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Archive for October, 2010

I’ve been saving this up for a quiet weekend post. These are throwaway comments in the context of a journalistic interview, but there are some serious questions in the background.

Alok Jah reports:

Guy Consolmagno, who is one of the pope’s astronomers, said he would be “delighted” if intelligent life was found among the stars. “But the odds of us finding it, of it being intelligent and us being able to communicate with it – when you add them up it’s probably not a practical question.”

He said that the traditional definition of a soul was to have intelligence, free will, freedom to love and freedom to make decisions. “Any entity – no matter how many tentacles it has – has a soul.” Would he baptise an alien? “Only if they asked.”

Meeting intelligent extra-terrestrial life-forms would open up a lot of theological issues. Do they have a spiritual soul? What is our relationship with them? How do they fit into God’s plan of salvation? If they asked me to baptise them my main question would be: Do they need baptism? Any thoughts in the comment boxes please.

Alien baptism was not the focus of the interview. Consolmagno spent much more time talking about the positive relationship that is possible between science and faith.

Consolmagno, who became interested in science through reading science fiction, said that the Vatican was well aware of the latest goings-on in scientific research. “You’d be surprised,” he said.

The Pontifical Academy of Sciences, of which Stephen Hawking is a member, keeps the senior cardinals and the pope up-to-date with the latest scientific developments. Responding to Hawking’s recent comments that the laws of physics removed the need for God, Consolmagno said: “Steven Hawking is a brilliant physicist and when it comes to theology I can say he’s a brilliant physicist.”

Consolmagno curates the pope’s meteorite collection and is a trained astronomer and planetary scientist at the Vatican’s observatory. He dismissed the ideas of intelligent design – a pseudoscientific version of creationism. “The word has been hijacked by a narrow group of creationist fundamentalists in America to mean something it didn’t originally mean at all. It’s another form of the God of the gaps. It’s bad theology in that it turns God once again into the pagan god of thunder and lightning.”

Consolmagno’s comments came as the pope made his own remarks about science at St Mary’s University College in Twickenham. Speaking to pupils, he encouraged them to look at the bigger picture, over and above the subjects they studied. “The world needs good scientists, but a scientific outlook becomes dangerously narrow if it ignores the religious or ethical dimension of life, just as religion becomes narrow if it rejects the legitimate contribution of science to our understanding of the world,” he said. “We need good historians and philosophers and economists, but if the account they give of human life within their particular field is too narrowly focused, they can lead us seriously astray.”

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“Estamos bien en el refugio los 33,” it read. “We are well in the refuge – the 33″. This is the phrase that was scribbled on a piece of paper, put into a plastic bag, and hoisted up to the surface as evidence that the trapped miners were alive and well.

Martin Fletcher and Laura Dixon write about how the copyright to these words has now been registered by their author:

The note brought joy to Chile but it can no longer be freely reproduced. It has been copyrighted on behalf of Jose Ricardo Ojeda Vidal, the miner who scribbled it in big red letters.

Pablo Huneeus, a well-known Chilean writer, was moved to act after President Pinera kept the note and flaunted it during his foreign travels.

In London on Monday he presented copies to Queen Elizabeth II and British PM David Cameron, and was expected to do the same in meetings with French President Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, this week.

“I thought ‘That’s just too much’,” said Mr Huneeus, who went to the Civil Registry Office in Santiago, obtained copies of Mr Ojeda’s birth certificate and national insurance number, then paid pounds 5 to register the sentence as the intellectual property of Mr Ojeda at the Directorate of Libraries, Archives and Museums.

“My point is, Ojeda is owner of the phrase … According to our law, copyright for a creation, invention, song, a piece of art, belongs to the author at the moment he creates it,” Mr Huneeus told The Times. “There’s another aspect here. We have a man that was 625 metres below ground, and up above, a billionaire [Mr Pinera], takes his property and pockets it.

“As for the words themselves, I think they are amazing. I can only compare them to the first words of the Bible … It’s a beautiful sentence. As a writer I would love to have been able to write something so precise and concise as that. It’s the most perfect sentence.”

Having copyrighted the sentence and the image of the note, Mr Huneeus then called the miner to tell him that “now no one can use them without asking his permission”.

He said that Mr Ojeda was “very happy about it. He had seen the T-shirts, cups, the posters that have been cropping up all over the world. He is … very much aware of his rights. He knows what justice is.”

Mr Huneeus said that Mr Ojeda also wanted to recover the original note, which Mr Pinera keeps in his office and considers part of the national heritage. “It’s his property and he wants it back.”

The first of several books – Under the Earth: The 33 Miners that Moved the World – is about to be published. The first television re-enactment will be broadcast in December. Three applications have been made for the internet domain name los33mineros.cl and four for estamosbienenelrefugiolos33.cl.

Some people might feel snooty about this, as if the purity of the rescue had been sullied by this commercialisation. I’m not so sure. There is something very human about this – not the commercialisation in itself, but the fact that raw experiences very quickly become objectified. As soon as we experience something, we are able to reflect on it and question it.

We are never just trapped in the moment; we are always at a certain distance – even as something is taking place. This is part of the self-consciousness that characterises human beings. So it doesn’t surprise me that a spontaneous word very quickly becomes a possession and a commodity. What we then do with that possession is another question entirely.

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I gave a talk at the weekend to the Catholic Society of the University of Hertfordshire, which meets for Mass and a social every Sunday evening at St Peter’s parish in Hatfield.

I was asked to speak about ‘the universal call to holiness’, which gave me an excuse to re-read chapter 5 of Lumen Gentium, the document about the Church from the Second Vatican Council.

An anonymous saint

One of the themes touched on there goes to the very heart of the Christian mystery: that holiness is both a sheer, unmerited gift; and also something that we have to choose and strive after. And even the choosing, somehow, is a gift. ‘By God’s gift, [Christians] must hold onto and complete in their lives this holiness they have received.’

It reminded me of that well-known phrase: ‘Act as if everything depended on you; and pray as if everything depended on God’. I’m quoting from memory. Is it St Augustine? But then I read someone else saying that it is equally profound, and challenging in a different way, to reverse the endings: ‘Pray as if everything depended on you; and act as if everything depended on God’.

Meaning (I think): Pray really hard for God’s help, as if your prayers really matter (which they do), and as if the actions about which you are praying will have enormous consequences (which they will). But then act with an inner detachment, even with a sort of ‘holy indifference’ to the consequences, because you know that God alone is guiding the unfolding of events, and God alone can bring true good out of the situation. So the inner resignation brings a kind of serenity to one’s actions, it takes away the sense of panic or despair that can arise with an unhealthy sense of one’s own importance, without taking away from the wholehearted commitment to the task at hand.

I think both versions are helpful.

Here is how paragraph 40 of Lumen Gentium puts it. (You’ll have to look up the footnotes online.)

The Lord Jesus, the divine Teacher and Model of all perfection, preached holiness of life to each and everyone of His disciples of every condition. He Himself stands as the author and consumator of this holiness of life: “Be you therefore perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect”.(216)(2*) Indeed He sent the Holy Spirit upon all men that He might move them inwardly to love God with their whole heart and their whole soul, with all their mind and all their strength(217) and that they might love each other as Christ loves them.(218) The followers of Christ are called by God, not because of their works, but according to His own purpose and grace. They are justified in the Lord Jesus, because in the baptism of faith they truly become sons of God and sharers in the divine nature. In this way they are really made holy. Then too, by God’s gift, they must hold on to and complete in their lives this holiness they have received. They are warned by the Apostle to live “as becomes saints”,(219) and to put on “as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved a heart of mercy, kindness, humility, meekness, patience”,(220) and to possess the fruit of the Spirit in holiness.(221) Since truly we all offend in many things (222) we all need God’s mercies continually and we all must daily pray: “Forgive us our debts”(223)(3*)

Thus it is evident to everyone, that all the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status, are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity;(4*) by this holiness as such a more human manner of living is promoted in this earthly society. In order that the faithful may reach this perfection, they must use their strength accordingly as they have received it, as a gift from Christ. They must follow in His footsteps and conform themselves to His image seeking the will of the Father in all things. They must devote themselves with all their being to the glory of God and the service of their neighbor. In this way, the holiness of the People of God will grow into an abundant harvest of good, as is admirably shown by the life of so many saints in Church history.

(216 Mt. 5, 48. 217 Cf. Mc. 12, 30. 218 Cf Jn. 13, 34; 15, 12. 219 Eph. 5, 3. 220 Col . 3, 12. 221 Cf. Gal. 5, 22; Rom. 6, 22. 222 Cf. Jas. 3, 2. 223 1 Mt. 6, 12.)

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I won’t apologise for publicising another ‘greatest films of all time’ list. I’ve discovered that I have an extremely rare condition that makes it psychologically and physically impossible for me not to post about lists that contain any or all of the words ‘greatest’, ‘best’ or ‘most popular’ in combination with any or all of the words ‘films’, ‘movies’ and ‘directors’, whether of not they are followed by any or all of the phrases ‘of the decade’ or ‘of all time’ or ‘ever’. I’m feeling strangely liberated by this new piece of self-knowledge.

 

Film director Andrei Tarkovsky

 

The Guardian is in the middle of a film season. Each day for the last week the Guardian/Observer critics have selected their 25 favourites films in seven genres. (I’ve managed to refrain from posting about these each day because my debilitating affliction does not extend to genre lists.)

You can click on each of the links below to see the individual genre lists.

The best romance films
The best horror films
The best crime films
The best comedy films
The best action and war films
The best sci-fi and fantasy films
The best drama and art films

And then from the seven winners in each category, the same critics decided to give the ‘Best Film Ever‘ award to: Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. Mmm…

I got some small personal satisfaction from having seen and loved every one of the seven contenders (apart from Chinatown, which I saw but didn’t manage to love), which shows how un-arty the selection is compared to most of the lists that have been concocted by critics rather than paying punters.

Here are the seven, in the Guardian/Observer order:

1) Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974)

=2) Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)

=2) Andrei Rublev (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1966)

4) Annie Hall (Woody Allen, 1976)

5) 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)

6) Brief Encounter (David Lean, 1945)

7) Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)

And here is my revised order:

1) Andrei Rublev

2) Annie Hall

3) 2001: A Space Odyssey

4) Psycho

5) Brief Encounter

6) Apocalypse Now

7) Chinatown

Chinatown definitely comes last.

 

Detail from The Old Testament Trinity by Andrei Rublev

 

Instead of dwelling on Chinatown, here are a few paragraphs from Steve Rose’s reflection on Andrei Rublev:

Viewers and critics always have their personal favourites, but some films achieve a masterpiece status that becomes unanimously agreed upon – something that’s undoubtedly true of Andrei Rublev, even though it’s a film that people often feel they don’t, or won’t get. It is 205 minutes long (in its fullest version), in Russian, and in black and white. Few characters are clearly identified, little actually happens, and what does happen isn’t necessarily in chronological order. Its subject is a 15th-century icon painter and national hero, yet we never see him paint, nor does he do anything heroic. In many of the film’s episodes, he is not present at all, and in the latter stages, he takes a vow of silence. But in a sense, there is nothing to “get” about Andrei Rublev. It is not a film that needs to be processed or even understood, only experienced and wondered at.

From the first scene, following the flight of a rudimentary hot air balloon, we’re whisked away by silken camera moves and stark compositions to a time and place where we’re no less confused, amazed or terrified than Rublev himself. For the next three hours, we’re down in the muck and chaos of medieval Russia, carried along on the tide of history through gruesome Tartar raids, bizarre pagan rituals, famine, torture and physical hardship. We experience life on every scale, from raindrops falling on a river to armies ransacking a town, often within the same, unbroken shot.

With Andrei Rublev, Tarkovsky was consciously crafting a language that owed nothing to literature, and it’s a pity so few others followed him. In today’s cinema, we’re still served up linear, cause-and-effect biographies of artists as if, by doing so, we’ll understand the person and be able to make sense of their art. Andrei Rublev operates according to a different understanding of time and history. It asks questions about the relationship between the artist, their society and their spiritual beliefs and doesn’t seek to answer them. “In cinema it is necessary not to explain, but to act upon the viewer’s feelings, and the emotion which is awoken is what provokes thought,” wrote Tarkovsky in 1962.

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I came across another thoughtful article by Mary Kenny, this time about how we have lost touch with the importance of feeling sad, and our sensitivity to the different shades of sadness that can come upon us has been dulled.

Prince Hamlet

Depression, thank goodness, is much better understood than it used to be. And we are much more likely than we used to be to express our feelings to others. But our emotional vocabulary has become diminished.

Take the word, “trauma,” which is now frequently and commonly invoked in conversation today. A person who has suffered a bereavement is said to be “in trauma”.

“Trauma” comes from the Greek word for a “wound”, and in a medical sense, it is what happens to the body when a wound delivers a shock.

But bereavement, of which I have much sorrowful experience is, alas, part of the natural course of life’s sad events.

As Shakespeare observes, with Hamlet, his father lost a father, and that father lost a father before him, and so on, ad infinitum, through the hinterland of human history.

Grief is desperately upsetting: it hurts you for ages, and the loss of someone you love is emotionally painful, and can be enduringly so. But why not call it by its proper name: bereavement: grief: loss?

One reason, thinks Mary Kenny, is that we are losing touch with the social rituals that have allowed us to express these feelings.

When I was a young woman in France in the 1960s, you would come across a shop with its blinds drawn, and a notice saying: “Ferme pour deuil”: closed for mourning.

It is still seen in France, and is also a usual response in Italy. Mourning symbols were widespread in all cultures – widows’ weeds, black armbands – and the community was expected to respect those who mourn.

Outward signs of mourning have declined, if not been abolished in more secular societies now: but our sense of sadness and loss endure, and instead of this being called mourning, it is called “trauma”.

And she thinks it would help us if we could recapture some of the wider, non-medical vocabulary for the emotional difficulties we face in the ordinary course of human experience.

Depression may also be melancholy: it may be discouragement, disappointment, abandonment, sadness, sorrow, mourning, rejection, regret, anxiety, grief, obsession, introspection, loss, separation, loneliness, isolation, alienation, guilt, loss of hope, temperamental woe and simple, pure, unhappiness.

It can be forms of low mood now out of date. The Edwardians were very keen on a condition known as “neurasthenia”; Virginia Woolf was diagnosed with it.

It was also known as “nervous debility”, or, in its milder form, being hyper-sensitive and thin-skinned.

“Anomie” was another condition once favoured in the 19th Century by the sociologist Emile Durkheim, and from a sociologist, a sociological condition. Anomie was defined as an isolated mood caused by the breakdown of social norms, sense of purpose and rules of conduct.

There was also a spiritual form of depression called “accidie” much brooded on by some of the saints – this was “dryness of the soul”. The writer Malcolm Muggeridge also complained of suffering from it at times.

There are even, I think, some romantic-sounding forms of melancholy: the German idea of weltschmerz – a yearning sense of “world-sorrow” and unfocused sadness for humanity: or the French nostalgie du passé, that bittersweet Proustian condition of longing for the past, with a rueful sense of regret for missed chances and lost opportunities.

I also rather like mal du pays – the exile’s yearning for the country of childhood, and it comes to me in flashes, both in the spring and autumn, when I think of Irish country lanes, and the smell of fields of mown hay. Ah, bonjour tristesse!

No doubt we are better off for shedding much of the stigma surrounding mental illness – but with it, have we lost some of the variety, the dark poetry of the human condition?

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Yesterday, entranced by Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook moment,  I was searching for the next Really Big Idea. But someone sent me a link to this interview with Steven Johnson who writes: ‘Eureka moments are very, very rare’.Johnson is the author of the book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. He talks to Oliver Burkeman about how collaboration, rather than a sudden flash of genius, is usually at the root of our most innovative ideas.

“It’s very, very rare to find cases where somebody on their own, working alone, in a moment of sudden clarity has a great breakthrough that changes the world. And yet there seems to be this bizarre desire to tell the story that way.”

At the core of his alternative history is the notion of the “adjacent possible”, one of those ideas that seems, at first, like common sense, then gradually reveals itself as an entirely new way of looking at almost everything. Coined by the biologist Stuart Kauffman, it refers to the fact that at any given time – in science and technology, but perhaps also in culture and politics – only certain kinds of next steps are feasible. “The history of cultural progress,” Johnson writes, “is, almost without exception, a story of one door leading to another door, exploring the palace one room at a time.”

Think of playing chess: at any point in the game, several ingenious moves may be possible, but countless others won’t be. Likewise with inventions: the printing press was only possible – and perhaps only thinkable – once moveable type, paper and ink all existed. YouTube, when it was launched in 2005, was a brilliant idea; had it been launched in 1995, before broadband and cheap video cameras were widespread, it would have been a terrible one. Or take culture: to 1950s viewers, Johnson argues, complex TV shows such as Lost or The Wire would have been borderline incomprehensible, like some kind of avant-garde art, because certain ways of engaging with the medium hadn’t yet been learned. And all this applies, too, to the most basic innovation: life itself. At some point, back in the primordial soup, a bunch of fatty acids gave rise to a cell membrane, which made possible the simplest organisms, and so on. What those acids couldn’t do was spontaneously form into a fish, or a mouse: it wasn’t part of their adjacent possible.

What does all this mean in practical terms?

The best way to encourage (or to have) new ideas isn’t to fetishise the “spark of genius”, to retreat to a mountain cabin in order to “be creative”, or to blabber interminably about “blue-sky”, “out-of-the-box” thinking. Rather, it’s to expand the range of your possible next moves – the perimeter of your potential – by exposing yourself to as much serendipity, as much argument and conversation, as many rival and related ideas as possible; to borrow, to repurpose, to recombine. This is one way of explaining the creativity generated by cities, by Europe’s 17th-century coffee-houses, and by the internet. Good ideas happen in networks; in one rather brain-bending sense, you could even say that “good ideas are networks”. Or as Johnson also puts it: “Chance favours the connected mind.”

Another surprising truth about big ideas: even when they seem to be individual flashes of genius, they don’t happen in a flash – though the people who have them often subsequently claim that they did. Charles Darwin always said that the theory of natural selection occurred to him on 28 September 1838 while he was reading Thomas Malthus’s essay on population; suddenly, the mechanism of evolution seemed blindingly straightforward. (“How incredibly stupid not to think of that,” Darwin’s great supporter Thomas Huxley was supposed to have said on first hearing the news.) Yet Darwin’s own notebooks reveal that the theory was forming clearly in his mind more than a year beforehand: it wasn’t a flash of insight, but what Johnson calls a “slow hunch”. And on the morning after his alleged eureka moment, was Darwin feverishly contemplating the implications of his breakthrough? Nope: he busied himself with some largely unconnected ruminations on the sexual curiosity of primates.

A certain kind of businessperson, I suspect, will buy Where Good Ideas Come From in order to learn to how to come up with a killer business idea, bring it to market, and clean up financially. They may find themselves slightly alarmed, therefore, by a sequence of striking graphics in which Johnson demonstrates that the vast majority of major innovations since 1800 have come from outside the free market – from universities and other environments where profit wasn’t the overwhelming motivation. The urge to hoard, protect and directly profit from good ideas can work against the sharing-and-recombining ethos that the adjacent possible demands. And it’s often the case that those who do attain vast wealth have done so by finding ways to exploit the creativity of the non-market world. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg is so rich today only because Tim Berners-Lee developed the web as a non-profit venture. (And a non-profit venture, incidentally, that had no eureka moment either. Johnson quotes Berners-Lee as saying that interviewers are always frustrated when he admits he never experienced one.)

I think this means I can come down from my mountain cabin, withdraw all my patent applications, return the billions of dollars my investors have sent me, and start talking to people again. It seems as if I am going to be poorer but much better connected.

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The other theme that came out of the film The Social Network was this: Facebook is not just an inevitable consequence of new technology; it’s a result of someone coming up with a really big and really simple idea that no-one had thought of before.

The technology was already there: the internet, the web, a few algorithms that had been used in other situations before. (What are these ‘algorithms’? They always pop up in stories about geeks taking over the world.) All it took was someone like Mark Zuckerberg to think of something new and wonderful to create with these tools.

As is so often the case, it was the cross-fertilization between two worlds that allowed the hybrid idea to emerge – or at least that’s how it was presented. When you combine the exclusivity and shared intimacy of a college ‘frat’ (a social club), with the real-time communication and computational power of the internet – you get Facebook.

The power of a Really Big Idea. This is why Dragons’ Den is such good TV. It’s not the money; it’s whether an ordinary person can convince a team of savvy investors that they really do have the germ of a decent idea.

Ever since watching the film on Friday evening, I’ve been trying to create a Zuckerberg moment for myself, to come up with that Big Idea that’s going to change the world. It hasn’t happened yet. But you will be the first to hear about it when it comes! (Unless I need to talk to my investors first…)

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I’ve just seen the Facebook film, The Social Network. It works. It shouldn’t, because we all know the story: guy invents Facebook, transforms human self-understanding, and makes a few billion in the process. But it does. Partly because the lesser known sub-plot is turned into the main narrative arc: did he steal the idea and dump on his friends? And partly because the heart of the story, the genesis of Facebook, is such a significant moment for our culture (and perhaps for human history), that it would mesmerise a cinema audience no matter how badly filmed.

It’s Stanley Kubrick trying to film the emergence of human consciousness at the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

It’s more a screenplay than a film. I had to concentrate so hard on the dialogue and the ideas that I hardly took in the visuals. This is classic Aaron Sorkin, whose West Wing scripts have more words per minute and ideas per episode than anything else on TV in recent years.

I’m also a fan of Ben Mezrich, who wrote the novel on which the screenplay is based. I read his Bringing Down the House a few years ago, a great holiday read about how a team of MIT geeks took their card-counting skills to Vegas and beat the casinos. And it’s true.

Anyway. Go and see the film. It’s a great story and a great cast, directed with unobtrusive style by David Fincher. And I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that it captures one of those rare historical moments, that we have actually lived through, when our understanding of what it is to be human shifts quite significantly.

It’s too easy to talk about geography (“First we lived on farms, then we lived in cities; now we live on the internet”). We could have ‘lived on the internet’, even with the interactivity of Web 2.0, without it changing our understanding of ourselves. The same people, but with more information and quicker methods of exchanging it. Facebook has turned us inside out. We used to learn and think and search in order to be more authentically or more happily ourselves. We learnt in order to live. Now we create semi-virtual selves which can exist in a semi-virtual world where others are learning and thinking and searching. We live in order to connect.

But even this doesn’t capture it properly, because people have been connecting for millennia, and at least since EM Forster’s Howards End. With Facebook we don’t just want to connect, we want to actually become that connectivity. We want to become the sum total of those friends, messages, events, applications, requests, reminders, notifications and feeds. Personhood has changed.

Two thousand years ago, through the incarnation, the Word became flesh. In our time, through the internet, the flesh became Facebook.

Time to switch off the computer.

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Go on, be brave – do the quiz! It only takes about two minutes. CLICK HERE. There are fifteen multiple choice questions. It’s about religious knowledge in general, although one or two questions touch on religious issues in the United States.

 

Street preachers in San Francisco

 

When you finish you see how smart you are compared to a cross-section of Americans, with a nice graph telling you what percentage of people share your level of knowledge (or ignorance, as the case may be).

Take our short, 15-question quiz, and see how you do in comparison with 3,412 randomly sampled adults who were asked these and other questions in the U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey. This national poll was conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life from May 19 through June 6, 2010, on landlines and cell phones, in English and Spanish.

When you finish the quiz, you will be able to compare your knowledge of religion with participants in the national telephone poll. You can see how you compare with the overall population as well as with people of various religious traditions, people who attend worship services frequently or less often, men and women, and college graduates as well as those who did not attend college.

You can see the full results of the survey here. What’s fascinating is which groups come out on top. Catholics do pretty badly…

Atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons are among the highest-scoring groups on a new survey of religious knowledge, outperforming evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants and Catholics on questions about the core teachings, history and leading figures of major world religions.

On average, Americans correctly answer 16 of the 32 religious knowledge questions on the survey by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life. Atheists and agnostics average 20.9 correct answers. Jews and Mormons do about as well, averaging 20.5 and 20.3 correct answers, respectively. Protestants as a whole average 16 correct answers; Catholics as a whole, 14.7. Atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons perform better than other groups on the survey even after controlling for differing levels of education.

religious-knowledge-01 10-09-28

On questions about Christianity – including a battery of questions about the Bible – Mormons (7.9 out of 12 right on average) and white evangelical Protestants (7.3 correct on average) show the highest levels of knowledge. Jews and atheists/agnostics stand out for their knowledge of other world religions, including Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism; out of 11 such questions on the survey, Jews answer 7.9 correctly (nearly three better than the national average) and atheists/agnostics answer 7.5 correctly (2.5 better than the national average). Atheists/agnostics and Jews also do particularly well on questions about the role of religion in public life, including a question about what the U.S. Constitution says about religion.

religious-knowledge-02 10-09-28

Previous surveys by the Pew Research Center have shown that America is among the most religious of the world’s developed nations. Nearly six-in-ten U.S. adults say that religion is “very important” in their lives, and roughly four-in-ten say they attend worship services at least once a week. But the U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey shows that large numbers of Americans are uninformed about the tenets, practices, history and leading figures of major faith traditions – including their own. Many people also think the constitutional restrictions on religion in public schools are stricter than they really are.

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Why is it that some people, especially in the blogs and comment boxes, become so hostile on the internet? Is it the anonymity? The lack of self-censorship that arises when communication is instantaneous? The inability to un-post a spontaneous comment? The tiredness that comes with writing late into the night? Or is it simply that online communication is, in one sense, unmediated: you meet the real person sitting at their computer; you are plugged into their mind – and this is what our minds are like.

Alan Jacobs has a different answer. He thinks it is because we have an over-developed sense of justice, that is not balanced or tempered by the virtues of humility and charity. It’s too simplistic to say that people are just angry or rude or self-righteous. Maybe they are. But this doesn’t explain what drives their anger or rudeness or self-righteousness.

What energises them is a sense of justice: “I’ve seen something that you haven’t, something that matters, something that could be lost.” But this zeal for justice can drown out every other human virtue, especially the virtues that make it possible to communicate that sense of justice to others, or to question whether one’s judgements about this possible injustice are correct.

now-famous cartoon on the xkcd “webcomics” site shows a stick figure typing away at his computer keyboard as a voice from outside the frame says, “Are you coming to bed?” The figure replies: “I can’t. This is important. . . . Someone is wrong on the Internet.” I have thought a lot about why people get so hostile online, and I have come to believe it is primarily because we live in a society with a hypertrophied sense of justice and an atrophied sense of humility and charity, to put the matter in terms of the classic virtues.

Late modernity’s sense of itself is built upon achievements in justice. This is especially true of Americans. When we look back over the past century, what do we take pride in? Suffrage for women, the defeat of fascism, Brown vs. Board of Education, civil rights and especially voting rights for African-Americans. If you’re on one side of the political spectrum, you might add the demise of the Soviet empire; if you’re on the other side, you might add the expansion of rights for gays and lesbians. (Or you might add both.) The key point is that all of these are achievements in justice…

As we have come to focus our attention ever more on politics and the arts of public justice, we have increasingly defined our private, familial, and communal lives in similar terms. The pursuit of justice has come to define acts and experiences that once were governed largely by other virtues. It is this particular transformation that Wendell Berry was lamenting when he wrote, “Marriage, in what is evidently its most popular version, is now on the one hand an intimate ‘relationship’ involving (ideally) two successful careerists in the same bed, and on the other hand a sort of private political system in which rights and interests must be constantly asserted and defended. Marriage, in other words, has now taken the form of divorce: a prolonged and impassioned negotiation as to how things shall be divided.” That is, it has become a matter of justice rather than of love, an assertion of rights rather than a self-giving.

This same logic governs our responses to one another on the Internet. We clothe ourselves in the manifest justice of our favorite causes, and so clothed we cannot help being righteous (“Someone is wrong on the Internet”). In our online debates, we not only fail to cultivate charity and humility, we come to think of them as vices: forms of weakness that compromise our advocacy. And so we go forth to war with one another.

This comes close to what Thomas Hobbes, writing four centuries ago, famously called the “war of every man against every man.” As he pointed out, such a war may begin in the name of justice, but justice cannot long survive its depredations. In such an environment, “this also is consequent; that nothing can be unjust. The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice, have there no place. . . . Force and fraud are in war the two cardinal virtues.”

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I went to a debate last week at the main Foyles bookshop in Charing Cross Road. The topic was ‘secularism’ and its many meanings, in the light of recent controversies about faith schools, aggressive atheists, anti-burqa legislation in France, and of course the state visit of Pope Benedict to the UK.

I don’t want to summarise the content of the discussion here (good though it was), just to comment on how well the evening worked. It was a genuine debate. Eight people sitting round a table having their say. Chaired in a way that allowed the conversation to flow, and move in unexpected directions. Plenty of time to hear from the floor. People not afraid to speak their mind, or admit that their mind was not yet fully formed; people prepared to say something uncertain or unsettling.

There were no votes; no winners or losers. Everyone, I think, came a way a little more enlightened. It reassured me that public debate about controversial issues is still possible, and that there are people willing to argue and to listen.

The debate was organised by the Institute of Ideas. Their big ‘Battle of Ideas‘ weekend is coming up on 30-31 October. Take a look at the amazing selection of topics up for discussion that weekend, in a single venue. This video is from the run up to last year’s Battle of Ideas.

Claire Fox, the director of the Institute, explains the vision here:

The Battle of Ideas festival, now in its sixth year, is very much about a PUBLIC conversation. Since its inception ten years ago, the Institute of Ideas (IoI) has sought to interrogate orthodoxies and debate the challenges facing society, and to make these things public activities. We put an emphasis on audience participation, and the festival is open to anyone with intellectual curiosity and the courage to think critically.

This public orientation may not seem so unusual these days. The rhetoric of public engagement is all pervasive. In politics, much is made of maximising the public’s involvement: ‘People Power’ is the slogan of the UK’s Big Society. Everywhere from science to the arts, participation and crowd sourcing are buzzwords. At the IoI, though, we are sceptical about this flattering rhetoric. Many initiatives look like paper exercises in connecting to an imaginary public. When confronted with the real thing, too often our leaders recoil in horror. When the last Prime minister expressed his contempt for ‘that woman’ in the infamous Bigotgate incident, he gave a glimpse of what those who run society really feel about ordinary people. How dare we offend today’s politically correct etiquette or ask awkward questions?

The rise of an illiberal liberalism silences genuine public challenges to received wisdom. One arena where this intolerance of unfashionable ideas is clearly expressed is in discussions about religion and how secular society should accommodate it, or not. We will tackle these topics head-on at the festival. As the name suggests, the Battle of Ideas is not afraid of dissenting opinions and encourages people to speak their minds and battle over difficult issues. The festival’s motto is FREE SPEECH ALLOWED.

What faux engagement initiatives lack is any content to inspire and engage the public’s minds and passions. Historically, what has moved millions to act upon the world and change things for the better has been big ideas, such as freedom, progress, civilisation and democracy. Today we are offered the thin gruel of ‘evidence-based policy’. When we are told that scientific research demands particular courses of action, ever increasing areas of politics are ruled out-of-bounds for democratic debate; ideas and morality are sidelined by facts and statistics. In contrast, the Battle of Ideas is a public square within which we can explore the crisis of values, and start to give human meaning to trends too often presented fatalistically and technically.

Despite the fashion for ‘localism’, we need to expand our gaze beyond our own back yards. With this in mind, on the IoI’s tenth anniversary, we are launching the Battle of Ideas as an international project. We have a series of Battle Satellite debates in India, the US and Europe, and have invited as many international speakers as resources have allowed. We not only look abroad for intellectual renewal, but also to the past. In a strand of debates on history, we assess whether we can make the best that has been thought and known a source of future inspiration; standing on the shoulders of giants and reinvigorating their ideas for a new era.

One such idea worth rescuing is the ancient Greeks’ notion that ‘Man is the measure of all things’. Today, such humanistic thinking is under threat, from those who warn that human-centredness is no more than hubris, that man’s ambitions are destructive, that we cannot trust politicians, bankers, cricketers, even each other or ourselves. Sessions will explore what these ideas mean for our attitude to human life or for our ambitions to engineer our future and use the huge gains of science, technology and biomedicine to solve problems associated with ageing, with the economy or even natural disasters. Is man guilty of playing God? Or would any lessening of our aspirations mean simply accepting our fate? We welcome attendees who are free thinkers, who have verve, passion and idealism, and a dose of irreverent scepticism; who believe mankind has a future worth fighting for. LET BATTLE COMMENCE!

It’s pretty expensive, but I hope to go for as much of the weekend as possible. Maybe we can set up a ‘Bridges and Tangents’ stall or poster-board!

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Big changes are taking place in New York City. A quarter of a million street signs, traditionally written in capital letters, are to be replaced with signs that capitalise only the initial letter.

This isn’t an orthographical fetish, but a response to the psychological/physiological fact that capital letters are harder to read. According to the New York Post:

Studies have shown that it is harder to read all-caps signs, and those extra milliseconds spent staring away from the road have been shown to increase the likelihood of accidents, particularly among older drivers.

BROADWAY will become Broadway; and a new font, called Clearview, has been developed for the purpose. David Marsh explains:

Officials argue that the changes will save lives and the city’s transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, also suggested that the new signs might reflect a kinder, gentler New York. “On the internet, writing in all caps means you are shouting,” she said. “Our new signs can quiet down, as well.”

Despite hysterical Daily News coverage that said “several” New Yorkers were “outraged” by the change – it quoted three – the paper’s own poll showed that two-thirds of the public is behind the switch from capital letters.

It won’t surprise regular Guardian readers that I agree with them. The Guardian style guide has long encouraged the gradual move away from capitals. So do other newspapers and websites, although some venerable style guides are still agonising over whether to lowercase internet and world wide web. (Be assured they will do so, perhaps in time for the 22nd century.)

In part, the switch from capitals reflects a society that is less deferential than in the days when the Manchester Guardian would write something like this: “The CHANCELLOR OF THE EXCHEQUER, Mr LLOYD GEORGE, presented the Naval Estimates to Ministers and Members of the House.”

Most readers seem comfortable with a less formal style. A grand total of two people complained about our coverage of the pope’s, rather than the Pope’s, recent visit to the UK. We did receive a letter last week complaining that calling David Cameron the prime minister, not the Prime Minister (a style we have been following for more than a decade) reflected a “lowering of standards”, but such complaints are few.

To return to traffic signs. New York’s commendable decision is an echo of one taken in the UK 50 years ago, when the brilliant designers Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert, given the task of updating the country’s chaotic system of road signs, concluded that “a combination of upper and lowercase letters would be more legible than conventional uppercase lettering”. They produced a new font, known as Transport, which they felt would be friendlier and more appealing to British drivers than the stark modernist style used in continental Europe. The classic British road signage that they designed is still in use. 

Is anyone opinionated enough to disagree with this descent to the lower case? Declaration of interest here: I’ve got into the habit of writing all my email subject headings in lower case, even the first letters of proper names! Is this socially acceptable or social death?

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After yesterday’s slightly mystical post about a new sun rising on the eastern horizon each morning, quite by chance I happened to start reading Augustine’s Confessions later in the evening.

St Augustine writing one of his works

And in Book 1, Chapter 6, I came across this remarkable passage about the relationship between time and eternity; between the succession of created days and God’s ever-present Day:

For thou art infinite and in thee there is no change, nor an end to this present day – although there is a sense in which it ends in thee since all things are in thee and there would be no such thing as days passing away unless thou didst sustain them.

And since “thy years shall have no end,” thy years are an ever-present day. And how many of ours and our fathers’ days have passed through this thy day and have received from it what measure and fashion of being they had? And all the days to come shall so receive and so pass away.

“But thou art the same”! And all the things of tomorrow and the days yet to come, and all of yesterday and the days that are past, thou wilt gather into this thy day.

What is it to me if someone does not understand this? Let him still rejoice and continue to ask, “What is this?” Let him also rejoice and prefer to seek thee, even if he fails to find an answer, rather than to seek an answer and not find thee! 

This is a translation by Albert C. Outler, available online. My own version is by J. G. Pilkington, in a beautiful edition published by The Folio Society, and given to me by a dear friend for the tenth anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood. I’d seen these Folio editions in second-hand bookshops, but never in my life had I dreamed of ever possessing one!

It’s not just the box or the binding; every page is a work of art. The font (Palatino), the paper, the illustrations. We were arguing over lunch about whether iPads and Kindles will soon replace books. Now I have an answer: “Not if every book were the quality of these Folio books”.

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I started reading Anthony Kenny’s Ancient Philosophy yesterday evening, volume 1 of his A New History of Western Philosophy. It’s a great introduction, because he has a hundred pages of chronological history, and then nine thematic chapters that synthesise the key insights of the period (logic, metaphysics, ethics, etc).

Ancient Philosophy - New History of Western Philosophy v. 1

I won’t bore you with every discovery I make over the next few weeks (if I keep reading), but this one delighted me:

Since Xenophanes believed that the earth stretched beneath us to infinity, he could not accept that the sun went below the earth when it set… He put forward a new and ingenious explanation: the sun, he maintained, was new every day. It came into existence each morning from a congregation of tiny sparks, and later vanished off into infinity… It follows from this theory that there are innumerable suns, just as there are innumerable days… [p12]

What a wonderful idea! That a new sun is created each morning; that here on the eastern horizon is something seen for the very first time; that this is not just another day in an endless cycle of days, but an adventure in being that has never existed before. It highlights the sense of wonder experienced when we catch ourselves reflecting not on what something is but on the sheer fact that it is and that it need not be at all. The opposite of Groundhog Day.

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It’s obvious that the language we use affects the force of our arguments. And there are many examples of how an uncomfortable truth can be disguised by changing the language used to describe it.

There is a beautiful and unsettling example of this in one of the Times leaders this morning. The topic is the decision to award the Nobel Prize for Medicine to Professor Robert Edwards for his pioneering work in IVF. (The photo is of Alfred Nobel not Edwards!)

Professor Edwards’s work has its critics. The Roman Catholic Church opposes some IVF, on the ground that it can involve the destruction of embryos. And it is beyond argument that this is what happens: fertility clinics generally fertilise many eggs, and often implant two, to maximise the chance that one will survive. The remaining tiny embryos are then frozen or discarded.

But there is nothing anti-life in IVF: the embryos are created to produce babies and allow the chance of parenthood to couples who want a child of their own. Nature itself creates and fertilises many more eggs than become babies.

The embryonic cell can also be taken apart, at an early stage, to yield stem cells. Research using stem cells offers the promise of finding a cure for debilitating conditions such as Parkinson’s disease.

Do you notice how the language of ‘embryo’ in the first and second paragraphs is changed, without any fuss, to ‘embryonic cell’ in the third paragraph? As if the leader writers are happy to talk about embryos being ‘frozen and discarded’, but uncomfortable with the idea that ‘the embryo can also be taken apart, at an early stage, to yield stem cells’. So the sentence that would have seemed most natural is changed to ‘the embryonic cell can be taken apart…’

I don’t know if this is the art of persuasion, or a subconscious unease with the moral position being taken and the starkness of the language required to describe it (‘taking apart embryos’). Either way, it shows how important it is to monitor the language being used to make ethical arguments, and to question why someone chooses to adapt their language in unexpected ways.

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When I posted a film quiz back in April it flushed out all the nerdy cinephiles from my list of readers, people who have spent more time in darkened auditoria than is good for them.

Berenike not only guessed film #1 (‘The Double Life of Veronique’), but also gave me the Polish language title, with accents (although for all I know it could mean anything). And Radha and Martin Boland somehow managed to jump from my vague clues to the more obscure masterpieces of Winterbottom, Huston and the Taviani Brothers.

This time, I’m just linking to a beautiful animation from the Guardian, which suggests 26 movie titles, with varying degrees of subtlety, in a seamless montage.

You can watch the film embedded here. If you feel confident and want to enter the Guardian competition to win all 26 DVDs, then click here for the entry form. 

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Some of our seminarians at a recent ordination

We are now two weeks into the new academic year at the seminary. Westminster Diocese has just put out a press release about the rise in priestly vocations at Allen Hall over the last few years: 

Eleven men have started studying for the Catholic priesthood at the start of the 2010–2011 academic year at Allen Hall, the Diocese of Westminster’s seminary in London. The new intake of eleven new seminarians brings the number of men preparing for the priesthood at Allen Hall to 46. This number includes men who are preparing to become priests in Westminster diocese and other English and overseas dioceses, including Lancaster, Nottingham and Helsinki, as well as religious orders, including the Salvatorians, Passionists and Norbertines. 

There are now 33 men preparing for the priesthood for the Diocese of Westminster. Eight men started this September with three studying at Allen Hall, three at Vallodolid, Spain, one at the Beda College in Rome and one at the Venerable English College in Rome. 

The statistics for the last few years for Allen Hall are given in a footnote (I’ve added this year’s figure): 

Number of men studying at Allen Hall seminary at the start of academic years since 2002: 2010 – 46, 2009 – 45, 2008 – 43, 2007 – 40, 2006 – 37, 2005 – 31, 2004 – 32, 2003 – 34, 2002 – 33. 

It’s interesting to compare this with figures from the National Office for Vocations of men entering seminary in England and Wales over the last three decades (although I’m not sure if this means ‘in England and Wales’ or ‘for the dioceses of England and Wales’ – which would include those studying in Spain and Rome). You can see a graph here (scroll down), which shows how from a peak in 1985 (156 entrants), to a trough in 2000 (only 22 entrants), things have been slowly picking up (the average over the last four years has been about 40).

And the global picture is also healthy. The most recent reliable Vatican statistics are from the end of 2008:

The Vatican said the number of Catholics reached 1.166 billion, an increase of 19 million, or 1.7 percent, from the end of 2007. During the same period, Catholics as a percentage of the global population grew from 17.33 percent to 17.4 percent, it said.

The number of priests stood at 409,166, an increase of 1,142 from the end of 2007. Since the year 2000, the Vatican said, the number of priests has increased by nearly 4,000, or about 1 percent.

Looking at the way priests are distributed around the world, it said: 47.1 percent were in Europe, 30 percent in the Americas, 13.2 percent in Asia, 8.7 percent in Africa and 1.2 percent in Oceania.

The number of seminarians around the world rose from 115,919 at the end of 2007 to 117,024 at the end of 2008, an increase of more than 1 percent, it said.

The increase in seminarians varied geographically: Africa showed an increase of 3.6 percent, Asia an increase of 4.4 percent, and Oceania an increase of 6.5 percent, while Europe had a decrease of 4.3 percent and the Americas remained about the same.

There is a good article on the BBC website with interviews with seminarians and former-seminarians, and these comments from Fr Stephen Langridge giving some historical perspective. 

Father Stephen Langridge, chairman of England and Wales’ vocations directors, says there was a boom in the number of vocations in the aftermath of World War II compared with the 1920s. He says there was another rise in men entering seminaries following the visit of Pope John Paul in 1982. Figures from the National Office for Vocations show this peaking at 156 in 1985 before falling to a low of 22 in 2001. But over the past five years numbers have steadied at about 40 per year.

Fr Langridge says England has been used to a relatively high concentration of priests compared to other countries – about one for every 350 parishioners. But the fall in vocations since the 1980s means a priest in a parish may now be responsible for two or three smaller churches.

In an attempt to address the shortfall, in recent years the Church has changed its recruitment strategy. Instead of simply asking people to become priests, they now encourage Catholics to pray and discern what God wants them to do. Marriage is also viewed as a vocation, which helps keep people’s minds open to hear a call to the priesthood instead.

Fr Langridge explains: “That means a youngster who’d always thought about marriage, perhaps in the stillness of their prayer suddenly thinks, ‘perhaps there’s something else.’ So the seed of a priestly vocation is sown in that way.”

However you look at it, there was some kind of bottoming out around 2000; and now, both nationally and internationally, the numbers of those in formation for the priesthood is on the rise. 

These are long term trends. I wonder if there will be a short term ‘Benedict bounce’ in our own country.

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