Why should the devil have all the good theologians?

Welcome to another episode of Role Reversal Television, in which outspoken atheist Penn Jillette explains to Catholic pundit Piers Morgan why Catholic tradition doesn’t change with the times.

Orthodox Christians don’t understand hierarchical power in this way, and evangelicals would object to even more here. But the spirit of the thing is one Catholics, Orthodox, and evangelicals can appreciate: The faith once delivered is not the faith that is edited and updated with the times.

It reminds me of an exchange atheist Christopher Hitchens had with a Unitarian minister, who declaimed, “I’m a liberal Christian, and I don’t take the stories from the scripture literally. I don’t believe in the doctrine of atonement (that Jesus died for our sins, for example).”

To that Hitchens offered this matter-of-fact reply: “I would say that if you don’t believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ and Messiah, and that he rose again from the dead and by his sacrifice our sins are forgiven, you’re really not in any meaningful sense a Christian.” Er, bingo? I feel funny saying amen to Christopher Hitchens.

There is a strange accommodationism at work among some Christians, and when it takes atheists like Jillette and Hitchens to correct us, it should be as clear as glass that the accommodation has gone too far. Jillette and Hitchens don’t want people changing the playing field under their feet anymore than serious Christians do.

Side note: Catholics and condoms

Piers Morgan’s statement about a new pope condoning condoms to prevent disease seems to miss the mark in one obvious regard. Is the pope ever going to condone fornication? The church already has the answer to sexually-transmitted diseases: chastity. For a pope to permit condoms for such a reason would undermine a cardinal virtue (tempering the appetite).

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  • Rusty Yates

    It is not unusual for atheists to know more about a religion than the believers of the religion themselves. Believers often have beliefs at great variance to their religion because they believe instead of study. What believers believe turns out to be more what they want the religion to say instead of what it actually says. Atheists study, compare the religious text to the real world, test out ideas in the religion and try to get a global understanding of the written account. It is hard for a believer to compete with that kind of dillignece except in the area of believing where believers, not surprisingly excel even when the belief they hold is opposed to the text of the religion.

    • Joel J. Miller

      Great point.

    • Steve

      I think Penn successfully showed that Morgan neither believes nor studies his faith.

  • Philip

    Amen! Slouching towards Gomorrah. Lets compromise Truth we can be liked by the world. I seem to remember Paul saying something about this.

  • Kevin K

    Interesting point about the Pope and Condoms. Of course, the pope is never talking about condom use for the unmarried. The controversy is actually over condom (or any other birth control method) use for the married. I am very happy that the Orthodox church does not take such a rigid stance on this issue. It would be unwise and unsafe for us, per Gladys’ doctor, for her to get pregnant again. And I think there is nothing wrong with not want to keep having children forever. We are not in the middle ages when 1/2 to 3/4 of your children died before age 3.

    • Joel J. Miller

      No real disagreement there, but Morgan was specifically saying that the pope’s refusal to allow condom use was killing thousands in Africa. That can only mean that he believes condom use will reduce sexually-transmitted disease from extramarital sexual activity. For those who’ve practiced chastity (per church teaching) and limited sexual activity to marriage (per church teaching), there is no need for safe sex. For Morgan, the rule isn’t about preventing pregnancy; it’s a barrier to consequence-free self-indulgence, something the church wouldn’t countenance even if it did approve of contraception within marriage for the sake of avoiding pregnancy.

      • Rick

        Talk to Christian health workers who have spent any time in Africa. Any serious public health effort needs to talk about condoms. Obviously the ideal is chastity, and thankfully the devout are practicing it, but at the same time condoms have public health value, and encouraging condom use is simply bowing to the reality that as a human being you will surely run in to people who aren’t devout. Do you hand the African truck driver a condom which may save his life, or nothing at all?

        • Joel J. Miller

          There may be much to gain on the public health side by encouraging condom use; I’m not arguing that one way or the other. My point is that the pope is never going to do it, and it’s naive, silly, or maybe even spiteful for Piers Morgan to insist the pope do so. That’s not the pope’s job. Let Caesar pass out the rubbers. The church must work to call us to something higher.

  • Margie

    Your comments here reminded me of a couple of entertaining books: “The Devil’s Delusion, Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions” by David Berlinski. Berlinski claims to be agnostic, but just read a list of his critics to find out how good he is at poking holes in atheism.

    And also the book: “Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies,” by David Bently Hart. Hart is an Eastern Orthodox Theologian.

    We have always like Penn and Teller for their magic shows (We got to see them live in NYC a long time ago and it was a brilliant show!) and quite enjoyed the DVD of their tours through India, China — and I forget, maybe Egypt. The interesting thing about the China trip was they found a place where magicians/performers/circuses practiced and they had huge pictures of Mao up in the rooms. They let this speak for themselves. Penn is so knowledgeable about Christianity, I am honestly hoping and praying that he will stop being a “fashionable enemy”!

    • Joel J. Miller

      I’ve got Hart’s book, but haven’t read it yet. I hope to in the near future.

  • Rick

    Regarding condoms and “is the pope ever going to condone fornication?” I’m not a Catholic, but isn’t it true that the pope condemns condoms even when the wearer is not fornicating or adulterating? The happily married guy who is faithful to his wife and the amoral frat boy seem to be judged with equal harshness if they dare slip on a Trojan. The Catholic hangup with condoms is less about fornication and more about making sure that no one ever dares not have a baby.

    • Joel J. Miller

      A Catholic might say it differently (as did Monty Python), but that’s basically right. The argument from people like Piers Morgan, however, has nothing to do with that. They say that the ban on contraceptives is responsible for spreading STDs (or at the very least that its reversal would stop their spread). I was addressing this argument and why no pope will ever permit contraception for this reason.

    • Steve

      The Catholic belief on contraception goes like this: God created sexuality as the means through which a husband and wife are united together and take part in the creation of a new person who will live forever.

      The Catholic faith recognizes that we don’t have the authority as mortals to alter God’s design. Sex is to be a total self-giving of husband and wife – fertility included. Sterilizing that act is to say, “I want to experience the fruits of your body… without having to think about the responsibility and power of that act.”

      • Joel J. Miller

        Thanks for adding that clarification, Steve. Very helpful.

  • On the one hand I agree with you that the faith does not undergo modernization to the extent that it is divine revelation. However, the problem is assuming that our interpretation is infallible and then equating that with revelation. Over time we have discovered new things about history, the natural world, and human nature, and this has led us to rethinking and reformulating our understanding of Scripture’s teachings, teachings which were once considered accurate and part of the “faith once for all delivered to the saints.” We need to walk a careful balance between defending the faith against the erosions of secularism, while also being open and wrestling with the Scriptures and our understandings of it in light of new knowledge.

    • Joel J. Miller

      Yes, there is room for diverse expression and belief within the church (there always has been), but certain things are unchanging. And certain things change without good reason, just by cultural evolution. We need to be mindful of both or risk losing our bearings.

  • Steve

    Hitchens was only correcting the “strange accommodationism at work” that is Liberalism at heart. Or as J. Gresham Machen commented regarding the religion of Harry Emerson Fosdick, the poster child for theological liberalism, “”The question is not whether Dr. Fosdick is winning men, but whether the thing he is winning them to is Christianity.” Hitchens just recognizes and points it out to those who, like the Unitarian minster who still claim & insist that they are “christians” that they are in fact not what they claim to be – and are in fact something all together different and foreign to what orthodox faith in the Christian community has believed and stood. The new atheists apologetic may provide a needed to service to this “strange accommodation” but it is not to us who still hold fast to the “faith once and for all delivered to the saints.”

    • Joel J. Miller

      I wouldn’t limit the accommodation to the theological liberals. What about the materialism (economic and even philosophical) of the church, including conservative Protestants? That’s as much an accommodation as the doctrinal accommodation of the liberals.

      There is more than one direction to go wrong.

  • Of course, not many atheists are “good theologians” either. One even tried to tell me that because I consider context and grammar for each instance of a word, I’m therefore “picking and choosing” what I want to believe. So we have blind, unthinking “churchianity” on one end and rigid, unthinking literalism on the other, by both believers and anti-believers alike. It seems to me that the real problem is not with Christians but with human beings who can’t be bothered to do the work of thinking for themselves.