Tuesday, August 28, 2012

How Do We Know Jesus Wasn't Married?

An LDS couple I’m friends with asked me recently about the so-called Gospel of Philip, and specifically, about its claim that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene.  Let’s address the reliability of the “Gospel of Philip” first, and then the broader question: how do we know that Jesus wasn’t married?

The So-Called Gospel of Philip

Strangely, the “Gospel of Philip” doesn’t even claim to be written by St. Philip.  Neither does it claim to be a Gospel, in the sense of being either a biography of Christ, or even a Book of Sayings by Christ. The name “Gospel of Philip” came much later, and is misleading. Put another way, the Gospel of Philip is neither a Gospel, nor written by Philip. Discuss.

St. Philip the Evangelist,
who the Gospel of Philip is falsely attributed to.
Instead, the “Gospel” is a second- or third-century collection of Gnostic teachings, like this one: “God is a man-eater. For this reason, men are sacrificed to him. Before men were sacrificed, animals were being sacrificed, since those to whom they were sacrificed were not gods.” As you might expect from a Gnostic text, it’s full of heretical claims, including the denial of the Incarnation and the Virgin Birth, the claim that the Holy Spirit is a woman, and a belief that matter was evil. You can see this in several places, like the claim that circumcision existed in the Old Testament to teach us that “it is proper to destroy the flesh.”  This, by the way, is why the Gnostics had to deny the Incarnation: if flesh is inherently evil, Jesus cannot take on flesh and stay God. To get around this predicament, the book claims: “Jesus took them all by stealth, for he did not appear as he was, but in the manner in which they would be able to see him. […] He appeared to the angels as an angel, and to men as a man. Because of this, his word hid itself from everyone.

You get a sense for both the Gnostics’ general discomfort with matter (and specifically, the body), and their use of seemingly-intentionally esoteric teachings in this passage:
The forms of evil spirit include male ones and female ones. The males are they which unite with the souls which inhabit a female form, but the females are they which are mingled with those in a male form, though one who was disobedient. And none shall be able to escape them, since they detain him if he does not receive a male power or a female power, the bridegroom and the bride. One receives them from the mirrored bridal chamber. When the wanton women see a male sitting alone, they leap down on him and play with him and defile him. So also the lecherous men, when they see a beautiful woman sitting alone, they persuade her and compel her, wishing to defile her. But if they see the man and his wife sitting beside one another, the female cannot come into the man, nor can the male come into the woman. So if the image and the angel are united with one another, neither can any venture to go into the man or the woman.
As both history and as a Christian holy book, then, it’s untrustworthy. The Apostles and other early eyewitnesses of Jesus of Nazareth have one version of events, and then a century or two later, you get another (very different) version of events from the author of the Gospel of Philip. It’s not particularly hard to know who to trust.

It is worth mentioning that, while the book tells us nothing reliable about Jesus, it gives us important details about Gnostic sacramental theology. For example, it claims, “The Eucharist is Jesus. For he is called in Syriac ‘Pharisatha,’ which is ‘the one who is spread out,’ for Jesus came to crucify the world.” This is significant, since as St. Ignatius of Antioch mentioned in his letter to the Smyrnaeans, the Gnostics “abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again.” What’s striking is that the Gnostics acknowledged that the Eucharist is more than a symbol, and is actually Jesus… they just denied that Jesus actually came in the Flesh.

Was Jesus Married?

I think that the important question is less whether the Gospel of Philip can be trusted, and more whether it’s possible, given what we know as Christians, that Jesus of Nazareth was married.

El Greco, Penitent Magdalene (c. 1590)
There are several arguments against this notion. The usual argument presented is actually an argument from silence. If Jesus was married, it seems wholly implausible that none of the early Christians would mention (or even allude to) this fact, either in Scripture, or in the Patristic writings. We don’t have a record of any of the early Christians calling themselves the “wife of Jesus,” or claiming to be a biological son or daughter of Jesus. For example, there are several ancient Catholic traditions about the life of St. Mary Magdalene, like that she went on to become a hermit in her later days. But there’s no tradition that she was married to God the Son, which is the sort of detail that you would expect a hagiography to remember to include.  So although it’s an argument from silence, it’s a strong one. But I think that there are stronger arguments yet, based on what Scripture does say.

In my own view, the strongest argument is this. After Jesus lays down some tough teachings on marriage, including an absolute prohibition against divorce, His Disciples say, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry” (Matthew 19:10). Jesus doesn’t deny this. In fact, He says that “some are eunuchs because they were born that way; others were made that way by men; and others have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.” (Mt. 19:12). Given this teaching, Jesus had to be a celibate. Otherwise, He’d be calling His Followers to something that He, the perfect God-Man, couldn’t achieve. Since Jesus obviously could accept His own teaching, we know that He did.

Related to this point is what St. Paul tells us in Ephesians 5:25-32, in which Paul explains that the relationship between a man and his wife is a type of the relationship between Jesus Christ and His Bride, the Church. So Jesus was dedicated to the Church, the Kingdom of God, in the way that a married man is to his wife. This also explains St. Paul’s instruction in 1 Corinthians 7:32-35,
I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs —how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife—and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband. I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.
Is Paul calling the unmarried to have a greater devotion to the Church than Jesus Christ had? Of course not. Rather, he’s calling some of his followers to celibacy modeled off of Christ’s own celibate love for the Church.

The final Scriptural proof for Christ’s celibacy is found in Matthew 8:20, in which Jesus says, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” If He was a married man, it’s unthinkable that He could have failed to provide for His wife (and children?) in this way.

One final point.  These arguments aren’t just good reasons to believe that Jesus of Nazareth was celibate, something that virtually all Protestants agree with the Catholic Church on.  They’re also good reasons to believe that clerical celibacy should be the norm, or at least the ideal.  The reasons that Jesus was celibate are the very reasons that celibacy is the norm for Catholic priests, and religious brothers and sisters today, since these men and women are called in a particular way to devote their lives off to the union between Christ and His Church.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Deuterocanon and the Communion of Saints

If Catholics are right about the Books that make up the Bible, then we’re also right about the Communion of Saints. In fact, if the Second Book of Maccabees is true (whether or not the Book is inspired Scripture), then the Catholic doctrines on the Communion of the Saints are true, as well. How can I say that? Because the Communion of Saints, the idea that the faithful departed are alive and interceding for us in Heaven, is clearly laid out in 2 Maccabees.

Before the last battle with Nicanor, Judas Maccabeus armed his men “not so much with confidence in shields and spears as with the inspiration of brave words, and he cheered them all by relating a dream, a sort of vision, which was worthy of belief” (2 Macc. 15:7). 2 Maccabees 15:8-16 then describes Maccabeus’ prophetic dream:
Carl Poellath’s workshop,
Judah Maccabees’ Vision
(c. 1866)
What he saw was this: Onias, who had been high priest, a noble and good man, of modest bearing and gentle manner, one who spoke fittingly and had been trained from childhood in all that belongs to excellence, was praying with outstretched hands for the whole body of the Jews. Then likewise a man appeared, distinguished by his gray hair and dignity, and of marvelous majesty and authority. And Onias spoke, saying, “This is a man who loves the brethren and prays much for the people and the holy city, Jeremiah, the prophet of God.” Jeremiah stretched out his right hand and gave to Judas a golden sword, and as he gave it he addressed him thus: “Take this holy sword, a gift from God, with which you will strike down your adversaries.”

Both Onias and Jeremiah have died. Jeremiah died more than four hundred years before the Maccabean Revolt, while the high priest Onias was murdered in 2 Maccabees 4:34-35.  Yet Onias and Jeremiah are clearly alive and interceding on Judas Maccabeus’ behalf. In fact, that’s precisely the way that Onias introduces Maccabeus to Jeremiah: by explaining that Jeremiah is “a man who loves the brethren and prays much for the people and the holy city.

Maccabeus’ prophetic dream is a turning point: it inspires the Jewish forces to directly attack the forces laying siege to their city and their Temple (2 Macc. 15:17-18).  They successfully lift the siege, killing the enemy general Nicanor in the process, and bringing the war to an end.

Here’s where things get awkward for Protestants who deny the canonicity of 2 Maccabees and the intercession of the Saints in Heaven: in John 10:22, Jesus celebrates Chanukah.  Why does that matter?  Two reasons.  First, the only Books of the Bible proscribing Chanukah are 1 and 2 Maccabees (1 Macc. 4:59; 2 Macc. 1:18).  So if Christ isn’t treating the Books of Maccabees as Scripture, He’s relying on extra-scriptural Tradition (which Protestants also reject).

Second, Chanukah is the holiday commemorating Maccabeus’ rededication of the Temple, and the miracle of lights.  But if Maccabeus is a heretic for believing in the Communion of the Saints, and inspiring his men by recounting a vision of the intercession of Onias and Jeremiah, why would Jesus endorse a holiday celebrating his victory?


In an earlier post, about prayers for the dead (which are described in 2 Maccabees 12:38-46), I listed this as one of several reasons to accept the canonicity of the Books of Maccabees:
  1. On what basis can you show that 2 Maccabees isn't Scripture?  I've mentioned before nobody in the Early Church thought the 66-Book Protestant canon was the correct canon of Scripture. So if Protestants can't show why their own canon is right, I don't see how that's a basis for rejecting 2 Maccabees.

  2. 2 Maccabees was believed to be inspired Scripture by the early Church. It's affirmed as canonical by Origen, Augustine, Jerome, and a lot of other Fathers. Are there any reasons for believing we know better than them on this issue?

  3. There's sound reason to believe Jesus treated 1 and 2 Maccabees as Scripture. The Jewish holiday Hanukkah celebrates the Maccabees' re-dedication of the Temple. Both First and Second Maccabees call for it to be celebrated, and these are the only Scriptures which do so (remember, the Talmud and Mishnah weren't written yet, and were never considered Scripture).  And we see Jesus Christ Himself celebrating Hanukkah in John 10:22

  4. Even if it isn't Scripture, it's still true. Even if one refuses to accept the Second Book of Maccabees as inspired Scripture, that doesn't mean the Book is false. If you don't want to treat it as Scripture, at least treat it as a history book.  And it shows that the pious Jews of Israel believed in praying for the dead. Judas Maccabbeus calls for the praying, and there are no signs that anyone thinks this is strange.  The author of 2 Maccabees even talks about how this practice proves that there's an afterlife, something rejected by many of the Jews who rejected these Books (Luke 20:27). So the controversial part wasn't that Judas was praying for the dead, but that there was an afterlife.

  5. Even if it were false, it'd still tell us something.  Even if the author of 2 Maccabees were completely making up this account, we'd still be able to tell that some of the Jews before Christ believed in praying for the dead.  After all, the author explicitly praises the practice.
Applying those same points here, it’s clear that Judas Maccabeus, the Maccabean Jews, and the author of 2 Maccabees believed in the Communion of the Saints.  The same can be said for the Jewish and Christian communities that embraced this Book as Scripture, as well as those individuals who considered it historical (whether or not they accepted its historicity).  And since Jesus Christ celebrated Chanukah, we (whether Protestant or Catholic) have sound reason to trust in the historicity of 2 Maccabees ourselves… which means that we have good reason to believe that Maccabeus’ prophetic dream is true.

All of this is a long way around of saying that the Saints who have departed this life before us are interceding for us to God, and that we can know this on the basis of 2 Maccabees, whether you treat that Book as Scripture, or simply as history. 

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Do Scripture and the Church Fathers Depict the Eucharist as a Sacrifice?

A Protestant reader wrote to me, asking how we Catholics could rectify the Sacrifice of the Mass with Hebrews 10:8-14, which describes Christ’s Sacrifice on Calvary as once-for-all:
When he said above, “Thou hast neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings” (these are offered according to the law), then he added, "Lo, I have come to do thy will." He abolishes the first in order to establish the second. And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, then to wait until his enemies should be made a stool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.
Personally, I view this as the strongest Scriptural argument against the Eucharist. After all, Catholic priests do daily offer up the Sacrifice of the Mass.  But it turns out that the Old Testament, New Testament (including Hebrews!), and Church Fathers provide a clear answer to how the Eucharist can be a Sacrifice without violating the once-for-all nature of Calvary.  Let’s examine each in turn.

I. Does the Old Testament Prefigure the Eucharist as a Sacrifice?

It does.  The Passover Lamb prefigured Christ, as St. Paul (1 Cor. 5:7) and John the Baptist (John 1:36) tell us.  This role of Christ as the Sacrificial Lamb is prefigured as far back as Abraham (Genesis 22:8).  Now, the Passover consists of two distinct but interrelated sacrificial actions.  On Preparation Day, a spotless lamb was slaughtered (Exodus 12:6).  That evening (the next day, by the Jewish reckoning) marks the beginning of Passover.  On Passover, the lamb is eaten (Ex. 12:8-11), applying the merits of the lamb’s atoning death. The blood is described as a “sign,” but it’s actually efficacious: it saves the lives of the first-born of the houses with the blood marking the doors (Ex. 12:13). If Preparation Day is the shedding of sacrificial blood, Passover is, as Hebrews 11:28 describes it, “the application of blood.

Now, the parallels to Christ are obvious.  Christ’s Death on the Cross occurs on, and is the fulfillment of, Preparation Day (John 19:31). As for the Last Supper, in which Jesus institutes the Eucharist, Jesus specifically describes it as the Passover (Matthew 26:18).  Christ is establishing the institution by which the Blood He is about to shed on Calvary will be perpetually applied to the faithful.


II. Does the New Testament Describe the Eucharist as a Sacrifice?

It does. Let me provide a few examples, from the words of Christ, St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, and the letter to the Hebrews.

Matthew 5:23-24

Here is what Jesus says in Matthew 5:23-24:
So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.
That is, Jesus depicts the Christians as making offerings at an altar, and it would be quite a stretch to suggest that He’s not referring to a literal altar (since we’re told to leave our gifts there to go make peace with our brothers).  But what is an altar, other than a place to offer sacrifice?  And what is this Sacrifice, if not the Sacrifice of the Mass?  Protestants have “altar calls,” but no altars.

1 Corinthians 10:16-21

Perhaps the clearest instance in the New Testament in which the Eucharist is treated as a sacrifice is in 1 Corinthians 10:16-21,
Catacombs art depicting the Eucharist,
San Callisto, Rome (3rd c.)
The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. 
Consider the people of Israel; are not those who eat the sacrifices partners in the altar? What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be partners with demons. 
You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons.
To prove that the Eucharist is a participation in the Body and Blood of Christ, St. Paul equates it to the Jews eating the animals sacrificed at the altar, and the pagans eating the food sacrificed to idols. He then says that we have to choose whether we want to drink the cup of the Lord or of demons, and whether we want to “partake of the table of” the Lord or of demons. We already know that partaking of the table of demons means eating the food sacrificed to them, and Paul is clearly treating the Eucharist as the Christian equivalent: a sacrificial meal.

But if Protestants are right, and the Eucharist isn’t a Sacrifice, then there’s no equivalence between the Lord’s Supper and the sacrificial meals of Judaism and paganism.  In other words, if the Eucharist isn’t a Sacrifice, St. Paul’s argument from analogy doesn’t work.

Hebrews 9:15-24

The Book of Hebrews likewise supports a Sacrificial view of the Eucharist.  In Hebrews 9:15-24, right before discussing the once-for-all nature of Christ‘s death, there’s a discussion on the application of the atoning blood, and an important parallel drawn:
Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred which redeems them from the transgressions under the first covenant. For where a will is involved, the death of the one who made it must be established. For a will takes effect only at death, since it is not in force as long as the one who made it is alive. 
Hence even the first covenant was not ratified without blood. For when every commandment of the law had been declared by Moses to all the people, he took the blood of calves and goats, with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people, saying, “This is the blood of the covenant which God commanded you.” And in the same way he sprinkled with the blood both the tent and all the vessels used in worship. 
Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins. Thus it was necessary for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. For Christ has entered, not into a sanctuary made with hands, a copy of the true one, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.
Like Exodus 12, this passage distinguishes between two distinct sacrificial aspects: the shedding of blood, and the application of (and purification with) blood. The first paragraph (Heb. 9:15-17) deals with the atoning death of animals under the Old Covenant. A parallel is drawn to Christ’s Death on the Cross on Calvary (Heb. 9:15), in which “a death has occurred which redeems” believers.

Josefa de Ayala, The Sacrificial Lamb (c. 1670-1684)
But the second paragraph transitions to discussing the application of the sacrificial blood. Here, the Old Testament example isn’t about animals being killed, but about Moses taking the blood of the sacrifices, and applying it repeatedly: first to the altar (Ex. 24:6), then to the Book of the Covenant (Ex. 24:7), then to the people themselves (Ex. 24:8), then to the tent, and finally, to the vessels used in worship (Heb. 9:21).

The New Testament parallel here isn’t to Calvary, but to the Last Supper. We see this from Hebrews 9:20, in which Moses is depicted as saying “This is the blood of the covenant which God commanded you.” This passage is vital, because instead of quoting Moses directly, the author of Hebrews blends the words of Moses in Exodus 24:8, with the words of institution at the Last Supper (Matthew 26:28; Mark 14:24; Luke 22:20; 1 Corinthians 11:25).

Calvary is a once-for-all action, just as the slaying of the animals was. But just as Moses is able to apply the blood first to the altar, and then to the Book, and then to the people, without re-sacrificing the animals, the Eucharist can be offered repeatedly without re-crucifying Christ.

One final point about this passage, while we’re on the subject: we are promised that the New Covenant consists of “better sacrifices,” plural, than the Old (Heb. 9:23), yet the Protestant view turns this upside down. That is, Protestants would have to say that Jesus Christ’s words of institution at the Last Supper were merely symbolic, while Moses’ words of institution (Heb. 9:20; Ex. 24:8) were efficacious, since they actually sealed the Covenant, and Moses and the elders proceeded to behold God and eat and drink in His Presence (Ex. 24:11). This is contrary to solid exegesis and typology, and runs counter to Heb. 9:23.

III. Did the Early Christians View the Eucharist as a Sacrifice?

Dieric Bouts the Elder,
Meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek (1464–67)
They did.  For instance, Tertullian, writing between 200 and 206 A.D., answered those who thought that on days of fasting, “they must not be present at the sacrificial prayers, on the ground that the Station [the fast] must be dissolved by reception of the Lord's Body.” Tertullian answered,“Will not your Station be more solemn if you have withal stood at God's altar?” and suggested it ensured “both the participation of the sacrifice and the discharge of duty.

Right around this same time, St. Clement of Alexandria explains that Melchizedek’s sacrifice of bread and wine in Genesis 14:18-20 is a consecrated food for a type of the Eucharist (Hebrews 5-7 draws this same parallel between Melchizedek and Jesus, by the way).

In the middle part of the third century, St. Cyprian explained that the Sacrifice of the Eucharist required wine to be a valid oblation:
Whence it appears that the blood of Christ is not offered if there be no wine in the cup, nor the Lord’s sacrifice celebrated with a legitimate consecration unless our oblation and sacrifice respond to His passion. But how shall we drink the new wine of the fruit of the vine with Christ in the kingdom of His Father, if in the sacrifice of God the Father and of Christ we do not offer wine, nor mix the cup of the Lord by the Lord’s own tradition?
And Eusebius said that, in the Eucharistic celebration, we are daily “admitted to a greater sacrifice than that of the ancient law.”  And later, he describes the two forms of sacrifice Christians partake of:
So, then, we sacrifice and offer incense: On the one hand when we celebrate the Memorial of His great Sacrifice according to the Mysteries He delivered to us, and bring to God the Eucharist for our salvation with holy hymns and prayers; while on the other we consecrate ourselves to Him alone and to the Word His High Priest, devoted to Him in body and soul.
Conclusion

Because the unbloody Sacrifice of the Mass is related-but-distinct from the bloody Sacrifice on Calvary (in the same manner that the Passover is from the Preparation Day), there’s no contradiction between the fact that the Mass is a repeated Sacrifice, while Calvary is once for all.

This distinction, and the reality of the Eucharist as a Sacrifice, is found prefigured in the Old Testament, present in the New, and explained in the Church Fathers.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Calvinism’s Internal Contradiction, Part 2

On Tuesday, I wrote about what an an apparent contradiction within Calvinism: namely, trying to harmonize “perseverance of the saints,” the view that nobody falls away from the faith, with the Calvinist belief in a Great Apostasy, that the entire Church fell away from the faith.  In response, I’ve seen two attempts to harmonize these two ideas.  Neither of them, in my view, succeeds.

I. Blame the Institution, not the Believers

Mary Solari, The Cardinal (1900)
The first is that perseverance of the saints applies only to individuals, and that it wasn’t the individuals who went bad, but the institution. I see the distinction being drawn here, but I’m not sure I see how it solves the problem. How can the institution fall away without the individuals within the institution falling away? Even if you want to blame everything on Church leadership, the problem remains. Did these individual Church leaders fall away from the faith or not?

Additionally, this view doesn’t seem to address the breadth of Calvin’s criticisms of the Church. Calvin argued that the Mass itself was “a reprobate and diabolical ordinance subverting the mystery of the Holy Supper.” If this is true, it’s not just Church leaders who are to blame, but everyone who participates in the Mass, priests and laity alike. Blaming just Church leadership is a bit of a cop-out. After all, a believing Christan can’t participate in a “a reprobate and diabolical ordinance” just because someone else tells them to, right?

The last problem with this view is that, if it if it’s true, we should have seen immediate schisms from the Church, and we don’t. That is, Calvin claims that at some point in history (he’s necessarily vague as to when, since this isn’t true), the Church went from holding to a Calvinist view of the Lord’s Supper to an evil Catholic view of the Eucharist. If this was simply a case of the Church institution being co-opted by non-Christians, where did the Christians go?

If the Church had been taken over by non-Christians, why didn’t we see immediate schism, or at least some sort of organized resistence? When the Anglican Communion started permitting the ordination of women and practicing homosexuals, there was push-back from the conservative quarters, and even the creation of new denominations, like the Anglican Church in North America. But we see nothing of the sort within the Catholic Church regarding the Eucharist, prior to the Reformation. Even the proto-Reformers, like Jan Hus, believed in impanation, which would is no less idolatrous from a Calvinist perspective.

II. The Believers Didn’t Make Converts

The second attempt to harmonize comes from David Bates, a Catholic trying to give Calvinism the benefit of the doubt. He asks:
Could the Calvinist affirm that those early Christians were elect and did persevere, but then after a while, fake Christians entered the Church? The elect persevered but eventually died, leaving only the fake Christians, who were not part of the elect. This situation then continued for many centuries until the Gospel was "recovered" in the 16th Century. With the Gospel recovered, new elect were born, became Christians and persevered to the end.
This is similar, by the way, to the view that Mormons take. They argue that there were believing Christians, but that they failed to make devout converts, so the Church quickly fell into Apostasy.

But in both cases, the problem is the same. Christ prophesies that just as seed that falls on good soil will produce a thirty-fold, sixty-fold, and even hundred-fold crop, so too will those who hear the word and accept it (Mark 4:20).

So the  view that the Church founded by Jesus Christ produced no crop, no second generation of true Christians, runs directly counter to the promises of Jesus. It requires believing that the good tree bore no fruit, while the evil Catholic tree bore all of the fruit that Jesus had promised to the good tree (see Luke 6:43).

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Perseverance of the Saints v. the Great Apostasy: Calvinism’s Internal Contradiction

Calvinism affirms two critical doctrines that are in apparent contradiction with one another. On the one hand, Calvinists claim that nobody falls permanently away from the faith. On the other hand, they claim that the entire Church fell away from the faith for generations, and that the Divinely-ordained Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper was destroyed, and replaced with a diabolical parody, the Eucharistic Sacrifice.

My argument is simple: there’s not a convincing or coherent way to explain how the entire global Church could lose the Sacrament, fall into idolatry, and become a “synagogue of Satan” without losing a member.  You can’t lose the entire Church and not lose a single member.

I. Perseverance of the Saints: Nobody Falls Away

Calvinism teaches “perseverance of the saints,” the doctrine popularly known within Evangelical circles as “once saved, always saved.” The idea is that God calls certain people (the elect) to salvation. These people may stumble or struggle in their faith, but it is literally impossible for them to permanently fall away. Here’s what the 1646 Westminster Confession has to say:
John Calvin
I. They whom God hath accepted in his Beloved, effectually called and sanctified by his Spirit, can neither totally nor finally fall away from the state of grace; but shall certainly persevere therein to the end, and be eternally saved.

II. This perseverance of the saints depends, not upon their own freewill, but upon the immutability of the decree of election, flowing from the free and unchangeable love of God the Father; upon the efficacy of the merit and intercession of Jesus Christ; the abiding of the Spirit and of the seed of God within them; and the nature of the covenant of grace; from all which ariseth also the certainty and infallibility thereof.

III. Nevertheless they may, through the temptations of Satan and of the world, the prevalence of corruption remaining in them, and the neglect of the means of their perseverance, fall into grievous sins; and for a time continue therein: whereby they incur God's displeasure, and grieve his Holy Spirit; come to be deprived of some measure of their graces and comforts; have their hearts hardened, and their consciences wounded; hurt and scandalise others, and bring temporal judgments upon themselves.
So we can know, with certainty and infallibility, that those who are saved at any point in their lives will preserve to the end. We are assured that not a single true Christian will be lost, a promise that the Westminster Confession tells us is ensured due to the love of the Father, the merits and intercession of the Son, and the abiding of the Spirit.

II. The Great Apostasy: The Church Fell Away 

The problem with Calvinists and Evangelicals holding to perseverance of the saints or “Once Saved, Always Saved,” is that they simultaneously believe that the entire Catholic Church fell away from the Gospel.  The 1536 Geneva Confession, written personally by John Calvin, claimed that the entire Catholic Church, in following the pope, had ceased to be a church at all, becoming a “synagogue of Satan”:
Titian, John Calvin (16th c.)
ARTICLE 18 - The Church 
While there is one only Church of Jesus Christ, we always acknowledge that necessity requires companies of the faithful to be distributed in different places. Of these assemblies each one is called the Church. But in as much as all companies do not assemble in the name of our Lord, but rather to blaspheme and pollute him by their sacrilegious deeds, we believe that the proper mark by which we rightly discern the Church of Jesus Christ is that his holy gospel be purely and faithfully preached, proclaimed, heard, and kept, that his sacrament be properly adminisered, even if there be some imperfections and faults, as there always will be among men. On the other hand, where the Gospel is not declared, heard, and recieved, there we do not acknowledge the form of the Church. Hence the churches governed by the ordinances of the pope are rather synagogues of the devil than Christian churches.
Calvin also specifically cited the Eucharist as idolatry, and “a reprobate and diabolical ordinance”:
ARTICLE 16 - The Holy Supper 
The Supper of our Lord is a sign by which under bread and wine he represents the true spiritual communion which we have in his body and blood. And we acknowledge that according to his ordinance it ought to be distributed in the company of the faithful, in order that all those who wish to have Jesus for their life be partakers of it. 
In as much as the mass of the pope was a reprobate and diabolical ordinance subverting the mystery of the Holy Supper, we declare that it is execrable to us, an idolatry condemned by God; for so much is it itself regarded as a sacrifice for the redemption of souls that the bread is in it taken and adored by God. Besides there are other execrable blasphemies and superstitions implied here, and the abuse of the Word of God which is taken in vain without profit or edification.
Elsewhere, in Articles Concerning the Organization of the Church and of Worship at Geneva, Calvin laid out his views on the Lord’s Supper, claiming that these were the views of the pre-apostate Church:
Such also was always the practice of the ancient Church, until the abomination of the mass was introduced, in which, in place of this communion of all the faithful, there was set up the horrible sacrilege that one man sacrifices for all. In this the Supper has been wholly destroyed and abolished.
An obvious problem emerges.  Calvin is describing the entire Church as falling away, substituting the Divinely-ordained Lord’s Supper with a Satanic and idolatrous Eucharist.

Besides the theological problems with these claims, and besides the glaring historical inaccuracy of claiming that the Church used to take a non-sacrificial view of the Sacrament, these views of an Apostatizing Church run headlong into the Calvinist view on perseverance of the saints. If no one can totally fall away, how could the entire Church fall away for centuries?

III. Conclusion

Jean Ingres,
Christ Giving the Keys to Peter (1814)
These two contradictory doctrines within Calvinism are not ancillary. “Perseverance of the saints” is required, if Calvinism’s doctrines on monergism and the irresistibility of grace are true. But the Calvinist view of the apostasy of the Church is also required, or else, the Reformation becomes indefensible. That is, if the visible Church that Jesus Christ founded didn’t fall away into idolatry, Calvin and his followers are in serious trouble, since, as Calvin noted in Institutes, breaking off from a true Church is a serious offense against God:
However it may be, where the preaching of the gospel is reverently heard and the sacraments are not neglected, there for the time being no deceitful or ambiguous form of the church is seen; and no one is permitted to spurn its authority, flout its warnings, resist its counsels, or make light of its chastisements—much less to desert it and break its unity. For the Lord esteems the communion of his church so highly that he counts as a traitor and apostate from Christianity anyone who arrogantly leaves any Christian society, provided it cherishes the true ministry of Word and sacraments. He so esteems the authority of the church that when it is violated he believes his own diminished.
This also points to an even deeper problem. Calvin attempts to affirm God’s Sovereignty in a such a way that man lacks the capacity to resist or reject the will of God, while simultaneously claiming that this Sovereign God permitted (or caused) the Church that His Son founded to be destroyed and replaced by a synagogue of Satan.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Misunderstanding God: Where Atheists Go Wrong in Opposing Christianity

A post I wrote last week on Catholicism and atheism received over 200,000 views and (as of this writing) over 900 comments.  Most of these were negative, but they were helpful in showing the areas that many atheists go awry in their opposition to religion.  I’m hardly the first to notice that the same errors get made time and time again. Fr. Robert Barron, of the popular Catholicism and Word on Fire series, has labelled these errors the “YouTube heresies.”

Four of the major errors that Fr. Barron identifies are: (1) a misunderstanding of what Christians mean by God – whether God is understood as the highest Being or as the ground of Being itself; (2) a belief that Biblical literalism is the most accurate way to understand the Bible; (3) a belief in scientism, “the reduction of knowledge to the scientific way of knowing,” with a concomitant belief that religion and science are antithetical; and (4) the belief that religion is invariably violent. All four of these views were prominently featured in the comments, but I want to focus specifically on two of them: scientism (and its accompanying errors), and the misunderstanding of what Christians mean by “God.”

A. The Trouble With Scientism 

Msgr. Georges Lemaître,
father of Big Bang Cosmology 
Most of the atheists who commented seem to have started from the same philosophical assumption: that you can only know what you can prove, and that all proof is scientific proof.  In this view, “real” things are things that science can prove, while “faith” refers to the obstinate, and inherently irrational, belief in those things that aren’t “real.”  Both of the underlying propositions (that all knowledge is provable, and that all proof is scientific) are false, and this grossly misunderstands what Christians mean by “faith.”  Fr. Barron explained it this way, in Church and New Media:
The sciences - and their attendant technologies - have been so massively successful that people have come, understandably enough, to see the scientific way of knowing as the only epistemological path. 

Time and again, my conversation partners on YouTube urge me to admit that the only valid form of truth is that which comes as a result of the scientific method: observing the world, gathering evidence, marshaling arguments, performing experiments, etc. I customarily respond that the scientific method is effective indeed when investigating empirical phenomena but that it is useless when it comes to questions of a more philosophical nature, such as the determination of the morally right and wrong, the assessment of something’s aesthetic value, or the settling of the question why there is something rather than nothing.

More to it, I argue that to hold consistently to scientism involves one in an operational contradiction, for the claim that all knowledge is reducible to scientific knowledge is not itself a claim that can be justified scientifically! But this appeal to metaphysics and philosophy strikes most of my conversation partners as obscure at best, obfuscating at worst.
Since the claim that all truth must be scientifically provable is not itself scientifically provable, it’s self-refuting (by the claim’s own standard, it renders itself false).  More than that, such a claim would require us to disregard most of what we know (since most of our knowledge is not derived from scientific inquiry).

Charles Willson Peale, George Washington (1776)
For example, my own background is in history and law, neither of which confines itself to the methods used by the natural sciences. Lawyers, judges, and juries consider physical evidence where available, but also explicitly recognizes written and testimonial evidence as evidence as well.  Historians also look heavily to the written record, and base their findings off of what the eyewitnesses to history say.

For example, “George Washington was the first president of the United States of America” is a factual claim, in a way that “George Washington was my favorite president of the United States of America” is not (since the latter is a subjective opinion). We can know that Washington was the first president, even though we cannot recreate his presidency in a lab experiment. Since it’s unrepeatable, the claim is not scientific, but it’s still true, and still a fact.

In the original webcomic, Matthew Inman compared an individual’s religious belief to having a favorite color: that is, a subjective claim, and a matter of mere personal preference.  I stated in response that this view fundamentally misunderstands religion. We understand religion to be objectively true, as true as “3 x 3 = 9.”  This claim proved to be far more controversial than I anticipated. Apparently, several of the commenters assumed that since the Resurrection isn’t provable in the same manner than math is provable, it’s not equally true.

In defending scientism, one of the commenters showed both the prevalence, and the intellectual weakness, of the methodology:
“It's just a rational way of looking at things. If you have $100 in your pocket - take it out and show me - don't expect me to just blindly believe you have said $100 in your pocket because you read about it in a book or it came to you in a dream or some other no-win argument.”
His own hypothetical shows the flaws in this approach. If a friend of yours has $100 in his pocket, this is true whether or not he proves it to you. Think about the old cliché about a tree falling in the forest: truth is true, whether or not it’s observable or testable (which, by the way, aren’t the same thing). And if you believed your friend when he told you that he had $100 in his pocket, this wouldn’t be simply “blind belief.” Rather, you’d be basing your belief off of evidence: namely, his testimony -- and he should know.  So it’s not as if you randomly came to this conclusion without reason or evidence (or on the basis of a dream, etc.): instead, you opted to believe the testimony of a witness.  In fact, it would be completely rational to believe your friend in this situation, unless you had some good reason not like (your friend is a notorious liar, etc.).

Fr. Gregor Mendel,
the “father of genetics”
Drawing reasoned conclusions on the basis of witness testimony is one of the critical ways that the criminal justice system operates in this, and every, country.  It’s also what scientists do. They trust the testimony of other scientists without repeating every prior scientific test: the alternative, individually subjecting every claim to scientific testing, would be both functionally impossible and intellectually futile.

For some reason, several of the atheists who commented persisted in demanding that religion be tested in the same way that empirical claims are tested within the natural sciences.  Or more accurately, they demanded it be proven in a way that even natural science isn’t:  “Prove your case. Prove it using testable, repeatable, independently-verifiable means. Do it in such a way that you remove all possibility of doubt.  Until you do this, your assertions have no validity, and no place in a thinking, progressive world.”  This standard is arbitrarily and unreasonably specific.  In limiting the acceptable proof to that which uses “testable, repeatable, independently-verifiable means,” the commenter is disregarding not only those truths known from theology, but also many of the truths known from history, philosophy, anthropology, archaeology, law, and so forth.

But it’s not just the specificity of the standard that’s problematic: it’s also an arbitrarily, unreasonably, impossibly high burden of proof.  By this standard, the existence of a single atheist debunks Christianity.  This standard of proof seems to be drawn up out of thin air.  Certainly, Christianity doesn’t claim to provide evidence that no person could ever doubt. Neither, for that matter, does any field of science.  Nor could they, as even a scientific view that has survived rigorous testing could still prove to be wrong at a later day. This isn’t the standard that any facts are held to (including those in the natural sciences). It’s not even the standard we use in capital cases.  We’ve literally sent men to their deaths on less epistemological certainty than the commenter is demanding. We’ve also sent men to the moon on less certaint, since nothing within astronomy can be proven ‘beyond all possible doubt.’

In that sense, then, this standard of proof would literally eliminate all knowledge, including scientific and mathematical knowledge.  After all, there’s at least the possibility of doubt that 3 x 3 = 9.  Perhaps you’ve done your math wrong, or your calculator is broken, or you don’t know what “3” or “9” mean, or the universal constants have suddenly shifted since you last did the formula. These possibilities are all exceedingly unlikely, but they provide at least the possibility of doubt.

Yet this literally-impossible standard and methodology is the one that was quickly agreed upon as the appropriate burden of proof on theism, with one commenter adding: “Excellent reply Jim, no doubt you will not receive a response from the writer of this dribble because he is not able to refute that. He relies on ‘faith’ much like a child relies on Santa Claus coming every year as long as the kid is good.”  I think the clamoring for this literally-impossible standard shows both how widespread the self-refuting error of scientism is, and how destructive.  Taken seriously, this would eliminate our ability to know anything, not just the existence of God.

God as Geometer, Codex Vindobonensis 2554 (1250)
So how does all of this relate to the truth of Catholicism? Contrary to what several of the commenters suggested, we don’t just believe because we stumbled upon a Book (the Bible) and assumed it to be literally true.  Nor do we simply believe blindly, without evidence.

On the contrary, the Resurrection is a specific historical event. As early as Pentecost, fifty days after the alleged Resurrection, St. Peter stood up in front of thousands of people in Jerusalem and asserted that the Tomb in which Jesus Christ was buried was empty: a factual claim that could have been easily debunked if His Body was, in fact, in the nearby Tomb. Peter, and several other eyewitnesses, reported seeing this risen Jesus, and were willing to be executed rather than recant this testimony. They, and Jesus of Nazareth Himself, were also reported by eyewitnesses to have performed miracles, providing a sort of external verification for their claims.

These testimonies were believed by large groups of the Apostles’ contemporaries living everyone from Spain to Ethiopia to India, and their written records were preserved, and have been copied innumerable times and passed on. As a matter of simple historical record, they are better attested than perhaps any other documents in antiquity.

Believing the historical record left by these eyewitnesses is not, as far as I can tell, any more irrational than believing any other eyewitness testimony, or the testimony of any other witness -- including believing the testimony of other scientists in your field, without personally repeating each of their tests.  On the contrary, it strikes me as (by far) the most rational explanation for the known historical facts.

But it’s not just through history that we come to know the truth of theism (and of Christianity, specifically).  For example, St. Thomas Aquinas used logic and philosophy to prove his Five Ways, which established that the existence of a Creator is logically necessary.  To date, no atheist has satisfactorily rebutted these arguments.  So “faith” doesn’t mean “holding a particular view without evidence,” even if most of the forms of that evidence are different from what we have in the natural sciences.  In fact, as will be clearer in the next point, it’s unreasonable to expect the evidence of God to be like the evidence for (say) a comet, since God isn’t within the universe (and thus, not within the scope of the competency of the natural sciences).

B. Misunderstanding God

Back in 2006, the late Senator Ted Stevens infamously described the Internet this way:
And again, the Internet is not something that you just dump something on. It's not a big truck. It's a series of tubes. And if you don't understand, those tubes can be filled and if they are filled, when you put your message in, it gets in line and it's going to be delayed by anyone that puts into that tube enormous amounts of material, enormous amounts of material.
It was painfully (and admittedly, amusingly) obvious that the Senator had no idea what he was talking about. He’d gleaned facts about the way that the Internet worked, but was imagining it all wrong.

I’m reminded of this when I hear certain atheists talk about what we Christians mean by “God.” For example, in the comments to the prior post, believers were characterized as “misinformed people who worship imaginary sky creatures,” and whose belief is akin to believing in an “invisible pink unicorn.” Another commenter described Christians as being in a God Who is an “invisible man.” But understanding the Christian notion of God as an invisible Man in the sky is like understanding the Internet as a series of tubes full of 1’s and 0’s: it’s comical, but absurdly incorrect.

Perhaps the people making these claims know this, and are just presenting Christianity in an absurd way to try to make us look stupid. I’m not convinced. Many of the people in question seem to honestly believe that this is what we mean by “God,” which is another of the “YouTube heresies” that Fr. Barron describes. From Church and New Media, again:
Thomas Merton, O.C.S.O.
In his Seven Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton recalled the first time he read Etienne Gilson's The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy and encountered a philosophically sophisticated understanding of God as ipsum esse (the sheer act of being itself). He was flabbergasted because he had assumed that God was, in his words, a "noisy and dramatic" mythological being.

Again and again, in my dialogues on YouTube, I encounter the characterization of God as a “sky fairy,” an “invisible friend,” or my favorite, “the flying spaghetti monster.” This last one comes from the militant atheist Richard Dawkins, who insinuates that there is as much evidence for God as for this fantastic imaginary creature.

Almost no one with whom I dialogue considers the possibility that God is not one being among many, not the “biggest thing around,” not something that can be categorized or defined in relation to other things. Throughout his career, Thomas Aquinas insisted that God is best described, not as ens summum (highest being), but rather as ipsum esse (the subsistent act of being itself). As such, God is not a thing or existent among many. In fact, Aquinas specifies, God cannot be placed in any genus, even the genus of being. This distinction - upon which so much of Christian theology hinges - is lost on almost everyone with whom I speak on YouTube.

One of the best indicators of this confusion is the repeated demand for “evidence” of God’s existence, by which my interlocutors typically mean some kind of scientifically verifiable trace of this elusive and most likely mythological being. My attempts to tell them that the Creator of the entire universe cannot be, by definition, an object within the universe are met, usually, with complete incomprehension.
Fr. Barron alludes to the fact that this second error is tied to the first, scientism.  If you understand “God” to be a material, invisible entity living inside the universe, then it makes sense to expect that the search for God should be like the search for the “God particle.”  So you end up with people saying things like this:
There is not clear evidence of the existence of a God in the sense that there *is* evidence of the guy next to me in the subway, or of the millions of people who live in the same city as me, by the sheer fact that I see many of them, and the artifacts they create and leave behind, every day. No one would seriously dispute their existence. People can, and do, dispute the existence of God because the artifacts that a given God would at least have left behind do not exist.
The artifacts that a given God would have left behind? From a Christian perspective, this argument is just incoherent, since it assumes a God that is an elusive creature wandering around the universe, some sort of cross between Galactus and Carmen Sandiego.

Let me use an example by analogy, with intelligibility.  For science to work, the universe must be intelligible. But intelligibility isn’t a material thing, and it’s not something that can be “discovered” through science. Rather, it’s a transcendental truth, and one that requires an Intelligent Creator, since the unintelligible cannot produce the intelligible. For this reason, C. S. Lewis described his faith in Christianity like this: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”  If, in response to this, you sought to disprove the existence of universal intelligibility by showing that it doesn’t show up on a spectrometer, your argument would simply miss the mark.  You’d be (irrationally) expecting an immaterial thing to behave like a material one.

If this is the view of God an atheist popular among atheists, it’s no wonder that we see the search for God being compared to the search for the Loch Ness Monster: both of them are about chasing for particularly elusive creatures.  I suppose it’s reasonable to reject this “God,” just as it would be reasonable to deny the existence of the Internet, if it was understood as a series of tubes of 1s and 0s. Such an Internet, and such a God, do not exist. But the problem, in both cases, is a gross misunderstanding of terms. So the solution isn’t to reject the existence of the Internet, or God. It’s to find out what those terms really mean.

For example, contrary to several of the comments I received, Christians don’t believe that the Trinity is a creature. The word “creature” literally means “a created thing,” or “a being subservient to or dependent upon another.”  It’s as if the definition, even the etymology, of the word is screaming, “If you think God is one of these, you misunderstand Him!”  Thomas Merton’s humility, in re-learning what he “knew” about the idea of God lead him from agnosticism to Catholicism.  But that won’t happen if you refuse to take that first step, and insist on raging against an “Imaginary Sky Fairy” view of God.

C. Miscellany

Obviously, given the breadth of the topic and the wide range of comments, much more could be said.  Here are some of the other points that would be worth addressing in more depth, but which I omitted for brevity’s sake:
  1. There were, generally-speaking, two large blocks of negative commenters: those who claimed that it was a webcomic, and so, shouldn’t be discussed seriously (e.g., “Serious concepts deserve serious conversations. Cartoons do not”), and those who claimed that the webcomic made serious points that were true (e.g., “Maybe he exaggerated a little but the points in the comic were pretty much spot on”).  These groups can’t both be right; I’d argue that they’re both wrong. I see no reason that Inman can’t use humor and a webcomic format to raise serious points. I just think that the points he’s making are wrong.  Claiming “it was just a joke!” is a cop-out.

  2. There’s an obsession with claiming offense.  Several of the commenters viewed the rebuttal as me simply saying, “I’m offended!” For example, RationalWiki described the rebuttal this way: “The Oatmeal's 'How To Suck At Your Religion' comic is offensive to Catholics because... because... because WWWAAAAAHHHH!!!”  I mentioned that the comic was offensive once, as a warning to anyone about to click the link.  My points wasn’t remotely that the arguments in the comic were “offensive to Catholics.” It’s that the arguments were wrong.

    Having said that, there were a lot of people who cried offense, in lieu of calmly presenting an argument.  They just happened to be on the same side as “Rational” Wiki.   For example: I find it personally offensive that you are generalizing so many different types of people. People aren't meant to fit inside the imaginary boxes of society. You generalize atheists to being smug and hostile while implying that believers are SUPERIOR to all other human beings. Don't you remember what events that kind of thinking inspired? The Holocaust, Crusades, and Apartheid are just a few of them. This post reinforces the stereotypes of "the religious nut" who is hypercritical of any opinion that opposes their own. If anything, I find this post to be hostile, bigoted, and pretentious.”  Saying that you’re offended doesn’t mean that I’m wrong. It may just mean that I’m presenting the truth in a clumsy and imperfect way... or that you’re thin-skinned, or want to shut down the discussion.

    On a related note, 
     I was accused of hating atheists and (just for good measure) Muslims. The latter accusation seems to be based on a misreading of my response to panel 10.  These accusations are neither true nor relevant.

  3. Embryo (8 1/2 weeks),
    Gray's Anatomy plate
  4. The Auschwitz and Embryonic Stem Cell Connection: The webcomic attempted to paint opposition to embryonic stem-cell research as anti-science. It’s not. Instead, it’s an ethical opposition to medical research that profits off of the killing of unborn children. In this sense, it’s no different than ethical opposition to medical research that profits off of other murders, like those who opposed the experiments Josef Mengele did on murdered Jewish twins at Auschwitz.

    The reason is the same for each case. Being pro-science doesn’t mean that you’re in favor of doing literally anything that advances scientific research: a moral and ethical framework is absolutely necessary to the field (as Hippocrates recognized long ago). To denounce the presence of an ethical framework for “hinder[ing] the advancement of science, technology, or medicine” is a radical and dangerous line of thought.

    In response to this, several people played the offense card (see point # 2), saying that it “may or may not be one of the most offensive things I've read today.And: “Is anyone else horrified by a comparison of Auschwitz to stem cell research?! I find that to be offensive and disgusting.” To which someone else responded: “I am equally horrified; I stopped reading right there.” Then came the high dudgeon: “Sir, I have rarely seen rhetoric as repugnant as your attempt to exploit the torture and extermination of millions of my people to score cheap political points against an Internet cartoonist.

    The comparison I drew was about the ethical opposition to “medical research that profits off of mass killing” in both cases.  Commenters argued that an embryo was less of a human ... because it is made up of fewer cells.  By this logic, of course, short and skinny people are less human than me.  One commenter retorted: “are you going to call me a murderer for exfoliating because those are just cells too.”    True, an embryo is a collection of cells. So are you and me.  Suggesting that exfoliating is equivalent to abortion because both are the removal of a collection of cells is like suggesting that hair cuts and decapitations are the same, because both remove cells from the top of a person’s body.

    Another commenter actually invoked science in defending this very anti-scientific argument: “a collection of cells is not 'scientifically' considered life; you poop more cells down the toilet each day. When the embryo develops a nervous system you can consider it a living creature- before that is is not sentient.” A a question of pure science, this is garbage.  There’s literally no question that the embryo is a living (albeit tiny) human being. The sole question in dispute is whether he or she should be treated as a “person,” a non-scientific classification, assigning moral worth to some humans.  Remind me again who is being anti-science, here?

  5. But his comic wasn’t against all religious people! A number of commenters argued that the comic wasn’t against all religious people, but just the bad ones. But the comic groups everyone from jihadists to parents who tell their kids about the Resurrection in a single group: those who force their religion onto other people.  It does this by defining “force” to include everything from answering questions about the faith or door-to-door evangelization to suicide bombing.

    I appreciate nuance, and distinguishing good from bad religion (in fact, the New York Times’ Ross Douthat recently did this well in a very good book). But as I said before: the comic does this by putting basically everything above agnosticism in the “sucks” category.  So it does what it set out to do very badly. 

I don’t imagine that this post is going to single-handedly end the New Atheism phenomenon, but hopefully, it’ll lead at least some readers to take Catholicism seriously enough to get an intellectual mooring as to what it is that they claim to be opposing.