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Why atheism can be respectable


First Things' web editor Joe Carter argues, pace David Hart, that we must "abandon the politically correct notion" that any form of "atheism is intellectually respectable." As St. Paul implies in Romans 1, atheism is a case of vincible ignorance. Even people who have never been vouchsafed special divine revelation have "no excuse" for failing to know God:

For what can be known about God is evident to them, because God made it evident to them. Ever since the creation of the world, his invisible attributes of eternal power and divinity have been able to be understood and perceived in what he has made. As a result, they have no excuse; for although they knew God they did not accord him glory as God or give him thanks. Instead, they became vain in their reasoning, and their senseless minds were darkened. (20-22)
Carter's argument, then, is roughly as follows. If Christianity is true, then the Bible is divinely inspired, and whatever assertion is divinely inspired is true. So St. Paul is correct in arguing that those who do not believe in the God there is are "without excuse." Hence atheism is vincible ignorance. And vincible ignorance is not intellectually respectable.

To be fair, Hart does not suggest that all forms of atheism are respectable. He is particularly, and justifiably, contemptuous of the "new atheism," which never rises to the elegance of a Hume, the nobility of a Voltaire, or the clear-eyed radicalism of a Nietzsche. But his book Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies, a tour-de-force by almost any standard, does not depend on disparaging the motives of atheists as such. I'm reading it now. What Hart recognizes, and Carter does not, is that atheism is sometimes motivated by moral passion. That passion can be immature and anthropomorphic, but by no means is it always base. And even when it is base, it often arises from unreflective outrage about real wrongs people do in the name of God. We cannot simply assume that atheism is motivated by a desire to escape divine judgment or indulge in base sexual passions. Paul may well have been right about many pagans of his time, but I don't think we need or should read him as condemning all atheism as a moral failing.

For one thing, doing that would lower theists to the level of the new atheists, who can see theism as motivated only by stupidity or ill will. It would also abandon the progress made by most of the Christian world, which no longer sees heresy as explicable only by stupidity or ill will. Even when such claims are true, it is unhelpful to make them.

When the sort of moral passion motivating atheism is immature, anthropomorphic, or base, the best response is usually the example of believers who love as they ought: love primarily for real people, and secondarily for all that is obviously true, good, and beautiful. Evaluating motives is rarely helpful in intellectual debate, and sometimes not even helpful in ordinary life. In politics and private life as well as religion, all sides tend to overindulge in Bulverism. The antidote is the sort of rationality that sustains itself by a love for truth that is greater than one's hatred of enemies. That allows for due objectivity about competing arguments. And in the case of atheism, such an intellectual task must take the form of studying and evaluating the arguments strictly on their merits. The new atheists usually don't come out of that looking good. But intellectually respectable atheism can.

As Thomas Aquinas recognized, the two most common objections to theism are (a) the explanatory superfluity of the supernatural, and (b) the problem of evil. Those objections are worth taking seriously on the merits. As I argued over a year ago, however, even they arise from what are, at bottom, moral objections. The best of the atheists are best engaged when theists recognize that and proceed accordingly. At bottom, the debate is about what humans ought to value, and in what configuration. In turn, a debate like that arises from competing claims about what humanity itself is. Ultimately, then, the best way to combat atheism is to act, not just argue, as though God reveals man to man.

Cross-posted at Sacramentum Vitae

Comments (29)

Michael,
I have to thank you. A few months ago, I argued in the thread of a post by our good friend Ed (“Mechanism”) Feser that there seems to be two Catholic Churches: a pre-Vatican-II Church and a post-Vatican-II Church. With this your post you have illustrated my thesis perfectly. Almost every line is a repudiation and reversal of everything the Church used to hold as good and true.

Take, for example, this gem:

For one thing, doing that would lower theists to the level of the new atheists, who can see theism as motivated only by stupidity or ill will. It would also abandon the progress made by most of the Christian world, which no longer sees heresy as explicable only by stupidity or ill will.


Progress?

Well, I guess it is progress of a sort. But let’s look at some examples of that from which we have so progressed:

“Where there is no hatred of heresy, there is no holiness.”

Father Faber, 19th century Catholic writer and convert

Or this from St. Charles Borromeo:


It is a certain, well established fact that no other crime so seriously offends God and provokes His greatest wrath as the vice of heresy. Nothing contributes more to the down fall of provinces and kingdoms than this frightful pest.

Or how about this from the Fourth Lateran Council:

Secular authorities, whatever office they may hold, shall be admonished and induced and if necessary compelled by ecclesiastical censure, that as they wish to be esteemed and numbered among the faithful, so for the defense of the faith they ought publicly to take an oath that they will strive in good faith and to the best of their ability to exterminate in the territories subject to their jurisdiction all heretics pointed out by the Church [Where’s the love, man?]; so that whenever anyone shall have assumed authority, whether spiritual or temporal, let him be bound to confirm this decree by oath. But if a temporal ruler, after having been requested and admonished by the Church, should neglect to cleanse his territory of this heretical foulness, let him be excommunicated by the metropolitan and the other bishops of the province. If he refuses to make satisfaction within a year, let the matter be made known to the supreme pontiff, that he may declare the ruler's vassals absolved from their allegiance and may offer the territory to be ruled lay Catholics, who on the extermination of the heretics may possess it without hindrance and preserve it in the purity of faith; the right, however, of the chief ruler is to be respected as long as he offers no obstacle in this matter and permits freedom of action. The same law is to be observed in regard to those who have no chief rulers (that is, are independent). Catholics who have girded themselves with the cross for the extermination of the heretics, shall enjoy the indulgences and privileges granted to those who go in defense of the Holy Land.... (Fourth Lateran Council, 1215: Canon 3)

Yep, the Church used to be lousy with heretic-hating bastards. But we’ve happily progressed past all that, thank [Insert here deity of your own personal faith tradition.].

(to be continued)


And in the case of atheism, such an intellectual task must take the form of studying and evaluating the arguments strictly on their merits. The new atheists usually don't come out of that looking good. But intellectually respectable atheism can.

Michael, let me explain to you what the Church used to think before it decided to make love not war:

There is no such thing as respectable atheism. All arguments for atheism are specious. Atheists are “fools,” as the psalmist said. This is because evidence and reason both lead to God; and the only thing that can prevent a man from seeing that there is a God is either mental incompetence or bad will. Examples of the latter are the “elegant” Hume, the “clear-eyed” Nietzsche, and the “Noble” [Sic!] Voltaire.

(more to come)

It would also abandon the progress made by most of the Christian world, which no longer sees heresy as explicable only by stupidity or ill will.

Mike, I will grant that when the Catholic hierarchy looks at the standard Protestant in the pew, they are not thinking "you're a heretic because of either stupidity or ill will." But that's mainly because we have ceased to use the word "heretic" about our separated brethren pretty much altogether. This might be because, while they hold materially to things that are contrary to Catholic dogma, they have been taught those from birth, and so they have never gone through the moral event of choosing to no longer accept what the Catholic Church holds. Which is where the sin of heresy lies.

Take a Catholic priest who falls away from the Catholic faith, though, and the language is a little stronger. (It would probably be a LOT stronger, if the bishop happens to believe in irreformable truths of doctrine and grace to strengthen faith available for all those who seek it with a humble heart.)

If George wants to call me a heretic and attribute that to stupidity (which I would prefer to his attributing it to ill-will), I really don't have a problem with that. If George is made a "Christian prince" and starts using his monarchical power to persecute me and mine and stamp out our stupid heresies, then I have a problem. :-)

Oh, I'm also allowed to consider George a heretic and attribute that to stupidity, which I also prefer to attributing it to ill-will. In case that wasn't understood. :-)

Just to be clear, George R.: you want the US government to execute all non-Catholics? To put it more starkly: if Lydia McGrew doesn't convert to Catholicism, you want her _murdered_? If you don't want that, then what do you want?

George R. theocrat tendencies do frequently manage to satisfy Voltaire's famous quip:
"I have never made but one prayer to God, a very short one: Oh Lord, make my enemies ridiculous. And God granted it." — Voltaire

P.S. The radicalism of a Nietzsche is better classified as pagan romanticism, not atheism.

Well, if heretics are to be suppressed by the state, I wonder what is supposed to happen to atheists...

George R:

If the lessons of history--never mind those of ordinary human relations--don't convince you of the folly of reviling and coercing religious and irreligious dissenters, as distinct from reasoning with the brightest of them, then there isn't much I can do to convince you. But I find it fascinating that, reacting to a post wherein I backed an Orthodox theologian against an evangelical-Protestant webmaster, you have seen fit to make the debate an intra-Catholic one. That's the only aspect of your comments worth engaging, at least to me.

To that end, it seems apropos to present a slightly edited version of a comment I addressed to Ed Feser several weeks ago.

My point about "the hermeneutic of discontinuity" (HD) was that traditionalists and progressives, precisely and respectively as such, agree that Vatican II represented a decisive break in the history of the Catholic Church, so that it now makes sense to speak of two churches: the pre-Vatican-II Church and the post-Vatican-II Church. Whatever variations of opinion and virtue one may find among individuals at either end of the spectrum, it is that hermeneutic, that "story" as it were, which is distinctive of both progressive and traditional Catholicism. The difference, of course, is that the trads disapprove the break and want to see it reversed, as though Vatican II never happened; whereas the progs approve it and want to see it accelerated, as though Vatican II just wasn't enough even at the time. But both agree that there was such a break. On this whole business, I highly recommend the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus' book Catholic Matters (2006).

Secondarily, the mentality of discontinuity manifests itself in cultural preferences. I often get the sense that American trads want to return to 1955 Cleveland and the American progs want to return to 1970 Berkeley. Such differences signify radically incompatible forms of spirituality. Both are outdated, of course. But the primary discontinuity, the hermeneutic thereof, is theological. That is much more serious, and that is what the Pope, who is always talking about the hermeneutic of continuity, won't cave to.

We probably agree that the prog version of the HD is unjustified. But it was understandable. They saw that Vatican II dropped the notion that Catholics ought to favor a confessional state, the old union of throne-and-altar, in favor of a broader conception of religious liberty. They saw that Vatican II largely abandoned neo-scholastic language in favor of a more biblical and patristic manner of theologizing. They saw that the Council refrained from using dogmatic canons with anathemas and sought to bring people to faith with a lot more honey than vinegar. They saw that the Council stopped speaking of non-Catholic Christians as rebels and heretics, calling them "separated brethren" in various degrees of "imperfect communion" with the Church. Having seen all these things, they figured that much else could and should change as the windows of the Church were opened to the modern world. (Modernity was of course even then giving way to post-modernity; but as they say, theology departments are where bad sociology goes to die.) They concluded in short order that a number of important doctrines, taught with diachronic consensus by the episcopate since the earliest times, could and should be jettisoned. The best-known have to do with sex and power, such as the teachings on contraception and women's ordination. But as we know well, the rot really set in across the board because, in the wake of the Council, everything seemed up for grabs.

My point about the trads, though, is that in their understandable anxiety to reject the rot of progressive Catholicism, they have by and large embraced an equally radical HD. Archbishop Lefebvre and his followers in the SSPX, for example, believed that Vatican II was actually heretical on such questions as religious liberty and the identity of the Catholic Church with the Church. Just last year, Bishop Fellay, the least insane of the SSPX bishops, said that Vatican II and the present pope are trying to "square the circle" by claiming that the doctrine "The Catholic Church is the Church of Christ" has not been abandoned by Lumen Gentium's statement that "The Church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church." As to liturgy, some trads think the Mass of Paul VI invalid; most merely find it disgusting. Many of them still think limbo is de fide, not a dispensable theological opinion; many think that NFP is just as bad as contraception, and believe the post-V2 popes too liberal for permitting it. Almost all of them, I find, want a return to Baroque neo-scholasticism as a theological method. All this constitutes an HD, which is why they want the Church to turn Vatican II, and many of the magisterial developments since then, into a dead letter. The Pope has made clear that it ain't gonna happen. So I'm not optimistic about the outcome of the current talks at the CDF with the SSPX.

Am I thus asserting a "moral equivalence" between trads and progs? No, because I don't presume to judge people's motives, and I believe that the trads want to preserve certain goods that the progs, alas, don't even recognize as goods. Although Vatican II led to some positive changes that the better progs want to maintain, I think that overall, the non-schismatic trads are more solid Catholics than the progs. But the respective prog and trad theological versions of the HD are each based on a story that is, itself, an HD. And the Pope is right: there is only one Church, not two, and there is only one deposit of faith, not one whit of which was abandoned by the Council or the popes seeking to implement it.

Best,
Mike

When the sort of moral passion motivating atheism is immature, anthropomorphic, or base, the best response is usually the example of believers who love as they ought: love primarily for real people, and secondarily for all that is obviously true, good, and beautiful.

This is precisely what the New Church believes. Unfortunately, it is both anti-Christian and anti-intellectual, and a reversal of good doctrine. For it is written, “You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart, and your whole soul, and your whole mind, and your whole strength.” And secondly, after this, and in light of the goodness and truth of God, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Truth and goodness must be loved first, and “real people” second. Otherwise, how do you know whether your love for other people is proper and not rather perverse?

For example, suppose you knew someone who was committing crimes. Would your love for him entail your aiding him in his sinful enterprise or rebuking him, or perhaps turning him in? It all depends on your understanding and love of the higher good, doesn’t it?

That’s why your suggestion to love people first and truth second is anti-intellectual. It provides no light by which one might know how to properly love. It is pure sentimentalism.

And this is what the New Church has become, a giant bloated bag of feelings. The Holy Catholic Church, which Pope Saint Pius X called the “Empire of Truth,” has been transformed into the “Civilization of Love,” which is in reality nothing but a haze of moralistic-flavored emotion. But if that’s all it is, what good is it? Men can have feelings on their own without a bunch of clowns in robes telling them how.

Just to be clear, George R.: you want the US government to execute all non-Catholics? To put it more starkly: if Lydia McGrew doesn't convert to Catholicism, you want her _murdered_? If you don't want that, then what do you want?


Oh, brother.

Your problem, Bobcat, is that you’re a freethinker. You think that all religion is absurd, except to the degree that it promotes freethinking and liberalism. To overcome this bias, what you have to do is this: hypothetically suppose that everything the Catholic Church teaches is from God and, therefore, true. Now consider that for the first 1950 years of her existence the Church taught P. According to our hypothetical supposition, therefore, P must be true. Now consider that for the last fifty years the Church has taught not-P. You see, we have a contradiction. One of the premises have to give; but which one? This is what the whole argument is about. It has nothing to do with wanting to kill people.

George:

As the title of the Pope's most recent encyclical suggests, there is no contradiction between affirming the truth in its fullness and a pastoral orientation that seeks to attract people to the truth primarily by love. Reviling and coercing those in error was once a common pastoral orientation, but it doesn't work anymore. Even when it did, its usefulness was primarily political because the state was Christian rather than secular. Now that we face a very different reality, Vatican II and subsequent popes have adopted a different approach.

Therefore, I do not propound the dictum you reject: "love people first and truth second." I endorse the approach of attracting people to the latter by means of the former. When Christ issued the commandment: "Love one another," he was not just promulgating a rule. He was telling us what Christians look like, and what they need to do if the Gospel is to be credible, "that the world may believe."

Best,
Mike

Bobcat,
I hope this lesson taught you how to think clearly. Just remember, directives and rewards for those who exterminate heretics have nothing to do with wanting to kill people, they just perish from accidental causes. How closely this is related to the concept of jihad is a mystery best left unexplored.

George,
One way out of the dilemma is to realize that logic only forbids simultaneous contradiction. So whatever causes you to think a later contradiction must be false, it isn't based on logic.

Bobcat, it is almost self-evident that if the state ought to put heretics to death because of their bad will, then it is not murder for the state to do so. It makes no sense to introduce that word into the debate. (Unless you think that it is ALWAYS murder when the state kills someone, in which case you aren't arguing the issue about heresy, you are arguing quite another issue.)

Still, I don't agree with George R that this (we must kill heretics who won't convert) is the conclusion that is a necessary conclusion from Catholic doctrine as taught by, for example, the 4th Lateran. For one thing, the passage you quoted isn't doctrine, is directives on how to operate. Different sort. Secondly, it is directives to Catholic princes of Catholic states, not pluralistic states. Thirdly, the heretics being sought out were people who had originally been Catholic, and turned away from that faith, not people whose family has been Protestant for generations.

George, in Mike's statement that we supposed to

love primarily for real people, and secondarily for all that is obviously true, good, and beautiful.

I took the true, good, and beautiful as referring to those aspects in created goods, not God. In the order of created goods, we love persons before we love things. Yes, we are supposed to love God first and foremost...no, that's not strong enough: we love God completely, with our whole heart, mind, soul and strength. After doing that, we can only love other people in reference to loving God. And obviously we love the true, good, and beautiful in the created order as it reflects God.


Tony, I seriously hope you are not defending the legitimacy of killing people a) by Catholic princes in non-pluralistic countries when b) those people used to be Catholics and became Protestants.

Still, I don't agree with George R that this (we must kill heretics who won't convert) is the conclusion that is a necessary conclusion from Catholic doctrine as taught by, for example, the 4th Lateran.

We must kill heretics who won’t convert? When did I ever say that?! This is getting out of hand.

I think I should clarify the record, so here goes:

Seeing that there is no longer any shred of Christendom left to defend against the depredations of heretics, I, George R., stand opposed to all slaughters, massacres, pogroms, genocides, lynchings, tortures, and fiery executions directed against any kind of heretics whatsoever.

That's a relief. Almost makes me (paradoxically) grateful that there's no Christendom left to defend against the depredations of us heretics.

Step2, George R. sort of beat me to the punch, but I was about to say that the next time a sedevacantist militia group plots a bombing at a Baptist church, I'll remember your words apropos of jihad.

George R.,

I don't think a freethinker nor a liberal. For what that's worth. In fact, I go to mass every Sunday and I hold views that I assume my liberal colleagues would find horrifying (and not because my views are more left than theirs; quite the opposite). That said, you'll be happy to know that I don't ever take communion because I think if I do I'll eat and drink condemnation upon myself. That said, I am a fan of Kant, and I find the problem of religious diversity challenging, so you could be right that ultimately I'm nothing more than a generic theist which, I take it, is on your view more or less the same as a freethinker.

I don't quite understand, though, the appositeness of your response to me. I'm aware of the law of contradiction. Indeed, it is the case that I'm a big and it is not the case that I'm not a big fan. That said, it seemed in your first comment as though you wanted to go back to the ways of the pre-Vatican II Church.

Moreover, it seemed that, according to the pre-Vatican II Church, people who departed from the teachings of the Catholic Church--which I took to be co-extensive with heretics--were to be executed. I got this reading from the bold-faced passages within the quote you supplied, which read: "for the defense of the faith they ought publicly to take an oath that they will strive in good faith and to the best of their ability to exterminate in the territories subject to their jurisdiction all heretics pointed out by the Church." That said, you seem to hold the view that the Church has the obligation to do this only if there is Christendom. But I take it that if there is Christendom, then you think it's obligatory for Christian rulers to execute people who are heretics--i.e., people who depart in a serious way from the teachings of the Catholic Church?

What did I misinterpret this time?

Tony,

"Bobcat, it is almost self-evident that if the state ought to put heretics to death because of their bad will, then it is not murder for the state to do so. It makes no sense to introduce that word into the debate. (Unless you think that it is ALWAYS murder when the state kills someone, in which case you aren't arguing the issue about heresy, you are arguing quite another issue.)"

No, I think there's a third possibility: there are some people the state ought to put to death, but heretics are not they. Consequently, when the state executes people for being non-Catholics, then this amounts to murder just as much as if the Soviet Union executed people for the crime of being on the wrong side of history.

I grant, though, that if it were indeed the case that the state ought to execute heretics, then it wouldn't be murder for it to do so.

Tony, I seriously hope you are not defending the legitimacy of killing people a) by Catholic princes in non-pluralistic countries when b) those people used to be Catholics and became Protestants.

Well, let me think about that...Hmmm...
Nope, I was not defending that. Had you going there for a minute, though, didn't I? :-)

Yeah, you did, Tony. I'm very gullible.

Bobcat, it warms my heart, truly and without any sarcasm, to see you get this hot under the collar about something. I'm going to bottle your moral confidence in this thread and port it over some time when I'm trying to convince you that something else is horrible, evil, and wrong.

By the way, er, getting back to the main post: I'm inclined to think that St. Paul _is_ saying that man generally can know that God exists and therefore that, in some sense, any atheist is "without excuse." I think there's just an ambiguity on something like "intellectual respectability." In one sense, you can have intellectually respectable atheists who are actually making their arguments in good faith, who have actually tried to see the Christian/theist arguments and believe they do not work. (I would say, however, that the number of these may be fewer than we would like to think.) But it doesn't follow that Paul's words don't apply to them. If God really has given man sufficient evidence of his existence, then--all the more so for highly intellectual people with all the information resources of our own time--it's man's responsibility to follow those arguments. They may be making in some sense a genuine intellectual _mistake_, but at some level, I think that mistake has to be regarded as vincible even if we would understandably call it "intellectually respectable."

I think that the biggest test of an atheist's motivation is what he does. Does he go on searching? Does he seek out Christians he respects intellectually and ask for their help? Does he realize that there is a real problem with a world without God and that therefore he should be motivated to direct a lot of energy to trying to find out if he has, indeed, made a mistake in thinking that God doesn't exist?

I believe that God will grant the truth and more light to those who seek it with a single heart and a single eye. But how many do? I think we'll know only in heaven.

I will tell you this: It has saddened me to see former Christians lose their faith and become atheists without asking friends who, they knew, had knowledge that might well be of help to them. I found out that they had lost their faith at secondhand, from anguished family members. And I longed to grab them by the collar and say, "Why didn't you ask? What real resistance did you put up to the loss of your faith? What's really going on here?"

"Bobcat, it warms my heart, truly and without any sarcasm, to see you get this hot under the collar about something. I'm going to bottle your moral confidence in this thread and port it over some time when I'm trying to convince you that something else is horrible, evil, and wrong."

Well, I will tell you the two things that get me mad: one is dismissive contempt for (at least some) religious beliefs. Two is condescending to me as though I'm an idiot.

Interestingly, I think I probably displayed contempt for the religious(?) belief that non-Catholics in Catholic countries should be executed by the state if they decide not to convert to Catholicism. But like I said, it is the dismissal of only some religious beliefs that gets me angry.

I don't see why you like it if I get hot under the collar, though. I really don't. I mean, would you like it if I got angry in disagreement with you?

Anyway, usually what stops me getting angry is trying to imagine myself taking the other person's point of view and trying to see the best that can be said for it. I know that sounds like self-preening, and it probably is (or maybe you think it's a vice?), but assuming it's a virtue, then it's a virtue I got from having certain defects (like fear of angering others for stating my own views and the desire to be liked) and from my occupation (history of philosophy).

Bobcat, what I appreciated particularly was your getting hot under the collar about something you saw as wrong and didn't feel at all tentative about. Moral outrage. I appreciate that. I think we have too little moral outrage around these days, especially in analytic philosophy circles where nothing is supposed to be morally outrageous except, perhaps, saying that it's okay to teach intelligent design in the public schools or saying that homosexual acts are intrinsically wrong. (That's a crack at the expense of Brian Leiter, not you.) But the reason I said that I liked seeing you express moral outrage was because of your uncertainty (in the long thread last year about the man who murdered his Alzheimer's wife with an axe) about whether or not it's okay to euthanize people who have a very low level of consciousness. You indicated that you were unsure whether your instinctive revulsion to it was correct/a good indication that it is always wrong, etc.

Lydia:

I'm inclined to think that St. Paul _is_ saying that man generally can know that God exists and therefore that, in some sense, any atheist is "without excuse." I think there's just an ambiguity on something like "intellectual respectability." In one sense, you can have intellectually respectable atheists who are actually making their arguments in good faith, who have actually tried to see the Christian/theist arguments and believe they do not work. (I would say, however, that the number of these may be fewer than we would like to think.) But it doesn't follow that Paul's words don't apply to them. If God really has given man sufficient evidence of his existence, then--all the more so for highly intellectual people with all the information resources of our own time--it's man's responsibility to follow those arguments. They may be making in some sense a genuine intellectual _mistake_, but at some level, I think that mistake has to be regarded as vincible even if we would understandably call it "intellectually respectable."

I'm not sure what your argument is here. Taking your words in a strong sense, I would infer that you're saying that atheists who, despite careful investigation of the arguments for theism, remain unconvinced, are somehow morally culpable for remaining atheists. Of course it remains possible, and indeed is sometimes the case, that such atheists have "intellectually respectable" reasons for being wrong. In other fields, there are often such reasons for holding beliefs that turn out to be false; indeed in philosophy, some people get tenure and awards for being "wrong in the right sort of way." So I don't suppose we disagree about intellectual respectability, even if I'm taking your words in too strong a sense.

Now I'll grant you that ignorance of the existence of God is vincible. If I didn't think that, I wouldn't be Christian. But the question remains whether people who are capable of following the best arguments for theism, but who fail to be moved by them, are thereby culpable. I'm suggesting that, in all but the most egregious cases, we cannot know that to be true even when it is true; therefore, we should not proceed, in debate, as though we knew it to be true. That, I suspect, is the real locus of disagreement, if there is any such locus here. But I'm not sure there is; after all, you've said that "I think we'll know only in heaven."

Judging from our past encounters, my hunch is that our real disagreement is about the relation between reason and faith. As you know, I do not believe that Christian faith can be intellectually compelled even by the best available arguments for it; if things were otherwise, then faith would not be a gift of grace to be accepted freely if at all, but the inevitable result of purely intellectual considerations presented in the right sort of way. But supposing that the existence of God can be known "by the natural light of human reason through the things that have been made" (Vatican I), it's an interesting question whether the acquisition of such knowledge by the intellect can be necessitated by arguments.

Best,
Mike

I took you to be disagreeing with the claim that ignorance of the existence of God is vincible, Michael, because you attributed it to Carter and then appeared to be disagreeing with him. Is it just the inference from "vincible ignorance" to "not intellectually respectable" that you are disagreeing with, instead?

The thing is, if that ignorance is vincible, can we not make that the interpretation of St. Paul's words that "they are without excuse"? After all, Paul specifically connects those words with the statement that God has made himself known.

You and I do disagree concerning what you say in your last paragraph, as we always have. I have to say that I do find it interesting myself to see that you seem to be having a bit of trouble squaring your position with the statement you quote from Vatican I, which is itself merely a paraphrase of Romans 1.

I took you to be disagreeing with the claim that ignorance of the existence of God is vincible, Michael, because you attributed it to Carter and then appeared to be disagreeing with him. Is it just the inference from "vincible ignorance" to "not intellectually respectable" that you are disagreeing with, instead?

Yes. But as your raising of your next question indicates, culpability is a distinct question.

...if that ignorance is vincible, can we not make that the interpretation of St. Paul's words that "they are without excuse"? After all, Paul specifically connects those words with the statement that God has made himself known.

We could so interpret Paul, but I don't think either logic or his text requires that. Logic does not require it because, from the fact that it is within normal, human epistemic capacities to learn about God from what's been made, it does not follow that each and every normal human being who fails to do so is culpable for that. The text does not require it because Paul is assigning culpability to certain people of his time: specifically, idol worshipers who went in for sexual perversion. We would have to make his generalization universal only if the logical conclusion I said does not follow, actually followed.

I have to say that I do find it interesting myself to see that you seem to be having a bit of trouble squaring your position with the statement you quote from Vatican I, which is itself merely a paraphrase of Romans 1.

Given the point of logic I've already made, I find no difficulty in squaring the two. You might think I ought to, but that is a different matter.

The very quotation from Paul highlights the problems you face as theists. The physical world is resoundingly silent about the existence of god. What Paul means is that people must believe in a god because there is no other explanation or the world. But in fact the world is now quite well explained and god doesn't enter anywhere into the picture.

The problem you have to face is that, even if god existed, there is no evidence of it anywhere (except for special revelation, if you want to count that as evidence). Why has he arranged things so that human reason leads inexorably to the conclusion that he doesn't exist--to damnation in other words. Please don't bring up the fall as the answer--that would be his doing too--all he would have had to do is forgive Adam and Eve and change them so that they were not fallen--why wait 4000 years to do it? Don't bring up free will either--he could have given us all the free will we have now and not arranged it so that our very natures are compelled to deny him.

What is it: he's having a little joke at the expense of the damned?

Paul's assertion is easily tested; if the existence and nature of God are evident from His creation, it stands to reason that every culture throughout the world (that has left a more-or-less complete record of its beliefs) must have at some point entertained the idea of such a God. I am no expert on comparative religion, but I don't think that the animism of Shinto (for example) includes a concept of a creator God who dispenses justice, etc. If I am right, it is highly unlikely that an entire culture could exist for centuries in which not a single person ever sees that which, according to Paul, is staring them in the face.

A second objection: the atheist may intuit the existence of some such being as God, but not trust his intuition. We all know the mind is capable of playing tricks and of firmly believing all sorts of things which are not true. An atheist may also arrive at a belief in God by reason, but doubt his own reasoning ability. Some of us aren't very good at reasoning, and know it.

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