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Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor: atheists are "not fully human"

Thanks to Steven Carr for the link. I will comment later...

At first I thought the Cardinal was just saying anyone who fails to consider the transcendent has an impoverished conception of what it is to be human. But at the end he is clear that those who fail to consider such bigger questions are themselves not fully human.

Well, in a way, I would agree. The Cardinal's mistake, I think, is not in suggesting that someone who never thinks about the bigger questions is lacking in an important dimension of human existence - that may be true (it's a weaker claim than the Socratic assertion that the unexamined life is not even worth living) - but in supposing that atheists never think about such questions, and indeed have no time for them. This is the popular straw man fallacy endlessly wheeled out against atheists: they don't even ask such big questions, but just dismiss them as worthless. I have previously commented on it here (where I point out Rowan Williams also commits the fallacy).

I could spend more time unpacking the various muddles the Cardinal gets into here (such as e.g. he seems to conflate (i) saying that a conception X of humanity is importantly deficient re humanity, with (ii) saying that those who have conception X of humanity are importantly deficient re humanity), but it is also worth just drawing attention to the fact that going round saying that those with whom one most profoundly disagrees are "not fully human" is an extraordinarily insulting and dangerous thing to say, whether true or not.

Religious folk regularly moan about Dawkins being rude and insulting to religious people. This, surely, is far, far more insulting. I get the impression it's intended to be.

Isn't the Cardinal at least aware of the disturbing connotations of the phrase, "They are not fully human"? It is surely most closely associated with mass-murdering dictators and eugenicists. If I really am not fully human, according to the Cardinal, I wonder to what lengths he might be prepared to go to make me fully human? And does he consider my not-fully-human existence worth less than that of a fully-human religious person? The use of this chilling phrase is, at the very least, bad PR for the Catholic Church.


splittter said…
I suppose the place to start would be to ask Cardinal O'Connor what he means by 'a search for transcendent meaning' and on what grounds he 'calls that god'. Most of the time I get the impression that when 'transcendent' is employed it's used as shorthand for 'in-principle indeterminable', so that athiests attempting to sort out ethical questions are not engaged in a search for transcendent meaning because they might insist that ethical principles are grounded and explainable.
Kyle said…
Well, I don't really know very much about O'Connor, but I can imagine saying something like that myself.

What I would mean by it is not that atheists are sub-human, but that their lives lack a vitally important aspect: a relationship with God.

Perhaps not very many people look at it this way, but lots of people think that having human relationships is an important (perhaps most important) part of our lives. Such a person may say that if you lock yourself away from all other people then you are not fully human.

I agree that saying things like that are only likely to cause confusion and upset when said on the BBC.
anticant said…
I have already blogged about this here:
AC said…
I think the wording may be crucial here.

If I was referring to someone who did something along the lines of what Kyle mentions (say locking themselves away from other people), I would perhaps say that (I think) they are rejecting or denying a part of their humanity, or part of what makes them human.

Saying that someone is "not fully human" could be taken to suggest that they are inherently lacking, rather than consciously choosing to lack, I think.

One can also quite easily use 'not fully human' and 'subhuman' pretty much interchangeably. The majority of definitions I can find for the prefix 'sub-' seem to suggest meanings like 'less than', 'nearly', 'almost' and 'not quite' in the context of 'subhuman' and I really don't see how 'not fully' is any different.

Murphy O'Connor's choice of wording here seems particularly poor. If not, perhaps he is deliberately seeking to offend, or perhaps he really does see atheists as subhuman?
What on earth is this chap on about? If he intends to mean that some persons are less than human because of their religious beliefs, or lack of them, he is clearly ready to be "sectioned" under the Mental Health legislation.
I don't like the idea of someone who could say something like that - which sounds all too much like what Nazis might have said about Jews or homosexuals - having temporal power or influence. I'm not saying he would use it in the horrific way that the Nazis did, although the way that the Cult of Misery uses power and influence is bad enough. But anyway, even on the most generous reading, what he said was naive or ignorant to an extreme degree, to point that shows a man who is totally out of touch with the experience of people who don't share his supernatural beliefs. Such a man would be a poor appointment to the House of Lords.

Btw, I've also blogged briefly about this, and PZ Myers and John Wilkins have both blogged about it in their respective forums over at Scienceblogs. It's getting a lot of coverage in the secular blogosphere.
Hank said…
Ah, that old chesnut! And there he is wearing a dress and saying something trite, ignorant and offensive :D

You could turn the words of the good cardinal around (if you were feeling particularly "strident"):

'You cannot and should not be considered a fully evolved homo sapien if you continue to cling to repeatedly debunked dogma and invalidated superstition when all the evidence accumulated by humanity's collected investigative endeavour points in no such direction.'

But that might be a tad shrill, so I won't.

God I love how religion gives stupid people in stupid hats a free pass to act like stupid bastards toward anyone who doesn't accept their mythology.
Paul P. Mealing said…
It’s such a bad choice of words, but I think he has a very simplistic view of the world, because he’s effectively saying if you don’t have a relationship with God you are essentially deficient in humanity, which is also what Kyle infers, though I don’t want to put words in his mouth.

If he was serious about realising or contemplating a greater humanity, he would acknowledge that a belief in God is not a requisite at all. I would argue that empathy is what the world really needs more of – a belief in God can sometimes enhance it but oftentimes achieves the exact opposite. So at the end of the day, it’s not God that matters, but the individual who believes or doesn’t believe.

The Catholic Church is becoming increasingly an anachronistic institution in the 21st Century and this is more evidence of the same.

Regards, Paul.
anticant said…
It's abundantly obvious from the pronouncements of this numbskull and the present Pope that the RC Church isn't fit for purpose (if it has one).
Kyle said…
I haven't actually checked to see if the people posting in this thread also posted in the Singh thread, but quite a few people here seem to be judging Singh by what he intended, and O'Connor by what he could be interpreted as saying.
Ken said…
Ideas like this could be seen to follow automatically from sincerely held religious beliefs. If you actually believe that a supernatural being is responsible for the continued existence of everything, and that this being is also the source of all moral and aesthetic value, then it might indeed seem to you that an atheist cannot be truly moral, or appreciate art, or be capable of participating fully in human society, and therefore in some sense not fully human. It may not be pleasant, but surely he is being consistent?
Dick said…
There's an assumption here that we can know for sure what 'being human' entails. I'm not sure that anyone, religious or otherwise, can claim to have achieved 'full humanity'. I'm sure it means more than simply having the DNA of homo sapiens - that's only the starting point. But I'm automatically sceptical of anyone who reckons they have completed the process of 'becoming fully human'.
Paul P. Mealing said…
I listened to it again. I can agree with the desire to look for the transcendent, whatever you want to call it, and I think Stephen makes a similar point.

It's obvious that atheists can find meaning in their lives, and that they do contemplate the bigger questions - history is full of philosophers of various persuasions - no one, and no culture, in my opinion, has a monopoly on truth and meaning. And to pre-empt Kyle, that doesn't make for moral relativism.

But it's the idea that a belief in God is a panacea, or makes someone a superior person to an atheist that I find particularly uninformed, even for a theologian. There are so many different ideas of what God is, some of which are genocidal.

To quote an essay I read recently by Raymond Smullyan in reference to giving God a personality: But the so-called “personality” of a being is really more in the eyes of the beholder than in the being itself.

As I like to point out to fundamentalists: do they really think that George Bush and Osama Bin Laden believe in the same God?

As I've said previously, I'm not against people's belief in God, but it's obvious to me that the God someone believes in says more about them than it says about God.

Regards, Paul.
Paul P. Mealing said…
Correction. Should have said: to quote from an essay by Raymond Smullyan.

AC said…

I think the main difference is that Singh does explain what he means by 'bogus' in the article - there's no need to speculate on what he intended. Perhaps he could have explained it more thoroughly. Perhaps a different word would've been a better choice. The libel case appears to hinge on a specific definition of bogus, even though Singh does provide some explanation of the way he uses the word.

The Cardinal's lack of detailed explanation is obviously due to the different medium involved, but without one, all we can do is speculate. As far as I am aware, though, no-one is suing Murphy O'Connor for slander. On the other hand, the clip seems to be the Cardinal explaining previous comments to the same effect, so I'm not sure what to think here.

I wanted to have a look to see how other people may use the term 'not fully human', so googled it. Leaving out the obvious raft of results referring to the topic at hand, I found most of the references to it do infer the meaning 'subhuman'. The strength of the inference seemed to correlate to how political the results were. Pro-life sites had the weakest inference, a book on human rights had a strong inference, and a quote from Robert Heinlein used the term interchangeably with 'subhuman'.

That's not to say that the Murphy O'Connor was using it in that way, of course.


That's a very good point. I think by wording things in the way I suggested in my first comment, that assumption could be avoided. Although you'd still need to argue as to why whatever you were referring to is part of being human.
AC said…
I think ultimately Stephen, splitter and Paul are correct - The straw man aspect of the Cardinal's comment is the really important point.
chris moffatt said…
do we have any reason to believe that the cardinal has in fact been on a journey of his own to achieve "the transcendent"? I rather think that he has accepted his religion's scripture,dogma and interpretation thereof with a singularly unthoughtful attitude and would have no idea of where to start or how to proceed. One starts of course with doubt and this man obviously has none of those! Is not his very unfortunate choice of insult an actionable instance of hate speech? Let's try it a different way - "Muslims are less than human" or "Black People are less than human" or, perhaps, "christians are less than human". How long before you end in court?
Steven Carr said…
I wonder if the Cardinal would ever claim that a baby in its mothers woman was not fully human because it did not have a sense of the transcendent, and never went to Mass.
Stephen Law said…
Also notice that he says secularists are not fully human. Now secularists can be religious, given the way the term is often used by secularists (a secular society, as e.g. the BHA understand the term,is simply neutral on religious matters, defending the right to be religious and non-religious equally, privileging neither view). However, the Cardinal clearly places secularism in opposition to religion, which is a very different view. That's another straw man.
wombat said…
Kyle "Such a person may say that if you lock yourself away from all other people then you are not fully human."

Autistic people?


Sociability may be the norm, but it does not seem to be definitive.
Stephen Law said…

You agree with the Cardinal, but your argument is not his. Yes you can argue that without a relationship with God we cannot be fully human (which I consider about as cogent as arguing that without a relationship with Santa we cannot be fully human), but the Cardinal's argument here is not that, but the currently more fashionable argument (see my reference to Rowan Williams) that only religious folk consider the transcendental/bigger questions, and that to fail to consider them is to miss out on a key aspect of what it is to be human. That popular argument is a straw man, as I explained previously.

This Cardinal is, shall we say, one of the less bright religious leaders. I imagine his academic advisors put their heads in their hands when he transformed the above popular argument with which he'd been fed into "atheists aren't fully human".
M. Tully said…
Failure to "search for a transcendent meaning..."

Silly Cardinal, what do you think led me to naturalism?
anticant said…
Nietszche wrote a book called "Human, All Too Human".

That fits the Cardinal to a tee.
Paul P. Mealing said…
Hi Stephen,

I read your link, Another Myth about Atheism, and I think it puts the argument very succinctly.

And there are theologians who would agree with you, though not the Cardinal I would expect.

And I think your point about what constitutes a secular society is also often overlooked.

Regards, Paul.
Paul P. Mealing said…
Thanks Steven Carr,

Loved it.

Unknown said…
Dear oh dear.
What an ill-informed piece of self righteous nonsense. Coming from a man that protected a child abusing priest!
Athiests are on the whole decent thoughtful folk who have spent time reading different views and making decisions on facts as opposed to following what they are just told to accept.
When someone who is an athiest does voluntary work, they do it as they believe its the right thing to do not because they think it will give them a better chance of some reward in a later life.
When we ( I am an athiest) obey the laws of the land, we do it because we see and understand that society works better with respect. There is no need of a god!
That makes us MORE human as we care for others because it is simply the RIGHT thing to do, not because of what we can get out of it.
Balanor said…
Cormac looks like a cardinal, but he talks like a mockingbird.

What does 'fully human' mean anyway? O'Connor can't explain it.

Does it mean enslavement to a dogmatic artificial world culture guided by silly men who do not have a clue about life for 4 billion inhabitants of this lovely mudball?
Corrmac was once a whiny little baby like the rest of us. He messed his diaper, made his demands for mama's nipple, proceeded through the terrible 2's and 3's.
Somewhere the old scary catholic ladies got ahold of his natural superstitious nature...his fear of everything in the neighborhood. The gave sissy Cormac a personal superman with which to deal with the world. He did not experience the joy of his heroes from comic books though. He picked up his mythologies from that supercomic book: the bible. Most of us outgrew our comic book heroes, but Cormac had no inner strength; he clung to the cute myths and discovered he could make a living ...a good living by scaring ignorant or well educated people laden with fears.
All of his life he has enjoyed trying to control the fearful with his comic book heroes. For new problems, he simply comes up with new but empty theories.....non-participants in the theistic culture are now NOT fully human; how nice. He could not offer any half brained reasoning for this conclusion. His law is that good old solid "because I told you so" law promulgated throughout the romcath empire. Cormac, like his colleagues, is just another carnie, another malicious conductor who enjoys making his enslaved zombies kneel and stand and bow and cry and laugh to the tune of his stick. Cons like him have never given a tiny bit of evidence for anything that pukes out of their mouths.
James said every culture needs its leeches; western culture was damned with these oversized leeches.
Any average human being can investigate anything and everything that they spew as truth and law; all will discover that not one word computes to a reasonable person.
Alas! this is the problem with long term indoctrination. You can't break your fear breaking your bonds. You support those who would tighten those bonds.
So sad...when freedom and truth await any of you who break those bonds that have no more power than tissue paper. So sad....your whole life controlled and wasted as a result of these myths that were supposed to go away in adulthood along with superman, mickey mouse, batman and cardinalman.
AC said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
AC said…
More from the Cardinal here, at the end of the article: it appears to be "Atheism: greatest of evils"
anticant said…
Different leopards, same spots.
Monado said…
I, for one, think that child-buggering and child-raping hypocritical priests are not fully human.
theObserver said…
Penn of Penn & Teller refutes the Cardinals position with philosophical elegance :-
Holly Hackett said…
Hold on, I'll just check my genome.

No, I'm fully human.

Try again Cormac.
Geremia said…
I, being a Catholic physicist, find all this talk among Catholics about needing to be Catholic to be more human very heterodox and even heretical, for we believe every human is created in God's image (cf. Gen. 1:27); there is no gradation of humanness. This Cardinal Cormack Murphy is likely caught up in the modern heresy of "Modernism" (although from my perspective I interpret him merely saying that God is responsible for any humans' being human). Chief amongst the errors of Modernism is for Catholics to deny anything supernatural, which, incidentally, atheist materialists do deny. Catholics also believe God created humans for a supernatural end, so what would it matter to an atheist materialist had this cardinal instead said something like: "'re not fully saintly"? Of course you likely wouldn't be insulted at all.

Catholics fallen to the heresy of Modernism also, for the most part, detest the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas. He has been, in my opinion, the greatest scientist-theologian ever to live; he laid the foundations upon which much modern science developed. He also wrote—in an extremely logical, syllogistic manner—about the relationship of and differences between faith and reason, and he is firmly on the side of scientists in modern questions like the Protestants' flawed "Intelligent Design theory." The Catholic Church, not some of its flawed human constituents, has never opposed true science.

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