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    Fr. Joseph Jenkins

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Christianity versus the New Atheist, part 6

A continuation from part #5.

MISS ATHEIST

Philosophers do indeed reason from causality, motion, existence and from the mind; that doesn’t mean that what they come up with is always true. I know that there are plenty of philosophers you don’t agree with so your attempt to claim that I have to believe whatever a philosopher comes up with is weakened by your own actions. In that you use special pleading to excuse your god from all of those things, means that there is no reason to agree with your claims.

FATHER JOE

Here is an immediate instance of how irrational is your so-called rationality. You write: “I know that there are plenty of philosophers you don’t agree with so your attempt to claim that I have to believe whatever a philosopher comes up with is weakened by your own actions.” Did I ever say that I accept all philosophies? The local university even has a course called “The Philosophy of Star Trek.” Philosophy like science has its frauds and fools. The brand of philosophy espoused by the Church speaks to the mind’s ability to know the world and to deduce elements present but not directly seen. We take nature seriously. As our empirical knowledge of the world around us changes and grows, we move beyond the world of the Scholastics, still trusting that man is a rational animal (albeit ensouled) who can know objective truth and ultimate meaning. Philosophies that reject such concepts would obviously not find much room in the Catholic tradition, just as they would be in conflict with the world view of science and/or physics.

MISS ATHEIST

There is nothing about complexity that requires a god or your god in particular. You wish to pretend that your god always existed and that’s how things started. There is no reason not to make the same assumption that physical laws have always existed too and that’s how things started, no god needed.

FATHER JOE

Here you make a presumption that infinite regressions or progressions are possible without a source. Many of us would view this as an absurdity. The notion of God as a Prime Mover is often misunderstood as it would not place the Creator God within the spatial-temporal order but outside of it.  God does not simply knock over the dominoes, but fashions them and gives them space to fall.  You appear to make matters more cut-and-dry than they actually are.

MISS ATHEIST

You might be amazed that someone can disagree with you and love— so? 

FATHER JOE

Did I say this? No, but my faith does inform how I love. I would love sinners without approving of their sins. I would love freedom but not at the cost of human rights as with those of an unborn child. Hopefully I would love as Jesus does, in a sacrificial way. Trusting that there is something beyond this world makes it easier to do so.

MISS ATHEIST

That’s only an appeal to personal incredulity and the usual sad attempt by a theist to claim that atheists are somehow less than human. I hate to break it to you, but non-Christians are just as happy and loving as Christians are. It is sad that it seems that many Christians have to make up things about atheists so that you can feel better about yourselves.

FATHER JOE

Again, these are your words, not mine. My contention is not that the atheist is less than human but rather that he might sometimes too narrowly define what it means to be human. As for happiness, it is about more than transitory delights or satisfaction. If people like yourself are so happy then why would you rob others of what makes them happy, believe in it or not? Why should you be their (uncertain) arbiter over reality? You condemn the resolution of believers, but do not offer anything in return that matches up to it. You do not know the joy that Christians possess, and while a subjective experience, that does not mean necessarily unhinged from reality. You are intent upon nullifying the experience of faith and any relationship with God that others have just because you do not believe or feel it. You may be the more dogmatic one in this argument.

I am only a parish priest. Greater minds than mine would have to tackle the questions of faith, doubt and disbelief. Nevertheless, I have come up with some questions for such a discussion:

  • What is prayer and does it work?
  • Are miracles real and how do they relate to natural laws?
  • What is the resurrection and how has it impacted upon believers?
  • How does creation and providence interact with human agency?
  • Does the human mind and desires speak to the existence of the soul?
  • How can we know the true God?
  • How do we reconcile a good God with suffering, pain and evil?
  • Can truths in science, philosophy and religion complement each other?
  • Is intelligent design compatible with modern scientific views?
  • In what ways does our view of creation allow room for evolution and the human condition?
  • Do the things we say about God have a lot to say about ourselves?
  • How can we relate to a God outside of space and time?
  • Given both a mental and material world, can we substantiate a spiritual world of meaning?

MISS ATHEIST

I see you make a claim that there are extra-biblical sources and good archaeology for the events of the salvation story but you do not present them. Now, being a student of archaeology and those extra-biblical sources, I know your claims aren’t true. We have forgeries in Josephus. We have claims that since Christians exist and are mentioned that it has to mean that the salvation story is true, which would mean that since believers of other gods exist, those gods have to really exist too. We have claims that the Talmud mentions Jesus, but Christians fail to mention that it gets the details wrong. We have no archaeological evidence for Jesus or of Noah and the flood, or of the existence of Israelites enslaved in Egypt, etc.

FATHER JOE

There are three passages in Josephus about which authorities argue. However, it is generally admitted that these works provide valuable insight into first century Judaism and the early days of Christianity. This makes me wonder what kind of student you might actually be. I do not hide my identity and background. Since you make claims of professional standing, why not tell us who you are and what your credentials might be? It is easy to attack from the shadows. Who are you? The term “salvation history” has a meaning that seems to elude you. It does not mean a kind of video news recording of the past. It speaks to the stories and testimonies of saints and sinners. We encounter prophets and patriarchs, and eventually the fulfillment of an ancient promise. Even the manner of the telling is part of this legacy, with all the hyperbole and cultural trappings. It speaks to a God that has inserted himself directly into human history. You would throw it all away, claiming there was no primordial flood (although there is evidence in the Mediterranean basin), no Moses and miraculous escape from Egyptian bondage (that takes care of the commandments), and no Jesus (even though believers died professing the risen Lord). It is here that you show your true face. You are not a rational atheist. You are a bigot who so hates religious themes that you would negate not only the supernatural but the meaningful tangible human experience. You are to be pitied.

MISS ATHEIST

Now, I’ll ask you since you make the claim of good evidence, what dates did these events happen? If we have good evidence, then you should know. Then we can look for evidence around those times. If a strong earthquake, and the darkening of the sun, and the dead were walking on a single day, we should be able to find evidence of it. If your messiah did have thousands of people meeting just outside of Jerusalem, more than a legion’s worth of men, plus women and children, one would think that the Roman occupiers would have noted it. If there were hundreds of thousands of people walking around an area the size of half of Pennsylvania for 40 years, we should be able to find at least a few latrines.

FATHER JOE

This has already become a long discussion, mostly an elongated clarification or correction of your misconceptions. Note the differences in the Gospels. While truth is proclaimed, it is done in a way that reflects different communities and their emerging theological traditions. Sources outside of the Bible give credence to the people and events in the Scriptures, but details are sometimes wrapped up in numerology, a limited worldview and science.  While the Jews appealed to an invisible, spiritual God; nevertheless, an unavoidable anthropomorphism sometimes entered into what they thought he demanded of them. Archeological finds emerge every day but we should not underestimate how centuries upon centuries can effectively bury much of the past. The torn veil, the darkening sky, earthquakes, well maybe, but these are not the determining elements of Christ’s story. The crucial mystery is the saving death and resurrection of Christ. God keeps his ancient promise to redeem a people. As for signs among the Romans, the greatest empire on the earth would be converted by the new faith and the old Rome of Caesar would after several centuries of martyrs’ blood make room for the new Rome of Peter and Christ.

There are all sorts of writings that point to the Christ-event. Josephus, already mentioned, in book 18 of his work speaks about John the Baptizer and Jesus, although he merely termed the latter as “a wise man” and a “doer of wonderful works.”  The Babylonian Talmud (200 AD) refers to Jesus as one executed for practicing “sorcery” and threatening the Jews with “apostasy.”  There are many extra-biblical writings from the Romans about the early Christians, even if the pagans did not understand what they were about: Pliny’s Letter to Trajan (111 AD), Suetonius (110 AD) on the persecution of Christians, and Tacitus on the Christian “superstition” in the Roman Annals (115 AD).  There was also Eusebius, and of course, there would be volumes from the early Church fathers, other Christian apologists and the heretical Gnostics.  Clement (a papal successor to Peter) penned a letter to the Corinthians that is purportedly older than the Book of Revelation!

MISS ATHEIST

I see you mentioned the Barna report. Now, if one looks at the paragraph you gave one can make some interesting observations on how they chose to present the data. Churches are considered charities, the problem is that most of the money just goes to the church and only benefits its members.

FATHER JOE

And where are your facts to base up this claim? Restricting ourselves to Catholic charity work in the United States, estimates vary from 17 to 34% of all non-profit social-service charities. That is not counting the efforts of other Christian organizations as well as Jewish ones. Worldwide it is estimated (in 2010) that Catholic charity efforts amounted to $171,600,000,000 (The Economist). When you look to what actually reaches the needy and what is spent for administration, figures show that most is spent to make a difference in people’s lives. A very small percentage goes to administration, which not all operations can claim. We do not seek to benefit just our own. We do not ask a beggar on the street for his denomination before giving him a sandwich.

Where you would fault the Church is that she is tax-exempt and that not everything given the Church is for social services or charity. Parishes have churches and schools to maintain. We have salaries to pay. Also, we are not social workers. We are about spreading the Gospel, about worship and about teaching certain moral values.

MISS ATHEIST

Churches do fund actual work that helps others, but not to the degree they fund themselves. If they did give as much to others, then my local mission wouldn’t have to beg for money from everyone, when there are ten pages of churches in my local yellow pages.

FATHER JOE

You want me to substantiate even the smallest of claims, no doubt an effort to make a response so ponderous that none could be made with any practicality; however, you do not hold yourself to the same standard. You remain anonymous and neither offer identification of your charities nor what they do? Is Planned Parenthood one of your charities? They would not only rank as a Fortune 500 corporation but sell baby parts for money, too.

MISS ATHEIST

If the claims of Christians are true, and that the US is a Christian-majority country, that means that Christians are in those groups that Barna singled out, except of course for the atheists and agnostics. Christian young people, Christians who didn’t go to college, Christians in the northeast, Christian Asians and Christian Hispanics didn’t give to charities. What is amusing about this is that “25% or more” didn’t give but 75% (or less) did give. Since Barna is a religious group, there is a reason that they write the way they do. They also don’t show their numbers, which is always suspect.

FATHER JOE

I am no apologist for Barna but I can speak to the fact that many claim to be Christian or Catholic when in fact, they are not. It has been my experience that the most fervent believers have been the most generous with needs.

MISS ATHEIST

To which group does the “or more” apply? By how much more are we talking? Now, another study was done and it broke down giving to church and non-church non-profits, “Connected to Give: National Study of American Religious Giving Frequencies.. Unsurprisingly, when that was done, there wasn’t much difference at all. Again, if one actually follows the evidence, and does not have a presupposition, the truth to be found is quite different. Christians don’t have a lock on charity work at all. Christians aren’t funding soup kitchens and homeless shelters to the exclusion of everyone else. What they are doing is falsely trying to claim credit for the actions of all humans.

FATHER JOE

Other than those operated by the government, how many independent (non-religious) shelters and soup kitchens do you know? How many strictly atheist groups run charity operations for the homeless and hungry?  My parishioners regularly feed the homeless at SOME, an operation started in DC by a Jesuit priest. Today it invites people of all faiths or none at all to assist in the work. President Obama made an appearance and dished out food. I am not saying there are no good-hearted atheists. I am saying that religious believers are the main movers and shakers for the bulk of charities in our nation. You have shown nothing to prove otherwise. Indeed, you have given a caricature of a self-seeking and narcissistic Christianity that is a far cry from the REAL witness of faith that I have seen and experienced.

See part #7 that continues this topic.