Sunday, July 17, 2005

Why do intelligent people believe in this stuff?

I have found the capacity for intelligent people to disagree upon what seem to me obvious things, including the non-existence of God, quite astounding. I think it points toward something essential about humans. Let me explain.

I have a very good friend whom I respect both as a good, honest and dependable human being and as a highly competent academic. This friend, like many others, is a Christian. I was speaking with him the other day and asked him what he thought to the death of John Paul II. His reply was that, although he didn’t agree with the ways in which some chose to express their emotions, he did feel that the last Pope was a very great man, perhaps the greatest figure of the twentieth century. The way he said this, it was clear that my friend was not merely expressing his evaluation of the Pope’s significance but, also, expressing his quite boundless admiration for him.

Both sentiments seem to me to be quite inappropriate given a rational evaluation of the life of John Paul II. That he was a very significant figure during the 20th century is, of course, clear but that is far from saying that he was the most significant. The list of alternatives provided by even a cursory familiarity with history – Lenin, Roosevelt, Einstein, Picasso, Elvis – is too long to make any such quick and easy judgement justifiable. Also, anyone who is at all interested in the role played by the Roman Catholic Church could not help but be aware of the various scandals that have taken place during the Pope’s reign and his failure to respond to them. His opposition to various sexual practices of the secular members of the church and to liberation theology has been far more pronounced and vehement than his opposition to child-molestation among clergy and the dictatorships that liberation theology was a response to. I am sure that Cardinal Law would not have been given a post in the Vatican is he had once worn a condom instead of having protected uncounted criminal child-molesting priests. Indeed, I can imagine a priest who had safe sex with an altar boy receiving the harsher punishment for the use of a prophylactic. Yet, despite all this, the friend of mine has what seem like unalloyed respect and devout admiration for the recently deceased Pope. And he is by no means the only one.

Pascal, expressing the enlightenment ideal, wrote that human beings are thinking reeds – fragile in body but magnificent in mind. This transcendent ideal of rationality has played a vital role in the development of atheism and secular humanism as people came to believe that they may understand the world without the need to rely upon God’s aid. However, looking at cases such as I have mentioned and many other examples, it seems to me that the ideal is illusory and mistaken (another Pascal, Pascal Boyer is saying much the same thing). This does not mean that I would counsel the acceptance of the various nihilist anti-intellectual fashions that have been sweeping through the intellectual classes over the last hundred years or a return to blind obedience to the word of God (as spoken by the priest). No, human beings are quite rational but our rationality is not the transcendent one that enlightenment philosophers imagined but, rather, a limited, fragile, reed-like affair far more appropriate to our bodies. Such a view seems, if anything, far more fitting to the anti-spiritualist position that an atheist holds. Which brings me back to intelligent people disagreeing. It becomes much easier to understand why they do once we realise just how fragile and limited our reason is, how closely tied to a number of other human traits and to what degree it is simply aimed at helping us manage to live in what is a dangerous world. Among other things this means that the matters which allow discussion are not those where error is immediately deadly – one can only discuss the reality of the cars on the highway so long as one is standing on the grass.


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