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New Atheism has lost its reason

The standard of debate has declined rapidly since the age of Bertrand Russell. It’s up to Catholics to restore intelligence to the God debate

By on Friday, 30 March 2012

Is atheism on the increase, and if so, can we do anything about it? This was a question put to me the other day, and I am surprised it isn’t asked more often.

In 1965 Pope Paul VI asked the Jesuits to take on the task of combating atheism (you can read about that here). I remember being with some Jesuits once who mentioned this, and wondered just what this meant in practice. One Jesuit said modestly that he had done his bit already, having debated the existence of God with Bertrand Russell on the radio. That had been in 1947, and there is a transcript, which is well worth reading, here. 

The debate between Fr Coplestone and Russell is terribly old-fashioned by today’s standards in that it was immensely civilised. Whether atheism is on the increase is hard to measure, but one thing is sure: the terms of debate have changed.

Once upon a time, there used to be people called unbelievers with whom the Catholic Church sought dialogue. These sorts of people have faded from the scene to be replaced by a newer breed, people like Professor Dawkins; compare him to Russell, and you see how far we have come, and not in a good sense. There was a time when unbelievers made common cause with Catholics on certain social and moral issues – nuclear weapons for example – but that too seems a thing of the past.

What changed? The answer lies in the events of 9/11, which marked out religion as the enemy of modernity. Religion could from then on be identified as the root of all evil.

This is a huge oversimplification, though it does have a grain of truth in it. Fundamentalism is indeed the enemy of modernity, but not all religion is fundamentalist. Nevertheless, despite its long and distinguished intellectual history, there is a constant failure to make the distinction between Catholicism and fundamentalism.

And here is the problem: the Catholic faith requires a nuanced approach if it is to be properly understood; the sledgehammer assault from contemporary atheists is not interested in nuances, nor in rationality, nor in matters of the intellect. The sledgehammer assault chimes in well with our modern soundbite culture and makes sense to many who are quite ignorant – thanks in part to falling education standards – of the language of religion and religious culture.

The God Delusion is a ludicrous and laughable book. Terry Eagleton said: “Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.”

One can read his excellent review of the book here. But the sad fact is that Eagleton is an intellectual, in a way that the general public, for whom Dawkins was writing, is not. While Eagleton represents the best counter-blast to Dawkins to date, nevertheless, it remains a fact that Dawkins (and Dan Brown for that matter) is the media superstar and Eagleton is not.

When the public turns their back on subtlety of argument, people, believers or not, ought to be worried.

So, what can be done? How can we oppose atheism today?

I have written about this before: what we need is to learn from the past, particularly the success of the Counter-Reformation. 

We need to make sure we are passing on the content of the faith, whole and entire. The Catechism of the Catholic Church is useful, but we also need some good course books for use in the classroom, adapted for local use. We must not flinch from being intellectually coherent. Now is not the time to lose faith in reason. More than this, we need to demonstrate the intrinsic worth of the Catholic brand in education, but also in art, in music, and the quality of our community life.

In the end Communism failed not because someone out argued the Hegelians, but because people saw where it led – the Gulag. The single biggest weapon in the armoury of modern anti-Catholicism is the child abuse scandal. We need a moral reformation in the Church, we need new saints, and we need to communicate our joy in being Catholic.

  • Acleron

    You actually need to believe very little to understand how the universe behaves. Cause and effect and repeatability of events from common causes is the majority of it and even cause and effect are coming under scrutiny. After that you can be convinced by proofs in logic or evidence in science. 

  • Acleron

    Also the catholic church needs to realise that the abuse of children was awful. But the implications of the generalised and officially promoted cover-up is the long term concern.

  • Barry Lyons

    Jason, you’re a funny guy. The Catholic Church has been around for two thousand effing years and you and others are STILL saying that after all this time you’re not getting the word out properly? That’s hilarious!

    But as I said in an earlier post when I announced my contest, I know that all believers are actually atheists of a kind. Yes, you read that right: YOU are an atheist (of a kind). If you can figure out how I know this, I’ll send you a free copy of my book, “Letter to a Prohibitionist” (you can read some nice reviews at the American division of Amazon —, not

    Really, contests are fun, right? And I seriously want to mail a copy to the first person who can figure out why I know that everyone alive on the planet, right now, is an atheist (of a kind).

    In the meantime, ooh, “God v the Devil”! Wow, it sounds like an exciting, action-packed summer movie from Hollywood. When do you expect to see this movie released? Do you have any advance word on it? And who are playing leads?

  • Diane1522

    The ashes my dear, are in actual fact put on our heads traced as a the cross because as told in sacred scripture, thanks be to god, that our lord Jesus Christ will enter the city of David ( Jerusalem ) on a colt out of shear humbleness something not alot beings are!! Our lord was welcomed and had large palm leaves waved infront of him in adoration……yet the following week those same people called for his crucifix something also told in scriptures many many yrs before hand! As a converted catholic I can sincerely tell you that faith is a beautiful thing, and we don’t judge non believers because I do this myself I knw many other fellow Christians who actually take the time to pray for the souls of the non believers. You can think whatever you wish to about the faith, that’s your choice. God truly did give us free will, and on judgment day all non believers will be judged and I assure you they will have one last chance to accept our lord as the son of god and to love him for I can assure you….he died for you and for of us sinners to save us from eternal death, darkness….he opened the doors to heaven for us and for the rest of willing mankind..god bless and take care dear …..

  • Barry Lyons

    Nope, you got a core principle of philosophical thinking wrong.

    If I went around saying that an invisible elf resides on my left shoulder and advises me all day long on how to live my life, it is NOT up to YOU to prove that he doesn’t exist. It would be up to ME to prove that my little friend exists.

    And so it goes for believers in God. This doesn’t mean that atheists and secularists can’t weigh in on the question. We do, of course, and we have various ways and methods of pointing to the cringe-inducing inanity of god-belief. That said, the burden is on the person making the claim that such-and-such exists — just as the burden for my claim that an invisible elf exists rests with me.

    “Cringe-inducing inanity” — I rather like that. I’ll have to remember that for the book that I’m writing on this topic. And is there anything cringe-inducing about NOT believing in a Super-Dooper Gosh-Wow Awesome Being? No. I’m just living my life as a happy atheist, enjoying good food, good sex, good music, literature, travel, and all the usual great secular suspects.

  • Adam

     I did it once. It’s a false use of induction as it seeks to drag down the metaphysical notion of God to mere earthly things. If something has that definition then it specifically isn’t God. Now if you’d care to explain why you consider my post a fallacy rather than just posting your own slogans it would be most welcome.

  • Barry Lyons

    Why should a controlled prayer group be offensive to the sensibilities of religious participants? Believers keep saying that “God answers prayers”. Yeah? Well, what’s wrong with putting the Big Guy to a test as best as we mortals can?

    Wait. Are you implying that that this god you speak of is so thin-skinned that he can’t handle it? Or are you saying that believers are thin-skinned? (As to the latter question, they are; I just had to ask rhetorically.)

  • JabbaPapa

    Also the catholic church needs to realise that the abuse of children was awful.

    halloooo ???? can you please come back to us from the 20th century ????

  • JabbaPapa

    When the so-called “point” is a vacuous intellectual cliché, there is nothing in it that’s worth being addressed — your own personal prejudice regarding that particular vacuity notwithstanding.

  • JabbaPapa

    You won’t dissuade atheists who have intensely examined his arguments

    I do in fact understand that Dawkins has been preaching to the converted, and that the converted are unlikely to disagree with his dogmata.

    Still — thanks !! I guess, for so openly admitting that your relationship with these teachings is so doctrinally inflexible !!!

    On my own part — I used to be an agnostic.

  • JabbaPapa

    You actually need to believe very little to understand how the universe behaves. Cause and effect and repeatability of events from common causes is the majority of it and even cause and effect are coming under scrutiny. After that you can be convinced by proofs in logic or evidence in science.

    This is pure gibberish, not borne out by any serious analysis whatsoever of the nature of human thought, understanding, intellect, ratiocination, philosophy, linguistics, nor any other of the higher rational functions of our consciousness.

    The ordinary human mind is composed of a mind-bogglingly vast interconnected matrix of awareness, memory, structure, language, sensation, and every other minute particle of relationship at the infra-cellular level between that mind and ambient reality (which is infinitely more complex even at the simple structural point of view than our grossly limited understanding of it).

    The denial by some atheists that they have beliefs is a straightforwardly false claim.

  • JabbaPapa

    True and false things can be said about the world and the universe. To say there’s only a difference of belief due to linguistic differences is fatuous.

    Define truth then.

    Quid est veritas ?

    Also — I did NOT in fact say that “there’s only a difference of belief due to linguistic differences” — this is a clear demonstration of your failure to comprehend what I *did* say : There is no discernable difference in nature between concepts held in the brain as the result of religious belief, or beliefs derived from other sources.

    All of our understandings are provided via the prism of memory — but whatever the origins of each individual’s methods of interpretation : any particular memory interpreted as representing a truth cannot be accurately described as anything other than a belief.

    Belief is a human necessity for normal rational functioning, rather than being something that some people have, and others do not.

  • TreenonPoet

     “And the funny fact is that most Atheists who attack Catholics know next to nothing about the Roman Catholic Church!

    If, as an example, I read of numerous cases of the facilitation of child sexual abuse by not only protecting the abusers and moving the abusers to new pastures, but also attempting to silence or discredit the victims (and even elevating those responsible for this), while simultaneously trying to claim the moral highground on religious grounds, then I do not need to know the intricacies of Catholicism to know that it is wrong and deserves to be criticised. And you think that is funny!

    How can anyone take Dawkins and Co. seriously when, in the USA, there was a recent gathering laughingly called Reason Festival where Dawkins effectively told all there to mock us, make fun of us and our beliefs!?! Not Hindus, Jews, Muslims or other Christian denominations – Roman Catholics!

    It was called ‘The Reason Rally’ (for anyone who wants to Google it). Dawkins did not specifically say to mock and make fun of Catholic beliefs, but only used certain Catholic beliefs as examples of the sort of beliefs to mock and ridicule in any religion. The wording of the examples might not be absolutely precise, but that does not invalidate the principle that he was trying to convey. A transcript of the relevant part of his speech is available online, as in this article.

  • JabbaPapa

    Similarly, all men are bald.

    Please just *stop* embarrassing everyone with this continual repetition of false conclusions derived from false premises.

    The wild ravings of whichever heretical Protestant schismatics that may live in your part of the world are of no relevance whatsoever to orthodox Catholicism, nor indeed to Christianity in general.

    *Some* atheists in the past have enacted insane projects to fight religion by the means of mass murdering and systematic repression of religious faithful — am I then to understand, following your “logical” methods, that this is how atheism is to be understood and defined ?

  • JabbaPapa

    A beatitude is not a feeling.

    A beatitude is the essence of a goodness. There is nothing to prevent such a goodness being rational or intellective in nature.

    Your a priori deceives you.

  • JabbaPapa

    *that* vacuous cliché.

  • TreenonPoet

     This interview shows that at least one cardinal is unrepentant in 2012. (Scroll to the last question in the interview.)

  • JabbaPapa

    What rubbish !!! He regrets having made a fuss about it at the time, when in fact he was confronted with “no cases”. You FAIL to understand that a primary cause of whichever horrendous cover-ups occurred was to hide these crimes **from the Church hierarchy** !!!
    You’re just pure and simple inventing sheer slander out of thin air… :-(
    Also : FYI about 90% of accusations against priests by children turn out to be unsubstantiated. This does not prevent people like yourself focussing on numbers accused, instead of numbers found guilty.

    “Unrepentant” indeed !!! Falsely accused, more likely !!!

  • TreenonPoet

     Yes, ‘feeling’ is not a good word here. I would not have said it was the essence of goodness either as I understood it to be that goodness as somehow represented neurologically, but I cannot think of a suitable shorthand. I agree that there is nothing to prevent such a goodness being rational or intellective in nature. Am I missing your point?

  • JabbaPapa

    No, you’re not. :-)

  • Jonathan West

    There is no discernable difference in nature between concepts held in the brain as the result of religious belief, or beliefs derived from other sources.

    Wow! That’s a really disrespectful way to treat divine revelation!

    Claiming the opposite is just bad science

    I’d like to introduce you to a book called “Bad Science” by a chap called Ben Goldacre. One of the chapters ic called “Why Clever People Believe Stupid Things”. You could learn a thing or two from it. You needn’t worry that it will overturn your religion, it makes no mention of religion at all. But it’s an enlightening book.

  • JabbaPapa

    Why should a controlled prayer group be offensive to the sensibilities of religious participants?

    Quite obviously, because of the deeply manipulative, psychologically abusive, and religiously insulting nature of the project in its entirety.

  • JabbaPapa

    The Catholic Encyclopedia is a product of the 19th century (although it was published in early 20th), and it is horrendously out of date.

    It is notoriously unreliable as a source of any orthodox doctrinal theology. I mean — even traditionalist Catholics scorn its sheer out-of-datedness !!

  • Jonathan West

    The interesting thing is that several such tests have in fact been carried out. As it happens, at least one of them was carried out with financial support from the Templeton Foundation, which as I’m sure you’re aware seeks to “discoveries relating to the Big Questions of human purpose and ultimate reality”, and they “encourage civil, informed dialogue among scientists, philosophers, and theologians”. 

    Neither they nor those who did the praying in the tests had any problem with the idea.

    But the results were of course negative, as I’m sure you’re aware. You might also have heard of the Cochrane Collaboration. It is about as impeccably independent and unbiased as it is possible to get in research organisations. They have saved countless lives by conducting systematic reviews of research on countless different subjects. To take just one small example, Cochrane did a meta-analysis of the benefits of giving a short course of steroids to premature babies. Several trials had been conducted, but none individually had decisively shown that there was a benefit. But by taking all the results together, they showed that the steroid treatment reduced the risk by 30 to 50 percent of babies dying from the complications of immaturity. That has saved a lot of lives.

    Cochrane are interested in saving lives, nothing more. No idea is too outlandish to be unworthy of a Cochrane review. And there has in fact been a Cochrane review on the effects of Intercessory Prayer for the alleviation of ill health, published in November 2008. ( These were the authors’ conclusions

    These findings are equivocal and, although some of the results of individual studies suggest a positive effect of intercessory prayer, the majority do not and the evidence does not support a recommendation either in favour or against the use of intercessory prayer. We are not convinced that further trials of this intervention should be undertaken and would prefer to see any resources available for such a trial used to investigate other questions in health care.Cochrane are interested solely n saving lives. If there was evidence of a benefit from intercessory prayer in the trials they reviewed, then they would have said so.

    By the way, the Cochrane review suggested that some trials were  designed with poor or unspecified randomisation arrangements. Proper randomisation is about the easiest thing to do in a trial, and it costs no more to randomise a trial well than it does to randomise it badly, so there is absolutely no excuse for a badly randomised trial. The inevitable conclusion is that some people conducting trials were more interested in a positive result than a true result. 

    You realise that there is no effect. And the most obvious reason is that there is no cause.

  • Acleron

    Aah, that’s your problem, you think it all happened 100 years ago. Well, you are probably correct, it also happen more recently but you may not have noticed and it wouldn’t surprise many people to find that it is still happening.

  • Acleron

    Don’t ascribe your emotional fixation with me, I’m quite capable of changing my mind in the face of evidence. No, it was your particular argument or lack of it that will fail to change minds.

  • Jonathan West

    Oh, I have beliefs. It is just that mine are based on evidence, unlike yours. Any my beliefs change when I receive new evidence, unlike yours.

  • Acleron

    Your mind may be limited, again, don’t ascribe your own failings to others. Making a salad out of words you don’t quite understand only impresses yourself. Your inability to respond in any meaningful way to any argument is perhaps one of the best examples of religion stultifying the mind I’ve seen for a long time.

  • Acleron

    Oh that old smoke screen. No atheist has gone to war, oppressed a population or murdered somebody shouting that it was for atheism. Compare that to the misery your religion causes, let alone the muslims, protestants, hindu’s etc. All in the name of some god or other who probably doesn’t exist anyway. 

  • JabbaPapa

    oh deary me — more direct fallacies from you then…

    “100 years ago” — the 20th century did not come to an end in 1912.

    The horrendous increase in cases of clerical child abuse came to an end OTOH during the 1980s, and cases have decreased dramatically since 1990s onwards.

    Yes, there are cases more recent than that — as there are cases in every large institution providing whichever services for children.

    However, even at the most horrific height of the scandal — 1950s-1980s — the ratio of abuses was still *significantly* lower than in ordinary secular society, and the ordinary family environment (where the VAST majority of child abuse continues to occur).

  • JabbaPapa

    Proving *nothing whatsoever* about God.
    Good luck with managing your confirmation bias though …

  • Acleron

    I know you don’t read others posts correctly and it is now apparent you don’t even read your own. Hardly surprising you couldn’t read ‘The God Delusion’.

  • Barry Lyons

    What is that expression that women say when they have to deal with a creepy guy? I think it’s spelled “ew” and it’s appropriate here. Really, Diane. This response has got to be one of the most treacly things I have read out of all these posts. That “take care dear” tone of yours hits me like a sweet on a bad tooth.

    But the ashes business is still silly no matter what theological spin you attempt to put on it. And, wow, think of all the better ways to spend time: you could read a Jane Austen novel, listen to a Beethoven string quartet, dig a garden. But no. Instead, you haul your butt down to a church to have charred remains plastered on the front of your skull. Look, all you have to do is strip this activity of all the “meaning” you have stuck on it and to look at it at face value, pun intended. Tell me how having charred remains that may as well as have been pulled out of a fireplace (would you really know the difference?) plastered on your forehead is NOT cultish behavior. This I gotta hear.

  • Barry Lyons

    I’m being sincere here: the opening of your closing paragraph is excellent and right on target: “Belief is a human necessity for normal rational functioning.” Yes, absolutely. I don’t disagree. I’m not pulling your leg. I’m totally on board with your remark.

    Thing is, though: what kind of belief(s) are you talking about?

    I insist that, in a properly functioning world (meaning, one where chaos is not the natural order of things, so to speak) people don’t simply believe things just because they want to believe them (I’d like to believe that I won the lottery the other day but all the believing in the world will get me nowhere); instead, they believe things that they know to be accurate statements about how the world exists and operates, accurate in the sense that repeated occurrences and observations verify the validity of whatever belief. And guess what? Some of these beliefs can be stated even in the absence of direct personal experience. I’ve never been to England but I believe gravity is a functioning force there. I’ve never been to California, but I believe that photosynthesis occurs for certain forms of plant life there. I could go on with a gazillion more examples, but what would be the point, other than to say that there are indeed certain beliefs that humans have about the world that are held to be — here comes the word — true.

    So define truth? Well, there are several ways to go about it, but for our purposes here, one is to say that truth is a realization of a constancy in the world when it comes to perceiving the natural, experential world. Need I give more examples beyond the two I mentioned above?

    So to sum up, the problem with religious belief is that they are beliefs that have no real-world referents. There is no way to tackle the belief or to examine it. Instead, we’re supposed to take such a belief on “faith”. But why? Why is “faith” of this kind attractive or alluring? By contrast, I have faith in the knowledge that the moon is not likely to crash into the earth this evening. But “this is a consecrated wafer” is a statement that’s empty of meaning because there is no way to differentiate the two, that is, to note the difference between a consecrated wafer and an unconsecrated wafer. As I’ve said a few times before, a wafer is a wafer is a wafer. To think that a wafer is now suddenly a different kind of wafer simply because a person spoke words in front of it is a kind of… well, I can’t think of a better word for it: madness.

    Here, let me have Colin McGinn explain. Here are the closing two paragraphs of his review of Thomas Nagel’s book, “The Last Word”. By the way, religion isn’t his only concern here. McGinn has in mind all kinds of irrational beliefs.

    “[The Last Word] is a book that should be read and pondered in this golden age of subjectivism. As to why such leanings exist and are so prevalent today, Nagel says little beyond noting the perennial appeal of all incoherent ideas. But I have a notion. It is that the rationalist conception of reason clashes with a popular and misguided ideal of freedom. Logic, after all, constrains our thinking. We must obey its mandates. Yet people don’t want to be constrained; they want to feel that they can choose their beliefs, like beans in a supermarket. They want to be able to follow their impulses and not be reined in by impersonal demands. To suggest that there is only a single correct way to reason feels like a violation of the inalienable right to do whatever one wants to do.

    “The hard fact is that reason is a restriction on freedom. We really are required to believe only what is true and to reason validly. Nothing else is acceptable. And the ideal of unlimited freedom is indeed incompatible with that—in a way that is is not incompatible with the subjectivist’s view of reason. I heard recently of a professor in an English department who had it pointed out to him that one of his examination questions for students contained a logical contradiction. His reply, after a fierce stare, was: “Are you trying to box me in with logic?” It is a shocking story, and it illustrates the decline of intellectual responsibility in centers of learning. In his feeling that logic is like a mental cage, the professor was genuinely a man of his day. And he was right. Reason is a cage. But who wants freedom at the expense of truth?”

  • JabbaPapa

    oh deary me — you really are scraping the bottom of your barrel now, aren’t you…

  • JabbaPapa

    In regards to your point 1)- The Supernatural is merely the hidden reality of the natural world that Science has not discovered yet.

    Please don’t encourage this sort of God of Gaps rubbish, such notions and conceptions are inherently flawed for reasons that I’ve already posted elsewhere in the thread (and don’t wish to repeat).

  • JabbaPapa

    Well spoken !

  • JabbaPapa

    You are not forced to approve of the practice, your approval is not a requirement that other people need to pacify, and your disapproval is of no real consequence nor interest.

  • JabbaPapa

    Making a salad out of words you don’t quite understand only impresses yourself.

    translated into English – you do not understand what I wrote

    this does not, of course, mean that I don’t understand what I wrote (which is in fact a grossly idiotic suggestion, by the way)

  • JabbaPapa

    aah yes, you had so far forgotten to post that particular cliché from the usual collection…

  • Acleron

    If I ever scraped the bottom of this barrel I would only find you, so it’s not worth the effort.

  • Acleron

    Obviously you have no substantive reply or answer.

  • Jonathan West

    I suggest that it does prove that God doesn’t answer prayers in the way described for instance in James 5:13-16.

    Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise.
    Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord.
    And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven.
    Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.

    By the way, there is biblical support for the idea of clinical trials. The first ever clinical trial is described in Daniel 1:1-16. Go and look it up.

  • sorojena

     if there is one person who seems not to have an open and enlightened mind about these things then i say its you…! revisit the issue and look for informed statistics, not the ones from media houses that sell news for profit as it seems those are the ones you depend on… and oh, we have read Dawkin’s, and one thing we know about him and his friends is that they talk about things they hardly know, and criticize these which simply shows that they argue from a weakened position…!

  • sorojena

    very true, such fellows are just dangerous, when they have failed to respond to facts, they resort to attacking the person instead of responding with facts, where is the REASON in that? Typical of a Dawnkin’s scholar…!

  • sorojena

    exactly what Dawkins would say, but such a conclusion is based on a false analysis of the situation, first you need to know the nature of faith and that of reason, and then avoid making bold generalizations. history tells you that faith and reason have interacted harmoniously, Christians and Muslims attest to this…

  • TreenonPoet

     I had a long exchange with Thirsty Gargoyle under the fold in this article in which I criticised the Church hierarchy (as it has existed and as it continues to exist in the 21st century) regarding the protection of children. There are glaring deficiencies in the system which a cardinal ought to be able to recognise, especially when they are brought forcefully to his attention. One wonders what Cardinal Egan thought he was apologising for if he did not recognise them. To now withdraw those apologies shows a mentality that is repeatedly shown in the Church – a lack of concern for past and future victims.

    I don’t know where you get your “90%” figure from, but it makes no difference to the principles involved.

  • Jonathan West

    If we were to accept the premise that God’s footprints aren’t discernible, then certain conclusions follow from it. The most important is that everything you believe about God is an invention. It can’t be based on evidence, since there isn’t any evidence, because God hasn’t left any discernible evidence.

    So, you have a choice. Either God leaves discernible evidence on which your understanding of him is based, or he doesn’t. If he does, then it’s not unreasonable for people to ask to examine that evidence and to assess its quality. If you think that the scientific method is an inappropriate way to carry out that assessment, then you are welcome to explain why and to describe what alternative you think is superior.

    But if God doesn’t leave any evidence, then be honest enough to admit the matter openly instead of hiding it under a welter of angry words.

  • Lazarus

    OK, Barry, let’s assume you’re being serious in your question.

    First, you need to distinguish between the claims made about holy water and the transubstantiated host in the Eucharist. It is not a Catholic claim that holy water undergoes any physical change either in substance or accidents. So water remains water even when it is holy. It is a Catholic claim that the transubstantiated host becomes the body and blood of Christ. So you need to distinguish the two cases.

    Taking holy water, as a sacramental rather than a sacrament, it confers grace ex opere operantis (by virtue of the doer) rather than by virtue of the thing itself (ex opere operato). So the question here is not the nature of the water -it is water- but the nature of the blessing. Now, of course, as a New Atheist, you will object to the idea of blessing. But in essence, it’s analogous to the purely human performance of cherishing. A ring which has been cherished is, physically, no different from a ring that has not been cherished. Looking for a physical difference in holy water is simply a category mistake: it’s analogous to looking for a physical difference in the cherished and uncherished ring.

    Taking the transubstantiated host, it does undergo substantial, but not accidental change. So it is really the body and blood of Christ, but it looks like bread. As far as chemistry etc is concerned, it will analyse like bread. (So there is no way of telling the difference between transubstantiated and ordinary bread.) But it is the Church’s belief that it has nevertheless undergone substantial change. Now undoubtedly at this point you’ll object that this is against reason. Here you’d have to distinguish between: is it possible? and do we have reason to believe it? As far as reason to believe it, this is indeed a matter of faith: it is trust in Jesus’ words in the Bible and trust in the teaching of the Church. (As Catholics, we believe we have good reason to trust both and, as a consequence of that trust, to accept the substantial change. So your guns should be directed against the reasonableness of that trust, for that is the reason on which our belief rests.) As far as its possibility, this depends on the possibility of a separation between substance and its customary accidents in Aristotelian metaphysics: Aquinas discussed this in ST IIIa q75. And then you’ll have to go on to discuss the advisability of Aristotelian metaphysics. (Ed Feser does this all the time on his site: enjoy!)

    Now you’ll doubtless regard all this as nonsense, but the problem is that by equating the question of transubstantiation with the question of blessing, you’re confusing two sorts of issue: as you’ll doubtless concede, mere belief that something is irrational is  not enough. You need to show why it is. And to do this, you need different arguments to show that the different claims are nonsense. That’s why you have to understand the theology (as Eagleton said) before you start to criticize it.

  • Lazarus

    ‘and coming to terms with reality’
    The idea that there is one, clearcut, unproblematic reality which you (rational and progressive) have discerned and which we (rosary jangling and moronic) have not epitomizes the crass certainty and arrogance of this comment. If you can’t think with humility, at least get down on your knees and pray with it.