Thursday, 17 May 2012

What Does The Pope Know That We Do Not?

What do I know about religion?

(i) Indoctrination

I was indoctrinated in Catholicism. "Indoctrinated" is correct. Catholic beliefs are called "doctrines". A Jesuit was quoted as boasting that, given the boy from an early age, he could answer for the beliefs of the man. My primary school teachers were lay, then Marist; secondary teachers were Jesuit. We were neither told what anyone else believed nor encouraged to think about it. A primary teacher said that there was only one god so I believed that. Later, she said that people elsewhere had their own gods. I thought that this was a revised doctrine so that now there were many gods after all. I would have continued to believe that if I had been told it. She said that it was difficult to understand how there could be three persons in one god. I thought, although not in these words, that if "god" were defined so as to allow for tri-personality, then there was no problem whereas, if "god" were defined so as to exclude tri-personality, then the Trinity was impossible. I vaguely visualised the Trinity as a large white container with three small objects lying at the bottom of it. Years later, I realised that these objects were three purses. The usual plural of "person" was "people". 

Seeing pictures of dinosaurs and caveman, I wondered which was true, this or Adam and Eve.
Given rosary beads, I showed them as something special to a Protestant friend who, possibly mistaking the beads for a necklace, said that they were just for girls. Quoting this as a matter of interest to my mother, I was angrily told not to heed the friend. I realised that there were contradictory social pressures with no obvious way to choose between them. Growing up in the aftermath of World War II, I "knew" that Germans were bad and identified them with "germs".
I knew what the second member of the Trinity looked like but not the first. I thought that this was just because I had not seen a picture of him yet. At the Marist school, there was a picture of the founder in the hall. I wondered if that was the Father and realised that, if that was what he looked like, then I did not like him.

The enemy in a comic book set, I think, during the Korean War were called "Reds". On asking what this meant and being told "Communist", I instantly "knew" that they were bad. A man interviewed on television, describing himself as a Marxist-Leninist, might as well have said "Devil-worshipper" or "evil". Atheism was not just disbelief in God but opposition to him. Since atheism and Communism were bad, God and capitalism must be good but I did not know what capitalism was. A Jesuit told us that a suspected Communist Party member addressed a committee meeting that he attended "...and there he was, trying to stir up hatred." I really thought that Communists were committed to hate in the same way that Christians were supposed to be committed to love.

I had no sympathetic understanding of Protestantism and thought that it was obviously heretical. "Heresy" meant not mistaken belief but wilful picking and choosing between the doctrines of an acknowledged revelation. I was contemptuous of the multiplicity of Protestant sects as, much later, a Communist Party member whom I met on a picket line was contemptuous of the multiplicity of Trotskyist sects. Which, if any, is the right one? We must think for ourselves, not accept an answer from a Pope or a Central Committee.

We were told that Thomas More was beheaded for his faith but not that he had condemned others to burn for theirs. When, recently, I raised this with an older Catholic relative, she resented being asked the question, then replied, "Maybe it was the law? Maybe More had to do it?" When I was shown around a Catholic Cathedral, my guide knew of Thomas More's execution and canonisation but not that he had had Protestants executed. In 1961, at the age of twelve, I read a text book which said that the number of people burned by the Inquisition had been exaggerated. One victim, while being burned, called out the most shocking heresies, even denying the existence of God! I then thought that it was not so bad that he was burned.

I was concerned when a comic book super hero origin story (the Golden Age Hawkman) involved reincarnation. A friend thought that it might be a mortal sin to read such a comic. Mortal sin meant instant damnation on death unless the sin was confessed before death. Venial sin meant a period in Purgatory. Indulgences gained by prayers or devotion lessened the time in Purgatory. A Plenary Indulgence, granted by the Pope, removed all the time in Purgatory. One order of nuns did nothing but gain Indulgences to transfer to the souls already in Purgatory: supernatural foreign aid. An acquaintance who had attended the same secondary school joined the Knights of Malta because membership conferred the "spiritual privilege" of "certain Indulgences". For Catholics, non-attendance at Sunday Mass was a mortal sin because the Pope had decreed this. Not only did they believe that God had given them this power but they decided to exercise it. We were sometimes warned to toe the line just in case Hell did exist.

A Jesuit quoted a character in a novel who, when told that he could believe Catholicism if he wanted to, replied that he did not want to. So belief was a matter of wanting it, not of evidence or reason. Superstitions abounded within Catholic practice. There was a miraculous medal, some alleged supernatural benefit from tracing the letters INRI on the forehead and a belief that Christ in a vision had guaranteed salvation to anyone who practised a "First Friday" devotion: something like Confession and Communion on the first Fridays of nine consecutive months.
Evangelicals oppose faith to reason but Catholics tried to connect them. We were told that basic doctrines like divine existence and the historical Resurrection could be reasoned to. Having reasoned that Christ had founded an infallible Church, it was obligatory to accept those of its teachings, like the Trinity, that transcended reason. One argument for divine existence was: 

every event is caused;
an infinite regress is impossible;
therefore, there was a first cause, which everyone calls God. 

in quantum mechanics or just in logical possibility, every event is not caused;
in this argument, neither premise is proved, the premises contradict each other and the first contradicts the conclusion;
a first cause would be a past event, not an eternal person.

A Jesuit told my class, "That then is the argument and the mind accepts that." No one else seemed to be listening to what he said. I knew even then that it was an argument, not the argument, that it was not the most convincing and that, if all minds had accepted it, then there would have been no atheists and thus no need for an argument.

Another argument in a text book was: 

there is a moral law;
wherever there is a law, there must be a law giver.

However, if God forbids murder, it must be because he knows that it is wrong, not because he arbitrarily decides to forbid it. When I told a Jesuit that I did not see how morality proved God's existence, he replied that it didn't. A similar argument but about natural law began with the premise that, wherever there is order, there must be an orderer. However, that is the conclusion to be proved so it cannot also be the premise. Empirically, we see watches ordered by watchmakers but the Solar System ordered by impersonal Newtonian laws. Theistic arguments, even if valid, fall short of verifying Catholicism. Analogously, a scientist claims direct contact with Martians, then resorts to arguing that there must be life on Mars because there are seasonal changes and canal-like lines on its surface. Years later, when my father converted to Catholicism, he was apparently told that it is not possible to prove God's existence.

A more philosophical Jesuit said, "A peasant woman knows that her faith is a divine gift. I am in danger of thinking that my philosophy gives me mine." Surely she believes that her faith is a divine gift? Thus, it is an article of her faith that her faith is a divine gift. Faith seems to be a closed system that it is impossible to get into or out of. The divine gift of faith was apparently bestowed at baptism when we were unconscious of it. Thus, it does exist independently of reason. How does this differ from indoctrination? The Church relies on indoctrinating children, not on persuading adults by obvious rationalisations like the first cause argument.

Because faith is a divine gift, it is a sin to risk losing it. Thus, there was an attempt to control beliefs and behaviour by internalising the Inquisition. The less philosophical Jesuit said that someone with faith, hearing sceptical arguments that he is unable to refute, retains his faith that these arguments can be refuted. A Protestant or a Muslim could claim the same. An apologetics text book refuted Islam by claiming that that religion had not been confirmed by a single miracle. Another Catholic text book argued, "Catholics believe because Christ claimed to be God and proved his claim by the miracles he worked." Christ, a Law observant Jew, did not claim divinity. That claim was attributed to him in the Gospels. If the miracles were proved, then Christianity, although not necessarily Catholicism, would be a matter of historical knowledge, not of faith.

I thought that natural selection explained plants and animals but that the divine infusion of a soul was necessary to explain humanity.

(ii) Education

In addition to Catholic conditioning, I also had a strong interest in philosophical enquiry. The latter was initially expressed by attempted rationalisations of Catholicism (replacing the first cause argument with an argument from contingency and defending mind-body dualism) but also by wider reading, then by wider practice:

CS Lewis, Christian but not Catholic;
Aldous Huxley, mystical but not Christian;
Jiddu Krishnamurti, challenging all received beliefs;
analytic philosophy of religion - conceptual criticism of monotheism and miracles;
Marxism, secularising prophecy (urgent social interpretation and intervention) and presenting a materialist account of history;
Buddhism, meditation without theistic belief;
popular science writing - a lay understanding of scientific cosmogony and Darwinism;
Biblical criticism, showing that the texts are not factual accounts;
neo-Paganism, reviving seasonal festivals suppressed by Christianity.

Krishnamurti's teaching clarified that, if I had not been indoctrinated in Christianity, then I would not have been converted to it so I had no reason to stay with it. I think the basic difference between me and the Pope is that early interest in philosophy.    


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