For aspiring-to-be-rational heathens like myself, texts such as Pope Benedict’s Christmas address to the Roman Curia are often used as target practice for sharpening our critical thinking skills and BS radars. How easy it is to take a sentence like, “Only faith gives me the conviction: it is good that I exist,” and reply, “Speak for yourself, mate.”
That’s not a good start. It’s one of those “statements we doubt were ever stated” items. I don’t think it’s true that for people like Julian, texts like the pope’s Xmas chat are often used as target practice for sharpening our critical thinking skills. I think that’s a covert dig at Those Other Atheists disguised as a dig at people like himself. I think few aspirers-to-be-rational really think that papal chats are useful for sharpening critical thinking skills, because (as Julian promptly says) it’s too easy. I think atheists and other critics take the time to contradict the pope for other reasons, the chief of which is that he’s hardly an obscure figure that no one pays any attention to.
But if we look more charitably, the pope’s speech provides an important insight into the limits of rationality.
But why should we look “more charitably” at the pope’s speech? The pope is not giving a paper in a seminar, the pope is The Pope. He’s talking the usual churchy bullshit, for churchy reasons, and I don’t see why his talks should be read “more charitably” when there are already millions of people who read them obediently, unquestioningly, slavishly. They’re not philosophical argumentation, they’re doctrinal recitation. Why should they be read extra charitably? Fairly, accurately, honestly, yes, but why more charitably? Would it make sense to read the speeches of, say, Robert Mugabe more charitably? Charitably rather than fairly and honestly? Is it ever a good idea to read the discourse of powerful men who have an agenda more charitably? I don’t think it is.
The first key sentence is, “Only if God accepts me, and I become convinced of this, do I know definitively: it is good that I exist.” On this, I think he is pretty much right. Of course secular humanists believe that it is good that human beings exist. But catch one on a bad day and she’ll probably admit the world is a pretty screwed up place and it isn’t obvious that it would have been better if our particular cosmic accident hadn’t happened. Believe a good God created us, however, then although it’s pushing things to say you “know definitively” (not much humility about human limitations in that assertion), your belief that it is good we are here is nearly as strong as your belief in the creator.
Why? I don’t see it. I don’t see why “God” isn’t vulnerable to the same thoughts as those the secular humanist had. The world is still screwed up; if a god created it that way that’s more scary than one that turned out that way, not less.
I can see it as a protective or comforting illusion that works provided you don’t think about it…But the issue is already thinking about it: the issue is what the secular humanist will admit on a bad day, which implies “after thinking about it in that light.” So I think the claim is at least overstated. (And I’m not being finicky. It’s hardly a secret that the idea of a good god is always vulnerable to how we think on bad days.)
This leads to the second key sentence: “Where doubt over God becomes prevalent, then doubt over humanity follows inevitably.” Again, I think he is right. Humanism is faced with the bind that its existence depends on maintaining a tension between finding what is good and worth celebrating in the human and having the intellectual integrity to see our species warts and all, which means being open to the possibility that we are not as great as we’d like to think we are. No self-respecting humanist can fail to have “doubt over humanity”, and although that need not occlude all the light, it is a dark cloud we have to live under.
But as before, the same thing applies to god, only more so, because god is supposed to be better. God is always vulnerable to the thought “humans can be absolutely horrible – but god made us that way – what a horrible thing to do.” As Hitchens liked to say, god made us sick and commanded us to be well. There’s a dark cloud to live under, if you like.