Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Phil Plait on Pope Benedict's treatment of atheism

Sorry for the lack of pasting lately.  I've been job hunting pretty hard in recent weeks, and haven't had much time to sit and think, let alone write.  I had planned to write a response to Pope Benedict's recent treatment of atheism on his trip to Great Britain.  Here's part of what he said:
Even in our own lifetime, we can recall how Britain and her leaders stood against a Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate God from society and denied our common humanity to many, especially the Jews, who were thought unfit to live. I also recall the regime’s attitude to Christian pastors and religious who spoke the truth in love, opposed the Nazis and paid for that opposition with their lives. As we reflect on the sobering lessons of the atheist extremism of the twentieth century, let us never forget how the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society and thus to a “reductive vision of the person and his destiny”
As I said, I had planned to write about this, but then I read Phil Plait's response on Bad Astronomy, and I couldn't have done any better than he did.  Phil rarely writes directly about atheism on his blog, so when he does I usually take notice.  And this article does not disappoint.  It's the most even-handed and rational response I've seen to these comments, yet it still puts the pope in his place as an ignorant bigot.  I recommend you read the whole thing, but here's a short excerpt:
Now, I’m the kind of person whose first inclination is to give people the benefit of the doubt. So I read the whole transcript of the Pope’s speech, twice, and after thinking about it, I can’t see any way of interpreting the speech as a whole other than as him saying secularism and atheism = lack of virtue and morality = Nazism.

That is such a grossly flawed chain of reasoning that it strains credulity well past its limit. It’s hard to know where to even begin debunking these statements. Maybe to start with, Hitler wasn’t an atheist (though his personal beliefs were unclear; he used religion or the lack thereof to his advantage when needed, for exampleusing atheism as a bogeyman to rally the people against Russia). More importantly, The Catholic Church went way out of its way to support Hitler during WWII*.  [Update: Apparently, the Church's relationship with Hitler was more complicated than I first read. There was condemnation of Nazis, as well as some support. I think the best thing we can say here is that blanket statements about large organizations can be inaccurate, and need to be done with care. The history of this situation is complex.]

Mind you, I am not trying to condemn the entire Catholic religion, or even the Church (the Church then is not the same as the Church today). I am pointing out that what the Pope said in England is pure nonsense, and in fact widely known to be untrue — in fact, studies have shown that secular societies tend to havebetter moral behavior (lower homicide rates, lower infant mortality, lower STD rates, and so on). I would go so far as to say the Pope was being bigoted, equating Nazism and atheism in a way to specifically spur hatred of nonbelievers, or at least amplify mistrust. And given the Church’s support of Nazism at the time, condemning atheists for Nazism is galling.
I know that I would have been more emotional in my reply than Phil was.  And I do think that anger and disgust is appropriate in this case, and responses such as PZ's are fully justified and often useful.  But it's awesome to see such a thoroughly level-headed response have such an impact as Phil's writing so often does.  It's easy to get people riled up with emotion and vitriol, but to me, it's much more challenging to affect people with calm, reasonable argument.  Kudos Phil!
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