Saturday, December 26, 2009

Mary Mother of Toast

This is old news, but it does need reporting again. From me. Because I'm interested.

Apparently the Virgin Mary Mother of God showed up on toast back in 1994. She wasn't content to hang out with God in heaven. She felt the need to impress people with a crumby miracle. So, she emblazoned herself on Diana Duyser's toasted cheese sandwich.

Nice of Mary to show up, really. Now if she would only do that in diners all across the globe. Then I'd be impressed.

That aside, however, I'd like to know if the bread is Wonder Bread. 'Cause wouldn't that just be the most awesomest blending of human ingenuity and divine intervention: "Need you wonder anymore, mortals, what bread thou needest? Thou shalt take of mine Mary loaf and be blessed"? And really, if you're going to theophanize on burnt bread, why not open a franchise and share the miracle with everyone? It'd certainly be a way to outstrip Jesus's feeding of the 5000. He only had five loaves to work with. But Mary, were she to snag a deal with Wonder Bread, would be able to claim the feeding of the, say, 2 billion!

Still, why would Mary want to run the risk of having her head bitten off? Or much more, invite quips such as "Bite me" into her celestial repose?
I wonder if Mary noticed she has some competition in the miracle-toast department? The late King of Pop, Michael Jackson has his face applied in cineresence, too. That's some pretty stiff competition, if you ask me. But Michael was one-up on Mary in this case. He had a prophetic voice that went ahead of him, Weird Al Yankovic, who in his higher wisdom, told us to "Eat it."
And if I could just put one final word in: I think this "miracle" displayed to a 52 year-old, gambling Catholic (sinner!) was rather milquetoast (i.e., timid and weak) of Mary. C'mon, Mary! You can do better than that. Remember the days of Lourdes? What about in Tepeyec, Mexico? Or Akita, Japan? Now those... those were miracles.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Scepticism Is Immoral? I Highly Doubt It.

In a recent conversation with a good friend, I admitted that I'm sceptical about some of the claims of Christianity. My friend was not offended, but did respond that scepticism is "immoral" because scepticism is doubt in the face of Truth (i.e., God). I want to examine this line of reasoning momentarily. provides the following definition of scepticism:

"skep⋅ti⋅cism  /ˈskɛptəˌsɪzəm/ Show Spelled Pronunciation [skep-tuh-siz-uhm] Show IPA

1. skeptical attitude or temper; doubt.
2. doubt or unbelief with regard to a religion, esp. Christianity.
3. (initial capital letter) the doctrines or opinions of philosophical Skeptics; universal doubt.

Also, scepticism."

The first definition seems apt to my intention behind the word. I hold an attitude of doubt concerning some of the claims of the Christian faith. This is a non-committed position that is left open for the purpose of critically examining issues and claims. A sceptic working along this trajectory has simply reserved judgment until s/he has had sufficient time and research to come to a reasonable conclusion. We might also call this kind of scepticism "critical thinking".

The second definition may also apply to my position. That is, by inference from the first definition, I doubt, even disbelieve some of the claims of the Christian religion. For example, I disbelieve the creation mythology in Genesis. And, as Karen Armstrong has pointed out in her book The Bible: A Biography, most Christians have disbelieved the Genesis claims on creation until roughly 150 - 200 years ago with the rise of fundamentalist biblical literalism. Disbelief though, is a little less nuanced than doubt, however: it is a conclusive position, whereas 'doubt' is being undecided, or not willing to commit without further evidence.

The third definition does not fit my outlook. Universal doubt calls itself into question. Doubt as a principle, it would seem, becomes the object of its own examination. It is therefore a self-defeating position, much like going solo on a teeter-totter, trying to pick yourself up unaided, or sawing off the branch you're sitting on. (And to all those teeter-totter fans out there, yes, I know you can straddle the fulcrum, but that's called 'balancing', not teeter-tottering.)

So the next question in keeping with the thrust of this article would be, 'Why would holding claims in doubt be considered immoral?' Well, as my friend suggested, human beings are
imago dei, created in the image of God. We therefore have an intrinsic understanding of his existence. Combined with the Christian concept of revelation, and God's incarnation, we have no right, room, or reason to hold any doubts about divine reality, or, in my friend's case, the claims of the historic (read, 'Catholic') church.

I object. defines '
immoral' thusly:

"im⋅mor⋅al  /ɪˈmɔrəl, ɪˈmɒr-/ Show Spelled Pronunciation [i-mawr-uhl, i-mor-] Show IPA

1. violating moral principles; not conforming to the patterns of conduct usually accepted or established as consistent with principles of personal and social ethics.
2. licentious or lascivious.

1650–60; im- 2 + moral

Related forms:

im⋅mor⋅al⋅ly, adverb

bad, wicked, dissolute, dissipated, profligate. Immoral, abandoned, depraved describe one who makes no attempt to curb self-indulgence. Immoral, referring to conduct, applies to one who acts contrary to or does not obey or conform to standards of morality; it may also mean licentious and perhaps dissipated. Abandoned, referring to condition, applies to one hopelessly, and usually passively, sunk in wickedness and unrestrained appetites. Depraved, referring to character, applies to one who voluntarily seeks evil and viciousness. Immoral, amoral, nonmoral, and unmoral are sometimes confused with one another. Immoral means not moral and connotes evil or licentious behavior. Amoral, nonmoral, and unmoral, virtually synonymous although the first is by far the most common form, mean utterly lacking in morals (either good or bad), neither moral nor immoral. However, since, in some contexts, there is a stigma implicit in a complete lack of morals, being amoral, nonmoral, or unmoral is sometimes considered just as reprehensible as being immoral."

Since what is 'moral' is generally decided upon through religious constructs, social systems, and special interest groups, thrusting the term 'immoral' on a person who doubts, or is sceptical about certain claims, teachings, propositions, philosophies, etc. is simply enforcing expectations external to the sceptic, or doubter. We have an ethical dilemma at this point: who is acting immorally? The one who cannot reasonably believe something without further convincing? Or the one who happily defines the parameters for belief and then charges others with immorality when someone doesn't ante up to those parameters? To put it differently, it would seem to me that the immoral person in this kind of situation is the one who blindly cascades dogmatic assertions over the doubter's head. Similarly, we would not call the person who is smacked in the head 'immoral', but we would call the person who did the hitting 'immoral'.

Given that I remain sceptical about some of the claims of Christianity, even religion in general, I have now been put in the position by my friend of being 'immoral'. Metaphorically speaking, he has smacked me in the head, and told me I'm immoral because he hit me.

With all due respect to my friend, I find his claim that scepticism is immoral dubious, at best. And that is not simply a clever turn of phrase. I sincerely think that calling doubt 'immoral' is constructing a pyrrhic victory that only gives the sceptic more reason to doubt. And by that measure, how much more immoral is it to cause more of the 'immorality' you're trying to stamp out by claiming doubt 'immoral'? It would seem to me that such an accusation achieves the opposite of its intention, and must therefore be dropped in favour of more intelligent dialogue.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Curious About the Holidays?

Here's one take. Enjoy.

And another one.

For the sentimental folk out there, here's a joyeux noel.

And here's something totally random.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Today's Thought

“The power of accurate observation is commonly called cynicism by those who have not got it.”

~ George Bernard Shaw.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Thought For the Day

"Fact of Life: After Monday and Tuesday even the calendar says W T F."

Author wished to remain anonymous.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Believing and Knowing

'Belief' is a bit of a dirty word in polite society. 'Knowledge' seems to carry a little more weight. The word 'belief' carries with it connotations of thoughtlessness, credulity, and irrationality. Whereas the word 'knowledge' fosters a sense of confidence, credibility, and accessibility; what one knows, another can get to know. However, what one believes is isolated, and another would have to leap, or make a series of leaps (nonrational, often unverifiable assumptions) to express even a modest association with a claimant's beliefs.

Religion, say, the Christian religion, fixes definite doctrinal qualifications on its adherents. A Christian, in order to be a Christian, must assent to historical articles of faith, which is to say s/he must agree to 'believe' formulations concerning divine realities that s/he may not 'know' to be true or false. For example, a Christian has no other recourse but to believe in the incarnation of Christ. That same Christian, however, also has very little, if any, recourse to actual knowledge of the Christ s/he states belief in.

This leads to a confusion in terminology wherein the distinction between belief and knowledge is blurred. Some well-meaning Christians think that because they believe a given proposition -- e.g., there will be a mid-tribulation rapture -- they therefore know that proposition to be true. Conversation, at that point, becomes stunted. How can I discuss things intelligently at that point if the person I am talking to equates belief with knowledge? Crudely put, it is possible to believe that elephant ears act like wings when no-one is looking, or that cats house the souls of dead philosophers, perhaps that Darwin didn't die but underwent a rapid acceleration to a new evolutionary stage. It is not possible to know any of that.

So then, what is belief? Belief is, as the English philosopher Colin McGinn put it in Jonathan Miller's A Brief History of Disbelief:

"...what you'll act on, what you'll take for granted, what you'll assent to, what you might gamble on. That means you're committed to that being the case. 'Belief' is really just an umbrella term that covers all the varieties of assent, of takings to be true."

As such, a person can validly use the term 'belief' to state that s/he believes in eco-awareness, democracy, liberal politics, the existence of God or gods, or what have you. To state a belief then, it would seem, is the formal expression of implicit or informal trust in this-or-that phenomena or noumena on a case-to-case basis.

But to carry the definition of belief forward a little more, both Miller and McGinn acknowledge belief as a disposition. This is an important qualification since it realises the difference between what one knows and what one takes for granted; that is, believes. A Christian simply takes for granted the resurrection of Christ because it is a belief stacked on top of another belief that what the Bible states about Christ is revelation from God himself. However, belief in the resurrection comes with no actual knowledge of its truth or falsity. It is a willing leap based on a pre-disposition (i.e., already assumed belief) that what the Bible says is actually true. Belief is therefore dispositional, continuous and assumed, non-episodic, or second nature.

This is in contrast to knowledge. As Miller puts it:

"Although 'belief' resembles 'knowledge', there's a very important difference between the two. In the case of 'belief', you can say that someone believes X and that he was wrong. But it sounds rather odd to say that someone knows X and is wrong. It's part of the definition of knowing something that it is the case. Whereas believing something is a state of mind about which you could be proved to be wrong."

To 'know' something then, is to suggest that something is incontrovertably what it is, and not something else. To 'know' a thing is to perceive its correspondence to testable, communicable reality. But to 'believe' something is to take on trust what might, at some point, be shown to be false.

This puts Christians in a precarious situation not just amongst unbelievers, but amongst themselves, too. For how can conversation happen when belief is taken to be knowledge? In other words, how can anything intelligible be conveyed about any one of the tenets of Christianity if a Christian is convinced that what s/he believes is what s/he knows? The dissonance this creates in the mind of the observant listener shuts down any chances of mutually beneficial dialogue since this blurring of distinctions results in wrong-headed dogmatism, fanatacism, and extremism.

Even if a religious believer is benignly fanatical -- e.g., Catholic assertions about Mary's perpetual virginity, Baptist promulgations on the dance-leads-to-sex scenario, Pentecostal insistance on the gift of tongues -- the fact of the matter is that believing is not synonymous with knowing. As long as the insistance that "because I believe" is directly proportionate to "therefore I know" continues, most, if not all table-talk about religion will be mostly notional and not actual; connotative and absent of the denotative ingredients necessary to intelligently describing a belief, or sharing some actual knowledge. In essence, confusing 'belief' and 'knowledge' makes conversation almost meaningless.

That would be shameful for a group of people charged to "give a reason for the hope that is in you" (1 Peter 3:15, ESV).

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

A Brief History of Religion

C'mon, now! Don't say it isn't at all accurate.

By way of Protestations of Free Thinkers.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Agnostic On Origins

What does it really matter how our origins came about?

On the one hand, we can claim by faith that God did it in either complete unvariated forms, or incomplete forms that are being guided to completion. But that is, afterall, simply a faith-claim.

On the other hand, we can sift the available evidence and cajole various incomplete theories out of the academic ether: Darwinian natural selection, intelligent design, theistic evolution, et al. But in this case we still have to concede that we really don't know the details concerning our origins.So given that both the fideistic approach to origins (God did it), and the naturalistic approach (a collusion of molecules did it) are ultimately best-guess scenarios, wouldn't it be more rational to concede agnosticism on this issue?
From my perspective, remaining agnostic on the issue of origins seems the only reasonable position. Perhaps that's being overly pragmatic; perhaps it's being supremely uncommitted. In either case, the issue of origins is purely academic and really shouldn't provoke such insipid controversy between mature thinkers -- be they scientists, God-lovers, or neither.


Saturday, December 5, 2009

When I Was 12...

...I was a ninja!

Friday, December 4, 2009

Stephen Fry: Brilliant.

It would be quite interesting to discuss a recent resolution proposed by Britain's premiere debate forum, Intelligence Squared: the Catholic Church is a force for good in the world. Leaving personal opinions aside for the moment, here (and Pt. 2) is a stunningly brilliant commentary by actor/writer Stephen Fry decrying, nay, destroying the notion that the Catholic Church is a force for good in the world.

It's been a long time since I've witnessed such an articulate and well-rounded presentation of the secular position against Catholicism. One might find it easy to estimate what that position might entail, but the angle Fry takes when drawing the curtains back on Catholicism is sheer genius.


Thursday, December 3, 2009

Questioning Authority

Okay. I have internet at home again, so I will be able to start regular blogging once more. Hopefully there are still some interested readers. Four months of involuntary hiatus can, I understand, diminish enthusiasm for regular readership and participation.

In any case, let's get things going with a bit of a bang. Authority takes on many forms: absolute, provisional, juridical, religious, etc. On St. Cynic, I deal almost exclusively with religious issues. Given that, let's take a look at the definition of religious authority, how it is expressed, enforced, and whether it is legitimate.

For example, Reformation theologians didn't subvert the notion of religious authority, they simply removed it from the hands of a highly corrupt papacy. Their emphasis -- at least in the Lutheran circles -- was on the freedom of the individual conscience to apply the moral standards, salvific message, and confessional doctrines of Scripture and the Book of Concord. Catholics charge that this is an abrogation from the papacy and the absolutist claim the Roman church had on Scripture, tradition, faith and morals. In both cases, each ecclesial communion based their claims on an absolutist sense of truth, and an assumed unerring interpretation of holy writ and tradition. In both cases, both factions viewed each other's 'authority' as illegitimate.

So, my question is, first, what is authority? And second, how can authority be properly expressed, enforced, and legitimized? Finally, do we even need religious authority; that is, is it essential?

What are your thoughts?