The word faith is used to denote two rather distinct concepts, tending to create considerable confusion in assessing the reasons people claim for holding their religious beliefs. I have previously addressed the common failure to distinguish between unbelief and disbelief and now I would like to turn my attention to the two kinds of faith.
Theists often claim that they have “faith in God.” This phrase has two interpretations: “I trust that what God says is true” and “I believe that God exists even though his existence is not demonstrated.” The former is a theoretically sound position while the latter is simply unreasonable. A theist can mean one, the other, or both simultaneously, and unfortunately, theists very often confound the two, feeling justified in their unreasonable belief by reference to the alternate, inapplicable meaning.
Faith as trust
Theists trust God to speak truthfully and to fulfill his promises. If an omnimax deity truly exists, then this trust is wholly appropriate. An infinitely perfect being would be infinitely trustworthy and theists would be justified in placing unlimited confidence in his sincerity and abilities. (This is not to say that they would be right to believe and obey him under all imaginable circumstances, but this is because it would require unlimited confidence in their own determination that these messages really were from an omnimax deity, not because an omnimax deity in principle shouldn't be trusted completely.)
Faith as belief without sufficient evidence
Theists usually don't claim proof or overwhelming evidence for their belief that God exists or that a religious institution or a holy book infallibly reveals God's truth. Instead they often cite faith as justification for these beliefs and present this faith as a matter of trust in a perfect being. The problem is that this is circular logic as it assumes the truth of the belief in establishing that very belief itself. One cannot trust an omnimax deity before one has established the existence of such a being. This type of faith is really belief without or even in spite of evidence. In this sense, faith is irrational and absurd because it's a carte blanche to justify absolutely any belief whatsoever.
If someone wants to believe without evidence, let them at least admit that this is irrational and absurd rather than disguising it as matter of rational trust.
The word faith is used to denote two rather distinct concepts, tending to create considerable confusion in assessing the reasons people claim for holding their religious beliefs. I have previously addressed the common failure to distinguish between unbelief and disbelief and now I would like to turn my attention to the two kinds of faith.
The following is a lengthy essay documenting my reasons for leaving the Catholic Church. It was written in December 2004, two months after my apostasy.
Before I begin explaining my reasons for leaving the faith, it would be appropriate to briefly examine the reasons I was a Catholic in the first place. The story of how I entered the Church is a very common one: my Catholic parents had me baptized not long after my birth, brought me to church each Sunday, and sent me to formal religious education at the church until I made confirmation at the age of thirteen. As do many children, I simply accepted what I was told by adults in essentially all matters without questioning it, and this certainly extended to what I was told about God and religion.
While my enthusiasm for religion waxed and waned, I cannot recall any doubts of any significance until the summer after I graduated from high school, at the age of seventeen. For the next eight years I struggled from time to time with these doubts, and reassured myself with various reasons for believing the Catholic faith true. Since this is not a deconversion story, I will not detail the reasons I began my investigation into arguments against the faith, but only summarize my research, reasoning, and conclusions.
The intellectual challenge to my faith was two-pronged: questioning the reasons I had for believing and discovering distinct reasons for disbelieving. With regards to general chronology and relative strength, the order of these two elements was in fact reversed, but for stylistic reasons I am presenting them here in the listed order.
II. Reasons to Believe
A. Argument from Miracles
The history of the Catholic Church is filled with volumes upon volumes of accounts of miraculous events of all sorts: healings, apparitions, divine artifacts, extreme fasting, levitation, bilocation, mind-reading, visible Eucharistic transformations, survival of deadly force, resurrections, and even a dancing sun. St. Vincent Ferrer, a Dominican missionary of the 14th and 15th centuries from the Iberian peninsula, is reputed to have performed 40,000 miracles in his lifetime alone, which incidentally only lasted approximately 25,000 days. It's an impressive record, and very effective in quelling the doubts of a young Catholic. Its efficacy in convincing skeptics, however, is almost non-existent and for good reason. There are a number of problems with using miracles to establish the truth of a religion.
I would like to begin by saying that the sheer number of alleged miracles can seem overwhelming until one examines why mistakes, hallucinations, fraud, and forgeries could be so common. We need to understand that there is a long tradition of miracles in Christianity. Jesus Christ performed a number of miracles to establish himself as the messiah and the Son of God. The apostles performed miracles to establish their apostolic authority. Saints are only canonized by the Church after two separate confirmed miracles are attributed to them or their intercession. People in an unscientific age would be less likely to fully investigate an unusual natural occurrence and more likely to mistakenly consider it a miracle. Additionally, miracles brought respect, fame, and fortune that would entice many to try to create their own. There are even so-called pious frauds which are contrived to increase the declining faith of the people. The number of claimed cases itself proves nothing.
The most glaring difficulty with using miracles to establish the truth of a religion is determining whether these events occurred at all. A miracle qua miracle is always the least likely possible explanation of any event. While scientists and historians may be reliable enough to establish the probability of natural events, they are simply not trustworthy enough to establish the occurrence of a supernatural event which violates the basic laws we otherwise never see broken. It is always more likely that the reports are mistaken, fraudulent, or the result of later forgery than that a natural physical law was violated. Whatever the individual case, it's important to remember that there are always other possible explanations that cannot be definitively ruled out so that divine intervention can be firmly established.
Beyond the difficulties of confirming miracles at all, there is also a major problem in that each person in the world would himself need to become an expert in logic, philosophy, linguistics, anthropology, psychology, history, and several other academic fields in order to be as certain as possible that no errors have occurred in the long line of research and reasoning. For while one may trust scientists and historians to establish the likelihood of natural events, one cannot confirm a supernatural occurrence and logically conclude that a certain institution is absolutely infallible on the fallible word of other persons.
The validity of using miracles to establish religious authority depends entirely on the truthfulness of whoever performed the miracle, in most cases assumed to be an omnimax (omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent) deity. This assumption, however, must be challenged. First, the very existence of such a being can be questioned; the problem of evil even suggests that such a being most certainly does not exist. Second, we cannot exclude the possibility of less honest supernatural or even advanced natural extraterrestrial beings performing these miracles. In fact, miracles in religions other than Christianity have sometimes been dismissed as the work of demons. Descartes argues that an omnimax deity would not allow supernatural beings to deceive us. This argument depends on the existence of an omnimax deity and certain knowledge of his will, and fails to consider that this deity does not prevent even other humans from deceiving us into false religions. One would need to exhaustively investigate the numerous miraculous claims in all other religions in case miracles confirm conflicting messages.
Finally, unless we blindly assume that whoever is most intimately connected to the miracle is henceforth absolutely infallible, we need a reliable method of determining when he speaks authoritatively. We cannot allow the authority to define it himself because we do not know whether this definition itself is infallible; the logic would be circular and thus invalid.
I personally consider fulfilled prophecy to be a special subtype of miracle. Everything I have said against miracles applies as well to prophecy, so there is no need to repeat my arguments. Mystical experiences are also of a similar nature to miracles and prophecy: they simply cannot establish an authority that we can trust without questioning. The argument from miracles fails.
B. Argument from Ecclesiastical Stability
The Catholic Church has experienced a certain amount of stability throughout her history. This point is certainly worth noting when studying the Church, but I argue that it cannot be used to establish her supernatural claims. First, the stability is only relative. In comparison to the doctrinal alterations experienced in the short history of Protestantism, yes, the Catholic Church has been quite solid. But in the earliest years of the religion, it was anything but stable. There were a good number of competing factions, teaching and believing very different things. These were not just heretical fringe groups. Often those who held the currently unorthodox positions greatly outnumbered those who eventually established their own beliefs as universal orthodoxy. Real and lasting stability didn't arise until Emperor Constantine converted and instated Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire, and at the same time also outlawing all other religions. Now with worldly power, the Church became more and more disinclined to alter doctrines unnecessarily and thereby jeopardize the status and revenue it was accruing. It should be noted that there have always been heretical groups, but that they were unable to establish and maintain themselves indefinitely until the invention of the printing press strengthened their cause against the extremely powerful bureaucracy of the Church. The various inquisitions stand out as rather ungodly methods of maintaining ecclesiastical stability, but we should not forget how effective the economic, social, and spiritual devastation attached to the silent threat of peaceful excommunication could be throughout the history of the Church. We should also note that the Church places extremely stringent limitations on what she considers unchanged in her history. The teachings and attitudes toward non-Christians, for example, have undergone revolutionary changes in recent centuries and expert theologians have had to bend over backward to find some core teaching which fits multiple teachings. Both Vatican Councils have resulted in the birth of many schismatic or semi-schismatic groups in the last two centuries. Why is there such an appearance of instability, both in doctrinal matters and church governance, if there is in fact none?
It is not necessary that I establish the instability of the Catholic Church. It is not even necessary that I demonstrate that her stability is debatable. It is only necessary that I provide natural reasons for the stability she has displayed, and I believe I have done that. The Church's stability is not nearly strong enough to establish the divine origins she claims. If never there had existed any heretics, schismatics, or doctrinal development, if there had never been violent and non-violent threats against heretics and apostates, both in this life and the next, and if there had been only minimal worldly motives for maintaining stability, there would be some plausibility to the idea. But it is simply not the case. The numerous failings of the Church, especially on a grand scale, strongly suggest it is something other than divine. The Church may perhaps be a unique institution in world history, but it has all the markings of a merely human institution nonetheless. The argument from Church stability fails.
III. Reasons to Disbelieve
A. Divine Injustice
1. Original Sin
The doctrine of original sin teaches that all of humanity has been punished for the sin of our earliest ancestors. Punishing an innocent party for the transgressions of another party is clearly unjust. The association we have with the other party was even made without our consent. And even if substitutionary punishment were just, it would at least require the assent of the party to be punished, which we have never granted. No Catholic can argue that original sin is a logical necessity, for the Church teaches that God allowed the Virgin Mary to be conceived without any taint of sin. There exists no reason he could not do the same for each human conceived, who are all as equally innocent as the Virgin Mary before they are born. Original sin is pure injustice.
2. Eternal Punishment
Assuming for the sake of argument that God has the right to punish his creations for their sins, justice demands that the penalty match the severity of the crime. Eternal punishment in hell for temporal sins violates this principle. A human who inflicts a limited amount of unjust suffering will himself experience unimaginable agony for all of eternity. St. Thomas Aquinas recognizes this principle but argues in his famous Summa Theologica that because God is an infinite being, all sins against him are infinite in magnitude. There are two major problems with this idea.
First, God as an infinite being cannot suffer: we cannot do anything to diminish his infinite beatitude in even the slightest degree. The first reason that we imagine that we can is that our natural experiences involve only finite, harmable creatures so we cannot truly conceive of an infinite being. The second reason is that we have been taught that Jesus suffered despite the logical impossibility of the concept.
Second, the Church distinguishes not only between mortal and venial sins, but between transgressions that are inherently more or less grave. If we follow the idea presented by Aquinas, this distinction is totally mistaken; all sins are infinitely grave. One cannot argue that some sins are more infinitely grave than others.
3. Doubt, Disbelief, and Apostasy
Prohibition of doubt in matters of religion and philosophy is nothing more than tyrannical intellectual dishonesty to the extent to which it limits rational inquiry. If one is never allowed to question his own thinking, he will remained trapped in a mental jail which he has constructed for himself with the help of the Church. It should be noted that Church actually encourages members of other faiths to doubt their religions and investigate Christianity. Logical consistency would demand that they discourage them, for many non-Christians are as convinced of the truthfulness of their own religion as are many Christians.
The extent to which our beliefs are willfully held is debatable. I think that most would agree, however, that it is wrong to assume that all non-Christians, at least those sufficiently exposed to Christianity, deliberately choose to disbelieve the faith. Culpability could only be assigned if the non-believer makes the decision with sufficient consciousness and is sufficiently convinced of the truth of the faith prior to the decision. We cannot presume to truly know the mind of even one other person, much less everyone who has encountered Christianity, so it seems absurd to uniformly condemn all of those who refuse their assent to the faith.
The condemnation of apostasy rests entirely on the condemnation of disbelief. There is no reason to prohibit the discontinuation of the practice of a religion which one no longer believes.
4. Biblical Atrocities
The Bible is full of stories of violent injustice of all types committed by God, commanded by God, rewarded by God, or looked favorably upon by God: wars of conquest, slaughter of innocent men, women, and children, divine plagues, looting, slavery, death penalty for minor infractions, and a worldwide flood. The Skeptic's Annotated Bible is an excellent reference to Biblical violent injustice.
B. Divine Imperfect Benevolence
1. Prayer and Blessing
Prayers of petition are completely incompatible with the idea of an omnimax deity. With perfect knowledge, power, and benevolence, we would expect God to provide us with all of the good things we need simply because he loves us. Petitionary prayer implies that God would refrain from granting you or someone else something if you failed to ask for it. Would even a human parent fail to prepare dinner for his child if the child did not specifically ask for it, or would he cook one because he knows that is what is best for the child? Would he not attempt to catch his child falling from a tree and prevent a broken bone unless the child yelled for help, or would he try his hardest to prevent injury to his beloved child? When someone prays, for instance, that God grant him a safe journey and protect him from harm, he is essentially asking his all-loving Creator to prevent any injury that he would have allowed to happen to him if he had not made this petition. If God knows what is best for us and is completely capable of and willing to giving it to us, why ask him for anything? If he desires that we humble ourselves before him, there are other ways of doing that without making his blessings conditional.
The absolute disparity of the blessings bestowed upon each individual is normally answered by saying that God will judge each individual according to what he did with what he had and that God always judges perfectly fairly. Why not grant everyone the same blessings in this life? Why allow it to appear as though he does not exist and that blessings are randomly distributed? These questions prove nothing, but they do force one to ponder the situation. Regardless, I am often made sick when a rich person in a rich nation attributes some minor blessing to God on account of his faith and prayers when the same God allows thousands of orphaned, exploited, abused, malnourished, homeless, innocent children to die in filthy gutters around the world every single day.
2. Arbitrary Salvation
Salvation is a very highly disputed issue among Christians, with many contradictory opinions held fiercely by different groups. The requirement for salvation in the Catholic Church, however, is that one must die in a state of grace. One enters a state of grace by baptism, and if he should fall into a state of sin by committing a mortal sin, he must make a sacramental confession to a Catholic priest and receive God's forgiveness. This remains the teaching about what is necessary for believing Catholics. Over the years, the Church seems to have gone from condemning every single non-Catholic to hell to throwing her hands up into the air and making extremely vague statements about hoping for the salvation of even non-Christians. This is evidence of doctrinal instability, but the recent equivocation is almost impossible to criticize because it cannot be clearly formulated. There are, however, a number of serious problems with the clear teaching.
First, the time of death becomes disproportionately significant. One may lead a life of exemplary piety and faith, commit a single mortal sin in his dying moments, and be condemned to eternal fire. Alternatively, one may lead a life of debauchery and violence, sincerely repent in his dying moments, and be welcomed to eternal paradise, though admittedly having to spend a long time in purgatory beforehand. One may walk out of a church, having made a good and honest confession and thus in a state of grace, consent to one impure thought on the way home, get struck by lightning immediately afterward, and be condemned to hell. If the lightning had struck one minute earlier, he would have enjoyed the delights of heaven. It is completely arbitrary. Though I do not accuse the Church of having crafted the doctrine deliberately, they could not have designed one more favorable to her power: the faithful must diligently be cautious to remain in a state of grace lest their lives be wasted, while infidels are offered the chance to have their eternal condemnation voided and receive eternal paradise if they return to the Church, enter a state of grace, and die in the same. To remain in a state of grace, a Catholic must, among many other things, attend Mass on all holy days of obligation and generally contribute money to the Church.
Second, since the Church distinguishes between more and less grave sins, as discussed earlier, absurd lines must be drawn within sins that are not inherently grave. Theft is more or less grave depending on the circumstance such that, all other things being equal, stealing a small amount is generally venial in nature whereas stealing a large amount is mortal in nature. The line is sometimes drawn at an amount equal to one day's wages for the victim, but the specifics of the line are unimportant to my point. What is significant is that there does exist some line that separates two amounts which differ in the smallest monetary unit used, which would be a penny here in the United States. Let's say in one particular case that the line is drawn at $100.00. If you are in a state of grace, steal $99.99, and die immediately afterward, you would commit only a venial sin and thus go to heaven. All other things being equal, if you steal $100.00, you will commit a mortal sin and thus go to hell. Must a line be drawn? We humans must draw lines somewhere in government and business, but certainly an omnimax God could devise a superior system for determining whether we are granted entrance to paradise or to a lake of fire.
Third, the teaching allows for practically absurd scenarios to arise. Let's say that Person A hates Person B. Person A not only wants to murder Person B, but he wants to try to have him condemned to hell. Person B is a faithful Catholic and we can assume, for the sake of the story, that he would achieve salvation if Person A does not interfere. Person A, however, deliberately and successfully attempts to corrupt the morals of Person B, by encouraging and tempting him to commit various mortal sins and lose his state of grace. So Person B cheats on his wife by sleeping with a prostitute, and Person A kills Person B immediately afterward. Person B is now in hell and will remain there forever. Person A, however, can theoretically repent of his sins, go to confession, enter a state of grace, die in the same, and be rewarded with heaven for all eternity.
Fourth, with one's eternal fate always hanging in the balance, the Catholic teaching on salvation can easily lead to obsession with death, sin, and hell, if taken completely seriously. The stakes are simply too high to relax. One can diligently study Catholic morality, examine his conscience, meet with his confessor and still have doubts about the condition of his soul, whether he should go to confession when available or whether he should refrain from receiving communion. Confessors can confidently instruct their penitents to consider doubt equivalent to being no sin, but the obsession with the infinite cannot be so easily reined in. One doubts whether he should trust his confessor. He doubts whether he doubts and then fears that he claims doubts where none exist in order to excuse himself. It always seems safer to go to confession whenever possible and always refrain from communion. Can one live with the eternal consequences if he really does culpably excuse himself? Everyone does this every day when dealing with their earthly lives: we aren't certain that our food isn't poisoned, but we would rather risk our lives than ruin them obsessing over the extremely small chance of being poisoned. When you throw infinity into the equation, however, everything becomes skewed. No behavior becomes too radical. One can derive absolutely no comfort in hell by reminding himself that it was extremely unlikely that he was in a state of mortal sin when he in fact was. His choice to attend a sporting event instead of confession on one afternoon resulted in his eternal damnation; he would have been better off for the rest of his existence if he had played it safe. What's more, petitionary prayer implies that a decision to go to bed early one evening rather than spending ten minutes asking God for the gift of final penitence could eventually result in one's damnation. The Catholic teaching on salvation, if taken seriously, can easily lead to a life of obsessive-compulsive behavior. Although one can rightly argue that canonized saints certainly took the teachings of the Church seriously, it does not mean that they followed all of the teachings to their logical conclusions. The phenomenon of scrupulosity is extremely rare among canonized saints even though it affects a number of fairly devout believers. Since I have found no response to this issue, I hypothesize that canonized saints generally do not have obsessive personalities, allowing them to avoid obsession, while people who do are prevented from achieving sainthood precisely because of their personalities. I welcome research on this topic.
3. Superior Alternative Plans
Devising superior alternatives to what the Church teaches is God's divine plan of salvation is surprisingly easy. If we believe that God desires that every person be saved and avoid eternal damnation, we simply seek ways to achieve this objective while attempting to avoid compromises with different divine desires.
First, we must understand that Christians place great importance on free will and consider it logically impossible without the ability to determine our eternal fate. Christians, however, also believe two very significant things about heaven: First, no saint ever sins. Second, every saint has free will. This means that free will and not sinning are entirely compatible, which itself means that God could have created us in a state similar to heaven in which we have all the benefits of free will without anyone being damned to hell. There is no reason to think that an omnimax deity would have some other motive that would have been worth letting many of his beloved creatures suffer eternally.
Second, God could have chosen to refrain from placing temporal limits on his mercy. Catholics believe one has his entire life to enter and remain in a state of grace, and once he dies, he has no more chances. There is no reason to imagine that souls in hell cannot repent. On the contrary, they have more reasons than ever to do so. If they can repent, why would God not accept their repentance and forgive their sins, as he would joyfully have done one second before they breathed their last breath? If they can't repent, why would he remove them from the earth where repentance is always possible? The only response I have encountered is that, given an infinite amount of time to repent, all souls would achieve salvation and no one could really choose eternal torture. It is presented as though that's a bad thing! I am not convinced that an infinite number of opportunities necessitates that something will occur, but infinity is a difficult concept to grasp and apply, so I will grant this point for the sake of argument. Regardless, the one choice to repent, whenever it happens, would still be absolutely free and free will in that sense would still be maintained. Does it really matter that everyone is fated to freely accept God's love and live with him in perfect happiness for all eternity? Why would God allow us to freely choose eternal torture when he could have achieved all known objectives without a single soul in hell forever?
Third, assuming the principle that infinite chances equals necessary occurrence, God could have chosen to extend the lives of humans until they enter a state of grace and then allow them to die immediately, assuring their salvation. This plan is actually superior to the second because no one would have to suffer in hell even temporarily!
Fourth, God could have chosen to deny humans free will. Many, if not all, souls in hell would have preferred to have no free will if they had known they would be condemned to eternal torment. Unless this desire is irrational, there is no reason to suppose God would act against their wishes. Would a human parent hand his suicidal child a loaded gun so that he can freely choose whether to live or die? Or would he act in the best interest of the child and not give him that free choice? Why would God act differently?
Fifth, God could have chosen to annihilate the souls that now go to hell. I do not accept the explanation that because God wills them to be eternal, he cannot destroy them. Even if that were so, God would still have known better than to make creatures who will find themselves better off not existing. Who would prefer to suffer unimaginable pain for eternity than to be annihilated? If God is the source of all happiness, what is the point in existing without him forever?
C. Implausibility as Divine Plan
God becomes incarnate, suffers an execution to cancel a debt of justice to himself, incurred by his creatures by violating rules that he himself decreed. Paying someone else's monetary debts is certainly possible, but paying someone else's debts of justice is just not possible. Allowing someone to suffer in another's place for punishment is not possible for humans, and there is no reason why it would be logically possible for God either. Debts of justice are inherently non-transferrable.
Christians accept the importance of faith, ironically, as a matter of faith. Never have I encountered an explanation why one's salvation depends so heavily on believing a certain set of propositions true that made any semblance of sense. The best attempt casts it as a matter of personal trust in God, but there are two major defects of this explanation. First, it completely fails to address the fact that non-believers don't believe God exists, so any discussion of trust in him is nonsensical. Second, trust is not something that is freely chosen. If one believes he can trust someone, then trust is not praiseworthy. If one believes he cannot trust someone, then mistrust is not blameworthy. The issue of belief is central and cannot be replaced with trust. Let us examine an example to illustrate. One day a man is sitting at home and he receives a telephone call. The voice at the other end is unfamiliar, but the speaker claims to be a billionaire second cousin that the man has never met or even heard of. He says that if the man sends him all the money from his savings account within twenty-four hours, he will give him ten million dollars, but if he does not, he will receive nothing. He gives the man some reasons to suggest he is legitimate, but there are problems with his story that the man cannot resolve. He asks the man just to trust him despite the difficulties. Let's say for the sake of the story that this offer is legitimate. Would the man be blameworthy for not believing this story without sufficient evidence simply because it turned out to be true? Then why do Christians consider non-Christians not just blameworthy but deserving of eternal torment for not believing the story of Jesus without sufficient evidence simply because it turned out to be true? If someone does not believe one's important message, is it better to enlighten him to best of one's ability or to torture him forever?
One story from the Gospels presents us with an interesting question. Why is the Apostle Thomas' doubt indulged by Jesus and he later considered a saint whereas later doubters were condemned, excommunicated, and occasionally tortured and executed? Why are we not justified in saying that we will not believe until we can examine Jesus' wounds ourselves?
The Bible reports that the Jews are the chosen people of God. Christians view the Jews as being chosen primarily to prepare the way of Jesus to save the entire world. This presents some problems that are difficult to answer. Why did God institute the Mosaic Law if it was going to be rejected by the Christian Church? If it was salvific, then why replace it? If it was not salvific, then why institute it at all? Also, since most Jews, both in the time portrayed in the Gospel and ever since, have rejected Jesus as the messiah, why did God guard over them for three thousand years? Why would the chosen people be so unlikely to accept the message of their own messiah, who was the purpose of their entire existence? There is nothing definitive here, but it does cause one to question the plausibility of the story.
4. Biblical Problems
The Bible is full of material which suggests it is the work of humans and not of God: contradictions, failed prophecies, scientific errors, religious intolerance, misogyny, racism, sexual perversion, and blatant absurdities. I recommend The Skeptic's Annotated Bible as an excellent reference to Biblical imperfections.
5. Human or Divine?
The story of Christianity, and especially of Jesus, has all of the markings of a purely human phenomenon.
- similarities to god-men in other religions
- divine father, human mother
- gathered apostles
- suffered for the sins of humans
- resurrected from dead
- ascended into heaven
- message not proclaimed universally
- attested to by small, unoriginal, unverifiable miracles
- recorded by men decades after death with many imperfections
- Christians themselves deeply divided into many sects
- still has not reached all persons
- superior alternatives absurdly easily devised
- doubted by those who knew him best
- St. John the Baptist
- return expected imminently for millennia still not accomplished
We can either conclude that God had some mysterious motivation for letting his perfect divine plan appear like a human-made religion, or that Christianity is a human-made religion. The choice is clear to me.
IV. Faith Paradigms
I have examined all of the major reasons I had for believing and have rejected all of them as insufficient for establishing the truth of the Catholic faith. At this point, some readers may be thinking that I have missed the entire point of religion: that it's about faith in that which you cannot prove, not about logic and science. Allow me to respond to this.
I had no definitive understanding of faith until high school when I acquired one, which I call the rationalistic faith paradigm, that differs from what appears to be the official position of the Catholic Church. The rationalistic claim is that one can firmly prove the truth of the Catholic faith using only reason and sense perception. That is, one can establish the authenticity of the Gospels, the existence of Jesus of Nazareth, the divinity of Jesus as the Christ, the establishment of the Catholic Church, and the certain meaning of the promise of the Holy Spirit to guide the Church, all without any appeal to faith. One normally cites the reasons I have examined and rejected above, often called the motives of credibility, as the evidence. Having demonstrated the Catholic Church to be a divinely inspired, infallible authority, we can accept as definitively certain what the Church presents for our belief. Faith is merely a matter of trust and assent to the authority that one has discovered through rational inquiry, and thus in its foundations is completely rationalistic.
What I call the mystical faith paradigm approximates the teachings of the Catholic Church to the best of my knowledge, though I am certainly open to correction and clarification. It presents all of the same motives of credibility as the rationalistic faith paradigm, and with the same intention of arguing for the reasonableness of faith, but it makes more modest claims regarding the effectiveness of this sort of reasoning. It does not claim that these motives of credibility actually prove the faith, but that they are nonetheless strong arguments in its favor and help incline the individual to believe. The mystical faith paradigm differs from the rationalistic primarily in its insistence on faith being a supernatural grace granted at God's good pleasure. Thus our faith is based on supernatural grace, not on the motives of credibility.
While imperfect and mistaken, neither paradigm is particularly troublesome until one considers the Church's condemnation of unbelief. St. Thomas Aquinas, widely considered the greatest philosopher and theologian in the history of the Church, in his famous Summa Theologica, boldly states that unbelief is the worst of all sins, thus saying that not believing in Christ is worse than murder, without providing any clear reasons why it's sinful in the first place.
Under the rationalistic paradigm, which I repeat is not accepted by the Church but under which I operated for many years, the condemnation would imply that the Catholic faith is so obviously true and divine that anyone who encounters the arguments in its favor will, without exception, believe it's the one true religion. Failing to profess the faith becomes a morally culpable choice to ignore the truth. This is so obviously absurd, and additionally irrelevant, that I will discuss it no further.
Under the mystical paradigm, the condemnation implies that God grants the mystical “light of divine faith” to people of good will who encounter the arguments in favor of the faith so that they can believe, even though the arguments themselves are not completely sufficient in themselves. In fact, it is even said that the arguments are totally insufficient without this grace! This is slightly more difficult to address because of its mystical nature, but not much more. The first objection is that people, in general at least, are not consciously aware of the offer of divine grace, thus it is impossible to make a willful decision to accept or reject it. An act must be willful in order to be sinful, but the supposed worst sin of all is not willful, nor even conscious. The second objection is equally damaging: the only reason we have to believe in the existence of the light of divine faith is the authority of the Church, and the only reason we have to believe in the authority of the Church is the existence of the light of divine faith!
Anyone can present insufficient arguments for any faith, claim there is an undetectable and mysterious light of divine faith, and then condemn all unbelievers for rejecting something they don't have sufficient reasons for believing even exists. Should we take seriously everyone who makes such a claim and tremble in fear of displeasing a deity that we're supposed to believe without sufficient evidence and of burning forever in that religion's hell? Then why should we take the Church's threats seriously? If the evidence does not firmly establish an infallible authority, and I argue that in principle and for more reasons than I present in this essay that one can never be established, then we can ignore anything that is not supported by evidence.
Whether intuition and feelings, however, constitute sufficient reason for believing something falls within the jurisdiction of the individual, but I personally do not trust my own intuition enough to decide that a particular comprehensive metaphysical belief system is absolutely, objectively, and universally true and live the only life that I know that I have according to its teachings. If anything, my intuition tells me that Christianity is a purely human and historical phenomenon, not a divine religion instituted by an omnimax deity.
Having demolished all of my former reasons for believing, discovered numerous significant, unresolved difficulties, alternate explanations which make much more sense, and established that believing on faith unacceptable, my belief had disappeared. My desire for intellectual honesty and my sufferings from scrupulosity had lead me on an extensive search for the truth. My deeply ingrained fear of hell resulted in prolonging it for several months after I could no longer profess the creed. The threat of infinite suffering as infinite, discussed earlier, had not lost all of its power. Eventually, however, I mustered the courage to say to myself, “If there exists a deity who will punish me forever for rejecting something as absurd, implausible, and disgusting as Christianity, then so be it.”
Posted at 6:00 PM
Today is Thanksgiving Day in the United States. Although this thanks has always been directed primarily toward God, it's not considered a religious holiday and it belongs to people of all religions and of no religion. Americans generally do not attend religious services on this day and the only common religious ritual is a somewhat lengthened prayer before the feast of turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, yams, mashed potatoes, corn and pumpkin pie. There is no well-known Thanksgiving prayer and each gathering often has its own unique invocation.
There is another common tradition before Thanksgiving dinner. Each person in attendance mentions one or more things for which they are grateful. My own family, however, does not participate in this practice, but I would like to present my list here:
- intellectual freedom
- political freedom
- financial prosperity
Posted at 6:00 PM