Your Holiness

I suppose I've been remiss by not saying anything about the death of the pope. It's not that I hadn't noticed. It's just that I'm one of the many millions of people to whom it didn't really much matter -- although from the TV coverage you would never suspect that we even exist. Karol Wojtyla seemed like a basically nice old man, with some dangerously reactionary views on women, homosexuals and sex in general, along with a refreshingly persistent challenge to social and economic inequality. Like Max Weber, who spent a lot of time thinking about the role of the sacred (not only in The Protestant Ethic and the Rise of Capitalism), I am "religiously unmusical." That is, like Weber, I don't get any special thrill out of mystical claims of life after death, or some unseen and unknowable remote power controlling our lives, or any of the rest of it.

But like Weber, I do have a lively sociological curiosity, as to why other people get such thrills and are willing to believe such unprovable assertions. I was even wondering if Karol Wjtyla really "believed," but I suppose that's a ridiculous question -- "Is the Pope Catholic?" I think we have to distinguish between at least two kinds of beliefs. When I "believe" some claim or argument, I mean that I have adopted that claim as a working hypothesis. Believing requires no special emotional effort -- some things seem probably true based on my own experience or evidence I've read, and I'll believe those things until they're disproved. Once upon a time beliefs in gods must have seemed like reasonable working hypotheses, too, since people didn't have any better explanations available for the weather, disease, disasters or favorable events. A religious person today, though, must will him/herself to believe in God or gods, contrary to all available evidence. Willed belief is what they call "faith," and it takes effort. I wonder why they bother.

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