The Pope against superstition, prayer crashes a plane

There is no end to the befuddlement that religion can cause to the rational mind, and two recent unrelated stories are perfect examples of why humanists and atheists are often seen walking around in disbelief while shaking their heads at human folly.

For instance, the chief Italian newspaper, Il Corriere della Sera, has reported on March 21st about the visit of Pope Benedict to Angola. Besides the predictable nonsense about the “fact” that only Christ can give meaning to one’s life, the pontiff actually said, and I quote: “Tanti di loro vivono nella paura degli spiriti, dei poteri nefasti da cui si credono minacciati” which roughly translates to “Many of them [the Angolans] live in fear of spirits, of dark forces by which they believe they are threatened.” The Pope, in other words, exhorted his Catholic missionaries to help free the locals from superstition! I am not making this up. The head of a worldwide organization founded on multiple superstitions (they call them miracles), and who constantly threatens eternal damnation by means of an evil spirit (they call it the Devil), actually had the stone face (faccia tosta, in Italian) to criticize the local variety of superstition as irrational and bad for people’s mental health! It doesn’t get any more bizarre than this.

Or does it? Three days later the BBC reported that an Italian court of law had convicted the pilot and co-pilot of a Tuninter (a Tunisian airline) plane, as well as several others including the head of said organization. In the case of the pilot, the charge was that he acted irresponsibly during an emergency landing situation, crushing the plane into the Mediterranean and killing 16 people.

What happened, back in 2005, was that the Tuninter plane ran out of fuel in midair, because the wrong fuel gauge had been installed (that’s why the head of the airline was convicted). But the pilot, instead of beginning standard emergency procedures and directing the plane toward a nearby airport, started to pray out loud! Apparently, god wasn’t listening, and the turboprop crashed into the sea, killing several passengers.

What I think is particularly distressing about these two episodes (and countless others like them) is that the sometime silly and occasionally lethal superstition was displayed not by poor and ignorant people, but respectively by one of the most educated people in the world and by a trained airline pilot, presumably not a complete slacker in the brains department. Which brings us to the crucial question: how is it that intelligent, educated people can hold to such silly notions as eternal punishment and intercessory prayer?

Before the smug atheists among my readers indulge in too much gloating, let me remind you that I’ve also seen a fair share of irrational atheists, people who reject the existence of gods but cannot really articulate the reasons, or who nonetheless hold all sorts of other unfounded beliefs, beginning of course with the rather simplistic idea that all religious people are stupid.

All of this seems to point to the conclusion that the relationship between reason and rational belief is anything but straightforward. Plato famously said that to know something is to hold to a justified true belief. That is, for instance, to claim (even tentative) knowledge that there is no god I need to first of all really believe that there are no such things as gods (that is, I can’t just pretend) and second that it has to be the case that there really are no gods (very likely, seems to me). But I also need to be able to give reasons for why I believe what I claim to know. If the latter component is missing one cannot claim reasonable knowledge, but only a belief held because of faith or someone else’s authority — which isn’t that much better than the Pope believing that Christ is the lord and savior of humanity (hey, at least the Pope claims to actually be an authority in the matter, indeed the ultimate authority on earth!).

By that Platonic standard, I’m afraid we are in deep trouble. It is easy for most of us to laugh at the (staggering) statistics indicating that a large percentage of Americans don’t know that the earth goes around the sun and not the other way around. But, if asked, how many Copernicans would actually be able to explain why they believe the heliocentric theory? If they can’t, then they are simply repeating something they heard from authorities or read in a book (which amounts to the same thing).

Of course most of us don’t have the time to go around learning about the evidence behind most things that we accept as true or likely true. We have to rely on someone else’s authority, and the question then becomes the by no means less tricky one of how to assess whose authority to believe. At the very least, this should make us rationalists a bit less smug about dismissing other people as “obviously” irrational.

Then again, there is plenty of everyday empirical evidence that nothing fails like prayer, so the next time you board a plane it may be prudent to ask the pilot what he would do in the case of an emergency…


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