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Reply to New Atheists

The question of whether a religion does more good than harm cannot be determined independently of the question of the truth of that religion.


Thomas Crean O.P.

   It’s a mistake to suppose that a ‘religious person’ should want to justify religion-in-general. The world’s religion 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 of 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 a truly good man, 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, say, 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. All other ends, in comparison with this last end, are, on this view, 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 should 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. 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 by which to attain it.

   We’re forced to the same necessity, of first deciding the abstract question of religious truth, by the objections which the ‘new atheists’ tend to present to us (and at least for Professor Dawkins, it is the Catholic Church which is the principal enemy, as he frankly tells us in his book 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 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 as 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 it 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. First (we should say to the atheist) 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 woe stands before us. After all, if hell exists it would seem cruel never to speak of it to children; 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 the word to leave Catholics cringing in the dust (and too often, I fear, we oblige them: but that is another question.) But what was the principle behind the Inquisition? This: 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 child-bearing is an evil; that God has left mankind without revelation or without custodians to guard it; that free-will is an illusion; 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; to do this out of concern both for their souls, and for the health of their society, just as they would 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 the force of 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 led another man 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, at last, is an empirical question: and I can only say that the counter-examples 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.

This article first appeared  in the April-May edition of 'Philosophy Now', a news-stand philosophy review.

Copyright ©; thomas crean O.P. February 2010

Version: 22nd July 2010

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