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Posted by on Feb 23, 2013 in Atheism, Philosophy | 1 comment

(Strange arguments for) An African Pope

Via Jonathan Faull, I learn that if the next Pope were to be African, he’d in fact be the fourth African Pope, “following in the footsteps of Victor I (AD 189-199), Miltiades (311-314), and Gelasius (492-496)”. And it might make good marketing sense to elect an African Pope – religiosity is still very strong and rising, in many parts of the continent. Even in countries like South Africa, arguably more in tune with global trends than most other African countries, we’ve got 70% or more who claim religious faith (a recent poll showing a sharp decline is unfortunately, not at all convincing).

Of course, people who think the Pope an essential and useful figure are not only concerned about who their largest audience might be. They also care – perhaps even more than demographic representivity – about whether the next Pope can defend the traditions of this archaic system of belief. It takes a certain strong character to defend “traditional” marriage and oppose any other unions, or to oppose contraception, in the 21st century. But when you read some arguments for why the next Pope should be African, it becomes easier to see how Popes (and lesser religious authorities) get away with talking nonsense, decade after decade.

Here’s a prime example: Richard Dowden begins an article arguing for an African Pope with: “Over the decades that I have travelled in Africa I have met only four African atheists”. A claim like this is astonishing, for various reasons. First, because as a look at something like the IHEU member organisations will show, we have a growing number of secular humanist organisations on the continent. We have atheist conferences – in Malawi, Nigeria, South Africa and elsewhere, and some of us attend and speak at international conferences too. In other words, the myopia of Dowden’s claim is the first notable thing.

One suspects, though, that he’s not looking very hard. It’s implausible to imagine that he starts every conversation with “say, are you perchance an atheist?”. And because we are a religious continent, a lack of belief would not typically be the sort of thing you’d advertise. Then, Dowden – who appears to be religious himself – might well tend to congregate with other religious folk in any case, making his (tiny already, as why should “who I meet” be your criterion) sample one that has a strong self-selection bias.

Then there’s this “no true Scotsman” paragraph, in which he claims that:

African history is largely untroubled by religious wars. Wherever religious wars are reported in Africa the cause is usually a dispute over land rights involving two communities that happen to be of different faiths. Religion per se is rarely the cause. That traditional tolerance however is now under pressure – not from atheism – but from externally-funded, exclusive fundamentalist religions in the form of Wahabi Islam exported from Saudi Arabia and evangelical Christian fundamentalism funded from the United States.

I’m sympathetic to the idea that religion and religious practices aren’t equally dangerous. But the extreme forms – even if he identifies their influence accurately in that paragraph – feed off a base of people who are already sympathetic to strange metaphysical claims. The fundamentalist religions could not gain traction without people finding the idea of gods plausible in the first instance, and the evangelical churches would remain empty, despite the funding, if rescuing your soul from hellfire was never a plausible offer in the first place. Just like in any market, competition emerges and can become aggressive. This competition is certainly premised in religion more broadly, and Dowden needs to acknowledge the role of the “traditional tolerance” for religion as a factor.

Worst of all, for me, are these two sentences:

Would an African pope change the Church’s attitude to homosexuality? Highly unlikely but on social justice, both local and international, expect a far more forthright and vigorous voice.

“Highly unlikely, but on social justice…”? One must hope that the opposition set up here is entirely accidental, because in implying that homophobia is not a social justice issue, Dowden would be making it clear that he knows as little about religion in Africa as he apparently knows about atheism in Africa. It’s in Uganda, after all, that we’ve had years of debate around whether homosexuality should be subject to the death penalty (there’s no debate around whether it should be illegal – of cours it should, according to Ugandan lawmakers).

Speaking in 2009, Ethics and Integrity Minister Nsaba Buturo was by contrast a model of tolerance, saying that life imprisonment for homosexual men might be better, as “killing them would not be helpful“. In a context like this, with homophobia prevalent across the continent, one does not get to carve homosexuality out of any bundle of social justice issues. After patriarchy, and the consequent and frequent abuse of women, it might well be the largest social justice issue.

It’s thanks to columns and arguments like these that it becomes ever clearer that the debate should ideally not be around whether the next Pope should be African or other, but rather around how long the Papacy – and Catholicism in this form – can survive at all.