Not Impressed By the “Power of Prayer”

This past week, Bill Donohue took a break from complaining about perceived slights to his religion of choice, and posted something more inspirational, entitled The Power of Hope and Prayer. He tells of a family whose newborn son had a heart disease, but who was cured thanks to hope, prayer, and the best medical care that a Fox News anchor’s salary can afford.

Here’s a sampling of what Donohue has to say about the power of prayer:

[…] Bret and Amy were not alone—they were one with the Lord. Bret’s prayer was quintessentially Catholic: he was not angry with God—he thanked the Lord for the gift of his son and asked for his help. But most of all, he did not despair. By praying for Paulie’s “recovery that will follow,” he evinced optimism and hope.

Jesus said at the Last Supper, “You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn to joy.” How can this be? […] New York Archbishop Timothy Cardinal Dolan put it in a way that really drives home the essence of Jesus’ words. He explored what he called “the theological reasons for laughter.” Why are people of faith happy, he asked. “Here’s my reason for joy: the cross. You heard me right: the cross of Christ!” The death of Jesus was not the last word. His resurrection was. After Christ was crucified, Dolan says, it “seemed we could never smile again…But, then came the Sunday called Easter! The sun—S-U-N—came up, and the Son—S-O-N—came out as He rose from the dead. Guess who had the last word? God!” […] It is a theology grounded in hope, and hope is the natural antidote to despair.

When Pope John Paul II died, I happened to be at the studios of the Fox News Network in New York City. I knew he was dying, but I had no idea that I would be the first guest to go on the air when he passed away. When asked by Shepard Smith what my thoughts were, I answered, “On the one hand, great sorrow. On the other hand, great joy. Sorrow that he’s no longer with us. Joy that he’s with God, with his Lord.”

For those who skipped past that, he basically says that prayer makes people happy and gives them hope. Basically, pretty standard inspirational-chain-email stuff.

I can’t help noticing that he fails to mention any kind of medical benefit or, indeed, any benefit to the patient. All of the benefits he mentions could, it seems, be provided equally well by prayer to Krishna, or a sacrifice to Dionysus, or even by meditation.

People can get these benefits of Donohue’s religion even if they’re not true. It’s enough that people believe them. In other words, from everything Donohue has said, Jesus might as well be an imaginary friend.

If he’d left it at that, I wouldn’t have bothered writing this. But he had to throw in some digs at atheists:

The Baiers are practicing Catholics. What would they have done had they been atheists? It must be tough going it alone, and indeed the evidence shows exactly that.

Note that he doesn’t actually mention what any of this evidence might be.

And in case you were wondering about ellipses, above:

Jesus said at the Last Supper, “You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn to joy.” How can this be? It is not something atheists can grasp. It eludes the secular mind. New York Archbishop Timothy Cardinal Dolan put it in a way that really drives home the essence of Jesus’ words. He explored what he called “the theological reasons for laughter.” Why are people of faith happy, he asked. “Here’s my reason for joy: the cross. You heard me right: the cross of Christ!” The death of Jesus was not the last word. His resurrection was. After Christ was crucified, Dolan says, it “seemed we could never smile again…But, then came the Sunday called Easter! The sun—S-U-N—came up, and the Son—S-O-N—came out as He rose from the dead. Guess who had the last word? God!” There is probably nothing more baffling to an atheist than this “theology of laughter.” It is a theology grounded in hope, and hope is the natural antidote to despair.

I know that Donohue has been around long enough, has spoken to enough atheists that this can’t be dismissed as simple ignorance. He’s going out of his way to insult a class of people with whom he doesn’t agree.

And coming from the guy who throws a fit every time someone dares point out some bad about his religion, that’s pretty rich.

Dead Pope Prankster

Part 1

Achievement unlocked: Attain sainthood
There’s a story being repeated uncritically all over the Net, about a woman who had a brain aneurysm, but didn’t die of it because a dead pope magically healed her.

Oh, and this allows the dead pope to level up. From HuffPo:

Mora, her doctors and the Catholic Church say her aneurysm disappeared that day in a miracle that cleared the way for the late pope to be declared a saint on April 27 in a ceremony at the Vatican where Mora will be a guest of honor.

Now, one might reasonably ask, how do we know that this was really magic? Floribeth Mora presents this compelling line of evidence:

Acknowledging that many people would be highly sceptical of her recovery, and of the whole concept of miracles, she said that “people can think what they want – what I know is that I’m healthy.”

“There are always people who don’t believe me, who say I’m crazy, but what counts for me today is that this ‘crazy woman’ is cured.”

So we know that she was cured because she said so. With evidence like that, who needs to see X-rays or MRIs or lab results? Besides The Telegraph writes:

Even her neurosurgeon seems to be convinced. “If I cannot explain it from a medical standpoint, something non-medical happened,” said Alejandro Vargas Roman. “I can believe it was a miracle.”

But here’s what Reuters wrote last year, when the Catholic Church approved Mora’s cure as the second in the two-miracle-minimum needed for John Paul II’s promotion:

The neurosurgeon who admitted and diagnosed Mora, however, denies he gave her a month to live. Alejandro Vargas says he forecast only a 2 percent chance Mora could bleed into her brain again within a year of her diagnosis, possibly killing her.

“She was sent home with medication that would reduce her blood pressure and was advised to improve her diet so as not to raise her cholesterol levels and thus decrease the chance of her having a second bleeding episode. She was sedated because the headaches were too sharp,” he told Reuters. “We didn’t send her home to be sedated and wait until she died in her sleep.”

That’s all well and good—how many people can you name who survived a disease with a 2% mortality rate?—but how do we know that Dead Pope was involved? Religion News Service:

She claimed her prayers were answered when John Paul II appeared to her in a vision on the day he was beatified — the first step on the road to sainthood — after he was credited with his first miracle.

“When I woke up in the morning, I looked at the magazine cover which showed Pope Wojtyla with his arms outstretched.

“I felt a deep sense of healing. I heard his voice say to me, ‘Get up and don’t be afraid,’” she said, recalling one of John Paul’s signature lines.

I don’t know what else you doubting Thomases want. If you can’t trust someone who’s just been stressed out by a hospital stay, is on new meds, and has a thing in her brain, whom can you trust? There’s no way she could possibly be mistaken!

But she was cured, right? And both Mora and her doctor said that they don’t know how she was healed, so therefore they know how she was healed (it was Dead Pope Magic) (Dead Pope Magic is the name of my next webcomic). That’s just logic.

Okay, so she was dying (but not really dying) of an aneurysm, and now it’s gone. And she can’t think of a better explanation than the one that she really really likes (Dead Pope magiced her back to health), so obviously that explanation must be the correct one. And she won’t provide any solid evidence because, well, doubters gonna doubt.

I’m sold!

Part 2

But apparently there’s some kind of Law of Conservation of Pope Magic, because on the same day that the Catholic church was celebrating Dead Pope John Paul II healing that one woman… Well, I’ll let Italian news agency ANSA tell it:

(ANSA) – Brescia, April 24 – A young man in northern Italy was crushed to death Thursday by a falling crucifix that was built to honor pope John Paul II’s 1998 visit to Brescia. The 21-year-old’s death comes just three days before John Paul will be canonized in Rome.

Does this count as JP2’s third miracle?

Someone Would Have a Fit If This Aired Here

This video was posted on the feed of a Belgian comic book artist I follow. I can’t help thinking that if it aired in the US, someone *cough*Bill Donohue*cough* would have an apoplectic fit.


Translation for non-francophones:

Announcer: This is what it was like before.
Priest 2: No, tonight, I’m reading the Bible.
Priest 1: No, you read it yesterday.
Priest 2: I didn’t read it yesterday. I read it for an hour while I couldn’t sleep. That doesn’t count.
Priest 1: Give me that Bible, God damn it!
Priest 2: Good one.
Priest 1: See what you made me say?
Priest 2: But still, you’re the one who said it.
Priest 1: Meanie!
Priest 2: Jerk!
Announcer: Today, the life of these priests has changed: In The Bible According to the Cat, which [artist] Philippe Geluck and God have cleverly divided into two volumes, no more arguments. Harmony has again settled upon the couple.
Priest 2: I’ve finished this one. Do you want it?
Priest 1: With pleasure, my angel.
Priest 2: Here it is, sweetie.
Priest 1: What if… we read it tomorrow?
Priest 2: What a great idea!
Announcer: The Bible According to the Cat. The Bible for everyone.

So, yeah. I’m pretty sure social mores in France and Belgium (the author is Belgian; the publishing company is French) are a bit different than in the US.

Update, Oct. 18, 2013: Changed to the new video with English subtitles.


BillDo is butthurt over the existence of the art-house movie Paradise: Faith, about an ultra-religious woman who wants to not just love Jesus, but make love to him.

It is not certain whether the filmmaker, Ulrich Seidl, who is Austrian, is related to another Austrian, Mr. Adolf Hitler, though he could be. Like Hitler, Seidl is a vicious anti-Catholic ex-Catholic.

Godwin! Now that he’s conceded the argument, we can all go back to not giving a rat’s ass what BillDo thinks. But in case you’re curious how he finishes this paragraph:

When questioned why it was necessary to show the “devout” Catholic woman profaning a sacred symbol, he said, “it is right to show her masturbating using a cross, as she is making love to Jesus. Just because it might be a taboo doesn’t mean I won’t show it.” But it depends: he won’t show a “devout” Jew masturbating with the Star of David. That would be disrespectful. And NPR and the New York Times would never approve.

Um, no. I think the reason may have nothing to do with NPR’s approval, and more to do with the fact that stars of David are pointy, like shuriken. So ow. Ow ow ow. This is in contrast to crosses, which are roughly dildo-shaped, and especially crucifixes, which are Textured for Her Pleasure.

Horrible Acts Too Horrible to Release

In the AP’s story about the Milwaukee diocese having to release its records of priestly sex abuse and shuffling priests around to protect Holy Mother Church, one part jumped out at me:

Listecki, who succeeded Dolan in Milwaukee, said Tuesday in his weekly email to priests, parish leaders and others that he hoped releasing the documents would allow the church to move forward. But he also warned that descriptions of abuse can be “ugly.”

“I worry about the reactions of abuse survivors when confronted again with this material and pray it doesn’t have a negative effect on them,” he wrote.

which I think translates to “the things we did to those people are so horrible, we don’t want to hurt them further by releasing the details of our horrible actions to the public.”

This deserves to be the the prime textbook example of a self-serving rationalization.

And here I thought confession was supposed to be good for the soul.

The Selectively-True Scotsman

BillDo has been on a tear lately against surveys, seeing as how a few of them have been released lately showing that as it turns out, the Catholic rank and file are nowhere near as reactionary as the funny-hatted hierarchy, or as he would like.

I suppose he could have just pointed out that the Catholic church is not a democracy so sit down, shut up, and let the higher-ups tell you what God wants, but I suppose even he realizes that won’t go over well in the 21st century. So instead, he points out the differences between people who attend church services regularly and those who don’t. I guess this is like saying swing voters are more favorable to immigration reform and gay rights than people who consistently vote straight-ticket Republican, and therefore the GOP needs to double down on its anti-gay plaform planks to remain relevant. Or, to put it another way, I don’t know what his reasoning is.

At any rate, it’s clear that he doesn’t care for self-identified Catholics who don’t go to church every Sunday:

Whether someone who “attends Mass a few times a year or never” can be considered Catholic is debatable

(from here)

This takes on added significance when we consider that 4 in 10 of the Catholics sampled do not practice their religion (28 percent go to church “a few times a year” and 11 percent say they “never” attend). That these nominal Catholics are precisely the biggest fans of gay marriage is a sure bet, though the poll fails to disclose the results.

(from here.)

So take note, Christmas-and-Easter Catholics: you’re not true Scotsmen Catholics.

But wait, what’s this?

Catholics make up anywhere between 70 and 78 million Americans

70-78 million out of a population of 315 million is 22-25%, well in line with other surveys of American religion that I’ve seen. But shouldn’t BillDo’s number be 40% lower than mainstream pollsters’, since he doesn’t consider infrequent mass-goers to be True Catholics™?

Surely this can’t mean that he’s happy to count mere “nominal Catholics” when he wants to show off the size of his tribe. We know this can’t be the case because hypocrisy makes Baby Jesus cry. So there must be some other explanation, like anti-Catholic bias among pollsters or something.

Update, Mar. 25, 2013: Carmelita Spats tells me how she tried, and failed, to be excommunicated from the Catholic church, on the grounds that a) she’s an atheist, and b) she had an abortion. But apparently even that’s not enough to be taken off the rolls.

Vatican Announces Forgiveness Sale

Medieval indulgence

Say, do you have an imaginary friend? Do you feel guilty because a guy in a funny hat told you that you broke some rules laid down by your imaginary friend, like not hating gays enough, or not showing enough deference to men in funny hats? If so, you’re in luck, because the Vatican has announced that

Benedict XVI will grant faithful Plenary Indulgence for the occasion of the Year of Faith. The indulgence will be valid from the opening of the Year on 11 October 2012 until its end on 24 November 2013.

“The day of the fiftieth anniversary of the solemn opening of Vatican Council II”, the text reads, “the Supreme Pontiff Benedict XVI has decreed the beginning of a Year especially dedicated to the profession of the true faith and its correct interpretation, through the reading of – or better still the pious meditation upon – the Acts of the Council and the articles of the Catechism of the Catholic Church”.

“Since the primary objective is to develop sanctity of life to the highest degree possible on this earth, and thus to attain the most sublime level of pureness of soul, immense benefit may be derived from the great gift of Indulgences which, by virtue of the power conferred upon her by Christ, the Church offers to everyone who, following the due norms, undertakes the special prescripts to obtain them”.

First of all, I like how the release doesn’t mention the Bible in its list of resources on how to properly interpret “true faith”. This is in accordance with longstanding Catholic tradition, that if you let the hoi polloi read the Word of God, they might come away with a false understanding of what God wants. So best if the parishioners don’t worry their pretty little heads about it.

So what, pray tell (see what I did there?), must one do to erase real and imaginary transgressions from one’s soul, or that of one’s deceased relatives? Glad you asked:

  1. Attend three sermons or three catechism lessons.
  2. Visit a basilica, a Christian catacomb, a cathedral, or other specially-designated holy site.
  3. Take communion or celebrate Liturgy, on any specially-designated day.
  4. Visit the place where you were baptized and renew your baptismal promises. [I’m confused by this one. I thought Catholics baptized newborns, who aren’t capable of making any promises. Maybe this only applies to those who were baptized as adults?]

I can only imagine that they give out cards, like coffee shops and burrito restaurants, except with lots more Latin and curlicues, and once it’s been punched or stamped ten times, you get your indulgence.

Oh, and at the end, there’s a sort of nod to the Vatican equivalent of the Americans With Disabilities act:

The document concludes by recalling how faithful who, due to illness or other legitimate cause, are unable to leave their place of adobe

So what’s the deal with adobe? Does this apply only to Catholics in New Mexico and Arizona?

Defending the Barking Mad

Recently, at The Catholic Thing, one William E. Carroll posted a piece entitled The Dawkins Challenge (via PZ), in which he takes offense that Richard Dawkins called the doctrine of transubstantiation “barking mad”.

I’ll let him describe it:

When he speaks of the irrationality of religious belief, Dawkins often invokes Catholic faith in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The Church teaches that with the priest’s words of consecration the bread and wine really become the body and blood, soul and divinity of Christ.

The rationale behind the doctrine, which is known as transubstantiation, employs categories of substance and accident, which have their origin in the philosophy of Aristotle. According to the Church, the underlying substances of bread and wine are replaced by the body and blood of Christ while the external appearances of bread and wine remain. A scientific analysis of the consecrated host and wine would only detect these external appearances.

(emphasis added.)

In other words, as I understand it, and as charitably as I can put it, a regular communion wafer is just a piece of bread. But a wafer that’s been blessed by a priest continues to look, smell, taste the same as before; it has the same mass as before; it dissolves in acid the same way as before; it continues to fail to block neutrinos the same way as before. It is in every measurable way the same wafer as before. But it’s not a wafer: it’s Jesus’ flesh.

PS: it’s not “barking mad” to believe this.

Believe it or not, I am not entirely unsympathetic to this argument: at a recent social event, we got to discussing the difference between boats and ships (all of us being landlubbers). According to the various GooglePedia pages on people’s phones, a boat is a smaller vessel for river or coastal travel, while a ship is typically a larger vessel, built for voyages across open sea.

So then someone brought up Kon-Tiki. It’s a small vessel, indeed a raft, so appearances place it well within the “boat” class (assuming, for the sake of this discussion, that rafts are a type of boat). But of course Thor Heyerdahl built it specifically to cross the Pacific, so that would mean it’s a ship.

It seems to me that there are two ways to resolve this: 1) Kon-Tiki is a boat; you wouldn’t expect a boat to cross an ocean, but Heyerdahl managed to do so. 2) Because of its famous voyage, we’re going to consider Kon-Tiki an honorary ship, even though it looks just like a boat.

Of course, neither of these change what Kon-Tiki actually is. It’s just a matter of how we divide the world into categories (boats vs. ships; should there be a third category for rafts? Or should they all be grouped under “vessels”?) and which pigeonhole to put Kon-Tiki in. This tells us more about the way human brains work than about the nature of the vessel in question.

It seems to me that Carroll is doing something a lot like option (2): “Yeah, it looks just like a piece of bread, but we’re going to treat it as if it were a slice of Christ.” Except presumably he thinks this reflects some reality outside of his head, because he feels the compulsion to defend his belief:

Belief in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist comes from an acceptance, in faith, of God’s revelation. Appeals to divine authority as a source of truth do not fall within the realm of the credible for Dawkins.

And with good reason: people believe all sorts of wacky and mutually-contradictory things on faith. Faith is not a reliable way of figuring out what’s true and what isn’t. Faith is what people resort to when they really really want to believe something, but don’t have any good evidence or arguments.

So as far as I’m concerned, what Carroll has demonstrated is that the doctrine of transubstantiation is “barking mad” and as unworthy of serious consideration as the idea that Xenu brought aliens to Earth in spacefaring DC-10s, or that the CIA has mind-control rays that can be blocked with tinfoil helmets (shiny side out). If he manages to come up with any convincing arguments, I’m all ears, but until then, I’ll continue to point and laugh.

Tim Minchin’s Pope Song — the Clean Version

Benny Johnson at the Blaze really didn’t like Tim Minchin’s Pope Song, which he played at the Reason Rally:

From the article and comments, it looks as though the word commonly referred to as an “eff-bomb” stopped Benny’s and his readers’ mental processes, rendering them incapable of hearing what the song actually had to say.

So for the benefit of all of these delicate flowers on their fainting couches, here’s my cleaned-up version of the lyrics:

Darn the bad person, darn the bad person
Darn the bad person, he’s a really bad person (repeat)
Darn the bad person, darn the pope.

Darn the bad person, and darn you
If you think he’s sacred
If you cover for another person who’s a child molester
You’re no better then the rapist
And if you don’t like this swearing that this person forced from me
And reckon it shows moral or intellectual paucity
Then too bad for you, this is language one employs
When one is cross about people having sex with children.

I don’t care if calling the pope a bad person
Means you unthinkingly brand me an unthinking apostate, and
This has naught to do with other godly people
I’m not interested right now in scriptural debate
There are other songs and there are other ways
I’ll be a religious apologist on other days
And the fact remains that if you protect a single child molester
Then pope or prince or plumber you’re an evil malefactor.

You see I don’t care what any other person
Believes about Jesus and his mother
I’ve no problem with the spiritual beliefs of all these people
While those beliefs don’t impact on the happiness of others
But if you build your church on claims of moral authority
And with threats of hell impose it on others in society
Then you can expect some wrath
When it turn out you’ve been engaging in non-consensual sodomy with us

So darn the bad person and darn you, bad person
If you’re still Catholic
If you covered for a single child molester
Then you’re as evil as the rapist
And if you look into your heart and tell me true
If this stupid song offended you
With its filthy language and its disrespect
If it made you feel angry go ahead and write a letter

But if you find me more offensive than the possibility
The pope protected priests when they were abusing children
Then listen to me, this here is a fact
You are just as morally misguided as that
Power-hungry, self-aggrandised bigot in the stupid hat

Emphasis added to the important bits.

And just so there’s no confusion: curse words are bad because they make some people feel momentarily uncomfortable. Child rape is bad because it causes physical harm and psychological trauma, often for a lifetime, a lifetime that may be cut short because of the aforementioned psychological trauma. Covering up child rape is bad because it allows child rape to continue. And, of course, claiming to be in a position to decide what is and isn’t good, while covering up child rape, is the height of hypocrisy.

There is no way Minchin’s song is in any way comparable to what the Catholic church has done. And if you’re not angry enough at the church to swear, then what’s wrong with you?

Victim Card Fatigue

From yesterday’s WaPo:

BALTIMORE — The Penn State scandal over a former football coach accused of sexually abusing young boys “reopens a wound” for the U.S. Roman Catholic Church, a leading bishop said Monday.

Archbishop Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the crisis reminds the bishops of their own failures to protect children.

Well gee, maybe they shouldn’t have covered up chld rape, then. Was I supposed to feel sorry for Dolan? Hang on, let me find my World’s Smallest Violin™…