• Strange Notions Strange Notions Strange Notions

Vatican II on Atheism: The Sources of Atheism

Atheism

NOTE: This is the third post in Stephen Bullivant's series on atheists and the Catholic Church, particularly what the Second Vatican Council taught about atheism. Be sure to read Part 1 and Part 2. Also, his new book on this topic, Faith and Unbelief (Paulist Press), debuts this week. Check it out!
 


 
In the last episode of my irregular 'Vatican II on atheism' series, we saw how a number of determined bishops - not least the Bishop of Rome - ensured that the Council took unbelief seriously. We now turn to the main fruit of this attention: articles 19 to 21 of Gaudium et Spes.

Let me be quite plain. If you really want to know what the Catholic Church has to say about atheism, then your first port of call should be Gaudium et Spes (GS) 19-21. Not Strange Notions. Not Brandon Vogt, Trent Horn, or Kevin Aldrich. Not even some off-the-cuff remarks of Pope Francis. Don't get me wrong: these would all be excellent second ports of call. But undoubtedly the place to start is GS 19-21 (as all the kids are calling it) itself. Though less than 1,500 words long, it is a detailed and nuanced statement, and is both theologically and historically significant. And more to the point, it carries the full magisterial weight of a general Council behind it. And if that doesn't entice you into wanting to read it, then what could?

Go on...here it is (just scroll down a bit). This is the Vatican’s own English translation, though there are several other—and arguably better—versions out there. However, since it’s this one that’s freely available online, it’s this one I’ll be using for my commentary. It’s worth remembering, though, that the only authoritative version is the Latin original—and so every so often we’ll be dipping into that too. As you'll know if you've already read it, GS 19-21 covers a lot of ground in a small amount of space. So in this post, we're only going to look at article 19. Articles 20 and 21 can wait till next time.

Before we begin, it's worth noting something about the document as a whole. Following the normal Church convention, Gaudium et Spes is just the text's nickname, taken from its opening words, which are Latin for 'joy and hope'. (As in: "The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ...") The text's proper title is normally given as the somewhat less zingy "Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World," but this is slightly misleading. Strictly speaking, the title refers to "The Church in the World of This Time (huius temporis)'. It is worth bearing in mind that the Council Fathers are commenting directly on the world of the mid-1960s—they are not necessarily in the business, in this text, of making 'for-the-ages' pronouncements. Which is not to say there isn't a huge amount of timeless, enduring value in the document, both at the level of general principles, and right down in the details. But still, since the text is so up front about the fact it is speaking to a particular historical context, we should bear this in mind.

What Does Article 19 Say?

 
Here's how the nineteenth article begins:

"The root reason for human dignity lies in man's call to communion with God. From the very circumstance of his origin man is already invited to converse with God. For man would not exist were he not created by God’s love and constantly preserved by it; and he cannot live fully according to truth unless he freely acknowledges [God's] love and devotes himself to his Creator."

These opening sentences situate the Council's comments on atheism in a very precise, theological framework. All human beings are, whether they know it or like it, in a relationship with their Creator. That is what humans are for. They are not, in Bertrand Russell's phrase, "a cosmic accident" (though they might, depending on one's views about divine Providence and contingency, be a kind of "cosmic accidentally-on-purpose"). Later on, in article 21, the text will sum up this theme with the famous quotation from St. Augustine's Confessions: "Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee."

So the Council begins its statement about atheists with a series of claims that an atheist, ipso facto, cannot possibly accept. To my mind, that's a fairly bold opening gambit. No softly, softly approach—"ease 'em in, then hit 'em with the God stuff"—here. Instead, the Church begins by laying its cards face up on the table: this is where we're coming from, this is what Christians believe about all people (not just atheists), and everything else we have to say about the subject has to be understood in this light. (Incidentally, this is the same approach that John Paul II takes to sexual ethics in his Theology of Body—what the Church has to say about sex cannot be divorced from who it believes humans are in the first place.) Furthermore, by situating its discussion of atheism within the context of "Christian anthropology" (as this branch of theology—considering who humans are, and what they are called to be—is known), the Council emphasizes that, whatever else the Church might have to say about atheists, it is talking about people who, first and foremost, have been made in "the image of God" (Genesis 1:27), and whom God invites to spend eternity with him. That's quite a compliment. Not, admittedly, one that those to whom it is addressed can readily accept, but a compliment nonetheless.

The article continues:

"Still, many of our contemporaries have never recognized this intimate and vital link with God, or have explicitly rejected it. Thus atheism must be accounted among the most serious problems of this age, and is deserving of closer examination."

Given the grand vision sketched above, the growth and prevalence of unbelief is obviously problematic for the Catholic Church. Technically though, the official Latin text (unlike this, and many other English translations) doesn't actually call atheism a "most serious problem." A more faithful translation of the Latin would be the less antagonistic-sounding: "atheism may be numbered among the most important issues of this time (atheismus inter gravissimas huius temporis res adnumerandus)." Either way, the Council is clear that it deserves a more thorough investigation.

Continuing on:

"The word atheism is applied to phenomena which are quite distinct from one another. For while God is expressly denied by some, others believe that man can assert absolutely nothing about Him. Still others use such a method to scrutinize the question of God as to make it seem devoid of meaning. Many, unduly transgressing the limits of the positive sciences, contend that everything can be explained by this kind of scientific reasoning alone, or by contrast, they altogether disallow that there is any absolute truth. Some laud man so extravagantly that their faith in God lapses into a kind of anemia, though they seem more inclined to affirm man than to deny God.
 
Again some form for themselves such a fallacious idea of God that when they repudiate this figment they are by no means rejecting the God of the Gospel. Some never get to the point of raising questions about God, since they seem to experience no religious stirrings nor do they see why they should trouble themselves about religion. Moreover, atheism results not rarely from a violent protest against the evil in this world, or from the absolute character with which certain human values are unduly invested, and which thereby already accords them the stature of God. Modern civilization itself often complicates the approach to God not for any essential reason but because it is so heavily engrossed in earthly affairs."

True to its word, there follows a long paragraph delineating the many different forms that contemporary unbelief can take. We needn't get bogged down in the details of this. Note, though, that GS favours a broad definition of atheism: including varieties of definite disbelief ("God is expressly denied by some"), plus forms of agnosticism, logical positivism, promethean humanism, indifference, and several more besides. Roughly speaking, in this GS foreshadows several recent scholarly works such as The Cambridge Companion to Atheism and The Oxford Handbook of Atheism which also argue for an inclusive definition. Note too, in the final sentence, a recognition of socio-cultural factors on the prevalence and plausibility of unbelief (i.e., it's not just about philosophical arguments). The first half of that sentence, at least, basically sums up classic secularization theory: "Modern civilization itself often complicates the approach to God."

Believers Responsible for Atheism?

 
Gaudium et Spes continues:

"Undeniably, those who willfully shut out God from their hearts and try to dodge religious questions are not following the dictates of their consciences, and hence are not free of blame; yet believers themselves frequently bear some responsibility for this situation. For, taken as a whole, atheism is not a spontaneous development but stems from a variety of causes, including a critical reaction against religious beliefs, and in some places against the Christian religion in particular. Hence believers can have more than a little to do with the birth of atheism. To the extent that they neglect their own training in the faith, or teach erroneous doctrine, or are deficient in their religious, moral, or social life, they must be said to conceal rather than reveal the authentic face of God and religion."

We come now to perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the Catholic teaching on atheism. The Church here recognizes that, at least to some extent, unbelief arises "through [our] fault, through [our] fault, through [our] most grievous fault." As we saw in part two of this series, this was an idea that several of the Council fathers insisted upon. Three decades earlier, Henri de Lubac—one of the theological experts entrusted with drafting GS 19-21—had made a similar point in his hugely influential Catholicism: Christ and the Common Destiny of Man. (Incidentally, there’s a whole chapter on this theme in my own, somewhat less influential Faith and Unbelief.)

GS is here echoing a point made by many nonbelievers (and former believers), one confirmed in sociological investigations of deconversion (see, e.g., Phil Zuckerman’s excellent Faith No More: Why People Reject Religion): Christians are not always God’s best advert. And this arises from their being both bad teachers and bad witnesses. This is a point to which the Council, and we, shall return in GS 21.

Notice what the text is not saying. It is not claiming that "bad Christians" are the only cause of, or justification for, unbelief. That would undercut everything else GS 19 has to say about the various types of atheism, and the explicit claim above that it "stems from a variety of causes." (It would also be extremely arrogant and exhibit a clear failure to take atheism seriously as a social, cultural, and intellectual phenomenon.) Significantly, it is also not implying any blanket "absolution" of unbelievers: "Undeniably, those who willfully shut out God from their hearts and try to dodge religious questions are...not free of blame (culpae expertes non sunt)." (Though even here, the very same sentence confesses that "believers themselves frequently bear some responsibility for this situation.") Faith and unbelief, GS 19 reminds us, remain matters of (eternal) life and death. This will be important for us to remember in later installments, when we look at the Council’s other key statement on atheism, especially the affirmation that "those who have not arrived at an express recognition of God" are nevertheless "able to be saved" in Lumen Gentium 14-16.

One Impressed Atheist

 
Finally, we'll keep with our tradition of ending these episodes with a quotation from an actual atheist. Today's words come from Jacques Berlinerblau’s 2012 book How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom:

"Whereas a student of church history might expect [GS 19-21] to anathematize the atheist, no such condemnations are forthcoming. Rather, what follows is a sober, fair and introspective analysis of the significance of nonbelief for Catholic thought...Not exactly a teary embrace of nonbelief. Nonetheless, the willingness to look at the problem, calmly and without rancor, is impressive." (pp. 100-1)

 
 
(Image credit: Spectator)

Stephen Bullivant

Written by

Dr. Stephen Bullivant is Senior Lecturer in Theology and Ethics at St Mary's University College, England. A former atheist, he studied philosophy and theology at Oxford University, and converted to Catholicism while completing his doctorate on Vatican II and the salvation of unbelievers. In 2010, he was the first non-American to receive the 'LaCugna Award for New Scholars' from the Catholic Theological Society of America. Stephen writes and speaks extensively on the theology and sociology of atheism, and the new evangelization. He has authored two books, The Salvation of Atheists and Catholic Dogmatic Theology (Oxford University Press, 2012) and Faith and Unbelief (Canterbury Press, 2013; Paulist Press, 2014), and is also co-editor, with the philosopher Michael Ruse, of The Oxford Handbook of Atheism (Oxford University Press, 2013). Stephen is 29 years old, and lives in Nottingham with his wife Joanna and daughter Grace.

Enjoy this article? Receive future posts free by email:

Note: Our goal is to cultivate serious and respectful dialogue. While it's OK to disagree—even encouraged!—any snarky, offensive, or off-topic comments will be deleted. Before commenting please read the Commenting Rules and Tips. If you're having trouble commenting, read the Commenting Instructions.

  • David Nickol

    Without any implied criticism (or any necessarily implied criticism) of other posts on Strange Notions, what is welcome about this post is that it is a real attempt to focus on what the Church says about atheism. It is not an exercise in apologetics or a a repetition of dubious old themes (e.g., God doesn't send people to hell—they choose to go there) but a commentary on official Church teaching.

    • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

      Thanks for the feedback, David. Although I'd like to keep the discussion focused on Stephen's article, I feel obligated to correct your last sentence. The idea that "God doesn't send people to hell--they choose to go there" is neither dubious nor counter to the official teachings of the Catholic Church, despite what you've repeatedly claimed on this site.

      In her own Catechism, the Church states (emphasis added):

      "To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God's merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called "hell."

      God predestines no one to go to hell; for this, a willful turning away from God (a mortal sin) is necessary." (CCC 1033, 1037)

      The Church could hardly be clearer: God does not send people to hell; it is a choice we make that he respects.

      • David Nickol

        The Church could hardly be clearer: God does not send people to hell; it is a choice we make that he respects.

        My interpretation of the text is different, although I could (of course) be wrong.

        It seems to me what the Church means is that people's choices determine their fate, and they make those choices freely. One might also say that the people in prisons (the guilty ones who are not there unjustly, of course) were not sent there by the judicial and criminal justice system. By committing crimes punishable by prison sentences, they chose prison freely. But they never said, "I want to go to prison. Please send me there."

        If your interpretation is correct, no person who honestly and sincerely didn't believe in hell could go there, and no person who ever heard of hell could go there. You can't choose what you don't know.

        To tie things into the topic of this post, no sincere atheist (no matter how evil) could go to hell, because hell is not a choice for those who don't believe or can't even know that it exists.

        • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

          "My interpretation of the text is different, although I could (of course) be wrong."

          We're not discussing the veracity of your interpretation, or even the veracity of the Catholic Church's interpretation. What's under discussion is simply what the Catholic Church teaches.

          You originally implied that the Church does *not* teach that anyone in hell chooses to be there. This is incorrect, as I showed above.

          "If your interpretation is correct, no person who honestly and sincerely didn't believe in hell could go there, and no person who ever heard of hell could go there. You can't choose what you don't know."

          This makes hell out to be some sort of temporal-spatial destination rather than, as the Church understands it, a state of soul. "Hell" isn't a place that someone chooses to visit or endeavors to be condemned to. It's a willful self-exclusion from God.

          To the extent that atheists today set themselves apart from God--who is absolute truth, goodness, and beauty--they willfully choose the state we call hell. "Hell" is simply the eternal extension of that earthly decision.

          • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

            I should also add that ignorance of the doctrine of hell doesn't prevent someone from ending up in that state. You can choose hell without knowing it by that name.

          • David Nickol

            You can choose hell without knowing it by that name.

            As I understand you, you're saying the Catholic Church teaches you can choose hell without knowing it exists—without even knowing that there is life after death. I don't think I am making a purely semantic distinction to say I would not consider that "choosing hell." If you want to say that a person can, by freely made choices, merit hell, that is one thing. But making a choice that results in going to hell—particularly when you don't know hell exists—is not the same thing as "choosing hell."

            You can't freely choose something you don't know exists. You can make free choices that have consequences that you do not know exist or that you do not anticipate. You can't choose eternal separation from God is you sincerely believe there is no eternal life and no God. You may be able to freely choose do do things that result in eternal separation from God, but that is not the same thing.

          • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

            "You can't freely choose something you don't know exists."

            I agree, but that's not what I said. You're twisting my words. What I did say was:

            "You can choose hell without knowing it by that name."

            Some people in this earthly life may freely choose to be separated from God, a desire that God will grant for all eternity. This is hell, even if that person doesn't know it by that name.

          • Sqrat

            Some people in this earthly life may freely choose to be separated from God, a desire that God will grant for all eternity

            And those people would be, what, Satanists?

          • Ben Posin

            Well...if he was "twisting" your words, it was because you "twisted" his, and perhaps he didn't catch your change. David Nickol didn't say anything about people who choose hell without "knowing it by that name," he suggested "hell is not a choice for those who don't believe or can't even know that it exists." David Nickol would seem to be speaking of people who, for instance, don't believe there is any God for them to reject or to separate themself from, or any genuine human state that constitutes connection to God--because God doens't exist.

            For the record, I find the Church's position on what Hell actually is a bit disingenuous and confusing, given that Catholics when asked say it involves any sort of "positively" inflicted agony (or physical agony at all) while still referring to the "fires of hell" in the official catecism. But maybe that's just a metaphor, which, entirely coincidentally, plays into the classical view of Hell as a place where people are continually set on fire?

          • David Nickol

            Some people in this earthly life may freely choose to be separated from God, a desire that God will grant for all eternity. This is hell, even if that person doesn't know it by that name.

            Okay, then you can't choose to be separated from God if you don't know (or sincerely don't believe) that God exists.

            I anticipate that your response will be that you can choose to be separated from God without knowing that what you are choosing is called "being separated from God."

            You're twisting my words.

            Also please note that my original phrasing was "God doesn't send people to hell—they choose to go there," not "they choose to go there, although they don't need to know there is such a thing as hell to make that choice." I have problems with many variants on this them, but the one I have the most problems with people implying that the damned (of which I hope and trust there are none) actually explicitly choose hell. So your original answer did not address specifically what I said. But as I have been insisting, every text requires interpretation (including the Catechism), and I understand what you objected to. But it was not precisely what I said that you criticized.

          • Fr.Sean

            Hi David,
            I don't want to get in the middle of your discussion but.....i guess i'll get in the middle of your discussion. just wanted to add one little nuance. faith should move on to selflessness. the opposite is self-centeredness (i'm not saying you or anyone else is self-centered) People who live selfless lives by and large are generally happy, or joyfilled. people who live selfish lives are generally very unhappy. the choice of life you make when you pass becomes permanent.

          • Sqrat

            To the extent that atheists today set themselves apart from God--who is absolute truth, goodness, and beauty--they willfully choose the state we
            call hell.

            To what extent do you think that is, Brandon? Are you saying that you think they willfully set themselves apart from God?

          • David Nickol

            We're not discussing the veracity of your interpretation, or even the veracity of the Catholic Church's interpretation. What's under discussion is simply what the Catholic Church teaches.

            Every text, including texts from the Catechism, requires interpretation. The Catechism entries you cite do not say people choose to go to hell.

            This makes hell out to be some sort of temporal-spatial destination rather than, as the Church understands it, a state of soul.

            Hell, it seems to me, is a place when it suits the Church's needs to talk of it as a place, and a state when it suits the Church's needs to talk about it as a state.

            If hell is not a place but a state, then anyone alive on earth in the state of mortal sin is in hell. Yet hell is a state of suffering. Why are not all people alive in a state of mortal sin suffering? If people can choose hell without knowing it, then can people suffer without knowing it?

          • http://ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca/ Randy Gritter

            Mortal sin and hell are similar. The difference is that mortal sin still has the possibility of repentance. So God is constantly calling you to turn from sin in many ways. In hell God stops calling you and leaves you alone.

            Hell would not involve all pain and no pleasure. It is just that your sin would have unbreakable power over you. Your deepest desire would still be for God and that would be eternally out of your grasp. So it would be torture in that sense. Not in the sense that you would never have any fun. You would have the pains and pleasures of the sinful life. Nothing more. Nothing less.

          • David Nickol

            Your deepest desire would still be for God and that would be eternally out of your grasp.

            But what if your deepest desire is not for God right now? Would it become so after you died? If you receive new information after death that would have made a difference in your choices while you were alive, then your choices when you were alive were not informed choices.

            We are, of course, putting this in rather simplistic terms, but I would say that if anyone dies and sincerely says, "If only I had known . . . ." then he cannot be held fully responsible for his life choices. Of course, one element that we are not discussing is that God will be the judge, and presumably Catholicism teaches that God judges fairly. Certainly it does not make sense to say that a person is judged at the moment of death and then say their judgment is their own choice. What role is left for God? It might be argued that meeting all three criteria for a mortal sin is very difficult, and for a human being to give "full consent" to an act might be next to impossible.

          • Danny Getchell

            Your deepest desire would still be for God

            Randy, is my "deepest desire" the desire for God, right at this very moment??

            If so, why do you think it is so unapparent to me??

          • http://ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca/ Randy Gritter

            For the same reasons it is not always apparent to me. I get busy. I get distracted with petty things. I ignore the beauty and depth of the people around me and just see them as pawns in the games I am playing. I actually have to force myself to contemplate God for a few minutes every day. We just don't live on that deep level very often. Yet when we live right everything we do is consistent and rings true in the depths of our being.

          • David Nickol

            We're not discussing the veracity of your interpretation, or even the veracity of the Catholic Church's interpretation. What's under discussion is simply what the Catholic Church teaches.

            Upon reading this a second time, it reminds me of what someone said to me once in a similar discussion: "I'm not telling you my opinion. I'm telling you God's opinion."

            I think it is extremely rare that one can say "simply what the Catholic Church teaches." Even the most explicit of declared dogmas (e.g., the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption) could have whole books written on them attempting to interpret them.

            In any case, I would say that when a contestant on Let's Make a Deal takes a chance and chooses what's hidden behind door number two instead of the shiny new car on the stage, if what's behind door number two is a cabbage, she didn't choose the cabbage over the new car. She chose door number two. Her choice resulted in her getting the cabbage and not the car, but it would not be fair of her husband to scream at her, "Why did you choose a cabbage over a new car?!?!"

          • Fr.Sean

            Hi David,
            I always appreciate your comments as you do seem to try to be fair and understand what ever the subject is. I don't think any of us can know for certain what hell is like, who goes there etc. I think we can agree that love has a positive effect on a human being, and a lack of love also has an effect. would it not be fair just to agree that since this is a faith issue that we won't be able to fully get our minds around it in this life. I think Jesus was clear what will happen to a person if they believe in him or are open to his words. Maybe it's better to focus on that rather than what hell is like if it exists and who specifically eds up there?

          • David Nickol

            Maybe it's better to focus on that rather than what hell is like if it exists and who specifically eds up there?

            Fr. Sean,

            It might be better, but of course it is the Catholic Church which makes dogmatic (infallible) statements about the existence and nature of hell. If there is a thought more horrifying, I can't think of it. So I don't think it works for the Catholic Church to terrify everyone with the concept of hell and then try to de-emphasize it. I know there are some "conservative" Catholics who feel that the Church in general is too "liberal" on the issue of eternal punishment and ought to talk about it more (and more graphically). And on the other hand, there are "liberals" who find it embarrassing or difficult to square with God as they understand him, and they attempt to whitewash the concept. One way is to claim that people quite literally choose hell. I am not talking so much about what Brandon has been saying, but rather about the idea that people have a clear idea of God, of heaven, and of hell, and they literally say, "Almighty God, I reject you, reject heaven, and choose hell, and I'm going to stay there, and I don't care about being tormented. I want to be separated from you, and I want to be in hell for all eternity." And God says, "I really wish there was something I could do, but I am committed to letting my creatures have their way. My hands are tied." And the damned say, "Well, good. I am glad we at least agree on one thing."

            It may sound ridiculous, but that is what I understand some people to be saying. If they are not, then I apologize for misinterpreting them.

          • Fr.Sean

            Hi David,
            i know what you mean and i would not be telling the truth if i didn't say the whole concept of hell makes me uncomfortable. it does, and i would really love to discover some day that it wasn't true. but i'm not sure it's fruitful to determine if anything about the catholic faith is true by starting from that starting point. what good would it do to determine if hell exists if we first don't have the identity of Jesus? if at some point you come to the conclusion, that Jesus really was the Son of God and you come to know him, to appreciate the scriptures and the sacraments, then we could have a discussion on what exactly hell is? but i just don't see it being an important issue of we first haven't discerned the nature of Jesus?

          • DarkClouds7

            The cabbage allegory is the best I've ever heard. Thanks.

          • vito

            Tell, me Brandon, do you believe the Church-approved vision of St Faustina of Hell. I know they are "private" visions, but as I know Church approved them and, regardless of their status, do you believe them or not? It seems quite clear that they she saw it as a PLACE of extreme suffering and torture.St Faustina claims to have "VISITED the abysses of Hell" (sounds like a place to me): she enumerates seven methods of torture employed against the inhabitants of hell. St Faustina says: " Hell is a PLACE of great torture; how awesomely large and extensive it is!" She also says that at least one of the torments is inflicted by God: "A terrible suffering since it is a purely spiritual fire, lit by God's anger". She also refers to specific sensory things suck as darkness, smell, noises as well as vile words, curses etc; also the continuous presence of other souls, demons, Satan. In addition to the seven torments prescribed for all residents, there are additional "special tortures" - "torments of the senses". She repeatedly stresses the suffering is indescribable and so terrible that she could die at the sight of them. She says what she described is just a "pale shadow" of the agony she saw. She also stresses most the souls there DID NOT BELIEVE hell exists. (so did they really choose it?)

            Again, regardless of whether Catholics are obliged to believe these visions, do YOU thing they are true or just made up? And if you think they are true,are you still able to say it is just a state of the soul, not an actual place, and all the unnecessary and gruesome cruelty covered by St Faustina is really freely chosen?
            Also, do you believe that people who choose to commit a crime also automatically chose the punishment (even when they do not believe their acts are bad and/or that any punishments exist). E.g. does a citizen of North Korea, who chooses, say, to read a foreign paper or have contacts with foreigners, also chooses 20 years of cruel labour camp and eventual death.
            (The Faustina's visions can be easily found in numerous place on the web, including
            http://christtotheworld.blogspot.com/2010/01/sister-faustinas-vision-of-hell.html)

            Similiar visions, I believe, were experienced by Fatima children. Do you know any Church-approved visions indicating that hell is mere state of the soul as opposed to a place of cruel punishment?

            Randy, do you also care to comment on this?

          • xyzzy

            To the extent that atheists today set themselves apart from God--who is
            absolute truth, goodness, and beauty--they willfully choose the state we
            call hell. "Hell" is simply the eternal extension of that earthly
            decision.

            I am already "apart" from God. I am not aware of God's presence. I am not aware of any effect he has on the world. I don't have any reason to think he exists at all. I doubt I could get more "apart" than that.

            If "hell" is just an extension of that condition, then what's the big deal? You're saying it is like my life is right now. I'm pretty well off, even for a citizen of the USA. The main problem I'm facing is that I am going to die.

            If dying means that I get to continue living in the same conditions as I have now, it sounds like a bit of an improvement -- no more worrying about death. You make hell sound reasonably attractive, or at least certainly not an alternative to fear.

          • Don Cavazos

            A rational person would say, yes you sort of live on after death since the atoms that make you "live on" just as they've been "living on" since they were created in exploding stars millions, possibly billions of years ago. What did any of us feel before we existed as human beings? Not a darn thing. I'm sure your atoms will not go to waste once you have lived your life. Where some superstitious people might find these simple facts insulting, I find it beautiful.

  • David Nickol

    Again some form for themselves such a fallacious idea of God that when
    they repudiate this figment they are by no means rejecting the God of
    the Gospel.

    This is a very interesting statement, because it implies that there are cases in which a professed atheist may not really be an atheist at all. Someone with a poor religious education who was taught false things about God and rejects the idea of God on that basis might in a certain sense be a better "theist" than someone with the same education who accepted it and continued to believe it. How wrong does a conception of God have to be before it is not just a flawed depiction of the true God, but a depiction of a false God. In some cases, at least, an "atheist" who rejects the false God he was taught to believe in might be in superior position that a person who fervently believes in a deeply flawed (to the point of being false) depiction of God.

    • Stephen Bulivant

      Hi David,

      If I may say so, that's a very sharp and perceptive point. The idea that the atheist rejects false conceptions of god (i.e., 'idols') - and in many cases, false conceptions that a great many believers themselves accept - was certainly aired in the debates that 'fed into' GS 19-21 (you can see some traces of it in my last post, in the quotation from Cardinal Suenens, for example). One of the best examples of this kind of theological move, though, comes in Dostoevsky's novel Demons, where he has an Orthodox bishop say that 'perfect atheism' is on the next but last rung of the ladder towards 'perfect faith'.

      Obviously, there's a lot of scope in all this for a positive, constructive engagement with unbelief - though I suppose the danger is there that one ends up not quite taking atheism, and the atheist him/herself, seriously ('you don't REALLY reject God...').

      Far be it from to use SN to plug one of my one books, but Faith and Unbelief's first chapter - titled 'The "atheism" of Christianity' - explores exactly these issues.

      Best wishes,
      Stephen

      • Don Cavazos

        I think atheists usually know more about religions than the average religious person.

  • Peter Piper

    From the context, the passage appears to be implying that the following is a fair description of atheists:

    those who willfully shut out God from their hearts and try to dodge religious questions

    In fact, this description does not fit. For example, many atheists do not try to dodge religious questions but rather engage with them. Similarly, there are atheists who would be quite willing to accept God into their hearts if only there were a God to accept.

    Have I just misunderstood what the authors were trying to say here?

    • Stephen Bulivant

      Hi Peter! I don't think that's quite what it's saying (or trying to say, at least)... It's more like 'out of all the very many atheists, from all the very different types of atheism... those of them who willfully shut out God...'. That is, *not* 'all atheists', but just 'those atheists who do do this', are not devoid of fault. (As we'll see when we get to Lumen Gentium - the Council is quite clear that are, or can be, wholly 'inculpable' unbelievers)

      • Peter Piper

        Thanks for clearing that up.

    • http://ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca/ Randy Gritter

      I do think one method of dodging religious questions is to loudly and frequently argue with religious people. That seems counter-intuitive but they say the best defense is a good offense. Many atheists do spend a lot of time talking religion on the internet. Are they looking for God or pushing Him away? I doubt the same answer applies in all cases.

      • Sqrat

        Many atheists do spend a lot of time talking religion on the internet. Are they looking for God or pushing Him away?

        None of the above?

        • http://ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca/ Randy Gritter

          Many of them spend a lot of energy talking religion. It seems they are trying to do something.

          • Sqrat

            And what are you trying to do, Randy, by spending energy talking religion?

          • http://ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca/ Randy Gritter

            I am trying to show people God. Clear up some misconceptions. Let people see how beautiful and compelling Catholicism really is.

          • Sqrat

            The "clear up some misconceptions" part may be working, the other two not so much.

          • http://ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca/ Randy Gritter

            Partial success. I shall take that as a compliment and keep trying.

          • Sqrat

            Just bear in mind that simply clearing up misconceptions may not necessarily contribute to your other goals of "showing people God" or "letting people see how beautiful and compelling Catholicism really is."

        • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

          Sqrat, out of curiosity, why do you spend so much time discussing religion on the internet? What drives you to spend hours and hours on Strange Notions?

          As a follow-up, how does that motivation square with an atheistic worldview?

          • Sqrat

            Do you vote?

          • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

            "Do you vote?"

            Sure, but perhaps you could answer my question directly instead of responding with a question.

            i'm genuinely curious why you spend hours upon hours of your precious and limited time on an internet chat forum about Catholicism and atheism.

          • Ben Posin

            Some reasons I do (not to speak for Sqrat)
            I find religion, particularly Christianity, fascinating, perhaps partly due to growing up as a religious minority, in a Jewish household in the United States, but also because it's just plain interesting.

            I enjoy discussing logic, evidence, sources of knowledge, proper thinking, faith: where else can I find people willing to discuss the Euthyphro Dilemma (which is not false, I tell you!!!)?

            Such discussions are a place to look for people with ideas I haven't been exposed to, or better able to articulate positions I hold intuitively (though there has been less of that since you banned people like Geena, who was smarter than both of us).

            As Sqrat says: in America, religion, specifically Christianity, plays a huge role in politics, on a local, state, and national level. We have school boards who don't want to teach evolution, we have Arizona's legislature passing a law aimed at allowing discrimination against gays based on religious belief, we have had presidents who apparently turn to God before deciding whether to go to war, or are guided in their middle east policy by the role they believe Israel is to play in armageddon. All of this frightens and horrifies me, and taking part in discussions like this plays a few roles: it gives me a better understanding of what motivates my fellow voters and how they think, it gives me a chance to try to influence some religious voters and try to persuade them to think differently, lets me potentially reach undecideds who are reading along.

            And hey, I agree that if there were a God, that would be pretty important. So I've done myself the favor of exposing myself to people who think they have the grade A, actually reasonable arguments for God's existence.

          • Susan

            Sure, but perhaps you could answer my question directly instead of responding with a question.

            You seem to have missed Sqrat's very basic point. Human beliefs inform human actions. Human actions have consequences.

            i'm genuinely curious why you spend hours upon hours of your precious and limited time on an internet chat forum about Catholicism and atheism.

            Ooh. Snarky. "Hours and hours of your precious time."

            I'm genuinely curious why you set up a web site that claims to want to be a dialogue between catholics and atheists.

            This is not the first time you've sneered at an atheist for just participating.

            Also, if they criticize the heavily strawmanned articles that keep coming, and do it well within the rules of reasonable discussion, you suggest they go elsewhere if they don't like it.

            On several occasions, you have banned droves of good contributors without warning or explanation, On the last occasion, you deleted a month's worth of their contributions to boot. It was not an accident. Disqus moderation doesn't work that way.

            Sqrat made the very good point that it has been useful for clearing up misunderstandings of your church's position. I'm an ex-catholic and it's been useful. What "the church" teaches and what we are taught in "the church" are very far apart.

            That doesn't make it compelling or beautiful.

            The inadequacy of your "proofs" and the lack of evidence make it neither.

            That doesn't mean it's not worthwhile to participate. There's always something to learn about ourselves and our fellow primates. :-)

          • Danny Getchell

            What "the church" teaches and what we are taught in "the church" are very far apart.

            Not having been raised Catholic, I'd like to see more on this topic from the ex-Catholics who comment here.

            From my experience growing up in a majority Catholic urban neighborhood, I did not see much difference between the Catholicism that was preached to my neighbors and Protestant fundamentalism, at least as far as Biblical inerrancy and the nature of hell was concerned.

            But here on SN, we "learn" that the Catholic church has always given more leeway on those topics. If so, it appears to have done a poor job of getting that message to its communicants.

          • Sqrat

            Hear hear! For some time now I have indeed had a certain vague sense that what "the Church teaches" and what is actually taught "in church" can be quite different things. And kudos to Susan for raising the issue.

          • Sqrat

            Sure, but perhaps you could answer my question directly instead of responding with a question.

            I could, but sometimes I prefer the Socratic method.

            i'm genuinely curious why you spend hours upon hours of your precious and limited time on an internet chat forum about Catholicism and atheism.

            I am reminded of a now-classic cartoon:

            [To stick figure hunched over a computed]: "Are you coming to bed?"

            "I can't. This is important."

            "What?"

            "Someone is wrong on the Internet."

            I admit that it is somewhat quixotic. I don't get paid a nickel to defend my opinions online. Do you get paid for the work you do for Word on Fire, or is that on a volunteer basis?

            You're a member of the Knights of Columbus, right?

      • Peter Piper

        I'm prepared to concede that there are many shouty atheists. Are you prepared to concede that there are many atheists who are engaging with religious questions honestly and not just as a way of dodging them?

        • http://ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca/ Randy Gritter

          Sure. They tend to be harder to find. Still they do exist. This forum is pretty good at attracting them.

          • Danny Getchell

            And then ejecting them.

      • David Nickol

        I do think one method of dodging religious questions is to loudly and frequently argue with religious people.

        I suppose that is possible, but there would be the flip side of the coin—people who can't bear the fact that deep down they don't believe who fight the emptiness inside by loudly proclaiming how joyful and secure their religion makes them.

        Many atheists do spend a lot of time talking religion on the internet. Are they looking for god or pushing Him away?

        And many theists spend a lot of time railing against atheism. Are they secure in their faith, or are they so afraid there's nothing there that they have to try to convince themselves by trying to convince everyone else? For either the atheist or the theist, the would be what Freud called reaction formation, and although I don't put too much stock in psychoanalytic theory, I believe it is a very real phenomenon. "In psychoanalytic theory, reaction formation is a defensive process (defense mechanism) in which anxiety-producing or unacceptable emotions and impulses are mastered by exaggeration (hypertrophy) of the directly opposing tendency."

        Wouldn't it be nice, though, for everyone here to assume, if only for the sake of civility, that everyone is acting from worthy motives, whether conscious or unconscious?

        • http://ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca/ Randy Gritter

          I do assume worthy motives. We are not questioning each other here. We are questioning the people the document is referring to. But your point is fair. Irrational people exist on both sides. With Christians you can at least appeal to the biblical commands to love you enemies.

          • David Nickol

            With Christians you can at least appeal to the biblical commands to love you enemies.

            You give with one hand and take away with the other. I guess there is no way to appeal to atheists. They have no cause to value civility or anything like the golden rule.

      • arkenaten

        Are they looking for God or pushing Him away?

        It is utterly ridiculous statements such as this that send atheists on the attack: the arrogant assumption that there is a god; giving it capital letters, G & H, thus conferring Pronoun status, and lastly constructing the sentence in such a fashion as to imply atheists are simply denialists.
        When the religious are able to demonstrate the veracity of this god, and its human incarnation, beyond reasonable doubt then you are at liberty to include the capitals and label atheists god deniers.
        Until then, try to keep your arrogance and assumptions in check, okay? Or at least state openly that what you believe is solely based on faith, and NOT anything factual.

        • http://ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca/ Randy Gritter

          What we are talking about here is a Catholic document. So it is written with the arrogant assumption that Catholicism is true. It is called faith. I don't see faith and factual as opposites. Can't you see that you are writing from your perspective and complaining when I write from mine?

          • David Nickol

            So it is written with the arrogant assumption that Catholicism is true. It is called faith.

            Of course, all religions that promulgate such documents assume themselves to be true. But having been raised as a Catholic, and also having for some time looked at the Church as from a distance, there is something qualitatively different about Catholic "arrogance" (I am going with your choice of words). This is just a personal impression, so don't challenge me to document it, but it seems to me that while pretty much all religions assume they have the truth, the Catholic Church goes one step farther and makes a point of claiming to have the full and complete truth, while all other religions are deficient:

            The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these [non-Christian] religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men.

            On the one hand that (from Nostra Aetate) was a giant leap forward for the Church. On the other hand, it is more or less saying, "We have the greatest respect for any little slivers of truth in other religions that we recognize as reflecting tiny parts of the fullness of truth that is Catholicism." In other words, "We greatly respect what you have insofar as it conforms to what we already have." Or in yet other words, "There is nothing we can learn from you."

          • fredx2

            You are correct. Catholicism is often referred to as "the fullness of truth" The reason is that all of the doctrines have been thought out and balanced against all of the doctrines in the bible, and each given its appropriate weight. However, some Protestants, for example, chose to focus on the Holy Spirit, or predestination, or whatever, and get things out of whack. Or Sola Scriptura, for that matter. But I think it is a fair statement to say that Catholicism takes it all in, gives each doctrine its due weight and balances out the whole message. So in that sense, it is the fullness of truth.
            Your last sentence goes too far, no one ever says that. We learn about reading the bible from Protestants, etc,
            Some see this as arrogance, but only in the sense that someone who has studied all the angles and come to a decision is better than someone who feels an emotional need to emphasize one aspect of a problem.

      • xyzzy

        Since I am confident that god does not exist, I am neither looking for him nor pushing him away.

        I do, however, recognize the danger that various religions pose to people who do not agree with them. An atheist who wants the world to be a better place should take some time to challenge religious thought. I won't convince you or anybody whose first name is "Father", but somebody may find my comments helpful someday. It could be somebody who is beginning to doubt a religion that they were taught from childhood. It could be somebody who is on the fence. It could be a young atheist living in the Bible Belt. In any case, it is good for those people to know that there are others of us out here who do not just accept religious belief uncritically.

        • David Nickol

          Since I am confident that god does not exist, I am neither looking for him nor pushing him away.

          How can you be sure of your own mind? If you read a good book such as Cordelia Fine's A Mind of Its Own: How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives or Leonard Mlodinow's Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior, you may come to the conclusion that you can't be sure of why you believe what you believe, and you can't be sure it's right.

          Of course, this is not only true of atheists, but of religious people as well. And it raises all kind of questions of how God (if God exists) can judge people. Is it fair to judge people morally for what they believe and do under the influence of subconscious influences that they aren't aware of?

          • mikehorn

            You can be sure within a certain measure of practical use. A negative cannot be proven, but I can be reasonably sure unicorns and wood sprites are fantasy only. Same with any god. Good for campfire stories and neat fables, but so is Middle Earth.

          • xyzzy

            I haven't read those particular books, but from the summaries, it appears that they cover topics that I am aware of from other sources. Yes, there are various subconscious effects, but if you take those as meaning that you can't "be sure of your own mind", then you have absolutely nothing to go on. The best a person can do is to try to be aware of and counteract those effects.

            Of course, if it comes down to trusting my mind or yours, I pick mine. I have seen lots of minds that don't work as well as mine. If yours is better, you can tell me the results of your thinking and I can validate it on my own.

            I don't see how any of this raise questions about how God can judge people. If I were to believe certain people who self-identify as Christian, then I would have to believe that God has done his very best to hide any hint of his existence from me, and yet he will punish me with eternal torment for not believing in him. If that's your God, I don't think he holds fairness in high regard.

        • fredx2

          I am aware of the danger that atheists have posed to the world. The French revolution? 40,000 dead. Communism? 100 million dead. Each time atheism gets control of a government, death results. That is not to say anything bad about individual atheists.

          • xyzzy

            fredx2, do you really think that an atheist leader can carry out that much killing all on his own? For your point to make any sense, you have to argue not just that there were atheists in government, but that the atheists did all the killing while the believers just stood around and watched. That's a bit inconsistent with the actual history.

            Are you afraid that I would try to kill you if I were in the government? Are you afraid that I would enact laws like the latest "I hate fags" fiasco in Arizona, but targeted at you?

            The US can only work one way: We all have to accept that we are different, and leave each other alone. None of us can impose our religious views on the government. In fact, if you care for the good of the country, rather than just your own portion of it, it is your moral responsibility to vote in favor of what is good for the country -- not just you or your group.

            That doesn't involve laws that defend making life hard for people who don't agree with you. That's the kind of thing I'm afraid of.

            One of the things we have to allow is free speech. I will not respect the Prophet Mohammed just because some Muslim wants me to. I won't ask him to respect Richard Dawkins either, but I won't allow either one to kill the other over some alleged insult. (The law in it's infinite splendor forbids the rich as well as the poor from sleeping under bridges and begging in the street...)

            Because I know there are people out there who are open to persuasion, I show my viewpoint. Maybe somebody will be positively influenced by it. In my opinion, more atheists is a net improvement in society because an atheist has to deal only with reality. They are not swayed by (what I consider) the opinions of their imaginary friend.

            Is that too harsh for you?

          • Michael Murray

            That is not to say anything bad about individual atheists.

            Nor anything at all about the existence of God.

          • Tripoli

            The French Revolution had nothing to do with atheism. In fact, many of the revolutionaries were Christian. It was all about corrupt government, desperate poverty-stricken people, and oppressive nobility.
            Communism is a political movement. It does not require atheism, though it tends to use it as a tool.

            That being said: what about the Inquisition? The Crusades? The Holocaust? All led by the highly religious.
            Japan has many atheists in government (ever since the state religion was abolished), as do Belgium & the Netherlands. All are doing quite well & are quite peaceful.

            The point is, religion (or lack thereof) is not the cause of such atrocities. Evil people are the cause; some merely use religion as a tool to serve their own ends.

  • Peter

    "atheism is not a spontaneous development but stems from a variety of causes, including a critical reaction against religious beliefs, and in some places against the Christian religion in particular" Gaudium et Spes

    Among the biggest culprits for fanning the flames of atheism in the western world are the Christian "teachings" of creationism and intelligent design. To these I can add a third "teaching" which is fanning the flames of religious scepticism in scientific circles.

    This "teaching" is that the universe must have a cause in line with the philosophical maxim, from nothing nothing comes. It says that the universe can't just have appeared from nothing as if by magic, because from nothing nothing comes; therefore something, i.e. God, caused it. God is said to act as an efficient cause creating the universe out of an absence of matter and energy, validating the claim that God created the universe from nothing.

    The fact that, up to now, there is no evidence of God's intervention to create the universe, no sign of any inexplicable or supernatural action that brought it into being, and that there are models based on a deeper understanding of quantum mechanics and general relativity which describe how the universe could have spontaneously created itself, have led to widespread scepticism in the role of God as creator of the universe.

    Debates are all well and good, but instead of being genuine attempts to get to the truth, they turn out to be venues where atheist scientists and Christian philosophers try to score points off each other, with each party ending up more firmly entrenched in their views than before.

    • http://ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca/ Randy Gritter

      I agree that creationism and intelligent design are two false Christians dogmas that have driven many to atheism. I call them dogmas because in many Christian churches they are not optional beliefs. You have to accept them or they declare you to be denying the faith. That is the definition of a dogma.

      I call them false dogmas because Catholicism has not made those beliefs very much optional and actually less and less common. Declaring a dogma and getting it wrong does destroy your credibility. That is why God gave His true church a gift of infallibility to prevent that.

      • Sqrat

        I agree that creationism and intelligent design are two false Christians dogmas that have driven many to atheism.... I call them false dogmas because Catholicism has not made those beliefs very much optional and actually less and less common.

        Are you saying that the Church is not creationist and that it does not basically hold that the universe is the way it is because God wanted it that way?

        • Kevin Aldrich

          Sqrat, if you research what creationism and intelligent design mean in the science vs. religion debate, you will be able to answer your own question.

          • Sqrat

            It's clear enough that the Church officially embraces Old Earth Creationism. According to the Catechism, Article 290,

            In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”: three things are affirmed in these first words of Scripture: the eternal God gave a beginning to all that exists outside of himself; he alone is Creator (the verb “create” — Hebrew bara—always has God for its subject). The totality of what exists (expressed by the formula “the heavens and the earth”) depends on the One who gives it being.

            While the Church does not endorse and rather tends to reject Intelligent Design, capital "I" capital "D", it certainly teaches that the universe was intelligently designed, its development teleological in nature. Again from the Catechism (Article 302):

            "Creation has its own goodness and proper perfection, but it did not spring forth complete from the hands of the Creator. The universe was created “in a state of journeying” (in statu viae) toward an ultimate perfection yet to be attained, to which God has destined it."

            Hence my puzzlement at Randy Gritter's assertion that creationism and intelligent design are false Christian dogmas, when the Church plainly holds that the universe was both created and intelligently designed.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            So far, for what you have said, you get an A+.

            However, "creationism" in the current context is new earth creationism and a rejection of the possibility of evolution. It is based on Biblical literalism. Intelligent Design in the current context is a scientific-looking philosophy that also rejects evolution and is supported by new earth creationists.

            Both movements see a conflict between faith and science and conclude that their view of faith must be right so science must be wrong. The Catholic Church holds there cannot be a conflict between faith rightly understood and science rightly understood.

          • Sqrat

            Young Earth Creationism and Old Earth Creationism are both varieties of creationism, just as Catholicism and Lutheranism are both varieties of Christianity. The Catholic Church, for now, is just as much creationist as it is Christian.

            I've already granted you that the Church does not support Intelligent Design, capital "I" capital "D". However, it does support the idea that the universe was intelligently designed. Its position on evolution seems to be that of "theistic evolution," a wholly non-scientific attempt to reconcile scientific evolution with its own creationism.

            Since the Church has made it an article of faith that the universe was created, it must, if a scientific consensus emerges on how the universe came to be without being created, either admit that it made a mistake, or repudiate the scientific consensus. Until then, its Old Earth Creationism serves, not to advance our understanding of the origins of the universe, but rather to subtly suggest that any attempt to arrive at such an understanding is inherently blasphemous.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            In attempt to muddy the waters even further, creationism if understood as special creation, meaning that God created every living thing one by one, is not what Catholics mean by God the Creator.

            Of course the Catholic Church believes the universe is intelligently designed by God. Even those who believe in scientism admit that the universe is filled with intelligence and information and that it has the appearance of being designed.

            I really cannot imagine how science could prove a universe that either always existed or emerged from nothing.

          • Jack Johnson

            I really cannot imagine how science could prove a universe that either always existed or emerged from nothing.

            Well, it's a good thing you aren't involved in that research. Your lack of imagination would be a big problem. Fortunately, there are lots of people who are not as limited as you and are on their way to solving that problem.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            We are all limited, Jack, but I have been following this discussion for years. When guys like Hawking talk about the universe creating itself from nothing, they are equivocating.

          • Tripoli

            Nobody says it was created from nothing, though. Scientists believe it expanded from a singularity, the cause or previous state of which is unknown.
            And, to be fair, ex nihilo creation is exactly the same as "the universe being created from nothing." The only difference is the representation of the force behind it.

          • Susan

            When guys like Hawking talk about the universe creating itself from nothing, they are equivocating.

            Physicists are usually good enough to define their terms. To go to great lengths to do so, as a matter of fact, when they are trying to explain complicated models that require the language of math to truly understand.

            When apologists like Spitzer use the "nothing" of physicists, they are happy to turn it into metaphysical nothing without explaining why or showing their work.

            I thought we'd been through this, Kevin. Spitzer and Craig (e.g.) love to say the "nothing" of physics means the metaphysical nothing and from nothing, nothing comes. Pure equivocation as far as I can tell.

            Physicists, when forced to put things in terms for laypeople, use "nothing" to describe the "nothing" that physics has explored for a very long time now, the nothing that most of us take for granted.

            Apologists like to equivocate that with the "nothing" from their arguments and then accuse physicists of equivocation.

            Book titles and cherry-picked quotes aside.

            So, what does Spitzer mean by nothing when he argues from physics? How is it even remotely related to Hawking's "nothing"?

            I've asked you this a few times and you still haven't responded.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            You would like to put book titles aside. Yet Krauss' book title is "A Universe from Nothing: Why there is something rather than nothing." This is provocatively philosophical language.

            When Spitzer speaks of nothing, he means absolutely nothing. When Krauss and Hawking speak of nothing, they mean something. Spitzer means the nothing from which nothing can arise. Krauss and Hawking mean a something from which something can arise.

          • Susan

            You would like to put book titles aside.

            I'm not arguing for or against the wisdom of provocative book titles. You have claimed that "guys like Hawkins are equivocating". Can you give me an example of a guy like Hawkins pretending they mean absolute nothing when they discuss "nothing"? Can you show me in Krauss's book where he does this?

            On the other hand, Spitzer is happy to list models in cosmology and claim they mean "absolute nothing". I can't find the link you gave me (a long time back) but that's exactly what he did. If you would care to link it again, I'm fairly certain that I could show you exactly where he does that. I'm fairly certain I showed you already but you didn't respond to it.

            You seem to have a problem with equivocation in the title of a book even if there is no equivocation in the book, but are perfectly OK with equivocation in apologetics.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            Susan, I am against equivocation in any context that misleads people.

            The context we begin with is philosophy, metaphysical nothing, and the axiom that "nothing can come from nothing." Then Hawking and Krauss come along and tell us they will show us how the universe can bring itself about from nothing. What they mean is that some quality of the universe is eternal, meaning there is always something, some ground and set of laws from which a singularity or singularities can arise. Hawking said that as long as there is a law like gravity, the universe can and will create itself.

            That's why I wrote above, "When guys like Hawking talk about the universe creating itself from nothing, they are equivocating."

          • Susan

            What they mean is that some quality of the universe is eternal, meaning there is always something, some ground and set of laws from which a singularity or singularities can arise.

            That's why I wrote above, "When guys like Hawking talk about the universe creating itself from nothing, they are equivocating."

            I can appreciate that Kevin. They are not talking about the philosopher's nothing. My point is that they are very clear about what they mean by nothing.

            Whereas Spitzer equivocates. He points to scientific models and suggests that they are pointing to the philosopher's nothing. This is deliberately misleading.

          • Sqrat

            I really cannot imagine how science could prove a universe that either always existed or emerged from nothing.

            Why do you think those are the only two options?

          • Kevin Aldrich

            There is "turtles all the way down" but I don't think that is rationally defensible.

          • Sqrat

            So you prefer "It was done by magic"?

          • Kevin Aldrich

            No. I believe that God created the universe ex nihilo.

          • Sqrat

            By magic?

          • Kevin Aldrich

            Why do you use that word?

          • Tripoli

            In a purely aesthetic sense, it is "by magic."
            Supernatural means that break all known physical laws of nature, that are undetectable & leave no trace, would fall under the concept of "magic."
            Yes, it is often referred to as a "miracle" by believers, but a miracle is just a term for divine "magic."

            Though Sqrat seems to be using it in a somewhat sarcastic sense, he's technically accurate. I do not understand why you take offense to the phrase; I certainly don't, when it's used to describe things in my faith.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            What do you mean by "purely aesthetic sense"? Doesn't aesthetic refer to beauty?

            If you want a "technically accurate" word to describe how *anything* happens, you could use the word "power" but you still need a qualifier: natural power, preternatural power, demonic power, angelic power, or supernatural power.

          • Tripoli

            I did write "aesthetic." Apologies, I was a bit bleary from lack of sleep. I'm honestly not sure which word I meant, but let me rephrase that line:
            "In a technical sort of way, it is 'by magic.' "

            I'd hesitate to use "power." "Forces" seems like a better term.
            "Demonic" and "angelic" both fall under "supernatural power/forces"; further, neither one has yet been empirically demonstrated to actually exist. Natural forces, on the other hand, have.

          • Fr.Sean

            Hi Sqrat,
            Hey i just wanted to address two question you posed. One is that when it comes to understanding the universe and how it was formed there is a lot of mystery and difficult questions to answer. I know atheists are quick to point out theists "God of the gaps" ideology, or "there it is there's your evidence for God". but i'm not sure that's entirely fair when that isn't what we say. we simply point out that God created it and created the laws that govern it. when difficult questions arise though the typical answer is either something like the multiverse or the initial singularity with all of the matter in the universe was created the same way a quark was momentarily created in a vacuum. there isn't any empirical evidence for a multiverse and at this point they only place we are sure it exists is in the mind of a physicists who's committed to keeping the idea of a divine creator out of the equation. and all of the matter in the universe being formed in a similar manner as a quark in a vacuum momentarily forming, appears to be magical thinking. if you strip away the theories that don't have any empirical evidence it certainly does appear to have chance, but chance that was and is guided. pure mathematical chance seems to be as illogical as what young earth creationists believe.
            secondly if you do want to know what the church teaches and what it appears to infer i would stick with the counsels. there is a hierarchy in teaching and it's always important to focus on counsels so that you don't end up with "he said she said". a good summary of the counsels is a catechism. Thanks for your questions and insights.

          • Sqrat

            One is that when it comes to understanding the universe and how it was
            formed there is a lot of mystery and difficult questions to answer.

            Oh, indeed, Fr.Sean. The scientific approach to understanding how the universe was formed is to try to unravel the mystery and answer the difficult questions. I would contrast that with the creationist approach to understanding how the universe was formed if I could. Unfortunately, that's not possible, because creationists have no hypotheses whatsoever for how the universe was formed. They only make unsubstantiated assertions about who. supposedly, formed it.

            there isn't any empirical evidence for a multiverse and at this point they only place we are sure it exists is in the mind of a physicists who's committed to keeping the idea of a divine creator out of the equation.

            Yes, because that's what scientists do, they seek to explain and understand the world in naturalistic terms. I have said it before in this discussion, and I will say it again now: The position of the Church implies (and you here make explicit)

          • Fr.Sean

            Hi Sqrat,
            Just to be clear i don't think it's blasphemy to attempt to explain the universe in scientific terms. I suppose you could say there are two possible theories of how the universe became so fine tuned. A God who created it and structured the laws as so and the multiverse theory. Have you considered the former?

          • Sqrat

            "A God who created it and structured the laws as so" is not a theory, or even a hypothesis, since it lacks any explanation of how God created it and how he structured its laws. To make it a hypothesis, it is not sufficient simply to name the magician. One must also be able to offer a plausible explanation as to how he might have performed the trick.

            There are currently multiple competing hypotheses seeking to explain the origins of the universe. They are all naturalistic hypotheses. The only actual creationist hypothesis for the origins of the universe is not the God hypothesis, but the hypothesis that our universe might have been created by beings from some other universe. That's simply an offshoot of a hypothesis that suggests how a universe might be created "in a laboratory." I don't think many scientists take that one very seriously, in some cases because they think some other hypothesis is more plausible, in other cases because it might well be untestable, hence "unscientific." Still, if human scientists were able to demonstrate that they had actually created a universe, that would not only validate the multiverse hypothesis, but also lend credence to the hypothesis that our universe, too, might have been created. But not created by magic, and not created by some ancient Middle Eastern tribal deity.

            These are interesting times in cosmology, and totally boring times in theology.

          • David Nickol

            These are interesting times in cosmology, and totally boring times in theology.

            Not necessarily. In general, we are not privy to what goes on in theology the way we are to what goes on in physics. We are fortunate at the moment that many important and prominent physicists are willing and able to communicate to the general public ideas that are at the cutting edge of cosmology. But in order to know what is going on at the cutting edge of theology, you would have to read theological journals and books not aimed at a general audience (that would likely be very expensive). Whether we would find contemporary "cutting edge" academic theology interesting or persuasive is another question. But we don't generally see it, just as we don't generally see contemporary "cutting edge" biblical scholarship, although it is more visible and accessible that contemporary theology.

          • Sqrat

            I don't consider genuine biblical scholarship to be a subset of the "discipline" of theology, but rather a subset of the discipline of history. Bart Ehrman, for example, is a biblical scholar, and as such considers himself to be a historian. He's a professor of religious studies, not a professor of theology.

          • Fr.Sean

            Hi Sqrat,
            I should apologize i didn't mean to convey something that i did convey. If you were or are a scientist or more specifically a cosmologist, and you became a theist, it would be your duty, or more specifically your moral responsibility as a theist to continue to attempt to explain the universe through naturalistic causes. unless of course you found some empirical evidence for God's existence. if you didn't, science couldn't continue to grow and expand as a discipline. sometimes as a theist it can be a little difficult when some scientists who are atheists attempt to say that "as a society we need to let go of theology because there is a multiverse etc. and even if there's not we still need to let go of theology ", particularly when many of us find our relationship with God as an important part and influence in our lives. When i suggested perhaps considering God as an explanation of a fine tuned universe and other causes i meant that in a personal way, or in other words have you considered it as a possible explanation to be objective about the God question? I have read a few books as of late on science, physics and biology and find them to be fascinating subjects that have made me appreciate the universe, world and life as it currently is.

          • Sqrat

            When i suggested perhaps considering God as an explanation of a fine tuned universe and other causes i meant that in a personal way, or in other words have you considered it as a possible explanation to be
            objective about the God question?

            If, by a fine-tuned universe you mean a universe in which human beings could live, count me as an adherent of the weak anthropic principle, by which I mean that the universe has to be such that we could live in it, or we wouldn't be here to observe it. To that, the most reasonable response is, "So?" It's almost the same as saying that the universe has to be as it is, or it would be different. That's true but trivial. As others have already noted, it's hard to make the argument that the universe was fine tuned especially for us, when we only live, and live comfortably, in part of the narrow biosphere of one tiny planet in one tiny corner of the universe.

            You might ask yourself, if the universe was fine tuned for us by God, why fine tuning was even necessary. Isn't God, in some sense, considered to be "alive"? Does that mean that he could only live in some special environment fine tuned for him? If not, wouldn't that suggest that, if there's a God, the existence of life ought not to require a fine-tuned environment? Yet it does -- because God wants it to?

            I mentioned earlier the hypothesis that it might be possible for us to create other universes, and that by inference our universe might have created by beings in another universe. It's far from clear that, even if intelligent beings possessed of sufficiently advanced technologies can create universes, they would also be able to tune them, whether finely or grossly. I've seen it argued that, if that is indeed possible, then (1) most existing universes might have been created, and (2) intelligent beings would choose to create universes in which life would be possible rather than universes in which life would be impossible, and thus life should be possible in most existing universes. Given the premises, that seems to me to be not entirely implausible.

            I rather like to think that I am objective about the God question, and that's why I'm an atheist.

          • Fr.Sean

            Hi Sqrat,
            thanks of your input. I do indeed understand the anthropromorphic principle. i think to address your question i probably need to address the second one first. from a theological perspective (not trying to prove God at this point, just the perspective) God wants us to come to know him by faith, or rather by a choice, kind of like in paschal's wager. most atheists converts examined various issues and it appeared to have an intelligent source, yet most looked at it objectively due to not having a plausable explanation for the natural law. i've read the various explanations as a source for the natural law but i haven't read one yet that did't entail circular reasoning. Thus, if God wanted us to come to know him by faith, and by choice, what would he do? well, i think he might do things that reveal an intelligence, but those things would never be an entire certain proof. thus you have things like a fine tuned universe, the physical properties and characteristics of our planet the unique structure of a dna molecule and the information that is passed between dna protine and rna (my brother's friend converted because of that, as he is a biologist) as it's difficult to explain where the information came from etc. thus those things cause one to ponder. Now, like in law, if your client's innocent stick with the facts, if guilty try to confuse the jury. thus with that kind of evidence one can't refute it but can only confuse the evidence, thus you have the anthropromorphic principle which in part takes your mind off of the question, now instead of marveling at the universe, planet and cells, i let the questoin go by saying, "well, we can only ponder these questions because we live in such a universe, and there may in fact be 10 to the 500 billiointh power of other universes etc". take the example you just mentioned. you may have been distracted from looking at the evidence, by hypothesizing that their could be other universes and could be other beings who are almost god-like in how the effected ours? Why choose to believe that as a likely scenario instead of being objective about the God question? or what about all of us theists? what's our motivation? i'm sure you could cite a bunch of potential psychological theories, but if we invest this much effort and time there is a possibility that we've discovered something that we also would like you to discover.(or more specifically God compells us to) i used to think atheists just didn't believe in God and thus tried to find meaning in this world and in this life. being on here for a while made me wonder if it wasn't God who perhaps have made them unsettled with the question, and thus potentially "winning" arguments with theists might quiet that pull a little. you are in my prayers sqrat.

          • Sqrat

            I can't speculate on your motivations other than to say that most of you seem to believe in a God who will do stuff for you if you believe certain things, do certain things, or just ask nicely. It's your way of trying to manipulate your environment in a magical way that doesn't actually work. Your prayers will do nothing for me, regardless of what you think.

          • David Nickol

            Even those who believe in scientism admit that the universe is filled with intelligence and information and that it has the appearance of being designed.

            I am not sure I would fully agree with this. I don't think the universe is necessarily "filled with intelligence." Also having the appearance of being designed is not the same as being designed, unless you can attribute "design" to something like natural selection.

            Also, be careful about use of the word admit. It implies someone is reluctantly conceding a point you have made that works for your position and against theirs.

            I really cannot imagine how science could prove a universe that either always existed or emerged from nothing.

            Although I have read a not insignificant amount of basic science, I can't imagine how magnets work. They always seem quite magical to me. But they do work despite my lack of comprehension of how.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            I don't know how anyone can look at genetics and not see information encoded in a most amazing way or look at the micro-machines that fill cells and not be in awe at their complexity. That's what I mean by "filled with intelligence."

            People who deny teleology claim that things have the appearance of design but are not really designed; they just end up amazingly complex through natural forces.

          • David Nickol

            I don't know how anyone can look at genetics and not see information encoded in a most amazing way or look at the micro-machines that fill cells and not be in awe at their complexity.

            Information and intelligence are two different things.

            While I agree that the complexity is awesome, nevertheless nature is filled with "design flaws" that it is problematic to attribute to an omniscient intelligent designer. The reason so many people have back problems and hip problems is that the human body wasn't "designed" for walking upright. The same goes for sinus problems.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            You are making the assumption that if God is the intelligence behind the design then the design must be perfect in some regard. Part of the design mechanism (as I understand it) combines determinism with randomness. That would seem to imply that imperfection (flaws) is part of the design.

          • fredx2

            I disagree. The reason people have so many back problems is that they engage in repetitive motions, etc or have jobs tha require them to strain the back when they are not fit enough to take the work. If you go back to tribal man, you will find very few back problems.

          • David Nickol

            If you go back to tribal man, you will find very few back problems.

            What are your sources of data for back problems in "tribal man"?

          • http://star-www.st-and.ac.uk/~pr33/ Paul Brandon Rimmer

            Maybe almost no one lived long enough to get back problems?

          • Michael Murray

            Even if we have to scratch back problems of the list there are a lot more examples of apparent bad design just in humans. Sinuses as David noticed. Feeding tube and air tube with common entry point. Testicles outside the body. Head too big for birth canal. Etc, etc.

            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Argument_from_poor_design#In_humans

            Me I blame The Fall.

          • http://star-www.st-and.ac.uk/~pr33/ Paul Brandon Rimmer

            I just like the idea that dying before these things become a problem can be considered a feature.

          • http://ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca/ Randy Gritter

            Death is a grace. An eternity in a world of sin would be hell, not heaven. We die as punishment for sin but also as a quarantine from sin. So God does make the human body unfit for eternity. That will change when we get to heaven.

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            Your opinion, of course.

          • http://star-www.st-and.ac.uk/~pr33/ Paul Brandon Rimmer

            So, in other words, all the physical problems with our body are actually good things because eventually they will kill us.

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            We don't deny teleology; we just demand more evidence than "it looks designed to me." I know a great deal about genetics and microbiology, and it certainly doesn't looked "designed" to me. Design is in the eye of the beholder - unless you've got some evidence I'm not aware of.

          • Tripoli

            Just a clarification: "scientism" is not a word. Science is not a belief system, though I'm sure you were just trying to succinctly say "non-religious people who put their faith wholly in science."

          • Kevin Aldrich

            If you have not heard of the term "scientism" you have come late to the discussion and need to catch up.

      • Peter

        While the dogmas of creationism and intelligent design are, to most people at least, scientifically falsifiable,

  • Loreen Lee

    I have read Habermas: Between Naturalism and Religion. Does anyone have any opinion/understanding on this position: that is whether they believe this is possible, i.e. whether this would involve 'commitment' to both positions, or complete lack of commitment to either?

  • Danny Getchell

    "Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee."

    Quite. This assuredly focuses on the task of the Christian who seeks to win converts. The skeptic who is happy and content with his lot in life is unlikely to see himself in need of God, and to view Thomist cosmos-wrangling as not more than an intellectual exercise.

    Nice article BTW, as usual.

  • http://briangreenadams.wordpress.com/ Brian Green Adams

    I think the Catholic church is right, if the god they believe in exists in the way they believe, atheists are wrong and potentially harmful.

    However, it misses the most important cause of atheism: a fair and sincere attempt to find good reasons to believe that has failed. Atheist conventions are filled with former pastors, fundamentalists and everyday Catholics who, for some reason decided to actually read the Bible and/or research apologetics in order to defend the Church. When they did so sincerely and actually biased towards believing, they found the Bible to contain many horrid passages and few nice ones. They find the apologetics to be fallacious and the sciences they disdained to be robust, well-documented and verifiable.

    They find that there is no evidence or proof of absolute truth, only assertions that it exists. They find all the arguments rely on ignorance, special pleading, circular reasoning and personal experience.

    This is not an easy thing to do. There are many good reasons to keep belief that are irrelevant to the question of whether a god actually exists. Christians who lose their faith lose the security of eternal life, family and friends often disown them or are very saddened and disappointed, some even lose their jobs.

    These are not a fringe element of the atheist movement, the clergy project now has over 500 members of actual clergy who have every material reason to believe but cannot. See the stories of Matt Dillahunty and Seth Andrews.

    Then there are people like me, who very much adore much of the architecture, music and art inspired by Christianity and honestly would be okay if were all true, but never believed and see no reason to.

    Certainly there are troves of atheists who do not believe for bad reasons, but the Church needs to focus on the best reasons for atheism, not the bad ones. Just like atheists need to focus on the best reasons to believe, not the silly ones.

    Gaudium et Spes says the answer to atheism is the teachings of the Church. Let us discuss them, but please understand that most atheists are not simply rejecting a god that is obvious to them out of anger or material reasons.

    • Fr.Sean

      Hi Brian,
      We (clergy of Pittsburgh) had someone from St.Luke's institute come out to speak to us a few years ago. St.Luke's is an institute that helps clergy who are struggling with various issues in their lives. The speaker said that every individual who's walked through the door he's asked the same question and has always received the same answer. The question was always, "When did you stop praying". He said that without fail every clergy member acknowledged that they did stop praying. Prayer is where one get's motivation, to not only be effective in ministry but to experience or become a conduit of Gods love. I know there are many religious people who have left the faith but i also think there's a pretty good chance that they would answer that former question the same way those clergy members have. Jesus said; "i am the vine, and you are the branches. he who abides in me will bear much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing, ..... "If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch and dries up."

    • fredx2

      From my experience atheist conventions have an unusally large number of former fundamentalists, or otherwise bible hard liners. All of which speaks to the fact that their whole world fell apart when the hard line did not hold. I don't think there are an abnormally large number of Catholics, however.

  • Cubico

    Speaking of Atheism......does anyone know where we can see a video of the debate between Trent Horn and Dan Barker that was supposed to have taken place on Feb.14. Any links please?......even a link to an mp3 audio podcast would be appreciated.
    Strange Notions did say that they would make it available.

  • http://weighandconsider.wordpress.com/ Noah Luck

    Moreover, atheism results not rarely from a violent protest against the evil in this world

    It's nice to see an acknowledgment of the fact, so frequently denied by apologists, that many atheists were driven toward atheism by their consciences, being more distressed by the horrifying immorality in tales of the Christian God than the total lack of evidence for his existence.

    • fredx2

      If you are distressed by the tales of "horrifying immorality" you have not been reading carefully, or with an open mind. Anyone who reads teh bible with an open mind, seriously considering the whole story does not come away with the impression that God does horrifying things. The fact that atheists make such a big deal of a few relatively sparse sections of the bible tells you something. It's all part of the polemicists art, and Hitchens, Dawkins et al are essentially polemicists, not rational thinkers.

  • http://weighandconsider.wordpress.com/ Noah Luck

    What's most interesting to me in Gaudium et Spes's list of various kinds of unbelief is the omission of the dominant strain of atheism: people who have examined religious claims, including Christian ones, and found the evidence against religion to be compelling. How should we interpret this glaring omission?

    It is unlikely to have been accidental, given the care taken in producing documents of oecumenical councils.

    Given the general tone of respect, it is unlikely to have been an assumption that skeptical atheists are really motivated by one of the less reasonable phenomena on the list.

    It could just be that they recognized the primary audience of GS would be Catholics and they did not think it wise for Catholics to see and be bothered by official recognition of unbelief with a reasonable basis.

    It could also be that, as the religious mode of thinking is the prescientific one emphasizing discourse and deemphasizing evidence, they did not consider skeptical atheism interesting enough or important enough to mention.

    Whatever was their intent in picking what did and did not make the list of unbelief, I would hope that Catholics in public and in discussions such as on SN would follow the GS authors in their respectful treatment, but supersede them by also learning to understand the inside perspective of skepticism, atheism, naturalism, humanism, and related notions.

    • http://ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca/ Randy Gritter

      Isn't this always the case? If a Democrat tries to explain why someone is not a Democrat or a Republican tries to explain why someone is not a Republican they don't suppose they might have really good reasons. They assume the reasons they have must be flawed because they arrived at the wrong conclusion.

      I see the same thing here. People honestly evaluate the evidence and found atheism more compelling. Why? Obviously not because it is actually true. So then why?

      • http://weighandconsider.wordpress.com/ Noah Luck

        I don't get the example. Of course Democrats and Republicans have good reasons for being Democrats and Republicans. The reasons shift around a lot from generation to generation, but at the moment Democrats by and large emphasize liberal values (e.g. human rights, the open society, social solidarity, etc.) and Republicans by and large emphasize traditional values (e.g. social stability, fiscal caution, national security, etc.). A healthy society needs them all at different times, and different life experiences and perspectives within society will give people good reasons to emphasize some values over others.

        I don't think the analogy holds for Catholics and atheists. The health of a society doesn't mean sometimes emphasizing that God exists and sometimes emphasizing that God doesn't exist. These aren't different values. They're different conclusions based on the same value of pursuing truth.

        Your second paragraphs sounds like you're saying that to admit someone has a good reason is to admit they're right. Of course the two aren't the same. Reasons are good when they are many, independent, reliable, and strong. (The reliability of a reason is how much it is based on methods that demonstrably work for many people in many contexts, and the strength of a reason to discriminate between ideas is the ratio of how likely it is given one idea versus given the other.) But even something we have many independent reliable and strong reasons to believe can potentially be wrong - there just have to be better reasons we don't know yet.

        • http://ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca/ Randy Gritter

          I don't think Democrats or Republicans would concede for a second that the other side is needed. The other side is just wrong, wrong, wrong and the quicker everyone sees that the better. Still they have to have some way of explaining why the other side persists. They must have reasons yet their reasons must be consistent with the fact that they are just wrong, wrong, wrong.

          • http://weighandconsider.wordpress.com/ Noah Luck

            We'd need to actually go out and ask a sizable number of them before we can say what they really think. :)

            Returning to your initial question, "Isn't this always the case?", though, we can clearly say No. A survey of my friends isn't statistically likely to reflect common opinion, but several of the Ds and a few of the Rs among them agree that both sides are necessary. So it's not always the case.

            And I think it's definitely healthy for society and rational for individuals to recognize that the people they disagree with may have good reasons for their disagreement.

          • http://ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca/ Randy Gritter

            OK forget the political analogy. I am not going to argue to save an analogy.

            Think about yourself. You say you are here because people you disagree with may have good reasons for believing in God. But really, how good do you think our reasons actually are? They are not good enough to make you believe, at least not yet. You see flaws in them. Why don't we see the flaws? So while saying we believe for good reasons might be nice it does not answer the bigger question of why we believe.

            I think the opposite is also true. Saying some atheists are atheists for good reasons does not answer, for a Catholic, why they are not Catholic. For me, that explains why the "good reasons" explanation does not make the list. It really does not explain anything.

          • David Nickol

            Do you mean to imply that all questions—including "Does God exist?"—have knowable yes-or-no answers that a person who conscientiously and fairly investigates will necessarily arrive at if he or she persists?

          • http://weighandconsider.wordpress.com/ Noah Luck

            On the topic of our last few posts, I think I'm just going to concede. Let's say instead that we can all agree other people have reasons that seem good to them, but that we think we have better reasons.

            You asked some interesting questions.

            But really, how good do you think our reasons actually are? ... Why don't we see the flaws?

            And vice versa for you and us.

            I'm sure that there are Catholics and atheists who believe what they believe for really crappy reasons. I don't want to talk about them. I'm limiting it to people who've thought about the issue and discussed it civilly with people who disagree over a period of at least five years. (That's enough time for people to get over the zeal of the new convert or new deconvert.)

            Among those people it seems to me there's a fairly standard set of arguments.

            On the atheist side, people sometimes give reasons to disbelieve in any kind of god, but I actually don't think those are good reasons. The important and good reasons for atheists, I think, are that the various specific theologies have implications for the world that, as our knowledge of the world has grown, we've seen don't pan out. We observe a world very different from what religions have lead people to expect.

            On the theist side, one of the most common reasons given is personal experience. People say they've had an encounter with God in some personal, ineffable, mystical, and/or rapturous way. I think from a first-person perspective that may be rightfully convincing; but from a third-person perspective it sounds more likely to be a vivid dream.

            The second most common reason that I encounter is answered prayer. But the studies have been done on that, and it's clearly a case where the believers are counting the hits and ignoring the misses, which is confirmation bias; see the next paragraph.

            Third come metaphysical arguments, wherein theists treat words and grammar as if they contain the power to reveal knowledge about the universe beyond that which we put into them when we invented them. The reasons we don't see the flaws here have been experimentally uncovered and demonstrated by psychologists in the field of cognitive biases and heuristics. My synopsis of the laundry list of biases is that, once any idea has gotten into our heads, human brains are really bad at stopping to check for alternative possibilities. We can't overcome biases just by thinking, because human thinking is where the biases are; we need carefully designed systems to overcome them. Formal mathematics was the first such system invented. The scientific method was the next. Scholarly debate toward consensus can be another depending on the peer review standards they set for their journals. Our courts use an adversarial system which at least tries to balance biases, if not remove them. I once read a book produced for the CIA on their system of interpreting intelligence data, which suggested techniques for analysts to simulate all these processes inside their own heads; it's fascinating but I don't know how well it works.

            Fourth come other disparate reasons too motley to go into now.

          • http://ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca/ Randy Gritter

            You talk about confirmation bias yet you feel atheists are somehow immune from it. Science has found a method of reducing confirmation bias in matters involving the physical world. That is true. That does not mean when atheists talk about metaphysics they are any less prone to it than Christians. It is an illogical attempt to claim everything good about science for atheists even though science was pretty much the fruit of Christianity.

            As far as the reasons go, personal experience is big for me. Not mine so much but the fact that supernatural experiences are widespread even with modern minds being reluctant to believe them. I would not expect that if atheism was true. Atheists just don't deal seriously with this data.

            Answered prayer is a special case of #1. Confirmation bias does play a role. I do dismiss many answered prayer stories not as being false but as not being very strong evidence for the supernatural. Still there are some that truly amaze me.

            Metaphysics? If you think it is just grammar tricks then you don't understand it. They are really just logically rigorous versions of intuitive arguments. Things exists. Does the fact that one thing can produce another mean that the totality of existence needs no explanation? No. That is intuitive to me. St Thomas makes it more precise with exact definitions and rigorous reasoning.

    • Kevin Aldrich

      GS was written about sixty years ago. The landscape has changed a lot since then. The omission of the reason you think best might be that it was not on anyone's radar in the early 1960s.

      • http://weighandconsider.wordpress.com/ Noah Luck

        What? Why on earth would someone think there weren't skeptics in the 1960s?

        • Kevin Aldrich

          If you really want to know the answer to your question, you will have to do some research.

          • http://weighandconsider.wordpress.com/ Noah Luck

            Yes, I could research the peculiar psychological biases that lead you to ignore the many prominent atheist and skeptical people and organizations around in the 1960s. Or I could just ask, since that's the best way to access the cobwebby corners of your mind. :)

  • David Nickol

    The question in my mind is whether some explanations of Church doctrine are to what the Church really teaches as elementary school science textbooks are to college level (or graduate level) textbooks, or are they fundamentally flawed. Everyone know, for example, that the planetary model of the atom is not an accurate representation, but it's a good starting point for someone just beginning to learn about the atom. On the other hand, the "luminiferous aether," although it sufficed as a theory for some time, is not a good beginning for the student just beginning to learn about the propagation of light. Are the theological assumptions of elementary and secondary school religion classes, as well as of the average homily and the day-to-day practice of piety, simplified versions of what academic theologians discuss among themselves, or are they oversimplified to the point of being wrong?

    Or, on the other hand, can the theology of everyday piety ultimately not stand up to scrutiny while the more sophisticated and more nuanced explanations of that theology are elaborate inventions, rationalizations, and immensely creative systems that are "not even wrong" in the sense of Peter Woit's book title "Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String Theory and the Search for Unity in Physical Law." How could something be wrong, we might ask ourselves, like the Summa Theologica when it is so immense and self-consistent and respected? But maybe it is "not even wrong." After all, many world religions and sects within those religions (including Christianity) are built on elaborate foundations that are incompatible with one another.

    • Kevin Aldrich

      In the United States, all the approved elementary and secondary Catholic religion textbooks are in harmony with the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

      In my view the proper question is, "To what extent does *any* expression of the faith, from kindergarten through the writings of theologians, correspond to the Magisterium's interpretation of the Deposit of Faith.

      I don't know what your second paragraph means. How would the Hail Mary, for example, not be able to stand up to scrutiny? Or, how could "They will be done" be thought an invalid prayer?

      • David Nickol

        How would the Hail Mary, for example, not be able to stand up to scrutiny?

        I am so glad you asked me that question. :P

        The "Hail Mary" is a prayer of petition, and there are very complex questions to be asked about prayers of petition. In what I am calling the "theology of everyday piety," we address prayers to the saints or to God directly. Praying to the saints, we ask them to intercede for us with God on the theory that someone like Mary will have more "pull" when it comes to convincing God to answer our prayers than we have ourselves. If Mary looks favorably on our request, she speaks directly to God and tries to persuade him to grant our request, and he either says yes or no. In certain circumstances, a person (like Danny Thomas) might pray to a saint for a specific favor (success in show business), and if he feels his prayers are answered, he may do something to honor that saint (like build St. Jude's Children's Hospital). It's a win-win situation. (Danny Thomas gets success in show business, and St. Jude gets publicity as the saint of lost causes or desperate situations, and a very fine children's hospital is built, to boot.)

        But for one thing, God is outside of time, so how can he be asked for something and then grant it? For another thing, God cannot be influenced and cannot change. It does not even make sense to think a prayer (or a request from Mary) would convince God to do something he would otherwise not have done. God does not need to be told what to do and convinced that one course of action is better than another. Also, God being omniscient (and outside of time) knows everything that has happened, is happening, and will happen all at once. How can he be influenced by a prayer or a request from Mary?

        I am not saying a rationale cannot be constructed for petitionary prayer and its efficacy. Thomas Aquinas deals with the question, and although I don't fully grasp his answer, I trust many find it satisfactory. But my point is that the "theology of everyday piety" is not the same as the theology of Thomas Aquinas. Probably the vast majority of people who pray (including people who know better) pray as if they were trying to persuade God to do something he might otherwise not have done. And that makes no sense.

        • Kevin Aldrich

          Praying to the saints, we ask them to intercede for us with God on the
          theory that someone like Mary will have more "pull" when it comes to
          convincing God to answer our prayers than we have ourselves.

          I don't subscribe to the "pull" theory. I think God likes to delegate authority and importance. I think he also likes us to help one another. That has something to do with the communion or friendship he wants to exist among persons.

    • Danny Getchell

      are they oversimplified to the point of being wrong?

      As I've said here before, I went to school with a lot of Catholic kids. To the extent that my memory can be trusted, they were all quite convinced that hell was a place of real physical torment, in which extremely high temperatures played a significant part.

      It's pretty easy to find images of paintings and sculptures of the 11th - 16th century, all prominently displayed in Catholic churches, in which those entering hell are clearly shown as encountering real flames and real torture.

      Either this is really Catholic doctrine, or the Church allowed a lot of people to teach a false doctrine for quite a long time indeed.

      • David Nickol

        Either this is really Catholic doctrine, or the Church allowed a lot of
        people to teach a false doctrine for quite a long time indeed.

        Well, to be fair, if hell exists as a state but not a place, it is possible that considering it as if it were a place may convey very important truths that would be difficult to convey otherwise. But it should always be made clear (as it is, I think, with the planetary model of the atom) that the full truth is much more complex.

        As someone noted, there have been visions of hell that have been "approved" by the Church (thought that does not make them official Church teaching) in which the visionaries claim to have seen hell. I suppose it could be claimed that what they saw was a hallucination created by God to should what hell would look like if it were a place—sort of like an "artist's conception" of hell, but the artist would be God. But that raises questions of possible deception on God's part.

  • Peter

    "...believers can have more than a little to do with the birth of
    atheism. To the extent that they...teach erroneous doctrine...they must be said
    to conceal rather than reveal the authentic face of God..." Gaudium et Spes

    There is a third movement in Christian apologetics which, together with creationism and ID, is ironically and counterproductively making God seem even less likely.
    I call this big bang creationism.

    This is the notion that God acted as a physical first cause who kick-started the universe into existence 13.8 billion years ago by transforming an absence of matter into the highly ordered matter of the early universe, much in the same way as young earth creationists believe that God kick-started a fully developed earth into existence 6000 years ago.

    However, just as the fully developed earth of the young earth creationists has been found to have depended on natural processes for its existence, leading to their discredit, so too could the highly ordered early universe of the big bang creationist also be found to depend upon natural processes, which will also lead to their discredit.

    Christian apologetics in the Protestant tradition, ranging from young earth to big bang creationism, although no doubt sincere in its belief, has created enormous confusion in the quest to reveal the existence of God. The moment you posit God as an efficient cause in a physical process, you run the risk of that physical cause being falsified by scientific discovery which then concludes not only that God did not act as that physical cause, but that he doesn't exist at all.

  • mikehorn

    "The root reason for human dignity lies in man's call to communion with God."

    Since an atheist would begin disagreeing right here, right at the very basic premise, everything that follows remains meaningless until the Church does a better job right here. Unless they are preaching to Catholics only. If this is simply preaching to the choir, then it is one of the many arguments based on fear that manipulate emotions, or coerce retention. Emotional argument, not rational, will not convince the average atheist.

    Since many biblical stories are horrifying jumbles of ethical evils and might-makes-right, the Church needs to find better arguments both for the existence of any god, then for any reason to worship the biblical horror show.

    Examples:
    The genocide of Noah's flood. They make children's toys out of this horror!
    The ethical ugliness of Jesus sacrifice. Modern ethics do not consider a scape goat to be a positive choice, where a goat or single person is sacrificed for the wrongs others committed. This does not promote responsibility. Then let's talk about letting Jesus in to save you from the eternal damnation for finite wrongs based on a set-up-to-fail leadership failure of god initially. Original sin is most closely paralleled by mob strong arm tactics, a protection racket where the same source provides both danger and protection. Moral quagmire sums up the entire New Testament.

    • fredx2

      Mike: I can see by the questions that you have chosen to approach the bible as a skeptic. And, this is the way a creationist approaches the idea of a billion year old earth. This is the way the Intellligent Design guy approaches evolution. They pick out a few things that appear on the surface to not make sense. However, if you read the entire context of these things, and try to understand, then you will begin to understand. it works both ways

      • mikehorn

        Context of Noah's flood, where a vengeful and demonstrably incompetent god throws a tantrum and slaughters men, women, and children, and babies, except for 8. Where is the context?

        Original sin is one of the worst ideas ever. Punishment based upon the transgressions of your upteenth removed ancestor? That is ethical how?

        Don't throw "context" at this, especially if you then don't give any context.

        One of my favorite absurdities is Judges I:9, where the biblical god cannot defeat chariots made of iron. That is some great context there.

      • mikehorn

        Original sin and Jesus explained simply.