17 Jan 2009

Atheism and Europe have Christian Roots claims Vatican in Osservatore Romano

The Vatican newspaper, the Osservatore Romano, yesterday published an article claiming that in Europe atheism has solid Christian roots, thereby trying to make the even wilder claim that atheism is a branch of Catholicism. However, the title of the article, "In Europe even atheism has solid Christian roots" [pdf], is also misleading in that the strongest message is that Europe too is defined in Christian terms and should remain purely Christian. The article is written by Pierre Manent and is also published in today's Vita e Pensiero. As far as I can see it is only in Italian - the Osservatore does publish weekly digests in English but it is uncertain if this particular article will be translated. Text in quotations are my translations from the Italian.

The article opens with the first of many extraordinary claims; that Europe is the region of the world defined by the conversion towards truth. As a statement on its own this sounds noble and the basis of philosophy and science. The millenial abuse of language from the Vatican should immediately make one wary of what conversion and truth actually mean here. Also note that this gives further ammunition to those who believe that the European Union is not just a peaceful expansion of democracy, peace and prosperity but the building of a Christian, or rather Catholic, superstate.

The next swipe comes against all other religions, with the claim that this 'conversion to the truth' is not only the foundation of Christianity, but that it is only Christianity that seeks the truth. "All other religions are obedience to the Law or the seeking of enlightenment." This is one more example of how the Vatican really sees other religions, including other Christian churches. It really does need to be highlighted over and over again - just in case Catholics and especially non-Catholics should ever forget - that the Vatican sees itself as a spiritual empire and that it will not rest until every single human being is baptised a Catholic. Participation in any inter-faith dialogue is purely self-serving and politically expedient in furthering conversion to the faith.

Going back to the idea of conversion to the truth, the atheist is thus on the same path, in search of the same truth. "Even he [the atheist] has converted when at the end of this search [...] he concludes that there is no God." Thus conversion is freely turning towards the seeking of objective truth. The atheist and the Christian are thus on the same path. The abuse of words now seeks to define 'conversion' as the setting off on the path of truth rather than the more obvious definition of conversion to Catholicism. For Catholics their religion is the truth, so the statement seems obvious but only to them.

This path involves a balance between liberty and truth. The author then laments that in our current society this balance has been broken in favour of liberty at all costs. No longer do we think of liberty in terms of the freedom to seek the truth, but rather the freedom to choose whatever we want just because we want it. There may be some truth to this. One sees very few adverts for wisdom and the stampedes towards the latest fads seem less than healthy. But let us see where Manent takes this line of thought.

The next target in the firing line is science. The current cultural paradigm of materialism, economic growth, product reviews, media hype and all the pressures to keep up with the times is a turning away from the true path. Manent sees this as a consequence of science, in that the scientific enterprise looks at phenomena without looking at the 'thing in itself'. "The knower does not have a relationship with the object of knowledge, and the viewer is not transformed by what he sees." The obsession to be entertained by external inputs is seen as a consequence of our desire to study phenomena.

The philosophical edifice of Christianity is exposed here, without the courtesy of explaining it to the reader, with its necessity to posit a 'thing in itself' behind every phenomena. This is not the place for a lengthy exposition on Platonic idealism or Hegelian metaphysics, but it is necessary to see that Christianity has to believe in the reality of metaphysical objects because its very doctrines depend on a metaphysical supernatural God. It strikes me that the belief and worship of a manufactured construct and obedience to the doctrines of the cult can be as much to blame for our culture's desire to be entertained by external objects and believe in the media as science.

The history of Catholic philosophy is one of struggle between articles of faith and Greek philosophy. The Church has been selective about which parts of pagan philosophy to absorb and transform and which to reject. In the discussion above it makes me think of Plato's Republic, where he talks about the importance and role of mathematics. Plato saw mathematics as having a dual role and possibly serving as a bridge between apparently disconnected human realms; the physical and the spiritual. At one extreme, mathematics is a useful and accurate tool in the service of science and technology (from the Greek techne). At the other pole the contemplation of its abstract nature can lead one to an inner esoteric world and to gnosis, or inner knowledge - enlightenment even (however bitter the word might taste in the mouth of Manent). Although what we call science has concentrated on the techne side of this continuum, it is thus possible to use the same techniques of experimentation and philosophy to look inwards. Indeed, such a body of knowledge and techniques exists in many branches of Eastern thought. The insult against Buddhism, noted above, is revealing in that the Vatican knows that at a philosophical and human level it is the antithesis of everything Catholicism stands for.

The final message of the article is a political one. That Europe is defined by Christian values and philosophy, by the freedom to take the path of (Christian) truth. That turning away from this path in the search of self-satisfaction and entertainment has also led to a political philosophy that departs from the true path. That the expansion of Europe is in danger of straying away from its Christian roots. This reference must surely be to the possible acceptance of Turkey, a secular state but predominantly Muslim, into the European Union. The Vatican message is clear. We are happy to expand Europe's spiritual domain by converting to Catholicism people in foreign lands but Europe's territorial domain must be clearly defined as Christian.

As this sermon is ultimately about the fate of Europe, why does the title even mention atheism? Perhaps, just as putting 'God' in the title of a book is sure to increase sales, so putting 'atheism' in the title of an article in a Catholic paper will increase readers.

The article is thus a thinly-veiled attack on many of the Vatican's enemies. The insult to all non-Catholics is the claim that Catholicism is the one and only truth. Therefore, anybody seeking the truth is actually on the Catholic path, whether they know it or not. Even atheists are on the same road but have lost the map. This is the very simple logic that Vatican propaganda uses over and over again. The apparently reasonable words are there as a foil to those who have not looked at Catholic doctrines in detail to see what precisely those words mean in the mouths of Catholics. As the Osservatore is the official Vatican paper it is mainly read by Catholics and they fully and completely understand the meanings behind words such as conversion and truth. The rest of us must not be misguided.

1 comment:

  1. great analysis!

    look, in the long run, institutional religion is doomed -- because in the long run, most institutions are doomed.

    why?
    because they can't compete with the fragmentation and fluidity and expectation of responsiveness which are enabled by the ubiquity of telecommunications [i.e. internet] and essentially free computation power, which are driving the new era of free global democratized communication and self-organization.

    the Christians are having a rush of blood to their collective brains just now, because of their millennial anniversary. [something quite similar happened at the previous millennial boundary.]

    but within a few more decades, it's gonna be over, baby.

    no way can the Bronze Age dogmas survive the ever-increasing rate of social change, and the exponential growth in science and technology.

    when we're bioengineering Humans 2.0, engineering new organisms from scratch, and terraforming Mars -- which we clearly will -- the terrestrial shibboleths will be completely unsustainable.

    in the meantime, of course, they can cause a lot more mischief in the dying thrashes of the intellectual corpse that is religion -- but Darwin + Watson & Crick + Einstein + Heisenberg + Hawking et al have long since fired the coup de grace into the collection of nonsense that is Abrahamic religion.

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