Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

A bone to pick

From the news today comes two stories that are interesting mainly in their juxtaposition.

First, the skull of Mary Magdalene is touring California.  I didn't know that skulls went on tours, did you?  I thought only rock bands did that.  Although I have to admit that looking at Mick Jagger and Steven Tyler these days, there may be some overlap.  Be that as it may, the "holy relics" of Mary Magdalene, who was according to the bible the first person to find that Jesus' tomb was empty, are making the rounds, including visiting a penitentiary at Atwater. 

What happened to Mary Magdalene after the biblical account is a matter of some conjecture, but Catholic traditionalists believe that she was imprisoned for a time, and after her release went to France, where she became an itinerant preacher.  She then went to live in a cave at Sainte-Baume, where she lived for thirty more years.

After her death, the story goes, her bones were in the care of monks near Sainte-Baume, and during the Saracen invasion they were hidden so as to protect them from the hands of the heathens.  They were then rediscovered in 1279, were mentioned in a pontifical bull from Pope Boniface VIII, and have been venerated as authentic relics in a monastery ever since. 

Me, I wonder.  It puts me in mind of the whole thing about the "relics of the true cross," about which John Calvin famously quipped that if you put all of the relics of the true cross together, you'd have enough wood to fill a battleship.  A pious 19th century clergyman, Rohault de Fleury, needled by Calvin's claim, set about to estimate the volume of the chips of wood claimed as pieces of the cross, and came up with only four million cubic millimeters, which sounds like a lot, but is actually a cube six inches on a side.  De Fleury's conclusion was, "Ha, Calvin!  Take it!  We showed you!  They are real!"  (I paraphrase slightly.)  However, it must be pointed out that de Fleury included only the ones that he thought were genuine, which is a small fraction of the relics that have been claimed to be pieces of the cross.  In fact, back during the Crusades, there were a couple of chunks in a church in Constantinople that were "as thick as a man's leg and a fathom in length."  So I think I'm to be pardoned if I have some degree of skepticism about the authenticity of the relics of the true cross, the relics of Mary Magdalene, and relics in general.

Now, on to our second story.

In Clearfield, Utah, a man named Robert Casillas-Corrales was booked into Davis County jail after police raided his home and found, in a shed, human skulls and the bones and carcasses of animals. 

No one is alleging that Casillas-Corrales killed the people whose skulls were found on his property; he claims he brought them with him from Cuba, and indeed, they seem to be long dead.  He told police he is a practitioner of SanterĂ­a, a religion of African origin commonly practiced in the Caribbean and in Central and South America, which holds that the bones of powerful men and women retain their power after death and can be used in rituals.  He claims that he was only using them for good purposes, and that they were part of his religious practice.

Nevertheless, he remains in jail on the charge of desecration of human remains.

Is it just me, or is there some similarity between these two stories?

Okay, now hold on just a second.  Maybe I'm being too hasty, here.  Let's examine the differences.

In the first case, we have a wealthy, powerful group of religious people who are taking human bones around and are using them for religious worship and rituals.  In the second case, we have a poor, relatively powerless group of religious people who are taking human bones around and are using them for religious worship and rituals.

Ah, I get it, I understand now why no one is throwing the Catholics into jail!  Makes perfect sense.

Allow me to go on record as saying that I'm not somehow pro-SanterĂ­a and anti-Catholic; in fact, I think both beliefs are a little on the sketchy side, and I'd give thanks for my being an atheist except for the fact that I have no idea who to thank.  What struck me is more that the difference has nothing to do with belief -- it has to do with power structure.  The fact that one is perceived as legitimate, even holy, behavior, and the other is perceived as creepy and weird (and worthy of being sent to jail) is not because there is a substantial distinction between the two actions, but because the first one has the backing of one of the most powerful agencies in the world, and the second one does not.

To put it more succinctly:  a religion is a cult with more members.

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