Christianity has a 2,000 year history of philosophical enquiry, theological debate, moral theology and anthropological and cultural observation and comment. Christianity has influenced virtually every aspect of Western culture. Catholicism holds the vast majority of this great human, cultural heritage. This vast artistic, academic, architectural, literary and philosophical treasure–for most American Christians–has been watered down to a mish mash of subjectivist emotionalism, misplaced patriotism, family and clan nostalgia and vague superstition. Sadly, much of American Christianity is perceived as stupid, shallow, ignorant, superstitious and reactionary. No wonder a thoughtful young person prods what he sees as Christianity and comes away an atheist.
Furthermore, America is a deeply anti-Catholic country. Importing the anti-Catholicism of England and the Northern European Protestant countries, the USA was founded on anti-Popery and those anti-Catholic sentiments run deep within the whole culture and educational history of America. Consequently, the young atheist who is re-acting against the shallow Protestantism he has experienced is also inclined to be deeply and unconsciously anti-Catholic. He is likely to have written into his deeply held world view certain cultural and religious assumptions about Catholics. These assumptions at the most mild will be “Some Catholics might be nice people but they’re just wrong.” to the more wild eyed anti Catholicism which paints the pope as a corrupt dictator and every Catholic as a Mary worshipping superstitious, unpleasant and dangerous foreigner.
Therefore, for many new atheists to have a serious debate with a Catholic is a difficult matter. He must overcome his (often unconscious) understandable prejudices against Christianity to start with. “Christianity may not be everything I thought it was. There may be more to this than I thought. Maybe there are Christians who are not all like the ones I know.” Next he must set aside his understandable, but false understandings of Catholicism. “Maybe I picked up an anti-Catholic prejudice that I’m not even aware of. Do I really know that much about Catholicism? Have I only learned what I know about Catholicism from anti-Catholic sources? Is that fair?”
This takes some serious self examination–and this is a risky business–very few of us are willing to examine our beliefs–especially the foundation of our beliefs. If the new atheist can honestly get over these first hurdles, he must then examine the four questions Joe Heschmeyer outlines on his blog here which discusses the four most common misunderstandings atheists have about Christianity.
Four of the major errors…are: (1) a misunderstanding of what Christians mean by God – whether God is understood as the highest Being or as the ground of Being itself; (2) a belief that Biblical literalism is the most accurate way to understand the Bible; (3) a belief in scientism, “the reduction of knowledge to the scientific way of knowing,” with a concomitant belief that religion and science are antithetical; and (4) the belief that religion is invariably violent. All four of these views were prominently featured in the comments, but I want to focus specifically on two of them: scientism (and its accompanying errors), and the misunderstanding of what Christians mean by “God.”
These foundational questions are not about the existence of God per se. They are about the methodology of discussion about God in the first place. These questions address the essential mistakes many atheists make in discussions about God. It is no wonder that they end up drawing the conclusions they do if they have started with the wrong basic assumptions. You can’t get a right answer if you don’t ask the right question to start with.
I highly recommend Joe’s full article for a complete discussion of these four basic difficulties. For a convinced atheist to therefore engage in a rational discussion about God they will have to make a long journey to overcome prejudices of which they are probably unaware. They will then have to re-examine their methodology and in doing so, attempt to understand what educated Christians actually mean by the terms they use and the methodology they use to discuss these concepts.
Should we expect an atheist to do all this work and take all this risk? I think so. After all, the atheists who are on the attack are coming into “our” territory. For their own sake, they should know their enemy and his tactics and the way he thinks. But to use a less aggressive metaphor, if you are a traveler in a foreign country you do yourself and your hosts a courtesy and a service to try to listen and learn the language, eat the food and observe the customs of that country. If you do you will have a more pleasant adventure. learn something and make some friends along the way. If you go to France yelling that “All French people are unwashed, garlic smelling cowards who are in love with goats.” You should not be surprised if your welcome is less than cordial.
Finally, as a Catholic priest, I don’t mind examining my faith and exploring it with those who ask. I’ll defend and explain the faith to anyone who is genuinely interested in learning more and who wishes to engage in rational discussion. I am not threatened and really don’t mind if people object to my religion and disagree with my beliefs.
I only ask that they take the time to disagree with what I really believe rather than what they think I believe.