Thursday, February 21, 2008

Atheism: Moral or Intellectual?

My well intentioned mother recently sent me an article from Daily Encounter, entitled, "Is Atheism an Intellectual or a Moral Issue?" The article begins on a false dialectical premise; it is either ones heart, or ones mind that is hindering someone from finding God in Christ. This need not be the case.

This blog often seems to be more 'Catholic' than 'atheist', but it is not a misnomer. We have to be authentic to what we believe, not prideful, but honest. The reason the article was so painful to read is that it perpetuated two problematic, and popular, (mis)understandings of atheism.

1) Atheists are intellectually stubborn or myopic. If they were honest they would see the abundant and (obvious) proofs of God's existence. The article states:

The incredible vastness of the universe and its formation is staggering. To accept all of this as happening by chance would take a mountain more of faith than to believe it all happened by intelligent design by a divine creator. And still the atheist says there is no God.

Certainly, there is agnosticism that should pervade every human thought in connection to the creation of the world, be Christians or atheists, alike. Christians profess that God created the world ex nihilo. Though to profess and to comprehend are different intellectual claims. No one, but God, could comprehend in totality what it means to create something from nothing. This is why births are so fantastical, whence did this new life come from? Though biological it may be explicable, but perhaps not fully comprehendible. I am certainly in awe of the starry sky above me. So, the claim of atheism is not a pronouncement on creation, but an assertion against the existence of God – they are separate issues.

However, the larger issue is that atheism need not be about the intellectual quandaries that seem to have mesmerized Christians and non-Christians. So often you here atheists argue that God can not exist because of evil, or there is no historical evidence to prove that Jesus rose from the dead. Others argue that the Church, if God was real, would not be so corrupted. To point, many Christian theologians are constructing new theologies to try and better articulate answers to these ‘problems.’ Christians should be sympathetic to these concerns, but ultimately the Church (which used Scripture), I believe, has rather persuasive answers to these concerns; the Augustinian notion of evil, the Kierkegaardian 'leap to faith', and the doctrine of sin, respectively. These issues often perplex, worry and even at times estrange Christians from their faith. However, these intellectual concerns are not what necessarily lead people to atheism.

Perhaps we ought to turn to Thomas (from John 20:24-29):
24 Now Thomas (called Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord!" But he said to them, "Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it."
26 A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you!" 27 Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe." 28 Thomas said to him, "My Lord and my God!" 29Then Jesus told him, "Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed."

In Luke, two followers of Jesus, on their way to Emmaus talk of Jesus without recognizing him as their companion until the supper feast. Thus, my hope is that someday, while during the Eucharist I see, saying, 'My Lord and my God.' However, there is for some atheists an inexplicable nature in their disbelief. Personally, there is no 'reason' for my disbelief. I find Christianity persuasive, desirable, and admirable, but I still do not believe. Just as Thomas would have surely have wanted to believe Jesus had risen, he did not. Thus, atheism is not essentially driven by intellectual quandaries; it is not simply an 'intellectual issue'.

The article stated somewhat rightly, that, "If I say there is no God, I make myself the final voice of authority and therein usurp the role of God in my life. I become a god unto myself." This type of arrogant atheism is currently and unfortunately more the rule than the exception. Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins come to mind. Often some believe that a type of 'reverent agnosticism' ought to be adopted. I rather think a type of reverent humility would be better. Agnosticism suggests that one doesn't know, humility suggests the possibility of error. Atheist, believe they know, but should always concede that they may be wrong, and for me, hope to be wrong.

2) The article suggested that atheists are taking a moralistic 'pass'. They know that if they accept Christ, they must also accept the responsibility to live a moral life. Thus, atheists have eschewed the Church so as to shirk their responsibilities to their fellow brothers and sisters. The article states:
In the end we ultimately believe what we choose to believe—often what is the most convenient for us. For instance, if I choose to believe in God, I know I am morally responsible. On the other hand, if I chose not to believe in God, I delude myself into thinking I am not morally responsible and can live as I please. For example, "Philosopher Mortimer Adler, one of the great intellectuals of the twentieth century, believed Christianity was true, but refused to accept it because it would interfere with his lifestyle. In time, he overcame that objection and became a Christian, which, given the evidence, was the only rational thing to do." I would dare to suggest that maybe, just maybe, his honesty led him in his choice to make a commitment of his life to God and become a Christian.

Perhaps some atheists have figured this crude calculus, I think most have not. To suppose that atheists have cleverly weighed their moralistic options, and chosen that religion is too high a cost seems ludicrous, or at least suspect. Many Christians blithely live immoral lives, and many atheists live meritoriously moral lives. I saw Jim Wallis give a lecture recently where he stated that, "Christians do not have a monopoly on morality." And he is right. But, Christianity does claim to have the true reason for why one must be moral.

Secular humanists have often supported important moral movements. Kurt Vonnegut - my favorite author - was a deeply moral person, and it was embodied in both in his books and his life. Secular humanists share many concerns that the Church shares, but it is in their reasons that they differ with Christianity so poignantly.

Thus, it would seem evident that atheism is not a moral issue, nor is it a intellectual issue. Though it may be for some, it is not exclusively these two.

So what is the issue of atheism?
Whence does disbelief come?

This saddens me, but I do not know. I have no 'reason' for being atheist, I simply am. It is not to be antagonist or stubborn. Yet, the lack of faith, makes me then turn and reexamine theological understandings of soteriology and grace.

If one posits that there is a prevenient grace, then why cannot can I not choose to accept it? If the grace is open and free to all why then do so many not grasp for it, especially those very many who want it?

Another possibility is that many (all?) atheists are just anonymous Christians. They understand the truth of God in a different, but still equally meaningful way. The way this is usually presented is not very satisfying. It seems to mitigate the absolute truth in Christ, while also usurping the real beliefs (or unbeliefs) that others hold toward God in general and Christianity in particular.

Another possibility is that Calvin’s double-predestination was correct. I do often joke to friends that I am the only Calvinist that believes I am not part of the elect. Yet, my Methodists friends usually grow concerned with such a suggestion. They critique that such a God seems to be a God not worth worship, a God that ostensibly arbitrarily predetermined the outcome and course of history and salvation.

Of course, none of these options (and there are more) seem to rectify my lack of faith, nor someone else’s. Humility must then finds its place.

Until the pronouncement of faith through revelation, "My Lord and my God" the issue of atheism is neither intellectually or morally situated. It simply is the situation.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Political Blogging - An Unstoppable Force Hits an Unmovable Object

Up until yesterday the democratic presidential race has perfectly illustrated the paradoxical physics question: What happens when an unstoppable force hits an unmovable object? Until yesterday Obama's political force could not be quelled and Clinton's entrenched political machine seemed to be unmovable. The Super-Tuesday contest two weeks ago proved as much, with each garnering about 49% of the popular vote.

Yet, as the dynamic always seems to overcome the static, the social law of inertia, so too has Barack Obama candidacy seems to have finally overcome the once seemingly intractable Clinton machine.

Last night Washington D.C., Maryland and Virginia held their primaries - the so called Potomac primaries. Barack Obama won each all with wide margins; in D.C. he won 75% of the vote (arguably Clinton's home state of 8 years). And while the black voting blocks in each primary went overwhelmingly for Obama, he split the white and over 30 vote.

Hawaii and Wisconsin are next to hold their primaries. Obama is favored to win them both. Clinton's campaign has all but written off the rest of the country focusing only on Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania (a poll yesterday showed Clinton ahead in Ohio by 17pts). Just today Hillary Clinton released a negative television ad that tagged Obama as dodging a debate with her in Marquette. (Though pundits have pointed out that her desire to have more debates is partially driven by constrained ability to purchase ad buys because of her campaign's budget crunch).

Obama's force in unstoppable, at least right now. Super-delegates will slowly start backing Obama over Clinton (they would have already backed Clinton if they were going to; she's always been the known quantity in the race). There is still the chance that Hillary Clinton will demand at the convention the seating of Michigan and Florida delegations, and if that happens McCain will win the day and offer another chance for Republicans to laugh at the self-imploding politics of the left. Hopefully and likely, democratic leaders, not necessarily committed to Obama, have or are going to began to call Clinton and politely tell her to take down the tent and congratulate her on an excellent wage campaign. One can only wonder when Howard Dean and Al Gore give Clinton the call.

There are two end-games in this scenario.
The first is if Clinton heeds the democratic leadership and allows the unstoppable force to move into the general election and win the White House. This would be the case of Newton's second law of motion, the law of momentum to win out, and prove that the dynamic can overcome the static.

If she forces the issue of Michigan and Florida and fosters a riot at the convention she will prove Newton's second law of motion; that the two forces might just cancel each other out.

Either way, when the race is over we will have the answer to the age-old question: What happens when an unstoppable force hits an unmovable object? Seems to me the last eight primary races have already given us a hint at the answer.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

In Defense of Rowan Williams: Are Brits Secularists, Xenophobics or Both?

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has been assailed for comments concerning his view that the British legal system could accommodate the Islamic moral code called sharia.

The interview can be found in its entirety at the Archbishop's Website.

I had heard about the incident earlier in the week, but found the remarks rather unremarkable. He wasn't specifically lobbying for the implementation of such a legal system, he was only commenting on the homogenizing effect of a unified legal system and that such a legal augmentation wouldn't necessarily be antithetical to the current system, as it already capitulates to Judeo-Christian legal values.

The Archbishop can perhaps speak for himself:
Christopher Landau (CL) And your concern is that that is in some ways under threat; the ability of religious people to be true to their faith as well as true to their role as citizen in the secular state?

Archbishop of Canterbury (ABC) I think at the moment there's a great deal of confusion about this; a lot of what's been written whether it was about the Catholic church adoptions agencies last year, sometimes what's written about Jewish or Muslim communities; a lot of what's written suggests that the ideal situation is one in which there is one law and only one law for everybody; now that principle that there's one law for everybody is an important pillar of our social identity as a Western liberal democracy, but I think it's a misunderstanding to suppose that that means people don't have other affiliations, other loyalties which shape and dictate how they behave in society and the law needs to take some account of that, so an approach to law which simply said, 'There is one law for everybody and that is all there is to be said, and anything else that commands your loyalty or your allegiance is completely irrelevant in the processes of the courts'. I think that's a bit of a danger.

CL And that is why Sharia should have its place?

ABC That is why there is a place for finding what would be a constructive accommodation with some aspects of Muslim law as we already do with some kinds of aspects of other religious law.

As personally innocuous the statement seems, the response has become a shrill pitch. The TimesOnline writer, Minnette Marrin, wrote an article entitled (sincerely, and without ironic hyperbole intended) "Archbishop, You've Committed Treason." The always level headed Christopher Hitchens wrote a similarly spew-filled article from the Slate entitled, "To Hell with the Archbishop of Canterbury."

Most of Britain seems incensed by Williams' comments. However, the outcry signals clearly one of two possibilities; Brits are either thoroughgoing modern-secularists or xenophobic or both.

This deep disdain Brits seem to come from the fact that someone would have the audacity to put God before country.

Marrin rites boisterously;
In the midst of all this moral confusion and relativism, is the premier prelate in the land holding fast that which is good? Far from it. He is recommending multicultural legal cherry-picking, in which individuals would be free to choose the jurisdiction they preferred for certain matters. He even admits that his proposal introduces, “uncomfortably”, the idea of a market in the law, “a competition for loyalty”.

Yet, what Williams' is suggesting is not relativism, which is in fact what the common-law legal system creates; a legal amalgamation between precedence and innovation. The Archbishop is not suggesting relativism but an alternative legal system used to specifically eschew relativism and follow an unmitigated code of conduct.

The ubiquitous and universal legal system in the United States leads to strange outcomes, too. Dr. D. Stephen Long often muses that privately owned bars are barred from allowing patrons to smoke in their establishments, but that the Neo-Nazis are legally allowed to march yearly in the heavily Jewish suburb of Skokie.

Yet, what makes Marrin's article so revoltingly interesting was that her premise rested in the concern for the 'good'. Yet the case could be made that she has confused the good of the City of Man with the ultimate Good that rests in only in God. The jurisprudence of the city may at times reflect the will of God, but it can never univocally circumscribe the justice of God; as God's justice and God's mercy are never in competition, but in inclusive harmony with one another. The good found in civil justice can only be partial. Politics itself, as Dr. Brent Waters states, 'is the art of exclusion.'

Yet, if Brits were modern-secularists it would seem that plurality would be defended, if not merely treated with indifference; the suggestion taken as a suggestion as an odd erudite-driven argument from an academically minded religious leader. For modernists it should have been seen as just another idea in the marketplace of ideas. So, it might something more insidious than a bland modernism, perhaps just good-ol' fashioned xenophobia. England is touting the rallying cry for unification, and this may be well in good, but just as absolute diversity demands an infinite-regress that can never be satiated, so too does absolute unity demand a homogenization that leads to an erosion of particularity ultimately obliterating individual identity. Rowan Williams is thinking theologically, plurality is a reasonable compromise for a country that has multiple cultural milieus and mores. Of course, the call for unity can only be truly accomplished in the act of being Church acting as the body of Christ.

I end simply with the Bishop's own words, which are simply a call for the Augustinian act of faith seeking reason:
ABC People may be surprised but I hope that that surprise will be modified when they think about the general question of how the law and religious community, religious principle are best and fruitfully accommodated. What we don't want I think is either a stand-off where the law squares up to religious consciences over something like abortion or indeed by forcing a vote on some aspects of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill in the commons as it were a secular discourse saying 'we have no room for conscientious objections'; we don't want that, we don't either I think want a situation where because there's no way of legally monitoring what communities do, making them part of public process, people do what they like in private in such a way that that becomes a way of intensifying oppression within a community and that happens; that happens. So how does the law engage critically and intelligently – the law of the land – with the custom, the imperatives, the principles of distinctive religious communities? It's a large question, much larger than the question about Islam and I think it's a question which the Church can quite reasonably be thinking about.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Political Blogging - Short Term Memory Loss: Why Obama Is Winning

The only thing the Clinton campaign is spinning is the same thing they’ve been slinging; mud. The moderate, but clear, Obama win last night points to future money, super-delegate support and momentum.

For all this the news pundits, as a whole, have fallen under a spell of short term memory loss. This morning New York Times' headline read, "Obama, Clinton Trade victories." Really? Only two weeks ago I read an article that claimed that an Obama 'win' would mean winning 7-8 states; instead he won 14.

Just on Monday The Nation's John Nichols wrote, "An Obama Sweep? What Are the Possibilities?" He gave seven steps to an Obama sweep; Obama cleared five of seven of the hurdles.

1) Win 40% in New York (check)
2) Win either NJ or CT (won CT)
3) Win GA and AL (check and check)
4) Win 2/3 battle grounds MO, NM, AZ (won MO and AZ)
5) Win some toss-ups (won UT, DE or AK)
6) Win CA (lost)
7) Win MA (lost)

Just a few reminders that throughout the month of January Clinton was winning California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey and et. al by 15% or more.
The national polls showed a virtual dead-heat.

He won the states, he won the delegates, he won the money in January and the calendar favors him for the next month. Nebraska, Main and Washington are caucuses (he has won the last 7/8), and Maryland, Louisiana and D.C. all have large black populations.

Intrade was volatile yesterday, but after the dust has settled it shows Obama as the big winner. He now sits 52.4 to Clinton's 48.9. Remembering that I invested $1,000 (247 shares) before Nevada at 40.5, I now am up $293.

It also has just been reported that Clinton, strapped for on-hand cash, will self-finance her campaign to the tune of $5 million. An incredible turn of events considering she was touted as the best-financed presidential nominees just months ago.

Watch for a big endorsements to continue to shore up Obama's bid (Edwards? Gore?) and watch for money to now play an advantage for their campaign. Also watch for super-delegates to feel more safe in coming out and pledging for Obama.

Also, a must see the new video by I.Am.Will, "Yes We Can" which is a montage of Obama's victory speech placed to music and accompanied by a number of young stars.