2009-11-11

Catholic water fonts

I was raised as a Catholic - or at least, my mom attempted to do so. I attended church at the time, and I had suspicions about some of the traditions there that seemed a wee bit gross.

Two habits, in particular, seem to give excellent opportunity for the spreading of microbes. The communion is one. It is conducted during every Catholic mass, and it involves the priest handing out small, very thin, blandly tasting slices of bread to everyone in the audience who queues to receive one. While some people take the communion into their hands, many open their mouths and accept it on their tongue. The priest might try to avoid touching people's mouths and tongues, but this is hard to achieve, so he most likely spreads microbes onto bread which ends up with other people.

The other questionable practice I recall is the font with the holy water. Whenever a believer enters or exits a Catholic church, they are expected to dip their fingers into an open bowl of water that might be changed now and then, but looks and smells fairly stale. The believer then ought to make the sign of the cross with their wet fingers, which - depending on how the person chooses to do it - involves touching the holy water on their forehead as well as possibly the lips.

The Catholic church used to have more questionable rituals yet. Nowadays, there is a part of the mass where members of the audience shake hands and extend peaceful wishes to the other random attendees around them. Centuries ago, this ritual used to involve kissing on the lips. (Genders were separated, so you would kiss people of the same sex.)

The reason I'm writing about this today, though, is not about the unhygienic rituals themselves. It's about what people's participation in, or avoidance of, these rituals, suggests about the depth of their beliefs. See this:
Catholic churches in Italy are installing automatic holy water dispensers to help reduce the risk of spreading swine flu.

The outbreak of the H1N1 virus has led many churches to suspend the tradition of having holy water in open fonts into which people dip their hands.

The new machine works like an automatic soap dispenser, squirting water when a hand is passed under the tap.

[...]

Churchgoer Marta Caimmi agreed.

"It's great," she said. "Thanks to this we are not worried about catching swine flu. It is the right thing for the times."

[...]

"Some people had stopped dipping their hand into the holy water font as they were afraid of infections," he told Reuters.

"Some people even pretended to touch the water but they just touched the marble edge of the font. I think that it is a pity to lose our traditions."
I'm pointing this out because I think it demonstrates the underlying rationality of people whose ostensible faith ought to be irrational.

The holy water in church is supposed to be part of a purification ritual. It is supposed to be holy. Blessed. Pure. Believers are supposed to spread it on their skin (or lips) to purify themselves with it.

And yet: the believers' very behavior, their very comments above, demonstrate that they are aware of how microbes can spread in stale holy water. They very much suspect that the holy water doesn't have the purification powers needed to cleanse it of microbes. They want to create the appearance of following tradition, however. It is nice to have a ritual to signal their faith, to show that they fit in.

With traditional holy water fonts, they face a dilemma. They either have to pretend to touch the water, but not touch it, and risk that people will see this. Or, they have to actually dip their fingers in, and swallow a small risk to their health in order to convincingly signal faith. This makes the situation awkward, and the arrival of hygienic dispensers makes everyone relieved. Now everyone can signal their faith without worrying.

The very presence of this new invention in a church is evidence that hardly anyone there has misconceptions about the true extent of the holy water's powers of purification.

Combine this with the casual attitude to Catholic dogma that believers in Europe tend to have, and it seems that people either go to church for main reasons other than faith - perhaps they go to see others and to be seen; or else, they compartmentalize effectively in such a way that they have strong faith where it can't obviously hurt, but they switch to evidence and reason where it matters.

Since priests are the ones buying and installing the new holy water dispensers, it seems that they are at least as pragmatic as anyone else. If they truly believed, they could just bless the holy water and say that this makes all the microbes go away. Unless they doubt their powers of blessing.

And this is all a good thing. Religion can coexist with the rational world as long as it doesn't conflict it. Religion as practiced in Europe has already adapted to a large extent. Various fundamentalisms and religiously oppressive states, however, show how things become where this hasn't happened.

19 comments:

~CJ said...

Interesting post.

I was also raised a Catholic.

I don't believe that just because water is blessed by a priest and therefore becomes 'Holy Water' that it then changes the physical properties of the water itself and makes it perpetually pure.

The water itself is symbolic of the waters of baptism and symbolizes a Christian's faith in the spiritual (not physical) healing properties of baptism which symbolizes the cleansing of original sin from the soul of the baptized.

One who has faith would also recall Jesus' own words:

Mark 16:18 (KJV)

They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.

Who are the 'they' of which He is speaking of?

Those who have complete faith in Him.

I am not here to debate the pros and cons of religion either.

If people are afraid to dip their fingers into Holy water then that is their choice not to do so but it does show that these same people are more concerned about the material realm than the spiritual which transcends all things material.

Luke 17:33

Whosoever shall seek to save his life shall lose it; and whosoever shall lose his life shall preserve it.

Peace

~CJ

denis bider said...

CJ,

your comment contradicts itself. First you state that you don't believe that holy water has any measurable healing properties, just immeasurable ones (i.e. fictional). But then you proceed by quoting scripture to say that people who truly believe will not be hurt by poison and will be able to cure others, etc. You wrap up stating that the people who don't trust holy water have insufficient faith.

This seems to be a mixture of incompatible beliefs. Which I understand. Being a religious person, you must have a mixture of incompatible beliefs. Consistency is not a value for religious people. It is not possible to function in reality by being religious and consistent.

Still, if you were looking for consistency, say, then according to your above assurances about people who have "complete" faith, then Madeline Kara Neumann should still be alive. Her parents obviously had complete faith. Maybe they were the wrong denomination?

~CJ said...

Luke 2:34-35 states that Jesus Himself would be 'a sign which shall be contradicted'

Matters of faith are personal and cannot be deduced and dissected by the scientific mind anymore than the outer boundaries of space can be measured.

Romans 1:22 'Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools'

So let's just say that everyone who dips their fingers in holy water contracts a deadly case of swine flu and dies. This would be considered tragic by an earthly point of view but if those souls should go to Heaven then it's a mute point.

I am not saying that complete faith will save someone from every physical ailment. We all must disrobe this mortal flesh at some point anyways.

What is more important is what happens after the soul departs from the body and the state in which that soul finds itself when it stands before God to give an accounting.

Such ideas probably seem like fairy tales and 'unicorns' to those who do not believe in such things.

...and if you want to win at debates then go join a debate club.

denis bider said...

CJ: Matters of faith are personal and cannot be deduced and dissected by the scientific mind anymore than the outer boundaries of space can be measured.

Of course they can. Faith is easily explained. You are placed in this world with no answers. This confuses you. You make some up.


CJ: So let's just say that everyone who dips their fingers in holy water contracts a deadly case of swine flu and dies. This would be considered tragic by an earthly point of view but if those souls should go to Heaven then it's a mute point.

And this doesn't remind you, at all, of the 900 suicide deaths in Jonestown?

The proper spelling is moot point.


CJ: ...and if you want to win at debates then go join a debate club.

It is not up to you to dictate the terms of engagement on this blog.

~CJ said...

Whatever dude,

I subscribed to your blog originally because you seemed like an intelligent person with some interesting views but it turns out that you're just another intolerant religious bigot.

Unsubscribing

and thanks for the correction

The continuation of this discussion or any future discussions would, indeed, be a moot point

denis bider said...

I don't think I'm the bigot. I just see clearly what religion is, whereas you do not. I understand that you may prefer to unsubscribe if my clarity interferes with your illusion.

~CJ said...

So if someone doesn't agree with your views then theirs are 'illusions'?

What makes you think that your view is right and everyone elses is wrong?

Just because you can think and therefore you are?

You can't even ascribe to the notion that a power greater than yourself has given you your gift of superior intelligence?

That's a bit pompous and arrogant, don't you think?

You're existing in your own universe of relative truths. Seek the Absolute truth, which is unchanging, and then you'll be on solid ground.

denis bider said...

CJ: So if someone doesn't agree with your views then theirs are 'illusions'?

No. Many people disagree because we have different information or different values. Some people, however, have illusions.


CJ: What makes you think that your view is right and everyone elses is wrong?

My views, in general, aren't necessarily right. Everyone else's views, in general, also aren't necessarily right, but aren't necessarily wrong either.

People who have illusions, however, are almost certainly wrong, because their opinions aren't based on reason, but rather on evading reason. People whose opinions are based on evading reason can't be very close to truth.


CJ: You can't even ascribe to the notion that a power greater than yourself has given you your gift of superior intelligence?

I have no problem with that notion. It's not that I see any proof of it; but it does seem totally plausible, and I wouldn't be surprised if it ends up being true.

It's important to distinguish, however, that recognition of a possibility that we might be playthings to some aliens or gods, does not imply agreement that there's any such thing as hell or heaven, that Jesus performed miracles, that Muhammad was a prophet, or that the stories in the Bible or the Koran have any bearing on truth.


CJ: That's a bit pompous and arrogant, don't you think?

No, not really. A better example of "pompous and arrogant" might be a person who dresses up in robes, claims to be the representative of God on Earth, and goes about telling people what's right and wrong as if they have the final authority.


CJ: You're existing in your own universe of relative truths. Seek the Absolute truth, which is unchanging, and then you'll be on solid ground.

I do seek the absolute truth, it is you who evades it.

~CJ said...

Denis: No. Many people disagree because we have different information or different values. Some people, however, have illusions.

That statement alone shows that you are judging people for you clearly are able to distinguish between those who have different values and those who have illusions.

Denis: A better example of "pompous and arrogant" might be a person who dresses up in robes, claims to be the representative of God on Earth, and goes about telling people what's right and wrong as if they have the final authority

Ah, a dig at the Pope. So I guess Jesus was wrong when He said (paraphrasing) that upon this rock (Peter, 1st Pope) I will build my Church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. Whatever you forgive is forgiven. Whatever is held bound is held bound?

But, then again, I guess you'd have to believe in the divinity of Jesus first before you could believe what He says or that He performed miracles.

Perhaps you are simply pissed off at the Higher Power because of the way it designed the universe and its governing dynamics?

Or perhaps you are at odds with the dichotomy of good and evil?

hmmmmm

denis bider said...

denis: No. Many people disagree because we have different information or different values. Some people, however, have illusions.

CJ: That statement alone shows that you are judging people for you clearly are able to distinguish between those who have different values and those who have illusions.

The fish don't see the ocean they are swimming in, yet the ocean is clearly seen by the outside observer. Sometimes it's hard to tell when a person whose arguments are based in illusions - sometimes the arguments appear reasonable and sensible and it takes some digging to uncover the irrationality that lies beneath. More frequently, however, the irrationality is very apparent. It is as clear as if you said that two plus two equals three.


CJ: I guess you'd have to believe in the divinity of Jesus first before you could believe what He says or that He performed miracles.

Bingo!


CJ: Perhaps you are simply pissed off at the Higher Power because of the way it designed the universe and its governing dynamics?

No, I'm not pissed at the universe at all. It's peculiar, bewildering, interesting, captivating, fascinating - and it seems to work just fine.


CJ: Or perhaps you are at odds with the dichotomy of good and evil?

I don't really believe in a dichotomy that way.


It looks like you're having a hard time finding arguments to counter mine, so you're trying to find a reason to discredit me in your mind - find some base and vile trait that you can ascribe to me, so that your illusion won't feel threatened. You don't need to do that. As far as I'm concerned, you can keep your beliefs if you please.

~CJ said...

Denis:

It looks like you're having a hard time finding arguments to counter mine, so you're trying to find a reason to discredit me in your mind - find some base and vile trait that you can ascribe to me, so that your illusion won't feel threatened. You don't need to do that. As far as I'm concerned, you can keep your beliefs if you please.

Oh, were we arguing?
Isn't that what married couples do?

No, I was simply expressing my opinions which, apparently, run counter to yours.

Whatever, to each his own

The bottom line is that you have a problem with organized religion and rightly so. Anything run by man is prone to corruption due to our inherent fallen nature.

The flaw in your reasoning is that you have written off such things as illusions simply because they don't fit into your belief system or because they can't be proven.

I will keep my beliefs because they are just that, MY BELIEFS.

You can't change mine anymore than I can change yours.

I think the whole topic boils down to the issue of tolerance

Or, in your case, lack thereof

denis bider said...

CJ: Oh, were we arguing? Isn't that what married couples do?

No, ours is not a marital type of argument. My use of the word denoted arguments in a logical sense. You know that, you're just trying to avoid it by feigning comedy.


CJ: I think the whole topic boils down to the issue of tolerance

I believe in individual freedom, so I think you should have the right to your crazy beliefs, and I should have the right to think (and say) they're crazy. That's plenty tolerant as far as I'm concerned.

Intolerance would be me chucking you in the oven, or you chucking me in the oven, for the difference in beliefs. That would be obviously unacceptable.

Dejan said...

The argument you are using is a well known fallacy. It even has its own name – the Straw man argument.
The Straw man fallacy is committed when a person simply ignores a person's actual position and substitutes a distorted, exaggerated or misrepresented version of that position. This sort of "reasoning" has the following pattern:
1. Person A (a Catholic)has position X (The use of holy water and making a sign of the cross when entering a church reflects a renewal of baptism, as well as providing protection against evil).
2. Person B (that is You) presents position Y (Holy water makes microbes go away) which is a distorted version of X.
3. Person B attacks position Y.
4. Therefore X is false/incorrect/flawed.

This sort of "reasoning" is fallacious because attacking a distorted version of a position simply does not constitute an attack on the position itself.

“The reason I'm writing about this today, though, is not about the unhygienic rituals themselves. It's about what people's participation in, or avoidance of, these rituals, suggests about the depth of their beliefs.”

It suggests nothing. Catholics don’t belief that Holy water is free of microbes, therefore when they don’t observe the ritual, it is because they don’t want to get the swine flu, not because their lack of faith.

denis bider said...

Dejan,

you state yourself that "holy" water is expected to protect against evil.

What sort of evil does it protect against, then, if it offers no protection against death and disease? Indeed - if it can even spread death and disease?

What other evil will the holy water protect the believer from, then?

Old ladies' gossips? :)

Anonymous said...

"What other evil will the holy water protect the believer from, then?"

How about eternal damnation?

In other words, the healing properties of Holy water are more of a spiritual nature or, based on your current belief system, "unicorns".

denis bider said...

denis: What other evil will the holy water protect the believer from, then?

Anonymous: How about eternal damnation?

Even in a religious context - where plausibility demands are relaxed - that doesn't seem plausible.

According to dogma, the only way a baptized person is sent to hell is if he or she commits a mortal sin and doesn't go to confession.

Yet, people use the holy water even after exiting the church after confession.

Your next move is to say that holy water protects from eternal damnation by cleansing the mind of sinful thoughts and temptations.

In that case, yes: perhaps a belief that holy water "heals the mind" might possibly be reconciled with a simultaneous belief that holy water might bring disease to the body.

Still, isn't it kind of weird that a sprinkling of holy water will "heal your mind", but possibly (if it's infected) kill your body? Interesting conflicting beliefs to have, hmm?

denis bider said...

If the holy water is really blessed, then it ought to have positive effects only.

The fact that holy water can have negative effects, and that any positive effects are indistinguishable from placebo, means that the existence of any "blessing" is suspect.

The fact that believers know this, and behave as if they know this, indicates that the purity of their faith is suspect.

If your faith was truly pure, you would go and blow yourself up for a divine cause. There are many.

Anonymous said...

You are blinded by your own logic, reasoning and intellect.

Pity for one so 'intelligent'to be so shortsighted and close minded.

I am convinced that even if Jesus Himself appeared in front of you in all of His glory and performed miracle after miracle that you still would not believe because your heart is hardened and your mind is clouded by the obstinancy of your erroneous opines.

denis bider said...

Oh Anonymous,

woe is me. If only I weren't as blind and shortsighted as to want to think about things, develop internally consistent models that are compatible with reality, and come to conclusions that can be relied upon. If only my mind was open enough to trust a book; and not just any book - but the book that you hold in esteem most highly.

You see, dear anonymous commenter - simply because you took the time to comment on my blog, I should obviously understand that believing your myths and miracle stories will bring me salvation, as opposed to all the other ones, which are just infantile loads of crap because they don't agree with yours.

I'm quite sure that, even if Mohammad himself appeared before you and proclaimed himself the Prophet, you would still not believe - for so hardened is your heart!