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    Fr. Joseph Jenkins

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Christianity versus the New Atheist, part 5

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A continuation from part #4.

The debate about theism or belief and unbelief faces serious arguments from both sides. However, too often we end up swatting flies instead of dragons. In any case, believers should always be ready to defend their faith. Our posture must be a reasoned one that takes the discussion seriously, even when the protagonist lacks discretion and/or charity. Not knowing the genuine identity of my adversary, I merely call her Miss Atheist.

MISS ATHEIST

You make the argument that religion has been “misused.” This might be a good excuse if the bible itself and the words of the Pope and other Christian leaders didn’t say that slavery was fine, genocide was fine, killing unbelievers was fine, killing people for supposed “sins” was fine, etc. The true face of Christianity and Catholicism is that of violence and intolerance *and* charity *and* decency. Having been a Christian and having read the bible as a believer and as not, I know this very well.

FATHER JOE

What brand of Christianity was it to which you belonged? It is obvious that like fundamentalists you might know some bible verses but you do not know either the Bible or the true face of Christianity. God’s revelation takes man where it finds him. The seeds planted by the Gospel would eventually blossom in a Christian anthropology that would leave no room for slavery, forced conversions or unjust aggression. We are all brothers and sisters, even if the family of man should sometimes be dysfunctional in how it communicates. Our Lord himself offered correctives as with divorce, complaining that certain things reflected our hardness of hearts and not the direct will of God.

MISS ATHEIST

Millions have died because of the words of the saints to kill Muslims and Jews and claims of the Catholic Church that one should not use contraception. Christianity has been the voice of oppression just as many times as it has been the voice of the oppressed. At best, religion breaks even on causing harm and good because of the beliefs of the religion. That shows that religion is not objectively good. It shows that it is no more than another human invention, filled with the same decency and humaneness and violence and hatred as any other invention.

FATHER JOE

The crusades lasted two centuries and there may have been as many as 200,000 deaths at most. However, numbers are unsure and there may have been less than that. Islam was the Red Threat of its day and its adherents threatened to swallow up Europe. The crusades sought to keep passage to the holy sites open for Christians. Eventually an accommodation would come through St. Francis and his Order. Abuses, particularly because of greed did occur. But like so many bigots, as with those making outrageous Reformation claims, you throw out “millions” as the number of casualties. As for artificial contraception, all of Christianity condemned the practice until the Anglicans voted to approve it for married couples in 1930. Who are the millions who have died at the Church’s hands for promoting contraception? Your anti-Catholicism has reduced your calumny to silliness and brings disgrace back upon yourself.

I would be no apologist for all religion. However, I do personally believe in freedom of conscience and religion. I would never force adults to my brand of worship and faith. Even parents can only instruct and share faith. Ultimately their offspring must decide for themselves to follow or to abandon what they were given. Such liberality does not imply a religious indifferentism or an overly expansive ecumenism. I believe in Catholic Christianity and its claims as true religion. Other belief systems may have elements of the truth, albeit mixed with error. Yes, I know, from your perspective, it is all foolishness. So be it, no one can force you to believe otherwise and as a Christian I regard faith as a divine gift. You either have it or you do not.

I am not convinced that Christianity breaks even as we cannot know what the world would be without Christ and the apostles. A broken world might be even more nightmarish. The Christian faith is an antidote to many of the world’s problems but most believers are either more formed by the world, caught up in their own selfishness and sins, or are too afraid to be the signs of contradiction that we are called to be and need.

The Christian faith and the Church are good because God is good. We view the Church as both a divine and a human institution. It is human with practical laws because it seeks order and fellowship over sinners. It is divine because it is imbued with the Holy Spirit which preserves the truth and gives efficacy to the sacraments in a communion that is the Mystical Body of Christ. The Church is holy because Christ is holy.

MISS ATHEIST

Just because you write the word “real” in capital letters doesn’t make your claim true nor does it impress anyone. You have yet to show that your god exists at all. There is no more reason to think your god is real than there is to think that Allah is real or Vishnu or Coyote or Amaterasu or Tezcatlipoca. You do try your best with Pascal’s Wager, but until evidence is shown that your god is real and no other gods are, it fails because it requires fear of something that can’t be shown to exist. If I don’t worship a god that insists that others should die for supposed sins, I gain tolerance and I am not a murderer. I don’t waste time and resources on trying to impress a god with megachurches and cathedrals. I can use that time and those resources to actually help people. I gain quite a lot in not believing in something that does nothing. You assume that it is your god that is the Creator. All religions do this and none of you can show that your claim is the real one. All point to the universe and say “my god did this.” Why should I believe you?

FATHER JOE

I am not seeking to impress anyone. I am merely sharing my faith. You seem to object to this. Just because you assert there is no God, your saying it does not force me to concede or make it truthful. There are various proofs or ways to understand God’s existence; but I do not see why I should have to give a full blown course in cosmology and the philosophy of God. It is true that I do not find the assumptions of atheists as credible and I will often say so. This does not mean that atheists are wicked or bad neighbors. I do lament the belligerency that is entering discussions, particularly online. My background in world religions is limited. Christianity would claim the same Father God as the Jews and the late Saint Pope John Paul II taught that this is also the same God of the Moslems. The situation is less clear with other purported deities. The very definition of a deity varies between the religions. Catholicism would define God as of one divine nature but generating three divine Persons. We would also argue that he is the source and perfection of the various goods we see in creation: all knowing, all loving, all powerful, etc. He is existence itself, and the one in whom all created things find their being through participation. An almighty deity must by definition be one because any plurality would imply sharing or something lacking in one or the other. The gods of ancient mythology were of this sort and thus not real. The early Christians conjectured that they might be demons, fallen spiritual creatures, pretending to be deities.

But why am I telling you about this? You regard it all as mythology or fiction. You would try to explain your existence without a deity. I would see a necessity for God from contingency and motion.

While I would prefer Aquinas’ Five Ways, Pascal’s Wager (which you mention) always reminded me of Anselm’s Ontological Argument, as neither is really a proof, but presuppose certain factors of belief or elements in the definition of God. Although Pascal was a Catholic, gambling on God’s existence does not satisfy my appreciation of what faith means. Could feigned faith genuinely please God or save you? Certainly God knows the sincerity of our hearts. As for Anselm, the presumption of a God makes other assertions far too easy. I worry that the transition from the intentional to the actual may be missing a middle term or come too readily. I have similar reservations about mathematics as a means to explain creation without a God.

The way you describe God is very foreign from how I and most Christians understand him. Further, you would negate the subjective experience of relationship that believers have with Christ. I suppose you would classify it as delusion or mass deception. But many have loved this God you dismiss and have allowed that love to flow over into love of neighbor. They have practiced a sacrificial love that imitates the oblation of Jesus. Yes, we are sinners, but we trust that ours is a forgiving God. The posture of the creature to the Creator is one of humility and praise. We obey God and while our sights are on heaven, we try to better the immediate world around us. The true history of the Church and Christianity is not found in cases of hypocrisy and inhumanity to men; but rather, it is the story of the many martyrs and saints. They are the ones who present the real face of the Church and Christ.

I would be curious as to how you do not waste time as an atheist. What is it that you actually do to make a positive difference for others? What are these Christian charities you said you support? My life is an open book. You’re an anonymous critic on the Internet. What I believe is substantiated by my life and my open profile. I am a Catholic priest who embraced both celibacy and obedience to serve God in his people. I am the pastor of a small church and together we try to make a real and positive impact upon the lives of others. We raised money and sent aid to the Philippines and to Haiti. We have volunteers who collect food and feed the homeless regularly in DC. We raised money and supplies for a local family shelter. We have fundraisers for the local pregnancy crisis center. We support the maternity home nearby. We offer counseling to those who need it. We are an inclusive community, educating and making room in our pews for those with physical and mental challenges. We operate our own food pantry. We collected and bought coats for poor kids. We have members who are involved with justice issues, racial toleration, immigration and jobs, etc. The list goes on and on. Over the years I tutored kids at a Boys Club, counseled children at a juvenile detention home, educated the residents at a facility for the mentally challenged, visited patients at the local nursing homes and hospitals, and so forth. I do not feel that I am wasting time by saying my prayers or celebrating Mass. Indeed, these activities empower my ministry and the witness of the parish. Sorry madam, you really do not know what you are talking about.

MISS ATHEIST

I certainly do throw out certain claims of evidence by theists. What is amusing is that you do the same thing if that evidence is claimed for another god.

FATHER JOE

You may amuse yourself any way you see fit but your posture is not mine. I neither throw out immediately the claims of other theists nor those of researchers in archeology, biology and evolution, astronomy or physics. I may struggle to understand thinkers from other disciplines, but I take seriously the beliefs and rational assessments of others. This is particularly the case when they are offered in a manner that respects others and civil discourse. It is true that I have certain presumptions as a Catholic priest but I am not afraid of the truth. Obviously, I share much in terms of faith with other Christians and maintain a profound respect toward our Jewish origins. Other religions, as I said, may have elements of truth, albeit mixed with error. My Catholic faith is informed from many sources: Scripture or divine positive law, Tradition or those beliefs and practices passed down from the apostles, the Magisterium or teaching authority instituted by Christ, Philosophy or a rational approach to questions of meaning that presume that what we know is real and that we have the capacity to make deductions from material creation and existence, and Science which explores the world around us by making observations, experiments and by pondering the math behind reality. I may sometimes be critical of the claims of other religions, but such is an expression of my faith and not a judgment against other human beings. Indeed, I can respect the beauty and insights of other belief systems while not placing personal credence in them or their view of God. Of course, with the Buddhists we are talking more about a state of being and abandonment or letting go than a traditional deity.

MISS ATHEIST

How can you show that you and you alone correctly interpret the evidence and that no one else does?

FATHER JOE

I do not do any such thing. Mine is not a religion of one.

While my faith is not spoon-fed but requires spiritual reflection, it is one that is widely shared and has a long history. The evidence is assessed by many Catholics in the various disciplines and they collaborate. Thus Catholic theologians, philosophers, and scientists work together in evaluating what we know and in seeking a complementarity in truth.

MISS ATHEIST

Your argument is nothing more than the god of the gaps argument when you claim that microscopes and telescopes can only see so far as your “evidence” for your god. Again, you try to attack a strawman atheist when you falsely claim that atheists throw out the aesthetic and the sense of awe. I still have a sense of the aesthetic and I still feel awe when I look at the universe. I just don’t assign that awe to a god or make believe that this god only created the beautiful. I see the universe as it is, pretty cool and often pretty horrifying when I think about guinea worms, bot flies, etc.

FATHER JOE

No, I would not make a so-called “god of the gaps” argument. The atheist Dawkins argues that such is a fallacious approach. My emphasis is merely that there is too much that science does not know for it to make dogmatic statements against a deity. I would argue that God’s existence is better realized in what we know other than by what we do not know (the gaps). Catholic philosophy hinges not on the unknown but upon what we know. Christianity is not a stark materialism, but we take the physical world very seriously. How else could it be for a religion that accepts as credible the world around it and that professes an incarnate deity? Of course, many non-Catholic Christian fundamentalists would resist the value of philosophy as an intrusion or competition to faith. Indeed, they might judge science in similar ways as with the evolution debate and cosmology questions. However, Catholicism has long since moved beyond such a naïve interpretation. I suppose part of the confusion in the debate here is how we use the word mystery. We do not use it in terms of the detective novel. The supernatural mysteries touch upon what we know and/or what has been revealed but also upon that which cannot be exhausted by our knowing it. While mystery might defy rational demonstration, logical arguments can always be made to show that it is possible.

There is also a “science of the gaps” that extends from the ridiculous to the probable. The ridiculous is often evidenced on the Discovery Channel that mixes real science programs with conjectural shows on Loch Ness Monster, Big Foot and Ancient Astronauts. Among the more probable or credible research (but often corrected by scientists themselves) are inquiries into human missing links and the origins and ultimate plight of the universe. The professionals themselves conjecture and disagree as they seek to fill gaps. Everyone hopes that there is a forward movement or advancement in the truth.  The theories and assumptions might be logical or based upon what we already know, but the gaps remain.  Will the gaps always be there?

The brokenness of the world is not something foreign to the Christian. We know full well there is a disharmony. But as horrible and terrifying certain elements of creation might seem to be; even here we find order and beauty. I would suggest that your sense of the aesthetic is weakened. You would ascribe to accident or chance that in which I see order and design.

MISS ATHEIST

It’s rather sad when you try to claim that the only rational people are those who agree with you.

FATHER JOE

I am not arguing that only rational people would agree with me. My argument here is with you and those critics like you.

See part #6 that continues this topic.