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The first step towards truth is acknowledging how little we know

When it comes to the Catholic Church people think they know it all

By on Wednesday, 15 May 2013

The then Cardinal Bergoglio on the Buenos Aires subway (AP Photo/Pablo Leguizamon, File)

The then Cardinal Bergoglio on the Buenos Aires subway (AP Photo/Pablo Leguizamon, File)

By now perhaps many of you are deeply into the Pope’s book, which I discussed recently with Madeleine Teahan and Rabbi Sybil Sheridan, which you can hear here. There is, as you would expect, much to enjoy in this wide-ranging discussion between the then Cardinal Bergoglio and Rabbi Abraham Skorka, but one thing in particular struck me that is worth emphasising.

On page xiv, in the introduction, the Pope has this to say about dialogue:

[W]e succumb to attitudes that do not permit us to dialogue: domination, not knowing how to listen, annoyance in our speech, preconceived judgements and so many others.

He then goes on to mention “misinformation, gossip, prejudices, defamation, and slander” as enemies of dialogue.

On page 214, when discussing the Arab-Israeli conflict, Rabbi Skorka has this to say:

It infuriates me that [the media] argue about every topic as if it were a soccer match. Things are not so black and white – they are much more complicated – but they deal in fanaticism and make false and superficial arguments. The only thing they aspire to do is focus on the latest headlines and create sensations. On the other hand, the most thought-provoking books that deal with political or social issues are written using highly technical language or in philosophical terms that are over people’s heads.

Pope and Rabbi are on to something very important here, and that is the way that complex and nuanced arguments are constantly whittled down to lowest common denominator concepts or mere sloganising. And this is nowhere more apparent, it seems to me, than in the sphere of religion.

Religious concepts are complex, because religion deals with the transcendental. The word ‘God’ for example, stands for a concept that defies easy definition. Indeed the best definition of God is the famous phrase of St Anselm: ‘Deus est id quo maius cogitari not potest’. (In English, which does not quite capture the full flavour: God is that than which a greater cannot be thought.) But of course the point of St Anselm’s definition is that God cannot, in fact, be defined. If He were finite, definable, He would not be God. God is He who defies definition. Yet, despite this, many people aspire to talk about God as if he were an object of discussion like any other. As a result, all their talk about God is reductionist.

The correct attitude to discussion of God can be found in these verse from the prophet Isaiah:

Seek the LORD while he may be found, call him while he is near. Let the scoundrel forsake his way, and the wicked man his thoughts; Let him turn to the LORD for mercy; to our God, who is generous in forgiving. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts. (59:6-9)

As the Rabbi goes on to say: “Truth can only be attained through humility.” The first step to any investigation into truth is to acknowledge how little we know. Incidentally, this attitude was on air for all to see in Channel Four News last night. The analysis of the Oxford gang’s abuse of vulnerable girls did not jump to the conclusion that because the perpetrators were Muslim there was something in Islamic culture that made Muslim men abuse white non-Muslim girls. While the programme did raise this question, and while it was acknowledged that there were questions to answer, it also made it clear that the question why abuse takes place is a complex one. At no time, as far as I could see, were leaps of logic presented as somehow solid ‘facts’.

This responsible journalism contrasts strongly with the way some people have suspended their critical faculties in order to believe the very worst about the Catholic Church.

Take for example the elaborate scam called Kathy’s Story, which turned out to be just that – an untrue story. Amazingly, the book is still for sale, and not marked ‘fiction’.  While it is true that no sensible person should buy this disgraceful book which has done so much harm to innocent people, the truth remains that outrageous forgeries of this type have a track record of slipping into the mainstream and poisoning it. Look at the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, another forgery that is still for sale, even in this country.
We live in an age that professes to respect reason. But as Pope and Rabbi point out, reason is a fragile plant. One of the best guarantors of reason is in fact religious faith. But that is a subject for another time.

  • Kevin

    There is an atheist evolutionist blog whose authors, judging by their past output, would probably respond to this article in the following manner:
    “Get this – this priest is using the ontological argument for god. Not even the (greatly discredited) cosmological argument. The ontological. Enjoy the Middle Ages, theologians. We’ll be landing on Mars if anyone needs us.”

    Aside from the fact that these evolutionists keep associating themselves with the achievements of physics, their main rhetoric consists of asserting that “science b****y works”.

    The fact is that, in any field, good argument works. Slogans don’t.

  • Acleron

    But you do attempt define your god. Reading various accounts gives various descriptions with various properties but a common theme is that it created the universe and is personally interested in the human species. It isn’t a reasonable definition and contradicts your idea that religious belief guarantees reason, which incidentally, isn’t a fact.

  • AlanP

    Who is suggesting that religious belief guarantees reason? Nothing “guarantees” reason, but what I do find is more “reason” in the discourse of religious people than among atheists, who cannot understand the category errors they ceaselessly indulge in.

  • Lazarus

    Various theologians will put the point in different ways, but all will acknowledge that the nature of God exceeds our ability fully to talk of him.

    If, as you claim, there were any inconsistency between being a creator and being interested in human beings, individuals as well as the species, it would follow -not incidentally but necessarily- that Christianity was irrational, at least to the extent that it contained one false assertion. But of course there is no inconsistency and thus no demonstrated irrationality.

    I’m sure Father Lucie-Smith will have more to say on the issue in future. But for the moment, an indication of the truth of his claim ‘[O]ne of the best guarantors of reason is in fact religious faith’ is your constant popping up to deliver ill thought through pot shots at a religion you clearly have little understanding of: your atheism has encouraged a sloppy attitude to truth and its attainment. Catholicism, on the other hand, encourages the epistemic virtues of patience and care in reasoning. Patience, because we believe that the universe, created by Reason is understandable through reason; care, because, as creatures created in the image of God, the arguments of atheists, at least when presented by thinkers who have have tried honestly to wrestle with the nature of human life and the world, do deserve to be dealt with thoroughly.

  • Julian Lord

    Thank you for your lovely slogans.

  • andHarry

    ‘The analysis of the Oxford gang’s abuse of vulnerable girls did not jump to the conclusion that because the perpetrators were Muslim there was something in Islamic culture that made Muslim men abuse white non-Muslim girls.’

    I missed the discussion, but feel certain that if Wm Oddie had been participating there would not have been a ‘jump to the conclusion’, but rather a reasoned leading of the understanding as to how one’s conception of the reward awaiting in Heaven might influence one’s mental and behavioural preparation while still on earth.

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    Well said!

  • Jonathan West

    The first step towards truth is acknowledging how little we know ….. He then goes on to mention “misinformation, gossip, prejudices, defamation, and slander” as enemies of dialogue. …. Take for example the elaborate scam called Kathy’s Story, which turned out to be just that – an untrue story.

    I’ve read something of both sides of the story. Some members of Kathy’s family assert that her story is untrue, but I don’t think that you are in a position to know that, and that therefore to call it “an elaborate scam” is to engage in precisely the kind of “misinformation, gossip, prejudices, defamation, and slander” that the Pope has described as being enemies of dialogue.

    Take that plank out of your eye!

  • Don Camillo

    Deus infinitus, non definitus.

  • $24570317

    “When it comes to the Catholic Church people think they know it all”

    And when it comes to God (some) Catholics think they know it all.
    After all, God is a Catholic, isn’t He?

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    There is no hard evidence to back up any of the claims of abuse made by the author of Cathy’s Story as far as I can see.

  • $362439

    The word ‘God’ stands for a Being in whom Essence and Existence are identical.


  • Jonathan West

    If you carefully read only the accounts against her, of course you won’t see any supporting evidence.

  • Jonathan West

    Have you made any attempt to read her side of the story?

  • Scyptical Chymist

    “The analysis of the Oxford gang’s abuse of vulnerable girls did not jump
    to the conclusion that because the perpetrators were Muslim there was
    something in Islamic culture that made Muslim men abuse white non-Muslim
    girls. While the programme did raise this question, and while it was
    acknowledged that there were questions to answer, it also made it clear
    that the question why abuse takes place is a complex one. At no time, as
    far as I could see, were leaps of logic presented as somehow solid

    What about empirical evidence? Whenever such cases occur certain of the same evidence is found, so why the equivocation? Why the refusal to weigh the evidence as seen? Does the weight of evidence lead one to consider what is the probability of a particular conclusion? As the saying goes “If it walks like a duck —-”. The above statement could be interpreted as self delusion just as reprehensible as overt prejudice.

  • Scyptical Chymist

    A plea for evidence based assessment.

    “The analysis of the Oxford gang’s abuse of vulnerable girls did not jump
    to the conclusion that because the perpetrators were Muslim there was
    something in Islamic culture that made Muslim men abuse white non-Muslim

    The program performed somersaults to avoid drawing conclusions from the evidence. This was not impartiality, it was wishful thinking, bordering on self delusion, as pernicious as the prejudice exhibited by the red top press to liberals and the BBC, Guardian and Independent towards Christians so I cannot see any merit in using it here. As a scientist I examined evidence and assessed the probabilities of various explanations for it and then drew conclusions like many other scientists. As the saying goes “If it walks like a duck, quacks like — then it probably is a duck”. So publish this. Some indeed found that the evidence contradicted their own or widely held previous beliefs and it took courage to defy the scientific establishment and publish. Today we have been enveloped by political correctness and it takes at least equivalent courage to draw probability based conclusions from the evidence. What then does an impartial assessment of the visual, aural,oral, cultural and other evidence lead to in terms of probabilities in the Oxford, Rochdale and similar cases? Do they have certain factors in common? Are the assessors weighing the evidence or are they as blinkered as those courtiers in Hans Andersen’s tale about the emperor’s apparel?

    Saying we do not have all the evidence is no excuse. We do indeed have a great deal of evidence but lack the courage to interpret it impartially.
    I note an earlier contribution. I could not see this and assumed it had been lost when I posted this expanded version. Disqus had hidden it in the bowels of the page. Apologies, I cannot erase it.

  • Julian Lord

    “attempt” — so, not condescending in the slightest then …

  • Frank

    You bring out some important points here Fr. A.
    It is necessary to leave aside ego and self-interest if we wish to seek and understand the truth. Pride can blind us to our faults and so easily cause us to avoid the truth.

  • Acleron

    I won’t argue about who brings facts and evidence to the table, all those interested can examine the record.

    But the main point is that you believe in a god with various attributes. You believe he exists and has some interest in you. There is not the slightest evidence that this entity exists and your basic belief is irrational. Of course you can argue for a form of Pascal’s wager but that fails because you cannot be sure you believe in the right god or that it has any of the properties you ascribe to it. To create an organisation around such an irrationality and then claim it is necessary to maintain reason is absurd.

    Your church is a good example of rationalisation not rationality, but your axioms are flawed. Much like medics who believed in the Hippocratic humors, who constructed edifices of education, qualifications and theories but ultimately failed because of their false premise.

  • Acleron

    When a religion contains so many different and often contradictory beliefs then pinning down the essence is difficult, if for no other reason than somebody can utter the ‘category error’ mantra as if that was an answer. For that reason I chose the very simplest and basic attributes.

  • Julian Lord

    In case it had escaped your eagle-eyed notice, I am not Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith.

  • Jonathan West

    I was perfectly aware of who you are, and I have no doubt that you haven’t read both sides of the story either.

  • Julian Lord

    I have no doubt

    Yes, we’re all of us already perfectly aware of your entrenched prejudice, cheers.

  • Peter

    The modern scientific secular world is not interested in subtle philosophical arguments, but hard facts, and the fact is according to them that there is no hard evidence for the existence of God.

    The only hard evidence we have is the mystery of how, in the face of constant and bitter opposition from philosophers and scientists from 300 BC to the 20th century, the Church could unswervingly teach the doctrines for centuries that the universe had a beginning, is finite and began from nothing.

    That these doctrines have been or are being vindicated, much to the astonishment of the scientific community, is a sure sign the Church knew certain truths centuries ago that no-one else knew, or that no-one else had the remote possibility of knowing.

    Atheists would call it a fluke, but that is an inane response.

  • Lazarus

    Of course, the flaw in your argument is the false premise that belief in God is irrational.

    All proofs in natural theology rest on the sort of move that, without the existence of God, such and such a feature of the world is metaphysically inexplicable. Your dismissal of the whole range of such proofs is mere handwaving, not argument.

    Now, I don’t know how exploration of such a wide range of arguments can be done in a combox: the fact that you seem to think it can be is indicative of the sort of poverty of thought that modern atheism seems inevitably to lead to. But at the risk of falling precisely into your trap of sciolism, the sort of hand me down naturalism that you seem to espouse strikes me as resting on a sort of fideism: you have no explanation for features of the world such as causality, intentionality and morality, but go on relying on them through blind faith. Catholicism, on the other hand, places them in context where it makes sense to rely on them and also where it makes sense to think that further rational exploration will increase our understanding of them.

    Of course there’s a lot more to be said. But that’s the point. You seem to have absolutely no sense of the philosophical difficulty of the sort of areas you are dismissing. On purely pragmatic grounds, whilst I’m sure that atheism needn’t in principle lead to the sort of dumb chippiness that characterizes most of the Dawkinsian posters on the Herald site, the fact that it regularly does produce this sort of character ought to be enough for any sensible person to avoid it like a plague.

  • AnthonyPatrick

    “You believe he exists and has some interest in you.”

    You exist. I exist. For the time being, that is, temporarily within the totality of existence. God does not exist as such, at all. God is the totality of existence, of whom the flesh and blood clothing our rather brief earthly form of beingness is a signifier, certainly, but self-evidently not the signified whole.

    For an individual to evade this awareness indefinitely, whether out of ignorance, conviction, fear, arrogance, belief or desperation might well be an option (and given the logical limitations of scientific knowledge, explainable if not excusable): the default position of human reason, even. The cycles of human history suggests it is difficult, indeed dangerous, to sustain, though.

    In the Creed, Catholic Christians state their belief IN God. Ergo, it is an act of trust. Admittedly, therefore, believing that God has some interest in us is an act of faith. A marriage of true minds rather than a mere form of words, one might say. However, being finite, human and self-interested, unlike God, we have to work at the relationship, to keep following through on our baptismal and confirmational vows (renewed every year). And like all relationships worthy of sacramental status, it’s about much, much more than ceremonial and celebratory expressions of transient experience.

    God bless.

  • Scyptical Chymist

    Exactly, I agree wholeheartedly and would add the bravery to speak out when you are persuaded by the evidence, to “leaving ego and self-interest aside”. However, I do have great sympathy for those who are not brave here as it takes enormous courage to speak out against the politically correct consensus of the trendsetters in our western world most of whom seem to have a hatred of Christianity. Even many of the Catholic hierarchy in Europe and the USA have found it too difficult. However while not speaking out is forgivable, what is not forgivable is joining in the politically correct view when one has refused to consider impartially all the evidence available.

    Another thought. Pope Francis has a master’s degree in Chemistry. I suspect he knows something about weighing up evidence and drawing conclusions on the balance of probability. How many of our Western leaders, religious and political, have this advantage?

  • Scyptical Chymist

    Please do not use “the scientific community” in the derogatory sense as here. There is no such thing, there are individual scientists who hold widely different views on many things as well as groups who have a certain consensus among themselves. So do not tar them all with the same brush as you would then have to include Pope Francis who has a Master’s degree in Chemistry, as I have commented in another post here. It would do no harm for people to learn a little from the way scientists work before expressing views based on little or no consideration of evidence available. I know (being a Catholic) that faith cannot be proved or disproved by science and that our actions will be governed by our beliefs. However this does not give us “carte blanche” to ignore collectible evidence where it is relevant to physical phenomena or human behaviour. The ignorant spouting of a few vocal atheist scientists should not colour your view of science and scientists in general. I do not know if you saw the BBC2 programme about the Nobel laureate, Richard Feynman, earlier this week but there was a man with the courage to speak out about a disaster caused by human error that the authorities wanted to cover up, ignoring the evidence. He enjoyed life, loved Physics and the beauty and complexity of life but regarded *love in your heart” to be infinitely superior to any knowledge of Physics (in a letter to a student’s mother). He confessed to being an atheist (but did not go on about it). When he died in pain from cancer I hope he got one more pleasant surprise – R. I. P.

  • Peter

    Feynman was an atheist because he was afraid to believe in God, for God would hold him to account for his mathematical contribution towards the development of the atom bomb, for which he was wracked with guilt throughout his life.

  • Scyptical Chymist

    Said with a terrifying certainty of someone who apparently knows God’s mind. At least some, indeed most, who worked on the atom bomb must have had a belief in helping to shorten the terrible war. When the devastating effects on human life were seen, most had doubts about their involvement but to infer that God would hold them to account is an unwarranted assumption. We cannot know the mind of God, but He knows the mind and weaknesses of his creatures. In view of his subsequent behaviour I think Feynman, from then on, tried to do good as he saw. It is not up to us to condemn him, casting a stone comes to mind.

    Do you still want to condemn “the scientific community” and not learn something from scientists who are human beings like all of us?

  • Peter

    No-one is condemning anyone, just trying to explain his atheism.

  • AlanP

    There may be differences at the margin, but the basic truths of the Christian faith are the same for all. The category error arises when atheists assume that God is some object, or thing, which can be scientifically examined and investigated, and of course they find no evidence of such a thing.

  • Antiochus

    ‘We succumb to attitudes that do not permit us to dialogue: domination, not knowing how to listen, annoyance in our speech, preconceived judgements and so many others.’ One wonders if the usual suspects who must spend most of their lives commenting on this website on every subject under the sun and angrily insult anyone who dares to disagree with them will take any notice of these words of the Pope. One wonders also why Catholicism seems so prone to encouraging these sorts of attitudes. No doubt JP, BC et al. will be able to tell us … and woe betide any heretic or dissenter who does not recognise their unassailable wisdom.

  • Lazarus

    Actually rather a good question!

    As I’m probably under ‘et al.’, let’s try. One point to make is that it’s not just a Catholic trait: go to any of the non-religious sites about politics etc and you’ll find far worse. So the first answer is that human beings are sinful, and that when we are discussing hugely important issues of salvation, we’re probably most liable to get carried away.

    Another point is that many of the posters who come here self-consciously identify as oppositional: they want to attack the typically Catholic Herald stance (orthodox Catholicism) either from an atheistic viewpoint or from a heretical one. Deliberately provoked, people respond.

    The final, most interesting, element is actually something I found rather attractive when I was an atheist. Catholicism is intellectually rigorous and believes in just wars. I see nothing unChristian in principle in responding forcefully to shoddy attacks on the Church. Now, of course, there is also ‘jus in bello’ -how just (metaphorical) wars should be carried out- and there, although I (and others) don’t always get it right, I think the occasional lapse in temper, although something to be regretted and avoided if possible, is almost inevitable. In any case, I don’t think heeding the Pope’s words is simply a matter of acting like a rather sweet doormat: they need to be reflected on in our quest for sanctification, but they have to be incorporated into an understanding of the virtues which includes rigorous intellectual debate and the defence of the holy.

  • deeandem

    Sounds great, though said more precisely: God’s essence is to exist. But I can’t figure out how the Trinity and the principle of existence, which is God, can be reconciled.

  • deeandem

    They aren’t slogans. They’re attempts at capturing the spirit of their argumentation. Obviously, it’s not the same as actually addressing their argumentation nor can you believe naively that discussion is possible with everyone. It’s not. propagandists, whether religious or not, are interested in forcing their message through and not a dialogue where they can persuade through reason the other person for their good.

  • deeandem

    Why do you have to troll the article? Stop being hypocritical.

  • deeandem

    Oh, yes. I remember the days when I used to try hard to understand what Dawkinsians were saying, why they were saying it. Then it dawned on me: they aren’t saying anything. The shallowness of thought, the absolute lack of awareness of the problem is horrifying. Most Dawkinsians (like many religious people, frankly) are mere parrots of some authority figure. They repeat whatever Master Dawkins says without an ounce of understanding or critical thought. Dawkins gives them a place to channel their overall resentment into something and the feeling of being intelligent by association. Of course, the intelligence of Dawkins is disputable and intelligence has that curious property of not being transitive over associations.

    There is no New Atheist-Religious debate as far as I’m concerned because there is no common ground. The former aren’t even aware of what the religious (or intelligent atheists) are talking about. They’re like their religious counterparts: bumpkins.

  • $20596475

    Fr L-S’s piece applies so much to you that I suggest you pin it to your wall and read it before making any reply to anything.

  • $20596475

    I completely agree with the Pope’ analysis mentioned here. Too often I find a self righteous and inflexible attitude getting in the way of genuine dialogue in the com boxes.

  • Lazarus

    Agree with most of this!

    I must step in to defend bumpkins, however. Not everyone is capable of the short of extended philosophical thought that is required in this area: Catholicism is for everyone, not just those with doctorates in philosophy or theology. So for many Catholics, a lot will have to be taken on trust (and indeed much of the authority structure of the Churcj can be seen as a way of ensuring that trust is not abused).

    Catholics acknowledge this. But try to tell a Dawkinsian that their views are a matter of faith and you’ll be met with a barrage of abuse. Yet, as you say, their shallowness of thought is apparent as is their emotional investment in their leader. Among the many matters that nu-Atheists ignore is the question as to how a relatively uneducated and unintelligent person is supposed to make good sense of the world. Catholics do have an answer for that. The only answer of Dawkinsians seems to be to pretend to be much smarter than you really are and get shirty when challenged.

  • Percy_Fleur

    If you agree completely with the Pope’ (sic) analysis, and genuinely bemoan the lack of “genuine dialogue”, then presumably you’ll be trying to avoid in future what the Holy Father identifies as obstacles to dialogue (domination, failure to listen, annoyance in our speech, preconceived judgements).

  • $20596475

    Actually your Holy Father’s comments were directed at his flock and mine were intended for some of those who post comments here, as they don’t seem to heed his words.

    Nevertheless I accept their wisdom and already try to follow them, although I suspect you won’t be aware of that fact.

  • Percy_Fleur

    You’re right. I wasn’t.