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Pope Francis and “What Is Idolatry, Anyways?”

 

“And Pope Francis himself is wrong for, once again, being a populist and refusing to call a spade a spade; he wants support from the Left and thus defends Pachamama, but he also wants support from the Right and thus condemns idolatry.”

Recently, Pope Francis apologized for the theft of two Pachamama statues from a church in Rome. Pachamama is an Andean goddess that represents Mother Earth. The statues were thrown into the Tiber river. The vandals, who presumably belonged to an ultraconservative Catholic group, recorded on camera their deed. Ultraconservatives seem to be thrilled with this act of vandalism, as they see it as a form of smashing down idols and reestablishing true monotheism.

Pope Francis pretends to be a liberal, though he is truly not. Nevertheless, he frequently receives support from Social Justice Warriors (SJWs). In this particular instance, the Pope has been lauded for apologizing, and SJWs have accused the vandals of being racist. By this point, in our politically correct age, the everything-is-racist mantra is nauseating. But, just as stopped clocks mark the right time twice a day, SJWs do have a point every once in a while. And this time, they are correct that the vandals are racist. As monotheists, Catholics would appear to be enraged with pagan symbols. But, they are only selectively angry. 

They do not seem to be upset with the massive Graeco-Roman pagan legacy that survives in our civilization. Catholics are very happy watching the Olympics every four years (mind you, a festival originally dedicated to Zeus), or celebrating the birth of Christ on the same day as Saturnalia. One Protestant propagandist, Alexander Hislop, wrote a book in 1853, The Two Babylons, which purports to show that the Catholic Church preserves many Babylonian aspects and is, thus, the Whore of Babylon described in the book of Revelation. This, of course, is no serious scholarship, but we should still be mindful that many pagan symbols do persist in Catholic imagery.

Although the relationship between classical paganism and Christianity was not smooth in the first few Centuries of Christianity (Tertullian famously asked, “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?”), by the Renaissance, Catholics had already made their peace with classical paganism and, in fact, embraced the Greek and Roman worlds as their own. By contrast, Catholics refuse to make their peace with any other form of paganism, especially if it comes from dark-skinned people. So, conservative Catholics will be thrilled to see the Greek god Minos in the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel, but they tear their garments to pieces upon seeing a Pachamama statue in a minor church in Rome.

Pope Francis pretends to be a liberal, and, in that regard, he goes with the multiculturalist flow of the current times. He, thus, wishes to present himself as the progressive leader, whose mission is to redeem the Church from its imperialist past. He does so by apologizing for the Spanish Conquest of the Americas, which had the approval of the Church. The Church’s approval of the Conquest was based on an evangelizing mission: natives had to be conquered so that they would stop worshipping false idols (such as Pachamama)—and accept the one true religion. So, in order to reverse that arrogant imperialist ethos, Francis conveys the message that Natives’ cultures must be respected.

Ever since the Second Vatican Council, Catholic missionary activity took a multiculturalist twist, and—just as Francis—modern missionaries now tend to emphasize the need to respect natives’ culture. But, does this include a respect for their religion? It is hard to say. In fact, Catholic missionaries face a dilemma. If they claim that natives should stop worshipping their gods, then they feel guilty about being arrogant imperialists. If they claim that natives’ religion should be kept intact as part of their culture, then what is the point of evangelizing?

In order to get out of this mess, progressive Catholics usually play a trick. They claim that idolatry is not really about bowing before statues but, rather, about dedicating undue attention to worldly things. In this interpretation, idols are not Vishnu, Shango, or whatever other god Christianity has encountered in its global expansion; idols are actually greed and consumerism (in other words, capitalism). This curious way of defining idolatry was especially popularized by Liberation Theology in Latin America. Ultimately, when the Israelites worshipped the Golden Calf in the desert, so the argument goes, their real sin was not to worship an animal but, rather, gold. So, the Hindu peasant who bows to Shiva is not an idolater; but the Wall Street broker who goes to Church on Sunday is. In fact, in his apology for the vandalizing of the Pachamama statues, Pope Francis himself (deeply influenced by Liberation Theology) claimed that they were displayed in the church “without idolatrous intentions.

Liberation Theology may be commended for its defense of the poor—but not for its intellectual honesty. Its interpretation of what idolatry is, is spurious. Whoever came up with the Decalogue in Ancient Israel did not have in mind greed and consumerism when, in the First (or Second, depending how you count) Commandment, God orders “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” The author had in mind gods such as Baal or Ishtar, and much to the dislike of Pope Francis, had that author encountered Pachamama, he would have also had that goddess in mind as an idol.

Be that as it may, in the history of monotheism, this particular commandment seems very difficult to keep. In the 18th Century, the great David Hume famously wrote: “it is remarkable that the principles of religion have a kind of flux and reflux in the human mind, and that men have a natural tendency to rise from idolatry to theism, and to sink again from theism into idolatry.”

When it comes to balancing idolatry and monotheism, where to draw the line seems to be a difficult call, and, in fact, this has given rise to bloody disputes. Christianity had its violent Iconoclastic Controversy in the 9th Century, but it has never really gone away, as Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox still argue about whether or not the Virgin Mary and the Saints are to be venerated—and whether or not churches should have statues. Islam seems to be going through this particular turbulence all over again. The Prophet Muhammad famously smashed down the idols upon entering the Kaaba in Mecca, as the dramatic images of ISIS destroying cultural artifacts in Palmyra remind us.

Discussions about the licitness of a statue in a temple are much ado about nothing. This is the kind of stuff that gives religion (and especially monotheism) a bad name. Yes, monotheistic religions do teach nice moral principles about altruism and solidarity, and, back in the day, the Hebrew prophets did a good thing by abolishing some of the abominable things done in polytheistic religions, such as temple prostitution and child sacrifice. However, at the same time, monotheistic religions excessively regulate things that, quite simply, are harmless. Idolatry is one of them. Bowing to an idol hurts no one and, therefore, is morally neutral. SJWs do have a point when they scold conservative Catholics for being upset over a simple piece of wood.

Yet, whether or not monotheists are correct in their beliefs (I, for one, highly doubt there is a God), the fact is that, historically, monotheism did pave the way for science. Catholic scholars such as Stanley Jaki do have a point when they argue that you cannot do science when you think that nature is itself sacred. By presenting God as a transcendent being, monotheism separated the divine from nature. And this separation enabled humans to have a more aggressive attitude towards enquiry and innovation. If you think a tree is a god itself and stays forever in contemplation, you would never dare use an ax to cut the tree in two and explore its inner anatomy.

SJWs are very fond of Pachamama because this goddess represents nature itself. SJWs like to think of themselves as eco-friendly (though they do not seem very willing to abandon their comfort zones made possible by fossil fuels). But of course, what SJWs are blind to see is that—in a world where eco-friendliness runs amok and nature itself is sacred—life would be nasty, brutish and short, as it surely was before humans dared to stop thinking that thunder was a god’s voice or a river was a live creature itself.

So, in this whole affair of the Pachamama statues, all sides are wrong. On the one hand, conservative Catholics hypocritically feel repulsion for a pagan idol, when, in fact, their religion is replete with pagan symbols from Antiquity. On the other hand, SJWs fail to understand that the ideology behind Pachamama worship is also problematic, as it prevents human beings from scientific enquiry and technological innovation. And Pope Francis himself is wrong for, once again, being a populist and refusing to call a spade a spade; he wants support from the Left and thus defends Pachamama, but he also wants support from the Right and thus condemns idolatry. 

In a debate like this, the only right answers can come from the Enlightenment. And thus, we can arrive at three conclusions: 1. Ever since the Ancient Israelites, idolatry has been understood as religious devotion to gods represented in objects. 2. By this definition, Pachamama statues are no doubt part of idolatry, but so is the veneration of relics, Virgin Mary statues, and so on, which is very common in Catholicism. 3. Idolatry hurts no one, so it is morally neutral. 4. Although morally neutral, historically, the (partial) suppression of idolatry did give rise to science and technology, and, therefore, the ideology behind idolatry (and not so much the ritual aspect of idolatry itself) should be rejected.

Dr. Gabriel Andrade teaches ethics and behavioral science at Ajman University, United Arab Emirates. He has previously contributed to Areo Magazine and DePauw University’s The Prindle Post.

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