Why Won’t You Argue What I Know You Believe?

Yvain has been reading Feser’s The Last Superstition, and he has an excellent gloss of one of Feser’s main points:

Feser’s argument is that most atheists arguing with Christians are pretty much the equivalent of a Calvinist going up to a Hindu saying “Look! John Calvin’s writings totally oppose abortion! Why can’t you see that?!”.

And then when the Hindu isn’t convinced, the Calvinist gets angry and says “Any reasonable person could see that John Calvin opposes abortion. Therefore, you must be unreasonable, and you must have decided to believe totally on faith that John Calvin supports abortion. That’s the only possible explanation for your stupidity.”

Atheists used to arguing with Modern Christians share most of their worldview with them. Atheists usually win these arguments, because the modern worldview logically implies atheism. The modern worldview is so pervasive that it is practically impossible for moderns to imagine anything else, and so if they meet a Traditional Christian, they will usually misinterpret everything they say and round off all of their arguments to the nearest Modern equivalent. These arguments almost but not quite make sense in a modern context, and so the atheist assumes the Traditional Christian has made a simple error and is just stupid.

This is pretty much the process I went through when I started arguing with smart, trad-y Christians in the Yale Political Union.  My arguments were those of Dawkins and new atheists, and they didn’t match the claims and beliefs of my new interlocutors.

What’s worse, the Catholics and Orthodox I was talking to used some of the same words as the Modern Christians, but they meant radically different things.  It’s basically like having an argument in French, except this dialect of French is composed almost entirely of false cognates, so it’s pretty easy to fail to notice that your opponent is speaking French instead of English.

Yvain is going to continue blogging through The Last Superstition intermittently.  I think his distillation of Feser here (which mercifully lacks the insults to Dawkins and others you’ll find in the book — it’s hard to notice that your opposite number is speaking False Cognate French!) should make atheists a little curious about what exactly the Catholics are proposing.  I basically shifted away from Modernity in Yvain’s diagram, and found that I’d ended up in Catholicism.

I’m noodling over the idea that atheism and Modern Christianity are much closer to having a common frame of reference than either is to Catholicism or Orthodoxy.  Certainly, working off the same conceptual data set as many atheists, a lot of Christianities spiral down into Moral Therapeutic Deism or just really epistemologically modest pomo bible study groups.  Given the assumptions of the modern view, atheism seems like a much more stronger attractor.

Part of Feser’s argument is that we gave up a lot of our philosophic vocabulary during the period where empiricism got really interesting really fast, and eclipsed some of the other questions we were interested in.   It’s a big lift to get someone to study a new language, when you need the vocabulary they’re about to learn to explain why it’s so cool.  (I hit this problem a lot recommending math/CS classes).  The Last Superstition and Feser’s Aquinas are basically trying to make us deracinated moderns fluent again in their old native tongue.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as a statistician for a school in Washington D.C. by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • Kevin

    Essential reading from David Bentley Hart on the common frame of reference between Christianity and atheism. Modern Christianity may be closer to atheism than the traditional religion, but even traditional Christianity has already made an important step towards godlessness.

    “Atheos ad leones!” as the Romans used to say, referring to the Christians. The slogan about “one fewer God” is only superficially stupid.

    • brother

      Also not to be missed is David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions, where he gives a genealogical account of modern atheism, and how it relates to traditional Christianity.

  • JRA

    My own take on this divide is that the real argument is actually between those who think the world is a story and those who think the world is an algorithm.

    The various points of divergence are explained by those two worldviews. Is there meaning, good, evil, freedom or are all situations just equally valid heterogeneous distributions of energy as dictated by the algorithm.

    At some level these are both theisms–one that posits a free, artistic origin and conclusion to all things, one that posits an insensate formula as that origin and conclusion.

    Both rely on an act of faith: one in the reliability AND SUFFICIENCY of the scientific method and the total realism of the perception that underlies it; the other in the reliability of our basic perception of freedom and the realism of our efforts to make sense of the world (which spans both scientific endeavor and interpretive arts of literature, philosophy, etc).

    I think it is very hard for atheists to understand that they, too, have made a choice between competing acts of faith. One has to take them all the way to the necessary conclusion that even the argument they are having in real time was determined by the start conditions of the big bang; that the superiority they feel about their position or about a world in which their position was universally accepted must, by their own lights, be an illusion; and that, consequently, if they are right, there can be no reason to continue saying so.

    • Ben

      In case you didn’t know already, telling an atheist they are operating on faith is a 99% effective way for them to ignore your argument. I’m in the 1%.
      Suggesting that atheists hold a worldview inconsistent with *literally anyone* claiming to be correct is a pretty weak straw-man.

      • Ted Seeber

        Yes, it is, which is why I consider New Atheists to be nothing more than superficial idiots who don’t even know the meaning of the word “faith”.

        • Alan

          Well, what kind of idiot are you for not even knowing the meaning of the word ‘rape’?

          • Ted Seeber

            I know the meaning of the word rape: Using another human being for sexual pleasure without thought to the consequences of the action for the other human being.

            There is such a thing as rationality, and most New Atheists aren’t actually capable of it.

          • Alan

            Right, see that isn’t the definition of rape – but thanks for playing.

            Rationality isn’t really your thing, self delusion might be closer to your forte.

          • Ted Seeber

            All other definitions of rape are subjective and biased.

          • Alan

            Yeah, yeah – like all definitions of any words are subjective and biased. Some definitions are just shared among more than on person and those are the definitions that have some use. On the other hand, you seem content using words in ways that only you mean them and then (possibly) expecting to be able to communicate meaningfully.

            Sorry Ted, you have created a nice mental bubble for yourself.

          • http://last-conformer.net/ Gilbert

            Just for the record, the World Catechism (#2356) defines rape as “the forcible violation of the sexual intimacy of another person.” It is also listed together with other sexual sins clearly regarded as distinct.

            Ted’s definition is strictly his own. It is neither concordant with official Catholic teaching nor shared by other Catholics.

          • Ted Seeber

            @Gilbert, mine’s just a simpler version of the same thing, but thank you for giving me a blog post:

          • Alan

            Geeze Ted, you sure are stubborn with your wrongness – one word, forcible. Ignoring pertinent words in a definition doesn’t make it simpler, it makes it wrong.

          • Anonymous

            Of course, if you go by the modern definition rather than the Catechism, forcible rape is only a subclass of rape. Ted’s definition (while not in line with either the modern definition or the Catholic definition) captures the entirety of both definitions… but also captures additional sexual ethics which aren’t inherent in either definition (but are likely present in (and possibly derived from) other Catholic doctrines).

          • Alan

            Anonymous – I would contend that the modern definition of rape is just expanding forcible to include not just physical force but situations where non-physical force is used. In other words, it includes those situations where due to the mental capacity of the victim consent cannot be truly given (be it temporarily impaired due to alcohol or due to their immaturity because of age etc.).

            Ted’s definition on the other hand is just to call all sexual ethics rape, which has no basis at all and just robs the word of any interesting meaning.

          • Anonymous

            Many with the modern view also seem to call all sexual ethics rape. They just have different sexual ethics… which, surprise surprise, lines up exactly with what they’ve decided to call rape!

          • Alan

            Anonymous – can you give an example of any circumstance they (those many with the modern view) call rape that doesn’t come down to ability to provide consent?

          • Anonymous

            That’s my point. Can you give an example of any circumstance they (those many with the modern view) consider wrong in their framework of sexual ethics that doesn’t come down to ability provide consent? Oh, hey look… all sexual ethics is rape.

          • Alan

            I don’t know, many would consider cheating on your wife ethically wrong but it has absolutely nothing to do with rape. So hey look, all sexual ethics isn’t rape.

          • Anonymous

            Marital ethics is not sexual ethics. Also, when hard-pressed, those people usually claim that polyamory is acceptable given the consent of the wife. The theory is a little bungled because of the ad hoc nature of the modern sexual and marital ethics, but the idea is that consent is all that is necessary for bringing in an additional participant, whether the act involves all parties simultaneously or just subsets. Therefore, under the consent-only framework, what’s actually wrong with cheating is that it violates the wife’s continuous sexual relationship without her consent.

            So perhaps you’re right. While they don’t call everything rape, it’s only because they can’t get away with it yet. The underlying logic for what qualifies as rape or as unacceptable is identical. We’ve allowed rape to be re-defined almost to the point of having consistent logic. Would you care to take the next logical step and call cheating rape? Or would you like to stop equivocating rape with consent? I’d prefer the latter, but then we’d have to start thinking again.

          • Alan

            “what’s actually wrong with cheating is that it violates the wife’s continuous sexual relationship without her consent.”

            You are trying way too hard. The wife is not part of the sexual indiscretion here – it is not here sexual relationship that is violated without consent. The underlying logic of what is wrong here is not the same as rape – rape is about the consent of participants in sexual acts, this is not.

            Our understanding of consent has been what has changed, not rape – we are not equating, or heading towards equating, all sexual indiscretion as rape outside apparently two anonymous posters on this blog.

          • Anonymous

            …is polyamory wrong if the wife consents?

    • Alan

      Just for giggles – what someone’s worldview look like in your mind if it lacked faith?

      • Ted Seeber


        No, really. That’s what a worldview that truly lacks all faith looks like to me. A worldview that lacks faith, can’t even muster enough willpower to communicate with the outside world.

        Unless you have faith, at least in your own senses, you have nothing.

        • Alan

          So you don’t think much of faith then, do you? Does an infant developing communication skills have faith of some sort? In what sense? Why do I need faith to not interfere with my instinctive responses to my senses? Does a rabbit have faith in its senses?

          • Ted Seeber

            “So you don’t think much of faith then, do you?”

            I think quite a bit of it; for without faith, I can’t even claim that the rest of the world exists.

            “Does an infant developing communication skills have faith of some sort?”

            Absolutely. Faith that the sounds he’s babbling or the gestures she’s using will be able to be understood by others.

            “In what sense? ”

            In the sense that without belief in one’s own axiomatic world, there can be no sense made of the data coming in.

            “Why do I need faith to not interfere with my instinctive responses to my senses?”

            There is no evidence for instinct in human beings.

            “Does a rabbit have faith in its senses?”

            Impossible to tell without having meaningful communication with the rabbit.

          • Alan

            Ted – odd, I don’t need faith to claim that. It might not be true, but I can certainly claim it and act as if it is true without any faith that it is true. And it is interesting to know that an infant who will instinctively suckle my finger has faith that it will provide milk…

            “There is no evidence for instinct in human beings.”

            Sure there is, why don’t you start with Pinsker’s Language Instinct.

          • Ted Seeber

            Alan, all that proves is that you don’t know the meaning of the word Faith.

            “It might not be true, but I can certainly claim it and act as if it is true”

            Is faith. That’s the definition of it.

          • Alan

            No Ted – faith would be me believing it is true, I can act as if it were true whether I believe it or not. That isn’t faith at all.

          • http://thinkinggrounds.blogspot.com Christian H

            “Impossible to tell without having meaningful communication with the rabbit.”

            Ted, I disagree with pretty much everything you’ve ever written, but thank you SO much for this line. It made my night.

        • Darren

          I have belief in my senses. I trust them to the extent that they have been shown in the past to be reliable and based upon the best scientific knowledge of their veracity.

          Belief in my senses acknowledges that they sometimes are wrong.

          Faith in my senses would discount any suggestion that they ever deceived me, no matter how strong the evidence.

          The face of the Virgin Mary appears in my breakfast cereal? Belief in my senses says that it is just an illusion, not matter how striking. Faith in my senses means that Mary, Mother of God, really is in my Cheerios, staring up at me.

          • Ted Seeber

            Both are true. You have faith and you don’t know it.

    • http://generallylinear.wordpress.com anm

      One has to take them all the way to the necessary conclusion that even the argument they are having in real time was determined by the start conditions of the big bang; that the superiority they feel about their position or about a world in which their position was universally accepted must, by their own lights, be an illusion; and that, consequently, if they are right, there can be no reason to continue saying so.

      You are conflating atheism with scientific naturalism, and conflating scientific naturalism with determinism. Neither of these steps is valid. There are atheists who aren’t philosphical naturalists, and plenty of philosophical naturalists are not, generally (or certainly not necessarily), determinists, particularly as the more we learn about physics the less deterministic many aspects are (we aren’t living in a Newtonian universe any more, folks.)

      • CBrachyrhynchos

        Agreed, I treat scientific theory as about as reliable as my car. It does what it needs to do, it gets me where I need to go, and hopefully I’ll trade it in for a better model before it breaks down in a smoking heap on the Interstate.

        These false dichotomies are a classic sign that the person doesn’t understand the positions about which he or she speaks.

        • JRA

          Or it could be that encapsulating the argument in a blog comment forces a bit of shorthand–but that thought wouldn’t afford you the ability to insult someone, would it? Yeah, yeah, there are many kinds of atheist. I’m taking one–the most prominent in the media today being the naturalist AND determinist exemplified by Dawkins et al–and using it as an example. Would have been more rational to make a civil point to explore whether I know what I’m talking about, rather than just insulting a stranger for no particular reason. Very ungainly.

          As for the scientific naturalist who is not a determinist, you’ll find plenty of them who are agnostic because they are sticking purely to the data. But those who are ideologically atheist generally find themselves inexorably drawn to determinism, as Dawkins. The whole class of scientists who feel compelled to explain quantum mechanics as a theory that needs fixing (Bohm, Everett, et) is an example of this.

    • Adrian Ratnapala

      My own take on this divide is that the real argument is actually between those who think the world is a story and those who think the world is an algorithm.

      Hmm, I would say: “world algorithm-driven” (like a simulation) vs. “world is algorithm+story driven” (like a computer game *). Anyone who beleives in physics can see the algorithmic drive, but where is the narrative drive? Once upon a time, theists could point to order of the natural world, but then Mr. Darwin supplied an algorithm for that. So now the atheist we have an abundance of evidence for her algorithm, but for his story the theist only has a vast silence the size and shape of scientific knowledge.

      * Now I am proud of this metaphor, because games can involve Deus ex Machina. It might not be a good pun, but it is a Latin pun, so I am proud of it.

      • Kristen inDallas

        “but for his story the theist only has a vast silence the size and shape of scientific knowledge.”

        We also have the music of the soul. Algorhythms (not coupled with video games) don’t generally come with a sound track.

      • JRA

        Freedom, both in our experience and at the sub-atomic level suggest that something other than math is involved. Freedom allows for genuine composition on our part, and in the basic fabric of the world it suggest the possibility of composition might exist there, too.

    • http://blog.noctua.org.uk/ Paul Wright

      > …the real argument is actually between those who think the world is a story and those who think the world is an algorithm. The various points of divergence are explained by those two worldviews. Is there meaning, good, evil, freedom or are all situations just equally valid heterogeneous distributions of energy as dictated by the algorithm.

      Nah, the real divide is between those who know what the Fallacy of Composition is and those who don’t.

      > Both rely on an act of faith

      I observe that some Christians like to argue things like “everything is a faith position: I have faith in God, you have faith in human reason/science/the Conservative Party”. It’s hard to tell where Christians are going with this.

      They might mean that everyone has to start by assuming some stuff (that they’re not in the Matrix, say, or that scientists aren’t just making their results up), assuming stuff you can’t show is “faith”, therefore everyone has “faith”, and therefore Christian faith is as justified as any other. This goes wrong in a couple of ways: firstly, it assumes that all such assumptions are equally reasonable. But they aren’t, and even Christians should will admit to it: as Chris Hallquist says “belief in the Christian God isn’t very much at all like most of the common-sense beliefs commonly cited as threatened by Descartes & Hume-style skepticism (like belief in the reliability of our senses), but is an awful lot like beliefs most Christians wouldn’t accept without evidence–namely, the beliefs of other religions. That kind of response is very hard to reject without special pleading on behalf of Christianity, and doesn’t involve commitment to any potentially troublesome epistemic principles.”

      Secondly, this use of “faith” isn’t how many Christians like to use the word, so there’s some equivocation involved in claiming that atheists have faith. According to Christians, faith means more than just assent to a belief (see C Michael Patton’s blog, for example), it involves trusting in a person. Atheism isn’t about loyalty to or trust in a person, nor is steadfastness in a particular atheist view seen as an atheist virtue (quite the reverse, as far as I’m concerned).

      > one in the reliability AND SUFFICIENCY of the scientific method and the total realism of the perception that underlies it

      This is badly wrong: there is no single scientific method to have “faith” in, and an atheist need not be a scientific realist (the logical positivists most definitely weren’t, Hawking arguably isn’t).

      • CBrachyrhynchos

        Secondly, this use of “faith” isn’t how many Christians like to use the word, so there’s some equivocation involved in claiming that atheists have faith.

        It’s an equivocation quickly resolved if you suggest that the conversation be structured as if we are interfaith peers instead of enemies. At that point, the person previously arguing for atheism as a “faith” will, with equal zeal, argue that atheists are hostile aliens to faith.

        • http://last-conformer.net/ Gilbert

          But only because you’re equivocating on the meaning of faith. The “faith” in “interfaith dialog” is basically a reference to the entire religion.

          And then your hypothetical person is totally right and just pointing out that the people engaging in interfaith dialog typically don’t claim that their dialog partners are depraved idiots and abusing their children by bringing them up in the delusion. So if you want that the conversation be structured as if we are interfaith peers instead of enemies, you’d better behave a whole lot less hostile.

          • CBrachyrhynchos

            And then your hypothetical person is totally right and just pointing out that the people engaging in interfaith dialog typically don’t claim that their dialog partners are depraved idiots and abusing their children by bringing them up in the delusion.

            Neither do many atheists. If you are interested in a dialogue I’d point out that those comparisons disturb me since there’s a history of mental illness, mental disabilities, and child abuse in my family, and religious tradition in my experience is clearly none of those things. I don’t use them and protest their use when I see them.

            But certainly if you do want to engage in tit-for-tat argument there’s more than enough antitheists out there to satisfy. But it’s not something that’s relevant to my beliefs, relationships, or community.

          • http://last-conformer.net/ Gilbert

            But if you don’t take that kind of atheist, your objection simply doesn’t hold. Where the atheists are honestly up to the role, talks to them are very similar to interfaith dialog. Just look at this blog’s archive.

          • CBrachyrhynchos

            In my experience, this blog is exceptional.

      • Irenist

        Paul Wright, I entirely agree that the typical Christian argument that disbelieving solipsism is the same sort of faith as preferring Christ to Krishna seems like special pleading. However, when you write that “the real divide is between those who know what the Fallacy of Composition is and those who don’t,” I’m inclined to reply that the divide relevant to the subject of this post is between those who think that Russell’s Fallacy of Composition rejoinder to the cosmological argument as phrased in modernist terms by the likes of W.L. Craig is somehow applicable to Aquinas, and those who recognize that Aquinas’ distinction between causal series ordered per se and per accidens actually changes the countours of the argument a bit.

        • http://blog.noctua.org.uk/ Paul Wright

          Sorry, I was being too facetious to be clear. I was talking about the apparent argument that atoms (or “heterogeneous distributions of energy”) don’t have (or perhaps experience) meaning or freedom or whatever, and because (on physicalism), people are made of atoms, people don’t either. That seems like a straightforward instance of the fallacy. Plus it’s not a great criticism of atheism per se: all atheists are naturalists, not all naturalists are reductionist physicalists (see Luke’s conversation with John Shook, for example), and not all reductionists are eliminativists. I’ll allow that better arguments against eliminativism may be a good criticism of the peanut gallery at RichardDawkins.net, or something.

          Google tells me that there is an objection to the Kalam on the basis of the fallacy, but that wasn’t what I had in mind. It’ll be interesting to see Aquinas’s version: I’m eagerly awaiting Yvain reading Feser so I don’t have to.

          • Irenist

            Ah. I see now what you were getting at. Thanks!

        • http://blog.noctua.org.uk/ Paul Wright

          > all atheists are naturalists

          Argh. Not all atheists are naturalists.

      • Darren

        Still not the definition of faith that is actually used by Christians.

        “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

        I believe that things that are unseen (i.e. non-detectable by any means, ever) are not actually there. There is no dragon in my garage.

        I believe that dead people do not come back to life. So does every Christian. Where we differ, and the distinction between faith and belief, is that all Christians have faith that the dead do actually come back to life, in opposition to all the evidence to the contrary, in opposition to any science that is known or ever _could_ be known, their faith still stands.

        I would argue further that it is not the moral relativists who fail to live by their moral systems (we do, but so what), but the Christians. Here we have the Pope, God’s own best friend on Earth, and he can’t go outside without being encased in a plexiglass bubble? Sure, the Pope has Faith that God can deflect any assassin’s bullet, but his belief is something quite different, isn’t it…

        • Irenist

          “I believe that things that are unseen (i.e. non-detectable by any means, ever) are not actually there.”
          So anything in the universe/multiverse (as you prefer) outside our own light cone by your positivist definition simply does not and cannot exist? Talk about only looking for your keys under the lamppost! I’d be more impressed with a “weak atheist” argument along the lines that Sagan’s invisible dragon or Russell’s teapot, or green cheese on the Moon, or a god, may in principle be there, but there’s no reason to avoid the absence of a dragon-belief, a teapot-belief, a green-cheese belief, or a god-belief until evidence for any of them comes in. Your statement, OTOH, sounds rather more arbitrary.

          “the Pope, God’s own best friend on Earth,”
          No especial reason in Catholic dogma to think that he would be. The Borgia popes, e.g., were horrid.

          “he can’t go outside without being encased in a plexiglass bubble? Sure, the Pope has Faith that God can deflect any assassin’s bullet, but his belief is something quite different”
          I have faith in your ability to take out my trash for me. But it would be rude of me to expect you to do it when I can do it myself. The same logic applies to the Pope’s exercise of the virtue of prudence in preferring the Pope-mobile to walking around Beirut during his recent visit alone with a target painted on his back. Besides, in creating a universe in which primates would evolve such that the human ones would have such elementary prudence and the will to exercise it, God has already made provision for the Pope. Why not accept that gift?

          • Darren

            ”I believe that things that are unseen (i.e. non-detectable by any means, ever) are not actually there.”
            So anything in the universe/multiverse (as you prefer) outside our own light cone by your positivist definition simply does not and cannot exist?”

            Ooh, good point about the outside of the light cone… nice. Where I was going with that was more in line with Sagan’s invisible dragon, but I will bite. So far as the universe outside of the light cone is concerned, and pardon me as my cosmology is likely not up to the task, I am not certain it fits the definition of “non-detectable by any means, ever”. The universe outside of my light cone is undectable by means at my disposal _now_, but I do have cosmology models explaining how those portions outside of the light cone did exist at one time, plus observations to back up that model, and nothing in the model to indicate the distant universe ceases to exist for no apparent reason. Also, just because I am unable to observe it now, I could, in principle observe those portions of the universe, were I to be standing there instead of here, or if wormholes turn out to be feasible, or FTL, or quantum entangled communications, or any number of sci-fi scenarios. I do not have _faith_ that I will ever see those technologies, but I do have a reasonably confident belief that human science is nowhere near the pinnacle of its development, and so someday such a thing might be possible. Sagan’s dragon, however, if proof against all detection methods, presently known or in the future, from this vantage point or that, and so can be reasonable claimed as non-existent in any meaningful sense of the word.

            “the Pope, God’s own best friend on Earth,”
            No especial reason in Catholic dogma to think that he would be. The Borgia popes, e.g., were horrid.”

            While not an expert in Catholicism, I am willing to claim the notion of Apostolic Succession, culminating in our current man in the pointy hat, would pretty much qualify the Pope as the one person on Earth who God is most likely to have an interest in. And, from reading Leah’s blog and the responses to it, Apostolic Succession is still touted as a pretty major selling point for Catholicism. The Borgia popes are only disavowed _now_… Give it a couple of hundred more years and Hitler’s Pope, Pius XII might be villified just as much, but for now the faithfull are still defending him…

            “he can’t go outside without being encased in a plexiglass bubble? Sure, the Pope has Faith that God can deflect any assassin’s bullet, but his belief is something quite different”
            I have faith in your ability to take out my trash for me. But it would be rude of me to expect you to do it when I can do it myself. The same logic applies to the Pope’s exercise of the virtue of prudence in preferring the Pope-mobile to walking around Beirut during his recent visit alone with a target painted on his back. Besides, in creating a universe in which primates would evolve such that the human ones would have such elementary prudence and the will to exercise it, God has already made provision for the Pope. Why not accept that gift?”

            I will call you on this ‘Invisible Dragon’ argument, flat out. God goes out of his way to cause Jesus statues in dirt-street third-world hellholes to cry bloody tears with Genuine Hebrew DNA Blood™, but for the bodily safety of his own personal representative on Earth he is just going to rely on Savanna-evolved Australopithecine “Holy crap they are shooting at me, I better duck!” instinct?

            The Pope does not go outside without his plexiglass bubble because he is not stupid. Or rather, the Popes Post-Enlightenment Reason overpowers his Traditional Christianity Faith, at least in this respect. One could also say it is simply a mimetically evolved survival mechanism of Catholicism. Snake Handlers take their Faith seriously. There are not a whole lot of Snake Handlers, quite possibly because, strong as the urge to believe may be in the Human brain, that same human brain does tend to notice when our spiritual leaders keep getting bitten by snakes and dying as a result, despite what the bible very clearly states to the contrary. There are a great many more Catholics than Snake Handlers – the fact that they do _not_ go out of their way to get bitten by snakes, despite the bible telling them to do so, probably makes them a bit more marketable.

            But, I digress. The point was that people, even the staunchly religious, cherry pick their beliefs just as much as they accuse the evil Moral Relativists of doing. To use an example closer to home, Catholics and contraception. The Church’s stance is quite clear, yet plenty of Catholics use contraception just the same, and don’t try any of that “Catholics are allowed to disagree/not follow Church teachings”. No, they are not, that is pretty much the point of being Catholic, as opposed to any of the 44,999 _other_ Christian denominations. There is one, and only one, Catholic church. It has rules. If you want to be Catholic, you follow their rules. Simple. Don’t want to follow the rules? Go somewhere else. (at least they don’t burn you anymore). This was clearly demonstrated for the Leadership Conference of Women Religious just this year. Yet, millions of Catholics don’t follow the rules anyways, and are allowed to get away with this because enforcement is lax, not because the Church thinks it is OK.

      • JRA

        Do you believe you are free? That is a fundamental experience which permits your to discourse on these subjects to have any significance (if your output is determined, I’m not sure why I would care what you have to say) and enables you to carry out scientific experiments (without belief in your own freedom, you can’t really control or randomly sample). Some people believe in it, and some don’t.

        Moreover, the fact that not all beliefs are created equal doesn’t make them categorically different. I start with a postulate that my experience (in the broadest sense) is the source of all knowledge. I have a rational desire to know and understand the world. But prior to this is what I would call “love for the world.” I am attached to the world in an irrational way. Literally before I am truly rational, I have accepted the world as real and formed intense desires to know it. I attribute to it certain qualities like beauty and truth before I even answer the question of what beauty and truth mean. I have, in this way, a tremendously generous attitude toward the world, as we do towards our friends and people we love. I give it credit for qualities that I cannot demonstrate on a strictly logical or scientific basis: what is truth? what is beauty?

        Some version of this attitude is a pre-requisite for science. When you question it–when the experience that science requires becomes a question of scientific investigation–then the conclusions head towards inconsistency. The instrument can’t probe itself.

        >”This is badly wrong: there is no single scientific method to have “faith” in, and an atheist need not be a
        > scientific realist (the logical positivists most definitely weren’t, Hawking arguably isn’t).”

        In what particular ways would you say that the verificationism of the logical positivists does not present a problem similar to the scientific realists in this regard? I’m using science more in the sense of wissenschaft, not just people taking measurements in laboratories. My contention is that that wissenschaft requires the above mentioned “love of the world,” which is an act of faith.

        The theological definition of faith by different religious groups–while a fascinating topic–is somewhat orthogonal to the point, which is this: A positive belief that the world must not be a composition requires a fundamental, pre-rational “stance,” as does my view, which permits and even encourages the idea that the world IS a composition. We all agree that these stances are not created equal, which is why we argue about them.

  • Mr. X

    “which mercifully lacks the insults to Dawkins and others you’ll find in the book — it’s hard to notice that your opposite number is speaking False Cognate French!”

    I think you’re being a bit too lenient towards Dawkins here TBH. Yes, the atheist in the street can be forgiven for not knowing Scholastic vocabulary, but if you start writing a book claiming that a certain point of view is wrong, irrational, child-molest-ey, etc., you owe it to your readers to make sure that you don’t misrepresent your opponents’ views. Dawkins wouldn’t think very highly of someone who claimed to refute modern science on the basis of a few strawmen and put-downs (“Physicists claim that some quarks are up flavoured. But ‘up’ isn’t a flavour, as everybody knows. If scientists can’t even grasp the concept of flavour, why should we bother listening to them about anything?”), but that’s essentially what he ends up doing with religion.

    • deiseach

      I have to admit, I got a lot of ill-natured enjoyment from reading Terry Eagleton’s review of Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion”.

      Very uncharitable of me, and I should be ashamed of myself. And I will be, when I stop laughing :-)

      • http://www.ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca Randy

        You make Eagleton’s point. He claims that the New Atheists are very good at ridicule and very bad at reason. So you respond with ridicule and don’t even seem to notice the irony.

        • http://blog.noctua.org.uk/ Paul Wright

          Er, I take it that deiseach is a Christian (going by their previous comments here) who is laughing at Dawkins. Which, of course, is OK (or if there’s irony there, it’s of a different sort).

        • http://www.mccaughan.org.uk/g/ g

          My reading of deiseach’s comment is not “I am a New Atheist and I think Eagleton’s article was ridiculous, ha ha ha” (which would make your response somewhat appropriate, but see nitpicking below) but “I enjoyed Eagleton’s attacks on the New Atheists, even though I suppose they’re not altogether fair”. And isn’t deiseach a Catholic, not a New Atheist?

          (Nitpicky note: responding to Eagleton with mockery is ironic and supports his point if, and only if, it’s inappropriate in the way that Eagleton claims the New Atheist attacks on theism are: that is, if it’s responding to something deep and subtle by reading it simplistically and focusing on superficial apparent flaws. Those who respond to Eagleton with mockery — I repeat that I don’t think deiseach is one of them — would presumably say that, even if some varieties of religion have depth and subtlety to them and are best understood obliquely, as Eagleton claims, the same is not true of Eagleton’s review of Dawkins. It isn’t obvious to me that they’d be wrong.)

  • http://catholic.com Todd Aglialoro

    Catholic sociologist David Carlin writes that modern liberal Christianity is the historical product of a series of Hegelian compromises—each seeming to make sense at the time—with secularism. Each results in a new mainstream modern Christianity that is decontented and immanentized by half. The terminus is a thing called Christianity but for all intents and purposes indistinguishable from secularism.

  • Martha

    I don’t know if Modern Christianity and atheism are that close, but I do notice that many atheists argue the equivalent of “So you believe in a literal six days of twenty four hours each creation, do you? Well, what if I tell you that science has demonstrated the earth is over four billion years old? Ha, what about your Bible now???” and if you say “Er, actually, I’m a Catholic and we don’t hold the same view of Biblical inerrancy and literalism as you are presupposing”, the answer seems to come back “But if you don’t believe that, then you’re not a Real Christian!!!”

    Lather, rinse, repeat for any doctrine you care to mention. Oh, and on the topic, happy anniversary Archbishop Ussher and the date of the creation as the night preceding Sunday, 23 October 4004 BC! No, you may have been a Church of Ireland archbishop and the main inheritors of your theory seem to be Ken Ham et al, but I’m certain there are many atheists out there happily using your theory to bash Christians of other denominations over the head with, even to this day.


    • Mitchell Porter
    • Will

      I also get it from neon-pagans.

      “Narrowmindedhatingfundamentalistbigots” say “If you aren’t exactly like Us, you aren’t a REAL Christian!” “Openmindedliberalfreethinkers” say “If you aren’t exactly like Them, you aren’t a REAL Christian!” What is wrong with this picture?

      • deiseach

        Nine million women killed during the Burning Times? Check! The one time I was angry with Christy Moore, who is generally a good singer and interpretator of songs, was for this silly song.

        What makes it even worse is that he and I grew up in a tradition of ‘quack doctors’ and ‘seventh son of a seventh son’ (see Finbarr Nolan) and local people with cures for all kinds of ailments, never mind the stories about Biddy Earley, and we were under the dominion of the Pope of Rome – so the fabled ‘burning all the wise women of Europe’ never blinkin’ happened in our country, so did he ever stop to consider where the heck this figure was pulled out of or any historical corroboration?

        Ah, well: I still listen to his singing with enjoyment and just skip the silly stuff :-)

  • http://ereadingromanticism.wordpress.com Bernadette

    I wonder if one way to combat the often unconscious recourse to “moralistic therapeutic deism” is with a few good, old-fashioned thought experiments. For instance, take the declaration “the central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.” I know that, when I was an undergraduate, encountering the “pleasure machine” thought experiment made me realize that there were things I valued more than simply being happy and feeling good—and then I had to do some real soul-searching about what those other things were that I valued so much and that were apparently integral to a fully lived existence.

    On an unrelated note, I don’t know if it’s totally fair to lump in pomo (or pomo theology) with something as uncritical as “moralistic therapeutic deism.” Pomo may be “epistemologically modest” but that need not necessarily translate into a lack of rigor and critique even if it sometimes does.

  • http://thecornerwithaview.blogspot.com Julie Robison

    Fascinating!! I’ve gotten this impression before…

  • Notyou

    deiseach gave an example but I’d be interested in Leah giving some examples of what she means. Differences in interpreting the bible or actual cognates that mean different things. In any case, I note my niece who was raised in a Catholic school and now is atheist spends all her time refuting the ignorant bible folks around her. Easy targets? I don’t know, once or twice I’ve reminder her that’s not what she learned but it matters not.

  • Stephen J.

    In fairness, it is often a practice in Catholic/Christian comboxes and blogs to use the single word atheist as shorthand for an aggregation of philosophical stances that need not, in themselves, be simultaneously held by any one person. Disbelief in the existence of a single Supreme Being and Creator need not itself mean rejection of the supernatural per se (although it would mean rejection of the notion of worshipping and revering such beings); belief in only a materialistic universe need not mean espousal of causal determinism or eliminative psychological materialism; belief in eliminative materialism need not entail moral relativism, etc. It is always worth saying, “Hang on, exactly what are you asserting here, and why?”

    The No True Scotsman fallacy is something that can trap all of us very easily.

    • http://www.jrganymede.com Adam G.

      Except for the true Scotsman himself, of course. He’s never trapped by that fallacy. If you see any Scotsman who is, rest assured he is not a true Scot.

  • jose

    This confusion isn’t surprising, because as it seems, this sophisticated use of theology depends on whom you’re speaking with. There are two discourses. When you argue with atheists about morality, you resort to Russell’s teapot (might as well bring up Sagan’s garage dragon). God supposedly is the source of morality and the catechism supposedly has the right axioms for it, but you don’t think they’re important enough to even mention them in your argument; but when you write a post for fellow catholics, you usually go back to the traditional Oh lord, listen to my prayer and forgive my sins, etc.

    So in order to avoid confusion, let us know which position is a more accurate representation:
    1- Objective morality is a philosophical field of study that investigates hard to get at truths, whose origins (and, to great extent, contents) are currently unclear pretty much like the existence of Russell’s teapot, but which I think can be determined nonetheless.
    2- God created objective morality, he revealed the axioms of it to the catholic church, it, and he listens to my prayers and hymns and cleanses my soul of sin.

    • http://branemrys.blogspot.com Brandon Watson

      But it is of course the orthodox Catholic position (or practically any Catholic position, orthodox or not, for that matter) that both of those — if we strip out the tendentious language and simply identify them as “Objective morality, although in some ways hard to get at, can be determined by rational study” and “A complete and adequate account of objective morality requires putting it in a theological context, and the most adequate theological account is Catholic” — are true. And Leah has made clear enough that both of these were essential and, way back at the beginning of all this gave a general summary of some of the key points in the inferential move from general and secular objective virtue ethics to Catholic virtue ethics through ethical monotheism; and has since been dealing with various specific epistemological issues involved in the first part of the move. Nor, I suspect, have most atheists commenting been confused by this in particular, even those who are finding it unconvincing and dragged-out; this was all laid out quite clearly quite some time ago, and it’s the details that have been argued over since.

      • jose

        First, there is nothing tendendious about saying “I will pray for god to forgive me and cleanse my soul of sin”. Perfectly 100% catholic. I haven’t caricaturized it. Second, she didn’t bother mentioning either god or the church in her objective morality argument. You’d think they’d be important elements in her argument, since god is the origin of morality and the church, its incarnation. She hides them behind Russell’s teapot when arguing with atheists, and with reason: an invisible thing that might be there (you can’t prove it isn’t) is harder to shrug off than the regular man-written texts that actually make up catholic teaching. She doesn’t mention prayers either, perhaps to avoid responses with links to studies that show praying has no effect. But after that, we get prayers and hymns posts anyway. So yeah that’s going to cause confusion because you never know which version you’re supposed to address.

        • http://branemrys.blogspot.com Brandon Watson

          (1) Most Catholics, or most people for that matter, would not, in fact, put “I will pray for God to forgive me and cleanse my soul of sin,” which is a first-person practical action, in juxtaposition with “Objective morality is a philosophical field of study,” which is a third-person theoretical thesis, as if they were in the same genus; doing so does, in fact, suggest that someone — apparently the Catholics, although conceivably the atheists — can’t figure out the extremely elementary point that statements about first-person practical resolutions don’t plug in directly as objective third-person theory, and vice versa. I merely gave one of the possible paraphrasings of the second point that would make your question not completely unintelligent, on the assumption that you were simply awkwardly expressing a more reasonable thesis. I do apologize for assuming this too readily; I will try not to assume such things in the future.

          (2) However, it was in particular the “God created objective morality” part that needed modification, since this would not, in fact, be consistent with usual Catholic views — or, as far as I can see, anything Leah has said — unless we are using ‘created’ as an unusual figure of speech. Changes to it would require changes elsewhere in the sentence, however, since it sets the tone for everything else in the sentence.

          (3) Of course she didn’t talk about God or the Church in her objective morality argument. Leah has been extraordinarily clear that she started as an atheist with objective morality for reasons that had nothing to do with God and the Church, came slowly to the conclusion that objective morality did, in fact, require ethical monotheism, and then drew the further conclusion that the optimal ethical monotheism was Catholic. She didn’t say anything about God and the Church in the objective morality part because it was about the objective morality part, which was a position she already held as an atheist independently of any considerations about God and the Church.

          (4) Again, I think the particular confusion you are attributing to people generally is, in fact, simply your own. I have seen no one else laboring under any difficulty with figuring out the very simple points that when Leah talks about particular Catholic projects in which she is currently engaged she is talking about Catholic projects in which she is currently engaged, and that when Leah is talking about Leah’s conversion to Catholicism she is talking about how an atheist virtue ethicist became Catholic, which requires among other things explaining ethical ideas she had long before she was Catholic, in terms of epistemological ideas she had long before she was Catholic. Every other criticism I have seen, even ones that I’ve thought were completely off the wall, clearly presupposed this or at least could easily be interpreted in a way consistent with it.

          • jose

            She started as an atheist – which she’s not anymore. Now she’s catholic, and the catholic case for objective morality differs greatly than the atheist one – ask Dan Fincke. Besides, apparently she doesn’t believe in catholic teachings anyway – or maybe she does? When asked about specifics, she’s said she believes the church only has the right axioms, not necessarily the whole thing (but then she accepts supernatural miracles like the resurrection of Jesus or the functionality of prayers by association, because she thinks catholicism is true – why not then all the other teachings?). So, for instance, maybe she believes divorce and the pill are morally unacceptable like the church does, or maybe not. Same for every other issue and for every other catholic.

            In the end, I think the most useful approach is to just stick to actual teachings of the religions we’re addressing, rather than the personal “buffet” versions of its purported followers.

          • leahlibresco

            I’ve written about divorce and marriage a fair amount here. It even has its own top-level category level category. You could look at my series on covenant marriage for some thoughts from my atheist days and the Sondheim Symposium for post-conversion.

          • ACN

            You’ve expressed many of my confusions/questions/huh-whats? concisely jose.

          • Kristen inDallas

            “In the end, I think the most useful approach is to just stick to actual teachings of the religions we’re addressing, rather than the personal “buffet” versions of its purported followers.”

            To be fair you’re really conflating two separate things. If we are having a conversation about objective morality, what the church teaches about right and wrong and whether or not those rights and wrongs seem to play out logically/philosophically, then yes, it is appropriate to stick to what the church actually teaches, and not one one catholic might happen to think.

            However, when you switch topics to whether or not it is reasonable for one catholic to follow church teaching in some areas while holding out for more clarity in others, the question of reasonableness becomes much more dependant on the expiriences of the person making that decision. Faith is usually more of a journey than that.

    • Ted Seeber

      I know what bugs me about this: God is the origin of REVELATION, not morality. Morality is dogma + doctrine + discipline, and only the first of those is revelation. Doctrine is what can be known when you put dogma together with natural law and human reason. Discipline is basically the lesson plan to teach doctrine and dogma to a given culture at a given point in time.

      Your example of praying to God to cleanse the soul of sin is discipline, not dogma or doctrine. You are mistaking the lesson plan for the textbook.

  • http://thoughtfulatheist.blogspot.com/ Jake

    So I like to think that I have a roughly accurate idea of the “traditional” Christian worldview, but if the Turing test taught me anything, it’s that I’m probably wrong.

    It’s certainly not enough to say “our worldview is different from yours” to escape the requirements of reason, evidence, and consistency in your belief system. On the other hand, I would very much like to know what the other side actually thinks before declaring them wrong. Any thoughts (from Leah or others) about a good resource(s) for atheists to test whether or not our view of “traditional” Christianity is accurate? I know I should be a good philosopher and read the Catechism, but any recommendations that won’t take the better part of a year to get through? :)

    • brother

      On a popular level, you might try something by Frank Sheed.

      On a more sophisticated level, you might try something by Joseph Ratzinger (aka, the pope). His “Introduction to Christianity” or his “Jesus of Nazareth” books might be interesting, depending on what you’re looking for. Ratzinger is nice because his work is pretty profound, but goes down easy.

      Also, see “The Mystery of Christ: Life in Death” by John Behr.

      For morality, probably the best way into the Christian approach would be to look at something like “The Sources of Christian Ethics” by Servais Pinckaers. For an outline of traditional moral theology, there is “Living the Truth in Love: A Biblical Introduction to Moral Theology” by Benedict Ashley. Finally, if you can find it, look at “Ethics” by Vernon Bourke for an example of what Christian ethics looks like from the perspective of reason alone, in precision from revelation.

    • http://branemrys.blogspot.com Brandon Watson

      What would be a good idea to look at would really depend on specifics. If, however, you are interested particularly in Western English-speaking Catholic thought, and chiefly just interested in getting ballpark approximations of basic widely shared ideas, seen from the inside in a way that would itself be widely shared, you might try the works of Ronald Knox, particularly The Beliefs of Catholics, The Mass in Slow Motion, and The Creed in Slow Motion. Knox is generally short and quite readable — nearly as readable as Chesterton but more sober, although more drily sarcastic as well — and while he doesn’t get into finer nuances, elaborate defenses, or anything particularly complicated, he does generally do a good job of laying things out simply without dumbing them down. Plus, if you get bored of Catholic doctrine, you could intersperse it a bit with his Essays in Satire, if you wanted, without losing momentum. And unless you really don’t like English literature or dry British humor, it would likely be more pleasant than many of the alternatives.

    • deiseach

      (Note: the ‘you’ in the following is ‘you’ in general, not Jake in particular).

      I would say just in general identify first what general background the person you are speaking with comes out of; don’t just assume that American Protestantism in its Evangelical form is the default for every Christian.

      For example, as an Irish Catholic, I had no idea what or even if we had an official position on what is generally all bundled under the umbrella term ‘the Rapture’ because that is mainly the concern of a relatively small section of American fundamentalist/evangelical believers. Turns out we do – we’re officially amillenialist – but I had happily gone along for about forty years without ever needing to know that about my own faith, and I only went looking to find out because of online discussions with non-denominational Protestants who were talking about the latest Harold Camping forecast of the Tribulation (and please note, most of them were just as dismissive of it as the secular press, not because they do not believe in the Parousia but because they don’t believe in Bible codes type revelations).

      So leaping in with the assumption that everyone – even an Evangelical – is automatically committed to the Young Earth, or Double Predestination, or Complementarianism versus Egalitarianism, or the nature of baptism (pro or con re-baptising?), etc. may not work as well as you expect; you may exhaust yourself punching the strawman and leave your opponent with a baffled smile on his or her face as they wonder what on earth you are doing.

    • Ted Seeber

      GK Chesterton. Hands down. Specifically _Against Heresies_ and _Orthodoxy_.

      Follow that up with the _Catechism of the Catholic Church_, the _Decrees of Vatican II_ and _The Code of Canon Law_ to round out your education. Including all footnotes and references thereof.

  • john

    Hmm. I hear you say that empiricism is the divergent point. So are you saying there is another reliable way to learn true things that does not involve empiricism (forming hypotheses and checking them against external data)? What is it?

    • Ted Seeber

      I’m not so sure the councilar method is that different. Form hypothesis, check them against data points (revelation and natural law), get together every once in a while for a giant peer review session (ecumenical council).

      I would not say that Empiricism is the divergent point. I’d say REDUCTIONISM is (reducing the data set in a bigoted fashion, either bigoted against Revelation, or against observation of nature). In that, atheism is closer to Biblical Fundamentalism than it is to Catholicism.

      • john

        Certainly revelation is external data, but I don’t understand how natural law is data.

        At any rate, it seems like we’re agreeing on methodology. Does this mean that we agree that if the preponderance of external data (evidence) indicates that revelation is unreliable or that a specific revelation is untrue, that we should disbelieve the revelation?

        • john

          BTW, that was mainly a clumsy way of saying “I am totally cool with treating revelations as data, as long as we aren’t privileging the revelations or assuming things about their source, without justification.” You cool with that?

          • Ted Seeber

            Revelation is only privileged in one way- it’s vague. There is always the chance that you’ve interpreted it wrong personally when it conflicts with other evidence.

            That is, what God says is True, but what you read into what God says is either true or not true depending on other external evidence (such as Natural Law).

            A wonderful example has been EENS- Extra Ecclesiam Nullas Salvas- Outside the Church there is No Salvation. Due to input from anthropology and comparative theology, it’s still true, but true in a much different sense: All who are in Heaven, are members of the Church Triumphant, and thus part of Catholicism. They might have even been atheists when alive on Earth, but if they make it to Heaven, they become (to paraphrase a previous discussion I had here) mindless Catholic Praisebots.

            This is practically heresy to pre-Vatican II Catholics. But it is a case of the interpretation of dogma changing with input from external observation to form new doctrine- and it happens. That’s why I refer to Catholicism as a rational religion- it’s willing to change based on a preponderance of new evidence.

            I can’t describe that as disbelieving the revelation though- it’s more a case of understanding the original revelation better.

          • ACN

            It’s really awkward that the omni-whatever lord of the universe can’t be bothered to make sure that his revelation is unambiguous.

          • ACN

            It’s actually ridiculous that you can call this “rational religion”.

            What is the preponderance of new evidence? What possible evidence could anyone have about anyone else’s eternal soul, especially given that no one has even proved that an eternal soul EXISTS.

            Yet again, I will offer you a more parsimonious explanation. The church noticed that people didn’t like the whole “no salvation except with us” attitude. It’s exclusive, distasteful, and offputting to people (read: potential converts!) from different cultural/religious backgrounds. So to project a more welcoming attitude, instead of having the slogan be exclusive, they turned it into a tautology, “if you’re saved, you must have been one of us all along!”.

          • john

            Hmm. You seem to be saying that you agree, that empirical evidence trumps revelation, you just ALSO believe that revelation is always true, and therefore it must be your interpretation of a vague revelation that is wrong?

            My big problem is, I’m not sure how you can empirically tell which things are revelation (things that are super likely to be true). You can’t really judge based on their truth value, since they are so vague. Is it a certain type of experience (a still small voice after praying, speaking in tongues, the holy spirit nudging you as you read your bible) or a particular authority (the bible or a council of priests)? How do you empirically tell which one is a source of revelation and which is not?

  • Stepehn

    Could someone simply define Traditional Christianity and then Modern Christianity?

    • http://www.somewhither.net Darrell

      An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith by John Damascene (John of Damascus) would provide a pretty good overview of “traditional” Christianity.

      • http://reluctantliberal.wordpress.com Reluctant Liberal

        Modern Christianity needs way more definition than traditional Christianity.

        • Kristen inDallas

          Modern Christianity can take on a whole lot of forms. Essentially I think of it as abbreviated Christianity. (As every thing modern seems to have that fast food pick and choose touch to it anyway.) Each sect picks out different bits, depending on their taste, but what they have in common is a willingness to take it upon themselves to pick and choose and rank which teaching are the “important ones”

          • http://reluctantliberal.wordpress.com Reluctant Liberal

            Okay… but your definition still seems to be “All Christians except the ones in my group,” which is not a very good definition. And conservative Evangelical culture, while it may not be as intellectual, is every bit as authoritative as “traditional Christianity. Maybe they were picking a choosing a while ago, but their commitment to being anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage, and young earth creationist is pretty set.

    • deiseach

      Um, for myself, I often (maybe unfairly) characterise ‘Modern Christianity’ as the ‘religion as social work’ kind of thing – that is, God wants us all to be nice to one another and the important part of religious belief is the ‘social justice’ element.

      Which is true, but not the main point. The Incarnation was not just on account of we really, really needed another prophet from God to tell us “It’s nice to be nice” and this time was a really special one.

      • http://reluctantliberal.wordpress.com Reluctant Liberal

        The Incarnation wasn’t necessary at all. It happened because God is love, not because some rule deeper than God requires it. And while I won’t claim to speak for whatever monster of contradictions “modern Christianity” is supposed to represent, I will say that I don’t think “religion as social work” quite captures my conviction that Love is the center of reality.

    • Ted Seeber

      Roughly- pre 1300 vs post 1300. Pre “Enlightenment” vs post “Enlightenment” (for those of us who feel that the Enlightenment is the most mis-named period of history ever, it was the falling of spiritual darkness).

  • http://not-atamelion.blogspot.com Michael H.

    “It’s basically like having an argument in French, except this dialect of French is composed almost entirely of false cognates, so it’s pretty easy to fail to notice that your opponent is speaking French instead of English.”

    This could be used to describe 90% of Mormon/other Christian discussions as well. (Except that I think that Mormons lean too far toward a Protestant view of the world while we really should be more distinctive.)

    • http://thinkinggrounds.blogspot.com Christian H

      Oh man, I can only imagine. There’d be so many words in common! (Actually, that’s probably true of Catholic-Protestant conversations, too. And any Protestant denomination-any other Protestant denomination conversation…)

  • Richard

    I’d like to recommend a book: “Passage to Modernity: An Essay in the Hermeneutics of Nature and Culture” by Louis Dupre. The emergence and development of modernity out of the middle ages is a fascinating topic. I think that the various attempts to instantiate Christianity in a modern framework (i.e. Reformation Christianity and its derivatives) are all marked by the fundamental, and barely questioned, assumptions that characterise modernity. And, as such, they are indeed vulnerable to the implied atheism of the modern world-view. Traditional Christianity, both Orthodox and Catholic, as much of their theology predates the modernity is easily misunderstood by those speaking only ‘modern’. It took me a few years of studying Ancient and Medieval Philosophy (with a heavy dose of St. Thomas) in a non-Anglo-Saxon faculty of philosophy (i.e. not dominated by faculty members strongly influenced by the Analytic school) before I started to really understand what Catholic doctrine was getting at. As a teaser example: The Catholic use of the word ‘Person’ in discussions of the Trinity and the identity of Christ predates our modern usage by over a thousand years. The word simply does not mean what we ordinarily take it to mean. This makes it especially hard for moderns (and contemporary Catholics to get a sense of what the doctrine is trying to get at). It might be better to use the Greek ‘hypostasis’ and just avoid all confusion. However, the use of person as applied to human beings (and angels) is not completely equivocal, but is analogical. We are persons by way of analogy to how God is personal. Also, since in Catholic theology, God has one mind and one will, that means that mind and will are not what distinguish persons in the Trinity. So, the same must be true for us (if we are persons by analogy). Our minds and wills are not what mark us as ‘persons’. Ultimately, what does make us persons is that we and God are in relationship (our personhood comes from God alone, for that is the source of his own triple personhood – relations within the Godhead). The relationship in question is on the order of being (God creates us as beings with a a human nature, and such a being is created with a capacity for a relationship with God). Thus, by the Catholic view, it makes sense to call a single cell fertilised human egg a person. Of course, to a modern, the previous discussion will seem radically incoherent. Locke’s discussions and rumination on personal identity (grounded in memory – i.e. consciousness) seem so obviously true. Thus, to a modern, the idea of a human zygote being a person is simply nonsense and can thus only come from a fideistic submission to a crazy dogmatism. Communication between moderns/atheists and Catholics requires the patience and effort of learning a new language. In my experience, however, it’s converts (of the intellectual variety, rather than moral) who will spend the time to do this.

    • http://industrialblog.powerblogs.com IB Bill

      Thank you for this example. I am a Catholic convert of six years and have discovered that these modernist assumptions in much of my thought. Prior to my conversion, even when I was an atheist, people used to tell me I was Catholic in my thinking. Somehow, in converting, the modernist remnants are now standing out.

  • Gordon

    I don’t see how “where’s the evidence for the god you believe in?” fits in your analogy. It seems like you are jumping straight to the “if there is a god then…” part and building a castle in the sky. But if there’s no reason to grant that premise (and nobody has provided one) then there is no reason to even consider the architecture of the castle.

    • Irenist

      Indeed, Gordon, Christianity is a theism, so Christian philosophy presupposes God. Rather than empirical evidence (“I observed God through my telescope”), traditional Christian thinkers would employ deduction from first principles to lead you to Theism, e.g. Aquinas’ Five Ways. But as Feser points out at painstaking length in his books and blogging, Aquinas’ arguments seem sophomoric and obviously wrong unless and until a modern inquirer makes the non-trivial effort to learn the Aristotelian metaphysics behind them. In turn, the Aristotelian metaphysics will seem sophomoric and obviously wrong until the inquirer enters deeply enough into it to notice and discard the post-Cartesian mechanistic worldview he or she is almost certainly reading back into them.

  • http://crudeideas.blogspot.com Crude

    Atheists usually win these arguments, because the modern worldview logically implies atheism.

    No, they don’t. Feser doesn’t say that, the ‘modern worldview’ does not ‘logically imply’ that, and Feser doesn’t say otherwise. What Feser does say is that the mechanist view of the world wreaks havoc on the foundation of reason itself. That’s not him saying that the modern worldview logically implies atheism – it’s that the modern worldview is ultimately incoherent.

  • Ray

    The point about the difference between a Traditional Catholic and modernist world view is all well and good, but I have seen little if any evidence that the Traditional Catholic means something different from what the modernist thinks when he claims that Jesus rose from the dead (He very well may mean something else in addition, but if the narrower claim is false, the broader claim is as well.) Moreover, this is exactly the sort of claim — a historical claim regarding things that happen in the physical world — that modernist thinkers have been far more successful at analyzing than Traditional Catholic thinkers. What makes you think the modernist answer is wrong?

    • Brandon B

      What do you mean by “more successful at analyzing”?

      • Ray


        your question is a blatant attempt at evasion. Leah pretty clearly thinks that modernist thinking has something going for it in terms of answering questions of the sort I am referring to — historical claims regarding things that happen in the physical world — or she would not have said that “empiricism got really interesting really fast.” So rather than asking what I mean, why don’t you just assume the same thing you assumed when you read those words from Leah.

        • Anonymous

          I think you’ve evaded Brandon’s question well, also. All the way from, “empiricism got really interesting really fast,” to (not a quote), ‘the resurrection didn’t happen,’ without any work. Good job, chap!

        • Irenist

          Ray, I’m actually curious myself what you meant by saying “more successful at analyzing.” Do you mean modern textual criticism of the Bible (indicating that the Gospels are not straight journalistic accounts), archeological investigation of ancient Near Eastern burial practices (calling into doubt some detail of the Gospel narrative), psychological studies of group dynamics in new sects (group polarization leading to an inflation of a Jesus legend into a Christ myth), or what? All of those relatively modern atheist arguments have always struck this Catholic as at least interesting, but without specificity, I don’t know which interesting argument to give you credit for raising.

          • Ray

            My main intent here is to grant Leah’s two premises and see where they lead

            1) “Given the assumptions of the modern view, atheism seems like a much more stronger attractor.”


            2) The modern view became really popular because “empiricism got really interesting really fast.” Which I interpret as referring to the massive success of empirical science (i.e. methodological naturalism) in giving us answers that we trust about the past history of the physical world.

            The examples you give are all fine examples of where the modernist approach is successful, but you are willing to accept the conclusions because they don’t cut directly against the core Christian claims, but I will give one more that more directly captures what I’m talking about: It is generally accepted that Herodotus vastly overstates the size of the Persian army massed against the Greeks during the Greco-Persian wars. Common arguments assert that the Persians could not have raised an army of the size stated in Herodotus’s account, or that the Greeks could not have succeeded in repulsing the army if the Persians somehow did. But, these assumptions go out the window if God could have multiplied the soliders like the Loaves and the Fishes, or if He could have repeatedly raised fallen Greek soldiers like Lazarus.

            I assume you trust modern estimates of the size of the Persian army more than those of Herodotus (which if I’m not mistaken were taken as literal truth throughout the entire period when what Leah calls Traditional thinking predominated — i.e. the Hellenistic era through the late middle ages.) How does one reach this conclusion without accepting the modernist assumptions, which according to Leah, lead to atheism. I suppose you could make some wishy-washy arguments about how you would expect God to act, and why he would never intervene in a way that would make Herodotus’s numbers correct, but it’s hard enough to guess what mere humans will do (as the Persians learned at Marathon,) why do you think you can rule out miracles here? After all, the people of the honorary Christians, Plato and Aristotle, were fighting the people of the honorary Jewish Messiah, Cyrus the great, (yes I know it was his successors leading the army.) Perhaps you could say God never switches sides midway through, but then what of Saul and David. Maybe you accept that this example from scripture never happened, but if so, why are you so sure about Jesus?

            So in short, I am skeptical that you can separate the modern assumptions that Leah believes lead to atheism, from the modern assumptions which have led to a massive increase in knowledge about the physical world, including its history, without drawing a lot of arbitrary lines in the sand regarding when it is and isn’t acceptable to posit a miracle. I think the only principled solution is to reject all miracles, as did the Enlightenment Deists, and even then, I feel that Enlightenment Deism still made it’s practitioners take Paleyan Creationsim and Vitalism too seriously, while not taking seriously enough the possibility that Euclidean Geometry and Classical Physics are only approximate descriptions of our universe.

          • Irenist

            I imagine the Gospel accounts get some details wrong: logically, they can’t be all be correct in such matters, as they disagree with each other on things like chronology. Occasionally I’ve come across evangelical tracts attempting to synthesize these disagreements into some consistent chronology, but they always read like the piling up of epicycles to protect their authors’ commitment to doctrines like literalism or inerrancy.

            As to Herodotus, he attracted plenty of skeptics in the time when traditional metaphysical assumptions prevailed, including Thucydides (who seems to have defined his whole approach in opposition to Herodotus), Plutarch, (author of “The Malice of Herodotus”) and the satirist Lucan. Still, Herodotus never claimed that the Persians miraculously multiplied, merely that there were a lot of them. He seems to have erred in his estimate, as you say, whereas Ctesias (usually even less reliable than Herodotus, AFAIK) seems to have hit upon an estimate closer to the modern in his Persica.

            But your larger point seems to be that because ancient and medieval witnesses can err, they are not to be trusted. This seems to be too broad a statement: e.g., Calvert and Schliemann, for all their many faults, located Troy under Hisarlik by having some faith (trust, if you prefer) in the veracity of some elements in the myth-drenched Iliad. We shouldn’t always distrust ancient accounts, but instead strive to discern when to trust them.

            As to ancient, medieval, or contemporary accounts of miracles, I prefer the attitude of the Catholic Church: default to an assumption that no miracle has occurred, but investigate the specific case. To appoint an advocatus diaboli is sound practice; to make the arguments proper to an advocatus diaboli the basis of an entire “modern” worldview is perhaps unwise.

          • Ray

            I think you’re missing my point. I actually agree with you that “we shouldn’t always distrust ancient accounts, but instead strive to discern when to trust them.” My point is that, in order to do so, we need to have some idea what is plausible, so that we are not surprised to find the ruins of Troy from the Iliad, but we would be utterly shocked to find the bones of Scylla or Polyphemus from the Odyssey. If we have a method that allows us to posit miracles, there is no principled way to know what is and isn’t plausible. Granted, Herodotus does not assert a miracle to explain the number of Persians the Greeks found amassed against them, and I would probably expect he would mention it if some such miracle occurred (assuming he knew about it in the first place), but my confidence in this conditional is no where near strong enough to justify my confidence that no such miracle occurred.

            As far as whether the “traditional” view allows for appropriate skepticism of things like Herodotus’s numbers:

            1) all the writers you list come from the beginning of the relevant era, before what Leah calls “traditional” thinking had really solidified its dominance on thought. Not a single one even comes close to being a medieval author, and Thucydides predates both Plato and Aristotle.

            2) Aside from the era in which he wrote, Thucydides is a particularly bad example for making your case. His major innovations over Herodotus are refusing to posit divine action as a cause of historical events, and refusing to draw moral lessons from historical events. This is the polar opposite of how a Christian, traditional or otherwise, would treat the Gospels.

            3)Plutarch most certainly was a Platonist, so at least roughly fits within the Traditionalist paradigm, but the only place in “malice” where I found him criticizing Herodotus’s numbers was when he accused Herodotus of underestimating the number of Persians killed in the Battle of Marathon. Perhaps I missed something, but at least in the work you cited, Plutarch does not come off as a paragon of scientific skepticism.

            As far as the Catholic Church goes — their attitude towards miracles strikes me as a sham. Surely it is to their advantage for there to be miracles attributable to their God. To the extent that they try to vet miracles it seems to me that they are only trying to mitigate the impression that they are appealing to rank credulity, and to somewhat reduce the risk that they may approve a miracle that will be unambiguously debunked, which would be an embarrassment.

            It is curious that those with less of an interest in the matter, like James Randi, find no such miracles pass muster. Now granted, he may be biased in the other direction, but surely a God who can overcome death can overcome James Randi’s biased opinions.

          • Anonymous

            …we need to have some idea what is plausible… If we have a method that allows us to posit miracles, there is no principled way to know what is and isn’t plausible.

            This seems to be the most important part. I’m having trouble understanding if it’s an appeal to personal incredulity or simply a non sequitor, because I’m not sure I can even parse the statement.

            “If we have a method… no principled way…” I take it by “principled way”, you mean “principled method”. So, assuming we have a method, there is no method… are we dealing with two levels of methods here (in some sort of hierarchical structure)?

            Are you claiming that a method which can posit miracles cannot be principled? This seems absurd on its face. One can easily come up with principled methods which can posit miracles… we could even design the principles in order to intentionally come up with wrong answers!

            The hard part, as always, is figuring out which principles lead to truth. I think you want to argue that in your search for truth, you’ve not found it useful to include principles which allow for positing miracles. It would take more reasoning than you’ve provided here to claim that these principles cannot posit miracles and also lead to truthful results concerning plausibility.

          • Ray


            I’m using “principled” in a bit of a fuzzy way here. Of course you can come up with some assumptions which will say that only the Canonical Christian miracles can occur, but they will look hopelessly ad-hoc and question-begging to anyone who isn’t already convinced. In practice, the arguments Christians tend to resort to when pressed rely on guessing what a human might do “surely Herodotus would have mentioned that if it happened” or worse still, guessing what a God might do — “God would never perform a miracle just to show up James Randi.” Can I rigorously prove these are the only sort of arguments? no, but it is my experience. The paradigmatic traditionalist (Aquinas) doesn’t even try to figure out which miracles are plausible and implausible — he thinks he’s proved a God exists, but makes no attempt aside from an appeal to Divine Revelation to support any specific miracle. Why his revelation is better than Muhammad’s or Joseph Smith’s, he never says.

            Of course, this is only an elaboration of *one thing* I think is wrong with traditionalist thinking. The overall point that modernist thinking is far better at figuring out what has happened and what will happen in the physical world than traditionalist thinking should be pretty much obvious for anyone who accepts the conclusions of mainstream history, physics, archaeology etc. and judging by Leah’s statement in her original post “empiricism got really interesting really fast.” She appears to not only agree that modernism makes it easier to get these sorts of questions right, but that this fact explains why modernism has become so popular at present. The burden of proof is on her to demonstrate that in throwing out the language of modernism she is not also throwing out the tools that have led to the success of modern scholarship in science, history, and technology. And she has made the case harder for herself by implying that the two languages lead their speakers to a different conclusion as to the most plausible answer to a simple historical question “Did Jesus stay dead after he was crucified?”

            If modern language implies that Atheism is more plausible than Christianity, then answer is no.
            If traditional language implies that Christianity and specifically Catholicism is most plausible, the answer is yes.

            Is this the only question on which the two approaches imply different answers as far as what is plausible? The history of scholarship would imply, no. And, it is modernist language that gets the answer right, far more often than traditionalism.

          • Anonymous

            Of course you can come up with some assumptions which will say that only the Canonical Christian miracles can occur, but they will look hopelessly ad-hoc and question-begging to anyone who isn’t already convinced.

            So could one have assumptions which allow miracles to occur, ok. Which miracles could be probable are likely a result of what system we settle on. Your complaint about it looking ad hoc sounds like a mix of an appeal to personal incredulity (surely one can’t come up with a system that isn’t ad hoc!) with precisely the problem Leah was speaking about:

            The first part of the sentence that you like to quote said, “Part of Feser’s argument is that we gave up a lot of our philosophic vocabulary during…” Losing common usage of a language can happen when something else gets really interesting really fast… without rendering the prior language useless! I’ll give an example that I know. Aerospace engineering curricula has changed a lot lately, in response to the fact that the CS-style material has gotten really interesting really fast. Many prospective grad students have great CS backgrounds, but their traditional aero language is lacking. It doesn’t mean that traditional aero language is useless for solving problems. It just means that if those students encounter a particular problem, they may proceed down a different path of attack… and they may settle on a different solution. Perhaps you could also think about what one of my old math profs said, “While it’s enjoyable to make fun of Bourbaki and Bourbakists, there is some merit to their point of view.”

            Sometimes, Bourbaki or traditional aero curriculum can help us come to a solution for a particular problem, even if other languages have had more success in answering hundreds of other problems that we’ve been interested in lately.

            The burden of proof is on her to demonstrate that in throwing out the language of modernism…

            It doesn’t seem to me like she is throwing out the language of modernity. Rather, she desires that we learn the language of traditionalism. Perhaps given both languages, methods which allow positing miracles will seem less incredulous.

            I’d like to also note that the language of modernity also uses reasoning like, “surely person X would have mentioned event Y,” or “surely person X didn’t lie about event Y, because it’s damaging to him and his worldview”. It seems strange for you to pin this kind of reasoning on traditionalists or theists or whoever it is you’re trying to pin it on.

          • Ray

            “Your complaint about it looking ad hoc sounds like a mix of an appeal to personal incredulity (surely one can’t come up with a system that isn’t ad hoc!) with precisely the problem Leah was speaking about:”

            Look, if you’ve got a set of presuppositions which makes the resurrection of Jesus plausible, but not any of the following:

            1) The resurrection of Romulus
            2) Special Creation
            3) Vitalism (e.g. the idea that urea could not be synthesized from inorganic chemicals, or that the electrical phenomena observed by Luigi Galvani could not be duplicated outside the body.)
            4) The great flood
            5) Some future person dying for our sins and being miraculously resurrected.

            And these presuppositions don’t simply amount to “think like a modern, except where one specific, poorly (or at least problematically) -documented historical figure from Roman Judea is concerned,” then put up or shut up.

            Until then, I will stick to what I know works — rejecting any and all miracles (or at least placing the burden of proof for them as high as is standard in physics for changes to the known laws of physics, within their apparent domain of applicability. Given the quality of historical evidence involved, this amounts to the same thing.) This has the added bonus that it would have gotten the plausibility question right on all five of the issues I raised, long before we were bashed over the head with loads of empirical evidence against 2,3, and 4. Indeed opponents of what Leah calls traditionalist thought have opposed vitalism and stated ideas similar to the modern (and correct) alternative to special creation from the Epicureans onwards. Traditionalists have gotten all of these wrong and opposed the correct model of the solar system, even when there was copious evidence in favor of it, to boot — to be fair, anti-traditionalists didn’t do much better at guessing the correct model from first principles, but at least they had the good sense to follow the evidence once it became available rather than waiting 100 years and bitterly opposing the correct theory in the interim.

          • Anonymous

            So I was right in the beginning. Really all you’ve wanted to say is that you’ve not found it useful to include principles which allow for positing miracles. You just want to couch it inside a post full of, “Look at this problem that CS solved… and this problem that CS solved… and…”

          • Ray

            “I’d like to also note that the language of modernity also uses reasoning like, ‘surely person X would have mentioned event Y,’ or ‘surely person X didn’t lie about event Y, because it’s damaging to him and his worldview’. It seems strange for you to pin this kind of reasoning on traditionalists or theists or whoever it is you’re trying to pin it on.”

            To clarify, I don’t object to these sorts of arguments, per se. I merely don’t think they’re strong enough to justify the sort of confidence modern scholars have that Herodotus exaggerated his numbers, in the absence of a method that, independent of any other considerations, assigns a vanishingly low prior probability to any miraculous explanation for the discrepancy between what Herodotus says and what seems plausible given what we know about the demographics and military technology of the time. And then of course, there are not wholly fictional ancient sources, like the Iliad, that outright assert all manner of implausible miracles, which I assume you do not yourself believe in. Does your confidence in your understanding of what God would do justify your confidence that these miracles did not occur?

          • Ray

            “Really all you’ve wanted to say is that you’ve not found it useful to include principles which allow for positing miracles. ”


            I HAVE found it useful to include principles which DO NOT allow for positing miracles.

            This is a crucial difference because it means any set of principles which allows one to posit miracles contradicts the principles I have found useful, and therefore cannot be added to my toolkit unless an adequate substitute for my original principles is provided. You have not done so.

          • Irenist

            I’ll try to reply to your points in turn:
            “1) all the writers you list come from the beginning of the relevant era,”
            If the relevant era is the Middle Ages, then of course you are correct, and I misunderstood what Leah meant by “traditional.”

            “2) Thucydides is a particularly bad example for making your case.”
            The only case I meant to make was that not all historians from before the advent of the modern mechanistic worldview were credulous fools. Against such chronological snobbery, I think Thucydides is a fine witness.

            3)”Plutarch does not come off as a paragon of scientific skepticism.”
            I agree both that Plutarch doesn’t question Herodotus’ number for the Persian army in the “Malice,” and that he isn’t a post-Enlightenment skeptic. I mentioned him merely as one of many ancients who was wise enough not to trust Herodotus.

            “As far as the Catholic Church goes . . . strikes me as a sham. . . . seems to me . . . . James Randi”
            So we’ve established that neither you nor James Randi has a high opinion of the Catholic Church, because they “seem” untrustworthy to you. Noted.

            Turning to your recent exchange with an anonymous commenter, I find that you wrote:
            “any set of principles which allows one to posit miracles contradicts the principles I have found useful, and therefore cannot be added to my toolkit unless an adequate substitute for my original principles is provided.”

            As your anonymous commenter said above, instead of “throwing out the language of modernity,” consider instead that traditionalist thinkers ask that you also “learn the language of traditionalism. Perhaps given both languages, methods which allow positing miracles will seem less incredulous.”

            To put this another way:
            Even a Catholic historian or scientist is a “methodological atheist” when looking at some new datum: the first posited explanation is not miracle. However, if one is persuaded by Aquinas and other thinkers that there is a God, that this God has revealed Himself in history as Christ, and that this God has sent His Holy Spirit to guard the doctrinal integrity of His Church, then reports of miracles in either the Bible or related to Catholic (and possibly Orthodox) saints can be assigned a higher (but not conclusive) prior probability.
            Thus, the prior probability of the Deluge was higher than that for the apotheosis of Romulus. However, archaeological data having ruled out the Deluge, and failed to provide any corroboration for any apotheosis of Romulus, both can be dismissed.

            You may object that this amounts to arbitrarily assuming Christian miracles innocent until proven guilty, while maintaining the opposite attitude toward other miracles. I would answer only that whether that is arbitrary or not depends entirely upon how arbitrary one’s other reasons have been for becoming and remaining a Christian.

            A final thought:
            I am, frankly, less skeptical of non-Christian marvels (miracles doesn’t seem the proper word) than you. I happily go through life assuming that none of them ever happened: whereas the miracles in which I do believe are part of a coherent salvation history stretching from early Israel through the life of Christ down to Christ’s new Israel (the Church), I am hard-pressed to see what role in salvation history might be played by divine intervention in the lives of Romulus or Randi. However, non-Christians ancient and modern are no more foolish than Christians, so perhaps some of the marvels they reported have really occurred. In that case, perhaps something we are living through something like the undercover phase described in Lewis’ Screwtape Letters: where once demons gulled the gullible with marvels, now they lay low so that those proud of their worldly wisdom may become materialists. So I’ll go on assuming that ancient reports of marvels are best explained by materialist means, but won’t be shocked if that assumption some day turns out to have been wrong.

  • Doctor Octavo

    Could you explain which atheist arguments do not match Catholic claims? If you have done so in the past, could you provide a link to the discussion?

    • Irenist

      The first one that leaps to my mind is the idea of God as “a being” that one could inductively investigate, like sending a probe to look for Russell’s teapot, rather than pure Being which imparts itself to all of us “beings,” thereby joining our essence to His eternal act of existence, or, to borrow from Hawking (who surely wouldn’t approve), “breathing fire into the equations” where the equations are the mathematical form to which God imparts existence. When atheists argue that God is an unproven being like Sagan’s invisible dragon, my instinct is to say that the proof of Being is simply that there is something rather than nothing, and that a specific “being” akin to a dragon or a teapot is completely beside the point. The tendency of the Protestant proponents of modernist, post-Reformation ideologies like creationism and I.D. to shallowly congratulate themselves on the “being” implied by their theories being God, when it is merely “a being” rather than Being strikes me as the source of atheists’ understandable confusion when arguing with well-instructed Catholics.

      • Doctor Octavo

        When you refer to a Being that breathes fire into the equations, you’re still referring to a Mind with intention, right?

        • http://blog.noctua.org.uk/ Paul Wright

          As far as I can make out, Traditional Christians would say God has something analogous to a mind but in a way which is not in conflict with divine simplicity. Hume’s Cleanthes (who’s more of a theistic personalist) famously says this means they’re atheists without knowing it: “A mind, whose acts and sentiments and ideas are not distinct and successive; one, that is wholly simple, and totally immutable; is a mind, which has no thought, no reason, no will, no sentiment, no love, no hatred; or in a word, is no mind at all. It is an abuse of terms to give it that appellation; and we may as well speak of limited extension without figure, or of number without composition.”

          • Irenist

            A single instant of thought requires no succession; an infinite mind could contemplate infinitely much in an instant.
            That said, though, succession is an odd thing to worry about for eternal (i.e., outside spacetime) Being:
            Imagine a picture on a sheet of paper, in which the vertical dimension of the sheet stands in for time, and the single horizontal dimension for the three spatial dimensions (or however many string theorists are up to now). A three dimensional observer can take in that picture all at once; such an observer needn’t encounter it successively, like an ant crawling across its two-dimensional surface.
            As for the question, but then what does God think about next, the answer is that God is already thinking about Everything in that infinitely capacious instant, so what else is there to think about?
            Aquinas defines God as pure actuality–there is nothing He could potentially be contemplating that He isn’t always already actually contemplating (and loving, etc.) in that eternal instant.

      • Gordon

        Christians make claims about their god. Some say he answers prayers, for example. While you can always retreat into the nebulous and call it numinous, the god people actually believe in is usually less vague.

        If you believe in a god who answers prayers you believe that god has an effect on the real world and the absence of that effect can be evidence that you might well be mistaken (either about that god’s existence or his prayer answering ways).

  • http://reluctantliberal.wordpress.com Reluctant Liberal

    As a “pomo” Christian, I have to object to the conflation of modern Christianity and post modernism. Actually, I can’t really get my head around any categorization that lumps whatever I am with evangelicals, the emergent church movement, and people like Slacktivist.

    • Brandon B

      I have difficulty understanding how one can be a postmodern Christian, because I have difficulty understanding postmodernism. The only forms of postmodernism I’ve encountered have done things like deny the existence of Truth and Beauty and Goodness, things which to me seem not only reasonable concepts but necessary ones, especially for Christianity. I don’t want to make uncharitable presumptions, though, so I have to ask: what does you mean when you say you are a postmodern Christian? How does this set you apart from other Christians?

      • http://reluctantliberal.wordpress.com Reluctant Liberal

        I appreciate the question. I have to start off with a disclaimer, though. I’m new to considering myself postmodernist, and their are some weird bits of Thomistic philosophy left over from my Catholic background. So the answer I give could be pretty different than the answers someone else gives.

        The basic thing that makes me jump from myself to postmodernism is my desire to deconstruct everything. For example, I think gender is a construct. The male-female divide is one that exists more for convenience than as a strict definition of reality. I get that the two groups have different tendencies, but those tendencies are not inherent and are far less important than individual realities. For example, men tend to be stronger than women. But at the Olympics the strongest weight lifter on the US team was a woman. That woman was able to lift something like 400 lbs. For that woman, the fact that women tend to be less strong than men didn’t prevent her being stronger than over 99% of the men in the world. Her individuality is way more important than her gender. Yet 100 years ago she wouldn’t have even been allowed to compete. And even today she had a lot of people discourage her from starting out.

        So I think gender is actually more limiting than convenient. I think constructions like gender, while they allow the brain to be more effecient much of the time, wind up forcing errors in thought. And I want to unpack that. Virtues are virtues regardless of whether they belong to a man or a woman.

        So I deconstuct things. I deconstruct race, religion, culture, manners, nationality, language. Lots of things. My desire to see beyond categories to the particular reality I am dealing with is a necessary part of my pursuit of truth. And that’s what I think of when I say I am a postmodernist. “Test everything and hold to what is good.”

        If you’re still having trouble, it might be more helpful to think of postmodernism as an epistemology rather than a set of conclusions. For me, seriously questioning gender in the first place is a much more important thing than deciding it is an imperfect construct.

        • Iota

          Reluctant Liberal,

          “If you’re still having trouble, it might be more helpful to think of postmodernism as an epistemology rather than a set of conclusions.”

          Serious question: to me, saying postmodernism is an epistemology is like saying a hammer is a toolbox. I might be wrong, but I’d assume to have an epistemology you need not just stuff that lets you de-construct but also stuff that lets you construct (methods of creating definitions or making links between concepts, acknowledging differences in reality). Given that, I’m seriously mystified by people who say the “are postmodernists” rather than “use postmodernism”. I’d be happy to hear your take on that.

          An explanation of my basic objection below:

          I’d happily concede that there are elements of gender difference that are either wholly constructs or largely constructs (and that we were not equally aware of that, perhaps, in previous times- although this I would be less willing to concede without proof, since it smacks of “chronological snobbery”). I will haply concede that sometimes those divides get strengthened by a kind of group-think bias and held as sacred truths when they are in fact, at best, useful generalizations, so it’;s both useful and fruitful, for intellectual honesty, to be reminded that not everything some of us think of as set in stone IS set in stone.

          But to claim there is no grounding difference is basically to claim that men can naturally become pregnant and be mothers (all consequences included). A position, I assume, most people interested in gender issues would consider seriously weird (and possibly anything from counter-productive to sexist).

          Similarly, trauma studies with a postmodern bent ended up having a problem since, as far as I understand, if there is nothing that can be called a capital T Truth then a bunch of fake Holocaust memoirs or (even Holocaust-denier accounts, for that matter) are “truths” just as much as genuine memoirs are. An untenable position in the discipline, since the whole idea is that you are traumatized by something that, in some relevant sense, happened and not by a figment of your imagination that you clearly know IS a figment.

          Also any sociological background conditions you to understand certain kinds of experiences or identities better than others (based on the description of yourself on your page, I’d assume you differ significantly from, say, a Chinese, Working Class, Female, Widow, born in the 1950s). So even if you want to deconstruct categories, you can reliably do so only to a certain extent because you have to acknowledge the difference in experiences, unless you are willing to claim that all human experiences are actually interchangeable (but then, there would be no need to ever deconstruct categories at all, because they would be literally meaningless in the first place).

          In other words and in sum, rigorous questioning and deconstruction leads (IMO) to positions that are not just paradoxical but seem actually detrimental to any “pursuit of truth”. Whereas if you keep a set of axioms, it would make more sense – seemingly– to identify yourself by those axioms (AND the label “postmodernist”, if postmodern methods are really most used in your toolbox) but not by “postmodernist” primarily, because it tells everyone else nothing about the positions from which you begin the whole questioning-project.

          • http://reluctantliberal.wordpress.com Reluctant Liberal


            “saying postmodernism is an epistemology is like saying a hammer is a toolbox.”
            That is one hundred percent fair. Your way of saying it is certainly more precise, though I imagine the unfamiliar use would require as much time to explain as it would save by being precise.

            As for your pregnancy counterpoint, it doesn’t quite work. It’s true that men can’t become pregnant (yet). But the ability to have children is not essential to being a woman, otherwise the phrase “infertile women” would be an oximoron.

            As for the rest of your argument, one of the things that makes me different from some other postmodernists is still asserting an accessible objective reality. And while your point about the impossibility and impracticality of deconstructing everything is well taken, I think that’s a defect in me, not the method. I can’t deconstruct everything because I’m not God, and sometimes some level of efficiency is required. If I was God, I would not apprehend any categories, just realities. In other words, God is the only really successful postmodernist.

            And I think I need to bring postmodernism’s advantages back into the discussion. From what I know of most postmodernists (the practitioners rather than the philosophers), they did not take postmodernism to the point of not making moral judgements. In my experience, deconstruction is mostly used to point out the unfair privileges that make life harder for underprivileged groups.

            And I don’t think postmodernism has to be the most used tool in my epistemological toolbox in order for me to label myself a postmodernist. Postmodernist was the most relevant label for me given the context of this post, so I went with it.

          • Iota

            But the ability to have children is not essential to being a woman, otherwise the phrase “infertile women” would be an oximoron.

            True. My basic problem here is that the very capacity of most members of this gender to bear children (and the consequences thereof) shape women’s experience and social participation in a different way than they do for men, as a class (just a clarification).

            “If I was God, I would not apprehend any categories, just realities. In other words, God is the only really successful postmodernist.”

            Interesting though I’m quite sure I’m not convinced. :)

            Explanation dully appreciated and all that. :)

          • http://reluctantliberal.wordpress.com Reluctant Liberal

            Fair enough. As someone who likes the sound of my own voice (keyboard keys?), I appreciate the opportunity to give my explanation.

            I’d emoticon back at you, but my technical skills are lacking.

    • http://thinkinggrounds.blogspot.com Christian H

      As a Christian who has been called postmodern (Gilbert has, for instance, and I didn’t take that as an insult) and as a Christian who acknowledges the importance of particular ideas that owe their origins to postmodernism (but doesn’t accept postmodernism wholesale), I’m having trouble working this one out, too. Certainly I feel like I have no relation to evangelicals or certain New-Age Christians; at the very least, I am as far from them as I am from many Catholics, if not further. I do sometimes feel ideologically close to my atheist friends, though. That is fair. But that’s mainly because the atheists I know off-line care as much about language as I do and are as interested in social justice as I am; I think these two things are confusing the issue. Indeed, I think these categories–Traditional and modern Christians–are conflating too many different axes that weakly correlate but are not causally linked. For instance, this recourse to “God as Being” as the distinction between Traditional and modern Christians seems bizarre to me, since “God as Being” is not a great distance from Spinoza, who is not a great distance from modern physics (via Einstein) but is a great distance from evangelicals, broadly speaking. So, If I’m a Spinozan (I’m not, but hypothetically), am I more Traditionalist or modernist? Remember that I like (or am in the same lineage as) both God=Being and Einstein’s physics.
      By the way, I really like the line, “God is the only successful postmodernist.” I’d also say that God is the only successful modernist (ie. God’s the only one that can get from experience/reason to truth without error) and the only successful premodernist (ie. God’s the only one that can fully access truth through the self). In general, I’m really glad you started this conversation, because I’m a coward and didn’t want to.

      • http://reluctantliberal.wordpress.com Reluctant Liberal

        I’m glad you brought up the point about linguistics. I never got very far, but studying Arabic was a major part of what allowed me to start deconstructing things. For example, it’s hard to maintain the male-female dichotomy when you realize that some cultures have a third gender. And it’s hard to maintain the inherent existence of categories when you realize that our categories won’t necessarily translate into another language.

        And your point about God being the only modernist and premodernist as well is well taken.

  • http://industrialblog.powerblogs.com IB Bill

    Again, Leah, excellent post. I find in my few forays into discussing the existence of God with atheists that I spend a lot of time translating my terms into something they can understand. It usually doesn’t work on the Internet, but is usually effective in person. I’d be interested in hearing some specific examples.

  • CBrachyrhynchos

    My primary objection here is treating atheism as a historical-movement -ism akin to modernism and protestantism, rather than as one of those ideas that seem to repeatedly pop up in human cultures similar to vegetarianism, pacifism, and theism. Christians of any flavor tend to talk right past me because they’re much more invested in trying to justify Protestant Christianity than I am in trying to critique it.

    Argument from first principles often isn’t necessary, isn’t sufficient for many applied ethical problems, and obscures potential points of common ground. I wouldn’t take it for granted that a person of a different philosophical or religious perspective disagrees substantially about a given issue.

    • CBrachyrhynchos

      Bad edit, Christians of many flavors are apparently more interested in trying to justify Christianity to me than I am in trying to critique it.

      • Irenist

        “Christians of many flavors are apparently more interested in trying to justify Christianity to me than I am in trying to critique it.”
        What would you rather be chatting about?

        • CBrachyrhynchos

          Practical questions, such as, how do we live together in a pluralistic society? How do we bring about economic justice? What does an ethos of non-violence look like in the 21st century? How do we balance duty to family with duty to society and duty to stewardship of the Earth?

          • Irenist

            All wonderful questions, the answers to which I’d be eager to work toward. Not sure the combox of a Patheos blog post about a review of Feser’s TLS is the ideal forum, though.

  • Chris Hallquist

    I’m going to cut and paste what I said in the comments on Yvain’s post:

    “I had a similar thought, the real issue comes when it’s very important to Feser that God raised Jesus from the dead. So if you’re going to take that route to defending theism, and you also want to be a good orthodox Catholic like Feser, then you’ve got to have a convincing explanation of how what a cat, an apple, and a chair have in common could raise someone from the dead.

    “Or in other words, Feser should worry about Spinozism a lot more than he in fact does.

    “Not that this is the only problem with Feser–both Feser’s and Spinoza’s arguments strike me as non-sequiturs for other reasons.”

    • Irenist

      Feser notes somewhere that Aquinas thought that demonstrating the correctness of Theism was the easy part, whereas demonstrating that the God of Theism is the Christian God was a heavier lift. Feser spends most of his time on the “easy part” since that is the stumbling block for modern materialists (and b/c Feser just seems to like the topic), but if you’re looking for a refutation of alternate theisms, I’d start with Aquinas himself and work my way forward within his tradition up to or past the time of Spinoza.

  • http://jacobhunt.tumblr.com/ Jacob

    I’d love to hear what you think are the main points of divergence between modern Christianity and Christianity of a more orthodox flavor. Sounds like you’re thinking of epistemic/methodological divergences which have more or less systematic repercussions.

    • Ted Seeber

      One big difference between modern Christianity and Orthodox Christianity is the meaning of the word “freedom”. In Orthodox Christianity, there is such respect for the truth and the common good, that it is obvious that any given liberty is restricted by duty, that say the liberty to have sex and give birth *requires* the duty of becoming a parent. In modern Christianity, no such relationship exists; and in response we get divorce, contraception, and abortion (because obviously, post sexual revolution, we have the free right to orgasm with no duty).

      • john

        I don’t understand how that is epistemological/methodological. The question is *how do you go about figuring out what is true*, not “what specific things do you think are true?” (At least, that’s what I think the question is, and it’s certainly a question I’m interested in seeing the answer to.)

        • Ted Seeber

          It’s more of an example of Catholic Objective Morality vs Protestant Subjective Morality. Or in the terms of Pope Benedict XVI, rational religion vs moral relativism. Or in the words of Jesus Christ- building your house on a foundation of rock instead of shifting sand.

          • http://thinkinggrounds.blogspot.com Christian H

            So, the Westboro Baptist Church, about as Protestant as you could want, supports abortion, divorce, and contraception, and is generally in support of subjective morality? I don’t think Protestantism looks like what you think it looks like. (“You: here means Ted in particular, but actually this is true of a LOT of the Catholic commenters I’ve seen on this thread. Protestantism isn’t always one of willy-nilly pick-whatever-you-want or strict biblical literalism. Or, to put it differently, I don’t think Protestantism=modern Christian quite as regularly as has been implied.)

  • Ted Seeber

    This is the second time I’ve read your blog last in the Patheos Catholic Websphere- and the second time I’ve been disappointed by every other commenter thus far.

    NOBODY knows enough about Cardinal Newman to add the famous quote? Does Yale not have a Newman Center? “To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.” is the quote. I suggest it applies equally to all modernism, which has a curious need to deny that anything existed before the 19th century.

    • http://reluctantliberal.wordpress.com Reluctant Liberal

      I actually found the exact opposite to be true. The more I studied history (as a history major with a European studies focus), the more I found that the Church’s claims to being a reliable authority were questionable. Throughout history the Catholic Church was mostly no better and no worse than its times. And many of its most heroic moments were merely attempts to guard or expand its own dignity.

      • ACN

        It’s almost like it was a creation of human beings. Weird, right?

        • http://www.ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca Randy

          Except the pope had this remarkable ability to be on the right side of every theological dispute.

          Plus the strange ability of the church to survive things that should have killed it. Like the fall of Rome. Why would the barbarians keep the religion of the conquered empire?

          You are right. A human institution just protected from the kinds of things that have doomed every other human institution for the last 2000 years.

          • ACN

            Clearly divine intervention is the most parsimonious explanation.

          • ACN

            I hope you make the same claims about Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism.

            They must ALL be true!

          • http://www.ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca Randy

            They all have some truth. Especially Judaism. Buddhism and Zoroastrianism survive but barely. Islam is different. They might be getting help from the dark side. I don’t know that any of them even claim to have doctrinal integrity for their whole existence, let alone organizational integrity.

            You are right that the Catholic church’s survival could be a co-incidence. Still it is quite a remarkable one given that Jesus claimed that the gates of hell would never prevail against His church.

          • Ted Seeber

            Nostra Aetate- there’s not just divine intervention, but a human method involved, actively taking the best in other cultures, actively rejecting the worst.

          • ACN

            So just to be clear, we’ve gone from ‘god helped the catholics’ to positive assertions of divine or infernal intervention in every world religion that has survived/thrived/persevered in the face of persecution or conflict.

          • Alan

            It’s easy to ‘be on the right side of every theological dispute’ when you are also judging which is the right side. I would suggest that there are significant portions of Christianity that would disagree with your assertion there.

            And of course Judaism asserts doctrinal integrity for its entire existence – Yeshivot (Jewish rabbinical schools) still grant Smicha (rabbinical ineage) that is traced back to Moses. And what do you mean Buddhism survives barely? There are half a billion of them and they are the dominant religion of several countries – its almost as if you blind yourself to reality to assert the supremacy of a religion whose impact has been in decline for centuries.

          • http://www.ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca Randy

            It’s easy to ‘be on the right side of every theological dispute’ when you are also judging which is the right side. I would suggest that there are significant portions of Christianity that would disagree with your assertion there.

            Actually not as much as you think. Christians are agreed on basically all the Christilogical heresies. Those were the big disputes for a long time.

            What did I mean by ‘Buddhism survives barely’? I admit I don’t know a ton about the history of Buddhism but my impression is that it is more reflective than authoritative. That it does not teach a truth that might offend people but just encourages contemplation. So I see them as having a smaller spiritual footprint. That makes it less surprising they would survive a long time.

            As for Catholicism, it has been declared to bin in decline for a long time. From the time of the crucifixion people have been expecting the church to just fade away. People still say it and really believe it. BTW, the church is growing in numbers world-wide. It looks like it is in decline in the west but the world is bigger than that.

          • Alan

            I don’t know, sola scriptura, by faith alone, existence of purgatory, prayer to saints – seem like plenty of significant theological differences that a significant population of Christianity don’t think the pope has been right on.

            With Buddhism, better you withhold opinions then until you have had some time to actually study it. Or better yet, spend some time travelling through Buddhist countries and interacting with the populace and the monks.

            And yers, Catholicism is in decline. I don’t say it will fade away, at least any time soon, but to deny that its power and influence is less than today than the middle ages is absurd – while the world is bigger than the west, the power in the world isn’t so nicely distributed.

      • Ted Seeber

        I think the problem with that is “European Studies Focus”. As a rule, post 1300 Europe had some serious problems with reality.

        • http://reluctantliberal.wordpress.com Reluctant Liberal

          I definitely know the 16th and 17th centuries better than anything else, but my grounding starts at 1066, and pre-1300 is no picnic either.

          I am curious which event around 1300 is the dividing line for you.

          • Ted Seeber

            No single event. But there does seem to be a general corruption entering the Roman Curia, which culminated 200 years later in the Reformation.

            The violence that came from that is astounding. On both sides. And atheism, philosophically, is just another form of Protestantism, that’s why it seems like atheists get all of their morality from Protestantism.

            The scary part is when you realize that in Islam, the year of the Prophet is 1392. It took us 600 years to emerge from the violence of the Christian Reformation- what will the Islamic one bring?

          • http://reluctantliberal.wordpress.com Reluctant Liberal

            I’m familiar with the Chesterton-Belloc idea that everything is a heresy of Christianity, and I don’t buy it. Of course, if your only reference point is Catholicism, then everyone else looks like a degraded Catholic. Everything can be put in reference to Catholicism, of course, just as Ayn Rand can prove that all actions are selfishly motivated, but actually taking those steps doesn’t allow for a very complicated or interesting view of the universe.

            As an example, your paradigm puts Dawkins in the same camp as MLK, which doesn’t really strike me as a very helpful paradigm.

  • http://exconvert.blogspot.com Kacy

    Having accepted the traditionalist language, I can understand the misunderstanding. At the same time, there are reasons for my rejection of this way of thinking.


  • Alexander Anderson

    Leah, I just finished a rather fascinating book by Charles Taylor titled “A Secular Age”. If you haven’t read it, I would highly recommend it. Taylor goes rather in depth following the development of modern background thought from 1500 AD ish to the present, including what he calls “the immanent frame” which directs modern sensibilities toward unbelief.

  • Iota

    Translation thingy screenshot is splendid on SO MANY levels! I’d love to see the contents of that drop down menu, if it existed. :)

    (Says a Catholic majority in English Studies as a foreigner, which basically means I get Literature, Culture and Linguistics in one package so “Translating Stuff” is sort of my mission statement for life)

    • leahlibresco

      I’m glad someone noticed! You’re the first to mention it.

      • Iota

        My translator-brain tells me (perhaps wrongly) a whole lot of what you did and are doing in this site is a kind of translation. Most notably the Turning Test. So the translation software would be totally in-character for this blog, IMO. :)

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