Know Thy Enemy

Contrary to the claims of some detractors of the “New Atheists,” it's not necessary to understand the intricacies of a religious doctrine in order reject it as absurd or unsubstantiated. It is, however, necessary to understand the basic definition in order to articulate a meaningful critique. In particular, I've seen a number of arguments on blogs and forums against Catholic dogmas which fail simply because the author misconstrues them out of pure ignorance. I'll address two of these errors in the hope that my readers will avoid them and advance a more effective criticism of religion.

The first is the dogma of transubstantiation. This is the belief that during the consecration in mass, the bread and wine become Jesus' body and blood without changing their physical nature whatsoever. It's said that the invisible, spiritual, immaterial “substance” changes without the visible, physical, material “form” or “accidents” changing. This means that what still looks exactly like bread and wine are believed to be literally Jesus' flesh and blood distributed as communion. There is considerable confusion about this idea even among Catholics, partly because it makes a nonsensical distinction and partly because the wrong word is often used to define it. I've seen even moderately sophisticated authors define transubstantiate with transform even though transubstantiation was coined precisely to distinguish it from transformation. With that said, if one wishes to attack the dogma, then it's an error to simply point out that it still looks like bread and wine given that such is happily acknowledged. Challenges to examine it under a microscope or after a communicant has received it fall into the category of error, for it's not claimed that the form changes at any point in space or time. It's supposedly an absolutely undetectable miracle, making it from a skeptic's perspective an absolutely worthless miracle claim with respect to possible evidence for the supernatural. Proper criticism of the doctrine would focus on the absurdity of the distinction between matter and spirit, the importance of falsifiability, the moral repugnancy of cannibalizing one's deity, or any other topic consistent with its true definition.

The second is the dogma of papal infallibility. This is the belief that the pope cannot err when speaking authoritatively for the entire church – ex cathedra or “from the chair” – on matters of faith and morals. The scope is extraordinarily narrow, and while there is some disagreement among scholars about precisely which statements qualify, the vast majority of papal statements which one finds in the news are certainly not considered ex cathedra. It's an error, therefore, if your goal is to argue against infallibility, to point out that the pope apparently contradicted something he himself or one of his predecessors said unless both were said under very special circumstances. In addition, the doctrine clearly doesn't concern papal actions and shouldn't be confused with impeccability, the inability to sin. Pointing out the sins of the current or past popes is irrelevant with respect to infallibility, especially given that recent popes have very publicly acknowledged some of the papacy's historical wrongs. Proper criticism would focus on contradictions between recognized ex cathedra statements and the inherent fallibility in determining whether another person is infallible.

The mixing up of two more dogmas is more easily resolved and doesn't itself cause bad argumentation, but I would like to clarify them anyway. The “Immaculate Conception” refers to the conception of Mary by her parents without imputing her with original sin, not the conception of Jesus by Mary without a sexual act, which is known as the “Incarnation.” Both dogmas are vulnerable to criticism, but the first step is use the correct terminology.

I've been attacked for indicating that an atheist was arguing against a straw man and accused of “towing [sic] the [church's] party line,” but such criticism is severely misdirected. I consider religious dogma my enemy and the best way to fight is “to know thy enemy.” Telling your comrades that they're firing blanks is a service to your cause, not to the other side. Advancing the anti-theistic equivalents of the creationist claim that evolution is false because there are still monkeys is quite ineffective.


No comments: