Is religion no more than genes?

Who is reading this? I am confident that you are a human being, and that means that you are rational. And I also know that you can distinguish right and wrong in your decisions through ‘love of self and love of neighbour’.

How come?

If we look at evolution we know that the principle is clear: our characteristics are in our system, and our structure is a mixture of our parents’ structures — plus the effects of personal experience. And the mixed qualities of our systems are passed on to the next generation

But we are aware that there have been, between chimpanzees and us, the primitive archaic human beings — such as the Neanderthals and Denisovans*. They, and others, would generally be described as archaic sapiens —  above the chimpanzees but below us.

But what does that mean? Were these archaic people able to behave rationally at some level, and did they have capacity to distinguish evil and good which required them to choose the good and to avoid the evil? Will we find them in Heaven, or otherwise?

But the problem relates to us too. We assume, as Christians, that love of God and love of neighbour are essential. But an atheist might argue that we merely follow the moral rules because we have inherited the genes needed to keep society effective — and so produce the next generations. They might argue that Christianity is simply a human development which happens to assist our society to continue and grow.

I am conscious that I am capable of making rational decisions, and that I can choose the good and disdain the bad. As a full time, full life, Catholic, my religion assures me that these faculties are created by the Almighty — and have eternal outcomes. So what would I say to someone who claimed that this is simply the actions of my genes: choosing the good and distaining the bad are no more than simply aspects of evolution?

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Abuse in the Catholic Church

Today I want to think about the thoroughly unpleasant subject of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. I just take a paragraph from a 2020 study: The 162-page report said, in summary, “the church’s neglect of the physical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing of children and young people in favour of protecting its reputation was in conflict with its mission of love and care for the innocent and vulnerable.” (A), see below; fuller, international, details are provided  by (B). And a search will bring up other reports on different countries.

Frankly, I was naive. I went through my early years as a born Catholic — including 10 years at a Jesuit school. I assumed that priests were holy men, and I admired their authority and their virtues. And there was no moment when I was tempted in the slighted sexual way. Perhaps I was simply a revolting child, but I never heard accounts of clerical sexuality from any of my schoolmates.

But I am very aware that, had I been seduced into sexuality with a priest, I would have remembered that throughout my life. It would have been a black spot on my sexual self — throughout my lengthy, and, as it happened, happy marriage.

This takes my back to the old question of married priests. Of course we have some married priests — married before they joined the Church. But how about the others? I must not over generalize, but I am aware that my marriage helped me to be a broader and fuller man. And that included my ability to recognize the values and understanding of the feminine. I am certain that, had I become a priest, I would have been a better one through what I had learnt through the life and love of a woman.

Another factor springs into my mind. Is it possible that some men who happen to be drawn towards homosexuality are attracted by the priesthood? A lack of heterosexuality might feel more comfortable if it was expressed as a call from the Almighty. But I have never found a study which examines the sexual feelings of those who have chosen roles which exclude close feminine connection. I just guess so.

If you would like to comment positively or negatively, please avoid any anecdotes which could identify any individual. The law is rightly demanding.



(C) French study:  

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Why I am allowed to continue living?

There has been considerable discussion In the US on the question of abortion. It was triggered by  a new Texan law which prohibits abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected, roughly the sixth week of pregnancy – before many women even know they’re pregnant. It makes no exemptions for pregnancies that are the result of rape or incest. It also effectively deputizes ordinary citizens regardless of where they live to enforce the law, allowing them to collect $10,000 for successfully bringing a civil suit against anyone found to “aid or abet” an illegal abortion. This law has been challenged in court but it remains in force. In defence, the Democrats are now attempting to establish a federal right to abortion. I understand that their new Bill is unlikely to be accepted.*

While our own views are unlikely to influence the US or, indeed, the UK, we need to be clear about what they are. Take ourselves back to the 1930s and WW2. I remember at that time wondering how the general German public were persuaded that the Jews were a wicked and damaging religion — which could only be controlled by the actual destruction of the Jews. Perfectly ordinary, civilised, people like me and you seemed to have accepted this view or even to argue its wickedness publicly.

But reasonable Germans found themselves in serious trouble if they publicly expressed their views. We are quite free to talk about abortion — we may be unpopular but we are not threatened by the State for our views. So let me say my views out loud.

The baby in the womb is a human person. From the point of conception it starts to develop mentally and physically, triggered by its inheritance. Naturally this development is extremely active in the womb, but it continues outside the womb and throughout life. I am in my late 80s and my brain continues to develop and modify through my experiences. One of my great pleasures is watching my great grandchildren exploring and enjoying the world — teaching their brains to develop at a high rate.

So let’s be quite clear: the abortionists are arguing that there is no objection to killing a whole group of human beings — who have no defence. Fortunately they haven’t got around to get rid of me — with a simple injection. But it’s actually more logical to snuff me out: I would no longer need to be looked after by the family, My pensions — work and State — would no longer need to be paid, my house could be sold for others to use, and my savings would go, after heavy tax to society, to the next generation. Can’t be bad!


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God’s mistake?

Today I want to look at God — that’s quite a subject. I want to talk about creation. The best figure I have for the total of all human beings is 116,761,402,413 (a). The current total of human beings is 7.9 billion. Of these 31% are Christians, 25% are Islamist, 15% not religious, 60% other religions. (b)

Catholic teaching is quite clear: connection to Christ through baptism is essential. I have told the story of how my wife, who had a 12 week miscarriage, struggled with great difficulty to baptise her child, and then to look forward to their meeting in Heaven. That has now happened. Of course there are particular routes: for example martyrdom or sheer inability. (c) But in the end we have to accept that much the largest proportion of created human beings have been failures. It may be that there is a form of existence for virtuous people who have not been baptised. And their secondary rate of existence in Limbo will continiue into infinity. But they remain failures.

Far be it for me to criticise the Almighty (and jolly good reasons not to) but if a new businessman had such a rate of failure I would suggest that he took another job. What do you think?


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The mystery of a Mystery

“Research showing that less than a third of US Catholics believe the Church’s teaching that Jesus is really present in the consecrated bread and wine caused alarm among Church leaders” opens the article The real thing in the Tablet, 14 August 21.

Given that Secondsight blog has a large number of Catholic readers it would be interesting to know how many of us have an orthodox belief in transubstantiation as set out in the full Catechism of the Catholic Church. I pinch the questions below from

Is the Body of Christ in this sacrament truly, or figuratively?
Do the substance of bread and wine remain in this sacrament after the consecration?
Is it annihilated?
Is it changed into the body and blood of Christ?
Do the accidents remain after the change?
Does the substantial form remain there?
Is this change instantaneous?
By what words it may be suitably expressed?

I am by no means a theologian — but I am a born Catholic, and continually interested in aspects of the Church’s teaching. Here is one difficulty I have:

While I accept that the host and the wine are genuinely the body and blood of Christ I cannot understand why the bread and wine do not also continue actually to be bread and wine. But, if I understand the formal teaching, this is not so. Since the sacred host will be dealt with by my interior system as bread and wine it all sounds to be a bit odd.
But that’s small beer compared to the list of other questions above. And the formal answers.

I have to say that the claim that the orthodox teaching is a simply a mystery does not satisfy me. And I am in no way surprised that many Catholics misunderstand the teaching. How about you?

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Praying for my cat

Yes, a sad story: my old cat, Nyche, has had to be put down. She has appeared from time to time on these pages so some of you will know that she, and her erstwhile brother, have been with us for many years. She has been unwell for a while and, apparently unable to eat. ‘Nothing’, the Vet said, was obviously wrong. But when I realised that she was having difficulties in walking, I knew the time had come. She spent her last day, half asleep, in my study — a favourite place for her. Thankfully, my daughter, very upset, and her husband (who knew Nyche well), took her for her last journey.

Now, she is buried at the end of the garden (like her brother) and well covered with bricks to hold off the foxes. And I find myself praying. Is that odd? We are all used to visiting the graves of our relations and friends. But a cat?

Of course we are thankful to the Almighty for our pets, but at first sight, praying for them seems odd. Yet as I look at Genesis (King James) I find: “And God said, Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind, cattle and creeping things, and beast of the earth : after his kind: and it was so.”

But of course we have no real idea of the afterlife — unless you can tell me. We know the purpose of Purgatory, but we don’t know what it will be like. The best view I can get is from Catherine of Genoa who apparently visited. She said that holy souls were only too happy to be in Purgatory, having at last realised their need for cleansing before they would be ready for the beatific vision.

And what about the end of the world? Do we meet our happy relations and friends? I look forward to meeting Charles de la Bedoyere — who was ADC to Napoleon at Waterloo, and was shot by a firing squad. A simple, but typical, error of his allowed the Brits to win the battle, thus starting modern Europe. His popular description at the time was “si beau et si sauvage”. No one has said that of me, worse luck! Yes, I think we should pray in thanks for all creation — and particularly those elements who are close to us. Mind you, I find it difficult to favour the ants who crawl in lines across the kitchen sink. What should I do about them?

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Old age is changing

How old are you? I am guessing that the age of most of you who regularly use this site, are younger, perhaps very much younger, than me. I am approaching 87, and I find that my mental capacities have changed considerably over the last few years. Of course everyone will be different but perhaps a description of the kinds of things I have experienced may be valuable or, at least, interesting.

Everyone accepts that that they will eventually die, but we are able to put that thought on one side most of the time — it is such a long way off. But, at 87, notwithstanding my reasonable capacities, it is suddenly quite close.  I have a good friend, Barney, of equivalent age who says: ‘Three months at our age is about the same period as three years for an earlier age.’ My father died in his seventies, but nowadays that seems to be ten years too soon.

I do have one ‘age’ disability: my memory is failing. So I have to surround myself with note books so that I can record notes of what is said to me, or what I must do tomorrow or the day after. I prefer people to send me an email rather than to telephone: the telephone message whisks off into mid air, the email remains in front of me.

I am not going to swank by telling you that I have a good family, I always knew they were. Through this last year or so, they have given me tremendous support, but I expected that already. In fact I often have to be careful not  to mention all my needs — my children, grandchildren, great grandchildren (27 in all) have their own responsibilities. Within a few minutes of my writing I will be visited by a 6 month old great grandchild. He and I just giggle. (Yes, indeed, he came — with his dad and grandad. We are all helping him with his early walking skills — giggle, giggle, giggle.)

As a cradle Catholic I would have once assumed that I would accept my religious orthodoxy right up to the end. But in fact the closeness of the ‘end’ has brought about some changes in my mind.

One of them is relatively minor. I am aware of the emphasis the Church puts on the nature of its composition as a group, and I am, as it happens less than 50 yards from one of its finest parish churches. Yet, I vastly prefer to attend Mass through my computer. I am conscious of the value of its congregation but I prefer to listen and understand. I am joined by an old friend, and we have the time to share our thoughts.

More important is the Church’s emphasis on morality and, in particular, the ‘natural law’. Not surprisingly, it was thought that the Almighty’s law was expressed on created nature — from which we can infer the good and the bad. But it’s not so: the Almighty created evolution. This is a marvelous system which broadly ensures that inheritable skills and characteristics succeed because they are promoted through breeding.

This means they could change. The obvious example, of course, was artificial contraception. It was realized that only roughly two born babies per couple were nowadays required to maintain the population. Previously, infantile mortality required much large families.The Church was, and still is, prohibited by its ancient rules, based on ancient conditions — but they needn’t have bothered.

So, for instance, I have no problem with homosexuality — yes it can be promiscuous and damaging but, for the right person in the right situation, it need not be.

I come back to the summary of moral law, as described in the New Testament: the love of ourselves and the love of our neighbour. It is these commands against which I nowadays measure moral choices.

I think, for instance, of my old friend, Barney. He has a lady friend of a similar age. They are both widowed and each have a family in support. And yes, they have an intermittent sexual relationship. As Barney said to me: “At least we don’t have to use contraception!” I know that formal teaching would condemn their sexual element. But, if it enables them to have a happier and more meaningful life, would I not feel that they were justified?

What do you think?

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Look me in the eye

We have all been aware of the shameful racism towards some England players at the Euro 2020 final. But it gives us the opportunity to consider how we, individually, tend to react to groups of people in much the same way. How do we think about the Irish, or the Scottish, men or women — or any other group with observable characteristics. Are we aware that our prejudicial responses have been necessary for the development of homo sapiens. I wrote about this a dozen or so years ago, and I thought it might be useful to remind you.


In a careless moment I have just knocked a heavy book onto the floor. My dozing cat instantaneously leapt from her favourite chair and scudded out of my study as if the world was coming to an end. She lives a safe and peaceful life but, being a cat, she knows that sudden noises spell danger and so her instinctive reaction is to run.

She is very like me. Aeons ago my ancestor heard a rustle in the undergrowth. He did not wonder whether it was harmless or a predator, his instinct told him to escape – and to keep going. Perhaps there were other hominids who rejected such caution and went to investigate. I did not descend from these for they did not survive to have progeny.

So let’s come forward through a few hundred thousand years, and note a recent study, at New York University, which tells us that we decide, even before we are conscious of it, whether a new acquaintance is honest or not. The recognition of an “untrustworthy” face can be measured in brain changes – even when images have been shown too quickly for any judgment to be made. Evolution ensures that biological creatures have developed to take such instinctive actions when faced by the possibility of danger or opportunity. We act on first impressions. But, like so many responses developed in primitive times they can sometimes be inappropriate today.

I have numerous grandchildren who are at an early stage in the job market, and they sometimes seek my advice about a prospective selection interview. They are surprised that I shy away from detail, and point out to them that selection interviews are hopelessly inaccurate, and that conclusive decisions are likely to be made within the first five minutes. What really matters is whether the interviewer likes the candidate or not. And once his mind is made up, subsequent information which conflicts is unlikely to be registered. And it will help if you are able to follow a poor candidate: you will look better by comparison.

We may experience the same thing when we attend a talk from a new speaker. How long does it take you to assess his intelligence, his social class, whether you would like him, whether he knows what he is talking about, whether he is worth listening to? You will decide all that in the first few seconds, and much of it before he has opened his mouth. It is true that in some cases you may have to revise your opinion but, most often, your general reaction of optimism or pessimism will influence you through to the end.

Indeed optimism itself can be manipulated. I once had a boss who was very good at refusing my requests but, knowing what a pride he took in his mathematics, I would put in a deliberate mistake. His pleasure in spotting it, together with my admiration for his skill, was often enough to get me what I wanted. Psychologists tell us that someone asked to read a text majoring on either depressing or encouraging words, will be influenced in both their mood and their subsequent decisions.

Hair, height, spectacles, general attractiveness, handshake, accent (class-related, regional, foreign) posture, shape of face, eyebrows, movements, gaze, smile, tone of voice, rhythm of conversation, clothes, skin tone, girth, name, address, are amongst the many signals which we know induce first impressions. And these impressions tend to stick. If you are running from danger it is safer to keep running than to stop and reconsider. Even contrary facts arising later may be denied, but more often they are simply overlooked. Sometimes interviewers refuse to believe that contrary evidence has been given until they listen to the tape recording.

Perhaps our first concern is to school ourselves to give the right first impressions. Have you ever thought of testing your handshake with a friend, or switching from contact lenses to spectacles? (The latter adds 12 IQ points to appearance.) But more important for our purposes here is to consider how accurate we may be in judging others. If we read the signs wrong we may of course make mistakes but, even worse, we may be responsible for an injustice. What precautions can we take?

Sometimes a signal may have a rational basis. So we might be right to suspect that a firm and friendly handshake comes from a firm and friendly person, but the sense of authority we attribute to a tall person is a primitive relic. Imputing greater honesty to received pronunciation than we do to a Glaswegian accent is cultural; and imputing virtue to those of attractive appearance is simply human nature. I do not advocate suspicion or cynicism, but it is prudent to remember that we too are susceptible to judging by the superficial. And we should be consciously open to changing our opinions as further evidence comes to hand.

We may be getting worse at this. A recent study suggests that those who spent too much of their time looking at screens of various sizes, rather than looking at people, gradually reduce their ability to read the emotions of others. It is ironic that social media, which presumably intends to bring people together, may be doing so at the expense of real encounter.

My wife told me that when we first met, over 60 years ago, she wondered who this odd scruffy person who actually argued with her – unlike her previous respectable boyfriends – could be. I asked her whether she had revised her first impressions since then. The little pause before she gave her tactful answer told me more than I wanted to know.

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Thirteen Years

Yes, thirteen years since Secondsightblog came into action. I have tried to count the number of items over the period. And it’s over 600. You can check if you wish! At that time I was the science editor of the Catholic Herald.

The purpose of the Blog was to present to Catholics — liturgical or secular — ideas and thoughts for discussion. Without doubt, the qualities of discussion have always been excellent. I am still tempted simply to pop in and have a look. Some of the names still with us today have contributed to the early items. Several others are now in Heaven.

Just for fun, I copy below the first item published.

April 21, 2008 by Quentin

Charterhouse, always at the cutting edge, has succeeding in finally solving a theological problem which has taxed great minds for 700 years. You might think that the number of angels that can stand on the point of a pin is a trivial question; indeed it is taken as a proxy for the absurdity of scholastic discussion. But it was by no means always so: and it is still the subject of discussion today.

Bring on the usual suspect: Thomas Aquinas of course. He started it by arguing that any angel could occupy a point in space and that no other angel could occupy the same point. He added that an angel did not have a dimensional quantity but a virtual quantity: it is not contained by the space in which it is present, rather it contains that space. However “there is nothing to hinder us from assigning a divisible place to an angel according to virtual contact; just as a divisible place is assigned to a body by contact of magnitude.” Plenty of room for argument, once you have worked out what he means. Check it at ST1. 52, 53 if you’ve a mind to.

Nowadays there appear to be two approaches to this vital question. Dr. Phil Schewe, of the American Institute of Physics, assumed, in his 1995 paper, the point of the pin to be one atom across and, by dividing this by the theoretical limit of the divisibility of space, calculated the number of angels to be 1 followed by 25 zeros. Another approach, sidestepping the Aquinas prohibition on overlapping angels, made use of quantum gravity. I cannot say I entirely followed the mathematics, but the answer turned out to be roughly the same. Apparently a larger number can be accommodated if they are dancing, but this causes insuperable problems with friction.

My own solution is, I claim, more elegant than either. We must assume the sharpest pin possible since any degree of bluntness is arbitrary. Therefore its tip must be equal to the limit of the divisibility of space or, if you wish, the smallest point possible. Since, St Thomas assures us, no other angel can occupy the same point, the answer to the question must be one. QED.

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We Don’t Need Bishops

So the debate about the attitude of the bishops concerning the American President and his prohibition to receive the Eucharist continues. (find a lengthy link to the elements of this below) And I don’t care because the important question for me is whether I believe abortion in itself to be a terrible sin, or not. On my Day of Judgment (perhaps not long off) the Almighty will be measuring my own judgments, and practices, of good and evil — that is loving God and loving my neightbour — nothing else.

The question of abortion is a question of created human nature. Do I believe that that neither I, or anyone else, has the right to kill an innocent human being? My answer to that is that I do not believe that I have such a right. But that leads to a second question: is a baby in the womb a human being?

The basic facts are clear. There is no human being before the male and female elements are joined, through conception, into one element — the ultimate genes are unique in their pattern. At that moment you and I have our own patterns, and our own identities. Over the days, months and years, the characteristics of our genetic elements develop through time and experience. This process continues after birth, and right through our lives. For example, we assume a capacity for broad reason about 7 years old, and a capacity for adult decisions at 18 or 21. At no point could we claim that we suddenly become human beings — because we are human beings ab initio.

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