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Holy Ignorance

Rick Santorum.jpg
Jim Young/Reuters/Corbis
Republican candidate Rick Santorum, a critic of Pope Francis’s climate
encyclical, in Marshalltown, Iowa, May 17, 2015

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.

Roy notes how the holy float free even from what seems to be their own base. About the Bible, he writes: “Evangelical Protestants follow it ‘to the letter,’ but a letter freed not only from the original language, but from language itself, in order to see no more than a simple message. . . It does not question the veracity of the letter of the scriptures, but nor is it interested in the actual language of the text, nor, incidentally, in any specific language.” An earlier dismantling of the Bible was called the Higher Criticism. This new approach might be called the Higher Holiness, claiming that the Bible is right, no matter what it actually says. This resembles the way American fundamentalists wave the Constitution as a talisman without reading it deeply or at all. They condemn in the same talismanic way the sharia law they have not read. Roy also says that some fundamentalists have detached themselves from the actual culture they are in, appealing to some fictional state they are trying to bring back—they want to “take the country back.”

So, if Catholic conservatives like Rick Santorum deny climate change in the name of holiness, can Pope Francis persuade them with his own appeal to holy values in creation? I doubt it. People who float above the Bible with their own message will find it easy to resist an encyclical. Other popes have denounced war, nuclear weapons, and the death penalty without budging the stony Catholic Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Catholics like Michael Novak have taught Catholic businessmen that the free market is holy, and criticizing it is blasphemy. Besides, fundamentalists are quick to sniff out incipient godlessness even in their own ranks. They will think Pope Francis nice but naive, and suspect the Devil fooled him.