Why War?

February 7, 2012

The men and women working for the Obama White House are not stupid people.  In fact, the billion-dollar Obama political machine is perhaps the most impressive such operation in American political history.  Why then, I’ve heard many people asking, would this Administration choose to go to “war”—to use the word of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius —with the Catholic Church, in an election year no less?  Why, furthermore, has the Administration’s response to Catholic objections to its new contraception rules ranged from the obtuse to the insulting?

Ducking reporters’ questions on the subject, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney read from a prepared statement with all the sincerity of a North Korean news anchor before refusing to answer questions about the penalties Catholic institutions will face when they refuse to supply free contraceptives to employees.  And the Administration trotted out talking points on the White House blog that are blatantly mendacious even by the standards of today’s politics.

People of faith, and even fair-minded secular opinion-makers, have seen through the pretense that this front in the White House’s war is really about contraception.  Indeed, one of the positive outcomes of this controversy has been the unity it has produced, not just within the Catholic Church but also among believers who do not share the Church’s beliefs on contraception—or just about anything else.  The liberal columnist Sean Michael Winters issued an interesting proposal for our cardinals to engage in civil disobedience.  Prominent Protestant and Jewish leaders have also objected to the Administration’s power grab, and the nation’s Orthodox bishops voted unanimously to “join their voices with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops” in “adamantly protest[ing]” the Administration’s new rules.

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Paul VI, the Jesuits, and atheism

December 5, 2011

I noted at the beginning of my series on the “new atheists” (Contra Dennett 1, 2, and 3) that Pope Paul VI entrusted the Society of Jesus with the mission of combating atheism in the modern world.  At least one commenter questioned just how effective the Jesuits—and the institutions calling themselves “Jesuit”—have been in answering the Holy Father’s challenge.  That’s a fair question, one which might even prompt our least Society to do a bit of soul-searching.

I thought, therefore, it might be useful to reprint Pope Paul’s charge, which came at the outset of the Order’s 31st General Congregation in 1965.  The Pope’s exhortation begins by praising the contributions Jesuits have historically made to the Church, mentioning Church Doctors St. Peter Canisius and St. Robert Bellarmine.  Pope Paul’s tone is confident, speaking of the Society as the Church’s “most devoted sons.”  The laudatory preamble heightens the importance of the substance of the Holy Father’s challenge:

We gladly take this opportunity to lay serious stress, however briefly, on a matter of grave importance:  We mean the fearful danger of atheism threatening human society.  Read the rest of this entry »


A Polish philosopher

July 21, 2011

One of the pleasures of this Jesuit life is being a part of such a remarkably mobile international organization.  In my community at Loyola Chicago, one regularly sits down to dinner next to a Bolivian, a Nigerian, a Brazilian, a German, and a Pole.  And the latter two don’t even fight.

The last of these, our resident Polish priest, has been urging me for some time to take a look at a favorite Polish philosopher, whose name had too many consonants in it for me to remember.  I admit, I wasn’t overly eager to dive into tomes of what I was sure would be grim and turgid prose.  When I returned to the house after our Christmas break, however, I found a book by Leszek Kolakowski in my mailbox.  I had been outflanked by the Polish intelligentsia!

Once I read the title, I was won over:  My Correct Views on Everything.  The title comes from the rejoinder Kolakowski wrote in The Socialist Register to the British Marxist E.P Thompson.  Both Thompson and Kolakowski had started off as communists, and both had experienced some disillusionment after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956.  Kolakowski’s questioning had run deeper, however, and led him to see that Marxism itself, and not just its manifestation in Stalinism, was rotten to the core.

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Contra Dennett III: Mystery

July 4, 2011

In my first post on the subject I argued that that Dan Dennett’s Breaking the Spell sets up a straw man by attacking only a childish and incoherent understanding of religion.  In my second I looked at his attempt to weigh the pros and cons of religion, which is riddled with logical flaws.  Dennett paints believers as unquestioning simpletons clinging to the stories they were told in childhood—he compares religion to Santa Claus—and simply ignores or breezily brushes aside any evidence that might contradict his stereotype.

One further aspect of Dennett’s charge against theism, however, deserves attention, for it can sometimes be a stumbling block even to believers—the notion of mystery.

For Dennett, “mystery” is simply a trump card played by believers whenever they can’t think of anything better to say, a talisman to be invoked when one has run out of arguments.  Unfortunately, sometimes this can be the case, especially when dealing with the sort of unsophisticated believers Dennett seems to favor.

In Dennett’s view, religious beliefs once provided simplistic explanations about why the world is the way it is, but believers have had to retreat from many of these explanations as human thought evolved.  Since religious beliefs are false to begin with—only material phenomena are real—they necessarily lead believers into absurdities and contradictions from which they attempt to extract themselves by changing their beliefs or, if they’re too stubborn for that, invoking mystery.

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Contra Dennett II: The Crusades, the Inquisition, and all that

June 21, 2011

Last week, I argued that Dan Dennett’s Breaking the Spell amounts to an attack on a straw man, “Religion,” an amalgam of what he calls “an unorganized set of dozens or hundreds—or billions—of quite different possible theories.”

Billions, huh?

Dennett is right in noting that many of these theories are vague and incompatible, and it would be a mistake to treat them all as equally valid. (Another reason believers should be on guard against relativism and syncretism, which result in religious absurdities at which skeptics rightly scoff.)

His straw man stuffed, however, Dennett is determined to beat the hay out of him. His argument is that in weighing up the pluses and minuses of Religion, it turns out that the phenomenon has been a net negative to human progress. There’s nothing even remotely scientific in Dennett’s method here, and he relies on stringing together a series of loaded associations without seriously exploring what his examples actually prove.

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Contra Dennett I: Stuffing a straw man

June 14, 2011

I’ve made little secret on these pages of my disdain for the crop of neo-atheists who have gotten so much acclaim over the past several years. Most of their arguments wouldn’t merit a passing grade for a high school sophomore.  (No offense intended to our exceptionally bright high school readers, especially those from MUHS.)

Nonetheless, Pope Paul VI in 1966 entrusted the Society of Jesus with the mission to make a “stout, united stand against atheism,” so I’ve devoted some time in my philosophy studies to the work of these neo-atheists.  Of the bunch, Daniel C. Dennett has a reputation for seriousness in part because he is a philosophy professor at Tufts, so I decided to review his book Breaking the Spell for a philosophy of religion class—and to share parts of my critique with you, dear readers of Whosoever Desires.

Dennett frames his book as a plea for the rational study of religion, a rather innocuous suggestion to which believers themselves should pose no objections.  I wish, in fact, that Catholic leaders would study seriously the research done by sociologists such as Christian Smith or Rodney Stark.  (Stark’s analysis disproves the common assumption that the growth of religious communities comes by loosening religious demands, when quite the opposite is true.)  Dennett claims that the only “prescription” he intends to make “categorically and without reservation” is to “do more research.”

Unfortunately, Dennett’s true agenda is revealed at the end of the book when he advocates a program of worldwide reeducation into a “historically and biologically informed” view of religion in order to combat “those who would betray our democracy in pursuit of their religious agendas.”  Such reeducation would be conducted “gently, firmly,” Dennett reassures us, but would necessarily involve depriving parents of the right to bring up their children in their own religious tradition.  Rather more than research is involved in the spell Dennett attempts to cast.

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Taylor – A Secular Age: Part 3, “The Nova Effect”

April 7, 2011

How you doin'?

Ahh April.  Springtime in America.  Flowers, showers, and baseball.  And, for yours truly, along with the start of the baseball season comes my annual ritual of having my hopes for a Milwaukee Brewers championship dashed like a peppershaker.  Of course the Crew started 2011 a forgettable 0 and 4.  The only thing that can cure my Brewer’s-blues?  You know what it is – more Chuck Taylor.  Let’s get to it.

In our look at Part 1 of A Secular Age we spent time identifying the reform of the self that happened through the reformations (plural) of the 16th and 17th centuries and lead to the creation of a buffered rather than porous self.  Our look at Part 2 was mainly an examination of the form of religion that fit with a reformed, buffered, self; we saw that Deism was that form of religion.  Now, while we looked at the kind of God that emerges out of Deism and saw that such a God made it easier to see how secular humanism arose as a living option, we hadn’t quite connected Deism as a religious form to the rise of an exclusive secular humanism that has no need of referencing God.  Let’s do that very (read: unfairly) quickly.

Taylor argues at the end of Part 2 that Deism, a religion without need of revelation (remember Kant’s “Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone” here), does not have a place for a personal God with whom we relate devotionally.   He closes Part 2 by saying: “the move to Deism involves more than just a change of belief; more even than a shift in what was taken to be rational argument… it really reflects a major shift in our background understanding of the human epistemic predicament… disintricating the issue of religious truth from participation in a certain community practice of religious life” (294).  What this means is that Deism opens the ground for secular humanism because it makes religion into something that promotes the stability of the modern political and social order.  We can see that such religion, when no longer needed to support societal stability, may, like the skin of a snake, be sloughed off.

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