Why I Believe: Because the Bible is Difficult

It’s been a while since I’ve posted, but I’ve still been thinking about a series of posts on “Why I Believe”. I’m not interested in posting the usual reasoned arguments (you can find 20 such arguments here), but I’d rather attack the accusation that Christians in general, and Catholics specifically, believe without any shred of evidence that God exists.

Roger Bacon, the father of the modern scientific method (and a Catholic priest), wrote about the need for evidence and how it gives us a knowledge that is more in depth. As I tried to point out in this post (but, frankly failed to point out effectively as it was often misinterpreted), my personal belief comes with evidence, validation, and confirmation. Frankly, the more I learn about my faith, the more it rings true.

Chesterton may have put it best (as he often does) when he said that ultimately he believes in God because it is true.  A quick dismissal of this statement may dismiss it as circular and unreasoned, but the statement is packed with implications of verification for that belief.

So it is with that said that I make my first argument, or present my first bit of evidence. This does not prove God, nor Christianity, nor Catholicism, but it does offer one shred of evidence in an entire sea of evidence pointing to the irrefutable truth that God exists.

I Believe Because the Bible isn’t Simple

In talking to @omgbiblequotes about how we read the bible, he responded with this:

Many atheists on Twitter (and other places, I suspect), love to point out apparent discrepancies and difficult passages in the bible. For example, Saul demanding the complete and total obliteration of an entire army. Or the Psalm which talks about bashing the heads of babies against a stone. Or laws which demand the stoning for seemingly minor offenses. Or passages which seem to promote misogyny and discrimination.

These passages can be difficult to understand if we approach the bible as simply a guidebook or simply a rule of life or set of morals. Fr. Baron (who reviews movies on his Youtube channel – you got to see his review of Quantam of Solace) talks about the irony and seeming discomfort of concluding the reading of Saul hacking King Agag to pieces with the standard closing “The Word of the Lord”.

Christians who do not have a basis in tradition or who do not have an understanding why we believe the Bible is inspired (and what that actually means) undoubtedly have to pivot and shift their arguments to account for these passages. Many of them fall into the heresy of Marcionism – a denial of the Old Testament being relevant or necessary in today’s world.

But I would challenge those Christians – and I will offer this challenge to atheists as well – to think about the indisputable fact that the Church in its early days not only accepted the Old Testament as inspired (difficult stories and all), but the Church doubled down on this position by ratifying the canon of books multiple times throughout its history (even as recent as the council of Trent).  These weren’t decisions that were made rashly or without thought. In fact, hundreds of years of thought and tradition went into these declarations. The difficult passages, the apparent discrepancies (for example, the apparent discrepancy of the ultimate fate of Judas Iscariot), were well known to those early church fathers. Modern day atheism, for as proud as it is to display and parade these apparent ‘deal breakers’, is hardly revealing anything new.

The Bible vs. Other Inspired Books

There are other books that claim divine inspiration. The book of Mormon (not the musical), the Koran, etc. But the Bible is unique to any other book that claims divine inspiration in infallibility.

What makes the Bible unique is that it claims one divine author (God) who inspired a multitude of co-authors, who give the Word of God voice and color within for us to experience. These co-authors did not come from one region and one time. They span centuries and vast geographical expanses. The bible is not made up of a single literary style – it is made up of allegory, of poetry, of historical account, of instruction, of legalism, of instruction, and so on.

Yet for as far reaching as the Bible is, for all the centuries that it’s authors span, and for the vast regions it’s co-authors called home, it is marvelously coherent.

This image showing apparent contradictions in the Bible made its rounds through social media:

mvq9Ax8

But this graph was inspired by another, similar graph which shows the cross-references within the bible:

BibleVizArc7mediumOrig

When we read the Bible recognizing that it was not written with one pen, does not have the voice of one human author, and spans such great distances and times, the coherence of the Bible is quite remarkable.

Digging further into the Bible we see remarkable events and prefigurements that would make the greatest novelists jealous. For example, the story of Abraham leading his son Isaac to be sacrificed. Rather than do this an injustice, listen to Fr. Barron (yes again) talk about the prefigurement and absolute wonder of this story which would be replayed in its fullness centuries later by Christ.

This Style Reflects Life

 I have run into several atheists who take exception to the Bible and the fact that it is difficult to understand. One may look at the charts above and immediately say that this is reason to dismiss the Bible as being inspired. I have talked to atheists who question why God couldn’t have written a book that is more clear and easy to understand, that doesn’t create such disagreements and require interpretation.

But what is the alternative? A book that reads like installation instructions for a stereo? A book of simple laws filled with “do’s and don’ts”?

The Bible most perfectly reflects real humanity. We know that life is not made up of black and white decisions. It is not just happy or sad, but there are all sorts of colors and shades that make up life. Human existence is complex. We are forced to try and interpret the events in our own lives and the lives of our loved ones to try and make sense of it.

The Bible tells multiple stories. We see the overarching story of salvation, but this overarching narrative is quilted together with books that fit and match the complexities of our every day lives. I stated earlier that the bible is not just one literary style – this is one of the beautiful things about this complex book. It allows us to pick up on subtleties between books, verses, and passages. We can see the bible tied together by Christ himself (and thus we must always read the Bible through the prism of Christ’s mission) and we can see how even those difficult passages in the bible color and give us deeper meaning on how to approach our very own lives.

Not a Proof, but One of Many Pieces of Evidence

As I mentioned in my opening, this is not intended to be a proof, but rather one drop among a sea of evidence that supports my faith.  As a Catholic, I don’t throw away the Old Testament, I embrace it. I read the Old Testament in light of Christ.  The reason the Old Testament is important is because of Christ – without Him the books simply do not make sense.

I understand this will likely fall short among atheists, but I have been asked for my evidence, my proof, the reasons for my belief. Frankly, if the Bible was more ‘straightforward’, it would lead me to be more inclined to deny its place as the Word of God. But the very fact that it mirrors and reflects the myriad of conditions we can find ourselves in through authors that wrote in different styles, different voices, different times, and different locations seems far more appropriate than a single book with one author, one purpose, one pen, and one application provides additional validation to the claim that it is the inspired word of God.

Atheists, Help: Why I Believe

I am looking for help from skeptics and atheists. This is a genuine request – not a sarcastic request. I have been thinking about an analogy the past few days, but have not been able to vet it out. I figure what better way than to put it out to atheists as fair game to criticize. So if you are game, read on and feel free to comment here or on Twitter. I don’t mind criticism, so have at it.

The Setup: The Problem

I have been asked a few times on Twitter both “why do I believe” and also to provide evidence that God exists. I have been, admittedly, reluctant to respond. You may assume this is because I have no such evidence, but that isn’t the case. The problem is, the answer to “why do I believe” is not the same answer I would give to why you should believe. Frustratingly enough, I think that no matter how strongly I can present evidence of why you should believe, final confirmation rests in more than external evidence.

https://twitter.com/iraqvet1980/status/383311374316625920

The fact is, I didn’t come to believe because I saw external evidence, although my faith has since been confirmed. I see that evidence now, but I never needed it to come to believe. I was raised Catholic. As a teenager and an adult I challenged my faith, investigated, and tried to seek out its truth (or lack of truth). What I found makes it utterly unreasonable for me to deny my faith.

This, however, is admittedly insufficient for anyone external to myself. So I want to provide an analogy and ask you, the skeptic, to respond. Does this make sense? I do not expect (nor am I trying) to convince you of God’s existence, just to explain why my faith is reasonable.

The Analogy: Proving Fire Causes Pain

I thought of this analogy when looking at all of the Catholic cleric scientists that have existed throughout the ages. I was reading quotes from Roger Bacon – father of the modern scientific method. I found this:

“Argument is conclusive… but… it does not remove doubt, so that the mind may never rest in the sure knowledge of the truth, unless it finds it by the method of experiment. For if any man who never saw fire proved by satisfactory arguments that fire burns, his hearer’s mind would never be satisfied, nor would he avoid the fire until he put his hand in it that he might learn by experiment what argument taught.”

This sounds so much like many of the atheists I have had the fortune of talking with. I see some atheists talk about how faith in God is unreasonable, but for someone like myself who has ‘had their hand in the fire’, lack of faith in God would be to deny the reality of the burn.

In essence, yes, I do believe there is plenty of external evidence that fire burns and that God exists. But it isn’t until one places their hand in the fire that their conviction would be complete and their belief would be solid.

The Breakdown of the Analogy

The analogy breaks down for me in the differences between the experience of burning and the experience of God. The fact is, the experience of God is not a passing moment intense in its moment but diminishing with time. The experience of God fundamentally changes who we are as a person if we allow it to do so.

There are certain experiences in our lives that force a change in who we are as people. On the negative side we see this in soldiers who experience gruesome warfare, or people who endure extreme suffering. On the positive side we may see this when someone reaches a significant accomplishment or when a person finds a mate that they truly love. The experience of God is like that- just far more intense.

For myself personally, the confirmation of God comes with the great beauty that opens up before me. Humanity makes sense. Love makes sense. Our desires for acceptance, for love, for purpose, for the good of others and ourselves make sense. The logical disciplines of philosophy and the sciences fit into theology in a way that I imagine they could not possibly do for the atheist. They do so in a way that is more beautiful than can be possibly described. Just as the sensation of burn can’t be described adequately to someone who has never been burned, the beauty that Catholicism opens up for me as well as the indescribable shaping of my being towards God, is something that can’t be described, but hopefully it’s effects can be observed.

A Quick Frustration: The Unscientific Approach to God

I know many atheists hear this sort of an answer when they ask why someone believes: it’s personal, or “I’ve had an experience”, or something similar. I understand the frustration – it is why I am frustrated in trying to answer it. It is, of course, the best answer for reasons I explained above and reasons that Bacon would have agreed to: confirmation of God’s existence – that firm confirmation every atheist is asking for – requires that we put our hand in the fire.

Yet when I talk to many atheists (not all, mind you), I find that they never actually have tested the hypothesis of God’s existence.

The objection I hear is “why pray when I don’t believe or would be praying to nothing?” The answer to this is to simply pray to the vagueness, to the emptiness, to the nothingness.  Reasonable men have done crazier things in the privacy of their minds.

As an atheist, you can deny that God exists, but you cannot deny the hypothesis of God. And it’s existence isn’t minimal either. Humanity is unmistakably shaped by it, and despite reports of religion’s death, we see evidence of it growing in many modern societies.  Many atheists have looked for evidence and dismissed that which is given to them as ‘unscientific’ and ‘not objective or verifiable’. Yet the problem is that they are bringing their biases into the experiment. Their approach defines God first, then denies that biased definition based on what is offered as evidence.

Rather than take that approach, why not take the most basic approach to the question: “Does God exist?”. We know that Christianity teaches above all that God is love, God is personal, and that God is the creator of all things. So why not start here and keep all other biases out?

I would be genuinely interested in this experiment. I started from a position of belief and have had that belief confirmed by putting my hand into the flame. I would be interested if any atheist would ever be willing to, for some time, say a prayer without bias, with true curiosity and willingness to discover: “I do not know, but if you exist, make it known in your way and help me to recognize it”.

But I digress.

Your Thoughts on the Analogy

So I am interested in your thoughts in that analogy to explain why I believe. As I stated earlier, I do not expect this to convince anyone of God’s existence.

I do hope to effectively communicate, however, why reasonable people believe.  I guess my hope is that the skeptic can look at the saints who lead lives extraordinary out of a love of God and recognize that if it wasn’t God, these saints had something that moved them to live incredible lives. That if fire doesn’t burn, it does something to cause necessary reaction to the person who puts their hand in the fire.

So go ahead and critique. This is not a fully thought out idea, so I may have just wasted 1300 words…

The Logical Impossibility of Proving God

Update: this has turned into a conversation with Dark Poet. Part 2 of this can be found here.

So much of the debates between atheists and theists rests on the idea of proving God exists or defining who God is.

I’ve been asked a number of times “why do you believe”? It is a tough question to answer. Sure, there’s evidence, but I would be the first to admit that the evidence itself does not necessarily prove God. There’s also personal experience, but that is personal and has no bearing on proving God to someone else. I’ll get into the “why” in a bit, but first:

Defining God Would Disprove God

Measurable, verifiable evidence. This is what many atheists demand and ask for. But if they got it, what would that mean for God?

There are a lot of aspects of God that Christians hold as true: God is the creator of all things, God is infinite, God is all powerful, etc. This is a nice, but trite thing to say when taken at face value. For any atheist reading this, I would invite you for a moment to suspend your disbelief for a moment to allow me to make a point.

Imagine the being that would be needed if indeed the universe, in all of its vastness, with billions of stars, billions of galaxies and galaxy clusters, and a scale that is frankly unfathomable – imagine the being that would be needed to create all of that. Imagine the being needed to create, see, and have in His contemplation all of the atoms and subatomic particles that work within this incomprehensibly large universe.

This would be one powerful being – and that’s just when we think about the physical universe. When we consider the complexity of human relationships, of emotions, and the softer sciences, there is an ecosystem which we gladly dive into to discover, learn, and explore. If there is a being who created the vastness of the universe, and the created world that thousands of scientists for thousands of years have been discovering and unraveling. This being would be unfathomable.

The sheer inability to comprehend what type of being could be responsible for all of this is part of what leads atheists to disbelief (at least, that’s the impression I get).

Yet, despite that as a Christian I believe that a being is responsible for all of this, the atheist will ask us to define God. To prove God. To subject this being to our tests just as we would subject a cell, or atoms, or other objects that were created for us.

If you work from the position of the theist, to prove God exists by means of testable evidence disproves God’s existence as we know Him.  From the Christian perspective, God created man within the world, and the world is created for man’s exploration, discovery, and enjoyment. We can come to know God better through his creation (and his creation also serves practical needs as well).  If God, however, is reduced to something that we can test, measure, and evaluate, that makes Him subject to man, a proposition which is impossible.

To define God would be to disprove him, because that would make him smaller, subject to the confines, rules, and laws of the created world.

Atheists are right: the being they are looking for doesn’t exist.  The funny thing is, for all of the demands and requests by atheists to have Christians prove their God in a scientific manner, they are effectively arguing a straw man by assuming God’s nature would even allow to be tested and subjected. That God doesn’t exist.

How My Son’s Birthday Shows Where We Find Proof

I have a 3 year old son who just had a birthday recently. During the opening of gifts, he sat on a chair in the lawn and kids gathered around him, all excited to see what he got. For a 3 year old boy, the excitement is pretty much unparalleled. With each gift he got, he would yell excitedly what it was, laugh, and all the kids would be wowed in amazement.

Then he came to a bag that had two things in it – a battery powered toy, and the batteries. With the bag on his lap he reached in, grabbed the batteries, and – just like all the other presents – screamed out ‘batteries!’ and proceeded to discard the gift bag which had the real gift in it. He was so excited that it took a lot of effort for my wife and I to direct him back to the bag. He couldn’t understand that there was something more in the bag. Naturally, once he got the bag on his lap and discovered the toy, the excitement was even greater.

This story reminds me a bit of my approach – and I suspect most Christians approach – to ‘proving’ God exists. We have no evidence that there is another present in the bag, but – on faith – we open and explore. What we find when we do this is a confirmation that our response to the call to open the bag was worthwhile.

For any atheist reading this, faith does not mean you have to give up your skepticism. It does not mean you have to throw out reason or profess a belief in the great flood. Faith starts with the understanding that God is not to be proven, but discovered and then being willing to start, even in the smallest of ways, to discover if this God is real.

I will end this post here and recommend that you pick up the post over at the blog of an atheist who became a Catholic.

Ungodly Complexity: A Quick Rebuttal

About a month ago I came across Rosa Rubicondor’s post: “Ungodly Complexity“. There is no way I could compete with the volume of information published there, but I did want to comment on this article as I’ve pondered it for the past month or so and the incredible insight it provides. I don’t intend to provide a formal rebuttal, but rather point out a quick flaw in the argument, then expand on that as the argument itself is something that I think we can ponder.

Quick note: I have no idea if the author is male or female. Because the persona of the blog is “Rosa”, I will refer to the author in the feminine.

The basic argument of the article is that simplicity in design is a signal of intelligent design, that unnecessary complexity shows a lack of intelligence, not a greater intelligence. The example used is a spear tip or a dibber.

nether-wallopoak-dibberThe dibber, in this argument, is a simple tool that effectively does its job.  The spear tip as well is simple in its design, is easy to make, and is always effective.

This argument is then extended to the natural world which, as anyone would admit, is extraordinarily complex. I can’t help but be reminded of this clip from Family Guy (couldn’t find an original video)

Starting with the foundation that simplicity in design = intelligent design, and unnecessarily complexity is a sign of a lack of intelligence, the post goes on to identify what the purpose of humans are. After stumbling through some passages in the bible, the post settles on Ecclesiastes 12:13, which reads “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for this is the whole duty of man.”

The argument is thus fully setup: if the whole duty of man is to fear God and keep his commandments, why the complexity? The argument can be summed up in this quote:

You see, the problem is, the vastly unnecessary complexity for such a nebulous purpose is not evidence of design, especially of intelligent design; it is evidence of unintelligent, undirected and purposeless design

Why I Don’t Entirely Buy the Premise

I don’t necessarily disagree with the premise that simplicity in design is a signal of intelligence. But it does ignore scope and scale.

Let me explain by way of a challenge. Since Rosa used a dibber as an example, let’s get 200 acres of land, 100 acres for me, 100 acres for Rosa. We are both to plant a crop of corn on our respective 100 acres.  Whoever finishes first, wins.

Since Rosa is in favor of the simplicity of a hand dibber, she can use one. I’ll use this:

stock-footage--agriculture-tractor-and-seeder-planting-canola-spring-long-head-on-and-turnWhoever finishes first, wins.

We can do the same thing with her example of a spear tip. We both go hunting for deer, she can use a spear tip, I’ll bring a rifle.

Obviously the human race hasn’t stopped innovating on the early designs she put forward as examples of intelligent design. But why? Are these early designs flawed? Of course not, but sometimes adding complexity, when done intelligently, allows a greater purpose, scope, and scale. The tractor pulling a seeder is more precise, faster, and far more efficient than a single dibber powered by a human hand. The rifle allows for far more efficiency in hunting than the simple spear tip. We see this addition of complexity added to instruments of every kind through history as we seek to do more in a more efficient way (which is why Rosa is using a blog, on a computer, over the Internet, to communicate rather than simply yelling).

Simplicity may be intelligent, but complexity allows for greater purpose.

What this Argument Allows…

I absolutely love the argument she put forward. In searching for the purpose of humanity she filtered down centuries of writing, thought, scriptures, and tradition down to a single verse in the bible (who knew it was that easy?). Unfortunately that verse is talking about the duty of man, not necessarily purpose.

As a Catholic, however, this argument itself is fantastic. Forget for a moment about whether the argument is legitimate or not, whether she has ‘disproved’ God or not. View this, if you will, from the standpoint of a Christian.  Her question looks at creation and begs the question to be asked: why? Why would God create such complexity? From the standpoint of a Christian who does believe God is the creator of every particle in the universe, this is a fascinating question.

We are able to put estimates on the size of the universe and attach numbers to this size, but are we really able to conceptualize its size? We are able to put numbers on just how small atoms, quarks, hadrons, etc are, but do we really have a full concept in our heads as to how the world works at this sub-atomic level? Can we imagine a solitary pebble on a planet in some distant solar system in a galaxy cluster beyond our possible reach?

The universe is an amazing, incredible place that we can ponder, explore, learn, unravel, and play in seemingly infinitely. Why, though, would God create such vastness, such smallness?

Atheists commonly misread the Bible, but this is one of the key messages in Genesis 2: the entire universe, and everything in it, was made for humans. We are created rational, reasonable beings with intelligence and curiosity. God wants us to explore, to learn, to discover. He wants us to play, and creation is our playground.

I have young children. Just like any parent, I’ll often create something for my kids to play with and explore. Their exploration and play teaches them basic skills and lessons that cannot be taught in a classroom and which form a foundation for more formal education.

Creation, in all of its wondrous complexity, is a giant playground that God gave us to gaze at, to be inspired by, to be confounded by, to explore, discover, ponder, and enjoy. Creation exists so that we may know God more and encounter Him in ways that simple books and words cannot hope to accomplish. We encounter God in science, in creation, our relationships, both good and bad, in love, in death, in birth, in happiness, in sadness, and so on. God, like any parent, wants us to use our reason and intellect, our curiosity and desire for discovery, and as we marvel in awe at His incredible creation we gain glimpses of this God that cannot be explained in simple words, inspired though they might be.

Our Real Purpose

So what is our purpose? If I were asked to pull it down to one verse like Rosa tried, I wouldn’t choose Ecclesiastes, I’d go with Matthew 22:37 “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” And to love God in this way is to come to know him, both in religion, but also in the created universe – the playground He gave His children.

 

 

 

How We Read the Bible

There seems to be a particularly large amount of angst among atheists when it comes to reading the bible.

I have previously written on my complaint that atheists read the creation stories as if they are supposed to be a factual account similar to a reporter recounting the events of a sporting event in a newspaper. I tried to make the point that books deserve to be read in the light of how they were written and for whom they were written.

But I would like to expand this further: the bible should be read in light of why it was put together and why its books were deemed inspired.

And I think it is important that we start with this: that the bible is not a book, it is a collection of writings.  Unlike the Koran or other holy books, the Bible doesn’t claim one human author, it claims multiple authors writing for different purposes to different audiences in different regions. As a Christian, I see a common thread through the scriptures which tie them together, but as we pull out a book from this library of books, it needs to be read understanding that it relates to the other books in some way. The question is how.

Yet when an some atheists pick up the bible and find a violent verse from Deuteronomy, they immediately equate that as something to be read in the same light as the ten commandments. The book of Jonah is read as a narrative similar to the gospels.

This sort of reading, taking each book in isolation of each other and not looking to that which binds them together under the same cover, is destined to lead to errors. It is also unlike how we would read any other significant book.

Development of Canon

The history of the development of canon is fascinating and interesting, but I will not go into it here. Moine and I touched on this a while back, but never followed up:

This was in reference to Irenaeus, a 2nd century Bishop who put forward one of the first proposed canons. Just to clarify a few things: a) Irenaeus was not a pope, and b) it wasn’t sorted out in a papal apartment. 🙂

For the sake of brevity, let’s stick with the basic version that the church agreed to declare what is considered scripture formally at the council of Hippo in 393 as the need arose to instruct the Christian church. We can certainly find evidence that the canon was largely accepted before this, but that’s beyond what I want to touch on here.

Why were these books chosen? Why was Revelation included (it is hard to understand, after all)? Surely the early church fathers were familiar with Deuteronomy, with the old law which commanded stonings for seemingly anything. Why didn’t they just do away with the Old Testament? Surely that would have been easier for the church, right? Then we wouldn’t have to read about babies head’s being bashed against rocks or try to explain Samuel hacking Agag to pieces, right?

Enter Marcion. Marcion was an early church figure who made such a suggestion – let’s do away with the Old Testament. Since we have Jesus, the Old Testament is done, finished – we are freed from those books and the God of the Old Testament.

If I can credit atheists for one thing, their consistent hammering on the more difficult to understand passages of the old testament forces many Christians to try to reconcile their faith with these books. Too many protestant churches pick bible verses to fit their idea of God, rather than discovering God through the scriptures. As a result, I think many protestants have hints of Marcionism (not fully, but when it is convenient).

What we know is that the early church fathers rejected Marcionism. Marcionism was rejected and the Old Testament was recognized as inspired and a part of our understanding of Jesus and the deposit of faith.  The church fathers were compelled to include the Old Testament, baby head bashing and all, into the list of inspired books. Furthermore, this canon was defended even up to the council of Trent as some people had trouble wrestling with some of the text.

Why? Did the church fathers just simply not know their scriptures? Did they simply turn a blind eye? Did they simply not care? Or was there a reason these books were included?

In facing the challenge of Marcion, the church fathers recognized that in understanding Christ, we must understand that through Christ the scriptures are opened up.  Christ opens up the old law, the Old Testament.  We see this in the stories of Christ after the resurrection when, on the road to Emmaus, Christ started with Moses and explained the scriptures to his disciples (Luke 24:27). This idea that it is through Christ that we read the scriptures is shown most effectively in Revelation chapter 5 when only the slain lamb is able to open the sealed scriptures. In chapter 5, it is only the slain lamb who can give us an understanding of the sealed scriptures.

As Christians, we cannot discard the old Testament.  We cannot choose to read some verses and ignore others. We must read the Old Testament for what it is: pointing and leading us to Christ and His sacrifice.  The Old Testament tells us of God’s repeated calling of his people, and their repeated turning away. The Old Testament shows us in dramatic fashion the consequence of sin and what justice demands when we separate ourselves from the source of life.  The Old Testament opens up to us answers as to who we are, why God created us, our struggling relationship with God, why Christ came to save us.  If we try to isolate violent verses, either to ignore them or to try and disprove the suitability of Christianity, they become impossible to understand and comprehend and reconcile. But when we view them through the lens of Christ they become scriptures that ring true and open our understanding of God and our relationship to him.

Reading the scriptures in light of Jesus requires that we go beyond the scriptures and into the faith that he left us in His church. I am sometimes asked “who are you to say how the bible should be read”?

https://twitter.com/SimplySecular/status/380886642212356097

The fact is, I am not picking and choosing. Like many others, and like any other significant written text, my understanding of individual scriptures is developed by reading them directly, reading them through the Tradition of the church, reading the commentary by scholars, reading reflections by theologians, etc.

Furthermore, I try to read the bible with an understanding of why it was compiled in the first place.  Any book that is taken out of its intended context and purpose will result in a misreading.  It would be an incredibly foolish and presumptuous position for me to say that I can pick up any great work, read it isolated, and say that I understand the author perfectly. It would be even more foolish for me to do so with the Bible as it encompasses so many themes, so many books, and so much history.

But sadly this is what the atheist does when they proclaim a disproof of the bible based on passages of violence or the ridiculousness of a person being eaten by a whale or what they understand to be contradictions.

I’ll leave the reader who got this far with this short video from Fr. Baron where he talks specifically about the violent passages of the Bible.  He is much more coherent in thought than I, although I borrow plenty of his explanations.

Taking Shots at Paedophilia

As a Catholic I’ve grown used to people taking shots at the church for the paedophilia cases. The shots are, unfortunately, a result of something that the church has to bear and bear responsibility for. The acts of the priests themselves and the cover up that occurred at bishopric levels is a reality which is not explainable or something that can be ‘spun’.

This isn’t to say that the shots taken are fair. For the most part, they are not. Mostly they are poor attempts at being humorous. I’m sure the parents of those abused and the parishioners who discovered that the priest who gave their daughter’s first communion was an abuser find great humor in mocking the church.

https://twitter.com/FatherMcGregor/statuses/378156641214287872

(really? you have the time to setup a fake Twitter account for this stuff?)

But what is most unfortunate is that as soon as I try to explain all the church is doing to both uncover and prosecute legitimate abuse cases, and the work the church is doing to prevent this from happening in the future, I am accused of defending pedophiles or defending those who responded in a criminal way to the crimes.

I must admit, it is effective at deterring an honest look at the situation.  Maybe this is why in 2002 the Wall Street Journal found that 64% of respondents to a poll thought that priests frequently abused children. Anecdotally, I’ve spoken to some of the people who make these ‘jokes’ about the abuse cases and most believe that the church is somehow responsible for attracting or creating pedophiles, not just irresponsible in cleaning up the mess.

So it is with some trepidation, and frankly sadness, that I put forward this defense. Not of the abusing priests, and not the covering up, but defending against those whose wish, intentionally or through indifference, is to perpetuate the notion that the Catholic church is a hotbed for sexual abuse.

The Actual Numbers (and Why It Doesn’t Matter)

The single largest study done on abuse within the ranks of the clergy is the John Jay report, a report which was commissioned by the church of the John Jay College of Criminal justice. The report examined every accusation of abuse from 1950 – 2002.

I will not summarize the report here. You can either read the report, or the summary over on Wikipedia. The important number here is the final number: 4%. That is the result that the percentage of priests who were accused (not convicted or penalized) of abuse.

Abuse rates for society in general are hard to estimate, but Ernie Allen, the president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimates the number at 10%. Margaret Leland Smith, a researcher at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, estimate it to be closer to 20% (a number which seems high to me). When we get to other professions that deal with children, the numbers are chilling: it is estimated that in every school in our country there is an average of 3 abusive teachers per school. Regardless, rates of abuse are not higher within the church than society in general – a conclusion that Ernie Allen stated:

“We don’t see the Catholic Church as a hotbed of this or a place that has a bigger problem than anyone else”

(most of the information here is taken from an article in the Daily Beast, but there is plenty of information for anyone who searches)

But none of this really matters, does it? I don’t write or quote these statistics with pride and say “See!?!? We are just as bad, and maybe a bit better than the rest of society!” An abuse rate of 1 out of 100,000 is too high and inexcusable.

The Handling of Abuse

Once someone is called out for taking a shot at the church and sexual abuse, the tact is often to point fingers at the cover ups. Admittedly, the cover ups, the shifting around from parish to another after submitting an offending priest to counseling was not the proper response.

Common defenses of the church and this shifting around from parish to parish is that the bishops were following the best medical advice at the time and following the exact same practice that was used by school districts and other organizations such as the Boy Scouts of America. But frankly, I don’t find this convincing or comforting in any way.

I think an honest, frank assessment of the initial handling of the abuse cases is that it took too long for the church to wake up to the scandal within its own walls. But fortunately, I think that has changed. The church today is one that has recognized the problem and has taken concrete steps to eliminate the problem. Compare the church’s actions against those of our public school system which unfortunately houses a surprising number of abusers. The church has established boards within it’s diocese’s to investigate accusations. The church has paid out over a billion dollars in restitution money in recognition of its leadership failures (again, comparing against our school system we certainly don’t see these steps).  The church commissioned the largest study of its kind just to gain better insight into the profiling and patterns that lead to the abuse so that it can methodically root out potential offenders. The church in the US requires that any person, priest or laity, go through required training on how to recognize the signs of abuse, and how to report potential cases of abuse. In my diocese alone, every year students are required to go through classes intended to give them the tools to protect themselves from abusers, and the means to know how to report it should they be abused.

More can still be done, and the church is active in continuing to learn what can be done to prevent further abuse, and to work on existing cases in an attempt to make restitution.

I challenge any person to put forward another institution that is more proactive in today’s society, and more aware of the reality of abuse, than the Catholic church. And it is not because abuse is more rampant within the church (as stated above), it is because the church is more serious about dealing with it than other institutions.

But What About Pope Benedict?

It is popular to throw out the accusation that Ratzinger was complicit and even proactive in the cover up of abuse. Much of this accusation comes from a New York Times article published here 

Much has been said about this and written about this. I won’t rewrite what already exists in spades. I would recommend for anyone who truly believes in critical thought and evaluating all the evidence explore this site with many of the refutations to those claims.

In the interest of fairness, I have not explored all of the refutations in detail myself, but have done enough research to put that article in sufficient doubt.  I also look at the actions and words of Benedict as pope in relation to the scandals.

Current Situations – A Proper Response?

Despite the efforts, the church is still dealing with past abuse cases that surface, and current abuse cases that do occur.  In 2010 In addition to dealing with these legitimate cases, the church also has to deal with the myriad of false cases from settlement seekers and those who want to do injury to the church or one of its members.

This is a bigger problem than most realize. When an organization is paying out billions of dollars in settlement payments, that organization will be the target of scammers looking to take advantage of a quick settlement. Additionally, enemies of the church whose goal is to cause problems, remove priests that they do not agree with, or just hate the church for a variety of reasons, use the abuse scandals as a vehicle to slander and impose additional costs on the church.

As with all statistics, the number of falsely accused priests varies depending on who is calculating the numbers and how they are doing so. This Newsbusters article quotes a number as high as 50%. Other sources have numbers that vary greatly. Probably the most even handed piece I read on the issue was from a risk management firm that was not talking about aggregate numbers, but looking at the situation purely from a risk management standpoint. The assessment of a risk management firm can be extremely useful as they insure church’s across all denominations against such lawsuits. Predictably enough, Catholic churches are not charged higher premiums for protection than other denominations or religions.

The false accusations against priests, whether due to nefarious intentions or more innocently, mental illnesses, are something that the church has a duty to protect itself and its priests from. I would hope that any person, catholic, atheist, friendly to the church, or enemy of the church, would agree that no innocent person should be unjustly accused and slandered without the proper due process in place.

And we see that process being put into place in today’s church. @formerTheist and I had a discussion yesterday about this article regarding former nuncio Wesolowski who has had allegations swirling around him for a while now. The focus of @formerTheist’s post was that the spokesman renounced a fellow priest who spoke out on Wesolowski and blamed the media for stoking the flames of intrigue in the case. The accusations against Wesolowski are disturbing – it is a matter which has caused the church to remove him from his post.

We do not know the evidence that the diocese has received, and we are not privy to the details of the case other than what the accusation is. We do know that there is strong enough reason for suspicion that the church has removed him from his duties. We also know that the church has asked for a formal prosecution of Wesolowski.

Now I am not privy to this case to be able to say if every action is being handled perfectly. If I were a gambler, I’d bet that somewhere along the line of people who are handling the case there is room for improvement or actions that are correctable. But what we see in this case is the process at work of trying to substantiate a claim and action from the highest authorities to get this right.

Why I Write This

Writing about this issue is one that does bring sadness. Hearing of any priest committing any crime is troubling and disturbing, and we do not have to limit it to pedophilia. But what is also frustrating is witnessing enemies of the church, and those apathetic to the church who are only too happy or too complicit to be willing to perpetuate a false notion that the church is some sort of isolated group where sexual abuse runs rampant and no one cares.

That is simply dishonest and requires a willful ignorance of the facts.

I do not expect the jokes to stop, and I will likely have no response the next time I see one. But hopefully a few people who read this will realize that by painting the priesthood as a synonym to child abuse they are painting tens of thousands of men as criminals who are not and who would vigorously go out of their way to make sure the few who are face prosecution. Hopefully a few will see the stark double standard that exists between how we view the leadership of the church and its handling and how we view the school system, the Boy Scouts of America, the NCAA, other religious institutions, etc.

The church is in this position because it was slow to respond and failed to see the fault of some of its members, and for that it will continue to be required to make amends. Let’s recognize the good that the church is doing, encourage its leadership for more, discourage those who would use child abuse to fabricate false claims, and most of all recognize the need to protect our children in every situation where they are exposed to adults who could do them harm.

Yes, My Faith is Foolish

It has been an incredible and fascinating week.  I started this blog and my twitter account on a whim and both will most likely be ended some day on a similar whim. I don’t know exactly where I will go with this blog and the twitter account, but after my first week of talking with various atheists on a variety of subjects (albeit mostly on the creation stories) I have reached a few conclusions:

  1. This is really time consuming
  2. This is really fun
  3. If we get past the typical “I believe this”, “I don’t believe that”, “Well you’re stupid and going to hell”, “Well, you’re the one that believes in fairy tales” track that most atheist/theist conversations tend to take, there is interesting and fascinating conversation to be had
  4. Although it can be scary to do, it is good to challenge what we believe (or say that we do not believe). Challenging it can only serve two purposes: either our belief or non-belief is sharpened, or we realize we were wrong.
  5. It is necessary to laugh at our own blunders and mistakes. It makes honest conversation much easier to have

As I said, this week has been fascinating and incredible. I have a handful of hat tips to give out (at the end of this post), but I thought I would give my first “Question of the Week” award out. It goes to @moritzkooistra:

We can get so caught up in the X’s and O’s of theism and atheism. I’ve thought about this question all week and I came back to a conclusion I reached a long time ago:

Yes, My Faith is Foolish

Reason, logic, evidence aside, my faith is foolish and I have no problem admitting it. I worship a man who was abused, destroyed, crucified as a common criminal.  I have crucifixes hanging in my house portraying this man:

crucifixionNo, not Jim Caviezel, but the man he represented. This bloodied and humiliated man is my king of kings, the greatest human to ever walk the face of the earth.

Yes, my faith is foolish.

I believe that Eucharist is Christ. Not just figuratively, but literally. Every week I spend time adoring Christ in the Eucharist.

On the surface, I should be considered a mad man.

And I’m not alone in realizing my faith is foolish. St. Paul recognized this as well in 1 Cor 15:14 “And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.”

As with any conclusion that we reach, however, my foolishness is not based on mere wishful thinking, pure hope, and hopeful speculation. It is based on the foundation of tenets that I believe and accept wholeheartedly. With a firm belief in these tenets I have no choice by the bounds of logic except to reach the conclusions of my faith that I have reached. These tenets are where atheists and I differ and where both an atheist and I are able to be in the same (virtual) room and claim reasonable conclusions.

It is not that my faith is without evidence. I challenge my faith. I challenge my beliefs. I challenge the evidence that I see. I am subject to the same doubts and considerations as any other human. These challenges have helped me to understand what I believe and why I believe. And that is why I want to continue to challenge my beliefs.

It is for this reason that I thank those who have taken the time to challenge my faith this week. To engage in sometimes drifting conversation and winding debates.

So with that:

@moritzkooistra – you still need to explain to me how saying “all truth is relative” isn’t making an objective statement of truth, and thus nullifying the statement itself. Let’s keep talking.

@kevinjsteward – thanks for inviting me over to Atheist Debate forum. I have a few topics started there, hopefully others will pick up the conversation.

@prophetatheist – you win the award for the longest conversation of the week. I still owe you an answer on this tweet:

although as I said on Twitter this may be one that we punt on until we discuss other more foundational items

@moinedeisme – Sorry for punting on that question. I owe you a response as well.

theirishatheist – I didn’t know you lived in Minnesota for a time! I tip my hat to you for the best comment of the week. I hope we can have conversations in the future…

There are others as well, but I don’t want this to become ridiculous (too late?)…