Hilaire Belloc and “The Modern Mind”

December 27, 2009

It’s a funny thing that Hilaire Belloc is now one of my favorite Catholic authors. When I ordered the books for Chris, it was purely to humor him for Christmas, several years ago. I didn’t really want to order the dirty Catholic books. And now, my recourse in times of intellectual exhaustion is to the clear hand of Belloc.

We’ve all dealt with people who insist that something is true because “everyone” knows it. For instance, Catholics worship Mary, right? And religion is responsible for violence and evil in the world, like Richard Dawkins says. And the existence of pedophile priests shows that celibacy is a bad thing. I groan internally every time I hear these all too common assertions. What’s worse is that most people, when confronted about the falsity of these things, continue to adamantly defend their baseless position. The truth seems to mean very little to them, and evidence is too easily brushed aside. More important to them is the testimony of others who “must know” what they’re talking about, or worse, what seems likely in their estimation of history and reality. All too often, people are content with the version of the truth that is handed to them on a platter or conjured up in their own imagination, with no critical thinking, investigation, questioning, research, or evidence. It’s sad to see this disinterested regard for the truth, and frustrating to engage it. Belloc writes about this invincible density of mind in his essay “The Modern Mind” (highly recommended reading). Some of my favorite lines:

“It is the spirit which lives on bad science and worse history at third hand. It is the spirit, not of the populace or of the scholars, but of the half-educated…

Its three ingredients are pride, ignorance, and intellectual sloth; their unifying principle is a blind acceptance of authority not based on reason.

Pride causes those who suffer from this disease to regard whatever they think they have learned, whatever they have absorbed, through no matter how absurd a channel, as absolute and sufficient.

Ignorance forbids them to know with any thoroughness what men have discovered about these things in the past, and how certainly.

Intellectual sloth forbids them to examine an argument, or even to appreciate the implications of their own assertions…

I have said that its unifying principle was the acceptation of false authority: blind faith divorced from reason. The “Modern Mind” takes for granted without examination a number of first principles — as, for instance, that there is a regular progress from worse to better in the centuries of human experience, or that parliamentary oligarchies are democratic, or that democracy is obviously the best form of human government, or that the object of human effort is money and that the word “success” means the accumulation of wealth…

Why is this mood so dangerous to the Catholic Church? That patently it is so, we see. It inhibits men from so much as understanding what the Faith may be, and bars the action of a true authority by the unquestioned acceptation of false; we can see it doing that every day before our eyes…

It is a peril because true faith is based upon reason, and whatever denies or avoids reason imperils Catholicism…

The “Modern Mind” is confirmed in its folly by the fixed idea that someone or other somewhere “proved” its errors to be truths and that the proof was final and obvious…

What are you to do with a man who always argues in a circle? Who tells you that some political arrangement is good because it is “democratic,” and when you ask (a) whether it is as a fact democratic, (b) why democracy is an evident good, answers you by saying that you are sinning against democracy and its holy name.

What are you to do with a man who does not recognise his own first principles? Who tells you that he believes a thing on the authority of a name or a bit of print, and who, when you ask him the grounds of his confidence in such, answers you by giving another name and another bit of print?”

When you decide to search for the truth, you may find that religion is not responsible for all the evils of the world, nor are science and religion at odds. And just because you can pull out a Bible verse to “prove” something doesn’t mean that’s what the Bible teaches. Also, the existence of sinful people in the Catholic Church who do not follow their own religion do not disprove Catholicism:

And priestly celibacy does not cause pedophilia. The profiling of pedophiles discounts any situational causes other than having experienced abuse as a child for the psychosexual disorder. Nor is the Catholic Church more rampant with pedophiles than any other denomination. In fact, it would appear as if the Catholic Church has a smaller percentage of pedophiles:

  • The Wisconsin Psychological Association’s survey found offenders distributed among the following professions: Psychiatrists 34%, Psychologists 19%, Social Workers 13%, Clergy 11%, Physicians 6%, Marriage Counselors 4%, and Others 14%.
  • US Catholic clerics (priests, deacons, bishops, etc.)¬†accused of abuse from 1950-2002: 4,392.
    About 4% of the 109,694 serving during those 52 years.
  • The Center for Domestic Violence found that 12.6% of clergy said they had sex with church members. 47% of clergy women were harassed by clergy colleagues.
  • The Presbyterian Church stated that 10-23% of clergy have “inappropriate sexual behavior or contact” with clergy and employees.
  • The United Methodist research (1990) showed 38.6% of Ministers had sexual contact with church members and that 77% of church workers experienced some type of sexual harassment.
  • The United Church of Christ found that 48% of the women in the work place have been sexually harassed by male clergy.
  • The Southern Baptists claim 14.1% of their clergy have sexually abused members.

The above statistics are a good example of a need to think critically about information given. The statistics are similar, but taken from different sources and different surveys and ultimately testing slightly different things. They can’t be used to make a definitive comparison between denominations about sexual abuse. Instead, they only suggest that Catholic priests are not the only and possibly not the worst predators out there. It also points out that sexual predators find positions of trust from which they can find their victims. More shocking in the first statistic is the number of mental health professionals who abuse their patients.

I would have more people ask the questions “Is that true?” or “How do they know that?” when they hear proposed statements, read primary sources instead of third hand accounts and opinion pieces, and not reiterate common soundbite knowledge without finding out if it’s true or not. Until then, my friends, do your best to wrestle with this fog. All we can do is challenge the common knowledge that “everyone knows” and hope people listen.