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Rabbi Lord Sacks and the dinosaurs

In today's Thought for the Day Rabbi Jonathan Sacks was talking about the extinction of the dinosaurs, which he described as 'the greatest mass extinction in history'. Of course, he meant prehistory – some dinosaurs did survive the event for a time but none of them wrote a historical account of what happened – but leaving that aside, it wasn't the biggest extinction event we know of. The end-Permian extinction, about 251 million years ago, was much bigger, wiping out over 90 per cent of the species then alive, compared to about 75 per cent for the dinosaurs.

His talk was triggered by a TV programme this week which described recent research suggesting that it was the site of the impact that made the event so deadly. It released vast quantities of sulphur into the atmosphere. and this in turn led to large-scale loss of plant life and starvation of any dinosaurs who survived the immediate fireball. If the bolide had landed in the deep ocean or on dry land the catastrophe would have been less devastating. So 30 seconds' difference in the timing of the arrival might have allowed the dinosaurs to recover.

Sachs doesn't regard this as chance but as evidence for divine providence. It was God's plan to allow the mammals to take over and, ultimately, humans to emerge. "COME IN, DINOSAURS, YOUR TIME'S UP!" For me, this argument is reminiscent of the old joke about the man who shoots at a barn door and then draws a target round the shots to prove what a good marksman he is. I find it easier to believe that the timing of the event was due to chance.

I don't think there was anything inevitable in the evolution of humans or, probably, in the evolution of complex life, let alone intelligent life. Life is probably widespread in the universe but most of it will be bacterial. (See The Vital Question, by Nick Lane.)
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The future of religious belief

Quite a few of the books about religion that I've reviewed over the years in my book review pages have suggested that religion is set to decline in importance in the 21st century. I've always doubted this myself and a major review, The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010–2050 by the Pew Foundation, finds that the non-religious proportion of the world's population will decrease in relative terms over this period, although it may increase a little in absolute numbers as a result of the increase in world population as a whole. Both Islam and Christianity will increase, although Muslims will come to outnumber Christians.

This is a demographic effect. Religious belief is declining in Europe, North America, Australia, and Japan, and is low in China. But all these countries have ageing populations and low birth rates, whereas both Christianity and Islam, but especially Islam, are prospering in countries with young fertile mothers who have large families. This analysis refers to the numbers of children being born into the various faiths; it can't tell us what proportion of these individuals will reject their birth religion later.

It's well worth having a look at the Pew site if this is a question that interests you. They also had a good review of the question In America, Does More Education Equal Less Religion?. In short, "Overall, U.S. adults with college degrees are less religious than others, but this pattern does not hold among Christians."

Book review: Leaving Alexandria, by Richard Holloway

Richard Holloway was Bishop of Edinburgh in the Scottish Episcopal Church (part of the Anglican Communion) from 1986 to 2000 and Primus (presiding bishop) from 1992 to 2000. He resigned in 2000 in somewhat acrimonious circumstances and in this autobiographical book he tells the story of his life up to the point of his resignation.

The 'Alexandria' in the title of the book refers not to Egypt but to the town in West Dumbartonshire in Scotland where Holloway grew up. In his early life he would have seemed an unlikely candidate for a bishopric. He came from a working-class family and grew up in relative poverty. His parents were not churchgoers - indeed his father disliked religion. But Richard met the local Rector who invited him to go to church, and when he did so he was instantly smitten. [More]

Thought for the Day, with Catherine Pepinster

In her Thought for the Day last week, Catherine Pepinster, Editor of The Tablet, was talking about the recent financial scandals at the Vatican. She mentioned the business of canonisation and said that there might be a case for abandoning the process of declaring people to be saints, which has led to allegations of bribery. But one reason to retain the practice, she thought, was that knowing of the lives of saintly individuals may help people when they "struggle to believe".

Surely the idea of struggling to believe is an odd one. It at once reminds me of the White Queen in Through the Looking Glass, who boasted that she had believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast. Belief seems to be particularly valued in Western Christianity, where there is a centuries-old history, going back to Constantine, of the defining of doctrine and the denunciation of heresies.

Note added 25 November 2015: The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has admitted that the recent terrorist attacks in Paris made him doubt the presence of God. His predecessor, Rowan Williams, said in an interview with John Humphrys that he could only "just" maintain belief in the face of human suffering.






Bishop Tom Butler and St Paul's miraculous recovery from snake bite

In his Thought for the Day (10 Sept) Bishop Tom Butler alluded to the New Testament account of St Paul's "miraculous" escape from death when bitten by a snake on the island of Malta. Unfortunately for this story, the snakes on Malta are not venomous. When I was living on Malta in the early 1950s during my National Service I caught a snake which duly bit me. Knowing it wasn't venomous I wasn't worried, so I can't claim any miraculous immunity.

In fact, even if you are bitten by a venomous snake it will not necessarily inject any venom. This has happened to me in Greece; please see A Snake in the Bath.

Anne Atkins on the Virgin Mary

Anne Atkins has often figured in these pages for her Thoughts for the Day. In her latest offering she was talking about female role models; she mentioned several, concluding with the Virgin Mary. She poured scorn on the sentimental representation of Mary we find in school Nativity plays and then went on to produce her own version of Mary that was equally remote from the facts. Mary, we were told, was "a girl of extraordinary learning ... profoundly versed in the history of her race and faith." I can't imagine how Ms Atkins arrived at this remarkable estimate of Mary's educational attainments, for which there is no evidence in the canonical literature. We know, in fact, almost nothing about the historical Mary, but we can hardly suppose that this peasant girl became a bluestocking.



Book review: Did Jesus Exist?, by Bart D. Ehrman

I've previously reviewed several books which claim that Jesus did not exist but was a mythical figure (Deconstructing Jesus and The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man, by Robert M. Price; The Jesus Puzzle, by Earl Doherty; The Jesus Mysteries, by Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy).

Only one of these authors (Price) is a professional scholar in New Testament studies. The great majority of scholars don't take the 'mythicist' position seriously or discuss it in any detail. Ehrman thinks that this is a mistake, because the mythicists' claims attract attention from non-specialist readers. In this book, therefore, he considers the arguments in some detail. At least some of the mythicists do deserve to be taken seriously, he believes, although the more sensationalist representatives of the genre do not; the afore-mentioned Freke and Gandy are in that category. [More]

Book review: How Jesus Became God, by Bart D, Ehrman

Mainstream Christianity today holds that Jesus was God. To the secular mind this idea may seem not so much incredible as incomprehensible. In what sense can the omnipotent omiscient Creator of the universe be identical with a human being? And anyway, there are numerous places in the Gospels where Jesus addresses God the Father as if he were someone else. Why would he do this, if he was himself God? Was he talking to himself? Ehrman provides answers to such questions in his illuminating new book by approaching them historically rather than theologically. [More]

Fever as a cancer cure

My online article 'Miraculous' Cures? discusses various mechanisms that may explain spontaneous cures of cancer that are sometimes attributed to divine intervention. One of these is modification of the immune response by means of fever. This is an old idea that is now attracting renewed attention.

A cell biologist, Uwe Hobohm, believes it is time to revive the idea. Fever therapy was used successfully to treat cancer in the nineteenth century. Hobohm discusses the immunological basis for the treatment in New Scientist ('Hot, toxic and healing': 4 January 2014). Hobohm and his colleagues are currently testing the hypothesis in mice at two research centres in Germany. This is fascinating, although, as he says, we are a long way away from having this treatment approved for human patients.

New Review: An Atheist's History of Belief (Matthew Kneale)

Kneale grew up without any religious belief and that is still his position today, but he nevertheless thinks that religion is an important feature of human experience. His view is that it exists because it provides reassurance. He examines this idea by looking at how religion has developed, starting in prehistory and tracing its evolution over several thousand years into modern times. This is a very broad sweep of time and space to compress into 238 pages so inevitably there has been a lot of selection and compression. [More]

Fatima - the Third -Secret?

There was a programme on TV a few days ago about the so-called Third Secret of Fátima. The main focus was on whether the Vatican had revealed the real text of the Third Secret, as it claimed, or had fobbed us off with a toned-down version.

Two reasons were proposed for why it might have done this. One was that Our Lady had foretold the corruption of the Church that would result in its complete collapse. The other was that she had said there was going to be a global catastrophe that would destroy all, or almost all, of humanity.

Well, you can see why the Church wouldn't want the first prophecy to come out, especially in the context of the scandals currently affecting the Vatican and the wider Church. As for the second prophecy, that too might be something not to make public. If you were an astronomer who had discovered a large asteroid that was due to hit the Earth in a month's time, would you annouce the fact or keep it to yourself?

Of course, the most likely scenario for the claimed suppression of the truth by the Church is that this is yet another conspiracy theory. But even if the conspiracy theorists are right, so what?

The best contrinution, I thought, was by a bearded parish prieset who said he didn't believe in prophecies of this kind. What he didn't say is that failed apocalyptic pronouncements go right back to the very beginning of Christianity - to Jesus himself.

Jesus was an apocalypticist, who expected the coming of the Kingdom of God on Earth in his own lifetime. (See Paul D Ehrman, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet ot the New Millennium.) This the plain meaning of the New Testament. If the founder of Chistiianity was mistaken, why should we believe in these modern prophecies based on visions?

Bishop Tom Butler and the Platonic soul

In today'sThought for the Day Bishop Tom Butler referred to the soul as temporarily inhabiting the body. I've posted about this idea before. Although many people think it is orthodox Christianity it isn't really. Christianity has traditionally taught the resurrection of the body but the question of what if anything happens to us between death and resurrection at the Second Coming is left uclear. It was Plato who taught the notion of the soul as eternal and separable from the body, but Christian philosophy has been based on Aristotle, not Plato, and Aristotle had a different view ot the matter - one that is actually not entirely capable of being reconciled with Christianity. Quite a muddle, in fact.

Mona Siddiqui

I've more than once mentioned here that Mona Siddiqui is one of the (few) contributors to Thought for the Day who can be trusted to come up with something worth listening to. Today she was talking about medically assisted suicide, and - I think - saying very subtly that this was something that a merciful society ought to take seriously as a possibility. As usual, I was glad I'd heard her.

If you quote Latin, at least get it right

In today's Thought for the Day the Rev. Michael Banner quoted the mediaeval Latin tag mors improvisa, which he translated as "a sudden and improvised death". This doesn't make sense (I suppose it would be "improvised" in contrast to a carefully thought-out suicide), but "improvisa" doesn't mean "improvised", it means "unforeseen". Coming from the Dean and Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, this seems a real schoolboy howler.