Why I Wish Pope Francis Was Joking about the Devil (and Other Beliefs)

Here’s my four-word solution for those struggling with demonic possession: “Stop believing in demons.”

In an unintentionally funny comment, progressive Catholic theologian Vito Mancuso said about Pope Francis’ old-school interpretation of the devil and the need for exorcists: “He is opening the door to superstition.” Where to begin when describing a Catholic door that for centuries has been more open than the mythical Pandora’s box? In fact (really, in fiction), the Pandora myth deserves credit for a foundational myth in Catholic theology.

As the story goes, Pandora, the first woman, was given a box (actually a jar) and told never to open it. Of course, the curious Pandora did open it, whereupon evil escaped and spread throughout the world. So it seems that Pandora committed the original “original sin.”

Eve, the first woman according to the Genesis myth, was also led by curiosity to bring evil into the world. While both myths are unbelievable, people in pre-scientific times used “just so” stories to explain unknown origins. The Greek word “theodicy” is an attempt to reconcile traditionally divine characteristics of omnibenevolence, omnipotence, and omniscience with the occurrence of evil or suffering. I don’t think such reconciliation is possible, but that’s not a problem for atheists like me.

This brings me to Pope Francis’ belief in Satan as the cause for evil, which I don’t find any more superstitious than many other Catholic beliefs. Here are seven that I find at least as unbelievable:

1. God

An all-loving God wants everyone to go to a good place called heaven when they die but can’t seem to prevent most people from going to a bad place called hell. There is no evidence for any supernatural entities, good or bad, yet I find it especially odd to make up an all-powerful God who creates an evil Satan and then can’t or won’t smite him.

2. Original Sin

A talking snake persuades a naïve and inexperienced first couple to eat from a forbidden fruit, and as a result they stain all humanity with collective guilt forever. Aside from the injustice of suffering for an ancestor’s behavior, God punishes the couple for doing evil even though they have no knowledge of good and evil before taking a bite. And why is knowledge evil?

3. Physical Resurrection

Many centuries after the original sin, God figures out a way to “save” some humans. He sends his son, Jesus (who is also himself), to earth in order to be tortured, killed, and then raised from the dead. People who espouse evidence-free faith in this myth are saved from the fires of hell.

4. Immaculate Conception

Mary (Jesus’ mother) was conceived without original sin. I believe that I was also conceived without the taint of original sin, as were you! My problem with this doctrine is that such a privilege was uniquely given to Mary’s mom. The immaculate conception became an “infallible” pronouncement of Pope Pius IX in 1854.

5. Virgin Birth

Mary was impregnated, sort of, by the Holy Ghost (who is also God, who is also her soon-to-be-son Jesus). Nevertheless, Mary remained a virgin the rest of her life, even though she somehow, according to Matthew 13:55-56, had at least four other named sons and multiple unnamed daughters. Perhaps Jesus’ stepfather, Joseph, should be known as the saint of restraint.

6. Assumption of Mary

Another “infallible” pronouncement, this time by Pope Pius XII in 1854, is that Mary was taken bodily into heaven. No need for an empty tomb here.

7. Eucharist

A priest can mumble a few words at a Catholic Mass and magically transform a glass of wine into the blood of Jesus and a wafer into his body — literally! (Please don’t ask for DNA evidence.) Catholic communicants then cannibalize these body parts.

Now, back to Satan, and why I think some progressive theologians are disappointed with Pope Francis’ inordinate interest in the devil. Many people, myself included, hoped that Pope Francis might be a cafeteria Catholic who would focus selectively on “truths” like loving one’s neighbor, caring for the least among us, and working for world peace. Or perhaps what I call a metaphorical Catholic, someone who views nonsensical doctrines as metaphors. Of course, it might be difficult for Christians to believe that Jesus died for a metaphor and that an afterlife is independent of what you believe about Jesus.

I have previously admired Pope Francis for reaching out to atheists, for his emphasis on behavior rather than belief, and for the importance he placed on following one’s conscience (rather than religious authorities). I suppose it was wishful thinking that Francis might just pretend to believe all seven items above in order to placate church conservatives. After all, those beliefs need not affect a person’s treatment of others.

Satan, though, is another matter. Pope Francis does not think the devil is a metaphor, and he even praised the International Association of Exorcists. So I guess Francis is more of a literalist than I had hoped. Also, unlike beliefs about Mary’s sex life (or lack thereof), gullible and deranged people are encouraged by Pope Francis’ belief about the devil to think they live in a Demon-Haunted World, one that Carl Sagan so eloquently and scientifically debunked.

I may not be a trained exorcist, but I have a four-word solution to combat demonic possession that is more effective than anything an exorcist has in his arsenal: “Stop believing in demons.”

It’s more productive to develop a personal relationship with reality. Instead of thanking God for accomplishments and blaming Satan for failures, take responsibility for your actions — good and bad. Comedian Flip Wilson’s character, Geraldine, always excused her bad behavior with “The Devil made me do it.” Flip got it right — attributing bad behavior to the Devil is just something to joke about. And we’d live in a happier and more peaceful world if we’d all embrace Flip Wilson’s devilish humor.

Herb Silverman
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  • Eric Saleme

    I too had hopes that Pope Frank would be more secular in his beliefs, even though his position requires an appearance of fundamentalism. In many respects he has met my hopes, but I suppose we are too wishful in thinking that he could attain such a high position despite being a man of reason and logic. Unfortunately, his belief in the devil, exorcisms and demonic possession is just the tip of the fallacies by which he and his followers adhere.

  • David

    Right on target (I means what part of this could you argue with,) but, in the classic Silverman fashion, with humor. At the same time both edifying and entertaining. What a refreshing combination..

    • prop_joe

      “What part of this could you argue with?” What part of any list of one-sentence claims could you argue with? All of them, I would hope.

  • RichardSRussell

    After a dry spell of several weeks, clouds cover the Sun, there’s a rumble of thunder, and a steady rain begins to fall. The farmer on one side of the fence praises God for the blessing. The family in the county park on the other side of the fence, their picnic ruined, curse Satan for his malice.

    And that’s the result of the “secret agent” fallacy — that behind every action we see in the real world, there’s a secret agent, unseen to us but acting everywhere, at work making it happen. The things we think of as good, we credit to God; the things we think of as bad, we blame on Satan.

    This is so childishly fatuous, so transparently tautologous and self-serving, that it takes constant reinforcement by major societal institutions (each of which is dependent on its continued reinforcement for their continued income) to keep it afloat.

    And what underlies it all? The answer may be found in the very name of this blog: faith — the world’s absolute worst method of making decisions ever — the idea that you can somehow or other “know” something without a lick of supporting evidence, and often despite massive evidence to the contrary.

  • http://WWSHP.ORG William Dusenberry

    A decade or so ago, conservative radio hostess “Dr” (of physiology) Laura Schlessinger commented, on her radio show, that the Roman Catholic Church no longer believes in “transubstantiation” (actually turning a wafer, into a piece of the body of Jesus). Schlessinger opined that such “transubstantiation” is merely symbolic.

    But then the Roman Catholic hierarchy (especially in New York City) attacked her with conspicuous hostility; telling her to stick to what she knows (far-right family values) and leave Roman Catholic dogma to Catholic dogmatists (such as theologians, bishops and cardinals).

    As for Pope Pius IX — if you really want to be nauseated, read “The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara” by David Kertzner (mentioned in Dawkins’ “The God Delusion”).

    This Pope approved of the kidnapping of a Jewish child — so this child could be raised a Roman Catholic.

    Order this book on Amazon — especially if you are not familiar with what European Jews were subjected to in the 19th century.

    This might well be one of the most memorable books you’ve ever read.

  • Martin Hughes

    Well, I think that there should be an element of ideological generosity. ie an attempt to see what people who disagree with us mean, when we look at their ideas: so here goes.
    The ingredients I see in Catholicism are firstly the idea of an ideal being, one whom we would like to exist, secondly the recognition that we would be at some variance with any such being, so wayward are our passions and so dangerous the free will that we apparently possess, thirdly the feeling that there are some people in whose real lives we see something of the ideal, from which springs the search for saints and redeemers. An offshoot of the second idea is that we feel both responsible and also, because somehow trapped in our situation, driven both to blame and call for rescue from forces above and beyond us: this is the root of the idea (number 4 on my list) of demons and saviours. From which comes (5) the idea that since amid all the difficulties and perplexities a saviour, though he/she will be one of those in whom we seem to see that flash of the ideal, may be hard to recognise objectively: therefore faith – recognition without objective verification – is helpful.
    This collection of ideas, difficult to avoid altogether unless we can avoid idealism altogether, is developed in Catholicism through a lively range of imagery, drama, exuberant popular devotions, stirring music and so on. These forces are controlled as well as released, the control coming through firmly enforced dogma. The imagery makes the dogma look beautiful and dramatic, the dogma makes the imagery look rational and well-conceived.
    Hence the imagery of God both in control of the world and in angry reaction to it, of a Saviour reaching out to us and calling for faith, of a Saviour’s mother connecting him to the flesh and blood world, of an enemy trying to frustrate the drama of salvation. In the end I would have to agree that the idea of an enemy, so committed to all that enmity that he seems to lack free will or other human features, endlessly attempting and endlessly failing to frustrate God (so obviously miserable and devoid even of common sense) is inconceivable. I don’t find the Satan of Milton (a fellow cafeteria Protestant) a plausible character. I can just about hold on to the idea that free will is the obstacle to salvation, but that is quite an effort. I also think that the imagery of Catholicism, though often very striking, is also often excessive and too much connected with the emotion of fear. Moreover, the idea of a right to define and enforce dogma is very dangerous and somewhat self-aggrandising, leading to a sense of exemption from moral restraint. Dante found this tendency and blamed it on bad popes, but I think it goes deeper than individual failings.
    So I have my disagreements with Catholicism, though I think that there is a lot of humanity – a lot of natural human thought – within it. Just to add that it seems to be acceptable in our society to discuss Christianity and (in a different way) Islam without ‘ideological generosity’ (sorry, that term sounds pompous, the best I could do) other religions seem to be more protected and either hardly discussed or ‘praised with faint damns’.

  • HildyJJ

    While I would welcome catholics (indeed, any religious group) discarding superstition in favor of metaphor, I’m not holding my breath.

    It seems to me that the belief in Satan is tied up in the belief in a single god. In the OT many gods are mentioned and the jewish version is portrayed as the most powerful who commands that their be “no other gods before [him]”. When christianity decided that there was to be only one god (probably in reaction to the Roman pantheon), they wrapped all the other gods and evil in general into a single opponent. One on one battles generate higher ratings.

    • Martin Hughes

      Satan makes an appearance in the prose intro to Book of Job, I think his first in scripture by name, rather as a police officer reporting to God about human misdeeds than as a grand enemy. He slides into being an agent provocateur, as some police officers do, and perhaps only then into being a renegade ‘ruler of this world’ as he appears in John’s Gospel, about to be judged. I would see this as a response to Persian and Greek rather than Roman ideas, a tentative part of a general movement, perhaps led by Plato in the Timaeus, to remove God from the direct government of the world and to have various intermediate figures take that role. The boundaries between monotheism and polytheism may not have been or even be that sharp.

  • Carstonio

    While the existence of gods or demons is an open question, it’s safe to say that pure good and pure evil are dangerous delusions. Silverman could have more deeply explored the lack of responsibility inherent in the devil concept, instead of focusing on debunking Catholic doctrine. Personifying evil has only one real purpose – to allow one to believe that one is totally on the side of good. It reduces life and morality to perpetual battles with sinister forces, meaning humans from outside one’s tribe. Battles of pure good and pure evil exist only in escapist fiction, and that’s where they belong.

    • Martin Hughes

      Nice to be in contact with you again, Carstonio – we used to correspond in the good old days of the Secularists’ Corner. To me this new format is much more glossy but comparatively lifeless when it comes to comment and exchange of ideas

      • Carstonio

        Thanks so much. The one upside to the new format is that Disqus allows you to check for responses. Jacoby still posts articles here occasionally – her last one was in April.

  • Ed Buckner

    Herb Silverman does it with flair and clarity, as always. I’m glad that he is, like me, a Flip Wilson fan. As a fellow atheist told me recently, “If people were not exposed to the bizarre ideas associated with religions–especially those of the Peoples of the Book [Jews, Christians, Muslims]–until they were reasoning adults, they’d laugh and be almost impossible to convince.” If you’re a Christian, try to read Herb’s fine list as if this was the first time you’d been given these bits of “wisdom”–and then tell me whether they make any sense. Thanks, Dr. Silverman.

    • brijsmith

      Flip Wilson was awesome. So funny. Cheers!

    • prop_joe

      “Bizarre”: So what? Lot’s of things look bizarre from the White materialist perspective.

      • Eric Holp

        “The White materialist perspective”… really?

  • Mike De Fleuriot

    One thing I can never get an answer for, is what is Satan’s end game? What does he hope to achieve if he managed to pull it off and defeat God, does he have a plan, can we have a look at it? Hell, any sort of information from the opposition would be worthwhile, especially as a tool to compare what God has to offer. Do you all know how long eternity is and what that actually means?

    • skeptic15

      Even worse is contemplating god’s end game – if it is simply to have mindless groveling human worshippers for all eternity, why go through everything to get to that point – all the suffering, etcetera, unless such a god were truly an evil being – why not simply have created mindless groveling human worshippers from the beginning (and free will is not a sufficient response, imo)

      • Mike De Fleuriot

        Being God, he could create mindless grovelling human worshippers and still allow free will to be part of their make-up. God would know how to do that, that is one of his special powers, being all powerful. The theistic god really is so limited when you actually examine him.

        • prop_joe

          You don’t appear to have actually examined God. You seem to accept the cheap characterizations given you by Fundamentalist Christians.

          • John Childs

            Are you suggesting that the fundamentalist does not examine God? Do you? If yes perhaps you could instruct the rest of us who wonder about the supernatural on how god works exactly. It seems fundamentalist from a variety of religions seem to be very well versed in their own literature. Whoops slipped up and didn’t capitalize God. Sweating it now.

          • prop_joe

            I suggest that the fundamentalist doesn’t examine God as far as she is able. She stops too early. The easy atheist stops even earlier when he uncritically allows the fundamentalist to define God. Both limit themselves to the White, rationalist limits of their imagination and inquiry. Fortunately, there is are wells of ancient tradition and modern scholarship that avoids the common caricatures.

            One alternative proposed by both these wells says that there is no supernatural. God fits into the same natural schema that we do. God is the supreme example of nature, not the exception to it. God works w/in the limits of metaphysical principles but does not fiat anything. God is unable do break the law of non-contradiction and, so, cannot ‘create mindless grovelling human worshipers’ who are also, somehow, free. God would have no idea how to do that and could not do that.

            Does this mean that God is limited? I suppose, if you compare the real God to some idea of God. But this God–who does not meet White, rationalist conceptions of power–is still omnipotent in the sense that she has a hand in everything that is, and absorbs the influence of everything that is.

            (As for your capitalization error, don’t worry about violating God. Worry about violating a simple convention of style.)

          • John Childs

            Good I like using the small letter for the word god. It diminishes my agreeing to recognize god as a true deity.

          • Herb Silverman

            How do you examine a God for which there is no evidence? It sounds like you just defined God to be what you want it to be. I point out problems I see with belief in a personal deity that most people in this country believe exists.

          • prop_joe

            I suggest that the fundamentalist doesn’t examine God as far as she
            is able. She stops too early. The easy atheist stops even earlier when
            he uncritically allows the fundamentalist to define God. Both limit
            themselves to the White, rationalist limits of their imagination and
            inquiry. Fortunately, there are wells of ancient tradition and modern
            scholarship that avoids the common caricatures.

            One alternative
            proposed by both these wells says that there is no supernatural. God
            fits into the same natural schema that we do. God is the supreme example
            of nature, not the exception to it. God works w/in the limits of
            metaphysical principles but does not fiat anything. God is unable do
            break the law of non-contradiction and, so, cannot ‘create mindless
            grovelling human worshipers’ who are also, somehow, free. God would have
            no idea how to do that and could not do that.

            Does this mean that
            God is limited? I suppose, if you compare the real God to some idea of
            God. But this God–who does not meet White, rationalist conceptions of
            power–is still omnipotent in the sense that she has a hand in
            everything that is, and absorbs the influence of everything that is.

            (As for your capitalization error, don’t worry about violating God. Worry about violating a simple convention of style.)

    • John Childs

      I can’t imagine Satan wanting an end game. God sends him over 90% of the souls of humanity after they die. Even gives the souls a new body that Satan can in turn torture for infinity in a lake of fire. I guess Satan isn’t ultimately responsible for this horrendous torture. That’s on God’s plate. Seems Satan and God have a pretty nasty little thing going between them. Then there are all the spontaneous abortions to consider. What a wealth of little unbaptized souls with fresh new bodies for Satan to torture for eternity. Wonder if they jump like water in a hot frying pan when they hit the lake of fire? Does God take any time to teach these undetected fetuses and gametes about good and evil before he sends them off to be tortured? “least ye be born again of water ye cannot enter the kingdom of heaven”. Good reason to run find a priest who for a nominal amount of money will allow the poor little thing into purgatory for a while. Wonder what happens when the money runs dry? Guess it’s off to the lake of fire. After God let Satan kill all of Job’s children, destroy his home, kill his livestock, and cover him with sores he then reaffirmed Satan’s princedom over earth. i think Satan doesn’t need an end game. What he needs to do is open his own casino. What a racket. Loaded dice.

  • brijsmith

    Eternal life makes everyone a god right? Do I have something wrong here? I mean, if not, it’s pretty close. You live in absolute happiness forever, wait, that’s better than a god because gods seem to have jobs and problems and such.

    • prop_joe

      “Eternal life makes everyone a god right?”
      Why would it?

    • RichardSRussell

      Eternal life makes everyone a god right?


      Do I have something wrong here?

      Yes. 2 entirely separate concepts. You could spend eternity as a cockroach or go out in a blaze of glory (like Norse Baldur) or ignominy (like the Greek Titans).

  • Alice Peterson

    Omniscient- but can’t think of a more loving way to save us than barbaric blood sacrifice? Omnipresent, but needs to hear SPECIFIC magical incantations rather than view good deeds? Omnipotent, but takes 10% of YOUR gross to build temples and keep clergy’s payroll solvent? The cognitive dissonance has GOT to be contributing to mental illnesses.

    • prop_joe

      There are deeper notions of these qualities than the ones you and Fundamentalist Christians seem to share.

    • Morgan

      It is, rest assured! Yeah, the whole blood thing REALLY disgusts me. No matter WHAT century it was in, it’s one of the basest barbarisms.

  • Pootersox

    The “original sin” of Christian theology is not “doing evil” but rather disobedience. They were told they must not eat that fruit, but they disobeyed.

    Of course the elite power establishment of the ancient Hebrews would emphasize dire punishment for disobedience; and equally of course their successors in the Christian movement turned disobedience into the First Sin.

    • prop_joe

      What books that present a careful scholarly presentation and critical analysis of this doctrine would you recommend?

      • Pootersox

        Which doctrine? Original Sin? Any Catholic and many Protestant flavors of Christianity can provide you with all the analysis you want of how Eve was so terribly sinful that she brought all the horrors of real life to humankind. I’ve read the story; I know what it says.

        The need for power structures to control the population? That’s true of every culture everywhere and everywhen, pretty much. I’d love to learn about a culture where that was not true.

        My statement re the actual sin being disobedience, not “doing evil”?

        Doesn’t take a “careful scholarly presentation” — anyone not blinded by unthinking adherence can read the words of the text and see:

        A. There *is* no “evil” in Eden– because for there to be evil, there has to be knowledge of good and its antithesis. (Thus only the creator can do evil, at this point. The snake is merely following its “subtle” nature, a nature *created* by that same creator.)
        B. The creator gave a number of orders given to Adam and Eve: be fruitful and multiply, for example. But the biggie: Of all the trees in the garden they were free to eat but one, and that one they were forbidden to eat or they would “surely die.”
        C. The snake (who is *not* Satan in the actual story, but only labeled as such centuries after the story was created, and not by the Hebrews, either) convinces them that rather than “die” if they touch the fruit, they can be as knowing and godlike as their creator. So they eat.
        D. The act of eating is an act of direct disobedience. But only *after* they do so can they comprehend any evil in such an act– so they did not “do” evil as they were not capable of evil until after this act was completed.

        • prop_joe

          Thanks for saving me the trouble of study. Intellectual integrity is so boring. Pulling stuff out of your ass is so much more interesting.

          • Susanna Jarvis

            Having studied and critically analysed your posts on this article, I have reached the inevitable conclusion that you, sir, are a troll. And not a particularly entertaining troll at that.

          • Pootersox

            I’m so glad you appreciate the fruits of *my* study, which covers several decades. So no, I didn’t pull this analysis out of my ass. I developed it using my rational skills, based on significant reading in a range of sources discussing ancient religions. The whole snake/Eve story, btw, dates to the J writer, which is the most ancient, and the most “magical” of the voices in the Hebrew testament.

            Hence, looking at the text, I observe what the story actually *says* and then use basic reasoning skills. Thus I most emphatically *do* have “intellectual integrity”: the actual text (granted in one or another translation), not just a guess based on what I remember; the application of reasoning skills; the drawing of a pretty damned obvious conclusion *based on the text itself*– can you do so well with *your* interpretation?

            And were you aware that the rib story also dates to that point, but that the P and/or R writer has both sexes created at the same time: “male and female created he them” as phrased in the KJV.

            I think you will learn that the secular humanist community, in general, is far more educated about what the holy book of the Judeo-Christian faith community says than many members of that community.

      • Mr. Timm

        Lutheran World Federation and Roman Catholic Church. Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. English language ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000. ISBN 978-0-8028-4774-4

    • Tom from North Carolina

      I think you missed Herb’s point. Mary, didn’t know right from wrong yet and therefore would not understand disobedience as wrong. And if God knows everything where was he while “Satan” was busy tempting Eve? We don’t hold children responsible for doing the wrong thing when they have been taught right from wrong. Why in the world would God hold Mary responsible for doing “wrong” when she never learned right from wrong?

      And does the punishment fit the crime? Should all of mankind be punished across thousands of generations?

  • prop_joe

    It’s good to have these shallow clichés and straw doctrines listed in one place. The demonstrate that fundamentalist atheists’ conceptions of religion are about as profound as fundamentalist Christians’.

    • Pootersox

      Prop_joe, you’re an ignorant troll. Now I’m sorry I bothered to respond to you– you clearly have very little knowledge and a great deal of hostility toward those who possess both knowledge and the ability to reason.

    • Imlekk

      So… these are NOT some of the doctrines of the catholic church?

    • Mike Kelso

      I’m quite jealous of your apparently deep understandings of the profound truths found in religion….. how am I going to carry on??….. no… wait a minute… I’m over it! that’s a relief.

  • prop_joe

    Maybe the Pope is smarter than this amateur. Maybe he has given these doctrines a little more thought. Maybe he conceives of possession differently. The writer seems to facilely accept the Hollywood caricature (similar to Fundamentalists’ caricature) of possession.

    • Imlekk

      Or maybe the Pope, alongside all the other catholics (and protestants, and muslims, and hinduists, etc.), are kinda deluding themselves a wee bit.

  • prop_joe

    My knowledge of math is probably as poor as Dr. Zimmerman’s knowledge of religion. So here’s a question I need help with:

    Does Four exist? Has anyone ever seen a Four?

    • Imlekk

      Do you mean the number four, or an immaculate conception? The former is as far as I know an abstract form of measurement, while the latter is probably a bit tricky to actually measure…

      …which does give rise to the vaguely amusing idea of graded births. “Hey, this birth was 42 % immaculate! Good job!”

    • RichardSRussell

      You mean does 4 exist as a physical entity? No, it’s an abstract concept. Just like God, it exists only in people’s minds.

    • Mike Kelso


  • Morgan

    As valid as all these points are, I find the fact that so many people with NO Middle Eastern ancestry worship a Middle Eastern god(s). And the fact that they think their god, who began as a tribal war god that was worshipped only locally, could in any way, shape or form have created the whole damn universe. There is absolutely NO logic in the whole religion. Not that there is much in ANY religion.

    • prop_joe

      “There is absolutely NO logic in the whole religion.”

      Neither is there logic in hyperbole. Neither are there apples in oranges.

  • bdlaacmm

    I’m sorry you find these points of Catholic doctrine so unbelievable. Personally, I have no problem with any of them (although I would have worded them quite differently). But you really ought to have stopped with your Number One. If you can’t or won’t believe in God, then what’s the point of quibbling over the details?

    • Mr. Timm

      The details are often cited as “proof” by believers. The entire concept of Christian Theology relies on each one of those details, such as the nature of sin, virgin birth, resurrection, etc. The point of the article is that each one is essentially false/logically inconsistent.

  • cmrowley

    I always think immaculate conception gets a free pass when discussing the ridiculousness of the catholic faith. Maybe it’s due to it not being such a widely understood dogma, often being muddled up with the virginal birth of Jesus. When Mary’s Ma and Pa (Anne and Joachim) were making the beast with two backs and Mary was conceived, she was absolved of original sin by God, in credit for giving birth to God, after being impregnated by God, prior to God dying to absolve the rest of humaity of original sin.
    The most bonkers thing I have ever heard, flying horses and talking snakes make sense compared to this nonsense.

  • Mr. Timm

    You need to add to #1, that God creates the entire universe, and everything in it, then requires animals to be sacrificed. Not only that, but the Bible insists the smell of sacrificed animals is a “sweet smell unto the Lord”. Seems more likely that some hungry priests wrote that, in order to get free food.

    • TheAmused

      And you would be somewhat correct. The sacrifices were what fed the priests on a day to day basis. Heavens forbid they give the meat to the poor or infirm!

      In fact, the misinterpreted verse about blood intact actually had to do with the practice of the priests SELLING the blood shed in sacrifice to the public as it was blessed and so supposedly had “divine” powers. It was nothing more than a way to make some fast money from the guileless. Basically, Paul (or someone purporting to be him) said anyone who went about obtaining blood like that was in for a lot of trouble. Blood transfusions would not come about for another two millennia (give or take a century).

      Yeah, even back then, the priests were pulling fast ones on their congregations…

  • Amy

    Another great article! It is interesting that Vito Mancuso can see that belief in the devil is superstition, but he is unable to see the superstition in other beliefs. I suppose he’s nervous that, if all of the ridiculous ideas continue to be taught as truth, more and more bishops and other Catholics will begin to see it for what it is – nonsense. Kinda like how reading the Bible is the quickest way to becoming an atheist.

  • fritzpatrick

    I often I find a lot of good thinking on this blog, but the present article is an exception. Herb Silverman seems to like Pope Francis
    except for the things that Francis believes, especially about the devil but
    also about seven other “unbelievable” points of Catholic doctrine. There’s a
    lot that can be reasonably debated about the devil, but probably not with
    someone who (through ignorance or otherwise) misrepresents Catholic doctrine as
    Silverman does in his unbelievable points. Here I’ll just respond to the seven

    1. God. “Supernatural

    entity” is not the way theologians have described God since at least the time
    of Thomas Aquinas. God is not a thing among other things. “Act of being”
    (Aquinas) or “ground of being” (Paul Tillich) are a couple formulas in use to
    try to say what language cannot adequately express. (More about language in No.
    7). No Christian with any (conservative or liberal) theological understanding
    would say God created an evil Satan. We do believe that, contrary to what it
    must have seemed at the time, God was smiting Satan pretty decisively as Jesus
    hung on the cross. I can’t find any Catholic doctrine that says most people are
    going to hell.

    2. Original sin. Only a
    minority of Christians (albeit a significant one) takes the Garden of Eden
    story literally. As for suffering from faults that we didn’t commit, who can
    deny that that is an accurate picture of the world we live in?

    3. Physical resurrection. There are
    at least three misrepresentations in this short piece. Trinitarian theology
    clearly states that the Father is not the Son. I don’t think anyone believes
    that the Father desired or needed the Son to suffer. The theory called
    “atonement” may seem to lead in that direction, but many theologians question
    whether atonement is a good way to describe what Jesus accomplished. Since this
    post is aimed specifically at Catholic beliefs, the author should understand
    that Catholics pointedly do not believe that just believing in anything saves
    one from hell. I’m surprised that Silverman doesn’t say anything about the word
    “physical” in his section title. One of the really odd things Catholics believe
    is that resurrection is of the body.

    4. Immaculate conception. It’s
    rather strange to think of the immaculate conception as a privilege given to
    Mary’s mom rather than to Mary herself. Otherwise, as a Catholic I pretty much have
    to somehow own the rest of what’s said here.

    5. Virgin birth. The Holy
    Spirit is not Jesus any more than the Father is the Son. The Bible passage
    named here has been a problem for Catholic belief, but Matthew doesn’t say that
    Mary had those other sons and daughters.

    6. Assumption of Mary. You’re off by a hundred years. I remember Pius XIII, and I’m less than 150
    years old. I assume this was just a typo. I guess this belief is at least as odd as resurrection of any body after death.

    7. The Eucharist. If you paid attention to the prayers of the Catholic Mass, you would see that before
    the Consecration the priest calls upon the Holy Spirit, and it is the Holy
    Spirit, not the priest, who changes the bread and wine into Jesus, present
    wholly under either form, not part in one and part in another. We believe this
    presence is real, but I’ve never heard it described as literal before. We also
    believe Jesus is really present in the assembled people, the presiding priest,
    and the proclamation of the Word. We believe, with a lot of poets and
    philosophers, that literal understanding doesn’t always measure up to reality.
    Maybe that’s why we don’t get too concerned about the charge of cannibalism,
    which has been with the Church from the very beginning.

    • Tom from North Carolina

      You said, “God was smiting Satan pretty decisively as Jesus hung on the cross.”

      You would think that if God was smiting Jesus for the last 2,000 years that Satan would be no more. But alas, here we are still laying blame on a fictitious being. What’s taking God so long to defeat Satan. And if he wasn’t created by God, how was Satan created?

      You said, “As for suffering from faults that we didn’t commit, who candeny that that is an accurate picture of the world we live in?”

      I can. I think it’s a contradiction to say there’s a loving God who created us all but set the stage for our failure. And for 100,000 thousand years of humanity pretty much left us alone to die from simple infections like tooth decay, only to realize 2,000 years ago, that he needed to intervene. God is either really slow, uncaring or nonexistent.

      You said, “Trinitarian theology clearly states that the Father is not the Son.”

      Yes, but they are all one god are they not? You don’t claim that there are 3 separate gods, do you? And remind me again what Emanuel means…

      Speaking about the immaculate conception. Since the holy spirit impregnated Mary without her knowledge or consent, is that the very definition of rape?

      You said, “The Holy Spirit is not Jesus any more than the Father is the Son. The Bible passage named here has been a problem for Catholic belief, but Matthew doesn’t say that Mary had those other sons and daughters.”

      Yes, and there are thousands of other contradictions between various gospel texts. You can’t pick and choose which sections of the bible to take literally and which to classify as nonsense. That’s the problem with using the bible as an accurate rendition of what Jesus said or did.

      You said, ” it is the Holy Spirit, not the priest, who changes the bread and wine into Jesus.”

      The source of the magic is really not relevant to Herb’s argument. You still believe in magic that can’t stand up to a simple chemical test.

      • fritzpatrick


        Thanks for the reply. I’ll try to answer the points you
        raise. Please, keep in mind that my goal is not to convince you but just to help you see that the Christian point of view can at least make sense and be held by a reasonable person. (Not that all Christians are that reasonable, but
        I think many are.)

        Unfortunately, your first paragraph after the quote from my
        post is a bit confused and so hard to deal with directly. But I’ll admit the confusion isn’t all your fault. Christians have trouble agreeing among themselves on the whole Satan thing. Just how much, if any, influence does he still have? How much blame should Satan get for our misdeeds? (In my opinion, none.) Is Satan an independently existing being with intellect and will or a personification of a constellation of forces that reduce human freedom and make it easy to do evil and hard to do good? There are a variety of possible
        Christian answers to these questions.

        I don’t see that you’ve answered my statement that people do suffer from faults they didn’t commit. With or without God, and whether or not God is “slow, uncaring or nonexistent,” that statement seems perfectly obvious. It’s connection with anything like Original Sin might not be obvious, but it’s there for a believer like me.

        I corrected your interpretation of Trinitarian theology, which
        states that the Father is not the Son, and the Spirit also is different from both; and yet there is only one God. Perhaps we can agree that that’s what the doctrine says even if you judge it to be nonsense. I’m afraid I’d never get to the rest of your post if I tried to explain why I don’t think it’s nonsense. I’m sure we both know that Emanuel means “God with us.”

        Your comment on rape is off the track in two directions.
        First, there is no hint of sexual intercourse between the Holy Spirit and Mary.That idea is found in Greek myths but not in the Bible. Also Mary explicitly does give her consent to bear the savior so it wouldn’t be rape in any case.

        I want you to be clear on this: I and most Catholic scholars
        (as well as non-fundamentalist Protestants) know perfectly well that there are contradictions in the Bible. We also know that the bible is not “an accurate rendition of what Jesus said or did.” You say we can’t “pick and choose which sections of the bible to take literally and which to classify as nonsense.”
        Well, picking and choosing is not at all what modern bible scholars do. It’s more like detective work, carefully and critically examining evidence. To get more specific would be another very long story. Let me know if you’re
        interested. But one more thing: The alternative is not between literal reading and classifying as nonsense. Instead of nonsense, you could say “non-historical”; but that still can be very meaningful. It can even give an accurate picture, in
        a general way, of what Jesus was like.

        Finally, I don’t believe in “magic that can’t stand up to a
        simple chemical test” because a chemical test is not relevant to what I do believe about the Eucharist. I thought I made that clear.

        Dealing with lots of issues in one post is hard. Feel free
        to continue asking and challenging. One deep thought at a time would be nice.

        • Tom from North Carolina

          Hi Fitzpatrick,
          I won’t have time today to give the response that your post deserves. Although I would take exception with much of what you wrote, it also as stimulated some thought on my part. It is well written and shows a great deal of thought behind it.

          I will try and take one issue at a time and give it the same level of reasoning that you’ve applied to yours. But I’ll need a day or two.

          Looking forward to continuing this discussion.

  • supup

    I’m an atheist, and I find myself sometimes saying to myself, “Please, god, let (desired outcome) happen” I never did believe in god, so it’s not habit. I got the words from my culture. But I think the reason we ask a mythical being for favors (even when we don’t believe!) is that we want to feel we have some control. The stark truth is that there are many things over which we just don’t have control. It takes true mental strength to simply acknowledge that, both conceptually and in each moment.

  • Thomas

    The biggest lie ever told is “there is no devil”. Anyway! As for your
    “cannibalism” outrageous attack, remember that yes, we do eat the bread
    and wine and that is the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ,
    because by establishing the New Covenant for the salvation of mankind he
    abolished the “Pesach” sacrifice of your fellow Jews, where people in
    Israel were prescribed to eat a lamb slaughtered in honour of God in
    remembrance of the day when they were spared by one major punishment
    because they did this. Jesus is the Lamb of God, Perfect Man and Perfect
    God, and he gave up his life and blood, his divinity and spirit to act
    as the lamb of this New Covenant. So yes, as the Jews do in the Pesach,
    we too are called to eat of this Lamb who takes away the sins of the
    world. And the sacrifice that happens every day in many times of the
    world through the Sacred Eucharist (which was established by God
    Himself!) is for YOUR salvation too. Don’t you forget. In case you want
    to keep spreading your own ideas… well, you’re free to do it. That’s a gift from God. Just remember
    that Jesus did come back from death and those who believe in Him and
    follow his teachings will have life everlasting. May you find faith.

    • Tom from North Carolina

      Hi Thomas. Boy, I guess you didn’t read very carefully this column by Herb Silverman. What do you call the act of eating the literal flesh of another human being? If you believe that you are symbolically eating flesh and blood then that’s not cannibalism. But if, as is taught by the Catholic church, you are literally eating flesh and drinking blood, then Herb’s label is appropriate.

      So I guess you believe in trans-generational sin and salvation? I’m somewhat responsible for the sins committed by my great great grand mother. Is that what you believe? And if you have children, do you believe that your loving God would punish your children for something you did?

      Your fear of being spared salvation is not a fear shared by nonbelievers. We have no more fear of hell or the devil than you do of Thor or Odin or a werewolf. In our case, we go to bed comforted by the facts supported by evidence and don’t have to take things on faith.

      May you lose faith and find reality.

  • Adriaan N Roggeveen

    I am new in this group and so will tread lightly to get my feet on solid ground. I will only say at this point that “Religion as Conceived of in the Human Psyche and Organizing Principal of Human Life” has become so far removed from the point that it might be better just to start over from scratch. I believe that Lewis Black, my favorite comedian on religious and political satire has hit the nail on the head. Speaking for himself he suggested that “what Jews were really good at was ‘bullshit and there wasn’t any TV to watch so telling stories was very entertaining. Just didn’t think anyone would take it seriously until after the Joke that begins every good story.”