Not Either Silly

I’m going to have to disagree with my friend Norm on Polly Toynbee’s comment on the pope. I hate to do it – but he’s off on his travels, so that’s all right. David Hadley of Stuff and Nonsense alerted me to Norm’s post. (How busy I am these days. I don’t even have time to get around to checking Norm every day. Terrible.)

I really don’t get it. Every time there’s an event that brings forth a manifestation of religious belief by large numbers of people, some militant secularist or other will give out an opinion that would be jejune coming from an intelligent sixth-former…But how she can speak in so trivializing a way of world-wide reaction to the death of the head of a church whose ‘deeper power’ she herself characterizes as lying ‘in its personal authority over 1.3 billion worshippers’ is mystifying to me…I do not think there are any good evidential or other reasons for belief in a supreme deity, much less a benign and all-powerful one. But to speak now, in the face of a historical experience stretching over millennia, as if religion is no more than a silly mistake of silly people – answering to no real human concerns, meeting no deeper needs, all just froth – is (not to put too fine a point on it) silly.

Well, it’s my turn not to get it, and to find it mystifying. Really. For one thing, the world-wide reaction is part of the point, surely. The irrationality and indeed anti-rationality of that reaction is part of the subject, not a reason for not talking about it. And the fact that this one man had ‘personal authority over 1.3 billion worshippers’ is also part of the point, not a reason for not addressing it. Why shouldn’t the strangeness (to put it rather neutrally) of that authority be examined and questioned? Norm seems to be suggesting that it ought rather to be taboo – but why? It is an absurdity, after all, and not one that we accept in any other context. It may sound silly to point out the absurdity, but maybe that’s because the absurdity is so obvious? So we’re just supposed to ignore it? Because it’s rude to mention it? But it is absurd – and of course far worse than absurd. Toynbee wasn’t actually trivializing, she was indicting. That’s the sad thing about the papacy and the whole rigmarole that goes with it – it’s both absurd (in a manner beneath even a sixth-former, I should think) and extremely harmful. Why should that subject be passed over in silence? It needs talking about more, not less, I would have thought.

And surely it’s this idea that we ought not to say such things that helps to perpetuate them. (As I’ve said before. How tediously repetitive I am.) There is such massive cultural pressure and peer pressure these days* to be deferential to religion (excuse me, I mean ‘faith’) and believers, and that cultural-and-peer pressure just helps religion to go on being shielded from criticism, and why should it be? Why? Why should religion alone among belief systems and institutions (with the possible exception of the family, another sacrosanct item these days**) be shielded from criticism? Especially given how powerful it is? Especially in the case of the Catholic church and especially especially the pope?! Of all people! Who else has the kind of magical global power he does? No one! The dalai lama has some international influence, but he doesn’t issue edicts in the same way, and his words aren’t binding in the same way. Plus Buddhism is nowhere near as harsh as Catholicism. And dalai lamas don’t have the gall to issue edicts announcing themselves to be infallible. I ask you. This guy is officially formally infallible and he tells people not to use birth control and not to use condoms – and we shouldn’t say harsh things about him?? He is the one person on earth most in need of oversight and criticism, as sharp as possible.

I suppose he does have one rival for magical global power – and that would be bin Laden. Same kind of power, too: power over people’s minds. Well he’s not beyond criticism, is he. Nor should the pope be, and especially when every front page you see is busy drooling over him, which is not the case with Osama.

And the part about human concerns and human needs – I don’t see the relevance. Concerns and needs don’t cause things to exist that don’t exist. People’s putative need for god doesn’t cause god to exist, any more than my need for a falafel sandwich is going to cause one to appear on my desk. And more than that, religion is one thing, and the pope is another. It’s perfectly possible to think the papacy is an absolutely terrible idea and still believe in a deity. A certain fracas that took place in the 16th century springs to mind.

So – there it is. I don’t think Toynbee was a bit silly, I think she said what badly needed saying.

*I say ‘these days’ because I do think it’s gotten worse and is going on getting worse, than it was in, erm, previous days, but don’t ask me for the exact date, because I don’t know, but date it from Jimmy Carter if you like, or Reagan, or some UK-relevant date but I have no idea which one, nothing occurs to me.

**See above but with possibly different dates.

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