consider how many people would really deserve that. Wouldn’t a billion years be enough even for Hitler? Why would I prefer the justice of the magistrate to the justice of God?

I assume that the culture of the times when this Catholic system of morality was built, led to the authorities believing that only the most extreme threats of punishment would keep people in order. But I believe that it leads only to extremists in one direction, and to abandoning the Church’s moral system altogether in the other. Yet I still believe in our ability to relate to God through love (including those people who love but have no knowledge of God) and I believe in the eternal happiness of Heaven. The fate of those who do not love I know nothing about, except that they have failed in the purpose of their lives.

Towards the end of our discussion my friend and I looked for a better approach. St Paul helped us here. He speaks of God as the father after whom all fatherhood is named. As a father, I was by no means perfect but I did learn that it was not about blame and punishment. Yes, there were necessary rules, but very little was spoken about faults. The emphasis was on what the children could do if they tried, not on what they shouldn’t do. Despite the Church’s questionable traditional approach, I refuse to accept that God’s mercy is inferior to mine.

Posted in Moral judgment, Quentin queries, Spirituality | 23 Comments