Friday, July 18, 2008

Atheists: Learn from the Pope!

We atheists are pretty smug about how smart we are, but today we should take a lesson from the Pope and the Catholic Church. According to this article,
Pope Benedict XVI on Friday urged religious leaders of all kinds to unite against those who use faith to divide communities ... Benedict met with representatives of Muslim, Jewish, Hindu and Buddhist faiths ... yada, yada, yada...
What's wrong with this picture? Did anything jump out at you? Of course not, and that's the lesson we need to learn from the Pope. Let's rewrite this story, but still stick to the facts:
At a meeting in Italy today, Imam Sheikh Mohamadu Saleem urged Christians to overcome their stereotypes of Muslims. Imam Saleem told representatives of Christian, Jewish, Hindu and Bhddhist faiths that, "Christian groups and other religions must overcome their prejudice to Muslims and Islam."
Why does the Pope always get top billing?

Modern religions have had 10,000 years to evolve to their current state, and it's been a fierce battle for survival of the fittest. Only the very best strategies (memeplexes) for survival are with us today, and they are very good indeed. One of the most important features that arose from this evolutionary battle of church memes was a government-like hierarchy – churches that had a strong, central governing body were much more successful. They were able to integrating with (or become) governments, to fund proselytizing, to collect vast sums of money, and perhaps most importantly, they had a revered figurehead who personified the religion and gave its adherents a warm, fatherly figure.

It almost goes without saying that the Roman Catholic Church is at the apex of evolutionary development in this regard. When religious leaders meet, it is almost always the Pope who is named first in news articles, even when he travels to the other leaders' countries. The Pope is the uber-celebrity. I'll bet most of you can't even name three other major religious leaders. You'll start with His Holiness the 14th Dalia Lama, and then ... well ... Pat Robertson?

We Atheists have a double problem. First, we don't have an uber-celebrity like the Pope. Occasionally we'll have a respected advocate like Carl Sagan, or more recently Richard Dawkins, both of whom were/are knowledgable and articulate. But they just don't hold a candle to the Pope's celebrity.

Second, we're severely handicapped by our free-thinking, inquisitive nature. Most religious people are, by definition, willing to accept ideas on faith alone, without questioning it. It's easy for them to accept that the Pope is the top dude. By contrast, suppose someone told you today, "We've appointed Richard Dawkins as head of the Atheist Church, and his word is gospel." As much as we all respect the good professor, such an announcement would be greeted with hoots of laughter.

We're like a giant, unorganized mob trying to battle a highly-disciplined army with a seasoned general and battle-tested lieutenants.

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