Pope Benedict XVI recently got in the news again when he cancelled a speech he was due to give at the La Sapienza University in Rome due to protests by professors and students. The protesters objected to having a prominent religious leader giving a speech in a secular and public institution and referenced a previous speech made by the Pope, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, in which he seemed to defend the Inquisition’s verdict against Galileo in 1303, probably the most well-known case of science being persecuted by religion in history.
As far as I can tell, the rector of the university was willing to offer both parties space to voice their respective views, but the Pope decided to cancel instead, which as physicist Marcello Cini, one of the leaders of the protest, noted, was a very smart public relations move on the Pope’s part. The mainstream news coverage of the event sympathizes heavily with the Pope and the popular angle is that the Pope was denied freedom of speech by anti-religious scientists. But from my point of view, it looks like the Pope was willing to speak only if he were the only one allowed to speak, so who’s he to play the freedom of speech card?
This story was spread around a few days ago and got digged. It really is a bit of a non-story though, since it’s based on a Time magazine story that’s dated 7th December 1970. It concerns a case in which a pair of parents in the United States, one an atheist and the other a pantheist, was denied the right to adopt a baby because a judge ruled that since the parents did not believe in a Supreme Being, it would be tantamount to unduly influencing the child and depriving her of the freedom to worship as she sees fit. In any case, as far as I can tell, that ruling was overturned in 1971 in which the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that it was illegal to deny adoption solely on the basis of lack of belief in any religion.
Still, raising this old story did serve to raise public consciousness for a few days about atheists’ rights as the story made the rounds on the internet and on public radio talk shows in the US. Personally, I’ve long found that religious people tend not to accord atheists the same personal belief space that they automatically give to believers of other religions. For example, a Christian instinctively knows that it would be rude to even so much as utter a praise to Jesus in the presence of a Muslim or a Buddhist, but no such consideration is ever afforded to atheists. Yet as a recent special report in The Economist noted, if atheism were considered a religion, it would be the fourth largest religion worldwide.
This is of course because religious people tend to believe that atheists don’t really take their atheism seriously and so are ripe for conversion. This might be true for many atheists and, perhaps even truer for self-proclaimed agnostics, but at the same time, from my observations, many of the religious don’t take their own religious belief particularly seriously either, being religious only as a form of social networking or as taking the path of least resistance.
But for me at least and for others I hope, atheism is a conscious, rational and carefully thought out choice and I dare say that I have spent more time and effort on researching the basis of my beliefs than many religious have spent on theirs. That I think is something that ought to be respected. So if you religiously inclined yourself, keep that in mind the next time you hear someone profess to be an atheist.
I’ve been working through Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle for the past several weeks. With three volumes in total and more than a thousand pages per volume, this is certainly a monumental undertaking. In addition, to even understand what’s going on in the books, I have to make repeated forays to Wikipedia to brush up on my knowledge of 17th and 18th century history. This means that it will be a while before I can post a complete review of the books.
In the meantime, here’s an excerpt from the second book in the cycle, The Confusion, which mocks the Roman Catholic belief in transubstantiation. I suppose that the episode must be fictional, but it makes for a fine example of the writing in the Baroque Cycle, with its attention to historical detail and intricate observations of the scientific, religious, economic, political and social dynamics of the time.
Continue reading Transubstantiation in “The Confusion”
Pope Benedict XVI targets atheists in his second encyclical, the most important papal document possible. The most immediate target is actually the Russian revolution and the suffering it caused. The gist of the Pope’s arguments seems to be that all attempts to make life better on Earth without involving God is doomed to failure as he notes, “A world which has to create its own justice is a world without hope.”
This is a huge slap in the face for atheists of course, or for that matter anyone who believes that human efforts in the here and now to make the world a better place do make a difference, but not unexpected for the Pope. After all, as the Pope, he has to believe that faith in God is a necessary component, even the only component that matters, in the salvation of humanity.
A more pertinent criticism is that the Pope seems to imply that the suffering and “violations of justice” that occurred under communism are typical results of such efforts to improve the world without the involvement of God. This not only ignores the suffering and injustices that occurred directly under the auspices of the Roman Catholic religious authorities including the Crusades, the persecutions of the Huguenots and flirtations with antisemitism, it also discounts the improvements to overall social well-being that occurred in spite of the church’s objections such as a reduction in prejudice against women, a wider acceptance of homosexuality, an increase in the usage of birth control methods and proper family planning and arguably, due to its resistance against the idea of separation of church and state and the idea of individual freedom of conscience, the rise of modern liberal democracies as the most effective and moral form of government.
There are many possible objections to this statement from a philosophical point of view as well, including what would human effort and determination to improve life on Earth mean if none of it ultimately matters except faith in God and what the often vaunted statement that God did indeed give humanity free will mean in this context. More generally, the sheer arrogance of the Pope’s statement makes me wonder, not for the first time, what is, if any, the net contribution of religion to society? The Pope sees that religions now play a smaller role in people’s lives both public and private than in the past and blames the present ills of society on this. I see that the present time offers a higher quality of life and greater freedoms for the average inhabitant of planet Earth than at any other point in human history and if He existed, I’d be inclined to thank God for being born in an era in which his influence is weaker than in any previous one.
Ordinarily, I try not to make this blog into a “today on QT3” sort of thing, but at times something comes up that’s too interesting and relevant to my own interests to ignore.
A poster on QT3 recently linked to an article by Dinesh D’Souza attacking atheism based on Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Admittedly, the argument does not constitute an affirmation of theism. It merely seeks to demonstrate what D’Souza considers to be a failing of atheism. Essentially, D’Souza argues that, as Kant pointed out, the province of reason is limited to the things that we can perceive and to the things as we can perceive them. This means that we have no way of knowing what Kant calls the noumena, the things as they are in themselves, unfiltered by the limitations of human perception, and to D’Souza this opens to door to religious faith.
Within hours of the original post however, QT3 member Hawkeye Fierce posted an excellent response:
Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason has always seemed like a lot of mental masturbation to me. He says that the capacities of reason are limited because our perception is limited, and that there could exist phenomena that we are simply incapable of perceiving in any way. I suppose that could be true, but if we are unable to perceive these phenomena, I don’t see how it follows that we should act any differently. Reality may be bigger than we can perceive, but if the part that we can’t see can’t actually affect us, it may as well not exist. And if it can affect us, well then it’s no longer imperceptible. Also, without experiential information, all theories about what the imperceptible universe is like are equally valid and invalid, so there’s no reason to pick one over the other.
I can really put it no better than the above. D’Souza writes that he tried to get a rebuttal from Daniel Dennett but didn’t get a satisfactory response. This seems like a pretty good response to me.