The Saint In St. Valentine’s Day

Today Americans mark “Valentine’s Day” — a day for lovers throughout the land.  At one point, however, February 14 was celebrated at St. Valentine’s Day.

Who was the person who inspired a day that is a favorite of card makers, florists, jewelers, and candy companies?  When you’ve got a question about saints, you logically turn to Catholic websites like Catholic Online — whose website posting on St. Valentine, ironically, features a 1-800flowers.com banner ad that says “Wow her this Valentine’s.”

According to the website, nobody knows for sure who St. Valentine was, or even how many Valentines there were.  The authorities believe there was at least one such person, however, because archaeologists have uncovered an ancient church and catacomb dedicated to him.  The prevailing view seems to be that he was a Roman priest named Valentinus who was martyred during the reign of Claudius the Goth; February the 14th was identified as the official date of his martyrdom by papal decree in 496 A.D.

Valentinus is said to have helped persecuted Christians, married couples in outlawed Christian ceremonies, and refused to renounce his faith when he was caught.  Like most early saints, he met a grisly end — he was beaten and stoned, then beheaded.  Before that happened, however, he is supposed to have cured his jailer’s daughter of blindness and then sent her a note saying “from your Valentine.”

St. Valentine is the patron saint of love, lovers, engaged couples, and happy marriages — and also of epilepsy, plague, bee keepers, fainting, travelers, and young people.  He apparently was a busy guy with broad-ranging interests before he lost his head.

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Predicting The Extinction Of Religion

The BBC has an interesting article on the efforts of scientists to predict the extinction of religion in certain countries.  The scientific study considers the number of people who indicate no religious affiliation in census data and then seeks to identify the “social motives” behind being a religious person.  The study predicts that religious faith will die out in Australia, Austria, Canada, The Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and Switzerland.  (Ireland?  Really?)

The scientists apply a “nonlinear dynamics” model that seeks to measure and predict the social and utilitarian value of putting yourself in the “non-religious” category.  As one scientist explained, the concept of nonlinear dynamics “posits that social groups that have more members are going to be more attractive to join, and it posits that social groups have a social status or utility.”  Nonlinear dynamics has previously been used by scientists to predict the death of certain spoken languages, where individuals have to decide between a language that is spoken only by a shrinking pool of participants and learning a more popular alternative.

I think the scientists may have missed the boat on this one.  To be sure, religions and languages both have a cultural element, but for many religious people their belief is rooted much more deeply.  Adherents to the world’s various religions, after all, are motivated at least in part by faith.  If joining the larger social group was all there was to it, history would not reveal such a long and bloody list of religious martyrs who were burned at the stake, stoned, and tortured rather than repudiate their beliefs.