Atheism, Catholicism, and Arguing with Charity

The Catholic blogosphere has been blowing up  recently in response to well-known athiest blogger, Leah Libresco’s decision to convert to Catholicism, which she announced on her blog a few weeks ago.  Although an intellectual atheist converting to Catholicism is very natural and shouldn’t surprise us much at all, one thing that did catch me off guard (more than it should have) was the response that she got from many atheists in their own posts and blog comments.

The atheists who have responded to this news have been understandably critical of her decision, but many of them have done much more than criticize.  They have reacted  by calling her position absurd and wondering how anyone in their right mind could believe in God, much less convert to Catholicism.  After all, everyone knows that Catholicism is the source of all that is backwards, rotten, and illogical in this world.  What’s more, some commentators and bloggers have questioned Leah’s motivation for converting, claiming that it was an irrational force like peer pressure that prompted her to make this decision rather than her search for the truth.  Maybe these commentators hadn’t seen posts like this one  in which Leah makes it clear that she is simply following the truth where it leads her.  But it is clear that many people are quickly assuming the worst of her, assuming that she somehow failed to use her reason and to follow the truth.

The phenomenon that is present here, which I like to call the “I’m right, and everyone else is an idiot” syndrome is becoming far too prevalent in the public discourse of our society.  This syndrome seems to be what causes atheists like Richard Dawkins and Bill Maher to haughtily deride Christianity as an illogical fairy tale and a crazy hallucination.  It is also seems to be present in many of your everyday atheists that you encounter, who see Christianity, especially Catholicism, as the enemy of science and reason, and who see Christians as raving, irrational lunatics.

However, the Christian community is not immune to this “I’m right and everyone else is an idiot” syndrome either.  If you scour the comments section of Christian or atheist blogs you all too often see the same kind of lack of understanding from Christians, who fail to recognize that even down to earth, intelligent, and righteous people are sometimes atheists. (In fact, although blog comments can be very useful and productive at times, they all too often tend to be breeding grounds for yelling matches and stubborn rather than real productive conversation and debate).  Although this syndrome is present in many of today’s prominent atheists, it seems to be a problem that all of us have to some extent, and not just atheists.

Here’s the Problem

Ok, time for a quick pop quiz.  Look at the photo below and tell me what you see.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Do you see

A.  A beautiful work of God’s creation, which he brought into existence through a very long chain of secondary causes and which he continued to sustain in existence at least until this picture was taken?

B.  Something else?

 

If you answered A, congratulations, you are absolutely correct.  If you answered B, well, you are obviously an atheist and an idiot.  How in the world could you not see the God’s intelligent design in this picture?  It is clear that you are mentally insane because there is no way any rational person could believe that there is no God.

See? Right there.  I just did it.  It was subtle, I know, but hopefully you caught it.  That is exactly the type of attitude that plagues our minds all too often, even when we don’t realize it.

You see, the problem is we fail to distinguish between being wrong and choosing to be wrong.  We encounter someone who believes something that is false, and we rightfully detest this falsehood, but we then jump to the conclusion that this error must be their fault.  ”They must not be trying hard enough to come to the truth” we conclude, or “there must be something extraordinarily stupid about the way they are thinking.”  In our pride, we forget the many times we, ourselves, have been mistaken and we  assume that if someone is wrong, they must have simply chosen to block out the truth.   Our attacks on arguments turn into attacks on people, and our discussions turn into yelling matches.

(And let’s face it, yelling only looks good when done by a seal)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

However, the sad fact of the matter is that we fallen human beings are wrong all the time, even when we try our hardest not to be.  Because of original sin, our intellects have been clouded and  our minds have been twisted away from the truth, so that ascertaining the truth takes more effort.  A lot of times, when someone is an atheist, or a Protestant, or a despiser of math, or a Cubs fan, it is not because they aren’t trying hard enough to discover the truth.  Sometimes their circumstances are just against them.  Maybe an abusive relationship has made it difficult for them to conceive of an all-loving God.  Maybe they have been told many inaccurate things about God and religion and it is harder for them to parse out the truth from amidst the lies.  Maybe no one has ever really explained the Biblical evidence for the Eucharist to them in a rational manner.

Now, I’m not saying that no one is ever to blame for errors in what they believe.   A lot of times when we are mistaken, it is entirely our fault.  All too often, we fail to follow the truth wholeheartedly.  We encounter difficult truths, and in our fear we fail to believe them and convince ourselves that they were not really true at all.  However, what I am saying is that we need to stop assuming the worst of other people.  When someone disagrees with us, even on the most fundamental of issues, we should assume not that they are idiots or hallucinating, but that they are just sadly mistaken.

Understanding the Other Side

In responding to her atheist critics who couldn’t comprehend how anyone in their right mind could convert to Catholicism, Leah pointed out something that I think is incredibly insightful.  She said,

“Arguments shouldn’t look one-sided, even if one side is pretty definitely correct.  Unless the other side has got a gun to every adherent’s head, there’s something about the other side that looks attractive, and you should be able to spot it.”

This is something that we cannot forget.  Finding the truth is not a trivial task, and intelligent people can end up on either side of the spectrum of belief.  One reason for this is that our search for the truth is a lot like our search for the good.  When we choose to sin, we reject God, the highest good in existence, for the sake of some other lesser good.  Because we all desire happiness it makes sense that when someone chooses to do something evil, there is always something about it that seems good (from a certain perspective).  Likewise, even if what someone believes is not true, there is almost always something about it that seems true.

For example, I think that atheism is very enticing in a lot of ways and there are good reasons why someone might be an atheist.  The existence of so much evil and suffering in the world makes it hard to understand how God can be omniscient, omnipotent, and all-loving.  The fact that supernatural beliefs are often used to explain things we just don’t understand yet scientifically  can make it seem like all beliefs in the supernatural are just evolutionary fabrications of our mind.  The historical atrocities committed in the name of religion can make us wonder whether the world might be better off without any religion at all.  I understand that there are very good reasons that someone might be an atheist, but I know that these reasons are only apparent reasons and there are much better reasons to think that atheism is false.  Catholicism may contain the fullness of the truth, but that doesn’t take away the fact that atheism seems true from a certain perspective.

So What Should We Do Instead?

We must learn to recognize this in beliefs and positions we disagree with, because not only will it help us to understand why our opponents believe what they do so that we can understand how to bring them closer to the truth, but it might also bring out any flaws that exist in our own way of thinking and bring us closer to the truth ourselves.

So let’s fight the good fight!  Let’s keep on proclaiming and defending the truth of our Catholic faith.  But let’s do it charitably, always assuming the best of those who disagree with us, and knowing that they too are seeking the truth.

 

And if you want a little bit more to think about, watch this related video by Father Barron.  Skip to about 5:15 if you want to watch the really relevant part.

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PJ is a proud Catholic, born and bred in Huntsville, AL, where he gained a great love for baseball, good Southern food, and his Catholic faith. He attends Vanderbilt University majoring in mathematics and economics with a minor in computer science. PJ's great passions in life include math, philosophy, theology, good conversations, and using all of the above for the greater glory of God.

3 Responses to “Atheism, Catholicism, and Arguing with Charity”

  1. avatar Paul Moloney says:

    “intellectual atheist converting to Catholicism is very natural and shouldn’t surprise us much at all,”

    If it’s “very natural”, then why is the Catholic blogosphere going crazy about a single conversion? Especially a dualist Platonist – that is, an atheist who already had supernatural beliefs and therefore not a typically materialist one.

    P.

  2. avatar Josh Altonji says:

    Good question, although I don’t count CNN as part of the Catholic blogosphere (so it isn’t just Catholics hyping this). http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2012/06/22/prominent-atheist-blogger-converts-to-catholicism/

    In response to your question, I find myself agreeing with Elizabeth Scalia, who writes:

    “Why so much coverage on Leah? Perhaps the answer is this: Leah’s conversion goes against all of the prevailing narratives that dominate secularist thinking. … Really smart… female… bi-sexual-identifying. Holy smokes! Leah Libresco has pulled off a narrative-busting Trifecta!” – http://www.patheos.com/blogs/theanchoress/2012/06/25/leah-libresco-medias-favorite-puzzle/

    In addition to the reasons cited by Scalia, Leah is also a blogger. Since whole point of being a blogger is to share your views with the world, bloggers are loud and attention-drawing by nature and when something scandalous happens like this, their readers are likely to help spread the word whether intentionally or not. Plus there is the whole “DrWho-steampunk-bisexual-mathgeek brand of coolness” thing to consider (see previous link).

    So while it isn’t necessarily that odd for an atheist (most of whom are intellectuals) to convert, there are reasons why Leah’s conversion in particular is turning some heads.

    Here’s what confuses ME in the situation (qtd by CNN):

    “I think atheists were surprised that she went with Catholicism, which seems like a very specific choice,” Hemant Mehta, an atheist blogger at Patheos, told CNN. “I have a hard time believing how someone could jump from I don’t believe in God to a very specific church and a very specific God.”

    It seems to me that if she were to find evidence of any God, it might as well be a “specific” one. A miracle without a (specific) cause, for instance, would be considered a mere anomaly. If people rose from the dead every day, we’d call it science. Atheism is founded on a supposed lack of evidence, but where evidence is found it ought by definition to indicate its cause.

  3. avatar PJ Jedlovec says:

    It is quite interesting that it has gained so much attention. I tend to agree with Josh and Elizabeth Scalia as to why. But also, I think the fact that she is a blogger and is choosing to go through the conversion process in a relatively public manner might have something to do with it. Conversions are often very private things, but Leah has chosen not to be extremely private about it, so attention is to be expected.

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