Father Flanagan’s Advice to the Religious

Greetings from Oxford, where I’m having fun talking to the assembled scientists, philosophers, and theologians, but not left with any extra moments for blogging. So I will leave you with this quote from Owen Flanagan‘s book The Really Hard Problem: Meaning in a Material World. I wanted to include it in my first talk at the conference, but ran out of time. He’s offering advice to Catholics (and has offered very similar advice to Buddhists), but the spirit is of wide applicability.

Believe none of the theology or metaphysics. But be a cultural or ethnic Catholic (the way many Jewish atheists are). Go to Mass, meditate and pray in a Catholic way if you wish, consult the right saints depending on your needs, have fun, etc.

This is a reasonable way of affirming your identity, you can find wise moral guidance in places, and you can drop all the hocus-pocus stuff. That stuff is silly, unbecoming to thoughtful souls, and can be dangerous.

(The “Father” bit is a joke, as Owen is not really a priest, but he would be an awesome one.)

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40 Responses to Father Flanagan’s Advice to the Religious

  1. I don’t quite see how mass and saints aren’t also hocus pocus…

  2. N. says:

    As this is not Shean’s statement I can’t see how he could possibly comment…

  3. Tony Rz says:

    Well Sean, why don’t you prove the existence of God, you’re an extremely intelligent person, very,very much so, why not gather all the possible reasons and evidence for and about a God even trying prayer and meditation, just for test purposes, give a good try though, not half hearted, then when you’re finished show us how it’s just a bunch of malarkey and without any possibility of being true and prove it of course. In your spare time of course and not the ten minutes of it. By the way I took the t out of Rtz.

  4. John says:

    It would certainly be a step in the right direction! The problem, of course, is that others will see what you’re doing, join in and so become fanatical believers. I wouldn’t be too surprised if believers in the Giant Spaghetti Monster launch some violent crusade in about a hundred years. Just look at scientology.

  5. doc c says:

    Many Catholics have already taken that stance, in a variety of different ways, even those who practice devoutly. I was taught something very much like it by priests at my Catholic high school 1969-73. The religious traditions and emotions of many different faiths serve a clear purpose, as evidenced by the fact that those who hold them can live well into their 90s, and die peacefully. I am not sure how naturalists plan to replace such a powerful set of behaviors for those who depend on them.
    Would it make sense for people on both sides of the debate to stop arguing over non-provable questions, and simply agree to ask “If a loving creator existed, what would s/he want for us and from us?” (Be aware; having pondered that question over 45 years, the answer is not as simple or intuitive as it first sounds). Like the blind men describing the elephant, we would be pooling the accumulated wisdom of the ages together – a gift that has been bestowed upon us somehow, whether by a loving creator, or a stochastic clustering of natural phenomena. At least, then, there would be common ground on which both sides of the debate could gather with a useful goal and purpose, and those who chose to believe that the loving creator actually did exist could hold to their faith, while those who felt unable to believe could have some say on a set of ideas that would inspire everyone deeply. It seems to me that a truly loving creator would want no less for all of creation, and true seekers of meaning, regardless of the source they trusted, could gain insight from that conversation.

  6. Darth Dog says:

    I think the advice you quote from Owen Flanagan is fine – drop the superstition but keep the cultural part of your religious heritage. That said, having been raised as a Catholic, and having gone to Catholic schools through high school, I can’t see anyone going to mass for fun. It is ….sooooo…..boring! The parts of Catholic culture that might be worth retaining, some of the holidays like Christmas and Easter, have already been secularized. By all means, go out for fish fry every Friday.

  7. Meep says:

    doc c:

    > “If a loving creator existed, what would s/he want for us and from us?”

    I don’t think the answer to this question is necessarily the same as the answer to “What’s the best way for us to organize and behave”. Anyway, at the very least, it doesn’t seem productive to start the discussion assuming it is.

  8. Tony Rz says:

    If a Creator exists, which of course I believe but cannot prove, either I’m not smart enough or He hasn’t given me the ability, He wants this, “If only people would Love one another.” I would say that is His greatest desire, not that one should be Catholic or another Christian Religion, but quite simply, Love one another and go from there. If people did this the world would be a totally different place. By the way I believe in evolution and that the Bible is not history nor a lesson in science, and also that God did not write or dictate the Bible anymore than I did. The Bible, the Old Testament, the new is perceived differently, in a different manner being that Jesus was its focus, was written by people who were searching for Truth with certain inspiration from time to time from the Divine first cause, LOVE ITSELF. ALL people who possess Love will be saved, period, for they possess the Divine substance. God gives us two choices Love or hate and we get to choose which one, free will, not if were gay or straight, not where we live or many other things.

  9. John Farrell says:

    From the headline, Sean, I thought at first you were talking about the priest who founded Boys Town (remember the old movie with Spencer Tracy)?

  10. Thomas Stoe says:

    As controversial as it may be, I do not believe the Earth is flat, that there is an Easter Bunny, or that there is a God or gods, we were not put here for a reason, there is no life after death. This is not a reason to be depressed. Our behavior and cognitive processes evolved over thousands of years and by pure chance, you and I are here. I make the best of it, enjoying it as best I can. Helping others is a behavior that is reciprocated and that makes my life better. Love is just the expression of neurotransmitters oxitocin and vasopressin in the brain, it is not what life is all about. Life is a Darwinian fight for survival, live with it.

  11. doc c says:

    Meep, Meep, (sorry, couldn’t resist)

    I my question is exactly where we should start. How can you answer the question of the best way to organize and behave without a set of agreed upon values and goals that the organization and behavior will seek to achieve? I do agree that discovering the best way to organize and behave to attain and sustain those values and goals is a separate, and very different and difficult conversation, though.

  12. Reginald Selkirk says:

    Showing up in church contributes to the Pope’s claim that he speaks for large numbers of people, and that his medieval views on morality and behaviour need to be accommodated.
    Unlike for Judaism, there is not much good food that is considered Catholic.

  13. Tony Rz says:

    God is the fabric upon which the universe is painted.

  14. Victor says:


    If there is no free will, then our thought processes are ultimately the result of the laws of physics applied to the protons, neutrons, and electrons making up our bodies. In fact, all of life on Earth is the result of such processes. So, in other words, religious belief is a direct result of the laws of physics. Interesting, isn’t it?

  15. Anonymous says:


    By the same argument, religious non-belief is a direct result of the laws of physics. I think it’s actually more informative to look at things from a biological perspective in terms of explaining the origins of belief systems.

  16. doc c says:

    Victor and anonymous
    Precisely right. And since atheists and people of religious faith can both live nto their 90s and die peacefully using either belief system, they are biologically equivalent in value. The real question is which trait is more adaptive for the species as a whole when they are app. Despite the protests from each side against the other, the fact is that neither knows the right answer to that question, and in fact neither can guess it because the answer depends on too many variables and changing conditions that cannot be measured. Why we all have to get along…

  17. Doc C says:

    Somehow my last comment did not print fully. The question of the adaptive value of each belief system occurs when they applied to our social and cultural evolution, as well as individual survival. Since we know neither seems to have a clear effect on individual survival in our current environment, the question applies to a changing environment. In that circumstance, it seems to me that more diversity of thought and belief systems is better. Again, atheists and believers ought to be finding ways to support help improve other’s systems not eliminate each other’s.

  18. Gizelle Janine says:

    “I know I mustn’t eat thee but…”

  19. Gizelle Janine says:

    “Mmmm, sacrilicious…”

  20. doc c says:

    G…so scievil…

  21. wolfgang says:

    >> This is a reasonable way of affirming your identity

    I don’t understand this. How can you affirm your identity by pretending to be somebody (a Catholic) you’re not?

  22. DMPalmer says:

    Would it make sense for people on both sides of the debate to stop arguing over non-provable questions, and simply agree to ask “If a loving creator existed, what would s/he want for us and from us?”

    No. It would make more sense to have everybody ask ‘If we are the only ones who can choose to make the world better, what do we choose?’

  23. doc c says:

    Identity includes all accessible experience. The identity of an atheist who once experienced religion is indelibly shaped by those experiences. A Catholic who no longer believes in the dogma that makes no sense in the context of his or her current experiences can certainly affirm the religious experiences that still do make sense for him or her. Many such experiences will.

  24. doc c says:

    In your plan, the first step would require that we define “better” together. It seems to me that my question provides one reasonable way to explore that definition. If you notice, I didn’t raise my question as a final or exclusive one, but rather as one that could get people of diverse thinking and values to a common ground for such an exploration. As a conditional question, it does not require any commitment to a specific program or system, but it does open up lines of communication and imagination among and between diverse points of view.

  25. Reginald Selkirk says:

    Victor: So, in other words, religious belief is a direct result of the laws of physics. Interesting, isn’t it?

    Yes, as is belief in cold fusion, ESP, astrology, etc. Your point?

    doc c: The real question is which trait is more adaptive for the species as a whole when they are app.

    I don’t see why that is the “real” question, other than because you say it is. We can value things for reasons other than their adaptive utility. For example, we might value beliefs because they are actually true, regardless of whether those beliefs are good for us.
    Plus of course you will run into trouble applying adaptation at the level of species, rather than individual or gene.