Conversations with New Atheists I

MICHAEL NOVAK

In public debates, several outspoken "new atheists" have recently made cutting thrusts at those who know God, especially at Christians.

Question:  Christianity is a loose plagiarism of Judaism.

Answer:  Well, it isn't exactly plagiarism if you cite chapter and verse, and explicitly flaunt your connections to earlier authors. Christianity claims to be the legitimate daughter of Judaism, the fulfillment of Judaism (although it is admittedly rejected by Judaism). In fact, it is essential to Christianity that Judaism survive until the end of time, as a corrective to Christianity and as a witness to the original religion of Jesus and His closest followers. Even in Rome and other cities, early Christianity spread swiftest among Jews. A preponderance of the earliest bishops of Rome — that is, popes — were born Jewish.


Question:  Since faith transcends reason, it dispenses — conveniently enough — with the need for evidence.

Answer:  The mischievous word here is "evidence." The Catholic people have always advanced their claims by citing evidence for them, and demanding of themselves evidence for their own beliefs. This is in part because they have thought of God as the Word, Insight, Light, and Truth. They believe that His creative intelligence suffuses all created things, so that inquiry into the nature, behavior, and relation of all things is a mandatory Christian vocation. After all, Christians inherited the intellectualist approach to religion set in motion by the Jews.

For much of Catholic history, if you asked a convert why he became a Catholic, he would give you reasons. Evidences. He would tell you just how he compared the claims of Catholicism against those of atheism, or mainline Protestantism, or evangelical Protestantism. His catechism instructor would insist that he understand the reasons for the seven sacraments, the relation of the theological to the natural virtues, and the like. Admittedly, such decisions are not reached with geometric logic, nor with mathematical precision. But they do depend on evidences about which intellectual argument is expected, often demanded.


Question:  Christianity is the origin of totalitarianism. How can one be grateful to God? For His dictatorship?

Answer:  On the contrary, as Natan Sharansky has written, the Christian political maxim to give what is God's to God, and what is Caesar's to Caesar, is the most potent block against totalitarianism. For not all things belong to Caesar. The authority of Caesar is limited. Because God gave freedom and responsibility to men, God also limits the direct action of His church in the sphere appropriate to the state.

To go out on a speculative limb, I sometimes reflect that the political impact in the history of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity is to prepare the human mind to look for, and to discover, unity in diversity and the distinctness of persons even in their communal union with others. The fullness of the individual is found only in communion with others, in solidarity with the whole human race, God's one family. The fullness of community is found only in respecting the distinctiveness of each and every person.

In other words, community and person are not in conflict, but in fact co-define one another. Further, 'unity' and 'plurality' are also not contradictory. E pluribus often issues in unum. Correlatively, unity is often soundest in plural form, as in a federation of equal partners.


Question:  The Christian story is a fairy-tale, made up by fallible and opportunistic human beings.

Answer:  Christianity is indeed such "good news" that it would seem like a fairy tale, unless its claims were backed up by evidence, and by the creative power of its adoption by individuals and societies. Historians of culture, even those hostile to Christianity, have often noted its great contributions to Western civilization. Political historians often judge that Christian cultures have been more hospitable to the ideas and practices of democracy and human rights than any other culture — even atheistic cultures. Economic historians have often noted the crucial role of Christian beliefs, habits, and institutional practices to the emergence of the free, creative, inventive economy. The name "Catholic" faith was used since earliest times to note that Christianity is not bound by any one race, culture, or nation, but is universal in its appeal and inner imperatives. Further, Christian faith is amenable to being "encultured" or "incarnated" into many different sorts of culture. It is not a univocal cultural agent but an analogous one — it generates at least some cultural likenesses, or family resemblances, rather than a single cultural identity.

The latest Christian cultural explosion is in China. More than one source reaches the estimate of seventy million Christians in China — a number as large as the membership of the Communist Party, and growing so rapidly that the great challenge for many pastors is finding a meeting space that can hold their congregations. Many Chinese identify Christianity as the best cultural path toward ideas of liberty, dignity, justice, and creativity. Thomas Jefferson, in preparing his "Jefferson Bible" (The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth) for the American Indians, wrote that the teachings of Jesus comprised "the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man."


Conversations with the New Atheists

    Conversations with the New Atheists I
    Conversations with the New Atheists II
    Conversations with the New Atheists III
    Conversations with the New Atheists IV


 



ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Michael Novak. "Conversations with the New Atheists I." The Catholic Thing (June 26, 2008).

Reprinted with permission from The Catholic Thing. All rights reserved. For reprint rights, write to: info@thecatholicthing.org.

The Catholic thing — the concrete historical reality of Catholicism — is the richest cultural tradition in the world. That is the deep background to The Catholic Thing which bring you an original column every day that provides fresh and penetrating insight into the current situation along with other commentary, news, analysis, and — yes — even humor. Our writers include some of the most seasoned and insightful Catholic minds in America: Michael Novak, Ralph McInerny, Hadley Arkes, Michael Uhlmann, Mary Eberstadt, Austin Ruse, George Marlin, William Saunders, and many others.

THE AUTHOR

Michael Novak, the George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute was the winner of the 1994 Templeton Prize. He has written some 27 books including, most recently, No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers, Washington's God, as well as The Universal Hunger for Liberty: Why the Clash of Civilizations Is Not Inevitable, The Catholic Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, Tell Me Why: A Father Answers His Daughter's Questions About God (with his daughter Jana Novak), and On Two Wings: Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding.

Copyright © 2008 The Catholic Thing




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