Why Do You Care What The Pope Thinks?

Photo by Alfredo Borba.
Photo by Alfredo Borba.

I mean, you aren’t Catholic, so why do you share the little articles about what the Pope says? Benedict seems to have been more conservative. He didn’t do a great deal about systematic abuse in the church, didn’t have anything to say about same-sex romances, had a hard, traditional line on contraception and abortion.

Francis decided to be a different kind of Pope, a modern leader for modern times who paradoxically embraces the heart of the faith underneath all the politics appended to, let’s face it, any religion more than a few years old. He is about love, forgiveness, charity, acceptance, and humility. From his name to his economy car to his refusal to wear the mantles of his office, these symbolic gestures are backed up by actions. He washes the feet of convicts, returns phone calls, defrocks dirty clergy, and divests parishes of ill-gotten gains.

I say all that is great. I think it’s what a religious leader ought to be doing. But who am I to judge? I’m not a Catholic or a Muslim or a Sikh or Hindu, not a Buddhist or really any sort of ist. Neither am I an atheist or an agnostic: the question of God is not of sufficient interest to me that I would go to the meetings.

But the things the Pope says make their way to my ears through the news, through the radio, through water-cooler conversations, and through social media. People who are not Catholic and never had anything to say about the old Pope are all over the new one. The Pope thinks atheists can go to Heaven if they’re good, and that we ought not to judge gay people, and that the Big Bang and evolution really happened. This is the latest thing trickling through my various means of staying in touch with humans: the Pope endorses evolution.

For the billions of non-Catholics in the world, I fail to see the importance of such news, let alone what would cause non-Catholics to share it. Is it to gloat somehow over all the Catholics who we imagine are now changing their worldview based on Papal decree? Is it to support what we perceive as an increase of reason and sense in the world?

What I worry about is dogmatic belief.

Now some of my friends are believers. And when I say this stuff, they believe I must mean them, that I am in some way attacking faith generally and their faith specifically. But here I mean the dogmatic belief that pervades our thinking, all our thinking. It gets mixed up in our politics, so that we vote for red or blue without ever examining the issues beyond what we hear involuntarily through political ads. It gets mixed up in our understanding of our civic duties. We stop vaccinating our children because celebrities say so.

And dogmatic belief pervades science as much as anything else.

So the Pope says Catholics are allowed to believe in evolution now, that God is not a wizard. People on the anti-Catholic team think they are on the science team and share that around. Look, we have a convert, and it’s the Pope himself. Bill Maher calls Pope Francis an Atheist, delightedly. But why would you care, if you were actually doing science?

Science means examining data and information, arriving at the best form of an argument, looking for the most likely possible truth but holding that loosely. Science means being humble about our findings. It means knowing that we could be wrong. About anything, including evolution and cosmology. Pope Francis is probably almost always irrelevant to this process.

What he is relevant to is polarization and brow-beating. This is the worst form of the argument: the argument to authority. Look, we can say, the least reasonable man in the world agrees with evolution, now you have to, too.

Never mind what all the data suggest. Never mind thousands of attempts to falsify evolution through natural selection. Never mind all the values of science, like elegance, reproducibility, fecundity. Look, someone popular agrees with me!

I see the same thing in other forms. An article suggests there is scientific evidence for life after death. People who believe in life after death share it around. They don’t examine it very closely (some obvious points of contention: we’ve equated brain activity with measurable brain activity, this has not been reproduced under controlled conditions, and yes, scientists have tried, and self-reports are the worst kind of evidence) but merely share it based on the headline.

My friends who believe in psychoanalysis share around every article seeming to show that Freud was right. My friends who are conservatives, liberals or libertarians (the loudest of whom are long gone for this reason) share everything that supports their ideologies.

Where is the rigorous investigation? Where is the counterpoint?

Students turn in papers that have only the confirmatory side of the argument: my assertion is backed by references x, y, and z. The good ones also include the argument: these sources seem to contradict the assertion, and I feel comfortable making the assertion because of this argument, and then show the argument. We aren’t doing that. We are still making the argument to authority, even when we say loudly that the authority in question has no authority over us.

How is that reasonable?

— Jason Dias

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