Notes from Across the Atlantic
Notes from Across the Atlantic

Notes from Across the Atlantic

David Mills FAITH Magazine January-February 2013


"Transhumanism is a philosophical doctrine that aims to continuously improve humanity," says new Italian MP Giuseppe Vatinno, interviewed in New Scientist. "Ultimately, it aims to free humanity from its biological limitations, overcoming natural evolution to make us more than human."
Which means developing technologies "that boost health and fight ageing and disease." The interviewer asks if this wouldn't make us less than human, which was the question we would have asked, and Vatinno answers: "Becoming less human is not necessarily a negative thing, because it could mean we are less subject to the whims of nature, such as illness or climate extremes."

Vatinno's is a truncated idea of what it means to be human. A humanity freed from biological limitations is, we would think, just as human as it always was: the will remains the same, the heart, the passions, the loves and hates, the fears and hopes. All you have is a man who doesn't get sick as often and lives a few decades longer. Not necessarily a bad thing, and also not necessarily a good thing, but in either case, hardly a change in humanity's humanity.

Transhumanism doesn't conflict with religion, Vatinno insists, though he admits that it "does tend to avoid recourse to an external deity and, in fact, most adherents are materialists." But some are Hindu and Buddhist and even Mormon.

The religion it accepts is "a religion of science and technology." It is religious "in the sense that it could provide ethical principles. The scientific method implies an absolute honesty in producing data and searching for the truth. It could be a model of correctness. A philosopher might argue that a flower is blue rather than red, but science tells you unambiguously what color it is."

We're not sure how useful would be a religion based on accurate data, but interestingly, given his claim for the scientific method's "absolute honesty", the same issue of New Scientist -indeed the same two-page spread that includes the interview- includes a long article on the inaccuracy of scientific data. "More than half of biomedical findings cannot be reproduced," proclaims the subhead.

The pharmaceutical company Amgen admitted that "over the past decade its oncology and haematology researchers could not replicate 47 of 53 highly promising results they examined," and this is apparently typical. The companies frequently fail to report their failures to replicate experiments.

The natural world is difficult to study, the article points out, and researchers feel "the pressure to cut corners, to see what one wants and believes to be true, to extract a positive outcome from months or years of hard work." And their bosses want results they can use and make money with. In other words, scientists are just as fallen as anyone else. The problem with appeals like Vatinno's to an ideal science is that science only exists as it is performed by scientists. Who are, you know, human.


We can understand the appeal of transhumanism's promise to reduce suffering. But, as discomforting as the answer may be, suffering can change us for the good. Or so explains Charles Chaput, the archbishop of Philadelphia.

The best answer comes from Leon Bloy, a writer who himself chose to become a Catholic: "Man has places in his heart which do not yet exist," wrote Bloy, "and into them enters suffering, that they might have existence."

In a sense, all Christian belief is cocooned in those words. Christians have no desire to suffer. But we do understand and appreciate the power of suffering.

The archbishop calls suffering "the truest democratic experience" because everyone suffers. "But Bloy understood, just as Viktor Frankl discovered in the death camps, that we can always choose what we do with the suffering that comes our way. We have that freedom. This is why suffering breaks some people, while it breaks open others into something more than their old selves, stretching the soul to greatness."

Human Management

Some of you may read this while watching television or otherwise multitasking your way through the competing interests of the day. Stop it, my friend David Ousley would tell you.

"The whole idea of multitasking as something good is based on the assumption that life is about getting things done," he writes. But "human life, and Christian life, is more about love than about accomplishments. How would lovers think of multitasking? Would the young woman being courted be pleased to have her lover texting while they are on a date? Would she not justly expect that he would pay attention to her and her alone when they were together?"

Ousley is the pastor of St Michael the Archangel in Philadelphia, a parish of the Ordinariate of the Chair of St Peter, the special body created for American Anglicans who want to enter the Catholic Church. Writing in his Rector's Chronicle, he points out that if we cultivate distractedness by multitasking, we'll be distracted when we pray. He suggests that "we strive to attend to the one thing before us, and cultivate the discipline of single-tasking, so far as possible."

Multitasking, in other words, is a habit rather than a skill, or maybe it's a skill that becomes habitual. Sometimes it's necessary, as he notes, but otherwise, just turn off the television and ignore the text messages when you read.

The London Daily Telegraph reports that "A late-night reveller caught urinating in the street was told by the judge: 'This isn't France, you know.'"

Relgious allegiance of intellect to will

Here's something we didn't know about and are glad we do now. Writing about Humanae Vitae just a month after Pope Paul VI issued it, at which point lots of Catholics, including a goodly number of Jesuits, had popped a cork, the then-superior general asked his fellow Jesuits to assume an attitude of "obedience which is at once loving, firm, open, and truly creative" and "to do everything possible to penetrate, and to help others penetrate, into the thought which may not have been his own previously" - precisely because they were Jesuits, and this is what Jesuits do.

Fr Pedro Arrupe offers a good description of the way Catholics think, or ought to think, with the Church and "the specific data of Christian revelation". As the obedient Jesuit "goes beyond the evidence available to him personally, he finds or will find a solid foundation for it," wrote Arrupe.

"To obey, therefore, is not to stop thinking, to parrot the encyclical word for word in a servile manner. On the contrary, it is to commit oneself to study it as profoundly as possible so as to discover for oneself and to show others the meaning of an intervention judged necessary by the Holy Father."

Western attitudes to Islam

Judging from our correspondence, there really is, out there, such a thing as Islamophobia. Muslims, several letter-writers have said, worship a demon, and others insist that Islam is not a religion at all but a political philosophy, and a very dangerous one at that. This was not the belief of our founder, writing eight years ago. Fr Neuhaus insisted, in response to critical letters he had received even then, that "Christians, Jews, and Muslims agree that the God we are disagreeing about is the God of Abraham who spoke to our fathers by the prophets." That said, he continued, "Christians hold that Jews and Muslims are not worshiping God rightly - as the Father who revealed Himself in the Son and is understood by the guidance of the Spirit in Christ's body the Church." But God is the same God across this particular board.

Last month we criticised the mistaken but understandable proposal of some Anglican bishops for a UN declaration outlawing the insulting of other people's religions. They live and work in Muslim areas, after all. My friend Mark Barrett writes: "But they deny the moral agency of the Muslims. They think that unless someone controls others' speech, of course Muslims will fly into a rage and chop people's heads off because they are not fully human and responsible. In the Western mind, they are still savages. The colonialist mindset doesn't really change. Its application changes, but the mind remains."

Mark notes the difference in the English response to the IRA and to Muslim terrorists. "I'm always grimly amused when the Islamists set off bombs in London and the overarching response of the British establishment is to blame Blair and British policy, wring their hands, ask how can we help the Muslim 'communities', attack Israel, say it's our fault, etc. Apparently this new-found sensitivity developed after, oh let's say, 1997."

Our Lord on Homosexuality

In response to an item last month about the very bad argument that homosexuality must be OK because Jesus didn't say anything about it, our friend Gerry McDermott notes that Jesus did give his teaching on the matter, "albeit implicitly, when he condemned porneia (sexual sin) in Mark 7 as evil. All Jews knew that porneia was defined in Leviticus 18 and 20, where the only sexual sin that merits the description to'eva (abomination) is male homosexual practice".

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