I Do

Careful NowChurch marriages in the Middle Ages were only for aristocrats and royalty, and the main incentive was that a priest (or better, a bishop) was a credible witness for the vows. Ordinary people made their vows in front of their community.

Around 1520, Martin Luther confirmed that marriage was a “worldly thing”: no business of the Church, but in 1563 the counter-reformation Council of Trent declared that a Roman Catholic marriage must have a priest. Protestants throughout Europe continued to have civil marriages, but in 1753 the Marriage Act made a church ceremony mandatory in Great Britain. (for Anglicans. Some other Christian sects and other religions were allowed to carry on with their own practices.) That was how it stayed until 1836, when a new Marriage Act provided for civil ceremonies in all cases. At this date, the Act applied to Ireland.

So the idea of the Church being involved in marriages was at one time “a new thing”, something that the clergy had just invented.

But somehow, the new nation of Ireland incorporated a Church-defined definition of marriage into its constitution. (I say “somehow”, but we all know exactly how it was. Tentacles of doom, infiltrating every sphere of life.)

The people of Ireland voted today to change the constitution. Actually, it’s arguable that marriage isn’t even a constitutional issue (it isn’t in the UK; just regulated by Acts of Parliament) but no matter, the situation is better than it was before, and two-thirds of the voters made it so.

Precious Life

(I live in Northern Ireland. Today the religious extremist Bernadette Smyth was found guilty of harassment of Dawn Purvis, director of Belfast’s Marie Stopes pregnancy advisory clinic.)

It seems to me that there is one basic core in the intractable differences between those who consider abortion to be acceptable under certain circumstances and those who oppose it unconditionally. That is, that the extreme anti-abortionists believe that at the instant of conception, the fertilised egg is morally equivalent to a human being. It’s a religious belief, based on the soul.

But the idea that the soul enters the fertilised egg at conception has only been generally accepted among Christian believers in relatively modern times. That concept was discussed throughout the history of the Christian church, but the mainstream view was different: that “ensoulment” was a gradual process.

In the main, Christians were following classical Greek thought. The early Christian church used Greek concepts and methods of debate to codify its theology, and the medieval church absorbed literature from the Islamic world, where scholars translated and expanded classical material.

The idea of a gradual ensoulment was described by Aristotle. He believed that a growing embryo started with a “vegetative” soul, acquired an “animal” soul as its body functions and complexity increased, and finally became a “human” soul, capable of thought and moral decision-making. Perhaps biologists today would see the analogies.

The medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas followed the Aristotelian concepts, and wrote that although abortion was morally wrong, it was not equivalent to murder. (It seems that Aquinas thought that Aristotle’s “human” soul only arrived at birth.) The Christian church took this view, except for a three-year period from 1588 to 1591, when Pope Sixtus V declared that abortion was a religious and civil crime at any stage of conception. His successor Gregory XIV modified the rules so that they did not apply if the fetus was “unformed” (i.e. early pregnancy).

It was only in our great-gandparents’ time, 1869, that Pope Pius IX stated complete opposition to abortion at any stage of pregnancy, although having read his Bull ‘Apostolicæ Sedis’, I don’t think that it is totally clear that he was actually overthrowing Aristotle and setting “ensoulment” at the instant of conception. However, that’s how it has come to be seen. (Pius was also the Pope who declared himself infallible, a year later, in 1870.)

Even though there was considerable separation in theology between the Roman Catholic Church and other branches of Christianity, you can trace to Pius all current ideas of conception as the exact beginning of full human existence. Fundamentalist Protestants and all.

This new belief is what drives the current gulf between religious people and the rest of society over abortion. Unfortunately, it perverts what should be the real debate. And I think there should be a debate.

The thing is that abortion is not a moral question with a clear-cut answer. Certain instances where religious law has been replaced by civil law are completely clear. Gender discrimination is bad. Hate crimes are punished. Marriage is an option if you like that sort of thing. But abortion is more complicated.

I think the complication is because laws have to be precise, and biology isn’t. Perhaps the end points are definite enough: an unfertilized egg cell (or a sperm) is not a baby, but a newborn baby is a baby (obviously). Flushing the former down the toilet is not a sin (Christians who think that was Onan’s sin should go back and read their Bible). Killing babies is bad though.

But, is a newly-fertilized egg cell a baby, as the more extreme religious believers have been claiming? I would say not. So I don’t regard it as immoral to destroy that cell with the relevant drug, any more than losing a tooth (or a kidney) is a sin. There comes a point though — ah, but where? — when the law has to draw a line. It should probably be more complicated than a simple time limit, but that is what the real, intelligent discussion should be about, not the number of angels on the head of a pin.

Here Comes The Sun

Arch of Constantine, CanellettoToday, 28th October, is calculated to be the exact anniversary of the battle of the Milvian Bridge in Rome, where rival Roman Emperors (and brothers-in-law) Constantine and Maxentius personally led their armies against each other in the year 312. Maxentius made some bad tactical decisions and his forces lost badly to those of Constantine.

The victory allowed Constantine to become sole Emperor of the Western Empire, and during his reign Christianity was first legalized (in 313, along with all other non-Roman religions) and then gradually grew in respectability and importance. (It is commonly thought that Constantine made Christianity the Empire’s official religion, but that step occurred much later under Emperor Theodosius.)

Late in life, and struck with a serious illness, Constantine registered himself as a candidate for Christian baptism, a process which would have required a period of religious instruction. However, he died soon after. Later Christian sources embellished the story of his death to the point where it’s hard to work out what really happened, but it’s certainly possible that he was baptised a Christian before death.

Christians of the time, and in later centuries, were so grateful for Constantine’s support that his pro-Christian measures tended to be exaggerated and his adherence to traditional Roman religion ignored. As with many prior and subsequent saints, fictional episodes and embellishments were added to the story of his life.

One of these is probably the best-known story about Constantine. Prior to the battle at the Milvian Bridge, it was said, Constantine had a vision or dream, in which God told him to have his troops put a divine symbol on the front of their shields. In some versions, it’s the cross. In others, it’s the Chi-Rho monogram. Constantine was told “Through this sign, conquer.” And the rest is history.

The preceding paragraph isn’t history though. It’s a Christian fairy story. At the time of the battle, Constantine was promoting the Roman cult of Sol Invictus, “the invincible Sun”. After the victory, the new government of Constantine commissioned a triumphal arch opposite and framing the large statue of Sol Invictus, with sculptures relating the story of the battle.

Constantine’s victory arch still stands in Rome, and you can read the graphic novel strip of his exploits in the sculptures. And there, in the section showing the battle at the Milvian Bridge, you can see that the soldiers actually do have a divine symbol on the front of their shields. It’s the Sun sign of Sol Invictus.

It’s Not Easy Being Green

Father DougalWell Ted, I’m very cynical as you know. I seem to have been born with a sceptical turn of mind, liable to challenge anything I hear or read. “Is that really true?” “What exactly does that mean?” “That doesn’t seem likely.”

Perhaps that’s why, in spite of being very well-disposed towards the environmentalist point of view, I’ve reacted negatively to anti-fracking campaigns and publicity. It seems to me that they are high on emotion and low on content. Worse, some are clearly based on improbable and unverifiable stuff trawled off the internet, such as viral videos. Some of it might be true. Some of it might be real. But I’d bet that some is fabricated.

So does that put me, uncomfortably, in the same camp as the fossil fuel companies? When it comes down to it, I really don’t care. If something’s wrong, it’s wrong. There is no “higher truth”.

frackingBut I was glad to see a sober and well-researched article on fracking in the most recent ‘New Scientist’. It gave me a lot of food for thought. I went off to seek actual information, not hysteria.

OK, in case you’ve missed all the hoo-hah, “fracking” is “hydraulic fracturing”. It’s a method of releasing natural gas from underground rock formations, and it involves drilling a deep well, pumping very high-pressure fluid into it, and collecting the gas that’s released. It’s controversial because the “fluid” uses up great quantities of fresh water, but also includes various chemicals. Both the chemicals and the natural gas (methane) have been suspected of leaking into water supplies, and the whole process has even been accused of creating earthquakes.

To take the last item first, fracking has definitely been linked firmly to earthquakes. In the couple of decades since the technique was invented, there have been five fracking-related tremors, two from the underground working and three from disposing waste water on the surface. Water works and earthquakes are a familiar pair, with dams known to have caused about 200 quakes in the last century. But the record quake attributed to a dam project was magnitude 7.8 while the biggest ever in the fracking industry was 3.8.

Incidentally, I noticed a magnitude 4.1 quake last time I was on holiday in Italy. It was like a big truck driving past. When I mentioned it to my landlord, he was amused that I thought it worth comment. It’s clear that the quake record of fracking is not worth mentioning either.

Well, what about contamination? Fracking has been going on longer and much more widely in the USA than anywhere else, now accounting for about half of natural gas production, but there has been no evidence of contamination of water sources by the chemical content of the fracking fluid. But it’s not all good news. Increased methane levels have been found in ground water near fracking sites. The industry thinks that it can fix the problem, but it’s an issue of concern.

Leakage of gas generally is a concern. Natural gas, methane, is a much worse greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, having about 20 to 30 times the warming effect. Although natural gas is a far “cleaner” fuel than coal in terms of carbon generation, any leaks undermine the climate benefits, but the calculations suggest that the leakage rate would have to be much worse than actually observed in the American industry to make fracked gas as harmful as coal.

In fact, natural gas is credited with about half the net reduction in the United States’ carbon emissions over the last ten years. Because it’s currently cheaper, gas has displaced coal for power generation, and gas releases about half the carbon dioxide as coal for the same energy. The coal reserves being exploited today are also dirtier than previously, so less coal means cleaner air generally.

So that’s all good? Well, what happens to the dirty coal that American power stations no longer want? Countries like Britain and Germany buy it for power generation, that’s what. While the USA has gradually reduced its carbon footprint by 9% over ten years, Britain’s jumped 3.5% in one year, mainly because of the use of cheap American coal, instead of natural gas.

If Britain had its own gas and could produce it on the same scale as the Americans, it would bring down the carbon footprint, and hence the interest in fracking in the UK. But nobody yet knows if production is practicable and scalable. All the current work is merely experimental.

Taking all the information into account, my opinion at the minute is that there is no realistic danger of fracking on our doorsteps causing direct environmental damage. The argument shouldn’t be about that, but about the climate change aspects. Fracked gas is better than coal; but of course solar, wind, tide (and maybe even nuclear power) are better than gas.

Some people argue that gas is a “filler” technology, a less damaging substitute for coal to bridge the gap while we get renewable energy sources to their full potential. Others say that it would be better to spend money now on renewables and not on fracking.

I’m going to be open-minded for now, while bearing in mind the deviousness and dishonesty of the fossil fuel industries. I’m very cynical as you know.

Ye Gods

It’s implicit in the beliefs in the three related religions of Islam, Judaism and Christianity that the one true God was known and worshipped from the beginning of time. Or at least from the time of Abraham, which is almost the same. (Bishop Ussher of Armagh calculated that Abraham was born 1943 years after the Creation.)

Abraham, if he existed, would have lived some time in the earlier half of the second millennium BC, say before 1500 BC. But the difficulty is that the stories about him (and the rest of the Bible) weren’t written down until a full thousand years later, when monotheistic Judaism was fully established. That makes it hard to use the Bible to learn any definite facts about the beliefs and practices of that earlier time.

There are a few mentions in the Bible that could be remaining early references to multiple Gods. A couple of times, the Jewish God is referred to as God of Gods, or the Greatest of the Gods. The plural word for “Gods” pops up too, in contexts hard to reconcile with monotheism. And Elohim, a title for the one God, is also a plural, although sometimes used with a singular verb.

To the sceptic, it’s implausible that monotheism existed in the second millennium BC: all the archaeological and historical evidence shows multiple Gods. In the general area of what is now Palestine and Israel, a large number of Gods were worshipped, but usually it was acknowledged that there was a supreme King and Queen of Heaven, El and his wife Asherah, to whom all other Gods were subordinate.

“El” came to be the noun in Hebrew simply meaning “a God”. It could be used to refer to Jehovah, the tribal deity of the Hebrews, but equally to Gods of neighbouring tribes, Ba’al, Moloch and a host of others. The original El was sometimes called Elyon, God on High, to distinguish him, but confusingly, this title came to be adopted for Jehovah too.

But it doesn’t seem to be the case that the developing Jewish religion directly took El and made him their one God. It was much more complicated. In fact, it was more the other way round — Jehovah absorbed the attributes of the better-known El, including his having a wife Asherah.

AsherahEven according to the Bible, Asherah’s statue was worshipped in Jehovah’s temple in Jerusalem right up until the Babylonian conquest in 587 BC, although a couple of the kings in the preceding centuries, Josiah and Hezekiah, had conducted purges and tried to enforce Jehovah-only worship. It never stuck. The second book of Kings is full of fascinating detail of the religious practices that went on, including sacred horses of the Sun and temple prostitutes in Jehovah’s house.

In fact, it was only in the aftermath of that defeat by the Babylonians and the exile of the king and nobility that a consistent Jewish theology was developed, and the Bible written up and edited to conform (mostly). When the kingdom was re-established and Jehovah’s temple in Jerusalem rebuilt in 515 BC, worship was completely monotheist, although, ironically, there were many competing sects within Judaism: Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and eventually, Christians.

Think It Possible You Might Be Wrong

Savita protestI don’t know exactly why I was so upset by the death of Savita Halappanavar. In part, it was because the very people whom she trusted to save her failed in their duty to do so, but that would apply to any case of medical negligence. I think that in the main, I was just appalled that anyone would be prepared to enforce a position of moral absolutism even in the face of such distress and death.

I don’t like absolute moral rules, because I think that no rule can cover the complexity of every situation. In fact, people seem to use them simply to avoid the effort of thinking. In George Orwell’s Animal Farm, a parody of totalitarian states, “four legs good, two legs bad” was a rule designed to relieve the citizens from the burden of thinking.

Though there are some issues where it’s easy to decide the side you should be on: racism, gender equality, democracy, say. I don’t think that abortion is one of those. It’s difficult, and complicated, and there is no easy answer.

But here’s how I think about it. An unfertilised egg cell is not a human being. A new-born baby is. A human life arises between those two points.

The absolutist position adopted by many (mainly religious) people who oppose abortion totally is that human life begins at the instant of conception. To me, that makes no sense. A fertilised egg might be a potential human being, but then it was a potential human being a moment before. Conception is just one of the essential stages on the way to life. Why not choose successful implantation (which often fails to occur) or some phase of cellular division?

Setting the beginning of life at the instant of conception is purely a religious, mystical belief with no basis in biology or common sense. While people are free to believe whatever ideas they like, it’s the duty of society to prevent them being imposed on others who reasonably disagree. Savita must have been distraught that her pregnancy had failed, but there is no reason to suppose that she thought she had to go to the point of death anyway. Somebody else made that decision.

Even if you do discard the mystical, if there’s to be a law, it has to be the best we can make. A law will have to say that up to some point, for some reasons, it will be legal to terminate a pregnancy, but neither of those criteria is obvious or easy.

My own instinct is to balance off the two. That is, no restriction on measures such as the “morning after pill” which prevents implantation of a fertilised egg cell; but very strict conditions from the point where a fetus might conceivably be saved medically, say 20 weeks. That’s actually more or less the UK law as it stands, but review and discussion is always good. Sticking to an absolute is never good.

What Is Truth?

amnestyI’m not generally an angry person, but something about the proposed London bus ads by the Core Issues Trust made me quite cross. If you missed the news, these were to be large banners with the words “Not Gay! Ex-Gay, Post-Gay and Proud. Get Over It!” They were a deliberate parody of the campaign by pro-equality group Stonewall, whose posters had said, more simply, “Some people are gay. Get over it.”

Although the anti-gay posters were accepted by CBS Outdoor, the media company subcontracted by Transport for London to handle advertising, that decision was reversed by the Mayor of London in his role as Chairman of TfL. Mayor Boris is in an election year, and public opinion is overwhelmingly opposed to extremist religious groups and their message, but good on him anyway.

Perhaps what angers me is that Core Issues’ message is based on a blatant lie: that sexuality is a matter of choice. I know it’s not. I didn’t get out of bed this morning and say “I think I’ll be hetrosexual today. It seems like a lot of fun.” I am hetrosexual. That’s the way God made me, if you want to put it like that. And I see absolutely no reason to suppose that you’re any different. What you are is what you are. It’s not up for negotiation.

Like other people around who make a career of denying reality, Core Issues wants to be seen as “scientific”, to create a mask of impartiality, lack of bias. Therefore they like to point to all the myriad of scientific papers which show evidence that sexual orientation can be changed. Well, actually, one paper, certainly published in a peer-reviewed journal, but in reality a very poor piece of academic work because of numerous blatant weaknesses of methodology and statistics.

Minor changes in attitude were reported in a small sample of people undergoing religion-based “therapy”. For me, the single fact that torpedoes that entire study is that 40% of the group dropped out, presumably having decided that they had “failed”. The remainder, whose statistics were claimed as the paper’s “result” would have been those most motivated to conform.

Because that’s actually what the so-called therapy is. It’s a method of teaching people to lie about their feelings and emotions. Lie upon lie upon lie. Well, Christians, what did Jesus have to say?

“The reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” John 18, verse 37 (New International Version).