He’s at it again: Faithless are coarse, uncaring and without purpose, says Cardinal Pell. Most of it’s typical tosh. We’re all utterly miserable hedonists, apparently. He even goes Godwin on us:
Cardinal Pell said education was not enough to create a civilised society, that faith was necessary too. He cited the example of 20th century Germany, which he said was the best educated society in the world when Hitler became leader.
Pell is too well-educated himself to actually believe what he is saying here. It’s well documented that Germany in the 1930s was in fact a very religious society, and Hitler’s political success came from using a distinctly nationalist streak of religious conservatism to justify his scapegoating of non-Christian minorities as causing the problems besetting the ship of German state and to rationalise the resort to an authoritarian regime as the answer to those problems.
After all, organised religion encourages the faithfull to accept and obey authority as representing the proper order of things as ordained by God, and as an act of piety in itself: submission to the will of God is necessary in order to secure God’s blessings. See this video (via Shaun at polyaidoloi) for a blatantly unsophisticated view of the theologically approved position on how one should view those in positions of authority:
Sure, religious teachings give a lot of lip-service to doing the right thing in an immoral world, especially the virtue of standing up for justice and righteousness even when it’s likely to be a death sentence, but the faithful are given few actual tools in their religious education for recognising immorality in those given authority over them, and virtually no swift or transparent procedures for challenging it. The faithful tend to not even be given the vocabulary to discuss the possibility of immoral leadership as an ingroup phenomenon – immorality (and thus corruption and exploitation) are described as things that only happen outside their group.
This authoritarian worldview is ripe for exploitation by any opportunistic propagandist. Goering put it in a nutshell:
“Naturally the common people don’t want war; neither in Russia, nor in England, nor in America, nor in Germany. That is understood. But after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.”
The Christian worldview does not provide any special protection against the cynical implanting and exploiting of fear, uncertainty and doubt in normal, decent people by those in authority; nor against such tactics escalating to the point where those normal, decent people end up willing to look aside, acquiescing silently while those authorities do terrible things. Without the critical thinking skills encouraged by the skeptical worldview, people have fewer tools to recognise and rebel against authoritarian propaganda and exploitation.
Many of the first people sounding alarms against authoritarian excess are going to be the well-educated skeptics, because we’re always amongst the people such regimes scapegoat first. “Decadent intellectuals” were persecuted by the Nazis alongside the Jews, another historical fact of which Pell is most likely fully aware. What a despicable purveyor of self-serving swill he is (which is exactly why he doesn’t want children taught critical thinking in ethics classes – can’t have them seeing through the cant now, can we?).
Even Her Maj groks that the religious do not have a monopoly on virtue, in her address to an Anglican synod lighter by around 50 traditionalist clergy who felt they had insufficient protection from the inroads of women in the church’s ministry. Such reactionary rebels highlight that disobeying authority is not always the socially just ethical choice, although it may accord entirely with received morals. The traditionalists view church tradition as a higher authority than the current hierarchy, and thus feel free to disobey. It remains ultimately the reverence for authority over critical thinking that leads to the unjust act.
The only protection against the misuse of authority is a healthy skepticism of those who claim to wield it over us. Faith is not the best tool for questioning authority, mostly because those who run the religions which preach it don’t want it to be.
Addendum: bloggers elsewhere on Pell –
Deborah challenges Pell’s swill from a different angle at In A Strange Land.
Shuan at polydaidoloi waxes lyrical on the meaning and purpose he finds in a faithless life.