Catholicism and Atheism

I’ve got this gadget on my home page that generates quotable quotes. You don’t know what you’re going to get next. Some are funny, some wise, some rude, some silly, some stupid.

My favorite silly one is from Groucho Marx: “Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.” Geddit?

Anyway, there’s one from George Bernard Shaw today, “There is only one religion, though there are a hundred versions of it.” This is typical of Shaw–who regularly debated with Chesterton about most anything and everything. It’s typical because an awful lot of what he wrote seems to be witty or wise on first hearing, and on reflection turns out to be silly and stupid. His aphorisms are sort of anti-Chestertonian the way Satan is anti-St Michael.

What on earth does he mean that “there is only one religion, though there are a hundred versions of it?” What he means is that all the religions are valid ways to the same truth. It’s not really much more than “Faith is like a mountain and we are all climbing up a different path.” This is only a short hop from the subjective quote about “All searching for God in our own way.” which is only a short hop from “Let us all find our own Truth” or the classic, “I’m interested in spirituality but not religion.”

Shaw is right that there is only one religion, but he is wrong in saying there are a hundred versions of it. If it is a religion at all, then there can only be one version. There may be a hundred perversions of that one version, but there is only one version.

What I mean by saying that “if it is a religion at all, then there can only be one version.” Is that a religion must be concrete if it is to be a religion. It must consist of something. Vague ‘religious’ sentiment doesn’t count. Dreamy feelings of ‘unity with the cosmos’ are unreliable. A moist eye at the sight of a puppy or kitten does not constitute religion. A religion has dogma. It has something you can get your head around and discuss and debate. A religion has a moral philosophy. It has a history. It involves real people. It has a liturgy. It has books and words and rituals and actions, and all these things are either true or false.

Catholicism–therefore is a religion. So it Hindusim and Islam and Judaism and Buddhism and Jehovah’s Witness-ism and a whole long list of other religions that have something to them. Why then did I say that there can only be one version of religion? Because if religion, by definition, consists of something. If there is something solid to it, then that something solid must be either right or wrong–true or false. It can’t simply be an interesting past time or an amusing hobby for people who like that sort of thing. If it is a religion it claims not only to be interesting or amusing but it claims to be true, so therefore we must examine whether it is true or not.

If Catholicism is true, than the other religions are not other versions of it. They are either pre-versions of it or perversions of it. Religions that are more ancient than Catholicism are pre-versions–in other words, they are pointers in their own way to the fullness of the Catholic faith. Animism and paganism and Hinduism and Buddhism and Shinto-ism and Judaism all–to a greater or lesser extent–point forward to the fullness of the revelation in Jesus Christ.

The other religions that come after Catholicism are perversions of it–Islam and Protestantism and whatever other new fangled New Age religions are out there are all, in some way reactions against the monolithic truth of the Catholic faith.

As such they either lead people to the fullness of the Catholic faith, or they lead people into atheism. Of course this process does not take place for many people. They don’t follow the logic. They don’t think it through. They don’t have “perfectly consistent minds.” Nevertheless, it is true, as Bl. John Henry Newman has written, there is “no medium in true philosophy between atheism and Catholicism… a perfectly consistent mind, under those circumstances in which it finds itself here below must embrace either the one or the other.”

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  • Beth (JanMarie)

    Shared this on my blog, thank you!!!

  • David C Nicoll

    I've often said that if Christianity matters, it matters absolutely. And if it doesn't matter, it doesn't matter at all. If we just – for even a moment – started to live that, the world would be transformed.

  • john

    Well Fr. I agree with you on some things EXCEPT Catholicism, I disagree that the only two ultimate options are either Atheism or the Roman Catholic Church. I am an ex-RC who now attends a Reformed and Evangelical Church, yes I've studied the RCC and its Dogmas before I left, and the reason I left is because those Dogmas do not square with Historical facts or the Biblical witness, Yes I even read your book "More Christianity" and I disagree with much of what you wrote. Half the peple at my Church are ex-Catholics who left for the same reasons, a friend who lives 60 miles away says that about 60-70 per cent of his Church are ex-Catholics BTW the avg Sunday attendance at his church is about 250-300 people. So the ultimate choices are not just Roman Catholicism or Atheism

  • Maggie

    John, as someone who took the opposite path (former Evangelical, now Catholic), I'd encourage you to keep examining those objections. Especially in light of your queries about historical Christianity, I'd recommend Jimmy Akin's The Fathers Know Best. In regards to your queries about whether or not the teachings of the Church are Biblical, I'd start with By What Authority?, then glance at Where is That in the Bible?, and A Father Who Keeps His Promises and finish up with Signs of Life about various Church customs and traditions (both T and t).A quick reference for Biblical (and historical) basis of most Church teachings is here at Scripture Catholic.

  • Fr Longenecker

    John, you have stated that Catholicism does not match up with Scripture and history, but many scholars down the ages have proven exactly the opposite.Why should your beliefs be right and theirs be wrong? Just because you say so?I would be interested to hear just one example of a Catholic teaching that does not match up with Scripture or history.

  • shadowlands

    JohnTry looking up Tim Staples on youtube. I think you'll like him. He knows the bible inside out.I am Roman Catholic and believe it would be a grave sin for me, not to be. However, I don't believe this is the truth for everyone. Jesus speaks of having other shep in other folds, so unless that means there's Roman Catholic Martians, I imagine He will save souls from even non-Christian religions.If you have been born and baptized Catholic, I do think it's important to really check stuff out though. God never does anything by accident or coincidence (including our childhood faith).Anyway John, just to repeat, Tim Staples is your man. Look him up, you will like him. I promise!!!

  • shadowlands


  • dunn10

    Fr. you say there can only be one version of a religion. This does not appear to be valid. There are over 20 different rites within the catholic church. I would think of each rite as a different version of the same religion; would you? There are some clear differences that make some of the rites a different version. Some of the rites within the catholic church for example allow priests to marry. Therefore, I don't think we could say that they are the same as the Roman Catholic; Yet these different rites/versions are the Catholic Church. It seems clear that they are different versions of the same religion. Second, I would claim Catholicism is more true than other religions. The Catholic Church is partly made up of human beings. Humans as I am sure you know are not perfect and far from being perfect. The only thing that is perfect is the truth. The truth is God. Therefore the Catholic Church is not perfect because it is made up of people and they distort the truth. I would say Catholicism is the closest to the truth but not absolute truth (the catholic church here on this planet). These other religions you speak of have parts of truth in them as well; but they are missing a lot. I would suggest when thinking of different religions and understanding the issues you brought up of reading the Splendor of Truth by John Paul II if you haven't already.

  • john

    Fr Longenecker my current views are not because "I say so" but based on current peer reviewed Historical Scholarship, both Roman Catholic and non-Roman Catholic who agree with each other. For example "Peter was the Bishop of Rome and the first Pope" this view has been unanimously disproven by Historical scholarship.There was no Monarchial Bishop of Rome let alone a Pope until the mid 2cnd Century A.D. If you want sources I will give you some to start."From Paul to Valentinius;Christians at Rome in the First Two Centuries" by Prof. Peter Lampe"Origins of Papal Infallibility 1150-1350:A Study on the Concepts of Infallibilty, Sovereignty, and Tradition in the Middle Ages" by Brian Tierney"Papal Primacy" by KLaus Schatz"The Infallibility of the Church" by George Salmon"How the Pope Became Infallible: Pius X and the Politics of Persuasion" by August Bernhard HaslerThese are real Historians not wannabes like some of those mentioned here in response to my post. I've read them all at some point, Scott Hahn, Jimmy Aiken, Tim Staples, Scripture Catholic etc. They exercise poor Exegesis, distorted History and can't be taken seriously. When I want the facts I go to real current Bona fide peer reviewed Historians with academic standing and credentials.

  • Fr Longenecker

    John, It all depends what you mean by 'bishop of Rome' and 'first pope.'None of the Catholic apologists you mention would argue that Peter was a bishop and monarchical pope like those who came later. I certainly would not.When we say he was 'the first bishop of Rome' and 'the first Pope' we mean he founded the church there with St Paul and was the first of the chief elders of that primitive church, and that these first shepherds of the Roman Church were, in hindsight, the first 'popes'.In fact, I challenge you to find one serious Catholic writer who does propose that Peter was a monarchical pope in that sense.To say that we think Peter was some sort of medieval monarchical pope is to erect a straw man to knock down. You therefore 'disagree' with something we don't actually believe or teach.Have you another example where you think the Catholic Church contradicts history or Scripture?

  • shadowlands

    John said:"These are real Historians not wannabes like some of those mentioned here in response to my post. I've read them all at some point, Scott Hahn, Jimmy Aiken, Tim Staples, Scripture Catholic etc. They exercise poor Exegesis, distorted History and can't be taken seriously. When I want the facts I go to real current Bona fide peer reviewed Historians with academic standing and credentials."Tim Staples is no wannabe!! He converted to Catholicism in 1988 and spent the following six years in formation for the priesthood, earning a degree in philosophy from St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Overbrook, Pennsylvania. He then studied theology on a graduate level at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland, for two years. Realizing that his calling was not to the priesthood, Tim left the seminary in 1994 and has been working in Catholic apologetics and evangelization ever since.(info found at Catholic Answers)

  • flyingvic

    Hmmm. Behind so much of what you write, Father, is the apparent assumption that the Roman Catholic Church is in possession of "the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth", as they still quaintly require of witnesses in court over here.If you are as a church already in possession of the whole truth then there would seem remarkably little room for further development of that truth. If you are not, then "Catholicism or Atheism" would seem to be a false alternative, wouldn't it?Is it not actually the case that the Holy Spirit is still about the business of leading God's people into all truth, as he promised?

  • Fr Longenecker

    Vic, your comment is understandable, but it does not express what Catholics really believe.Firstly, we acknowledge that much truth exists outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church, and wherever that truth exists we affirm it and try to see how it connects with the truth of CatholicismSecondly, we also acknowledge that the truth expressed in Catholicism is a mere reflection of the fullness of truth that exists in God alone.Finally, we acknowledge that the truth expressed in the Catholic faith is only a partial understanding of the Christian revelation. There is much that will remain a mystery and much still to be discovered.My affirmation of Catholicism here is more an affirmation of the fullness of the way of discovering the truth of God's revelation than it is a statement that the job is done.

  • Bruce

    You’ve never read Newman. He is right, of course. Catholicism does not claim to have partial truth, but rather the whole truth, and Newman has already destroyed protestantism succinctly in his books and essays. It is a mere pathway toward the Church or toward atheism. There are no other ultimate ends.