An Atheist of the Old School

Steven Den Beste respected truth, and had humility or realism about the limits of his own human knowledge. Here is a good example. He was an atheist by conviction, but was well aware that his beliefs about God and the nature of the universe could not be proved.

“I guess I can see how [The Raving Atheist] might interpret what I wrote as pandering, but it’s difficult to see how it could be traitorous. That presumes that I’m part of some formal group and had given some sort of promise to it of loyalty, and then turned around and broke that promise. But I am part of no such group. I do not owe any loyalty to any kind of global atheist cause.

“… I do not agree with you that it is possible to disprove the existence of the Christian God. Nor do I “share your disdain for a tooth-fairy God,” etc.

“… I am totally convinced that a mechanistic explanation for the universe is the correct one. But I arrived at that result through inductive reasoning, not through deductive reasoning.

“… But induction is not objective. Deduction is objective, and one can document the evidence, reasoning and conclusion of a deductive proof and others can look at it and will agree that it’s unflawed and therefore true. Induction is not ultimately susceptible to an equivalent process of checking.

“… we as individuals can arrive at equal degrees of certainty about some issues but without really having any ability to convince other people of those results, in fields which are not readily susceptible to the collective processes of the scientific method. Religion is one of them.

“… If two people have different bodies of knowledge, they obviously won’t necessarily get the same inductive answers. But even if they broadly share the same knowledge base they can still get different inductive results.

“That’s because they may place different weights on different pieces of data. What one may find critically persuasive the other may think is completely unimportant. In principle that whole process might be subject to extreme scrutiny and maybe everyone could come to agree on all of those evaluations, but as a practical matter it ain’t gonna happen.

“When The Raving Atheist tries to claim that atheism is true and that theistic religions are false and that these things can be proved, those claims only make sense within deductive reasoning. Induction can never prove anything; all it can do is to assign an extremely high conviction level to it. What I was trying to say in that article was that my certainty about atheism is based on induction, and because induction is subjective I cannot outright prove to anyone else that I’m right.

“If someone makes the claim that atheism is subject to deductive proof then they are forced to achieve the standard of proof that I described in that article, and any single counter example, even if preposterous, is enough to derail that claim. That is the nature of the deductive process; it’s what makes it powerful when it works. If no such counterexample can be found, even preposterous ones, then the original claim is very powerfully proved.

“But what I showed in that article was that it is not in fact subject to deductive proof, which is why my single preposterous example was relevant.

“On the other hand, what works to disprove a claim of deductive truth may be irrelevant when the conclusion is the result of induction.

“… one can try to present an inductive case against the Christian God which is overwhelming. The Raving Atheist thinks such a case exists, and so do I, which is part of why both of us are atheists. But what I understand and RA clearly does not is that such an argument isn’t objective.

“As a practical matter, it’s a belief. I know that, and say so. He doesn’t seem to realize it.

“… I know or have known Christians that I thought were deluded fools. I have received more than my share of incoherent arguments from them which they thought were overwhelming and I thought were clear demonstrations of their lack of education and inability to reason effectively.

“But I have also known, and now know, Christians who are intelligent, intellectually disciplined, well read and knowledgeable who are completely convinced of their faith, just as I am totally convinced about mine. I think they are wrong, and they think I am wrong…

“… I do not think Donald Sensing is an idiot, and I consider his religion to be equal to my own, even though it totally contradicts mine. That doesn’t mean I have any doubt about mine; I’m convinced he’s wrong.

“… Donald and I disagree, but I think that his inductive process was of equal quality to my own, and until such time as further evidence becomes available which might directly affect those calculations, we’ll continue to disagree while maintaining mutual respect.

“As a practical matter, if he’s right we’ll both find out when we die. If I’m right, neither of us will ever know for sure.”

Now you know, Steven.

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Farewell to One of the Greats

Steven Den Beste is dead.

He was a giant in early blogging. He was a well-known anime blogger in his second blogging career. But to me, he was a distant but good acquaintance, someone whose comments on blogs I read were always worth reading, and who seemed to like my comments too. I read his anime blog weekly, as a rule, although sometimes every day when he was in a spate of good posts. (And this in spite of not being his target audience. The other subject of his blog — all the cheesecake anime pics of pretty girls — was definitely not a plus for me!)

In the face of severe health problems and an ever-worsening loss of mobility, he was always resourceful. He never complained to us. Heck, he paid his registration fees to keep until 2022.

His reserve was as great as his dislike of suggestions, but he was always ready to help others and give them useful sympathy when they were having problems. He was an atheist, but not militant or cruel. He was a man who loved truth, so I hope he has finally met Truth Himself and realized Who he had always loved.

He was a man who seemed to like women as people as well as aesthetically, and who hated anime where pretty girls suffered or died. I think he would have been an even better man if he had ever met the right woman, but like many men in STEM fields, he never met her.

I have always respected him. I will miss him. I will pray for his soul.

He’s the third fannish acquaintance whom I have lost to death this month. Sadly, he’s also the second person I’ve known in fandom who has been found dead after several days, and again the death was found out through the efforts of fannish friends.

(I wasn’t one of them, this time. A merciful Providence kept me so busy that I was totally unable to read my usual blogs for more than a week. The Lord probably knows I could not have borne the worry and suspense and second-guessing. And please pray for Brickmuppet and the other friends who did try to find out what was going on, because I don’t want them to feel that same second-guessing I have felt.)

Please, hug your family and friends. Pray for them. Go to Confession. An unprovided death is not a fun thing.

Remember that November is a month where one can gain many partial and plenary indulgences for souls. And you can work on getting partial and plenary indulgences for the dead on pretty much every day of the year.

As for Steven, I hope that the Just Judge has as decent an opinion of Steven Den Beste as I do. May his good works of educating the ignorant and helping those in need be rewarded. May his sins be forgiven and their stains purged away, and may his body be raised on the Last Day to eternal life and health. And may he now be praying for us, too, and for this crazy experimental land called the United States of America.

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Huan, the Hound of Valinor

There are a lot of Tolkien fans who apparently think that “wolfhound” means “wolf-dog,” “wolf,” or even “bull mastiff.”

They are wrong. Tolkien had friends who had Irish wolfhounds. It was kind of a thing in England for a while. (Georgette Heyer had an Irish wolfhound too. Because she was just that awesome, that’s why.)

So here are some pictures where Huan does not look like a wolf, a half-wolf, or Il Grigio the guardian dog of St. John Bosco. (Even if I think Il Grigio is definitely one of his inspirations, as well as Somr’s Irish wolfhound that could think like a man and knew if there was malice in a man’s heart toward his master.)

“Lúthien and Húan in Tol-in-Gaurhoth,” by Randy Vargas.

Huan disguised as a werewolfhound, and Luthien Tinuviel disguised as a vampire, walking right into Melkor’s lands. Brilliantly done. Awesome perspective stuff, too.

“Celegorm and Curufin Find Luthien,” by Elena Kukanova.

A wonderful picture in so many ways. If you are an Irish wolfhound person, you will appreciate Huan’s typically soulful gaze and pose. But the atypical ethereality will be telling you that this is an angelic being, not an earthly hound. Take all my money, Elena.

“Huan and Luthien Escaping from Nargothrond,” by Ted Nasmith.

A nice picture of a half-angel half-elven girl and her giant angelic wolfhound. On the run. They also fight crime.

“Luthien and Huan on the Road to Tol-in-Gaurhoth” by Mikhail Ramendik.

A simple concept but a really touching photo rendition.

(The rest aren’t nearly so effective.  Another photo. And another. And Huan attacking Sauron’s werewolf body, except it’s obvious he’s not doing it. But they’re nice wolfhound pics.)

Apropos of all this, Tolkien’s poem “The Lay of Leithian, Release from Bondage” will be published in May 2017 as an illustrated book. Unfortunately/fortunately Alan Lee will be doing the illustrations. He kills me, because he tends to come very close to my mind’s eye pictures of the books, but then veers off in some odd direction. I’m pretty sure he’s on the wolf side of Huan pictures, so I’m not looking forward to that.

On the other hand, you could have Donato. Yup, Donato does Beren and Luthien at her dad’s court. Niiiiice.

Two pics of Huan as a Borzoi by Scorpionhoney. Okay, a giant Russian wolfhound is a legit interpretation.

On the other hand, tattooed elves are not a legit interpretation. Orcs, maybe. Or goblins.

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The Mysterious Il Grigio!

St. John Bosco’s efforts to help the poor and teach kids trades were politically controversial, as well as threatening the livelihood of bandits and crime families in the Turin area. He also walked around in slums a lot, at sketchy hours, visiting sketchy people. So there were many occasions during his work when he was in physical danger of getting murdered or kidnapped.

And for those times, the Lord sent him a mysterious protector — a wolfish-looking gray dog who seemed to arrive from nowhere whenever needed and could vanish in a moment without anyone seeing him go. He seemed to smell out trouble in advance and know the plans of bad guys, accepted petting from friends but never accepted food from anyone, and over the course of more than thirty years, never seemed to sleep or age. He saved Bosco’s life on three occasions. He once vanished from a locked room. And after people stopped trying to kill Don Bosco, the dog never showed up again, except for once in the middle of a lonely stretch of nowhere when Bosco wished he had Il Grigio back to keep him company.

Don Bosco called him “the gray one” — “El Gris” in his native Piedmontese, or in Italian, “Il Grigio.” His friends suspected that Il Grigio was not just a helpful stray dog, but a guardian angel appearing in canine form.

But Il Grigio apparently didn’t end his work there.

In 1959, Blessed Pope John XXIII had St. John Bosco’s casket and remains brought to Rome to be venerated. On the way back from Rome, the Salesians made a stop at La Spezia. The idea was that the Brothers could venerate their founder on the down-low, and word was sent to wait for the van carrying the casket. This being a neighborhood in Italy, of course people found out that something was up. Soon townspeople were waiting alongside the Brothers.

And that was when a wolfish-looking gray dog showed up. One of the brothers got a stick and tried to drive him away from the main waiting area. (Some Italian street dogs are dangerous, to be fair.) The dog showed up again on another street corner, and approached a more dog-loving Brother, who petted him. The van arrived — and the dog began accompanying the casket wherever it went, as if assigned as an honor guard. Despite efforts to keep him out, the dog not only got into church, but seated himself directly under the casket and refused to move. He also prevented unauthorized people from touching the casket with his fierce growls.

At this point, people started to wonder about the dog, and the dog-loving Brother joked that it was Il Grigio. So they let the dog sit under the casket. The dog sat there patiently all day, quiet as a mouse, contented to have cloth drawn around the casket table to conceal the floor (and him) from view. When the Brothers were asked by mothers to lift up their babies and let them touch the casket, the dog did not growl or do anything aggressive.

When the viewing of the casket ended, he played with the schoolboys and some of the younger brothers. Then the dog followed the Brothers to their luncheon, but refused all food, just sitting in a corner. After lunch, he went away, and was later found in the church when it was unlocked, guarding the casket again. How did he get in? Nobody knew.

Then he followed the casket again as it went back into the van, waiting while the van waited. When the van drove away, he followed it through the streets until the third turn… at which point he mysteriously vanished.

And here is a photograph of this 1959 version of Il Grigio, hanging out by the van. You can see him in the bottom right corner, curled up in a ball. Was he the same dog or angel? Who knows? Certainly his appearance was fitting, whatever it meant.

Il Grigio in 1959, La Spezia, Italy

Il Grigio in 1959, La Spezia, Italy


Brother Renato Celato, who petted this new Il Grigio in 1959. This was my source for the 1959 Il Grigio photos.

Don Tiburzio Lupo’s account of the 1959 incident (in Italian).

One final note: In some of his papers, Tolkien said that Huan, the wolfhound of Valinor who guarded Luthien and helped Beren, was actually an example of how “many of the Maiar” would “robe themselves… like other lesser living things, as trees, flowers, beasts.” Huan at one point disguised himself as a werewolf to help Luthien sneak into Melkor’s stronghold. Nobody seems to have connected the story of Huan to the story of Il Grigio, but I think a Catholic guy like Tolkien could have gotten some ideas from Il Grigio!

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Archbishop Schnurr of Cincinnati Is Gluten-Intolerant

So if you are Catholic and have gluten problems, you have somebody high up whom you can consult.

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A Cave Church in France

Saint-Émilion, a famous Bordeaux wine town in the south of France, is named for a hermit saint who moved there from Brittany. He’s called St. Aemilianus or St. Emilian of Saujon, St. Emilian of Combes, and so on, for all the various places he could be said to have lived. He died in 767, and his feast is January 7. (Which is about the time when extremely new wine could be drunk.) But his day is also celebrated on November 16, probably because it’s not as cold and comes at harvest time. He’s a patron saint of wine merchants and businessmen. (The local patron of vintners and vineyard owners is St. Valery/Valerius, one of his disciples. He is depicted with the tools and outfit of a vineyard worker, including a water gourd.)

Anyway, this town was built around what was once a cave deep in the forest of Combes. It was a convenient place for a hermit to camp out. As usual with saintly hermits, people were drawn to the vicinity of his cave to consult him for holy advice, or even just to rubberneck. Men who wanted to be monks didn’t go home again, which is how a lot of hermitages suddenly become monasteries. And where there’s a monastery, there’s often a town that comes into being.

So there’s not much remote forest left at Saint-Émilion… although the vineyards are a perfectly good replacement… but the cave is still there. It doesn’t look like a cave from the outside, because the whole rock outcropping and underground cave system was gradually carved into a church, over the course of centuries. (Mostly in the 11th century.)

The place is called the Église Monolithe – “the single-stone church.” There are a few others in the world, particularly in Ethiopia.

Here’s a video of St. Emilian’s underground, monolithic church. It gives a much better idea of what the church is like than any of the photo pages I’ve seen. The big metal pillar things are modern reinforcements for the bell tower. The church doesn’t seem to be in use at this time, although there is still a place near the entrance to venerate St. Emilian. (His relics were lost, though.) The place where the guys are sitting and talking in the video used to be the altar area, and the video shows you a few of the stone carvings done to fancy up the church, which is otherwise pretty plain. (But beautiful and impressive.) There’s also tons of really nice aerial drone footage.

It’s worth it to turn on the auto-translate closed captions, but some of the stuff the expert says is pretty ignorant. A many-headed dragon in church isn’t a “force of nature;” it’s a Revelation or other Biblical reference.

That’s not a “figure with a stick” who “gains wings,” but either St. Michael defeating the dragon (very suitable for a high rocky outcropping), or more likely, a scene from the Book of Tobit, with Tobias fighting the river monster to get its liver to heal his father’s blindness, while St. Raphael stands by with his traveling stick. In the latter case, the meaning would be that you have to defeat evil to help heal others, and that your guardian angel will help you and give you advice. (Very suitable for both the monastery’s monks and for the lay parishioners.)

The church is believed to have been built as a sort of thanksgiving by knights returning from the Crusades, so the Book of Tobit theme of a dangerous journey would fit well. It lies on one of the French pilgrim routes to Santiago de Compostela.

As with a lot of medieval churches, the carvings up by the altar probably used to be painted, to differentiate them from the rest of the wall and to be able to add fine details.

A page about why the bell tower needs support (groundwater plus limestone), and how the support pillars were funded and improved. Also a couple nice photos I haven’t seen elsewhere, including one of the Revelation creature with a scorpion’s tail and woman-length hair. But it’s shooting an arrow, for some reason. The video above only shows the oldest part of the church, whereas there are actually three naves and a crypt!

This article talks about Holy Trinity Chapel, built directly on top of the original hermitage to keep it protected, with some gorgeous 13th century frescoes. It also talks about the hermitage itself, which contains indented stones which were traditionally used as a bed and a chair by the saint, as well as a holy spring. (Obviously dampness was part of the mortification.) She warns that you have to reserve a place in one of the underground tours if you want to see the church at all.

It also talks about how Saint-Emilion is allegedly the place where macarons/macaroons were first invented by the Ursuline sisters. You can buy macarons made according to the 1620 recipe.

This article in French talks a lot more about the history and frescoes in the other big medieval church in town, the collegial church of the Augustinian canons, including the fact that its big 14th-15th century enlargement and bell tower were mostly funded by a papal nephew, Cardinal Gaillard de la Mothe.  The remains of his cardinal palace are also in town. (The church also features a medieval pet door for a cat who notoriously hated being in church during offices and Mass.)

In the long-running anime Detective Conan (aka Case Closed), the supporting character “Jodie Saintemillion” is actually named Saint-Emilion, in a reference to the wines made there.

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Amputation Miracles: St. Nicholas of Tolentino

This is the hardcore story of a professional scribe and notary, a government bureaucrat of medieval Macerata, Italy, who had some pretty amazing things happen to him in full view of everybody. It’s from the canonization records for St. Nicholas of Tolentino.

This miracle is stated by me, written with the very words with which it was deposed upon by Francesco Andreoli, who received the grace. And here it is from his deposition.

He said that in the year of Our Lord 1324, on the 6th of the month of August, on the feast day of St. Bartholomew the Apostle, was when the said Francesco had a brawl with Napolione, his full brother. In the city of Macerata, in the San Salvatore Quarter, in front of the house of Francesco Bondi, this same Napolione attacked the said Francesco with an unsheathed sword, and struck him with it on the right hand at the “fat finger,” or thumb. He amputated it totally, so that it was separated from the hand. The said finger was so separated from the said hand that it was thrown fifteen feet away or more by the said blow.

And then the said Francesco went to the place where the finger lay and quickly picked it up again, and immediately putting it back on the said hand from where it had been lopped off, he said, vowing himself to Blessed Nicholas, “O Blessed Nicholas of Tolentino, I ask you and beg you that you will show your power, so that I will not lose my hand and finger. Therefore I promise to come to Tolentino and to your coffin, and to offer a one-pound wax hand, and to fast continually on the Eve of your Feast, and continually to write out [letters] in the service of your canonization without any pay, and whenever it is required.”

And having set forth the said vow, he made himself be given a needle with thread on it, and he made two stitches on himself, one beneath the wound and one above it. And he went back home, and made himself be given silk thread and a needle, and he set forty good stitches around [his thumb].

After a while, he had physicians who would have assisted him. They all advised him that he should throw away the said finger, lest it corrupt the said hand. And this witness always answered back to the said physicians, “I will do such great service to Blessed Nicholas with the said hand, that he will not allow me to lose the said hand.”

And after four days, the said hand was dried up, down to the bone, and all the flesh fell off it, and so did the fingernail. And also the said hand began to swell up the lower arm all the way to the shoulderblades, and his whole right side was swelled up.

And always trusting in the devotion which he had to Blessed Nicholas, he rode horseback on September 10th, the day of [Blessed Nicholas’] migration [an expression for death, because migrating to heaven], to the church in Tolentino where Blessed Nicholas lies entombed. And upon his coffin, he offered a wax hand, according to what he had vowed.

And when he had offered the said wax hand upon his coffin, blood began to emerge from the said dried-up finger onto the coffin of Blessed Nicholas. And the said witness immediately felt himself getting better from the time described; so that within fifteen days, he had flesh and a fingernail just like before on the aforementioned finger.

And he showed the said finger to the bishop mentioned above [who was doing the canonization investigation]. Except for a scar that he had on the said finger, it was as strong and beautiful as the other. And so he wrote as well with the said finger and hand as he had been accustomed to do before the blow.

[The bishop of Sinigaglia and Cesena] asked: “In what way does he write many letters in service to Blessed Nicholas, and to whom, and in what places?”

He responded that he was a notary in the court of the Lord of Marche, supervised by Guido de Eugubio, the principal notary of the Rector’s Chamber, who was the rector of many provinces of the said Marche. And he sent many letters to the Lord Pope or to the Lords Cardinal. He always wrote out such letters which the said Rector sent in the service of the said saint so that he made good and legible letters; and he also wrote out the letters which the comune and men of the city of Macerata sent to the said Lord Pope and the said Lord Cardinals for the Cause mentioned.

Testis 218. Proc. fol. 171, pag. 1.

I got my copy of the text from Volume 2 of Maraviglie Trecento e Una (301 Miracles Done by God for the Merits of Nicholas of Tolentino).

First, there is no doubt that Francesco was a pretty stoic guy, and a fast thinker.

Second, you can see that sewing up wounds with silk thread was pretty well-known in Italy.

Third, don’t risk gangrene at home, kids! Even medieval doctors knew better. It’s possible that Francesco was inspired to do this, in order to get the miracle out there; but it’s also possible that God and St. Nicholas took mercy on a well-meaning piece of idiocy.

Fourth, I really wonder what happened to Francesco’s nasty brother. I can’t imagine that the local government would have let such an attack go. And I suppose that if enough medieval records of the Marche or of Macerata survive, someone could look it up.


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