Preposterously Reverend Lord Professor Bishop Baron Lord Richard Harries, Baron Pentregarth, Gresham Professor of Divinity, Baron, Bishop, Professor, Lord…

There’s probably intelligent life in space. And for each one there’s poor old second third of the Invisible Magic Friend having to die there. In fact, throughout all the galaxies, he’s being tortured to death somewhere almost constantly.

“Pray that there’s intelligent life somewhere out in space,
‘Cause there’s bugger all down here on Earth!”

23 thoughts on “Preposterously Reverend Lord Professor Bishop Baron Lord Richard Harries, Baron Pentregarth, Gresham Professor of Divinity, Baron, Bishop, Professor, Lord…

  1. Exactly ^^^^^^

    Yet another insurmountable problem for the empty vessel of ‘theology’ passed off as if it isn’t, somehow, because pious warm fuzzy feelings.

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  2. Christianity isn’t even universal on this tiny speck of a planet, why would it be universal throughout the entire cosmos? Is it too much to hope that intelligent aliens don’t bother themselves with religion at all?

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    1. You could argue that religion is fairly universal on this planet though. It seems to have been invented and re-invented in every single place. I’m not aware of any ancient or isolated civilisation that doesn’t have a religious view of some sort or other. Much like how the Golden Rule has been independently invented among all groups, this seems to point to some human characteristic that calls for it to be necessary.

      It’s a fascinating question. If religion is universal, what aspect of our basic humanity requires it? Is it our curiosity, our need for an answer of some sort, even a made-up one? Maybe it is a deep-seated need among all people to have an existential explanation, and so religion fills the gap until sufficiently advanced science comes along. It would at least provide some peace for a restless mind, if that mind existed at a time when a scientific answer was technically impossible to obtain.

      I’ve always been struck by the work of the 20th Century philosophers on categorisation, on the idea that we categorise things so that we can ignore them en bloc. Instead of having to mentally deal with one enormous construction, then another, then another, we categorise them as trees and just get on without having to think about them. The converse, the inability to do this, is one of the key the subjects of the novel Nausea, in which the protagonist has to mentally deal with every single person and thing. This separates him from the world – he becomes unable to deal with it.

      Maybe religion is like that. Maybe it allowed a psychological peace to people at a time when there was no alternative? In doing so, maybe it just allowed people to get on with their lives. The mistake, if this is the case, is to become fixated on the religion itself, rather than just using it to categorise and ignore the questions of existence until some better answer comes along.

      None of this explains why people today would fixate on religion as the explanation, when proven alternatives do exist. But I do always feel a little sorry for the intellectual giants of, say, the first millennium, for whom there was literally no possibility of a better explanation than the one they had.

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      1. “I’m not aware of any ancient or isolated civilisation that doesn’t have a religious view of some sort or other. ”

        The only one I’ve seen documented.

        The book describes a Christian missionary who went to convert a South American tribe. Instead, they converted him to an atheist.

        I think all the things you mention play a role in the success of religion. I’d like to add some comments though.

        One very powerful role of religion is to cement the “them and us” distinction. “We” all believe the same thing, “they” don’t. And the more bizarre and outrageous the belief, the greater the virtue in maintaining that belief in the face of all the evidence to the contrary, so showing a greater commitment to “us”.

        It can also act as a powerful form of peer pressure. Humans must balance their selfish individualism against their social altruism. The group works better if everyone obeys the rules. If the rules are codified in a religion, as well as in law, then it adds a further incentive to obey them.

        For all the reasons listed, I very much doubt if religion can ever be eliminated. The best we can hope for is that it is controlled, and laughed at wherever possible.

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      2. And do you not feel sorry for the current intellectual giants who have no better explanations, as good as they seem to us, than the ones we currently have. After all there is so much more to discover. What we think to be true now may well be way off the mark.

        Was it not Lord Maxwell who claimed “There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement.” How wrong can an educated man be.

        I await the day when Quantum Mechanics and Relativity are usurped by a superior Theory that covers them both and various other phenomena for which we have no explanation. And what them will the theologians claim? God did it and we knew it all along.

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      3. Interesting ideas. So originally supernatural beliefs could be seen as a diversion to allow people to focus on more pressing matters, but turned out eventually as the focus rather than the distraction. Off the top of my head I suspect it must have to do with the growth of organised religion, and especially around the manufacture of a surplus which started the possibility of full-time clerics. It then became in their interests as self-justification to have thoughts of the big questions, to which religion was originally the hole they were buried in, in full view and preoccupying the population. Plus of course the clerics had more time to redefine those ideas into something more pervasive.

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      4. So originally supernatural beliefs could be seen as a diversion to allow people to focus on more pressing matters, but turned out eventually as the focus rather than the distraction.

        That’s what I think, but I made it up. You shouldn’t confuse my ramblings for what proper scientists think.

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      5. The group works better if everyone obeys the rules.

        That’s a fascinating idea. It would provide the evolutionary benefit for the survival of that genetic trait.

        And thanks for the info about that tribe. Do you know what they are called, or know of any other information about them. That’s certainly worth a read.

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      6. There is no need for religion other than the need of the theologians who use religion for asserting their power over and extracting wealth from the common man. Keep the common man ignorant and convince the children there is a god with the bribe of eternal life in exchage for devout adherence or else the threat of eternal hell fire as punishment for deviation from the enforced rules. Thats the explanation. No need for intellectual fretting to try an explain why people need religion. Religion is a simply a means of power grabbing by ruthess hucksters. And it has worked for millenia.

        Just imagine Jesus in Jackboots

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      7. No need for intellectual fretting to try an explain why people need religion.

        And yet it does seem to be (Peter’s example excepted) universal. That would seem to require an explanation. We fret about why humans created art and music, about how we developed moral and legal codes, about how we formed larger and larger societies. Religion is equally ubiquitous, and is central to almost all studies of the ancient past (ask an archaeologist to ignore it, see what answer you get). It is also a massive political reality in today’s world, whether we like it or not. These things alone would suggest that it’s origins are worth studying.

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    2. The earliest manifestation of religious thinking is likely to be associated with death rituals. There is some inconclusive evidence of Neanderthals burying their dead, which would be the only clear example of religious behaviour in a different species. But there is considerable evidence of behaviours that are religion-like in other species. In particular, elephants are known to return to the site of their dead relatives to do nothing but gently caress the body. The emotional behaviour around death seen in this example, and in the great apes, is generally seen by evolutionary psychologists as a precursor to the development of religion.

      No matter what your view of religion, this is a deeply fascinating subject.

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  3. Famously (who said it first?), given the near-infinite options in our universe, it’s equally astonishing to imagine intelligent life elsewhere as it is to imagine we’re alone.
    If advanced life exists elsewhere, presumably Harries thinks it evolved to be exactly like us otherwise, if different, how can we all be created in his IMF’s image? And how would Mr Jesus be crucified if the locals didn’t have our body-shape? And trees? And Romans?
    Let’s hope other intelligent civilisations have no need to invent IMFs and the unnecessary strife, guilt and wasted time involved.

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  4. In the not so distant past one would have been burned at the stake for asserting that planets beyond the solar system orbit other stars. If fact it was only 20 years ago (?) that the presence of such planets was mere speculation and stringently denied by many. Now here we have a theologian manuring the ground for the day when astronomers announce the discovery of alien life … the same day when the clerics pronounce that they knew it all along with the claim that extraterrestrial life is all a part of gods handiwork. And no doubt the christians will have already identified which obscure bible verses prove it.

    Hubble has shown that if heaven is real material celestial place then its a long long long way away. I guess the more science savvy clerics could claim heaven lies undetectable beyond the boundary of the observable universe and that they alone have direct instantaneous contact with god via prayers that whizz back and to by the spooky action at a distance of which Einstein was so deeply sceptical. But I have never heard a theologian make such a claim. Perhaps they too think that quantum entanglement is poppycock.

    There are two kinds of entanglement going on. The first is the now proven quantum kind. And the second are the thrashings of the clerics in the entanglements of their impossible theologies.

    Anyway where the hell did 36 come from. Everyone knows the answer is really 42.

    And my final gripe is this. Here we have a theologian preaching sciency stuff to us and claiming the high ground of being able to marvel at what science has discovered when in fact it is the clerics who have resolutely stood in the way of advancement for centuries lest the common man becomes so well educated and enlightened that the clerics become redundant laughing stock. And by resolutely stood I mean utilising the most brutal violence to eradicate heretics and discourage others from reckless ungodly speculation.

    Has Harries finally realised the game is up?

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      1. I heard a christian do just that on a podcast from the USA. No sorry but he claimed Dark Energy. I think a scientists should invent a wholly fallacious concept and wait until the pious adopt it as a suitable god shaped gap.

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  5. So basically God is making the same mistakes over and over again. Creates beings that either are so flawed they let him down, or are pre-programmed to. Then after a few millennia ranting at his own creation’s failings, he decides to show forgiveness for his own mistakes by sending something to die horribly in its name. “No problem ,” he says. ” Happy to help. Just make sure you’re continually grateful and guilty about this. Or else.”

    It’s like a pointless game of celestial patience as played again and again by a bored child. One who keeps getting stuck at the same point, and doesn’t even think to shuffle the pack.

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  6. “Scientists now reckon there must also be intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. That’s just what us religious types have been saying all along. What do you think angels are?! See; what more proof do you need? Anyhow, it’s good to see scientists catching up with what the religious have been saying all along [even though we haven’t]”

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    1. I laughed out loud when he mentioned all the other entities that ancient religions have made up. He omitted to tell us that they also believed there were six layers of heaven between this sinful world and Paradise (the ‘seventh heaven’). Each one had the same features as Earth – trees, clouds, animals, cities – but getting more perfect the nearer they got to the IMF. Some authorities believed that the third heaven was the Garden of Eden. And they were all occupied by spiritual beings, with the lowest heaven filled with the evil spirits who were the true ‘rulers of this earth’.

      If Richard Harries had set out to convince us that his religion is based on primitive superstition and ad-hoc post-rationalisations, he couldn’t have done it better than he did this morning.

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  7. Here is mathematical proof for alien life.
    Life originated once against seemingly enormous improbablity. But no matter how small that probability the probablity is non zero, and multiply a non zero weeny teeny number by an enormous number such as the number of hospitable planets in the observable and the non observable universe then life will be realised elsewhere. For sure. We just have not detected it yet. We may never detect it. But its out there. If there is life at one place in the universe there is life elsewhere.

    Am I alone in thinking that abiogenisis, when the right conditions prevail for long enough, is an inevitablity. That there has been a long long inevitable sequence of chemical and environmental change culminating in the emergence of life. I cannot agree that abiogenisis is a stupendously remote chance with life stemming from one single miraculously accidental merging of a lone single special molecule with a convenient iota of goo.

    I envisage uncountable numbers of chemical reactions by uncountable numbers of ions, atoms and molecules going on for billions and billions of years, driven by solar and tectonic energy, slowly but surely changing the environment and its chemistry on a one way path of envirochemical evolution. Then conditions became suitable for the formation of swarms of self, but imperfectly, replicating organic (carbon based) molecules which interacted with inorganic materials glomming together to form myriad microscopic globules. The interaction of these globules resulted in a population of a particular form very well suited to the prevailing conditions which flourished and multiplied at the expense of all other forms to produce a monoculture that that evolved into the precursor DNA globules of abiogenisis. The change from teeming precursor globules into DNA based monocellular life then transitioned over time. A highly dominant monoculture of such DNA precursor globules will when evolved into the many forms of life we have today will give the illusion of a single moment of isolated abiogenisis when in fact the process was a long long sequence of evolving populations. You know, a bit like you and I not evolving from one single pair of humans.

    I bored now except to say that abiogenisis is not a miraculous near impossible event but an inevitable emergent property of a suitable system / environment. And there was not just one tiny single lone molecule that got lucky either.

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    1. Yes. I would add that all the large, complex units of life are formed from much simpler molecules, predominantly amino-acids and cyclic compounds such as pyrimidines and purines; that such molecules are found widely in nature, even in interstellar space; and that they are all fairly reactive. Once the initial energetic constraints are overcome, complex molecules could result rather easily. The billions of years that the Earth has existed for gives plenty of time for complex life to begin and evolve.

      Nick Lane’s ‘The Vital Question’ covers a lot of this ground (and is a very good read into the bargain).

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  8. How does Harries define ‘life’?
    It’s a difficult question for those who care about accuracy & reality but maybe Harries has a definition to sweep away all our ignorance – maybe he’d say something like “stuff wot contains a holy spirit but isn’t a rock” [admittedly needs work].

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    1. Is a virus ‘life’? Because let’s remember, the IMF (who created All Creatures Great And Small) is Definitely Not Responsible for a certain virus which has been in the news rather a lot recently (presumably he’s also not responsible for Ebola / HIV / Smallpox, etc)

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