Saturday, September 17, 2011

Shallow Atheism

I was watching a John Stossel clip, "The Commandments According to Penn," in which Penn Jilette discusses his book, "God, No!" He is a fundamentalist atheist along the lines of what Mark Shea encountered here, in that he expects the Bible to be read in a flat-footed, literalist manner.

I can agree with Penn that "agnostic" is a non-term. He claims that those who do not have an active faith, i.e. one where you trust God to keep his promises, then you are for all practical purposes an atheist. I agree with that, because trust is a major connotation of "belief" as it is used in the Bible. But beyond that, his theology is absurdly weak.

One of Penn's earlier silly statements was to the effect that "anyone who doesn't run a stop sign is displaying doubt, because a real believer would expect God to save him from all harm." He's buying the argument that the devil presented in Matthew 4:6, that God will send his angels to rescue us lest we dash our foot against a stone. Somehow he not only failed to notice Jesus' reply to this, but also doctrines saying that governments have authority from God to protect us, e.g. with stop signs and traffic laws.

God wants us to choose Him. To think that we should obey Him like mindless automata (or that we are unable to choose because of God's omnipotence) is to say that anyone's love for God is actually God's act of masturbation.

A later silly statement comes in the form of a favorite atheist straw man. "If God commanded you to kill your child, would you do it? If your answer is no, you've just put love and humanity above religion." And yet from the Catholic perspective, God = Love, and Love can nearly always be used as a substitute word for God. This understanding makes Penn's argument so irrational it almost cannot be described with symbolic logic. The closest I can come is, "If A is not-A, and you fail to behave as if not-A is A, then A is not-A." God asking or commanding me to murder my child is not God, because it is not love.

Of course he'll say, "Then what about Abraham and Isaac?" First, Abraham didn't know as much about God as we do. As far as I know, God never told Abraham that human sacrifice was repugnant to Him. Second, the Midrash strongly suggest that he was convinced that God would resurrect Isaac from the dead after he had been sacrificed. And third, God has never required human sacrifice from us; the only human He ever wanted to be sacrificed was His own Son, Jesus Christ.

The first of the Penn Suggestions is this:

1: The highest ideals are human intelligence, creativity, and love.

There's nothing wrong with any of these ideals, especially not love. Love is the greatest of all virtues. But to say that human intelligence, creativity, and love are the highest ideals is idolatry. Both intelligence and creativity can easily be turned against love; furthermore, those who have less intelligence and creativity are necessarily devalued by this suggestion.

Finally, I'd like to know the philosophical basis from which these ideals spring. I see a clear line of deduction from the Christian valuation of all human life made in imago Dei to Penn's First Suggestion, but as a self-respecting atheist, he ought to find some other basis.

If Penn really wants to learn about Christianity, he really ought to read the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

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