Reading Contemporary Religious Texts While Humanist

Reading Contemporary Religious Texts While Humanist January 18, 2019

Let’s begin with a story. During my first Colombian Christmas, I took part in Novena–nine days of prayer and song mainly for the kids leading up to Christmas Day. I was in a Catholic household with children for whom the tradition is family-affirming… and a great many adults teasing me about what they assumed would be my difficulty reading in Spanish. So, I did what any normal humanist and human would do: I read some of the texts a) to bring joy to the kids and b) to prove those dagblasted smirking adults wrong.

When I went back to work, I told one of my clients about reading for Novena, and showed him the above picture of the page I’d read from. “Take it away,” he said. “And just start the first line of any of them.” I did, and he finished the section automatically, in a dizzying rush of a recitation. “Give me another.” I did, and he finished it automatically, too. I laughed, and told him he sounded just like the family, which had also exhaled certain key refrains as if they’d said them a thousand times.

Which, of course, they probably had.

Confronting the “givens” in our lives

We all have automatic recall of some kind–whether it be a seasoned response to “How are you?”, or musical earworms and treasured lyrics, or… in the case of an undergrad we all called “Die Hard”, the ability to recite a movie (gee, which one, I wonder!) line-for-line.

But we also have a similar body of “givens” that frame our worldviews. These are statements so obvious that saying them should prompt no argument, like… Water is wet! The U.S. is a plutocracy! Climate change is real! Vaccinations save lives!

Then someone says, “Well, actually, I agree with you on three of those but I’m not so sure water is wet…”

And we find ourselves having to defend what we’d for so long taken for granted.

But let’s think less today about being challenged ourselves and more about what we do when we realize that others have taken something for granted. Do we do so graciously, giving the other person time to gather their thoughts in the wake of their surprise? Or do we press our advantage, rattling them into a drastic change in point of view?

And what if we realize how wrong someone is, but we’re not in a position to debate them? What if, say, we’re reading a text filled with terribly flawed givens? Is there any value to studying those givens without the addictive rush of debate?

Is there any value, that is, to reading contemporary religious texts as a humanist?

Reading While Humanist

Reading religious texts as an atheist can be an exhausting exercise in incredulity. Not always, of course! But the Christian books I tend to enjoy usually come at the theme sideways, like those by Anne Lamott, Marilynne Robinson, and Rachel Held Evans. I don’t agree with their faith positions, but I enjoy their storytelling, which feels comprehensive enough in its construction of the world to lend a stronger sense of sincerity (for me) to their reflections on faith and doubt.

However, when we shift into the more traditional side of the Christian-lit spectrum, I rarely finish more than a few chapters before frustration kicks in, or tedium. In Matthew Kelly’s Rediscover Catholicism, for instance, the opening comparison–of a man gradually gaining awareness that his son needs to die to save the world from a deadly disease–was supposed to help readers understand the Father’s sacrifice of the Son. But these aren’t even remotely similar situations, because an earthly man has good reason to only gradually discover the need for this sacrifice, and feel a yawning sense of helplessness before it: he’s not a divine entity who created conditions for the disease in the first place.

Thus, while aspiring to humanistic conduct, I ended up wondering while reading: Does Kelly understand the difference between the two examples? If he does, why is he choosing such a poor comparison? Can he think of no better? Why not? And why is he positioning his infinite creator as helpless? Who is served by this view? Does it really help believers to have a god at their side with no greater awareness or agency against the cruel turns of nature?

But sometimes the inconsistencies come so fast and hard that I find myself pacing, and grumbling that anything so incoherent was ever published. And then I set down the book, and I breathe, and I have a conversation with myself that goes something like this:

So! You picked up another contemporary religious text, huh?

Yes

Did you do it so you could poke fun at folks for their spiritual beliefs?

Well, no, of course not.

Or maybe to sharpen your argumentation skills?

Well, yes, probably a little.

But a passive text is a lousy opponent, no?

…Yeah. No. You’re right–that’s not the main reason.

Good. So, did you do it to gain a better appreciation of how such literature is used by people of faith? Or why people who believe in the one Good Book have whole publishing industries dedicated to explaining it?

Oh! Yes! Those ones!

Well, okay–then you need to do better. You need to look past the desire to argue with the inane. You need to ask yourself, what is the inane doing in this text? How is it supporting its primary audience, and fulfilling its needs? Can you identify those needs from the statements you find so absurd?

Oh, but that’s hard. 🙁

Oh, but sunshine! I never said humanism was easy! 🙂

Reading Peter Kreeft’s Forty Reasons I Am a Catholic

So a dear Catholic friend of mine suggested this 2018 book in response to my Facebook call for reading recs outside my norm. He said he’d just started it and wanted my thoughts. Now, I don’t mind reading religious texts on recommendation, but oh boy, giving my thoughts. That’s tougher to do with the generic atheist suppressed and the humanist in me operating at its best!

Kreeft’s text seemed promising, though, in its initial appeal for people to convert to Catholicism only if they believe it is true, and to leave Catholicism if they are only following the faith out of any other justification. Integrity! Yes! I’m down with that.

But almost immediately the rest offered up the usual inanities. And that’s where I struggled between reading like an atheist and a humanist… so let’s go through some of the early ones together, and see if we can’t work out a difference in response.

Example 1

Kreeft starts by explaining his five-point move from nothingism to Catholicism. I mean, it’s a little disingenuous because he didn’t start with nothing–he started with Protestant parentsbut okay, I’ll bite. What’s his argument against no creator?

The arguments against atheism are well known. The two that are mentioned in the Bible are

  1. The evidence in nature: Who made it? Did the “Big Bang” just happen for no reason or cause? And why is it so intelligently designed?
  2. The absoluteness of conscience: Why is it always morally wrong to disobey your conscience deliberately? Where did it get that absolute authority if it didn’t come from God but only from chance, genetics, evolution, society, or your parents, none of which are infallible?

 

Atheist Response:

Where in the Bible does evidence in nature come up? The Big Bang… which book is that in again? Or are they just talking about Genesis 1:1, which does not reflect the current body of mathematical physics that suggests there has never been true nothingness? And when does “intelligent design” get mentioned? Does he mean when Jacob thinks having animals drink from troughs with striped branches will make them give birth to striped offspring (Genesis 30:37-43)? Some specific citations would be nice!  Now, I have zero problem with these being arguments that contemporary Christians generally make against atheism, but… to say they’re mentioned in the Bible and not actually show one’s work? That just seems sloppy.

And… what on Earth does the second point even mean? Let’s put aside the fact that he’s just skimmed past evolution like it’s a given that evolution could offer no rejoinder… “morally wrong”? Huh? By what metric? Is he talking about an inner feeling? Does he mean an internal resistance to doing that which our conscience emphatically tells us not to do? Pre-teens sometimes manifest the same when asked to do the dishes. Many have an absolute authority emphatically driving every fibre of their being to resist their parents’ reasonable requests to do chores. Why is rigidity of conviction intrinsically proof of anything beyond the improved evolutionary viability of offspring with more unwavering conviction in their choices in the long run?

Humanist Response:

Breathe, Atheist. Kreeft’s calling to his audience, remember? So he’s checking boxes of allegiance when he namedrops intelligent design like that. Also, by throwing in this last phrase, “none of which are infallible,” he’s probably referencing Plantinga’s belief that human absolutes can only come from divine absolutes and thus–

Atheist Response:

Yeah, from some divine absolute preteen! Acutely attuned to the moral wrongness of having to do dishes tonight when they already did them last week!

Humanist Response:

Hush, you. My turn now. –and thus, that even having a fraction of absolute conviction as human beings necessitates the existence of a more perfect higher reasoner. Cool. I’m starting to get a sense of his theological tradition!

Example 2

Kreeft then goes on to explain why he’s not a pantheist, because…

Something or Somebody must be Number One. There can’t be two absolutely absolute absolutes.

and yet

the pantheist’s God is everything, and therefore evil as well as good. I cannot love or worship or guide my life by a god who … is half evil or indifferent to good and evil.

Atheist Response:

Oh, goody, we’re on to direct contradictions! So… his god is NOT everything, because evil is its own, separate absolute. …Why, then, can’t there be “two absolutely absolute absolutes” in the cosmos?

Humanist Response:

Oh, Atheist. You’re reading these like they’re meant to be held against one another. Look at the structure of this whole text. Forty reasons for being Catholic, described in a punchy few pages per chapter. It’s meant to be read lightly and piecemeal. In keeping with that, these claims are answering separate questions. They’re telling the reader two separate ideas: that Kreeft believes his god to be an embodiment of good alone, and that it is singular in its command of the cosmos.

Atheist Response:

Yeah, but that’s just super incoherent as a philosophy. And I was being nice! I didn’t even mention how weird it is to claim that “Something or Somebody must be Number One” from a faith-position that believes in a trinity of divinity.

Humanist Response:

Well, you just did. And look, I’m sure the division of one “absolutely absolute absolute” into three-that-are-one is meant to be considered a separate divine mystery, too.

I’m just saying, this text is telling you something critical about how this author structures his thoughts. He’s more focused on the internal consistency of any one phrase than consistency on whole. He is writing to an audience that will read him quickly and expect to enjoy each bullet-point for what it is.

Example 3

Then we get into some tired C.S. Lewis ground. I find the “liar, lunatic, or Lord” argument to be one of the most disingenuous in all of Christian theology–because Lewis was a writer of fictions, so he knew there was a fourth option: literary embellishment by the anonymous writers of the gospels! Nevertheless, in Mere Christianity he side-steps that clear counter to act as if the character of Christ picked up the pen himself. I can’t help it: the writer in me grits their teeth every time Lewis’s dishonesty arises in Christian discourse.

But… in Kreeft’s case, it’s what comes next that I found tougher to read as a humanist:

Even if Jesus is totally fictional, He is the most fascinating and compelling literary figure in human history. Who invented Him? If He is fictional, who invented that new genre of realistic fantasy twenty centuries before Tolkien? A bunch of peasant Galilean fishermen?

Atheist Response:

Oh ho ho! The most fascinating and compelling literary figure in human history? What? What kind of nonsense is that? I mean, sure, if you mean in terms of staying power and impact, he’s certainly up there, but not singularly, and it’s bizarre to read back from popularity to assume that his story is really all that remarkable. Usually the popularity of a given story comes from the opposite: a message flattened so that it can be disseminated widely. And that certainly fits with how Christ is repurposed the world over, right? …Help me out here, Humanist, will you?

Humanist Response:

*gritting teeth*

Atheist Response:

…Humanist? Wait, what’s up, what’s wrong?

Humanist Response:

“…who invented that new genre of realistic fantasy twenty centuries before Tolkien? A bunch of peasant Galilean fishermen?

Atheist Response:

*nervous laugh* Oh, yeah, that tired argument for divine intervention’s necessity from the presumed primitivism of past generations. That’s pretty condescending and ignorant, no? The sheer incredulity on Kreeft’s part, that anyone could have produced any brilliant and intricate stories, uh, 400 years after Thucydides penned The History of the Peloponnesian War? And, what, 800 years after the first written version of The Iliad?

So stupid, right? …Right? …Humanist?

Humanist Response:

*still gritting teeth*

Atheist Response:

Yeah, uh… let’s move on.

Example 4

Kreeft then talks about the Catholic church as a space where Christ is ever-present and waiting. Kreeft encourages people to go into a Catholic church, as a test, and make one of two possible prayers. The first includes the following:

God, is that You? Are You really there? If not, please don’t let me believe that lie.

Which is a puzzling statement. If the god is non-existent, how can it make a person do anything? It’s like saying “Please tell me if you’re asleep!” But then Kreeft goes on to say:

Only three things could possibly be reasons for not praying either one of those prayers. One of them is absolute certainty that that religious idea is false and that those billions of saints, sages, mystics, and ordinary people like you were all really, really stupid for believing it. That’s arrogance.

Atheist Response:

Woah nelly. Who the heck is making the leap there? I mean, come on, argumentum ad populum: plenty of people have believed in things that time has illustrated to be wrong. “Number of followers” is never a measure of correctness! But also, one can have absolute certainty that this religious idea is false and… not think that everyone who ever believed was “really, really stupid”. Welcome to secular humanism, amirite?

Humanist Response:

Almost! But let’s look at what that sentence is also saying. It’s also conveying a fear of being regarded as “really, really stupid”. And, to be fair, a lot of atheists do think that religious folks are stupid. Meanwhile, a deeply believing Christian can’t really do otherwise than believe, can they? So this charge of arrogance explains the bizarre preceding prayer–that appeal for even a non-existent god to speak to Kreeft and tell him if it isn’t real. I don’t think he can imagine a world where there isn’t a divine presence. I think it’s so fully entrenched in him that he can only imagine ego as the reason atheists haven’t found Christ yet. And sure, this makes all his hypotheticals about and appeals to atheists frustrating, of course, because he can’t actually put himself in our shoes… but those missteps still tell us plenty about his foundational premises. And isn’t that what we’re here for? To understand the processes by which others think?

Atheist Response:

*grumbling, kicking dirt* Yeah, I guess.

Example 5

This is my last example, but oh, it’s a doozy. It’s in Kreeft’s chapter on the Catholic religion being from god, not man, but… he explores that claim through an uncomfortable corollary. Namely:

That claim is like the claim of religious Jews to be “God’s chosen people.” It is either true or false. … It is the humblest possible interpretation of the data that it is God’s doing, not theirs. The only alternative–that it is not God’s doing but their own–is the most arrogant, egotistic racist lie any people ever foisted on the world.

But if that is the case, if there is no God behind it all, how can we account for the facts? Everyone wants to kill them, from Pharaoh to Haman to Hitler, yet they not only survive but thrive. Everyone wants to convert them, yet they remain true to their ancestral traditions for more than three thousand years, lovingly preserving their scriptures in which God condemns them for apostasy and infidelity and stubbornness.

Atheist Response:

Ha ha! Oh, man, can we get into how the whole Pharaoh story is the plainest piece of archaeological bunk right away, or–oh, no, hold on a sec, what is this nonsense:

*they not only survive but thrive”

Are you kidding me?

*the most arrogant, egotistic racist lie any people ever foisted on the world?”

Does that… am I reading that right or… did Kreeft just… is Kreeft a closet–?

Humanist Response:

*sigh* Yes, Kreeft just suggested that the Jews calling themselves God’s chosen people without actual divine sanction would be the “most arrogant, egotistic racist lie any people ever foisted on the world”… within sentences of mentioning Hitler, whose army’s “God With Us” belt buckles attested to their own foisting on the world of far more genocidal beliefs in being a chosen people.

And Kreeft also managed to present the Holocaust like it was nothing because the Jews “not only survive but thrive”… except the 6 million who didn’t. And the millions more devastated, without homes to return to, carrying through their lives the trauma of what transpired. I get that he’s alluding to the Jews-are-rich stereotype that keeps anti-Semitism alive today, but… no, thriving is a completely disrespectful term for a people rightfully anxious whenever rounds of hate crimes inevitably crop up again.

Of all the skimpy, superficial argumentation in this volume, this part hurts the humanist in me the most, because it treats the Jewish people and their suffering as a prop, allowing Kreeft to side-step direct argumentation regarding the Catholic Church’s claim to being god-given to mankind despite all odds. If Kreeft wants to argue that the Catholic Church is a much-maligned beast that has risen like a phoenix from the ashes time and again against immense persecution, with all the world against it–fine! Do that! But don’t pluck this crown of thorns from the Jewish body, and claim the blood on it as your own.

The Humanist’s Summary

Suffice it to say: Kreeft reveals a lot about himself as a writer in such passages… and not all of it speaks to rigorous thought or attention to detail. For the atheist, that breezy style is rife with fodder for critical condemnation. But for the humanist, it prompts the question: what kind of reader benefits from a text like this?

Obviously, Kreeft’s Forty Reasons I Am a Catholic is written more or less for the converted. Maybe for someone a little shaky in their Catholicism, maybe for someone who wants a refresher–but certainly someone looking to be reassured. Its tone is light, confident, and cursory to convey a sense that there is no argument on any of the real questions–that the world of true faith is self-evident and unwavering.

To Kreeft’s credit, though, he doesn’t take too many potshots at other persons–but he does also convey a profound inability to put himself in other cosmological shoes, and marginalizes some rather serious real-world concerns.

More importantly, though, Kreeft’s text illustrates a different way of reading than the one I, and many other atheists, are used to. I find many traditional-Christian non-fictions are written in the same way–made for sweeping, breezy, let’s-not-belabour-this-given-too-much consumption–and this makes perfect sense, considering the source material. If the Bible is read selectively (at mass, in study groups, in bedtime reading, in moments of need and reflection), why shouldn’t secondary texts be read with that same focus on internal clarity, one sentence at a time, rather than perfect consistency as a whole?

And that’s an important take-away as a humanist. That’s my given, shaken–because I have a strong partiality towards reading and writing cohesively, but plenty of storytelling traditions involve loose threads, hand-waving, and a sense of detail-incompleteness. And those stories still enrich lives. Their narrative gaps still invite people to add whatever they want to add to a given story, or take away from it.

It’s not about what’s “right” or “wrong”, what’s “better” or “worse”… it’s about what is. It’s about the reminder that the way I see stories, and the way I use stories, is not universal. I walk daily in a world with millions, maybe even billions, who approach narrative differently. And so, if only for that reason, that reminder, it’s more than worth it to reacquaint myself with the state of storytelling on the other side of the spiritual fence.

What about you, dear readers?

What’s the last book you read from across the divide?

Did you read it like a humanist or a(n) (a)theist… and if the former, how hard was that?


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