National Catholic Register


A reader asks about an atheist argument

BY Mark Shea

| Posted 4/14/13 at 11:59 PM


The other day when I was searching for the meaning of the logical fallacy called "special pleading" I came across this website here: . On this website was this definition of the fallacy:

Example #2:
Superstition is a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation -- unless it is written in the Bible, then it is reasonable faith.

Explanation: It has been said that one’s superstition is another’s faith.  The standard of superstition has been defined by the person, and violated by the Bible (attributing God and demons as the cause of natural phenomenon).  But while the person in the example rejects all other holy books and sources of superstition using certain criteria, the book of their choice, the Bible, is exempt from these criteria.

Many non-Catholic Christians take offense in the superstitions of the Catholics, like priests thinking they can turn wine into the literal blood of Jesus Christ, yet have no problem with believing that pouring water over the head, while making a few cantations, “washes away” original sin.  This is special pleading.
Exception: “Adequate justification” is subjective, and can be argued.

I was struck by this example, especially the part about the Eucharist and Baptism, and I am having a hard time refuting this. Is it true that we Catholics and Christians are guilty of special pleading in the cases mentioned above by the website author (an atheist, if that wasn't obvious enough already).  I would love to hear your comments about this passage. Could you please help me refute this? I have no training in logic, philosophy, or theology, so I have a hard time refuting clever arguments like this. Thanks!

As to the argument itself and the question of whether atheists are right, there are copious good books out there refuting atheism (try The Last Superstition by Ed Feser, for instance).  In the end, atheism has only two arguments going for it—and rankles under the knowledge of that fact, endlessly coming up with fallacies to pad their two arguments. I discuss that fact here:

When people keep padding their arguments, that’s a sign they sense the weakness of their position.  And, in fact, St. Thomas answers the only two arguments for atheism there ever have been or ever will be here:

With regard to the fallacies of this particular argument: Sure, you can find Christians who have never given thought to the premises of their faith and so treat the Bible as an authority without really knowing why they do that.  If it comes to that, you can find atheists who treat Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens as an authority without really knowing why they do so.  But so what?  All that means is that, in any large group of people, you are going to have followers who follow something or someone without really knowing why they do it, or because somebody they like told them to, or because That’s the Way We Do Things.  Nothing is proved or disproved by this.  My children knew that they Must Not Touch the Stove even though they had never touched the stove, because competent authority (Mom and Dad) had passed that Tradition down to them.  Oftentimes, Tradition is right, because it is the fruit of a lot of mistakes and learning.

The atheist you cite is talking, as atheists so often do, like a Fundamentalist: as though the Bible is a magical book.  This is not, however, the way the Church treats the Bible.  Rather, the Bible is the fruit of the experience of Israel (in the Old Testament) and of the experience of the apostles and those close to them (in the New Testament).  It is a human book telling a human story of an encounter with Jesus.  So far from being “exempt from criticism” the Bible is a book, and the testimony of the apostles a witness, that has provoked incredulity and skepticism from the very start.  Consider, after all, how the earthly story of Jesus ends.  He was not exactly welcomed with credulous gullibility by the people who put him to death for his claims about himself.  Indeed, even the apostles had a hard time buying his deity and Resurrection. 

And their hearers afterward could basically be divided into those who believed their claim that Christ was risen and those who wanted to kill them. We today are pretty much in the same boat.   We come to believe the gospel because we come to believe them, just as we come to trust witnesses in a court case because they are credible, good and not in it for some ulterior motive.  The basic puzzle the New Testament presents us is the question Jesus asks, “Who do you say I am?” and the only really reasonable answer is the one Peter gave: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God”.  Of course, the question that arises immediately is “Does the New Testament preserve a real eyewitness account of the life of Jesus?  The answer, as Richard Bauckham has done such a fine job of demonstrating, is Yes (see Jesus and the Eyewitnesses ).  Do those witnesses really claim they saw Jesus Christ risen from the dead and is there good reason to believe them? Again, yes. (See N.T. Wright's The Resurrection of the Son of God )

It is only after we have really come to that conclusion (or, received it by faithful upbringing as many cradle Catholics do) that we really have a clear idea of why we should bother with baptism or Holy Eucharist.  If Jesus is God and is raised from the dead, then he ought to know what he’s talking about when it comes to Baptism and Eucharist.

Finally, a word about the easy atheist assumption that Christians regard every belief but their own as “superstition”.  This once again demonstrates the odd tendency of atheists to think like Fundamentalists.  In fact, it is not the case that Christians need to regard all beliefs but their own as “superstition”.  To be sure, fundamentalists and atheists--both prisoners of a rigid black and white ideology--do this. But C.S. Lewis famously noted that when he was an atheist he had to believe that 99% percent of the human race was absolutely and completely wrong about the thing that mattered to it most.  But when he became a Christian he was freed to say that even the most primitive myth, cult, or religious practice was on to something.  Likewise, the Catholic tradition speaks of semina verbi—the seeds of Word—present in all the cultures and religious traditions of the world, anticipating Christ since the human heart is made for him and seeks him everywhere.  So Paul, addressing the pagan Greeks on the Areopagus tells them they are partly right—and then completes what is lacking in their partial intuition:

Paul, standing in the middle of the Are-opagus, said: "Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I passed along, and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, 'To an unknown god.' What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24* The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by man, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all men life and breath and everything. 26 And he made from one every nation of men to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their habitation, 27 that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel after him and find him. Yet he is not far from each one of us, 28* for 'In him we live and move and have our being'; as even some of your poets have said, 'For we are indeed his offspring.' 29 Being then God's offspring, we ought not to think that the Deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, a representation by the art and imagination of man. 30 The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all men everywhere to repent, 31* because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all men by raising him from the dead." (Acts 17:22-31)

Note that: Paul affirmed what could be affirmed in paganism and then supplemented what needed supplemented with revelation.  The Church has followed suit ever since.  Atheists say of all religions, “They are totally wrong.”  Catholics say of all religions “They are partly right.”  So Nostra Aetate takes a broad survey of the world’s religions and affirms, in broad strokes, our commonalities with them (though of course the Church notes the differences as well in, for instance, Dominus Iesus..

The idea, in other words, is not that the Church is right and everbody else is totally wrong.  It's that there is a hierarchy of truth and that there are other religions aand philosophies that preserve more and less of the truth that is revealed in fullness in Jesus Christ and subsists in the Catholic Church.  On such a hierarchy, even an atheists have a place in that they usually affirm (typically without realizing it) certain aspects of Catholic moral teaching such as human dignity, as well as Catholic conviction (not at all obvious to, say, an ancient Sumerian) that the universe operates according to knowable law that the human mind can penetrate and understand.  That is, ironically, a faith proposition and almost all modern Western atheists hold it without realizing it is an act of faith to do so.  They have to hold that article of faith or else there is no reason to trust that Science will yield any truth at all. 

One book that may be of help to you in grasping this hierarchy of truth is Peter Kreeft’s Fundamentals of the Faith, which takes a look at the relationship of the faith to other religious and philosophical traditions.  Another book that takes a related approach is G.K.Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man.

The Church is an anvil that has worn out an awful lot of hammers.  You needn’t be afraid to interrogate it.  St. Thomas spent his whole life doing exactly that.  God bless you as you seek the truth.