Welcome! This site exists to help shed light on the topics of science and Catholic faith. Please introduce yourself here!

If you would like to subscribe to this blog, click here. To receive new posts by e-mail, enter your e-mail address below. Your e-mail is always kept private.

Delivered by FeedBurner

Top Posts for 2008


I started this blog about a year ago, thought it took a few months to find my focus on science and faith. These are the top posts for the year, according to Google Analytics, comments I received, and my own highly biased opinion. Thank you to all my readers for making this blog a pleasure to write for!

Catholic faith and philosophy

Why we practice penance (February 6)
Arguments to avoid (June 16)
Top three questions about the Eucharist you never asked (July 24)

Science and health

Depression and anxiety myths (May 7)
The science behind renewable petroleum (June 26)
Bad formula: Problems with infant food (September 25)
Gardasil, poison, and vaccine reactions (November 12)

Ethics and the intersection of science and faith

Feminism pro life (February 15)
ADD/ADHD religion: Prayer for the distractible (May 25)
Scientific American interviews Diana Degette (August 6)
Science and the question of when life begins (August 28)

A lighter note

Online psychics! Fabulous or fraud? (May 16)
Awards for World Youth Day protesters (August 1)
Top five conspiracies... of SCIENCE! (August 4)
A parade of bad nativities (December 23)


A Parade of Bad Nativities, Page 4

Labels: ,

The 2008 Parade of Bad Nativities concludes with culture wars and political statements. Yes, didn't you know Jesus took on human flesh in order to become a political pawn?

This nativity scene from Kenya almost made it to the Scary Nativities category, especially since Baby Jesus appears to be dead.

Bethlehem was in New Mexico, didn't you know? And Jesus was placed in a kiva, not a manger!

The wall in this nativity scene is supposed to represent the division in the Holy Land.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals may nix a publicly sponsored nativity scene, but I don't think it can do anything about "the Nativity", you know, the birth of Our Lord.

This nativity scene from Italy was supposed to make a statement about gay marriage. Note that there are two Josephs and no Marys. I think the magi might be wearing the heads of local politicians.

A Parade of Bad Nativities

Page 1: The Ugly
Page 2: The Scary and the Unintended Effects
Page 3: The Just Plain Wrong
Page 4: Culture Wars and Politics


A Parade of Bad Nativities, Page 3

Labels: ,

The Parade of Bad Nativities 2008 continues with nativity scenes that are just plain wrong. They range from the incomprehensible to the borderline sacrilegious.

I'm not sure what Playmobile Toys, but there's a manger scene at the center of this collection of them.

Why yes, it is made of recycled cans!

Yeah. That's right. Someone painted light bulbs to make a nativity scene. The cotton balls are a nice touch, but I'm not sure what the olive green one is supposed to be. An alligator? A dinosaur?

I suppose placing a nativity scene in an urban setting is a valid cultural interpretation, but what's with all the dead people? Surely there were no drive-by shootings in Bethlehem!

The Holy Family were humans, not woodpeckers, so I'm not sure what they're doing in a tree trunk. It's also a candle. Of course it is.

"Away in a one horse open sleigh, no crib for a bed...."

No additional words are necessary.

No words are possible.

A Parade of Bad Nativities

Page 1: The Ugly
Page 2: The Scary and the Unintended Effects
Page 3: The Just Plain Wrong
Page 4: Culture Wars and Politics


A Parade of Bad Nativities, Page 2

Labels: ,

The 2008 Parade of Bad Nativities continues with scary nativities!

When I saw this in thumbnail, I thought it looked creepy. Full size, it's downright terrifying. Jesus and Mary are sitting on the Christ Child's shoulders like an angel and a devil whispering in his ear, and he has a baby-shaped brooch in the middle of his chest! Yikes!

This Santa looks like he's going to eat me! And look, he already ate the Holy Family!

Even the ancients were not immune to producing scary nativity scenes. A star is boring into the head of Baby Jesus, and both he and Mary are turning into caterpillars! Understandably, Joseph looks alarmed.

Next up are nativities with unintended effects. One wishes the artists had stepped back and looked at their creations before unleashing them on the world.

This nativity scene gives new meaning to the phrase "Lamb of God." A green Lamb of God, in this case.

"And behold, a giant cleaver didst split the barn in two."

"It's not 'Door to Heaven,' it's... 'STARGATE.'"

The Bible records that Baby Jesus was born in rude surroundings, but it specified a manger, not a urinal.

A Parade of Bad Nativities

Page 1: The Ugly
Page 2: The Scary and the Unintended Effects
Page 3: The Just Plain Wrong
Page 4: Culture Wars and Politics


A Parade of Bad Nativities, Page 1

Labels: ,

The blog Going Jesus started the Cavalcade of Bad Nativities in 2004, and published the Cavalcade II last year. The Cavalcades consist of pictures of ugly, kitschy, and just plain wrong nativity scenes. Leave the lights on is paying tribute to Going Jesus with the 2008 Parade of Bad Nativities.

It was shockingly easy to find bad nativities. For many of these, I just searched eBay for "unique nativity." Hint to the sellers: There's a reason many of these nativity scenes are unique!

The parade begins with the merely ugly.

We used to have a nativity scene like this when I was growing up. We picked at that ferny stuff every year until eventually the barn was totally denuded. It was an improvement.

The Psychedelic Nativity, a throwback to the 1960s.

These poor people have no mouths! How can they sing praises to the Christ Child?

Don't touch baby Jesus! He's sharp!

If you have to blow up a picture of a nativity scene, try to (a) trim the white space and (b) choose a nativity in which Mary does not have leprosy.

A Parade of Bad Nativities

Page 1: The Ugly
Page 2: The Scary and the Unintended Effects
Page 3: The Just Plain Wrong
Page 4: Culture Wars and Politics


The ethics of surrogate mothers

Labels: , , , ,

The new Vatican document on reproductive technologies, Dignitas Personae, makes only a brief, passing reference to one particular practice of assisted reproduction: surrogate motherhood. In this practice, a woman is commissioned or hired to gestate a baby whom she agrees to surrender to another family at birth. The genetic parents of the baby may include the gestating mother or one or both members of the couple who commissioned her, or one or both of the genetic parents may be third party egg or sperm donors.

Surrogate motherhood is always ethically and morally wrong. To put it more bluntly, surrogate motherhood is evil. In surrogacy, a child is commissioned (often purchased outright) as if he is a sculpture or a book rather than a human being.

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, all reproductive technologies that involve outside donors, including practices from artificial insemination to surrogacy, "infringe the child's right to be born of a father and mother known to him and bound to each other by marriage" (CCC 2376). That paragraph bears a closer look, as it asserts a human right that many in the secular world have never even thought of:

All children have a right to be born to parents who are known to him.

This is a right written in the hearts of all babies. An infant knows his mother's voice before he is born. Newborns may not seem very aware of their surroundings — indeed, I have heard some atheists odiously describe them as not even being "sentient" — but they are, in fact, very aware of their surroundings, at least in the aspects that matter to them, and the item of foremost importance to a newborn is who his mother is.

Later in life, all human children are interested in their roots. They want to know who their biological mother and father are. If they are raised by others, this curiosity stays with them, sometimes turning into a burning search for their first parents.

According to another document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Donum Vitae,

Surrogate motherhood represents an objective failure to meet the obligations of maternal love, of conjugal fidelity and of responsible motherhood; it offends the dignity and the right of the child to be conceived, carried in the womb, brought into the world and brought up by his own parents; it sets up, to the detriment of families, a division between the physical, psychological and moral elements which constitute those families.
Though this statement comes from a Catholic document, it makes no appeal to strictly theological principles. It asserts that the wrongness of surrogacy can be understood according to the principles of natural law.

Surrogate motherhood and adoption share some similarities. In both situations, a child is raised by people other than the mother who bore him. As an adoptive mother myself, I am keenly aware of the inalienable fact that all adoptions begin with a tragedy: the separation of a child from his first mother. In her book of the same title, Nancy Verrier calls this event "the primal wound," a permanent blow to the heart of every child relinquished for adoption, even those adopted as newborns.

In adoption, the primal wound is unavoidable, a cross to bear, a part of what makes this world (to quote the prayer) a "valley of tears." Adoption by loving parents is a step in healing this wound in a child who otherwise would have no parents at all.

In surrogacy, however, the primal wound is not a tragic circumstance, but a premeditated act. The adult parties plan in advance to tear the newborn from the mother he knows, the one who carried him. Even for non-Christians, surrogate motherhood should be viewed as universally wrong and a violation of human rights.


Five little-known Christmas facts

Labels: , ,

Christmas is Western culture's most important holiday, and it is surrounded by lore passed down traditionally. Here are five facts about Christmas that are not widely known:

The number of magi is unknown.

The Gospel of Matthew records that magi (a word referring to Zoroastrian priests) gave the child Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Matt 2:11). Because three different gifts are mentioned, tradition (small-t tradition, not Apostolic Tradition) is that there were three givers. Matthew, however, does not specify the number of eastern visitors.

The Star of Bethlehem may not have been a bright object.

It is compatible with the Christian faith to believe that a miracle such as the Star of Bethlehem might have a natural explanation, with the "miracle" being in the nature and timing of the phenomenon. Many possible natural explanations for the Star have been proposed, but not all of them describe an astronomical object. One interpretation is that the "star" was actually the retrograde motion of the planet Jupiter, interpreted by the magi as an astrological sign. (Of course, nothing rules out the possibility that the Star was a purely supernatural phenomenon.)

The Twelve Days of Christmas do not even start until Christmas Day.

Our culture today inexplicably tends to stop celebrating holidays the day after that holiday. Thus the radio stations that play Christmas music throughout December return to regular programming on December 26, and most Christmas trees are taken down before the new year. Traditionally, though, the period before Christmas has long been called Advent, with a distinct season starting Christmas Day. The Twelve Days of Christmas last through January 6, the feast of the Epiphany.

Good King Wenceslaus was not a king.

The subject of the Christmas carol is Wenceslaus I, the Duke of Bohemia and patron saint of the Czech people. He lived in the 10th century and died a martyr's death when he was assassinated. The page mentioned in the song was named Podevin, and while he may have helped St. Wenceslaus with his charitable endeavors, tradition says he was killed after he avenged the murder of his master by killing the chief assassin.

Poinsettias are not poisonous.

These plants, originally from Mexico, are members of the spurge family Euphorbiaceae, many of whose members are toxic. Poinsettias themselves, however, do not contain any particularly dangerous substances, though it is inadvisable to get the sap in your eyes.


Scientific American on Dignitas Personae

Labels: , , , , , ,

I enjoy Scientific American. I really do. So when it published an article on the newly issued document Dignitas Personae from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, I hesitated to comment here. It seems I so often criticize SciAm in this blog.

But then the secular pro-life blog Secondhand Smoke (hat tip to Der Wolfanwalt) made scathing remarks about the article, doing much of the job for me (and doing it better than I would have). So I really have no excuse not to make a few additions.

I am thunderstruck that when SciAm decided to interview an expert about a Vatican theological document, it chose a secular commentator, Josephine Johnston. This would be like interviewing an economist rather than a physician about a new recommendation by the FDA or the Surgeon General. And predictably, she makes both herself and SciAm look ridiculous by stating explicitly that she does not understand what she is talking about:

[The document] opposes IVF even if it doesn't involve embryo loss, because the Vatican is committed to conception that involves the conjugal act. This I don't really understand.
She does not understand it because she has no background in Catholic theology. But it stems from theological principles that underlie everything the magisterium has promulgated about sex and reproduction in the past 50 years. Dignitas Personae is completely consistent with Humanae Vitae, the landmark document that reaffirmed the church's opposition to artificial contraception, and John Paul the Great's theology of the body.

Johnston also sounds a little ridiculous at the end of the interview, when she says "I don't know enough about how Catholicism works in practice" and then implies that perhaps the Church should operate as a democracy when it comes to teaching. In theory and practice, Catholicism is not a democracy, but a Kingdom. Truth is objective regardless of fickle public opinion, and even if some members of the Body of Christ dissent, the whole of that Body will always be subject to his truth.


Commentary on The Golden Age

Labels: , , , , , , ,

Earlier this week I wrote about science fiction author John C. Wright's conversion story. I was moved to read this story again because I am finishing up his excellent trilogy The Golden Age (The Golden Age, The Phoenix Exultant, and The Golden Transcendence). (Yes, though I am not the Sci Fi Catholic, I have always been a sci fi Catholic.)

The protagonist of The Golden Age is an engineer who calls himself Phaethon, after the mythical Greek character Phaëton. The future Phaethon's father is a solar engineer who has named himself Helion (the mythical Phaëton's father is Helios, the sun god). The novels take place in the Golden Oecumene, a far-future, solar-system spanning civilization. The Golden Oecumene is a near-utopia thanks to abundant energy and other resources, the advice of super-intelligent and benevolent artificial intelligences called Sophotechs ("wise machines"), and immortality of identity resulting from the technology to mechanically read and copy minds.

The Golden Age is a philosophical series. It was written while its author was still an atheist, and the world is entirely secular. Reason and logic are core themes. This series rests on the power of the mind, but unlike some science fiction in which "the power of the mind" means the discovery and development of paranormal abilities, the only power of the mind in the Golden Oecumene is the ability to think.

Using their reason, Helion and his son Phaethon (as well as the super-intelligent Sophotechs) have determined that there is an objective truth, and that it includes not only the laws of nature, but also the laws of morality. The ultimate conflict is between good and evil, with "good" characterized by existence, life, endeavor, and reality, and "evil" by nihilism, emptiness, and self-deception. Phaethon and his father live a philosophy called the Silver-Gray School by which they strive to discipline themselves to remain connected to reality and to comport themselves with honor and integrity.

I have never read a godless story so philosophically compatible with Christianity. While Wright reports that it required a series of miraculous experiences for him to acknowledge God's existence, after reading The Golden Age, I don't believe much of a miracle was required; he was a rational atheist ready to meet a rational God. (Perhaps this is why he calls his mystical experiences "overkill.")

For example, an ancient Judeo-Christian philosophy dating back to the book of Genesis is the idea that one's name is a relection or part of one's essence. Thus Abram had to be renamed "Abraham," meaning "father of nations," and his grandson Jacob was also called Israel, meaning "struggles with God" (which explains much about the Old Testament history of his descendants). God himself is named YHWH, variously translated as "I am," "I am who am," and "I am that I am": God's very name is the declaration of his perfect and infinite existence.

In the Golden Oecumene, individuals choose their own names, but nobody seems to choose a name just because they like how it sounds; one's name reflects one's identity. Thus Helion is the one person in the entire Oecumene who controls the sun for the good of everyone in the solar system. The meaning of Phaethon's name is left to the reader to discover.

The Golden Age is sort of a secular humanist's dream, a paradise based only on reason; but the rational conclusions that triumph in the end are so compatible with the Catholic faith that it makes my heart hum. In light of its author's conversion, I take it as an inspiration to explicitly reject the notion that religion is irrational, as well as the use of the irrational in religion.


Is religion rational? What John C. Wright says

Labels: , , , , ,

I had the pleasure recently of re-reading science fiction author John C. Wright's conversion story, "Why I am not a Deist." Wright was an atheist who converted to Catholicism after a series of theophanies he describes as "totally humiliating" and "an embarrassment of evidence" of the truth of Christianity.

Christianity as rational

Certain atheists today have devolved into a kind of fundamentalist and evangelical atheism, notably the likes of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and the king clown of noxious atheist behavior, P.Z. Myers. Wright does not seem to have been that sort of atheist. His writing, both fiction and non-fiction, makes it clear he has always sought Truth over Ideology, objective reality over subjective belief.

The fundamentalist atheism movement prefers to charge religion with being irrational. (They confuse religionists, who frequently are irrational, with the religious ideals they strive toward but often fail to follow.) So it is refreshing to read Wright's story, in which he insists that Christianity is an utterly rational religion:
The Christian religion places an emphasis on Reason that other religions, with the exception of the Jewish, do not share, or not to the same degree. None of them mention LOGOS, the rational account, the word, issuing directly from the Father.
Catholicism has a long tradition of rational thought. The Church honors no fewer than 33 thinkers with the title "Doctor of the Church." (Three of them, about 9%, are women, which is quite remarkable considering that in Western history, probably many fewer than 9% of educated persons were women.)

Christianity is not only a proponent of rational philosophy; it is a promoter of rational science. Indeed, Wright points out,
...Christendom invented science.... The Christian world-view is not only NOT incompatible with the scientific and logical one, they reinforce each other. You must imagine my befuddlement when I see science presented as somehow being the enemy of religion. Science is the enemy of Taoism or Buddhism, perhaps, but not the enemy of a religion that combines the rationalism of Athens with the mysticism of Jerusalem. We invented the University, for God's sake.

Taoism and Buddhism as irrational

My previous (and largely disastrous) attempts to study kung fu exposed me to Taoism and Buddhism, particularly Chan Buddhism, the Chinese ancestor of Zen Buddhism. Taoism is the philosophy behind the art of tai chi and emphasizes the use of chi (ki in Japanese), an utterly unscientific force. The belief in chi is a form of vitalism. It is inherently unscientific in the same sense that the theory of intelligent design is unscientific: it attempts to explain natural observations by appealing to a force that is supernatural.*

Both Taoism and Buddhism include elements that are at once impersonal and supernatural. The idea of a force both supernatural (that is, outside or above the laws of nature) and impersonal (that is, not a person or being nor arising from one) is irrational itself. Any force that exists independent of a person begs an explanation. If it acts on nature, it must be a law of nature — or (if one accepts the existence of supernatural beings) it must arise from a supernatural being.

*Of course, rational Christianity recognizes personal supernatural forces and the possibility of their acting on the natural. An appeal to the supernatural is not necessarily irrational, but it is unscientific, because by definition science can only be concerned with the natural world. Thus elements of intelligent design may be true, but it will always be an unscientific theory.