Is being Pope a position like another?

I honestly thought that there was some spiritual background to being the Roman Catholic Pope. You are officially the successor of Saint-Peter, and as such the protector of the Church on Earth. After all you are entitled to the keys to Heaven. I thought that the Pope was elected because the Holy Spirit would induce the bishops to choose the right person for the job.

At least this is a useful explanation to give the Pope some sort of spiritual legitimacy. He’s not simply elected by other men. God nudges those men to elect him. As a result, it seems strange that one could resign from that position. Can you resign from being chosen by God? Or maybe you were not chosen by God in the first place?

Ratzinger’s resignation seems to bring the position to something really administrative. Like any other job, you can resign. Just like any head of State or CEO. Is this because of age? Or because of the strings of scandal that have plagued the Church since his arrival? Or because he hates Twitter?

Image of facepalming Ratzinger.
And people on Reddit are even worse!

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The Syrian revolution turns into an ethnical conflict against the Alawites.

This week’s Analysis episode (BBC Radio 4) gives listeners who, like me, are unfamiliar with the Middle-East a very good introduction to the Alawis, or Alawites. They are a sect of Islam, considered by Sunnis as heterodox.

They have been a minority, who felt persecuted for several centuries, until they rose to power in Syria after WWII, not little thanks to France’s and Britain’s political approach to the Middle East.

The threat of the Syrian revolution that threatens the Assad dynasty, is perceived as an extinction threat by many Alawis in Syria.

Listening to this programme will help you understand better how the Syrian revolution is slowing turning from political to ethnical conflict, and may well end up in many Alawis being massacred.

Image of Alawi women in traditional dress.
We told them they should wear more colours. (PS: the original article is really interesting, click on the image!)

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Church of England panic reaction to gay marriage

The UK government has made proposal to move towards gay marriage in England and Wales, and the Church of England does not approve. On BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, the Bishop of Leicester was giving his reaction. I think for anyone listening to the interview, it’s pretty clear that the Church of England is reacting in absolute panic.

The Church of England currently has the official power to perform marriages instead of civic authorities. Since obviously they are probably not going to perform same-sex marriages, the new proposals amount to given more power to the State, which then dilutes the historic quasi-monopoly of the C. of E. on such occasions. In a nutshell, the Church of England wants to keep having their say about the marriages they will not perform.

At least it’s fair to recognise that the Church of England have been consistently crystal clear that this is all about defending their status:

If a category of marriage is created which separates the Church’s understanding of marriage from that of the state, it is bound to have some effect on the relationship of the church and its locality,” he said.

That begins to raise questions about the nature of establishment as we’ve understood it.


Since numbers of believers are dwindling everywhere in developed countries, same-sex marriages should indeed be of concern to the Church of England (and other religions), because weddings and funerals are becoming the only occasions for which people go to religious celebrations. Since the trend is clear towards separation of State and Church, a trend that would take away those occasions, the Church of England is rightfully panicking about losing its (undeserved) status.

Which of course is ironic coming from an institution that came into existence by redefining what is an acceptable marriage…

Pie diagram showing what happens if gay marriage becomes legal

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A Catholic clergyman complaining that David Cameron favours the rich?

Keith O’Brien, a cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church, has criticised British Prime Minister David Cameron for his immoral attitude towards the poor.

My message to David Cameron, as the head of our government, is to seriously think again about this Robin Hood tax, the tax to help the poor by taking a little bit from the rich. […]  And I am saying to the prime minister, look, don’t just protect your very rich colleagues in the financial industry, consider the moral obligation to help the poor of our country.

When I heard about this, two things came to my mind:

  • It is not customary for Catholics to take such an open involvement in politics (thanks to Matthews 22:21 “Render therefore unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s”). Although they do like to give their opinion as if it was morally superior, they usually are more subtle and indirect.
  • This is a bit steep coming from a Catholic cardinal, who was probably not thinking about his own “very rich colleagues”, the top of the Church hierarchy. The Vatican has been extorting money from countries around the world for CENTURIES, and buries it in secretive bank accounts in Switzerland and in its own Vatican bank for its own speculation.  (NB: this is not a conspiracy theory.)
    Seriously, before criticising anyone about favouring the rich, anyone from the Church should consider the gigantic wealth the Vatican has accumulated and how they could release even a tiny fraction of it to help the poor if they wanted. Don’t they dare tell proper governments how they should use their money.
Inside of St Peters basilica, Rome.
Opulence? What opulence?

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Is our religiosity encoded in our genes?

I recently listened to this edition of NPR’s This American Life. “Switched at Birth” tells the story of how two girls were switched at birth, grew up in very different families, and got to learn it only 43 years later. Needless to say that the news wrecks havoc in both families. The two women are interviewed as well as their mothers.

[As it turns out, one of the mother knew from the first day, but they didn’t switch back because of an authoritative husband (a reverend), and because they did not want to tarnish the reputation of the doctor, whom they were friends with. Given how much difficulties the two women switched at birth are going through emotionally and psychologically upon learning the news, it’s fair to say that the mother who knew but didn’t switch back has created hell on earth. And she has the gusto to believe that it was “God’s will”, or maybe that’s a psychological to avoid her facing the terrible harm she has done. There’s actually a whole weird discussion in the show of whether it was God’s will or not…]

Back to the main point of the post. One family was religious. The father is a reverend, they have seven children, brought up in a very serious household, etc.  The other family is more laid back, more jokey, etc. A number of people interviewed claim that it was obvious that the two girls were very different from the family they grew up in. (Of course one can never be sure that they are not just rationalising after the events…)

What I found interesting was that the girl who was genetically from the religious family but grew up in the more normal family, apparently turned out to be very religious herself. That made me wondered if maybe our propensity to religious beliefs was somehow encoded in our genes. Maybe some genes determine how much of a pattern seeker we are. (I would hypothesise that pattern-seeking behaviour leads to coming up with rationalisations of events we see in real life, and that the easiest explanation of a lot of things is that there is some kind of divinity involved.) Or maybe some other behaviour, I don’t know.

In real life, it is hard to observe this, because parents do tend to educate their children to their own religious behaviours. So if one observes children with the same beliefs and religiosity as their parents, it is difficult to disentangle whether it comes from a genetic transmission or a cultural transmission (education). Maybe there are some studies done on twins growing up in different families? That would be interesting to look up.

Poster for the NBC show "switched at birth"
Needless to say, things are a bit more traumatic in real life.

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The Hajj exhibition, proudly sponsored by the Saudi Ministry for Tourism

I recently went to visit the Hajj exhibition at the British Museum. The Hajj is one of the five pillars of the Muslim faith: it is the pilmigrage to Mecca that Muslims believe they have to do once in their life, as a reenactment of what the prophet Muhammed has done after his flight to Medina. The exhibition is appropriately set in the circular library at the very center of the British Museum, a very nice idea.

From the very beginning, the tone is set by a panel explaining Saudi Arabia involvement in the exhibition and how it is their pride and responsibility to ensure safety and hospitality to the muslim pilgrims from all over the world. Although it is rather customary that contributors to exhibitions have a nice publicity panel somewhere, this one was too emphatic to my taste.

This first impression was alas confirmed with the rest exhibition. I was expecting some historian perspective on the pilgrimage, its history, its challenges, how it reflected and affected geopolitics and events from all around the world. Instead, I left with a sour taste of having witnessed a giant advertisment designed to explained to Muslims how magical and important the pilgrimage was. The involvement of the Saudi Ministry for Tourism would not surprise me in the least.

Do not get me wrong, there are some nice artefacts there, impressive embroidments, objects from around the world (although I didn’t find the usual exquisiteness of some arabic art). Pictures and even films of pilgrims on the caravan. The most informative piece about the Hajj itself is 7-minute movie explaining the different steps that pilgrims believe they need to perform to accomplish the Hajj (with appropriate images of pilgrims crying with emotion).

There are also interesting accounts of pilgrims, through notebooks, in particular that of some European non-Muslims who disguised in order to enter Mecca. It is a shame that these testimonies seem to be arranged in a random order, but it did give a fun sensation of being a 19th century European discovering about these mysterious exotic civilisations. What a great excitement it must have been at the time!

But in terms of factual content I think a lot could have been improved. It became all too clear that nothing controversial or even faintly ambivalent was going to be said about the pilgrimage. NOT A WORD was said about health issues and challenges, created by the influx of thousands of pilgrims from all around the world in the same city, at times were medicinal knowledge was poor.

Things are not even presented as a matter of beliefs. Instead of saying “Muslims believe they should go to Mecca once in their lifetime”, it says something like “It is an obligation for Muslims to go to Mecca once in their lifetime.”

The marketing venture of this exhibition is entirely given away when visitors are showed a miniature model of the proposed extension of the Ka’bah (the main temple) that they Saud family want to finish by 2014 (featuring two helipads). Wait, is this a commercial estate convention? Did I enter the wrong room?

Other stuff that I could pick amidst the advertisment:

  • The antagonism between Sunni and Shia muslims goes a while back and did not stop during this event: you will see stories of Shia Muslims from today’s Iran being mocked for their poor appearances, and being relegated at the back of convoys. (Although elsewhere the pilgrimage is presented as a wonderful experience of Muslims from all over the world—”of all skin colours”—coming to celebrate as one people.)
  • The pilgrimage was a MAJOR financial opportunity. Fees were often extorted of pilgrims (until the 19th century) along the way, boat captains would cram their ships, etc.
  • Bedouin tribes clearly made a living out of the pilgrims: either by directly attacking and looting, or by being paid not to attack. Rulers and princes would literally carry chests of gold to distribute as protection money. (A clear case of prisoner’s dilemma that probably collectively worsened their situation.)

Nothing all too surprising: since the pilgrimage is mandatory (otherwise you probably go to hell) and happens every year, people are bound to take advantage of that.

The omnipresent smell of money and all other non-spiritual aspects are deliberately kept quiet, and the Hajj exhibition really feels like a giant marketing enterprise set up by Saudi Arabia.

EDIT: other reports that not everything is rosy in Mecca: in the Guardian, and in the Independent.

Muslim pilgrim carrying a slaughtered sheep at the Hajj
Hint: They do not show that at the Hajj exhibition.

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