Reductionism, Ridicule and Red Herrings

I usually avoid reading the atheists because I find (not surprisingly) that they don’t have much to say. Not believing in anything gives one precious little to write about. All that is left is to attack what other people believe in. The atheists are rather like the ultimate Protestant. What belief they have is derived from the thing they hate, and with the atheists it is even worse: they have no belief, so nothing left but a constant sophomoric rant against the big bad one: Catholicism.

But in going back to read some more of the atheist writings it seemed to me that these men who society vaunts not only as intellectuals but THE intellectuals of our age so often resort to the three babyish debating tools of reductionism, ridicule, and red herrings. Reductionism is the argument that reduces something great to some insignificant, and to do so, reduces individual aspects of the great thing to their smallest components to show them (and therefore the whole thing) irrational and stupid. The reason for doing this is so the great thing can be ridiculed. Once a thing is thus ridiculed it can be dismissed. Red Herrings are irrelevant arguments which (in this tactic) are thrown in to add weight to the ridicule.

To illustrate what I mean, I thought I would write a little exercise using the same tactics in order to show how stupid and dangerous athletics are: Read more.

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  • Per Smith

    This seems like an awfully reductionistic argument to me Fr. Longenecker. You appear to think that atheism = angry anti-theism, but I can assure you that it’s not all that simple. Perhaps, instead of going back to angry anti-theists, can I persuade you to read about Ethical Culture or secular humanism next time? You might even be interested in some of the work done by contemporary humanists, like atheist interfaith activist Chris Stedman. I’m not saying that you’ll agree with Chris on every, or even any points, but he provides a living counter example to the atheist reduction sauce you’ve made above. Cheers.

  • Occam

    Seriously, is this the best you guys can come up with in your case against atheism?
    And yes, that’s an example of ridicule. You earned it.

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    You misunderstand the point of the post. It is not an argument against atheism at all, but an expose of the sort of arguments often used by atheists.

  • Oregon Catholic

    You have made me realize that I’m a sports atheist apparently. I happen to think there is actually a great deal of truth in what you have written in jest. There may indeed be an ancient and noble aspect of sport, but the money making, overhyped racket of ‘professional’ sports, peopled with less than noble ‘athletes’ who often abuse their bodies for short term gain in exchange for long term harm that we have today is anything but. And your observation about cheerleaders is spot on, even at the high school level. Too bad you didn’t include boxing in your analogy as I could attack that for being a spiritual as well as a physical absurdity.

    You’ve actually given me some sympathy for where atheists are coming from since you have to be a true believer not to see the truth in some of the jests.

  • Mr. Patton

    Ah, It is well known that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence and such is the burden to present faith as fact…:)

  • abb3w

    You might find the 1982 “Institutionalized Sport as Quasi-Religion: Preliminary CONSiDerations” by M. Kenneth Brody (doi:10.1177/019372357900300203) to be interesting reading.

    I suspect the ridicule is less effective when directed at those who consider sports as weekend relaxation and entertainment, and more effective against those who actually attach some immense nigh-cosmic significance to football/baseball/basketball/whatnot. This seems to present a difficulty for the analogy’s use in defense against critiques of religious practice.

  • Mary

    Father – did you ever meet a joy-filled atheist? I have met atheists who seem to be happy, as ones who are resigned to the fact they are going to exist for a limited time and are happy to make the most of it and enjoy whatever pleasures come their way, but I have never met an atheist who is filled with the joy that I have seen in those who have Christ in their lives. An atheist’s happiness cannot remotely compare to a Christian’s joy!

  • Thegoodman

    “Not believing in anything gives one precious little to write about.” This may be true, which is why there are not many nihilist blogs. However, I can assure you that atheists are as vast and diverse in knowledge as any group of people in the history of mankind. We were here first, we will be here last, and we are in every city in every country of the world.

    Unlike the Catholic church, many athiests feel men and women are equal and should be given equal rights among our ranks (we don’t actually have ranks, but you get the idea). “these men” diminishes the contributions of many fine, intelligent, and kind women of our movement that have helped it grow to levels that threaten even the most established organizations. Please do not disrespect them by refusing to mention their contributions.

    reductionism – Do you have an example of this from a particular blog?
    ridicule – See above.
    red herrings – So is this a part of the “ridicule” you suggest?

    You should probably read up on logical fallacies. You do not seem to have a firm grasp of many of the fallacies that are common amongst theist bloggers such as yourself.

    There is irony to your example when you use sports in place of religion. So you agree that Catholicism is merely a superficial exercise and, monetarily, is for entertainment purposes only? Your comparison of sport fans to church goers is insulting to you, to church goers, and hilarious to me. I know that if my favorite sports team promoted bigotry, hatred, sexism, and did nothing to stop child molestation or the spread of aids, I would find myself a new team.

  • Kubrick’s Rube

    “The atheists are rather like the ultimate Protestant. What belief they have is derived from the thing they hate, and with the atheists it is even worse: they have no belief…”

    Huh. You and I (an agnostic Jew) must be reading very different atheist blogs and very different Protestant blogs. I do not recognize your statement at all, especially the notion that atheists don’t believe “in anything.”

  • Thegoodman

    I have known many depressed Christians. However, I am an atheist and I am extremely happy. I have an intelligent successful wife, I have a terrific loving family, I have a good career, I enjoy the natural world while running, hiking, and eating. I am passionate about civil rights, religious rights, and the betterment of mankind.

    While I think it is great you are filled with joy, your claim that one cannot be happy without your god is simply not correct.

  • Vinko

    I think the Father’s point is being lost on many of those commenting. The essay has nothing to do with arguing atheism. The essay is pointing out the APPROACH that atheists use when trying to criticize religion…. which is the “3 R’s”….. Reductionism, Ridicule, and Red Herring. One doesn’t have to agree on this…. however, at least discuss WHAT he is actually presenting. Don’t create another fallacy (Strawman). ;-)

    I think the Father is accurate. I see this all the time when talking with Atheists (and even SOME Protestants). Good post!

  • Jason Miller, Ph.D., M.P.A.

    I agree with Father – atheists don’t believe in anything. Belief is a rational decision arrived at after evaluating information. If the universe is purely materialistic, there is no belief. There is only a thought that emerges as a bi-product of a previous stimulus. There is no rational choice. So atheists DON’T believe in anything – they just have thoughts caused by a previous stimulus. If an atheist argues otherwise, he/she is being irrational and inconsistent with the materialistic underpinnings of the universe. Same thing when an atheist argues that something is “good” or “bad. ” An atheist can’t use those terms – there is not “good” or “bad” in a materialistic universe – everything just “is.” So when an angry atheist argues that religion is “bad” or “evil,” it is a foolish thing. Religion just “is.” It is like being angry that the sun is a star or the universe is expanding. So please, work within the confines of your worldview – otherwise you are being just as “irrational” as you say religious folks are. You can’t use the terms “belief,” “good,” “evil,” “free will,” or anything of the sort. If you try to, then you should be called out. In fact, the only reason you are debating us is not because we are right or wrong, it is because you are merely an organism that has learned to react to the stimulus of the particular thing we are saying. So don’t even try to say you are more “intelligent” than us – you are just reacting like a dog with food being placed in front of it. There is no intelligence from a purely materialistic view – there is merely behavior that has been either been classically or operantly conditioned. Any thought you have is just a biproduct of this. So please stop using this language – unless you don’t truly “believe” in this radical materialism stuff ;) If you keep using the language, we will assume you are just a hypocrite.

  • Caryn

    The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one. – George Bernard Shaw

    Unfortunately, believing what will make us happy is not a very honest way to live. I might believe that I will win the lottery someday and don’t need to save anything now, but that is probably not true. I’m happy that I live as honestly as I can, and I don’t try to believe things that I think are false. Further, if you are so convinced of the happiness of all believers, why don’t you drop in on an AIDS-infected African village, and see how much joy they live with. It isn’t hard to be happy in the Western world, we have it better than most.

  • MaryS

    Atheists don’t believe in anything? Seems to me they cling steadfastly to their belief that matter came into being without a Creator. That takes a lot of faith.

  • Kieran

    And a drunk man may be happier than a sober one, but that doesn’t make his assertions more likely to be true.

  • Paul H

    Nice post, Father. Your perception of atheist arguments matches quite well with atheist/agnostic arguments that I have encountered in actual discussions.

    Regarding your facetious anti-sports argument, is it just possible that parts of it were loosely inspired by “What it was, was football” by Andy Griffith? If you don’t know what I’m talking about, it’s pretty funny, and you can find it here:

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    You let your reason slip here: “if my favorite sports team promoted bigotry, hatred, sexism, and did nothing to stop child molestation or the spread of aids, I would find myself a new team.”

    The Catholic Church promotes none of these horrors. Individual Catholics may be bigots, misogynists, pedophiles and some may even promote the spread of AIDS. But they are considered bad Catholics. To extend the sports analogy, they are the ones who are cheating, fixing matches, betting on games illegally, taking performance enhancing drugs etc. That some athletes cheat does not make us dismiss athletics.

    I must also pick you up on the ridiculous statement that the Catholic Church does nothing to halt the spread of AIDS. Have you actually thought this through and done any research or have you just believed second hand propaganda? If you would look into this you will see that the Catholic Church is at the forefront of training and education to prevent AIDS in Africa. Not only that, most AIDS patients in Africa are treated in Catholic hospitals and through Catholic health care systems. Furthermore–on the contentious issue of condoms: the Catholic Church does not condone the use of condoms and cannot fund such programs, but neither does the Catholic Church prohibit those people who do think condoms cure AIDS from distributing them.

  • Kieran

    No faith required at all. The only thing is, if we don’t know, we don’t make something up. I don’t believe in god the same way that you don’t believe in unicorns, leprechauns or the thousands of other gods that people have childishly fabricated to fill gaps in their knowledge.

  • Deb

    You just did what he said you would do. You know nothing about women and the Catholic Church. You toss out pathetic, tired attacks of bigotry, hatred and sexism which, sorry, are not a part of the Catholic Church. Only in your mind. The funniest is that you had to toss in the child molestation, which, while horrifying, lumps the 98% of the 50,000 holy priests into one catagory. Most of the abusers were were mistakenly allowed into the priesthood knowing they had same sex attraction. (we shouldn’t mention that though) But…….the funniest part about that is that you, on you team, do nothing about the 10% of public school children, of both sexes, that are being molested in the schools. You don’t really care, you just want to bash Catholics. One out of every six children are sexually abused, by a parent or relative. What are doing about that. Isn’t that your team? Good humor. Why don’t you come up with something a bit more, ……hmm,…truthful? I guess you don’t have any of that on your team either

  • Mary

    Thegoodman and Cindy misunderstand me……understandable since they have never experienced the Joy of which I speak. I have had happiness and I have had Joy…..and I have had much. much suffering in my life. Happiness tends to flee when suffering shows up; joy doesn’t.

  • Mr. Patton

    ” Belief is a rational decision arrived at after evaluating information.”

    Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity. Since your title dictates that you are not stupid, I am perplexed to why you would make such a statement.

  • Marco

    I won;t comment on the sports piece. Unless you have been standing on your head way too long, we should both know that you can take any human activity and turn it into an absurd endeavor. It’s actually easy. One can even take water and turn it into an environmental menace and a poison (and if you don;t understand the reference, use google).

    What I object to is this:
    “I find (not surprisingly) that they [atheists] don’t have much to say. Not believing in anything gives one precious little to write about.”
    Again with the not believing in anything? I get tired of listing all the things I and many atheists believe in. Most atheists (but not all) are humanists and as such there are a great many beliefs that we hold. Look them up. You may not agree. We don’t agree with yours, but we don;t go around spreading lies that Catholics don’t believe in anything.

    It’s getting tiresome and I am at a point where anyone preceding their arguments with “atheist don’t believe in anything” get exactly the amount of credibility and respect they deserve: none.

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    Then you should re examine your own understanding of just what ‘faith’ is.

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    I should clarify what I mean by “atheists don’t believe in anything”. What I mean by this is that they believe there is nothing else out there. I am quite happy to admit that atheists may have enlightened values, may wish to be nice people, may hold that honesty and hard work and self respect and being decent to other people are all good things. They may believe that humans should try to be good. They may hold many other admirable convictions.

    However, I would not term these admirable convictions a ‘belief’. They are simply a decent moral code or a set of rules that seem sensible and practical for all. However, without any supernatural foundation for these beliefs they are random and any other set of rules or any other moral code may be just as useful.

    Philosophically speaking, I can’t imagine any atheist ‘belief’ that can every be anything other than some form of utilitarianism. Can you correct me on this if I am wrong?

  • Neil

    Ah, I see….since atheists reject your unprovable, evidence-free assertion that there is a knowable God who is, according to you, responsible for all of the things you list, we atheists must therefore pretend that we are so stupid that we can’t recognize simple ideas, debate their merits, place values on them, and categorize them using conventional language, as humans have been doing with and without your god for millenia.

    I suppose that if I want to use a term like “good”, I have to first prove, to your personal satisfaction, that humans are capable of regarding things “good” without recourse to a god. Or I could just keep using the term like everyone else on the planet does, with or without god belief as a part of the definition.

    Just because you’ve chosen to believe something you can’t prove or even satisfactorily explain, doesn’t mean the rest of us have to play along with your imagination. People were calling things “good” long before your god was even a thought, and will be doing so long after your god is forgotten. People have always disagreed about how to decide what is good, and will be doing so long after your reasoning(or lack thereof) has faded from memory.

    Making the absurd claim that ONLY your imaginary, unprovable friend can be the foundation of moral reasoning only serves to isolate yourself from the reality of life and the perspectives of your fellow humans, and to keep youn from having to actually think about what you believe and why you believe it. Which is, I believe, the reason you insist on such ridiculous requirements.

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    Have you ever actually studied the history of religion or the history of human morality or are you content to throw around vague ideas you have heard from someone else?

    The fact of the matter is that the idea of “good” as being somehow altruistic or self sacrificing is not actually either universal nor does it seem to be a natural human quality.

    There is no evidence that a moral code existed in human society before the Judeo Christian religion developed. There was simple human devotion–affection loyalty and protection– to one’s kin only slightly more elevated than that seen among animals. The rest was “might makes right.”

  • Mr. Patton

    Father, if only you had a mustard seed of faith would I consider your comment credible. Do you interchange faith equally with belief in all cases?

  • Occam

    So let me get this straight: only belief in a supreme being will allow one to experience “true joy”… is that correct? (And I guess only Catholicism works in that regard, since the Protestants are apparently misled, according to this post and some of the following comments.) Because I was raised Catholic and I don’t remember being any more “joyful” before I grew up and discovered reality. Or maybe I just wasn’t doing it right… didn’t light enough candles, eat enough wafers, or say the rosary fervently enough.
    Please, you sound like a junkie trying to convince me that I’ll never experience true pleasure unless I shoot up some of the good stuff. From the junkie’s subjective experience, that’s probably true… but like Shaw’s sober man, I prefer to have my pleasure (and joy) rooted in reality, thank you very much.

  • Mr. Patton

    I take it you don’t consider Hammurabi’s laws righteous?

  • Thomas

    “209. If a man has struck a free woman with child, and has caused her to miscarry, he shall pay ten shekels for her miscarriage.

    210. If that woman die, his daughter shall be killed.

    211. If it be the daughter of a plebeian, that has miscarried through his blows, he shall pay five shekels of silver.

    212. If that woman die, he shall pay half a mina of silver.

    213. If he has struck a man’s maid and caused her to miscarry, he shall pay two shekels of silver.

    214. If that woman die, he shall pay one-third of a mina of silver.”

    Not particularly righteous from where I’m sat.

  • Colin Gormley

    It is often claimed, seldom argued and almost never defended. If anything, the extraordinary claim is the atheist’s, not the theist, given percentages.

  • Neil

    What you seem to misunderstand here, is the fact that many people, including many religious believers find that many forms of religion, including the catholic church and most forms of christianity, are inherently misogynistic and bigoted. It’s in the book, after all, and most of you follow those teachings to a greater or lesser degree. When we see a catholic trwating women and gays as true equals, we applaud them as good human beings, not as being good catholics. The two can overlap but are not the same altogether.

    Most of us atheists, humanists, etc. value evidence and experience over myth and propaganda. We have had female bosses and leaders in our lives. We do not agree with or support organizations that deny leadership roles to women, because our individual and collective experience shows a much different picture than the one we are presented with by religious organizations. I have heard all kinds of justifications for the sexism in the bible and various churches…dozens of excuses for the double standards involved…yet the plain experience of my life, and the lives of many others shows us that your church and the bible are simply mistaken. Society does not collapse when women can lead. Families do not cease to exist when women are legally equal to men. Children are not necessarily neglected or abused when women work. (these may not be YOUR particular excuses, but they are ones I’ve heard often from christians, including some catholics) It gets to the point where the ONLY reason to believe what the bible and the churches teach, are appeals to unearned authority. The only practical reasons I can see for perpetuating these mistakes are to avoid weakening the church’s authority over women and humans in general, which could occur if the church ever admitted being wrong.

    Also, condom use is only “contentious” among the willfully ignorant and those who prefer death and suffering over health and life. Since the idea of any kind of reproductive choice is barely even broached in the bible, I can see no other reason for churches to interfere in people’s sex lives other than to insert itself into the most personal aspects of people’s emotional lives. There is no reasonable or evidence-based explanation for policies against birth control. There is no need for everyone on earth to be fruitful and multiply. There is no reason for shaming people for enjoying non-predatory sexual feelings. All of the available evidence shows that condoms do help slow the spread of dangerous diseases such as aids. All of the available evidence shows that people will continue to have sex, even when there are risks. All of the available evidence shows that children raised in a sex-positive environment where sex is discussed openly and without fear or shame turn out to be healthier, happier, and less prone to diseases and cycles of abusive behavior or sex-driven emotional problems. Again the only visible reason to keep the catholic church’s policies are to avoid having to admit error… or possibly they may driven by even less laudable goals. I sometimes wonder if it isn’t very much in the interests of the church to support overpopulation, disease, poverty, misery, and ignorance. The church seems to do a lot better for its leaders, and have a lot more political influence, when more people are scared, miserable and ignorant.

    One last thing…in your last sentence, you seem to think that either the catholic church does, or should have the power to stop others from distributing condoms, and that is some sort of dedication to freedom that prevents them from doing so. It might just be me misunderstanding your meaning, but it sounds a bit presumptuous. Also, I can’t help but notice your odd choice of words:

    but neither does the Catholic Church prohibit those people who do think condoms cure AIDS from distributing them.

    This is not me misunderstanding you. This is you using extremely bad word choices or else being fundamentally dishonest. I have never heard ANYONE claim that condoms “cure” aids. Condoms help prevent the spread of aids, and they do so quite well-much better than simply lying to people or shaming them to encourage abstinence.

  • Neil

    Please feel free to show me the documents wherein a school superintendent encourages the silenceing, on pain of expulsion, of all victims and witnesses, to protect the authority and privilege of the schools and their representatives.

    Your current pope wrote one such document, and it has caused much trouble around the world, as low as the percentages of abuse may (or may not) be.

    If you’re feeling generous, please feel free to show me where any school representative has claimed to be an infallible moral authority speaking for god, while still hypocritically hiding and thus perpetuating such abuses of students.

    If you REALLY want to impress me, feel free to show me instances of laymen supporters of public education falling over themselves to justify such behavior, instead of calling for investigations and prosecutions.

    The closest I’ve ever seen of such behavior in schools are cases such as the recent Sandusky scandal…involving a beloved tradition of noble and ancient sport, a beloved, trusted, and charismatic authority figure who covered up the actions of a “bad apple”, and rabid fans who ignore all evidence, excuse all injustice, and treat the institution and it’s leaders with an almost religious reverence…

    Hey, maybe the father’s choice of using sports as an analogy for religion was a LOT more apt than he thought, and in ways he might not appreciate!

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    The Code of Hammurabi is a set of civil regulations based on “Might Makes Right”. It’s a law code established by the people with power. There is no hint on altruisim, self sacrifice or love of neighbor within it.

  • Korou

    I’m very glad to see you retract your statement. Confusing “atheists don’t believe in God” and “atheists don’t believe in anything” – which use two different meanings of the word “believe” is a rather nasty slur and a low debating tactic usually used by fundamentalists.

    If, however, this is what you meant, then why did you say this:
    “I usually avoid reading the atheists because I find (not surprisingly) that they don’t have much to say. Not believing in anything gives one precious little to write about. All that is left is to attack what other people believe in.”

    If you are “quite happy to admit that atheists may have enlightened values, may wish to be nice people, may hold that honesty and hard work and self respect and being decent to other people are all good things” then how can you say that atheists don’t have much to write about and can only attack what other people believe in? By your own statement atheists can and do hold very positive values which give them plenty to write about, both in the positive sense of supporting efforts to make ourselves and society better, and in the negative sense of criticising immoral actions.

    For shame!

  • Gael

    A drunk is happier than a sober man. Is that reason for us all to be drunks?

  • Jay

    No one has more faith than an atheist. “billions of years ago nothing exploded, and created everything.”

    Despite there being zero evidence that life came from non living material, they believe that too. It’s cute in a way.

    I think they just redefine belef. Flat earthers think their views are quite rational and logical.

  • David Allen

    Couldn’t help noticing that you didn’t cite a single example of the types of arguments that you’re criticizing. Perhaps if you actually read atheist authors, you’d be able to provide examples of the kinds of things they’re saying.

  • Gael

    No, but you discourage the government from funding condom distribution. Worse, you threaten those who use condoms with hell. You skipped over “the church did nothing to stop child molestation.” I don’t blame you. What possible argument could you make?

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    There were some members of the church hierarchy who covered up sex abuse. That’s wrong and can’t be defended. However, if you check into it you’ll find that the Catholic Church at this time is leading the rest of the country in child protection policies and their implementation.

  • Mary

    If I was positive God didn’t exist, I certainly wouldn’t be spending time visiting Catholic websites. There would be so much else to do……..and so precious little time in which to do it.

  • Occam

    Why do the religious apologists get so hung up on atheists having “faith”? Most atheists I know will readily admit we don’t know how all of this came about; that doesn’t take faith, just honesty to admit we don’t have an answer — inventing a magical sky daddy as some kind of “explanation” is what takes a leap of faith. Is this distinction really that difficult to comprehend?
    So I guess to you religious folks, this alternative explanation makes much more sense: around 6000 years ago, an all-knowing, all-powerful being who exists outside of time and space, and who has no beginning or end, created the universe from nothing in 6 days. Yeah, that explanation is much more plausible.

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    Religious people want atheists to keep asking the big question–how did it all come about–and not take the “I don’t know” cop out. There are other faith based answers than the easy to knock down fundamentalist Bible answer you have given.

    Much of it depends how you frame the answer. You can say, “A big sky daddy who is all powerful and exists outside of time and space created the world out of nothing in six days”

    Or you could reason, “We observe that all living things move, and that things that move have a pre-venient source for their movement. We reason that there must be a prime mover. That prime mover is the force that began all things.”

    From that reasonable conclusion the other statements about this prime mover may follow reasonably.

  • MaryS

    Since it cannot be proven that matter came into being without a Creator, therefore there must be a Creator. Atheists deny this logical conclusion.

    God is real and present to those who truly seek Him. Atheists don’t want Him to be real (because they might have to change), so they refuse to seek Him. But that doesn’t make Him any less real. Comparing the Creator of all things to unicorns and such is some of that ridicule that Father wrote about: proving his point.

  • MaryS

    500,000 priests, not 50 thousand

    The Catholic Church is the largest religious organization on earth, making it the largest target of anti-religionists, including a lot of news reporters. Meanwhile, the public school system has a very large and powerful lobbying organization, which helps to keep their stories off the front page. And they are reported one by one, as they happen. Priestly abuse is tallied up and re-reported in big numbers, even when most of the offenders are deceased.

    Every case of abuse is tragic and horrible, affecting the lives of countless people. Most abuse happens at home (Mom’s new boyfriend) or at a public school. But it’s much easier to point to the Church’s cases of abuse. Every case of cover-up is also horrible and harmful and to be eliminated. The Church has done an outstanding job with removing bad priests and bishops this past decade. We don’t see any kind of similar effort in the public schools, and where is the outrage for that? More abuse happens at the schools, but next to nothing is being done about it. So, therefore: attack the Church more. Huh?

    And what does any of this have to do with atheists and the 3 R’s that Father wrote about?

  • MaryS


    Note to atheists: Not all Christians are fundamentalists. Which means not all believers read the Bible text in a literalistic way. The Catholic Church has had 2000 years of learned scholars contributing to its understanding of Scripture. A bit too much to cover in a combox… but St. Thomas Aquinas is a good starting point, if you are actually interested in learning something:

  • MaryS

    Most atheists that we hear about are like Father described: attacking people of faith, usually attacking fundamentalist beliefs. Most atheists who are out there, pushing their atheism, are like that. No, not all. Leah Libresco was one of the good ones worth reading. Oh! But now she’s a Catholic. ;-)

    But, of course, you know that Father runs a Catholic blog. I’ve been very impressed with his writings. If he was regularly referring his readership to atheists’ writings on the various moral issues, instead of pointing to the great Catholic scholars and saints, I’d be far less inclined to read his blog. Since I am a believer, I want to learn from the best and brightest of believers.

    And I notice that you didn’t touch his question about utilitarianism.

  • MaryS

    Your self-diagnosis is correct: “maybe I just wasn’t doing it right” – and maybe you were poorly catechised. Many of us go through school without learning much, and some teachers are better than others. Most people quit their religious education after they’ve chalked up the sacraments. But there is so much more to our Faith! We continue learning about lots of things after we graduate, but so many people don’t bother to learn more about Faith. So they end up with just what they learned as kids. Hello? You were a kid: you were being fed McNuggets then, because you weren’t ready for prime rib. And now you use your kiddie knowledge to claim there is no special joy in the fullness of the Faith. “I’ve tried McNuggets, so I know I won’t like prime rib.”

  • Occam

    “I don’t know” is not a cop-out; it’s an honest answer. Just because I don’t know doesn’t mean I don’t continue to ask the questions, in search of a satisfying answer. In that sense, most atheists are no different than many religious people — we just haven’t found any of the answers that religions offer to be particularly compelling.
    I apologize for painting all Christians with a broad fundamentalist brush-stroke; of course, I realize that there are many different types of religious people, so my comment may not apply to everybody. (I live in Texas, where that brush does seem to apply to a lot of people though!) In your framing of the answer leading back to a “prime mover,” you arrive at essentially the same place I do; but where as you probably ascribe some kind of intelligence or other anthropomorphic qualities to this “prime mover,” I am perfectly satisfied to consider it purely a manifestation of (unknown, perhaps unknowable) natural phenomena. I’m still curious to know what happened before the Big Bang and at the very origins of the universe; but invoking some kind of intelligent being to explain or justify that phenomena doesn’t make it any more interesting or significant to me. In fact, quite the contrary.

  • MaryS

    Are you aware that the Big Bang theory was developed by a Catholic priest?

    Catholicism has no objection to the Big Bang theory. And we, too, are interested in what happened before the bang. That is part and parcel of the interest in the theory. Of course, we understand full well that God created the matter that exploded. The Big Bang theory helps explain the mechanics of how things came to be the way they are. But it cannot explain where the matter and/or energy came from.

    Relying on science, Atheists are missing a lot. Science can only tell us about that which can be measured. But the measuring tools are necessarily limited. So science cannot tell us what happened before the Big Bang, or where the matter came from. Or why there is anything, as opposed to nothing.

    Science cannot measure the personal experience of God. Atheists go from “science cannot measure it” to “science cannot prove it exists” to “therefore, it doesn’t exist”. That is not logical. Also, science cannot explain the miracles. Your “unknown, perhaps unknowable natural phenomena” does not explain the personal experience believers over the centuries have reported, nor does it explain the miracles.

  • Korou

    But it’s not a cop-out. It’s honesty. We don’t know. We’d like to know. We’re working on knowing. We may never know.
    You don’t know either; if you did, you’d be able to give reasons which we would be able to accept. and you try – oh my, how you try! – but they’re just not good reasons.
    You made up an answer that you like. You copped out.

  • Korou

    Like helping other people to understand that they are wrong about what they think is the most important thing in their lives? In the name of which they are causing, we believe, considerable social harm?
    That sounds like a very worthy thing to do.
    On a lesser scale, it’s interesting to read, debate and discuss.

  • Korou

    The atheist believes that the world exists. Nobody seriously disputes this, including Catholics.
    Christians, on the other hand claim that there is another world – a world nobody can see, which an invisible part of us will go to, after we are dead, and never come back from. Except in myths, legends and highly dubious personal accounts.
    How fascinating, how amazing it would be if this were true! A shame there is absolutely not an iota of evidence for it being so.

  • Korou

    Tired attacks about sexism? I hadn’t realised that the Catholic Church had started allowing women to become priests, bishops and Popes. Please forgive us.

    No, you shouldn’t mention homosexual attractions, because paedophilia and homosexuality are not the same thing. What you should consider is this: what do you think the effect will be of forbidding sexual activity? I’m sure some saintlike people can be celibate with no problems, but do you not see that this will have the effect of warping perceptions of sex and causing unexpected outlets to be taken?

    Regarding sexual abuse in the church: the point is that abuse happened, and it was covered up. Abusers were transferred, the abused were given hush money. Let’s take one example: the intervention of a certain German Cardinal who was told that a priest was abusing children:

    If the policy of the Catholic Church at the present is to report sex offendors to the secular authorities it certainly doesn’t seem to have been the case then.

  • Korou

    “Most atheists that we hear about….” – I wonder where you hear about them?

    I didn’t say that Father Longenecker should refer you all to atheist writings; I said that he should read some more of them himself. It might improve the quality of his writing about them, which seems seriously misinformed.

    I’ll get on to utilitarianism in the next thread, which is more directly concerned with it. Right now, I’m glad Father Longenecker has realised his mistake.

  • Korou

    (replying to Mary S)

    Funnily enough, science (including the scientific method of thinking -,observe the evidence, forma hypothesis, test it, formulate a theory) does explain personal experiences of God, and miracles.
    Personal experiences of God are imaginary, and miracles are stories blown out of proportion.

    Seriously: have you ever had a spiritual experience of God or seen a miracle that could be caught on video? Of course you haven’t. And yet you should, shouldn’t you? The Bible tells us, quite clearly, of many, many times in which actual miracles were performed – miracles which could have been recorded if the technology existed. So why aren’t they being recorded today?

    Because they never happened.

    Am I sounding hateful? Am I sounding nasty? I hope not. This is what you’d say if you found somebody convinced of thing you knew could not be – say, if someone came up to you and told you they could fly by thinking in a certain way.

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    You are like the dull boy who took apart the clock to look for time.

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    Is there not an invisible part of you called ‘mind’ which cannot be isolated to your brain, nor to your nervous system, but is integrated into every cell of your body, and yet cannot be identified in each cell? Every seven years all the cells of your body are replaced. You have therefore had a new body every seven years of your life, and yet is there not some other part of you which transcended that physical renewal process? Shall we call it ‘mind’ or shall we call it ‘personality’?

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    Shall we now hear about how religion causes social harm while ignoring the fact that it was the Catholic faith down through history that started the most schools, hospitals, universities, courts of law, poor houses, orphanages and homes for old people? Shall we hear all the tired old propaganda about the Spanish Inquisition while no one mentions the atheist genocides of the Gulag, Red China, the Khmer Rouge and the concentration camps? Why not give us the little escape hatch Hitchens used: “Oh, Communism in Russia? That was just another religion…” If that is allowed, then Catholics are permitted to say, “Pedophile priests? They’re just a different form of atheist. The Spanish Inquisition? They weren’t real Catholics. They were closet atheists.”

  • Ken B

    Fr. Longenecker, I applaud you and so many others who engaged in the above dialogue and rhetoric. I’ll be honest, as an Army chaplain currently deployed in Afghanistan, the demonstrated “impervious ignorance” saddens me. Quite honestly, there is such a disparity of worldview between some groups of people that there will never be true dialogue, but only impasse. I daily see horrendous injuries and weekly am confronted by death, including an attack on my base at the beginning of this month that saw me within 50 meters of fundamentalist Islamic insurgents wearing suicide vests. At the same time, I receive dozens of boxes of donations sent from the USA, almost entirely by men and women of faith, with the express intent of supporting the Soldiers that represent them and supporting those who suffer the most in this conflict, innocent Afghan people.

    I truly wish that those who would condemn the Church for the actions of a few would also give the Church credit for the actions of the many. I am an ecclesiological mutt who has been on a long spiritual journey, and personally, I look forward to soon coming into communion with the Catholic Church as part of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of Saint Peter. Although I have met atheists in the combat zone (“in the foxhole”), I have not met any in the Combat Support Hospital.

  • Per Smith

    Fr. Longnecker, the “it’s not the Church, it’s individual members” argument is problematic coming from an institution that is fighting to be recognized as a legal entity in terms of religious freedom. If there indeed is a “Church” that has rights to religious liberty as citizens do then there is also a “Church” that is culpable of crimes, as individual citizens are. I’m not arguing either way here but the Church can’t have it both ways. Cheers.

  • Korou

    I’m sorry, that’s a red herring.

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    The Catholic Church is not fighting to be recognized as a legal entity in terms of religious freedom. The Catholic Church is sticking up for the religious freedom of individuals and individual Catholic organizations.

  • Paul Rodden

    Seems like the sort of folks who think Caitlin O’Rouke, the Hon, and old Dwayne Mandible are real people, have problems with reductionism, ridicule, and red herrings, too… :)

  • Darren O.

    Oh, oh! Somebody should be reading Boethius. You had best get to conditioning your natural virtues for what consolation philosophy by itself can afford.

    Tempore felici, multi numerantur amici.
    Cum fortuna perit, nullus amicus erit.

    And as a little cold water on hubris:

    Non semper erit aestas.

  • Per Smith

    So they think that “individual Catholic organizations” are capable of having their religious conscience violated but not the church as a much larger organization? That makes little to no sense. Either your Church is arguing that institutions are capable of having a religious conscience or they aren’t. If the argument is actually strictly about individuals then I’m afraid the Church has little to no conscience claim to make in regard to the organizations it operates. A private Catholic employer might have a claim, but not Church run institutions. Cheers.

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    Yes, we are talking about private Catholic employers like Catholic hospitals, publishing houses, universities and high schools etc. These institutions are privately run and the Catholic individuals who work there should not be forced to make moral choices that go against their religiously held convictions. Organizations owned and run by the Catholic Church are already exempt from the mandate, and this is a good thing.

  • Per Smith

    You are missing the point entirely. First of all religious exemptions are usually based on the very idea you’re arguing against, that a religious institutions can at times be treated as singular entities with rights. That’s how the ministerial exception works. Here’s a good read about the implications of this approach when it comes to First Amendment issues – . But the HHS issue is not about rights to institutional self-management. The HHS issue is being framed as a religious conscience issue. This requires entities that can actually have a conscience. Whose conscience is violated when St. Whatever’s Hospital supplies health insurance to employees that includes contraception coverage? The Church? The Hospital’s president? The individuals on the board of directors? The consumers and tax-payers who fund the hospital? Who? What living thinking people are having their consciences violated? And who speaks for them? Who is allowed to decide that those consciences are violated?

    Those are important questions to answer and here’s another one. What does the Church’s affiliation with these organizations have to do with it if the Church isn’t the entity violating it’s religious conscience? You may say that it doesn’t…that it is about “Catholic employees,” but those employees can make up their own minds, and a vast majority of them already do. They use birth control. And that brings us back to the point. It is the Church and its leaders that don’t want birth control covered, not a majority of (even the Catholic) employees at Catholic organizations. If I’m on the board of an unaffiliated hospital, or if I work in HR managing health insurance for a large secular company and I am Catholic and I asked for my employer to stop forcing me to violate my conscience what would happen? By your logic the same should happen in regards to these supposedly “privately run” Catholic institutions. What makes them different is the only reason this is even an issue…the Church. Again you can’t have it both ways.

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    OK. Here is a very real example of the violation of religious freedom brought about by the mandate. It is a real example. A friend of mine call him Joe–has a small Catholic publishing company. He is a committed Catholic. So are his ten employees. They publish Catholic books and videos. Furthermore, he has a ministry speaking and broadcasting. He runs this ministry as a business in order to serve God, but also earn a living for himself and his employees. Under the mandate he is forced to purchase health insurance coverage that will provide his employees with contraception, sterilization and drugs that cause abortion. He would not stop his employees using such things if they choose, but he should not be forced to pay for an insurance plan that covers the specific things he considers evil.

  • Neil

    I love bad analogies.
    I think your concept of “mind” is flawed, but that doesn’t really matter here.
    While your concept of “mind” may be an “invisible thing”, at least we have some evidence that it exists in one sense or another. Whether you think the mind is an invisible thing, like maybe the “soul”, or just a process of sufficiently organized matter, at least we still have evidence that it exists in some way, and we can talk logically and coherently about it.

    Every single human being capable of self-expression can also express thoughts about how and what they think. Every single human capable of self-expression has a sense of “self”, a perspective from which they see the rest of reality. Whether a person thinks of the “mind” as an object, a place, or a process is irrelevant for this discussion. Since we can all think, as well as consider, remember, change, and express those thoughts, we all have as much evidence as everybody else that at the very least, something is happening- at the very least, we experience a state of being. We all have the experiential evidence to conclude that, at the very least, we all do a thing called “thinking”. There is also plenty of physical evidence to show that thinking involves the brain, and is in fact completely dependent on the brain, and that changes in the brain can cause changes in the thought processes, or “mind”.
    Though we haven’t even completely defined the term”mind”, every last person with a functioning brain can attest that at the very least, they experience thought and self- and call it the mind.

    There is no such universal agreement of experience or physical evidence on any aspect of the god issue. Millions of people claim to “experience ” some feeling or concept that they attribute to “god”- joy, grace, forgiveness, peace, awe, reverence…all kinds of things. But millions of others recognize these experiences from their own lives, yet do NOT feel any impulse or need to attribute them to a god. Unlike the “mind”, we have no organ such as the brain that corresponds to “god.” We have no evidence of god doing anything-even when people claim to be “inspired by god”, they never do anything that can’t be done by humans themselves. There seems to be nothing we can do that makes god any more detectable. Any two people on earth can compare their “minds” and find much in common…but those who spend whole lifetimes believing in and studying god still can’t come to much if any solid consensus about god, or any of the properties of god, or any definitions relating to god…and they certainly never come to any agreement or definition that couldn’t be just as good and useful without the concept of god.

  • Neil

    Wow, Mary! I did not realize that religious belief enabled one to read minds and calculate the amout of joy in other people.
    I will take you at your word, and assume that FOR YOU, christianity provides a level of joy you don’t believe you could otherwise achieve. My own experience is the opposite. I have been a believer, but I found the joy and other benefits provided to be simply cheap copies of what life could provide on its own, full of meaningless emotion pumped up for its own sake and used to give validity to otherwise unconvincing ideas.

    But even though my experience differs from yours, I would never be so arrogant as to assume that I could not only calulate the joy felt by other humans, but also place absolute value judgements on the contents of their minds and emotional experiences.

  • flyingvic

    Neil wrote: “There seems to be nothing we can do that makes god any more detectable.”
    No; but occasionally we may meet someone who by their very being can make God more believable. They don’t offer arguments, evidences, proofs; they certainly don’t come armed with irrefutable definitions; at best they offer an invitation to take a step in faith – just like on those other extremely important occasions when we are required to make life-changing decisions simply on the basis of our own subjective impression of what is the truth since we lack any scientifically measurable data to assist us: Do I love this person? Does this person love me? Do I want to marry and be married until death us do part?

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    I like this. Thanks Vic.

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    All religions say that the way to make God more detectable is to take the step of faith–which requires commitment, and most difficult of all–obedience. It’s like love really. We have evidence of this experience people call ‘love’ but we only really know it once we’ve committed ourselves to another.

  • Korou

    And after you warned us about using them, too!

  • joseph e.

    I personally don’t see how believing in God doesn’t allow me to ask the question “how?” Belief in God doesn’t make one not inquisitive. As far as I am concerned, as a theist, God is the *reason* behind everything we know and experience, the “how” is just the order that has been laid.

    For those of us who think there is no intelligence beyond the physical I would like to say here that order is commensurate to intelligence. I find this much like wondering “how” my laptop was made, or “how” the internet works and assuming that there was no intelligence responsible for putting these together. It is the understanding of an order and the use of order that makes us consider ourselves intelligent. If anyone looks at the incredible complexities of order in nature one cannot but wonder the intelligence responsible for bringing this about and to imagine that all these work on so basic a particle (or electromagnetic wave as in atomic physics) system can only point to an ultimate intelligence unfathomable to the human finite mind.

    The ultimate question here really is whether intelligence was involved in the origin of nature (not “how” it originated, we all share that question I think) and whether this intelligence intended man in its image. I’m beginning to find this a bit funny actually.