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Feb 03 2006

Is the Pope an atheist?

Let me begin by saying that this question is not aimed at the current Pope. I have no reason to believe that the present Pope is any less religious than his predecessors and, for all I know, may be the most pious of all the Popes. My question is really more general and deals with my suspicion that you are likely to find a high level of atheism amongst clergy and theologians, with the levels getting higher the more senior those people are.

The reason I pose the question is that it seems to me that the more one is steeped in religious matters and thinks about issues of doctrine, the more likely that one becomes an atheist. So my question would apply to all priests, rabbis, ayatollahs, mullahs, swamis, monks, theologians, and other religious scholars. Are you more likely to find atheists among those groups than in the general population? This is, of course, a question for which one can obtain an empirical answer. You could simply survey such people and report the results. The obvious catch is that one is unlikely to get an honest answer. Saying you are an atheist is probably a bad career move for clerics.

My belief that most people intimately involved with religion are likely to be atheists may seem to be counter-intuitive. After all, we associate these people with being more religious than the average person, not less. But the reasons for thinking so arise from looking at the usual factors that lead people to atheism.

Most people begin life growing up in religious homes and have some kinds of religious belief as children. So what makes some of them become atheists?

One factor has to be personal experiences of seemingly unjustified tragedy. To have loved ones, people who by any measure lived good and decent lives, suffer and perhaps die can shake the faith of some. But most ordinary people have the good fortune to usually experience just a very few such things personally. In such cases, one’s faith may be shaken but not broken. For some, it may even be an occasion to reinforce one’s faith as a coping mechanism.

But if many of one’s friends and relatives and acquaintances keep falling victim to suffering and illness and death, then you might begin to increasingly question god’s purpose and existence. And this is what happens to priests. They are constantly called upon to deal with this kind of problem. When religious people fall very sick or are the victims of tragedy, they immediately tend to call for the priest for support and prayer. So priests are constantly having to deal with the kinds of questions of meaning that the rest of us may have to deal with only a very few times in our lives. That must be tough to handle for any thoughtful person.

The second issue is that priests have studied theology and the origins of their religious texts more than other people. Hence they know (or must strongly suspect) that these documents are human creations with a somewhat dubious history. For example, the documentary The God Who Wasn’t There takes direct aim at the historical evidence for Jesus’ existence and finds it weak. Religious scholars know that the claim to textual infallibility is highly weak. Most lay people rarely think about these things but clergy cannot avoid it. They have to deal with these arguments and convince themselves that they can still believe what the Bible says. That cannot be easy.

Similarly most lay people do not really have to confront on a regular basis the major existential questions of meaning. Why are we here? What is our purpose? We also do not have to deal with, on a daily basis, knotty theological problems such as (for Christianity) the virgin birth, the nature of the Trinity, and the resurrection, not to mention all the other problems caused by stories in the Bible. But people are always asking priests to explain away these things to them, so priests cannot avoid repeatedly dealing with such questions, and even more troubling, have to come up with explanations that can overcome the questioner’s skepticism.

In the film Million Dollar Baby, the Clint Eastwood character goes to mass every morning, waits for the priest after service, and then pops a theological curve ball at him, to the priest’s increasing exasperation. Questions that may only occasionally and passingly occur to lay people (such as why god would be so petty and vengeful to use bears to attack forty two children who merely called his prophet Elisha “baldy”) are constantly being asked of priests. What are occasional questions for us are asked of priests all the time. In a more extreme case, recently a lawsuit was filed by an atheist against a priest asking him to prove that Jesus existed. One can imagine that dealing with such things would wear them down

The final reason for my suspicion is that those priests who have risen in the hierarchy tend to be intellectuals and scholars. Such people have a natural tendency to try and tie ideas together, to make them internally consistent and coherent. Hence they are more likely to study other religions to see what commonalities and differences exist, and to try and reconcile religion with science. But that kind of thinking runs the great risk (if you are religious) of arriving at the conclusion that god does not exist, that all religions are wrong, and that the only worldview without irreconcilable contradictions is the atheistic one.

It is possible that the truly devout priest might develop a much stronger belief and faith because he or she needs it to overcome all these doubt-generating issues that are being constantly thrown at them. But apart from such exceptions, I hypothesize that priests are more likely to be atheists than the population at large, with the probabilities rising as one goes to the higher ranks of the clergy. Thus my question as to whether the Pope is an atheist. It is too bad that one cannot check this out.

In a previous post, I spoke about the fact that if more and more atheists are public about their beliefs, the climate might change since others will realize that atheists are all around them, living normal lives, and are not crazed, amoral, baby-eating, serial killers.

As examples, when I mentioned to a very religious cousin that I had become an atheist, she confessed that she too often wonders if there is any thing after this life and is reconciled to the fact that there may not be. A colleague at the university said that after he told people that he was an atheist, he was surprised at the number who said that they were too.

Maybe there is a potential snowball effect here. If enough people come out and say what they truly believe, then many more may recognize that they actually have been closet atheists all along, and had simply been denying it out of habit and convention or for fear of what others might think.

Who knows, it might reach a stage when so many people have openly said that they are atheists that even the Pope is comfortable coming out.

POST SCRIPT: Another religious furor over symbolism

In a recent post, I expressed bafflement as to why some religious people get so upset at perceived slights aimed at their religion. Now a full-blown international incident has been created by the publication of cartoons (first in Denmark and then in France) that allegedly disrespect the Prophet Mohammed.

The BBC reports “In diplomatic protests, Syria and Saudi Arabia have recalled their ambassadors to Denmark, and Libya has closed its embassy in Copenhagen.” Boycotts are being threatened. All this fuss over cartoons? This is as silly as the so-called ‘war on Christmas’ in the US and its threats to boycott stores whose employees did not say “Merry Christmas.”.

In response, in order to defend speech rights, other newspapers in Europe have reprinted the cartoons. “The front page of France Soir on Wednesday carried the headline “Yes, We Have the Right to Caricature God” and a cartoon of Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim and Christian gods floating on a cloud.”

People who make sweeping generalizations about religions or go out of their way to say nasty things about them may be not being very polite and sensitive. But why do religious people care what others think about their religion? Isn’t their faith strong enough to withstand ridicule?

In general I tend to be a first amendment absolutist and to oppose hate speech codes and other policies that try to stifle speech. People should be allowed to say obnoxious things if they want to as long as they are not disruptive or actually threatening other people with harm or creating a real and palpable danger of harm to others or all the other exceptions that the courts have ruled is consistent with first amendment rights.

The rest of us should learn to just ignore such people if we don’t like what they are saying.

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