Holy Ignorance

tags: climate change, religion, politics, climate science, Pope Francis

Garry Wills holds the Alonzo L. McDonald Family Chair on the Life and Teachings of Jesus and Their Impact on Culture at Emory. He is the author of "The Future of the Catholic Church with Pope Francis."

When a Republican politician, asked about climate change, says, “I’m not a scientist,” most of us hear just a cowardly way of dodging the question; but the politician’s supporters hear a brave defiance of an alien force. When we hear only “science,” they hear “godless science,” the kind that wants to rob them of their belief in creation and force evolution into their minds. That science is marching in a battalion of forces—the media, the academy, the government—that has them besieged. “I’m not a scientist” does not mean, “I have not heard enough about the science, and need to hear more,” but “I know the evil intent or effect of science, and I will not let it affect me.” They summon a courage not to know.

Now Pope Francis, with his encyclical on climate change, has introduced a concern for the poor into the environmental discussion. But conservative Catholics (including five actual or potential candidates for president) forgive him, since he knows nothing about science—if he did, he would realize its anti-biblical animus. He does not know, as the conservatives do, that the masked godless thing must be met by a holy resistance. This is what the French anthropologist Olivier Roy calls “holy ignorance.” It is not a failure of intelligence, but a proud refusal to know things tainted by the arrogance of inevitability. He writes: “There is a close link between secularization and religious revivalism, which is not a reaction against secularization, but the product of it. Secularism engenders religion.” The defenders of the lost cause feel persecuted, and the more support there is for their opponents, the grander they are in their lonely war.

Roy’s apparent paradox is supported by the Fundamentalism Project, a six-year study completed in the 1990s by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, with ample funding from the MacArthur Foundation. That report also concluded that fundamentalism is the unwanted child of secularism: “The defining and distinctive structural cause of fundamentalist movements is secularization.” This kind of principled ignorance will not be lessened, but exacerbated, by calling into court more and more scientists to refute it, since the witnesses enter the court already labeled as “godless,” to be resisted as belonging to the forces trying to destroy the real America. The court itself is not valid. On the contrary, the few scientists who deny man-made climate change are on the side of holiness, so one of them can outweigh hundreds of the godless. ...

Read entire article at NY Review of Books

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