Sat 1st Nov 2014 | Last updated: Fri 31st Oct 2014 at 16:19pm

Facebook Logo Twitter Logo RSS Logo


Bishop Philip Egan: Combating secularism requires creativity, not just tradition

The Bishop of Portsmouth on making converts, his teenage crisis of faith and his outspoken opposition to same-sex marriage

By on Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Bishop Philip Egan (Photo: Mazur)

Bishop Philip Egan (Photo: Mazur)

I try to keep up with Bishop Philip Egan as we race through the corridors of Bishop’s House, Portsmouth. A short, energetic figure, he sweeps through a series of doors then up a picture-lined staircase to a simple, but elegant reception room. Since he was appointed to the diocese last September he doesn’t seem to have wasted a minute. He has overhauled the diocese’s governing structures, issued four pastoral letters, commented on everything from same-sex marriage to the Royal baby, and given a series of thoughtful lectures on secular culture.

In person, he is kind and self-deprecating, but also brisk and purposeful. He seems to know exactly what he wants to do in his still relatively new role and is keen to get on with it. After we said goodbye he zoomed off to another meeting, clearly happy at the helm of what he calls his “can-do diocese”.

When did you first sense a priestly calling?

I must admit I did first think of it when I was 11. I had a rush of religious fervour. But then in my teenage years it was in the background a bit. It was only really when I was about to go to university that I thought of it again. I thought: “Well, I’ll choose a subject that might be useful but is one that I’m interested in.” Somebody asked me the other day what I studied at King’s [in London] and I said: “Real ale and having a good time.” But technically it was Latin and Greek.

Did you ever have a crisis of faith?

I would say, yes, I did as a teenager. I went through a period of wondering: “Does God really exist? Is there life after death?” Those two questions are always there in a way. I came to this conviction that somehow, especially through Mass, God is there. He is love. He loves us. It gave me that confidence. I couldn’t imagine what it’s like now to say that God doesn’t exist. It’s just part of the whole sacred canopy of life.

Your predecessor, Bishop Crispian Hollis, led the Diocese of Portsmouth for a quarter of a century. What legacy do you think he left?

I always think it is never the legacy of an individual. The Church belongs to Christ. Anything that we have is really the fruit of the Lord’s work. But I feel Bishop Crispian has left us in a good place in all sorts of ways.

I really want to get to know the priests of Portsmouth. I find a great spirit among them. We are, as I’ve got to know through our trustees and many of the lay people I meet at Confirmations, a kind of can-do diocese.

In your episcopal ordination address you spoke of the need for Catholics to make converts.

I spoke about the need for evangelisation. Making converts? Yes, in the total sense. I suppose traditionally the term “converts” makes one think of people coming from other Christian communities. I spoke about evangelisation. I think that’s the central theme of what the Holy Spirit is calling us to do.

Why do you think that, according to figures compiled recently by the Latin Mass Society, the number of conversions to Catholicism in England and Wales peaked in 1959 and is now just a third of that level?

I think the fact that 5,000 people convert, or are received in the Church, each year is a wonderful thing, because the whole culture has been radically altered since 1959. OK, we can look at internal weaknesses within the Church, but the critical and crucial thing has been the emergence of a post-modern, secularised society. I’d say that the reason there are less converts today is not because the “product” is defective. The key thing is that people can’t hear that call in a comfortable, affluent, consumerist, totally secularised culture.

The great thing of the Latin Mass Society is the tradition of the Church, but I actually believe that we don’t need more tradition. We need more creativity to respond to the challenges of the secular culture.

So you are saying that the sole answer to this problem wouldn’t be to have a Latin Mass in every parish?

That would be wonderful, but it’s not enough. Making available the Catholic tradition is a wonderful thing, but I think the time has come to put all the Church’s resources – its spiritual tradition, the 2,000 years of ascetical theology, the lives and example of the saints – at the service of helping people to pray and discover God at work in their lives. Because I think that from there will come the basis for the new ardour, the new passion for the Lord. It will catch on like wildfire.

I’d like to ask you about same-sex marriage. Could I ask why you spoke out individually about it, as well as through the bishops’ conference?

I tend to think that as a bishop I never speak out individually as such, because I’d always want to do that in communion with Pope Francis and my fellow bishops, the College of Bishops.

But first of all, there is no such thing as same-sex marriage. It’s a re-definition of marriage. My anxiety is really the redefinition of what it means to be truly human. I’ve been concerned as well that in the campaign the Church has focused very much on the details of what is or what is not going through Parliament. I’ve been thinking to myself: “We’re going to lose this one.” My concern was, right, we’re in a dark wood here. Let’s switch the headlights on. We’ve got to be proactive. With so many things we are often caught on the back foot, whereas we need to be planning ahead. We need to be thinking: “Are we going to have inter-species marriage? Are we going to have polygamous marriage? Are we going to have marriages of four, five, six people together coming up?” What’s going to be next?

For a full version of this interview, see the latest issue of The Catholic Herald

  • TreenonPoet

    OK, we can look at internal weaknesses within the Church, but the critical and crucial thing has been the emergence of a post-modern, secularised society. I’d say that the reason there are less converts today is not because the “product” is defective. The key thing is that people can’t hear that call in a comfortable, affluent, consumerist, totally secularised culture.

    I think that the bishop has an inkling of the truth here, but I would disagree that the product is not defective. The rise of non-belief is linked to those defects. Helping people to pray and discover God is not a solution, but part of the problem…

    May I draw your attention to certain groups of Christians such as Followers Of Christ Church whose doctrines insist that God heals, and that one should pray rather than seek medical attention. These doctrines have resulted in the deaths of children whose parents prayed for their child’s recovery instead of seeking medical attention.

    Such doctrines are evil. There is no evidence that intercessory prayer works, there is no scientific basis suggesting how intercessory prayer could work, the results of scientific experiments do not support the prayer hypothesis, there is no evidence that biblical verses that oppose medical intevention have any authority, and the very idea that such intercessory prayer works is contrary to logic (such as that regarding opposing prayers, God’s presumed plan, etc.).

    Is the Catholic Church going to ‘pass by on the other side’ (as condemned Francis Phillips’ recent article in connection with another child’s death) or is it going to help to remove the support for such doctrines by, for example, telling the truth about prayer? If, despite the evidence, the Church chooses to continue to help people to pray to God, then it is supporting evil and should not be surprised if its followers dwindle.

  • Peter

    In a poor society people rely on God to see them through each day and are grateful to God at the end of it for allowing them and their families to survive.

    In an affluent society, where no-one needs God to see them through the day, and people take life for granted, avarice becomes the new god which people worship.

    The problem is that affluent societies make up only one seventh of the world population yet use up 80 percent of its wealth. It is the very injustice upon which affluent societies exist which causes their spiritual downfall.

  • TreenonPoet

    I roughly agree with your third paragraph. Regarding the second, it may well be that affluence has resulted in the manifestation of avarice. That some rich and some poor have been persuaded that God exists and may consequently gain some psychological benefit from that belief does not mean that it is necessarily a good thing, considering the baggage that may come with that belief…

    I mentioned prayer in my previous post. Just how much time is wasted praying and how much complacency results from a belief that prayers will be answered? With many religions, there are other negative impositions such as the encouragement to have too many children, the demonisation of those of other religions and none, and the discouragement of rational thought, to name but a few.

    In an age where more people have access to information that indicates the fatuousness of religious belief, Churches should support, rather than suppress, religion-free attempts to convey ethics and give the real reasons to avoid avarice.

  • Peter

    “In an age where more people have access to information that indicates the fatuousness of religious belief”

    I would argue the opposite, because I think that science is increasingly revealing the likely presence of a mind behind the existence, constancy, rationality and intelligibility of the universe. Any materialist alternative to that is, in my view, virtually impossible because it would have to take into account a universe, ours, selected from a multiverse of infinite possibilities, making such a multiverse infinitely complex and therefore infinitely improbable.

    Our deeper understanding of how scientific laws function does not reveal why they continue to operate. What is it which continually breathes fire into their equations to keep them active and constant? If a mind is responsible for the existence of the universe and its laws, it is also responsible for maintaining those laws in operation and sustaining the universe in existence. Such a mind would hardly be an absent deistic entity but a hands-on theistic one.

    Science then does lead us closer to the notion that the universe is created and sustained by a supreme theistic mind, which renders the practice of religion no longer unreasonable and religious belief no longer fatuous.

  • TreenonPoet

    If you are unhappy with the notion of a multiverse, there is nothing we know of that rules out the possibility of a singular universe (whose physical constants can only be the values that they are, even if we cannot yet derive all of those values mathematically). No scientific discoveries imply a creator.

    The laws of physics describe what happens in the physical world. If we talk about a phenomenon obeying the laws of physics, we obviously do not mean that the laws are entities that command certain behaviour. As descriptions, the laws do not ‘operate’, and it is nonsense to talk about maintaining those laws in existence. Whichever way the universe behaves, that is how it behaves. There is no scientific basis for believing that there is some sort of supernatural puppeteer pulling the strings, and such an idea is no help whatsoever in understanding the universe.

    So no, science does not support the idea of a supernatural creator or sustainer, no matter how much you would like to believe otherwise. What makes ideas such as yours even crazier is the conflation of this creator/sustainer notion with the other attributes ascribed to God, such as having a mind in the image of man’s mind, being perfect but unable to get its message across, etc. While the Church continues to attempt to screw people’s minds up to the degree necessary to accept such lunacy, it does not deserve to continue to exist.

  • Peter

    If you postulate a singular universe – ours – then you must explain how the laws of that universe are at the particular values we find them instead of being at other values. The mathematics of M-theory suggest that the laws of the universe can have at least 10>500 different variations. So why are the laws of our singular universe constantly fixed at one particular set of values out of a possible 10>500 or more? To say that the universe just is as it is is simply not good enough since the potential for variation is almost infinite.

    What is also simply not good enough is your failure to explain why the laws of the universe which exist independently of our ability to observe them, are intelligible to us in the first place. There are not only intelligible here and now, but would have been intelligible to us in the past before we developed as a species capable of comprehending them, just as they would be intelligible to us now within receding galaxies which are forever beyond our perception.

    The unique configuration of the laws of the universe and our inexplicable ability to comprehend them, suggests a supreme mind similar to our own which laid them down in the first place.

  • TreenonPoet

    I can provide an ‘explanation’ for all those unknowns that meets your standards. I only need to make something up. How would that be any worse than your ‘explanations’?

  • Peter

    The materialist version of man, as a randomly-evolved complex arrangement of matter inhabiting a tiny speck of the cosmos, and whose eventual demise will go unnoticed by an indifferent universe, fails to account for the fact that man is in possession of a particular reasoning which enables him to comprehend the workings of creation and marvel at its profound rationality.

    Experience tells us that only a mind is capable of creating rationality, so by following the evidence to where it leads we conclude that it is highly likely that the universe is the product of a rational mind.

    This explanation is not made up but is based on observation, experience and evidence, which is far more than what can be said for any explanation the materialist may come up with.

  • TreenonPoet

    How would you tell the difference between (1) a universe that is the way it is because it is one of the possible results of its constraints since the beiginning of time, and (2) a universe that was somehow the result of a mind (and I will generously allow this mind to be nothing like the mind of man if that suits you)?

  • Peter

    Materialistic scenario (1) is virtually impossible because it implies an infinite number of alternative possible results which would render such a scenario infinitely complex and therefore infinitely improbable. Furthermore it is not supported by any evidence.

    Product of a mind scenario (2) is plausible because it explains why the universe has the precise values that it does. This scenario is supported by evidence that the universe is rational and intelligible, which in our experience is the product of a mind..

  • TreenonPoet

    By your reasoning, the existence of your first paragraph is virtually impossible (before I read it I would have considered any particular combination of words to be highly improbable), yet there it is! And it did not even need an infinitely complex process to produce it. As another example of this fallacy: If you head in a particular direction, it is one of an infinite number of directions that you could have taken. That does not make it impossible for you to head in that direction. Variety is not the same thing as complexity. Scenario(1) is a perfectly possible (and parsimonious) option.

    If scenario(1) cannot be distinguished by observation from scenario(2), then any evidence that you cite to support scenario(2) cannot contradict scenario(1), and therefore does not imply scenario(2) and not scenario(1). It comes down to an argument of which is more likely.

    The thrust of your argument is that anything that is rational and intelligible is, in our experience, the product of mind. (a) Would it not be equally valid to argue that in our experience a mind requires a medium (such as the brain) so there can be no mind without matter? I am not making that argument, just presenting a parallel to your argument. If you argue that a mind would not necessarily require matter, I would argue that rational and intelligible things are not necessarily the product of mind. (b) By your reasoning, the mind that you postulate must have itself been created by a mind, ad infinitum.

    Would you bother presenting such a silly argument if you were not desperate to justify your belief in God? But even if you were correct regarding the universe being a product of a mind, you would have contradicted the notion that there was only ever one god by your reasoning (see objection (b)), and you would not have shown that the mind that produced the universe shared other characteristics attributed to the Catholic God, such as the need to be worshipped.

  • Peter

    “Variety is not the same thing as complexity”

    By your reasoning, if the universe takes a particular direction, it is one of an infinite number of possible directions it could have taken. For the possibility of that infinite number of directions to be taken, however, there must be a scenario where they all exist in reality otherwise they would not be possibilities.

    As I have said before, where an infinite number of different possibilities for the universe exist, such a scenario would be infinitely complex because it would include the possibility of anything and everything. Infinite variety is infinitely complex and therefore infinitely improbable. Consequently a materialistic explanation of the universe, being infinitely improbable, is virtually impossible.

  • Peter

    “There can be no mind without matter”

    You argue that, just as in our experience rationality and intelligibility are the product of mind, so too in our experience is mind the product of matter, and that you cannot have one without the other. Therefore, if the rationality and intelligibility of the universe are the product of mind, that mind must be the product of matter which would make it highly complex, requiring an even greater explanation in its own right than the universe it seeks to explain – Dawkins’ classic argument.

    However, there is a problem with your reasoning. We know for certain that rationality and intelligibility are the product of mind. We have for example devised mathematics and philosophy. But we do not know for certain that mind is exclusively the product of matter? The majority of humans have reason to believe that mind survives the destruction of matter at death in one form or another. Thus, contrary to your claim, the experience of the human race is that mind does not require matter to exist.

    Just as the rationality and intelligibility of the universe are, from our experience, the product of a mind, so too from our experience is such a mind not necessarily dependent on matter for its existence. This means that it does not require a greater explanation in its own right that the universe it seeks to explain. Consequently, it is a far more likely explanation of the universe than any materialist explanation.

  • TreenonPoet

    If I throw a die 100 times, I can record a sequence of 100 numbers which were uppermost when the die landed. Beforehand, the probability of producing that sequence would have been extremely small. After each throw, the probability would have increased until, just before the 100th throw, the probability would have been one sixth (assuming a balanced die). After the 100th throw, there is no possibility that the sequence can be anything other than what has been recorded. Only if the process was repeated an infinite number of times would all other possibilities be inevitable. A constraint on all these sessions is that each throw produces an integer in the range 1..6.

    Perhaps the infinite sequence of mind-producing minds that your argument necessitates might produce an infinte number of universes (out of boredom?). According to you, this scenario would be infinitely complex (by whatever your definition of complex is, since it is not mine). You have not responded regarding the liklihood of the infinite sequence of mind-producing minds.

  • TreenonPoet

    As I wrote in my post ”I am not making that argument” (the argument that you begin your post by quoting). You raise a valid objection to the argument, but in doing so you are raising a valid objection to your own argument because we can no more rely on our experience in extrapolating to your idea of a mind producing the universe than we can rely on our experience in extrapolating to the idea that there can be no mind without matter.

  • Peter

    Except that we have evidence that rationality and intelligibility cannot exist without a mind, but we have no evidence that a mind cannot exist without matter.

  • Peter

    An immaterial mind cannot by its nature occupy space and is therefore not subject to time. Consequently, the notion of any sequence becomes irrelevant.

  • TreenonPoet

    An immaterial mind cannot by its nature occupy space

    Why not?

    …and is therefore not subject to time

    How does that follow?

    Consequently, the notion of any sequence becomes irrelevant

    If that was the case, then it destroys your argument of what we might expect based on our experience.

  • TreenonPoet

    Rationality and intelligibility cannot exist without a mind by definition. We retrospectively deduce the prehistorical behaviour of the universe, so it is inevitable that the deduction conforms to rationality and intelligibility, but that is the rationality and intelligibility of our minds, not of a postulated prehistoric mind. Note that we cannot produce everything that we see to be rational and intelligible, so even if there was a prehistoric mind, nothing in our experience suggests an inevitable ability to produce everything.

  • Peter

    On the contrary, the bulk of humanity has historically had reason to believe that the mind continues to exist after the body is dead, to the extent that the mind is no longer dependent upon any spatial or temporal construct. This overwhelming human experience is perfectly consistent with the notion of an immaterial mind free from any spatial or temporal constraints which would include events in sequence.

  • Peter

    “We retrospectively deduce the prehistorical behaviour of the universe, so it is inevitable that the deduction conforms to rationality and intelligibility, but that is the rationality and intelligibility of our minds, not of a postulated prehistoric mind”

    Not necessarily. By observing distant cosmic structures we can directly observe that the universe was prehistorically rational and intelligible, rather than merely deduce it.

    This tells us that the rational and intelligible behaviour of the universe is independent of the rationality and intelligibility of our minds, and instead points to a supreme rational and intelligible mind capable of acting on a cosmic scale.

  • Andrew Young

    Egan appears to be a lot quieter these days. Perhaps the recent visit to the Nunciature for an interview without coffee did the trick :)

  • Thomas Poovathinkal SSP

    “Are we going to have inter-species marriage? Are we going to have
    polygamous marriage? Are we going to have marriages of four, five, six
    people together coming up?” What’s going to be next?”

    Yes. Are we entering The Animal age?

  • Thomas Poovathinkal SSP

    We need to present Jesus the Lord and his Good News through our exercise of Apostleship, starting with the Bishops, Priests and Religious and…all people of God.

    Thomas Poovathinkal SSP


    Some Mormons and Muslims have already covered those bases ages ago and yet we are without a “Barnyard Bachelor” reality show.

  • Clodius

    Postulating a creator is not what science does, so it could hardly support the idea of one. The notion of sustainer, if that’s how you wish to put it, is metaphysical (actually, much of science is metaphysical – reflection on the physical in order to understand it, which is increasingly difficult after a century of quantum physics). Neither is the usual business of science. The existence of some kind of god is not the problem. The existence of a personal god, the God of revelation, is because of competing claims to authority and difficulties of the kind you raise: projection of human characteristics onto a supernatural being. Of course, Christianity has its own answer to such difficulties in Christ. Since reading Thomas Nagel’s Mind & Cosmos, I’ve been less willing to believe that science, for all its real achievements, does much more than flatter our understanding. The sketch of science you give reminds me of Nagel’s point about Descartes and Galileo hiving off questions about subjectivity in order to come to grips with the world scientifically (allow for a little anachronism). That picture of science was enticing enough to make later practitioners believe that they could give a complete account of the world in its terms. Well, Descartes and Galileo don’t own science, but looking at the genesis of belief (Bacon, Hobbes, Harvey and others could be mentioned too) helps to understand how it took hold – and its limitations. One limitation is that it will not tell us about God, or at least not any more than, say, history or art. Which, after all this, makes this discussion rather otiose.

  • Clodius

    Good article, but I just react badly to “self-deprecating”. I accept that “deprecate” no longer means what it used to, but using “self-deprecating” just pushes “self-effacing” or “modest” into early retirement.

  • TreenonPoet

    You write ”Postulating a creator is not what science does, so it could hardly support the idea of one”. If someone postulates a creator, there is nothing to stop science supporting the idea if it has sufficient merit. Trying to get nearer to the truth is what science does, including the truth about the beginning of the universe. Of course, if we don’t know anything about this creator, then we have not gained any knowledge. The attributes of this creator claimed by Peter are contradictory, so his idea can be dismissed without further investigation. Some similar ideas are not so easily dismissed, but can nevertheless be ignored due to lack of evidence and testability, just as you would ignore someone’s claim that there was an undetectable dragon in their garage. What cannot be ignored is when such ideas are used to justify harm…

    My first post in this thread dealt with prayer – not only because that was part of Egan’s solution, but also because belief in the effectiveness of intercessory prayer causes tremendous harm. Do you just shrug your shoulders and say that if that’s what God wants, then so be it?

    Your qualified claim that science cannot tell us about God presumes the existence of God. If one defined a god in such a way that He would have no impact on the real world, then He would be irrelevant. If one defines a god in a way that implies He answers prayers (which the Lord’s Prayer does), then science can investigate whether that aspect of that god corresponds to reality (given a coherent definition of ‘prayer’ and what constitutes an answer to a prayer, the lack of which would be a giveaway). Unsurprisingly, scientific experiments in that area have so far not provided any results in favour of intercessory prayer. It is also unsurprising that some champions of intercessory prayer quickly come up with caviats that, for some strange reason, they never mentioned before, or else they denigrate the experimenters, or even science in general. For example, the difficulty in understanding quantum physics may be used to (falsely) imply that scientists don’t understand anything.

  • Clodius

    Good grief, man: if I say that science can tell us nothing about Santa Claus it doesn’t imply that Santa Claus exists. You could tell a story about non-existent entities, but that’s not necessary. Science tells us about the empirical world. The assumption that that is all there is in the world – that the world just is nothing but empirical facts – is not a scientific proposition. It’s an assumption, and one quickly chased away by a bit of reflection. If you asked for empirical proof of God – which is what you are after – this would simply be absurd. Just at the naive level, if I could show you God, you would know immediately that such an entity didn’t meet the criteria for being God, so empirical demands are quite beside the point.
    As for what you say about prayer, how do you know? How can you make any claims about this when all the variables have not been factored into experiments and could not be? The response that the significant variables are present just invokes the empirical against the spiritual again. What a regress. These experiments have been about cure rates of those interceded for. Now figure this: would any god worthy of godliness ‘participate’ in such experiments? I could just dismiss this response as dodging the question, but think about it. And think about this: is a physical cure what prayer is all about? Is that what religious believers think it is about? And would you not suspect that there would be a considerable element of insincerity in prayers offered as part of an experiment? Religious people, as I understand it, are taught not to put the Lord to the test. I’m not against science investigating religious experience (though one should be sceptical: the bloke at Laurentian claimed more than he could demonstrate), but science cannot tell us anything about God because no god is a natural entity. Wittgenstein got it right in the Tractatus: don’t talk rubbish about the ineffable. That’s what scientific talk about God does.

  • TreenonPoet

    In your earlier post, you described the inability of science to tell us about God as a limitation of science. In what way is the inability of science to tell us about Santa Claus a limitation? Science does not aim to tell us anything about fictional characters, and so is not limited by its inability to do so (any more than a hammer is limited in its inability to read poetry). If you were not implying that God exists, then what was the point in stating that science was limited in this way?

    Your ‘bit of reflection’ is shallow. If you were to show me God, then it would follow that your definition of ‘God’ allowed for the possibility that you could show Him to me. On what basis would I know that the God that you showed me know did not meet the criteria for being God? After all, there are so many different definitions of ‘God’ that I could only have a meaningful discussion with you if I had some degree of understanding of what your preferred definition was. Your reflection in no way enlightens me regarding what you are trying to say about empirical facts, nor how it relates to my post. It is certainly not an assumption that what is, is.

    Regarding prayer: Are you trying to tell me that all those parents who prayed for their ill children to live were insincere if the children died of the illness? And are you trying to tell me that those who were persuaded by their Church to abandon HIV drugs and pray instead were not sincere in praying for their own recovery? Or are you saying that any prayer tests God and so one should not pray? How evil of Egan and the Catholic Church to try to instil in vulnerable young children the idea that prayer is effective!

    Finally, you assert that God is ineffable. Tell that to the pope.

  • Clodius

    Earlier you stated that, “Trying to get nearer to the truth is what science does, including the truth about the beginning of the universe.” My reply was directed to the suppressed assumptions here; that science is the only way of getting to the truth (perhaps you don’t hold this view, but you did say ‘the truth’ in an unrestricted way, not ‘some truths’) and that it is uniquely able to do so. I countered that it does not offer a complete picture (which I don’t believe exists but obviously those who misread Laplace think this and Russell seemed to think it at one time) and that art and history, for example, tell us truths too. Whether there can be artistic truths is another discussion. So, it appears to me that your argument is that science can liberate us from the restrictions of our intellectual backyards. My reply is that it can, but it is a backyard too; that it can offer nothing higher; and that it important to its power and integrity that it should be so. Art is not about propositional knowledge and takes us to other places. Maybe art and physics meet in pictures of the stars, but that’s not really physics. So, what I’m trying to show you is that science is limited to the empirical and that talking of experiments on the effects of prayer and the like is trying to investigate a connexion that doesn’t belong to the empirical backyard.

    The Santa Claus example was directed only to illustrating that meaningful talk about an entity does not imply its existence. Another word on this: science doesn’t aim at anything. Science doesn’t have broad aims. Now look at the kind of claim you make here. It is metaphysical, not scientific. Your case had very little scientific argument at all. So you are making a metaphysical case for the superiority of empirical inquiry. That’s how it has to be, but you must see the irony.

    You miss my point about showing you God. That point is that God was not physical and that therefore empirical investigation of his is silly. My conception of God is a being unrestricted by time and space (including the possibility of being outside time and space), which pretty much puts that being beyond science.

    “Are you trying to tell me that all those parents who prayed for their ill children to live were insincere if the children died of the illness?” Not at all. I was referring to supposed ‘experiments’ on the effectiveness of prayer. By the by, other American inquiries have found religious people are happier, more generous and better able to handle life’s problems, but I’d not place any weight on these findings either.

    At no point have I suggested that people should abandon any therapy in favour of prayer. No doubt Catholic hospitals would be aghast at such a suggestion, as would the clergy. We are talking about Catholics, not snake handlers, right?

  • TreenonPoet

    Thank you for explaining your point about empiricism. Art and physics do meet in a number of ways. Perhaps most relevant is in the application of physics/chemistry/biology to neurology to understand where creative ideas come from and why works of art have the effect that they do. Our understanding may not be very advanced, but we do know (for example) that some people have a pleasurable reaction to some works of art. It is not necessary to know exactly how this happens to know that it does happen, and that knowledge is empirical. Similarly, the manifestations of answers to prayers are claimed to be empirical. The prayer to prevent rain in James 5:17 resulted in the empirically observable lack of rain, not in an illusion of no rain.

    How can you claim that science has no aim? Do you think that scientists study the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world without purpose?

    If you put your god beyond science, then it is not the ‘God’ that Egan refers to; nor is it the ‘God’ of the Catholic Church or of the Bible, and it would be off-topic for me to discuss your god.

    You accept that the prayers of some parents who prayed for their child to recover were sincere but not answered. That does not cohere with the level of confidence in prayer expressed by the Catholic Church to the laity. If your new caveat is that prayers for healing should be accompanied by worldly therapy, then that rather gives the game away.

    As I understand it, Catholics believe that the Christian Bible was inspired by a perfect god, yet the Church’s prescriptions regarding prayer are at odds with the Bible (in more ways than we have discussed here). Do you think that the transparency of this sort of incoherence has nothing to do with the decline of religion in the educated world?

  • TreenonPoet

    Numbering your paragraphs 1..7…

    The Oxford definition of
    science‘ is ”the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment”. It is a process – an arch-discipline to any refinements that may apply to particular fields of science. The aim of the process is to get as close as possible to the truth, which is why peer review is valued above personal feelings. The word ‘science’ is sometimes used to refer to a ”body of knowledge” (which does not have an aim), but this is really shorthand for “the scientific aspects”. (The word is also used as in “a science” as a shorthand for a field that is subject to the arch-discipline of science.)

    I am not sure what part of Black’s philosophy you think supports your view, but it is difficult to tell what your view is. One would not expect the same neurological states even on re-reading the same passage from Bronte. The passage is the same, but the neurological context is different. You can try this for yourself – play Miles Davis over and over again and see whether you get the same enjoyment from the 50th play as the 1st.

    How can a belief in empirical evidence be superstitious?

    I am not going to qualify everything I write by stating the obvious assumptions (such as that the article correctly represents what Egan said, and that Egan meant what he said, and that the meanings of the words used are what one would normally expect them to mean from the context, and so on).

    You have misrepresented me in a number of places, but I must pick you up on your assertion that my view is that a good scientific test will reveal a god’s non-existence or something of the kind. Scientific tests can be applied to the relevant real-world claims. If the definition of a god includes the attribute of always answering prayer, then one test can demonstrate the non-existence of that god. If a the definition indicates that the god answers prayers under certain conditions, then if those conditions can be met, one test can demonstrate the non-existence of that god. If the definition indicates that the god sometimes answers prayers, then the more tests that are done, the better is the assessment of whether there is a difference between the results of prayer and non-prayer, but those tests by themselves will not demonstrate the non-existence of that god. If the definition of a god includes no real-world claims, then that god can be treated as if it does not exist.

    You write that you don’t have a god, but you wrote earlier that your conception of God is a being unrestricted by time and space!

    I am disrespectful of claims of knowledge that are nothing of the sort. For example, if someone experiences a personal revelation, then the fact that they claim to have had such a revelation is knowledge, but without confirmation, the content of the revelation is not knowledge. There are efforts from religious quarters to vandalise language to try to define wishful thoughts and the like as knowledge. When I was at school, decades ago, one of the subjects was called ‘Religious Knowledge’. This title has now been dropped, perhaps because it was realised that it was an oxymoron.

    Another oxymoron is ‘Catholic science’. I am sure that Catholic scientists exist, but if they are good scientists, they will compartmentalise and not let their religious beliefs prejudice their conclusions. A doctor who prescribed prayer or an exorcism would not be doing his job.

    Some Catholics quote the Bible at me (when it is convenient to do so). At other times they distance themselves from it. On this site I have been opposed for echoing Bible quotes from other Catholic sites, such as the Catholic News Agency, because I am told that those sites do not represent true Catholicism, so I am well aware of the pitfalls. But it does not matter whether Catholics believe James 5:17 or not – you cannot deny that the idea of intercessory prayer is conveyed as if it had real world (empirical) consequences. Nobody explained to me as an infant that “Give us this day our daily bread” had nothing to do with food. (If scholars cannot agree what the exact meaning is, why get young children to parrot the line?) The James quote is just another example. It is not good enough for you to avoid conceding my point by writing that quoting the Bible is a bad idea.

    OK, the number of miseducated might increase, but the amount of evidence that contradicts religion is increasing, there is an increasing chance of miseducators being rumbled, and certain religious organisations are not helping themselves by their behaviour. Maybe the Church could counter that third phenomenon, though I am not sure that it recognises the problem. But if it does not give up fighting the first two phenomena, I do not see how it can avoid decline.

    I do not have a fixed conception of God or gods. I react to the definitions of gods supplied by others.

  • Clodius

    I see that my Australian colloquialism caused my whole post to be deleted by the sensitive English editors. Oh dear! Don’t cite dictionary definitions as evidence of anything but dictionary definitions – even from my beloved Oxford. You are just going in circles here: science is about scientific matters and heaven help (if you’ll excuse the expression) anyone who departs from the conventions. It simply does not speak of anything higher and if you think it suitable for investigating metaphysics you are wrong. If you think it can investigate the spiritual, you have joined ranks with Conan Doyle. The point of science is to find out about the natural world. Try James Franklin’s What Science Knows: And How it Knows It (Encounter Books, 2009) for an astringent but sensible account of what science can know. Your belief in science is often called scientism – the view that science can reduce art, history, religion etc. to itself. You believe that science can demolish religion? That’s superstitious along with other scientist views.

    If you don’t want to state your views clearly, then that’s up to you. Others will read what you write as you write it.

    Max Black? Well, there are a few objections but check out Jack Smart’s “Sensations and Brain Processes”, Phil Review, 68, (1959). It’s good to have it from the opposition.

    “You write that you don’t have a god, but you wrote earlier that your conception of God is a being unrestricted by time and space!” I see: if I have a conception of a million dollars, I have a million dollars. Interesting logic ….

    Look, language is abused from all quarters, but you won’t get my support to bag Catholics on this point.

    At no point did I allege that there was Catholic science. Some of the best scientists have been Catholics but so what? My only point was that I know quite a few Catholic scientists and that there is nothing inherent in science or religion that makes these pursuits incompatible. On the contrary, it is almost as though God were a suppressed premise in scientific investigations (borrowing here from Sir Michael Dummett).

    Quoting the Bible is not a bad idea. It is a bad idea to use it in polemics. Surely experience should have taught you that. The one point I’ll agree with you about is that any religion that prays ‘give us this day our daily bread’ asks God to provide in this world. You say that claims about religion that don’t bite in the real world mean nothing. Very true. But religion is not my concern here in the way it is for you. I’m not into attacking Catholicism or any religion that believes in intercession. The rational conception of God or god (depending on your view) is agnostic about prayer, but you seem to be pretty certain that its hopeless. And you criticise knowledge claims by others. If you want a formal condition of knowledge as justified true belief, then don’t look to religion. Of course, that definition of knowledge is severely limited, as Gettier pointed out. Still, Hume pointed out the problems with causality and the self, but he seemed to believe in both. So, you got religious knowledge and you think it an oxymoron. I went to a state school and loved it but know that it was limited. How often do I have to repeat that not all knowledge – e.g. knowledge about ‘how’ – is not propositional, not empirical, not ‘scientific’? Catholic schools seem to be atheist factories in this country and I can’t see why the Church persists with them, so I think you are wrong on empirical grounds about the effects of kids being taught to pray.

    I can’t see any point in replying to your 6th point.

    Your last point I tried to help with. I recommended Davies’ book, but I suspect that you are less interested in metaphysics than sociology. That’s my territory – that and real science, but why should you get a free kick at a religious group you seem to know too little about? I can’t instruct you, but I can object to your sweeping claims.

    And for the editors of the Catholic Herald, grow up.

  • TreenonPoet

    At least the deleted comment (which did not offend me) is flagged as such. There is no trace of the comment that was my final reply to Peter and I have no idea why.

    If you think it [science] can investigate the spiritual, you have joined ranks with Conan Doyle. The point of science is to find out about the natural world.

    I am glad that you concede that science has a point (aka: aim).

    It is a shame that Doyle did not apply science to his belief in fairies. It may be that he had a strong desire to belief that in something comforting in a cruel world, but wishing something was true does not make it true. Calling that desire ‘spiritual’, or categorising fairies as ‘supernatural’ does not affect the reality. We have no valid reason to think otherwise, and therefore no valid reason to assert that science will never be able to investigate phenomena that some people arbitrarily class as out of bounds. That is not to say that science will inevitably be able to explain those phenomena. As I have already stated, science aims to get close to the truth. (It has got close enough to enable a mobile laboratory to be landed on Mars.) James Franklin points out that it is the best discipline we have for achieving that aim. I would call religion the worst discipline, if it can be described as a discipline. Whether I would class my view as scientism depends on the definition of scientism. If scientism is the inappropriate use of science, then my view is not scientism. It would be inappropriate to try to apply science to something that, by definition, cannot be investigated.

    From the deleted paragraph 2:-

    So, you think that neurology explains where creative ideas come from. Good luck with this view. Say areas of the cortex light up when a person reads Emily Bronte. So, Emily Bronte is lit up areas of the cortex? No, I don’t think so. Then we look at what areas of the brain light up when we play Miles Davis. Hmmm. The same areas light up, therefore Emily Bronte is Miles Davis? No, that doesn’t seem to work. Identifying mental states with brain states or states of the central nervous system just doesn’t work.

    I am sorry if you did not understand my response to this. I was trying to avoid using another colloquialism, also popular in Australia, that would have got my comment deleted. A particular mental state does not imply a particular brain state (or nervous sytem state), but a particular brain state (in which I include time-dependent parameters) does imply a particular mental state. I tried to hint at this using the example of the different brain states that result from same stimulus applied at different times (re-reading Bronte, or replaying Davis). This non-repeatabilty does not mean that emotions cannot be investigated in neurological terms.

    I see: if I have a conception of a million dollars, I have a million dollars. Interesting logic ….

    To have a god is not to possess that god, but to believe in its existence. (Do you not believe that a million dollars exist?) I am just surprised that if you do not have a favoured god, you limit your conception of gods called ‘God’ to a being unrestricted by time and space (which rules out the active, intervening Catholic ‘God’).

    At no point did I allege that there was Catholic science.

    In your (deleted) post you wrote ”there is a history of hundreds of years of Catholic science”.

    there is nothing inherent in science or religion that makes these pursuits incompatible

    Victor J. Stenger popularised the phrase “Science flies you to the moon; Religion flies you into buildings”. Science is driven by evidence. Religious belief is belief without evidence, or even despite the evidence and is the antithesis of science.

    Catholic schools seem to be atheist factories in this country [Australia] and I can’t see why the Church persists with them, so I think you are wrong on empirical grounds about the effects of kids being taught to pray

    I think that even if only one child in a hundred becomes religiously indoctrinated, that is one child too many. Even those who do not succumb are not receiving the best education. The impairment of the teaching of rational thinking (impairment necessary to encourage religious belief) may disadvantage many. The Church knows that the insanity that it teaches is more likely to be believed by young children who rely on the information fed to them by adults. When the children become old enough to think for themselves, it may already be too late. Some who do not fully accept the religious message may still be afflicted to some degree (and may even ‘choose’ Catholicism later in life). In my case (in England), I felt inferior for not ‘getting’ the Christianity that apparently intelligent teachers pushed and other pupils did not complain about.

  • Thomas Poovathinkal SSP

    What is the need of combating Secularism or for that matter any “ism” when the Son of God, Jesus the Lord has “conquered the the World” for us. All we need to do is “the one thing necessary” while following him.

    Church LEADERS who are NOT TRUE APOSTLES lead us astray.


  • Sarah

    Finally what he speaks makes some sense!

  • father john james

    just what exactly does this sly dig mean?

    Fr JJ

  • JohnN

    Are we not always in danger of confusing “religion” with a belief in God? Perhaps, as you say, the things that science does not explain may indicate that there is a god. But does that necessarily lead to ‘religion’ since religion is a set of dogmas often created by men. Men then saying that you must follow these specific such dogmas or be forever condemned surely must in itself require some proof? Belief in God and belief in the dogma of a certain religion can perhaps be separated, can they not?

  • Francis

    What a shame the bishop resorts to the usual scaremongering tactics about same-sex marriage. Every time legislation is proposed to eliminate discrimination against gay people, up pop the Catholic bishops opposing the legislation, with the usual scaremongering comments. They might as well tear up the Catholic Catechism relating to gay people, because they take no notice of it. I am delighted that same-sex marriage is now available and that the Catholic bishops’ intervention was discounted.

  • Thomas Poovathinkal SSP

    Yes, I think God allows freedom even to SIN. Was it not so with Adam and Eve? But God’s holy will as revealed in his Son Jesus the Lord is that we grow in holiness for our God is holy himself. It is Jesus the Lord who said, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

    We go by the pastoral attitude of our Pope Francis.

    May God be praised and glorified in our mortal bodies; we do not have a permanent dwelling place here on this earth. Our standard is that of Christ the Lord, our God and Savior.

  • Thomas Poovathinkal SSP


  • Thomas Poovathinkal SSP

    “With so many things we are often caught on the back foot, whereas we need to be planning ahead.”

    All EVILS in the Church and the World are directly connected to the INSTITUTIONALIZATION of the Church of the Lord. The Church is not an INSTITUTION. INSTITUTION IS A WORLDLY REALITY whereas the Church of the Lord is a Godly reality for the salvation of people through the Proclamation of God’s Word under the guidance and direction of the Spirit of Jesus. It is the movement of the Spirit of Jesus, on the face of the earth for the salvation of people, proclaiming God’s Word of power through the Apostles of Jesus the Lord.