Accepting Ignorance – an Afterthought on the Euphoria about the Pope
Friends of Truth
In his famous dialogue On Religion, Arthur Schopenhauer lets his Philalethes say the following words: “Because, as you know, religions are like flow-worms: they need light in order to give light. A certain degree of ignorance is a requirement for all religions. It is the element in which alone they can exist. As soon as, however, astronomy, natural science, geology, history, geography and ethnology start shedding their light on everything and finally even philosophy is permitted to get in a word…“ Let us consider the pact between the Catholic Church and ignorance and then ask the question whether the catholic religion still relies on “a certain degree of ignorance” today. Can we, in our Pisa-test hardened educational climate, still afford to spread ignorance?
In order to keep the path towards religious belief intact, the most efficient strategy is still to cleanse it from scientific residues. During its two thousand year old history, the catholic theologians have not changed their strategy. It is based on one requirement: to attribute to the words of religious belief, the sacred revelations, at least the same amount of truth as to those on our natural world. Indeed, it is even taken for granted that the truths to be believed in are easier to come by than those truths science has to take considerable pain to find out.
Religion and Magic
The objects of religion – in particular those of the catholic Christians (virginal birth, magic healing, the empty tomb, resurrection, transmutation of wine to blood and bread to meat, and many more) – do not belong to the same category as objects of our everyday lives. In order to influence its flock, the catholic dogma has to expect from every one of them that he measures these supernatural truths by standards other than those of natural truths, and that the supernatural truths are considered the more important ones. If the believer gets totally confused about the difference, that is still better.
Today, it is easy to differentiate between truths of the revelation and scientific truths. If you travel to the opposite side of our planet and there meet a native, you might wish to tell him about the beautiful countryside in Germany. You could mention the pleasant fragrance of Bavarian forests, the rape fields in spring and the snow fields in winter, the castles and poets and philosophers and the relatively tolerant atmosphere when people discuss god. Your native friend will probably reply: “Such a country does not exist”. However, you can relax and remain on friendly terms with him by just telling him: “If you do not believe me, come to Germany and see for yourself.”
Even almost a hundred years ago, Sigmund Freud wondered how it is possible that we humans have such an easy and totally reliable method of finding out how true and credible a statement about such unimportant things as the question about Germany and its countryside is. When asking really important questions, such as about our future in another existence, the origin of life, or the special meaning of the catholic religion and the deliverance from our sins, our method of gaining knowledge is but meagre and unreliable: copies of traditional texts the originals of which have never been seen, contradictory and outrageous statements, and again and again the affirmation that they are extremely credible because they are so irrational and absurd (credo quia absurdum). However, let no rational being apply the correct and logical deduction from this: whatever is absurd is extremely credible! Belief does away with logics, which is that certain degree of ignorance that religion has to demand from the people in order to be effective. Part of this ignorance is to keep quiet about the fact that, in the evolutionary process, it was always those intelligent animals that believed in the illogical as highest truth that got extinct. Why does religion still survive?
The survival strategy of religion in a world increasingly dominated by science is an extremely high degree of refined diplomacy. This diplomacy has perfected the art of avoiding to say what is really important. Instead, the focus is on a splendid and healing illusion that promises what it cannot deliver. Karl Kraus would probably say these days: in the hangman’s home, you do not mention the rope.
Before Pope Benedict XIV visited Bavaria, he met a number of his former students, among them the professor of philosophy Robert Spaemann in Castelgolfo. They discussed issues controversial between the sciences and the catholic belief. Like Joseph Ratzinger, Spaemann holds an honour doctorate of the Opus-Dei University in the Spanish city of Pamplona. That is not the only reason why both of them consider the spreading and conservation of the catholic belief their top priorities. Consequently, the spiritual circle focused on the compatibility of the Christian Story of Creation with natural evolutionary history, of theology with the theory of evolution. It is to the credit of Spaemann’s wisdom and his extremely diverse scientific education that numerous scientific, aesthetic and philosophical theories are included in his final verdict. You never hear Spaemann make the naïve statement that everything happened exactly as it is written in the bible, although the only reason why he could become the paragon of catholic dogmatism is the fact that he never uttered a word of sincere doubt about this. Instead, Spaemann adheres to the policy “both, the one and the other are true”, for which he gives scientific reasons.
Spaemann’s limits of tolerance are where some scientific-philosophical theories themselves are disputed among the scientists. This dispute comes in handy, because it makes it easy for him to discard those theories. By the time those disputed theories are an accepted part of our conception of the world, future Spaemanns will naturally have assimilated them.
Which are the theories that are still a thorn in the flesh for the Christian spirit? All theories that do not adapt themselves to the Catholic dogma have their roots in the concept of materialism. The materialistic concept is one which deduces all its scientific consideration from the research maxim that everything is natural. According to materialistic thinking, a differentiation between the natural and supernatural is counter-productive to enlightenment. It would only serve to camouflage facts and is therefore the basic of magic. Incidentally, it is also the reason for all the bloody conflicts between the religions. All religions must insist on being the defender of the indisputable truth, even if they do not shout this from the rooftops on a daily basis.
The theological concept of professor Ratzinger, too, is one that deduces its legitimacy solely from the super-natural world. And all science co-existing with belief has to pay lip-service to this theological concept in all it says. Thus, theology sets itself before science, and one of the professionals in this process is Robert Spaemann. The premise that the natural needs the super-natural for its existence and its redemption can neither be proved nor falsified and is the basis for theology. In order to forestall a purely natural explanation for existence, theologians, however, substitute the word “natural” by the more aggressive word “naturalistic”. As soon as we agree to discuss a purely natural or materialistic explanation of the world, theological concepts disappear.
Having been able to work its breathtaking innovative development only after its liberation from the constraints of supernatural teachings, the scientific research maxim is the diametrical opposite of the theological paradigm. But there is a natural factor which, to the humans with their so-called everyday life wisdom, constantly gives the idea of the supernatural an aura of comfort: the pure consideration of the Here and Now, that is the materialistic concept, has little to offer by way of consolation.
Thus, Spaemann can be sure of general agreement by making the characteristics of a purely natural explanation of existence look like a caricature in two ways. Firstly, there is the materialistic credo by David Hume: “We can never surpass humans by a single step.” By integrating that sentence into his own concept, Spaemann disarms materialism: “It could only be said by someone who has already been there”. (All citations from: Gottes Gerücht. Eine Rede vor dem Papst über Evolution, FAZ, Sept, 7th, 2006, p. 35.). Today, David Hume cannot object to his own integration into the Catholic Church, so someone else has to defend him. A single argument would suffice to put a stop to the misuse: by the concept of a super-human existence, we are not surpassing humans. Rather, the concept of a super-human, supernatural existence itself reflects the natural desire not to be irrevocably dead after our restricted individual life has come to an end. The more miserable a labourer’s working conditions, the more wonderful he imagines paradise. The increasing misery of our human existence in this world is enough to provoke the opposite of misery. It is only the illusion that somewhere at some time there will be an existence more glorious than ours that makes life in the Here and Now bearable for many people. Whether there actually is a paradise in some supernatural world is irrelevant. Consequently, the less most of the religiously radical societies can offer their people by way of worldly glory, the more they have to rely on the hope of such other-worldly glory if they want stability.
The concept of glory in paradise is as efficient as a placebo; except that the patient must not know that he is being healed through a placebo, because then there will be no healing. In order to have a healing effect, placebos need a certain degree of ignorance. There is something the ideology of Opus-Dei University theologians dishonestly refrain from telling their students and the believers: the fact that the illusion of paradise, as long as it is kept intact (even against better knowledge) does the actual work, namely make the otherwise unacceptable living conditions of a labourer acceptable. The actual existence of paradise is as irrelevant for the labourer dreaming of a better world as the assured reward in the next world is for the Islamic suicide assassin. Neither needs more than the belief to move mountains. Paradise and the natural existence of humans are two sides of the same coin. Longing for a higher existence is a way for humans to express the restriction caused by physical existence. We do not know if there is a way of living outside our bodies, and it is intellectually dishonest to keep quiet about this ignorance.
Confession in Favour of the Here and Now
Humes’ confession in favour of the natural, therefore, remains perfectly within natural limits. He wants to make us receptive to the fact that whatever we aspire to, whatever we try to do, say, write, hope for or believe will always remain deeply human. Thoughts, words, hopes and belief remain human thoughts, human words, human hopes and human beliefs, such as people have them. The materialistic paradigm wants our abstemiousness insofar that, even if we are tempted to ask how the world would look from a super-human viewpoint, we must still be aware that this would only be a view of the world which someone who wants to transgress imagines it.
Spaemann, making use of David Hume, is still polite enough. He finds another, far more obvious materialistic concept indigestible, namely the materialistic philosophy of neurological research. “It is absolutely grotesque”, writes Spaemann, “to imagine someone might in the future be able to deduce theories or a mathematical equation by observing the condition of a brain. After all, such a condition in itself would have to be described as the condition of the brain.” (Now if someone wished to answer Spaemann with the words uttered by the Catholic Church herself, he could easily say: credo qui absurdum – I believe because it is so absurd)
However, no neurologist wants to deduce theories or a mathematical equation as the condition of the brain. Maybe Robert Spaemann would like to cite the source for this insinuation? The only material he will find is about how, from the view of the brain, the human brain might have come up with its own concept of a final meaning of creation, of a deity, during the evolution of the cerebral cortex. Even today, neurologists observe and experiment with the human brain. The results clearly show that the brain basically has a very conservative attitude towards new ideas and expectations. By describing the mental mechanisms, neurologists can plainly see what Catholic Theologians have always practiced: All innovative concepts and horizons of experience are treated after the motto: “What must not be, cannot be.”
Religion was Made for the People, not Vice Versa
The answer to the question why religion has survived so long is given by neurologists when they interpret empirical observations instead of biblical revelations.
The cerebral cortex always experiences its own super-natural constructs as realities. During the evolutionary process, this ability has become the vital factor which gave the humans meaning after instinct had been lost. From the materialistic neurologist’s view, it can be said even today that religion is by no means nonsense. Rather, it can be produced by the cerebral cortex, bringing in its wake all its social benefits and disadvantages.
Then why do the theologians not use the neurologists for their own teachings? After all, it could easily demonstrate that religion is and will always be an indestructible and global phenomenon simply because of its connection with the anatomy of the human brain. But that would make the real problem of the Catholic Belief, about which no theologian wants a public discussion, visible for all: like all theistic religions, the Catholic Church holds itself to be the only true one. For the Catholic Church, what matters is not that all people worldwide learn to appreciate the value of religion, but that the Catholic Belief is forever the one and only true belief. That is why Joseph Ratzinger and Marcello Pera ask in a not widely known book if “Jesus Christ ‘among many others’ in the world is the harbinger of salvation and revelation. That is a concept that a Christian simply cannot tolerate. Or is it?“ (Marcello Pera, Josef Ratzinger, Ohne Wurzeln. Der Relativismus und die Krise der modernen Kultur, Augsburg 2005, S. 34.)
Since the Catholic Church has to keep quiet about this natural question in public, it redirects our attention towards the super-natural. In the USA, the majority of the population believe in the virginal birth, but only one third think that the evolution theory is plausible. In Germany, too – as the Pisa studies have shown – people are more and more prepared to accept ignorance. That is another reason why the Pope can count on a new spirit of emergence for the Catholic Belief in Germany. Let us hope that at least some will remain on the alert for what scientifically outrageous theories will be offered the enlightened world through the drug “religion”.
KJG (translated by EG)