Theist in a Hizzy Response

Yesterday I wrote a quick post on the Logical Impossibility of Proving God which was based on a conversation with Dark Poet. Fortunately for me, he took the time to respond here:

Theist in the Hizzy

I love this stuff. 🙂 Here’s my response to his post.

I was happy to read your definitions of your god. These are very common attributes of a god used by theists and all I was asking for.

I know you had asked me to define God, and you thanked me for defining God, however, I wasn’t defining God. My argument rests on the fact that defining God is in fact a logical impossibility.  To define means to describe exactly the meaning or scope of something, to make out the boundaries of something – a task which is impossible with an infinite being.

Your second sentence here is more correct – I identified attributes of God. But this goes into the larger point I was trying to make: the theist doesn’t identify God and then come to believe, the theist is in a process of discovering God. But more on that later.

The heart of the point you were making seemed to be here (and correct me if I missed the actual main point):

If these are part of your definition of your god I’m not sure how you square one other attribute you used to define your god.

Unfathomable.

How do you claim all those other attributes? This is a huge problem I run into with theists often. This is similar to the square circle an all powerful god is unable to accomplish. It’s a major contradiction. You can’t claim on one hand god is all loving and on the other hand claim god is unfathomable.

If I understand you correctly, the problem here would rest on the definition of “unfathomable”. A quick search on Google shows the following definition: “incapable of being fully explored or understood.”  This is the sense in which I am using the word.

It is not that God can’t be discovered – He can and He invites us to discover Him – it is that the depths of God will never be fully comprehended or understood.

I think a parallel could be man’s exploration in space (which I alluded to in my previous post).  The size of the universe is quite unfathomable by the human mind. We can explore the universe, we can learn a surprising amount about the universe from our tiny spec of a planet, but despite all of this we will never, as a human race, be able to fully explore and know the Universe, all of its stars, all of its planets, all of its mysteries, all of its idiosyncrasies, and all of its incredible beauty (can you imagine a waterfall on some distant planet in a solar system located in a galaxy cluster that we have not even discovered? I’m sure it exists, but will we ever experience it?). It is unfathomable in its nature.

You mentioned that theists often share similar attributes and qualities of God – these are the attributes that we have come to know and experience as God has revealed them to us, but as any person who is on the journey to discover God more fully will tell you, these attributes merely gloss over the reality that is found once you invest in discovering God.

Moving on to the next point…

 I thought your present story was poor. You claimed there was a present in the physical world and instructed your son to test that claim by reaching in and finding the present. One could demonstrate it. Test it. Falsify it. Define it. It was not faith which is what you were attempting to demonstrate. You demonstrated the opposite of faith. Your son was not using faith. He trusted in you because you’re his parent, however, he then tested your claim.

I can’t tell you how excited I am to read this portion of your post, because this is almost exactly what I was trying to describe! Most analogies fail at some point – I just hope they hold up long enough to make the main point.

In the example of the present, faith was present in my son when he listened to his parents and agreed to look in the bag. His only reason for looking in the bag was in response to our calling him to do so. His faith was rewarded with confirmation of that faith in the present.

Faith isn’t a perpetual suspension of skepticism – it is taking that first step, which is usually only in response to that faint call from God, and then asking God to reveal Himself to us. If there was no response from God, pursing him would be an aimless pursuit and without purpose. But if you ask most theists who are genuine in their search to discover God you’ll find that they talk about having a purposeful life, a life with direction. This is because God does respond – He doesn’t ask us to live lives entirely blind.

In the example I gave, my son’s faith was rewarded with the tangible evidence of the present. This is where the analogy breaks down. In the theist life, our faith – our first steps – are rewarded with a response from God which often is quite personal, but absolutely unmistakable. And that response is usually accompanied by a stronger calling from God to go deeper.

We need good reasons for the things we believe because our beliefs inform our actions and our actions effect ourselves and others. If faith isn’t why you believe in your god please correct me. You hinted at evidence of your god. Why didn’t you share that? I value evidence. I’m guessing you’ve shared your evidence with other atheists before. If so, why not this time? Is it rejected as evidence?

I love the first line of that quoted paragraph. “We need good reasons for the things we believe because our beliefs inform our actions and our actions effect ourselves and others.”

So often faith is equivocated with blindness or without reasons, but the opposite is quite true. Faith isn’t blindness – faith creates vision.

In my last post I linked over to a blog post from a former atheist who became Catholic. I hope that you read it, but if you didn’t, I’ll pull this extremely relevant paragraph from what she wrote:

The more I went through the motions of believing in God, the more the world made sense to me; the more human history made sense to me; the more I started to make sense to me. The picture of human life that I’d formed based on science alone now seemed incomplete. I still believed everything I’d learned through the lens of science, but I now saw a whole other dimension to the world around me. It was like the difference between looking at a picture of a double-fudge chocolate cake and having one in front of me to smell, touch, and taste: everything I knew before was still there, but I was now experiencing it in a much more intense and vivid way.

Contrary to your guess, I have not shared specific evidence with other atheists. Sure, there is the realization that evidence I present will be turned away as explainable or merely subjective. But more importantly, we don’t come to know God by means of evidence first. Rather, our belief in God is confirmed by God with evidence.

St. Augustine said it best when he said “Therefore do not seek to understand in order to believe, but believe that thou mayest understand”

I know that for most atheists this won’t be sufficient – most atheists see only one way of knowing reality and discard any other approach.  This is why in engaging atheists like yourself on Twitter I have no agenda of converting or convincing – I know that I can’t cause that, it requires a response from you. I certainly hope that you and others will respond to that call to look inside the bag, because the evidence you are looking for is there, but you need to believe the call is worth following first.

You closed with additional questions which, if you don’t mind, I’ll pass on for now as they feel like good topics to discuss in their own context in an orderly manner. For this post I wanted to focus on faith – not being blind – and on the notion that the atheist looking for evidence to believe will never find it, but that the person who begins from a standpoint of belief, the evidence is unmistakable. 

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?)…