Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
Last time in this space we looked at the only two good arguments there are for atheism. In this piece, I want to look at the curious way that atheists themselves cannot content themselves with those two good arguments. They are oddly drivin to pad the case with a whole raft of fallacies too.
For instance, one common meme among the New Atheists is the Argument from Intellectual Maturity. It's a gripe as old as Celsus, eloquently repackaged in the words of Christopher Hitchens:
[Religion] comes from the bawling and fearful infancy of our species, and is a babyish attempt to meet our inescapable demand for knowledge (as well as for comfort, reassurance, and other infantile needs).
This boast of being the first adults after humanity's long childhood of irrational mysticism is a theme to which the New Atheists (who like to refer to themselves as "Brights") return again and again. Only the Trained Measurers of Time, Space, Matter, and Energy are the natural custodians of the Knowledge of Ultimate Reality; while only the stupid, immature, or crazy can suppose the existence of the supernatural. The Brights are, in Carl Sagan's phrase, the candlebearers in a demon-haunted world, the Vanguard of Humanity Come of Age.
If St. Thomas were around to summarize the argument, it would go something like this:
Objection 3: It seems that God does not exist, because children, fools, and other simpletons believe He does. Therefore, God is a delusion concocted by mental and emotional juveniles.
This argument has a certain appeal in a world of ululating Cartoon Rioters, six-day creationists, spoon-benders, Art Bell fans, and Marian Apparitions on Grilled Cheese Sandwiches. Yet, curiously, right in the middle of his own discourse on the immaturity of the theist, Hitchens makes a strange and startling confession of faith in the infallible mystical insights of one particular child named "Christopher Hitchens." In God Is Not Great, Hitchens describes how, at the age of nine, he concluded that his teacher's claim that the world must be designed was wrong:
I simply knew, almost as if I had privileged access to a higher authority, that my teacher had managed to get everything wrong.
Hitchens's brother, Peter, drily replies:
At the time of this revelation, he knew nothing of the vast, unending argument between those who maintain that the shape of the world is evidence of design, and those who say the same world is evidence of random, undirected natural selection.
It's my view that he still doesn't know all that much about this interesting dispute. Yet at the age of nine, he "simply knew" who had won one of the oldest debates in the history of mankind.
What is marvelous is how nakedly Hitchens reveals his own atheist convictions to be entirely faith-based and -- what is more -- based on faith in a mystical epiphany to a nine-year-old boy. All the massive artillery of his adult wit and eloquence is, in the final analysis, ranked and ranged to protect that boy and his emotional epiphany. In contrast, all Christ asks of us is to have hearts like children, not minds like children. St. Thomas's faith was childlike; his intellect was formidably adult. Hitchens, in contrast, demands we reject St. Thomas's fifth demonstration of the existence of God -- because a nine-year-old boy had a really strong feeling once half-a-century ago.
Another curious strategy of the New Atheists has, like the Argument from Intellectual Maturity, a certain prima facie appeal. It is the Argumentum Contra Suckers. Again, in Thomistic terms, it goes something like this:
Objection 4: It seems that God does not exist, for shepherd children, peasants, polyester-clad tourists from Jersey, and other people I regard as suckers say they see miracles. But any God worthy of the name would submit to my demand for experimental proof, not manifest Himself to such tacky people. God does not submit to my demands, therefore God does not exist.
This conundrum goes all the way back to the New Testament, of course. The Pharisees made a similar demand, and Christ replied:
An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign; but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah (Mt 12:39).
The New Atheists and their students have, of course, a simple explanation for this: Jesus would give no sign because he could give no sign. His miraculous claims were fraudulent, so he just shouted critics down and bolted for the door. His equally fraudulent disciples imitated him, giving us the fiction of the New Testament.
There are two problems with this simple explanation.
First, why would the Gospels record this rather embarrassing incident? If the whole thing is, as it appears, an account of the time the Master dodged getting caught as a fraud, it seems much easier for his chroniclers to just skip it. Particularly since the evangelists are frauds themselves whose entire task was to doctor the record in order to paint their dead rabbi as a god.
Second, why do the chroniclers then record that, after this, Jesus promptly goes off and started working various signs? Can such cunning frauds really be so dumb as to not think anybody would notice?
Or might it be that Jesus' words and deeds do not admit of such a surface reading? Again, the New Atheist account of the Gospels winds up sounding a great deal like Lewis's Mr. Enlightenment:
The Landlord is an invention of those Stewards. All made up to keep the rest of us under their thumb: and of course the Stewards are hand in glove with the police. They are a shrewd lot, those Stewards. They know which side their bread is buttered on, all right. Clever fellows. Damn me, I can't help admiring them.
But do you mean that the Stewards don't believe it themselves?
I dare say they do. It is just the sort of cock and bull story they would believe. They are simple old souls most of them -- just like children. They have no knowledge of modern science and would believe anything they were told.
This curious pattern of trying to have things both ways is on remarkable display among the New Atheists. On the one hand, we run into contradictory explanations that do not explain, such as diabolically clever evangelists who are too stupid to read their own books. On the other hand, we run into a curious role reversal when it comes to dealing with claims of the miraculous, not 2,000 years ago, but right here and now.
Theists, you will recall, are dogmatists utterly closed to empirical evidence that challenges their tidy little universe. The New Atheists, in contrast, are realists who just follow the evidence where it leads, and luckily it leads to what they "simply knew" since they were nine years old. Yet curiously, we so often meet New Atheists like London Times columnist Matthew Parris.
Recently, Parris wrote his coolly intellectual reaction to the story of Sr. Marie Simon-Pierre, who, as doctors confirm, was suddenly healed of a well-documented case of Parkinson's Disease on the night of June 2, 2005, after praying for the intercession of the recently deceased Pope John Paul II. By way of careful scientific examination of these facts, Parris deployed the following analytical algorithms:
1. Link the story with crazy dispensationalist notions about the Second Coming;
2. Call for "intelligent Christians" to voice their "righteous anger" and "contempt" for this "nonsense" (apparently meaning "any belief in the supernatural");
3. Ridicule the "excesses of Lourdes";
4. Lament "the woeful confusion of faith with superstition"; and
5. Categorically condemn anyone stupid enough to "honestly entertain the possibility that from beyond the grave the late Pope John Paul II interceded with God to cause a woman to be cured of Parkinson's disease."
Parris concludes this dispassionate pursuit of the evidence with the following de fide definition:
"But how can you be sure?" Oh boy, am I sure. Oh great quivering mountains of pious mumbo-jumbo, am I sure. Oh fathomless oceans of sanctified babble, am I sure. Words cannot express my confidence in the answer to the question whether God cured a nun because she wrote a Pope's name down. He didn't.
Simple-minded folk might think that the truly rational first step is to find out if the nun had Parkinson's and then find out if she was cured. Why not research the strange and well-documented deeds of St. Pio of Pietrelcina? Or the miracles at Lourdes?
Instead, the tactics of Parris are defended with a sort of mantra: "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." This slogan is designed to persuade us that the debate is over what the facts are -- not over whether the New Atheist materialist dogma permits him to so much as look at them.
The reality is that extraordinary claims are established on the basis of human evidence every day. No man can prove in a lab that his wife loves him, yet for millions of men it is an extraordinary fact more certain than the age of the universe, accepted entirely on human testimony. For centuries, extraordinary claims were brought back from Africa of a mysterious manlike creature that dwelt deep in the jungles. The way the reality of this creature was determined was not by sitting in a lab parroting "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence," but by going and seeing whether or not gorillas were there.
And that's the thing: The believers go and see. Credo ut intelligam. New Atheists stay at home and rail at what Hitchens calls the "ostentatious absurdity of the pilgrimage."
Seventy-thousand eyewitnesses (including atheists and skeptics) to the Miracle of the Sun at Fatima are told by the stay-at-home dogmatist that it was spontaneous mass hallucination unprecedented in history.
People who have experienced scientifically documented and inexplicable healings at Lourdes are commanded by New Atheists to believe they are victims or perpetrators of some sort of unnamed "excess."
A Host begins bleeding human blood at a Mass in Betania, Venezuela, and the whole thing is caught on video by an ordinary tourist? Conspiracy and trick photography, despite the fact that the Host (still preserved in a monstrance after being subjected rigorous tests) continues to bleed now and then to this day.
And when the resolve to Just Not Look begins to crumble under the suspicion there might be something to the supernatural after all, the solution is "Pop in a DVD of the Amazing Randi or Penn and Teller debunking something and repeat to yourself 'Some claims of the supernatural are bunk, therefore all are.'"
God's obstinate tendency to conform to the Harvard Law of Animal Behavior ("God, under carefully controlled, laboratory conditions, will do whatever he likes") has prompted some particularly desperate New Atheists to propose one final objection in a last ditch attempt to show who is boss. This is known as the Argument from Chronological Snobbery. It may be seen in chemical purity in the words a devotee of the New Atheism who recently wrote me:
Because science is evidence-based and ever-evolving it is actually better suited to unravel the mysteries of life and the universe than ancient "divine" texts. (Is it unreasonable to ask, for instance, that the Lord offer us at least a cursory sketch of DNA in his "authoritative" text on the workings of the world? Or perhaps it's time for the old man to reveal a revised edition that at least pays lip service to the Enlightenment and the wonderful discoveries of science, none of which were implied or indicated in the slightest in his original "bible.")
St. Thomas would put it thus:
Objection 5. It seems God does not exist, because if he did exist he would meet my demand for proof by giving a biblical author knowledge -- such as the soil composition of Mars or the design of a microchip -- impossibly ahead of the Bronze Age. He has not done this, therefore God does not exist.
Now there are only two sorts of people who think Scripture is supposed to be The Big Book of Everything: New Atheists and Fundamentalists (who are more alike than either realizes). Catholics, in contrast, believe Scripture to be about God's progressive revelation of salvation in Jesus Christ and reject the notion that its mission is to give us the atomic weight of the hydrogen atom or a schematic for a transistor. That's because our present is not, in the words of Lewis, "the final and permanent platform" from which all is to be judged and the ultimate summit to which all has been leading.
Think about it. Suppose some earlier skeptic made similar demands. If he is God, says the medieval skeptic, then why doesn't Exodus discuss the four humors of the body? Where is the blueprint for the astrolabe in Genesis or the science of leechcraft in Numbers? The 17th-century skeptic demands to know why God nowhere reveals ultimate truth -- Newtonian physics -- in Scripture. The 19th-century skeptic demands to know why God never deigned to reveal the hard scientific fact of aether to Moses. In the 1940s, the Stalinist skeptic laughs at the Bible's ignorance of Lamarckian evolution.
In short, it is the glory of science to progress. Meanwhile, the purpose of revelation is not to tell us everything about everything, but to tell us about the important things. And the irony is, the revelation of creation ex nihilo is precisely the sort of thing that transcends both Bronze and Digital Age mythologies. Paganism tended toward a cyclical, not a linear, vision of time. It universally imagined the gods making the universe from some sort of "stuff." Only one people held the fixed belief in creation ex nihilo: the Jews, who insisted that "God created the heavens and the earth" out of nothing. Scientifically, the question of whether the universe even had a beginning remained open until about 40 years ago. How that beginning came about is still -- and always will be -- a question that transcends science and can only be known by revelation.
At this point, the sane metaphysician must sooner or later say, "Very well then, science is limited and I must grow beyond its narrow confines. I must embrace a larger metaphysic that encompasses science, yet allows for supernatural revelation that transcends, not contradicts, the truths revealed by science." The insane metaphysic says, "No! Everything must fit my narrow empiricist worldview!"
That is what the Catholic Tradition calls "pride." And that, ultimately, is the real issue here, not "sufficient evidence." The solution to this blunder is what the tradition calls "humility."
G. K. Chesterton once remarked that the only response a believer can give to the one who will not understand is "You don't understand." It should be noted that the operative term here is "will not," not "cannot." There are two sorts of questioners, roughly speaking: those who ask to find things out and those who ask to keep from finding things out. This is the explanation for Jesus' mysterious refusal to give a sign, coupled with his curious willingness to give all sorts of signs. For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. But those who ask in order to keep from finding also get what they seek. For all find what they truly seek.