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The New Atheism
A Catholic Clergyman Responds to the New Atheists
by Rev. Dylan Schrader
Richard Dawkins and I have something in common. Like Dawkins, I am convinced that people need to put aside all superstition and learn to think critically. Unlike Dawkins, I am about to be ordained a Catholic priest.
Along with other leaders among the New Atheists, Dawkins holds not only that there is no God but also that belief in God is harmful and disposes one to violent fanaticism. The New Atheists also characterize faith in itself as “lacking objective justification” (Dawkins) and therefore dangerous. In other words, “faith is an evil precisely because it requires no justification and brooks no argument.” (Sam Harris) Their reasoning is valid: if man is rational, if he is capable of knowing the objective reasons for things, and if faith has no objective basis, then faith is harmful to man. What I deny is the premise that faith has no objective justification.
I cannot speak for other religions and must limit myself to my area of expertise, so I will attempt to outline a Catholic response. Catholics believe many things with which most of the world disagrees, both dogmatically and morally. Yet, Catholics also hold reason in high esteem. In fact, fideism – the belief that human reason is not capable of knowing important truths like God’s existence and that faith replaces reason–has been definitively condemned by the Catholic Church. The Catholic concept of faith is that of a supernatural complement to natural reason; faith does not cancel out reason but presupposes reason and perfects its activities.
The motive for faith in the Catholic view, then, is not subjective feelings or blind credulity. I can say along with Sam Harris that we cannot base faith on ‘spiritual experience’ without objective evidence. Rather, once the existence and basic properties of God are established by reason (a task for metaphysics), it can be asked whether God has chosen to reveal anything more about himself which is inaccessible to reason alone. If he has, how are we to know where he has spoken and what he has said? To answer this, we look to certain objective motives for credibility, such as miracles, consistency of teaching and structure over two millenia, and other signs, which point to the supernatural institution of the Catholic Church. Once we know that it is reasonable to believe that God has spoken to the Church, God’s gift of faith, to which we must freely consent, moves us to accept whatever God has said, because he can neither deceive nor be deceived. In this way, faith is not opposed to reason, but relies on it and goes beyond it.
Based on my Catholic understanding of faith, I would gladly assent to a revision of the New Atheists’ claim about religion, and say: Whatever in a given religion is contrary to reason is false; whatever is superstitious about religion is harmful. I wonder, then, if the New Atheists and believers are really more on the same side than we often think. The New Atheists are characteristically committed to striving for consistency in their beliefs and for basing these beliefs on evidence. In a way, the New Atheists are the allies of many believers against our common enemies of Postmodernism and Relativism. With these, our culture is dangerously close to the utter foolishness of losing the concept of truth due to political correctness, laziness, and mindless distractions. We need martyrs for the notion of truth! Whom could you find with a greater commitment to this notion, regardless of personal consequences, than a radical atheist or a religious fundamentalist?
I propose, then, that religion as such is not the enemy of reason or of the New Atheists, rather, superstition, error, and especially Postmodernism and Relativism are the foes against which we must all fight. When many people are not willing to say that beliefs really matter and that one belief can be right and another wrong, why should atheists and believers not work together to defend the validity of reason and the existence of objective truth? If critical thinking is an essential human activity, then we should all work to promote it, making our culture not only saner but also more human. In a world filled with people who are indifferent about the merits of their beliefs, I consider an honest follower of the New Atheists a potential ally.
In turn, if a given religion honestly encourages inquiry into the truth, how can it be against science or reason? Some may object, of course, that many religious believers fail to seek the truth sincerely, and they may be right. Even though it is proper for human beings to desire the truth, human beings do not always act in a properly human manner. As Thomas Aquinas observed, “to understand the truth is, in itself, beloved by all; and yet, accidentally it may be hateful to someone, in so far as a man is hindered thereby from having what he loves yet more.” Yet this weakness, far from excluding cooperation between believers and atheists, actually encourages it. We can keep each other in check, challenging not only the culture but also one another whenever we are tempted to put aside the truth. If I am wrong, I should want it to be made known, so that I may become right.
I must also commend the New Atheists for their characteristic commitment to science and the knowledge of the fundamental principles of things. For the same reason that I commend them, I also challenge them to go even deeper; not only in the empirical sciences, but also in metaphysics. In the end, it is by delving into the objective reasons for things, and not apart from this activity, that Dawkins, Harris, and others will reach the pinnacle of human reason – knowledge of the one personal God.
© Rev. Mr. Dylan Schrader 2010
Rev. Mr. Dylan Schrader is a Catholic transitional deacon of the Diocese of Jefferson City, Missouri. He expects to be ordained a priest on 22 May and then to serve in parish ministry.