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.

  26. Victor says:

    Reginald Selkirk:

    I don’t have a point. I was merely pointing out how interesting it is when you look at it from that perspective.

  27. Anonymous says:

    I’m with Wolfgang. The concept of a cafeteria Catholic is not new, and it has never made any sense to me. I don’t care how “comforting” people find it — bottom line: you’re just not being honest. Only someone who doesn’t take religion seriously could ever think that was really an option.

  28. Doc C says:

    The statement of mine you questioned is out of the context in which it was made. If we are speaking about the biological origins of religious belief and atheism, as I was in that post addressing prior posts of victor and anonymous, then biological adaptability is the real question.

    As far as the values we attribute to beliefs, I quite agree that the nature of those is quite a bit more complex than than just valuing those with individual biological advantages. However, once we get into that kind of questioning, I think we have entered the social and cultural space where evolution moves quite differently than in Darwinian biological or physical systems. Changes in culture (mutations as deviance) are not merely random, but can be purposeful or can occur in response to the environment. The interactions are also quite different. An idea, thankfully, can survive or thrive despite being abandoned for a time.

    I would also raise a question as to what you mean by “true”. If you mean symbols or concepts such as “gravity” that perfectly match the reality they represent, then that is one thing, but if you mean concepts that have fuzziness such as “love”, then that is another. Defining and assigning value to those different kinds of truths are very different processes.

  29. DMPalmer says:

    Doc C.
    Defining ‘better’ is indeed a good first step. Here’s another question: “What would a being of infinite knowledge, wisdom, and love want for and from us?” This doesn’t suffer from the ‘If (false) then {anything}’ problem, and doesn’t require that the being be a creator.

    But, assume arguendo that one particular person happens to be a loving creator. (Call him God for the sake of convenience in this discussion.) Why concentrate on that hypothetical person’s wants instead of, for example, an explicitly non-existent being of infinite knowledge, wisdom, and love? (Call him Fred for the sake of convenience.) Everybody can agree on whether Fred exists so we can move on from that argument. The evidence that we do not live in a Created universe has no bearing on what Fred would want. There is no question of why Fred hasn’t stopped all the misery and suffering in the world. Fred hasn’t acquired God’s reputation of doing any of the horrible things ascribed to various deities by the various Holy Books and traditions.

    If someone says ‘God doesn’t like it when you do X; God smote the Herbertites for doing X, according to Defenstrations III.qvc’, you can say, ‘You obviously have a strong belief about God’s desires and history, but I fail to see the relevance of those beliefs to my actions. If Fred existed, I see no reason why he would be troubled by my doing X.’

  30. doc c says:

    That would certainly be one way to begin the conversation. I agree that shedding preconceived notions of a loving creator/infinite being would be as useful way to start, though I suspect it would be more productive to allow for all forms of that being to remain open so that a diversity of cognitive and behavioral styles could participate.
    The problem you are getting at goes to the issue of “correctness”. I see the issues we would be dealing with as much less empirically derivable than reasonably debated and agreed upon. In such a debate, correctness would not be as valuable as sharedness. Integrating values derived from a variety of sources would be difficult for typically competitive humans to achieve, but not really unusual. I think the hardest part is to come up with a set of ideas that respect the points of view of all participants, while still plowing new ground of commonality. Unless everyone is willing to surrender to the higher purpose, the tragedy of the commons might soon befall the effort.

  31. Damian says:

    Sorry, completely off-topic, but I’d love to get Sean’s views on this recent story (I’ve been checking back here several times a day for the last few days to see if Sean had posted about it yet):


    Is this the end for the Cosmological Principle, and if so, what are the implications for the Standard Model?

    I’m sure others would be fascinated to hear your thoughts on this in a new blog post Sean!

  32. Tony Rz says:

    I am free to do good or evil, I can choose to kill or not to kill. Protons and neutrons and many other forces cannot force me to do one or the other, just my will.

  33. Meep says:

    doc c

    > 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?

    Well, I don’t know. My point is that if you assume that the best way for us to organize is the way a benevolent would want for us, you’re skipping an important point of the discussion — I, for instance, am not convinced that this is true.

    Now, maybe you meant that you’re not assuming this, but you just find that this question is a good starting point. If so, then I might agree that it’s an interesting question. But I don’t think a good point to start the discussion, mostly because bringing mention of a creator (even hypothetically) tends to muddle the discussion.

  34. doc c says:

    It is a starting point, of course, or else it would not be in the form of a conditional question. I agree that the preferred answers will not necessarily be as obvious as they seem. Finally, yes muddled is exactly right, but we’re talking about a muddled situation. There is little that is clear cut, empiric, evidence based or quantifiable about complex adaptive systems, of which we are one. They represent a scale of phenomena that we cannot directly experience or control, and we will always be limited to utilitarian goals in working with them.

  35. Meep says:

    doc c

    That seems reasonable, I can agree with that.

    I previously read too much in your comment, I think — I thought you were saying that everyone must agree to base everyone’s moral code (the basis for “how we should behave and organize”) on what we thought a hypothetical benevolent creator wanted for us.

  36. Doc C says:

    I think another useful way to work with this problem of the war between science and religion springs directly from one interpretation of the Bible itself. When God banished Adam and Eve from the garden he cut them off from his direct love and embedded them in his natural creation. We must live in that natural world and can only know the love that God has for us indirectly. The rest of the Old Testament defines ways that one group believes God provided them to show his love for us in this natural world. The New Testament provides one man’s interpretation of those ways which reveals their logical paradoxes, and suggests that we can only know our creator’s love if we assume that our love reflects his love. The rest of Judeo-Christian religion is all politics.

    In that interpretation of the Bible there is nothing that proscribes science as a way of interpreting our natural world, and naturalism as a view of our universe cannot refute the biblical view, since by definition it says that we are cut off from access to a loving creator. The rest of the battle between science and religion is all politics.

    The common ground the 2 tribes share is vast. They just need to decide that rather than continue to try to dominate its governance, they will seek ways to share it so that its resources are sustainable and are used to produce as good a life for all as the natural world that we find ourselves embedded in will allow.

  37. SnowDrops says:

    What about Deists? Do they count as religious?

    Also, it seems that a lot of people discount the argument about naturalism’s validity because it can’t be verified by “science”, being a “philosophical” (read: unverifiable and unrelated to real life) question, but science isn’t supposed to give us the answers to everything. You need philosophy to affirm that science is logical as a process in the first place.
    Thus we get good scientists (say, Richard Dawkins and such) making bad philosophical mistakes.

  38. Katishaw says:

    “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.”

    I hope you see the contradictions between and among all these statements. Love may be chemical in origin, but does that mean it has no spiritual aspect? (And by spiritual, I don’t mean religious.) And if, as you’ve discovered, helping others is conducive to your own well-being, then how does that mesh with a fight for survival? Maybe we can take just a moment to appreciate that our particular cocktail of hormones and neurotransmitters has gotten us to this degree of community wherein we can sit around and speculate about it.

  39. Doc C says:

    @Katishaw and Thomas,

    T – The term better is not scientific. Or natural. Some loving actions might not improve survival of a genetic lagacy, yet humans take these actions all the time. Yes the basis of love physico-chemical, but the complex adaptive system that created our ability to love transcends pure Darwinian selection.

    K – appreciating our natural gift of being able to speculate is a natural process, but exceedingly complex, and is part of the CAS that lifts us above a pure darwinian system. Love’s “spiritual” element reflects its emergent aspect. As a complex phenomenon, the spiritual aspect thus remains natural. However, the origin of our entire natural world still remains speculative and thus anything we believe about it, scientific or religious, remains tentative. There is no more certainty that we will evolve to understand the origins of our natural world than there is that dogs will evolve to understand physics.