Religious Exceptionalism

Sarah Silverman makes the point very well, that we frequently make exceptions for certain religions, purely because they are old and we have become used to them. Many behaviours within the Abrahamic religions can seem outrageous and grotesque when evaluated objectively, but are nevertheless widely accepted due to their familiarity. We become inured to how eccentric they are, in a way that we would never accept if the same behaviour was associated with a new religion or world view.

I had an experience of this recently on an Irish national radio talk show. The drive time program on Today FM is called “The Last Word”, hosted by Matt Cooper. I was asked to debate the new Vatican instruction relating to cremations on the show, with David Quinn from the Iona Institute. This was the Instruction Ad resurgendum cum Christo regarding the burial of the deceased and the conservation of the ashes in the case of cremation, issued during October 2016.

In this instruction, the Church directs grieving people that they may not retain the ashes of deceased family and friends. Instead, arrangements for the remains of loved-ones must be managed by the Roman Catholic Church, within specific pieces of land designated by priests and bishops. The instruction describes this stricture as follows:

“When, for legitimate motives, cremation of the body has been chosen, the ashes of the faithful must be laid to rest in a sacred place, that is, in a cemetery or, in certain cases, in a church or an area, which has been set aside for this purpose, and so dedicated by the competent ecclesial authority.”

So votaries within the Roman Catholic Church will designate a particular area of real estate as a “sacred place”. They will then insist that all cremations must result in the ashes being administered by representatives of their organisation, within these specific districts. Furthermore, they propose that these directives are not self-motivated, but rather that they are rules describing the aspirations of the divine. That is, they tell us that these are edicts that originate with the creator of the universe, rather than representing the inclinations of mere mortals.

Chastising the bereaved in this way seems to be in poor taste but we can also notice the commercial implications of these injunctions. As I pointed out during the debate, it is difficult to know what the financial value of these activities are for the Church, since they don’t publish accounts or pay taxes like secular corporations. However, it seems clear that if every Roman Catholic in the world immediately decided that there would be no more Church involvement in funerals, there would be a non-trivial reduction in Church revenues. I also pointed out during the debate that this is part of a pattern. The Vatican frequently informs humanity what god requires them to do. In fact, they specifically refer to the Magisterium as their authority to issue decrees on behalf of heaven itself.

I think that is relevant to notice, that these celestial requirements seem to very often coincide with the financial interests of those claiming to be intermediaries to an omnipotent deity. It you examine each of these otherworldly messages, it is trivially easy to find examples that enrich the Church and genuinely difficult a single example that impoverishes the Church … but what was the response of the moderator to mention of this pronounced pattern?

The response of the moderator was to say, “I’m not sure how that is necessarily relevant to this particular debate”. I wonder would the same response have been offered if that point was made about Scientology? If someone had pointed out that the consistent result of Scientologist teachings, seemed to involve the enrichment of Scientology, would that point be considered irrelevant? Perhaps a money-making racket is easiest to spot when it is evaluated de novo, whereas rackets that have been around for a couple of millennia can be more difficult to notice.

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