Sunday Confession of a Lapsed Priest

Dear Reader Michael Merren of the Religion, Philosophy and Other Oddities blog is a married man and a father of three. He also used to be a Catholic priest. Learning this, I asked Michael to write a guest entry on his personal history. And now I know whom to turn to with any theological question that might pop up.

i-a48c5a47e8fe587ab70f9cb7439bf58c-graduation3.JPGI don’t know where else to start than from the beginning. I was raised Roman Catholic and always felt drawn to do something to give back to humankind, to be great and benefit my fellow man in some way. Some might call that a “vocation” or a “calling” I suppose. As a Catholic boy the most obvious and highly encouraged manner of “ministry” is to enter the priesthood, especially in this day and age of priests’ shortage. It would be in my twenties that after reading Camus and Sartre and others that I realized even atheists want to “do good”, but when I was growing up I bought the demonizing portrayal of intellectuals and scientists promoted by some in my faith.

I mottled my way through school, always a little bored. I am from a small town and though my mother had a graduate degree and has done post graduate work since, I never really found anything to light that fire in me. Eventually, about my sophomore year of high school I started doing theatre; I found some enjoyment in it. I consequently met my wife while rehearsing for Gilbert & Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore that summer some 20 years ago. She turned me on to literature and art, her father was an English teacher. I began to read with fervor.

My undergraduate education was a bit of a floundering blunder as well. I had to take a semester off and work and regain my footing. I moved into a house with a couple of philosophy majors and that set me on the journey which eventually lead to monastic life and seminary, priesthood and back again to secular life, marriage and children.

I suppose you can say I’ve gone through stages in my development, but my path was not a typical one. Rather than being inspired by the life of some great saint, my inspiration for entering the Catholic monastic life actually came, in large part, from Siddharta by Hermann Hesse. I read the Pali Tipitaka and Bhagavad Gita as readily and willingly as I did the Bible. I found the writings of Sts. John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila to be no more spiritual than those of Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac.

I was moved by the humanism of Karol Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II, to study personalism / phenomenology and pursue theological studies, but being the extremist that I am I had to “go to the sources”. I decided after my undergraduate studies to enter seminary in Krakow, Poland and study under the professors of the Pontifical College founded by Wojtyla in his former See of Krakow. I entered a religious community that could make that happen for me, learned Polish and began those studies.

In my seminary studies in the monastery I had a great deal of time for study and reading and I eventually read myself out of Catholicism. By the time I had finished my seminary studies I already had a deep desire to leave and enter the Orthodox Church, which I felt embodied the Historical Christian Church and a more eastern mindset than Catholicism.

It didn’t help that all this time I had contact with my wife who was desperately trying to get me to leave the monastery to marry her. I had left her behind as a good Catholic boy is told he must do to “serve” and “minister”. I couldn’t bring myself to leave though. I went ahead with ordinations despite my growing doubts that I was cut out for a life of celibacy and the Scholastic / Thomistic framework of Western Christian theology. My distaste for Catholicism grew more as a young priest. I was serving as many as fifteen masses a week, in ten different locales, teaching in a school, leading numerous youth and prayer groups and all with a growing distaste for some of the very basic tenets of the faith. I felt prostituted, as if the monastery I belonged to had pimped me out to the local and neighboring dioceses. I left after just thirteen months as an active priest.

My wife and I were received into the Orthodox Church where we were married shortly afterwards. We spent seven years in the Orthodox Church and baptized our children there. I even repeated seminary studies. I won’t get into the gory details, but I was a square peg trying to fit into a very small round hole. My theology was obviously at odds with that of some of the more narrow-minded clergy and hierarchy, though I think you’d be hard pressed to find a great theological mind in the Orthodox Church who didn’t have a very eclectic background and tastes, e.g. Metropolitan Kallistos Ware or Rev. Deacon Andrei Kureav. Ultimately though it was the ethnic xenophobia that many Orthodox have towards “converts” that led to my recent decision to join the Episcopal Church.

I have long had a desire to reconcile science / reason with theology / faith. With varying degrees of success I have managed to do so and keep my faith though sometimes I’ve come to the brink of losing it.

Recently, my studies have been in reconciling the sound theory of Evolution with the Biblical accounts of creation, which as far as the symbolism involved in the Scriptures hasn’t really been much trouble at all. It seems to me that anyone who takes a six-day-creation viewpoint simply doesn’t understand mythology and hasn’t done enough non-biblical reading to grasp the heart of the story.

My most recent concerns present more of a challenge as I begin to look at the idea of Original Sin, which is key to the entire concept of a Christian soteriology or “Theory of Salvation”. If man was not created in the beginning as one pair, man and woman, Adam and Eve, then who sinned that humankind needs salvation? If we believe that man evolved over tens of thousands of years, maybe more, from a lower and less advanced animal, how on earth can we believe that one of those first sentient beings was culpable enough for his own actions to be responsible for “damning” all his progeny? If I manage to pull through this one with my faith I’ll let you know.

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You Gotta Listen To These Two

Driving home from our auto mechanic shop (notable not only for its brisk service, but also for being run entirely by first-generation immigrants, which is rare in that business) yesterday, I heard two new songs on the radio that made a big impression on me. More exactly, the two singers amazed me, each in their own way.

Antony and the Johnson’s “Shake that Devil” is completely eerie. It’s bleak science fictiony avantgarde roots blues. I’d heard Antony before as guest vocalist on Current 93’s otherworldly 2006 album Black Ships Ate the Sky, and this is even weirder. Beautiful!

“Shake that Devil” was on an alternative college station. The other impressive singer, though very unlike Antony, also works in the Afro-American tradition. I heard her on NRJ, a highly commercial R&B station, and I was amazed by the raw power and emotion of Beyoncé Knowles’s “If I Were A Boy”. The song isn’t very well produced, having this sleepy “woah-oh” backing harmony ripped off from Joan Osbourne, but the singer’s really the business. No over-slick controlled R&B wailing here, she grabs you by the heart.

To round the entry off, here’s Antony and his Johnsons covering Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love” at a gig in Sweden in 2007.

When Am I Researching Now?


Chris, the most highly allocthonous of the SciBlings, just did something neat over at his place that immediately called for emulation. He’s a geologist, and he’s graphed what periods of Earth’s history he’s been studying when. So, Dear Reader, here’s my graph: not as pretty as Chris’s, but hopefully legible. You may note that I specialise in the later 1st Millennium, that my work in the Neolithic must be rather superficial, that I have never worked with the Mesolithic nor the Early Iron Age nor the Middle Ages, and that I plan to return to Bronze Age studies next year.

Oh, and one more thing. My graph covers six thousand years. Chris’s covers billions.

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You know the Iggy & Stooges track “Penetration”? The one where Iggy sounds like he might be the penetratee rather than the penetrator? Now, I want you to imagine me singing that song, only with the word “affiliation” rather than “penetration”.

For the second time, my friend and frequent collaborator Howard Williams provides me with valuable university affiliation. Through his good offices, I have been appointed Visiting Research Fellow of the University of Chester, students from which made up most of my fieldwork team back in September. This is really good for my troop morale. They may not have an actual job for me, but the archaeology department has decided that they’d quite like to be publicly associated with my name. That’s worth a lot to me, and there may be some teaching opportunities besides.

Science Fiction Is Where I’m From


I’ve been a science fiction fan since I was four. It started with TV shows like the original Star Trek, The Six Million Dollar Man, Batman (the shapeless tights 60s version) and Saturday morning superhero cartoons. One of my first visits to the movies was when my mom took me to see Star Wars in 1977. Then I started to read novels and ploughed through Heinlein and Clarke. I remember finding Stranger in a Strange Land a little weird at about age eleven, but I enjoyed it. Later I became a devotee of LeGuin and Lovecraft.

Sf was such an obvious thing to me from an early age, and so the fantasy of Tolkien and his tradition came as more of a revelation to me when I discovered it. I spent ten years in the Stockholm Tolkien Society, and when the time came for me to choose a profession, there were really only two alternatives: either astronomy (inspired by sf) or archaeology (inspired by fantasy). As it turned out, you had to do a year of math and physics before you got to look at any stars, while archaeology was hands on from day one. And so one fascinating discipline without many job opportunities lost me to another with only a little more.

Weaning myself off television as a teen, and never a being a big moviegoer, I may not look much like an SF/F fan to people who have the Babylon Five and Battlestar Galactica boxed sets on their shelves. But I read, and I listen to weekly short-fiction podcasts like Escape Pod. Though looking at my notes for the past year, I find that I’ve read only one sf (-ish) novel, one sf story collection and one collection of essays about sf. I blame the blogging.

Now a couple of readers have asked us Sbloggers what we see as science fiction’s role in promoting science, if indeed it has any. The term “science fiction” was originally coined in the 1920s by Hugo Gernsback for a genre of fiction where the conveying of scientific lessons would be more important than the narrative content of the stories themselves. This of course is not what made sf a hugely popular genre. That honour goes to good old sense of wonder. Sf is good when it’s gripping and exciting, preferably emotionally, artistically and intellectually. And if you learn some science along the way, real or fictional, then all the better. It’s probably very hard to remain ignorant of and hostile to science if you like sf, but then, if such is your background, chances are you won’t seek out sf anyway.

The science fiction and fantasy subculture I grew up with has seen increasing mainstreaming. You needn’t identify as a nerd to go see the Tolkien movies and Will Smith in I, Robot. Indeed, being ignorant of that sort of thing now constitutes a failing in the cultural competence even of the most determinedly mainstream person. And walking around with an internet-enabled PC in my pocket that allows me to check out the latest images from the Mars rovers even while out in the woods, I live in a world more futuristic in many aspects than much of the sf I read as a child.

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The Ethics of Overpopulation

There are too many of us on Earth, our numbers keep growing, and we need to do something about it. Now, let’s never lose sight of the reason we want to do something about it.

I’m not an ecological romantic. I don’t think the planet would be better off without humanity. In fact, I think a planet without intelligent life is completely pointless from the perspective of an intelligent observer. Our goal should never be to rid the planet of humans: we need to make sure that humans can continue to live happily and safely on Earth and avoid dying catastrophically. We should save the spotted owl for our own sake, as a habitat custodian and object of biological study, not out of consideration for the silly bird’s feelings or “natural dignity”.

This means that even without raising any ethical objections beyond the rock-bottom recognition that all humans are born with the same value, any measure designed to kill people off is counterproductive. Our whole long-term goal is to save people from dying off. The AIDS epidemic in Africa, or a future lethal flu pandemic, are not things to be welcomed, they must be combated. The ethical way to remedy overpopulation is not by increasing our mortality rate through murderous action or deferred reaction to threats. What we need to do is lower our nativity rate.

Thus I submit three suggestions for your consideration.

  1. It is unethical for anyone to produce more than two children. (Adoption of orphans, on the other hand, is highly commendable.)
  2. It is unethical to limit the availability of contraceptives, abortion, surgical sterilisation vasectomy and adoption.
  3. It is unethical to use public money to support infertility treatments. Let those unfortunate enough to need such treatment pay their own way or adopt. And let’s put the money into subsidising contraceptives, abortion, surgical sterilisation vasectomy and adoption instead.

Dear Reader, let me know what you think.

Blog replies:Adventures in Ethics and Science, Anthropoloeres.

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The Onion: “Not All Christians Are Meek Pinko Weirdoes”

I’m here to tell you there are lots of Christians who aren’t anything like the preconceived notions you may have. We’re not all into “turning the other cheek.” We don’t spend our days committing random acts of kindness for no credit. And although we believe that the moral precepts in the Book of Leviticus are the infallible word of God, it doesn’t mean we’re all obsessed with extremist notions like “righteousness” and “justice.”


Bones of Copernicus Get Positive ID

Polish bishop asks archaeologists to find the unmarked grave of Nicolaus Copernicus under the floor of Frombork Cathedral. Archaeologists find a damaged burial including a jawless skull, and note that it’s a male of the right age and with signature wounds visible on contemporary portraits of the astronomer. But they’re still not quite sure if they have the right bones. So they do something extremely smart.

They vacuum a book known to have belonged to Copernicus, kept in a library in Uppsala, and they get little bits of human hair out of it. Then they have the hairs and a number of bones and teeth from the burial DNA-fingerprinted. And two hairs match the bones!

In other news, Robert Lancaster has had some domain-name trouble with his successful website combating psychic fraudster Sylvia Browne. Whatever URL you may have used before, now it’s This goes for any and all web pages and old blog entries out there, in order to give the new URL its rightful place next to Sylvia Browne‘s own site in the Google searches.