Benedict XVI’s new encyclical about hope, modernity and the evils of atheism

Pope Benedict XVI the Pope has published his second encyclical. His basic argument is that “A world without God is a world without hope”.

The progress that modernity promoted is a double-eged sword according to the text. It needs ethics to direct it, lest it destroy even us:

In the twentieth century, Theodor W. Adorno formulated the problem of faith in progress quite drastically: he said that progress, seen accurately, is progress from the sling to the atom bomb. Now this is certainly an aspect of progress that must not be concealed. To put it another way: the ambiguity of progress becomes evident. Without doubt, it offers new possibilities for good, but it also opens up appalling possibilities for evil—possibilities that formerly did not exist. We have all witnessed the way in which progress, in the wrong hands, can become and has indeed become a terrifying progress in evil. If technical progress is not matched by corresponding progress in man’s ethical formation, in man’s inner growth (cf. Eph 3:16; 2 Cor 4:16), then it is not progress at all, but a threat for man and for the world.

The passage that is getting the (atheist) blogosphere up in arms is actually quite on target, showing that atheism is no solution to the problems of theism:

If in the face of this world’s suffering, protest against God is understandable, the claim that humanity can and must do what no God actually does or is able to do is both presumptuous and intrinsically false. It is no accident that this idea has led to the greatest forms of cruelty and violations of justice; rather, it is grounded in the intrinsic falsity of the claim. A world which has to create its own justice is a world without hope. No one and nothing can answer for centuries of suffering. No one and nothing can guarantee that the cynicism of power—whatever beguiling ideological mask it adopts—will cease to dominate the world. This is why the great thinkers of the Frankfurt School, Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, were equally critical of atheism and theism.

The Pope’s solution remains, however, unconvincing. He never quite explains why “a world without god is a world without hope”. He too falls within the theism/atheism dualism, failing to see that there are other options out there. One can hope in the very future of the world without signing off on the a/theism question. Perhaps our hope can transcend that very question and precisely hope for the best regardless of the existence/non-existence of a deity. That is neither theism, atheism nor agnosticism. It is pure, unadulterated hope (without additives).


3 Comments to “Benedict XVI’s new encyclical about hope, modernity and the evils of atheism”

  1. I’m not Catholic, but I think I see his point. If I suspend reality and assume that the universe came into being without a cause, that life came from non-life, disorder turned into order on its own, etc., then there is no rational foundation for morality. It is always “majority rules” or whoever is in power rules. To speak of morality would make no sense.

    I know materialists try to rationalize morality from a Darwinian worldview, but it always results in sneaking some moral foundation in the back door. For example, they’ll often say that such-and-such is moral because it perpetuates the species. But who said perpetuating the species was moral? Species die out all the time.

  2. Neil – i don’t see the problem with bringing “some moral foundation in the back door” – as long as you’re not “sneaking” that is. What good does a god do for ethics after all except to sit there and shake his finger threatening hell? We need to take the measure of the unfoundedness of our morality and just live with it. It is not completely unfounded: it corresponds to some extent to our human nature and to nature in general. The only thing we can’t really do it claim we’ve got the final ethic. that would be presumptuous. And that is where the Pope looses me. He doesn’t see that his jesus-ethic is no better founded than, say, bentham’s utilitairan ethic. Even the christians need to be a little more humble!

  3. Hi Eenauk,

    Sorry, I shouldn’t have used “sneaking” as that implies a deceptiveness that isn’t always the case. I should have just said “bringing.”

    Either way, please re-read your first sentence carefully as it validates my point. Regardless of how you describe it, if there is no universal morality then there is nothing to bring in at all.

    “It is not completely unfounded: it corresponds to some extent to our human nature and to nature in general.”

    Again, you just brought this in to the subject as an unproven assumption. Yes, we all realize there is morality, but in a molecules-to-man worldview there is absolutely no foundation for it. None.

    Are lions immoral for eating zebras? Are zebras immoral for running from lions? After all, the lions are hungry and the zebras are depriving them of food. So why does adding an opposable thumb and supposedly “evolving” greater brain power somehow bring about morality?

    Without God there is still no reason to be kind to anyone, ever, except to survive better. But that isn’t morality. It could result in me helping someone one day and killing them the next, depending on how I thought it might benefit me. And I think (hope!) that most would agree that isn’t morality.

    If you want to talk about God and Jesus in serious terms we could. I think the Christian worldview provides the best explanation for how we got here, why all humans have value, how we should treat each other, etc. I’m happy to defend that but I don’t spend a lot of time trading sound bites.

    Yes, Christians need to be more humble! By definition, authentic Christians know that they aren’t saved by anything good they did but only by God’s grace and what Jesus did for us on the cross. That tends to make one humble. Sadly, many misunderstand that and think they are saved because they are better / smarter / whatever. That just isn’t true.

    You won’t find me defending the Pope, by the way. I like some of his views but their base doctrine has some serious errors. The reformation happened for a reason!


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