Reading Dr Danusha Goska’s account of her journey from abused child, suicidal teacher and monastery retreatant to acclaimed author, I was caught between disagreement and admiration. Goska is a Catholic and her book contains many unconvincing arguments in favour of her religion, but she is also a wonderful writer and a resilient, wise, humane and forthright woman.
I will begin with a few of my most salient objections. The first concerns evolution. While, as a scholar, Goska accepts evolutionary theory, she still rehearses some of the old Intelligent Design arguments. For example, describing the astonishing tubercles of the peregrine falcon, she writes:
All animals require air, but as anyone who has survived a hurricane can tell you, air at high speed kills. The peregrine weighs between one and three pounds. It dives at two hundred miles an hour—faster than a hurricane. That’s the speed of an F-3 tornado [sic]. How can the peregrine breathe? Air pressure should burst its lungs …
No one tries to convince you that inlet cones just appeared on jets one day purely by chance. Who lavished such TLC on the peregrine’s nostril? Please don’t tell me “evolution did it” unless you can provide me with evolution’s name, address, and phone number so I can ask follow-up questions: What are your motivations? Intentions? Modus operandi? Hourly rates? How did you juggle all these elements in space and time—the proto-peregrine’s speed, its lungs, its nose, its dives, its survival until it could reproduce in enough numbers to keep the successful traits—without being obliterated by its failed traits? How did you suspend each element on some shelf somewhere until you managed, purely by chance, to orchestrate them all into harmony? Until I get answers to these questions, “evolution did it” makes as much sense to me as “Santa Claus brought all these presents.”
This is a mishmash of two fallacies: the argument from incredulity and the god of the gaps: I don’t understand how this happened, therefore it couldn’t have happened naturally, therefore God did it.
The old Intelligent Design trope that such things as the peregrine’s tubercles could not have come about by pure chance has been thoroughly debunked by scientists. There is a chance element involved (mutation) but natural selection acts upon these mutations—and natural selection is the opposite of pure chance.
Richard Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker and Climbing Mount Improbable and Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution Is True provide book-length expositions of how “irreducibly” complex eyes, wings, behaviour and so on can come about through gradual, naturalistic processes alone.
As Professor Bruce Lyon kindly pointed out to me, this article on the peregrine falcon refutes two of Goska’s specific claims: that the falcon’s lungs would burst and that the tubercles are a miraculous, one-of-a-kind adaptation in peregrines. The principles underlying the development of complexity have been understood for a very long time. Tiny advantages add up over deep time and even the most primitive versions of features can have huge effects on individual lifespans and viability. As the science of evolutionary developmental biology (evo devo) has shown, old features are often repurposed to new ends—a phenomenon Stephen Jay Gould and Elisabeth Vrba called exaptation.
Goska also includes a long rumination on the miraculousness of the pawpaw tree’s interconnectedness with the zebra swallowtail butterfly. But the zebra swallowtail/pawpaw relationship is further evidence of naturalistic evolution: as this article explains, the two organisms are “evolutionary misfits”: the pawpaw’s loss is the butterfly’s gain. The pawpaw evolved to rely on now extinct species to spread its seeds; it now uses root suckers to disperse them. Goska fails to appreciate that this is an example of contingency, tinkering and opportunism, not planned-out design. In Dawkins’ Climbing Mount Improbable, he masterfully explicates the intricate relationship between fig trees and wasps—a story much more complicated than that of the pawpaw and zebra swallowtail.
Goska also attempts to square the circle of theodicy with another worn-out argument. In the end, she says, it all balances out: parasitic worms might burrow into children’s eyes, but chemicals derived from these worms are used to boost other children’s immune systems. But why, one might ask, would the Creator not have devised a system whereby children didn’t have to suffer such pain? Any god who could provide other solutions but chooses to inflict the most horrific suffering on children is either an idiot, a sadist or non-existent. But Goska thinks there is a grand plan because “the Bible insists that God is still juggling, and juggling well.” This is circular question-begging.
Goska argues that the west has been successful largely thanks to Christianity and to Catholicism in particular. However, she fails to recognise that Catholic Christendom destroyed many of the scholarly texts of antiquity and that religious dogmatists fiercely opposed the Enlightenment (even if, caught on the backfoot, some believers now claim the Enlightenment as their own). Contra Goska, concern with the humble individual in art and ethics predates Christianity and can be found in Hellenistic art, prehistoric handprints and the works of Ubuntu, Socrates and Mozi, among many others. Ethics, morality, art, science and reason preceded Christianity—in fact, the Church brought on an age of darkness.
Goska’s contention that Christianity is unique in its focus on individual rights is also wrong. She supports this argument with Biblical references, conveniently ignoring the many verses that support genocide, slavery, rape, warfare and murder. Many of these are in the Old Testament, which the New Testament tells us that we cannot ignore. In any case, it is in the New Testament that the notion of an eternal fiery punishment first makes its appearance, in John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” The corollary, of course, is that whosoever does not believe will perish in everlasting fire.
Goska argues that Christianity provided the basis of our belief that we should treat other people well. However, both the ancients and many non-Christian cultures have managed to establish basic rules of morality, including the golden rule. Moreover, the Catholic Church has been guilty of many crimes against humanity: from the Crusades and the persecution of Jews to its part in the slave trade and the murder of dissenters.
Goska takes John Cornwell to task for criticising the Church’s relationship with Hitler. She repeats the canard that Nazism was “a system informed by atheism, scientism, nationalism, and Neo-Paganism.” Indeed, Hitler wanted to destroy the Church, but he was not an atheist but a votary of racist pagan mysticism and—far from having a blind belief in science—he peddled the most absurd racist pseudoscience and hysteria. Hitler’s ideology was not atheist, secular or scientific: it invoked blood, race and superstition in the name of a new religion.
Complex though Hitler’s relationship with the Church was—and despite some very brave actions on the part of individual priests—the Church helped Hitler in a number of ways. In July 1933, the Vatican signed a treaty with him, dissolving the German Catholic Party in exchange for educational control over Catholic children. It sanctioned annual prayers on Hitler’s birthday and helped many Nazis escape justice after the war. The Catholic Church also forged alliances with other fascist governments, perhaps the worst of which was the Catholic/Nazi alliance during the First Slovak Republic, in which President Józef Tiso, a Catholic priest, abased himself in front of Hitler and signed up to the Final Solution. As Goska has Slovakian heritage, this is a surprising omission from her account of history.
There is one other especially odd omission from Goska’s book. She muses on why many believers have left the faith and cites the Church’s treatment of women as one possible reason. Yet she never mentions the Catholic child abuse scandal, which surely repelled many of the previously faithful, especially in Ireland.
The Catholic Church produced a disproportionate number of child rapists and abusers, systematically harboured them and failed to deal with the problem for decades. When the scandal finally broke, one of the first things the Church did was blame the Jewish media. Given the chance to right this wrong, then Pope Joseph Ratzinger chose instead to rail against women and gays. (Geoffrey Robertson’s devastating indictment of the Church details all this and many other horrifying facts, which are now matters of public record.)
Despite all this, Goska’s prose is often exquisite and her wisdom and humanity are formidable. She speaks of her travels around the world, her horrific experiences and her great joys, her academic work and her disabilities in ways that testify to her strength, resilience and character. She is a great scholar and many passages in this book abound in beauty and wisdom.
For example, she writes with heart-breaking matter-of-factness about her experiences of abuse: “If I told you everything they [her parents] suffered, your pity would blind you to the pain they caused. If I told you of the joy, that joy would erase everything else, like the tropical solstice sun that eats every shadow.” She writes of her later despair with extraordinary frankness, telling us that at the time she felt, “At this point, I just need to admit that nothing’s going to work out. I’m old, I’m sick, I’m alone, and I’m penniless. Every day hurts. I can’t take it anymore. No one would miss me. Strictly by profit-and-loss, survival-of-the-fittest standards, I don’t see the point of going on.”
And still later:
I am so lonely that it is a form of day-by-day, hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute torture. There’s this phrase, “Even Hitler had a girlfriend.” It’s used to mock people like me who are alone in the universe. It’s even worse than that. In 1966, Thomas Merton had to go to the hospital for back pain. His nurse was Margie Smith. She was twenty-five, half his age. Of course. They became lovers. Even America’s most famous monk got more than I do.
But this is no memoir of self-pity. In the end, she finds success and consolation. Even though things are still difficult, she perseveres. Her greatest solace is in nature:
I liked the feeling that climbing up 1,700 steep feet of trail gave me: what I felt as a kid. There is so much life; it is all alive, pulsing, moving all the time, urgent, needing, colorful, enough to feed me and challenge me forever, to sing and make anything, everything bearable. I experienced myself as merely a unique package of, expression for, an outline of resistance to the life all around me. My heartaches were mere plot twists, knots in a perpetual cord; personal oblivion and reincarnation made blissful sense. And then I would think, no, this can’t be. I haven’t felt this for so long. I thought life was over. I thought this warm pressure against me, this urge forward just from the passing rush of it, was a childhood fantasy, a cliché; don’t we all know better? We don’t. Life keeps happening.
Such passages abound throughout the book. Goska argues that there is still something missing from her life: the presence of the divine. I disagree. As Douglas Adams once said: “Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?” Ironically, despite her belief that life is ultimately meaningless without God, it is Goska’s gift for describing the beauty of life and the feelings of transcendence it invokes that makes this book so worth reading.