Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Pope Benedict XVI and Atheism

On Friday, the Pope released a 75 page encyclical, "an appeal to a pessimistic world to find strength in Christian hope." according to Reuters. The encyclical has perturbed some who see it as an attack on atheism. Those people are pretty much absolutely wrong.

The critical (and much criticized) passages start around section 42 of the Pope's missive. To quote:

The atheism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is—in its origins and aims—a type of moralism: a protest against the injustices of the world and of world history. A world marked by so much injustice, innocent suffering, and cynicism of power cannot be the work of a good God...It is for the sake of morality that this God has to be contested.
Pope Benedict goes on to say that, "A world which has to create its own justice is a world without hope." This is because, "No one and nothing can answer for centuries of suffering."

How can an atheist really dispute what the Pope is saying here? They can't just by pointing out that religion, too, has produced lots of suffering. For look at Benedict's words: he refers to centuries of suffering -- suffering that goes beyond Nazis and Communists and all the other 20th century boogymen.

He must be including religious-inspired violence, the same violence that some atheists suggest is at least one reason to turn one's back on organized religion, not to mention deny the existence of God.

As Benedict also observes,
If technical progress is not matched by corresponding progress in man's ethical formation, in man's inner growth, then it is not progress at all, but a threat for man and for the world...Science can contribute greatly to making the world and mankind more human. Yet it can also destroy mankind and the world unless it is steered by forces that lie outside it.
Can a philosophically-minded atheist really deny that science, in itself, cannot provide ethical guidance? Of course it can't: science deals with facts; ethics -- decision-making -- requires a consideration of value. Here the Pope is doing nothing more than affirming the is/ought distinction.

The question, then, is where do our "oughts" come from? Benedict is not claiming humans can't come up with ethical codes, and direct their behavior accordingly. He is claiming that human morality cannot make up for all the suffering humans have and will continue to cause. Those centuries of suffering are a weight hanging over all of us, not only a record of what we've done, but a dark prophecy of what we will do, as science increases our power.

He's certainly not claiming that all atheists are immoral or anything like that. But no human-created morality can ease the burden the past places on us (and here I am not suggesting -- nor is Benedict, I think -- that there is any other kind of morality except the human created.) Placed against that burden, no human-created morality can establish hope, because no matter how enlightened that morality is, our history shows that we will inevitably fail to live up to it.

For Benedict, this is why:
Man's great, true hope which holds firm in spite of all disappointments can only be God, God who has loved us and who continues to love us "to the end," until all "is accomplished"
I'm not sure about that part. And I'm not sure a reason for optimism is a good justification for believing in God. If the alternatives are hopelessness without God, on one hand, and hopefulness with God, on the other, we still don't have an argument for the existence of God. We still don't have any reason not to be an atheist.

But perhaps Benedict is only making the case that these really are our only alternatives. I can buy that. I don't really want to buy it, but I try not to let my wants dictate my beliefs.

[Update: Benedict's encyclical reminds me greatly of Walter Miller's book, A Canticle for Leibowitz, one of my favorite books. Indeed, I think Benedict and Miller are pretty much on the same page: Benedict's encyclical has the same theme as revealed in the cyclical nature of Miller's book.]

[Update 2: Check here for a typical reaction on an atheist forum. All of them seem to be reacting to a summary of the encylical rather than the text itself. I think I'll post more about this later.]

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