Yesterday the Pope reminded us why we atheists just can’t resist the cute and cuddly fellow by releasing his latest encyclical (a sort of really, really long sermon in the form of a letter) on the subject of hope.
The linked article makes far too much of its prominence, but along the way, he takes some time to toss some love our way, wagging a finger at daring to think that we could ever get along without believing in his particular ideology. I know many Catholics find profound meaning in the Pope’s writings, and if I believed what they believed, can appreciate the appeal. The job of a good sermon is to invigorate and challenge readers with a new perspective on an old theology, and by the time you become Pope, you’d better have gotten pretty darn decent at this sort of thing.
But, because I don’t believe, and because the Pope and many of his fans are apparently incapable of the same sort of reciprocal empathy, when the guy tries to turn to moral philosophy and contest with the reality of atheism, the result is a childish mess of logical fallacy and clumsy slander.
In this sense it is true that anyone who does not know God, even though he may entertain all kinds of hopes, is ultimately without hope, without the great hope that sustains the whole of life (cf. Eph 2:12).
Yes yes, without your particular understanding of love or hope, we can’t really love or hope. We get it. We don’t buy it. And it certainly doesn’t make us respect you very much, or sympathetic to complaining about big bad atheist critics of religion.
Avid Catholic Mark Shea is simply elated by this sort of stuff though. I wish I could better understand why, apart from the tribalism. While Shea (and perhaps the Pope) has a point insofar as he argues that attempts to force someone’s idea of heaven on earth lead to hell on earth, I’m not particularly sure why either of them think this is a good argument against either 1) improving life for humanity in general or 2) arguing against atheism.
Yes, movements which try to radically change society all at once according to some particular dogmatic ideology are probably going to kill a lot of people along the way, particularly when they are led by maniacal dictators, drug addicts, and cackling supervillian psuedoscientists. But I’m not sure what that really proves exactly insofar as supporting the Pope’s claim that without faith and hope in some elaborate story about God, we can’t have hope or substantially improve our governments, communities, or moral life. In fact, the long trend of human history has been exactly that: a steady improvement in both the quantity and quality of human life as well as a refinement of the human political and moral conscience that was simply unimagined in Christ’s day or before. And, ironically, it’s been done with people like Mark Shea kicking and screaming that everything is totally falling into amoral ruin all along the way.
It can and has been done, and will continue to be done. How it is done matters a great deal, of course, as does what. But this backhanded pox on progress seems entirely too eager to change the subject with Godwinizing gambits. Is the fact that Nazis (primarily theists) and Communists (primarily atheists) wreaked mechanized havoc in the service of some crazy anti-enlightenment ideologies really particularly telling? Is it any sort of good reason not to continue to object to the sort of immorality and misery we find in the world?
No, and in fact precisely such moral objections were and are necessary to fight those very dictators and other evils, regardless of whether that moral outrage came from theist beliefs or just human empathy and ethical values. So this whole avenue seems to be one giant non-sequitur: an act of misdirection in the face of arguments that the Pope doesn’t seem to want to face down directly or honestly. The argument is about as sophisticated as trying to argue that because poorly tested and proscribed medicines like thalidomide once wreaked terrible havoc that all drugs (or even thalidomide itself, actually) are ultimately useless and only prayer, or homeopathy, or whatever else you are pimping is the one and only true medicine.
If you want to argue that your ideology has the goods on stuff like hope like none other, okay. But don’t try to do it in such a cheap and lazy way.
And hey, as a pitch for my form of hope, let me point out that things like democracy, indoor plumbing, synthetic insulin, comics, the end of slavery, and even religious freedom are all human hopes and dreams that demonstrably came true. I don’t begrudge people their hope in Christ and whatever sort of eternal cosmic adventure scenario they hope is real, but in the face of that key difference, it would be nice if the dismissal of all human works was a little less glib sometimes.