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Aug 23 2011

I’ve got your amnesia right here

I try, at all times, to be an introspective person. Because of the kind of person I am – physically imposing and unabashedly forthright in expressing my opinion – I have a tendency to overwhelm other people in conversation. I don’t do this intentionally, it’s simply a byproduct of who I am. However, because of this fact I am particularly susceptible to a particularly pernicious type of confirmation bias, wherein people who disagree with me either don’t speak up because they’re intimidated, or are shouted into silence by the force of my response. My appeals to friends and colleagues to challenge me when I do this are often unheeded, and as a result I can get a false impression that people agree with me more often than they actually do. I constantly struggle to monitor my own behaviour and demeanour, particularly when I am defending a topic I am passionate about.

This kind of introspective self-criticism is, I think, a critical component of being an intellectually honest advocate of a position. The zeal with which I practice this behaviour on myself has, unfortunately, left me with little patience for hypocrisy. There is perhaps no greater font of hypocrisy in the world today than that which finds its home in St. Peter’s Basilica:

Pope Benedict XVI encouraged thousands of young people gathered for World Youth Day in Spain to avoid temptation and non-believers who think they are ‘god.’

“There are many that, believing they are god, gods, think they have no need for any roots or foundations other than themselves, they would like to decide for themselves what is true or isn’t, what is right and wrong, what’s just and unjust, decide who deserves to live and who can be sacrificed for other preferences, taking a step in the direction of chance, without a fixed path, allowing themselves to be taken by the pulse of each moment, these temptations are always there, it’s important not to succumb to them,” the Pope said during his first speech to the pilgrims.

“Taking a step in the direction of chance, without a fixed path, allowing themselves to be taken by the pulse of each moment, these temptations are always there, it’s important not to succumb to them.”

The kind of unbelievable hubris and lack of self-awareness it takes for a man who claims to speak directly for YahwAlladdha and issues edicts that are, by his own claim, infallible – for this kind of person to go around telling others not to succumb to the temptation to think that they are god is the most shocking and frankly ridiculous type of hypocrisy possible. Beyond simply being rank dishonesty and a complete failure to recognize one’s own faults, it is ethically disgusting for someone with as much power as the Pope has to use that pulpit to encourage people not to think for themselves.

But it doesn’t stop there:

[The Pope] said that the continent must take into account ethical considerations that look out for the common good and added that he understood the desperation felt because of today’s economic uncertainties. ”The economy doesn’t function with market self-regulation, but needs an ethical rationale to work for mankind,” he told reporters traveling aboard the papal plane. ”Man must be at the centre of the economy, and the economy cannot be measured only by maximisation of profit but rather according to the common good.”

Now it so happens that I agree with the Pope in this particular case – our financial system’s pursuit of profit at all costs must be tempered by a strong regulatory climate to ensure that the human beings that make up the economy are protected from exploitation. However, for someone who is the head of an organization that is guilty of some of the most egregious ethical violations in the history of civilization to advocate the importance of morality and care for human beings makes one’s head spin in a most unpleasant fashion. It would be like hearing Robert Mugabe (that greasy pig-fucker) opine on the importance of transparency in government – yeah he’s right, but completely unqualified to offer an opinion.

Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the massive protests over the amount that the Spanish government, already reeling from financial hardships of its own, has spent on bringing the Pope to Spain to say things that he could have simply put on his Twitter feed.

Perhaps most gallingly of all, to me personally at least, was this statement:

Benedict told them their decisions to dedicate their lives to their faith was a potent message in today’s increasingly secular world. ”This is all the more important today when we see a certain eclipse of God taking place, a kind of amnesia which albeit not an outright rejection of Christianity is nonetheless a denial of the treasure of our faith, a denial that could lead to the loss of our deepest identity,” he said. Benedict’s main priority as Pope has been to try to reawaken Christianity in places like Spain, a once staunchly Catholic country that has drifted far from its pious roots.

Humankind is, for the first time in our history, on the verge of throwing off the chains of superstition and fear that has been a millstone around our collective necks since we climbed down from the trees. Part of this burgeoning emancipation is the rejection of the boogie man of religious faith – the willing suspension of our critical faculties when some decrepit ‘holy man’ mutters some syllables about some bit of supernatural nonsense or other. Every time we have had the courage to pull the veil from our eyes and look at the world with vision unclouded by faith, we have been able to discover something new about phenomena that were previously consigned to the label of ‘mystery’. To be sure, not every such advancement has been positive, and we have made many mistakes. However, the solution to those mistakes is emphatically not to simply refuse to examine the world. To exhort mankind to value faith is to point out how comfortable and reassuring those chains were when we were manacled to the yoke of religion.

I am overjoyed that we are denying such ‘treasures’, and I hope you are too.

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8 comments

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  1. 1
    Scary Fundamentalist

    Ah, yes, Catholicism… the low-hanging fruit for anti-theists everywhere.

  2. 2
    Crommunist

    :P

    Okay, find me some fruit that’s more of a challenge. I just report them as they come to me.

  3. 3
    Scary Fundamentalist

    Any bloated hierarchical system with so much history is easy to paint as hypocritical because there are so many agents past and present for which the current spokesperson(s) cannot possibly account for nor amend. In addition, the current administration is forced to double down on past mistakes to avoid the perception of fallibility. Add to it the attempts over the years to dominate affairs of state, and you see many of the same symptoms as any totalitarian structure. You are completely correct in your assessment of Ratzinger’s hypocrisy in his statement about humans taking on the mantle of “gods”, but over 500 million Protestants (and a great many Catholics) would say the same thing.

    Since anti-theists stand for nothing together save the deconstruction and denigration of something else, they cannot ever be held to criticism en masse like Catholics (and most other religions) are subject to. To wit, Christianity is still held in derision for the Crusades and colonialism, and yet atheists can successfully deflect any ideological culpability for the massacres during the French and Bolshevik revolutions.

    Anti-theists, together with other atheists and agnostics can only be held to this type scorn and ridicule if they self-contradict or are internally inconsistent – which is the standard to which I challenge you to measure religious figures and their dogma. With Catholicism, this is still like shooting fish in a barrel. Even mainstream Christianity is rife with compromise and contradictions, and many of their leaders could write the book on their own hypocrisy. But in doing so, you just might be able to cut through the chaff that seeks to profit from man’s undeniable need for spirituality and meaning, and perhaps discover that faith (not necessarily piety) just might be more emancipatory than you think.

  4. 4
    Crommunist

    Your point about totalitarianism is well taken. You are correct in identifying the absolute power of the RCC as the proximate cause of its hypocrisy. My point, or at least the one I was trying to make, is that such hypocrisy requires a lack of self-criticism that is provided in abundance by faith. One’s belief in her/his righteousness that is not based on any kind of ethical reasoning or discursive philosophy, but instead on a rigid and unrelenting conviction that her/his actions are justified by a non-demonstrable supernatural entity is a recipe for disaster, and a powerful armor against accusations of wrongdoing. But, as I said, I don’t know why religion and hypocrisy seem to go together so frequently – lack of self-criticism is just one potential explanation.

    I hope you are not attempting to jiu-jitsu me into a position whereby I condemn “religion” but praise “faith”. Faith (by which I emphatically do not mean trust) is the complete abdication of human reason. Articles of faith cannot be challenged because of how easy they are excused by “ah, you’ve just got to have faith.” It is the ridiculous whinging of a spoiled child whose parents will not set a place at the table for her imaginary friend. All ideas – no matter how ‘sacred’ – should be challenged and forced to demonstrate their validity. Our robust discussions of our closely-held beliefs are evidence to me that we both agree with this principle. As far as ‘spirituality’ goes, I have a 1000-word response for that too.

  5. 5
    eclectic squire

    “Robert Mugabe (that greasy pig-fucker)”

    Thanks for the belly laugh Ian; I needed that after coping with a psycho who fortunately has taken himself off of MeetUp.
    I am amazed that the College of Cardinals selected Ratzinger to succeed Pope John Paul, it’s not like they didn’t know about his rather extreme views. Presumably they thought a hardliner would bring people back to the RCC, instead I think he is driving them away. Considering all the turmoil in the world, a kind reasonable Pope would at least comfort the poor, downtrodden faithful. Instead we have this shill for the Congregation of the Faith (the RCC Gestapo) haranguing those suffering from the criminal excesses of unregulated capitalism. On the other hand Ratzinger’s zeal is perhaps helping RC’s think critically about their religion and thus they are rejecting it.

  6. 6
    Jadehawk

    there’s something… “precious” about a man living in a palace funded by contributions of often quite poor people talking about the evils of economic inequality. I mean, I don’t see the church voluntarily giving up on the taxes they collect in certain European countries (in addition to the collection-plate on Sunday) to help out the economies of Europe

  7. 7
    Scary Fundamentalist

    No, I’m not trying to jiu-jitsu you into The Shack. If anything, faith without religion is even more deceptive than false religion; Ratzinger, in my opinion, is correct (in a black-kettle sort of way) in that it makes individuals into gods.

    I would suggest that the relationship is actually between power and hypocrisy; an appeal to faith/trust (religious or not) is simply an easier way to gain and hold that power than through an appeal to emotion, an appeal to force, or an appeal to reason.

    I’d challenge your definition of the word “faith’ which seems to be colored by atheist chest-puffing. We could put “faith” and “trust” on a spectrum by which one pole is the complete absence (or even intentional abdication) of any reason, and the other pole is the absolute dependence on continued and complete verification. Your trust in science may be well be continually verified, but for many others, they hold to it less out of personal experience and verification. My point is, that you wouldn’t expect someone who believes in science sheerly out of peer pressure (or personal gain – Ratzinger) to be an adequate defender of it. It would be dishonest to denigrate science only on the inability of such a person to defend it.

    Having read the Bible, you would know of many references exhorting believers to verify with their senses and capacity to reason. “Taste and see that the Lord is good”, or consider Paul’s repeated appeals to judge his words by their internal and external consistency. Prophets were shunned if they could not be verified (a prediction does not come true). No, these are not comparable to modern philosophical exploration or scientific methods, but it is incorrect to state that, at least for the Christian religion, the application of reason is proscribed.

  8. 8
    Crommunist

    “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” That’s from Paul. It is not belief guided by evidence, it is exactly as I say – belief in the absence of evidence. Belief guided by evidence is completely rational, and if that’s your definition of faith then while you’re technically wrong, we can still dance together. However, that precludes any kind of belief in a god that is by definition supernatural. There can never be any evidence of the existence of a god if it is purely supernatural. If it interacts with the material world, then there should be evidence of such interaction. There is no evidence, and therefore there ought to be no faith (under your definition). Whether or not someone can defend their position isn’t important in this case – it’s whether or not they can demonstrate the truth of it. That doesn’t require rhetorical skill – only material evidence.

    Internal consistency is a horrible standard to judge something by. There are any number of things that are internally consistent but externally false. Racial supremacy is internally consistent, but externally it fails the test of observational accuracy. That should be our standard – not whether or not it agrees with itself. Even if that were the standard, however, the concept of Yahweh is not internally consistent, nor is any belief system based on Him as the figurehead. Faith is not internally consistent, since people are happy to have faith in Yahweh, but pooh-pooh the idea of Allah or Vishnu or Thor, about whom the exact claims could be (and often are) made.

    Re: “application of reason” – I had this same conversation with my father once. Christian theology does incorporate reason, and yes there are multiple exhortations both Biblically and extrabiblically to use reason to guide faith. HOWEVER, that only happens after one takes the position that a god exists, and has certain properties. This is a fundamentally unreasonable position – the truth of the axioms should be tested first, lest you end up with a house built on sand (to use one of my favourite Biblical passages). The sheer number of assumptions you have to make, uninformed by evidence, to reach even the surface of application of reason to Christian theology is staggering.

    On a completely unrelated note, apparently LinkedIn wants us to be friends. Considering that my LinkedIn profile is connected to my work e-mail and not my personal one, I am a bit buffaloed by that one.

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