28 agosto 2007

The Irrational Dogmas of Rational Atheism

The Irrational Dogmas of Rational Atheism
I was recently re-reading sections of what I think is one of the best and yet most under-appreciated works of Catholic apologetics written in recent decades, Faith and Certitude by Father Thomas Dubay, S.M., published by Ignatius Press in 1985. (And, for the record, I thought that long before I ever wrote or worked for Ignatius.) Fr. Dubay's book is, as the title suggests, especially concerned with skepticism and unbelief, and is an excellent examination of the intellectual premises and varied attitudes held by atheists. In a chapter titled, "Clarifying Our Concepts," Fr. Dubay writes:

Everyone is dogmatic. The statement may startle, but it is easy to demonstrate. We human beings differ not as to whether we consider ourselves infallibly right about this or that but as to what this or that may be. ... All of us have dogmas, some with good reason, some without.

This is Chestertonian in nature, as this quote from G.K.'s Heretics indicates: "Man can be defined as an animal that makes dogmas. . . . Trees have no dogmas" A bit later Dubay states:

Yet despite this confusion [brought about by relativism] there lurks in the human heart a deep need for what we shall call objective truth and the secure possession of it.

Simple enough, but also profound. Those statements came to mind when I stumbled today upon a piece on ScientificAmerican.com (September 2007) titled, "Rational Atheism," which is "An open letter to Messrs. Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens," written by Michael Shermer. He is publisher of Skeptic and author of Why Darwin Matters (Henry Holt, 2006). He is not too taken with the often harsh and sensational methods of attack someitmes employed by the best-selling authors he addresses his letter to; he pleads for a more calm and reasoned approach that stresses positive thoughts and action: "I suggest that we raise our consciousness one tier higher..." And:

Promote freedom of belief and disbelief. A higher moral principle that encompasses both science and religion is the freedom to think, believe and act as we choose, so long as our thoughts, beliefs and actions do not infringe on the equal freedom of others.

A higher moral principle....um...based on what? He refers to the "golden rule," which is, if I'm not mistaken (yes, a bit of sarcasm), a religious principle made famous by a man who claimed to be God (His name was Jesus, as I'm sure you know.) The "Voyage of the Dawn Treader" blog remarks:

This is from a guy who says he believes that ultimate reality is matter in motion. Molecules. Matter. Nothing transcendent. Just matter. That's it.

Reading Shermer make moral arguments based on objective moral principles, therefore, is irrational if his worldview is true. The supreme irony is that Shermer titled his article Rational Atheism.

Exactly. Shermer ends his letter with what can only be read as an overt dogmatic statement: "Rational atheism values the truths of science and the power of reason, but the principle of freedom stands above both science and religion." Funny how atheists tend to find something out there and above us that is providing objective guidance—a "principle" in this case—but don't you dare think it could be a personal Creator. For example, Sam Harris, in his screed The End of Faith, writes that there “is no reason that our ability to sustain ourselves emotionally and spiritually cannot evolve with technology, politics, and the rest of culture. Indeed, it must evolve, if we are to have any future at all.” If that isn’t an overt statement of dogmatic faith—in the necessity and inevitability of some sort of evolution—what is?

Harris's book, which I've mentioned before, is a rather fascinating read, but not for any good reason. In fact, good reason and reasoning are rarely found, as Harris's favorite argument against "faith" and "religion" (mostly Christianity and Islam) is that religious people and beliefs are ignorant, foolish, backwards, insulting, intolerant, violent, insane, etc., etc. Every religion, he writes, “preaches the truth of propositions for which no evidence is even conceivable. This puts the ‘leap’ in Kierkegaards’ leap of faith.” And: “Religious faith represents so uncompromising a misuse of the power of our minds that it forms a kind of perverse, cultural singularity—a vanishing point beyond which rational discourse proves impossible.”

In glancing through The End of Faith once more, I noted how much it resembles a bad magic act, with the magician (the atheist author) trying to confuse the audience with a flurry of clumsy distractions (name calling; straw men; rapid fire accusations; emoting; whining) so they won't notice that how poorly he performs the "trick" (makes God disappear). It is curious, for example, that a 336-page book with extensive endnotes, written by someone with a degree in philosophy who supposedly relies occasionally on philosophical arguments—and which describes Catholic doctrine and beliefs as "suggestive of mental illness"—does not contain a single reference to Thomas Aquinas. Or John Henry Newman, Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, Jacques Maritain, Etienne Gilson, Claudel, Josef Pieper, von Balthasar, Mortimer Adler, Hans Küng (a man I often criticize, but whose 800-page book, Does God Exist?, makes Harris's look like third-rate graffiti), Guardini, Richard Swinburne, Rahner, William Lane Craig, Michael Novak, etc., etc. Augustine is mentioned a few times, mostly to call him an anti-Semitic "sadist." Of Pascal: "That so nimble a mind could be led to labor under such dogma [regarding the divinity of Jesus] was surely one of the great wonders of the age." (Funny how bullies only pick on the weak kids when the bigger kids aren't around.) Imagine if a theist wrote a book titled The End of Disbelief and failed to mention, say, Hume, Voltaire, Feuerbach, Nietzsche, Marx, Comte, and Sartre, with only passing reference to Darwin, Freud, and Singer. It would be roundly and rightly criticized. By Christians!

Equally revealing is this passage by Harris:

Imagine that we could revive a well-educated Christian of the fourteenth century. The man would prove to be a total ignoramus, except on matters of faith. His beliefs about geography, astronomy, and medicine would embarrass even a child, but he would know more or less everything there is to know about God.

Here, again, it is the omission that stands out, especially from a student of philosophy. What are the famous words of Socrates? "Know thyself." Harris is so fixated on scientific and technological achievement and knowledge that he ignores the perennial greatness of self-examination and knowledge of man—who he is, how he thinks and feels, how he lives and should live, how he should treat others, etc. That is what the well-educated Christian of the fourteenth century knew far better than the average, self-absorbed, unthinking denizen of the Information Age. Of course, Aquinas spends much time in the Summa Theologica considering the nature and existence of God; but he also focuses on the nature and meaning of being human, the meaning of life, the goal of life, the what and why of ethics, and so forth. It is one reason that even non-Christians generally recognize him as a philosophical/theological genius (even if Harris has never heard of him).

As Fr. Dubay points out, there are three untenable conclusions "that necessarily flow from the atheistic choice." They are the belief in blind chance "as the origin of an unimaginably complex universe"; atheism's "lack of rationality and the ultimate nihilism to which it necessarily leads the consistent mind"; and, to the point I've just made, atheism's "inability to explain men and women to themselves." Atheism, especially the popular sort peddled by Harris and Co., tends to spend much time explaining what it doesn't believe and why it hates Christianity. That might be enough for some people to live on intellectually and otherwise, but it's not enough for folks who are really grappling with the mysteries of life and reality.

By Carl Olson

Mother Teresa's Dark Night

Mother Teresa's Dark Night Unique, Says Preacher

Father Cantalamessa Calls Her Saint of the Media Age

VATICAN CITY, AUG. 27, 2007 (Zenit.org).- Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta's dark night of the soul kept her from being a victim of the media age and exalting herself, says the preacher of the Pontifical Household.

Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa said this in an interview with Vatican Radio, commenting on previously unpublished letters from Mother Teresa, now made public in Doubleday's book "Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light," edited by Father Brian Kolodiejchuk, postulator of the cause of Mother Teresa's canonization.

In one of her letters, Mother Teresa wrote: "There is so much contradiction in my soul. Such deep longing for God -- so deep that it is painful -- a suffering continual -- and yet not wanted by God -- repulsed -- empty -- no fa! ith -- no love -- no zeal. Souls hold no attraction. Heaven means nothing -- to me it looks like an empty place."

Father Cantalamessa explained that the fact that Mother Teresa suffered deeply from her feeling of the absence of God affirms that it was a positive phenomenon. Atheists, he contended, are not afflicted by God's absence but, "for Mother Teresa, this was the most terrible test that she could have experienced."

He further clarified that "it is the presence-absence of God: God is present but one does not experience his presence."


Father Cantalamessa contended that Mother Teresa's spiritual suffering makes her even greater.

He said: "The fact that Mother Teresa was able to remain for hours in front of the Blessed Sacrament, as many eye-witnesses have testified, as if enraptured … if one thinks about the condition she was in at that moment, that is martyrdom!

"Because of this, for me, the figure of Mother Teresa is even greater; it does not diminish her."

The Capuchin priest further lauded Mother Teresa's ability to keep her spiritual pain hidden within her. "Maybe, this was done in expiation for the widespread atheism in today's world," he said, adding that she lived her experience of the absence of God "in a positive way -- with faith, with God."

Not scandalous

Father Cantalamessa affirmed that Mother Teresa's dark night should not scandalize or surprise anyone. The "dark night," he said, "is something well-known in the Christian tradition; maybe new and unheard of in the way Mother Teresa experienced it."

He added: "While 'the dark night of the spirit' of St. John of the Cross is a generally preparatory period for that definitive one called 'unitive,' for Mother Teresa it seems that it was one stable state, from a certain poin! t in her life, when she began this great work of charity, until the end.

"In my view, the fact of this prolongation of the 'night' has meaning for us today. I believe that Mother Teresa is the saint of the media age, because this 'night of the spirit' protected her from being a victim of the media, namely from exalting herself.

"In fact, she used to say that when she received great awards and praise from the media, she did not feel anything because of this interior emptiness."

27 agosto 2007

Father Cantalamessa on the Narrow Gate

Father Cantalamessa on the Narrow Gate

Pontifical Household Preacher Comments on Sunday's Readings

ROME, AUG. 24, 2007 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of a commentary by the Pontifical Household preacher, Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, on the readings from this Sunday's liturgy.

* * *

Enter Through the Narrow Gate
21st Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 66:18-21; Hebrews 12:5-7, 11-13; Luke 13:22-30

There is a question that has always nagged believers: Will there be many or few people saved? During certain periods this problem became so acute as to cause some people terrible anxiety.

This Sunday's Gospel informs us that Jesus himself was once asked this question. "Jesus passed through towns and villages, teaching as he went and making his way to Jerusalem. Someone asked him, 'Lord, will only a few people be saved?'"

The question, as we see, focuses on the number -- How many will be saved? Will it be many or few? In answering the question, Jesus shifts the focus from "how many" to "how" to be saved, that is, by entering "through the narrow gate."

We see this same attitude in regard to Jesus' second coming. The disciples ask "when" the return of the Son of Man will happen and Jesus answers indicating "how" we should prepare ourselves for that return, and what to do during the time of waiting (cf. Matthew 24:3-4).

Jesus' way of responding to these questions is not strange or discourteous. He is just acting in the way of one who wants to teach his disciples how to move from a life of curiosity to one of true wisdom; from the allure of idle questions to the real problems we need to grapple with in life.

From this we already! see the absurdity of those who, like the Jehovah Witnesses, believe they know the precise number of the saved: 144,000.

This number, which recurs in the Book of Revelations has a purely symbolic value (the square of 12 -- the number of the tribes of Israel -- multiplied by 1,000) and is explained by the expression that immediately follows: "A great multitude that no man could number" (Revelations 7:4, 9).

Above all, if 144,000 is really the number, then we can both close up shop. Above the gate to heaven there must be a sign like the ones parking lots put up: "Full."

If, therefore, Jesus is not so much interested in revealing to us the number of the saved as he is in telling us how to be saved, we can understand what he is trying to tell us here. In substance, there are two things: one negative and the other positive.

It is useless, or rather it is not enough, to belong to a certain ethnic group, race, tradition, or institution, not even the chosen people from whom the Savior himself comes. What puts us on the road to salvation is not a title of ownership ("We ate and drank in your presence..."), but a personal decision, followed by a consistent way of life. This is even more clear in Matthew's text which contrasts two ways and two gates, one narrow and the other wide (cf. Matthew 7:13-14).

Why are these ways respectively called "narrow" and "wide"? Is it perhaps that the way of evil is always easy and pleasant to follow and the way of goodness always hard and tiresome?

Here we must be careful not to cede to the usual temptation of believing that here below everything goes magnificently well for the wicked and everything goes terribly for the good.

The way of the wicked is wide, but only at the beginning. As one goes down this way it gradually becomes narrow and bitter. In any case, it becomes very narrow at the end because ! it finishes in a blind alley.

The joy that is experienced in it has the characteristic of diminishing more and more as one tastes it, and it finally causes nausea and sadness. We see this in certain forms of intoxication experienced in drugs, alcohol and sex. A larger dose or stronger stimulation is needed each time to produce pleasure of the same intensity.

Finally the organism no longer responds and it begins to break down, even physically.

The way of the just is instead narrow at the beginning, when one starts off on it, but it then becomes a spacious boulevard because hope, joy and peace of heart are found in it.