The National Catholic Register has the full text of a recent speech given by Pope Benedict XVI. It includes this:
In addition to the two phenomena of religion and anti-religion, a further basic orientation is found in the growing world of agnosticism: people to whom the gift of faith has not been given, but who are nevertheless on the lookout for truth, searching for God. Such people do not simply assert: “There is no God”. They suffer from his absence and yet are inwardly making their way towards him, inasmuch as they seek truth and goodness. They are “pilgrims of truth, pilgrims of peace”. They ask questions of both sides. They take away from militant atheists the false certainty by which these claim to know that there is no God and they invite them to leave polemics aside and to become seekers who do not give up hope in the existence of truth and in the possibility and necessity of living by it. But they also challenge the followers of religions not to consider God as their own property, as if he belonged to them, in such a way that they feel vindicated in using force against others. These people are seeking the truth, they are seeking the true God, whose image is frequently concealed in the religions because of the ways in which they are often practised. Their inability to find God is partly the responsibility of believers with a limited or even falsified image of God. So all their struggling and questioning is in part an appeal to believers to purify their faith, so that God, the true God, becomes accessible. Therefore I have consciously invited delegates of this third group to our meeting in Assisi, which does not simply bring together representatives of religious institutions. Rather it is a case of being together on a journey towards truth, a case of taking a decisive stand for human dignity and a case of common engagement for peace against every form of destructive force. Finally I would like to assure you that the Catholic Church will not let up in her fight against violence, in her commitment for peace in the world. We are animated by the common desire to be “pilgrims of truth, pilgrims of peace”.
I don’t think very many agnostics will recognize themselves in the Pope’s description.
There’s rather a lot wrong with the Pope’s statement. If the measure of an atheist is his willingness to stand up and say, as though it were a proven fact, “There is no God!” then Richard Dawkins is not an atheist. I had really thought this particular caricature was the exclusive domain of silly religious demagogues, and had no role in the discourse of those masquerading as serious thinkers. The distinction between an atheist and an agnostic has nothing to do with one being dogmatic and the other being open-minded. It has to do instead with epistemological claims about what is knowable and what is not. Atheists tend to say things like, “There is no good reason for believing that any sort of supernatural deity exists, and with respect to the Christian God specifically there is strong evidence against His existence.” Agnostics prefer statements like, “The question of whether or not there is a God is not the sort of thing about which we can reasonably gather evidence one way or the other, so it is best not to take a position either way.”
But we have barely scratched the surface of all that is wrong with the Pope’s statement. The Pope, of course, does not believe that God’s existence is an open question. In his view the agnostics might be searching for truth, but he, and his church, have already found it. So his praise for the agnostic’s search for truth should be seen as arrogant condescension, and not as praise for a skeptical attitude. Moreover, the implication that atheists are not seeking truth is pretty offensive, not to mention ridiculous. We are atheists precisely because we are seeking the truth. Our best understanding of the available evidence just points us strongly away from belief in God.
I also wonder how many agnostics would agree that they are suffering for their lack of faith. It is true that some nonbelievers might wish they had religious faith, while others feel a sense of loss for no longer having the faith they once possessed. But many others see leaving religion as a moment of liberation, or of coming from darkness into light. The Pope’s overgeneralization is just more puffery.
After more repetition of hoary caricatures we come to something truly jaw-dropping. If you were drinking water while reading the Pope’s statement, I’m sure you spit it out when you saw him praising agnostics for warning the religious against thinking of God as their own property. The nerve of this guy! The Pope is the leader of a church that claims an exclusive right to hold forth on the meaning of scripture. As they see it, if your interpretation differs from theirs then you are wrong and that is it. They hold up their body of traditional teaching as a source of knowledge that is equal to that of revelation itself. For heaven’s sake, the Pope claims to be able to speak infallibly at least some of the time. How is any of that consistent with not thinking that He is in a privileged position with respect to God?
Now, in fairness to the Pope, if we take his statement literally it’s not so much thinking you have special access to God that is the problem, but using that belief to justify violence. Earlier in his speech the Pope says this:
As a Christian I want to say at this point: yes, it is true, in the course of history, force has also been used in the name of the Christian faith. We acknowledge it with great shame. But it is utterly clear that this was an abuse of the Christian faith, one that evidently contradicts its true nature. The God in whom we Christians believe is the Creator and Father of all, and from him all people are brothers and sisters and form one single family.
I’m delighted that he is ashamed, but this is just empty rhetoric. In the centuries during which the Catholic Church had unparalleled power in Europe, the period during which they had ample opportunity to show everyone how it’s done, they behaved instead no differently from any other purely human institution with too much power. Where was their praise for ecumenism and a doubting nature during the Inquisition and the Crusades? Where was it during all the time they spent policing the bounds of acceptable knowledge and passing judgment on which books were fit to be read, and threatening elderly scientists with torture and imprisonment for suggesting that maybe the authorities had it wrong when they said the Earth is fixed and the Sun moved? When the Church was strong their behavior was appalling and, yes, frequently violent. Now that they are weak they come grovelling back, pretending that such things were just a centuries-long aberration from the true faith. Charming.
So I’m not impressed by the Pope’s speech. But I’m even less impressed with some of the reaction I’ve seen to it. I found the text of the speech by following a link from this post by Andrew Sullivan. Sullivan titled his post, “The Pope Embraces Doubt.” I’m sure that caused you to spit out any remaining water you had in your mouth. No, I’m sorry, but the Pope most definitely has not embraced doubt. He remains the poster child for false certainty and dogmatic arrogance, as we have already discussed.
Sullivan describes the Pope’s argument in the opening quotation of this post as “powerful” and specifically praises Benedict as a theologian. I found that amusing given the pathetic caricatures of atheism and agnosticism of which the Pope availed himself. Atheists are constantly lectured about being insufficiently respectful of Christian theology. At the moment, though, I am not seeing much respect coming the other way.
In fairness to Sullivan, though, he does come to his senses later in the post. He writes:
But it is equally clear, is it not, that the project of mere assertion of papal authoritah, the purging of Catholics with doubts and questions, the doubling down on a theory of natural law that simply does not reflect what modernity knows of nature (and therefore refutes itself), the profound corruption that allowed for the rape and abuse of countless innocents across the world, the scandal of the Legion of Christ … these have led to an even steeper collapse of the church in the West where its fate as a living truth still lies.
Even more astonishing is this post from Michael Potemra, writing at National Review:
The pluralism of belief is, in some mysterious way, part of God’s plan for mankind; Pope Benedict today offered a helpful analysis of one aspect of that plan. Faith and doubt are both gifts of God, and agnostics therefore have their own special calling, their role to play. And of course, there is no very strict dichotomy here: In believers, there is an element of doubt, and in agnostics, there is an element of faith. Each person has his or her own particular gifts in this regard, and each carries his or her own individualized responsibilities.
Doubt is a gift? Really? Because according to Christian theology it’s a gift that will get you consigned to Hell in the afterlife. Worst. Gift. Ever.
In my own case, I used to fault God for not giving me more religious faith — and then I came to realize how unreasonable I was being. I have many atheist friends who are more loving, do more for other people, than I; my complaint to God therefore amounted to a declaration that You see how poorly I am doing in meeting my current responsibilities. You are therefore greatly to blame for not giving me more responsibilities. God gives His gifts on His own schedule, in accord with His own inscrutable designs, and the basic attitude we should cultivate is to trust that He knows what He’s doing.
But, again, according to Catholic theology those charitable atheist friends of his are going to burn in Hell for all eternity. Potemra might be impressed by their good deeds, but God, apparently, is not.
This is the part where I reiterate my bafflement that anyone finds anything worthwhile in the ravings of religion. If you think peace and tolerance and ecumenism are worthwhile things, and I certainly hope you do, then live accordingly. But don’t pretend that religious authorities like the Pope have any special insight into such things. And please don’t pretend, as Sullivan and Potemra both do, that the Pope’s speech represents some moment of clarity or a contribution to theology. In reality the Pope offers nothing but standard, insincere boilerplate, here paired with entirely unwarranted denigration of atheists.