Mars Hill in Athens, or the Areopagus, as seen from the Acropolis (where St. Paul preached to the pagan Athenian philosophers). Photo by A. Mustafin, 25 April 2007. [Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication license]
This is an exchange I had in the combox of my post Legitimate Atheist Anger. Otto is an atheist. His words will be in blue.
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Rejection of God is treated harshly in the Bible (as we would expect).
And it calls us “fools” — something many Christians I have talked with love to trot out usually when some point has been soundly refuted. It is a dialog stopper and it comes from the Holy Book… which in turn broad brushes us as a large group and is something you say you are completely against.
I don’t bring this up to cause a problem, I only point it out as one source of the vitriol between our groups. Since the source in this case is seen as being divine in origin by many Christians it is seen by some of them as being indisputable. That is problematic.
We can’t tell if a person’s atheism is from an outright rebellious spirit or out of misinformation or lack of information and knowledge. In my long experience in debating atheists I almost always find that it is the latter (from my perspective). The Biblical “fool” refers to those who know there is a God and reject Him. This is my point. We can’t “know” that about any given atheist.
We must assume good will and good faith, and that directly affects our attitude in approaching others. I know full well what it is like for others to casually assume that I am a wascally wascal and scoundrel and all-around jerk and bum, evil and wicked, unregenerate, filled with only evil motives, etc.
The anti-Catholic Protestants deny that I am a Christian, and in extreme cases, think they know with certainty that I am predestined to hell (even though John Calvin said no one could know that about another).
So, to my atheist friends: I know exactly how it feels to be on the receiving end of these uncharitable and empty-headed attitudes. I get it from my fellow Christians (have for 25 years since I became a Catholic): basically the same group that gives you the most trouble, too, though anti-atheism can be found across the board in all Christian circles.
That is one interpretation [about the biblical “fool”]. I don’t think it makes a lot of sense when read that way but it is a kinder view.
And I know a lot of Catholics experience bigotry from other Christians, I have experienced that first hand as well. It is one of many reasons the separation of Church and state is vitally important and was included.
Romans 1:21-22 backs up what I say:
[RSV] for although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened.  Claiming to be wise, they became fools,
This is deliberate rejection of what is known to be true. But in cases of mere ignorance, it is different. An example is Paul’s treatment of the Athenians:
Acts 17:22-30 So Paul, standing in the middle of the Are-op’agus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious.  For as I passed along, and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, `To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.  The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by man,  nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all men life and breath and everything.  And he made from one every nation of men to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their habitation,  that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel after him and find him. Yet he is not far from each one of us,  for `In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your poets have said, `For we are indeed his offspring.’  Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the Deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, a representation by the art and imagination of man.  The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all men everywhere to repent,
These people were ignorant, and didn’t know what the “god” they worshiped was like (hence their altar and its inscription). They were more like agnostics. The text refers to “ignorance.” Paul treated them with respect. He didn’t see the altar and immediately condemn them to hell.
Another similar instance is when Jesus encountered a Roman centurion (who would have been a pagan also, insofar as he was religious at all). Jesus didn’t condemn him and tell him he must believe in God. He commended him for extraordinary faith:
Matthew 8:5-10 As he entered Caper’na-um, a centurion came forward to him, beseeching him  and saying, “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, in terrible distress.”  And he said to him, “I will come and heal him.”  But the centurion answered him, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only say the word, and my servant will be healed.  For I am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, `Go,’ and he goes, and to another, `Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, `Do this,’ and he does it.”  When Jesus heard him, he marveled, and said to those who followed him, “Truly, I say to you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”
This isn’t some concept pulled out of a hat (or thin air) in the last 50 years, in which ecumenism and tolerance has been relatively more stressed by the Catholic Church. It’s in the Bible. It wasn’t forgotten in the Middle Ages, either. St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) expressly taught it; drawing the following distinction:
a) “Unbelief by way of pure negation” (infidelitas secundum negationem puram) in case a man may “be called an unbeliever merely because he has not the faith” “in those who have heard nothing about the faith”; this Unbelief is not a sin -and
b) “Unbelief by way of opposition to the faith” (infidelitas secundum contrarietatem ad fidem) when “a man refuses to hear the faith” (S.Th II II, 10,1 c); this Unbelief is a sin.
The fact that “unbelief by way of pure negation” is not a sin, is not only a Thomist concept, but it’s also a verity of faith: St. Pius V condemned the proposition Infidelitas pure negativa in his quibus Christus non est predicatus peccatum est (D +1068) (=Purely negative unbelief, in those whom Christ was not preached to, is a sin).
In fact St. Thomas teaches that “Nobody would believe if he doesn’t see he must believe” (non enim crederet nisi videret ea esse credenda – S.Th., II II, q. 1, a. 4 ad 2).
(from a lengthy paper of mine about salvation outside the Church)My point wasn’t that you could not justify your view, nor did I doubt you could back up your position with Biblical references. Some other Christians would claim God has already provided enough information and therefore they are still justified in calling us fools. They would be able to provide Biblical references to back up their positions. You could no more convince them that they were wrong then I could…and therein lies the problem. The Bible can justify multiple positions that directly contradict each other, the issues become debated but there is no real resolution. It is a Mexican stand off holding Bibles.
Yeah, people disagree on the Bible. All one can do is make their case, and bring to bear cross-referencing, Greek or Hebrew, etc. I think my case here is fairly strong and can withstand critique.
A lot of the interpretation difficulties (disagreements) arise from the Protestant system of Bible Only (the only infallible authority).
We Catholics also believe that it is inspired and infallible, but we also believe in an infallible Church and sacred tradition.
Therefore, we have a “check” that doesn’t allow us to interpret the Bible against established doctrine. There are still theological liberals who ignore that, but they are not operating consistently within the Catholic system as it is. They’re playing games and being intellectually dishonest.
However, with most questions of biblical interpretation, as long as a dogma is not directly involved, Catholics have as much freedom as anyone else to interpret it as an individual.
I have shown that there is a tradition like the one I have given you, that goes back at least as far as Aquinas. Thus, I show that I am within the received Catholic tradition in how I am interpreting these passages.
There are plenty of real fools out there, who know God exists and reject Him. I’m not denying that in the least. If they do that, we believe that they will wind up in hell by their own choice. I’m not modifying any traditional Catholic understanding.
All I’m saying is that there is also a less culpable category of those who do not yet believe in God; so that we can approach atheists with much more courtesy and grant them the benefit of the doubt and good faith.
Going back to my point is that some Christians feel they are justified by the teachings of their God to think of all atheists as fools and therefore lesser at least on some level. It is a foundation of divisiveness and helps get the ball rolling for the vitriol. My point is that for some it is built into the system. It is only one aspect of the problem to be sure but it is a special issue because to those that hold such a position its foundation is ultimate cannot be overcome through discussion.
They’re wrong. I have shown how it is wrong from the Bible. Paul really did treat the pagan Athenians in a tolerant, respectful, loving way. Anyone who believes in the veracity of the biblical account of his missionary journeys, and/or biblical inspiration can hardly deny that.
Jesus really did treat the pagan Roman centurion in a tolerant, respectful, loving way. Even if it is denied as an actual historical event, the teaching still remains, so that we can say that there is a motif in the Bible that distinguishes between atheist rebellion against a God known to exist, and people who are ignorant (i.e., simply don’t yet know) of God’s existence.
This should encourage you. Accept this positive argument! I have shown you that Christians who treat atheists cruelly are wrong. Their behavior can’t be biblically justified. Even if they casually assume you are a wicked person on the way to hell (which they can’t know for sure; how could they be sure of that?), their obligation is to exhibit love, so as to try to convince you that there is a better Way.
I can’t do any more than that. If you know some Christian nitwits who argue as you say, send them here and I’ll deal with them. They don’t have a leg to stand on, in terms of the Bible.
But are there some atheists who know that God exists and reject Him? Absolutely.
I don’t deny that. Rather, I deny:
1) that all atheists are of that nature (most agnostics clearly are not),
2) that we can know with assurance which ones are and which are not.
Therefore, given these inherent limitations, we should approach all atheists and agnostics with charity, civility, tolerance, and courtesy — freely granting them the benefit of the doubt, and believing the best of them, not the worst.