Adult Onset Atheist

Wednesday, February 15, 2017


For Valentine’s Day this year I spent some time looking at a heart covered in red cellophane; at least I think it was cellophane, and –to be entirely truthful- I could not reliably make out the heart, but I was assured that it was there, and that it had magical properties. It was the heart of Saint André (or Andrew) Bessette (Born Alfred Bessette) of Montreal. Millions of people, or so I have read, make pilgrimages to Saint Joseph’s Oratory in order to pray before the remains of this saint and be healed. I am sure many more come to stare, like I did, unconvinced that the semi-transparent box actually held the preserved human remains it is supposed to.

The Oratory was completed in 1967; just in time for EXPO67. I find it interesting how much of Montreal can be dated to EXPO67. There is a high-rent gated community called “Habitat 67” that looks like an epileptic seizure realized in gigantic Legos. There is also the 76 meter diameter class 1 Frequency 16 Icosahedral Montreal Biosphère in Parc Jean-Drapeau on Île Sainte-Hélène. Île Sainte-Hélène itself is a product of EXPO67 having been greatly enlarged by the addition of ejecta from the excavation of the Métro de Montréal which was inaugurated on October 14, 1966; just in time for EXPO67.

On July 1st 1867 the confederation that realized the “British North America Act of 1867” produced "the Dominion of Canada", which at the time consisted of just four provinces: Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick. EXPO67 was timed to celebrate the 100 year anniversary of this, and because of this the Nation of Canada is also celebrating its sesquicentennial (150 years) this year. It is easy to draw parallels between this Canadian celebration and the US celebrating the July 4th signing of the Declaration of Independence (from England), but the Canadians did not officially separate from England until April 17th 1982 with the signing of Schedule B of the Parliament of the United Kingdom's Canada Act 1982. There are, apparently, other factors which also confuse the age of Canada, but this year is undeniably the 50th anniversary of EXPO67.

It is also the 150th anniversary of the return from the United States to Montreal of Brother André.  In 1863, he had moved, at age 18, to the US; this was in the middle of the American Civil War, and the year in which Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address. Upon his return he would begin in earnest the miracle working that would eventually make him a saint.  André would eventually heal thousands of people in the name of Saint Joseph. There is a chapel in the Oratory which is partially lined with crutches, canes, and I thought I even saw at least one thing that looked like part of an artificial limb, from people cured by the divine powers wielded by Frère André before his death in 1937. On 23 May 1982 Pope John Paul II cited the 1958 healing of Giuseppe Carlo Audino’s cancer (this would have been 21 years after Frère André’s death) as evidence in support of Frère André’s beatification.

There are three parallel staircases of 99 steps each which lead up to the Oratory. The center section is made of wood, and in summer is reserved for pilgrims to take on their knees, since this apparently imparts extra power to the magic of the heart. In the winter only the wooden steps are cleared of ice, the sign that says “RESERVE aux pèlerins qui grimpent à genoux” is gone, and the other staircases are closed to traffic. So I took “Le chemin des pèlerins qui grimpent à genoux” (not on my knees though) up to the Oratory; as I did so I pictured the less contritely penitent saying prayers for each step, and feeling their weight of sin and persecution lifted with each stair. On the way out I ran down the steps; making sure to hit each stair, and imagined myself adsorbing the collected experience and heartfelt emotional intrigue each pilgrim left behind. In the end I didn’t pick up anything I could sense but the feeling of having cleverly manipulated some heavy-duty theistic iconography, and this video.

At about 5pm on 16 May 1973 Bobby Addlin and Peter Fryer stole Saint André’s preserved heart. Bobby and Peter were two-bit thugs who wanted to make a name for themselves, and noticed that the reliquary was secured by just two easily-picked locks. One of the problems with magical physical objects is that they can be stolen. On 3 March 2012 the preserved heart of Saint Lorcán Ua Tuathail was stolen from the Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin, his magic bones having absconded during the reign of Henry VIII. André’s heart was returned on 21 December 1974. Lorcán’s heart and bones remain at large. Bobby and Peter have not been entirely forthcoming with what they did with André’s heart during the 645 days they had possession of it; I imagine them eating or smoking a little of it like people during André’s lifetime did with Egyptian mummies to get some magical benefit.

The Oratory was unfinished at the time of André’s death, but he left instructions to have his heart removed and preserved as a relic in order to provide protection for the building. During the 30 years after his death that it took to complete the Oratory the theological foundation of the church shifted slightly. Far away in Italy the meetings collectively called “Vatican II” would publish a series of documents that would instruct modern Catholics on how exactly to mesh with an increasingly modern world. The Oratory is filled with art whose inspiration dates to the time of Vatican II, and it is very interesting.

I am not a fan of the idea of miraculous cures.  Actually, it would be more accurate to say that I abhor the idea. I think they detract from the work and effort needed to realize a world where only some diseases can be reliably cured today, and whose tomorrow will see more cures and fewer instances of pathetic suffering. Did André actually cure thousands of people during his lifetime, or was he just convinced that a lie in service of what he thought was a greater good –the idea of saving immortal souls- was worth it?

Many people who observed André’s miracles saw him as a sham. Dr. Joseph-Albin Charette (School physician for the school where André worked as a doorman; André was illiterate much of his life) is widely quoted as calling him “Graisseur de frère” (Brother Greaser) because of the St. Joseph oil André applied to sick people; the reason he is widely quoted is that the legend goes on to say that Dr. Charette became a true beleiver when André miraculously cured his hemorrhaging wife.Why wouldn't the thousands of other people the doctor undoubtedly saw being cured cause him to believe before his wife started bleeding? 

André was small, and frail, and he often had bizarre ideas that passed as inspired solutions to mundane problems. By the accounts of those who brought sick people to be healed by him his success rate was far from enviable. It is possible that the sheer volume of people who came to him for cures resulted in a natural level of miraculous recovery that eventually numbered into the hundreds. The recollections of his powers all tend to focus on a few anecdotal cures, and the impact his personal humility had on those who visited him.

No customer of a modern cure, theist or otherwise, would not want to know the rate of success for their proposed cure. They would want to know of side effects, and who made the observations that suggested the cure was better than any placebo treatment. God is not subjected to the kind of scrutiny that strips away the fumblings of cognitive dissonance, with a God-based cure you can only look to your faith for answers and proof. If your faith is not strong enough to know the statistics you might be able to strengthen it by taking a hundred steps on your knees, which, if you needed a crutch like the hundreds who were cured by André to walk, would be a little bit ironic; in that case you should hope that an atheist or two has run down the steps in the off season to get the appropriate irony in order.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Goodbye Larsen C

Meanwhile, at the southern tip of the earth, where the sun is heating up the Antarctic summer as it shines for 24 hours a day, a great big thing is happening. Sometime within the next few minutes to the next few weeks the Larsen C ice shelf will calve an iceberg (assuming it does not shatter) that is about 10% the total size of the current Larsen C ice shelf. This will be one of the largest calving events ever witnessed by humans.

The iceberg is expected to be approximately 5,000 square kilometers in size. This is big. The state of Delaware is only 6,452 square kilometers in size.

Larsen C is the last remaining Larsen ice shelf. It is stuck to the giant finger of Antarctica that points out from the South Pole towards Tierra del Fuego. Larsen A spectacularly disintegrated in January of 1995. Seven years later Larsen B began collapsing, and by March of 2002 big chunks had broken off. By 2005 most of Larsen B was gone.
Location of the Larsen C ice shelf

Larsen B was estimated to be around 12,000 years old. Larsen C is much older.

Cracks have been observed in Larsen C for some time. Over last summer one of the cracks shot out across the face of the ice shelf, and this summer it has extended to within a few kilometers of creating a giant calving event. The crack grew by over 10 kilometers in just the first three weeks of January 2017, and is now about 180 kilometers long. The crack is estimated to be half a kilometer deep in some places.
NASA picture of the big Larsen C crack

“If Larsen C were to collapse at some point in the next 100 years, you’d expect within the few decades after that collapse, a much faster rate of sea level rise than if it hadn’t collapsed.” -- Paul Holland of the British Antarctic Survey

Because these ice shelves mostly float on water there should not be much, if any, sea level rise immediately associated with this amazing calving event. Geologists estimate, however, that the loss of the ice shelf will hasten the rush to the sea of glaciers behind it. The loss of Larsen C might –eventually- raise the level of oceans by 10 centimeters.

There are larger ice shelves in Antarctica; shelves closer to the pole. Larsen C is only the fourth largest of the Antarctic ice shelves. If the bigger ice shelves “go” the accelerated melting of the glaciers they hold back could raise the level of the oceans by tens of meters; in other words a hundred times as much as the eventual impact of the collapse of Larsen C. By all indication the big ice shelves, like the Ross Ice Shelf, are stable. When Larsen A collapsed in 1995 reports indicated that Larsen C was stable.

There is a critical need to better understand what is happening in the Antarctic. The impact of meters of sea level rise, even if it occurred over several decades, could significantly change the nature of civilization. This is not an exaggeration.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Sunlight on the Granite Orb

Last Saturday I shared an elevator with a fellow wearing a red-white-and-blue tie with all the stars and stripes needed to make it the sort of fashion statement out of place on any day other than the 4th of July. He also wore a flag pin on the lapel of his synthetic-fiber navy blue suit. There were also stars and stripes on the large convention badge hanging from his neck; the badge identified him as an attendee of the annual “Utah Eagle Forum” convention.

“We believe the founders of our nation had no intention of separating religion and state institutions.” -- Direct quote from the guiding principles of the Utah Eagle Forum (2017).

I was wearing a silk tweed sport coat over a dark grey T-shirt and tan slacks. I was on my way to watch Wagner performed by the Utah Symphony, and I was not wearing a lapel pin. I had cut one of my fingers rather dramatically, and while rushing to put my tan suede shoes on in the Radisson parking garage the laceration began bleeding afresh.  In the elevator I was staunching the flow of blood with a gas station receipt I had hastily retrieved from under the driver's seat of my Corolla and now had tightly wrapped around my finger. I hid my blood-soaked hand from view as I made smalltalk with the stranger. 

The Eagle forum is a national conservative group whose figurehead and founder (in 1972) was the anti-UN, anti-Feminist, anti-LGBTQ, pro-Trump, catholic, now late (She died of cancer on Labor Day in 2016), Phyllis Schlafley. The Utah branch of the Eagle forum has a woman named Gayle Ruzicka (born 1943) as its figurehead. Gayle aligns with most of Phyllis’s views, but notably did not support Donald Trump till after the GOP national convention last July.

Both Phyllis and Gayle disapprove of the HPV vaccine marketed under the name Gardasil. The reasoning, and it makes my head feel like it is sticky with mental pus for just trying to understand this, is that the threat of cervical cancer for all sexually active women should not be diminished if it helps prevent a few women from having sexual fun. I do not know if the cancer that took Phyllis's life was cervical cancer.  

“The only thing we know that will guard against sexually transmitted disease is abstinence before marriage and fidelity after marriage. We cannot keep vaccinating our children against bad behavior. We need to teach them and trust them.” – Gayle Ruzicka to the Ogden Standard Examiner in opposition to HB 358

“It's very healthy for a young girl to be deterred from promiscuity by fear of contracting a painful, incurable disease, or cervical cancer, or sterility, or the likelihood of giving birth to a dead, blind or brain-damaged baby (even ten years later when she may be happily married).” -- Phyllis Schlafly

I asked the Utah Eagle Forum fellow how he felt about the inauguration happening in less than a week, and he thought for a second before saying: “He was not my first choice”. If I had not been distracted by my leaking wound I would have asked questions about the Russian leaks that are splashed all over the news this past week.

The evening of symphony I was heading to was headlined by an arrangement of music from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. The mythology Wagner built his opera on was a tale of the tortured love of a Celtic princess renowned for her magical healing powers and a great warrior who served a lustful king and killed dragons. The mythology developed many twists and themes throughout the nine hundred years it has been told, but with Wagner it developed a soundtrack, and in particular a single chord: the Tristan chord.

The Tristan chord served as punctuation for the layers of free-floating melodies that begin and then fail to progress, or develop, and would probably fail to end if not for the Tristan chord. When Wagner tried to bring the Opera to stage in 1860 it was called unperformable, and, despite 77 rehearsals, he had to shelve it for five years before the time was finally right to have it debut. In my unrefined taste the result is simply beautiful, but more learned musicologists have laminated it with superlatives. Love, and sex, and romance, and strange melodies punctuated by a single jarring chord; this is the opera from which the night’s music was being teased.

“It sounds vulgar, but it really is a coitus interruptus” – Stephen Fry on the Tristan Chord

Tristan first visited Isolde to have a wound healed, and the love between the two protagonists of unequal station (a magical princess and poetic knight) grinds through tragic circumstances until the two lovers die of broken hearts in a cottage overlooking the sea; having just barely missed a final opportunity to be reunited.

I personally was hoping to get my bleeding finger to stop bleeding with a bit of pressure, and then meet someone special for coffee later. Plenty of romance without any need, or place for, a deathbed aria.

The Utah Eagle Forum is really interested in sex and magic. They talk about it a lot. Homosexual sex, LDS church teachings, premarital sex, religious morality, and, I suppose, all sorts of other types of sex that I have not really thought about much myself, and I am not all that inhibited in thinking about sex. I also think about religion and magic, as evidenced by this very blog, but the Utah eagle Forum and I have reached very different conclusions as a result of our common interests.

The Utah Eagle Forum is much more influential than their small size would justify. Pictures from the 2017 convention, and from previous conventions for that matter, show rooms with maybe a hundred people in them apparently slouching into what could be the second, or third, hour of PowerPoint presentations. The speakers are impressive, and the Utah Eagle Forum can apparently bring Mike Lee (senator UT), Jason Chaffetz (congressman UT 3rd district), Rob Bishop (congressman UT 1st district), Mia Love (Congresswoman UT 4th district) and many others in to speak at the Radisson on a perfectly good Saturday. I have seen several gatherings of over a thousand Utah voters which were lucky to get a local mayor to address them. The Utah Eagle Forum is full of people more important than regular folks.

The man with the flag tie and lapel pin was cordially greeted by another man with a similar flag tie and identical lapel pin when the elevator reached the lobby floor. My steps had a bounce as I left them to their blanched banquet and keynote speaker. Maybe I should have at least tried to insinuate myself into their meetings to find out what surprises they had in store for the upcoming legislative session, but I did not. In my defense they have already blocked me on FaceBook, and I am convinced they have some sort of security plan in place to prevent normal people from finding out what their secret plans are.

After trading my bloodied receipt for a paper towel and finding my seat for the symphony I was treated to a surprise I had unwittingly crafted for myself by not reading the entire program for the night’s performance. I was mixing what little I remembered of the Tristan and Isolde myth with what little I could stomach remembering of the Utah Eagle Forum’s activities when the lights dimmed and the first few notes danced off the stage. I recognized those notes as part of a familiar score I could not identify, but should.  It was not Wagner.

And the notes were chased by other notes until I was surrounded by a very familiar piece that I just knew. It was not till I pulled out my reading glasses at intermission that I allowed the program to remind me of its name: “Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27 in B-flat major, K. 595”. Not nearly as catch a name as “Tristan and Isolde!”.

The story of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27 in B-flat major, K. 595 is almost as melodramatic as the myth of Tristan and Isolde since it carries the weight of being a tale of actual events shrouded in mystery, and punctuated by death. Debuted on 4 March 1791 in Jahn’s Hall in Vienna; this performance was the last time Mozart would perform on stage before he died on 5 December of that same year. It would be the last concerto he would write with the intention of performing it himself. Some people suggest that he wrote it as many as three years earlier, and kept some strange knowledge of his impending death with the hidden piece until he could hide it no longer.

Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27 in B-flat major, K. 595 is a work of sublime genius, and deserves a better name, like “Sunlight on the Granite Orb” or something. It should never be played before a piece like an arrangement of melodies from Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde”, which is merely beautiful and enchanting. As Mozart’s creation unfolded I was reminded that this was something humanity was capable of. I contrasted the Utah Eagle Forum’s concept of humanity with the love forged between real people which gives color to their humanity, and the comparison was a stark as that between an interminable PowerPoint presented by an uninspiring speaker and this pattern of notes that exalted some feelings I was searching for words to describe in order to better know.

I have this feeling that, over the next few years, I will need to remind myself of what humanity is capable of. “Sunlight on the Granite Orb ” is a wonderful place to start.