Moral Authority

By Sean Carroll | November 13, 2008 9:29 am

The first things we noticed, as we climbed into the back seat of the taxi, were the books. A tiny six-volume library, tucked between the driver’s and passenger’s front seats — just a bit of reading material offered to customers who would rather read through a silent journey than chit-chat with the driver. Interesting books, too: I noticed Natalie Angier’s Woman: An Intimate Geography, as well as Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary. None of the American taxis I had ever been in had sported anything more literary than glossy magazines packed with ads.

We had just landed in Ireland, and despite the literary offerings, the taxi driver had no intention of letting the ride pass in silence. He inquired what had brought us on the long trip from Los Angeles, and I explained that I was participating in a debate at the Literary and Historical Society of University College, Dublin. That was a mistake, as I should have seen the next question coming: What was the debate about? Well, it was going to be about the existence of God; the L&HS revisits the topic every year, and I was one of a handful of visitors they were bringing in this time to defend either side of the question. And which side was I on? Trapped, I confessed that I was on the “does not exist” side. It’s not a discussion I like to force on people, but he did ask.

Our taxi driver took a moment to reflect on this information. Then he came back with: Well, you know Ireland has traditionally been one of the most religious countries in Europe, with an extremely strong Catholic tradition — but in the last couple of decades it had become increasingly secular. I hadn’t actually been familiar with the situation; despite my name (which I was politely informed should really be spelled “Seán”), I don’t have much connection with Ireland.

But I did have a remarkable cab driver, who was willing to fill us in. His theory of Irish religious consciousness began with the very early Church, which had co-opted many of the existing pagan traditions. Druidical rites, women priests, celebrants running around naked, that kind of thing. The turning point, he explained, was the Synod of Whitby in 664. (Whitby Abbey is actually in Northumbria, northern England, but apparently the repercussions of this event spread through Celtic society.) The ostensible focus of the synod was fairly narrow: how do we calculate the date of Easter? The choices were between the algorithm favored by the indigenous church, and that advocated by the catholic hierarchy in Rome. So it wasn’t really a controversy over the Easter Bunny’s work schedule; it was a power struggle between the locals and the establishment. Needless to say, the establishment won; the synod agreed to calculate the date of Easter using Roman methods.

0777092.jpg Thus began (our loquacious driver continued) centuries of Catholic dominance over Irish religious life. And he pinpointed the peak of that dominance quite precisely: the 1979 visit of Pope John Paul II to Ireland. The Pope was treated like a rock star, speaking to audiences of hundreds of thousands of cheering supporters. But it was the beginning of the decline. The years to come would witness a dramatic collapse of religious devotion in Ireland generally, and in the influence of the Catholic church in particular.

What happened? Our cabbie had a theory, and it had nothing to do with the implications of natural selection or the logical status of the ontological proof for the existence of God. It was simple: Loss of moral authority of the Church. (Back home and consulting the Google, I find that Kieran Healy agrees.) And the loss of moral authority could be traced to a constellation of issues centering on … sex. On the one hand, the Church in Ireland took its usual predilection for sexual repression to extremes — while Americans debated over the right to have an abortion, in Ireland it was illegal to use any form of contraception as late as 1978. On the other hand, it was increasingly clear that clergymen weren’t always the best examples of sexual morality. Cases of priests fathering babies with their housekeepers or abusing young children (and then being protected by the Church hierarchy) were rampant. And so, while most Irish continued to symbolically profess the Roman Catholic faith, the populace converted gradually from fervent believers to modern secularists.

It’s very chagrining for we believers in logic and rationality to be confronted with the real reasons why people often change their minds about things. Belief in God isn’t something about which most people start with a completely open mind, sit down and carefully weigh the options, and reach a conclusion based on reasoning and evidence. More often, they believe in God because it serves a purpose in their lives, offering purpose and meaning and structure and guidance that is otherwise hard to come by.

When Shadi Bartsch and I taught a course on the history of atheism at the University of Chicago, we certainly had no plans to proselytize, but we had some concerns that a vigorous to-and-fro concerning the existence of God might strike an emotional chord for some of the students. That was a naive worry; students could be intellectually engaged and rigorous when talking about philosophical arguments for or against atheism, no matter what their personal beliefs happened to be. But we covered one topic that some people weren’t comfortable hearing about: how the Bible was written. Sure, they may be willing to accept that the Pentateuch wasn’t really penned by Moses himself. But when you start digging into the details of the documentary hypothesis, demonstrating that the Bible is just like any other collection of essays, culled from disparate sources with incompatible agendas and stitched together by more or less conscientious editors — human, all too human, in other words — it really hits home. For most believers, their belief is not a logical conclusion, it’s a mode of living. And the erosion of that belief will typically not, for better or for worse, be accomplished by the presentation and examination of evidence; it will be through telling a better story than the one told by religion. One that helps make sense of the world, provides a template for a fulfilling life, explains the difference between right and wrong, and brings meaning to people’s experiences.

That was the most erudite and educational cab ride I’ve ever had. The next evening we had the actual debate, which was more amusing than enlightening; the visitors such as myself trotted out various shopworn arguments, while the student speakers showed flashes of genius, skewering our stolid positions with wit and verve and only marginal attention to which side they were supposed to be upholding. A vote was taken, and reliable eyewitnesses will uniformly testify that the “God does not exist” side came out handily ahead, although the result was recorded in the record of the Society as the other way. Divine intervention, I suppose.

And then we repaired to a pub across the street, to drink Guinness (a miracle forged of human hands) and tell jokes and swap stories and share small slices our varied experiences. Living life.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Religion, Travel, World
  • daisy rose

    God or no God, Its an pretty amazing world we live in. What difference does it make? Who can say they are right and someone is wrong. Like your going to find out for sure ??

  • Phil

    It’s for this mix of style and content that I read blogs. Thanks Sean.
    (Long time CV reader)

  • chuko

    Great post. But it would be nice to have the byline back.

  • Don

    Would have been interesting to have a before vote and an after vote. If your cabbie is typical, your audience was coming into the debate with well-formed opinions.

  • Ras

    The question of “God or no God” might be considered of no consequence as written (although I can understand arguments that something co-aligned with some hardwired aspect in us that looks for something greater than self should be a part of an improved society). BUT when we get down to the specifics of a particular world view there can be consequences all over the place.

    It should be no surprise that an observable consequence (viz. happier families and the emancipation of women when there is access to contraception) can cause even the observant religious to start to think about the underpinnings. “Why is contraception bad?” “Because sex, except for procreative purposes in a church sanctioned marriage, is BAD.” “Why is sex bad? Feels pretty good to me.” “Because God says it is bad.” “How did God say this?” “Because the Church Fathers said so.” “Oh, because you said so? Hmmmmmm….”

    As to the “who can say they are right and someone wrong”, it sounds kind of nice and live and let live, something I’m generally in favor of. But if a country still followed the teachings of Ba’al (or at least his hierarchs) in Carthage, with wide spread infant sacrifice (up to a year old) as the appropriate way to mark both good and bad events to country and individual families, I don’t think I would hesitate to consider that “wrong”, in the same way that I considered the hierarchs of the Khmer Rouge wrong (and dispassionately I consider the Khmer Rouge to be a religious phenomenon even if no God made an appearance), And a failure to act on our part if presented with such would also be “wrong”.

  • Zeynel

    “But when you start digging into the details of the documentary hypothesis, demonstrating that the Bible is just like any other collection of essays, culled from disparate sources with incompatible agendas and stitched together by more or less conscientious editors — human, all too human, in other words — it really hits home.”

    Yes. Moreover, Bible, which literally means the Book, as you know, was the first book which became The Book. The book was as great a technological advance from scrolls as the printing press was in later times. And Paul’s was the first successful book tour. I think the bible and people who wrote and packaged it deserve credit for such an incredible marketing campaign. They could have taught Procter&Gamble a few things.

  • Arun

    Good post as usual, but I really really bhate the new graphics :( The white background is killing me.

  • Andre

    Great post!

    I totally agree with the “better story” theory, if I may call it so. That’s why I believe books like Sagan’s “Cosmos” or Dawkins’ “Unweaving the rainbow” are probably more efficient to the cause of secularism than “Demon haunted world” or “The god delusion”. They lure people without making them feel attacked.

    As for myself, I teach astronomy and put my telescope on busy sidewalks to show people how wonderful science can be. It works!

  • Phil

    Well, I loved this part where you wrote “For most believers, their belief is not a logical conclusion, it’s a mode of living. And the erosion of that belief will typically not, for better or for worse, be accomplished by the presentation and examination of evidence; it will be through telling a better story than the one told by religion. One that helps make sense of the world, provides a template for a fulfilling life, explains the difference between right and wrong, and brings meaning to people’s experiences”.

    The vast majority of people around the world are not aware of the roman empires history, nor the Byzantine empires history, protestant reform, etc. The average person is not aware of terms, such as, secularism. They do not think about the significance of morals, nor question their roots. Philosophy is out of the question. People generally have the idea that if the were no religion at all, there would be chaos… People need a purpose to live their lives.

  • Jim Harrison

    Surely the Irish economic boom of the last couple of decades had a lot to do with the decline in religious faith. It will be interesting to see whether the return of hard times will have the opposite effect.

  • Stephen Cass

    Good God — being Dublin born and bred (well, technically, Tallaght, but only a fellow Dub would appreciate the distinction) I can tell you now, your driver was unusually erudite. Not that Dublin cabbies aren’t chatty or intelligent or don’t have opinions, but they are rarely so well grounded in historical details.

    I should point out though that some contraception was technically legal in Ireland before 1979, but only for married people for “family planning” purposes. It remained a gray area for decades, and many organizations such as the Irish Family Planning Association openly flouted the law. Still, the purchase of condoms over the counter, e.g. from vending machines remained illegal, along with other contraceptive restrictions, until 1993(!) Certainly, that the church’s influence had already begun to lessen on people’s family planning planning decisions was evident by the time of the Pope’s visit in 1979 (which I remember well despite being only 6, because my father was in charge of the satellite TV transmissions, a big deal at the time): when my parents were born in the 1940’s family sizes of 8 – 12 were common. By the 1960s and 1970s, when I and my siblings were born, many family sizes had “magically” dropped to 4 – 6. The revelations of abuse by priests, etc., didn’t surface until the 1990’s, well after Ireland had already embarked on a secular course. (For example, my mother refused to be churched in the 1960s after the birth of my older siblings, because of the implication that woman was somehow unclean after childbirth.) There were also some hard fought referendums on divorce and abortion a few years on either side of the 1990 mark that also had an impact, in which the church was perceived by some to be uncompassionate towards victims of spousal abuse or incest. Similarly, anti-homosexuality laws were dismantled (with out much fuss in the end) after years of lobbying by people like the Jocyean scholar and senator David Norris, who was voted in as the first openly gay person to be elected to office in Ireland in 1987, albeit to a university seat.

  • Jason Heldenbrand

    Religion and the concept of God provides people with the comfort of a ‘perfect father figure’ in an era where a lot of our families are breaking down. Most can’t handle the simple logic and evidence, considering it to be too cold or too far removed from emotion. I actually believe the opposite, that I find the growing mysteries of our universe to be far more interesting than any tale or fable found in the book. Colliding galaxies, super massive blackholes, the search for other planets, even investigating Mars and Titan for life in our own backyard.

    It does not provide any moral compass, then again, I was raised without religion entirely. I think I turned out pretty okay in terms of morality.

  • Sean

    Stephen, not all of our cab rides while in Dublin were quite so educational.

  • Dylan

    is there anyway to post the name of the author at the top of each blog post, rather than the bottom? knowing who wrote each post provides context….i’m lost without it, and find myself scrolling down to the bottom of each post before actually reading it. semi-annoying.

  • changcho

    What an interesting cab ride! A couple of points: by coincidence, my folks are vacationing in Ireland this week (Dublin and Killarney if I recall correctly). As far as the existence of god goes, well, I don’t think he exists. Speaking of my folks, and like Jason H., I was also raised entirely without religion.

    “More often, they believe in God because it serves a purpose in their lives, offering purpose and meaning and structure and guidance that is otherwise hard to come by.”

    In my experience (admittedly anecdotal), it seems to me most people believe because their parents believe (starting in childhood, obviously).

    Great post, thanks.

  • Erik

    This is why I agree with Dennette on teaching world religions heavily at a very young age. The only minor detail is that I think the naturalist perspective needs to be explicitly added. If we can tell the story of naturalism to our children at an early enough age then they will absorb it (ideally) at the same time as religion. I think even as early has 1st or 2nd grade, the kids can tell which side makes more sense. If we focus on this one path, I think that, in time, everything will come together.

  • Lawrence Crowell

    The early Church co-opted many pagan Earth-mother or goddess figures. These were encapsulated into the Virgin Mary, who became for the ancient Kelts the goddess Mahbe.

    The Church is losing its authority in Ireland just as the nation moves away from being the third world of western Europe. While the Irish Catholics might have hated the British in the island, their presence was a boon for the Catholic Church. The Brits kept people in ignorance and poverty, and consequently gullible to the priest’s mumbo jumbo. As a rule once a people become reasonably educated on average adherence to religion falters. This clearly has not fallen on deaf ears of the religious right in the US, for one of their big points of attack are school boards to bring in faux science education called creationism.

    Lawrence B. Crowell

  • Odani of The Faith

    This news is a bit shocking to the Faithful–Ireland has long been a bulwark against the DFHs, physicists, and other individuals doomed to multiple eternities in hellfire. I’m surprised Sean could obtain a visa. Still, it’s only one small island, and the Kingdom of the Faith is large and ever-increasing (or so my tutors tell me); the tide may ebb but it also flows–during the same period Ireland is said to have gone wayward, we have neatly infiltrated every government office in the U.S! So, Irish taxi-drivers may not be Saved, but we have laid the groundwork for Universal Salvation in the most influential country in the merely corporeal plane of existence. It’s a fair trade.

  • Joe Fitzsimons

    UCD my alma mater. It’s really good to see that the L&H is keeping the debates interesting.

    I have to ask, though, any of the taxi drivers grill you on “Stephen Hawkins”? Seems about half the taxi drivers I meet in Dublin seem to have recently watched something about black holes on TV. I have had some pretty strange conversations on the way back from a night out. One guy seemed to be particularly up on Schroedinger’s sex life. Weird.

  • Lab Lemming

    Is there any reason that one should not choose one’s religion in the same way one chooses a bicycle?

  • kletter

    Lab lemming – by taking each one out for a ride?

    It would be interesting to see if the following could ever be taught in schools, or what the response would be:

    “Early humans were faced with numerous phenomena they did not understand: thunder, lightning, diseases, storms, wildfires, volcanoes, earthquakes, meteors, and so on. In an effort to understand and define their surroundings, they created human-like gods to rule over these forces.

    Early human society was probably much like modern chimpanzee society, with a typical alpha-male tribal structure. An angry alpha male was probably a common occurrence, and there are clear rituals for showing submission – the same is true for any social mammalian species, from zebras to wolf packs. Thus, early humans tried to placate these natural forces by offering prayers and gifts to them, and this is probably how the first notion of gods arose.

    Other natural forces had a profoundly beneficial nature – rain made the grass grow, and food became abundant. These forces were ones that early humans would have wanted to encourage. These good gods and goddesses brought gifts to humanity, but other, more evil ones brought suffering.

    Many different belief systems along these lines (good/evil) came into being as human society developed, and came to be a key part of the cohesiveness of social groups. In many cases, the professions of doctor and priest would overlap; in others the professions of king and priest would become the same. This went on for thousands of years, with varying results.

    This really began to change with the rise of scientific explanations for natural phenomenon. First, the basic rules of motion on earth were shown to apply to the heavens as well, and then the universe began to get bigger and bigger, until in the early 20th century Hubble discovered the red-shifted galaxies and the expanding universe.

    At the same time, there was a steady increase in knowledge of biological evolution and biochemistry. The unity of all life on earth became clear, as well as the descent of modern species from common ancestors. This all brought on a huge shift in religious attitudes, and a great loss in power for the religious authorities.

    As psychology developed, the deadly sins – pride, envy, gluttony, lust, anger, greed, sloth – were no longer viewed as the temptations of Satan, but rather as hangovers from our animal past – primitive emotional states that could be controlled by the well-adjusted adult human mind, in the rational secularist viewpoint. That viewpoint can easily become its own religion, however, with scientists as the new high priests… but science has built-in defense mechanisms against authoritarian takeover.

    The two big problems for traditional religion have been the sheer size of the Universe and the knowledge of our animalistic predecessors. This has led to a new religious interest in Very Big Concepts, such as “the Universe as God” and so on. My own favorite religious take is that God, bored with strictly deterministic universes, decided to create one that would be interesting yet quite unpredictable – thus, quantum mechanics and chaos.

    So, that’s what science has done – relegated God to the outer reaches of cosmology, where He or She or It may be lurking quietly, just out of sight. For example, there is no more Vital Essence theory of living systems, in which life can only arise by a divine intervention (thus, no spontaneous generation is allowed).

    However, when it comes to social norms and acceptable behavior, it seems that by and large both religious and secular philosophies come to the same basic conclusions about what is moral and ethical and what is not.

  • Sili

    I thought the whole deal about the Carthagenians being into human sacrifice big time was largely Roman propaganda. By. History. Winners. The. Is. Written. Jumble as appropriate.

  • Sedigh

    You are amazing Sean!
    I like you!

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  • Squirrel Nutkin

    Any student of Irish literature will warn Lab Lemming of the dangers of bicycles: you may “choose” the bicycle, but, as De Selbey has shown, it only takes its regular use for bicycle and rider to become irrevocably intermingled!

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  • The Almighty Bob

    Squirrel: well done.


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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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