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.
So the other day, on my Patheos blog, I note that poor Cardinal Pell made the cardinal (get it?) mistake of forgetting that the purpose of the MSM is not to inform or enlighten, but to sell beer and shampoo by ginning up hysteria and fake dudgeon about idiotic nonsense. Case in point:
Step 1: Arrange a debate between Richard Dawkins and Leading Catholic Prelate.
Step 2: Allow Dawkins to blather about how Old Testament Jews were a small tribe of ignorant savages and brutal barbarians who were way behind us in their understanding of 21st century moral standards, not to mention in their grasp of biology and the art of making blenders and microwaves. This is, of course, standard atheist boilerplate.
Step 3: Prelate then grants that Old Testament Jews were indeed a tiny little nation who were often savages and barbarians and that they were ignorant of much that we now take for granted, thanks to developments which have occurred over the past 5000 years.
Step 4: Have standard issue media freakout and scream "Australia's most senior-ranked Catholic says Jews 'intellectually and morally inferior'".
My point was, I think, pretty clear to anybody not adamantly invested in missing it: it's ridiculous MSM hypocrisy to cheer for Dawkins when he denounces ancient Israelites as Bronze Age Savages and then have hysterics when a Cardinal grants that, yes, they were bronze age savages and that is by no means the whole story of ancient Israel.
So, of course, it was entirely to be expected that one of my New Atheist readers should miss this elementary point and instead write:
So Mark, are you saying that the OT law code WASN'T nasty and brutish? Do you think doing things like stoning homosexuals, witches, and polytheists is defensible given the cultural context? If yes, you do know what that makes you, right? One of those moral relativists you hate so much.
Amazing. It's like he can read my very soul. At least that's what I assume since he can't seem to read my very words, which have actually been rather forthright in acknowledging that parts of the Old Testament are quite brutal and savage, which have been notably unenthused about stoning people to death (or, indeed, about inflicting the death penalty) and in which you will search in vain for expressions of hatred for moral relativists (my general reaction to this fuddled ethical theory is bemused astonishment at the human capacity for folly, not hatred). But my reader had a script and it required a charge of "hatred" be leveled, so he stuck to it.
I replied, "You aren’t much on reading comprehension, are you? Too busy trying for gotchas." My hope was that he might wonder, "What do you mean?" But like a telemarketer who knows only to stick to the script when the chatty guy on the other end wants to talk about his grandchildren and not the TIME/LIFE books being sold, my reader would not be dissuaded. He was looking for prey, not conversation. So he pressed on:
Are the things I listed morally defensible or not, Mark?
I think that by "morally defensible" he means "good", though I can't be sure. As a fundamentalist atheist, his approach to things does not allow for a lot of nuance. At any rate, straining to make a reply to a mind capable of only the most simplistic digital binaries of 0 and 1, good/evil, black/white, I replied:
Of course not. But they are less culpable when you are talking about people who do not have the benefit of 5000 years of developed moral teaching. It is the easiest game in the world to judge one’s ancestors on the basis of what you know and they did not. Meanwhile, you studiously ignore my point, which is that Pell gets blamed and Dawkins does not for acknowledging the barbarism in the OT. Do you really have nothing better to do than play cheap games of gotcha?
To this, apparently sensing that I was not going to cheer for stoning people to death, he then sprang what he apparently assumed was a devastating logical trap:
But those commands were from the direct word of God! You’re saying God develops and changes his eternal Word? Besides, if we take cultural context into account that makes you…wait for it…a moral relativist.
Mhm. This is the sort of thing that makes me despair for the future of atheism. So many atheists are so inside the bubble of the cramped subculture of internet atheism that, to quote Donald Rumseld, they don't even know what they don't know. They swap shibboleths and catchphrases, high five each other for the same stale jokes, and affim each other in the same okayness against the increasingly phantasmic religionist that when they talk to real ones it's hard for them to snap back to reality. (Catholics, and indeed any subculture devoted to anything can, by the way fall into the same trap of epistemic closure. It's the problem that contempt always creates. When you hold an enemy in contempt, you start to believe your own press releases about how stupid they are and simply cannot believe that they hold ideas different from what your peer group constantly recirculates.)
In the case of the New Atheists, there is an increasing inability to break free of the mindset that "If you've seen only Abrahamic religion, you've seen 'em all". Consequently, my reader attempts to ooga booga me with the Fear of Not Being a Fundamentalist, blissfully unaware that Catholics don't read the Bible the way either atheist or Christian Fundamentalists do. He's also completely unaware that the world is not neatly divisible between moral absolutists and moral relativists. Nor is he at all aware that he is actually a moral absolutist and not a moral relativist.
You really need to stop imagining that every Christian reads the Bible as a fundamentalist like you does. If you'd like, I can send you a copy of my Making Senses Out of Scripture: Reading the Bible as the First Christians Did.
And no, taking a cultural context into account is not coterminous with moral relativism. Moral relativism believes that truth actually changes as men's minds change. So, for Himmler, the murder of Jews was a Good Thing and we cannot condemn him for it according to moral relativism. It was His Truth, as the saying goes.
Sane understanding of moral development, in contrast, recognizes that there is such a thing as a difference between 1) a culture which grasps natural law imperfectly and is struggling to grasp it more deeply (as ancient Israel did), and 2) a culture that has a developed understanding of natural law and is wilfully choosing to reject it (Nazi Germany). In short, sanity grasps that we hold adults responsible for things we do not hold children responsible for. That does not mean that when children do evil they did not do evil. It merely means that they are less culpable for it (or not culpable at all). But the evil remains an evil.
Dude, you don’t seem to realize that you are not a moral relativist. You are, indeed, a rigid moralist who is assuming that the moral code he happens to hold (largely a ripoff of developed Judeo-Christian morals, with a few adulterations by the current culture of American libertarian hedonism to keep God off your back when you feel selfish) is the Iron Law of Morality for All Time on Everybody. So you gladly condemn people and don’t even offer the normal mitigating excuses that sane people typically make for the ignorant and the stumbling pioneer.
Some Christians foolishly argue that atheists are immoral. In fact, atheists are intensely moralistic and more intolerant than the most rigid Puritan. They have almost no capacity to allow for the ignorance and weakness of their ancestors and routinely arraign them on charges of Not Being 21st Century Suburban Americans. *Is* there anybody more provincial and insular than a New Atheist? I suspect not.
Seriously, stop playing gotcha and try learning about the thing you reflexively and unthinkingly ridicule.
It's sad when people worship, instead of use, the intellect.