Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Evidence for God

In talking with atheists the one thing they keep repeating over and over is that there is no evidence for the existence of God. Of course there is. There is a ton of anecdotal evidence for the existence of God. Lots of people claim to have experienced God either in a purely spiritual way or in even in a physical supernatural way. Certainly their evidence is much stronger than much evidence that is routinely accepted in court. But science does not trust anecdotal evidence. Why not? Science is not concerned with unrepeatable events. Science is concerned with formulating theories that can predict experimental results. Human experience records many strange events. Chasing them all down is not a productive exercise for a scientist. So they ignore them not because there isn't some truth there but just because they are hard to investigate and end up with a solid understanding of what happened.

But there is a maxim in investigation. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. If I take a walk in the woods and I don't see any evidence there were deer in those woods that does not prove deer were never there. The absence of deer evidence is not evidence of the absence of deer. Someone could walk in the same woods an hour later and see a deer. That would be evidence. But a scientist would discount the second guy because his evidence is anecdotal. He would want to do some observations. Set up a camera or just wait around and see whether deer are observed. That is more work but it would get you solid evidence.

So why can't science do that with God? What would it look like? Some phenomenon that people associate with God is observed. But it is not a one time thing. It happens over and over. So scientists do their homework and make observations. Yes something is happening. They give it a name. Maybe they can't think of any natural explanation for this thing. Would that count as scientific evidence for God? Not at all. It would just be a scientific question that we have not yet discovered an answer to. There are many of those. Gaps in our scientific knowledge don't prove God exists. That is fair. But then what would this evidence for God look like? Would it be so big and so amazing that we could not mistake it as God? But we look at galaxies and we are unimpressed. We look at endless complexities in living things and in particle physics. It is pretty amazing. If you are not convinced by that then what would convince you?

I am not saying people should just believe in God for no reason. I just think that all the talk of evidence is nonsense. All you are pointing out is you are not forced to believe in God the same way you are forced to believe in trees. It is a choice. You can believe or disbelieve. Is there evidence? Lots of it. Can it all be dismissed? If you want. But is it rational to do so? Both systems make are rational in the sense that there is no compelling proof that can force any rational person to discard it. Some will point to Ockham's razor but that does not really fit.

Christianity is more rational in the sense that it involves the mastery of reason over the passions of the flesh. Human desires like sex, money, pleasure, and self aggrandizement are a much greater threat to reason than religion. Certainly Christianity is better suited to enabling you to establish self control in those areas. I have struggled with these things as a Christian but it is obvious to me that as an atheist I would have far less success. But self control is an important key to all success precisely because it makes us more rational.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Dialogue with an Atheist

From a comment thread below. Brian is in green. My original is in black. My response is in red..

You don't want an ethic to be completely static either.”

If you say that now, why did you earlier say denigrate an ethic that can “change at any time?” It sounds like you are trying to have it both ways. Are you trying to find some middle ground there, and perhaps favor an ethic that is sometimes static and sometimes fluid? Please feel free to elaborate on how much an ideal ethic should be one versus the other.

I am not sure why this is hard to understand. Science has the concept of a truth that you are trying to find. That truth changes but those changes don’t simply ignore what has been shown experimentally before. So can it change? Yes. Does that means existing truth might somehow stop being true tomorrow? No. Any new theory has to explain and predict experimental results better than the previous one. So there in limited framework in which change can take place.
The same is true with Catholicism. It never discards sacred tradition. But there is always a possibility for a deeper and better understanding of what God is revealing. Some of it is very solid and some is still quite mysterious. Everything can be improved on. But you can’t just ignore your previous data. So tradition can grow and change but you can’t just change it as an individual. Even the church can’t change it in a way that simply declares previous tradition to be wrong.

“Sometimes people can be made to see they are not being moral even by their own standards. They sometimes do change for the better. But when it get hard the option to just say the standard is the problem is going to be tempting. The point is nothing prevents them from doing that”

That is wrong. They may have intellectual honesty and a desire to be consistent and unbiased, and if so then that would stop them from engaging in a behavior that is hypocritical, biased, and exhibiting a double standard. The goal then, as stated before, is for the rest of us to encourage people to be honest, consistent, and reflective of their ethical principles and how they apply them. The more people there are in the world that are ignorant of their own behavior, engaging in hypocrisies and double standards and without caring that they are doing so, the worse it will be for the rest of us.
The first thing that jumps out is you seem to have an absolute moral standard here. Being consistent and unbiased is good. Being hypocritical, biased, and having a double standard is bad. Is that your subjective standard or is that objective? That is, does it apply just to you or does it apply to everyone? If it is just you then why go around encouraging others to be that way? It might feel wrong for you but who says it feels wrong for the next guy?

Think about your own personal ethical history. Have you ever changed your mind on some ethical position? Reflecting back on your original position, why did you hold it? What reasons would you have cited back then? What caused you to later change your position? What was the flaw in your earlier stance? If you look hard enough I think you will find that there was an inconsistency in your worldview that you became aware of, where you espoused some moral principle but then had the realization that your position on this other issue was in violation of that same moral principle. Sometimes our brain can live with inconsistencies and double standards (via cognitive dissonance and various biases) and sometimes it cannot, compelling us to change something. If more people can become more self-aware and less controlled by their biases, then people will on the whole adopt worldviews and ethics that are more consistent, reducing the amount of double standards that are in play when making choices.
My biggest moral changes came when I learned something about God. How much He cares about the poor. How much He cares about sexual purity. How much He cares about sacraments. I don’t think my previous position was inconsistent as much as it was ignorant. In Christianity the moral standard is not a principle but a Person. So knowing the Person better will change your positions.

“This is why we need to get God's revelation right. Osama Bin Laden, or now his successor, can and does say "Kill the Jews" just as well as Hitler says it. They definitely claim it is God's will. They are simply wrong.”

How do you know they are wrong? God wiped out entire races and species in the OT, and also punishes some people for all eternity after they live out their lives here on Earth. There is ample precedent for God being extremely violent to humans. You may respond by trying to justify God’s actions in such cases, but note that that would implicitly acknowledge that God did and does such things. Whenever apologists are presented with examples of the Christian god’s violent and genocidal behavior, some will deny that God does such things. Others will admit that God does such things, but then try to justify it. So far it looks like you are going the first route, but that is not entirely clear.

Perhaps God again had some reason now to command a genocide, and also chose to reveal it directly only to certain individuals (remember also that God works in “mysterious ways” to us).
This is why it is important not only to be religious but to get religion right. Just like bad science does not help humanity, bad religion does not either. But can we tell the true religion from the falsehood? I think we can. We use the same principles of reason we always use. Look at Jesus and look at Mohammad. Who do you believe? Which story agrees with the evidence? If you skip that step you will get nonsense but that is not just true for religion. You need to think.
As far as murder goes, God did command people to kill others in the Old Testament. God’s relationship with man has been developing and has gone through several major covenants. So the command to kill whole people groups is not something that is part of the current covenant. There is a progression. We are past that time now.

“If there is no transcendent morality why do we care if people are honest, reflective or consistent?”

Because those people use their morality to make choices, and some of those choices have consequences for me and others that I care about. So, I have a vested interest in the choices that other people make, and how they make them.
Sounds like you are imposing your morality on me. The consequences or moral choices are often at the heart of disagreement. So saying I can be honest, reflective and consistent in determining consequences and you can’t ends up in the same place as might makes right. Besides that, I don’t think you are being honest, reflective and consistent. If you were you would admit you are defining a transcendent moral truth here.
“He knows you better than you know yourself and loves you more than you could love yourself. So why not listen to Him?”

Assumes many facts not in evidence. It is also a mammoth-sized conversation on its own, and for now I do not want to derail from the main topic.
You were the one characterizing Christianity as “an ethical system that is extremely hyper-authoritarian in nature.” I was just pointing out that it is not so. A father can have authority and not crush his son’s spirit. God does that with us.
“I don't think recognizing that someone knows more than you makes you a non-thinker.”

Nor did I ever say it did, or would I. My point was not even about the amount of KNOWLEDGE such a being possesses. It was about the nature of its INVOLVEMENT in our lives. What I actually was saying was that under a Christian objective ethical system, your proper role is to be obedient to God’s will, to obey God’s moral standards. God is not merely a being that knows more than us. It is a being that is also commanding us what to do. Not obeying those commandments is a sin.

I am not sure what your problem here is. Is it that obedience is always wrong because it is obedience? Even if God’s will is consistent with who you are and what will make you truly happy? Even if obedience is going to be better for you and for others than doing things your own way? Is there something inherent in obedience to God that is immoral? I agree there is something about it that rubs us the wrong way. That is why being holy is such a struggle every day. But there is nothing wrong with a relationship where God leads us and we follow.
“God does not tell you ever detail of what you are to do every day. That would make it quite oppressive.”

Methinks you are beginning to understand. :)
We are never controlled. It is always a love relationship and love is always a free choice.

“There are many occasions where you have to use your mind.”

How is that possible under Christianity? How can we ever know what we should do, without just being told what to do by the Christian God? Are you saying we have the ability to use our own judgments, our own values, our own feelings, our own opinions, and our own thoughts to make decisions about what we should or should not do?

Welcome to ethical subjectivism.

The point is we need to work to bring our own judgments, values, feelings, and opinions into line with God. We must use our own. God will not tell us what to do every step of the way. But we must form our conscience so we can make choices like He would want us to make them. But not just because it is what He would want. It is because it is a higher, freer, better way to think. We are becoming more like God but also more like our true self. The way He created us, in His image but still an individual. It is sin that makes us all the same. It is sin that takes away our ability to think and choose. It is redemption that gives that back to us.

This response will be my last one on this topic on this site, as I generally prefer to not get engaged in back-and-forth exchanges on blogs particularly. If you want to continue I would be happy to do so, but in a different venue. I am a member at the atheist-oriented FRDB:

Freeratio (dot) org
Thanks for the reply. I would not mind continuing. I don’t have a ton of time. Jumping onto an atheist site where it will be 47 people against me would be fun but I just can’t spend that much time right now. If you can think of a place where I could interact with at most 2 or 3 atheists and link to it from my blog that might be attractive.
but if there is some other place you prefer I may be willing as well. Time is short for me at the moment too, so my responses may have some delay.



All the best to you Brian. I will pray for you. You are very intelligent and charitable. It is a pleasure dialoging with you., God bless.


Friday, June 24, 2011

The Freedom Trap

If God is all-good and all-powerful then why do bad things happen? The answer is human freedom. God proposes His goodness to man. He does not impose it. So he allows a great deal of evil to happen. Then He also allows the suffering that flows from that evil. Then He allows more suffering to make restitution for evil. It pains Him greatly but He lets it happen because He respects the dignity of man.

But God is not the only one caught in this freedom trap. Everyone who is trying to transform humanity and make the world a better place has to deal with it. What if people just don't agree with your plan? Even if you can win the support of the majority and get a hold of the levers of power. Should you force that unconvinced minority to do what you are sure is best for everyone? Do you respect a person's right to be wrong? Even if it causes much suffering not only for that group but for many others as well?

This is the test that Robert George sees many liberals facing. They own the government. They own the media. They own the courts. They own the schools. But how much freedom should those pesky social conservatives be allowed to have? Will liberals drift into what he calls authoritarianism?

This is the trap that killed Marxism. In order for their system to work they needed everyone to support it. They could not find space for human freedom. They tried indoctrination but no matter how intensely they argued for the virtues of their system there were still some remaining unconvinced. They were sent to prisons or labor camps. The way those people were treated became the thing that defined Marxism.

Pope Benedict speaks about this in Spe Salvi, his encyclical on hope.Section 21:
Together with the victory of the revolution, though, Marx's fundamental error also became evident. He showed precisely how to overthrow the existing order, but he did not say how matters should proceed thereafter. He simply presumed that with the expropriation of the ruling class, with the fall of political power and the socialization of means of production, the new Jerusalem would be realized. Then, indeed, all contradictions would be resolved, man and the world would finally sort themselves out. Then everything would be able to proceed by itself along the right path, because everything would belong to everyone and all would desire the best for one another. Thus, having accomplished the revolution, Lenin must have realized that the writings of the master gave no indication as to how to proceed. True, Marx had spoken of the interim phase of the dictatorship of the proletariat as a necessity which in time would automatically become redundant. This “intermediate phase” we know all too well, and we also know how it then developed, not ushering in a perfect world, but leaving behind a trail of appalling destruction. Marx not only omitted to work out how this new world would be organized—which should, of course, have been unnecessary. His silence on this matter follows logically from his chosen approach. His error lay deeper. He forgot that man always remains man. He forgot man and he forgot man's freedom. He forgot that freedom always remains also freedom for evil. He thought that once the economy had been put right, everything would automatically be put right. His real error is materialism: man, in fact, is not merely the product of economic conditions, and it is not possible to redeem him purely from the outside by creating a favourable economic environment.
Now we have modern liberalism. It has taken Marx and refined him. Trying to get rid of economic injustice. A good goal to be sure. Then it has added Freud to that. Embracing his idea that sexual repression disguised as morality is at the root of many human problems. Added to that is Darwin. The notion that progress is constant. That what is old must die and be replaced by new and better orders. So we roll that up into one thing and we have a significant attempt to bring about utopia through human effort.

But what about freedom? Are they going to get caught in the same trap Marxism got caught in? Crushing the few for the good of the many. But as time goes on the few becomes quite a few getting crushed. The good of the many fails to materialize as governments become more focused on crushing dissent.

As Christians we will always know that any attempt to bring about salvation by human effort is going to have limited success. Sin is the root problem. No amount of political, psychological, and scientific knowledge is going to free us from sin. Only the cross of Christ will do that. But that is the one thing this new order does not want to discuss.

Secular government's willingness to crush dissent makes me marvel at God's patience with sinners. He puts up with so much. He does not even mandate that education be done His way. He commands but rarely enforces. So much so that people wonder if He even exists. That kind of respect for human freedom is amazing.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

How Christians Become Atheists

One woman's story, Paula Kirby is her name. She tells how she went from being Christian to being atheist.I got the link from Barefoot Bum.
Like every other Christian I have ever known, I had clear ideas about the kind of God I believed in and, on the basis of those ideas, I accepted certain bits of Christian dogma while utterly rejecting others.  Again, let me stress: this is par for the course.  In practice faith is always a pick-and-mix affair: believers emphasize those bits that sit comfortably with them, whilst mostly ignoring those bits that do not, or concocting elaborate interpretations to allow them to pretend they do not mean what they actually say.  So this was the question I faced up to in 2003: What was there to suggest that the version of Christianity I believed in was actually real? Was there any better evidence for the version I accepted than there was for the versions I did not?
What she calls par for the course is quite sad. What she is doing is confessing something as the truth about God but then not treating it with the respect God's truth deserves. She is right that it is common in the modern western world. It was not common in historical Christianity. It is the fruit of the reformation but it was not the immediate result. The reformers did take their doctrine very seriously. But as the number of divisions grew it became impractical to do that. Then in more modern times as mass media grew and people became aware of just how many different doctrines exist the practice of picking and choosing for yourself became more common. But that isn't Christianity. Christianity teaches that God came to earth and revealed Himself. It does not teach that you can make up whatever doctrine suits you. Even protestants who seem to me to be clearly doing that would deny they are doing that and insist that it is not a legitimate thing for a Christian to do.
The Bible could not help me. Both kinds of Christian – the ultra-conservative and the ultra-liberal – find abundant support for their views in the Bible provided they cherry-pick enough (and, of course, they do just that, filing the bits that don’t suit their case under the convenient headings of “Metaphor” or “Mystery”). 
This is quite a cynical view of scripture.  My guess is she has not spent a lot of time trying to discern what the bible really says. Yes, everyone claims to be biblical and you can't appoint yourself as the final infallible interpreter but I would never say the bible could not help.
Tradition was not reliable, either: a false belief does not become true simply through having been held through many generations.
This is a very quick way to write off what I came to understand as an important key. If God revealed something to Christendom and that revelation happened in the first century then that teaching should be there from that time until now. Things people made up recently or even 500 years ago don't fit the bill. Is everything that is old true? No. People can make the same mistakes for generations. But if something has been solidly part of the Christian faith for a long time then we have to wonder what gives us the right to change it.

Just about all the Christians I came into contact with “knew” there was a god, too. They, too, spent time in meditative prayer with him on a daily basis. And as a result, they, too, “knew” what God was like. So what did that knowledge tell us about him? How reliable were these personal relationships when it came to establishing the truth about God?
Some of us, on the basis of our relationship with God, knew him to be loving, compassionate, generous, always reaching out to us, pitying our mistakes rather than condemning them. Others, on the basis of their relationship with God, knew him to be angry, jealous, punitive.
Some of us knew that God had more important things to worry about than our sex lives; others knew that human sexual impurity was deeply offensive to him.
Some of us knew that God wanted us to respond to other people’s shortcomings with tolerance and forbearance and humility; others knew that he wanted sin to be made an example of, to be held up and publicly rebuked.
Some of us knew that God was offended by conspicuous consumption when so many people had nothing; others knew that God showered wealth along with other good things on those of whom he approved.
Some of us knew that God saw all religions as different expressions of people’s yearning for him; others knew that traditional, orthodox Christianity was the only route to him.
Some of us knew that the devil was just a myth to explain the existence of evil; others knew that the devil was very real and a genuine threat to our souls.
Some of us knew that there was no way God could ever allow such a thing as hell; others knew that hell was very much a part of God’s ordained order.
We all knew we were right, and we all based that knowledge on the personal relationship we had with him.  How could any of us possibly be wrong?
This is quite an amazing phenomenon. The truth is they are all right to a certain extent. Like the CS Lewis analogy about the Atlantic Ocean. Everyone experiences a part of the ocean and comes to know things about it. But nobody has the picture of the whole thing. How do we put it all together? That is where the church becomes very important. But in the protestant world what happens is everyone finds like minded Christians who have had a similar experience. Rather than putting ideas together and arriving at a deeper truth about God they exaggerate their pet doctrine and end up with a distortion. Then they create an echo chamber community to create absolute certainty about the truth of their teachings.
What was striking about these observations was that those of us whose personalities led us to embrace the world and other people in a spirit of openness, generosity, warmth and tolerance “knew” that God did the same. And those who lacked the confidence for that, and consequently saw the world as threatening and evil and bad, “knew” that God saw it that way, too.
This is why subjective experience cannot tell us anything about God.  Knowing what kind of god someone believes in tells us a great deal about that person – but nothing whatsoever about the truth or otherwise of the existence of any god at all.

This is too strong. The subjective experiences can tell us something. They just can't tell us everything. Yes they do tell us about the person themselves. But that person was created by God. There is truth there. Just not the whole truth.
And this brings us to something very important about atheism.  Atheism is not in itself a belief. Few atheists would be so bold as to declare the existence of any god at all utterly impossible.  Atheism is, quite simply, the position that it is absurd to believe in, much less worship, a deity for which no valid evidence has been presented.  Atheism is not a faith: on the contrary, it is the refusal to accept claims on faith.
But saying worship of God is absurd is a statement of faith. It is based on reason but most people have a rational basis for faith. The point is that after examining all the evidence a choice was made to embrace one conclusion. That is faith. You need some certainty about the big questions in life in order to proceed. The choice to live under the assumption that atheism is true is very similar to the choice to live under the assumption that Catholicism is true. It is central and far reaching. It is not in a different category at all. Now it is in a different category than the half-baked Christianity she believed before. Where she manufactured her own God. People such as St Thomas Aquinas and Bl John Newman have said that such a person has no faith. I understand that. But atheists? They have faith.
Atheists recognize that we need evidence in order to come to reliable conclusions about reality and that, so far, those who claim there is a god have signally failed to provide it.  And atheists care about reality: not what it might be comforting to believe, or what has traditionally been believed, or what we have been instructed to believe.  
There is the idea that religious people don't look at evidence.  We do. We just come to a different conclusion. I find atheists are quicker to write off whole categories of evidence. Miracles, personal stories of lives transformed, visions, etc. Christians can make sense of all the evidence.
And this focus on reality, far from diminishing our experience of life, as so many religious people imagine, actually makes our lives all the richer: once you have faced up to the reality that there is no evidence to suggest there is another life after this one, it becomes all the more important to live this finite life to the full, learning and growing, and caring for others, because this is their only life, too, and there is no reason to believe there will be heavenly compensation for their earthly sufferings.
But why? What is the reason to live your life to the full? What does that even mean? Does it mean pleasure? Does it mean achievement? What is going to matter after you are dead? Anything?
An atheist life, well lived, leads to the only kind of afterlife there is any evidence for whatsoever: the immortality of living on in the fond memories of those who loved us.
OK, fond memories. But the people who remember us will die too.  So you still have the problem of finiteness. You can imagine people will remember you for a long time after you die. How often do you think about those who have died? Maybe those who have recently dies you fondly remember. What about those who died a while ago?

I would also dispute the claim that there is no evidence whatsoever for an afterlife that Christianity speaks of. I have personally heard so many stories of dead people appearing to their loved ones. Then there is the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. For people who claim to care about evidence they sure dismiss a lot of things.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Atheists and Morality

Someone who goes by the name Barefoot Bum linked my last post on the lack of atheist saints. I touched on morality there but just briefly. His comment seemed to focus on morality so I will give a longer answer here. The first thing to understand is that atheists can be and usually are very moral people. That is frequently thrown out as the straw man that Christians simply assert atheists are immoral and it is not true. Some Christians might say that. I don't and most of the Christian thinkers I respect don't. So the straw man accusation is itself a straw man. We generally don't make the straw man argument we are accused of making.

So what is the argument? The problem is not that atheists don't have morals but that they don't have a source for those morals that is greater than themselves. They can base morals on their feelings or on their reason and end up with a moral code that is pretty good. The problem is it is something they have created and therefore they can change it at any time. If they convince themselves that something is OK then there is no standard that someone can point to and show them they are wrong. The classic example is Hitler and genocide. This is just because it is something that everyone agrees is immoral. What do you say to a person who has honestly comes to the conclusion that genocide is a good idea? Is their opinion of what is moral just as valid as yours? You can question their motives. You can question their logic. They can question your motives and logic. But at the end of the day they can just dismiss your argument and simply say they disagree.

So why does this matter? Because humans are capable of skewing their reasoning. What is known as rationalization. Here is Thomas Merton:
I think that if there is one truth that people need to learn, in the world, especially today, it is this: that the intellect is only theoretically independent of desire and appetite in ordinary, actual practice. It is constantly being blinded and perverted by the ends and aims of passion, and the evidence it presents to us with such a show of impartiality and objectivity is fraught with interest and propaganda. We have become marvelous at self-delusion; all the more so, because we have gone to such trouble to convince ourselves of our own absolute infallibility.  The desires of the flesh–and by that I mean not only sinful desires, but even the ordinary, normal appetites for comfort and ease and human respect, are fruitful sources of every kind of error and misjudgement, and because we have these yearnings in us, our intellects (which, if they operated all alone in a vacuum, would indeed, register with pure impartiality what they saw) present to us everything distorted and accommodated to the norms of our desire.
Moral reasoning is one place where our intellect bumps right against appetites and desires. Atheist morality makes the assumption that reason will win that encounter. At least if we can put aside religion then human reason will be able to follow what logic tells him is right and not be hopelessly skewed by our passions. It isn't true. The most intelligent alcoholic will fall for the silliest line of reasoning if it justifies his drinking.

So what is the solution? People need some reason to overrule their own opinion. Sometimes the state law serves this purpose. But the laws can be immoral. Then there are cases like the Hitler example where the person has the power to rewrite the law. So we need some higher law. Like a law that says it is always wrong to break your marriage vows. It might come from religion or maybe just your sense of some moral absolutes. Then no matter how many interesting arguments for adultery cross your mind you dismiss them all because this law trumps your reason.This is good because those arguments are going to be skewed by your passions. But if you don't believe in moral absolutes then your chance of succumbing to bad reasoning is a lot higher.

The truth is that most atheists are moral because they have some unquestioned moral absolutes. This is a good thing. It is not a rational thing because they don't have a logical reason for believing these principles trump all logic. Yet they are there and they are typically true. Principles like honesty, hard work, the pursuit of truth no matter the cost, respect for other people, etc. The reality is most atheists were raised in a society formed by Christian morals. So they have picked up these ideas and have them so deeply ingrained they don't even know they are there. But how long will that be true? As the Christian world and life view becomes less and less dominant in the west how long will we see atheists displaying these values?

Monday, June 20, 2011

Atheist Saints

One way to measure of a world and life view is to look at the lives of those who have embraced it best. Who have lived it out without compromise. In Catholicism we call these people saints. We can see the beauty of a life lived totally for Jesus. It inspires us.

It occurs to me that atheists don't have these. That is people who embrace atheism fully. People who take the idea that the material world is all their is and push it as far as it can be pushed. To say everything that gives us a hint of the supernatural is just an artifact of evolution. Morality, love, truth, purpose, virtue, miracles, everything is just something our minds made up to give us survival advantages. They may continue to give us survival advantages or not but they are not to be taken seriously as pointing to some greater reality or any reality at all.

When you discuss matters with an atheist they don't defend this position. One of the first statements they make is to declare that they believe nothing on faith and only accept things through reason. The trouble is they see it as a virtue. That arriving at opinions through reason is somehow superior to arriving at them through faith. This may be true but to an atheist it is just one of those properties of the human brain that evolution has left us with and we can ignore. My brain uses method A and your brain uses method B. Isn't that nice? There is nothing more to say because virtue and truth are illusions. Actually you can't say "Isn't that nice?" either because that is an opinion about goodness. Just remark that this state of affairs has a impact on the pleasure centers in my brain. What does it do to yours?

The atheists we have today don't go there. They talk about values all the time. They assert that it is possible for an atheist to be a very moral person. Why should a real atheist care about that? One evolutionary artifact gives me pleasure from being moral. Another one gives me pleasure from eating cheese. Why not assert it is possible for an atheist to enjoy cheese? Why does being moral matter? If Hitler felt like he was doing the world good by killing the Jews then isn't that feeling all that matters? Who cares if it causes the human species to become extinct? That is the way evolution is supposed to work. We do what we do and we either survive or some other species does. Why does any of it matter?

The one thing atheists seem very concerned about is intelligence. They want to be seen as smarter than religious people. Again, this relies on a notion that the intellect is useful for arriving at truth and that truth is inherently good. But this is precisely what is being denied. Just say "I think of myself as smarter than you because it pleases me to do so." Who cares if it is true or not?

There is even the notion that humanity will somehow be better off if religion dies and atheism dominates. But "better" is one of those concepts atheists can't find scientific proof for. Even leaving that aside, where would the work ethic come from? How could the integrity of the scientific method be maintained without participants who value personal integrity?

These un-atheistic ideas flow regularly from even the most celebrated atheists. So atheists really don't have saints like we have. That is people who embrace atheism without compromise. Perhaps it is not possible. Perhaps it is just an inhuman philosophy.

Does this prove atheism is false? No. It does make you wonder though. People who try and embrace true atheism fail. They import some value system from somewhere. But maybe humans are so dysfunctional they can't embrace the truth even if they want to. It is logically possible. As Christians we believe that the agape love God wants us to live out cannot be fully grasped. But people failing to live out higher ideals seems more plausible than people actually refusing to drop to a lower standard.

Think of a diet. We can see why people might not live out a diet even if it is imposed for very good reasons. But why would someone make up a diet for no good reason? Then when they discover the diet is made up they still can't just follow their appetite and eat what they want. That is harder to see.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Sloth, Drugs, and Protestants

I do a bible study at a local prison once a week. I was showing them some of Fr Barron's material. He talked about sloth and it's relation to relativism. That is if you don't know the content of your faith with certainty you are not going to have zeal for that faith. As Pope Benedict once said, you cannot have a question mark in the center of your life. I became Catholic looking to change that question mark into a period. What happened is it changed to an exclamation mark! Way more grace and truth than I expected. But this is not common in Christianity today.

These prisoners have been around many ministries.There are protestants working in the same prison. They encounter Christians at street ministries and at drug rehab places. They have been around. What they hear consistently is that God is love and as long as you focus on love don't worry about doctrine. Love Jesus. Read your bible. Follow your heart. They hear this regardless of what denomination the person comes from. Even Catholics come out with it. It has kind of become ecumenical dogma. If you want to work with other denominations and not step on any toes you need to avoid doctrine that is specific to your tradition.

The trouble is Fr Barron is right. This kind of wishy-washy teaching does not inspire the zeal necessary to change lives. These guys are dealing with serious addictions. Many have been abused as children. People tell them to simply say the sinners prayer and turn their lives over the Jesus. They do that but it does not work. They end up back on drugs and back in jail. Not just one or two times but again and again for years. They need something more solid. They need to know what mortal sins are and how they can destroy your walk with God. They need to know about sacraments and about penance. These are the most powerful spiritual weapons we have and we cannot simply ignore them because Christians can't agree about them.

Thinking about it, much of what protestants do is centered around overcoming sloth. Pastors preach to try and motivate people. Worship songs are designed to fire people up. They use every trick in the book to get people off their chairs and doing something. Often it works. At least some percentage of the people respond. But these methods are natural. They are used in the service of secular causes as well. That does not make them wrong. As Catholics I wish we were better at doing those things. But they are not enough. We need grace building on nature.

Ironically enough it is the protestants with their Sola Gratia slogan that end up working to much with natural means. Having shut the door to the graces mediated by the church they find even graces available through personal faith can be less effective because of doctrinal uncertainty. So they say let go and let God. But they won't let God work through sacraments or through saints or through the pope. They don't let go of those prejudices. So it boils down to the power of positive thinking. Believe strong enough and God will free you from drugs. It just does not work. Some demons only come out with fasting.

There is something called Cenacelo. It was started by a nun who decided to apply the prayer life of her convent to a community for addicts. That means daily mass, rosaries, adoration, confession, etc. Not just for a few weeks but for a few years. It is a radical choice to make. The very opposite of sloth. The good news is it works. People do get free from even the most powerful addictions. But you need to have faith. Not just faith in Jesus but faith that these Catholic devotions actually work. That they are worth focusing on for a long period of time because through them God will not only break your addiction but they will bless you in countless other ways.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Two Kinds of Testimonies

Once you have established that one should investigate religion and not just dismiss it then the next question is how to go about doing that? There are many different angles one can take. As one raised in a protestant faith the first thing I really examined was the testimony of Christians I encountered. There were basically two kinds of testimony that impressed me.

The first one was the rational skeptic. CS Lewis and GK Chesterton are good examples of this but there are many more.  Basically you are impressed with a person's ability to find holes in people's philosophies. They point out many weaknesses in thinking you are familiar with. Weaknesses you had either missed or were not able to pinpoint exactly. They gain credibility in your mind as a strong critic. But these same people accept Christianity. Many of them were atheists at some point and thought there way into Christianity as skeptics. Those guys impressed me. I needed to know that Christianity was being scrutinized in some serious way and standing up to it. I could not honestly say I was doing that. People did leave the faith saying they were too rational to take Christianity seriously. I never heard them give an argument that made sense to me or to the Christians I knew. But the fact that we didn't see any impressive argument was dismissed as bias. Could we all be biased? These testimonies were the best examples of Christian thinkers who could not be dismissed as biased.

The other thing that impressed me was the arguments themselves. Not to get into details here but they seemed very strong. It really pointed out the fact that the supposedly super-rational anti-Christian side had not come up with arguments nearly as strong. What was more they didn't respond to the arguments Christians were making. So we had one side feeling smug about claiming that logic and reason were on their side but they were not the ones making good arguments and responding to objections. They were the ones doing a lot of table pounding and ignoring what the best thinkers on the other side were actually saying.

The second type of testimony that made a difference to my faith was the prodigal son type of story. It made sense to me to believe Jesus was real if He was changing lives in a dramatic way. Logically how much did it really prove? Could it be just another instance of the power of positive thinking? Some of it could be chalked up to showing Christianity contains some real wisdom. Sobriety is better than drunkenness. Chastity is better than promiscuity. But those things could be true without God being real. Still living the Christian life was seen by many as much more satisfying than the secular alternative. Is that enough? Not really. But it is good to know.

Still it was deeper. Calvin talked about a spiritual sense we have. Like smell, taste, touch, sight, and hearing tell us about the physical world he thought we had some sense that told us about the spiritual world. I got that sense from these people. They didn't just have measurable changes in their lives but they experienced God. They knew He was real. They didn't wonder if religion was just a new trick for changing their behavior. Like a nicotine patch helps you quit smoking. They knew there was a spiritual encounter that was central to their story. They had fallen in love with Jesus. At the end of the day the most powerful arguments for or against Christianity are Christians.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Many Religions, One Truth

When you talk about religion you often get the response that there are many religions. That is true but it is not often relevant. No religion claims to deal in pseudo-truth or subjective truth. They all deal in absolute truth. Once something has been determined to be a matter of subjective opinion then it ceases to be a topic of religious discussion. There are some things like that. Like whether chocolate or strawberry ice cream is better. But nobody has religious discussions about that. There are even some who would suggest that many or perhaps all moral questions are like that. That whether or not it is wrong to lie is like the question of whether chocolate or strawberry ice cream is better. That is it is subjective and for some lying might be OK and for others lying might be wrong. But the question of whether the morality of lying is subjective is not subjective. Those who believe it is subjective take that as an absolute truth that is is subjective. Those who believe it is not subjective take that as an absolute truth that it is not. That is the religious question. What, if anything, is objectively morally or immoral. The minute you claim the morality of lying is subjective it follows that it should not longer be the subject of religious discussion. Religion cares only about objective truth. If a religion holds moral truth as subjective then that is all it holds about morality.

So if we understand that religion is about absolute truth then we can process the fact that there are many religions much better. Suppose I ask a large number of people how to get to New York. Then I get a lot of different answers. What should I conclude? That there is no such place as New York because the answers are different? That all the answers I got will take me to New York so it does not matter which I listen to? That I can ignore all the directions and do whatever I want and still be certain of getting to New York? Those are easy answers but they don't flow from the data. I need to get into the details. Which answers are more trustworthy? Do I have reason to believe some people know better how to get to New York than others? If I ask person A about the directions person B gives me, what do they say? Do they say that will get me there as well or do they say person B has accidentally given me directions to New Orleans? Are there similarities between the answers? Maybe a lot of answers refer to Interstate 95. Could that mean something?

We know how to process multiple opinions in other areas. Why can't we do it when it comes to religion? Part of it is distraction. We have many things happening in our lives. We have the short term pain and pleasure. Talking about the big questions of life to modern man is like teaching 8 year-olds how to play positional soccer. They just want to chase the ball. No matter how many time they get burned for an easy goal because they all went after the ball at once that impulse remains strong. Chase the ball. Don't make the game so complicated. Don't face the fact that all the soccer I have played up until now has not been played very intelligently. It is easier just to assume the coach is crazy. Just chase the ball. Most people, even very intelligent people, spend their life chasing the ball and really don't learn from the best coaches how to play the game of life well. Religion is like playing system. You need a good system and you need to work hard to play it effectively but the right system played well transforms everything.

So it makes sense to take religion seriously even if you set aside the main claim of most religions. That is that the big questions in life really do have big answers. That we do have a meaning and purpose to life. That it makes sense to pursue what is true and good and beautiful. That much deeper and longer lasting happiness is available than we get from the more superficial pursuits. That life after death exists and what we do can impact how we spend it. These are big claims that if they are true and we can be sure they are true they are going to have a major impact on our lives. But some claims contradict. Not as badly as many say. There is a lot of commonality. Most are centered around one person - Jesus, Mohammad, Buddha, etc. So the first step is to decide what to make of these central religious figures. Who's claims make sense? These are important questions because accepting a source of revelation about God as trustworthy means we accept everything they say based on our faith in them. That is a huge blessing if their claims are true. It can be a huge curse if the claims are false. The good news is these guys didn't come on the scene yesterday. We can evaluate not only what they say but what adherence to their teachings has brought to the world. We can examine what a follower of Jesus looks like and ask if we want to be like that. We can do the same for followers of Mohammad or Buddha or whoever. This is not a process where we stop thinking and accept a whole series of things on blind faith. We can do as much analysis as we want.

There is also going to be an emotional aspect to accepting a faith. It is more like choosing a spouse. Yes we need to be rational about it but making the choice purely based on reason is not for everyone. God does use our feelings. We can't always trust them but we can't ignore them either. So it gets complicated. But ultimately all things that are ordered towards truth and towards God should compliment each other. When I have made a major religious decision it has been on many levels. My reason, my conscience, my emotions, everything is pulling me the same direction. It takes a while. Even then it can feel like a leap into the dark. But those leaps have been the best choices I have made.

What leads to those choices is just taking religious claims seriously. Not being credulous or stupid. Just taking some serious time and energy to investigate what the truth is. If the prize was not God but $1 billion I think people would take it seriously. They would make the effort to sort out the good evidence from the bad. Nobody would be looking for excuses to dismiss the whole thing. But it is not money. It is something much more valuable than money. But people are so quick to write off any chance that there is something there.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Freedom of Religion

In the last post I was thinking about secularism and how it can masquerade as a world view that is above all religions but really is more comparable to a religion. One of the big implications of not seeing secularism as a religion is when it comes to freedom of religion. One key element to freedom of religion as Americans see it is the non-establishment of a state religion. Certainly Muslim nations claim to have freedom of religion but they mean something different by it. It means they allow you to not be Muslim but you are still not allow to do anything that could threaten Islam as the dominate religion. So, for example, you may not evangelize. You may not tell Muslims they should become Christian. Americans would see that as a basic part of freedom of religion but Muslim nations do not.

The trouble is that because secularism is not see as a religion nobody worries about it becoming the state established religion. The danger is very real. What will happen and is already happening is freedom of religion is being redefined by the state religion. Just like Islam defines the limits of Christian freedom in Islamic states secularism will define the limits of Christian freedom in secular states. What will that look like? We are seeing some of it already. Pro-life and pro-marriage people are being punished. They are losing jobs. Their opinions are being declared to be invalid. Why? Because they have violated the limit secularism has put on Christianity.

We are seeing a push to insure all children are educated in the state religion. They are getting bolder and bolder in demanding teaching that directly contradicts Christianity. Why? Because children need to be secular. They don't want them to have absolute truths that govern all areas of their lives. In fact, they need to understand that as an absolute truth that should ... you know.

Where this ends is the same place it has ended for many Christians in Muslim nations. They live as a permanent underclass. There is always a certain amount of anti-Christian hatred that is tolerated. Then from time to time it boils over into violent rage. That too is seen by society as unfortunate but not as outrageous behavior. Crimes against Christians are more understandable.

How close are we to that in the west? It is coming fast. Can Christians really be persecuted in a majority Christian country? Most people who say their religion is Christianity actually have more allegiance to secularism. So the real religion that offends is a minority. Secularism does control almost the entire establishment.

What is the answer? It is not to try and establish Christianity as the state religion instead. It is to recognize that religion needs to play a major role in public debate but in a pluralistic way. We need to actually learn to engage in moral reasoning. Not just see what the religious people are saying and do the opposite. There is a basis on which civilized people can have public debate about how to acknowledge the transcendent in public life. Secularism promised that but does not deliver. Natural law is a much more reasonable place to start. We need to start somewhere but starting with the doctrine that all doctrines should be ignored is doomed to failure. The only question is how low we will sink before we see that failure.

Monday, June 6, 2011


Secular thinking takes it as obvious that we see things more clearly and analyze things more accurately if we keep religion out of it. That real truth is obscured by religion. This is why we keep religion out of the schools, out of the media, out of politics and out of scholarly research. It is OK for religion to impact people's lives in other, less important areas but during the times when real thinking needs to be done religion should be put on hold.

What is interesting to note is that this idea about religion is itself a religious statement. People don't get that. The idea that religion makes people's thinking worse has become so dominate that people think it has been scientifically proven or something. It hasn't. You either believe it or disbelieve it based on your religion. If you say you are not religious it just means you have no coherent way of thinking about how your religion impacts your thinking. It does not mean your thinking is somehow unrelated to how you answer questions of faith and morals. Just because you have no systematic way of addressing those questions does not mean the answers don't impact the rest of your views.

The difference is that the secular person thinks he is being fair by leaving religion out of his analysis. He does not see that his secular world view made him leave religion out. His analysis is only valid if his world view is correct. When a Catholic does an analysis that is only valid if Catholicism is correct that is seen as not fit for the mainstream media. It can only be considered by Catholic media. But an analysis assuming secular thinking is correct is considered fit for the public square. So we end up with a de facto state religion. It is so deeply ingrained it is not even seen as a religion.

People are so unaware that secularism is religious that they think they can be Christians or even Catholic and secular at the same time. They buy into the idea that religion should be set aside when doing science, education, or politics. That even true religion will somehow make their reasoning less reliable. Perhaps they don't really believe their own religion is true. They confess it as true but would rather set it aside when society makes big decisions. Part of it might be just wanting the respect and admiration of secular people. It is hard to know. But they don't seem to understand that they are thinking in contradictory terms. Supposing they are less likely to arrive at error by starting with something they believe is false.

It is easy to see why secularism leads to atheism. Secularism really is just living and thinking like an atheist even while maintaining that you have faith. Like most contradictions it lasts one generation. People can reject something in practice but not reject it in their creed. They just can't convince their kids to do the same. The children will notice it does not make sense and either return to the faith or reject it entirely. So atheism would be expected to grow as an honest form of secularism.

The interesting thing is that atheism does not last. Many atheists eventually embrace some faith. The ones that don't tend to really believe in faith as something irrational. That is the one dogma of secularism that they can't seem to get beyond.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Science and Prudence

Mark Shea has an article on how Catholics should read scholarship on climate change, history, social programs, etc.
Ye Olde Statistician’s real point is not to make a case for global warming, but to make the perfectly sensible case that what Rome generally does is try to pay attention to what the consensus of experts in a given field say and then act accordingly. This is called prudence. It’s why we hire electricians instead of just praying and sticking a fork in the fusebox to try to repair a power outage. It’s why we call an expert to repair our computer or tell us if it’s going to rain tomorrow. Bishops ain’t climate experts. So they defer to those who are and make a judgment call about the prudent thing to do in light of what appears to be the current consensus.
When the Vatican uses experts in matters other than faith and morals they are being prudent. We are also called to be prudent. What happens is we tend to pick and choose experts we like and ignore evidence to the contrary. The trouble is we tend to like exactly those experts who agree with our previous non-expert opinion on the matter. So we find someone who can state what we already believe in a more convincing manner. Then we tell ourselves that our opinion is actually based on this person's scholarship. But we haven't done anything close to an unbiased survey of the best thinkers. We have just read what people who think like us are comfortable reading. 

There are some subtle distinctions to be drawn here.the Vatican's opinion on matters other than faith and morals is never going to be dogma. But it should give us pause when we are valuing a different set of experts with a different opinion than most Catholics. It should especially concern us when our opinion on such matters corresponds to a particular sub-culture we are active in and pretty much lacks respect among Catholics outside that subculture. Certainly the liberal and conservative political subcultures come with that danger. There are others. Creation science tends to form it's own little subculture. The point is these subcultures exert a powerful influence over our thinking and mostly we are unaware of it. We think we have made an unbiased rational analysis but we have done nothing close.

So what is the answer? Thinking with the church. The church transcends time and culture. It also avoids the serious theological and philosophical errors that can send scholar off into left field. Even in matters where there is no infallibility it is much more likely to be right than you are on your own. That is hard to accept. It is much easier to dismiss something far away when you and everyone close to you have come to a different conclusion. What does it mean that Catholics from other times and other places don't agree? Often it means you are embracing the spirit of the world. 
GK Chesterton said the catholic church is the only thing that can save us from being a child of our time. Do we want to limit that salvation to just matters of faith and morals? Sure those are the most important areas. But science, economics, history, politics, etc. They are still important. We accept that our private judgement in biblical interpretation can be way off. Why can't our private judgement in these other areas be just as far off? Especially when there is significant controversy? 
What is at stake is the usefulness of scholarship. With so much pseudo-intellectual babble going on it is harder and harder to tell what the best minds are really saying. Each side trumpets their own research and it all sounds pretty good. Finding the truth can get hard. So most people just listen to one side and accept whatever. It is like deciding to just listen to Lutheran theologians so you won't be so confused. It removes confusion but it does not give you truth. It gives you a community that will make all the same errors as you do. You just have no idea how close you are to the actual truth. Nobody has any unbiased way of evaluating research. So the whole value of doing research becomes questionable.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

It's About Everything But Especially Sex

Peter Kreeft wrote an article on Education and Sex. He ends this way:
If you want to restore liberal education, restore sexual morality. And if you want to restore sexual morality, restore liberal education. The same virtues of honor, self-control, innocence, purity, respect, patience, courage, and honesty are cultivated in both places. They reinforce each other.
And so do their absences. Just as injustices provoke wars and wars provoke injustices, dishonesty with truth provokes dishonesty with sex and dishonesty with sex provokes dishonesty with truth. You can't be a totally honest thinker if you are living a lie. Your lived sexual lie will make everything in your life a little lie-like. There will be a vague shuffling, a hiding, an escapist politeness that will come to settle on everything you say or do like a fog. You will not dare to speak out clearly lest you offend someone. You will begin to sound more like a bishop than a saint. You will be nice instead of being holy. And so you will miss the meaning of liberal education and of sex.
 I can see his point but the similarities go deeper. It reminds me of the simplicity of God. That God's love is His mercy is His justice is His truth .... God is irreducible. We cannot subdivide Him. He is either in our life everywhere or He is not. You can't say you want His mercy and you don't want His truth because they are not separable.

It is a bit like Thomas Howard's book Chance or Dance. Life is either a matter of chance where nothing means anything or life is a dance with our creator where everything means everything. If we mess up some steps of the dance we mess up the dance.

So everything is related to God and therefore everything is related to everything else. We see how true that is when we profoundly change our thinking about God. I saw it big time when I became a Christian and again when I became a Catholic. It changes areas of your life you would have never predicted.The same can happen when you fall into mortal sin. You think it is only one area of life but every aspect of your relationship with God is impacted

But why sex? If everything is related to everything then why did Kreeft point out the relation of education to sex? The importance of education is the point I think he was making. Now one might suppose he compared it to sex so more people would read the article. People are interested in sex you know. But why are they interested in sex? Sure we have hormones but reading an article like this does not get us excited. There is something deeper to our interest in all things sexual.

The truth is all things are connected to God but sex is more connected with God than almost anything. It is a deep and profound connection - almost sacramental. Sacraments connect us with Christ's body. Sex is the way we move our bodies spiritually and either move with the rhythm of God's dance or we trip over our feet and fall on our butt. It is either very beautiful or very ugly.

So it is no accident that sexual imagery is very common and very effective. It is the place where "everything means everything"  makes the most sense and where "nothing means anything" makes the least sense to us. But it is also the area where we have the strongest impulses to act in a manner that is not a Right Response to Reality. So the central battle for many souls is around sex at least when secularism is the main alternative to Christianity.

So I don't think it is quite accurate to frame education and sex as connected in a balanced sort of way. Sex is the main event and education is very much an aftershock. They both flow from God and are either ordered or disordered based on where we are at with God. But the connection with sexual morality is way stronger and closer.