Many people have been sending me links to the latest comments by our charming Catholic pontiff, and I don’t know, I’m just finding the old boy increasingly irrelevant as he continues his reactionary slide into medieval thinking. More and more it’s like hearing reports of what some random homeless man in a Philadelphia subway station ranted about — it’s amusing and appalling, but it’s hard to work up the outrage to care any more. Yes, you can argue that the Pope is influential, but even there, how many self-identified Catholics pay any attention at all to what he says about contraception, for instance? But alright, once more unto the breach, etc.

So here’s what the pope babbled recently.

Pope Benedict warned Monday of the “seductive” powers of science that overpower man’s spirituality, reviving the science-versus-religion debate which recently forced him to cancel a speech after student protests.

“In an age when scientific developments attract and seduce with the possibilities they offer, it’s more important than ever to educate our contemporaries’ consciences so that science does not become the criterion for goodness,” he told scientists.

Yeah, this pope has a history of saying blithering nonsense about science, so I’m glad to see student protests at the waste of university resources in bringing this bozo to campus (random homeless men in Philadelphia subway stations are available, are less expensive, will be far more appreciative of the honorarium, and will be just as cogent.)

I don’t think anyone is arguing that science is a criterion for “goodness”. Many of us are adamant that religion is not a criterion for “goodness,” either, and that science is at least a criterion for accuracy. This is not a moral debate, although one could say that there is moral value in having some respect for the truth … not that the Catholic church has any interest at all in that, favoring instead the perpetuation of institutionalized nonsense.

Scientific investigation should be accompanied by “research into anthropology, philosophy and theology” to give insight into “man’s own mystery, because no science can say who man is, where he comes from or where he is going”, the Pope said.

“Man is not the fruit of chance or a bundle of convergences, determinisms or physical and chemical reactions,” he told a meeting of academics of different disciplines sponsored by the Paris Academy of Sciences and Pontifical Academy of Sciences.

Leave theology off the list of disciplines that are useful in this endeavor.

Science does say who man is; it’s pretty damn specific about what we are, an odd sub-branch of the primate clade in the chordate family tree, and it is full of specifics on anatomy, physiology, behavior, culture, etc. It also explains with considerable detail where we came from — that long lineage of 4 billion years of evolution — and also gives mechanisms. On where we’re going … well, he does have us there. Science isn’t soothsaying. Of course, theology doesn’t help there, either. Theology makes claims about where we’re going, but it’s always wrong and it always seems to be just pulling predictions out of its great hairy abstraction of a butt.

As for that last comment … show me what else Man is. I love how these faith-imbued gomers always belittle “mere” physical and chemical reactions, when there is nothing more grand and majestic than the natural processes that drive our universe. Yes, life is a great big elaborate chemical reaction — isn’t that wonderful? Why act as if this is a shameful possibility? Personally, I’ve long found the petty deified tyrant of the Christian religion to be an unsatisfyingly trivial explanation, with van der Waals forces alone being far more potent and glorious.

I won’t suggest that this silly old man ought to be consigned to a life of cadging handouts from commuters in Suburban Station in Philadelphia, but I really think he deserves to be shuffled off to a nice retirement home. He can still have fancy gold stitchwork done on his slippers and bathrobe, but really … his authority should be nonexistent.


  1. #1 Archaeopteryx
    January 30, 2008

    If “pulling predictions out of its great hairy abstraction of a butt” is original with you, then I hereby award you with the First Annual Metaphor of the Year Award.

  2. #2 Cuttlefish, OM
    January 30, 2008

    The Pope bemoans the world’s reliance
    On, not his word, but that of science;
    If I might guess, what really irks
    Is: Even he knows… science works.

  3. #3 Geoffrey Alexander
    January 30, 2008

    “Everywhere, men lead lives of quiet desperation” is from Thoreau. Alhough Thurber said some other fun things, such as, “It is better to know some of the questions than all of the answers”. Apropos as well, I think.

  4. #4 nobody
    January 30, 2008

    An asshole.

    With a bunch of asshole followers.

    Am I talking about the Pope?

    Or PZ?

  5. #5 Dan
    January 30, 2008

    That Pope’s a hell of a head-scratcher. I wonder how much more outrageous his statements will be once he realizes just how irrelevant he truly is.

    The fact that the Pope was not wanted at a school in Italy is a pretty big step for humanity, and maybe it’s a great sign that we are finally stepping out from beneath the crushing burden of mythology.

    I think it’ll be fun to watch the Catholic Church reduce itself to smoldering embers in a blaze of scandal and ignorance. Then again, it may turn into the theological equivalent of Mike Tyson trying to win a fight by gnawing on the ears of his fellow human being as a result of being overwhelmed with desperation to remain relevant.

  6. #6 Clare
    January 30, 2008

    Like Katie (#15) I was puzzled by the inclusion of anthropology as a subject the Pope deems worthy of study. True, a large part of anthropology has always been devoted to the dispassionate description of religious belief and practice, but this has primarily been in marginalized or small-scale societies, and demystifying voodoo – for example – hardly sounds like the kind of endeavor that would endear itself to our current Pope. And there’s also anthropology’s long-standing wariness, if not downright hostility, towards missionaries. To top it off, even the most humanities-inclined anthropologists dissect religion in ways that aren’t exactly designed to magnify faith; as a quote in one of my old undergraduate final exams put it (it was a sociology exam, but the point holds for anthropology as well): “if you don’t wish to take religion seriously, study it sociologically.” (I’d be grateful to know whose quote this is; I’ve often wondered….)

  7. #7 Rebecca H.
    January 30, 2008

    I wonder sometimes if one of the cultural gaps between the devoutly religious folks (especially those who’ve never stepped out of the orthodox*) and the not is that some devoutly religious expect one philosophy & cosmology package to solve anything, and think everyone else thinks that as well. So, when they hear people using science as part of their view of ‘how the world works’, they assume that science is all there is for these people — which isn’t true, given that I’ve met humanists, selfish *explicative of choice*s, theists and non-theists, and shade of in-between, all of whom take a mostly scientific view of the universe. Because science doesn’t do much for morals — it wasn’t designed to. It focuses much more on what is true and observable than what is right. It’s like complaining that my laptop is a wonderful computer, but cannot cook my microwave pizza very well. (The same thing could be said for atheism — the part about morals, though it likewise cannot give me hot pizza, unless Richard Dawkins is opening a delivery service that I haven’t found out about. A lot of the religious folks PZ rants about seem to conflate ‘atheism has no set morals’ with ‘atheists have no set morals’.)

    * Most of the unorthodox religious people at least have a better chance of exposure to the idea that how they view the world isn’t how everyone does.

  8. #8 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    January 30, 2008

    he’s never done the thing required to make people come from somewhere

    Yet he wants to pontificate on sexual behavior. What a wanker.

    But, uh oh, another biological gap! What say the creationists?

  9. #9 Armchair Dissident
    January 30, 2008

    Torbjörn Larsson:

    What a wanker.

    No, I’m fairly sure he’s not allowed to do that, either. ;-)

  10. #10 Sergeant Zim
    January 30, 2008

    I think it’s very appropriate that when the current pope makes a written declaration of doctrine, it’s called a Papal BULL…

  11. #11 Fatboy
    January 30, 2008

    Yes, you can argue that the Pope is influential, but even there, how many self-identified Catholics pay any attention at all to what he says about contraception, for instance?

    Well, speaking from personal experience (and yes, I know, plural anecdotes don’t make data), growing up as a Catholic in Pennsylvania and Maryland, the people in my churches didn’t really consider the Pope infallible – he was just the leader of the Church elected by a bunch of cardinals. However, down here in Texas where I’ve gotten to know quite a few Mexican immigrants, they do seem to put a lot more stock in what the Pope says. I even remember having a conversation the other day where that was the exact topic, and about a quarter of the people there did believe in the Pope’s infallibility.

  12. #12 Brownian, OM
    January 30, 2008

    The Pope oughta be more careful. Anthropology was the death blow for the last vestiges of my religiosity.

    Nothing like studying the bizarre beliefs of people around the world to make one wonder whether their own are equally bizarre.

  13. #13 Steven E. Schonfeld
    January 30, 2008

    What do you have against Philadelphia?

  14. #14 Samnell
    January 30, 2008

    “The reformation happened for a reason and was primarily a rational reformation.”

    Martin Luther was at least as loopy as Ratzinger or any of his other contemporaries. The man called reason the Devil’s bride.

    They’re all completely cracked.

  15. #15 Uber
    January 30, 2008

    Good grief folks, this isn’t just me that states this. Robert Price in his reason driven life uses the same line.

    The RCC is a very superstitous organization. You can say all religions are so and you would be correct but the RCC takes it to new levels. Protestants dumped(for the most part) alot of the ‘superstition’ in favor of a more simplified, rational outlook on the religion.

    No saints, fewer sacraments, fewer rules and regs.

    Compare any RCC sect with say a methodist sect and the differences become obvious. Now some Protestant sects have moved back into woo-woo land but the majority have not and it doesn’t change the fact that the reformation was an attempt to restore reason to the religion on some level.

    You’re claiming that Martin Luther was rational? That he was “more rational” (whatever that might mean) than Catholicism?

    He was certainly more rational than the RCC leadership. And yes Protestantism is less superstitous than catholism.

  16. #16 Peter Ashby
    January 30, 2008

    Great, another reason to like Slovenia: they don’t teach the kids superstitious nonsense. I recommend Ljubjana in December, lots of cheap mulled wine, red and white along with ‘hot honey brandy’ which dispels the cold just wonderfully. They enclose the fountains in the little squares for the winter, then they wrap them up in shiny paper and put big bows on them. There are lights all through the trees along the river (where the booths selling mulled and honeyed liquors are) and light up the bijou castle on the hill above.

    The people are relaxed and very friendly and their English is very good (along with their French, Italian and German too). The cuisine is good and hearty, though the patroness of one place was most concerned that I knew what ‘tripes’ were before she would bring me my plateful of delight. YMMV on the tripes but the rest is lovely too. Nice cakes as you would expect too.

    We fully intend to go back in the Summer too, but winter was just wonderful.

  17. #17 The Pope's Mum
    January 30, 2008

    I care

  18. #18 David Marjanovi?, OM
    January 30, 2008

    The Pope is infallible because he was chosen by the cardinals, who themselves are infallible, right?

    Not at all. That’s why they don’t normally all vote for the same candidate. Instead, the Holy Spirit — didn’t you know? — works through the majority and leads their hands when they write down the name of the candidate.

    Which leads us straight back to the question why popes aren’t elected with 100 % of the votes in the very first round…

    I wouldn’t argue otherwise but it doesn’t change the fact that the reformation itself was rational in it’s principles as opposed to catholism.

    Martin Luther quotes from the Pharyngula quote folder:

    Reason is the Devil’s greatest whore; by nature and manner of being she is a noxious whore; she is a prostitute, the Devil’s appointed whore; whore eaten by scab and leprosy who ought to be trodden under foot and destroyed, she and her wisdom … Throw dung in her face to make her ugly. She is and she ought to be drowned in baptism… She would deserve, the wretch, to be banished to the filthiest place in the house, to the closets.

    A large number of deaf, crippled and blind people are afflicted solely through the malice of the demon. And one must in no wise doubt that plagues, fevers and every sort of evil come from him.

    …two devils rose from the water, and flew off through the air, crying, ‘Oh, oh, oh!’ and turning one over another, in sportive mockery…

    Reason must be deluded, blinded, and destroyed. Faith must trample underfoot all reason, sense, and understanding, and whatever it sees must be put out of sight and … know nothing but the word of God.

    As for the demented, I hold it certain that all beings deprived of reason are thus afflicted only by the Devil.

    At Poltersberg, there is a lake similarly cursed. If you throw a stone into it, a dreadful storm immediately arises, and the whole neighboring district quakes to its centre. ‘Tis the devils kept prisoner there.

    Reason is the greatest enemy that faith has; it never comes to the aid of spiritual things, but — more frequently than not — struggles against the divine Word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God.

    At Sussen, the Devil carried off, last Good Friday, three grooms who had devoted themselves to him.

    Reason should be destroyed in all Christians.

    Idiots, the lame, the blind, the dumb, are men in whom the devils have established themselves: and all the physicians who heal these infirmities, as though they proceeded from natural causes, are ignorant blockheads…

    To be a Christian, you must “pluck out the eye” of reason.

    All our experience with history should teach us, when we look back, how badly human wisdom is betrayed when it relies on itself.

    And remember that Luther defended transubstantiation against… was it Calvin or Zwingli…

    “Rational”? You’re insulting him. He’s going to get his holy wrath and throw a barrel of ink at you as he did with the Devil.

    I also wouldn’t say that Catholicism is even more irrational. It has the tradition of “truth cannot contradict truth”: when faith and reason appear to contradict each other, it must be possible to twist one or both in such a way as to make them compatible. Enter John Paul “soul created, body evolved” II and whichever pope said “one Galileo in 2000 years is enough”. Is sola Scriptura really more rational than that?

  19. #19 AlanWCan
    January 31, 2008

    Cuttlefish: I know it breaks the meter, but you missed one word at the end…bitches

  20. #20 David Marjanovi?, OM
    January 31, 2008

    the good sense to know communion is symbolic

    Sorry, my dotless friend. I forgot that most American protestants aren’t Lutherans. Which means you should probably talk about the snake-handlers and tongue-speakers.

    But it is considered a rational reform of a religion(a religion) by scholars.

    Refs please.

  21. #21 David Marjanovi?, OM
    February 1, 2008

    dotless friend?

    I just can’t look at your name anymore. :-) The German word for “above”/”over” is über, and u is not pronounced the same way as ü.

    Nor did the reformation make mention of snake handling.

    That means that all the Luther quotes are relevant. They are part of the reformation. I bet when Luther said “reason” he was thinking first of all of Thomas Aquinas…

    is generally considered

    And then you came up with a single person who agrees.

    Many Protestant churches and denominations have been at the forefront of a myriad of social movements.

    Do you know why Europe’s conservative parties are no more to the right than John Kerry? That’s because of encyclicas like Humanae vitae and Laborem exercens from the late 19th and early 20th centuries which, while naturally condemning communism and socialism as godless & evil, condemned Social Darwinism just the same, and emphasized concepts like human dignity and just wage. Since then the conservatives (in Protestant countries, too) call themselves “Christian Social” and/or “Christian Democratic”.

    Let me second comment 124.

  22. #22 Uber
    February 1, 2008

    Yes, seriously, especially since you have continued to fail to give any sort of definition of “woo” or “superstition” despite repeated requests to do so

    Ok tulse superstition- something that is believed to exist outside the natural world. What other definition would it be?

    Saints in catholism, not in protestantism

    wine to blood in catholism, only symbolic in protestantism

  23. #23 David Marjanovi?, OM
    February 1, 2008

    wine to blood in catholism, only symbolic in protestantism

    Again: no. Lutherans do believe in transubstantiation.

    If you want to argue that Methodists have less woo than Catholics, be my guest (if only because I know very little about Methodism and have never seen a Methodist service). If you really want to lump all Protestants together, well, so will I.

  24. #24 Uber
    February 1, 2008

    Again: no. Lutherans do believe in transubstantiation.

    If you want to argue that Methodists have less woo than Catholics, be my guest (if only because I know very little about Methodism and have never seen a Methodist service). If you really want to lump all Protestants together, well, so will I.

    fair enough. I think the primary difference I am struggling and apparently failing to relate is the institutional nature of the beliefs. Your correct about lutherans and to be fair it’s hard to pigeon hole protestantism and the RCC is a big huge easily accessed target.

    RCC doctrine is rife with alot of superstious doctrines and beliefs not inherent in protestant doctrine. I’m not arguing validity simply quantity. Nor am I trying to argue Protestantism is free of woo, obviously it isn’t.

    The lesser aspect is why the reformation is referred to as a turn towards rationality by many theologians and scholars. This was made possible in part by the fragmenting of the church to allow more views. Many of these views have aided the secular world.

  25. #25 Robin Gills
    February 25, 2009

    Well I don’t know when I read the other comments. I attended World Youth Day in Sydney 2008 and I would have to say how impressed I was with the seas of young people all there to see Pope Benedict and the great feeling of celebration in the air. I did not see any alcohol or cigarettes for that matter and I saw seas of young people proud to be Roman Catholic.

    So evidently there are some who say he irrelevant but then there are many who chose a spiritual foundation to live life and feel there is something more. Faith is the key as evident at World Youth Day, it has never been a matter of proof, it has always been about faith.

    To me I don’t need proof and I love being involved in 2 thousand years of truth, tradition and culture over centuries. Pointing party hats, great ceremony, ambiance in ceremony and amazing sense of community is something I am privileged to be part of. And I say all this as a gay man who does not have to politicize my sexuality who is blessed with the great gift I have in being gay and Catholic.

  26. #26 Kel
    February 25, 2009

    To me I don’t need proof and I love being involved in 2 thousand years of truth

    *head asplodes* how can you say truth when it’s a self-admitted matter of faith?

  27. #27 Owlmirror
    February 25, 2009

    To me I don’t need proof and I love being involved in 2 thousand years of truthiness, tradition and culture over centuries.


    Pointing party hats, great ceremony, ambiance in ceremony and amazing sense of community is something I am privileged to be part of. And I say all this as a gay man who does not have to politicize my sexuality who is blessed with the great gift I have in being gay and Catholic.

    I’m impressed with how you handle the cognitive dissonances. Power to ya.

  28. #28 John Morales
    February 26, 2009

    Robin Gills @144 (addendum):

    … And I say all this as a gay man who does not have to politicize my sexuality who is blessed with the great gift I have in being gay and Catholic.

    Cognitive dissonance doesn’t begin to cover it.