Try it! You’ll love it!

Try it! You’ll love it! April 20, 2011

I am notorious at school for pushing math classes on my friends.  Done with your distributional requirements?  But surely you have space for this extra seminar on logic!  Thought you would just keep going through the calculus sequence?  Could I interest you in a transcendent term of fractal geometry?

Claim to hate math?  I’ve got a simple reply: You don’t hate math, you hate the math classes you’ve taken to date.  Once you’ve got a decent professor, you’ll have to change your mind.

So it’s not surprising I have sympathy with the doctrine of invincible ignorance, which has sparked a fight in a recent comments thread.  An anonymous poster linked to the relevant part of the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

Basing itself on Scripture and Tradition, the Council teaches that the Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation: the one Christ is the mediator and the way of salvation; he is present to us in his body which is the Church. He himself explicitly asserted the necessity of faith and Baptism, and thereby affirmed at the same time the necessity of the Church which men enter through Baptism as through a door. Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or to remain in it.’

This affirmation is not aimed at those who, through no fault of their own, do not know Christ and his Church:

‘Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience – those too may achieve eternal salvation.’

The commenter concluded that, in the framework of the Catholic Church, “I would consider you ignorant of the Gospel of Christ, because if you weren’t, then you’d have accepted the Church.” This pronouncement raised the hackles of Ebonmuse of Daylight Atheism who replied: “I do so love that spirit of Catholic charity.”

I understand Ebonmuse’s ire.  As an atheist, I get tired of being dismissed by Christians who assume I don’t know anything about their religion or who try to pat me on the head and say if I understood I would believe or who offer any other variant of the Courtier’s Reply.  And then again, there are subjects (not limited to math) where I do the same thing.

The question really reduces to the same old problem of whether or not Christianity is true.  If it is, the doctrine of invincible ignorance and the kinda-sorta Universalism it implies are necessary and charitable components of a loving theology.   If not, the doctrine is a convenient shield against critique and a handy way to escape the (hopefully) self-refuting nastiness of a religion that damned almost everyone (cf Calvinism, most branches of evangelical fundamentalism, and the general spirit of this).  The claim fits easily into either framework.

So can I use it as evidence for or against Christianity?  Can I make any claims about the doctrine at all?  Well, let me try and solve the same problem in a different context.  At college, I am acquainted with some people who use drugs recreationally.  When I’ve discussed the matter with them, they often tell me that I can’t understand the opportunities drugs (particularly psychedelics) offer unless I’ve given them a try.

I tend not to give them the benefit of the doubt for a variety of reasons (most of which are not relevant to Christianity), but I’m curious if the atheist and Christian blogs agree on a general criteria that these claims should satisfy, even if we disagree about which ones pass.

So what would someone have to say to you to convince you that you knew too little to object?  Would it depend on whether the transcendence they were peddling was pharmacological or divine?  Is skepticism strictly correlated with the possible danger of choosing wrongly?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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