The characteristic that most divides Man from the rest of the animal kingdom is cognitive thought. The power to reason, combined with sophisticated powers of communication, make Homo Sapiens the king of any jungle on earth.  Our brains, unlike the brains of all other species, are sufficiently advanced that we have powers of deduction that we use to draw conclusions, even make predictions, based on our observation and experience of past phenomena.  We learn not in just a patterned Pavlovian way but also by conscious study – that is the intellectual dimension that makes us unique. We also have language – and that allows us to communicate with one another at a level that is orders of magnitude more effective and sophisticated than that of any other living being. But we are not just super-computers processing, learning, communicating and acting – there is also a creative and emotional component to the human skill reservoir. The latter is often described as being the “right” side of the brain element with the left being the more logical “reasoning” side. The power to reason, combined with the power of imagination, is what makes us what we are.

If Mankind is the apogee of the evolutionary process that is not to say, in Jefferson’s phrase, that “All men are created equal”  – certainly if we add the dimension of time to the subject. It is self-evident that modern man is more advanced, intellectually capable and successful than his ancestors were. Learning is cumulative – Newton “stood on the shoulders of Giants” – but then so do we all.  Study at Cambridge University today is hugely wider and deeper than it was when Newton was a student in the seventeenth century. But as well as the time dimension we can also factor in geography and culture.  The intellectual strengths of those of us who are citizens of modern societies are greater than those who are members of a contemporary Amazonian tribe.  Note: this is not a value judgement and it doesn’t suggest that a PhD graduate of Harvard is “better” than a member of the jungle tribe. They are, in the useful phrase, “differently abled” – as they need to be to cope with their wholly different surroundings.

In one particular, contemporary man, living not in the jungle but in an advanced modern country is unquestionably superior compared with both his ancestors and with the more “primitive” present-day tribes in his ability to replace ignorance with knowledge and superstition with reason. It is progress to know that the earth is a sphere not flat and that epilepsy is caused by medical factors not by evil spirits. And yet even in sophisticated, educated and advanced countries there are still behaviours that are utterly irrational and belief systems that defy science and logic. I’ll leave for another time a discussion of the recently reported statistic that only 39 percent of Americans “believe” in the scientific fact of evolution. But in many ways even worse than this scary information is the charade underway at the moment with the visit to the British Isles of some part of the skeletal remains of a French woman who died in 1897.

Saint Thérèse of Lisieux was a Carmelite Nun who died of TB at the age of 24. Later her writings, “L’histoire d’une âme”, were discovered and these have been inspirational to some mainly Catholic believers. Fair enough, you might say, I can read them myself as well and make my own judgement as to whether they are useful to me or not. I can use both sides of my brain to see whether this woman’s work provides me with intellectual benefit or emotional comfort – or both. But that is far from the end of the story. For some reason the Catholic Church not only canonised this woman in 1925 but has subsequently turned part of her arm and her leg into holy relics that visitors in their thousands flock to be near (they are hidden in a casket). And this casket tours the world – the globetrotting bones have so far visited 46 countries, including the US, Australia, Iraq, Mexico, Russia and now Britain.

It is perhaps all to easy to be dismissive of all the claptrap surrounding this continuing charade – especially if you are, like me, not only astonished that modern man can believe all this mumbo-jumbo but highly suspicious of the motives of those who promote it. And, of course, there is the risk of giving offence to believers who will charge that as I don’t have faith therefore I should refrain from comment.  I have no wish to give offence, but I think that I would be guiltier if I ignored it all and shrugged my shoulders. This nonsense is no more intellectually acceptable than astrology, devil-worship or Voodoo. It denies the very essence of our modern-day intellectualism and of our powers of cognitive thought. It mocks our reason and dismisses our science – and it is dangerous not just because thousands of people decide to spend some of their time attending this circus. The real danger is that it allows those who exercise authority and power, in this case in the Catholic Church, to require us to bury our intelligence in the blind worship of a ludicrous graven image they have created. And when symbols and icons become more important than logic and history and intellect then we risk a descent into blind obedience and the sort of mass hysteria that some evil men in power used to catastrophic effect as recently as the Twentieth century.

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