A post I wrote last week on Catholicism and atheism received over 200,000 views and (as of this writing) over 900 comments. Most of these were negative, but they were helpful in showing the areas that many atheists go awry in their opposition to religion. I’m hardly the first to notice that the same errors get made time and time again. Fr. Robert Barron, of the popular Catholicism and Word on Fire series, has labelled these errors the “YouTube heresies.”
Four of the major errors that Fr. Barron identifies are: (1) a misunderstanding of what Christians mean by God – whether God is understood as the highest Being or as the ground of Being itself; (2) a belief that Biblical literalism is the most accurate way to understand the Bible; (3) a belief in scientism, “the reduction of knowledge to the scientific way of knowing,” with a concomitant belief that religion and science are antithetical; and (4) the belief that religion is invariably violent. All four of these views were prominently featured in the comments, but I want to focus specifically on two of them: scientism (and its accompanying errors), and the misunderstanding of what Christians mean by “God.”
|Msgr. Georges Lemaître,
father of Big Bang Cosmology
Most of the atheists who commented seem to have started from the same philosophical assumption: that you can only know what you can prove, and that all proof is scientific proof. In this view, “real” things are things that science can prove, while “faith” refers to the obstinate, and inherently irrational, belief in those things that aren’t “real.” Both of the underlying propositions (that all knowledge is provable, and that all proof is scientific) are false, and this grossly misunderstands what Christians mean by “faith.” Fr. Barron explained it this way, in Church and New Media:
The sciences – and their attendant technologies – have been so massively successful that people have come, understandably enough, to see the scientific way of knowing as the only epistemological path.
Time and again, my conversation partners on YouTube urge me to admit that the only valid form of truth is that which comes as a result of the scientific method: observing the world, gathering evidence, marshaling arguments, performing experiments, etc. I customarily respond that the scientific method is effective indeed when investigating empirical phenomena but that it is useless when it comes to questions of a more philosophical nature, such as the determination of the morally right and wrong, the assessment of something’s aesthetic value, or the settling of the question why there is something rather than nothing.
More to it, I argue that to hold consistently to scientism involves one in an operational contradiction, for the claim that all knowledge is reducible to scientific knowledge is not itself a claim that can be justified scientifically! But this appeal to metaphysics and philosophy strikes most of my conversation partners as obscure at best, obfuscating at worst.
Since the claim that all truth must be scientifically provable is not itself scientifically provable, it’s self-refuting (by the claim’s own standard, it renders itself false). More than that, such a claim would require us to disregard most of what we know (since most of our knowledge is not derived from scientific inquiry).
|Charles Willson Peale, George Washington (1776)|
For example, my own background is in history and law, neither of which confines itself to the methods used by the natural sciences. Lawyers, judges, and juries consider physical evidence where available, but also explicitly recognizes written and testimonial evidence as evidence as well. Historians also look heavily to the written record, and base their findings off of what the eyewitnesses to history say.
For example, “George Washington was the first president of the United States of America” is a factual claim, in a way that “George Washington was my favorite president of the United States of America” is not (since the latter is a subjective opinion). We can know that Washington was the first president, even though we cannot recreate his presidency in a lab experiment. Since it’s unrepeatable, the claim is not scientific, but it’s still true, and still a fact.
In the original webcomic, Matthew Inman compared an individual’s religious belief to having a favorite color: that is, a subjective claim, and a matter of mere personal preference. I stated in response that this view fundamentally misunderstands religion. We understand religion to be objectively true, as true as “3 x 3 = 9.” This claim proved to be far more controversial than I anticipated. Apparently, several of the commenters assumed that since the Resurrection isn’t provable in the same manner than math is provable, it’s not equally true.
In defending scientism, one of the commenters showed both the prevalence, and the intellectual weakness, of the methodology:
“It’s just a rational way of looking at things. If you have $100 in your pocket – take it out and show me – don’t expect me to just blindly believe you have said $100 in your pocket because you read about it in a book or it came to you in a dream or some other no-win argument.”
His own hypothetical shows the flaws in this approach. If a friend of yours has $100 in his pocket, this is true whether or not he proves it to you. Think about the old cliché about a tree falling in the forest: truth is true, whether or not it’s observable or testable (which, by the way, aren’t the same thing). And if you believed your friend when he told you that he had $100 in his pocket, this wouldn’t be simply “blind belief.” Rather, you’d be basing your belief off of evidence: namely, his testimony — and he should know. So it’s not as if you randomly came to this conclusion without reason or evidence (or on the basis of a dream, etc.): instead, you opted to believe the testimony of a witness. In fact, it would be completely rational to believe your friend in this situation, unless you had some good reason not like (your friend is a notorious liar, etc.).
|Fr. Gregor Mendel,
the “father of genetics”
Drawing reasoned conclusions on the basis of witness testimony is one of the critical ways that the criminal justice system operates in this, and every, country. It’s also what scientists do. They trust the testimony of other scientists without repeating every prior scientific test: the alternative, individually subjecting every claim to scientific testing, would be both functionally impossible and intellectually futile.
For some reason, several of the atheists who commented persisted in demanding that religion be tested in the same way that empirical claims are tested within the natural sciences. Or more accurately, they demanded it be proven in a way that even natural science isn’t: “Prove your case. Prove it using testable, repeatable, independently-verifiable means. Do it in such a way that you remove all possibility of doubt. Until you do this, your assertions have no validity, and no place in a thinking, progressive world.” This standard is arbitrarily and unreasonably specific. In limiting the acceptable proof to that which uses “testable, repeatable, independently-verifiable means,” the commenter is disregarding not only those truths known from theology, but also many of the truths known from history, philosophy, anthropology, archaeology, law, and so forth.
But it’s not just the specificity of the standard that’s problematic: it’s also an arbitrarily, unreasonably, impossibly high burden of proof. By this standard, the existence of a single atheist debunks Christianity. This standard of proof seems to be drawn up out of thin air. Certainly, Christianity doesn’t claim to provide evidence that no person could ever doubt. Neither, for that matter, does any field of science. Nor could they, as even a scientific view that has survived rigorous testing could still prove to be wrong at a later day. This isn’t the standard that any facts are held to (including those in the natural sciences). It’s not even the standard we use in capital cases. We’ve literally sent men to their deaths on less epistemological certainty than the commenter is demanding. We’ve also sent men to the moon on less certaint, since nothing within astronomy can be proven ‘beyond all possible doubt.’
In that sense, then, this standard of proof would literally eliminate all knowledge, including scientific and mathematical knowledge. After all, there’s at least the possibility of doubt that 3 x 3 = 9. Perhaps you’ve done your math wrong, or your calculator is broken, or you don’t know what “3” or “9” mean, or the universal constants have suddenly shifted since you last did the formula. These possibilities are all exceedingly unlikely, but they provide at least the possibility of doubt.
Yet this literally-impossible standard and methodology is the one that was quickly agreed upon as the appropriate burden of proof on theism, with one commenter adding: “Excellent reply Jim, no doubt you will not receive a response from the writer of this dribble because he is not able to refute that. He relies on ‘faith’ much like a child relies on Santa Claus coming every year as long as the kid is good.” I think the clamoring for this literally-impossible standard shows both how widespread the self-refuting error of scientism is, and how destructive. Taken seriously, this would eliminate our ability to know anything, not just the existence of God.
|God as Geometer, Codex Vindobonensis 2554 (1250)|
So how does all of this relate to the truth of Catholicism? Contrary to what several of the commenters suggested, we don’t just believe because we stumbled upon a Book (the Bible) and assumed it to be literally true. Nor do we simply believe blindly, without evidence.
On the contrary, the Resurrection is a specific historical event. As early as Pentecost, fifty days after the alleged Resurrection, St. Peter stood up in front of thousands of people in Jerusalem and asserted that the Tomb in which Jesus Christ was buried was empty: a factual claim that could have been easily debunked if His Body was, in fact, in the nearby Tomb. Peter, and several other eyewitnesses, reported seeing this risen Jesus, and were willing to be executed rather than recant this testimony. They, and Jesus of Nazareth Himself, were also reported by eyewitnesses to have performed miracles, providing a sort of external verification for their claims.
These testimonies were believed by large groups of the Apostles’ contemporaries living everyone from Spain to Ethiopia to India, and their written records were preserved, and have been copied innumerable times and passed on. As a matter of simple historical record, they are better attested than perhaps any other documents in antiquity.
Believing the historical record left by these eyewitnesses is not, as far as I can tell, any more irrational than believing any other eyewitness testimony, or the testimony of any other witness — including believing the testimony of other scientists in your field, without personally repeating each of their tests. On the contrary, it strikes me as (by far) the most rational explanation for the known historical facts.
But it’s not just through history that we come to know the truth of theism (and of Christianity, specifically). For example, St. Thomas Aquinas used logic and philosophy to prove his Five Ways, which established that the existence of a Creator is logically necessary. To date, no atheist has satisfactorily rebutted these arguments. So “faith” doesn’t mean “holding a particular view without evidence,” even if most of the forms of that evidence are different from what we have in the natural sciences. In fact, as will be clearer in the next point, it’s unreasonable to expect the evidence of God to be like the evidence for (say) a comet, since God isn’t within the universe (and thus, not within the scope of the competency of the natural sciences).
Back in 2006, the late Senator Ted Stevens infamously described the Internet this way:
And again, the Internet is not something that you just dump something on. It’s not a big truck. It’s a series of tubes. And if you don’t understand, those tubes can be filled and if they are filled, when you put your message in, it gets in line and it’s going to be delayed by anyone that puts into that tube enormous amounts of material, enormous amounts of material.
It was painfully (and admittedly, amusingly) obvious that the Senator had no idea what he was talking about. He’d gleaned facts about the way that the Internet worked, but was imagining it all wrong.
I’m reminded of this when I hear certain atheists talk about what we Christians mean by “God.” For example, in the comments to the prior post, believers were characterized as “misinformed people who worship imaginary sky creatures,” and whose belief is akin to believing in an “invisible pink unicorn.” Another commenter described Christians as being in a God Who is an “invisible man.” But understanding the Christian notion of God as an invisible Man in the sky is like understanding the Internet as a series of tubes full of 1’s and 0’s: it’s comical, but absurdly incorrect.
Perhaps the people making these claims know this, and are just presenting Christianity in an absurd way to try to make us look stupid. I’m not convinced. Many of the people in question seem to honestly believe that this is what we mean by “God,” which is another of the “YouTube heresies” that Fr. Barron describes. From Church and New Media, again:
Thomas Merton, O.C.S.O.
In his Seven Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton recalled the first time he read Etienne Gilson’s The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy and encountered a philosophically sophisticated understanding of God as ipsum esse (the sheer act of being itself). He was flabbergasted because he had assumed that God was, in his words, a “noisy and dramatic” mythological being.Again and again, in my dialogues on YouTube, I encounter the characterization of God as a “sky fairy,” an “invisible friend,” or my favorite, “the flying spaghetti monster.” This last one comes from the militant atheist Richard Dawkins, who insinuates that there is as much evidence for God as for this fantastic imaginary creature.Almost no one with whom I dialogue considers the possibility that God is not one being among many, not the “biggest thing around,” not something that can be categorized or defined in relation to other things. Throughout his career, Thomas Aquinas insisted that God is best described, not as ens summum (highest being), but rather as ipsum esse (the subsistent act of being itself). As such, God is not a thing or existent among many. In fact, Aquinas specifies, God cannot be placed in any genus, even the genus of being. This distinction – upon which so much of Christian theology hinges – is lost on almost everyone with whom I speak on YouTube.One of the best indicators of this confusion is the repeated demand for “evidence” of God’s existence, by which my interlocutors typically mean some kind of scientifically verifiable trace of this elusive and most likely mythological being. My attempts to tell them that the Creator of the entire universe cannot be, by definition, an object within the universe are met, usually, with complete incomprehension.
Fr. Barron alludes to the fact that this second error is tied to the first, scientism. If you understand “God” to be a material, invisible entity living inside the universe, then it makes sense to expect that the search for God should be like the search for the “God particle.” So you end up with people saying things like this:
There is not clear evidence of the existence of a God in the sense that there *is* evidence of the guy next to me in the subway, or of the millions of people who live in the same city as me, by the sheer fact that I see many of them, and the artifacts they create and leave behind, every day. No one would seriously dispute their existence. People can, and do, dispute the existence of God because the artifacts that a given God would at least have left behind do not exist.
The artifacts that a given God would have left behind? From a Christian perspective, this argument is just incoherent, since it assumes a God that is an elusive creature wandering around the universe, some sort of cross between Galactus and Carmen Sandiego.
Let me use an example by analogy, with intelligibility. For science to work, the universe must be intelligible. But intelligibility isn’t a material thing, and it’s not something that can be “discovered” through science. Rather, it’s a transcendental truth, and one that requires an Intelligent Creator, since the unintelligible cannot produce the intelligible. For this reason, C. S. Lewis described his faith in Christianity like this: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” If, in response to this, you sought to disprove the existence of universal intelligibility by showing that it doesn’t show up on a spectrometer, your argument would simply miss the mark. You’d be (irrationally) expecting an immaterial thing to behave like a material one.
If this is the view of God an atheist popular among atheists, it’s no wonder that we see the search for God being compared to the search for the Loch Ness Monster: both of them are about chasing for particularly elusive creatures. I suppose it’s reasonable to reject this “God,” just as it would be reasonable to deny the existence of the Internet, if it was understood as a series of tubes of 1s and 0s. Such an Internet, and such a God, do not exist. But the problem, in both cases, is a gross misunderstanding of terms. So the solution isn’t to reject the existence of the Internet, or God. It’s to find out what those terms really mean.
For example, contrary to several of the comments I received, Christians don’t believe that the Trinity is a creature. The word “creature” literally means “a created thing,” or “a being subservient to or dependent upon another.” It’s as if the definition, even the etymology, of the word is screaming, “If you think God is one of these, you misunderstand Him!” Thomas Merton’s humility, in re-learning what he “knew” about the idea of God lead him from agnosticism to Catholicism. But that won’t happen if you refuse to take that first step, and insist on raging against an “Imaginary Sky Fairy” view of God.
Obviously, given the breadth of the topic and the wide range of comments, much more could be said. Here are some of the other points that would be worth addressing in more depth, but which I omitted for brevity’s sake:
- There were, generally-speaking, two large blocks of negative commenters: those who claimed that it was a webcomic, and so, shouldn’t be discussed seriously (e.g., “Serious concepts deserve serious conversations. Cartoons do not”), and those who claimed that the webcomic made serious points that were true (e.g., “Maybe he exaggerated a little but the points in the comic were pretty much spot on”). These groups can’t both be right; I’d argue that they’re both wrong. I see no reason that Inman can’t use humor and a webcomic format to raise serious points. I just think that the points he’s making are wrong. Claiming “it was just a joke!” is a cop-out.
- There’s an obsession with claiming offense. Several of the commenters viewed the rebuttal as me simply saying, “I’m offended!” For example, RationalWiki described the rebuttal this way: “The Oatmeal’s ‘How To Suck At Your Religion’ comic is offensive to Catholics because… because… because WWWAAAAAHHHH!!!” I mentioned that the comic was offensive once, as a warning to anyone about to click the link. My points wasn’t remotely that the arguments in the comic were “offensive to Catholics.” It’s that the arguments were wrong.
Having said that, there were a lot of people who cried offense, in lieu of calmly presenting an argument. They just happened to be on the same side as “Rational” Wiki. For example: “I find it personally offensive that you are generalizing so many different types of people. People aren’t meant to fit inside the imaginary boxes of society. You generalize atheists to being smug and hostile while implying that believers are SUPERIOR to all other human beings. Don’t you remember what events that kind of thinking inspired? The Holocaust, Crusades, and Apartheid are just a few of them. This post reinforces the stereotypes of “the religious nut” who is hypercritical of any opinion that opposes their own. If anything, I find this post to be hostile, bigoted, and pretentious.” Saying that you’re offended doesn’t mean that I’m wrong. It may just mean that I’m presenting the truth in a clumsy and imperfect way… or that you’re thin-skinned, or want to shut down the discussion.
On a related note, I was accused of hating atheists and (just for good measure) Muslims. The latter accusation seems to be based on a misreading of my response to panel 10. These accusations are neither true nor relevant.
- The Auschwitz and Embryonic Stem Cell Connection: The webcomic attempted to paint opposition to embryonic stem-cell research as anti-science. It’s not. Instead, it’s an ethical opposition to medical research that profits off of the killing of unborn children. In this sense, it’s no different than ethical opposition to medical research that profits off of other murders, like those who opposed the experiments Josef Mengele did on murdered Jewish twins at Auschwitz.
The reason is the same for each case. Being pro-science doesn’t mean that you’re in favor of doing literally anything that advances scientific research: a moral and ethical framework is absolutely necessary to the field (as Hippocrates recognized long ago). To denounce the presence of an ethical framework for “hinder[ing] the advancement of science, technology, or medicine” is a radical and dangerous line of thought.
In response to this, several people played the offense card (see point # 2), saying that it “may or may not be one of the most offensive things I’ve read today.” And: “Is anyone else horrified by a comparison of Auschwitz to stem cell research?! I find that to be offensive and disgusting.” To which someone else responded: “I am equally horrified; I stopped reading right there.” Then came the high dudgeon: “Sir, I have rarely seen rhetoric as repugnant as your attempt to exploit the torture and extermination of millions of my people to score cheap political points against an Internet cartoonist.”
The comparison I drew was about the ethical opposition to “medical research that profits off of mass killing” in both cases. Commenters argued that an embryo was less of a human … because it is made up of fewer cells. By this logic, of course, short and skinny people are less human than me. One commenter retorted: “are you going to call me a murderer for exfoliating because those are just cells too.” True, an embryo is a collection of cells. So are you and me. Suggesting that exfoliating is equivalent to abortion because both are the removal of a collection of cells is like suggesting that hair cuts and decapitations are the same, because both remove cells from the top of a person’s body.
Another commenter actually invoked science in defending this very anti-scientific argument: “a collection of cells is not ‘scientifically’ considered life; you poop more cells down the toilet each day. When the embryo develops a nervous system you can consider it a living creature- before that is is not sentient.” A a question of pure science, this is garbage. There’s literally no question that the embryo is a living (albeit tiny) human being. The sole question in dispute is whether he or she should be treated as a “person,” a non-scientific classification, assigning moral worth to some humans. Remind me again who is being anti-science, here?
- But his comic wasn’t against all religious people! A number of commenters argued that the comic wasn’t against all religious people, but just the bad ones. But the comic groups everyone from jihadists to parents who tell their kids about the Resurrection in a single group: those who force their religion onto other people. It does this by defining “force” to include everything from answering questions about the faith or door-to-door evangelization to suicide bombing.
I appreciate nuance, and distinguishing good from bad religion (in fact, the New York Times’ Ross Douthat recently did this well in a very good book). But as I said before: the comic does this by putting basically everything above agnosticism in the “sucks” category. So it does what it set out to do very badly.
|Embryo (8 1/2 weeks),
Gray’s Anatomy plate
I don’t imagine that this post is going to single-handedly end the New Atheism phenomenon, but hopefully, it’ll lead at least some readers to take Catholicism seriously enough to get an intellectual mooring as to what it is that they claim to be opposing.