Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Injected the Wrong Way

"Because you have the cursed Jesuit strain in you, only it’s injected the wrong way.” James Joyce – Ulysses. 
James Joyce’s celebrated novel Ulysses opens with a tense early morning exchange between two friends - Stephen Dedalus and Buck Mulligan.  Dedalus is offended with Mulligan because on an earlier occasion Dedalus heard Mulligan refer to Dedalus’ mother as “beastly dead.” (1)  Mulligan pushes back criticizing Dedalus for refusing his mother’s request to pray with her at her death bed.  Mulligan, a young doctor responds:

And what is death, he asked, your mother’s or yours or my own?  You saw only your mother die.  I see them pop off every day in the Mater and Richmond and cut them into tripes in the dissecting room.  It’s a beastly thing and nothing else.  It simply doesn’t matter.  You wouldn’t kneel down and pray for your mother on her deathbed when she asked you.  Why?  Because you have the cursed Jesuit strain in you, only it’s injected the wrong way.  To me it’s all a mockery and beastly.  Her cerebral lobes are not functioning…Humour her till it’s over. (2)
Mulligan doesn’t believe in God and prayer, but is fine with humoring the wishes of one who does.  Dedalus, on the other hand, can’t bring himself to pray, even at his dying mother’s request.  He won’t compromise his belief in the non-existence of God.  Mulligan’s reference to the “Jesuit strain” is a dig at Dedalus’ education by Jesuit priests at Gonzaga College (a secondary school Joyce also attended).  The implication is that even though Dedalus doesn’t believe in God, he acts in other ways like one who does – and not just any believer – a Jesuit priest – a member of an order known for their tenacious intellectual defense of theism. 

Can one actually keep their beliefs or lack thereof private as Buck Mulligan?  One of our greatest needs is for truth, to know why.  The answer to that question is so precious that we will defend it fiercely.   Mulligan represents the cynic not willing to fight for truth. However, it seems that many atheists are not willing, like Buck Mulligan, to hold their worldview privately.

For example, there is outreach to encourage others to embrace non-belief – look at the clergy project an attempt to reach out to Christian ministers who no longer believe. (3)  Community gatherings and celebration of shared worldview – witness the Reason Rally in Washington D.C. last spring. (4) And, more controversially, the suggestion of the need for atheism to create communal contemplation spaces.  Alain de Botton plans to build such a structure in London. (5) De Botton’s plan has not been welcomed by many atheists, but it could be argued that the ideas behind the London building are found in the Clergy Project and the Reason Rally. 

Another example is a lawsuit by American Atheists seeking to prohibit a cross from ground zero being displayed at the 9/11 memorial yet to be completed in New York City. (6) The arguments advanced in favor of displaying the cross are that it was a symbol of comfort to many and is a historical artifact related to 9/11.  If this is a symbol of comfort, that atheists consider to be without meaning, letting the matter lie without protect would be the Buck Mulligan approach.  Let them have their crosses if it makes them happy.  But, to kick up a storm about the 9/11 cross seems to open up atheism to Joyce’s charge that they have the religious strain just injected the wrong way.

But, is this a bad thing?  First, it shows that atheists care about finding truth, and second, that they agree there is a truth out there to be found.  Caring about the truth, and being willing to go to great lengths to defend it is only bad if we base our arguments on bad evidence and tie them together with faulty logic, or if we abandon reasonable argument and try to make others accept our arguments through force.

It is best for everyone to put their cards on the table to put forward what they believe in a respectful manner. 

I say let the truth win.  Let the best arguments win out.  Let’s approach with open minds, not afraid to confront issues where we clash but with gentleness and respect as well.  Let us also recognize that atheists and theists alike are injected with the “Jesuit strain” – the search to find and defend truth – there are worse things.

(1)            James Joyce, Ulysses, Vintage International, New York, 1990; 8.

(2)            Ibid.

(3)            See, “From Bible-Belt Pastor to Atheist Leader”, N.Y. Times, Aug. 22, 2012, available at (accessed Sep. 19, 2012).

(4)            See, (accessed Sep. 19, 2012).

(5)             See, “Alain de Botton reveals plans for 'temple to atheism' in heart of London”, The Guardain, Jan. 26, 2012, available at (accessed Sep. 19, 2012).

(6)            See “Atheists continue battle against World Trade Center cross at memorial”, CNN Belief Blog, Sep. 10, 2012, available at (accessed Sep. 19, 2012).