I value the human spirit of inquiry – call it science, if you will – that religion cuts off by demanding you accept its own version of things without question. The very basis of “faith” is to prevent the common folk from questioning those above them, those who tell them what to believe and what to do.
There are, of course, a great many good Christians – and good Muslims, good Jews, good Hindus and the rest – whose behaviour towards their fellow beings I couldn’t fault. There are also many, and always have been, who use their religion as a pretext for appalling intolerance, appalling behaviour. Those known as Islamic State, or Isis, may be disowned by most Muslims – just as most Christians today would disown the Spanish Inquisition – but they are hardly the first to claim religion as a justification for murder.
The way much of the British media now demonises Islam is pretty much the way much of Britain once regarded Roman Catholics. My own grandmother, no more religious than I am, reserved her deepest scorn for Catholicism. In her view the Pope, whoever happened to hold that title at the time, was one of the most dangerous people in the world. For any one person to prescribe how a fifth of the world’s population should think and act is a scary thought. The idea that that person is supposedly “infallible” doesn’t make it any less so.
Given all this, it’s something of a surprise to find myself joining the present Pope’s fan club. But it’s hard not to celebrate a man who uses all that power and influence to spread such a humane and intelligent message.
His encyclical Laudato si was the most important statement of his pontificate so far.
Beyond mere religion, it addresses the very future of human life on Earth.
Neatly and knowledgeably its swats aside those who – either through wishful thinking or cynically – deny all the evidence of climate change. Perhaps surprisingly, but entirely appropriately, it defines the issue as a moral one.
It calls for humanity to work together urgently to protect “our common home” and abandon the “throwaway culture” dominating modern life.
And it goes right to the heart of the matter when it calls on politicians to abandon short-term thinking for the long-term good of all.
The Pope’s question to world leaders is one they should all ask themselves urgently – and answer honestly: “What would induce anyone, at this stage, to hold on to power only to be remembered for their inability to take action when it was urgent and necessary to do so?”
And the message to his millions of Twitter followers was succinct: “The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.”
A Pope who communicates with his flock via Twitter is an almost surreal idea in itself, but that’s a lot less important than what he says.
Those followers are no doubt mostly Catholics, but the Pope is rightly keen for this particular message to be heard more widely.
Those who have applauded include a number of (presumably non-religious) leading scientists.
As Prof Chris Rapley, of University College London, said: “The Pope’s message underscores a profoundly important insight, all too often missed – that despite having been revealed by science, climate change is not really an issue about science. It’s an issue about what sort of a world we want to live in.”
It’s worth asking what sort of world the British Government wants to live in. Axing subsidies for wind farms and preparing to force fracking on communities that don’t want it hardly back up David Cameron’s stated intention to lead the “greenest Government ever”.
As a real Green – MP Caroline Lucas – put it: “The signals given out by the Pope and our Government couldn’t have been more different. One talks of hope and the chance to rebuild a better world, the other continues to promote energy policies far better suited to the last century.”
I’m not sure those policies would really have been suitable in any century, but she has a point.
So has the man who said this: “It is clear that this Pope is very courageous. He is not a politician. He is not a diplomat. He is someone who is willing to say what others are afraid to say.” OK, the words are those of one of Pope Francis’s key advisers, Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, who can hardly be expected to be impartial. But he happens to be right.
My only unease about Pope Francis’s powerful statement is this: if one man can save the world, what could a different sort of man do in the same position? A climate-change denier, for instance?