By Karna Swanson
ROME, JUNE 16, 2008 (Zenit.org).- Much of what atheists pass off as fact in their charges against God and religion is really based on myth, says Legionary of Christ Father Thomas D. Williams.
Father Williams is author of “Greater Than You Think: A Theologian Answers the Atheists About God.”
“Though the atheists claim to represent the side of reason,” he asserts in his book, “their arguments more often than not are ideological rather than rational.”
In this interview, ZENIT asked Father Williams, a theology professor in Rome and Vatican analyst for CBS News, to explain some of the common fallacies perpetuated by atheism that he addresses in his book.
Q: What spurred you to write this book?
Father Williams: As you are undoubtedly aware, the last several years have seen a surge in neo-atheist literature, with books such as Daniel Dennett’s “Breaking the Spell,” Sam Harris’ “The End of Faith,” Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion,” and Christopher Hitchens’ “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.”
Several of these books have become bestsellers. The problem is, most people only hear one side of the story. They become indoctrinated with the atheistic arguments without ever hearing a reasoned response.
Many people have been confused by these books. Others worry about friends who have read them, or simply would like good answers to the charges atheisms brings against God, religion, and Christianity in particular. I wrote this book to furnish clear, concise replies to the atheists’ charges.
The book lays out — and responds to — the chief claims of the neo-atheists in five categories: (1) the case against God and religion, (2) the case against religion’s benefits for society, (3) the case against religion’s compatibility with science and reason, (4) the case against Christianity, and (5) the case for atheism’s superiority.
Q: You say that the neo-atheists rely on myth rather than rational argument. Isn’t that a little harsh?
Father Williams: Not really. If you look at the principal claims made by the atheists against God’s existence and the role of religion in society, you find that nearly all of their accusations distort the facts and repeat hackneyed wives’ tales that don’t stand up to any serious rational or historical analysis.
Q: For example?
Father Williams: Just to name a few, atheists claim that religion is inimical to science, and that the Christian Church in particular sought to stamp out scientific research. They charge that “religion kills” and has been responsible for most of our wars and social ills. They say that religious belief requires the renunciation of reason and the embrace of willful blindness. They assert that religion does not contribute to moral improvement, and that it makes people sour and sad, rather than joyful.
Along with charges such as these, they also add a few absurd, and sometimes dangerous ideas about religion. For instance, Dawkins and Hitchens claim that religious education is a form of child abuse, thus undermining the seriousness of real physical and psychological child abuse.
They sow distrust in believers by asserting that they are trying to hasten the end of the world. Thus Hitchens quotes Marx with evident admiration, where the latter expresses his view that “the abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness” (“God Is Not Great”).
Sam Harris goes so far as to proclaim that religious belief must be forcibly stamped out, and states: “Some propositions are so dangerous that it may be ethical to kill people for believing them” (“The End of Faith”).
Q: Let’s take a specific case. How about religion and moral improvement? Obviously religious belief doesn’t guarantee that a person will be morally good.
Father Williams: You’re right. But our atheist friends go a step further. They question whether religion ever helps people to be better. Good people — Hitchens used Martin Luther King Jr. as an example — are good despite their religion, and not because of it. They only recognize instances where people do evil in the name of religion, while completely overlooking the immense good done by religion, both at the personal and the social level.
Q: For example?
Father Williams: Let me appeal to personal experience for a moment. I know literally hundreds of people who have turned their lives around thanks to a religious conversion. I know men and women who have become faithful spouses, overcome inveterate vices, and learned to become responsible citizens thanks to a discovery of God in their lives.
Now let’s turn the question around. How many people do you know that have overcome alcoholism or pornographic addictions, stopped cheating on their spouses, or become more concerned and dedicated parents because they discovered atheism? It simply doesn’t happen. Atheism offers no incentive to become better or less selfish.
Q: Well, isn’t that just your personal experience?
Father Williams: All the statistics we have at our disposal back this up. Look at the recent studies concerning people’s generosity in donating money to charities or giving time as volunteers. The believers out-give and out-volunteer nonbelievers by a significant margin. In concrete terms, a massive 2000 study of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research found that actively religious people donate an average of $2,210 per year, while nonbelievers give a mere $642. Believers similarly volunteer much more time than their irreligious counterparts.
We must remember, too, that it was the Christian Church, and not secular humanists, who founded schools for the poor, orphanages, hospitals, soup kitchens, Lazarettos, hospices and countless other charities.
Q: What about religion’s supposed hostility to science?
Father Williams: This is another canard that atheists proclaim but don’t substantiate with data. Hitchens, for instance, writes that religion is “an enemy of science and inquiry,” while Dawkins argues that religion actively discourages scientific investigation.
History tells a different story. Science grew out of the fertile humus of Christian culture. The Catholic Church, in particular, was at the forefront of scientific investigation and sponsored scientific research the way it patronized the arts. Some of history’s greatest scientists — Newton, Pasteur, Galileo, Lavoisier, Kepler, Copernicus, Faraday, Maxwell, Bernard, and Heisenberg –were all Christians, and Gregor Mendel — the father of modern genetics — was a Catholic priest. The Jesuit order in particular spearheaded much scientific study.
Q: How do you handle the atheists’ attacks on Christianity in particular?
Father Williams: One of the frustrating things about these authors is the way they blur all religions into one amorphous reality, as if there were no difference between Franciscan monks and Islamic suicide bombers. But they do take time out to specifically denigrate Christian beliefs along the way.
For example, Dawkins portrays the God of the Bible as a “malevolent bully,” and characterizes Him as “the most unpleasant character in all fiction” (“The God Delusion”). Both Dawkins and Hitchens claim that the four Gospel accounts are worthless as historical texts, because of their internal inconsistencies and stated intent to promote faith in Jesus. They even go so far as to question the historical existence of Jesus Christ, and claim that even if Jesus did exist, he never intended to found a church. Christopher Hitchens goes further still, asserting that the Christian faith causes sexual repression.
Because of the seriousness of these allegations — most of them mere repetitions of decades-old theories — I try to answer each objection in turn. I don’t have the space to do so here, but I do in the book.
Q: Why don’t you tackle just one for us here?
Father Williams: OK. To take just one example, we could look at the atheists’ skepticism regarding Jesus’ earthly existence. Did he really walk the earth 2000 years ago, or is he the product of a cosmic hoax, perpetrated by the apostles?
Dawkins writes that it is possible “to mount a serious, though not widely supported, historical case that Jesus never lived at all.” For his part, Christopher Hitchens states that Jesus’ existence is “highly questionable.”
Obviously, none of us was present to empirically verify that a man named Jesus in fact lived in Palestine 20 centuries ago. Yet the same skepticism could be applied to any historical event, since history, as a science, is based on trust. Everything we know about the past is handed down to us as a tradition, which we accept on faith in the testimony of others. The existence of Socrates, Caesar Augustus, Genghis Kahn and Abraham Lincoln is supported by historical evidence — documents and testimonies — but then again, no more so than the existence of Jesus Christ.
Along with the numerous biblical manuscripts referring to Jesus, pagan writers such as the Roman historian Tacitus, Julius Africanus, Pliny the Younger and Lucian of Samosata all reference Jesus’ existence. The Jewish historical record is equally clear, with the ancient Jewish historian Flavius Josephus and the Babylonian Talmud itself confirming Jesus’ human existence.
Denying the existence of Jesus is not fruit of objective scholarship, but of an ideological agenda.
Q: Wouldn’t it be better to deal with these atheists in a more pastoral way, rather than writing a refutation of their theories?
Father Williams: I agree that Christians need to reach out to these people and to treat them with true Christian charity. Jesus died for each of them, and loves them the way He loves you and me.
At the same time, the ideas they expound need to be addressed with clarity, since they sow confusion for many people. St. Peter exhorted the early Christians to always be ready to “make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you”; he also added, “yet do it with gentleness and reverence” (1 Peter 3:15-16). This is my intent.
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On the Net:
“Greater Than You Think”: http://www.amazon.com/Greater-Than-You-Think-Theologian