Showing posts with label review. Show all posts
Showing posts with label review. Show all posts

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Cheap Grace and Catholics

"Cheap grace is the mortal enemy of the Church," Bonhoeffer opens. "Our struggle today is for costly grace."

In reading that famous opening line from Dietrich Bonhoeffer's now-classic Discipleship, I knew I was in for a book that would not let me remain unchanged. It is the nature of the hearing of the Gospel, that once the essential content of the kerygma has been heard, there comes about  an eschatological event, where one can heed the call to "drop our nets", or leave as the young rich man does - sad, though still in full possession of his riches. The call of Jesus - announced through the proclamation that Jesus has conquered death for the forgiveness of sins, and is Lord of all, inaugurating his kingdom through the ministry of the Church - precipitates a moment of decision. Precisely because the call requires an answer, it cannot leave the person unchanged.

This is standard Christian theology, clear in practice from even a fairly superficial reading of the gospel accounts and the Acts of the Apostles. The Gospel polarises people because it confronts with a decision. What I have learnt from Bonhoeffer is not that discipleship demands change, but that it is precisely grace that demands change. We Catholics have a wealthy tradition of avoiding polarisations of things which must, even paradoxically, unite - faith and reason, faith and works, free will and predestination, Christ being human and divine.

Yet I wonder whether our modern Catholic has not fallen into precisely the trap of seeing grace as sharply distinct from obedience to the call of Christ. Perhaps this is because we have taken grace to mean cheap grace, which really is antithetical to discipleship. Bonhoeffer writes lucidly about what distinguishes cheap and costly grace:

"Cheap grace is that grace we bestow upon ourselves...It means forgiveness of sins as a general truth; it means God’s love as merely a Christian idea of God. Those who affirm it have already had their sins forgiven. The church that indulges in this doctrine of grace hereby confers such grace upon itself. [...] Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without discipline, communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate."

On the other hand: 

"Costly grace is the hidden treasure in the field, for the sake of which people go and sell with joy everything they have. It is the costly pearl, for whose price the merchant sells all that he has; it is Christ’s sovereignty, for the sake of which you tear out an eye if it causes you to stumble. It is the call of Jesus Christ which causes a disciple to leave his nets and follow him. [...]

It is costly, because it calls to discipleship; it is grace, because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly, because it cost people their lives; it is grace, because it gives them their lives. It is costly, because it condemns sins; it is grace, because it justifies the sinner. Above all, grace is costly, because it was costly to God, because it costs God the life of God’s son – “you were bought with a price” – and because the life of God’s son was not too costly for God to give for our lives. God did, indeed, give him up for us. Costly grace is the incarnation of God."

We Catholics know this, so much do we understand (it is said) that grace is costly, that we fall off the other side and require more than just belief, adding works to "faith alone". That is the claim made against us by some Protestant groups. "True," they might say, "we recognize that this is not official Church teaching, that Catholics do believe in grace alone" - but, they hasten to add, "the average Catholic believes in works-righteousness." I disagree. I see the average Catholic - the "practicing" one, that is - as having accepted grace, but not costly grace, only the cheap variety. The average Catholic who goes to Mass seems to have "forgiveness of sins as a general truth [...] God’s love as merely a Christian idea of God." This is not to say that they are all like that - far from it!

This proclamation of cheap grace seems like the only thing that might attract the masses, the only way to effectively evangelise. Precisely because it denies the centrality of the call to discipleship, because it ignores the cost of responding to the call of Jesus Christ that is intrinsically linked to the Gospel, it is not the true Gospel. Cheap grace replaces Jesus with an idol, a god made in our image, who justifies all our wrongdoings because this idol is really our own self-forgiveness. It underlies the Catholic denial of the sacrament of reconciliation with the line that "God forgives me anyway", it is that absolution without personal confession. The Catholic who is scared of a fellow sinner in the confessional, and so chooses to go "to God himself" has denied the complete otherness of the true God, the holy God, and has replaced God with the grace that they bestow upon themselves.

These "good news" of cheap grace is not only the mortal enemy, as Bonhoeffer says, of the true Church, that community of true Christians, it also sickens that sociological group we also call "the Church." What Bonhoeffer writes of the Lutherans in his own time is true of Catholics now:

"But do we also know that this cheap grace has been utterly unmerciful against us? Is the price that we are paying today with the collapse of the organised churches anything else but an inevitable consequence of grace acquiered too cheaply? We have away preaching and sacraments cheaply; we performed baptisms and confirmations, we absolved an entire people, unquestioned and unconditionally; out of human love we handed over what was holy to the scornful and unbelievers. We poured out rivers of grace without end, but the call to rigorously follow Christ was seldom heard. What happened to the insights of the ancient church, which in the baptismal teaching watched so carefully over the boundaries between the church and the world, over costly grace?"

I had the opportunity a few months ago, and also just last week, to participate in that ancient liturgy, which still conserves that line reflecting the Church as distinct from the worldly. Before the Liturgy of the Eucharist, the call is heard "The doors, the doors!" Those who were not baptised into the People of God must have left, and the doors shut, for they could not even participate from afar in that holy treasure the Church has, her only treasure: Christ incarnate. Those who wished to participate in that greatest of gifts must first renounce Satan and receive Baptism, be born anew into the People of God. This was how the early Christians responded to their Master's command that they not give what is holy to those who are not fitting to receive it. (Mt. 7:6) But we do not now consider that grace to be something for which we must renounce that which is antithetical to God.  We have cheap sacraments - all welcome! We have cheap grace, and it rots us from within.

Worst of all is that, if the average Catholic has only cheap grace, that most addictive of substances, we have lost sight of Jesus. Set aside that, from a sociological perspective, the good news of cheap grace gains few converts because it does not allow for the working of the Holy Spirit which necessarily changes a person, and so the official numbers dwindle. Cheap grace separates us from Jesus, not only because it is not the grace bestowed by Jesus, but because when that cheap grace justifies our sin, we are hardened into disobedience. That cheap grace which does not challenge our actions merely blesses them, and so we are estranged from the call of Christ to follow him.

If we are to become disciples of the Risen Lord, we are to become disciples of costly grace. For it is only when we find the pearl of great price that we are willing to sell everything we have to obtain it.

Saturday, 25 January 2014

A Few Comments on the Rule of St Benedict

The Rule of St Benedict is one of the foundational texts of Western monasticism, and at only 70 pages long, I decided to give it a read. It is certainly insightful!

A few things struck me: first, I was reminded of the developed system of bishops and priests, something which my Protestant background keeps forgetting. Of course, bishops and priests are from the apostolic age, but the power and respect accorded to them is still surprising. Similarly, the Divine Office is already in full kick, and the liturgical calendar is well established also. Once again, as John Henry Newman remarked a couple of centuries ago, to be immersed in history is to cease to be Protestant. The ancient Church, at least in the West, is the Catholic Church.

At times, I was surprised by the emphasis on personal holiness and how it was to be attained - for whilst the rule has many Scripture quotations, I had never made a very strong connection between asceticism within the biblical corpus and holiness. The emphasis on punishment and obedience is probably more monastic than strictly biblical, however.

The passion St Benedict has for holy monasteries comes out frequently - the abbot is to be obeyed in everything, and yet the abbot is not the self-made leader, but the loving shepherd who will have to give an account to God for the state of his sheeps. He has a certain (amusing) disdain for other sorts of monks, as can be seen in the first chapter, where he shows he has no fondness for sarabaites or gyrovagues. The emphasis on loving relationships within the confines of the strictness of the rules gives for an interesting interplay, and I am curious as to how well it worked in practice.

There are a few sections which made me laugh, simply because of how seriously they described these matters, and I'll end by quoting them:

Chapter 22How the Monks Are to Sleep

"Let the brethren sleep singly, each in a separate bed. Let them receive the bedding befitting their mode of life, according to the direction of their Abbot. If it can be done, let all sleep in one apartment; but if the number doth not allow it, let them sleep in tens or twenties with the seniors who have charge of them. Let a light be kept burning constantly in the cell till morning.

Let them sleep clothed and girded with cinctures or cords, that they may be always ready; but let them not have knives at their sides whilst they sleep, lest perchance the sleeping be wounded in their dreams; and the sign having been given, rising without delay, let them hasten to outstrip each other to the Work of God, yet with all gravity and decorum. The younger brothers should not have their beds next to each other, but interspersed among those of the seniors. On arising for the Work of God, they will quietly encourage each other, for the sleepy like to make excuses."

Chapter 40: Of the Quantity of Drink

""Every one hath his proper gift from God, one after this manner and another after that" (1 Cor 7:7). It is with some hesitation, therefore, that we determine the measure of nourishment for others. However, making allowance for the weakness of the infirm, we think one hemina of wine a day is sufficient for each one. But to whom God granteth the endurance of abstinence, let them know that they will have their special reward. If the circumstances of the place, or the work, or the summer's heat should require more, let that depend on the judgment of the Superior, who must above all things see to it, that excess or drunkenness do not creep in.

Although we read that wine is not at all proper for monks, yet, because monks in our times cannot be persuaded of this, let us agree to this, at least, that we do not drink to satiety, but sparingly; because "wine maketh even wise men fall off" (Sir 19:2). But where the poverty of the place will not permit the aforesaid measure to be had, but much less, or none at all, let those who live there bless God and murmur not. This we charge above all things, that they live without murmuring."

A Sketch of my Ecclesiology - Reflection on "Models of the Church" by Avery Dulles

Note: for those unaware of the jargon used in Christian theology, "ecclesiology" refers to the study of the Church, in particular, the Church as a theological reality, not primarily from a sociological point of view.

Among all the issues I am not properly qualified to have an opinion on (which, really, is all of them), I think ecclesiology ranks high. Except, like many issues, I am forced to have some sort of opinion, tentative though it may be - it was the case for ethics when I wrote "Why I am a Utilitarian and a Catholic" and, as I think came through clearly when I wrote "The Road to Rome", ecclesiology is one of those areas where every Christian has to have some sort of opinion; I do.

I finished reading one of the ecclesiology treasures of the past century: "Models of the Church" by Avery Dulles, a few days ago. Instead of doing a review, which I am not very good at doing anyway, I want to briefly present what the premise of the book was, present my own sketch of an ecclesiology, and see how it fits with other models, and how it stands up to the criticisms led by the late Jesuit.

Dulles understands the Church to be, in a nutshell, a mystery. As he notes, mysteries are things one explores intellectually and experientially, but that finally have inexhaustible wealth, they cannot fully be comprehended:

"The term mystery, applied to the Church, signified many things. It implies that the Church is not fully intelligible to the finite mind of man, and that the reason for this lack of intelligibility is not the poverty but the richness of the Church itself." (p. 15)

To understand anything of the Church, he says, we do have certain tools:

"Among the positive tools that have been used to illuminate the mysteries of faith we must consider, in the first place, images. This consideration will lead us into some discussion of cognate realities, such as symbols, models and paradigms - tools that have a long theological history, and are returning to their former prominence in the theology of our day." (v. 16)

The first hundred pages deal with five models, the Church qua institution, mystical communion, sacrament, herald and servant. The second hundred deal with how these models relate to areas such as eschatology, ministry and the relation between the Church theologically and the churches (one might say "sociologically"), as well as evaluation of the models. I will focus primarily on the first half.

It is no secret that I favour what Dulles called the "mystical communion" model, which he divided into "People of God" and "Body of Christ", and of which I favour the latter. Not only do I consider this model to be primary, but I consider it to be significantly superior to the others, because I think the others can sublate to the Body of Christ conception of the Church.

Very quickly, why do I think that the Church is best described by the image of "Body of Christ" (or "Mystical Body of Christ")? Put simply, the apostle Paul clearly says so in his epistles to the Corinthians, Colossians and Ephesians. What exactly that means is open to some debate, but the truth of the matter is not; whilst he employs other images, none quite have the almost definitional status of the Church qua Body of Christ.

What about the other models? To understand how those fit together, I must explain a little what I think the term "Body of Christ" really means: it is open to confusion, because most Catholics (I include myself in that number) would probably think first of the Eucharist. In basic terms, I consider the Church to be the functional prolongation of the Incarnation, and hence that in her mission, structures and teachings she reflects those of Christ. However, the essence of the Church is not quite divine in the same way that the Son is divine, for even when the two spouses become one flesh, there remains distinction in essence: the woman, though one flesh with the man, remains woman, so too does the Church, though "one flesh" with Christ, remain distinct from him.

It is relatively clear, I think, how the other models form part of the Body of Christ one - the institutional aspect of the Church, though not primary, clearly follows from the fact that the Body has many parts, and some are leadership roles - in purely physiological terms, bodies have structures. They are not primary, but they are practical outgrowths of what is primary. The Church is also a sacrament: as Dulles points out, Jesus Christ is the sacrament of God; he is the embodiment of the love of God, made visible in his flesh. The cross is a sign of God's love, then, not just because it symbolizes God's love, but because it is truly and really the most excellent act of God's love, which is invisible in general, and visible in Christ Jesus.

The first three models refer to what the Church is, whilst the other two refer to what the Church does: because I conceive of the Church as continuing the Incarnation, the primary raison d'etre of the Church is the same of that of Christ. What was the ministry of Christ? It had the two aspects of herald and servanthood, of preaching the Kingdom of God and service, particularly to those overlooked, despised or rejected. Therefore these remain the crucial tasks for the Church, not in spite of the Church being the Body of Christ, but because of it!

Dulles writes of the "mystical communion" models, which include "People of God" and "Body of Christ":

"For many purposes the analogies of Body of Christ and People of God are virtually equivalent. Both of them are more democratic in tendency that the hierarchical models that we have seen in our [chapter on the Church as Institution] ... The image of the People of God, however, differs from that of the Body of Christ in that it allows for greater distance between the Church and its divine head. The Church is seen as a community of persons each of whom is individually free." (p. 49)

Whilst there are similarities between these two sub-models, I think Dulles minimizes a crucial difference, and responding to it will help respond to the objections that are raised to the Body of Christ image, and the deficiencies it is perceived to have.

Dulles misunderstands the enormous difference between the two mystical communion models on how they relate the parts to the whole. In the People of God, each individual is presumably one of God's people, or perhaps one might say a "Person of God." In the Body of Christ, it is not so clear how parts relate to the whole, but what is clear is that the whole is far more than the sum of its parts: for I am not the Body of Christ, but together with others who are not the Body of Christ, we form it. Furthermore, the apostle Paul makes clear in 1 Corinthians 12 that not all within the Church are alike, a section it might be useful to quote in full:
"Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.

Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honourable we treat with special honour. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honour to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it.

Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? Now eagerly desire the greater gifts."

So the Body of Christ is not exactly a "democratic" model, nor is it non-hierarchical, at least not necessarily so.

Still, Dulles has some important objections to consider, both to the Body of Christ model, and the Mystical Communion models in general. To the Body of Christ, he says that a historical analysis will yield different understandings of the Body of Christ, and a modern question might be "is this body a pure communion of grace or is it essentially visible?" (p. 50) He also notes that an "unhealthy divinization" can occur in this model, in particular, that if the Holy Spirit is the life principle of the Church, then the actions of the Church would be attributable to the Holy Spirit, rendering sin in the Church as unintelligible. To the Mystical Communion models more generally he enunciates again the objections to the Body of Christ model, adding also that these models "[fails] to give Christians a very clear sense of their identity or mission," and that it does not account for the relationship between the parts and the whole, between the "friendly interpersonal relationships and the Church as a mystical communion of grace."

The different understandings of the Body of Christ view of the Church should not be an enormous barrier, nor should lack of clarity about the relationship of its parts be considered such. Dulles, in the next chapter, shows that the institutional and mystical, the visible and invisible, can be unified in a sacramental view of the Church: I claim that the sacramental is already present in the Body of Christ model, for two reasons: first, as above, the Body of Christ reminds most Catholics of the Eucharist, not the Church - the Eucharist is an example of how the Body of Christ can be "really, truly and substantially" present in something, how the Eucharistic species can become the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ, and yet remain a visible "substance", the bread and wine. Second, both Dulles and I consider Christ to be himself a sort of sacrament, in fact, a sacrament in the truest sense of the word: "Jesus Christ is the sacrament of God as turned towards man." (p. 62). Hence, just as the visible and invisible combine in the Eucharistic species, and as Jesus is himself a sacrament, so his Body, the Church, has the interplay between concrete and mystical within its very nature, which is sacramental because it is the Body of Christ.

Does the Body of Christ model divinize the Church unhealthily? Only to the extent that the Incarnation, in divinizing humanity, or Baptism, in imparting the divine life, does so. The concept of "Theosis", or divinization, has a long history in Christian theology, and yet I think it is quite clear that Theosis does not impute wrongdoing to God. Simply because I, in the words of the apostle Peter, "partake of the divine nature", that I have been adopted as a child of God, does not mean that I am sinless. When Paul says that his life is in Christ, he does not mean by that to infer he is sinless. One can be divinized without becoming God, and hence the Body of Christ can be divine without being impeccable.

Finally, on the view I have expressed above about what the Body of Christ model means, I have made it quite clear that it does give a clear charter for mission: unlike the People of God model, which seems to be static, from within the Body of Christ model comes what the Church should do - it should be the Body of Christ, and so do as Christ does.


By defending the Body of Christ model as primary to understanding the Church, I am not negating the importance of other models; I agree with Avery Dulles that the Church is ultimately unfathomable. Still, the Body of Christ "definition" of the Church is primary, in the same way that "true God and true man" is primary for understanding Jesus Christ, though we can nonetheless explore both his divinity and humanity, and give models like "King, Prophet and Priest", or the various models proposed by historical Jesus scholars, some more dubious than others, such as Cynic philosopher, "a marginal Jew", peasant revolutionary, proto-Marxist socialist egalitarian feminist libertarian anti-authoritarian revolutionary, etc... 

I heartily recommend Dulles' book, as I said, probably one of the most important ecclesiological books of the 20th century.

[Page numbers taken from Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1974 edition]

Friday, 17 January 2014

Polkinghorne's Perspective on Science and Religion - Reflection on "Quarks, Chaos and Christianity" by John Polkinghorne

I read this book earlier than I had planned to (January as opposed to July) because I have gone through my January reading list, and also because the title intrigued me: I have long retorted to the claim that I believe in some invisible being (God) and that such a belief was ridiculous by pointing out that, as I study physics, I seem to believe in all sorts of things that are invisible. Worse, although I claim that God could be seen when he was incarnate in Christ, quarks (said to be some of the most fundamental "stuff" that make up matter - protons and neutrons, for instance, are made up of three quarks each) are intrinsically invisible; our current scientific understanding is that we will most likely never be able to directly observe (and probably never even separate) quarks. And yet, we believe they exist. So it must not be too ridiculous to think that invisible things exist, after all.

But Polkinghorne's book, Quarks, Chaos and Christianity, is not a response to believing in invisible things, even though he does mention the connection in the very last pages. This book is not a detailed statement on his harmonizing of science and religion, or of a deep discussion of the connections and divergences between the two: this book, as he says, is basically an outline of such theses born out of the sort of questions he gets asked when he speaks on these issues.

Before I proceed to go into my thoughts on the book, a note on who John Polkinghorne is: the man was, for a very long time, an eminent physicist and professor of mathematical physics at Cambridge, and when he decided that he had done his part in the field after many years, he became a clergyman in the Church of England. In fact, the chap is Sir John, because he got knighted in 1997, and like many eminent religious scientists, he has also received the Templeton Prize. He knows his physics - which means that he does not suffer from the same level of accusations of misusing science, as some philosophers and theologians do, sometimes baselessly, sometimes not - and he knows his theology. Which means, as various people have noted, that he is an ideal candidate to speak on these issues.

The book has eight short chapters, each dealing with some of the themes that arise in science-religion discussions. I will comment on some of them, since the others seem to present mostly "well-travelled" points of view:

1. Fact or Opinion?
2. Is There Anyone There?
3. What's Been Going On?
4. Who Are We?
5. Can a Scientist Pray?
6. What About Miracles?
7. How Will it End?
8. Can a Scientist Believe?

1. The three most compelling aspects of science is how useful it is, how effective it is in answering questions about the world we live in, and importantly, how much agreement it commands. Religion, by contrast, is said to either be universally false, or at best, a matter where opinions are higher than facts. Science is about facts, religion about opinions, and so obviously science must win. Generally, my response is that religion, somewhat like philosophy, may not give answers that command universal respect, but is nonetheless a crucial part to knowing what is true; it has more scope, asks and answers different questions, and answers them in different ways. Supposing some religious account could be true, the diversity of religious views is no testament to their universal falsity.

But interestingly, Polkinghorne takes the opposite stance, and his point is important to heed: science isn't really about facts anyway, it's about interpretations of facts. One could hardly publish a scientific paper that was just data (or "facts") - one gives discussions, organizes the data, speaks of its significance. In short, the aim of science is the theory, not the facts. Insofar as fact and theory are mixed, then, the distinction between the evidence and opinion is not quite as clear cut as some would like to believe it is. Certainly, there are reasons for the opinon, but they are indispensable. He also points out the need of opinion to judiciously consider one's data set - sometimes one must eliminate some data because it is background noise, but that can also lead to problems.

He does go on to speak about the religious side, but the terrain is quite well gone over, and I will not dawdle on all his views, just the ones that seem to bring a new perspective.

2. The second chapter gives a brief overview of his reasons for thinking that there is "Someone out there." He provides two basic arguments, one from fine-tuning, and one from the applicability of science.

I do not think fine tuning arguments are very good, for two reasons: first, they are inherently probabalistic, and yet, it seems difficult to see how one would know about what other values the fundamental constants could take on purely scientific grounds, so it's not so clear to me that we do know the unlikelihood of this universe. Second, design type explanations to these sorts of problems seem to me to override the general rule of thumb in science to prefer metaphysically economic explanations: yes, it could be that angels pull the Earth around the sun and make all the effects of gravity look like what they do, and yet it is so much simpler, or in other words, metaphysically economical, that it be the result of attraction between masses.

The applicability of science is a far more interesting argument, one which produces peer-reviewed philosophy papers in eminent journals every so often - so it is not a ridiculous argument, although I grant that Polkinghorne's presentation of it seems quite weak. What is more interesting, and is something he could have developed more, is the idea that the a priori knowledge of mathematics is so unusually applicable to the real world, which is usually only knowable a posteriori. Nonetheless, I am still uncomfortable of drawing theistic conclusions at this point.

3. This chapter deals with two underlying questions that pop up frequently, and those are "what's God up to now?" and "what about suffering?" The problem of evil is basically given a free will defence, interestingly, even extending a certain sort of freedom to the natural world, and so attempting to solve both the moral and natural evil problems. The curious thing about his "free-processes defence" is that it involves a sort of necessity clause - the fecundity of evolution requires the capacity for both positive and negative mutations, for instance, and so a free world necessarily has things like cancer. It's not clear to me that the free-processes defence works, but it's also not clear that it fails - I simply do not know the possibilities and necessities involved in the creation of the world.

His point on what God is doing now can be summed up in one, very important, line:

"God is not a God of edges, with a vested interest in beginnings. God is the God of the whole show."

By this he means that God does not simply create and then move on to more interesting things, but that creation is a continuous act of unfolding and sustaining. Evolutionary biology is not atheistic unless one understands God's place to be that of setting things in motion purely or zapping things into existence. More generally, events that look like chance and events that look necessary are, in a sense, no problem for the theist, only insofar as the theist understands God not to be just the Alpha and the Omega, but all the letters in between also. This much seems sort of obvious to me, but it is interesting how often it is neglected, even though it is foundational for Christian theology: I am being "made new in Christ", for instance, and this is not just a once of zapping thing, but an inward transformation that happens over time.

5. This was perhaps the most interesting chapter in the book. His answer is yes, obviously, and yet he does not give the response that has grown to be a sort of common cop-out: that prayer is basically a form of self-help with a spiritual dimension. His proposal is what might be considered a "classical physics" version of QDA (Quantum Divine Action) based on chaos theory. On this view, God basically works in small, non-perceptible ways, which have great influences on other events because of the butterfly effect. I don't know how powerful that makes God's action in the world, but I suppose that could work for small things, like answering prayers.

That might work, and it would certainly explain why prayers are not usually answered in such a way that precludes natural explanations. It's not a falsifiable view, but as long as God could be acting in that way, it does not rule the possibility out. What makes Polkinghorne's view in this chapter difficult is that he, because of free choices and so forth, "even God does not yet know the unformed future." It is hard to accept such a conclusion. In fact, one does not have to, since I think the concept of "middle knowledge" effectively deals with the issue of knowledge about free agents without determinism. For the record, when applied to soteriology, this view is often referred to as Molinism.

8. For Polkinghorne, the reason that science and religion can go well together is that they are looking at different questions. The essence of his harmonization project is summed up in his last paragraph's opening sentence:

"Religion is our encounter with divine reality, just as science is our encounter with physical reality."


Whilst I find Polkinghorne an interesting intellectual interlocutor, I must admit to preferring other Anglican clergymen's comments on science and religion, such as the less eminent as a scientist, but far more prolific as a theologian, Rev. Alister McGrath. Polkinghorne's chaos theory approach to divine action is one I would like to pursue further, and I can look with renewed excitement towards the chaos mathematics course I was going to take in 2015. His "continual creation" point is important, but it can simply be said to be biblical, and so "unoriginal." His views on science would probably be helpful for many, but I am largely convinced by scientific anti-realism (which is a view mostly rejected by scientists, I would say because scientific realism is nicer) and his only response to that view is a basic no miracles argument.

So whilst this short book was worth the read, I concur with a certain Masters student who was defending her thesis in a seminar room which I chanced to walk into: Polkinghorne answers questions very well, because he asks the easier questions.

Friday, 10 January 2014

Christian Vegetarianism? A Reflection and Review of "For Love of Animals" by Charles Camosy

Book finished on January 2nd, 2014. Disclaimer: I ignore some parts of Camosy's treatment of the issue in this piece, and expand on it with my own thoughts - please read the book to understand what Camosy writes on the topic.

I heard about the argument of this book a from a brief news article that I read in late October, 2013. I thought to myself, "hey, there might be something in this", added the book to my rather long booklist, and I suspected I would get round to it within the next few years. Something tickled my curiosity, though: did a consistent ethic of life really include animal life? Surely by "life" one meant "human life", after all, even bacteria are alive, and nobody argues for duties towards bacteria (unless they benefit whoever has them).

Near the end of November, a friend who had it messaged me telling me that the book was great, "very challenging, definitely going full on veggie now. Will bring it next time I see you." This chap certainly seemed to have been changed in a quite meaningful way by the message of the book, and even though people seem to be convinced by all sorts of oddities, I doubted he would be altered by any old nonsense - so, given that he was going to lend it to me, I thought I would bump it up my list. It could hardly hurt to explore the idea of vegetarianism inspired by Christianity.

At only about 150 pages, it only took a few hours to read - some late at night (or the morning of the 2nd) and the rest after I got up from bed. It seems to be one of those books which are easy enough to read, but one has to think about whether or not the thesis is as sensible as one was lead to believe as one read. At its core, I think For Love of Animals is, whether fortunately or unfortunately, quite compelling, even if I disagree on some points.

The book could be divided into two parts, the first being a look at Christian views on non-human animals in the past, in the tradition, and the second half looking at now, today, and what we should do about the current situation.

To begin a book about a moral relationship with other animals, however, Camosy has to step back a bit and ask: what, as a Christian, constitutes an ethical treatment of anyone, be it dog, a woman, a black person, or even oneself? So he starts with something which is central to Christianity, and it is justice. He notes flat out, "perhaps one reason why questions of justice are often so difficult to discuss - and provoke such strong reactions - is that a genuine concern for justice means that we might risk rethinking our familiar and comfortable ways of seeing the world." (p. 3) Uh oh. That sort of sentence always seems to preface arguments with conclusions that would be highly inconvenient if true - think of the slave traders or owners being confronted with anti-slavery arguments. It's not enough to appeal to one's legal rights, or the majority concensus - it is the heart of rationality that sound arguments have true conclusions, and true conclusions must be followed. Whether it be the misguided language of slavery "rights" or abortion "rights", justice makes demands on our liberty and autonomy which are very often inconvenient.

Whilst I think the last sentence as an add-on is a bit awkwardly phrased as a definition, and I would prefer justice to be couched in terms of duties and not rights (or being "owed" something), this definition does seem to be the correct product of a Christian deliberation on the justice made manifest in Jesus Christ: "Christian justice means consistently and actively working to see that individuals and groups - especially vulnerable population on the margin - are given what they are owed. It will be especially skeptical of practices which promote violence, consumerism and autonomy." (p. 7)

And so he turns to animals: what does justice towards animals entail?

He knows that justice for animals sounds like a strange concept to most, and probably associated with anti-Christian animal rights activists. But, he says, we already have a basic intuition for the duty of kindness towards animals, for instance, when we hear of horrendous abuse of pets (just google images for "animal abuse" if you have never heard of such cases) or other animals, we intuitively respond with compassion, with moral outrage.

Still, he knows he has to dedicate a chapter to defending the idea that non-human animals even make it to moral status. He goes through the Christian tradition briefly and notes all the sorts of creatures who have moral status, yet are not human - angels, for instance, and that mysterious reference to nephilim might refer to non-human animals with moral agency. Moreover, people are beginning to consider the hypothetical of aliens - a little bit crazy at the moment, but not outside the imaginable - and they may too have moral agency. The point is not so much a defence of the existence of these beings, but that it is still conceivable that non-human animals be accorded with moral status.

Sure, so we do not exploit angels or aliens or whatnot. But animals? They were given to us to eat, right? Well, yes and no. The Edenic state appears to be quite pointedly a vegetarian (probably even vegan) one, and it is not until after the Fall that eating animals is acceptable. Is this total permission, or accomodating permission - by which I mean, is it like the permission to eat from any tree in the garden (except one), or is it like the permission to own slaves? It is unclear, and although Camosy spends a little more time on it, I think his argument will ultimately be unaffected by the distinction.

He makes an important point about creation, though, which is worth pausing for a moment to consider: whilst we frequently think otherwise, creation is not about or for us. All of creation, including animals, are said to be good entirely independent of humankind. We are to have dominion over it, be caretakers of it, subdue it and make it fruitful - that is to say, with all these activities we are to partake in the creative nature of God. I will write elsewhere about the clear Temple and Covenant motifs which appear and re-appear in discussions of creation (Genesis and elsewhere), but the basic point is a rather obvious one, that just because we live on God's green earth, does not mean we have absolute property rights. We are stewards entrusted with creation. We have broken this covenant of care, and so Christ has had to redeem not only us, but the whole of creation, which now "waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time." (Romans 8) And that was before the industrial revolution!

This is a part of the Catechism which is likely to be expanded in the years to come with new encyclicals and the exercise of the ordinary Magisterium as it addresses the destruction humanity unleashes on the world, not least to do with our effects on the climate, on natural treasures and the conservation of natural habitats - but nonetheless, the Church is not silent on care for creation. The relevant section is CCC 2415-2418 (bold mine): "The seventh commandment enjoins respect for the integrity of creation. Animals, like plants and inanimate beings, are by nature destined for the common good of past, present, and future humanity. Use of the mineral, vegetable, and animal resources of the universe cannot be divorced from respect for moral imperatives. Man's dominion over inanimate and other living beings granted by the Creator is not absolute; it is limited by concern for the quality of life of his neighbor, including generations to come; it requires a religious respect for the integrity of creation.

Animals are God's creatures. He surrounds them with his providential care. By their mere existence they bless him and give him glory. Thus men owe them kindness. We should recall the gentleness with which saints like St. Francis of Assisi or St. Philip Neri treated animals.

God entrusted animals to the stewardship of those whom he created in his own image. Hence it is legitimate to use animals for food and clothing. They may be domesticated to help man in his work and leisure. Medical and scientific experimentation on animals is a morally acceptable practice if it remains within reasonable limits and contributes to caring for or saving human lives.

It is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly. It is likewise unworthy to spend money on them that should as a priority go to the relief of human misery. One can love animals; one should not direct to them the affection due only to persons."

I have largely skipped over Camosy's discussion of the Christian tradition's engagement with non-human animals, as well as statements from recent Popes, holy people and saints, and entirely omitted almost all discussion of the Sacred Scriptures. These are relevant, and raise some potentially thorny questions, to which proper response must be given in due time. For now, the Catechism's summary of care for creation should be sufficient for Catholics. I want to turn, then, to the practical application of these ideas; of Christian justice, stewardship of creation, and the teaching of the Catechism. Camosy's conclusion is probably slightly stronger than the one I am going to give here, but the weaker version will suffice:

It is quite clear that the Catechism permits eating animals. I need not argue that this is merely a circumstancial liberty (like owning slaves) that will be erradicated later on. I wish to point out instead that the Catechism moderates the claim by pointing out that it is nonetheless wrong ("contrary to human dignity" - that is, a violation of our intrinsic ideal and purpose) to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly. One must ask, given the quite deplorable conditions from which a substantial portion of our meat comes - not all, and in Australia we are a bit luckier - does spending money to fuel the factory farming industry constitute a real need? I cannot see any justification for it. Note that this is not a conclusion that rejects eating meat outright - it objects to excessive meat consumption (which would constitute needless death) and particularly to the way in which animals are caused to suffer in order to maximise profits for the farm in question. Just because I am well known for advocating that standard logical form be used more often in these discussions, the argument could be expressed:

1. If it is unnecessary to cause an animal to suffer and/or die, then causing it to suffer and/or is morally wrong.
2. The meat that is eaten comes predominantly from animals that have suffered needlessly (in particular, from factory farms).
3. Needless buying and consumption of that meat is cooperation with, and subsidy of, the moral wrong of premise 1.
4. Therefore, needless buying and consuming of that meat is wrong.

The conclusion is not as universal as "meat eating is wrong." It is far more measured: supposing that eating the meat does not constitute a need (which, for most of us, it does not), and supposing the animal did suffer and die needlessly (highly likely, but not guaranteed), then such meat eating is morally wrong.

Not eating meat is hard, and no matter how many reasons are given (sustainability, an eschatological observation, personal health, environmental, et cetera), the social structures that exist in the world, in our families and in our wider communities do not favour vegetarianism. Particularly for men: vegetarianism is seen as effeminate and hence negative, a violation of our proper steak loving manliness. Traditional family meals all tend to have meat - Christmas meals, for instance. The argument I have given, however, demands either our assent or the rejection of its soundness - although I note again, not all meat eating is made bad by that particular argument. If one can get an animal that did not suffer needlessly, and that did not die needlessly, then as far as this argument is concerned, eat away! Perhaps that means a rather large cost - but that is fine, succumbing to cheap meat qua cheap meat would be formal cooperation with injustice, it would be failing to pay our debt of kindness to animals, and hence, wrong. Camosy would probably want to go further than that, but at present, I am only comfortable assenting this far.

The issue at hand, to conclude, is one of justice. Christians of all people should lead firmly by example into new depths of justice, kindness, and care for what God has entrusted to us.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Reflection: "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins

Disclaimer: this reflection will sometimes be very one-sided, since I decided to omit quoting Dawkins extensively. Many sections will make little sense without having read the book, for instance, the part on Gasking's parallel argument refutation of the ontological argument, where I say I reject all premises except perhaps the first, makes no sense unless one is familiar with his argument.

I got given "The God Delusion" in 2012 by a family member for Christmas, and I finally got round to reading it at the beginning of 2014.

For the strange person who is unfamiliar with Richard Dawkins or the movement of which he is part, some of which take this book as a manifesto, Dawkins is one of the so-called "New Atheists", which seems to be a 21st century popularization of atheism by Christopher Hitchens (now deceased), Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and, of course, Richard Dawkins. Some have added, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Stephen Hawking to the list (which I would reject) and Lawrence Krauss (who seems apt for the role), Victor Stegner, Michael Shermer, Jerry Coyne... Exactly who is a new atheist and who is just a "plain atheist" is quite irrelevant to my thoughts on this particular book.

I would preface my comments by saying I enjoyed reading the book, for the most part. Its rhetoric is engaging, and even when he seems to claim to be on track, he is largely riding his pet steed Tangent (p. 198), so I feel quite comfortable with my theism, moreover, my Catholic Christianity, even whilst reading most of the book. His anecdotes were interesting, the fan and hate mail he has received and now recounts is insightful, and his forays into evolutionary biology are certainly to be read, because at the end of the day, Dawkins is a scientist, and an award-winning evolutionary biology popularizing one at that. So I can agree with the large number of endorsements (largely, it seems, from newspaper reviews) that describe "The God Delusion" as readable, spirited, passionate, clever. Even, with due qualification, "intelligence and truth-telling" (from Claire Tomalin) at some points in the book. The idea that the new atheist literature is moronic certainly needs to be either rejected or nuanced for it to be taken seriously.

What claims does he make? The very well ordered book seems to have ten points to make, about one per chapter: 

1. He is not concerned with Einstein's God, or the religion based on the scientific awe of nature - he aims to debunk religions with personal gods, in particular the Abrahamic ones. These are undeserving of the pedestal of respect allegedly given to them.
2. The existence of God is a scientific question, which, whether difficult to answer or not, can only be addressed by scientific or empirical means.
3. All arguments advanced for the existence of God fail, most of them quite miserably.
4. God almost certainly does not exist - he advances a standard "who designed the designer?" objection.
5. Religion is a natural phenomena that can be explained by reference to our evolutionary past.
6. We are not good because we obey precepts, models or commands given in any form of holy book, our goodness has evolutionary roots and explanation, and there are secular theories of ethics.
7. We would not follow any holy books nowadays anyway without being very selective, presumably referring to some extra-textual standard of morality, which just goes to show that morality was not derived from the books anyway. Our morality changes, mostly for the better, as society advances.
8. Religion is not only irrational, it is not benign, either. It is anti-rational, particularly unscientific, lends itself to wrongful opposition to homosexuality and abortion, and even moderate forms of religion are the basis for fanaticism. 
9. Religion is abusive to children, it leads to physical and mental abuse (particularly the latter), to backward thinking - although, holy books have cultural impacts, and so their literary merit is to be conserved.
10. Religion may fill gaps in the human psyche, but it does not make it more true, and a rational scientific perspective may even be grander and more emancipated.

Allow me to briefly take his theses in turn by merely expressing my thoughts and reactions to some of the major points:

1. Dawkins quotes Carl Sagan saying that religions do not expand their wonder with the amazing discoveries of the universe, instead "No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way." Since this is the god that Dawkins is concerned with rebutting, it seems clear that he is talking about the wrong god, not a god recognizable to Christian theology, at least none of the stuff I have been reading. To think, as some people seem to suggest to me occasionally (and Dawkins seeks to imply) that the God of Christianity, said to be omnipotent and omniscient, is somehow threatened by the magnitude of the universe, is an odd claim indeed.

The first chapter of Dawkin's book is more to explain that Einstein's God is not being talked about here - not the mathematician God of Paul Davies, either, as he would say to John Lennox in a related debate. Somehow, Dawkins has let it slip under his capable mind's radar that, when I profess belief in "one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth; of all things visible and invisible" (the opening of the Nicene creed), I happen to mean what I say, and now that we know that the universe is billions of years old, that the universe is mindbogglingly big, I am not led to question that belief.

His other point in this chapter, that religions are accorded a strange amount of respect, seems accurate. There is a tentativeness to talking about religion, as if political beliefs could be shouted at, but religious ones had to be politely nodded at. Living in the generation that I do, in the social circles in which I am, at a secular university studying both science and philosophy, I am rarely ever accorded that politeness (other than to avoid the issue completely) - but I do acknowledge its persistence in wider culture, and agree with its strangeness from a truth-concerned point of view, in part because one religion can be correct, at best.

2. It is actually a doctrine of the Church that the existence of God can be known from natural reason, so since Dawkins often conflates science and reason more generally, I might agree with him. His argument for it seems plausible at first: a universe with God would be different to a universe without God. Except, that arguments falls flat if one is a theist: if God exists, then it is so by necessity, and therefore there is no such thing as a universe without God - it is incoherent. On the other hand, taking the atheist point of view, if God does not exist, it is necessarily so, and therefore testing the hypothesis against the God-universe hypothesis is to test it against something else which is, at some level, incoherent.

That illustrates the first major issue I have with the idea of God as a scientific hypothesis: that science deals with contingencies, and whether God exists or not, it is not contingent. The second problem I have, is that hypotheses make predictions - but what sort of predictions does the God hypothesis make? It seems to me that the core God of theism is a hard hypothesis to extract predictions from in the first place. How would such universes be different, even in principle? One would think, following Stephen Law's article in the journal Religious Studies ("The evil-god challenge", 2010), that the God hypothesis (presumably, the good God hypothesis) could be tested by reference to the evidential problem of evil. Instead, Dawkins tries to venture down the "prayer does not work" line by reference to the widely-disowned (before and after the experiment) study by the Templeton Foundation. Swinburne's response seems perfectly acceptable to me, and Dawkins fails to respond to the critique levelled Swinburne other than to caricature his response to what he should have raised in the first place, the problem of evil.

This chapter also involves a rejection of Gould's NOMA theory ("Non-Overlapping Magisteria", the idea that science and religion talk about different things), and an attempt to explain away why it seems favoured among many atheist scientists. I lean towards agreeing with the rejection of NOMA, and replacing it with some principle of “somewhat, but not very, overlapping magisteria” – I can see why SBNVOM has not taken off yet, however.

3. His discussion of first mover and cosmological arguments is so bad, I hardly feel I can mention it, since it occupies a scant two and a half pages of a 420 page long book. Dawkins must surely have straw in his eyes, from such an enormous, yet vacuous, strawman that he erects in place of the rather long and serious discussion given to just the cosmological argument by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Even though I disagree with some of the ideas inherent in ontological arguments,[1] his rejection of St Anselm's without reference to the history and development of the argument, let alone his inability to understand it, is laughable. He does make hand waving reference to refutations (Kant's is suitable for rejecting Anselm's, as well as the clearer adaptation by Descartes), but Douglas Gasking's parallel argument is an absurd rebuttal, not least because of the implausibility of all the premises (except perhaps premise 2, even though I reject it regardless, but even then, there is a false equivocation that appears in premise 3 - merit and impressiveness are hardly the same quality).

The rest of the arguments are ones I find relatively un-compelling anyway, even though his peculiar rejection of Lewis' "Liar, Lunatic or Lord" argument (which Tim Keller pointed out should be amended to "Legend, Liar, Lunatic or Lord") on the basis that Jesus may simply have been honestly mistaken about his divinity is yelling to be placed in the "lunatic" category - what sort of sane person is honestly mistaken about actually being God incarnate? The rest of the section might be considered a discussion of the "legend" category, but I find his biblical scholarship very poor.

4. Dawkins labels God the "ultimate Boeing 747", in reference to Fred Hoyle's oft quoted statement that living beings are as improbable as a hurricane passing through a scrapyard and assembling a Boeing 747 aeroplane. In essence, his argument is that God is far too complicated to postulate as a designer, because then one would have to explain who or what designed God.

Dawkins agrees that chance is an absurd explanation of life, but he says that evolution by means of natural selection is a perfectly sensible alternative, and that this "consciousness-raiser" should alert everyone to the possibility of finding similar mechanisms for the explanation of design, or apparent design, in other fields. I think his discussion of cosmology is tainted by an overly-biological perspective, but I cannot claim to be very much of an expert on cosmology regardless, and so I must let that pass. What taints the whole chapter (other than the biology bits, which are very interesting) is his over reliance on natural selection qua consciousness raiser: I am perfectly happy to accept that evolutionary biology has the correct principles for explaining apparent design in life, and I would pursue my research in physics perfectly happy to accept similar principles to refute cosmological fine-tuning arguments - I find them unconvincing anyway. What I find overstated is the idea that, since principles to explain something previously unexplained have been discovered in the past, one is never warranted to consider that other principles will not arise to explain, for instance, cosmic fine tuning. Like I said, I suspect they will be found, but consider for a moment the inverse argument:

"Certainly, science seems to point to atheism at the moment. But just like when it was discovered that the universe had an absolute space-time boundary, a beginning, and people could make more convincing cosmological arguments, I suspect that science will discover other means of proving the existence of God, even if right now it looks like science is atheistic."

See the inversion? The big bang theory could be claimed by the theist, in much the same way as Dawkins claims natural selection can be taken, as a consciousness raiser, something that shows us that the unexplained can be explained. Once again, both lines of thought seem implausible to me - but they also appear rather symmetric.

Chapter 4 contained, as he says (p. 187), his central argument. On the face of it, the argument may appear to be a rejection of the argument from design - which I rejected before I read the book - but in actual fact, the argument is intended to run deeper: by claiming that God is far too complex to be the explanation of the design in the universe, he is also trying to undermine the God hypothesis as a conceivable reality at all, since God is presumably "irreducibly complex." Leaving aside the strange idea that God might have arisen out of natural processes - surely a complete misunderstanding of the God of any of the monotheistic religions - the argument must still be dealt with somehow. Here is my brief response:

Dawkins has not really shown that God is complex at all. Classical theism has always held that God is simple - God is made of one, indivisible substance, after all, and since it makes no sense to speak of "half God", Dawkins is wrong that God must be complex. He asserts it many times, but provides no justification for his mere assertion. Another explanation could be given, generously granting that God is internally complex, but pointing out that God is a necessary being, and so requires no explanation.

The very keen eye will note, as did Lloyd Strickland ("The “who designed the designer?” objection to design arguments", International Journal for the Philosophy of Religion, August 2013) that I have "helped myself" to the attributes of God from classical theism. Strickland's critique is only suitable if I were trying to prove the existence of God from design arguments; currently, I am merely defending the possibility of God's existence from the Dawkins argument, which claimed to provide more than a refutation of the design argument (we might agree, for different reasons) but a refutation of the existence of God, or nearly so: he dealt with arguments for the existence of God in chapter 3, this chapter was titled "Why There Almost Certainly is No God." Hence, in a defence of God, I can rely on the attributes of God. 

5. This chapter was by far my favourite: in average popular attacks on religion, explanations are given for religion which make very little evolutionary sense, so I was chuffed to have a defence of "religion as a natural phenomenon" from an evolutionary biologist.[2] If I were to presuppose naturalism, then I would have to explain away religion, and I find Dawkins' account decisively plausible, on face value.

Since I do not assume naturalism, I think I am entitled, as a theist, to remain in my belief that human beings, as definitively religious animals, are manifesting their own awareness of being in the image of God, and an awareness of the divine. But, that interpretation flows from my Catholic theism, and I find it perfectly natural that Dawkins and Dennett disagree with me.

6-7. I combine these chapters because their thesis is similar: that evolution explains our moral sentiments, that real morality is secular, that morality progresses as societies develop, and that it would be horrible for people to follow holy books anyway. I disagree on all three latter points.

I agree that many of our moral sentiments are due to our evolutionary past, and, as Dawkins says, that our more generalized moral feelings are more likely to be mis-firings of natural selection, now that we are not in the same sort of habitat as before. Sure - but that does not justify them, for the same reason that Dawkins was so clear to point out when he spoke of mis-firings of evolution to produce religion, as a by-product of some other evolved tendency, this does not justify our moral sentiments.

I can agree to the possibility of secular morality, and many theories have been proposed: from Kant, to Mill, to Rawls, and so on. At one point in the book, he suggests that Kant may have been right, since it makes Kantian categorical imperatives make sense of our moral feelings in the case of the trolley problem. Later on, (ch. 8) he favours a consequentialist point of view, saying that abortion could not be wrong since the child has no nervous system at first, as opposed to the mother, which certainly does. The contradiction annoyed me - yes, Kant does accord with our moral feelings in the trolley problem, but he would be opposed to abortion, because the pre-born human is not being treated as an end in itself. Yes, consequentialism may well accept the possible rightness of abortion in many cases, but it would disagree with our moral feelings in the case of the trolley problem. Dawkins is free to, if rationally compelled by it, accept a secular theory of ethics. But he cannot accept contradictory ones and expect to be taken seriously.

This illustrates why I do not think that real morality is secular. If by real one means the morality that is generally practiced, then real morality is not secular or religious, it seems to be some form of moral sentimentalism. People may be Kantian when given the trolley problem (or its many corollaries), but they are not Kantian when it comes to other activities. People may be consequentialists in some cases, but they are not universally so. Real morality is, therefore, neither Kantian nor consequentialist - or Rawlsian, or Aristotelian, etc...

Does the moral Zeitgeist, the developing morality of societies, provide a better foundation? It is entirely unclear whether that is an objective standard: one thinks current morality is better than previous morality, surely in part because one adopts the current morality, and rejects the previous one. Even beyond that, I object the the deification of personal choice above the common good, which is a firm part of our contemporary morality, and other similar trends - I hardly think current rape culture is superior even to hyper-Puritan values, either. Which way the trend is going is unclear.

Surely, it is better than the myths of holy books, right? I must now speak as a Christian, for I am not familiar with Islamic jurisprudence and developing ethics, or with Jewish Rabbinic texts, both of which would shed light on their original holy books. As a Christian, I hold up Jesus as the ultimate revelation of God. Supposing, as is usually done, that God does not change, and whatever God is, that God is supremely good: it is absurd to say that Jesus is now "outdated", that we should move on. That would be the Christian perspective.

"But he is outdated", Dawkins might reply, and he cites John Hartung to the effect that Jesus was about in-group morality as much as Joshua was. Though it is amusing to find someone who appears to think that apostle Paul is an improvement over Jesus, I find his claim astonishing. If one takes the gospels as simple historical re-tellings of the life of Jesus, then the idea that Jesus was about in-group morality is ridiculous. Be it the Good Samaritan, the Great Comission, the missionary sending at the beginning of Acts and the end of Luke, or the numerous encounters between Jesus and non-Jews, Jesus seems to be firmly about both the in-group and the out-group.

If he means that, after some historical Jesus studies, it turns out that Jesus was actually about the in-group, then I would like to see that analysis. Of the reputable, academic published literature I have come across, the closest  to that I have seen is commenting on the passage in Matthew 15, or perhaps John Meier's A Marginal Jews, which comes close only in the sense that he argues that Jesus was fully hallakhic, and so would be rupturing less from Jewish law than is sometimes said. Even these considerations hardly get one to more extreme claim made be Dawkins and Hartung. Our neighbour is anyone who we encounter in need, as Jesus says to the teacher of the Law, and we are to love them, even at our own expense. This rule has never been outdated.

8. I do not have much to say about chapter 8. Yes, wrongful religion can lead to bad science. It does not have to, but in some cases it does. I can't help but remember the times atheism leads to bad philosophy, but they are few, and there is nothing inherent in atheism that makes it anti-philosophical. The discussion of abortion is not very comprehensive, but he does adopt a consequentialist point of view near the end, so it seems that he rejects any inherent value in human life, other than its capacity to be happy (where happiness is seen basically as a property of the sentient being, again, nothing inherent in the being itself).

Moderation can lead to fanaticism, too. Fanaticism is not always a bad thing - a fanatic philanthropist does a great deal more good than a moderate philanthropist, in general. But many times it is, and that is a problem. Quite clearly, fanaticism can arise out of non-religious beliefs too - nationalism, some political ideology, racial boundaries, class conflict, an ethical theory... What if someone became convinced that the ratio of pain to pleasure in the world was such that, in a utilitarian framework, everything should be destroyed? Maybe that person would be right, but they would be labelled a fanatic. So fanaticism can arise in many contexts, most of which will probably always be present.

9. I find this chapter hard to take too seriously. Yes, he points out some horrible things. But I have met people whose experience is the opposite, who felt abused by feminist language (exactly how, I cannot fathom, but that is what she said), by the pitiless indifference of the world, and so forth. Dawkins would probably claim that, sure, certain naturalist doctrines like the indifference of the universe to human beings could be uncomfortable, but what matters is that they are true. I would only say "ditto." Sure, some people might find it hard to come out as an atheist to their families - but I know people who have found it hard to come out Christian to their atheist parents. Is atheism child abuse? It does not follow.

I agree that the fear of death is odd, and I would echo Mark Twain, as Dawkins does. But some people find the idea horrifying, so is the doctrine of no-afterlife child abuse? Again, it does not follow. Whatever is true is true independent of the psychological value of it. I am reminded of a story William Lane Craig once remarked, where he told about the findings of a survey of why college students were atheists. One girl said she became an atheist at least in part because she could not handle the idea of her abusive father still being alive. So even an afterlife with no hell would be scary for some people. Child abuse, then, to be a universalist? It does not follow.

10. Throughout the book, Dawkins has misunderstood aspects of theology. In response to Terry Eagleton's claim that he should understand a bit more about theology, about Aquinas and Scotus' differences on epistemology, Rahner on grace, etc., Dawkins said he did not need to be an expert in fashion to point out that the emperor was naked. The problem is that Dawkins was not even looking at the emperor. In the last chapter, where he rejects that truth can be affirmed merely because something would be comforting. Agreed. But his poor understanding of Christianity is never more apparent than when he talks about how theology works. The clearest instance is probably in this last chapter, where he misunderstands indulgences, how Christians think about death, purgatory, and in one of his bigger blunders, why Catholics believe in purgatory. He quotes the Catholic Encyclopedia saying that Catholics believe in purgatory because we pray for the dead. That is not a defence of purgatory as a meta-physical place for anyone, it is a defence from Scripture (probably defending against Protestants) in light of Judas Maccabeus, who prays for the dead. 


The day I finished the book I was asked whether the Church would have banned it in times past. I do not know. I have not had even the slightest inclination to change a single of my previously held beliefs in light of this book, but apparently, other people have. So maybe its poor arguments are dangerous, because people will think they are good. I might add that I would not want books banned, now or in the past, even if I do see a certain logic to it: parents should not allow their children hard pornography books or magazines. Mother Church should not allow her children spiritually harmful books. I have learnt things by reading this book, but Dawkins has failed miserably at his aim, "If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down." If only I could say that this fairly large book contained the best offense that atheism could offer, and then the opposite would be true, I would have gone through the worst rational scrutiny possible, and emerged unscathed. Unfortunately, I know there are better atheists out there.

[1] Briefly: I concur with St Thomas Aquinas that there is no reason to think that the limit of God is on that which we can conceive – God is surely even greater than the greatest which can be conceived. Since I do not think anybody can conceive of God, the older versions of the argument fail. Newer versions, particularly modal variants, seem to fail because there is absolutely no reason I can think of why I would believe in possible worlds. I know of one world which is possible, and it is precisely that world in which the existence of God is contested. How am I to know if other possible worlds exist? Unlike other philosophers, I am relatively comfortable with the first premise, that a maximally great being can exist (I would be fine with that even if I was an atheist), it is the modal axioms which I see no good reason to accept, on atheism.

[2] I am aware that this is the subtitle to Daniel Dennett’s book, which is on my shelf though I will not have the time to read it until 2015. Nonetheless, I am somewhat familiar with his account, and I still find it lacks the rigour of an actual evolutionary biologist.