Bugs and Planets – what’s the odds?

It was a kind relative who set me on a scientific path by giving me a chemistry set when I was about 12 years old. I soon set up a laboratory in the coal-shed at the back of our house just outside Strabane in County Tyrone. Over the next few years I precipitated beautiful crystals of copper sulphate, I made horrible smells with hydrogen sulphide, I produced hydrogen gas and lit it and lived to tell the tale – it makes a satisfying pop.

At one stage I decided to replicate Andrews Liver Salts. The list of ingredients was on the tin so I reckoned it couldn’t be that difficult to reproduce it. I sent off for the required chemicals by mail order, mixed them in the shed, drank it and lived to tell that tale too. I only told it to my parents when it was all over. But by that time I was hooked and ended up in Trinity College to study microbiology and later genetics in NUIGalway.

Although my professional gaze was into microscopes my pastime gaze was into telescopes – another inheritance from childhood. My wife and I even rigged up a telescope to project the image of the sun (rare enough in Galway) on to wall of our bedroom so we could observe the rotation of sunspots.

In all my reading of both microbiology and astronomy I found one thing in common – the scientists who knew what they were talking about said that the odds against our being here in this intricately designed universe are enormous.

Take, for example, the solar eclipse on the 21st of last month (– now there’s something I would have liked to have seen). An eclipse can only happen if the size of the sun in our sky is precisely the same as the size of the moon. And it is! What’s the likelihood of that? Tiny. The explanation – there is none. The special website set up by NASA for last month’s website simply says, “Eclipses occur due to the special coincidence of the moon and the sun being the same angular size.”

And the popular press has decided, all on their own, that despite such enormous odds simple cells somehow came together in the sea after the earth’s crust hardened. It was a doddle. And once that simple cell was formed there was no stopping the progress of life as we know it. My wife’s hairdresser certainly thinks so. When she heard that I was going to give a talk about the rarity of life and she said, “I thought all you needed on a planet was water and then life would grow”

The past 50 years of research have shown that it wasn’t a doddle, the cells couldn’t have come together by blind fate and they aren’t simple either.

Sir Fred Hoyle, Professor of Astronomy at Cambridge, calculated the odds against getting just the enzymes we need for life. He said:

“the chance of obtaining them all in a random trial is only one part in 1040,000, an outrageously small probability that could not be faced even if the whole universe consisted of organic soup”.

1040,000 is one with 40,000 noughts after it – note that this morning Paddy Power was giving the chance  that Gerry Adams would be the next Taoiseach as just one part in 100.

Professor David Block from Johannesburg puts it this way:

“even if every star in the heavens sported a planet on which life might form, still there would not be enough stars to make intelligent life a likely outcome.”

Allow yourself to think for a minute of the implications if these scientists are right. What if we didn’t get here by chance? What’s the first thought that jumps into your head?

(From “Blind Fate” at Leadership Breakfast RDS Dublin 7:30am 26th September 2017)

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Submission to the Citizens’ Assembly

I write as the father of a daughter, Siobhán, who lived only 26 days, during which she was given exemplary nursing care in Galway Regional Hospital. The same excellent level of care was given to my wife. I also write with a copy of Bunreacht na hÉireann open in front of me.

I urge the Assembly to retain the 8th Amendment to the Constitution for three basic reasons.

  1. Ethical. Unborn children are human beings. The current discussion in the higher courts has described the unborn as a “human person”. The recent rise in utilitarian ethics (e.g. by Peter Singer) has suggested someone does not become a “person” until they are considered useful. This definition is fraught with danger as the conferring of personhood is left to some third party, which would be quite repugnant to the Constitution. Just because we can take someone’s life does not mean we should.
  1. Legal. Various proposed changes to our Eighth Amendment have used comparisons with other countries. These international analogies should instead be warning signs. Notably, UK law has enabled over 90% of unborn Down Syndrome children to be aborted. Other European countries (e.g. Denmark and Iceland) are actively pursuing the elimination of all Down Syndrome cases. Even more regrettably the life of healthy unborn children in many such countries are being taken at the whim of a father or mother.
  1. Personal. Our daughter was as human as we are. She deserved the State’s protection of her right to life.
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David and Pam

Charmed life 

Anybody looking on would have said that my wife Pam and I led a charmed life in our mid-twenties. It felt like the world was at our feet with a horizon full of opportunity. I taught science at a dream job in a country secondary school in Mountbellew, County Galway having just finished research at the university in Galway with which I still kept ties. To this day I think it is the cultural centre of gravity in Ireland. And we were expecting our first child.

When the due date came I ended up in bed with bronchitis. So when the phone rang to say that the great moment was arriving, I hastily dressed and was bundled in to the Regional Hospital waiting room. A whole generation of Galway fathers know the nondescript walls of that room. But the doctor wanted to see me as soon as I came in.

The damage is done

He was young – only qualified a couple of years. I was immediately put off by something too solemn in the look of him. He got around to it quickly. “Mr. Wilson, I’m afraid we have some bad news for you. Your wife has given birth to a baby girl – but she was born with a difficult condition. Basically what it means is…” At this point I was staring straight through this guy’s head – hearing him but not hearing him. All I wanted to do was see Pam. So the doctor brought me to the recovery room right away and we walked as fast as decorum would allow.

It struck me to ask him, “But can this condition be corrected?”, “Well some cases are mild but I’m afraid…” He was “afraid” again. This wasn’t a mild case. “You see, the damage is already done.”

By this time I was at Pam’s bedside. We fell into each others’ arms, and my pride in her bearing my child was none the less for the baby’s condition – all the more, in fact, because her attitude was so collected. We prayed for wisdom and talked together.

Valentine’s Day

After talking again with the medical staff I thanked them the best I knew how, checked on Pam who was by this time asleep, went home and wrote in my diary a verse from the Book of Job which we had recently studied at the request of student friends: “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. May the name of the Lord be praised.” The date was Valentine’s Day.

Siobhán was moved to the fever hospital where she lived the rest of her short life, Pam gathered strength back in the ward, I recovered and soon we were together back at home trying to reassemble our lives – me teaching in Mountbellew and Pam receiving family and kind visitors of all sorts. It’s tough on any woman to leave the maternity ward without her baby. She has to contend with all the things that people say to her and with all the people who don’t know what to say. Pam told people simply that we were very sad but that we trusted God because we already knew that he loved us.

On Monday morning, the 12th of March, I was called out of a maths class to take a phone call I had awaited for 26 days – Pam to say that Siobhán had died. She borrowed a friend’s Morris Minor and drove out to Mountbellew to pick me up. We drove back to Galway slowly. On the way we stopped to look over a fence at the new season’s lambs and think.

I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of funeral arrangements before, but I hadn’t. It’s funny – you cling on to life even irrationally while it’s there.

I went down to Willie Conneely, the undertaker in Market Street, to order a small coffin, and he asked me if I wanted something fancy. I said that no, I didn’t want a lot of extra trappings because from the best I could gather from the Bible, the baby was safe in heaven with God and no religious trimmings at this point would help her. I launched into an explanation of the Biblical account of King David’s statement when his infant died – “I shall go to him, but he will not return to me”, only to find Willie weeping.

“Isn’t it a crazy thing”, he said, “that you come in here to buy a coffin and me end up weeping, but I would love to have this confidence you have that you will go to be with God.” I explained that my confidence stemmed from the fact of Jesus taking my hell for me on the cross, and eventually I left his Willie’s Dickensian shop with a beautiful simple white coffin and with him much happier.

Never sung in the cemetery 

In the cemetery I read out, from the last page of the Bible, the same beautiful words we had sent to the Irish Times, “Come Lord Jesus!”. We thanked God for Siobhán’s life, and Joe Noble, a dear friend who drove a taxi in town, sang the song, “O the deep, deep love of Jesus”. No big audience – just family, like my parents, friends, like Anna and Susan, and neighbours like Joe and Evelyn. Anna came round later to say that standing there that afternoon she had decided to invite Christ into her life too. “You see”, she said, “For all the times I’ve been to Rahoon Cemetery, I’ve never sung in it before”.

Now we had a new puzzle. How could a life-event of such acute sorrow yield good fruit like the change in Anna’s life? That’s sounds like an acute absurdity. Yet she was one of many.

We saw only one solution. God’s track-record with us was so solid that we were prepared to trust him with the absurdity, just as we did with the sorrow.

Never was I so glad that both Pam and I, separately, had made the same decision to put our confidence in Christ before we ever met each other, even though we’d lived thousands of miles apart. But that’s another story.


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Be careful, Ireland, what you wish for

BBC2 Wednesday 5th October  Sally Phillips (of “Bridget Jones” and “Miranda” fame) is worried. She has every right to be. She has found out that 90% of Down’s syndrome babies conceived in Britain becomsally-phillipse victims of the abortion services – the kind of services aimed at by the “Repeal the Eighth Amendment” campaign in Ireland.

Now BBC2 is broadcasting a documentary she has just made on the subject . What worries Sally most is the statement by philosopher Peter Singer this summer (on BBC’s “Hard Talk”) that “killing a  person with severe intellectual disability is not equivalent to killing a person and sometimes it is not wrong at all.” Indeed Singer seems to be the one who decides whether or not you are a “person”.

Sally isn’t the only one worried. Frank Skinner chatted with her about the documentary and stuck his neck out in her defence. Well done Frank.

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Excuse me, anybody know where I could get a moral compass?

Seems like we have not only “lost the run of ourselves” but now we’ve “lost our moral compass”. When I lose stuff at home I usually retrace my steps until I find the place I originally parscreenshotted company from it. Same with a moral compass.rds-members David Glass, author of “Atheism’s New Clothes” certainly thinks so. He’ll speak about it at Agape’s Leadership Breakfast in the RDS Member’s Club at 7:30 a.m. on 26th September.

Cost €15, payable at venue, includes hot served breakfast. Booking to reserve a seat, by Wednesday 21st September. Email normpdent@gmail.com or call 0838522695

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How to be progressive

"Many people voted the wrong way for the right reason" Senator Rónán Mullen

“Many people voted the wrong way for the right reasons” Senator Rónán Mullen

Feeling up-to-date

Last year when 62% voted for same-sex marriage in an Irish referendum I couldn’t get my head around the reason why people, especially so many students, were voting this way. My assistant in the Agapé office at that time, Chloe Douglas, explained it very simply – people want to feel “up-to-date”. She’s right. That seems to be underlying motivation among students who get worked up about LGBT rights, gay blood donation, pro-abortion and Ashers’ cakes.

Whatever you think about the actual issues, young people want to appear “fair” and “escape from old-fashioned religion” and “regressive attitudes”. Indeed Senator Rónán Mullen made the point that last year “many people voted the wrong way for the right reasons”. Numerous of our own student friends felt ostracised when they told people they would vote “No” in the referendum. They felt characterised as fuddy-duddies.

Last month the wife of the president, Sabina Higgins, speaking at Trinity College Dublin, described the limits on abortion in Ireland as “an outrage”. In order the bolster the desirability of being supposedly “progressive”, Biblical concepts are cheaply portrayed as “regressive”.

Nothing regressive about Jesus It’s time we corrected this impression. There’s nothing regressive about Jesus. He didn’t come from the 1950s. He came here from heaven and he is now in eternity. He calls to us from the future – we wait to hear “Well done good and faithful servant”.

And the outlook he taught and exemplified while on earth is nothing short of radical. Want to be progressive? Get with the programme. Get with Jesus. Tired of leaders’ hypocrisy? Jesus will show you a way through it. He reserved his bitterest criticism for hypocritical leaders of organised religion – there’s a whole chapter of it in Matthew 23. He slammed their fancy clothes, their grasping for position, their financial dodges, even their seating at public events – anything sound familiar?

The remarkable thing is that “social justice” is flavour of the month every month on campus. You’d think that students had been reading the prophets until you listen and find that their aspirations for social justice are quite unspecific.

This gives us an instant connection. You can ask, “Why are people important?”, “What is your standard for justice?”, “Do you think everyone should be judged equally?”, “ Including you?”, “What is your standard for morality?”, “Can you live by that standard?” These are questions that only the death of Christ can answer.

Life’s calling Meanwhile the culture wars have not abated. A good student friend in Dublin told me that he is now getting weekly emails from a representative of the Student Union at Trinity College asking him to join a demonstration at the gates of the Dáil to support abortion. Although we do have things to say about such issues this isn’t our life’s calling. Our life’s calling is to make the gospel clear.

But here’s the rub. It isn’t good enough to just to say, “Jesus died for our sins”. I discussed this a few weeks ago with a Belfast student who trusted herself to Christ during this academic year. Her desires are changing – her whole life is changing. She told me “All my life we heard that ‘Jesus died for our sins’ but I had no idea what those words meant. I heard them at Mass, you can read them on tracts on the street but they had no effect on me personally. They had become completely meaningless because they were so familiar”. So what did the trick? She was approached by Agapé team people to take an evangelistic survey and they treated her well.

Student importance Between Christmas and Easter Pam and I took a sabbatical and I studied a simple question: who is running the country? We’ve been thinking about this a lot in Dublin because we recently had an election as the previous government finished its term. That government had included members whom I first met as Student Union presidents when they were students at university in Galway (Pat Rabitte and Eamon Gilmore).

We sometimes talk of students as “the leaders of the future” but some of them are leaders already. In this most recent election to the Irish Senate four of the candidates had been Student Union presidents. Of these four, the person that won, Lynn Ruane, is the current president of the Trinity College Student Union – and now also a senator of the country.

Dare to be a Daniel Just now I’m up to my eyes preparing to teach the book of Daniel to our staff and students this summer at our Biblical Studies conference. It’s great Biblical rallying call to not conform to the pressures of the surrounding society, written by a godly man who served for years in the administration of public life.

And here’s our year’s homework: How to present “Jesus died for our sins” with the same meaning – but in wording fresh enough to have impact. That’s what I call progressive.


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How can we best commemorate 1916?

Padraig Pearse1916. Easter. The Rising. We all know the story. But do we? What drove those remarkable men and women to take on such an enormous task when all the circumstances would have discouraged most revolutionaries? So why did they do it – and on that particular Monday?

This choice of Easter for the 1916 Rising had its origins in the preceding years. Padraig Pearse, who read out the Proclamation and was one of those who signed it, had shown great personal interest in the Gospels’ account of the death of Christ. His sister Mary later wrote that Pearse’s greatest devotion was “to Christ and the crucifix.”[1]

You can’t miss it when you examine his own writing. Pearse was an educator, a poet and a playwright. At the end of his best-known play, The Singer, the hero, MacDara, goes out to fight the Gall – against innumerable odds – with these words: ‘One man can free a people as one Man redeemed the world. I will take no pike, I will go into the battle with bare hands. I will stand up before the Gall as Christ hung naked before men on a tree.’”[2]

Another signatory of the Proclamation, Thomas McDonagh, prepared a speech in his own hand-writing for his court-martial. He saw himself as part of “a small section of the great, unnumbered company of martyrs, whose Captain is the Christ who died on Calvary.”[3]

Even James Connolly, not previously known as a religious man, wrote in February 1916, “Without the slightest trace of irreverence, but in all due humility and awe, we recognise that of us, as of mankind before Calvary, it may truly be said ‘without the shedding of blood there is no redemption’”[4], quoting a significant New Testament passage[5] about the death of Christ.

But then, as you read further, you begin to see that these revolutionaries had more on their mind than just the Passion of Christ. They speak of other symbols of ancient Ireland like Cuchulain and Caitilín ni hUllacháin.

In 1908 Pearse had founded St. Enda’s School in the Dublin suburbs. One of the first things to be seen was a large mural of the young Cuchulain taking his weapons; in the same hall, there was also Beatrice Elvery’s painting of Christ as a boy, with arms outstretched in the cruciform position.[6]

As early as April 1902 W.B. Yeats’ play Cathleen Ni Houlihan had fired the imagination of Irish nationalists, even on its opening night. It enacted the myth of Ireland being re-juvenated by the sacrifice of young men. Thirty-six years later the impact of this play still troubled Yeats who wrote, shortly before his death:

I lie awake night after night

And never get the answers right

Did that play of mine send out

Certain men the English shot?[7]

Pearse wasn’t the only poet involved in the Rising. Another, Joseph Mary Plunkett wrote:

Praise God if this my blood fulfils the doom

When you, dark rose, shall redden into bloom

He is asking God to allow him to sacrifice his own life for Ireland, personified as Caitilín ni hUllacháin. Ireland is then symbolized, in the last line, as the little dark rose which will turn red and blossom with the patriot’s blood.[8]

So it looks like this sacrifice element of the Rising was an acting out of the pagan idea of “sacrifice for the land” which harks back to pre-Christian Ireland and was brought into the early 20th century Irish nationalism mainly through the literary revival, much of which was far from Christian and invoked the pagan gods.

Nevertheless, Pearse also used the illustration of Christ’s sacrifice probably because it was the tradition with which he was most familiar since childhood. As S.W Gilley says in Pearse’s Sacrifice, “There is an easy transition in Pearse’s work from the blood of Cuchulain to the blood of Christ, and from there to the blood of the Irish political martyrs, and so to a more explicit enunciation of the underlying doctrine that the shedding of blood makes men holy.”[9]

Sometimes it’s not even clear who is dying. Pearse wrote, “The people itself will perhaps be its own Messiah, the people labouring, scourged, crowned with thorns, agonising and dying, to rise again immortal and impassable. For peoples are divine …If we do not believe in the divinity of our people we have had no business, or very little, all these years in the Gaelic League.”[10] “The people who wept in Gethsemane, who trod the sorrowful way, who died naked on a cross, who went down into hell, will rise again glorious and immortal, will sit on the fight hand of God, and will come in the end to give judgement, a judge just and terrible.”[11]

Indeed Pearse’s basic idea was a pagan one of blood sacrifice, whoever’s blood that might be. In his last address to his pupils at St Enda’s School in Rathfarnham he returned to one of his favourite themes: “It had taken the blood of the Son of God to redeem the world. It would take the blood of the sons of Ireland to redeem Ireland.”[12]

Fifty years after the Rising, Augustine Martin summed up the era: “By then, Stephens in common with Russell, Yeats and most sensitive Irishmen, realised that what they had witnessed in the Dublin streets had been as much a ritual as a battle. And in their subsequent poetry we see that the sacrificial aspect of the Rising is recognized. Pearse’s doctrine of a blood sacrifice is a recurrent symbol.”[13]

You can understand Fintan O’Toole’s succinct summary: “The founding act of the modern Irish State – the 1916 Rising – is a religious as much as a political act, and conceived by its leader, Patrick Pearse, as such.”[14]

And it wasn’t just in the South that blood was being invoked. In September 1912 many Ulster Protestants had likewise veered into pagan thinking with a “blood covenant” when they signed the “Solemn League and Covenant” opposing Home Rule in their own blood.

In their account of that occasion Monaghan and Blake rightly comment, “The use of blood covenants was unchristian…the covenants drew their power from the analogy with the Blood Covenant of God with his people which was fulfilled in the death of Jesus.”[15]

“‘Elsewhere Easter is celebrated as the Feast of the Resurrection’, remarked Terence de Vere White: ‘In Dublin it is celebrated as the Feast of the Insurrection.’”[16] This year as we commemorate 100th anniversary of the birth of our modern Irish nation, let’s first of all take the time to celebrate the Real Rising – the rising of Jesus from the dead. It was different. Here’s how different it was:

  • Supremely, Christ rose again from the dead! If he had just died and that was the end of it we would never have known whether his sacrifice for us had worked. By gloriously coming back to life his claims to offer forgiveness were vindicated.
  • Because he has done the dying for us he is now free to give forgiveness to all-comers who turn themselves in for his amnesty.
  • Also Christ wasn’t saying, “I’ll die – so you can rise”. He died and rose again so we could have a guarantee of our own personal rising again when the time comes.
  • Christ was a perfect Otherwise it wouldn’t have worked and we’d be in real trouble by now.
  • Christ was offering a much more powerful freedom – internal freedom inside in your heart and head, including freedom from hatred.
  • It didn’t finish with the Resurrection. He the gave his Spirit (not a mythical, mystic force) who is well capable of delivering on his promise to make us new people.

As Mrs Tancred says at the end of Seán O’Casey’s play Juno and the Paycock: “Sacred Heart o’ Jesus, take away our hearts o’ stone, and give us hearts o’ flesh! Take away this murdherin’ hate, an’ give us Thine own eternal love!”[17]

We can make that kind of prayer our own today – because of the Real Easter Rising. What a great way to celebrate the birth of the nation!

[1] M. Pearse, The Home Life of Padraig Pearse (Dublin and Belfast 1934), 141

[2] A. Martin, Studies, Spring 1966, 41

[3] T. McDonagh, South Dublin Libraries http://source.southdublinlibraries.ie/bitstream/10599/9773/16/ThomasMacDonaghSpeech_transcribed.pdf

[4] C.D. Graves, The Life and Times of James Connolly (London: 1961) , 318-319

[5] Hebrews 9:22

[6] E. O’Brien, in Ireland at War and Peace (Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Press 2011), 19

[7] (Martin 1966), 47

[8] (Martin 1966), 42

[9] S.W. Gilley Pearse’s sacrifice: Christ and Cuchulain Crucified and Risen in the Easter Rising, 1916 in Sacrifice and Redemption (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 218

[10] P.H. Pearse, Collected Works of Padraig H. Pearse: Political Writings and Speeches, Dublin, Phoenix, 1917-1922  vol.2, 91-92

[11] (Pearse 1922), 345

[12] P.H. Pearse The Story of a Success, Being a Record of St Enda’s College September 1908 to Easter 1916, ed. Desmond Ryan ( Dublin and London: Maunsel, 1917), 98

[13] (Martin 1966), 38-39

[14] F. O’Toole, Black Hole, Green Card: The Disappearance of Ireland (1994)

[15] Paddy Monaghan & David Blake, Ireland the Blood Sacrifice in The Presbyterian Herald (July 1986), 40

[16] C. Cruise O’Brien States of Ireland (London: Hutchinson, 1973), 308

[17] S. O’Casey Juno and the Paycock in Three Dublin Plays (London: Faber and Faber, 1998), 146

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