In February of 1906, Pope Pius X issued an encyclical titled “Vehementer Nos“, which denounced France for its passage of a revolutionary law establishing the separation of church and state. This document contained a blunt insight into the Catholic view of the relationship between religion and government:
That the State must be separated from the Church is a thesis absolutely false, a most pernicious error.
Happily, France ignored this musty blast from a figure who – then, as now – serves as the most prominent representative of superstitious medievalism. Today, as Catholicism continues to decline in Europe, the French state can proudly point to its strong constitutional guarantee, as well as widespread popular support, for the principle of laicite, or secularism.
However, I want to focus on a different part of this encyclical. In another section, there’s a revealing passage which lays out the Catholic, and arguably the Christian, view of what a just society would look like.
The Scripture teaches us, and the tradition of the Fathers confirms the teaching, that the Church is the mystical body of Christ, ruled by the Pastors and Doctors — a society of men containing within its own fold chiefs who have full and perfect powers for ruling, teaching and judging. It follows that the Church is essentially an unequal society, that is, a society comprising two categories of persons, the Pastors and the flock, those who occupy a rank in the different degrees of the hierarchy and the multitude of the faithful. So distinct are these categories that with the pastoral body only rests the necessary right and authority for promoting the end of the society and directing all its members towards that end; the one duty of the multitude is to allow themselves to be led, and, like a docile flock, to follow the Pastors.
This section puts plainly into words something that atheists have long pointed out: one of the primary purposes of religion is to accustom people to unquestioningly follow an autocratic elite. In many systems, such as Roman Catholicism, the members of this hierarchy choose their own successors, thereby ensuring that lay members have no voice whatsoever in how the organization is run – the perfect antithesis of democracy. Pius’ words drive home that, in his belief system, he and his trusted lieutenants are to make every decision, while the ordinary believers are expected to conform and obey “like a docile flock” – in other words, without dissent, without questioning, and indeed, without independent thought.
Pius was not the only one to envision the ideal society as a rigid hierarchy of obedience. On the Protestant side, C.S. Lewis likewise endorsed this view when he wrote that obedience is “intrinsically good” – regardless of what the specific command is. Like Pius, he stated that when we obey others, we fulfill the role we were always meant to play.
These religious leaders view their followers as a flock of sheep, placid and obedient. That being the case, there’s only one role left over for atheists to play: the wolves. Fiercely independent and solitary, we lurk just outside the fold, serving as figures of terror and dismay to those who huddle within its safe boundaries. (Given the chance, I’d much rather be a wolf than a sheep…)
Of course, in an important respect this analogy is reversed: in this case it’s the shepherds whose intent is malicious, exploiting and – where necessary – sacrificing the sheep for the sake of their own power and prestige. They fear us lone-wolf atheists not because we’d do their followers harm, but because we could wake them up to how they’re being taken advantage of.
It’s no surprise, then, that religious authorities throughout history have sought to depict atheists as unnatural, terrifying figures whose ways the faithful would be best off not inquiring into. But when those shadows of ignorance are dispelled, we emerge into the light as human beings just like everyone else. The religious elite whose own power is sustained by keeping their followers in the bonds of sheeplike obedience may have reason to fear us, for our rise means the downfall of their pretensions and the loss of all their ill-gotten gains. But the lay believers who stand to gain a better life, free from the confines of blind and senseless obedience, have every good reason to welcome us.