The game of quidditch from the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling is depicted as an exciting sport to watch and to play. Played while riding on magic brooms, it is fast-paced, requires speed and coordination, and relies on teamwork and individual creativity. It is depicted as a tough sport, not for the fainthearted.
And, as we all know, it is a fictional sport. In the end, quidditch, like Harry Potter, is not real. It is simply the product of an active and creative imagination.
We know it is a fantasy because we all intuitively understand the basic principles of our universe. Even for the more imaginative of us, it is obvious brooms cannot defy gravity, no matter what make or model. Rowling’s boy-wizard is fantasy, and quidditch is a fantasy sport, regardless of our personal perceptions. Whether we are an agnostic or an atheist, a deist or a theist, we can all distinguish between the fantasy of quidditch and the reality of actual sports.
But when things are not quite as clear as this example, things get a little strange. And, often, attitudes and arguments abound. For example, in matters of morality or politics or religion, people often react passionately and vigorously about what is true and what is good. And, in many ways, such reactions are appropriate.
For these are matters of significance and import. These are not life’s trivialities. They are the sum and substance of this life and the future, even eternity. These issues also reach down into the very core of life and living and to the center of all human beings. They have far-reaching effects for our being and for life and how it is to be lived. Being contentious around important issues such as politics, morality and religion is often necessary, provided we contend with others fairly, honestly and lovingly.
So, in such areas, separating the imaginable from the real, separating fantasy from reality is crucial. It is crucial to everyone’s search for truth. It is crucial because we need to know what life is really all about and how to live it. And it is crucial so we may act purposefully and with confidence, knowing we are doing the right thing and seeing things as they really are.
And it is just here that we situate some of the crucial, irreconcilable differences between atheism and Catholicism. For both beliefs have vast implications stretching out into the reaches of human society, human relations and into the deep recesses of each and every human heart. And these differences make all the difference.
When it comes to separating fantasy from reality, these differences are critical to so many aspects of life and living. For instance, these differences are crucial for how we understand human nature and consciousness, crucial to how we understand how we know things, how we reason, and how we know the rules and principles of reason itself.
Let’s take a brief look at human consciousness and reason in closer detail. There are basically two ways of looking at human consciousness. One is called monism. It means human consciousness is comprised of one thing. It means human consciousness is only physical, a product of the material world only. Monism sees all aspects of human consciousness as physical, biochemical events. Our personality, our will, our reason, our thoughts, our emotions, our morality are solely the product of neural activity, a collective concert of biochemical events in our brain that create these many psychological and cognitive experiences.
For monists, every human experience we have is merely the byproduct of brain activity. Our sensations of who we are, our thoughts, our emotional experiences, our sense of beauty, our sense of morality, our sense of proportionality, our deliberations and decisions, our intuitions, our common sense — everything we experience, everything we hold dear — are utterly and simply illusions generated by collective cellular events. Nothing more.
The other basic way of looking at all that is entailed in human consciousness is “dualism.” The dualistic view recognizes both the tangible dimension of biochemistry, as well as the intangible dimension of the human mind. Dualism blends the material and the mental realms of human experience and links them interactively as we experience them. Dualism sees the interplay of the physical and the mental as a seamless integration, a harmony of these interrelated states.
For dualists, human consciousness has both a mental dimension as well as a physical one. And all our human experiences are real human experiences, not just a composite of collective neural activity. Our reason is actually real, as are our thoughts, our emotions, our intuitions. We have an intangible soul that is real, as real as our bodies and our brains.
Monists believe everything we experience as human beings is solely and entirely based on physical processes. Our consciousness is an experience that is only real to us and is entirely contingent on biochemical activity. Dualists believe human beings are a combination of the tangible and intangible. We are both physical and mental beings. We have bodies and souls, and both are equally real.
For monists, everything we experience isn’t what it seems, for everything is a neural mirage. For dualists, everything we experience has an actual reality. For monist,s separating fantasy from reality is difficult because our consciousness is a series of neural illusions. In a sense, everything we experience is a fantasy, either a neural fantasy with some degree of correspondence to the outside world or a mental fantasy, akin to imaginative fantasy. For dualists, separating fantasy from reality is much easier because we know human consciousness is real and can recognize not only physical certainty and accuracy, but mental ones, as well.
For monists, all human consciousness is like a dream. For dualists, dreams are just dreams. For monists, death is the end of the body and the absolute destruction of our dream-like consciousness. Existence was an illusion and death is the end of the illusion. For dualists, death is the separation of the mental from the physical. We are no longer bound by our body because we are more than just our bodies.
For monists, reason has no real reality other than how it is experienced. For dualists, reason has a reality unto itself and can be understood better with training and use. For monists, it is difficult to explain reasoning and reason itself beyond the mapping of brain activity because these are mere neural sensations. For dualists, reasoning is real and can be evaluated against the laws and principles of reason itself.
Now, in fairness to monists, they don’t really live their life as if everything was a mirage. They generally live lives like most of us, within the bounds of common sense, reason and science. But their view of human consciousness does not justify or explain their ordinary, daily living. It is a view of consciousness that is impractical and inaccurate, as even their daily lives attest.
For most monists move easily and practically, blending the physical and the mental planes, living comfortably in the tangible and intangible worlds where emotions and reason are as real as radishes and railroads. It is just that their worldview does not correspond well to their daily lives and practical living.
And it is just here that their monism is not something that is actually livable or conceptually viable. It is a theoretical concept that offers an explanation for all reality that is virtually unlivable, unless you “pretend” the intangible aspects are real. Not only is it unlivable, but irrational, as well. For it eliminates reason itself, as well as a host of common, practical human experiences. In the end, monism sees everything as one thing and one thing only. And, therefore, it explains nothing. Or, at least, nothing more than the obvious.
Despite these differences between practical living and theory, there are many atheists, including the more prominent heralds, who have either an explicit or implicit monistic view of human consciousness. And, when you speak with such atheists, even if the conversation about God never turns toward the subject of human consciousness, you can hear their implicit monism in their demand for physical proof of God’s existence or their resistance to arguments on moral or aesthetic grounds or in their zealous insistence on physical evidence alone.
This is why philosophical arguments carry little weight in discussions with some atheists: because of their implicit monistic bias about the nature of evidence and their assumptions about our ability to actually know anything. This is odd, given their allegiance to science and their inability to properly attribute to reason its crucial place in the scientific method and its pursuit of scientific knowledge.
Given the importance of reason to any argument or even for science itself, for monists, reason does not have quite the credibility or power to make the case, even for familiar intangible realities, let alone God. And with those atheists who actually think in a manner that is consistent with their monistic beliefs, they know human reason has no real reality unless it is legitimized in the physical realm. Otherwise, reason is regarded with some suspicion and is impotent, unless linked to science.
But Catholicism maintains the reality of the tangible, physical universe, as well as the intangible, mental and spiritual plane. Catholics believe all that exists physically is the product of the divine Spirit — God. Catholics believe the spiritual plane precedes the existence of the physical realm and that the supreme Spirit brought the physical plane into existence. Unlike the atheists, Catholics believe the spiritual and mental planes are real. Most atheists don’t. To many of them, it is just biochemistry.
Well, when it comes to truth, such distinctions are helpful. These differences are clear and mutually exclusive. Not only that, they also cover the entire range of choices within their beliefs. Many atheists claim the physical realm is the single, sole source of our human consciousness and experiences. Catholics claim the spiritual, emotional and intellectual dimensions are equally as real as the physical ones.
When we examine these claims, we know one of these beliefs must be true and the other false. Either the monistic atheist is right or the dualistic Catholic is right. Either human experience is solely a product of biochemical activity, a composite of cellular, neural events, or human experience is more than the biochemistry we can see.
And, in the end, only one view, one belief, can be true. The other is a fantasy. No matter how appealing, no matter how much we prefer it, only one can be true; only one can be real. The other must be a fantasy, a fabrication, a phony, fictitious faith.
And, the bottom line is: If we Catholics are right, we are left with the fact that our mental, emotional and spiritual experiences are as real as our physical ones — our everyday lives and our eventual immortality is evident even now in the reality of our personality and perceptions, our reasoning and our emotions, our morality and our sense of beauty, our intuitions and our common sense, as well as in the magnificence and order and complexity of the world in which we live.
If we Catholics are right, we can know the difference between fantasy and fact, between mirage and reality. But, if the monistic atheists are right, we only have the singular and solitary fact of biochemistry. All else is fantasy. And, as it turns out, everything is the equivalent of quidditch, a fiction and a fantasy. Even our knowledge of this fantasy is a fantasy, too. Sounds like science fiction, not science, don’t you think?
(Part 1 and Part 2 of the series can be found here and here. Next: Atheism and Multiple-Choice Truth.)
Frank Cronin, formerly an avowed atheist, writes from eastern Connecticut. He has a master’s degree in theology from Regent University. His post-master’s study includes Harvard, Columbia and Holy Apostles College and Seminary. He was received into the Catholic Church in 2007.