Thursday, August 30, 2007

The urgency of belief

A few more thoughts on Archbishop Brady's recent talk, as published in the Irish Times.

Archbishop Brady avers that a lack of trust in God's providence is leading more and more Irish people to rely on superstitious practices that claim to unveil the future: astrology, palm reading, tarot cards, clairvoyants, channelers, and the like. He is right, of course, that these practices are shams and a waste of money. What he does not admit is that the future-enhancing practices of his own institution are based on no more reliable evidence of efficacy than the paranormal flim-flam he condemns. Prayers, novenas, pilgrimages, votive candles, paid-for Masses, holy water, and the like appeal to precisely the same need for assurance about the future that brings people to the astrologer or clairvoyant. (The Archbishop gave his talk at the Shrine of Our Lady of Knock, where an image of the Virgin supposedly miraculously appeared on the gable of a church.)

Voltaire wrote of superstition: "A Frenchman traveling in Italy finds almost everything superstitious, and is hardly wrong. The archbishop of Canterbury claims that the archbishop of Paris is superstitious; the Presbyterians levy the same reproach against his Grace of Canterbury, and are in turn called superstitious by the Quakers, who are the most superstitious of men in the eyes of other Christians." An astrologer writing on the Letters page of the Times took Archbishop Brady to task for superstition, while trumpeting the reasonableness of his own occupation. One person's sensible dogma is another person's nonsense.

Does science then fall into the same category? Science is the one avenue to knowledge that tries as hard to prove a theory wrong as prove it right. The test is reproducible empirical evidence that is as readily available to the skeptic as to the believer. Anecdotal evidence is not admitted. And the proof is in the pudding. The most fervent co-religionist of the Archbishop or customer of the astrologer will opt for science over holy water and horoscopes when faced, say, with a life-threatening disease.