The following is quoted so often that it has become a cliche, but it is so apposite to the topic of this column that it would be criminally irresponsible not to use it.
Its reputed author is the great Catholic apologist GK Chesterton. He said: "The danger when men stop believing in God is not that they'll believe in nothing, but that they'll believe in anything."
Chesterton wrote those words almost 100 years ago and he wrote them at a time when people like William Butler Yeats were devotees of the New Age fad of their time, namely theosophy. Clairvoyants, fortune tellers, palm readers and the most esoteric forms of Eastern mysticism were all the rage. Anything but Christianity was the order of the day.
At the same time, it was salad days for rationalists, materialists and atheists of every kind who were putting their faith in Marxism, or laissez-faire economics or in Freud's supposed science of the mind. All utterly repudiated religion. There seemed to be a Richard Dawkins on every street corner.
It was against this background that Chesterton wrote those words. (Incidentally, the reason he is only the reputed author is because no one can actually find the exact quote in any of his known writings, although I stand to be corrected). In any event, the quote stands and it exactly described what was happening in his time and in our own.
Back then, side by side with the rise of atheism and scientific materialism came a new flourishing of beliefs the like of which had not been seen since pagan times and which were decidedly anti-rational. It was as though the decline of Christianity, precipitated by the 19th and early-20th Century versions of Richard Dawkins, had opened up a space not for rationalists like Chesterton himself -- I use that word advisedly -- but for new, or rather very old, forms of superstition.
Fast forward almost 100 years and we have the redoubtable Professor Dawkins presenting his latest series on Channel Four called 'The Enemies of Reason' in which he fires broadside after broadside at fortune-tellers, diviners, tarot-card readers and the whole panoply of magical and mystical practices to which countless numbers of people today have recourse.
However, what never seems to occur to people like Richard Dawkins and his fellow travellers is that, in a rich irony, people like himself have actually helped pave the way for the palm-readers, et al. Man does not live by scientific rationality alone and if you take from him Christianity, or one of the other mainstream religions, his spiritual side will have to go looking for other outlets. That is what happened in Chesterton's time and it is what is happening today.
Speaking at Knock on Wednesday, Archbishop Sean Brady might well have been thinking of GK Chesterton when he said that in modern Ireland the decline of Christianity has seen, on the one hand, a rise in shallow, empty, almost panic-stricken consumerism, and on the other a rise, or re-rise in various ancient, and at the same time, very New Age practices like astrology and fortune-telling. It was this second point that caught the media's attention.
As Archbishop Brady put it: "Consulting horoscopes, astrology, palm reading, tarot cards, recourse to clairvoyance and mediums conceal a desire for power over time and a lack of trust in God's providence. They are the new Irish superstition. Those who put their trust in them or take them seriously are colluding with an illusion, promoting a fiction."
Of course, the first thing a Richard Dawkins would say to Sean Brady is that Christianity itself is "an illusion" and that he is "promoting a fiction", and the proof of this is that he was speaking at a place where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared.
In other words, what Archbishop Sean Brady represents is just a variant of the thing he condemns.
Rather than mount a defence of the supernatural claims of Christianity in the short space left, I'll simply limit myself to pointing out a gigantic qualitative difference between Christianity and the various forms of fortune telling listed by Archbishop Brady.
It is this: Christianity is an ethical system as well as being a religion, and the various forms of fortune telling are not. They offer no ethical guidance whatsoever.
Christians are urged to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ and to try to model their lives on his. That means living for others and not for ourselves. If palm reading, tarot cards, clairvoyance, astrology, etc, have anything to do with morality it is only accidental. They do not urge people to try and live better lives. Instead they offer people a glimpse of the future, of their own future. They are all about the self, not others, and from a strictly religious point of view, they second-guess God.
Anyone who can't tell the difference between an ethical system like Christianity, and a sub-species of narcissism like fortune telling needs to come out from behind their own prejudice and expose themselves, dare one say it, to a little bit of reason. Are you listening, Richard Dawkins?