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Soft Atheism and Rational Religion

Jacobs Ladder

A very instructive exchange between Gary Gutting, a philosophy professor at Notre Dame, and Philip Kitcher, a philosophy professor at Columbia, just appeared in the pages of The New York Times.  Kitcher describes himself as a proponent of “soft atheism,” which is to say an atheism distinct from the polemical variety espoused by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.  Unlike his harsher colleagues, Kitcher is willing to admit that religion can play an ethically useful role in a predominantly secular society.  I won’t delve into this feature of Kitcher’s thought, for I have explored the Kantian reduction of religion to ethics elsewhere, but I would like to draw attention to one particular move made in this interview, since it shows, with remarkable clarity, one of the fundamental misunderstandings of religion common among atheists.

Prompted by Gutting, Kitcher admits that he finds all religious doctrine incredible.  Pressed for an explanation of this rather extreme position, he points to the fact of the extraordinary plurality of religious doctrines:  Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, animists, etc. hold to radically different accounts of reality, the divine, human purpose, etc.  And since all religions rely fundamentally on the same ground—some revelation offered to distant ancestors—there is no rational way to adjudicate these differences.  Indeed, the only real reason that I am a Christian, he would maintain, is that I was born to Christian parents who passed the founding stories onto me.  If you, as a Jew or Muslim or Hindu, have different foundational stories, there is no reasonable way I can convince you or you can convince me.  It’s just your cockamamie myth against my cockamamie myth.  This is, of course, a variation on the standard Enlightenment view that positive religion is untethered to reason and hence inevitably violent, force being the only way that one religion can supersede another.

The fundamental problem here is that Kitcher completely overlooks the decisively important role that a religious tradition plays in the development and ratification of doctrine.  It is true that religion is usually grounded in some foundational events, but those experiences are not simply passed on dumbly like a football from generation to generation.  On the contrary, they are sifted and tested through a complex process of reception and assimilation.  They are compared and contrasted to other similar experiences; they are analyzed rationally; they are set in dialogue with what we know of the world on other grounds; they are subjected to philosophical investigation; their layers of meaning are uncovered through conversations that have unfolded across hundreds, even thousands of years; their behavioral and ethical implications are teased out and assessed.

Let us take just one example from the Bible in order to illustrate how this process happens.  The book of Genesis tells us that the patriarch Jacob one night had a dream of angels ascending and descending on a great ladder that was rooted in the earth and stretched into the heavens.  Upon awakening, he declared the site where he had slept holy and consecrated it with an altar.  As the tradition has received this story and drawn out its implications, it has come to see a manifold of profound metaphysical and spiritual truths:  that finite being and Infinite being are intimately connected to one another; that every place is potentially a place of encounter with the power that sustains the cosmos; that there is a hierarchy of created reality stretching upward to God from the earth and downward from God to the earth; that the worship of God is enlivening to human beings; etc.  These conclusions are the result of the very sifting process I referenced above, and they provide the basis for something that Kitcher and his colleagues evidently find inadmissible, namely, a real argument about religious matters.  It is not simply a question of pitting one ancient story against another; it is a question of analyzing, marshalling evidence, and testing against experience.  And when this takes place between interlocutors from different religious traditions, provided that they are people of intelligence and good will, serious progress can be made.  The conversation partners will discover, perhaps, that they hold a remarkable number of truths in common, that there are points of contact between doctrines that seem utterly at odds, and that there are some of their teachings that are indeed mutually exclusive.  And in regard to the points of contention, authentic arguments can be launched from both sides.

As I hinted above, what bothers me about Kitcher’s proposal is that it effectively relegates all religion to the arena of the irrational.  It is interesting to note that several times in the course of his interview he compares religious experience to the experiences of people suffering from psychosis.  And this shows the real danger of such a proposal, namely, that a society dominated by advocates of Kitcher’s brand of atheism might tolerate religious people for a time but will, eventually, seek to marginalize them—or even hospitalize them for insanity.  If you think this last suggestion is paranoid, take a good hard look at the policy of the Soviet Union in regard to those who disagreed with its regnant ideology.  In the mid-nineteenth century, John Henry Newman fought tenaciously to defend the rationality of religious claims.  Kitcher’s interview—as well as the voluminous writings of his intellectual allies—convinces me that the same battle rages today.
 
 
(Image credit: Wikimedia)

Bishop Robert Barron

Written by

Bishop Robert Barron is Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. He is an acclaimed author, speaker, and theologian. He’s America’s first podcasting priest and one of the world’s most innovative teachers of Catholicism. His global, non-profit media ministry called Word On Fire reaches millions of people by utilizing new media to draw people into or back to the Faith. Bishop Barron is also the creator and host of CATHOLICISM, a groundbreaking, 10-part documentary series and study program about the Catholic Faith. He is the author of several books including Thomas Aquinas: Spiritual Master (Crossroad, 2008); The Strangest Way: Walking the Christian Path (Orbis, 2002); and Catholicism: A Journey to the Heart of the Faith (Image, 2011). Find more of his writing and videos at WordOnFire.org.

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  • Loreen Lee

    Quote from comment in Faith and Unbelief. : "provided we talk about "faith" in its purely natural sense, i.e. to avoid insanity and/or paralysis".

    I'm not convinced that this 'definition' need refer to a merely 'natural
    faith'. Are you familiar by any chance with Kierkegaard's "Fear and
    Trembling" in which he portrays the faith of Abraham, (indirectly) with
    something that can only be described as an insanity. I listened to a
    sermon today, (they are I believe one gospel ahead of the schedule) in
    which the priest discussed faith as a 'gift of the Holy Spirit". At
    one point he referred to an anxiety that one may have in reconciling the
    dependence of the 'believer' with the inability to to be 'close to God'
    (for want of a better expression, please excuse). I am at the moment
    attempting to read a book: The Idea of the Holy by Rudolf Otto, which
    discusses the 'numen' or 'numinous', and involves a consideration of the
    irrational as well as the rational aspects of 'divinity' as understood
    by the aspirant. Indeed, there is also the term 'divine madness', for
    the same reason, and I believe that all of these characteristics can be
    related to the theological virtues, particularly faith in this context rather
    than merely a natural relevance as in the quote..

    That this is so, (I believe) is a reason why I am very careful with mystical thought generally, and specifically with absorption in a belief in 'miracles' per se. This,
    as you will understand, raises some difficulty with Church doctrine,
    among other things. So be it. But it also opens up the possibility of
    an understanding of the 'atheist' perspective, which also adheres to a
    'rational verification' of empirical data. I mention this because the
    request for empirical evidence is a mainstay in atheistic criticism of
    theism.

    I don't expect you to comment on this issue at present. I
    merely raise the question as possibly relevant within the context of
    the history of ideas within the Western context. Thank you.

    For today: Is faith in contrast to reason necessarily involved in paradox as demonstrated by Kant's antinomies. Is it always possible to buttress such faith statements with reason?

  • Jim (hillclimber)

    Nice article.

    I think it is important to note that the rational reflection and discussion that is being proposed here is not limited to dry logical evaluation of metaphysical propositions. One can have rational reflection on the meaning of a story (as suggested in the OP with the example of Jacob's ladder) or on the meaning of rituals.

    I can remember having a very profound experience of the Eucharist after having watched, earlier in the day, the scene in Dances With Wolves where the Lakota guy rips the beating heart out of the slain bison and eats it. Something about that scene really engaged me. As I watched it, I wanted that same visceral experience, that taking part in the most primal and intimate way in the mystical experience of death giving way to new life. When I took the Eucharist hours later, it hit me like a ton of bricks. I was overwhelmed. I was metabolizing God. It was a raw aesthetic identification, not rational at all. But years of subsequent rational reflection on that experience have allowed me to see ways in which the Lakota ritual was both similar and dissimilar to the Eucharistic experience. I never want to let go of that pre-rational visceral experience, but now I think I can discuss the Eucharist in a rational and doctrinally acceptable way.

  • Tess

    Fr. Barron, your last point really cuts to the heart of it. There is a concerted effort to reduce "freedom of religion", our first right granted in the Bill of Rights, to "freedom of worship". For the record, "freedom of worship" is allowed in communist China.
    All of this is ironic, of course, because what is truly irrational is to believe that something comes from nothing without an original cause. You really don't need divine revelation to come to the conclusion that there has to be a prime mover. Although, God in his mercy likes to help us out now and then with...I don't know...let's say "inspiration". Start with the prime cause, and everything else falls into place. If you think things through logically, the Big Bang inevitably leads to the Resurrection. Yes, it's good to compare and contrast different religions. But, it all boils down to what is the nature of the prime mover. If we answer that question honestly...we come to the Resurrection.

    • GCBill

      If you think things through logically, the Big Bang inevitably leads to the Resurrection.

      No, it doesn't. Even if you accept that the Big Bang inevitably requires a prime mover (a conclusion that Lemaitre himself would have denied), there is still no obvious connection between a cosmology consonant with Catholicism and the Resurrection.

      • Tess

        Ah ha...but there is. I can't go through 2,000 years of Catholic thought here because I need to pretend that I am working right now. But...may I suggest you look into St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Anselm, St. Augustine, etc. If you don't have time for that...just look at the world around you for hints. It won't happen over night...but if you ask the right questions and are honest...you'll figure it out. Just keep asking yourself...what is the nature of the prime mover?

        • David Nickol

          The big bang does not logically and/or inevitably lead to the resurrection, even within "orthodox" Catholic thought. That implies the inevitability of human history (no free will) and also implies that God had no alternatives to redeem mankind other than the incarnation and the crucifixion.

          • Tess

            This is where St. Anselm comes in handy. May I suggest you read his "Proslogium" and "Cur De Homo".

          • David Nickol

            May I suggest you read his "Proslogium" and "Cur De Homo".

            I think you mean Cur Deus Homo.

            Ordinarily, I love getting book recommendations, but not when the implication is, "I understand so much more than you do, and if you read the books I recommend, you will see that I am right." I almost responded that I would be happy to read two books you recommend on the condition that you promised to read two books that I recommend, but on second thought, I'm really not willing to let anyone else choose books for me to read.

          • Tess

            Thank you for the correction, as I am trying to write too fast. I am not suggesting that I know more than you do...which I can assure you that I probably don't. I suggested the books since you seemed interested in the question as to whether God could have redeemed mankind without the incarnation and crucifixion. These questions are St. Anselm's specialty, and he is much more effective in his apologetics than I am.

          • Danny Getchell

            To me, the more important part of David's comment is where he asks, in effect, was it inevitable that a redemption would be required? If there is a scenario in which free will led to a choice that was -not- original sin, then there is no unbreakable connection between the big bang and the cross.

        • cminca

          Tess--

          In the run up to the Iraq war Cheney's office "leaked" factually untrue "evidence" of Hussein and WMD to the NYT. Cheney then went on the Sunday news shows and said "According to today's NYT....." It didn't make that evidence true.

          You can't have a theology shaped by Aquinas, Anselm, Augustine, etc, and then cite them as proof that that theology is "fact".

          • Tess

            Of course not. All you can do is read them and weigh the pros and cons of the arguments they make. I remember taking a western philosophy course in college. The book included chapters on St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. The teacher told the class that he was going to skip over those chapters because they were "theologians" and their views have been disproven anyway. Oh really? According to who? I think Marx has been disproven, but we discussed him. I think it's rather silly to dismiss 2,000 years of thought that has been instrumental in shaping Western Civilization in ways you can even imagine because you think it's all "superstition".

          • cminca

            Your response doesn't answer my point. And looking at your other responses there is no reason to continue conversing.

    • George

      Regarding, the second half of your paragraph, how do you know any of that? What is this logical process leading to believing the resurrection story is true? "We" come to the resurrection? Perhaps you did, why should that be the same way for anyone else?

  • fredx2

    Their problem is the way Kitcher uses the word "rational".

    Is belief in a Supreme Being "Irrational"? Not at all, since religion has such an enormous ameliorating effect on society. A system that has as its core "Love your neighbor" is perhaps the best organizing principle a society could hope for.

    The alternative has been tried. Atheism was an integral part of Communism, which pretended to do all the worldly things Christianity tries to do, but in the course of it, they killed 100 million people.

    So, seeing the two alternatives, is it rational to advocate for a system of thought that just might end up killing millions again? Perhaps atheism will be implemented more humanly this next time. Perhaps not. Certainly the odd ideas of Dawkins et al - who insist that religious people not be respected, but incessantly mocked - hardly give us hope.

    Kitcher, it seems uses the word "rational" in the sense of "unprovable using the methods of science" - which were not designed to design organizing principles for human society, they were designed to describe the physical world. So who is being irrational?

    • You seem to have overlooked the fact much of the English speaking world, along with more than half of Europe has already been transformed into majority atheist/agnostic nations, and all without a whiff of gulags or holocausts anywhere. Quite the opposite, in fact, and the trend is set to continue for some time.

      What happened in Soviet Russia was nothing new. The killings were as much to do with atheism as the utter destruction of the ancient Mesoamerican civilizations at the hand of the Conquistadors had to do with Christianity. In these, and many other similar cases throughout history, the imposition of an ideology was just another tool (albeit a powerful one) of those in power to maintain and strengthen their position.

      What made the 20th century cases particularly bad was the advent of modern technology, making it far easier to kill people on an industrial scale, and the fact that there were also a lot more people around.

      In fact, the rise of a non-religious majority in Europe might be the first time in history the religious landscape has changed on such a massive scale anywhere in the world without the assistance of conquest and/or forcible conversion.

  • jason

    as a soft atheist, i'd be a whole lot more comfortable with this discussion if the soviet gulags were left out of it. in fact, the entire discussion of faith being a mental disease could also be checked at the door, since the point of soft atheism is to make a distinction between atheists that hold those kinds of views (ideologues like dawkins, et al) and those that don't. the claim that soft atheists conflate faith and mental disease assumes that soft atheists use "mental disease" as a pejorative in this context. speaking for myself, i tend to think about it in terms of kierkegaard's on-point observations about faith being predicated on irrationality; and more to the point, that "irrationality" in this context is the most human of experiences. anyone that finds a negative connotation about "irrationality" in this context brought it there all by themselves.

    what's called for when reading kitcher is less hyperbole and more understanding. it's kind of sad too, because there's actually a really interesting discussion lying just under the surface here about the kind of reevaluation of facts father baron is talking about vs the kind of reevaluation of facts that kitcher is talking about, but it's difficult for me to focus on hermeneutics when my own point of view is being accused of leading the world towards soviet era fascism.

    • Phil

      Hey Jason,

      Would you be able to explain what you mean by:

      and more to the point, that "irrationality" in this context is the most
      human of experiences. anyone that finds a negative connotation about
      "irrationality" in this context brought it there all by themselves.

      (Most specifically about rationality being the most human of experiences)

      • jason

        sure thing. so, in kierkegaard's view, which i also happen to subscribe to, the crux of faith is embracing the absurd. someone else in this thread already mentioned the story of abraham, which leads directly into this topic. doubtless, most people are already familiar with the story, but the cliff's notes version is that abraham *believed* that he heard the voice of god but could not prove it. what he was left with was an internal choice between taking a leap of faith that the voice he heard was actually god, or rejecting the voice as something else and heeding the supposed "logical" conclusion. abraham, of course, had faith and made the decision that he made.

        now, a hard atheist would likely analyze abraham's choice and come the the conclusion that abraham was just plain crazy. i mean, he's quite literally listening to the voices in his head and ascribing them to an imaginary white guy in the sky with a beard. but, and this is to me the biggest difference between soft atheism and hard atheism, the plain truth of the matter is that people do this all the time, and usually without realizing it. any time a person is making a decision based on anything other than first hand empirical evidence (sometimes called "direct knowledge" in the parlance of epistemology), we make the same kind of choice that abraham made.

        kierkegaard makes this point as well, i think in "practice in christianity," when he speaks of the kind of relationship that a patient has with a doctor. doctors typically do have the kind of direct knowledge that would lead one to make the "logical" decision. patients, on the other hand, do not. when a patient hears instructions given to them by doctors, they are then faced with exactly the same kind of choice abraham makes. either you have faith that your doctor is telling the truth, or you make a determination that you haven't personally determined the reliability of the instructions you are receiving. understood this way, following your doctor's instructions in just as irrational as abraham's choice to follow god's instructions.

        atheists of all stripes will typically object that the difference between abraham and the patient is that the patient at least has the opportunity to verify his instructions; science is, by definition, repeatable in the physical world. and while i believe that is true, the fact remains that unless you do actually do the legwork and run the experiments, you are making the same kind of leap of faith that abraham did based on the knowledge that each agent has at the time. ultimately, i vehemently disagree with abraham's rationale for making the choice he did, but i also refuse to condemn him for it. humanity itself would be in a pretty bad shape if we could only make decisions based on what we have personally verified as true.

        there's another reason too, in that abraham's experience is constitutive of what gadamer would later call "the miracle of understanding." but that requires a much more involved explanation. i think it might be easier and quicker to bypass my nonsense and just read "truth and method" instead.

        • RationalismRules

          "the plain truth of the matter is that people do this all the time... we make the same kind of choice that abraham made."

          No, most of us never face the kind of choice that Abraham made - you are completely ignoring the gravity of his choice. To kill one's child because commanded to do so by a voice in one's head is not in any way comparable to a patient deciding to trust their doctor's prescription.

          One of the fundamental aspects of rational behavior is differentiating between the significance of choices. Those with more significant consequences require more supporting evidence, whereas more trivial choices can be made with less support. Equating the level of evidence required for two choices of widely differing significance is not a rational approach.

          Not only do you fail to take into account the difference in consequences of these two choices, but the level of evidence in the two examples is significantly different. The mere fact that evidence is available to the patient, whether or not they choose to pursue it, in itself gives support to a rational decision to trust, especially in a societal situation where such evidence is regarded as important (university degrees, second opinions from other doctors etc.). Of course the possibility exists that the doctor is a fraud or incompetent, but that does render the patient's decision irrational simply because they chose to not check the available evidence. In a society where the number of genuine doctors is vastly higher than the number of fraudulent doctors, where a high value is placed on genuine doctors, where medical fraudulence is policed, and where education for medical practitioners is held to a high standard, all these factors form evidence contributing to a rational decision to trust the doctor. You ignore all this contributory evidence and say "you didn't check the specific explicit evidence, so the choice is irrational". Simply not true.

          Now compare this to Abraham's situation - no additional evidence is available to him. In fact, the only evidence he has is something which violates his experience of the world - a disembodied voice - so should rationally engender doubt, rather than trust. There is no evidence whatsoever to support him in making a decision with the gravest possible consequences.

          To suggest that this bears any relation to the choices that most of us make without supporting evidence is astonishingly absurd.

          Furthermore, your point about 'soft' atheism might carry more weight if you hadn't picked an example which is so directly identifiable as mental illness. Whether or not 'faith' in general terms should be classified as mental illness, Abraham's experience (a voice in his head, commanding him to commit murder) is entirely consistent with the symptoms of a specific mental illness (schizophrenia/delusions). You couldn't have picked a worse example to make your case.

    • How is 'faith' in 'truth' irrational? The honest heartfelt confession every sincere pilgrim, regardless of whether approaching as scientist, philosopher, physicists, artist, or mystic is: "I do not know". Isn't belief in the existence of "truth" the primary "leap of faith" that requires great courage and the starting point of all inquiry? The 'Truth' may be much 'greater' (for lack of a better word) than the discernible truth. This possibility does not mean that the discernible truth is trumped or ignored by what we do not, and possibly cannot know. It takes great courage and faith to believe in both the reality and concept of truth. It may be that 'certainty' itself is a deception and the ultimate false god.

  • M. Solange O’Brien

    it is a question of analyzing, marshalling evidence, and testing against experience

    And here is the heart of the disagreement. There is no empirical evidence beyond personal subjective experience; there is no logic beyond manipulation of a convenient theological algebra; and most importantly, there is no way to verify the conclusions. Theology cannot be put to the test and falsehoods adjudicated. In the end, it's undemonstratable opinion.

    • "And here is the heart of the disagreement. There is no empirical evidence beyond personal subjective experience; there is no logic beyond manipulation of a convenient theological algebra; and most importantly, there is no way to verify the conclusions. Theology cannot be put to the test and falsehoods adjudicated. In the end, it's undemonstratable [sic] opinion."

      Thanks for sharing your opinion, M. Solange. As you're likely aware, Catholics would naturally disagree. We're convinced there is plenty of empirical evidence that can be used--indirectly, along with philosophical reflection--to demonstrate that God exists. For example: the empirical fact that things come into and out of existence; the empirical fact that everything we see that began to exist has an explanatory cause; the astounding empirical fact that, against almost all odds, life exists in our universe. All of these empirical facts can, on reflection, serve as evidence for God.

      Also, you claim "there is no logic beyond manipulation of a convenient theological algebra" to demonstrate God's existence. As you likely know, Catholics maintain an array of philosophical arguments for God, grounded in logic, that are widely and easily accessible.

      You then state "most importantly, there is no way to verify the conclusions [that theists draw.] Theology cannot be put to the test and falsehoods adjudicated." This is demonstrably false. For example, you can verify (or nullify) the conclusions theists draw from philosophical arguments for God by demonstrating invalid logic, false premises, or ambiguous terms. This is how you "put to the test" the claim: "All Presidents are rich. All Presidents are Aquariuses, Therefore, all Aquariuses are rich." This argument can be tested and proven unsound (i.e. false) because it violates all three requirements. The logic is not valid (there could be poor, non-presidential Aquariuses), the premises are not true (some presidents were not rich), and at least one term is ambiguous (rich in what?). The same adjudication has and does take place with the classical arguments for God.

      Therefore when you claim that, in the end, philosophical arguments are simply "undemonstratable [sic] opinion", you reveal your unfamiliarity with philosophical argumentation and how, even today, the methods thinkers use to demonstrate non-empirical facts.

      • David Nickol

        Therefore when you claim that, in the end, philosophical arguments are simply "undemonstratable [sic] opinion", you reveal your unfamiliarity with philosophical argumentation and how, even today, the methods thinkers use to demonstrate non-empirical facts.

        In the New York Times piece Fr. Barron discusses, Gary Gutting himself says the following:

        But in addition to religious experience, there are respectable, even if not compelling, philosophical cases for the existence of a transcendent being — e.g., a first case of the universe, an ultimate source of value, a perfection that must exist.

        and

        I agree that no theistic arguments are compelling, but I don’t agree that they all are logically invalid or have obviously false premises. I think the best arguments (especially, sophisticated versions of the cosmological argument) are dubious only in the sense that they use premises (e.g., any contingent thing requires a cause) that are not obviously true but that a rational person might properly believe.

        While Professor Gutting is not necessarily agreeing with M. Solange O'Brien's position, I think he is not agreeing with yours, either. "No theistic arguments are compelling" to me means "There are no proofs for the existence of God." There are good arguments, perhaps, but arguments that are not "compelling" are not proofs.

        • Alan Wostenberg

          Does "No theistic arguments are compelling" mean "There are no proofs for the existence of God."?

          It seems to me it means there are no compelling arguments -- but there might be less than compelling ones.
          In Court there are standards of the preponderance of evidence, beyond reasonable doubt, beyond the shadow of doubt.

          I don't know where "compelling" stands on that ordering -- but it is not binary. Moreover, we read in the Catechism of "converging and convincing" arguments:

          31 Created in God's image and called to know
          and love him, the person who seeks God discovers certain ways of coming
          to know him. These are also called proofs for the existence of God, not
          in the sense of proofs in the natural sciences, but rather in the sense
          of "converging and convincing arguments", which allow us to attain
          certainty about the truth. These "ways" of approaching God from creation
          have a twofold point of departure: the physical world, and the human
          person.

          • David Nickol

            Webster's Unabridged defines proof as "the cogency of evidence or of demonstrated relationship that compels acceptance by the mind of a truth or a fact" [emphasis added]. In order for an argument to be a proof, it seems to me it must be compelling.

          • "Webster's Unabridged defines proof as "the cogency of evidence or of demonstrated relationship that compels acceptance by the mind of a truth or a fact" [emphasis added]. In order for an argument to be a proof, it seems to me it must be compelling."

            But could a truth compel some minds and not others, and thus serve as proof for some even though others don't recognize it as such?

          • David Nickol

            I think a proof is compelling to anyone who understands it. It is very unlikely that I will ever know math and logic well enough to be able to say, based on my own knowledge, that Gödel's incompleteness theorem compels belief. But I think it is safe to say that the proofs of the existence of God are well understood by many people who don't believe them to be compelling (including Gary Gutting).

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            Well put.

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            Then it's not compelling as Webster defines it. A truly compelling case is logically sound.

          • Alan Wostenberg

            David, If we're talking "proof" as used in legal standards, there are various levels from "reasonable suspicion" to "beyond reasonable doubt". See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Legal_burden_of_proof
            Where would you slot "compelling evidence" in that ranking?

            The Catechism speaks of "proofs for the existence of God.....in the sense of converging and convincing arguments, which allow us to attain certainty about the truth.". That word "certainty" is the clue we're talking of the highest standard -- "beyond reasonable doubt" when it comes to proofs of God.

          • David Nickol

            I think we are talking about philosophical and logical proofs here, and so I don't think the legal standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt is relevant. Philosophical, logical, and mathematical proofs are either conclusive or they are not. If I say all men are mortal, Socrates is a man, therefore Socrates is mortal, reasonable doubt or preponderance of evidence don't apply.

        • "While Professor Gutting is not necessarily agreeing with M. Solange O'Brien's position, I think he is not agreeing with yours, either. "No theistic arguments are compelling" to me means "There are no proofs for the existence of God."

          Thanks for the reply, David. May I ask where in my comment did I propose theistic arguments that I consider logically compelling, in the sense that they're obvious and unavoidable to any sincere, rational thinker?

          "There are good arguments, perhaps, but arguments that are not "compelling" are not proofs."

          I agree with this conclusion, however it's not what I originally stated. I originally disagreed with M. Solange's claims that theists don't depend on empirical evidence, that there is no way to "verify the conclusions" of philosophical arguments, and that philosophical are nothing more than "undemonstratable [sic] opinion".

          All three claims are false for the reasons I shared above.

  • David Nickol

    It is true that religion is usually grounded in some foundational events, but those experiences are not simply passed on dumbly like a football from generation to generation. On the contrary, they are sifted and tested through a complex process of reception and assimilation.

    I have been thinking lately how many facets of religion resemble art. In fact, for "soft atheists," perhaps religion could be classified as one of the arts, along with literature, painting, drama, and so on. The same process Fr. Barron describes for religious doctrine takes place for artistic development and insight. Undoubtedly many religious texts have the same depth, richness, and insight into human nature as works of literature, and continual reading and rereading, analyzing and reanalyzing the Book of Genesis, the plays of Sophocles, the poetry of Homer, or the plays of Shakespeare is going to be an enriching, worthwhile, and evolving endeavor. However, the worth of the Iliad and the Odyssey are not dependent on the existence of the Greek Gods, and that may also very well be true of Hebrew and Christian Scripture. No one is denying that a great deal of highly intelligent and sophisticated thought has gone into Judaism and Christianity over the past millennia. But that does not prove the existence of the "Judeo-Christian" God.

    • I have been thinking about this for a long time. Art seems to be the only other aspect of the human experience that can dispose of rationality and empiricism entirely, or to a degree and yet flourish. What distinguishes it from religion seems to be the practical importance we place on the "truths" we can extract from them.

      • David Nickol

        I think it is wise to avoid classifying everything as either rational or irrational. I wouldn't call the music of Bach, Mozart, or Beethoven rational, but I wouldn't call it irrational, either. The same goes for painting, choreography, or poetry. Just because something is not "rational" does not make it "irrational."

        • Fair point. I am not saying that all aspects of art and religion are irrational. Far from it. Rather that they have, by necessity some irrational element. Maybe I am using these terms wrong, but I mean some element that is not based on a logical inference from observation.

          There is some ineffible, or at least purely subjective or arbitrary aspect to all art, and that is vital to all art that is what distinguishes it from everything else.

          I find religion does has a similar element and what distinguishes the two is the importance religion places on these truths.

          • David Nickol

            I am not saying that all aspects of art and religion are irrational.

            Actually, I don't believe you ever used the word irrational, so I wasn't disagreeing with you. I was elaborating on what you said.

        • "I think it is wise to avoid classifying everything as either rational or irrational. I wouldn't call the music of Bach, Mozart, or Beethoven rational, but I wouldn't call it irrational, either. The same goes for painting, choreography, or poetry. Just because something is not "rational" does not make it "irrational.""

          Totally agree with this. For Catholics, religious experience can be super-rational without being irrational. All the mystics affirm that the deepest experience (and sometimes the deepest knowledge) of God comes when we transcend our reason, but transcend it without violation.

  • David Nickol

    And this shows the real danger of such a proposal, namely, that a society dominated by advocates of Kitcher’s brand of atheism might tolerate religious people for a time but will, eventually, seek to marginalize them—or even hospitalize them for insanity.

    Well, we have seen what happened when Christianity had very strong "temporal" power. The result was not as "benign" as theists battling atheists. It was Christians persecuting non-Christians, and one Christian sect persecuting another. Religious people in the United States are far from an endangered species. The people who fled religious persecution to come to the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries were Christians fleeing not from atheists but from other Christians. I fear less a "society dominated by advocates of Kitcher's brand of atheism" than I do a society dominated by Fr. Barron's brand of Catholicism.

    • Tess

      I think Fr. Barron's point is that Kitcher's brand of atheism has the capacity to lead to more militant forms of it. I don't think any society since the dawn of man could have imagined or tolerated the blood shed in the 20th century in the name of atheism. .As we all know...over 100 million dead...more people dead than in any war for any reason in the history of humanity, religious or otherwise. And for what? To bring mankind out the "dark ages" into a world of so-called "enlightenment". I would worry very much about a society free from the constraints of moral precepts.

      • jason

        if you are going to make a slippery slope argument, you should at least understand the rudimentary requirements that these kinds of argument have to meet in order to be even potentially valid. at a minimum, a slippery slope argument has to show an unbroken causal chain from point A to point B. So you would have to show exactly how soft atheism inevitably leads to your parade of horribles before anyone could rightly be convinced by your argument. father barron hasn't done it, and neither have you.

        the reason why, of course, is because here in america we actually do have religious freedom, and every scenario you could possibly come up with to get from A to B involves religious freedom being corrupted or eliminated. in which case, the cause of the parade of horribles would be religious freedom being impinged upon. the cause would *not* be soft atheism, because soft atheism and religious freedom are compatible in fundamental ways. the only way that soft atheism could restrict religious freedom would be to make soft atheism something other than what it is.

      • M. Solange O’Brien

        This is, as always, incorrect. The only people slaughtered "in the name of atheism" have been.... none. Please study history and do not parrot this invalid arguments.

        • "The only people slaughtered "in the name of atheism" have been.... none. Please study history and do not parrot this [sic] invalid arguments."

          I agree that few people have been killed "in the name of atheism", but that's different that the typical proposition, namely that many have been killed as a result of atheist ideology.

          To be clear, this isn't to say atheism necessarily leads to mass murder, but if atheism becomes nationalized, and on that atheism stands a naturalism which provides no principled basis for the dignity of man, it's clear how man's dignity could be undermined more easily than under an order that recognizes and promotes his inviolable worth.

          • jason

            so *if* atheism becomes nationalized and *if* that atheism provides no principled basis for the dignity of man, this terrible outcome will occur. let's think for a second about this compound conditional statement.

            it seems pretty obvious to me that the problem isn't atheism in itself, it's the other bits (the second conditional). to bring the incorrectness of your argument into focus, what would happen if there was a nationalized religion that provided no principled basis for the dignity of man?

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            Unfortunately for your argument, one could make EXACTLY the same case about religion - where the number of people documented as having been killed in the name of a particular faith is enormously higher than that of atheists.

          • cminca

            Brandon-I have to challenge you to name one person killed as a result of atheist ideology.

            I've seen numerous Catholics argue that the CC didn't persecute anyone for heresy because the state, not the CC, performed the actual persecution.

            If that is the standard then, as an example, a communist country persecuting a Christian because they were preaching is an act of a tyrannical government, not atheistic ideology.

            The preacher is threatening to the state because they are threatening the legitimacy of the state's teaching. The same way a "heretic" is threatening the legitimacy of a state's formal Catholicism.

            Therefore, if the CC is not responsible for persecution under the medieval Inquisition neither is atheistic ideology under a communist dictatorship.

    • Martin Sellers

      Behind every religious persecution of the 18th and 19th century was a "non christian" motive, often the squabble over power, money, fame and prestige.

      • David Nickol

        First, I think you are implying a "no true Scotsman" argument.

        Second, I disagree. I don't believe that all religious persecution (or all religious persecution by Christians) had nonreligious motives.

        Third, unless you can guarantee that all Christians will act only from purely Christian motives, I stand by my statement that I would be at least as wary of having Fr.-Barron-style Christians dominate society as Philip-Kitcher-style atheists.

        • Martin Sellers

          What would you say to a hypothetical society of Christians that actually do act out of purely christian motives? Would that be preferable to a society of people acting under purely materialistic motives?

          • David Nickol

            None of the above. If I am going to live in a hypothetical society, I want to design it myself. There would be excellent but affordable Italian restaurants on every corner, lots of bakeries, and everyone would have fast Internet connections and get all premium channels on cable for free.

          • Martin Sellers

            That doesn't really answer my question.

          • David Nickol

            The reason I didn't answer your question by picking one of your two alternatives is that it is not clear to me that "materialistic motives" has any clear meaning. I don't think materialism, per se, implies any specific value system. Also, if Catholicism (say) were so dominant in a society that it determined what became civil law, what would happen to personal choice and religious freedom? Catholicism forbids all abortions. Judaism forbids almost all abortions, but in some cases (when the life of the mother is in danger) abortion is the right choice. Would Catholic pro-lifers allow Jewish women with life-threatening pregnancies to have abortions in the name of religious freedom? I don't think so. I am a strong supporter of separation of church and state, so I do not want to see any religion dominate to the extent it determines what other religions are and are not permitted to do.

          • Martin Sellers

            So, what I am hearing is that in my hypothetical, you would prefer a purely secular materialist society and all that that implies?

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            That's not what he said.

          • David Nickol

            I would prefer a secular government, which is what we have in the United States.

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            Not necessarily. "Purely Christian motives" covers a lot of ground. After all, Inquisition Spain was a "purely Christian country".

          • Martin Sellers

            lets define it this way- moral objectives as defined by a 2014 published version of the catechism of the catholic church.

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            Great. Now I'll have to reread the entire Catechism. Just going on memory, I would definitely say that I would NOT wish to live in a society that operated strictly according to the Catechism. I value my personal freedom.

          • Martin Sellers

            so, just to be clear then, you would prefer the society that operates under purely materialist motives and all that that entails?

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            First, why do you keep presenting this as a purely binary choice? And since you using highly negative language (and highly vague language) for a non-religious society, it's impossible to answer your question. As David says, you're asking for an opinion based on the vaguest possible choices.

          • Martin Sellers

            I agree, the binary choice is limiting, the language is negative, and really it is impossible to answer......

            Yet......My question becomes interesting in that both of you have no problem pointing out the flaws of a strictly catholic society, but are hesitant to point out what could be wrong with my alternative.

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            Since you specify NOTHING about this hypothetical secular society, how can we possibly point out negatives? You're the only implying, by innuendo, that there are negatives at all.

            Since you're the one framing the question, and since you're the one looking for an answer, why don't you try telling us what you think this hypothetical secular society looks like? Then we can tell you whether it's a strawman or not.

          • Martin Sellers

            Let me define the purely materialist society then. Citizens would act only on the basis of pure economic utilitarianism (pursuit of more power, wealth and pleasure), acknowledging altruism is real only in the sense that it adds to a greater economic utility.

            Does that make my question easier to answer?

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            That's what I suspected. Nope. Straw man, in that no secularist would design such a society. Although given the utter lack of freedom in the alternative, it might be preferable. But you haven't described a society; you've claimed that certain behaviour is the inevitable result of secularism. And that's a false claim.

          • Martin Sellers

            "That's what I suspected. Nope. Straw man, in that no secularist would design such a society."
            - how is this a straw man, i'm just designing a thought experiment.

            "But you haven't described a society; you've claimed that certain behavior is the inevitable result of secularism."

            - You've also asserted that a Christian society would mean an "utter lack of freedom".

            But lets assume both of assertions are true- would you still prefer the secular society?

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            So let's be clear: you are asking me to choose which society I would prefer to live in: one in which everyone behaves according to every jot and tittle of the 2014 Catholic Catechism or a society in which everyone undertakes every action based solely on personal greed, but which permits altruistic behavior?

          • Martin Sellers

            I'm not sure what you mean by "jot and tulle".

            But essentially yes, which would be preferable- if everyone followed the teachings of the church, or if everyone based their actions solely on increasing their own personal economic utility?

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            My phone is fonder of spellchecking than I am. "tittle" would be the word I typed.

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            Prefereable for me to live in, or preferable in the abstract?

          • Martin Sellers

            Let's say for you to live in. Would your answer be different if I meant in the abstract. Why?

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            In the abstract, you're asking for a value judgement on the two ways of living; I'd say that for the folks living in such societies, they are equally good. Personally, and at this particular moment in time, I'd pick greed. As I said, I value my freedom.

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            You do recognize that what you're describing is not a genuinely secular society, don't you?

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            When you actually present an alternative, we can critique it. Until then...

          • Martin Sellers

            I did a bit ago...the comment didn't load. I re-posted. Its below.

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            Ok. I'll look.

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            You answer me: would you rather live in a society designed by Pat Robertson or P. Z. Myers?

          • Martin Sellers

            No of course not. I recognize the benefits of a secular government.

            My intent from this line of questioning is that you might acknowledge that aspects of Christianity have been good for society.

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            If what you really want is an acknowledgement that some religious practices have some virtues, why didn't you just ask? Sure. Religion sometimes does good things. Happy?

          • mriehm

            There certainly have been many aspects of Christianity, at various times and places, that are positive. Jesus's message seems to have been (by and large) one of love and peace; more so than any other religion I'm aware of.

            And I think that there are people in our societies whose level of criminality is reduced by the threat of eternal punishment. And - despite that threat being completely wrong - that is useful to society, no question.

            However, to me the main problem with religion is that it is not grounded in anything empirical. You can cherry pick and interpret it and twist it to yield just about any message. And people do this all the time, everywhere. And that makes the (faint) specter of theocracy profoundly dangerous.

      • mriehm

        So what? Behind the killings associated with the communist atheists (so frequently referred to on these pages) were also questions of power and money.

        Deaths like these don't generally happen for the "sport" of it. They happen because of threats, perceived or otherwise, to the predominant doctrine.

        Christianity over the millenia has not proven itself to be either a necessary or a sufficient condition for a peaceful, tolerant society. And neither has any other belief system, be it religious or atheistic in nature.

  • cminca

    "And this shows the real danger of such a proposal, namely, that a society dominated by advocates of Kitcher’s brand of atheism might tolerate religious people for a time but will, eventually, seek to marginalize them—or even hospitalize them for insanity. If you think this last suggestion is paranoid, take a good hard look at the policy of the Soviet Union in regard to those who disagreed with its regnant ideology."

    If I reversed this argument to say that the CC is responsible for the result of their statements from the pulpit I would be chastised and told "no true Catholic......"

    You can have it one way, you can have it the other, but you can't have it both.

  • David Nickol

    For the sake of having a working figure, let's say the Catholic Church is 1981 years old (having started in 33 A.D.). For what percentage of its existence has the Church supported religious liberty?

    • M. Solange O’Brien

      In what sense? In its own liberty or in the right of people to follow whatever faith they choose? Of the former, 1981. Of the latter, I'd say that began to fracture sometime after 1519, with a gradual acceptance that the Church could no longer dictate faith. The degree to which the church allows freedom also varies from location to location.

    • Chad Eberhart

      I think this is where neo-Catholics get confused. For many their Catholicism covers the years between 0-313 and Vatican II till 2014, skipping over the vast majority of the Churches existence and teachings. They really haven't grappled with the Church's teachings on the Social Reign of Christ and what that means for religious freedom, and yet they talk like Catholicism is completely compatible with religious freedom and democracy.

  • I take what Kitcher is saying as meaning that most major religions require you to accept some basic fact that makes it impossible for you accept the fundamental beliefs of other religions. These facts are mutually exclusive meaning if you believe one, you must deny the others.

    If you believe there is one god, then you cannot be Hindu. If you believe Jesus is God, you cannot be Jewish or Muslim. These are not minor issues, your eternal soul depends on them, not whether there is some undefined connection between "finite being and Infinite being".

    I am not sure I understand Father Barron's point. Is he suggesting that following the proper tradition and interpretation, we can interpret Islam as showing us that Jesus is God? Or that there is a trinity in Judaism? Or that Hindus really actually think there is just one God?

    • Jim (hillclimber)

      If you believe there is one god, then you cannot be Hindu.

      This is not true in general. What is the Hindu Godhead / Brahman all about, if not a recognition that all Hindu deities are refractions from from one source?

      If you believe Jesus is God, you cannot be Jewish

      This again is not true in general. Most modern Jews may not believe that Jesus is the messiah, but this is not universally understood to be a sine qua non of their faith. It obviously was not true for the Jews in the early Christian church, who (as I'm sure you know) never stopped thinking of themselves as being thoroughly Jewish even after they began to self-identify as Christians. Those Jews saw Jesus as the fulfillment of Judaism, not something inimical to it. The first great controversy, of course, was about whether *non-Jews* could be Christians.

      Is he suggesting that following the proper tradition and interpretation, we can interpret Islam as showing us that Jesus is God?

      I don't really know forms successful evangelization of Muslims might take, but you obviously couldn't lead with Jesus. Perhaps you could find something either in Islamic sources or just in the person's humanity that would lead to a recognition of God's love for us. It would be a long road to Jesus, but that would seem like the place to start.

      Or that there is a trinity in Judaism?

      That is not so far-fetched. N.T. Wright has written a number of things about how notions of the tabernacled presence of God in second-temple Judaism were very consonant with, and layer the foundation for, trinitarian belief.

      Or that Hindus really actually think there is just one God?

      As already mentioned, sure, that could be a reasonable place to look for commonality.

  • David Nickol

    It’s just your cockamamie myth against my cockamamie myth.

    Fr. Barron says the above in what I take it is his paraphrase of Philip Kitcher's position. I would just like to point out that Kitcher himself does not use such language. Perhaps unwittingly, Fr. Barron is presenting Kitcher's argument in a way that believers will find insulting and will make them more sympathetic to Fr. Barron's critique. Kitcher is frank about calling religious myths untrue. He does not, however, derogate any of them by calling them "cockamamie." Just because we do not believe in Norse mythology or Greek mythology doesn't make it "cockamamie." The same can be true of Jewish or Christian mythology.

    • LFCasey

      It's interesting to me because in another video, Fr. Barron describes Genesis as a creation myth. In relation to the non-fundamentalism of being Catholic.

  • "As I hinted above, what bothers me about Kitcher’s proposal is that it
    effectively relegates all religion to the arena of the irrational."

    It bothers Fr Barron, but it is the case. In fact, the more irrational the belief, the more we generally consider it religious. Jews who will not open a fridge on their sabbath are considered more religious than those who do not, not less. Christians who handle snakes are not acting more rational than those who do not. Even atheists will be called "religious" when they act in excess of what the evidence implies. When fandom exceeds what we consider rational, we start to think of it as being religious.

    • M. Solange O’Brien

      But it's a continuum, is it not? At some point it goes from being "really, really" religious to "plain nuts." That's the problem with religion: without any way to empirically demonstrate that it's doctrines are "true", we are left with no really good way to distinguish between a very religious Christian and a high-functioning psychopath. And that's not snark, that's actually the case: we didn't (as a society) accept Andrea Yates' claim that God told her to drown her children; we considered that mental illness. Scientific opinions at least draw a line in the sand.

      • Loreen Lee

        I will attempt to provide some experience on this point. I have in my life encountered many examples of persons admitted to hospital for psycho-therapy because of their interpretation of religious 'belief'. In several cases, the persons accompanying them, a Buddhist in one case, was very concerned that the interpretation was unique to the individual. I say this, to exclude the possibility that it is the religious belief itself that is responsible for a particular psychosis, which I will insist is a very 'individual' phenomenon.
        It is true that there is an irrational element in religious thought, defined as
        l. an emotion comparble to the sublime in Kant's 'The Power of Judgment'; and which can be identified even with such emotions as God's jealous and wrath, (although I would advise a Google search on the meaning and identification with a particular emotion in this as well as other cases.) So emotionally, such experiences, as awe and 'fear of the Lord', the ecstasy identified with the saints, and even such opposite emotions as horror experienced in the case, say of witnessing a tragic event, can all be considered irrational in the sense of not being capable of rational expression or explanation. They are 'beyond words'. And some of you, perhaps have experienced this peace, or love 'beyond understanding' within an experience of 'erotica' yourselves.
        2. Explanations or descriptions that are not supported by scientific evidence. Even the Kalem argument, or Aristotle's first cause falls into this category, as demonstrated by Kant in his list of the four antinomies. In the sense of being open to proof or disproof of both the thesis and counter thesis, these arguments are, like love, beyond reason, and certainly beyond evidence that is at least currently available. Within this context, I would not be offended by their being called irrational. If the term 'logic' is substituted for the term 'reason', I believe that these examples conform to the dictionary meaning of 'irrational'. Thanks goodness for irrational 'numbers'!!!!!!

      • Alan Wostenberg

        "without any way to empirically demonstrate that it's doctrines are "true"... why should empiricism be the bar? There is no empirical demonstration to decide whether or not there is a a largest prime number. Mathematics proceeds by non-investigative rational method.

        • M. Solange O’Brien

          Let us say that you claim my phone has a Justin Bieber ringtone. I say it does not. We can test this, by calling my phone and listening to the ringtone.
          Let us say that you claim that darmstadtium is a liquid at 95 degrees Centigrade; I claim that it is a solid. We can test this, by producing some and using our eleven seconds of leisure to watch whether is drips off the table.
          Religion does not produce conclusions such as these. Therefore, religious conclusions cannot be empirically demonstrated to be true.

        • M. Solange O’Brien

          Now let's look at religious claims. Catholicism says that it is never right to abort a child. Judaism claims that there are certain circumstances when it is morally right. How do we test these claims?

          Christianity claims one god in three persons; Islam claims one god, one person. How can we test these claims?

          Empirical tests. Yes or no objective tests.

          • Alan Wostenberg

            How do we test the conflicting moral claims? Presumably not by empirical method -- which would be aborting them, not aborting them, and comparing outcomes. We do not adjudicate ethical claims (is it ever right to take innocent life) by empirical method, any more than we adjudicate competing mathematical claims by empirical method. That method is strictly limited in scope. Agree?

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            Without an empirical test - an objective test - we have no way to determine which one is true. And even the suggestion you make "aborting or not aborting and comparing outcomes" is not relevant to my point, since theist doctrine is not generally based on outcomes (theists are generally not consequentialists unless they are trying to argue with theists). Surely the outcome does not determine the morality of the act itself - per Christian doctrine?

            I don't understand your point about mathematics: maths are systems of logic; several might be applicable to very same set of data points. We don't adjudicate their "truth" value: one mathematical system is not more "true" than other. Some are just more useful at a given time.

          • "Without an empirical test - an objective test - we have no way to determine which one is true."

            Does this apply to all truth claims or only empirical truth claims?

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            I'm not sure I'm clear about the point you're making. Without an empirical test of some kind, I don't think any kind of truth claims can be adjudicated. Take the abortion example I just gave: under a specific condition (which I would list if I didn't have to give my laptop back for tonight's dive), Judaism says that abortion is morally correct and Catholicism says that abortion is morally incorrect. We can't judge by consequence, so how do we determine who is right?

      • The point is that, contrary to Fr Barron, I do say that everything we call "religious" will contain an element of irrational belief. At least that is how I understand the word "religious". One cannot be a Christian and remain entirely rational, no matter how liberal. If you do not accept as a fact that Jesus truly died and his body at a later date became alive again, you cannot be a Christian, in my understanding of the terms. There is no rational basis to believe this.

        I have more to say but I will blog it.

        • "I do say that everything we call "religious" will contain an element of irrational belief."

          David has a great comment above pointing out the flaw in the binary understanding you seem to hold, in which views are either rational or irrational. That leaves no room for arational or supra-rational experiences and beliefs.

          At least that is how I understand the word "religious".

          Well if you simply "understand" or define the word "religious" to mean "irrational belief", then you're arguing in a circle. But perhaps your understanding of religion is skewed...

          "One cannot be a Christian and remain entirely rational, no matter how liberal."

          An assertion, without defense, and one I enthusiastically reject.

          "If you do not accept as a fact that Jesus truly died and his body at a later date became alive again, you cannot be a Christian, in my understanding of the terms. There is no rational basis to believe this."

          Sure there is. The Resurrection hypothesis is the most plausible, and thus the most rational, explanation of Jesus' death, his empty tomb, his post-mortem appearances, and the disciples' extraordinary transformation. Billions of people have reasoned their way to this conclusion, thus demonstrating its rationality.

          • Danny Getchell

            I don't think that any of us, regardless of where we stand on the spectrum of belief-unbelief, is "entirely rational" or could ever hope to be.

            Indeed I do not think I would desire it for myself.

          • mriehm

            There are not "billions of people" who have reasoned their way to the supposed truth of the resurrection. As pointed out in this discussion, the vast majority of believers (Christian and other) were indoctrinated while by their parents, or wider social milieu. Reason had very little to do with it.

            Of the converts, a minority take the bible to be a book of bald facts from which reasoned conclusions can be drawn. And certainly very few of _these_ are entering into Catholicism.

        • Jim (hillclimber)

          If you do not accept as a fact that Jesus truly died and his body at a later date became alive again, you cannot be a Christian

          That verges on being incorrect because of the particular way that you wrote it. When you say, "his body at a later date became alive again", it strongly suggests you are talking about his earthly body. Jesus's resurrected body was experienced as having points of continuity with his earthly body, but as being radically different, in the same way that a plant has points of continuity with a seed, while being radically different from the seed (1 Corinthians 15:36-38, but read all of 1 Corinthians 15:35-49).

          The essence of resurrection belief does not involve normal categories of human experience (such as an earthly body) violating normal biological rules. It involves something that has points of continuity with, but ultimately transcends our normal categories of understanding.

          Not suggesting that this makes it any easier to believe! But at least this hopefully points to the manner in which the belief is trans-rational or supra-rational, rather than being irrational.

          • David Nickol

            The essence of resurrection belief does not involve normal categories of human experience (such as an earthly body) violating normal biological rules.

            On the other hand, the empty tomb seems to be critically important to the belief in the resurrection for Catholics and most other Christians. The suggestion that Jesus lived on in some other manner while leaving his earthly body behind would basically be heretical.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            On the other hand, the empty tomb seems to be critically important to the belief in the resurrection for Catholics and most other Christians.

            That's not so clear to me. I certainly don't consider it essential to my own belief in the resurrection (*), and I think I can lean on the catechism a bit in that view :

            CCC 640: The first element we encounter in the framework of the Easter events is the empty tomb. In itself it is not a direct proof of Resurrection; the absence of Christ's body from the tomb could be explained otherwise.

            (*) If I were to be convinced that the gospel authors had done something that they themselves considered to be duplicitous, that would shake my faith. But if I were to be convinced that the empty tomb stories were propaganda written by people who had either first or second hand knowledge of the resurrection, and who created the empty tomb stories to convince others of the truth of the resurrection, using a literary genre that was considered "honest reporting" according to the standards of the day, that would not be problematic to me.

            The suggestion that Jesus lived on in some other manner while leaving his earthly body behind would basically be heretical.

            That's a good point. I guess that's true.

    • "In fact, the more irrational the belief, the more we generally consider it religious."

      I struggle to imagine a more baseless generalization. Do you have any evidence or data to back up this audacious correlation outside of one anecdote about Jews and refrigerators?

  • adstanra

    all religions attempt to rationalize----What I think Kitcher is trying to say is that religions all claim truths through revelation and some external power. ---something other than reason.

  • Paul Blaschko

    Thanks for the commentary on the Gutting/Kitcher exchange -- I enjoyed it! One thing I don't understand, though, is why Kitcher's claim that those with psychosis (or under the influence of drugs) often claim to have had religious experiences is seen as evidence that "a society dominated by advocates of Kitcher’s brand of atheism might tolerate religious people for a time but will, eventually, seek to marginalize them—or even hospitalize them for insanity." Here are two reasons I find this puzzling:

    (1) I took it that Kitcher was attempting to undermine the evidential value of purported religious experience by suggesting that there are often (perhaps nearly always) better explanations for their seeming to occur than that God is getting in touch with people and giving them religious experiences. So I took this to be a point about the evidential quality of purported religious experiences, not a claim about apparent mental pathologies amongst religious believers.

    (2) I would think that Kitcher's brand of atheism (as opposed to, say, Dawkins's or Hitchens's, or even Dennett's) is one of the least likely to lead to the dystopian sort of scenario alluded to above. Kitcher does not at all hide the fact that he'd like to see religion eventually disappear -- but he explicitly claims (and this is consistent with the form of secular humanism he defends) that this process would be gradual and rational, an enlightenment rather than a violent upheaval.

    Why, then, do we (religious believers) so often read political persecution into what are merely reasoned arguments?

  • David Nickol

    Let us take just one example from the Bible in order to illustrate how this process happens. The book of Genesis tells us that the patriarch Jacob one night had a dream of angels ascending and descending on a great ladder that was rooted in the earth and stretched into the heavens. Upon awakening, he declared the site where he had slept holy and consecrated it with an altar. As the tradition has received this story and drawn out its implications, it has come to see a manifold of profound metaphysical and spiritual truths . . . .

    But were Abraham, his son Isaac, and Isaac's sons Esau and Jacob historical figures? Did Jacob actually have the dream recorded in Genesis? Are all the various interpretations that Jews and Christians have come up with regarding Jacob's Ladder true or compatible with one another? Did God intend them all and somehow cram them all into the text of Genesis 28:10-19? Is the Bible some kind of miraculous text in which every passage has a multiplicity of meanings, or are human beings just ingenious enough to invent a nearly endless number of interpretations about any sufficiently rich bit of text?

    When I think of a ladder, I imagine it being twisted to form a double helix. Was Jacob's ladder intended to tell us something about human DNA, or could it just be that I am currently watching Orphan Black and reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Laxe?

  • This seems appropriate with all the big horseraces going on lately.
    I once heard a very brief reflection from G.K. Chesterton about a horserace. Suppose there was a race with 20 horses and each horse owner was completely convinced, without a doubt, that his horse will win. Must we then conclude that no single horse can possibly win? Of course not, one horse will win.
    If you're Catholic, you are on the right horse and this horse will ultimately win. The question becomes, will you run the race with her?

    • David Nickol

      It's only a modestly successful story. By the rules of horse racing, one horse must win, but even so, 95 percent of the owners are wrong, and it is impossible to know which one is right. There would be no point in having a horserace if it could be known in advance which horse would win.

      From a Catholic point of view, if you pick 20 religions and leave Catholicism out, the story doesn't work.

      You, as a Catholic, can use this story in favor of Catholicism, but a Jew or a Muslim or adherent of a religion which claims to be the one, true religion could also use the story.

      • Hi David,
        Instead of Strange Notions, I wonder if this site should just be called “Point-Counterpoint”. My point is only that the existence of many religions is not good evidence that no one religion can actually be true. That is all.
        Peace.

        • M. Solange O’Brien

          No, but depending on the tenets of those faiths, one can at least make some good arguments about which ones are definitely false.

        • David Nickol

          My point is only that the existence of many religions is not good evidence that no one religion can actually be true.

          That's a point worth making. But the horserace analogy cleverly, and falsely, suggests that among the many religions, one must be true. It's just not a good analogy.

    • M. Solange O’Brien

      As David points out, the analogy is not valid: it is entirely possible (and I think likely) that ALL religions are wrong. And contentions that somehow Catholicism is, in fact, the true religion depend on sound arguments that I have yet to see on this site.

      • David Lalo Rudman

        However, You could say that there are only so many possible points of view. In this context, I think the idea follows through very well. Scientific materialism and atheism in this case are horses as well. Or maybe the truth is something we haven't even thought about. That is, if there is an absolute truth at all. It's always possible that we don't actually understand the true rules of racing and every horse wins, or maybe the horses that arrive in odd intervals win or the last one across the finish line is deemed victorious, or the horses stop racing and have a horse-party instead.

        • Michael Murray

          Hi David. You want find M. Solange O'Brien here anymore. She was part of a large purge of atheists about a year ago. You can find her over here:

          http://outshine-the-sun.blogspot.com

          • David Lalo Rudman

            Thanks

  • Greg Johnson

    I learned not too long ago that atheism entails absurdity; hence my reasons for rejecting it grew stronger than they already were. Great post father! Theism is evidently rationally superior to atheism; we just need to discuss it and the truth will eventually win out.

  • Dhaniele

    For us ordinary folk, it seems that the best help in an argument with atheists is quite simply the wealth of miracles that are part of our Catholic tradition. Ruth Cranston's book, The Miracle of Lourdes, for example, has painstaking documentation. Then, of course there are many websites to choose from. As Jesus said, "If you don't believe me, at least believe because of the works that I do."

    • M. Solange O’Brien

      Unfortunately, most of the "miracles" generally offered by Catholics are unsatisfyingly unrigorous in their documentation or represent cases of spontaneous remission of conditions that occur everywhere in the world - with or without the help of the Christian god.
      Show me a regrown leg, and we can start having a discussion.

  • Charles Vergados

    Father I have posted many of your vids on my fb page. I love your explications of many contemporary things. I am a flawed Catholic,but I was unfriended by one person on Good Friday for pointing out an inappropriate remark he had posted,and I unfriended someone myself for ridiculing Christ. While I agree with you on the general thrust of the article ,I don't think the story of Jacob's Ladder adds any credence to it.The conclusions reached by the sifting process you talk about don't lend any credence to the dream,and I'm a believer, How are to expect a atheist to buy into something which is still speculative in nature.Also one other thing I would like to bring up is the fact that St Augustine and St Jerome,in their correspondence,both admitted that they felt that there had been changes in scripture due to sribes and others either forgetting,not hearing,or perhaps even adding things. St, Jerome himself wrote to the Pope and said he was having a problem in setting up the translation into Latin., because there were already so many variants in the versions he had to use. He was accused of putting words into Christ's lips himself,and there were riots in North Africa because of one of his translations. And Augustine himself agreed with Jerome in many of these views.That throws a lot of things into disarray. We don't need Borg,Spong,and Ehrman questioning scripture when we have two early giants of the Church.

  • Danny Getchell

    For those Catholics who believe that their faith is becoming "marginalized" and that they are being driven from the public square:

    How many elected officials at the federal or highest state levels are avowed Catholics?

    How many elected officials at the federal or highest state levels are avowed atheists?

    • M. Solange O’Brien

      Many theisms, but Christianity in particular, seem to suffer from a "persecution complex" when it comes to their narrative of interaction with the world. Christians haven't been a persecuted minority in the West since Constantine, but so much of the formative documentation and mythological elements of Christianity are based on martyrdom and persecution, that I think it has simply become a base element of the story.

    • LFCasey

      You see it in other countries where Christianity is the minority. I saw an interesting chart from "the humanist" facebook page which showed the age ranges and race of the members of different religions in the U.S. If you only looked at the chart, it seemed like they celebrated the diversity of it all. However, most of the comments called for an end to all religion.

      • M. Solange O’Brien

        Really? There are country with a majority of atheists as elected officals? Which ones?

        • LFCasey

          Really M. Solange. Shake with the right and stab with the left. That should be the atheist motto.

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            Since your comment adds nothing to the discussion, I will ignore it. If you have something to contribute, feel free to do so.

  • Kit Fry

    "They are sifted and tested through a complex process of reception and assimilation." lol. Charismatically persuading (aka threats of damnation) generation after generation with lots of childhood indoctrination thrown in, I guess could be considered a, hehe, 'complex process of reception and assimilation'. Just because a bunch of fan-boy theologians obsess about the details of the lore century after century does not mean any of it is true. At least the trekkie culture realizes it isn’t real and doesn't fault any of us for not participating in their fun.

    You completely skip over the point Kitcher makes. That different religions are surprisingly incompatible. The only thing they seem to have in common is that people tend to stick with the religion of their parents and culture, which is evidence against a rational basis for your beliefs. Logically it means that religions are successfully indoctrinating their children generation after generation. If they skipped this critical step, these religions would be much less powerful. I think they'd stick around in small pockets. Much like modern pagans, but they wouldn't dominate. As you can see with recent generations not staying in the faith, parents in general are less militant therefore their children are less likely to stay
    in the faith.

    • You completely skip over the point Kitcher makes. That different religions are surprisingly incompatible

      This is true. Yet a set of claims being incompatible does not prove they are all false. It proves they cannot all be completely true. Still one could be completely true and some others partially true.

      The only thing they seem to have in common is that people tend to stick with the religion of their parents and culture, which is evidence against a rational basis for your beliefs

      It is evidence that not everyone is critical enough of the tradition they were raised in. That is not as true as it used to be. Still it happens. Does that prove any of them false? Not at all. If someone in Nepal says Mt Everest is the highest mountain in the world and someone in Africa says Mt Kilimanjaro is the highest does that prove both of them wrong? They can't both be right. They possibly both have failed to check the whole world.

      As you can see with recent generations not staying in the faith, parents in general are less militant therefore their children are less likely to stay in the faith.

      I would not say less militant. I would say less serious about their faith. Serious faith does not imply aggressively fighting other faiths.

      • It is evidence that not everyone is critical enough of the tradition they were raised in.

        Not everyone? How about over 99% of everyone who has ever lived?

        That's the point. The propagation of religion through history has almost nothing to do with its validity -- it is merely the acceptance of the status quo from one generation to the next. And for every Christian scholar who has spent their life studying the teachings of their faith and is convinced of the veracity of their tenets and doctrines, there are Jewish, Hindu and Muslim scholars who have reached the same conclusions about theirs.

        Yes, somehow, in some way, one of them might be more correct than the others, but as Kitcher says, even after thousands of years, there is still no rational reason to distinguish between them.

        • This is still evidence that there is some truth in these faiths. It seems a lot more plausible that people could be convinced if there was something convincing them. A real sense of morality. Some actual experience of the transcendent. Sure it validates a wide variety of theologies and that is a bit of a leap but I have a much easier time believing people experience something and conclude to much from it then thinking the experience nothing and just make the whole thing up.

          "Kitcher says, even after thousands of years, there is still no rational reason to distinguish between them"

          Kitcher is just wrong. Catholicism is different from any other religion. Different in a principled way with no special pleading.

          • severalspeciesof

            Catholicism is different from any other religion. Different in a principled way with no special pleading.

            Couldn't the same be said about Islam? Buddhism?

            Glen

          • If they could say the same then the principles would have to be different. So you could compare the principles to see if one made more sense than another. For example, in the early day of Islam many thought it was the true religion because Mohammad had such surprising military success. So you ask, is that what we expect from true men of God? That they are able to win at war and politics? Does that make sense as a principle?

          • Bit late in replying but I have to admit that my jaw dropped when I read your claim that Catholicism is different because there is no resort to special pleading -- especially in light of your last comment, which is filled with it. Perhaps *the* most important reasons why Catholicism has survived these past two thousand years as a major force in world religion has been their ability to win in war and politics. Conquest and the consolidation of political power has always been the main impetus for religious conversion throughout history, and not just Islam, but the various strands of Christianity too (and yes, the Communist imposition of Atheism is part of the mix.)

            It is only in the last 50 to 100 years, and only in secular nations where religious institutions are no longer dominant, are we finally beginning to see what happens when young people are free to question the dogmatic beliefs of family and the society they live in, and the results are not pretty for any of the Abrahamic religions, especially for Catholicism and other major brands of Christianity.

          • I didn't try and argue that Catholicism should be accepted or rejected based on military results, quite the opposite. I said that early in the history of Islam that argument was common. Mohammad won. He claimed that proved God was on his side. A lot of people seemed to accept it. That was a principled reason back in the early 7th century. I think the principle itself is lacking. Natural success is not a good reason to accept supernatural claims. That was my point.

            I was saying this in response to the claim that non-special pleading arguments could be made for other religions. They could be free from that particular fallacy but they are going to have other problems.

            As far as your analysis of youth goes. I do think false religion is becoming more clear. More and more people are demanding something that can be embraced fully and consistently. Atheism is one choice. Catholicism is another. I think it will come down to which can fully explain the human person and enable them to flourish. I think Catholicism can do that. It can explain why we want to be good. Why we want to worship. Why we want to pursue truth. Why we want to fall in love.

            Atheism just tells us that evolution somehow fluked us into all those desires. At some level we know that is just not true.

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            Actually, atheism tells us no such thing. Atheism and evolutionary theory are not the same thing. And indeed, evolution and the contingencies of history gave us those desires.

          • OK, so I offended all those atheists who reject evolution? We can play with words. If I am no longer talking about a belief that you subscribe to then say so. I am aware that not all these groups are in 100% correlation. Still the ideas are related.They make sense to talk about together.

            I would distinguish between evolutionary theory and atheistic evolutionary theory. The ladder can only be random. The former would be guided in some way either by God or by some non-material thing like virtues. So saying "evolutionary theory" would not quite capture my thought either.

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            No, they are not correlated and it does NOT make sense to talk about them together. Atheism is a position on the existence of the divine (or lack of position in some cases). Evolution is a set of interrelated theories that explain biodiversity; they have no beRing whatever on the existence of god. Evolution is a sound set of theories whether or not god exists.

          • (Thanks for taking the time to respond. Please do not take my vigorous sparring below to mean that I hold any antipathy towards you personally.)

            So, did the 16th century Catholic Church reject the conquistadors' claims that they prevailed in the New World proved that God was on their side?

            Of course natural success is no reason for accepting supernatural claims, but Catholics do it all the time. Something tells me that if Pope John-Paul II had been seen as a failure as pope, he wouldn't have been canonized with so much unseemly haste, even if he had led an otherwise saintly life.

            While I understand why you have to believe that Catholicism will prevail in the end, all the evidence seems to be pointing in the opposite direction. Most of the free world has already resoundingly rejected the Catholic tenets of Natural Law when it comes to sexual mores and reproduction, even within much of what remains of the Catholic Church. Do you really believe that entire populations of nations will return to the fold except under extreme duress?

            Atheism just tells us that there is no sound evidence for the existence of God. That's all. Naturally (no pun intended) that begs the question as to where everything came from, and why we are here, but those are questions separate from atheism. Atheism itself, being limited to the belief that there is no God or higher power, does not inform on those matters.

            As for the explanatory power of random chance, yeah, it can be scary (which is why, even as an atheist, I continue to believe that it's a step too far for most people leaving Catholicism and other organized religious behind), but it has great merit in being the simplest (and often the least objectionable) explanation for the age old question of why bad things happen to good people.

            Take car accidents, for example. How many Americans seek to answer the question "Why me?" every year, whether it was to ask why they were horribly injured, or a loved one was killed, or perhaps why they survived when everyone else involved was killed? People can spend the rest of their entire lives seeking an spiritual answer for that question, and there will be no shortage of people telling them that it was all part of God's plan.

            Yet, when you zoom out and take an objective view of the car fatality statistics on a yearly basis, you will find that the number of people who died in car wrecks is remarkably consistent, with the only visible trend steadily downwards as car and road safety measures have improved. There is no evidence of divine providence in those numbers. They simply show that if you're a regular road user, then there is about a one in a million chance that you will die in a car accident within the next year.

            Sure, telling someone they just got lucky (or unlucky) doesn't seem much of an answer, but those who can accept it can save themselves a lifetime of fruitless soul-searching and self-doubt.

            At some level we know that is just not true.

            Please don't project your thoughts into my head. I don't believe anything of the sort. I believe that evolution--of us as a species and as a society--is by far the best explanation for the mess of feelings and desires we experience on a daily basis. No, it's not an easy platitude like "God did it" but has far more real explanatory power for the way we act and feel than the tortuous rationalizations developed by the Catholic church over the last two thousand years

          • Thank you for the reply. I enjoy these discussions.

            So, did the 16th century Catholic Church reject the conquistadors' claims that they prevailed in the New World proved that God was on their side?

            In general success can be seen as sign of God's approval. Yet failure does not prove otherwise.St Thomas More failed to stop the English reformation. He was still right. It is more a subjective thing, when you feel God is helping you and providing miracles along the way then that is confirmation you are doing something right. So if the person involved already has credibility in your eyes then you you might accept this judgement. If they don't you can dismiss the claim pretty easily.

            Just like when we lose some battles over sexual morality. It does not mean what is right and wrong has changed. It means large majorities have chosen immorality. It has happened before. People said the Roman Empire would never accept Christian sexual morality. Eventually they did. It can turn around. It can also get a lot uglier for a long time before it does. You can't worry to much about it. It is between you and God. Do the right thing.

            As for the explanatory power of random chance, yeah, it can be scary (which is why, even as an atheist, I continue to believe that it's a step too far for most people leaving Catholicism and other organized religious behind), but it has great merit in being the simplest (and often the least objectionable) explanation for the age old question of why bad things happen to good people.

            It is no so much scary but inhuman. Asking why bad things happen to good people is human. Saying the question makes no sense, in fact the categories of good and bad make no sense, that is inhuman. We are wired to pursue what is good. That feels like a feature and not a bug. The non-explanation that human brains just invented the concepts of good and evil because they gave us a survival advantage at some point in our history. That seems weak. Something as complex and beautiful as love cries out for a more satisfying explanation.

            You can believe it is all a matter of chance. It is a choice. It does give simple answers. You loved one dies in a car crash? They are just random chemicals. Your love for them is just random chemicals. Your questions are invalid. Your grief is meaningless. Have a nice day. You can go there.

            There is the other choice. You can believe we were made for a purpose. That love and truth and beauty are signs of a deeper reality.That life and death matters. That God will forgive us and heal what is broken in our lives.

            There is a book called Chance or Dance http://www.amazon.com/Chance-Dance-Critique-Modern-Secularism/dp/0898702291 . It really phrases things well. Either life is pure chance or life is a beautiful dance. Either nothing means anything or everything means everything. Really the half way points can be rejected based on logic. The two extremes of a purely physical on the one side and on the other side a reality where God is love and He sent His son Jesus to save us and He gave us His church and everything and every act and even every thought needs to be viewed in relation to Him.

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            Catholicism is NO different from any other religion. Every theist somehow things HIS religion is special and different. It's amusing, but untrue. Catholicism has a more top-down organization than most, but it's the same collection of authority figures, a sacred text or two, and reams of traditional stories and rituals, supplemented with frequently contradictory theology.

            Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose

          • Superficially there will be similarities. I can say all books are the same. They all have words and pages and maybe a few illustrations. People say one is better than another. It's amusing, but untrue.

            Catholicism has an organization. It has lasted for thousands of years. It really does not compare to anything else in terms of the consistency of its teachings and the diversity of its members. How many organizations claim to be able to give us God to eat, to forgive sins in God's name, and teach infallibly His truth?

            Jesus has no peer either. No other leader puts Himself in such a central place in human history. People claim to be prophets of God all the time. No one else has claimed to be God and pulled it off.

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, etc. they all are much the same to an outsider. Any claims about them vary according to the shape if the local culture. All claims about them rely on ancient texts and traditions - not solid evidence.

            I'm happy your NGO has staying power. Doesn't mean it's claims are true because of that, now does it? The Japanese monarchy dates itself back a couple thousand years - does that make its monarchs gods?

            And Jesus claimed to be god. So have many others throughout history, surely you don't buy into their faiths for that reason?

  • LFCasey

    Fr. Barron brought up "your cockamamie myth vs" mine, etc. One of the problems I find as a believer that Abrahamic religions agree on the Creator and then branch out as they do, but recognizing that God can and does work around the confines of the defined religion of the individual. Someone else brought up an interesting point in another thread regarding a 'miracle as witnessed by Christians' vs 'miracle as witnessed by followers of Islam' and whether one was considered "good" while the other "evil." Shouldn't we bar ourselves from this kind of thinking, but some rules should apply when testing a miracle attributed to God.

    • M. Solange O’Brien

      Sure. But what rules? How do we know it's a real miracle?

      • LFCasey

        Like...a miracle can't contradict the Ten Commandments or some other tenet. Also has to give glory to God in some way.

        • M. Solange O’Brien

          So a miracle, if you are to accept it as a miracle, must not be an event contrary to the tenets of your religion. Understood. But why does it have to give glory to god? And isn't that a rather nebulous rule? I've read theologians who claim everything that happens glorifies god.

          • LFCasey

            I would like to know the theologians rationale for that I guess, given suffering. Although there are parables about those who went through suffering "for the glory of God" - the blind man that Jesus allowed sight is one of those. It's hard to understand what is the true nature of those things. I seem to come out with a positive result in spite of my own.