Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Is the Pope a Catholic?

Probably not. Probably not even a Christian.

If that statement isn't controversial enough for you, try this one for size. A fair proportion of the world's two billion-odd Christians aren't really Christians and this number includes many people who go to church and would describe themselves as Christians. For that matter there are a some self-described Muslims, Hindus and Jews who aren't really Muslims, Hindus or Jews. This is, I think, a Good Thing.

It's all a question of definition. As far as I can see, when it comes to religious belief or lack of it, people fall into four main camps:
  1. Theistic religion. Adherents believe in a particular deity, or set of deities, with very specific attributes, whose representatives on earth require followers to accept specific articles of faith and to worship in a particular way, to the exclusion of any alternative articles of faith and forms of worship promoted by different faiths.
  2. Deism. Adherents believe in a deity of some sort, but a deity who doesn't insist on a very specific, exclusive set of beliefs, or on a prescribed form of worship that differentiates believers from members of other tribes.
  3. Non- theistic religion. Adherents believe in a spiritual, reality of some sort, but not in a deity. As with 1. above, there are specific articles of faith and prescribed forms of worship.
  4. Unbelief. Adherents have no priori belief in a deity or a spiritual reality. The specific label (atheism, agnosticism, whatever), doesn't particularly matter.*
To be a Christian, as opposed to a deist, you must believe that you have access to a particular, exclusive, uniquely correct set of beliefs, necessary to peoples' salvation, which differentiates Christians from members of other faiths. If you don't believe that your faith is closer to the truth and a surer route to salvation than any other, then why not follow any other creed, join the "spiritual but not religious" crowd picking their way through the metaphysical buffet, or just drop out of the faith business altogether?

Christian churches are quite clear on this point, as is the Bible. Hence the repetition of the Nicene Creed every Sunday. Elijah, remember, didn't engage the prophets of Baal in a productive round of inter-faith dialogue. He told his people that Baal was bad and his followers wrong, challenged the priests of Baal to a "my god's bigger than your god" contest, mocked them, then had them all killed. Jesus omitted the violence but he was just as uncompromising as Elijah when it came to claiming exclusive ownership of spiritual truth 'No man cometh unto the Father, but by me' - in other words, accept no imitations.

Compare Elijah's and Jesus' uncompromising exclusivity with Pope Francis, who, last month, announced that even unbelievers - so long as they do good, are sincere and obey their consciences can be "forgiven" by God. Panicky church officials were quick to issue a "clarification", stating that he didn't really mean to say what we all thought he'd said and, terribly sorry atheists, but we're afraid you are still all going to hell. Rules are rules, nothing personal, you understand...

I can't prove that Francis didn't just mis-speak. You know how it is - you say 'great news guys, you're in practically no danger of burning in excruciating pain for all eternity' when what you really mean to say is, 'you'd better repent now, suckers, or you're all toast. Burnt toast.' Don't you think it would be super easy for the Pope to accidentally say the precise opposite of what he meant to say about a fundamental life choice which could affect those listening for all eternity? Me neither.

It seems more likely to me that Francis might actually be a humane sort of guy who can't really believe that the God he worships, the "merciful", "forgiving" one, can really be merciless and spiteful enough to torture sentient beings for eternity in hell. After all, he does seem to have enough humane instincts to play good cop to Benedict's bad cop (I might change my assessment if the allegations of collaboration with the Argentine junta were ever proved, but I'm assuming innocent until proven otherwise).

If that's the opinion he did let slip, you can see why the "correction" came out so quickly. In PR terms this would have been a huge "gaffe", since:
  1. The Church is supposed to be in the business of unchanging, eternal truths and to change its teaching (or to admit to having changed its teaching) would look like a U-turn.
  2. More importantly, once you start admitting that unbelievers and heathens might be saved, then what's the point of being a Christian? It's as if the CEO of The Vatican Inkjet Printer Corporation had announced to the world that it was okay to refill the company's expensive proprietary printer cartridges with generic printer ink from Dave's Budget Consumables Shack, rather than replacing them with new Vatican brand cartridges costing *Jesus Christ, how much?!?!*. The consumers are no longer tied in and the whole business model collapses.
If the Church is no longer the unique and only way to salvation, then what you're left with is a very big social club where people from similar backgrounds can get together. That, and a huge oversupply of infrastructure and personnel to service what is now no more than a global network of community centres.

Once you arrive at the point where your religion is no longer the unique and only way to salvation, there's a real break from religious certainty (at least in the exclusivist faiths - for Sikhs, for example, there's no break, because Sikhism has always been objectively deist). You may call yourself a Christian (or Muslim, or whatever), but once you start to believe that people of other faiths, or of no faith at all, can be good people with valid insights and an equally good shot at salvation, the exclusivity has gone and you're objectively a deist.

If this was just about what the Pope thought, it wouldn't matter very much. But I don't think he's alone. The jolly vicars, imams and rabbis who get together and pop up on the TV and radio every now and then to tell us how much they can learn from each other and how much they respect the other lot's deeply held beliefs, religious sensibilities and traditions - you know what, I reckon most of them really mean it. They probably don't believe that the other lot are deluded fools or wicked infidels who are going straight to hell. More objective deists. Add to their number all the sincere, liberal clergy who believe in inter-faith dialogue and even dialogue with the faithless. And then add the countless millions of religious lay people who don't get all Elijah-like and smite-y with the nice family next door who don't attend the same church, mosque, or whatever and who imagine, if they ever stop to think about it, that God probably loves their neighbours just as much as members of their own congregation.

Their faiths might want to claim these people and they might self-identify as members of a particular religion, but if you think about it, most liberal, non-fanatical religious people are, for all practical purposes, deists. I don't share their god-belief, but it's heartening to reflect that a lot of other people fall into this tolerant category and share my belief that you can believe pretty much what you like, so long as you're not hurting anybody (although I reserve the right to mock if your beliefs diverge too wildly from what seems to be objective reality).

A while back I had a look at the number of adherents who follow different belief systems. Because my source, www.adherents.com, lumped deists in with "nonreligious", the total overstates the number of people who don't believe in god. But I reckon that there's also probably a big (if unquantifiable) number of people who are, for all practical purposes, deists (although they may self-identify as Christians, or whatever), who need lopping off some of the figures for mainstream religious adherents.

The corollary to all this is that, if the nicest, most reasonable believers are effectively deists rather than strict adherents of an exclusive faith, then the most intolerant, inflexible, bigoted, craziest and most violent ones are the True Believers. Whenever there's some insane atrocity committed in the name of religion, somebody's always popping up to explain that the perps weren't acting in the name of "real" Islam (sorry, but it usually is Islam at the moment). I disagree. I think that the people who believe that they have chosen the one true path and that the backslider, the apostate, the infidel and the unbeliever are wicked and must be punished in this world and the next, are the true heirs of exclusivist tribal religion as opposed to tolerant, inclusive deism. It's the militant jihadi, the Koran-burning pastor, the vicar who won't let the church hall be defiled by the pagan wickedness of a yoga class, the Genesis-obsessed science denialists, the idiots who shoot schoolgirls in the head for daring to go to school, who speak for zealous Elijah and his jealous God.

*I suppose there's fifth category, namely a sort of non-theistic equivalent of deism, where you believe in some kind of spiritual reality, but not in a god, or gods, and you don't adopt rigid articles of faith, or prescribed forms of worship. I don't know enough about niche forms of spirituality to give a specific example, but I'm sure that there are people who identify as "spiritual but not religious" and are drawn to something like free-form Buddhism. But I wanted to keep my argument simple and my list short.


Anonymous said...

But your initial four-part taxonomy explicitly rules as irrelevant the way in which religious people think about their religious traditions. As if they can sensibly be said to exist outside of those who are part of them. It’s like you’re an atheist version of a Christian Fundamentalist who thinks True Religion can be simply read off the pages of the Bible without any interpretation needed.

I mean, given that the church clearly hasn’t offered “unchanging, eternal truths”, the only religious people who really believe this can be those who’ve never given it a moment’s thought. Even the New Testament itself consists largely in letters amongst people arguing about what Christianity is as they seek to shape it.

The only way to understand a religious tradition is to engage with it as it really exists. An article on ‘the idea of religion’ won’t do it at all, however deftly executed.

Andrew King said...

I'd plead guilty to being literal-minded, rather than to being a fundamentalist. I prefer to try to engage with what the texts actually say, rather than with the superstructure of interpretation that people build on top.

Yes, people can argue and interpret endlessly but that's part of the problem I have with organised religion. Starting with the Bible as a handbook, people have given to the poor, or built themselves opulent palaces. Crusaders have taken the book as a green light for conquest, looting and murder and socially concerned vicars have taken the same book as their inspiration to break bread with members of other faith communities. In Apartheid South Africa, people used the Bible to justify instructionalised racial discrimination, whilst for Martin Luther King it was a blueprint for equality.

Argument, interpretation and people's subjective feelings about their faith are all very well, but when such subjective interpretation leads to wildly different, often completely opposed conclusions, I prefer stick to following what the documents actually say.

I do get the fact that the Abrahamic faiths in general and Christianity and the church(es) in particular have changed over time. I do think you underestimate the degree to which the Catholic Church in particular has tried to maintain the fiction that no such change has occurred and that it's verities are eternal and unchanging.

The Church regularly promotes the idea that it's values are immune to the whims of relativism and fashion that drive the values of secular society. In fact, it has changed out of all recognition in a lifetime. When my mum was a girl in the '40's, priests, and the nuns who taught her were terrifying figures, always keeping a beady eye out for sin, policing the morals of their charges with unforgiving severity. Woe betide you if you failed to turn up at mass without a cast iron excuse, talked back, or wore shiny patent leather shoes in which the reflection of your knickers might be seen.

Today's clergy are infinitely more understanding, genial, casual and approachable, but to listen to the propaganda (a good old Catholic word), you'd imagine that the Church's USP was that it promoted traditional values that didn't bend with the wind of social change.

Anonymous said...

Sorry if 'fundamentalist' sounded aggressive; I did just mean it in the Christian sense of 'being willing to take a single verse at its word rather than seeking to place it in the wider context of the whole Bible and Christian thought in general, and taking a literal approach when doing so'.

And on reflection I guess you're right that I underplayed the extent to which religion's presented image has often been one of grand immutability. I suppose I was just being optimistic. For me at least, Christianity *is* being part of a community attempting to find a form of life that honours the insight of a particular Book. The 'superstructure of interpretation' *is* religion, even if religious people themselves sometimes deny it. A literal approach can't offer access to the 'true' or 'core' religion, since the Bible itself is full of tensions. Everyone has to engage in interpretation; there's no 'clean' reading.

I’m not really sure why this is a ‘problem’ though? Except insofar as it makes debates on the topic ‘is Religion X a force for good or for bad?’ rather hard to resolve. Perhaps our different expectations simply reflect the fact that those within a religion are having a very different conversation than those having the for/against argument. I don't know any way to bridge that gap apart from engagement between people and traditions.

(PS. I've just reread what I've said and I sound utterly wet. Writing about religion is excruciating and not something I make a habit of. Thanks for writing a good enough blog that you've spurred me to try!)

Andrew King said...

Apologies for the delay in replying (lack of time) and for the errant apostrophes (an unfortunate combination of inattention and autocomplete, rather than creeping illiteracy on my part).

I’ve been thinking about this:

‘Everyone has to engage in interpretation; there's no 'clean' reading.

I’m not really sure why this is a ‘problem’ though?’

From my point of view it is a problem (or at least very unsatisfactory). The reason why I think this is simple in principle, but the brief version might sound glib, so I’ve decided to devote a future post to this question, when I’ve got the time to set out my reasons in full, rather than dashing off a simplified reply in comments.

Andrew King said...
This comment has been removed by the author.