The Atheist’s Guide to Catholics in 7 Quick Takes (3/18/11)

The Atheist’s Guide to Catholics in 7 Quick Takes (3/18/11) March 18, 2011

This week, Jen of Conversion Diary (the gracious host of this blog carnival) wrote a piece for her new gig at the National Catholic Register called “The Catholic’s Guide to Atheists.”  A recent convert to Catholicism, Jen tried to debunk some misconceptions many Catholics has about atheists.  In this week’s Quick Takes, I’ll try to return the favor.  Corrections and quibbles welcome!  And if you’ve got a frequently made mistake that rankles, post it in the comments and I might add it as a bonus take.


Christian is not a Synonym for Evangelical

This is the most common problem I see around the atheist blogosphere.  As an American, most of my political and scientific disputes are with evangelicals, so, all else equal, they’re the group I’m most prepared to scrap with.  Some atheist blogs flatly declare that they’ve made deconverting evangelicals their focus, but plenty of other atheist blogs end up with a similar tone.

And all those folks run into trouble when they end up talking to non-evangelicals.  In fact, pretty much all the quick takes below follow from this misconception.


Catholics are not Biblical Literalists

One of the entries on Jen’s list of mistakes was “They [Atheists] Find the Bible Persuasive” and I was tempted to steal the same heading for my list.  Not that Catholics don’t believe the Bible to be true, but they usually don’t find it to be true in the same way that atheists are used to arguing about.

Plenty of atheists use genocides or strange laws from the Old Testament as an opening gambit when confronting Catholics.  Trouble is, not all Catholics think that the Old Testament stories are entirely historical documents and most don’t believe that present day Christians are bound by all Talmudic laws.  The sacrifice of Jesus Christ changed the rules.

Before you pull out your list of bizarre bible verses, ask the Catholics you’re talking to about how they interpret different parts of the bible.  Ask them how they know which standard is appropriate for which text.  There are plenty of interesting and convincing arguments to have about how to study the bible before you try any exegesis.  And having that deeper discussion will probably  lead you into one of the next two problems.


Edited to add: this section clears up a myth, but doesn’t do much to clarify the truth.  I’d appreciate help from practicing Christians willing to discuss their approach to bible study.  See this invitation for guest posts!


Not all Catholics were well catechized

If you’re used to debating/discussing religion with evangelicals who cram bible passages and spend their spring break trying to convert heathens like you — evangelicals who seem to have spent their whole lives learning to pick a fight with you, plenty of Catholics are going to disappoint you.

Catholic religious education is extremely variable, and plenty of parishes didn’t put a high premium of lay understanding before Vatican II.  My dad was raised Catholic, and what he mainly remembers from the Latin masses he attended was “a lot of chanting.”

Some Catholics flat out do not know enough about their religion to answer your questions (even if you’ve steered clear of the bad ones in this list) or to debate you.  Sorry you’re disappointed, but don’t try to pick a fight anyway.  Believe me, other Catholics are way more saddened by this than you are.  And don’t get cocky either until you see the next mistake.


Catholicism has had a lot of whip-smart apologists

Any argument about religion feels a little like an exercise in arrogance.  The frustrating truth is that there have been plenty of extremely smart people on both sides who haven’t manages to convince each other.  When you dredge up biblical contradictions or strange, current practices, you’re going to find the other side has a reasonable explanation.

Even if you’re sure Christianity is false, this shouldn’t be surprising.  Do you really believe that for 2000 years no one else has found the flaw you’ve noticed, or if they have, they’ve all just stuck their metaphorical fingers in their ears while singing LA LA LA I CAN’T HEAR YOU!  You’re not likely to find an easy gotcha.

In both the hypothetical world where Christianity is true and the one where it is false, you should expect there to be at least a reasonable-on-the-surface explanation for any obvious problem about a religion, so there’s actually no way to check which world you’re in on that basis.

Try listening to the explanation with an open mind.  Try explaining that you would expect some level of explanation for any difficult belief, so the fact of a plausible sounding explanation doesn’t compel you to believe.   Ask the person you’re talking to what s/he thinks should tip the balance.

(And spend a little time thinking about whether there’s any level of evidence you’d accept.  Some atheists say there’s no evidence that could convince them.  If you’re one of these, at least do your interlocutor the courtesy of telling them before they get too invested.  And remember how frustrated we feel when a Christian says that to us).


Catholics aren’t excited that you’re going to Hell 
(and they may not be sure that’s where you’re going)

You will rarely find a Catholic with the same grim delight in your fate that you’re liable to find in a lot of the blood and brimstone sects of the evangelical elect (and you won’t find it in all evangelical circles either).

Catholics don’t take the only-path-to-salvation-is-through-US position that is common among born-again evangelicals.  The usual phrase is “We know where the Church is, but we aren’t sure where it isn’t.”  That’s not to say they wouldn’t prefer you convert, because the chance that you’ve accepted Christ’s love in your own secret way is a little slim to stake a soul on, but you shouldn’t try to pick a fight about the justice of damnation.  Plenty of Christians have a reasonable level of epistemological modesty about how exactly God is going to sort it all out.

(There’s an interesting range of opinions from different theological backgrounds on Alex Knapp’s post “The Problem of Devil“)


The Pope does not decide as many things as you’d think

Papal infallibility is weird, but mostly irrelevant to any disagreement that you’d ever have with a Catholic.  Infallibility is invoked only rarely and is meant for only a certain range of theological problems.  This explanation is solid and understandable, so take a skim, especially if you think the pope issues specific yes or no rulings on the suitability of every possible sex act within marriage. (Hint, he doesn’t)


Bishops’ mitres are not concealing their secret reptile fangs with which they plan to eat your children

You might think this one is unnecessary to include, but then you haven’t seen this anti-Catholic cartoon by Thomas Nast.

It looks pretty ridiculous now, but when you make some of the mistakes listed above, you look equally silly.  Trying to start a debate about a religion you wrongly think you understand is as much of a nonstarter as waving around this cartoon.  Let’s do better.

[Seven Quick Takes is a blog carnival run by Jen of Conversion Diary]

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  • Really love this post, Leah (almost all of it applies to other non-Protestants as well ;)).Re #3: I once dated a boy who not only went to a Catholic university, but whose mother is a fairly prominent Catholic blogger, and got into a huge argument with him about what the immaculate conception referred to (I was not in any way raised Catholic). Neither of us had smart phones so we both just went home angry, but we both later found out that I was right.You're wrong about the mitres though.

  • And, incidentally, these apply to most Protestants, too. Not all Protestants are fundamentalist evangelicals. Depending on your geographic area, it might be fair to say that most aren't.

  • This is absolutely terrific. You have us pegged (in a good way.)

  • Thanks a lot, you guys. I did make my boyfriend fact check.Oh, and Tristyn, the Immaculate Conception seems to be the thing no one picked up on in catechism class. My dad had it mixed up, too, and so have plenty of other folks I've talked to.

  • I'm a first-time visitor (via conversion diary). What a thoughtful and interesting post.

  • Nice post.

  • Michael Haycock

    This is really cool, and I think these things are necessary to understand about (as other have said) most everyone *but* Evangelicals. #4 is especially key, I think, and one thing that is often ignored. Ironically, many atheists seem to agree with Evangelicals that do-it-yourself exegesis is doctrinally decisive and convincing – hence the necessity of #2 and the silliness of tracking around the Old Testament as an argument against Christianity.Many of these apply to Mormons as well with slight differences. For instance, we've had less than 200 years to come up with the same level of apologetics, and, quite frankly, the LDS Church doesn't really sponsor the practice of apologetics, either, which means what has been done is basically the hobby of a few academics (on the good end, and this is becoming much more common) or the hobby of the guy down the street (which, even though Mormons are on the whole relatively more knowledgeable about their faith than others are about theirs, is easily subject to error given #3).As for #5, even though the LDS Church rests on the claim that no other church has divine authority necessary for salvation, Mormons are the religious group that *most* thinks that non-members will/can get into heaven. In fact, we believe that everyone besides an infinitesimal minority will go to some level of heaven.There's actually a joke about #6 amongst Mormons: "What's the difference between Mormons and Catholics? – Catholics are told that the Pope is infallible and no one believes it, while Mormons are told that the prophet [the president of the church] is fallible and no one believes it." Canonicity of prophetic statements in the LDS Church is somewhat a grey area, but many treat it otherwise.As for #7, I have known Mormons who have been asked how they conceal their horns. Yeah…

  • Great job, Leah! Well-said, and this is much appreciated. I posted it to the Bright Maidens FB page too. 🙂 Happy Friday!

  • cactusren

    A follow up to number 2: You're right in saying that most Catholics (and, indeed, most Christians), don't actually believe everything in the Bible, but I actually think that's a big weakness, from a standpoint of logical consistency. I use this as a starting point when arguing with them, especially when the argument is about whether one can have morality without religion.If someone reads the bible, and picks and chooses the parts they believe, they can justify a wide range of behaviors, some of which I would consider moral, and some of which I wouldn't. The fact is that their reading of the Bible doesn't dictate their morality; rather, their preconceived ideas about morality (that derive from their upbringing and the society they live in) influence their interpretation of the Bible. I generally tell them I think it takes a great deal of hubris for any one person to reject the parts of the Bible they don't like, and that their ideas of morality actually inform their interpretation of the Bible. Ergo, religion does not dictate morality, and I can be moral without it. I've never heard a coherent counterargument to this.

  • NFQ

    I'm with cactusren. I know that Catholics aren't Evangelicals, but if the way of explaining that is essentially to say "Catholics don't think the Bible is true," well … why are they Catholic in the first place?

  • You are misunderstanding. Catholics believe that the Bible is TRUE, but not necessarily FACTUAL. The Old Testament especially is made up of a variety of literary styles, some of them more metaphorical than others.The other thing to consider is that Catholics do not consider the Bible the only or final authority like most Protestants do. In Catholicism, Sacred Tradition (oral history handed down from the Apostles to Church leaders) puts the Bible in to its proper context without contradicting it. It's kind of like if you read "Anna Karenina" even though you have limited knowledge of 18th century Russia, so you need to read the footnotes to fully understand it. Sacred Tradition is like the footnotes and has equal authority with the Bible. Most Protestants read the Bible with no context other than their own personal experience.

  • This is amazing.

  • cactusren

    Barbara C.,While Protestants may not have the same Sacred Traditions as Catholics, they still love to talk about context when throwing out the parts of the Old Testament they don't like. For example: eating shellfish was, in fact, a bad idea for a desert-dwelling people in the age before refrigeration. But since we have refrigerators now, we can ignore that rule! Yay! Shellfish for everyone! Even evangelicals use this logic, because they don't want to follow all the dietary restrictions laid out in Leviticus and other Old Testament books. But if they are homophobic, they just love to bring up that one sentence of Leviticus. But if they applied the same contextual logic to this, they would find that with the large human population on Earth today (rather than a small desert-dwelling tribe), and with the higher survival rates due to modern medicine, we really don't need every human to procreate.This is the inconsistency I'm talking about. Everyone brings their own predjudices into their readings of the Bible. Providing context is exactly the thing that people do to find loopholes. They just only do it when they want to find a loophole.

  • I guess it irks me that it gets misunderstood so commonly since it's one of those things that highlight differences in theology between Orthodox and Catholics, and the Catholics don't even realize they disagree with the Orthodox! So then I have to explain to them their own theology and then why it doesn't make sense to me, which obviously gets both of us nowhere, ha.

  • Leah,Fantastic post! An addendum to #6, however, is that Catholics are still obligated to obey the teaching of the Pope and ordinary magisterium, and to inform their consciences accordingly. cactusren,I'm afraid you still don't understand. This post, called "The God Hates Shrimp" Fallacy, might help you understand further. Simply put, Catholics don't reject the Old Testament, but we believe that some of its constraints no longer apply to Christians since Jesus came to fulfill the Law and establish the New Covenant (as opposed to the Old Covenant, which encompasses Talmudic and Mosaic Law [i.e., the Law of Moses].)

  • B. R. Lind

    @Mr. Haycock: Wait — people think Mormons have horns?? I thought that only applied to us Jews (there was that time when Moses had beams of light coming from his head, and it got mistranslated as "horns," or at least that's what Cecil B. DeMille said at the end of The Ten Commandments). When my dad was in the service, he encountered one or two guys who expected him to have horns.

  • cactusren

    JoAnna,Yes, I am aware of the belief that Jesus's death and ressurection formed a New Covenant, thus negating the requirements of the Old Covenant. That's why I find it so odd when Christians of any sort try to cite rules/traditions/whatever from the Old Testament. And it is certainly inconsistent to follow some parts of the Old Testament but not others.

  • cactusren

    I should clarify that last post…when I say it is inconsistent to follow some parts of the OT, I mean that you are picking out the parts to follow based on other ideas. Those may come from the New Testament, or from more modern religious or social practices. The bottom line is, whenever a Christian cites the OT to me (and my family, in particular, does this often), I wonder how they justify it logically.

  • cactusren,I don't see the inconsistency. The OT wasn't abrogated completely when Jesus came on the scene; as He said, He didn't come to abolish the Law, but rather to fulfill it. Parts of it are still very much binding on Christians (for example, the Ten Commandments). Other parts are not. As to how we know which parts to follow and which parts not to follow, that's why Jesus established a Church. You can see in the book of Acts how controversies arose regarding whether or not Gentiles had to be circumcised, if Jews had to abstain from "unclean" foods, and so forth. The Apostles, representing the Church, very clearly stated that these requirements were no longer binding on Christians. So, to answer your remark as to how we justify it logically, the answer is quite simple. We do what God has told us to do through His Church. At least, that's the Catholic response. It's not based on "other ideas," it's based on new directives from the Author of it all (not just the OT, but of life itself!).

  • "Do you really believe that for 2000 years no one else has found the flaw you've noticed, or if they have, they've all just stuck their metaphorical fingers in their ears while singing LA LA LA I CAN'T HEAR YOU! You're not likely to find an easy gotcha."I've felt like asking this in many conversations about Christians and Christianity. As I spend more time interacting with fellow believers, however, I have noticed that many actually do this. It is understandable that many atheists unfamiliar with the likes of Chesterton would draw this conclusion.

  • Matt, in all fairness, plenty of fundamentalist evangelicals do stick their fingers in their ears. I can see why plenty of atheists get into a rut.

  • cactusren

    JoAnna,Okay, so if something appears elsewhere in doctrine (either the New Testament, or in newer church doctrines), why not cite that, rather than the Old Testament? When would it ever be appropriate to cite the Old Testament? If there is no reference to something outside of the Old Testament, then presumably it is one of the laws that can be forgone, right?I'm not saying the OT should never be talked about within Christianity–it sets the stage for Jesus and all of that. But if we're actually going to debate, for example, the underpinnings of modern morality, how is the Old Testament at all relevant for Christians?

  • cactusren,Well, as a Catholic, I do cite Catholic doctrine in that regard. I may cite the OT to explain or show the basis for a particular doctrine, but I rarely (if ever) quote the OT in a vacuum when engaging in apologetics (with atheists or otherwise).For example, the Old Testament is very relevant in terms of the underpinnings of modern morality. The Ten Commandments are the basis upon which our "modern" morality is based. If we were discussing that issue, I would cite the Ten Commandments as well as Jesus' instructions to follow the commandments, as well as commentary from the early Church fathers regarding morality and so on through the centuries all the way to the writings of Pope Benedict XVI.I could see it being appropriate to cite the Old Testament, and only the Old Testament, if you were discussing an issue that was occuring prior to Jesus' earthly ministry, but otherwise it's important to take into account Christian history, Scripture, Tradition, and doctrine in its entirety (what Catholics refer to as the hermeneutic of continuity).Leah & Matt,Fred Phelps is an example of the "LA LA LA I CAN'T HEAR YOU mentality (or, as I like to call it in his case, the "LA LA LA I AM CONTENT TO WALLOW THE IN THE FILTH OF MY OWN IGNORANCE" mentality). He takes the verse in the OT that says, "Jacob I have loved, and Esau I have hated," and says, "See, God hates so it's okay for me to hate too!"… which, of course, ignores the other 99.99% of the Bible, not to mention the proper exegesis of the word "hate" in its proper etymological context. But then Phelps isn't a Christian in my view; he worships his own religion, not Jesus Christ.

  • cactusren

    JoAnna,Okay–you are someone I can have a rational conversation with. Too many times, I have engaged in debate with Christians (including my family and certain friends, not just anonymous people in online forums), only to find that they simply find a single verse of the Bible to support their claims, and seem to think that is sufficient to win an argument (e.g., homosexuality=bad). No nuance, no real thought to it, simply a preconceived idea backed up by one sentence plucked out of an enormous book.These are the same people who claim that American law is based on the Ten Commandments, but when asked, can't even name more than 2 or 3 of them (coincidentally, the same number that are actually laws…). And it is utterly exasperating. Since you are not the sort of person who does these things, I have no issue with you. I just hope you can understand my frustration with the many people who do the things I'm describing, I why I rail against it.

  • Understood, cactusren, I get similarly frustrated when discussing issues with Protestants (and sometimes other Catholics). My family is Protestant (I'm a convert) so I occasionally feel like banging my head against a brick wall when trying to explain some Catholic teachings. :)I also admit to frustration with atheists who take a single Bible verse out of context, with no exegesis, and use it to condemn Christianity.

  • Patrick

    I find it very frustrating when Christians cite to Jesus fulfilling the law as an excuse for the law being wicked or crazy. If I ask why Prohibition was passed, it wouldn't be a good answer to tell me that it was later repealed. That wasn't what I asked. I already knew it was repealed.Such an answer is particularly problematic in a context where the repeal isn't as conclusively demonstrated as it is in modern legal codes. For example, saying "Oh, the early church stopped believing that" doesn't answer the question of "why isn't that followed anymore?" That's just telling me when it was no longer followed, not why it was abandoned.My usual impression in conversations on this topic is that the person I'm speaking to is usually moderately familiar with their own denomination's exegesis, completely unfamiliar with the exegesis of competing denominations, and is rapidly growing frustrated with the way I don't immediately recognize that their exegesis is the obviously and only true exegesis.

  • cactusren

    Understood–using a single verse as an argument either way is simply lazy. I'm an atheist for many reasons, and would never assume a single verse could convince anyone of much of anything.

  • NFQ

    I'm sorry to go way back, but I need a second look at this statement from Barbara C.: Catholics believe that the Bible is TRUE, but not necessarily FACTUAL.Did… did nobody else have a problem with this? What you're saying is, "When the Bible says that such-and-such event happened, it really meant that it didn't happen." Or, "When the Bible says that God thinks it's good to behave in such-and-such way, it really meant that God doesn't want us to behave in that way and would prefer we do a different thing entirely." You can call this metaphor if you like, but there's so much wiggle room in what that metaphor actually means that I think it is no longer justified to still call the original statement true. A fictional story may essentially be a metaphor for modern society, and may be making some larger statement about the human condition, but if the Catholic Church is saying that the Bible is a metaphorical text that says "Humans strive for some sort of greater morality" or "Humans long for a sense of purpose," etc., then where does Jesus or God or heaven come into it? Those concepts are so out-there compared to anything we actually experience, they seem like the most likely metaphors in the entire book.I know, I know — the Sacred Tradition, and other church texts. You let the Catholic hierarchy tell you how to read the Bible; this was a major part of the Protestant Reformation. But do you have any reason to believe them, other than "they said so"? Or are you totally okay with that reason being the foundation for your faith?"It's true; it's just not a fact" is a nonsense statement, interpreted using English the way I understand it. … Please help?

  • Patrick – rather than answer your question myself, I'm going to direct you to this blog post, as my response would be too lengthy for a combox post. I hope it helps to answer your questions.NFQ – The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, "According to an ancient tradition, one can distinguish between two senses of Scripture: the literal and the spiritual, the latter being subdivided into the allegorical, moral, and anagogical senses" (CCC 115). This article goes into more depth on the subject, but simply put that, as Simcha said, we can recognize the lessons a story may teach without taking the story itself absolutely literally. For example, we accept that God created the world in seven days, but we don't believe that "days" were necessarily 24-hour ones. By the way, the statement, "You let the Catholic hierarchy tell you how to read the Bible…" isn't exactly accurate. It'd be like saying, "Americans let the Supreme Court tell them how to interpret the Constitution." Well, yeah, but that's because Americans acknowledge that the Supreme Court is the recognized, legitimate authority for interpreting the Constitution. Just so, Catholics see the Church as the legitimate authority, established by Christ, to teach and guide the Church, just as it did in the 400 years before the Bible was ever compiled.I posted a good explanation of this on my personal blog if you're interested.

  • *I said Simcha and meant Barbara (I was just reading Simcha's blog). Sorry, it's late and I need to get to bed!

  • I just wrote a post touching on what JoAnna said to NFQ, but it fell victim to the bugginess of blogger once again. However when I returned JoAnna had posted.I do want to comment that I think her "believe the world created in 7-days, but not 24 hour ones" is the worst example imaginable… since by definition a day is 24 hours, and saying that is nonsensical… What she should have said is something like "the genesis account is allegorical"!I also pointed out the vast time span over which the books of the bible were written, with different audiences in mind for each. Plus the idea that the older books may have dictated things specifically to 'prepare' for future event, and hence were no longer needed.Anyway what my original post went on to say after all the usual disclaimers about not being an expert, or really claiming to know anything is that there are probably only a few actual literal events required for one to believe in to be 'Catholic' – I would say the fall of Adam and Eve (but not the actual narrative in genesis, just the event that man turned away from God by conscious choice), the incarnation, the last supper, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection. There is also defined dogma that the immaculate conception and assumption of Mary were real events.One has to remember that the documentary/fact-based mind set which says histories must be totally accurate unbiased representations of some 'truth' is a relatively recent innovation, earlier peoples wouldn't necessarily have assumed that (just look at the 4 gospels which tell slightly different version of events but where still included, don't you think if a total historical truth was desired the early councils would have at least edited them to coincide better where they do differ?)

  • Charles,With respect, I disagree, as did St. Augustine in A.D. 408: "We see that our ordinary days have no evening but by the setting [of the sun] and no morning but by the rising of the sun, but the first three days of all were passed without sun, since it is reported to have been made on the fourth day. And first of all, indeed, light was made by the word of God, and God, we read, separated it from the darkness and called the light ‘day’ and the darkness ‘night’; but what kind of light that was, and by what periodic movement it made evening and morning, is beyond the reach of our senses; neither can we understand how it was and yet must unhesitatingly believe it" (The Literal Interpretation of Genesis, 11:7). Simply put, "day" does not have to be taken in the sense to mean a seven twenty-four hour periods, because that was likely not the intent of the writer of Genesis.

  • Leah, I don't know that I've told you this before (although I've thought it often), but I really appreciate your blog. I appreciate the fact that you don't treat religious people as if they suffer from some delusional mental illness, and I appreciate that you don't make fun of us a la many of the commentors at PZ Myer's site. I also respect your genuine spirit of inquiry and thirst for knowledge. It is a rare trait in this day and age, and says worlds about your character. I also vaguely remember composing a message to you nearly identical to this but have no idea if I every posted it, so if I'm repeating myself, I'm sorry.

  • Leah:Very thoughtful post! FWIW, since the topic of "What do Catholics make of OT ritual purity laws?" has come up here, here's my take on it (or at least part of it: the dietary laws): not the whole story. But you can see how a pre-modern culture would easily make the instinctive connection of ritual defilement with moral and spiritual defilement–and how the developed tradition would tease the two apart as the revelation of Christ shed more light on the matter.

  • One other thing: Apropos the Catholic approach to Scripture, the first question that needs to be answered is "Which part?" Do I take Scripture literally when it tells us that David hid from Saul in the cave of Adullam? Yes. Do it take it literally when it describes Eve being tempted by a talking snake? No. But I believe both stories are telling me the truth, using different literary forms. For something of a taste of how to deal with the different literary forms in Scripture (of which there are a plethora) and, in particular, how to deal with the absolutely vital, complex, and fascinating question of the different sense of Scripture (literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogical–without which it is absolutely impossible to understand the New Testament as its authors and original readers meant it to be understood), I would suggest taking a look at my Making Senses Out of Scripture: Reading the Bible as the First Christians Did. That's just by way of introduction to the Church tradition of Scriptural interpretation. If you want to see an absolute master at work in reading and interpreting Scripture within this tradition, who is also fully cognizant of and skilled in using the more recent tools of form criticism, source criticism, the historical-critical method, etc. (yet who does not let them become all-explaining theories of everything, nor acid bath solvents that destroy the actual text of Scripture as it has been received) read the work of Benedict XVI in the two Jesus of Nazareth books he has published. What a fine writer! he's not writing "apologetics" (thank God). He simply writing a Catholic biblical scholar who knows what he's doing, as well as as a believing Catholic who takes the text for what it is: the word of God. Phenomenal pieces of work.

  • As a former Catholic, I understand the nature of the discussion that's going on here… it just doesn't make much sense to me anymore. For example, I understand how someone could think that the garden of Eden story is telling "truth" while not being literally true — it not being true that there was a talking snake, a literal garden, etc., while it being true that humans were created to dwell intimately with god, to obey him, created perfectly good, with free will, and then our choice to disobey led to a tainting of sorts.Now that I don't believe, however, this just doesn't make any sense anymore. I find it sounding like an argument from authority (the Bible) without any explanation of the how. Given evolution, where did souls come from? Did got not intervene in all of biological history up until two chosen mutated chimpanzee-esque beings and then give them souls? Were their parents soul-less while they were souled? Did their parents know nothing of God while the offspring were in clear and direct communication with God? Did the parents have no moral faculties while the children were free-will-endowed and able to trash all of future humanity with their transgression?That's why the true-but-not-literal doesn't make any sense to me anymore. To continue on the current example, Paul would seem to have believed in a literal Adam of some sort, as he makes the case that the first man entered the world into death and the "last man," Jesus, would restore it. Can anyone make the case that Paul was talking about a vague idea of a "first man" or perhaps envisioning a hairy creature 150k years ago with a small brain capacity? Or was he talking about a fairly recent modern form of human looking not much different than himself? My bet would be on the latter.In any case, theology now seems to me as more or less a set of instructions rather than an explanation. At its roots, it relies on things like the fall, but can't say anything about how such theological entities (soul, concupiscence, free will, moral knowledge) came to be if it wasn't from the events surrounding the garden scene. As in… fill in the blanks: explain who Adam and Eve descended from. Approximately where did they grow up geographically? Is the soul evolved or did God intervene just this time (perhaps other than creation and abiogenesis) to implant it?Does that make any sense?At least for now, I feel like I'm being told that Christians know exactly what and how… without them being able to say anything about what and how.

  • JoAnna, you are actually agreeing with me from the other side in a way. Augustine was a literalist when it came to genesis, but modern people need not be. A non-Christian is going to start with a preconcieved definition of a "day" and you are saying to them "it MEANT 7 days, but a day had a different definition then" — they are going to think "ah so it didn't mean seven days!" — I think that the way you should have phrased it is that it is important that it is described as a series of 7 days but the Church doesn't now and never has required believers to believe the universe was created in a literal 7 days, regardless of how you define it.I find reading Hendy's comments the most interesting since he appears to be taking the exact opposite course I am in looking at this stuff. I think because I am starting as a 'non-believer' I carry a lot less baggage in trying to understand what they are saying and what they mean, where as since Hendy started as a 'believer' who then destroyed that foundation it is harder for him to be forgiving of the non-scientific portions. My suggestion is to try and view it a little lighter, I don't think anyone would tell you the what and how of those things is truly the heart of the matter. I think its the why that is the driving focus when you get down to it. If you buy into the 'falleness' of mankind who cares if you can explain the 'what' and 'how' of it? Of course a 'real' Catholic would probably tell you not to take your advice on how to be a Catholic from an atheist that happens to attend mass regularly!

  • Kevin in Texas

    Hendy,It's early in the A.M. and I'm running to get ready for work, but I would refer you to any of a number of works by some of the finest Catholic thinkers who have ever lived, including St. Augustine (The Confessions, City of God, among other works) and St. Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologiae, Summa contra Gentiles, among other works.) Both of these men were very much supporters of logic and reason as being vital to Scriptural interpretation and theology itself, i.e., because God is the author of both reason/logic and religion/faith, there can be no disagreement between them, definitionally, as God is infallible and omnipotent. Aquinas often is said to have encouraged people to submit Scripture and Catholic teaching to the "acid bath of reason" and discard anything that doesn't have at least some defensible, logical explanation. For example, the resurrection of Christ is something clearly miraculous and beyond mortal means, but if Christ really IS God, and God intended the resurrection from the beginning, as He intended Christ to suffer and die for the redemption of all people, then the Resurrection is logically coherent within Christian belief and does not argue against itself. One example of where reason and faith part ways is in the literal interpretation of the Genesis story, especially vis-a-vis the 6,000 year-age of the Earth, what we know about evolution from a scientific standpoint, etc. The Catholic Church has been clear that it does NOT reject the theory of evolution within present-day science, as long as it does not presume to indicate from where the soul comes, namely, from God Himself, the author of all life. Catholics thus have no problem accepting the notion that God may have created all sorts of creatures over millions of years, and He may have allowed them to evolve biologically. But Catholics know that the first man and woman, Adam and Eve, were given souls by God alone, and they didn't simply evolve from apes and in one generation "become human." In short, God is the author of logic/reason and faith, so there cannot be contradictions between these two areas of study.

  • The trouble is that usually doctrinaire unbelievers, on being told that I do not fit THEIR stereotype, respond "Then you aren't a Christian!" At which I can not avoid the desire to shout "Who elected YOU Pope?" In my set of the Propaganda Game, this is listed as the fallacy of "Victory By Definition". ("Narrowmindedrightwingfundamentalistbigots" say "You aren't a Christian unless you are exactly like Us." "Openmindedliberalfreethinkers" say "You aren't a Christian unless you are exactly like Them." What is wrong with this picture?) Or else they accuse me of making it all up. (I recall how Dorothy Sayers recalls the reactions to THE ZEAL OF THY HOUSE. Critics insisted that "if there was anything appealing in Christianity, I must have put it there.")

  • I think #3 is a *very* important one to keep in mind. One of the things that sets Catholicism apart from much of the Protestant progeny is that it is structured to embrace "bad" Christians. Not just sinners, because even good Christians are usually still sinners, but really bad Christians. If you're baptized and have not formally apostatized, you are still Catholic. Catholicism takes the view of the Church as hospital for sinners, not a hotel for saints, to quite an extreme.

  • "Catholicism takes the view of the Church as hospital for sinners, not a hotel for saints, to quite an extreme."Is this statement meant to refer to the same church that excommunicated the doctors who performed an abortion on a 9-year-old girl who was raped by her stepfather?

  • Ebonmuse – yes, and we can only hope and pray that the excommunication had its desired effect – that the doctors realized it's morally wrong to execute two innocent human beings for the crime of the rapist. The babies were mere weeks from the age of viability and from all accounts the 9-year-old was not in imminent danger of dying. As the principle of double effect wasn't applicable, the murder of those babies was wrong.

  • Anyone who thinks that any woman, much less a 9-year-old girl, should be required to carry to term a pregnancy resulting from rape by her stepfather has relinquished their right to speak on what's morally wrong, as far as I'm concerned. "Hospital for sinners", indeed. In any case, my point in posting this comment was to show that the Catholic church does not embrace those it considers bad Christians, not any more than any other Christian sect. They just have a somewhat different list of which sins they consider forgivable and which ones they don't, and like all religious sects, their criteria have nothing to do with human life or well-being, only with obedience to dogma.

  • Who said anything about forcing a 9-yr-old to carry to term? Viability occurs roughly 12 weeks prior to that, and the babies were almost there. Moreover, I think it's reprehensible to execute two innocent children for the crimes of their biological father. All three victims in that scenario – the girl and the babies – had horrible acts of violence committed against them.You speak as though the Church did not consider the rape a grave moral evil. It did, and does. But murder of innocent babies – especially for crimes they didn't commit – is also moral evil, and in Catholic theology we may never do evil so that good may result.

  • orgostrich

    JoAnna, your facts are wrong. She was 15 weeks pregnant, and so the fetuses were 2 months from having any chance at viability, and 5 months from being delivered at a healthy weight.

  • Orgostrich,Less than two months, given that babies as young as 21 weeks gestation have survived. But my point was that viability was much closer than term, and it's possible that those babies could have survived — and then perhaps some good could have been borne out of a horrible situation. There are plenty of couples in the U.S. alone who would have been willing to adopt those babies and pay for their medical care.Also, by all reports, the girl was not in immediate danger of dying at the time of the abortion (if she had been, the principle of double effect would apply and it would have been licit to deliver the babies even if it was foreseen that they couldn't survive).The fact still remains that in Catholic theology we must never do evil (kill innocent children) so that good may result. What happened to that little girl was tragic and horrible, and I hope her odious pig of a stepfather spends the rest of his miserable life paying for what he did to her, but committing further violence against her and executing those innocent children did nothing to eliminate the horrors of the rape or punish the rapist.

  • orgostrich

    JoAnna, I've never understood some aspects of the principle of double effect. As I understand it, in the case of an ectopic pregnancy, tubal removal is allowed but direct abortion is not, because tubal removal is not intended to cause the death of the fetus. Except… yes it is. The doctor intends to end the pregnancy, because it is the pregnancy itself that it endangering the mother. The fallopian tube isn't causing the risks, it's from the fetus growing inside of it and all involved parties know that. It just feels like everyone is jumping through hoops to avoid the procedure looking like an abortion, but the end result is the same only the surgery is more risky with greater side effects. I understand that intentions matter, but I don't think the doctor's or the mother's intentions are actually different in the two cases- both times they are ending a pregnancy to save the mother's life, just using different methods to do it. Wouldn't it overall be better to just have an abortion? It is safer for the mother and causes the same effect on the fetus. (Note- I sometimes have trouble conveying tone over the internet. I'm not trying to start an argument; I'm really asking, because I've never understood the logic behind it.)

  • Hi Orgostrich,Thank you for asking. I mean that sincerely. I don't necessarily expect anyone who is non-Christian or even non-Catholic to agree with me, but I hope we can at least come to understand each other's positions (even if we disagree).To answer your question, there are four conditions for application of the principle of double effect. These four are from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, quoting the New Catholic Encyclopedia:"1. The act itself must be morally good or at least indifferent."Already the direct killing of a fetus fails to meet this criteria (at least in Catholic theology), as the direct act of killing a fetus is always morally wrong.However, the act of removing a diseased organ is morally neutral, so in that respect the first condition is satisfied."2. The agent may not positively will the bad effect but may permit it. If he could attain the good effect without the bad effect he should do so. The bad effect is sometimes said to be indirectly voluntary."This condition is also satisfied in the case of an ectopic pregnancy; if the doctors could save the baby, or somehow take it out of the fallopian tube and implant him or her in the uterus, they would."3. The good effect must flow from the action at least as immediately (in the order of causality, though not necessarily in the order of time) as the bad effect. In other words the good effect must be produced directly by the action, not by the bad effect. Otherwise the agent would be using a bad means to a good end, which is never allowed."Removing the tube (the action) satisfies this condition, as the bad effect (the death of the fetus) does not directly cure the mother (as it would also need to be removed from the fallopian tube). "4.The good effect must be sufficiently desirable to compensate for the allowing of the bad effect."The good effect is saving the mother's life; the bad effect is the death of the fetus.Does this clarify the doctrine sufficiently?

  • orgostrich

    I guess I understand, and I do agree that the ends never justify the means. But in this case, it feels like point 2 is splitting hairs. Until there is an option of re-implanting the fetus, the intent is to end the pregnancy. There is nothing wrong with the tube itself, it's the fetus which is the "diseased tissue," having implanted in the wrong place. (If there was a way to somehow remove the cells of the tube while leaving the fetus growing in place, that would not solve the problem.) So, it seems like choosing to end the pregnancy through surgical or pharmaceutical means does not change the morality of the act. And in some cases, the pharmaceutical method is safer for the woman.

  • I disagree; in the case of an ectopic pregnancy, the fallopian tube is either in danger of rupturing (whether or not the rupture is imminent) or has already ruptured. In any case, the act of removing an organ that is diseased or disordered (i.e., not functioning correctly) is a morally neutral act. It can be done for morally just purposes (such as in this instance) or for morally evil purposes (taken without the patient's consent for experimentation) [I know that's a strange example, but I can't think of a better one off the top of my head]). Directly killing a fetus, however, is always a morally evil act, no matter what the circumstance. It all boils down to we may never commit an intrinsically evil act — that is, an act that is evil by its very nature, such as directly and deliberately killing an innocent human being — so that good may result.Mark Shea wrote an article along these lines at Inside Catholic the other day that might help you further understand what I'm trying to say (he's a much better writer than I am!).

  • Moreover, I think it's reprehensible to execute two innocent children for the crimes of their biological father.I deny that there are any children, innocent or otherwise, involved in this scenario (except for the one who was raped). This abortion occurred at the 15th week of pregnancy. In the process of fetal development, large-scale linking up of neurons doesn't begin until around the 24th to 27th week. Prior to that point, the fetus simply cannot think. Where there is no capability for human thought, there is no humanity. It's only religious belief – belief that a fetus possesses an undetectable supernatural appendage called a soul, which renders it the moral equal of a conscious, adult human being – that says otherwise, and such belief can never be a legitimate justification for public policy affecting the lives of all people.I'd also like to call special attention to this comment:Already the direct killing of a fetus fails to meet this criteria (at least in Catholic theology), as the direct act of killing a fetus is always morally wrong.This innocent-sounding statement has some horrendous consequences, so with our host's permission, I'd like to discuss a true story showing how this principle can play out in the real world.In November 2009, a mother of four, three months pregnant with what would have been her fifth child, was admitted to St. Joseph's Hospital in Phoenix, Arizona. That woman was suffering from a critical case of pulmonary hypertension, a life-threatening complication of pregnancy, and if it had been allowed to continue, she would have died – certainly within days, possibly within hours. Since she was well prior to the point of viability, her fetus would also have died in that case, with no hope of reprieve.The hospital performed an abortion, saving her life. Following this, the bishop of Phoenix, Thomas Olmsted, declared that the abortion was unjustifiable and that a Catholic nun serving on the hospital's ethics committee was excommunicated because she consented to it. Just think about this decision and what it implies. The fetus' life was forfeit no matter what course of action was chosen, so it's irrelevant to moral deliberation. What the church was saying was that, in that specific scenario, it's better that the woman should die than that she should be saved. The church would have preferred a husband to be widowed and his four children to be left without a mother. Think about that, let it soak in, and then consider: Does a church that unapologetically advocates this really deserve even a moment's consideration from the rest of us?

  • *sigh*Ebonmuse, are you honestly trying to say that an unborn child is not a human being at 23w6d, but is a person at 24w0d? That seems like a pretty arbitrary line. Furthermore, if we establish humanity by specified brain activity, I know several politicians who wouldn't qualify. I dispute your assertion that an unborn child doesn't become a human being until certain arbitrary brain activity takes place. What about the baby I referenced earlier who was born at 21 weeks gestation and survived? Was she not a human being at the time of her birth? Should it have been perfectly moral and legal to kill her as soon as she was born?Furthermore, I live in the Phoenix metro area. Bishop Olmsted is my bishop. I 100% agree with his decision to strip St. Joseph's of it's Catholic status. If the hospital wants to kill innocent human beings, they need to do so without calling themselves Catholic.If you want the true facts of the story instead of merely what the media has reported, visit In brief, the Bishop's information was that woman in question was not in immediate danger of dying. She was in the regular L&D; ward, not the ICU. Her condition at the time of the abortion was stable. The abortion was more of a preventative measure than an immediate, necessary solution. CHW and St. Joe's have thus far refused to release all the facts of the case, but based on the information they did provide, several other OBs have stated that the abortion was not necessary and have questioned why other treatments that did NOT involve the death of an innocent child were not used.I have three small children, and if I were in that woman's situation, I would have flatly refused to kill my child. If the worst happened and I died, I would want my children to know that I did not sacrifice an innocent life just to extend my own.

  • Ebonmuse, are you honestly trying to say that an unborn child is not a human being at 23w6d, but is a person at 24w0d?No, because consciousness isn't an all-or-nothing state; it's acquired gradually during the process of fetal development. But making a sensible law requires us to draw lines somewhere, and 24 weeks is actually a rather conservative boundary for when coherent brain activity begins.What about the baby I referenced earlier who was born at 21 weeks gestation and survived? Was she not a human being at the time of her birth?That is an implication of my position, yes, and I accept it as such. The defining trait of humanity isn't whether a fetus is inside or outside a womb, but whether it has a functional brain. As technology progresses, it's increasingly likely that we'll be able to keep a very early fetus viable outside the womb, as we already can with frozen embryos – but that has no bearing at all on the question of whether it's a human being with all the rights pertaining thereunto.In brief, the Bishop's information was that woman in question was not in immediate danger of dying.The hospital – that is to say, the woman's actual doctors, the ones who saw her and diagnosed her – did not think so. (According to the hospital, she was in imminent danger of heart failure and was "too ill to be moved to the operating room much less another hospital"). I fail to see what information the bishop could possibly have possessed that would contravene this. You don't diagnose on the basis of a press release.But let me be clear on this. The reason I brought this story up is to point out that the Catholic church's position has the following implication: If a pregnant woman is dying, if her death means the inevitable death of her fetus, and if her life could be saved through abortion, it is better that the woman die than that she be saved, even if nothing is gained by this. Do you agree with this, JoAnna? More to the point, do you think this position should be written into law and should be binding on all women, including non-Catholics?

  • But let me be clear on this. The reason I brought this story up is to point out that the Catholic church's position has the following implication: If a pregnant woman is dying, if her death means the inevitable death of her fetus, and if her life could be saved through abortion, it is better that the woman die than that she be saved, even if nothing is gained by this. Do you agree with this, JoAnna? More to the point, do you think this position should be written into law and should be binding on all women, including non-Catholics?It's a false dilemma, Ebonmuse. If the woman truly was in imminent danger, which I doubt (I don't think NPR has any more accurate information than the Bishop had, especially since they don't bother to cite a source for their assertion that she was too ill to be moved to an operating room), then it would have been morally licit under the principle of double effect to induce labor and/or perform a C-section to deliver the baby whole (as opposed to an abortion, which involves crushing the baby's skull and dismembering the baby's body). The child's death would be an unintended, if foreseen, side effect of a treatment intended to remove the placenta, which was exacerbating the pregnancy-induced pulmonary hypertension. Once again, several doctors have questioned why this woman was not given other treatments that didn't involve abortion. Dr. Gerard Nadal, who has a Ph.D. in Microbiology, wrote about the situation on his blog and said:"While the assessment on the part of physicians was dire, no treatment of the disease was even attempted. There are several medications that can be employed to attempt a reduction in the severity of the disease, none of which appear to have been dispensed in this case. From that point on, the actions of the hospital and Sister McBride pointed toward more than an isolated and extreme case where the decision to abort could have been simply dismissed as one bad judgment call.There are several hospitals within a three-mile radius of Saint Joseph’s, some mere blocks away, where this woman’s husband could have taken her for the recommended abortion. They were no more than ten minutes from any number of facilities that would have performed the abortion, if that was what the couple wanted. All reports of the incident indicate that at no point was the couple told that Saint Joseph’s does not target babies for death as a means of treating a disease. Again, no evidence has surfaced that the physicians attempted to treat her medically." Once again, yes, I believe the moral law is and should be binding upon all people, Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Abortion is not a religious issue, it's a human rights issue, and there are many non-Christians who agree (see, for example,

  • @JoAnna: Once again, yes, I believe the moral law is and should be binding upon all people, Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Abortion is not a religious issue, it's a human rights issue, and there are many non-Christians who agree.In another thread, Leah mentioned that a minister had asked Hemant Mehta (of the Friendly Atheist blog) for some "difficult questions" from atheists for discussion by his congregation. At the time, I suggested the following: "Do you think God has moral obligations? Why or why not?" I could rephrase that here and ask you whether you believe that the moral law, which is and should be binding on all people, also is and should be binding on God?Another "difficult question" that I did not pose in response to Leah's post, but should have, is this: Who, or what, has moral rights, and why? One reason for asking this question is to ascertain to what extent atheists and Christians can have intelligent conversations about ethical questions, or whether their basic premises are so far apart that it's scarcely possible.

  • Hi P.Coyle,Those are indeed some challenging questions! Bear in mind that I am a Catholic laywoman with no formal theological training, and a Catholic theologian (e.g., Pope Benedict XVI or Peter Kreeft) could do a much better job.Do you think God has moral obligations? / Is the moral law binding on God? No, God is not bound by moral law. However, it is impossible for Him to act against His own nature, and since God is love, all His actions are thus ordered to that end. He is the author of life and death (He has the right to give and take life), and as far as being bound by anything, he simply is all goodness, truth and beauty. He cannot be anything other than that, as he cannot be NOT God. He cannot go against his nature, because then he would not be God.St. Thomas Aquinas further explained this concept in his Summa Theologica, Article 5:"[W]e must speak otherwise of the law of man, than of the eternal law which is the law of God. For the law of man extends only to rational creatures subject to man. The reason of this is because law directs the actions of those that are subject to the government of someone: wherefore, properly speaking, none imposes a law on his own actions. Now whatever is done regarding the use of irrational things subject to man, is done by the act of man himself moving those things, for these irrational creatures do not move themselves, but are moved by others, as stated above (Question 1, Article 2). Consequently man cannot impose laws on irrational beings, however much they may be subject to him. But he can impose laws on rational beings subject to him, in so far as by his command or pronouncement of any kind, he imprints on their minds a rule which is a principle of action.Now just as man, by such pronouncement, impresses a kind of inward principle of action on the man that is subject to him, so God imprints on the whole of nature the principles of its proper actions. And so, in this way, God is said to command the whole of nature, according to Psalm 148:6: "He hath made a decree, and it shall not pass away." And thus all actions and movements of the whole of nature are subject to the eternal law. Consequently irrational creatures are subject to the eternal law, through being moved by Divine providence; but not, as rational creatures are, through understanding the Divine commandment."Does that help?As to your question "Who or what has moral rights, and why?" I'm not sure if you're asking who (or what) has rights, or who (or what) is obligated to act morally. However, the answer to both is: all human beings. Animals have a lesser dignity than humans, but part of our moral responsibility is to treat those creatures of lesser dignity humanely and reasonably; that is, with no intentional cruelty. This does not preclude using animals as beasts of burden or to supply our nutritional needs as long as we are being wise and fair stewards of what is given to us.

  • Once again, yes, I believe the moral law is and should be binding upon all people, Catholics and non-Catholics alike.Forgive me if this is presumptuous, but it seems to me, JoAnna, that you're uncomfortable with the implications of your own position. I say this because you keep answering my questions with generalities rather than responding to specific details of the case at hand.So, let me ask once more for the record: If a woman's life can only be saved through abortion, is it better in your view that she die than that she live? Should doctors be legally required to do nothing in that situation, to stand by and allow her to die?

  • I have responded specifically, Ebonmuse, so I don't know why you say that."If a woman's life can only be saved through abortion, is it better in your view that she die than that she live?"There is no instance in which an abortion is the only way to save a woman's life. The child can be delivered whole, even if s/he is not viable. Again, this would fall under the principle of double effect if a woman was truly in imminent danger of dying."Should doctors be legally required to do nothing in that situation, to stand by and allow her to die?"See above.

  • @JoAnna: Thanks for the response. You write,No, God is not bound by moral law. However, it is impossible for Him to act against His own nature, and since God is love, all His actions are thus ordered to that end. He is the author of life and death (He has the right to give and take life), and as far as being bound by anything, he simply is all goodness, truth and beauty. He cannot be anything other than that, as he cannot be NOT God. He cannot go against his nature, because then he would not be God.This is a useful reminder of the extent to which Catholic theology seems to take the form of playing ancient Greek/medieval scholastic language games. Such language games are easy enough to learn and play, once one grasps the rules.For example, I could say that "P. Coyle cannot be NOT P. Coyle. He cannot go against his nature, because then he would not be P. Coyle." So whatever P. Coyle does must be a manifestation of P. Coyle's "nature." But one does not determine P. Coyle's nature by any empirical observations of his behavior. Instead, one simply makes bald assertions about what P. Coyle's nature is. Thus, I could assert "P. Coyle is Love" (making sure to capitalize the "L"), and then force-fit any observations of the real world into the "P. Coyle is Love" paradigm. If, at some point, P. Coyle is accused of some heinous crime, I can argue that he must be innocent (because, after all "P. Coyle is Love") OR that what appears to be a heinous crime is really a manifestation of love (because, again, "P. Coyle is Love"). Score of language game: P. Coyle 1, Real World 0.I'm curious. You say that God is not bound by moral law. Does God act as though he were bound by moral law (even though he isn't), or do you think his actions diverge from what one might expect if he were bound by moral law (and obeyed it)? I asked WHY God was or wasn't bound by moral law. If you answered that, I did not see it. Was it supposed to have been covered in your quotation from Thomas Aquinas? Perhaps it would help if I asked a broader question: What do you think it means to be "bound by moral law"?As to your question "Who or what has moral rights, and why?" I'm not sure if you're asking who (or what) has rights, or who (or what) is obligated to act morally. However, the answer to both is: all human beings. Animals have a lesser dignity than humans, but part of our moral responsibility is to treat those creatures of lesser dignity humanely and reasonably; that is, with no intentional cruelty.Yes, my question was really about who or what has moral rights. Again, you don't seem to have dealt with the "why" part of my question. Why is it that human beings, or animals, (but not, say, plants or rocks) have moral rights?I noticed that you did not say that GOD has moral rights. Are you trying to say that God has neither moral responsibilities or moral rights, or was it an oversight on your part to exclude God from among those who have moral rights?

  • P. Coyle,The whole sum of your argument, as I understand it, can be reduced to "If God is Love, why do bad things happen to good people?"Let's take the first part: God being Love. Let's put this another way, using your example. "P. Coyle is human." By definition, P. Coyle cannot do anything humans cannot do. If we were faced with evidence that P. Coyle had done something a human couldn't (let's say we hear that P. Coyle flew to San Francisco), we'd have to conclude that: (1) P. Coyle was not human after all, or (2) the thing he'd done (flying) was not impossible for humanity, or (3) the thing which seemed to go beyond what humans could do actually did not. So if it's turned out he'd flown on an airplane, it'd be (3). If it turned out he simply flapped his wings, it'd be (1) or (2), depending on whether he was homo sapiens or a bird.The same thing goes for God is Love. Certain events happen that cause us to wonder whether a loving God would permit or cause those things. There are three possible answers: (1) God is not Love after all, (2) the thing He did was not actually evil, or (3) He did not do the thing we think He did. This is precisely as logical as "P. Coyle is human." What you view as a linguistic game is really just a Christian willingness to answer (2) and (3) for events which atheists conclude only (1). To a baby, getting a vaccine shot by a doctor doesn't seem loving or humane, but those of us who know what vaccines are, as well as their purpose, realize that there's more going on than the baby realizes. The same is true here, only we're the babies. As for the moral rights argument, you're basically posing Euthyphro's dilemma, so I would direct you to that link (as well as the comments) for a thorough explanation.

  • jen

    This is incredibly grace-filled and a nice alternative to the carnage wrought by PZ Myers. All of these can frequently apply to Lutherans (my group) as well.

  • @JoAnna: I only have time right now to respond to the very last part of your post, because the response can be short. You said:As for the moral rights argument, you're basically posing Euthyphro's dilemma, so I would direct you to that link (as well as the comments) for a thorough explanation.I wasn't making an argument, I was asking a question. I certainly wasn't posing Euthyphro's dilemma, but I will rephrase my question to make it a little more like Euthyphro's dilemma: You assert that people and animals have moral rights. Do you think they have those moral rights whether or not God exists?My intent at this point is not, however, to try to pose a dilemma, but merely to try to find out what you believe about the nature of moral rights.

  • @JoAnna: All right, let me take a stab at responding to the first part of your last post. When you changed my example from "P. Coyle is Love…" to "P. Coyle is human…", you moved the example farther away from your corresponding claim, "God is Love" and thus weakened the force of the example. It seems to me that the claim that "God is Love" is in some ways an example of "personification," which, if I may stoop so low as to quote Wikipedia, is "an ontological metaphor in which a thing or abstraction is represented as a person" — or, in this case, a deity.Earlier you wrote, "God cannot be NOT God. He cannot go against his nature, [which is Love], because then he would not be God." To me that sounds similar to saying, first, that "Mercury is Swiftness", and second that "Mercury cannot be NOT Mercury. He cannot go against his nature, [which is Swiftness], because then he would not be Mercury."Note that the personification of Mercury as "Swiftness" here rises to the level of asserting that Mercury is swift by definition (or, alternatively, that swiftness is one of the essential attributes of Mercury), which would be the only reason that one would have for asserting that Mercury would not be Mercury if he were not swift. Well, yes, if you must, but that has little bearing on whether observed examples of swiftness in the real world count as evidence for the existence of the god Mercury. Personification, I would contend, is a form of language game.Atheists often argue that the real world presents nothing that they would see as evidence for the existence of a loving God, and with that I would concur. On the other hand, I am willing to grant that the observations of bad things happening to good people (and good things happening to bad people) would be logically compatible with the possibility of a deist's God who is utterly indifferent to people, either not caring or not knowing what happens to them. Not that I see anything that I would count as evidence of that either, but I do grant the possibility of the existence of a God who is not "Love" by definition, or who does not have "Love" as an "essential attribute."[End part 1 of reply]

  • @JoAnna: You wrote,To a baby, getting a vaccine shot by a doctor doesn't seem loving or humane, but those of us who know what vaccines are, as well as their purpose, realize that there's more going on than the baby realizes. The same is true here, only we're the babies.I am reminded of three things here. First, I am reminded of the way Voltaire pilloried Dr. Pangloss and his notion that "Everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds."Second, I am reminded that the reason sensible people vaccinate babies is because they know darn well that it is better to do this than to rely on a loving God to protect babies from disease. I am guessing that you had your own babies vaccinated rather than leaving their health "in the hands of God," and would have done so even if the law had not compelled you to do so.Third, I am reminded of a debate I once read about (Where? Somewhere in Dawkins, maybe?) between an atheist and an Anglican philosopher or theologian. As I recall the anecdote, the atheist argued that the existence of the Holocaust surely counted against the "God is Love" hypothesis. To this the Anglican responded with something like your "vaccinating a baby" argument and asserted that somehow, in some way we do not understand, the Holocaust must have been for the best. If I may borrow your words, "The thing God did — allowing the Holocaust to happen, if indeed he did not bring it about — must in some way not have been actually evil, and therefore the Holocaust itself wasn't actually evil." And here's the punchline to the anecdote: The atheist thereupon said to the Anglican, "Damn you to hell!" and walked out.Because, really, what else could a sensible person do or say at that point?

  • There is no instance in which an abortion is the only way to save a woman's life. The child can be delivered whole, even if s/he is not viable.That sounds very merciful and compassionate, but it's not. I don't intend to prolong this discussion forever, but let me say two more things:First: My father used to be an emergency room R.N., and he's been present for cases just like this. He's told me what happens in this scenario: Prior to six months, a fetus' lungs don't produce surfactant that prevents the inner lung surfaces from sticking together and allows normal breathing. When a fetus is born prematurely under these circumstances, they watch it for several minutes while it tries to take weak, feeble breaths, and finally dies of suffocation.JoAnna, even if we take your view that inducing premature delivery of a nonviable fetus, knowing that it will slowly suffocate to death, is meaningfully different from abortion, do you at least recognize that other people will see no difference, and therefore no moral or legal reason to allow one but prohibit the other?Second: Even if doctors wanted to do what you suggest, inducing labor takes time, JoAnna. In women who are very near death, time may be a luxury they don't have.I quoted from the case in Phoenix where the woman's doctors said she was too sick to move. You seemed to have difficulty accepting that this could be the case, but this isn't the only time that has happened. The American Journal of Public Health ran a paper a few years ago about similar stories: ER doctors in Catholic hospitals receiving women who were in the process of miscarrying, who were suffering severe hemorrhaging or becoming septic. The fetus was nonviable anyway, and even a few moments' delay could have meant the woman's death, but the hospital administrators refused to allow the doctors to do anything as long as there was a detectable fetal heartbeat. Here's what one of them said:So of course, I'm on call when she gets septic, and she's septic to the point that I'm pushing pressors on labor and delivery trying to keep her blood pressure up, and I have her on a cooling blanket because she's 106 degrees… And so I put the ultrasound machine on and there was still a heartbeat, and [the ethics committee] wouldn't let me because there was still a heartbeat. This woman is dying before our eyes. I went in to examine her, and I was able to find the umbilical cord through the membranes and just snapped the umbilical cord and so that I could put the ultrasound — "Oh look. No heartbeat. Let's go." She was so sick she was in the ICU for about 10 days and very nearly died… Her bleeding was so bad that the sclera, the white of her eyes, were red, filled with blood.This doctor ignored the hospital's orders and covertly cut the umbilical cord, slightly speeding up an inevitable fetal death, so that he could get permission for an abortion while there was still time to save the woman's life – and even so, she hovered on the brink of death for days afterward. If Catholic dogma was law, the odds are good that this woman and others like her would have been dead, pointlessly so. I think this doctor and others like him are the loving and compassionate ones, not the ivory-tower Catholic clergy who insist that there's an unvarying, one-size-fits-all answer to all moral problems.

  • P. Coyle & Ebonmuse -I will try to quickly respond to your most recent posts, but I have a funeral to attend this morning and then a very busy weekend ahead, so unfortunately this will be the only Internet time I have for the next few days. I'm willing to continue the conversation, but I sense it'd be futile in the sense that we're just going to keep circling each other and won't really come to any further understanding. I do very much appreciate the discussion, however.Ebonmuse – that's why there's perinatal hospice, to ensure the babies can be kept pain-free and as comfortable as possible before they pass.Moreover, what of the infants who are born alive and left to die alone in a soiled utility room? I assume that you supported the Born Alive Infants Protection Act, given your concern for wanted infants who may expire after birth in the loving arms of their parents.As for the scenario you mention, I am appalled that the doctor acted so callously, not to mention unethically. If he had the time to "snap the umbilical cord" and then request permission for an abortion (and then take the time to perform the abortion) he certainly had time to perform an emergency C-section and deliver the baby whole. (If s/he was viable, that story is even more sickening.)I have given birth three times, in three different hospitals in two different states, and at each hospital I was told that in the event of a medical emergency, they could have the baby out via emergency C-section in 10 minutes flat — that includes the time it would take to travel from the L&D; ward to the OR.Ask any pro-life OB and I bet he'd give you a different analysis of the situation above. Unfortunately, many physicians fail to realize that they have TWO patients, the woman and the baby, and should try to save both, even if it involves doing what is right instead of what is easy (or, in some cases, most cost-effective).That's a really unfortunate aspect of the St. Joe's situation — now Catholic women in Phoenix who want authentic Catholic health care have to travel farther to get it, since there's no guarantee St. Joe's will treat their baby as a patient instead of a means to an end. Again, thank you for your time and this conversation. I appreciate seeing your perspective.

  • Do you think they have those moral rights whether or not God exists?God is the source of our moral rights since He is the author of creation. If there is no God, then there is no intrinsic morality; any moral systems would be purely extrinsic. However, since there is a God, moral rights are intrinsic."God is Love" is not personification because Love is not necessarily an attribute of only persons. It's a description of His essential nature, an intrinsic characteristic, part of his "makeup," if you will. Human beings have DNA; God is Love. Re: your comments regarding an indifferent God, I direct you to Peter Kreeft's "Suffering" as well as "The Problem of Pain" by C.S. Lewis. (I recently wrote a blog post about the latter, if you're interested."As for your comments re: vaccinations — I selectively vaccinate my children as I refuse to use vaccines derived from aborted fetal stem cell lines on moral and ethical principles. If the vaccine companies would make ethical versions of these vaccines available, I would fully vaccinate my children. God does not cause disease. He permits it to exist. The reason it exists is due to our own free choice and our decision to bring sin into the world. As C.S. Lewis notes in the aforementioned "The Problem of Pain," “God might have arrested this process by miracle: but this — to speak in somewhat irreverent metaphor — would have been to decline the problem which God had set Himself when He created the world, the problem of expressing His goodness through the total drama of a world containing free agents, in spite of, and by means of, their rebellion against him.”As to the Anglican's comments about the Holocaust being not evil, I would vehemently disagree. The deliberate murder of innocents is an intrinsic evil. However, it's very true that God can bring good out of a bad situation, and He did this with the Holocaust, given the amazing the stories of bravery and heroism that resulted. See, for example, St. Maximilian Kolbe, or "The Diary of Anne Frank" (her death = evil, the resulting book = good). An example from my personal life — I have had two miscarriages. If not for each miscarriage, neither my son nor my youngest daughter would exist). God did not cause my miscarriages, but He did then choose to create my youngest two children, and they are both precious, wonderful children whom I can't imagine living without).Unfortunately, that's all the time I have to respond. I hope you have a good weekend. Thanks once again for the conversation. It's been very enlightening.

  • Also, sorry for the random parens and incorrect punctuation above – I usually try to be more careful about that, but I'm typing in a hurry.

  • @JoAnna: You wrote,God is the source of our moral rights since He is the author of creation. If there is no God, then there is no intrinsic morality; any moral systems would be purely extrinsic. However, since there is a God, moral rights are intrinsic.I am afraid I really don't understand what you are trying to say. First, I don't understand how God's being the "author of creation" makes him the source of our moral rights. Granted, if you and I weren't here in the first place, neither one of us could have moral rights. If you believe that you and I could only be here because God authored creation, then you would believe that moral rights depend on the existence of God in a rather trivial sense. I do not think, however, that you were trying to say that you and I have moral rights because we exist (and, incidentally, that our existence is due to an "act of God"). Indeed, I think that you are trying to say something that is almost the exact opposite of that: that the fact that we exist would not in any way, shape, or form result in our having any moral rights. But what I am having a great deal of difficulty understanding is how God's being the supposed author of creation alters the equation in any way.This leads to my second consideration, which is that I do not understand your argument about "intrinsic" and "extrinsic" moral rights. At least on first consideration, it seems to me that, if there is any point in using the language of intrinsic vs. extrinsic moral rights, you have it exactly backwards. You are saying that my moral rights with regard to you and your moral rights with regard to me are not intrinsic to our relationship. Rather they are intrinsic because they depend on the existence of a factor that is clearly extrinsic to both of us, namely God. Frankly, I don't get it.Finally, just to make sure I understand you correctly, are you saying that you believe that if God did not exist, we would have "extrinsic" moral rights (whatever they are), but because God exists we lack the very same extrinsic moral rights we would have if he didn't?As you can plainly see, I'm having the greatest difficulty grasping what you are trying to say.

  • OK, last comment in this thread:As for the scenario you mention, I am appalled that the doctor acted so callously, not to mention unethically. If he had the time to "snap the umbilical cord" and then request permission for an abortion (and then take the time to perform the abortion) he certainly had time to perform an emergency C-section and deliver the baby whole.Again: Given that the fetus' life is inevitably lost in either case, why should a reasonable person view these outcomes as different? On what basis should we conclude that one is preferable to the other?There's only one real difference, in fact: what you propose causes additional pain and risk to the mother by subjecting her to major, invasive abdominal surgery. Especially in a woman who's already suffering severe blood loss from hemorrhaging, whose immune system may be weak or whose heart and lungs may be stressed or failing, this is seriously dangerous. (In fact, JoAnna, what you're describing is properly called a hysterotomy abortion, and it has a higher rate of mortality than any comparable procedure.) An ethical doctor would be fully within his rights to refuse to do it, since it offers no medical benefit to the woman compared to an ordinary abortion.I say one more time: The Catholic view of abortion is based in theology, not on facts about the world. It subjects women to the risk of suffering and death, not for any tangible gain, but because of a religious belief that it is proper that women should be treated in this way. If you choose to live by these rules for yourself, it's your right to make that choice. But it is no one's right, not yours or anyone else's, to force other women to be sacrificed to these rules.

  • Elizabeth K.

    I didn't have time to read through the whole thread (and I'm posting a bit late), so I'm sorry if someone said this already: Catholics think of the Bible as a library, not a book. So the way we know some things are literal, and some not, has to do with the same way we all know that Jonathon Swift's "A Modest Proposal" is satire, but Peter Singer is serious. That is to say, we rely on genre markers, historical understandings and interpretations of a text within a specific context, etc.. Sometimes this is tricky, granted: for example, we know that Genesis is predated by the Enuma Elish and shares many common elements–now, does this mean Genesis is a rewriting of the pagan narrative in order to emphasize theological differences, or did they all share a common myth of origin in that part of the world, and interpret it differently and independently? One things for sure–we know that many early Church fathers took time in Genesis to be mythical time, and reacted to it accordingly. My point: the Bible is inspired, yes, according to my tradition, and that makes it different from any other set of books–but the same knowledge you apply when you head out to B&N; can be applicable when you walk into the Bible (which was a metaphor–see?) 🙂

  • Elizabeth, that's a really helpful metaphor, and I've never heard it before, so many thanks for jumping in. If the Bible is a library, what's the equivalent of a card catalogue (the reference that helps you figure out what genre a book is).

  • Elizabeth K.

    Hey Leah, thanks. That's the tricky question, isn't it? The quick answer a Catholic might give is that card catalogue is Church authority. While true, this answer isn't particularly illuminating. Basically, understanding genre in the Bible is based on scholarship, archeology, anthropology, etc.. It's also based on cross-referencing with other texts of its type, basic literary historical type stuff. For example, the Book of Revelations is only one of several apocalyptic narratives that were being written in the early days of Christianity. It was a popular form (perhaps analogous only to today, where there are suddenly apocalyptic stories for children, of all people). We know that this is a genre, and that it met certain generic expectations–that the language is often metaphorical, because we find similar metaphors in similar documents, etc. But Paul's letters, or epistles, are just that–letters with instructions to different groups of people. Sometimes he's raising money, sometimes he's answering questions that have arisen in the community. It's easy to see historical documentation here as you would in any letter, with the caveat that it's being interpreted through the lens of one writer. In the case of the gospels, we have many other gospels–the ones made famous by Dan Brown, for example. We know that these four gospels were the most popular–that their canonicity was formed out of this popularity with the people who used them. And we know that they're written from different perspectives, but always from the perspective of the Resurrection, and towards those need to understand the life of Jesus in that light. The Didache is an early list of instructions to Christians (and, incidentally, why we know abortion was expressly forbidden when Christianity was immediately forming) Sorry to go on and on. Anyway, a good Bible can point out the different genres and explain them–why we understand the Song of Songs as poetry, why the story of Job was meant to be taken as a story, etc.. When things get tricky is when we try to understand certain metaphors–when Jesus talks about the eye of the needle, for example: is he saying it's impossible, or, as some scholars believe, is her referring to an actual physical place called "the eye of the needle", where you'd need to unload your camel to get through? Nonetheless, we agree that's metaphorical speech. Anyway, I hope that helps, at least a little.

  • David

    Nice post. I really enjoyed reading it. As a Catholic revert who lapsed into evangelicalism for the better part of a decade, I can tell that you’re on to something in what you’re dabbling with here.
    Soren Kierkegaard wrote a little essay in the appendix to the Book on Adler, and after I first read it, I knew I had to go back to the Church, repent me of all of this diy exegesis, shrive me of my sins, and receive the Eucharist like a good Catholic does (often in near complete ignorance, but where does it say we all have to be clever?) each & every Sunday.
    The essay was titled “On the Difference between an Apostle and a Genius,” and after reading it, I knew I would do everyone, myself foremost, a great service in clapping my hands over my mouth and keeping it shut for a few years about religion and humbly following the dictates of the Church. I’ve never made a better decision in my life. (The fact of the matter is, I’d be likely to scrap right along with you when it comes to “deconverting evangelicals,” but in my case it would be called “proselytizing,” but then again, what business is it of mine what people choose to believe?)
    So, you ask (if you’re still reading), why am I writing to you about it? Why not keep my stinking hands clapped over my mouth? Well, let’s say that your post made me feel compelled to say something.
    My guess is that in your heart of hearts that you’re trying not to show on your sleeve of sleeves, you’ve taken all this trouble to become an evangelicatheist because you’re trying to convince others that God isn’t because you think it might silence that voice of doubt in your soul. Don’t worry, everybody has doubts. The fact of the matter is that everybody has to employ this little epistemological apparatus called faith, atheists included–after all, how can you “know” that God isn’t? You can only “believe” that He isn’t.
    My point is, and I’m only speaking as a genius here, not an apostle, that God made you free, and this little epistemological apparatus called faith is the key to using that freedom well.
    But listen to me, rambling on. You’re on your own journey. I’m just a pilgrim like you, who’s learned a thing or two along the way. If it helps, awesome. If it seems like incoherent nonsense, just remember, I’ve been laying low, just trying to do the minimum to follow Christ and the teachings of His Church with my hands clapped tightly over my big mouth.
    P.S. Oh, and if you haven’t read Walker Percy, I couldn’t recommend anyone more: if I was Dante, he was my Virgil.

  • Chris

    With all due respect…you’re still freaks regardless of how you interpret the Bible…you still believe in witches and goblins.