Holy atheists

I haven’t heard much about Richarf Dawkins recently. You will remember his many publications including The God Delusion, which I reviewed for the Catholic Herald. It resulted in a discussion of nearly 30,000 words on his website (which I summarised in the Church Times). But I am grateful: if anyone hears of me in the next century it will be because I am mentioned in a footnote in the book. ‘Who on earth was he?’ the historians of the 21st century will ask.

I am reminded by coming across, by chance, a few paragraphs I wrote about Dawkins at the time. And I have to say I thought it summarised the question of atheistic scientists. So I am cheating by reproducing it here:

“Notwithstanding Piers Paul Read’s excellent article on Professor Dawkins’s programmes The Root of All Evil?, or perhaps because of it, I fell to wondering whether he might have something to teach us. It would be safe to say that Dawkins is not exactly popular among Christians at present. The only redeeming feature a lady friend of mine could find was that she found him rather good looking. But Benjamin Franklin claimed that he had never met anyone from whom he could not learn something: so what can we learn from Dawkins?

First of all, Dawkins is a searcher after truth. We may think that he is confused or barking up the wrong tree, but no one who has read his books will doubt his sincerity, and his determination to increase the sum of human knowledge. How many of us could say the same? We may claim that he has an obstinately closed mind. But how many of us have really used our intellects to interrogate what we believe? And has our religion been in the habit of encouraging or discouraging this? There are motes and beams here.

Second, he is a man of faith. He believes without any solid evidence that science can, at least theoretically, explain the whole universe, including the crucial transcendental aspects. But he would retort that we believe in a creator God equally without any solid evidence. In fact we regard this as a major virtue and call it Faith. So, “Yah Boo!” all round.

Dawkins chose his targets selectively. His programmes were an exercise in polemics, not science. But in themselves they were good targets, and we would do well to acknowledge this. The tendency in human nature to form intolerant communities around some core, unprovable “value” appears in both secular and religious contexts. But it has been prevalent in Christianity, even in modern times, as a brief acquaintance with Church history will show. Derek Wright in The Psychology of Moral Behaviour quotes evidence to suggest that the majority of religious adherents do so primarily to meet their emotional need to be part of a secure and certain community. Only a minority genuinely own their religious belief and commitment.

Dawkins argues that the indoctrination of the young into religion is an abuse of young minds. Of course others indoctrinate, we teach (can you spot the difference?). A shocking accusation! Well, not altogether. I can think of several examples of such abuse in my Catholic education. Just challenge me. My point is that until we open our minds to the tragic ways in which we can be false to Christ’s message we cannot hope to do better in the future. Dawkins, for all his vehemence, can do us a service — if we feel secure enough to listen to his case without prejudice.

And the vehemence of his views is what I like best. Hugh Ross Williamson, the distinguished Catholic historian who died in 1978, wrote in his Letter to Julia that he respected the committed religious believer and also the committed atheist. He reserved his contempt for the wishy-washy boneless mediocrities who flapped around in the middle. I suspect he would not be any more surprised than me to see Professor Dawkins, wearing that “naughty boy look” he does so well, welcomed at the Pearly Gates. His passport would not be that he had found the truth but that he had looked for it.”

Posted in Bio-ethics, Quentin queries, Uncategorized | Tagged | 30 Comments

Words, words, words

It was the custom, and perhaps remains so today, to name the senior class at a Jesuit school as Rhetoric. This proclaimed the classical view that rhetorical skills were needed by anyone who intended to be of substance in the outside world. Indeed, I did much public speaking at school – followed by Speaker’s Corner for the Catholic Evidence Guild. And many years later being paid attractive fees for addressing business conferences and dinners. But rhetoric has been a problem and continues to be today. From Today in Parliament to most social media you will find it flourishing.

It developed as an art from the fifth century Grecian world when there were many lawsuits over land ownership, and was seen as an essential tool to hold one’s own rights and to claim against the rights of others.  It created the need for teachers of rhetoric, who were a questionable lot.  Socrates was not pleased. He took the view, as we read in Plato’s Gorgias, that it was neither an art, nor a virtue, but simply a skill which could be used for good or bad purposes. Aristotle’s compendium on the subject is not light reading, but his analysis of the elements of persuasion remains relevant. And the importance of rhetoric has continued. From Rome to the Renaissance it marked the well-educated individual.

The Oxford Concise Dictionary gives, as its first definition “the art of effective or persuasive speaking or writing.” The emphasis here is on “effective” because the purpose is to lead the listener, through argument and emotion, to agree with the rhetorician and to act accordingly. The Dictionary then adds that it can carry the implication of insincerity.  We often employ the word to suggest that the style is superior to the substance.

Take as an example “Friends, Romans, countrymen,” from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Brutus conceals his intention to inflame the mob under the cover of a funeral speech: ”I come to bury Caesar not to praise him.” Every line is designed to deceive the “honourable men”. Compare that with Mark Antony’s “O pardon me thou bleeding piece of earth, that I am meek and gentle with these butchers!.” There is rhetoric enough here to inflame passion but no deceit. In real life we may recall Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of blood” speech, which, ironically, never used that phrase. I do not doubt Powell’s sincerity.  Even I have to admit that I wrote a book entirely devoted to the use of rhetoric in business situations, without using the word “rhetoric” once.

So it comes in all sorts and sizes. We remember that it can be written as well as spoken: from Cicero on natural law to Cassius Longinus’s third century classic “On the Sublime” to Newman’s Apologia pro Vita Sua to that column you read in your newspaper this morning. It can be long or short. The shortest I have found is “He would, wouldn’t he?” from Mandy Rice Davies. Even my Ukrainian housekeeper had heard that one.

We are left asking the question: whatever our sincerity and the importance of the cause we defend, to what extent are we entitled to use the techniques of rhetoric to persuade our listeners?  Let’s suppose that I am addressing an audience on the undesirability of immigrants, particularly those of colour. I abandon the use of quiet logic and choose passion laced with prejudice. I focus on fears and I make use of anecdotes. Any statistic that helps will be at hand. I hope for a noisy audience and I fan their strong reactions. Ideally they will leave the hall carrying banners and shouting slogans.

But if I wish to support immigration I will need to create a quiet and thoughtful atmosphere. I may season this with a little humour, establishing how civilised I am. My logic will be impeccable as will be my statistics, but both are carefully selected. They will be backed up by chosen anecdotes of the historical outcomes of racialism. I will welcome the occasional heckle because my peaceful response will support the merits of my cause.

My point of course is that both speeches use rhetoric. And the order in which I take subjects, the pauses, my summaries, the tone of my voice, the use of my eyes, and a myriad of other techniques will also influence the outcome. So how comfortable do we feel about influencing people through methods of which they are mostly unaware? Should we not describe rhetoric by definition as manipulation? But, if we do, we recall that “manipulation” comes ultimately from the Latin for hand (manus). So let’s call it “handling the audience”. Choosing the most beneficial word is key in rhetoric.  Now ask your spouse to make you a cup of tea – but remove rhetoric from your request, so “darling”, “would” and “please” are all verboten.

Posted in Catholic Herald columns, Quentin queries, Uncategorized | 22 Comments

RU a cannibal?

Are you a cannibal? You might very well be. Imagine that you happen to belong to a cannibal tribe. You have been taught from infancy that the only way to secure the tribe is to eat its enemies. Doing so prevents their sprits from bringing harm. Or perhaps that it enables you to to be strengthened from consuming the enemy’s spirit. It’s a pound to a penny that you would go with the flow.

This reminds us that, in addition to our genes and our upbringing, there is the influence of society and – more particularly that part of society within which we ordinarily live. And we tend to be less aware of that third influence. I suppose I would describe myself as a bourgeois liberal with intellectual aspirations. So I spend much of my time with such people. Indeed, here I am – writing in a bourgeois liberal way.

We should of course expect this. Evolution requires that there should be harmony within groups because a harmonious group leads to greater survival and greater success. So it survives and breeds. We are programmed to have the same values as our group.

A way of testing this is to look back through our lives and note the changes in our attitudes. I don’t only mean the changes which come about through the maturing of age but the changes which are vulnerable to exterior society. This may be clearer to Catholics than to some others because it is easier to spot changes as they occur.

In my formative years (1940s) the Church took pride in its rigidity. Doctrine was firm and unchangeable: you did not question, you accepted. Moral teaching was specific, extensive, and required unquestioning obedience. Conscience was a simple matter: the Church told you what your conscience said. The smoke of Hell was always in the nose. But then came Vatican II and, later, the question of artificial contraception. As you may know, I believe that the latter was the first essential influence on comprehensive change. We suddenly found that we actually had a real conscience. It will never be the same again.

Some of you will react to this by holding that all these developments have been disastrous. The Church has lost its authority, individual Catholics are confused, it will be difficult and perhaps impossible for the Church to get back to its true authority and, more importantly, its true identity.

Others will say that it is only now that the Church is finding its identity. Yes, there are problems and confusion. Some liberals go to extremes, of course. But we are at last beginning to reform the Church so that it can be a real reflection of Christ amongst his people.

In calling to mind these alternatives I am not arguing the case either way. I am asking in what ways have your values changed from those of your youth? And to what extent do you find yourself in company with Catholics who are broadly in agreement with your views? Can you make a list of your specific dogmatic and moral values which have changed over that time? And do you agree that it is important to ensure that the values you hold are your own rather than merely accepting the values of others.

Posted in Moral judgment, Neuroscience | 12 Comments

Forbidden fruit

“Our results show that the paintings we dated are, by far, the oldest known cave art in the world, and were created at least 20,000 years before modern humans arrived in Europe from Africa — therefore they must have been painted by Neanderthals.” (Science, 22 February 2018)

This discovery, including pictures of animals, dots and geometric signs, in caves in Spain is fascinating in its own right. It was possible because of new and sophisticated dating methods. It has a particular interest for us. The use of art tells us the Neanderthals had the capacity to generalise concepts and to express them symbolically. We must therefore assume that they had reason and some level of moral sense. They may even have had a concept of religion since there is evidence that they may have buried their dead for religious reasons. It has been suggested that they are an offshoot from the human line but more recent analysis concludes that they were a different species from homo sapiens. (Our interbreeding with Neanderthals came later.)

We accept the idea that early biblical accounts are not always historical in our sense. We do not for example argue that the universe was created in six days. We accept the essential truth of God’s creation and realise that it is expressed in terms comprehensible to its original readership. We may even be critical of evangelical Christians who continue to insist on the literal truth of the biblical account. But how about Original Sin? Not only does it seem to be taught as a literal occurrence in Genesis but it is treated in the same way in the New Testament. Today, we see it as a deep, inherited flaw from the sin of our first parents and, throughout Christian history its consequences have been matter for discussion, disagreement and heresy.

How do we fit in the Neanderthals now that we have evidence that they had spiritual capacities, primitive though they may have been? If current evidence tells us that they were a different species from sapiens, then they either remained unfallen since they never inherited from Adam, or, if fallen, would have needed redemption – like Adam. Perhaps they shared the situation of an unbaptised infant who, as the old Catechism describes, is only fit for “that part of hell called Limbo”.

I am not a theologian, biblical or otherwise, but I think we may consider some questions here. (The conclusions that I suggest are personal speculation.) Science favours the view that homo sapiens is unlikely to have descended from a single couple. It notes that new species are inclined to come from several instances of creatures which have reached a similar stage of evolution.

In this context we note that Adam and Eve are not names as such: Adam simply means Man; Eve means Mother of all the living. Given that over 300,000 years ago our direct ancestors were using tools and trading, is it possible that we are not talking about a specific historical couple, somehow remembered for many millennia, but simply proxies for our first ancestors whoever they may have been?

Our distinction between body and soul may help us here. We know that we evolved from the brute beast. And at some point we developed brains which were capable of rational thinking and, through that, our capacity for moral choice. These abilities, being essentially spiritual, are beyond the bounds of science since they exclude material cause and effect by definition. We would then conclude that each of us, by the age of reason, is susceptible to the choice of evil. And all of us, except the Virgin Mary, are prone to fall. In such terms Original Sin is native but personal, and requires the grace of Redemption to save us.

The exact text of Genesis is interesting here. The protagonists are tempted by the Serpent with the promise that to eat the forbidden fruit will enable them to distinguish between good and evil, and thus to be like gods. This is an apparent anomaly. While still in their unfallen state they were, the account tells us, already susceptible to temptation, and they freely chose to disobey. To become like gods is the ultimate ambition behind all sin. It suggests to me that the potentiality to choose the evil was within our race (and presumably the Neanderthals) from the very beginning. The former ideal state of humanity, pictured by Genesis, is not a literal description but a mythological vision of how the world could have been if humans were to seek only the good. But through the Redemption we will, we may hope, live in just such a world after the Resurrection.

Posted in Catholic Herald columns, evolution, Moral judgment, Quentin queries | Tagged , , | 26 Comments


Some years ago I wrote a piece in the Catholic Herald on revision. I think it worked – if an email I received from a reader is anything to go by. Here’s what he wrote.

“I just wanted to let you know that I passed this on immediately to my undergraduate son, verbatim, and to all the students on the several courses I teach at (Oxford) Brookes in at least precis form. It is the single most useful piece of advice I have seen on how to learn.”

Some of you will remember this because you made supporting contributions. And I do not suppose that all you readers today are students. But you may well have relations or friends who are studying – perhaps for exams this Summer – and indeed all of us need to recall what we have learnt from time to time. So, here goes:


‘White founts falling in the Courts of the sun, and the Soldan of Byzantium is smiling as they run.” I shot the first couplet of Chesterton’s Lepanto at my old friend. And he responded with a word-perfect quatrain. No, we didn’t remember every line, but we made a fair attempt at a poem we had learnt in class well over 60 years ago. Long-term memory.

Revision and recall are topics which make the student of any age sigh with tedium. Out with those notes we made so long ago; out with the textbooks or the internet pages which have faded in our memory. And then the midnight hour when our lucubrations strive to push back into the skull information that has been leaking out from our memories for weeks. And of course it is much too late.

Fortunately scientific investigations have discovered many factors which relieve the difficulties of revision: unfortunately few are taught these – and even fewer put them into practice.

Here is a question. Imagine two groups both of which were taught the same material in a lecture. Group A was tested the same day and group B was tested a day later. Both groups were re-tested to discover the amount of material retained two months later. Which of the two groups have remembered most?

Interestingly, not only did Group A retain about six times as much as Group B but, after 63 days, it retained nearly twice as much as Group B retained on the day following the lecture itself. So revision is less about work than about timing. Yet too many of us are inclined to leave all revision to the very last moment when we could save ourselves trouble and greatly improve our memories by revising at the first moment.

Tony Buzan, whose Use Your Head (BBC) is my bible in such matters, suggests that the most efficient routine is to revise about 10 minutes after the original study, then a day later, a week later and a month later. By that time the learning should be in the long-term memory.

The precise ways in which memories work have not been fully established. But the distinction between short- and long-term memory is useful. I think of short-term memory as a slightly leaky bucket. Its capacity is small – perhaps three to six items – and I have to get these into the reservoir of long-term memory before the items have leaked away or have been replaced by new items of information.

There are simple ways of nudging the items into the long-term memory. The easiest is repetition. Another method is finding an association. I am bad at recalling names but I remember the name of my housekeeper, Marta, (because she is a “martyr” to her work).

But revision, on the sort of schedule Buzan suggests, has little value unless you work with the material you are trying to remember. That is the best means of employing the long-term memory.

Suppose that I am trying to revise some material that I learned about the Church and slavery. No, I don’t look at my notes. What I do first is to scribble down on rough paper what I can remember. In this way I reconstruct knowledge in a way that strongly bolsters recall. So my list might start with “Aristotle, Paul and slavery, Wilberforce, Jesuits in Maryland” and so on. Only then do I look at my notes. I know that re-discovering what I have forgotten or remembered incorrectly will drive the right memories deeper. I am also inclined to give a lecture on any subject I am revising to an imaginary audience, before I look at the notes. But you need to be an egoist like me to do that.

Either way, the experts are clear that continuing to reconstruct the information through frequently attempting to recall it is the most effective technique for successful revision.

Some instructors will administer a brief tick-box questionnaire at the end of a period of instruction. This in itself acts as revision, and so is advantageous. It is enhanced, by the way, by the instructor signalling the test in advance, and so giving the student a motivation for higher attention. A similar effect would be achieved by two friends agreeing to quiz each other about 10 minutes after the instruction.

A further disadvantage of leaving revision until the last moment is that panic leads to long hours of weary work. But, as in all learning, the level of attention is maintained by working for short periods, say 30 minutes, and then having a little break. This aids attention and gives an opportunity for reviewing the revision. And I emphasise again that using different, active, methods of revision beats by a long way re-reading notes until the eyes blur. Remember that good sleep enables the memory to store important information effectively – so long nights studying are counterproductive.

But you may say that you no longer have a need to study like this. Perhaps not, but you almost certainly have a friend or a relative who needs it. Will their instructors have taught them how to revise? Possibly, but when I made a professional audiotape on the issue some years back several teachers told me that they themselves were ignorant of the available research.

I have confined this column to a few key points. But I trust that many of you have experience of teaching and instruction. So do share your ideas with us here. You may well be helping someone pass an exam they might otherwise have failed. (Ends)

PS You can of course see the original when it came out by using Search on this page. But I have made one small change. Can you spot it? Looking for it will be an aid to memory. Who will find it first? The clue is: promotion.

Posted in Neuroscience, Quentin queries | 4 Comments

Millennials leave the Church

Many of my Catholic friends have children in their twenties – these are called millennials, I understand. The issue is the high proportion of these who no longer practise their religion or perhaps are effectively agnostics or atheists. What, we ask ourselves, did we do wrong or what did the Church do wrong? It is not that they lack a moral sense – in many respects they have high moral beliefs and actions even if those are sometimes focussed on objectives that may seem odd to us. Generally they act in line with the Ten Commandments but it might be better not to mention this in case they drop them as a result.

Naturally the sexual area looms large and it appears that the routine is sexual activity (perhaps started at university) beginning early on, developing into living together for years rather months, then finally – sometimes pregnant — into marriage. They listen politely to the statistics which show that this is not a good route irrespective of religion but they ultimately continue on the same path.

Perhaps advanced methods of contraception provide a needed facility, perhaps the Church’s prohibition on sex outside marriage conflicts with their circumstances. And perhaps the imperatives of Catholic morality run counter to their ways of thinking. It may be that the rate of marriage breakdown is another factor which influences them. This is my guesswork and you may have different ideas.

Tell me whether you agree with my view of the situation. And just as importantly what should we do to keep our young inside the Church. Or perhaps the problem lies with the Church’s approach. The last time I published my thoughts on how the Church might approach the young by taking them seriously all I got was the Holy Office on my tail

Apologies for posting this late.

Posted in Moral judgment, Quentin queries | 83 Comments

Poetry and the human heart

As we move out from Lent and into the joys of Easter I started to think about poetry. The immediate trigger was Wendy Cope’s new collection: Anecdotal Evidence (Faber & Faber). You will know her as a fine and witty poet with the gift of making us think. She asks, in her eight line introductory poem what the use of poetry may be. She answers: “It’s anecdotal evidence/About the human heart.”

I am not in Cope’s league but it inspired me to look at some of my short poems written over the years. So I thought I would indulge myself by writing about some of them this week.

We have all experienced, whether male or female, occasions when an incident hits us so hard emotionally that we find the tears rising in our eyes, so this poem reminds me of my late wife.


She had seen many pictures on that day;
They were all good, and certainly very costly.
Some had even made her catch her breath.
Then she turned a final corner –
Feet swollen, ankles aching –
To see four snow scenes painted by Monet.
She stood there and cried for beauty.
She had not meant to cry and was ashamed.

My next poem, British Surgeon Lebanon ‘87, also concerns a woman but this is a British surgeon who took huge personal risks attending to the damaged and wounded in Lebanon (1987). It struck me that we can do dangerous and courageous things simply because we were there at the crucial moment. It is a great tribute to human nature.

Do you do it for love? I asked.
No, she said.
Why do you do it? I asked.
It came to my hand, she said.

While she was working, I saw some very unpleasant scenes. And I tried to sum them up in 3 lines which described an incident I saw.

The bullet entered under her nose;
Her skull plates heaved
And brought up brain.

Many years ago we had a French lodger. She was so beautiful that she triggered in me what we might call impure thoughts. She had no interest in me other than friendship. In the end it became so unbearable that I had to ask my wife to move her on.. But it was not before I wrote a little rhyme.

Long-stemmed she rose
Her voice cut glass
She’s my mistress
I’m her class.

Some hopes! So let’s move to something more intellectual. I hope you know Wagner’s Ring.

In Wagner’s Ring
Power is king.
With the world in tatters,
Nothung matters

But of course we must end with something religious. This one was called The Bible.

I doubt if King James wrote it,
But the one who did
Knew the force of short, brute words;
And did not, if there were no clear need,
Write polysyllabically.

I am sure that some of you use poetry as a way to express your anecdotal evidence about the human heart. If you do, or even if not, tell us whether you enjoy reading poems which seem to hit the button.

Posted in Quentin queries | Tagged , , | 13 Comments