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The New Atheism

Two Priests Respond (II)

A force for good? Fr. Thomas Crean says it depends whether a religion is true or not.

It’s a mistake to suppose that a ‘religious person’ should want to justify religion-in-general. The world’s religions are mutually incompatible, and if I am committed to one of them, then provided I retain a respect for the Principle of Non-Contradiction, I must be opposed to the others; which need not stop me showing courtesy to their adherents. No, it should be sufficient for the religious believer who would reply to the New Atheists to establish that his own religion does more good than harm.

But here we encounter a serious, and, I should argue, an insuperable problem. The question of whether a given religion, for example the Catholic one, is a force for good can’t be determined until one has determined the truth or falsity of that religion. Why not? Because a Catholic, say, and an atheist, do not possess a sufficiently common conception of ‘the good’ to be able to discuss the question fruitfully. They are like two spectators at a football game who would discuss which team is winning, although one of them supposes that the purpose of the game is to put the ball in the net, and the other that it is to make passes, or to kick the opponents.

Here’s one example of the intellectual impasse. The Catholic Church holds that our principal duty on earth is to worship our Creator; that this is why we are here. If this is true, then any institution which promotes the worship of God is as such to be praised, whereas any institution or philosophy which undermines it is as such to be condemned. (It would also follow that the atheist cannot be truly good, since he would be neglecting his primary duty.) On the other hand, if there is no God, then to offer worship is to squander precious moments that would be better spent chasing butterflies or playing cards. Hence, whether Christians have done well or badly in filling the world with churches cannot be determined before deciding whether or not the first commandment is to love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart and with thy whole soul.

Another example: just as for a Catholic worship is the chief duty of man, so his chief goal is beatitude in the life to come. In comparison with this last end, all other ends are as nothing. The arts, the human sciences, domestic happiness, civil peace, and whatever else the world can offer to the higher instincts in human nature, are very desirable goods, and, I hold, more securely promoted by the Catholic faith than by any other philosophy. Yet compared to the good of beatitude – eternal glory – they must fall infinitely short. Therefore, to assess what good the Catholic religion achieves we must first decide whether beatitude is a true goal or an illusion; and if a true one, whether the Church provides us with the means to attain it.

We’re forced to the same necessity of first deciding the question of religious truth, by the objections the New Atheists tend to present (and at least for Professor Dawkins, it is the Catholic Church which is the principal enemy, as he frankly tells us in The God Delusion p.311). For example, they will complain that the Church is intolerably authoritarian; Catholics are actually told that it is a sin to doubt the tenets of their faith. True enough, they are so told; or they tell themselves, since the same obligation of faith as binds the laity binds bishops and the Pope himself. Now if there were no God, or if he existed but had made no revelation of his nature or will, leaving the world to be one vast debating-hall, this obligation would indeed be unjust. But if the Church has a mandate to teach from a God who can neither deceive nor be deceived and who has promised always to maintain the Church in the truth, the case is altered. Then it would be reasonable for the Pope and bishops to require assent to their teaching, and for the faithful to grant it. We should therefore say to the atheist, first examine the Church’s credentials – the holiness of her Founder and the evidence for his Resurrection; her spread under persecution; the miracles she claims; the calibre of her saints; her intellectual continuity through the ages – and then decide honestly what you think. But don’t make it a reproach against a body claiming to hold an authority from Heaven that it is authoritarian.

Or take another favourite target of atheists, new and old: the doctrine of everlasting punishment. Professor Dawkins goes so far as to accuse the Catholic Church of child abuse for teaching children to believe in Hell. Yet whether the Church does well or ill by such instruction cannot be determined before deciding whether a choice between eternal bliss and eternal woe stands before us. After all, if Hell exists, it would seem cruel not to speak of it to children, and supremely cruel to teach them to scorn it. If the possibility really exists of some such total ruin for the human spirit as is suggested by the term ‘Hell’, then surely even the most ham-fisted instruction in this doctrine is preferable to all the summer camps of the atheists.

Or again, take the Inquisition. Many of the Church’s opponents seem to think it enough merely to mention it to leave Catholics cringing in the dust (and too often, I fear, we oblige them: but that’s another issue). But what was the principle behind the Inquisition? That there are ideas which make it harder for those who absorb them to attain beatitude, and which poison a society where they take root. Among such ideas, according to the Catholic scheme, are that childbearing is an evil; that God has left mankind without revelation or custodians to guard it; that free will is an illusion; and that death terminates experience. If the Catholic scheme can be known to be true, then it is eminently reasonable for the rulers of Catholic countries, not to force their religion on those who have never accepted it, but to prevent the spread of these and similar ideas among their people, out of concern both for their souls and for the health of their society – just as they ought to watch over the purity of the drinking water. This was the rationale for mediaeval persecution. Modern governments likewise persecute ideas they deem injurious to social welfare; racism, especially.

Do I then admit no nugget of truth in the New Atheists’ claim that, to put it at its simplest, ‘religion does bad things’? I should say rather that they have seen a truth which they have poorly expressed: namely, that the religious instinct is a powerful force. But the sexual instinct is also a powerful force. So is gravity. A good man will use all these forces well, and a bad man will use them badly. To berate the religious instinct because it leads one man to blow himself up is no more sensible than to berate romantic love because it leads another to break up a marriage, or to berate gravity because it caused bombs to fall on Dresden.

Finally, what of the thought that a religion, even if true, must inevitably be accompanied by a narrowing of human sympathies? That its adherents will be harsh or hostile to those ‘outside the fold’? This is an empirical question, at last, and I can only say that the counterexamples are sufficient. Let me offer just one, in partial reparation for a frequent slander. Pope Pius XII was the head on earth of the Catholic Church during the Second World War. During this time he did more, probably, than any other man to save the Jewish people from extinction. In his classic study, Three Popes and the Jews, Israeli historian and diplomat Pinchas Lapide concluded that this pope “was instrumental in saving at least 700,000, but probably as many as 860,000 Jews from certain death at Nazi hands.”

I suspect that my arguments in this article will not satisfy atheists committed to the proposition that religion must be a force for evil. But this itself accords with my main thesis, that Catholics and atheists cannot usefully debate this question, but ought rather discuss whether God exists, who Jesus Christ is, and whether the Catholic Church can justify its claim to be more than a merely human institution.

© Fr. Thomas Crean 2010

Fr. Thomas Crean OP is a Dominican friar. His works include A Catholic Replies to Professor Dawkins and Letters to a Non-Believer, both published by Family Publications.

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