An Atheist’s Response to a Catholic

I’ve been having conversations with a friend of mine about belief and faith for a couple years now. We got talking about it again the other day and she implied that Catholicism has some of the best evidence in her opinion for why I ought to believe. She linked me this article, “Atheists Are Closer to God Than They Think“, in Catholic Answers magazine. The following is my response, I thought it worth sharing here.

I read this article, I appreciate the point of view. The article raises a lot of questions, though, that it leaves unanswered. I wonder if that is because the writer has an agenda? Or is it simply because she wasn’t aware she was leaving open questions? I prefer to assume ignorance rather than malice, it’s the kinder of the two.

I appreciate your point that I should give other opinions a try, and apparently I haven’t made myself clear on this point. I think I’ve done a decent job trying to give other points of view than mine a fair shake. I don’t think you understand the depth I’ve gone to in that attempt.

I have in my life read the bible 4 times from cover to cover. I’ve studied different explanations of it, from various churches of different denominations, schools and thinkers to try and understand it. I have read at least as much apologetics, hermeneutics, and theological philosophy that expounds on the bible, as I have skeptical works. I have *not* devoured the catechism, so I’ll pick through it as time permits, as it’s a large document. I continue to expand my research in many directions as I find time.

I’d like to raise to your attention how the author of the article misses a couple things. She talks about how secular morality fails to satisfy her. But I think she saw parts of the problem, but not the whole thing. There’s a conspicuous absence of certain points.
The author raises Hume’s is-ought problem. But she didn’t raise the corresponding Euthyphro dilemma, which is much older and well known, and which makes her position just as untenable. I think I’ve mentioned it, but it’s usually stated as “Is what is morally good commanded by God because it is morally good, or is it morally good because it is commanded by God?”

Here’s the problem with Absolute Morality and God in a nutshell: If it’s Good because God says so, he could say it’s Good to eat babies, and it would be so because he commanded it, regardless of how we think or *feel* about it. Also, other conceptions of gods command other things and they often disagree. If it’s good in itself, and God just lets us know that, then morality doesn’t originate from God. It’s a thorny problem and I don’t have an answer to it, but it does make me question how the author found answers to the is-ought problem by finding catholicism.

As far as I’m aware, no one has solved these problems of morality. The closest I’ve seen from theological scholars is with work in theodicy, which is attempts to answer the question (the problem of evil):why does God allow evil to exist, if he’s all-powerful, all-seeing, all-good?

I do believe there are moral absolutes, but they’re formulated, in language at least, in less than absolute terms. Trying to explain something in normal human language ends up being quite messy. Try reading Wittgenstein sometime, this is sorta his bag. And he’s quite difficult to understand, lol.

The author also describes her unease with certain styles of utilitarian morality. It sounds like she’s talking about Peter Singer, who to be honest tends to rub a lot of people the wrong way. This is the key passage:
“when I encountered views like my classmate’s or the professor’s or countless others, a part of me wanted to scream, “You don’t kill newborn infants or ignore people in need because that’s just wrong!” All this cool, detached analysis of how we should treat our fellow human beings based on what stood up to the scientific method fell nauseatingly short of capturing the intense feelings that boiled within me when I pondered such matters.”

Everyone, unless you’re a psychopath, gets pretty emotional when we’re talking about death or murder or simply harm caused upon children, in particular. There’s a lot to deal with here. First, when we study morality in academia, *detachment*, or the shackling of the passions, is considered necessary in pretty much any pursuit of knowledge. This is because our emotions will blind us, and we make logical mistakes because of them. Biases become more pronounced when you’re emotional.

On the other hand: “[Hume’s] thesis is that reason alone cannot move us to action; the impulse to act itself must come from passion. The doctrine that reason alone is merely the ‘slave of the passions,’ i.e., that reason pursues knowledge of abstract and causal relations solely in order to achieve passions’ goals and provides no impulse of its own…”

Reason is the slave of the passions. Reason and scientific enquiry mean *nothing* without a passionate, emotional drive behind them.

No scientist, or academic research, or moral philosopher throws out emotions either. In fact, in philosophy, we’re open to being guided by our intuitions. But our intuitions like to play tricks on us. Just look at all the optical illusions for a set of similar examples. Our mind will play tricks on us like that with logic too.

Morality is a very tricky thing. It tends to trip a lot of people up once they start digging into it. It’s useful to listen to your intuitions (killing is bad, mmmkay!) but you can’t let them blind you either. Some moral philosophers like Singer, spend a fair amount of time laying out logical cases that may suggest, out of context, that they are approving of killing the infirm, but that’s not the final conclusion. I’m working through his book right now, actually, that discusses this.

Singer spends 50 pages expounding on the difference between a *person* and a *human being*. There exist human beings like infants and the infirm that do not possess enough mental faculties to be self-aware or reason, so we don’t treat them like *persons* in the same way we treat most people. Singer is not suggesting that we murder them just because they’re not as smart as us. But he does make some arguments that do suggest there’s a relevant difference that’s worth considering in moral reasoning.

Here’s the point with all the morality talk: a group could perfectly represent *your* moral beliefs. But just because it agrees with you, doesn’t mean it’s right. If it disagrees with you, it doesn’t mean it’s wrong, either. The question should be, which is true? Do you care about the truth? Or does it matter more that it agrees with what you feel is right?

How do you establish the truth of morality? What ought we do to be good people? The Bible, Christianity, and Catholicism have a lot to say about this. I have a lot I can say about it too, but I don’t want to open further threads of criticism here that I don’t have time to complete right now, and I’ve already typed a lot here.

I hope you get what I’m trying to say. Time for me to go read some more.


One thought on “An Atheist’s Response to a Catholic

  1. As I said, I can’t debate you properly and I’m no theologian. But I love that you’re open to questioning yourself further and not shutting out the possibility. I hope you’ll continue in your journey, and that it will lead you to a truth that makes sense for you.

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