A Dangerously Incurious Pope January 8, 2014

A Dangerously Incurious Pope

This is a guest post written by Herb Silverman.

I can’t say I’m surprised that Pope Francis (above) was Time magazine’s Person of the Year. And as an atheist, I’m not particularly disappointed by the decision. While Pope Francis hasn’t changed Church doctrine, he has at least changed its emphasis. I prefer a pope like Francis who focuses more on poverty and economic inequality than on birth control and gay marriage. I would have been more enthusiastic about Time’s choice had the Pope also acknowledged that birth control can help reduce poverty and that loving couples should not be discriminated against because of their sexual orientation. In such an anachronistic and powerful institution, I would welcome small but significant reforms to Catholic Church doctrines that affect many outside the institution.

On the theory that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, harsh criticism of Pope Francis by the likes of Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh has encouraged progressive Christians and even some atheists to get on the Pope Francis bandwagon. While people can find biblical support to justify any position, some positions are more tenuous than others. That’s why I’m amused by Religious Right arguments for why Jesus, unlike Francis, is an economic conservative who deplores redistribution of wealth. In making a case that Pope Francis is promoting sin, Lance Pritchett in Bloomberg Opinion justifies his economically conservative point of view with the 10th Commandment from Exodus 20:17: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house, wife, slaves, ox, donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” Even if I were a biblical literalist, I’d try to ignore passages that condone slavery and regard wives as property just like donkeys. And isn’t “coveting” the engine that drives capitalism?

Unfortunately, just as I was feeling more warmly disposed toward Pope Francis, he had to go and burst my bubble with a statement reminiscent of his predecessors. In a recent homily Pope Francis said, “The spirit of curiosity generates confusion and distances a person from the Spirit of wisdom, which brings peace.” He added that “the spirit of curiosity is not a good spirit” because it distances oneself from God. The Pope has a point, at least in my case. Curiosity really did distance me from god belief, and I’m far from alone. Curiosity has turned many religious believers into nonbelievers.

I also agree that curiosity can generate confusion. Scientific curiosity frequently creates confusion, which can lead to breakthroughs. Much to the dismay of the Catholic Church, Galileo’s curiosity inspired him to discover that Earth revolves around the sun. Not until Galileo had been dead for over 350 years did the Church absolve him of this spiritual heresy. Better late than never, I suppose.

The Catholic Church does not generally oppose science as long as scientific discoveries don’t conflict with Church doctrine. Pope John Paul II told cosmologist Stephen Hawking, “It’s OK to study the universe and where it began. But we should not inquire into the beginning itself because that was the moment of creation and the work of God.” Pope Benedict XVI made a comparable statement when he described “science as the pursuit of knowledge about God’s creation.”

These popes failed to grasp the rudiments of scientific inquiry. Science is all about posing interesting problems and trying to solve them, with no religious test to limit or discourage inquiry. Curiosity should not be stifled or dissenting ideas suppressed. The “spirit” of curiosity, inquiry, and testability brings us closer to scientific truths, while history is littered with discarded religious “truths.”

Most troubling for me is that Pope Francis cites Abraham as a role model, saying God asked Abraham to “walk in my presence and be irreproachable.” In the most noteworthy biblical story about Abraham, who is a prophet in all three monotheistic religions, he hears what he assumes to be the voice of God. Without offering a reason or an explanation, God tells Abraham to take his son Isaac up a mountain and kill him there. The incurious, unquestioning, and faithful Abraham dutifully leads his puzzled son up the mountain, intent on fulfilling God’s will by doing the murderous deed. If Pope Francis ever thinks he hears God telling him to act contrary to a well-established moral code, I hope he will be more curious and skeptical than the biblical Abraham. Fortunately, in secular countries, those who kill innocent people in the name of God are more likely to be institutionalized as criminals than revered as prophets.

Most religions preach humility, but few religious leaders practice what they preach. Pope Francis has been praised for being a notable exception, at least when it comes to outward trappings. I hope Pope Francis, as head of the Roman Catholic Church, will begin to make substantive rather than just superficial changes. Time’s cover story began by pointing out that Pope Francis took the name of a humble saint. Articles about Pope Francis refer to his humble attire, his humble car, and additional humbles.

I’m willing to grant that Pope Francis is humble. But I’d like him to recognize the value of humble curiosity in the search for truth, while becoming more skeptical of an arrogant “Spirit of wisdom” that leads to religious certainty. Though Mark Twain was no saint, Pope Francis might do well to remember his advice: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

Herb Silverman is founder and President Emeritus of the Secular Coalition for America, author of Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt, and Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at the College of Charleston.

(Image via Shutterstock)

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