It was a pleasure to "virtually" meet you yesterday, on satellite link-up between Rome and London, in order to debate the role of religion and atheism in society.
BBC World television invited me to discuss with you a sliver of Pope Benedict XVI’s most recent encyclical about the Christian virtue of hope, “In Hope We Were Saved” (Rom 8:24), where the pontiff makes reference to the atheistic political philosophies of the 19th and 20th centuries and how they contributed to some of the greatest human atrocities of our time. Here is a link to the debate — our discussion begins at 00:22.
I write this open letter to you with the intention of expanding and involving others in our discussion. Surely neither of us expected his arguments to convince the other to get down on his knees, recognize his error of judgment, and go on to write a book about the moment of his conversion. My hope (no pun intended), nevertheless, is that this, our first encounter, be the catalyst for forming together a coalition of rational-minded people to condemn all fanaticism, whether it comes in the form of religious or atheistic ideology.
Allow me, Richard, to remind our readers of what Pope Benedict says in his encyclical in reference to our discussion. He urges Christians to put their hope for the future in God and not in technology, economic or political ideologies. At the same time, he recognizes that a world filled with so much injustice and suffering has been throughout history a strong motive to doubt God’s very existence.
Reciting common atheistic arguments that you yourself have often used, he says: "A world marked by so much injustice, innocent suffering and cynicism of power cannot be the work of a good God. A God with responsibility for such a world would not be a just God, much less a good God." It was in this context, the Pope reminds us, that atheism, particularly in the 19th and 20th centuries arose as a “type of moralism” to protest against the injustices of the world. But “history,” says the pope, “has proven wrong ideologies such as Marxism which say humans had to establish social justice because God did not exist.” The Pope goes further, “It is no accident that this idea has led to the greatest forms of cruelty and violations of justice," and that it has left behind "a trail of appalling destruction."
I began our debate by reminding you of that day in March of the year 2000 when John Paul II, supported by his then “deputy for doctrine,” Joseph Ratzinger (future Benedict XVI), made an unprecedented plea for forgiveness for the evils committed throughout history by Christians. The Inquisition was front and center. Although the role of the Church in the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition is regularly exaggerated by simplistic readings of history, in his public prayer of atonement John Paul II focused only on the Church’s role in this fanaticism. During that 350 year period of history, it is estimated that 5,000- 10,000 people were put to death in the name of orthodoxy. John Paul II likewise asked forgiveness for other types of bigotry and violence carried out by Christians.
Now Pope Benedict XVI — the same man who supported John Paul II’s mea culpa — reminds the world that Christianity, and religious faith in general, does not have a monopoly on fanaticism. The totalitarian regimes of Stalin, Hitler, and Mao, among others, were intrinsically atheistic systems. They sought to create religion-free utopias and in order to do so they arbitrarily eliminated at least 100,000,000 innocent lives.
In response to my presentation of the facts, you responded with what I consider to be a dishonest, or at least illogical, historical analysis. You say that atheism, in stark contrast to Christianity, is not to be blamed for these atrocities, because while Christians acted in the name of religion, Stalin and Hitler acted only in the name of their political movements. Therefore, you conclude, their atheistic philosophy has nothing to do with their action.
I don’t think your rhetoric, on this point, is convincing. You and I know that action follows ideas. You have said the world would be a better place if religious ideas were to become extinct. That’s because, for you, religion is tantamount to superstition — fairy tales — and superstition clouds the free exercise of reason, making fanaticism more likely. You point to the violent behavior of a tiny percentage of Jews and Christians — for example — as proof that religious belief moves people to act unreasonably, and that this irrationality sometimes shows up in violence. You fail to point out, however, that the actions of these radicals are routinely condemned by their religious leaders as contrary to the ideas of their faith. In other words, the truth is their actions follow their own ideas, not the ideas of true religion. (Here I can’t help rejecting, once again, what you said in the debate, that Hitler was a Roman Catholic. That is like saying you are an Anglican even after everything you have said and done to reject the church into which you were born.)
Even more surprising than your refusal to see the fallacy of your logic in relationship to the actions of religious extremists is the fact that you don’t make similar deductions when it comes to the materialistic philosophy of atheism — in which Marx, Stalin, and Hitler believed, when here it actually makes sense. They weren’t merely indifferent to religion. They, like you, wanted to stamp it out. For most of us, including many atheists, it takes little effort to recognize how their belief that man can be reduced to his material properties (that he has no spiritual soul and therefore no sacred dignity), makes killing the innocent for political or selfish reasons a whole lot easier.
I think even you would agree that an acceptance of a neo-Darwinian “survival of the fittest” ethic is easier to swallow when one rejects the existence of a supreme being and the inherent dignity that he bestows on his creatures, made in his image and likeness. The perpetrators of the cruelty of the twentieth century may not have acted in the name of atheism, but they actively sought to extinguish religious belief because of the atheistic materialism which they embraced.
That said, some atheists surely put religious people to shame by their superior living of moral goodness. This is proof that atheism does not lead directly to fanaticism. As history shows, however, an atheistic philosophy about man serves as a great silencer of the conscience when sick human beings reject the demands of human reason and go on to trample on human rights.
All this is to say, Richard, that no group, neither religious nor atheist, has a monopoly on fanaticism. It is weak human beings, not religion, per se, that kills in God’s name. It is weak human beings — not atheism, per se, that carried out the atrocities of the 20th century. I think we both agree, but I have only heard you say the latter of the two affirmations.
As human beings, we should ask the question what will cure us of such human weakness. According to Pope Benedict, it is knowledge of God (hope) as a just and merciful Father of us all. That’s an act of faith, of course — and not something I expect you to accept just yet — but I think you and I can surely agree it’s not the kind of religious belief that will lead to the fanaticism we both detest. According to all the statistics I have in front of me, it is, in fact, the kind of faith that brings more happiness to more people and makes us more generous and philanthropic citizens, even to non-religious causes.
Here’s my proposal, Richard. Now that you rightly have earned yourself the title of leader of the neo-atheist, secular activists, I think you would do a great service to humanity to reject, as John Paul II did for Christians, the evil actions of a tiny percentage of atheists who have, in your opinion, acted in a way that poorly represents your belief system, in particular your common denial of the existence of God.
As different as our views on God may be, I think we can — and given the circumstances — must, announce with ever greater vigor that human reason, when properly cultivated, can lead us to peaceful coexistence. And that doesn’t require wiping religion off the face of the earth.
God bless, Father Jonathan
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P.S. I would be glad for Richard to reply to my open letter with one of his own — if he's willing, I will post it here on my blog.
On another occasion I happily would debate points more central to Richard's thesis that God probably does not exist. Unfortunately, the people BBC chose to give reasons for believing in God were clearly out of their league. Part of fairness in the media, I would suggest, is to give not only equal time to valid, conflicting viewpoints, but also to present equally-matched representatives to defend them.
P.P.S. A note to regular readers of this column: I wish to make a clarification on last Thursday’s article,“Mitt Romney, the Mormon.” I incorrectly wrote that Mormons believe an angel appeared to Joseph Smith in 1820.
In fact, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) teaches the 1820 apparition involved God the Father and Jesus. The angel appeared to him later in 1823. Also, there is no official teaching of the LDS church about how many gold plates Joseph Smith allegedly found in upstate New York. I incorrectly said it was three. For more information from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, you can go to www.mormon.org
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