About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

The silliness of theology

Yesterday the Italian public TV ran a news item about the latest discussion going on inside the Vatican: what's the status of children or infants who die before they are baptized? The official doctrine is that their souls (whatever that is) go into a rather undefined "place" (or is it a state?) called "limbo," where they'll be confined forever, without the privilege of being in God's presence.

Well, even by Catholic standards, that seems patently absurd. Why should God punish a child with no fault of her own, just because she died before her parents got around to baptize her? Moreover, there is absolutely no mention of the "limbo" in either the Old or the New Testament, and in fact the notion is a medieval invention.

But, you see, baptism is the most defining Christian rite of passage, meant to somehow erase our "original" sin (really, Eve's, whose evil doing apparently consisted in plucking a fruit from the tree of knowledge -- could that possibly be the origin of much of Christianity's anti-intellectualism?). So one cannot allow even completely innocent children to get away with not being "cleansed" before arriving in God's presence, since in fact they are not really innocent after all!

If one needed one more piece of evidence of how theology is a heap of nonsense, anachronisms and sheer lack of human decency, this story provides a good one. But that isn't stopping Vatican "experts" and "scholars" from debating the “issue” as if it really mattered. Oh, and one of these days they'll also tell us exactly how many angels can dance on the head of a needle. Stay tuned!


  1. Oh, no! You've awakened the sleeping lion again. Now we'll have to endure Cal's ramblings for ages...

  2. Once you correctly identify God as a mythological being, all else follows.

  3. Any non-major sins on a soul when they die would spend time in pergatory and then go to heaven ( IIRC ). Otherwise you would be saying that unbabtized babies would spend eternity in hell ( this is probably what they want to scare new families with to get them to church ... repent! repent! ).

    What they really need to debate is sin is generally accepted by many denominations as a deliberate offense against god, how can a newborn have done anything that is deliberate? ( I know I know I shouldn't bait them, but it's too fun )

    To the church it's important because they need to capture the children in the web of theology as early as possible before they become tainted by science and reason. They need a rational ( ha ) explanation for people to use to bring their children in and NOT use the trick that people have used in the past ( baptized at death so no matter what sins they have committed they go stright to heaven ). What would the church do if everyone knew that!

  4. Other strange theologin debates http://www.straightdope.com/classics/a4_132.html

  5. Not quite on topic, but I think you guys might appreciate this:

    Have you ever read one of those Jack T. Chick fire-and-brimstone Christian comic books? I love 'em. They are pure comedy. I have a collection of 4 that I've picked up from various restrooms across PA. I could just go to the web site and order them, but I think they're more fun to find.

    Anyway, in one titled, "The Choice" his depiction of human sin is a baby covered in baby food with a mischevious grin on his face sitting in a highchair. When I saw this I couldn't help but think, "Is this how Christians really see the world and humanity? And if so, do they honestly belive the only apropriate way to deal with such a child is eternal suffering?"

    My daughter makes a mess in her highchair everytime we feed her, it's never crossed my mind that I should burn her with fire or drown her or abandon her for all eternity for it.

    I wonder what they call parents who would do that...

  6. I was recently moved by the following blog over at DailyKos. It's a really great read and embodies much of how I have felt over the years.

    What it's like to be an Atheist

  7. Of course original sin makes sense. Otherwise, you don't need God coming to earth as a man required to die a bloody, painful, and violent death so as to appease his own anger. No original sin = no need for a Christ figure as "savior".

    Also, from what I was taught in Catholic school anyway, limbo was supposed to be a forever thing. Supposedly it's all the happiness a human can have without the Beatific Vision.

  8. Oh yeah, and my favorite nonsensical point of Catholic dogma that the Church "fathers" liked to write volumes about was how Mary stayed a virgin (i.e. her hymen miraculously stayed intact) while she gave birth to Jesus. This fact was of great importance to the early Christian thinkers.

    They never did say how exactly Jesus was supposed to have been born, though. Guess he came out her belly button? Or he was miraculously pliable and stretchable while being born...

  9. Welcome back Adrienne, we missed you! I'm pretty sure the Italian TV said that limbo is temporary, but the Catholic Encyclopedia (http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09256a.htm)
    distinguishes between two kinds of limbo, and the children's one is indeed permanent. How awful!

  10. Blaise Pascal roundly criticised his sister Gilberte for showing affection to her children. Why? It would create an attachment to this world, instead of the heavenly kingdom.

  11. Also not quite on topic, but related: While aimlessly browsing the internet I found a philoshophy instructor's notes on the "Problem of Evil" and she linked to a passage from Dostoevsky's "The Brothers Karamozov" (which I read many years ago) where Ivan, the intellectual brother discusses how children suffering is incompatible with a loving God. Its masterful:


    One excerpt if I may be allowed (after describing how a child was abused):

    Do you understand why this infamy must be and is permitted? Without it, I am told, man could not have existed on earth, for he could not have known good and evil. Why should he know that diabolical good and evil when it costs so much? Why, the whole world of knowledge is not worth that child's prayer to dear, kind God! "


    What do I care for a hell for oppressors? What good can hell do, since those children have already been tortured? ...And if the sufferings of children go to swell the sum of sufferings which was necessary to pay for truth, then I protest that the truth is not worth such a price.

    Ok, last one. He concludes by having Ivan ask Alyosha who is studing to become a priest:

    Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature—that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance—and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me, and tell the truth."

    "No, I wouldn't consent," said Alyosha softly.

  12. >"what's the status of children or infants who die before they are baptized?"
    And is Rudolph's nose really bright enough to light the way through a foggy Christmas eve?

    Have I followed Alice through the looking glass? Do grown men really feign erudition by arguing nonsensical points? Maybe I should just take the blue pill.

  13. According to my Catholic schoolteachers, unbaptised babies went to Limbo forever, which we were told was still a nice place, but not quite as nice as Heaven. So, one infallible Pope has disagreed with his infallible predecessor if the Catholic Church has changed its stance on this one.
    As to babies and sin, St. Anselm argued that babies can indeed know sin, such as gluttony, avarice, envy, and anger. (Mopre properly put, I think the last is suppsoed to be frustration.)
    IOW, god punishes babies for being the way he made them (i.e., full of emotions that are generated for good reasons of natural selection, in that they add to the probability of survival), but the problem can be corrected by baptism. Kind of like flooding the market with defective software, and then releasing a patch to fix the problem ex post facto...

  14. I read that part of the Brothers Karamazov where Ivan is discussing the problem of evil. In fact, that's exactly where I stopped reading. I just couldn't take any more, especially the story of the baron who buried the child up to his neck, and set the hounds on him- all because the child was making too much noise.

    I read something by Alvin Plantinga not too long ago where he states that no atheist today seriously defends the problem of
    evil argument. Well I guess that means that no atheist today is doing his job, because really there is no answer to Ivan's argument.

  15. Lily, never take anything Plantinga says too seriously. I think he's the most overrated theologian of the century (then again, since a theologian is an expert about nothing, it's hard not to overrate one!).

  16. ...because really there is no answer to Ivan's argument.

    Of course the reality of human suffering is much worse than Ivan's character could have known. How many millions upon millions have suffered a cruel and horrible death (or worse)? I just recently read that it estimated that Tuberculosis alone has claimed maybe 1 billion lives in the last 200 years alone.

    Have you seen this essay by a Colorado Firefighter challenging God to perform just one miracle to offset all the horrible things he has seen happen to children and others?: http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/bruce_monson/firefighter.html

    Also for a glimpse into how prevalent disease and death was in early America before modern science (which has to fight religion every step of the way) see:


    which includes this excerpt: "...In less healthy areas, like Boston...Bacterial stomach infections, intestinal worms, epidemic diseases, contaminated food and water, and neglect and carelessness all contributed to a society in which 40 percent of children failed to reached adulthood in the seventeenth century."

    Although we have via violence inflicted massive amounts of suffering on each other, it pales in comparison to disease -- which also takes away the "free will" counter-argument used by believers. Although one Christian co-worker once told me that all suffering on Earth (human and animal) that is not due to our free will is due to Satan's free will, which God is obligated to allow.

    The Problem of Evil is only a problem if three things are true 1) God is Good, 2) God is Omnipotent and 3) Evil is Real. If you can show one of the above statements false, then there is no "problem". One unorthodox view to take is that Evil is not real, but simply a manifestation of human pride/egocentrism. Disease is not evil, because God is in the disease too. Another unorthodox view that is gaining popularity amongst some liberal Christians is the idea that Good is not totally Omnipotent. Sure he created the Universe and Love us, but there some things even he can't control. That would solve the dilemma as well.

    But the Problem of Evil is nearly impossible to solve if you choose to take the orthodox view. One orthodox argument is that God is Good, but uses "tough love", so evil is necessary (though why we he intentionally create flawed beings that needed to be punished?) Or that without Evil, there cannot be Good. All the orthodox views are hard for any rational person to accept.

    But again, we might as well be discussing how many angels are dancing on the proverbial pin. Its nonsense. (An important distinction -- its nonsense not just because it isn't true, but even if it were true theological statements are meaningless because they are non verifiable.)

  17. My favorite bit of lack of sense in these myths so many people take as literal truth, is the beginning of all the supposed trouble.

    I mean, some sadistic god put everything in some paradise. Everybody is innocent and everything is perfect, blah, blah. So far, so good. But the couple living there can not eat a certain fruit. It would be OK, were it not for one problem: if they did not know good from evil (weren't they innocent and pure?), how can they be blamed for doing something wrong? Or praised for doing something right, for that matter? It follows from them not knowing what they were doing to begin with, me thinks.

    And then they tell us the now ex-innocent and all their descendents are forever doomed to suffer for not knowing what nobody taught them in the first place.

    Really, it's so easy to make fun of this kind of ridiculous belief...


  18. " I read something by Alvin Plantinga not too long ago where he states that no atheist today seriously defends the problem of
    evil argument. Well I guess that means that no atheist today is doing his job, because really there is no answer to Ivan's argument.
    December 03, 2005 2:18 AM
    Massimo Pigliucci said...

    Lily, never take anything Plantinga says too seriously. I think he's the most overrated theologian of the century (then again, since a theologian is an expert about nothing, it's hard not to overrate one!)."

    Plantinga was referring to educated atheists, specifically philosophers. His work in philosophy of religion has been hugely influential, the fact is, very few if any atheist philosophers hold that the presence of evil is incompatible with an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God. Many argue that it is unlikely, however Plantinga's work has shifted the debate to probability rather then possibility. Read God, Freedom, and Evil. It's pretty interesting.

    BTW, Plantinga is a philosopher, not a theologian. I wouldn't take anything you say about Plantinga too seriously if you weren't aware of that important distinction.

  19. Anonymous, Plantinga is both a theologian (because he writes mostly about deities of a particular kind) and a philosopher (because he has a PhD in philosophy), if one wishes to be precise.

    Of course, he'd rather pass for a philosopher because he knows that the word theologian doesn't have quite the panache it used to. For me, anybody whose main activity is to defend theism is a theologian.

  20. Once again, Atheism shows its ignorance of Theology. Limbo was never an official doctrine of the Church. It was a idea formulated by St. Augustine.

    I used to be an Atheist myself. Instead of arrogantly claiming to be "rational" and dismissing belief as "superstition," I studied it, tested it and opened up to the idea of faith.

    Atheism offered me nothing but baseless conclusions. It claims to be for reason when pertaining to God without reasons, so to speak. If Atheism cannot provide reason not to believe based on empirical evidence, then we must dismiss this ideology as merely fallacious rhetoric created to appease those who have anger towards God and/or organized religion.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.