Since it’s release last November, Peter Boghossian’s A Manual for Creating Atheists has quickly become one of the most popular new books on atheism (as of now it has 200 reviews on amazon.com). As someone who has also recently written a book on atheism, though from a far different perspective, I was eager to see Boghossian’s method for “creating an atheist.” In this book review I’ll cover the good, the bad, and the ugly in A Manual for Creating Atheists.
Surprisingly, this book isn’t about creating atheists . . . per se. According to Boghossian,
“The goal of this book is to create a generation of Street Epistemologists: people equipped with an array of dialectical and clinical tools who actively go into the streets, the prisons, the bars, the churches, the schools, and the community – into any and every place the faithful reside – and help them abandon their faith and embrace reason.”
Epistemology is a discipline within philosophy that focuses on defining knowledge and analyzing how we know what we know. Rather than blindly shout conclusions (which Boghossian no doubt thinks street preachers do), a “street epistemologist” helps others reliably acquire knowledge about the world. When it comes to that goal he’ll find no opposition from me.
Boghossian’s strength lies in his treatment of the Socratic method, or the artful use of questions in order to lead someone to a particular conclusion. This appears to be something he has a lot of first-hand experience in using. According to Portland State University’s website (where Boghossian teaches), he earned a doctorate in education while developing Socratic techniques to help prison inmates increase their reasoning abilities in order to see the error of their ways and to hopefully commit fewer crimes in the future. Boghossian’s ability to use the Socratic method is on display in most of the chapters through sample dialogues between himself and people who exhibit “poor reasoning abilities.”
Boghossian also gives his would-be street epistemologists advice that I would also give to anyone learning apologetics — you don’t need an answer for every objection and you should humbly admit ignorance when it occurs. In Boghossian’s words, “You need to become comfortable in not knowing and not pretending to know . . . “
But Boghossian’s street epistemologists have a very specific mission beyond just helping people think more clearly — “Your new role is that of an interventionist. Liberator. Your target is faith. Your pro bono clients are individuals who’ve been infected by faith.”
And that’s where the book starts to go downhill . . .
Throughout the book Boghossian says that the quickest way to make someone an atheist is to attack not their religion or their idea of God, but their faith. This is because faith is ultimately what grounds all religious claims. So what is faith? According to Boghossian, faith is belief without sufficient evidence because if you had the proper amount of evidence then you wouldn’t need faith. I’d respond by saying that religious faith is a trust in God and generic “faith” is just a trust in someone or something. For example, we have “faith” that the laws of nature are uniform across time and space even though we don’t have nearly enough evidence to confirm that belief (see the problem of induction).
Now, Boghossian vehemently denies faith is a kind of trust and claims it is instead a kind of knowledge. I disagree and would simply say that faith is the way people justify their claims of religious knowledge. “How do you know Jesus lives?” The believer might say in response, “I have faith in what the Bible or the Church says” or “I have faith in what Jesus has revealed to me in my heart.” Clearly faith is just a trust in a certain kind of evidence that is used to justify religious claims, be it testimonial or experiential.
Boghossian also gives the issue a rather nasty spin when he says faith is, “pretending to know what you don’t know.” The use of the word “pretending” seems inaccurate because it assumes the religious person knows deep down that his beliefs are not justified and he is engaging in a kind of malicious charade. This stands in contrast to the person who “thinks he knows what he knows but is actually mistaken.” When it comes to false religious beliefs, I think the overwhelming majority of those beliefs are a product of “thinks he knows, but is mistaken” instead of “pretends he knows, but is wrong.”
So this is the main issue Boghossian must answer, “Is the faith religious people have justified? Do they have a rational basis for holding these beliefs?”
I’ll admit sometimes they might not, but you need a serious argument to say religious belief is never justified. Boghossian’s main argument for the claim they are never justified is that because knowledge acquired by faith arrives at contradictory conclusions, such as the Christian’s affirmation of Jesus as the Son of God and the Muslim’s denial of that claim, this means that faith leads many people into error and so it can’t be trusted. But by that logic, reason is unreliable because philosophers use it and arrive at very different conclusions about all sorts of things. All a lack of consensus proves is that some people make faulty inferences based on faith, no that we shouldn’t have faith in either religious testimony or religious experiences.
I also didn’t think that Boghossian interacted enough with Alvin Plantinga (who he refers to as a “Christian apologist” instead of as one of the world’s most famous philosophers of religion). Plantinga’s reformed epistemology claims that if God exists then religious belief in God is justified because God has the ability to make belief in him “properly basic,” or justified apart from inferences based on evidence. In response, Boghossian simply tosses out the “Great Pumpkin” objection to reformed epistemology (an objection Plantinga himself has addressed) and calls it a day. But because the justification of “faith-based” beliefs is the central topic of Boghossian’s book, I think his reply to this kind of epistemology should have been more extensive.
Refutations That Are Greatly Exaggerated
What if the street epistemologist encounters someone who has “given a reason for the hope that is within him” (1 Peter 3:15) and doesn’t just rely on a gut feeling? According to Boghossian, the street epistemologist needn’t worry about those reasons because,
“in the last 2400 years of intellectual history, not a single argument for the existence of God has withstood scrutiny. Not one. Aquinas’s five proofs, fail. Pascal’s Wager, fail. Anselm’s ontological argument, fail. The fine-tuning argument, fail. The kalam cosmological argument, fail. All refuted. All failures.”
That’s quite a claim. I was excited to turn to the footnote and see the evidence for this claim, but when I got there I was dumbfounded. Aquinas’ arguments are simply described. Boghossian neither critiques the arguments nor even provides a reference to such a critique such as Anthony Kenny’s book on the subject or even the terrible critiques Dawkins offers in The God Delusion (although I believe critiques like these have been ably answered by scholars like Ed Feser).
According to Boghossian, Victor Stenger is said to have refuted the fine-tuning argument in his 2011 book The Fallacy of Fine-tuning, but other writers have posted their own rebuttals to his arguments. In addition, Stenger doesn’t refute the fine-tuning argument so much as he attacks its central premise that the universe is finely tuned for life. In doing so, he goes against other well-known non-theistic cosmologists (like Stephen Hawking and Martin Rees) who at least accept that the universe is fine-tuned for life (even though they don’t think God is the fine-tuner). This should give us caution about Stenger’s conclusions.
In regards to the kalam cosmological argument, Boghossian simply says, “The possibility that the universe always existed cannot be ruled out” and then calls this the “death-knell” of the argument. He makes this claim without bothering to critique the scientific and philosophical evidence for the finitude of the past or even reference someone who has done that (like Wes Morriston).
I was hoping that chapter 7, which is called “anti-apologetics 101,” would provide at least some solid answers to arguments in defense of the faith, but here too I was sorely disappointed.[i] In answer to the question, “Why is there something rather than nothing,” Boghossian simply quotes Adolf Grunbaum and says there’s no reason to think a state of something has to be explained and pure nothingness does not. To me this just shows a woeful lack of understanding of both the principle of sufficient reason and the philosophers who have addressed the issue.
While there are serious and thoughtful critiques of natural theology, Boghossian fails to make one and, distressingly, doesn’t seem to even be aware of such critiques.
Finally, the anti-religious rhetoric in the book is over-the-top. Boghossian says that if a street epistemologist doesn’t convince someone to give up his faith, then the person is either secretly giving up his faith while trying to “save face” or the person is literally brain damaged (chapter 3). In a chapter called “Containment Protocols,” Boghossian says we should stigmatize religious claims like racist claims, treat faith like a kind of contagious mental illness that should be recognized by medical professionals, read apologist’s books but buy them used so they don’t make a profit (“Enjoy a McDonald’s ice cream courtesy of the royalty from my purchase of your book, Pete!”), and promote children’s television shows where “Epistemic Knights” do battle against “Faith Monsters.”
The advice I would give atheists who are interested in this book would be to model the Socratic approach Boghossian teaches but don’t use his rhetoric when you’re talking to believers. For believers, I’d say that this is a good window into the attitude of popular “skeptic-based atheism.” Knowing what’s in this book can help you explain to the “street epistemologist” that you aren’t brain damaged. Instead, you have good reasons to think that what you believe is true and the street epistemologist should examine those reasons with an open mind and charitable attitude.
[i]The only other references Boghossian makes to critiques of arguments for the existence of God are Guy Harrison and John Paulos’ books on the subject, both of which are definitely for the layperson and are not very rigorous in their critiques. Though, to his credit, in his recommended reading sections Boghossian does mention some books that I think are at least decent critiques of theism, such as Victor Stenger’s book God: The Failed Hypothesis.
A few weeks ago I gave a presentation on same-sex marriage at a university in the Midwest. My goal was to provide the audience with the non-religious reasons behind the Church’s efforts to keep marriage from being redefined in order to accommodate same-sex couples. Throughout the presentation I took great pains to be charitable. I also exhorted Catholics to not let their opposition to same-sex marriage turn into mean-spirited attitudes towards people who identify as having same-sex attractions.
Unfortunately, about halfway through my presentation two female students decided to protest my case for marriage by passionately embracing and kissing in front of the audience. I’m not sure why they were doing this because in my talk I made it clear that same-sex marriage and the morality of homosexual behavior were two separate issues. In fact, I included in my presentation quotes from people with same-sex attractions who also oppose redefining marriage.
As a university employee approached them and asked the students to leave I invited them to stay and dialogue with me about my presentation during the Q+A session afterwards. They refused saying that I was “twisting the truth.” When I asked them to give one example of said twisting they refused. Their goal was to simply disrupt what I was saying and not engage me in rational argument.
Pray for Those Who Persecute You
This incident made me think about how God can use anything, even protesters who are diametrically opposed to what the Church teaches, to accomplish his will. Consider the picture above of Archbishop Andre-Joseph Leonard being doused by protesters while taking part in a panel discussion at a university in Brussels. According to one news outlet:
Four women, representing the pro-abortion and homosexual group FEMEN, took to the stage at ULB University in Brussels where the archbishop was participating in a debate on blasphemy laws. The women disrobed to reveal black-painted slogans on their bare chests and backs, such as “my body my rules. “Waving signs that read “stop homophobia,” the women doused the archbishop with water from bottles formed in the image of the Virgin Mary.
In the minutes before the women could be forced off stage, Archbishop Leonard sat drenched with water, eyes closed in prayer. The archbishop then kissed the image of the Virgin Mary on one of the water bottles that was used in the attack.
“He was very calm and maintained a position of prayer. I have to believe he was praying for us,” one of the attackers said to reporters.
What I find amazing is that if these protesters had not disrupted the event where the archbishop was speaking, then it would have probably gone unnoticed by the rest of the world. Ironically, their act of protest did not hurt the Catholic Church or portray it as the “evil villain” these protesters think the Church is. Instead, the protesters made themselves look like a bunch of bullies and the world was able to see the holiness of someone who has sought to become a true disciple of Jesus Christ.
The Difference We Can Make
While I faced a much milder disruption at my own talk on same-sex marriage, those two women provided an opportunity for everyone in attendance to see a Catholic handle critics with graciousness. I did not chastise these women or verbaly berate them. Instead, I invited them to have a dialogue with me and present their toughest objections in front of everyone. Afterwards, many people, including critics who disagreed with me on same-sex marriage, said they were impressed not just with my arguments but with “how I handled myself.”
The fact that I wasn’t defensive but graciously encouraged criticism impressed many people and it made them curious to learn more about the Church’s position on this issue. I’ll leave you with an email from a young woman that helped me see that when we present the truth in love God can use our actions to build up his kingdom in ways we may never see.
Tonight I was granted the honor of listening to you speak on my home campus! I also had the nerve-wracking chance to invite along a non-Catholic friend, who has (or maybe I should say “had”) a very decided opinion about same-sex marriage. After you concluded your talk, I summoned the courage to ask my friend for their thoughts on your speech. My friend’s response showed the impact of being deeply impressed with your charisma and with how you handled yourself and presented your material!
This led to a conversation that lasted nearly three hours on topics generally surrounding why Catholics believe what we do. When we finally called it a night, I knew that my friend’s beliefs about same-sex marriage had changed and that they had even started looking at Catholicism in a better light!
Granted, I have been trying to talk to my friend for months (years, if you count since the beginning of our friendship) and have never been able to spark an interest. As with many college students my age, my friend usually brushed off all attempts or changed the subject. After tonight, however, your God-inspired words left my friend’s heart open to the truth! My friend even hinted about wanting to know more about our faith!
Thanks be to God’s grace and all praise to the One who inspired your profession!! I cannot thank either Him or you enough.
an Amazed College Student
***The following post is a guest post from my wife, Laura, about our recent loss.***
Originally when Trent and I found out we had been blessed with conceiving a child, I was immediately overwhelmed at God’s blessing. I told Trent within the first hour of finding out, “I just can’t help but think it’s not fair that my little baby is safe with me, but so many other little babies are not safe at all in their mothers’ wombs. The babies are just swimming around in there, but they have no idea if their moms will decide to keep them.” During mass the day we found out, I pondered at how caring for another makes someone holier. I suddenly wanted to go to daily mass more frequently to get my baby communion, and prepare myself spiritually for the innocence and purity of this new human being. I silently promised my little one that if he does have to go home, I wouldn’t let his death be in vain. I’d try to be as holy as possible because I know his dad and I are the only people he’s ever known, and if he continued on to pray for us, I didn’t want those prayers to be unnoticed, like a mean mom or dad who rejects their preschool child’s best try at art.
I was pregnant during the 41st anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, the monumental court decision that made abortion legal on a federal level in America, and my heart was heavy the entire day. I continued to dwell on how unnatural it would have to be for a woman to want her pregnancy to end, and how sad it is she would have to suppress the love she feels for her unborn child with fear that had overcome her. I entertained thoughts of what it would be like to walk into a clinic and come out “not pregnant.” It was getting to be too much, so I, like many, stopped thinking about it.
A week later, I was volunteering as a nurse at a free medical clinic in El Cajon, and used the restroom only to find out I had started to lightly bleed. The doctor understood and immediately dismissed me to go to my primary care provider. When I arrived, my doctor suggested an ultrasound and I be started on progesterone, the hormone necessary to sustain pregnancy. Trent and I have practiced natural family planning, so I knew my body had expressed signs of low progesterone in past cycles. My sister also struggles with polycystic ovarian syndrome, which requires her to receive progesterone during all of her pregnancies. I eagerly went to collect my urine sample, so I could move on with the ultrasound to hopefully see my little baby I called my poppy seed. I looked down only to see a pool of blood, and just like that I knew it was over. My miscarriage was beginning. My breath escaped me instantaneously, and I could do nothing but sob. I walked into the ultrasound room to see my husband and the nurse preparing for an ultrasound that surely would show nothing. The nurse explained it’d probably be best to wait before trying to see what happens. The next few moments were a blur of shattered hopes and pain that only someone who has experienced loss can understand. I was told I could expect to bleed for about two weeks, and to come back on Tuesday. The doctors were empathetic and professional, and I am forever grateful.
Trent and I tried to pass time by going to see the movie Saving Mr. Banks and walking around. I found it difficult to walk, so I sat frequently. I had an epiphany about what this all means to me in relation to the pro-life movement. Trent and I met doing pro-life work, and we’ve given our entire lives over to defending the unborn together. Often times Trent and I both hear from post-abortive women, “I’ve had an abortion, so do you think I’m a murderer?” The answer we give is always “no” and includes us trying to reassure them that we’re very sorry about what happened to them and the child they’ve lost. If they have any logical reasons to defend legal abortion, we address those as we would with any man/woman who hasn’t had an abortion. But as I miscarried, I also recalled the times when pro-choice advocates have defended their positions with rhetoric such as “it’s not a baby,” “it’s not alive yet,” or “it’s not even a person.” I immediately couldn’t help but become really angry at these arguments that belittle what I was feeling about my unborn child. If the pro-choice view is correct, women who miscarry are mourning nothing but the possibility of becoming pregnant, not an actual child she just lost. This is a lie, and it is insulting. Trent approached me, knowing something was wrong. “I think we need to start making this personal.” I told him. He was confused, but I continued, “I mean I think in the pro-life movement, we need to start using personal examples to be the voice of our children. We need to start saying statements such as ‘So you’re telling me when I miscarried, I have no right to think I actually had a baby I lost?’” A lot of people are advocates for legal abortion because they have intellectual arguments, but more people are defenders of legal abortion because they have emotional arguments. It’s time we start being emotional right back, and showing them what the death of a child looks like. It looks like a sad mom and dad who were excited to welcome a child into the world and would died to see him live. From now on, when someone tells me, “It’s not a human yet” I will counter with the question, “So you’re saying when I miscarried, I had nothing to be sad over because I didn’t lose my human child my husband and I tried for months to create?” We need to start making people uncomfortable with their views, because chances are, they’ve doubted what they think is true at some point and time. When they had doubts, there was probably a pro-choice person to reassure them that “a woman has a right to choose” or that “it isn’t a baby, just a clump of cells.” We need to start being there as the people who have or know someone who have lost a human being, and will not back down that that human being was special, and it’s sad they are dead. Women who have had abortions were lied to, and to cover up that lie, she’ll have to do some more serious lying to herself and create a vicious cycle. This will continue until she finally faces that it’s okay to miss her baby she never got to hold. She’s not a monster, she’s a mother, but she has to start spreading truth from her loss, and not helping other women make the same mistake she did. The pro-choice view is belittling to mothers and fathers who have experienced loss, and we need to start making them uncomfortable by calling pro-choice advocates out on it. My baby’s death will not be in vain.
When Trent and I found out we were expecting, I bought journals for us to write to our baby in hopes we could give him his journal when he was older. I read Trent’s first entry. He wrote to our child:
When I first found out you existed, I hugged your mom tighter than I had in a really long time. I was so happy to know that you had come into our family, and to know that our future would never be the same. Even if God decided that you were to return home to Him before birth, you will still always be a part of our family.
I have so many questions about the future, but for now I will be like Mary and “ponder these things in my heart.” I love you so much little baby, and I can’t wait to meet you soon.
And that is why I’m mad people belittle the unborn and their parents’ feelings by being pro-choice.
Here’s the description of my new DVD. To order a copy, click here.
No matter how hard you try, talking with your friends and family about abortion too often winds up at one extreme or the other—either tempers and emotions get out of hand or to keep the peace you agree to disagree and move on to another subject.
Neither approach serves the pro-life cause, says Trent Horn. In his new DVD, Making the Case for Life, he shows you how to avoid those extremes, presenting a roadmap for talking about abortion that really gets people engaged on the gravest moral question of our age.
Using field-tested techniques honed through thousands of encounters in college pro-life ministry, Trent shares practical tips for persuading others to recognize the unborn’s fundamental right to life, including:
- Using scientific and philosophical facts (when they expect you just to quote the Bible)
- Employing empathy to break down defenses and defuse hostility
- Dealing with “hard cases” and other common pro-choice claims
- Three foolproof approaches that will make even the most hardened pro-choicer listen to what you have to say
. . . plus bonus real-world footage of Trent putting his techniques into practice!
Above all, Making the Case for Life will teach you not simply to win fruitless arguments but to leave other people receptive—perhaps for the first time—to the truth about abortion.
Now, let me define what I mean by “discriminate.” In one sense, to discriminate means to note a difference between two things. When a Catholic school doesn’t hire an incompetent applicant, they discriminate between that applicant and a more qualified one (just as your taste buds discriminate between chocolate and sulfur). However, when most people think of discrimination, they think of unfair discrimination, or using an irrelevant difference in order to judge someone’s worth.
So what is the difference between fair discrimination and unfair discrimination?
I ask that question because in the last few years several Catholic schools have been accused of unfair discrimination. The complaints usually come when a school terminates an employee who broke his employment contract by engaging in behavior that violates the principles of the Catholic Faith.
The latest example came this past Friday when foreign language teacher Michael Griffin was fired from Holy Ghost Preparatory High School in Pennsylvania (pictured above). Apparently, Mr. Griffin announced in an e-mail to administrators that he was going to be late to school because he was on his way to file for a license in order to marry his boyfriend.
Similar terminations at Catholic schools include a couple at a Massachusetts school who were fired for conceiving a child outside of marriage and an Indiana woman who was fired for trying to use the school’s health plan to pay for in vitro fertilization treatment.
Fair or Unfair Discrimination?
I think it’s clear that these are cases of fair discrimination because these teachers were not terminated for who they were. They were terminated for their actions.
Take the case of Mr. Griffin. The Huffington Post says, “[Mr.] Griffin was fired essentially for being gay,” and lists the story under the topic “fired for being gay.” But Mr. Griffin wasn’t fired for “being gay.”
If a school fired a teacher because it found out he attended Courage, a Catholic support group for people who experience same-sex attractions, then that would be a case of firing someone “for being gay.” Instead, Mr. Griffin was fired because he chose to publicly violate Church teaching and took steps to marry another man. This is also true in the other cases I listed where teachers violated their employment contracts by engaging in behaviors that violate what the Church teaches.
Critics of these schools have put forward several arguments for the view that these cases are unfair discrimination. Let’s examine some of those arguments:
1. Your employer has no right to tell you what you can and can’t do outside of work.
Depending on the state where a worker lives and the public or private nature of his work, it is true that employers generally cannot intrude into their employee’s private lives. However, if the employee’s off-duty actions reflect negatively on the company, then, in most cases, disciplinary action can be taken.
Because of the nature of their work, Catholic schoolteachers represent their schools both on and off work time. If a teacher were engaged in scandalous public behavior that violates the school’s mission, then it would make sense to let that teacher go. Furthermore, these teachers usually sign a contract with a “morality clause,” and breaking that contract can also be grounds for either termination or the decision to not renew the contract.
2. Morality clauses in contracts are illegal. Catholic schools shouldn’t force their employees to uphold Catholic values outside of work. As long as what these employees do is legal, then it is none of the Church’s business.
An employee can represent his employer in an unfavorable way even if he is engaged in something that is legal. An example might include being publicly associated with a porn company outside of office hours. Likewise, most companies don’t allow their employees to work for a competitor, even if such work is legal, because it creates a conflict of interest.
In addition, morality clauses are well known in the world of contracts. Lance Armstrong lost many of his sponsors precisely because his drug use violated the morality clause in his contract with those sponsors. Morality clauses protect companies from being harmed by employees who damage their reputations. A Catholic school that is unable to terminate a teacher who creates a scandal could be harmed when the parents of prospective students choose to not enroll their children in the school for that reason.
However, I think Catholic schools should carefully explain to their teachers (who themselves may not have been well-catechized) what does and does not violate a morality clause in an employment contract. This is especially the case with IVF and other medical practices that some good-hearted Catholics may mistakenly think are not immoral.
3. I bet these schools don’t fire teachers who use contraception or masturbate.
Just because some teachers might violate their contracts in a private and undetectable way does not mean teachers who violate their contracts in a public way cannot be disciplined.
4. Terminating employees for their religious beliefs, marital status, or pregnancies constitutes illegal discrimination under the 1964 and 1968 civil rights acts. Choosing to not hire someone based on these classes is also illegal.
It’s true that employers usually cannot base hiring or termination decisions on the fact that an employee belongs to a “protected class” of people (such as belonging to a certain race, religion, nationality, sex, etc.). But there is an exception.
It has long been held in the United States that when it comes to hiring practices there is a “ministerial exception” for religious organizations. In order to protect freedom of religion, the government cannot tell churches who can and cannot be ministers. This is why radical supporters of female ordination cannot sue the Catholic Church for the “job” of priesthood.
In 2012 the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously decided in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that the ministerial exception could also be applied to teachers in parochial schools, even if they primarily teach a nonreligious subject.
I think that makes perfect sense. In fact, more Catholic schools should view their teachers as “ministers of the gospel” along with being academic instructors. Theological topics can easily find their way into other subjects like art, English, literature, history, and science. The teaching of Romance languages like Spanish or French, which is what Mr. Griffin taught before he was terminated, could easily incorporate Catholic materials originally written in those languages.
Even if they teach a subject like calculus, Catholic schoolteachers are still respected by their students as role models. These teachers have ample opportunities to share their worldview with students before and after class, such as when the math students erupt into an impromptu discussion about the morning assembly presentation on chastity.
Pope John Paul II said during a 2004 visit to the U.S. bishops:
It is of utmost importance, therefore, that the Church’s institutions be genuinely Catholic: Catholic in their self-understanding and Catholic in their identity. All those who share in the apostolates of such institutions, including those who are not of the faith, should show a sincere and respectful appreciation of that mission which is their inspiration and ultimate raison d’être.
Catholic schools have the right and the duty to protect their Catholic identity by retaining employees who, at the bare minimum, do not violate what the Church teaches. However, the ideal would be for those employees to not merely tolerate the Faith but to celebrate it and serve as a witness of it in their classrooms.
In a recent segment on his nationally syndicated radio show, Rush Limbaugh talked about the pope’s new apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium. I don’t have the space to address everything Limbaugh said, but what struck me was his mischaracterization of Pope Francis’s comments about economics.
The fundamental problem was that Limbaugh chose to quote not what Pope Francis wrote but a Washington Post article on the exhortation, which stated:
Pope Francis attacked unfettered capitalism as “a new tyranny” and beseeched global leaders to fight poverty and growing inequality, in a document on Tuesday setting out a platform for his papacy and calling for a renewal of the Catholic Church. . . . In it, Francis went further than previous comments criticizing the global economic system, attacking the “idolatry of money.”
Limbaugh responded by saying, “This is just pure Marxism coming out of the mouth of the pope. Unfettered capitalism? That doesn’t exist anywhere. ‘Unfettered capitalism’ is a liberal socialist phrase to describe the United States.”
Granted, it takes hours to read this massive document but, for someone whose words are heard by millions of people, before calling the pope a “Marxist” a simple use of the control+F function would have been warranted. If Limbaugh had done that, he would have found that the phrase “unfettered capitalism” does not appear in Evangelii Gaudium.
Neither is the global economy the main theme of this exhortation; rather, it’s only one area where Pope Francis is calling on the Church to evangelize the world. He describes specific financial and cultural challenges facing the human community and then addresses the temptations of pastors who must face these challenges. Nowhere does the Pope blame humanity’s woes on the concept of the free market or demand a Marxist government to save mankind.
A Betrayal of John Paul II?
Limbaugh later said, “[J]uxtaposed against the actions of Pope John Paul II, this pope and the things that he released yesterday or recently are really striking.”
No, they aren’t. In his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus, Pope John Paul II reflected on socialism and capitalism in light of the recent fall of the Soviet Union. Although he acknowledged that profit has a “legitimate role” in the function of a business and that “the Marxist solution” to economic inequality had failed, he also spoke of the “inadequacies of capitalism” and said that profit is the not the only indicator that a business is doing well. The human dignity of workers matter too, and if capitalism is left unchecked it becomes “ruthless” and leads to “inhuman exploitation.” Pope Francis’s words are consistent with John Paul’s.
You talk about unfettered, this is an unfettered anti-capitalist dictate from Pope Francis. And listen to this. This is an actual quote from what he wrote. “The culture of prosperity deadens us. We are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase. In the meantime, all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle. They fail to move us.” I mean, that’s pretty profound. That’s going way beyond matters that are ethical. This is almost a statement about who should control financial markets. He says that the global economy needs government control.
But the Pope is not saying that. He is saying that a global economy needs global control, not government control in the form of some creepy one-world government that runs everything. Pope Francis said, “If we really want to achieve a healthy world economy, what is needed at this juncture of history is a more efficient way of interacting which, with due regard for the sovereignty of each nation [emphasis added], ensures the economic well-being of all countries, not just of a few (206).”
A Complex Question
The Church teaches that the dignity of the human person and the management of global economies is more complex than just choosing “capitalism” over “socialism/communism.” What is required is an approach that respects individual freedom without allowing that freedom to become some all-consuming monster that tramples the weak and poor.
In Centesimus Annus, Pope John Paul II was asked if capitalism should be the dominant economic model in light of the fall of the USSR. His answer is insightful, and I think it’s an excellent parallel to Pope Francis’s attitude on the subject. Pope John Paul II said:
The answer is obviously complex. If by “capitalism” is meant an economic system which recognizes the fundamental and positive role of business, the market, private property and the resulting responsibility for the means of production, as well as free human creativity in the economic sector, then the answer is certainly in the affirmative, even though it would perhaps be more appropriate to speak of a “business economy,” “market economy” or simply “free economy.” But if by “capitalism” is meant a system in which freedom in the economic sector is not circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality and sees it as a particular aspect of that freedom, the core of which is ethical and religious, then the reply is certainly negative.
The reality is that the Catholic Church, and Pope Francis included, cannot simply say it is for or against capitalism. It’s a complex question. While the Washington Post said Pope Francis issued a “decidedly populist teaching” the Pope said in Evangelii Gaudium that he was not arguing for “an irresponsible populism,” or a solution that naively pits the poor against the rich (204).
On the other hand, while the Pope might agree with Limbaugh that Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” can lift some people out of poverty, it can also strangle the life out of the poor, and so the Pope says in that same paragraph that we can no longer trust the market alone to ensure that all people are treated with dignity.
In closing, I think that the following paragraph from the Pope’s exhortation is something that should be mailed to Limbaugh and maybe we can turn down the heat just a little bit:
If anyone feels offended by my words, I would respond that I speak them with affection and with the best of intentions, quite apart from any personal interest or political ideology. My words are not those of a foe or an opponent. I am interested only in helping those who are in thrall to an individualistic, indifferent and self-centered mentality to be freed from those unworthy chains and to attain a way of living and thinking which is more humane, noble and fruitful, and which will bring dignity to their presence on this earth (208).
So on Saturday I went with my Australian friend and fellow apologist Matt Fradd (a.k.a. “The Thunder from Down Under”) to have some fun engaging the local San Diego atheists in some friendly dialogue. (Pictured left from meetup.com)
Each Saturday they have a table and canopy at the Park and they’re usually across the way from a fundamentalist preacher shouting Bible verses at passersby or the Hare Krishna’s drumming and chanting “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Rama Rama.” It’s a fun scene and it makes me wish Catholics had more of an evangelical spirit and set up our own tables with tracts to pass out.
(That will definitely be a project I want to spearhead in 2014 — so stay tuned).
Anyways, back to the atheists.
I’ve visited the table a few times before so I reminded them who I was and told them about the Dan Barker debate we will be hosting in February which they seemed genuinely excited about. I spent a while talking to an atheist named Jim who seemed well versed in science and philosophy which made for a fun discussion.
The only downside was that I felt like we spent a lot of time analyzing basic terms when we could have just talked about God and the arguments for his existence. Being skilled in philosophy has a tendency to do that to people. For example, Matt argued that if the universe began to exist then it would require a cause for its existence. Jim responded that the term “began to exist” is vague and undefined. “What does it mean to “begin to exist”? I’m not even sure what you’re talking about.”
So I said, “How about this for a workable definition. X begins to exist at time T if X exists at time T and there is no other moment before T when X existed.”
This seemed to suffice for the discussion until we hit another roadblock about what God even is. Jim criticized Plantinga’s ontological argument and wondered why God should be considered a “maximally great being,” or a being that exists in all possible worlds.
Like Jim, some atheists ask me, “Where your evidence that God is a necessary being? How do you know God is eternal and can never stop existing?” To that I respond, “I don’t need evidence that God is a necessary being that can’t fail to exist. That’s just what he is! Asking that is like asking what the evidence is that a triangle has three sides.”
Now I didn’t merely argue that because God is by definition a being that must exist, therefore, he exists. That’s a weak version of the ontological argument. I instead argued that because the universe exists and does not have to exist, that means there exists a necessary being who sustains the universe’s existence, or God.
Anyways, Jim was smart and it’s always nice to talk to someone who can keep up with a good philosophical debate. We both agreed that it would be nice to have a “mini-debate” in the park between the atheist table and a Catholic table so hopefully we’ll set that up in the near future.
My book is finally here! I’ve received a lot of good feedback. Along with it came a DVD and CD set that can be used in classrooms, or listened to on the road. Atheism is on the rise, and I’m humbled to be able to help others defend their views with my product. I want this book to get into as many hands as possible so more people can know and love God and his Church.
A formal debate has been scheduled between Dan Barker and me. Dan Barker was a preacher for 19 years before rejecting Christianity and becoming the co-founder of the Freedom from Religion Foundation. The debate will take place in San Diego in February. It will be called “God: Supreme Being or Imaginary Friend?” More will be posted on this later.
I’ve tried scheduling debates with multiple abortionists, but none have said “yes” to the offer yet. So far the responses have generally been something along the lines of, “Abortion is just a right women have. There’s no need to debate it because it will cause more division.” . . . logic fail.
The Catholic Answers Apologetic Conference was a huge success. I thoroughly enjoyed meeting so many people who have been praying, supporting, and following Catholic Answers for so long. You can find all our talks at our online store if you were unable to attend.
Laura and I have had all of her family and my sister visit since moving to San Diego. Apparently all we had to do was move to a really nice city for people to want to visit us! I doubt we’d get the same response if we lived somewhere cold.
My prayers and thoughts have been going out to the citizens of Albuquerque, where my wife went to nursing school and I lived for a short period. Recently, a late-term abortion ban was rejected by voters, which will cause the loss of countless innocent lives. If someone has ever had to debone a Costco chicken and struggled, hopefully they’ll realize late-term abortion is just as difficult for the abortionist, except it’s done to a living, feeling, human being. Whoever votes against this ban had to be so seriously disconnected from logic and so attached to emotion he was willing to check his brain at the door. Please pray for this city and all those affected by abortion, especially around the holiday season.
This sums up the major things going on in life, and I look forward to sharing more on a more frequent basis.
Yesterday I received an e-mail in response to my appearance on Catholic Answers Live where I discussed the topic “Why are you pro-choice?” This gentleman wrote, “You said if anyone has any salient arguments why [abortion] should not be considered the same as ‘killing a person’ to let you know what they are.”
Exciting! It’s always preferable to engage someone who has an argument in defense of his position instead of just an assertion that he is right.
The Argument from Biblical Silence
This man’s first argument was that abortion should be legal because nowhere in the Bible is it explicitly condemned. However, just because the Bible does not condemn an action, it doesn’t follow that it condones it. For example, the Bible never says it is wrong to not report extra taxable income to the IRS, but that act still is wrong, and we use reason to see that it is prohibited under the seventh commandment, “You shall not steal.”
The Bible may not condemn abortion, but it does condemned the killing of the innocent, which would apply to abortion. Pope John Paul II wrote in The Gospel of Life, “The texts of Sacred Scripture never address the question of deliberate abortion and so do not directly and specifically condemn it. But they show such great respect for the human being in the mother’s womb that they require as a logical consequence that God’s commandment ‘You shall not kill’ be extended to the unborn child as well.”
Finally, the laws in our country must be religiously neutral, so even if the Bible explicitly condemned abortion, that would not in itself justify outlawing it.
The Argument from the Dangers of Childbirth
While the argument from biblical silence is interesting, this gentleman’s other argument had much more potential:
I think the reason why [abortion should be legal] is because, obviously, giving birth to a child is a dangerous affair. A woman can die in childbirth, or even before. . . . Should it be considered “killing” to get a fetus removed such that it dies? Of course. Is it a human life? Definitely. Are there plenty of convincing arguments why it’s morally wrong? Yes. However, it should still be legal and be the right of the woman. Just like it’s my right as a homeowner to shoot and kill a trespasser on my property, and it’s legal to shoot someone in self-defense in Florida, and it’s legal for a cop to shoot an unarmed man who reaches into his pocket, and it’s legal for soldiers to shoot each other in war.
Here are the problems with this argument.
First, this argument would justify only a fraction of abortions. According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, only 12 percent of abortions are obtained each year because a woman’s health was in danger, and only a fraction of those cases involve fatal threats to the mother. While the United States’ maternal mortality rate is alarmingly high for a developed nation, most severe pregnancy complications can be resolved with early-term delivery or medical interventions that indirectly result in the child’s death but do not intend it. In short, this argument cannot justify widespread elective abortion.
Second, just because someone has a right to live does not mean it is always wrong to kill him. Humans who threaten the lives of other humans may be killed under the principle of double effect. The Catechism states, “The legitimate defense of persons and societies is not an exception to the prohibition against the murder of the innocent that constitutes intentional killing. The act of self-defense can have a double effect: the preservation of one’s own life; and the killing of the aggressor. . . . The one is intended, the other is not” (CCC 2263).
However, the argument from self-defense doesn’t apply to abortion, because the child is neither an aggressor nor a trespasser. He is instead a human being created by two people through an act that is designed to place him in the environment he needs to survive, namely, the uterus.
Now, if an unborn child were self-aware and concocted a plan to kill his own mother while he was in the womb (which would be a rather foolish plan), then he would be like an enemy soldier we are allowed to kill. Of course, this is not the case, as the child has no intentions at all and is simply an innocent person. If this child has a right to life, then it is violated when the child is killed by abortion just because he is unwanted. We know this is wrong because we don’t kill born human beings for that reason, who are just as human as unborn human beings.
A Defense of Spousal Homicide?
A critic could respond that the child is not like an enemy soldier and is more like an innocent hallucinating person who might hurt us. Therefore, we can use deadly force to remove the child from the uterus in order to protect the mother. The critic might say, “After all, no one knows which pregnancies will become fatal, so all abortions should be legal. With this approach a woman has the maximum ability to protect her own life in case her pregnancy should go awry.”
But this argument proves too much.
You see, about 650 pregnant women die every year in the United States due to complications, but more than 1,000 women die every year murdered by their intimate partners. In fact, a 2011 article in the journal Obstetrics and Gynecology has led several media outlets to say, “Expectant mothers are more likely to die from murder or suicide than several of the most common pregnancy-related medical problems” (Reuters).
Should women have the right to kill their husbands and boyfriends? A critic might say, “After all, no one knows which intimate partners will become fatal so, all partner killings should be legal. With this approach a woman has the maximum ability to protect her own life in case her relationship should go awry.”
Clearly this argument fails, because the woman’s intimate partner is an innocent human being with a right to life. If a woman may not kill her husband or boyfriend because he might murder her in the future, then surely a woman may not kill her unborn child because he might be part of a sequence of events where her pregnancy becomes dangerous. In both cases the threat is too remote to justify using lethal force.
The pro-life position is simple: All human beings have a right to life; unborn children are human beings; therefore, unborn children have a right to life. This doesn’t mean it is never permissible to perform an act that results in an unborn child’s death. Just as we might choose to save a drowning mother and let her two-year-old die because we can’t reach him, we might save a pregnant woman and fail to save her unborn child (such as by administering a cancer treatment to save a pregnant woman’s life that indirectly kills her child). But this does not mean we should be allowed to directly kill innocent human beings in order to help other human beings. This principle simply applies to both born and unborn humans.
A recent study out of Georgia State University shows that in some cases sharing the Christian faith with prisoners might cause them to commit more crimes. According to the study’s abstract,
“Through purposeful distortion or genuine ignorance, the hardcore offenders we interviewed are able to exploit the absolvitory tenets of religious doctrine, neutralizing their fear of death to not only allow but encourage offending.”
Basically, the criminals took advantage of God’s unlimited ability to forgive and held to the mistaken notion that as long as they ask for forgiveness after their crimes, these criminals will still go to Heaven. Here are some of the inmates relating this idea in their own words:
A 25-year-old criminal nicknamed “Cool” said he always does a “quick little prayer” before committing a crime in order to “stay cool with Jesus.” As long as you ask for forgiveness, Jesus has to give it to you, he said.
One 33-year-old criminal, identified in the study by the nickname “Triggerman,” refused to accept the suggestion that a consequence of murder was eternal damnation.
“No, no, no, I don’t think that is right,” he told the researchers. “Anything can be forgiven. We live in Hell now and you can do anything in Hell. … God has to forgive everyone, even if they don’t believe in him.”
“Triggerman” espouses a view that is more literal than it first appears – the view that God can’t send people to Hell because we already live in Hell. A 47-year-old criminal named “Detroit” said, “there is a Heaven and there is a Hell, but I believe that it is Hell on earth, and we trying to fight to get (to Heaven). … We already in Hell, you know?”
While the harshness of inner city life and the collapse of the family can be blamed for some of these bizarre beliefs (as well as human ingenuity in the matter of rationalization), I also think we need to place blame on bad theology. God’s love and mercy are amazing, but when they are divorced from his holiness and justice God becomes a senile grandfather who lovingly, but stupidly, pampers us while we dupe him.
A loving God would not blindly tolerate sin. He would instead punish it with maximum efficiency. He would especially punish the sin of planning to repent in the future to justify sinning in the present, a sin called presumption. Of course, it is human nature to sin and nothing we do can earn God’s love or forgiveness. What is the answer?
Salvation: Free, But Not Cheap
The answer is grace. God freely gives us his divine life and we simply ask for it. This grace transforms our souls and makes us “partakers in the divine nature.” (2 Pet. 4:8) We become children of God, or part of his family, so that with a spirit of adoption we can call God father (Rom. 8:15).
Of course, we can at any point choose to be “prodigal sons or daughters” and walk away from the divine family. This happens when we commit a mortal sin. We make a shipwreck of our faith (1 Tim. 1:19) and fall from grace (Gal. 5:4). However, if we heed Jesus’ words and persevere to the end (Matt. 10:22) by working out our salvation in fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12), then we will be saved (Rom. 5:9).
Salvation is not earned (Eph. 2:8-9). It is a free gift as a member of God’s family. However, we can walk away from God’s offer and familial covenant and embrace eternal separation from God. Although, God will forgive us if we genuinely repent and return to faithfully worship him.
Some aspects of Protestant theology (which may be espoused by some of these prison chaplains) does lead to the idea that no matter what a human being does after he has been “saved,” that person will eventually go to Heaven.
Once Saved, Always Saved?
But if someone “gets saved” and as a result can never lose his salvation, then wouldn’t he still go to Heaven regardless if he abandons his faith later in life? A critic might respond that such a person was never “saved in the first place.”
But this would mean that if a person ever loses his faith, even 30 or 40 years after “accepting Jesus,” it only proves his initial acceptance of faith was not genuine. To say such people have never existed or to say there are only saints who persevere to the end and hypocrites who fall away and never truly believed at all stretches the bounds of credulity to the breaking point.
Under this view of salvation and justification, you could never know if your initial act of faith was “real,” or if you were saved in the first place. It’s always possible a personal tragedy or crisis of faith could cause you to abandon the faith later in life and therefore be one of those who was “never saved at all.”
Thus, under the Protestant view of justification, there is no assurance of salvation. I’ll address the Biblical arguments in defense of this view (called eternal security) in my next post.