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The Age of Reason

The 81-year-old pope … climbed up to his gilded chair on the loggia.”

Rather than critique the obvious absurdity above, I’ll just ask a simple question. Does sitting in a gilded chair somehow make you an authority on the conditions of the WORLD? If it were a plain old aluminum folding chair, would his views be any less significant? Or from the standpoint of the believers that claim a pope is a living vicar of Christ on earth, would a chair not embossed in gold somehow make him less “vicarry”?

In his speech, Benedict said it was “urgent” to find hope around the globe, despite mounting reasons for despair.

The Pope and the rest of the Catholic Church are suffering from a serious case of confirmation bias. I thought we got a much needed shot of hope a few months ago. But what really are the mounting reasons for despair? Are the world’s problems more serious today than they were 5 years ago? What about as compared to 25 years ago? 100 years ago? 1000 years ago? What a bunch of malarkey. Should we be in despair that more human beings are NOT in poverty than at any time in human history? Should we be in despair that life expectancy around the globe is SIXTY SIX years, whereas a mere 200 years ago it was less than 30? Should we be in despair that more people have risen out of poverty in China alone in the last 25 years than any other group at any point in human history?

I guess I would despair if I were the leader of an organization based on the suppression of reason. Did faith and hope give rise to all of this human progress? Did billions of people locking themselves in chapels saying an infinite stream of rosaries suddenly unleash the creative human effort of billions of people? Did a few healing masses suddenly cause life expectancy to rise so dramatically, after it had stagnated at 25 years from the time man first walked all the way until the beginning of the Industrial Revolution? Even the Pope himself must know better than that. I would hope his message, for those believers among us, is not that praying to the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus will bring prosperity, but that having faith in something bigger than you may put your single human life in perspective.

This is not an anti-individual message I am making. I believe in something bigger than me … and that is that for me to enjoy the awesome, fantastic, terrific, magical, stupendous standard of living that I do, I depend heavily on the extremely hard work, creativity, ingenuity, risk taking, and reason of billions of people around the globe. That is certainly bigger than me. However, this “collective” is not directed by any supernatural power. Rather, it is their reason that lights a fire under each and every one of them to make their lives a little less uncomfortable and insufferable. And so long as no mystic or physical power prevents them from taking measures to improve their lots … lo and behold … their lives improve!

For millenia the Catholic Church and other similar organizations have preyed upon the fears of the population at large. And now that the majority of the world has real reason for hope, optimism and change, the only way they seem to think they can “stay in power” is by trying to convince people that the world is going to hell in a handbasket.

But really, what are the mounting reasons for fear?

“At a time of world food shortage, of financial turmoil, of old and new forms of poverty, of disturbing climate change, of violence and deprivation which force many to leave their homelands in search of a less precarious form of existence, of the ever present threat of terrorism, of growing fears over the future, it is urgent to rediscover grounds for hope,” he said.

Let’s take these claims in reverse order. Are there really growing fears about the future? Really, did the pope look at global interest rate movements and report on how they have been skyrocketing over time. The interest rate is a good proxy for people’s feelings about the future. If there is lots of uncertainty and fear, then people will require quite a large premium to be persuaded to give up purchasing power today and delay it into the future. Not only does he not report this data, if he did, he would be rather surprised by his findings. So where did he find his data on growing fears about the future? Oh yeah, God must have whispered it to him (i.e. the Vatican’s accountant informed the Pope that the value of their vast holdings has taken quite a beating in the past 2 years).

Is terrorism a greater threat today than in the past? Has he been reading this? Or this? Are terrorist attacks more likely today? The economic evidence suggests … NOT.

Are people more inclined to leave their homelands today? Well. that is hard to argue, since the existence of a “homeland” is a relatively recent phenomenon in human culture – we were all once hunter-gatherers.

And what to make of “disturbing climate change?” Glad to know that the Pope is not only an anthropologist, economist, demographer, but also a climate scientist! I am sure he has read all of the research, weighed the evidence carefully, thought about the potential economic and human damages, and has concluded that this is a disturbing event.

Food shortages? Financial turmoil? New forms of poverty? Gosh where to start. In a time when more people are well nourished and fed than at any in world history, he is talking about food shortages as endemic problems. And does he know what a shortage is? Does he mean it is scarce for some people? Or does he believe that at current world food prices, more is demanded than is available? There are huge differences. Is financial turmoil something new? And is this event particularly severe as compared to events in the past. In fact, the current subprime crisis is not the first real estate bubble in America … not even close. Though some of the crash is happening in the same place. New forms of poverty? I didn’t know there were different varieties of deprivation – I must have missed that economics class. I suppose he means that new obstacles are coming into play to prevent people from rising above poverty, but I sure would love to hear him tell me what those things are.

“Africa suffers disproportionately from the cruel and unending conflicts, often forgotten, that are causing so much bloodshed and destruction in several of her nations, and from the growing numbers of her sons and daughters who fall prey to hunger, poverty and disease,” Benedict said.

Well, if the man in the gilded chair says it, it must be true.

First, is it really true that Africa is forgotten? Or what does it mean? I am more aware of what is going on there than at any point in my life. The UN, World Bank, World Health Organization, World Food Organizations, numerous NGOs, etc. are all dedicated to improving the lot of folks in Africa. Are these influences decreasing over time? And why do you think these agencies even have the ability to exist today? Why did they not exist in 1800? Or 1900?

Second, what about the claim that it is increasingly poor, hungry and disease ridden? Up until 1940 … Africa … never … grew. Let me make it more stark for you Mr. Pope. When Jesus was resurrected, he “enjoyed” as standard of living no worse than the standard of living of a typical African at the time World War II ended. In fact, the standard of living in Africa was LOWER during the Industrial Revolution than it was during the time of Jesus. And for virtually all of human history, economic progress in Africa trailed that of the rest of the world, at least for the little progress that was happening. You can see real data for this here. But I would not expect the Pope’s crack team of researchers and writers to have done it. And for as miserable as Africa’s living standards are, at least in the last 60 years it has seen an increase in per capita living standards of 87 percent, as compared to a DECREASE over virtually the entire record of human history before it.

Anyway, the point is, the Pope, regardless of his incarnation, regularly pronounces “facts” as if they were so … and virtually all of it insults basic human reason. And that is all aside from whether or not you believe in the religious message they are sending.

And no, none of this is meant to discard the severity of the problems “the world” faces today. If you wish to santimoniously claim that I am ignoring real problems, or denying their existence, then have a nice day. But such claims are meaningless to me until you demonstrate for me exactly how I am doing so, particularly after I just acknowledged in the sentence above that these problems are real. My point was that the Pope has no clue what the state of the world is as compared to in the past, and even if he did, he is preying on people’s natural tendencies for fear and uncertainty to advance his agenda. Finally, neither he, nor any agent of the Catholic Church I have met seem to have any appreciation for the enormous complexity of our world, or the myriad forces that have helped advance our living standards to what they are today. It is hard to view organized religion much differently than organized government. So, they don’t have guns,but they do have the threat of spiritual sanction. If you do not live in ways that they wish to see you live, and you are susceptible to belief in the supernatural, then you rightly think you will spend the rest of eternity in hell. That is arguably more powerful than what the government can do to you.

The original AP story is here. I was raised strict Catholic, in case anyone was wondering.

8 Responses to “The Age of Reason”

  1. bill greene says:

    This post praises the increased living standards, life expectancy, and economic and scientific growth that many of the world’s people have enjoyed over the many past centuries. However, no recognition is given to the fact that almost all the institutions of commerce, science and industry that fueled that progress occurred in a few western European nations heavily steeped in the Judeo-Christian religions. Instead, the Catholic Church and religion in general comes in for a lot of criticism.

    I am writing a review of John Carroll’s book, “The Wreck of Western Culture,” in which he laments the loss of faith, and the decline of religion–because it was the West’s spiritual traditions that helped build the successful societies of the Renaissance, Scotland, Holland, and eventually led to America’s miracle of scientific and educational progress. And Carroll, while no great fan of Christianity, argues that some new spiritual sustenance is needed if the West is to hold its own.

    My own take is that most ordinary people have very successfully enjoyed their lives and contributed to rational scientific progress by separating their Faith from their secular lives- That was the secret weapon of the West–not seen in all the other stagnating nations of the world where religions and philosophies did hold back progress. Most humans need a Faith–they are theotropic beings, and Christianity, with all its flaws, proved the best when it comes to encouraging initiative, work, responsibility, and results.

    After all, it was in Christian nations, the Church’s monasteries and the educated friars that formed the first universities in the world, starting in the tenth century! Religion fostered intellectual inquiry, and thereby western progress– and played a pivotal part after the Reformation in fueling the demand for democratic governments. It was the open economies that came with freedom that allowed the millions of citizens in the West to apply their genius to make the industrial Revolution. By remaining a separate sphere in most peoples’ lives, Christianity gave them the sustenance to pursue their secular goals. Just compare it with Islam, Buddhism and Confucionism!

    Now, granted, the Pope’s do seem a little dated, and often are wet blankets when it comes to fun stuff like uncensored entertainment, parental duties, moral obligations, wild sex, and promiscuous living–but someone has to do it!! Without a moral compass, without some restrictions, we would all degenerate and social order–not to mention the work ethic–would falter. It was just those Ten Commandments and personal responsibility that made Western progress.

    The arrogance of relying on pure reason, without the leavening of religion and Faith, is perhaps what the Pope is warning us about–and he may be right, although that global warming part does not scare the pants off me nearly as much as the total failure of all the World Bodies and trillions of foreign aid to alleviate poverty in the Third World nations. Maybe a dose of Christian commandments, less tribal and ethnic warfare, an improved work ethic, and an empowerment of the people in those nations would work better?

  2. Harry says:

    Tonight on Jeaporday they had an answer, “[He] [objected to the crossed shepherd’s crook and the key, superimposed over the Cross in the papal seal]. The question was who made the objection, the answer, Martin Luther. Without dealing with the enormous complexities alluded to by Wintercow and Bill Greene (which I will have to reread several times) Luther said it was faith that would set you free.

    One should not infer from this comment that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, nor any employee of the Synod, endorses this interpretation.

    It does free me from worrying about whatever the Pope says about global warming, the economic theories of African dictators, or anything else he knows little of. I do, however, pay attention to his pronouncements about the Bible. He and his brethren are experts about that.

    I never got a good answer from my Pastor about why Lutheran Bishops were hugging Yasser Arafat, either. (Picture in The Lutheran Magazine.) Must be something in the water.

  3. wintercow20 says:


    I don’t disagree, nor should my post be meant as a way to ignore Weber’s important thesis. The unspoken message is that an appeal to reason does not mean you have to abandon faith in something higher. On the tails of that idea, however, I also do not believe that faith in a particular form is a necessary ingredient for moral, ethical or disciplined behavior. Adam Smith addresses this question rather nicely in his Theory of Moral Sentiments when he refers to fellow feeling.

  4. bill greene says:

    This subject is difficult because:
    1- There is a great diversity of “taste” among religious people–most people want a religion, but some like it hot and some like it cold–so we should not nit-pick all the theological differences between Christian forms that have been offered from time to time during the last two thousand years.

    2- Religion–organized forms–have played a very important role in shaping cultures and peoples’ attitudes on morality, work, self-reliance, responsibility, etc. I believe the Judeo/Christian forms of religion, backed by the Greek humanist traditions, have proven more empowering for their followers than any other of the major belief systems–because they stressed free will, responsibility and an pro-active attitude–all while maintaining Faith!

    3- Most commentators and writers on the subject are intellectuals who lean to the “Reason” vs Faith side of the equation and believe they can maintain disciplined ethical behavior without the trappings of religion and Faith. Some can, but most people can’t. Many of the Founding Fathers had little use for formal Scriptural or Fundamentalist religion, but knowing the importance of same for many people, they were careful to honor Christianity publicly. That shows them as wiser than those who preach atheism and scoff at the superstitious ( the latter are those who in Obama’s words “cling to their guns and Faith”)

    4- The worst genocidal wars of the last century were fueled by secularists who claimed they were free of the bourgois morality of religions–Mao, Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Hiro Hito, etc. It may be a sheer coincidence, but I doubt it! It’s not so much that I love God, but that I am terrified of those who would deny him.

    5- Rubashov, in “Darkness at Noon,” says it best:
    “Perhaps it was not suitable for a man to think every thought to its loguical conclusion. . .Perhaps it did not suit man to be completely freed from the old bonds, from the steadying brakes of ‘Thou Shalt Not’ and ‘Thou Mayest Not,’ and to be allowed to tear along straight towards the goal. . . And, perhaps reason alone was a defective compass.”

    The conclusion I have advanced in my work on history is that it has only been the intelligentsias and Enlightenment philosophers who have agonized over the inconsistencies between faith and Reason. The Common People have easily separated Faith from Science, go about their lives applying reason to make things work and discover new scientific and mechanical systems, and then can switch gears and gain spiritual sustenance from their Faith. Child’s play for the average Joe, impossible for the intellectuals!

  5. P. Lewis says:

    Wintercow, your claims about Africa having “never” grown are very easily refutable with even the most cursory scanning of the true historical record. According to you (and even leaving Egypt out of the equation) there was never a civilization of Meroe, or Axum in Ethiopia; never a Mali, a Songhay, nor a Kilwa. There were plenty of black African civilizations stretching back over 5,000 years, yet your myopia regarding Africans–as a bunch of bone-in-the-nose savages–is typical of Western people. And if you think the above information is just a pack of lies, then you need only to look the information up on the web and see for yourself.

  6. wintercow20 says:

    Mr. Lewis, that great civilizations stood throughout the world over is not inconsistent with the EVIDENCE (read Angus Maddison for starters) that there was no growth for centuries the world over. To put it in perspective, no doubt many many many advances were made before the Industrial Revolution. Think of moveable type, the compass, sextant, etc … and great pyramids and societies were built … but traditional societies responded to such advances by increasing populations, leaving per capita well-being largely unchanged. Modern societies not only increase in size, but they “spend” some of this productivity with per capital gains. In Feudal society, and across much of Africa, the landed received upwards of 30%to 40% of all income generated by the population. So for a country with 10 million people, and each person producing at the subsistence level of $800 per capita, that would generate $8 billion in output for the landed-class to access. At even 30% of that, it means $2.4 billion in revenues per year to build great libraries, pyramids, etc. In the hands of a small elite, we can subsidize many artists and intellectuals and build great temples to the rulers! But doing this cannot support sustained gains for the population at large.

    To make your point clearer, what you would argue is that by showing that Kim Jong Il has amassed a fortune and built a really cool hotel in Pyongyang, is evidence that the North Korean people have experienced increases in well being under his rule. That is hard to reconcile with the evidence.

  7. P. Lewis says:

    “And for virtually all of human history, economic progress in Africa trailed that of the rest of the world, at least for the little progress that was happening.”

    This is simply not true, nor is it verifiable, even by Angus Maddison. “Virtually all of human history” would have to include Egypt (in ancient times). It is inconceivable that in 1800 B.C. Africa was trailing the European continent in terms of economic progress, seeing that most of Europe at that time was not even organized.

  8. wintercow20 says:

    Maddison starts with year 1 … others have gone back further.

    Here is the data:

    Average African income in year 1: 472
    Average Egyptian income in year 1: 600
    Average W. European income in year 1: 599

    Average African income in 1820: 420
    Average Egyptian income in 1820: 475
    Average W. European income in 1820: 1,243

    I’ll let my readers decide how to interpret this … I use data, not anecdote. And what of my other points? Does Kim Jong Il demonstrate that North Korea is rich? And does even a rich Egypt demonstrate that Africa was generally rich?

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