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Skeptical Sunday: Word Salad

December 6, 2009

Like most people of my generation, I know the most reliable, unbiased and hard-hitting sources of news on television are the Daily Show and Colbert Report.

I don’t want to get into TDS or Colbert particularly in this post, but there was something interesting that happened on Tuesday. During a segment on the Catholic Church holding a summit about the possibility of alien life, Colbert had a priest on to discuss the matter and — well, you can just watch the interview.

(Currently embedding isn’t allowed, so I’ll just have to link you to the clip and update in the future if I remember. The interview starts at 2:45:)

View the segment.

The part that interested me most was this little excerpt (from 3:45) of what the guy said:

But we also read in the beginning of the gospel of John, ‘In the Beginning was the Word,’ and the Word, of course, is a second person — this is what we’re celebrating at Christmas — this could be a Word that exists even before the Earth existed, before anything existed.

Now, if you’re a Christian (or a former one), you likely followed what he just said. I went to four years of Catholic high school myself, I got it. But look at it objectively for a moment and you realize something striking: this is actually total gibberish.

The Word is a second person, and the fact that the book of John somehow mislabeled a person as a Word, in defiance of the meaning of both terms (and yet somehow “of course”), is what we celebrate at Christmas. This in itself is nonsensical, but the next part really drives home the logical incoherence of the whole thing: the Word existed before anything existed.

Not just before anything else existed. Before anything existed. Which means that by definition, the Word did not exist. Or, put another way, the only thing that can exist if nothing exists is nothing, hence the Word is nothing.

And he says this all straight through, with no indication (and little likelihood) that he realizes the absurdity of what he’s saying. And that’s really a problem. So many people have been taught to believe propositions A, B, and C, and then they are connected together in a slapdash way that makes no sense from an outsider’s perspective, and when they get to talking you realize that they hardly even realize what it is they’re saying, but they’re sure as hell convicted that they believe whatever it is.

Of course, there’s other problems here, quite aside from that what he’s saying is meaningless. The stuff that is coherent is clearly false.

The guy named Guy talks about how the Vatican has always been dedicated to science, such as their requirement as far back as the Middle Ages that you study astronomy before you study theology. For those who have studied history, that would be the geocentric astronomy that caused Galileo so much trouble when he insisted on doing science that derived a conclusion from results and not the other way around. You know, actual science, not this self-affirming, masturbatory nonsense the Vatican pays people to do.

Here’s a scientific endeavor for the Vatican: prove transubstantiation. The belief says that the bread and wine consecrated during Mass actually become the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ. They do not mean symbolically. This is important regarding the belief, so I’m going to repeat it: this is not a symbolic or metaphorical representation of the body and blood. They believe that the bread and wine literally become the body and blood of Jesus Christ while still appearing to be bread and wine.

How can it be literally flesh and blood when it’s clearly bread and wine? “That’s the mystery of transubstantiation.” That’s not mysterious, it’s made the fuck up. They still appear to be bread and wine because they’re still bread and wine. The only mystery is how some people actually just go with this like it makes sense. It’s completely incoherent and not a single person in the Catholic Church understands it, and they just shrug and call it “faith.”

But hey, if you say so. It’s flesh and blood. So, if you guys are so interested in science, consecrate a communion wafer and run a DNA test on it. Just imagine what a stir you could cause if you could confirm, with total repeatability, that these wafers — which appeared to be bread — not only contained human DNA, but that the human DNA only appeared after the consecration, and the exact same DNA appeared consistently in every batch of consecrated wafers, no matter which priest performed the consecration (and, corollary, only if an ordained priest performed it). The wine, too, would naturally have identical DNA results.

There you go. Done. Proven with science. No more of that “science can’t answer questions about God” talk. No more “show us the evidence” talk. It would be in all the journals and all the newspapers. I still probably wouldn’t worship, but I’d certainly believe, and I think many other skeptics would also accept the results if they could be repeatedly and independently verified.

So why hasn’t the Vatican put a team on this? Why hasn’t it put a half-dozen teams on it?

You know the answer as well as I do, and as well as they do: because they won’t find a damn thing after their voodoo ceremony[1] but crackers and booze. Faith? Ha. Not when the rubber hits the road. They will never perform such an experiment because they already know the outcome, and they can’t have it. Hence the difference again between science and religion: religion refuses to be proven wrong, and science tries everything it can think of to do so.

The idea that the Vatican is open to scientific knowledge or discovery is laughable. “We’re not afraid of other intelligent creatures?” Please. If the aliens didn’t worship something, or worshipped something wildly unlike Jesus, we’d have a brand new set of crusades on our hands.

Fortunately, the Vatican’s tendency to be a century or two behind everyone else in the reality they choose to accept means that they’ll be the last folks to venture into space, giving those of us who accept science for what it is plenty of time to apologize for them in advance. Or better yet, just leave them behind entirely.

  1. Take away the glitz and the robes, put the priest in a loincloth in front of a fire, and tell me there’s a difference between the consecration and any other “pagan” ritual.
  1. I would actually love to see that scene:

    Priest: We’ve discovered a way to determine, conclusively, whether or not transubstantiation is real or not.

    MONTAGE of a SCIENTIST doing science, taking DNA from a wafer and running it through vials, centrifuges, microscopes, etc. The PRIEST looks on as the scientist does his work, both looking deadly serious.

    Finally, the scientist raises his eyes from the microscope and looks at the priest.

    Scientist: The results are conclusive…it’s just bread.

    The priest absorbs this, showing the emotion but taking it like a man.

    Priest: You’re sure?

    The scientist nods.

    Priest: Very well. (beat) I’ll tell the Pope.

    Eh, it’s funnier in my head, but you get the idea.

  2. Yeah, well, as I said on your post regarding the young girl who was raped and became pregnant, and the Vatican excommunicated the priest who approved of an abortion, the Roman Catholic Church is full of a lot of nonsense ideas that aren’t even Biblical. I wouldn’t even consider their official doctrine to be truly Christian. So I would probably go right along with you with the whole transubstantiation thing. The Vatican took on so many pagan rituals and Jewish practices that were supposed to be done away with, that a scenario that you laid out would mean crap nothing to Christianity as a whole.

    In the same way, I wouldn’t rely on what this Guy guy is saying on the Colbert Report (who is he again?). He chose his words poorly and explained things inaccurately throughout his interview, so I would simply dismiss the clip all together as not representing Christianity by a LONG shot.

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