Pope Benedict challenges all superstitions other than his own

In a previous post, I said that when religions compete with others for adherents, they do not resort to evidence because no religion can produce any. Hence they have to resort to emotional appeals, scaring people that if they don’t believe in their god, awful things will happen to them, but if they believe, they will be rewarded in the next life or the afterlife, in the form of heaven or other goodies.

So basically, it is a competition that tests which religion has the best combination of fear and bribes to achieve its goal of increasing market share. Christianity, for example, has had a good run by scaring the daylights out of people with awful visions of hell and what happens on judgment day to people who have not accepted Jesus, and then promising a quickie salvation from that awful fate if only they say the magic words “I accept Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior.”

During his recent visit to Africa, Pope Benedict XVI stirred up a controversy by opposing the use of condoms to fight the spread of AIDS, saying that using condoms might make the problem worse. His argument is that the only surefire way to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases is to practice strict monogamy and that condoms might make people think that it is safe to have sex with more than one partner. He did not cite (as far as I know) any medical studies to the effect that condom use resulted in the increased spread of HIV and other diseases.

The Daily Show had some fun with the Pope’s comments.

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart M – Th 11p / 10c
Pope Benedict XVI on the HIV Crisis
Daily Show Full Episodes Important Things w/ Demetri Martin Political Humor

But lost in that controversy is that the Pope tried a new tack in dealing with competition from other religions. Africa (and the developing world in general) is important to the future of the Catholic Church since their numbers in Europe and North America are dwindling. But the church on that continent is facing competition from Islam and evangelical forms of Christianity, such as Pentecostal and other charismatic movements.

In trying to combat this, the Pope tried appealing to reason. He said that he was in Africa to warn of the “growing influence of superstitious forms of religion” (my italics). In Angola, he urged his followers to reach out to those who believe in “witchcraft and spirits”.

When I read that, I was impressed with the sheer brazenness of the Pope’s statements. To imply that Catholicism is not a form of superstition but that other religious beliefs are requires a considerable ability of self-deception. It seems that the Pope has forgotten that proverbial warning addressed to those who live glass houses. After all, in his book The God Delusion (p. 178), Richard Dawkins points out that being a good Catholic involves believing the following:

  • In the time of the ancestors, a man was born to a virgin mother with no biological father being involved.
  • The same fatherless man called out to a friend called Lazarus, who had been dead long enough to stink, and Lazarus came back to life.
  • The fatherless man himself came alive after being dead and buried three days.
  • Forty days later, the fatherless man went to the top of a hill and then disappeared bodily in to the sky.
  • If you murmur thoughts privately in your head, the fatherless man, and his ‘father’ (who is also himself) will hear your thoughts and may act upon them. He is simultaneously able to hear the thoughts of everybody else in the world.
  • If you do something bad, or something good, the same fatherless man sees all, even if nobody else does. You may be rewarded or punished accordingly, including after your death.
  • The fatherless man’s virgin mother never died but ‘ascended’ bodily into heaven.
  • Bread and wine, if blessed by a priest (who must have testicles), ‘become’ the body and blood of the fatherless man.

If all these things do not constitute superstitions, then what does? As I have argued before, so-called mainstream religions act as gateways to more extreme forms of belief because they assert that belief in the supernatural, without any supporting evidence, is rational. Once you concede that, you cannot credibly challenge witchcraft, Satanism, spoon bending, and the like. The Pope would be hard pressed to explain why putting spells on others is a more superstitious practice than praying to god to intervene in the laws of nature.

Saying that he wants to combat superstitious beliefs is an interesting rhetorical development by the Pope but I am not sure it is wise. He may be able to get away with it because people are not likely to ask him why he thinks Pentecostalism is superstition while Catholicism is not. Journalists and other people who interview Popes tend to treat them as if they are to be venerated, rather than as the CEO of a huge, secretive, and lucrative business trying to increase market share and revenues, which is what a Pope really is.

I hope the leaders of the other religions being denigrated as superstitions by the Pope will take umbrage and challenge the Pope to show why his religion is less superstitious than theirs. I would love to see such a public discussion take place among the leaders of the world’s religions. But I fear that all religious leaders know that they all lose by having an open discussion on the relative rationality of their competing faiths. Hence they will bite their tongues, unfortunately.

The Pope should stick to the traditional Catholic claim to superiority that he is #1 because the Bible says that Jesus gave Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven, and since he is Peter’s heir, by extension the Catholic Church is the way to get to god. That highly dubious claim to divine authority has worked fairly well so far. He should steer clear of talking about the evils of superstitious beliefs.

POST SCRIPT: Avoiding waste

One suspects that an important basis of the Pope’s opposition to condom use is because of the church’s attitude that sex for any reason other than procreation is a bad thing, and so any ‘artificial’ measures taken to prevent the fusing of a sperm with an egg must be rejected.

Monty Python’s Meaning of Life explains that doctrine in song.


  1. says

    I dont think that anyone can give you correct answer for these questions. You all have probably asked yourself these questions many times throughout your lifetime. These are one of the hardest questions that everyone tries to find answer. But still, most people will never find the answer.

  2. AS says

    In the history of colonialism, specifically with missionaires, the “civilizing mission” was in a large part fueled by finding the most extreme, superstitious, and tradition-based portions of existing African religions and contrasting it with the best of Christianity while ignoring the Old and New Testament stories that can be equally scary. Somehow because the Christian narrative was written down while many local African religions weren’t, it gave it a greater legitimacy in the eyes of the colonizers. Furthermore, seeing Africans as superstitious, crazed, primitive people helped justify the barbarism and economic exploitation. (Note the difference between colonial treatments in Africa and in places like India -- it is possible that the much better treatment of Indians could have been related to the fact that Hinduism and Islam bare a greater superficial resemblence to Christianity.)

    It is sad that these attitidues still have not changed.

  3. NS says

    I don’t know about other religions, but coming from a family with Roman Catholic background I know that Christianity is very intolerant to other religions (and really to any ideas other than their own). That may be because Catholic Church was set up as a political power in first place and ruled most of the Europe for centuries. That comes natural in theocracy. Having in mind that their traditions remain the same since they were founded, the statements of the Pope aren’t that surprising.

    Nevertheless, you can’t live in today’s world as if it’s still the Middle Ages. Adapt or disappear -- their right to choose.

  4. says

    Mano wrote, “In Angola, he urged his followers to reach out to those who believe in “witchcraft and spirits”.

    It seems the Pope has forgotten that Christianity also teaches people to “believe” in witchcraft and spirits. It’s just that such things are feared as evil. The Old Testament, afterall, commands the murder of witches.

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