What is needed is a real debate on religious questions providing a rational public apologetic for the faith.
For we were not following fictitious tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his grandeur. – 2 Peter 1:16
The last few years have seen the appearance, in the English-speaking world, of several public and militant atheists. Writers such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett have attacked, not only Christianity, but religion itself which they label a negative and divisive factor in the world. This phenomenon has not gone unnoticed by Catholics. To confine myself only to this journal, I alluded to the appearance of the new atheists briefly,1 while David Carlin had already discussed the question at length over a year earlier. 2 In this article, I do not intend to go over the same ground, but to call attention to something that, in my opinion, is even more worrisome. This is manifested in the response of certain Protestant spokesmen to some of the activities of the atheists, a response that I think reveals a deep defect in much of American thinking about religion. We will discuss, however, not the books written by those who aspire to appear as intellectual representatives of atheism, but a more mundane project that some atheist organizations engaged in.
What I am speaking of is the international campaign which placed ads in busses, and other public places in Europe and the United States, attacking belief in God. They have appeared in Great Britain, Spain and other European countries. They began to appear here sometime in 2008. I first saw them on a bus in the Washington, D.C., area in the fall of that year. Of course, such public promotion of atheism is unusual in the United States, where generally there is a stance of giving lip service to God, or at least of not attacking his existence explicitly, however far from obeying his law we may be. As Carlin noted, the conventions of American discourse, our “rules of good manners,” meant “that atheists and agnostics were not allowed to attack theism in general, or Christianity in particular.”
Interesting and revealing as the cultural shift is that allows such public attacks on the existence of God, what I found more interesting about the ad campaign than the mere fact of its existence was the slant or angle of the atheists’ message. The ads pictured a (black) man3 dressed in a Santa Claus suit with the message, “Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness’s sake.” This to me was interesting because the atheists did not attack the notion that God exists, they did not offer any arguments on behalf of the self-existing character of matter, or anything of that sort. Instead, they exhorted one to be good without God’s aid. This would seem to me to be rather beside the point: Are we debating whether God exists, or are we debating whether we can be good without his help? Why would the sponsors of the ad campaign take the particular line that they did?
Perhaps, the response of some Protestant spokesmen to the ads shows that the atheists were not so wide of the mark after all, and that they understood well the American religious mind. For example, Os Guinness, a Protestant writer and social commentator, spoke in the same vein, as did the atheists, in an interview which he gave.
“Yes, you can be good without God. There are many examples of that. The real question is can you create a good society without God? The framers of the Constitution believed in religious liberty, for atheists, too, but were leery of a whole society that was atheistic. Without God, you would not have virtue to restrain evil. Freedom requires order, and there is only one type of order compatible with freedom, self-restraint.”
“In his farewell address as president, George Washington said, ‘Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports … And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion.’”
Now, how are Os Guinness’ comments along the same lines as the atheists? Are they not the exact opposite, one affirming the utility of religious belief, the other denying it? Yes, of course. And this is exactly my point, and the reason why they are really so similar. Each is addressing only the question of whether religious belief is useful. Neither seems very much interested in whether religious belief, or which religious belief, is true, but only whether it helps serve other ends—either those of personal morality, or of social peace and order. Each seems to think that the question to discuss is the utility, rather than the truth, of religious belief.
One might argue that perhaps Guinness simply presupposes the truth of Christianity. And I am sure that he does. But, my point is that he does not seem to notice the fact that the atheists appear to think that believers value their religion only as a means for attaining moral goodness, not because it is true. Guinness is correct, of course, when he says that no society can remain moral for any period of time without religious belief. In fact, we can go farther, and say that no society can remain truly moral for an extended period without the grace of Jesus Christ and the sacraments of the Church. But, still, this is not the point. If we are to have any intelligent discussion of the question of religion, it must, at least, begin with a discussion about truth and falsity, not about its usefulness, either personal or social. One cannot logically argue that because something is useful, therefore it is true. If we engage atheists primarily on the question of whether religion, in general or any particular religion, is useful or not, we are doomed to endless wrangling about historical facts, while in the meantime we ignore the important questions: Is this true or false? Does God exist or not?
Guinness, in his statement, quotes part of a famous passage in President George Washington’s farewell address.
Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports…. And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect, that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.
Of course, one must admit that Washington is correct. Reason and experience do “forbid us to expect, that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” But, is Washington interested in religious truth? Does he even care which religion is employed to support national morality? And, is it simply mental adherence to a religion, or is it the power of the grace and sacraments of Jesus Christ, that enables individuals and nations to live in social peace? The view of religion that is contained in Washington’s farewell address reminds me of nothing so much as the so-called noble lie in Plato’s Republic (414). The noble lie was a suggestion of Socrates that the citizens of the ideal city, he and his friends were devising, be taught the deliberate myth that all the citizens literally grew together from the city’s soil, and, thus, were in the closest sense, brothers. The myth’s purpose was to make them more devoted to their city, and to one another. Here are some of the portions of the conversation. (Socrates is speaking with Glaucon.)
“Could we,” I said, “somehow contrive one of those lies that come into being in case of need, of which we were just now speaking, some one noble lie to persuade, in the best case, even the rulers, but if not them, the rest of the city?”
Then after some more conversation, Socrates explains himself:
“I’ll attempt to persuade first the rulers and the soldiers, then the rest of the city, that the rearing and education we gave them were like dreams; they only thought they were undergoing all that was happening to them, while, in truth, at that time they were under the earth within, being fashioned and reared themselves…. And now, as though the land they are in were a mother and nurse, they must plan for and defend it, if anyone attacks, and they must think of the other citizens as brothers and born of the earth.”
Socrates then concludes the “noble lie” by asking,
“So, have you some device for persuading them of this tale?”
“None at all,” he said, “for these men themselves; however for their sons and their successors and the rest of the human beings who come afterwards.”
Unfortunately, one must admit that Washington’s comments on religion in his farewell address differ little from Plato’s contrivance of a noble lie in order to maintain ‘national morality” in his ideal city.
Neither is concerned with the question of truth; each seeks some ideal as a social glue to help hold the body politic together. Can this be the attitude of someone really convinced of the truth of God’s revelation to mankind in Jesus Christ, or even of someone honestly seeking to know whether God exists, and has spoken? Catholics cannot allow the question of the truth of the Catholic faith to be reduced to a discussion of whether religion is socially and politically useful or not. The preaching and writing of the apostles did not even mention such motives for believing. Rather they stressed an historical fact, the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the reconciliation, thereby, brought about between God and mankind. This is the foundation of our faith, not any benefits which belief will bring either to individuals or to society.
The true question of whether God exists, or not, is closely bound up with the question of which religion is true. It is not enough to affirm simply that God exists. What is God like? Is there only one God, and has he made a revelation of himself, and when, and through whom? Has he left any continuing guidance for the human race? Both the Church, and the other forms of Christianity, as well as Islam, affirm a belief in one God, but clearly their conceptions of God differ markedly. No one interested in attaining religious truth can fail to see that questions about the nature and actions of God are essential, and that it is not sufficient just to affirm that a God exists.
Underlying both the atheists’ ads, and the response of Os Guinness, is the philosophy of pragmatism—the notion that truth is what works. This is the unique American “contribution” to philosophy. As a result, the religious question for many, whether they realize it or not, has become, not does God exist, or what can we know about God, or has God made a revelation, but how can I be helped by religion. Many thus seek a religion that will make them personally happy. If some form of Christianity seems to promote their health and happiness, this is fine with them, but, if Buddhism, or New Age pantheism, or atheism, makes them happier, then they will try one or the other of them. This is not so much a despair of finding truth, as it is a lack of interest in truth. Such religious pragmatists hardly advert to questions of truth. If pressed, they might even deny the possibility of knowing what was true, or, more absurdly, deny that such a thing as truth could even exist. But, their real concern is simply this life with its pleasures and problems.
The Catholic Church, since the time of the apostles, has preached the faith as the truth. I have already quoted St. Peter to the effect that the apostles and their converts “were not following fictitious tales.” Jesus Christ proved the truth of his assertions about himself by rising from the dead. As St. Paul explains in Chapter 15 of his first epistle to the Corinthians, the resurrection of Christ was a matter that could be verified with eyewitnesses, not only the apostles, but many others, as well (cf. CCC 641-44). In addition, the many prophecies that our Lord fulfilled by his birth, life and death, give further proof of the truth of the revelation committed by him to his Church (cf. CCC 156 and 522). It is with arguments of this kind that we must defend the doctrines of the Catholic Church, not by seeking to prove that the Catholic religion is more useful than any other.
I noted above, that explicit atheism, and the public advocacy of atheism, have been comparatively rare in the United States, at least in recent decades.6 This fact certainly has its good side. Belief in God is more common in the United States than in Great Britain, or continental Europe. But, I think it also has a more doubtful side. This I will attempt to highlight by reference to a very interesting venture that C. S. Lewis, and other Christian believers at Oxford University, began in the 1940s. This was the Oxford Socratic Club.7
The Socratic Club was begun by a group of Christians to provide a forum for Christians, and non-Christians, to discuss “the pros and cons of the Christian Religion.” As Lewis notes, there were numerous Christian societies at Oxford, and numerous societies implicitly, if not explicitly, hostile to Christianity. But, he was unaware of any previous attempt to rationally discuss the issue: was the Christian faith true or false?8 He points out at least two advantages of such an approach. First, “there is always the danger that those who think alike should gravitate together into coteries where they will henceforth encounter opposition only in the emasculated form of rumor that the outsiders say thus and thus.” Second, and in my opinion most important for us in the United States, Lewis notes that there are those who “protest that intellectual discussion can neither build Christianity nor destroy it. They may feel that religion is too sacred to be thus bandied to and fro in public debate, too sacred to be talked of – almost, perhaps, too sacred for anything to be done with it at all.” This sort of taboo in America, on publicly denying the existence of God, is linked to a taboo on any serious public discussion of religious truth, as Dr. Carlin pointed out. As a result, religion becomes something purely private. It is bad manners to raise the question, one does not want to offend, as the saying goes, others.
I have never understood why anyone would be offended by an attack on his position, provided that the attack is fair, and free from scurrility. Indeed, a Catholic should welcome such an attack, for it gives a wonderful, and uncommon, opportunity to give a “reason for the hope that is in [us]” (cf. I Peter 3:15), to provide a defense of the faith, to witness to the truth of Jesus Christ and his Church. Unless real debate on religious questions exists, then we Catholics will lack opportunities to provide a rational public apologetic for our own faith. So, in a left-handed way, the atheists are doing us a favor. They, at least, are raising the question of the existence of God in a public forum. If we are too indifferent, or too ill-instructed, to take advantage of the opportunity, that is no one’s fault but our own.9
Nor is it only atheists to whom we must be prepared to give a reason for our faith. In his January 2009 HPR article, Fr. Joseph Sirba presented the sad results of the Pew report on American religion.10 This survey confirms what most of us already knew, that there are huge numbers of Catholics who have joined other religious bodies, or who reject Catholicism but have not affiliated with any other group. They range all the way from Mormons to Hindus to Eastern Orthodox, although the two largest groups, about equal in numbers, are Protestants, both evangelicals and mainstream, and the unaffiliated, probably secularists, or atheists, for the most part. These surely ought to be among the first to receive our attention, since they are like the lost sheep in the Gospel, whom the Shepherd went in search of. Even though it is doubtful that very many ex-Catholics will be open to discussions of religious truth, still, just as St. Paul wrote that he became “all things to all men that I might by all means save some” (I Corinthians 9:22), we should not neglect those who might be open to a rational examination of whether God exists, and which religion is true.
So let us not be shy of religious debate. Since the Catholic religion is true, and since it is rationally defensible, we need fear no one in an honest discussion. Admittedly, public discourse in the United States is now at such a low level, that insults and shouting are the norm for conducting many public discussions. But, perhaps there are some honest atheists, and others, too, willing to debate in a respectful manner. If so, let them come forward. They might be surprised at what they could learn.
- “What is Faith?” Homiletic & Pastoral Review, vol. 109, no. 2, November 2008. ↩
- “The Latest Form of American Atheism,” Homiletic & Pastoral Review, vol. 107, no. 9, June 2007. ↩
- Although some media outlets stated that the figure dressed in the Santa Claus outfit was a woman, it appeared to me to be a male with very long dreadlocks. ↩
- www.virtueonline.org/portal/modular/news/article.php?storyid =9525. ↩
- The Republic of Plato, translated by Allan Bloom. (New York : Basic Books, c. 1968), pp. 93-94. ↩
- In the allegedly more Christian United States of a hundred years ago, anti-Christian polemic would seem to have been more common. One thinks of the prominent agnostic and Republican Party orator, Robert Ingersoll (1833-1899), or the writer and journalist, H. L. Mencken (1880-1956). ↩
- See: “The Founding of the Oxford Socratic Club,” in C. S. Lewis, God in the Dock (Grand Rapids, Eerdsmans, c. 1970) pp. 126-28. ↩
- Lewis speaks of Christianity and Christians. I hardly need to point out that, as far as I am concerned, the issue concerns Catholicism and Catholics. “Mere Christianity,” as Lewis conceived it, is insufficient. ↩
- David Carlin, in his article already cited, recommends a similar strategy of rational confrontation with atheists. I second his recommendation that Catholic intellectuals must make efforts to respond to atheist polemics and that “ordinary Catholics” must “be equipped with the knowledge needed to withstand attacks on their faith.” ↩
- “The U.S. Religious Landscape Survey,” Homiletic & Pastoral Review, vol. 109, no. 4, January 2009. Fr. Sirba notes that the full report is available online at religions.pewforum.org. ↩