Sunday, August 05, 2012

The problems with Catholicism

In Problems with the New Atheists, Catholic priest Fr. Dwight Longenecker argues that the New Atheists do not understand Catholicism. Longenecker argues that opposition to Catholicism is substantially influenced both by a history of Protestant prejudice against Catholics, as well as criticism against "shallow Protestantism" that does not apply to Catholicism. Longenecker then asserts that atheists do not follow the correct "methodology of discussion about God," referencing Joe Heschmeyer's "four questions": the meaning of God, Biblical literalism, scientism, and religious violence. Finally, Longenecker places the burden of proof squarely on the New Atheists: "Should we expect an atheist to do all this work and take all this risk? I think so. After all, the atheists who are on the attack are coming into 'our' territory." Therefore, the New Atheist criticism of Catholicism is at least misguided, and perhaps somewhat irrational. Of course, Longenecker goes wrong on every point.

(skip to the short version)

Longenecker's complaint of bias is a red herring. It's probably overstated; the atheists I know or read (and I know and read a lot of them) don't seem to have any special bias or prejudice against Catholics. I myself was baptized a Catholic, and I didn't have any particular antipathy towards religious people until I started talking to them about religion about 12 or 13 years ago. But even if he were absolutely correct, so what? The rational person does not eliminate bias before rationally examining a position, she eliminates bias by rationally examining a position. Indeed, a rational person holds the view that her intuitions are suspect, and she looks carefully to disprove them. Rational argument stands up on its own; finding prior bias does not affect the intrinsic merit of the arguments at all. Longenecker's assertion of bias is therefore irrelevant; let him examine the arguments.

In Misunderstanding God: Where Atheists Go Wrong in Opposing Christianity Joe Heschmeyer explores only two of his "four questions" in any depth: scientism and the definition of God. Indeed, the idea that atheists believe that "religion is invariably violent" is nonsensical on its face, and the focus on biblical literalism is, as I'll discuss below, primarily political. But even on these two points, Heschmeyer, whom Longnecker relies on, fails to make a substantive case against atheists.

The philosophical debate about "scientism" is not only complicated, it is obfuscated to a degree that emerges from philosophers arguing with theologians, two professions that seem to consider obfuscation to be their primary product, can sum up. So let me sum up. In its most broad sense, "science" just means "knowing," so "science is the only way of knowing" is a tautology. In a more restricted sense, "science" means a particular methodology, the Scientific Method, broadly conceived. Broadly conceived (i.e. the simplest theoretical system to explain observed phenomena), "science" encompasses experimental science, historical investigation, the legal process, as well as our prosaic, day-to-day knowledge about the world. The philosophical charge against scientism usually rests on an equivocation fallacy between the broad sense of relation to observation and the narrow sense of one particular set of techniques to relate statements to experiments (usually double-blind clinical experiments), a fallacy that Heschmeyer indulges at length.

According to Heschmeyer, "Since the claim that all truth must be scientifically provable is not itself scientifically provable, it’s self-refuting (by the claim’s own standard, it renders itself false)." But Heschmeyer is rehashing Logical Positivism, a philosophical position abandoned almost a century ago. The modern epistemology of science starts not with Logical Positivism but with Popper's falsificationism. According to Popper, a statement that is not disprovable by observation is not a statement about the world. Accordingly, because the statement, "The Scientific Method (broadly conceived) provides knowledge," is not disprovable by observation, it is not a statement about the world. It is a metaphysical statement. Popper, and most modern philosophers, do not condemn metaphysics; we want to clearly separate metaphysics, statements about how we investigate the world, from statements about the world itself. Much philosophical work has been done since Popper, of course; for example, philosophers generally consider the theory instead of the statement to be the testable unit, and we have completely rewritten Popper's deficient ideas about probabilism. We have more sophisticated problems today, but the obvious philosophical problems that Heschmeyer discusses were solved long ago.

Perhaps unintentionally, Heschmeyer is perpetrating a Kansas City Shuffle: he wants to distract us with the claim that atheists reject history as "unscientific" to draw attention away from his claim that there is good historical evidence for the existence of God. But regardless of the scientific status of historical investigation, Heschmeyer's naive confidence in the historical evidence is misguided. Whether the historical evidence supports the actuality of an event that even appeared to be a resurrection is in considerable doubt. The scholarly record is extensive, from both atheist and theist historians, and opinion, both of atheists and theists, is divided.

*As opposed to anthropological/sociological sense of history as the construction of narratives to establish the traditional legitimacy of cultural elements.

Indeed, Heschmeyer double-fakes us, because in the sense of history as the determination of what really happened in the past*, history cannot even address, much less "prove," the existence of God. After going on at length about the support provided by the historical evidence, Heschmeyer waffles on whether evidence is even applicable:
One of the best indicators of this confusion is the repeated demand for “evidence” of God’s existence, by which my interlocutors typically mean some kind of scientifically verifiable trace of this elusive and most likely mythological being. My attempts to tell them that the Creator of the entire universe cannot be, by definition, an object within the universe are met, usually, with complete incomprehension.
But it's not just a matter of finding "traces"; Heschmeyer's conception of God is not falsifiable: the existence of God is a purely metaphysical issue, not a matter of scientific knowledge.

Evaluating metaphysics is much trickier than evaluating scientific concepts: what standards do we use? The establishment of standards is itself a metaphysical concept. Heschmeyer tells us that religious people "understand religion to be objectively true, as true as '3 x 3 = 9'"; it is not like "having a favorite color: that is, a subjective claim, and a matter of mere personal preference." But what does Heschmeyer mean by "objectively true"? Is having an opinion about what is objectively true substantively different from just having an opinion? These are complicated metaphysical questions that (perhaps fortunately) neither Heschmeyer nor Longnecker explore.

Neither Heschmeyer nor Longnecker answer two crucial questions. How do they know "[their] religion to be objectively true, as true as '3 x 3 = 9'"? And what might they mean by knowing itself? They reject falsificationism, fair enough. But what do they offer in its place? They construct an idea that cannot be proven wrong by any conceivable observation, and then they demand belief because it cannot be proven wrong. All the while rejecting the infinity of alternative unfalsifiable beliefs because... well, just because.

But the philosophical "struggle" is completely beside the point. First, philosophy (with few exceptions) and theology (without exception) are completely useless endeavors. It need not be so, but professional academic philosophers have turned the field into nothing more than an academic circle-jerk, and the money we spend on philosophical academia can be justified only in that it keeps philosophers and theologians from getting in the way of grown-ups who have work to do. More importantly, the philosophical battle for theism was lost more than two thousand years ago with Epicurus and Socrates. The entire philosophical and theological struggle since then has been to hide this utter philosophical defeat. (Which may be one reason philosophy has constructed itself into irrelevance.)

tl;dr Version

The fundamental struggle is not philosophical, it's political. Religions assert political power, authority and privilege. They claim a private, superior position to tell us what is good and bad. They claim an historically enormous and presently substantial portion of our wealth and labor. In extremis, they claim the right to ignore democratic law and the authority of the state to protect members of religious institutions who break those laws. No atheist cares that people such as Heschmeyer and Longnecker want to engage in philosophical twiddle-twaddle in the privacy of their own homes and churches. We do, however, care that they want to rule us. I don't believe that the hierarchy of the Catholic Church wants to rape our children, but they do want — indeed they must have, if they are truly to be rulers — the right to rape our children; it is incoherent that the rulers should ever, under any circumstances, be answerable to the ruled.

We reject that rule. Utterly. Completely. As long as they seek to rule, we will oppose them. We will oppose them with philosophy. We will oppose them with argument. We will oppose them with mockery and ridicule. And, when necessary, we will oppose them with the legitimate authority of the civil, democratic state.


  1. The Roman Catholic church asserts atheists do not understand Catholicism; that 'liberal' theology is responsibly for a breakdown in the indoctrination - sorry - the catechizing of children; that once we fully understand the true teaching of the Church, we will all fall on our knees before the Pope.

    The whole debate centres on the primacy of epistemology vs ontology. The thought the church pillaged from the classical philosophers was primary ontology in nature : what things exist and what is their nature. Epistemology was always secondary and usually boiled down to 'because we said so' or 'it's a mystery'. Thomas Aquinas and his Five Ways, is largely ontological and drawn from Aristotle .

    But the entire foundations of the greek-christain worldview collapsed during the scientific revolution when it became
    apparent the sheer scale of the mistakes in the Aristotelian derived understanding of the natural universe. The switch
    from ontology to epistemology then is best understood as an attempt to fix the mistakes of the past and we are therefore justified
    in dismissing the ontology based arguments of Thomas Aquinas (who continues to have a greater influence on the Roman Church that biblical Jesus)
    as invalid. Heschmeyer claims that 'no atheists has satisfactorily rebutted [Aquinas five ways] arguments' but what is there to rebutt ? Aquainas claimed knowledge about the nature of the universe that he simply could not have. Heschmeyer offers no argument why we should even take the time to read the Five Ways, let alone treat it seriously. Even if we accept logical proof for the existence of God(s), we end up with polytheism which, lets be honest, no-one really cares about because the conflict is, as you note, primary political.

    Catholics and other Christian sects have no method of epistemology whatsoever and therefore must resort to medieval ontology which we are then
    expected to take seriously. Catholics can only settle disputes by appealing to the authority of the Pope and through coercing dissenting voices
    into silence, a process currently underway in traditional
    strongholds of catholic power. The entire history of the Christian church
    is of debates settled by force, political expediency or blind chance.

    But of course, it's easier for the priests and bullshit artists to whine about logical positivism than to deal with their lack
    of sound epistemology; that a large part of their scholastic traditional is by post-enlightenment (even post-romantic standards) nearly completely
    worthless, deserving only a footnote in a history of science text book. Priests can sneer but the burden is on the church to explain why their ontology based scholastic traditional is worth engaging with, not least because if accepted, it leads to a huge shift in how we treat gender equality, reproduction , homosexuals, other species, free speech, artistic freedom and so on.

  2. Just to add, most atheists are willing to accept science is not the only form of knowledge, that film, art, literature etc have lessons to teach too. But these
    forms of art are highly subjective - it's the meeting point of an individual mind and an external text. That is to say, I might relate to a piece of fiction and
    learn from the thoughts and actions of a character while the same passage may be meaningless another.

    Interestingly, most atheists are happy to accept this
    subjectivity but most of the religious people I have spoken with are not. Religious people seem to like their rules and their regulations and have a general problem
    accepting subjectivity and pluralism of thought and experience in matters other than claiming religious experiences. It was Aquinas’ after all who produced entire volumes detailing hierarchies of thought crimes and ‘unnatural’ acts along with their appropriate punishment. Yet Catholics frequently accuse atheists of crude reductionism.

    In Europe we are heading into a 'year of faith' which is a year long, European wide saturated marketing campaign paid for by the roman church
    and aimed at revitalizing it's brand and increasing it's political power. And that largely sums up the roman church - a glorified political party
    asserting knowledge it simply cannot have while whoring itself through the same manipulation techniques used to sell soft drinks and cars.

  3. Excellent comments. Do you mind if I repost them, editing for format (and a teensy bit of editing for style, e.g. removing "Just to add," from the first sentence of the second post)?

  4. Aye, work away. Fixing my many grammar and spelling mistakes is also allowed :)

    I think I first became aware of the ontology vs epistemology nature of the debates from yourself but enduring a few blog posts by Edward Feser (especially this post) brought them to mind again.


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