Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Devil's Chaplain

At the John Radcliffe Hospital, a physician tells Richard Dawkins that his son was stillborn. A hospital chaplain talks Richard into secretly adopting an orphaned newborn whose mother died in childbirth. Out of concern for his wife’s mental health, Richard agrees. He and his wife Marian name the child Damien.

Shortly thereafter, Richard’s mentor, Nikolaas Tinbergen, is killed in a freak accident when a gas main explodes under his car. As a result, Richard is appointed to replace Tinbergen as the Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science

Five years later, Damien’s original nanny is bitten to death by a black mamba. This is puzzling because there are no black mambas in Oxfordshire. Richard assumes the snake must have escaped from a private collector. 

A few days later, a new nanny, Mrs. Baylock, arrives out of nowhere to replace her–claiming the agency sent her after reading the obituary. Richard hires her on condition that she never read fairy tales to Damien: “I have sometimes worried about the educational effects of fairy tales. Could they be pernicious, leading children down pathways of gullibility towards anti-scientific superstition and religion? I think looking back to my own childhood, the fact that so many of the stories I read allowed the possibility of frogs turning into princes, whether that has a sort of insidious affect on rationality. Faith can be very very dangerous, and deliberately to implant it into the vulnerable mind of an innocent child is a grievous wrong. I’ve always been scrupulously careful to avoid the smallest suggestion of infant indoctrination, which I think is ultimately responsible for much of the evil in the world. I want Damien to make up his own mind freely when he becomes old enough to do so. I would encourage him to think for himself–as long as he thinks like me.”

One night, when Marian goes into Damien’s bedroom, she’s confronted by a menacing Rottweiler with glowing red eyes. She runs from the room and tells Richard. “It’s like some hellbound with eyes that glow in the dark!”

Richard assures her that the dog’s eyeshine is simply the natural effect of tapetum lucidum reflecting the nightlight in Damien’s bedroom. The next day, Richard asks the nanny about the strange dog. Mrs. Baylock tells him it’s a guard dog that the agency sent to protect the boy. Damien has become very attached to the new dog.

One day, when Damien is playing with another boy, his playmate accidentally breaks Damien’s toy train. Damien glares at the boy, mutters a Sumerian curse, and the boy bursts into flames. The burning boy runs screaming from the room, and dies moments later.

The police are mystified, but Richard assures them that there must be a perfectly natural explanation for what happened. “Just because science so far has failed to explain something, such as spontaneous combustion, to say it follows that the facile, pathetic explanations which religion has produced somehow by default must win the argument is really quite ridiculous.”

Another time, Marian walks into Damien’s bedroom when Damien playing with toy soldiers. The toy soldiers are floating in midair.

Marian tells Richard. “It’s as if he was moving them with his mind.”

He assures her that there must be a scientific explanation for levitation–if that’s what it was. Probably an optical illusion, or anomalous atmospheric conditions. Must have something to do with electromagnetic fields. “If ever there was a slamming of the door in the face of constructive investigation, it is the word miracle. To a medieval peasant, a radio would have seemed like a miracle. Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence.”

On Damien’s sixth birthday party, Marian hires a magician to perform tricks for the children who came to celebrate Damien’s birthday. The magician pulls a rabbit out of the hat. Marian sees Damien touch the rabbit. It turns into a cobra. The magician is horrified. The children scream and run away. All except for Damien.

When Marian tells Richard what she saw, he brushes off the incident as slight-of-hand. “It really comes down to parsimony, economy of explanation,” He says. “It is possible that your car engine is driven by psychokinetic energy, but if it looks like a petrol engine, smells like a petrol engine and performs exactly as well as a petrol engine, the sensible working hypothesis is that it is a petrol engine. Telepathy and possession by the spirits of the dead are not ruled out as a matter of principle. There is certainly nothing impossible about abduction by aliens in UFOs. One day it may be happen. But on grounds of probability it should be kept as an explanation of last resort. It is unparsimonious, demanding more than routinely weak evidence before we should believe it. If you hear hooves clip-clopping down a London street, it could be a zebra or even a unicorn, but, before we assume that it’s anything other than a horse, we should demand a certain minimal standard of evidence.”

One day Marian takes Damien to the zoo. When they go to the herpetarium, all the snakes press themselves against the glass, as if they were doing obeisance to Damien.

Fr. Brennan, an Anglican priest, visits Richard’s office at Oxford to warn him that his adopted son is possessed. Damien is the long-predicted Antichrist, he says.  He urges Richard to have Damien baptized and exorcised. Read him the Bible every day.

Richard is scornful: “Don’t ever be lazy enough, defeatist enough, cowardly enough to say ‘I don’t understand it so it must be a miracle–it must be supernatural–it must be the occult–God did it–the Devil did it.’ Say instead, that it’s a puzzle, it’s strange, it’s a challenge that we should rise to. Whether we rise to the challenge by questioning the truth of the observation, or by expanding our science in new and exciting directions–the proper and brave response to any such challenge is to tackle it head-on. And until we’ve found a proper answer to the mystery, it’s perfectly ok simply to say ‘this is something we don’t yet understand–but we’re working on it’. It’s the only honest thing to do. Miracles, magic and myths, they can be fun. Everybody likes a good story. Myths are fun, as long as you don’t confuse them with the truth.”

“But that’s precisely why the dark side entrusted the child to your care,” Fr. Brennan interjects. “They knew you’d provide the perfect cover. The Devil’s dupe. You’d be the very last person to suspect Damien’s true identity–until it’s too late!”

Richard orders the priest to leave. After he goes outside, Fr. Brennan is struck dead by a lightning bolt, even though there’s not a cloud in the sky.

Marian starts having nightmares about Damien. She begins to question whether Damien could really be her own child. As she’s driving to his office to share her concerns, she’s swallowed alive by a sinkhole, which suddenly appears right under her car. 

1 comment:

  1. Hilarious! But the point is well-made. For sure, one has to wonder what kind of evidence and degree of certainty is needed for those who claim that their love for the observable truth is what keeps them from knowing that designed things need a designer, information comes from minds, etc.