Monday, December 23, 2013

Propositions (UPDATED 12/24/2013)

Yes, you get two essays today.

Christmas is almost upon us, and as usual at this time of year, the Militant Evangelistic Atheists (MEA) are out there doing their best to spoil it. These...persons are not to be confused with the Amiable Atheists (AA). AAs have no problem with theism as long as it isn't forced upon them -- and that is as it should be. Both theism and atheism are statements of faith, which makes them singularly unsuitable for aggressive promotion.

What's that you say? Am I not a Christian? Indeed, am I not the hardest of hard-core Christians, a Catholic, and thus charged, as are all such, with the Great Commission to "Go and teach all nations" -- ? Well, yes, but I regard the prescription of Saint Francis of Assisi as the best approach to that work: "At all times, preach the Gospels. When necessary, use words." The best possible evangelism is living as a Christian should: modestly, decently, and with good will toward all who are willing to return it.

The Great Secret is exactly that, you know. What the angels' chorus sang to the shepherds of Bethlehem, heralding the arrival of the Christ Child in this world: "Glory to God in the highest, and on Earth peace to men of good will."

MEAs are not men of good will. They prove it every time they open their mouths.

I once wrote as follows:

Your Curmudgeon, much given to pondering the categories into which ideas fall, after long and hard thought has arrived at the following partition:
  • Theses which can be proved or disproved: mathematics.
  • Theses which can be disproved, but not proved: science.
  • Theses which can neither be proved nor disproved: religion.

By "proof" is meant the modus ponens / modus tollens sort of logical proof that proceeds from widely accepted postulates and uses implication to reach the desired conclusion. By "disproof" is meant the demonstration of one or more counter-examples to a theory.

Atheism, gauged against this partition, is a religious creed: the creed that there is no God. It is distinct from agnosticism, a purely heuristic stance which maintains that personal experiences of the mystical and numinous cannot be used as evidence for a religious proposition....Rational agnostic Smith would concede that there might be a God after all, even though he refused to accept religionist Jones's private personal revelations as evidence to that effect. The atheist fails to grapple with the fundamental limitations of Man's mind and senses, which make it impossible to evaluate claims of Godhood with confidence.

Militant Evangelistic Atheism -- the sort that proclaims that "There is no God and that's a fact!" -- is most definitely a religious creed. But you'll never get a more violent reaction from an MEA than by telling him that just as he doesn't accept your faith, you decline to accept his faith. They tend to foam at the mouth at such an assertion. Don't you know that faith is a dirty word, you chest-crossing, rosary-fingering, incantation-mouthing monster of irrationality, you?

Perhaps it's petty of me, but twitting MEAs is among the little pleasures of my latter years. I look forward to opportunities for it.

Some MEAs have become quite prominent for that reason. Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens have all written spittle-flecked tracts about their religions. The lesser orders of the breed, such as Eric S. Raymond, seem to want to borrow their dubious glory. You'd think there was no merit to be gained from forming one's own opinions...and for admitting that they're opinions and nothing more.

Dawkins, in particular, has gone on the attack against anyone who refuses to adopt his faith:

Dawkins' style of debate is as maddening as it is reasonable. A few months earlier, in front of an audience of graduate students from around the world, Dawkins took on a famous geneticist and a renowned neurosurgeon on the question of whether God was real. The geneticist and the neurosurgeon advanced their best theistic arguments: Human consciousness is too remarkable to have evolved; our moral sense defies the selfish imperatives of nature; the laws of science themselves display an order divine; the existence of God can never be disproved by purely empirical means.

Dawkins rejected all these claims, but the last one – that science could never disprove God – provoked him to sarcasm. "There's an infinite number of things that we can't disprove," he said. "You might say that because science can explain just about everything but not quite, it's wrong to say therefore we don't need God. It is also, I suppose, wrong to say we don't need the Flying Spaghetti Monster, unicorns, Thor, Wotan, Jupiter, or fairies at the bottom of the garden. There's an infinite number of things that some people at one time or another have believed in, and an infinite number of things that nobody has believed in. If there's not the slightest reason to believe in any of those things, why bother? The onus is on somebody who says, I want to believe in God, Flying Spaghetti Monster, fairies, or whatever it is. It is not up to us to disprove it."

Science, after all, is an empirical endeavor that traffics in probabilities. The probability of God, Dawkins says, while not zero, is vanishingly small. He is confident that no Flying Spaghetti Monster exists. Why should the notion of some deity that we inherited from the Bronze Age get more respectful treatment?

Dawkins has been talking this way for years, and his best comebacks are decades old. For instance, the Flying Spaghetti Monster is a variant of the tiny orbiting teapot used by Bertrand Russell for similar rhetorical duty back in 1952. Dawkins is perfectly aware that atheism is an ancient doctrine and that little of what he has to say is likely to change the terms of this stereotyped debate. But he continues to go at it. His true interlocutors are not the Christians he confronts directly but the wavering nonbelievers or quasi believers among his listeners – people like me, potential New Atheists who might be inspired by his example....

Dawkins looks forward to the day when the first US politician is honest about being an atheist. "Highly intelligent people are mostly atheists," he says. "Not a single member of either house of Congress admits to being an atheist. It just doesn't add up. Either they're stupid, or they're lying. And have they got a motive for lying? Of course they've got a motive! Everybody knows that an atheist can't get elected."...

For the New Atheists, the problem is not any specific doctrine, but religion in general. Or, as Dawkins writes in The God Delusion, "As long as we accept the principle that religious faith must be respected simply because it is religious faith, it is hard to withhold respect from the faith of Osama bin Laden and the suicide bombers."

So! If you disagree with Dawkins's entirely unprovable and undisprovable faith, you can't be intelligent and honest! Frankly, the man thinks too much of himself. I could prove it to him in fifteen minutes' conversation, which he, being the possessor of one of the world's most overinflated egos, would never dare to court. His strawmen would burn far too easily...and I suspect that, in his heart of hearts, he knows it.

You'd think these were still the years of the Inquisition -- that nonbelievers are in peril of their lives merely for being nonbelievers. You'd think, given their vehemence, that Dawkins and those who worship as he does:

...were displaying actual courage in the face of imminent violent retribution.

It's an indicator of some significance that MEAs such as Dawkins regard anyone who disagrees with them -- about anything -- as either stupid or dishonest.

Christians should take comfort from this: that ours is the faith that began with a single Martyr; that He commissioned a mere eleven men to spread His word; and that from that humble beginning, viciously opposed by all the powers of that day, His creed spread over the entire globe, eventually becoming the dominant religious creed of Mankind.

He needed no armies.
He asked only that we love God, and our neighbor as ourselves.
He accepted the most torturous imaginable death, and rose from it to confirm His authority.

Really, what more is there to ask of a religious creed? Yet Christianity offers far more: the comfort of God's love; the hope of eternal bliss in His nearness, and the warm security of both mutual sustenance and good will toward all who are willing to return it.

As I wrote long ago at the Palace Of Reason:

Even in the Church's grimmest, most pleasure-averse eras, the doors of a Christian church have always connoted welcome and safety. Time was, even a criminal fleeing apprehension was deemed to be safe there. It was hoped that the evildoer would be moved to repentance, would confess his sins, and would exit voluntarily before hunger forced it on him, which was often the case. The custom has largely lapsed, but Christians remember.

It's every true Christian's desire that all the world should unite in praise and worship of the Redeemer. (He'd certainly like it, too.) But we don't run around forcing our creed down others' throats, the crimes of the Spanish Inquisition and Calvinist Switzerland notwithstanding. We offer it to those who might be ready for it, joyously welcome those who embrace it, and pray for those who brush it aside. It's what we're commanded to do, but alongside of that, a world united in the love of Christ and obedience to His Great Commandments would be a world in which all of us are unquestionably safe from one another.

That's why we do much of what we do. Perhaps we don't speak of it as often or as plainly as we should. It makes the hostility of the militant anti-religionists, who are utterly safe from us, even more difficult to comprehend. Perhaps the unrelenting cold competitiveness of their academies has made them envy the fellowship and warmth we enjoy.

Life holds many pleasures. Not all are available to everyone. A few are attainable only on extremely demanding terms. But the quiet joy of Christian brotherhood, and the sustenance that flows from it, is free to anyone who wants it.

The physical light may stream from a bank of incandescent bulbs. The physical warmth may flow from a furnace. But these are the least part of the thing. Any Christian will tell you.

Try it out. You don't have to wait for an invitation; you can engrave this one on card stock and sign my name to it, if you like. Visit the church down the block, some Sunday soon. Don't be shy. Shake a few hands; make the acquaintance of the pastor. Everyone there is as flawed as you, but they'll accept you anyway, if you'll grant them the favor of reciprocation. If you're the least bit open to it, I guarantee that you'll feel it as I do.

Whether made of wood, stone, or grass and mud, a Christian church filled with its congregants is a warm, well lighted place.

It's a warmth and a security I wouldn't trade for any MEA's representations...even if Militant Evangelistic Atheism did offer something beyond a futureless material reality and an eternity of nothingness to follow.

May God bless and keep you all. Merry Christmas, and may the joy of His Nativity illuminate your coming year. I'll be back after Christmas.

UPDATE: If you still disbelieve in the War on Christmas, have a look at how our military has mobilized against it!

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