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 »


Hurrah for Mormons!

October 31, 2011

As for this mortal life, which ends after a few days’ course, what does it matter under whose rule a man lives, being so soon to die, provided that the rulers do not force him to impious and wicked acts.

—St. Augustine

Augustine’s above words might need a bit of contextualizing—clearly some rulers are better than others—but they do provide a healthy dose of perspective for faithful citizens as the race to chose Caesar’s modern day successor comes to occupy more and more of our airwaves and much of our mental territory as well.  The political process itself can become an idol, particularly in the age of cable television and the blogosphere, when off-hand comments by politicians and their supporters are whipped into a froth of headlines, commentary, and spin to feed the never-ending news cycle.

Some of this dynamic—our media addiction to controversy and spin—has been in play over the past several weeks in the brouhaha over Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith.  Talking heads nearly spun with glee when a supporter of one of Romney’s opponents, a Baptist minister, declared that Romney isn’t a Christian.  Other candidates and observers were quick to pounce.  Time’s Jon Meacham used the opportunity to attack the “religious right” and its “religious bigotry.”  Romney had already declared, according to Meacham, that “he would be loyal to the country and the Constitution, not his church.”

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When should we confirm?

September 29, 2011

There’s an old joke about a newly ordained priest whose pastor gives him the task of ending a bat infestation plaguing the church.  The poor young priest tries everything—poison, traps, a call to pest control—but the bats refuse to give up their home among the church’s rafters.  In desperation, the young priest returns to the wise old pastor and says, “Father, I’ve tried everything, but the bats won’t leave the church.”

The old priest smiles, and says, “Oh, Father, the solution is much simpler than you think:  just confirm them!  Then you’ll never see them again.”

For those like myself, who have worked in several different confirmation programs over the years, the joke is more uncomfortable than funny because the proverbial grain of truth it contains is the size of a boulder.  Too often confirmation is treated like a sort of graduation from the Church—an attitude for which, I might add, parents often bear more guilt than teenagers.

While the question of when in one’s life the sacrament of confirmation should be celebrated is not the sort of issue likely to make it into the New York Times, it is theologically more intriguing than the hot-button attention-grabbers.  Fargo’s Bishop Samuel Aquila this summer offered a strong case for changing the order in which the sacraments of initiation are normally conferred.

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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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God for Atheists

February 28, 2011

Atheism of late has gotten a bad name thanks to its rather callow contemporary adherents—Dawkins, Hitchens, et al.  But history has produced a few brilliant atheists as well—like my favorite, Nietzsche—and the Church’s best theologians have long taken atheism seriously.

The insightful British Thomist, Herbert McCabe, OP, distinguishes between two different types of atheists in his excellent collection of essays God Matters.  McCabe points out that some atheists reject what they take to be a peculiar religious conception of God:  God as a sort of really big, really powerful guy, a “Top Person,” to use McCabe’s phrase.  In rejecting such a (mis)conception of God, McCabe says, Thomas Aquinas is an atheist too.

But there’s another type of atheism, one exemplified by Bertrand Russell, which amounts to the refusal to ask a particular type of question.  Contrary to the picture atheists often try to paint of themselves as bold questioners and champions of truth, such an atheism amounts to a sort of intellectual suicide.  It is this type of atheism that Thomas’ much celebrated and much maligned “five ways” are meant to counter.

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