Belief in transubstantiation not a matter of yes or no

Fri, Jun 8, 2012, 01:00

Shutting out mystery reduces everything to a soup of simple understandings, easily digestible by the greatest number

I WOULD be interested in an opinion poll indicating how many people believe in opinion polls. For example, when Ipsos MRBI conducts a survey on behalf of The Irish Times, how many believe that the views of its sample of 1,000 people are representative of those of the entire population?

One presumes the answer would have to be greater than 50 per cent – to justify the continuance of this objectively anachronistic ritual. What is the basis of this trust? How scientific is it? How rational? What, for that matter, is rationality?

Does “rationality” involve a requirement to understand the processes you claim to believe in or trust? If so, how many people could tell you, off the top of their heads, that the margin of error in any particular aspect of an opinion poll is calculated by multiplying by two the square root of the result obtained when the quantum at issue is multiplied by 100 minus itself and the answer divided by the sample?

Give me transubstantiation any day – much easier on brain, mind and reason. (How many people, by the way, believe the mind and the brain to be separate entities, and what proportion of the population believes reason to be sited in one, the other or both at the same time? And how “reasonable” are these beliefs?)

Seriously: to what extent must certainty and understanding be combined for a belief to qualify as “rational”? Is it enough that other people may be counted upon to understand the theory of something? Or is it necessary that some inscrutable process or ritual be enacted in public for a length of time sufficient to suggest, by virtue of its remaining unchallenged, that it makes unimpeachable sense? Either or both, it seems.

Yet many people who believe in things they do not understand – because, for example, “experts” assure them the theory makes sense – feel free to dismiss as “irrational” or “unscientific” views held on comparable grounds by other people. This seems to suggest that what is termed “rationality” can at least sometimes be merely an ideological posturing on the basis of fashion and cultural consensus, which is not what the dictionary proposes as a definition.

One thing that fascinates me about polls about religious beliefs – such as this week’s Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI – is the ideological smugness that accompanies them. The questions have the appearance of being sincerely posed, but the subtext is invariably rooted in a cynicism that depends for its assurance on a limited perspective and a narrowness of terms. The unstated purpose is always to dramatise the creeping of “enlightenment”. Personally, I would find difficulty discussing transubstantiation with my best friend – not because I have problems with the doctrine but because such matters are impossible to discuss in the language we use for politics, shopping and sex. Is it possible to squeeze such understandings into the 157 words our media use on a daily basis to explain reality and the human condition? What I would say in response to a question about transubstantiation to an Ipsos MRBI pollster, I just don’t know.

It might cross my mind that, if I said I believed that the bread and wine is transformed into the body and blood of Christ during the Consecration, I might be held up an example of someone who (ludicrously) believes in “supernatural” phenomena, whereas if I said that I rejected such a belief, my opinion might be used to bolster a predetermined sociological analysis having something to do with the relative intellectual conditions to be located in fields and streets.

All things considered, I think I might pass. (I wonder what proportion of people, when asked such a question, say that it is not a question to which you can give a yes or no?) Pope Benedict, speaking last year in Berlin, compared the reduction of reason imposed on our cultures to a concrete bunker with no windows, in which mankind affects to have created the conditions for human life.

The bunker shuts out mystery and the greater part of reason. It reduces everything to a soup of simple understandings, easily digestible by the greatest possible number – to be regurgitated in opinion surveys for the consolidation of the status quo. It is the bunker soup that makes opinion polls “work”, rather than any absolute characteristics or understandings of human nature.

This coming week, the 50th International Eucharistic Congress takes place in Dublin, offering an opportunity for Irish Catholics to find their way out of the bunker and glimpse a richer form of reason than one that imposes itself day to day in the man-constructed concrete world.

I recommend in particular the exhibition Through the Eyes of the Apostles: Life Transformed By a Presence, which might enable opinion pollsters to extend the range of their questions. By the way, since scientists do not know how matter originated, what exactly is a non-“supernatural” explanation for the meaning of life?


John Waters speaks at the International Eucharistic Congress on June 12th. On June 15th he appears at the Dalkey Book Festival in conversation with David McWilliams, on his new book, Was it for This?

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