The Pope and PZ Myers: Two Ways To Demonstrate the Perils of Blinkered Vision

Aug 30 2009 Published by under Religion

PZ Myers is upset - and rightly so - at something that Pope Benedict XVI said in a speech he gave at Wednesday's General Audience. The Pope, while speaking on the topic of environmentalism, suggested that disrespect for the environment stems from disbelief in God:

Is it not true that inconsiderate use of creation begins where God is marginalized or also where is existence is denied? If the human creature's relationship with the Creator weakens, matter is reduced to egoistic possession, man becomes the "final authority," and the objective of existence is reduced to a feverish race to possess the most possible.

I have no doubt that the Pope is an extremely intelligent man, but he seems to have slipped into the intellectually lazy habit of allowing his opinion of others to warp his perception of reality. At the same time, part of PZ's response to the Pope's statement seems to fall right into the same trap:

I think I'd have a few questions for this pope. Like, "What about over-population, Ratzi dear? What's the devout Catholic plan for dealing with that rather serious environmental issue?" and "Hey, have you noticed all those hell-holes of destruction in Africa? How does catholicism help people achieve economic and individual autonomy, huh?"

Paul either did not read or did not understand the rest of the Pope's speech. Benedict made it clear that he does not view environmental justice as an issue that can be separated from social justice as a whole:

The earth is a precious gift of the Creator, who has designed its intrinsic order, thus giving us guidelines to which we must hold ourselves as stewards of his creation. From this awareness, the Church considers questions linked to the environment and its safeguarding as profoundly linked with the topic of integral human development. I referred to these questions several times in my last encyclical "Caritas in Veritate," reminding of the pressing moral need for renewed solidarity") not only in relations between countries, but also between individuals, as the natural environment is given by God to everyone, and its use entails a personal responsibility towards the whole of humanity, in particular, towards the poor and future generations.

That position is one that Benedict has expressed before, so it really shouldn't come as much of a surprise to see it again there. Rome might be strongly identified with the right to life movement, but "right to life" as the Vatican expresses the view is a very different philosophy than the one expressed by many of its most vocal proponents elsewhere in the world. In Rome, "right to life" isn't something that ends at birth. It's a comprehensive view of human rights that spans the entire period from conception to natural death. The importance of justice and equality toward the poor and future generations is every bit as much of that philosophy, as expressed there, as a belief that abortion is wrong.

PZ either did not look to see if the importance of broader issues of social justice was mentioned, or his dislike for the pope and the church caused him to fail to see it. But, as I said at the start, he's hardly the only one who might possibly be suffering the pitfalls of blinkered vision.

The Pope chose to single disbelief out as a cause for a disrespect of the planet and its inhabitants, but he's either failing to see or ignoring the political situation that the Church has placed itself in, particularly in the United States.

Here, the Church has placed so much emphasis on the issue of the legality of abortion that they've wedded themselves to a political party that stands starkly opposed to every other part of what Rome says right-to-life is supposed to mean. They're against foreign aid, domestic programs to assist the poor, educational programs that would give people a chance to improve their economic prospects, ensuring that everyone has access to affordable, high-quality health care, and educating people on any means other than abstinence for avoiding pregnancy - including Vatican roulette. They also consistently fail to acknowledge that serious environmental problems even exist.

At the same time, the pope fails to notice that the political left in the US, including a substantial number of the people he classified as part of the problem in his speech, has been extremely supportive of both social and environmental justice for quite some time. Of course, this shouldn't be a shock to anyone who has actually taken time to think about the philosophical implications of a lack of belief in an after life. After all, if your only legacy will be what you pass on to future generations of humans, you do have good reason to want to make sure that their future is secure.

Updated: I obviously wasn't clear enough (or, for that matter, clear at all) with this post. My attempt to clarify things was a little long for a comment, so it's up as a new post.

45 responses so far

  • Mod says:

    PZ criticized some of the Pope's environmental and social policies as a means to suggest that he is not in a position to lecture the world on environmental and social policies.
    So how is pointing out that the Pope was lecturing the world on social and environmental issues undermine this suggestion?
    I'm not trying to 'stick up' for PZ, I really am just trying understand your point.

  • Russell says:

    Rudely hijacking this post, let me ask: Mike, how do you like living in Pensacola?

  • Mary says:

    Hi, for those of you who hate the man on principle and by extension people like me - a practicing Catholic - I have to say stop - you are personalizing what the man says. I've read so many secularists and scientists say he's blaming them. While the Pope is speaking to everyone - after all he is the head evangelist - his main audience is the 1.8 billion people who claim the faith. He's reminding us of not forgetting God and creation. He's reminding us of not buying into forgetting God. I am sure the Pope himself would say that there are many atheists and agnostics who are leaders in creating a better world. He also knows that many aren't - including many who claim faith and don't live it fully. I am sure that I am being simplistic, I am sure I haven't persuaded, I am sure that I will be pilloried as naive about this Pope. Quite frankly, he's the best friend you all have, you just can't see him through your prejudice.

  • george.w says:

    Yeah, I have to go with PZ on this one. That social justice is crucial to environmental restoration is pretty obvious and kudos to the Pope for bringing it up. But he folded it all in into a "believe in God or everything is useless" sandwich while making out nonbelievers to be the principal bad guys.
    Even that would be forgivable if the Vatican weren't an engine of social injustice by its long obsession with power.

  • Gerry says:

    How can you believe a religion that says that the people in heaven will have their joy increase at the sight of the damned being burned alive. I personally would puke my guts out if I ever saw someone being burned alive for any reason whatsoever.

  • @Mark: He's reminding you of not forgetting God by claiming that when you do so, you will "be reduced to a feverish race to possess the most possible." That simply is not true.
    He sure as hell isn't the best friend I have, if he claims that I am like that.
    He certainly isn't the best friend that homosexuals and genderqueer folk have. Remember this?

  • goblinpaladin says:

    Sigh. That should be @Mary, obviously. Clearly it is too early in the morning. Sorry about that.

  • Jason A. says:


    those of you who hate the man on principle and by extension people like me - a practicing Catholic
    he's the best friend you all have, you just can't see him through your prejudice

    Mary, you might try actually understanding many of our criticisms instead of trying to shoehorn us into your persecution fantasy.

  • Kurt says:

    I don't get your point at all. PZ (and many others) have long criticized the church's positions regarding the use of condoms and how badly this hurts poor countries in terms of both overpopulation and the spread of HIV and other diseases. That's a social justice issue, primarily, as well as an environmental issue secondarily. What exactly is it that you think PZ is missing?

  • Beachbum says:

    As someone who shares many of PZ Meyers' views, I can say from my own convictions that it's the obvious lip service not followed in practice that would be my complaint. Ratzinger is not the least concerned with justice or environment where it inconveneintly conflicts with his dogma. The late Mother Teresa and her culpability with suffering is profound evidence of the actual care for humans exemplified by the 'doctrine first' mentality of the Catholics, but also of all dogmatic belief systems of any stripe.

  • MartinDH says:

    The Popes may talk great social justice but their organisation has *always* had a policy of supporting authoritarian rulers who cared little for the general populace. The churches support of the southern European monarchies (France, Spain and Portugal) with their empires to the republics of Franco, Salazar, Mussolini, Hitler and the rulers of the broken empires: Diem, Marcos, Duvalier, Pinochet &c. the RC church has never concerned itself with social justice but rather the acquisition and maintainance of power and influence.
    The only exception to this was the rise of liberation theology in the 60s and 70s where priests, nuns and lay people worked for social justice with (at least the tacit) approval of the church hierarchy. With the rise of the conservative bloc in the church and its election of John Paul II, this movement has been heavily suppressed. Its subsequent further suppression by Benedict XVI only goes to illuminate the blatant hypocrisy of this organisation when it calls for "social justice" and "right to life".

  • Donncha says:

    I think the Pope's delusional on this one. Disrespect for the environment comes when people are told that they're separate from Nature, rule over it and that it was all created for their personal use. It reduces Nature to something we own and can use to enrich ourselves rather than something we are part of and need to steward.

  • Great post and very interesting discussion. Good to get these perspectives on the Catholic viewpoint and interesting analysis of blindspots.

  • David says:

    "In Rome, "right to life" isn't something that ends at birth. It's a comprehensive view of human rights..."
    Except for gays, the Church evidently thinks it's OK to lock them up since it *opposed* an attempt to eliminate laws that make homosexuality illegal. And except for, oh well, never mind...

  • Sharon says:

    >>I have no doubt that the Pope is an extremely intelligent man

  • Pierce R. Butler says:

    ... the natural environment is given by God to everyone...
    IOW, the old "dominion" argument that the earth was made for "man" - a major root of "inconsiderate use of creation". Blinkered vision, indeed.
    Mary @ # 3: ... 1.8 billion people who claim the faith.
    Eh? That number is closer to the tally of all Christians worldwide; the number of Catholics is about half that (and usually considered an exaggeration, claiming everyone who's been baptized rather than those who practice and/or believe).

  • David says:

    BTW, the difference between PZ and the Pope is that when debating PZ will acknowledge the use of a logical fallacy if caught making one in a New York second. The Pope on the other hand, his ENTIRE BELIEF SYSTEM is one giant logical fallacy.
    Also, please explain to me how PZ was off base in the statement you quote. You rightly pointed out some things the church says they are in favor of, but it is pretty easy to infer that in the comment you take PZ to task for he was referring to the policies of the Catholic church that *stop* those things from happening, like, oh I don't know, telling countries that have millions of people that are dying of aids that they should not use condoms.

  • David says:

    @15 Sharon said: Surely you jest. No intelligent person could take seriously all that dress-up booga-wooga mysticism...
    Well Sharon, that goes to the age old question of how you define intelligence. I would not see it means he is unintelligent per se, very intelligent people can believe in very nutty things.

  • aratina cage says:

    I saw this linked at the top of the Scienceblogs website comparing the Pope and PZ. I don't see what the Pope's opinion on anything has to do with his unjustified singling out of atheists; it didn't have to be about the environment. PZ is not blinkered, he rightly criticized the Pope. After taking the uncalled for swipe at PZ, you even go on to say how blinkered the Pope is on social justice and the environment, so what's your beef?

  • The Catholic Church's primary concern is the Catholic Church. They routinely ally themselves with right wing movements (e.g., Franco's Spain) so long as they stick up for the church.
    Also, the Catholic Church didn't ally itself with the right in the US over abortion. The Catholic Church was using abortion as an issue to influence politics, and the fundamentalist religious right saw the success they were having and jumped on the band wagon (the Southern Baptist Convention immediately following Roe v Wade was actually taking apro-choice position). The neo-cons saw an opportunity and tied themselves closely to the "Moral Majority."
    It used to be in the US that Catholic was synonymous with liberal Democrat (the Kennedys, among others).

  • intepid says:

    I agree that PZ's response is rather knee-jerk and doesn't make any concessions for context, but that doesn't make it wrong. Whereas the pope is in fact wrong, and you can't excuse him for this by pointing out that he is preaching to the choir... if anything that makes it more contemptible (ie reinforcing prejudice against the non-believers)
    The Pope makes stupid generalizations [about non-believers] without backing it up, whereas PZ very clearly refers to the particular issues on which the Catholic Church may be held accountable.
    That lack of belief could be held up as an environmental problem is insane, if for no other reason that the giant and obvious one you mention in your final paragraph.

  • doubtingthomas says:

    Hi, for those of you who hate the man on principle and by extension people like me - a practicing Catholic

    I do dislike the man. Hate is too strong a word for what I feel. I feel very different about Catholics in general. I see you as victims of the clergy and I feel sorry for you. I really don't think you have any justification for implying that anyone hates you for being Catholic. I think you've invented that in your own head, because Christians like to feel persecuted, since John 15:18-20 tells you it's a sign of your righteousness.

    I am sure the Pope himself would say that there are many atheists and agnostics who are leaders in creating a better world.

    I am positive that Joseph Ratzinger would never say that publicly. But you're welcome to prove me wrong. Why don't you right him a letter and ask him to say it?

  • george.w says:

    Mary: "I am sure the Pope himself would say that there are many atheists and agnostics who are leaders in creating a better world."

    But he didn't say that, so it really doesn't matter what you are sure he would say (under what circumstances?) A strange way of defending him, that.

  • doubtingthomas says:

    I really don't think you have any justification for implying that anyone hates you for being Catholic.

    I'm sorry. I forgot, there are some Baptists, Pentecostals and other Protestants who do hate Catholics in general. The Ku Klux Klan, for example.
    What I should have said is you don't have justification for implying that agnostics or atheists hate you.

  • As has been remarked twice already (third time's a charm):
    The prohibition of contraception is pretty obviously what PZ has in mind with his first rhetorical question, and we don't do him justice by overlooking it. The relevant catechisms promote overpopulation, which increases stress upon the environment (not to mention disease and death). These effects are dodged by fine sounding words about the proper conception of the person, man's eternal destiny, and so on, but are malign in their effects and can be criticized as such. And there's certainly no traction to the claim that the culture of life ethos is somehow consistent, unlike the Baptist version; since it would seem the accent lies on freeing up obstacles to birth, not on reducing the number of deaths, which in Africa are legion, and as a direct result of the ban on contraceptives.
    This matters to the emphasis you place on the apparent stances of culture of life activists. While in an obvious sense the right to life must begin at conception, Rome's conception of the sanctity of life ethos extends itself prior to conception: "Let all be convinced that human life and the duty of transmitting it are not limited by the horizons of this life only: their true evaluation and full significance can be understood only in reference to man's eternal destiny." (2371, emphasis mine)

  • Zachary Voch says:

    Mary - Hi, for those of you who hate the man on principle and by extension people like me - a practicing Catholic - I have to say stop - you are personalizing what the man says.

    Though I can only speak for myself, I do not think that many atheists hate the Pope `on principle', unless by `principle', you mean those principles consistent with human rights whenever they conflict with positions of the church, but that hardly extends to hatred of you personally and Catholics in general. Of course, for those Catholics who take any criticism of the Pope and/or church doctrine as assaults on themselves personally, I can see how that confusion may arise, though I am afraid that the `on principle' hatred has been adopted by you rather than assigned to you by us (see the distinction?).

    Quite frankly, he's the best friend you all have, you just can't see him through your prejudice.

    I guess we missed that, probably because it's hard to find it in the middle of him blaming us in particular for the worlds problems, especially those problems which the church has had a tremendously significant role in creating or exacerbating. But hey, maybe that's just my prejudice.

  • Zachary Voch says:

    Though I am sure that PZ occasionally demonstrates blinkered vision, I must agree with inteped@21, kurt@9, mod@1, george w.@4, etc. that PZ wasn't missing much here. However, those unfamiliar with PZ's past criticisms of the church might see the exemption of the rest of the speech as slightly unfair, so in that sense, I agree.
    But yeah, as for Ratzinger, the mixture of this speech and the recent history of the Church amounts to something approaching a cruel joke. And frankly, the church's continued popular use of the unbeliever as a scapegoat and rhetorical punching bag is getting highly annoying, particularly when adopting such an ironic version of saintly mantle (though I suppose that that part is business as usual).

  • Rorschach says:

    Got a glimpse of the post title way up on the SB page while reloading.
    Fail to see your point, other than to generate blog traffic.

    broader issues of social justice

    The Pope, who btw no doubt is highly intelligent and also highly devious, has one message : If the earth goes to shit it's because people are not eating enough jebus crackers, and not possibly because my billion-dollar empire contributes to the woes of people with its wicked politics and ethics.
    Dont see which part of that PZ closed his eyes on.

  • Prof. Bleen says:

    Of course, this shouldn't be a shock to anyone who has actually taken time to think about the philosophical implications of a lack of belief in an after life. After all, if your only legacy will be what you pass on to future generations of humans, you do have good reason to want to make sure that their future is secure.

    Very well said! The idea that atheism and agnosticism promote doing good things for humanity as a whole has been largely and woefully ignored.

  • JohnnieCanuck says:

    Lost some of the respect I held you in, with this post, Mike. PZ's response to the Pope's attack on non-believers seems reasonable to me. You come off as angling for blog traffic. Is negative attention really better than no attention?
    The Pope knows full well that forbidding the use of contraception is increasing the load of humanity on the environment. He's fine with that, if it means he has maximised the number of Catholic souls available for Heaven when civilisation collapses. Social justice would be promoting population control with obvious benefits to the poor and future generations.
    At least the Catholics aren't the only religion screwing the poor Africans. There's Baptists and Anglicans promoting AIDS by lying about condoms amongst others.
    You have a soft spot for the Pope, somehow?

  • Jason Dick says:

    Personally, I think that, like a number of other commenters above, you're somewhat mistaken in this case about PZ. It seems clear to me that he was making a rather pithy comment about the practices the pope encourages in Africa in particular, though he didn't spell out what those practices are (the pope's position on condom usage springs to mind, however). In that context, his statement that the pope is being a hypocrite is spot-on. The further quotes you present from the pope only solidify the fact that the pope is quite the hypocrite.

  • Itspiningforthefyords says:

    I can feel that Mike's mind and heart are in what I consider to be the right place, but the Pope, both the figure and the human being inside it, is basically and essentially being dishonest - at this and pretty much all times. His only cause is his business' and his own self-aggrandizement.
    PZed is only human. He's never only right, but he's always only human. And what he wrote was far closer to what I see as a truth explaining the facts of the issue than what Mike has apparently seen.
    Even when the Pope is on my side of an issue, I'd never trust him enough to turn my back to him: the Church's history shows it has studied "The Prince" with far greater attention that the "New Testament".

  • richfean says:

    What a pity that PZ who summons us all to have respect for the environment does not respect the human person of Pope. Why does he refer to Pope Benedict so condescendingly as "Ratzi dear"

  • Treppenwitz says:

    Why does he refer to Pope Benedict so condescendingly as "Ratzi dear"

    What has Ratzinger done to deserve a more respectful tone here?

  • viking says:

    Way to invoke the name "PZ Meyers" and get a link in the "most commented" section. Just an observation.

  • Christophe Thill says:

    Yes, the Catholic Church usually takes rather strong positions if favor of "peace" and "justice", including "social justice". However, its so-called "social doctrine" is strikingly vague, misguided, and resting on extremely confuse ideas.
    I'd say you can't criticize what's wrong in a society without understanding quite a few things about it: causality, structure, etc. You need a thorough sociological and economic analysis.
    On the other hand, the Catholic Church's statements are not based on analyses but on a priori moral positions: this is good, that is bad. Ultimately their basic concept is sin, which itself refers not to structural causes but to individual moral flaws.
    The most surreal example of this is the recent list of "new capital sins", among which "exploiting the poor". Oh, exploiting the poor, bad. But what exactly do they mean by this? Can a good Catholic manager, who gives interviews about the importance of ethics and charity, be an exploiter? They have no basis to decide about this. They deprived themselves of it.
    That's precisely what was wrong with John Paul II's apologies for all the bad things the Church had done in the past. Don't get me wrong, it was extremely daring and positive for him to say it. But he put the responsibility on a handful of "bad apples", people with moral flaws within the Church. Sure, there were quite a few corrpt, selfish and downright insane people in the highest spheres (including a few popes). But you just can't do this. You have to link the crimes that were committed to the structure of the institution and the ideology it supported itself with. Otherwise it's just empty talk. And it does nothing against the possibility for history to repeat itself.
    I don't think the Catholic Church can do away with this way of thinking without ceasing to be catholic (and to be a Church). But as long as it keeps it, it will remain constitutionnally unable to understand the social world and to take a really strong position on social justice.

  • Ian says:

    Well said.

  • James Hanley says:

    I get the point very clearly, and have a hard time understanding those who don't. PZ Myers, even though one stands on his side of the issues, made the same mistake as the Pope, making inaccurate assumptions in the criticism of others.
    Myers does this frequently, but those who enjoy reading him overlook it because they share the same set of blinkers, essentially the belief that all who disagree are both stupid and evil. Behavior that they would rightly criticize in others they commit themselves.
    Of course they flame anyway who dares to suggest so over at Pharyngula.

  • James Sweet says:

    I'm a little puzzled, because while it's quite true that PZ goes way overboard at times and too often expresses some fairly "blinkered" opinions, I don't really see this as one of them. Benedict has explicitly stated that birth control should not be promoted in Africa. Are you denying this?

  • Schmeer says:

    Did Mooney steal your password and post this without your permission? Very strange post.

  • Carlie says:

    I don't agree with Mike on this one, and I did find this only by it being on the top bar, but every time another blogger criticizes PZ, that doesn't mean it's just for page hits. He's just as open for criticism as anyone else.

  • Schmeer says:

    James Hanley,
    I read Pharyngula and enjoy it and can still recognize when PZ makes one of the mistakes you refer to. You wouldn't be making inaccurate assumptions in your criticisms of others, would you? But I must be 'flaming you' here so feel free to ignore your hypocrisy.

  • Scote says:

    Welcome to the attack PZ Tailcoat Train. If it worked for Nisbet and Mooneybaum's hit count, why not yours?
    PZ is not "blinkered" on this one. Overpopulation is at the root of all our environmental problems, and the Holy See's attempts to outlaw contraception and exhortation to be fruitful and multiply in all circumstances are antithetical to solving environmental problems. PZ was correct to point out that the globe trotting Pope, who resides in a palace of luxury, is not in a sound position to tell others to cure their ways.

  • Mike Dunford says:

    I didn't get a chance to respond before now. After reading through the comments, it became very obvious that I did a very poor job of communicating what I wanted to say with this post, and I apologize for that. I started to try to clarify with a comment here, but realized that the amount I needed to re-write was so substantial that a new post would be a less unwieldy way to do so.
    That post is up now. In addition to clarifying (I hope) my basic point, it also contains a response to those who have accused me of traffic whoring.

  • jim says:

    Gee, if PZ and Mike are so concerned about overpopulation, they can lower the population by 2. Take a stand, be proactive. I'm sure they won't have any moral problems with offing themselves and they probably use a lot more resources than the poor Africans in their hell holes. We can even invite 4 or 5 of the poor Africans to live in PZ and Mike's homes. Everyone gets what they want.