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Stephen BullivantMarch 18, 2014

Commenting in 1938 on a recent spate of ill-informed, atheistic critiques of Christianity, the Jesuit theologian Henri de Lubac asked: “If such a misunderstanding has arisen and entrenched itself, if such an accusation is current, is it not our own fault?” De Lubac’s question recognizes an enduringly profound and troubling fact: If caricatures of Christianity are prevalent and seem

plausible, then Christians themselves are surely partly to blame. After all, Western secularism is largely a homegrown phenomenon; globally speaking, widespread unbelief is predominately a feature of (post-)Christian societies. This was duly admitted in the Second Vatican Council’s “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.” In a striking acknowledgment, which de Lubac helped to draft, the council confesses: 

Believers can have no small part in the rise of atheism, since by neglecting education in the faith, teaching false doctrine, or through defects in their own religious, moral or social lives, they may be said rather more to conceal than reveal the true countenance of God and of religion. 

Fifty years on, we might do well to bear this in mind. One commonly hears the complaint that such-and-such an atheist writer is merely dismantling strawmen or tilting at theological windmills—that the God in whom Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris does not believe is not the one Christians believe in. While such appraisals are often quite correct, we ought not to dodge the deeper issue. If Christian theology is so susceptible to cartoonish misrepresentation, or if Christians have gained a reputation (however false) for being irrational non-thinkers, then this can scarcely have arisen ex nihilo. Might not some of the windmills tilted at be ones that we ourselves have helped to construct?

As Vatican II reminds us, Christian complicity in the growth and vitality of contemporary unbelief is hardly confined to intellectual factors. Nevertheless, the widespread prejudice that Christianity is not just irrational but positively antirational corrodes our ability to give a persuasive “accounting of the hope that is in [us]” (1 Pt 3:15). Hence correcting this impression is an urgent task for the new evangelization. Accordingly, I will mainly focus here on the issue of faith. This core Christian concept—indeed, the very foundation on which all else is built—is right at the heart of recent atheist critiques. And it is also a prime example of what both de Lubac and the council had in mind.

But first of all, as happens so often with the new evangelization, there are a number of key lessons we might learn from the past.

‘Mockery of Unbelievers’

Our basic problem—Christians needlessly alienating thoughtful unbelievers—is nothing new. St. Augustine, in his notably nonliteral Literal Interpretation of Genesis (c. 393), urges his fellow believers not to make rash, “Bible-based” pronouncements on scientific topics. Noting that many well-informed non-Christians regard their knowledge of astronomy, zoology, botany and geology “to be certain from reason and experience,” he states:

It is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an unbeliever to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up a Christian’s vast ignorance and laugh it to scorn (No. 39).

Augustine’s chief concern is that these non-Christians, hearing misguided views attributed to the Scripture, will come to dismiss and deride Christianity itself. He adds pointedly:

If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?

He proceeds to lambaste these “reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture” who, in order “to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements,” cite memorized biblical prooftexts “which they think support their position,” despite the fact that (quoting 1 Tm 1:7) “they don’t understand either what they are saying or the things about which they are making assertions.”

Writing several centuries later, St. Thomas Aquinas heeds Augustine’s warning. Faced with two differing interpretations of the first chapter of Genesis, each one championed by learned and saintly commentators, Aquinas opts against the commoner and seemingly more literal one, primarily on the grounds that the other better protects Scripture from the irrisio infidelium or “mockery of unbelievers” (Sentences, 2.2, d. 12, a. 2). (The precise point at issue is whether God created all things in successive stages—as the day-by-day narration in Genesis seems to imply—or instantaneously in a single act. While accepting that both interpretations are possible, it is the latter that Aquinas, mindful of non-Christian philosophers’ opinions, finds “more pleasing.”)

Aquinas’s reasoning here might strike us as strange, especially if it is understood as a purely “apologetic decision”— that is, as springing from a desire to present Christian doctrine in the most enticing possible light in order to lure in unsuspecting outsiders. This is not, however, Aquinas’s point at all. Like Augustine, he acknowledges the wisdom and knowledge that many unbelievers have on certain scientific and philosophical matters. Hence, provided that no essential point of the Christian faith is at issue (a point to which we shall return), if a particular interpretation of Scripture is likely to give rise to such mockery, then that is, in itself, a decent indication that it might well be incorrect.

Belief Without Evidence?

The point made by Augustine and Aquinas applies far more widely than just to the correct interpretation of Genesis (though this naturally remains an important area). Recall the Vatican II’s citation, in “The Church in the Modern World,” of “neglecting education in the faith” and “teaching false doctrine” as contributing factors to modern unbelief. Either one might easily engender the justified “mockery of unbelievers”—mockery which, as Augustine stresses, is mistakenly directed at Christianity itself.

Consider Richard Dawkins’s understanding of faith, from his book The Selfish Gene (1976): “blind trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence.” This is not something peculiar to Dawkins. A. C. Grayling, in his book Against All Gods (2007), writes: “Faith is a commitment to belief contrary to evidence and reason.” And quoting Sam Harris, in The End of Faith: “distinguished, as it is, both by the extravagance of its claims and by the paucity of its evidence...[religious faith] forms a kind of perverse, cultural singularity—a vanishing point beyond which rational discourse proves impossible.” This way of defining faith is crucial to understanding the new atheists’ ire toward Christianity (and religion in general). Their chief objection is not that Christianity’s claims happen to be false, but rather that Christianity, by extolling “faith,” intentionally promotes and celebrates irrationality. Hence according to Dawkins, in his book The God Delusion (2006): “Faith (belief without evidence) is a virtue. The more your beliefs defy the evidence, the more virtuous you are. Virtuoso believers who can manage to believe something really weird, unsupported and insupportable, in the teeth of evidence and reason, are especially rewarded.”

The one problem with this is that this is not what faith, whether religious or otherwise, means at all. The word faith comes from the Latin word fides, and its primary meaning is “trust.” That is why to have confidence in something is to trust that it will happen, and why to confide in someone is to trust that they will not blab whatever one tells them. It is also why Fido is such a clichéd name for loyal, faithful and trusting dogs. Faith, as trust, can be for good reasons or bad reasons. But it is not simply something one resorts to when one has no good reasons. (If it really was that, then assuring someone “I have faith in you” when they have said they will do something would be gravely insulting.) The same is true when we speak of faith in an explicitly Christian context. Even when faith is understood as “a gift of God, a supernatural virtue” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 153), it nevertheless remains a species of trusting. And as Christians we are convinced, or ought to be, that there is ample reason and evidence to undergird this trust.

Unfortunately, it does not take a herculean effort of intellectual sympathy to see why an unbeliever might nevertheless think that Christians understand faith to be “belief without evidence.” The simple truth is that Christians constantly speak of faith in these terms and have been doing so for a very long time. We are exceptionally well-practiced at dodging difficult questions—from inquisitive children, unbelieving co-workers or even catechumens in adult Christian initiation groups—by shirking the issue with an appeal to “faith.” In fact, this (mis)definition of faith is an established part of the popular lexicon. Even the original film version of “Miracle on 34th Street” (1947), for instance, includes a line that could be straight out of The God Delusion: “Faith means believing in things even when common sense tells you not to.”

As such, we as Christians have left ourselves wide open to the justified mockery of unbelievers, with the new atheists’ writings as a collective case in point. Naturally, this is far from the only issue on which we have done so. Indeed, the above-quoted passages from Augustine could just as easily have been written, word for word, in the present day: those even passingly acquainted with modern biology can, and do, find much to mock in many Christians’ assertions regarding the meaning of Genesis 1. However, as mentioned previously, faith is at the very heart of what it is to be a Christian: the cornerstone of everything else we profess.

Evangelization Begins at Home

I have focused here on faith (and, with Augustine’s and Aquinas’s help, the Book of Genesis). But the basic point here—that “believers can have no small part in the rise of atheism...by neglecting education in the faith, [or] teaching false doctrine”—penetrates far more deeply. The solution, of course, is for all of us to make a real effort to learn more about the faith we profess (and to receive the requisite help and encouragement in order to do so). Evangelization begins at home. Or as Pope Paul VI wrote in “Evangelii Nuntiandi”: “The Church is an evangelizer, but she begins by being evangelized herself.”

There are many doctrines that strike even committed Catholics—not to mention unbelievers—as being false or (to give the usual euphemism) “out of touch.” This should not really surprise us. Let us not forget Scripture’s report of the first reaction of “many of the disciples” to the doctrine of the Eucharist: “ This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” (Jn 6:60). Nevertheless, this further justifies the renewed emphasis on catechesis called for by proponents of the new evangelization. Thus, as Blessed John Paul II argued in “Redemptoris Missio”: “The boundaries between pastoral care of the faithful, new evangelization and specific missionary activity are not clearly definable, and it is unthinkable to create barriers between them or to put them into watertight compartments.”

We noted above the central tenet of the council’s diagnosis of modern atheism: the humble recognition that Christians are at least partly responsible for its rise and plausibility. Accordingly, the council also looked inward in prescribing a remedy: “The answer to atheism is to be sought in the fitting exposition of doctrine, and in the entire life of the Church and its members.” Crucial to this, moreover, “is the testimony of a living and mature faith, one namely that is educated so as to be able clearly to perceive difficulties, and to overcome them.” Or, to again quote Father de Lubac:

If so many observers, who are not lacking in acumen or in religious spirit, are so grievously mistaken about the essence of Catholicism, is it not an indication that Catholics should make an effort to understand it better themselves?

It may well be that God “chose the foolish in the world to shame the wise” (1 Cor 1:27). But he did not choose them to shame either him or themselves. 

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