The children of wrath?

What is it about the anti-God brigade that makes them so hate-filled and, well, just downright unpleasant. They truly seem to be the children of wrath. The genuine children of light – as opposed to the faux variety – do at times let themselves down and indulge in rants which border on or cross the line of human decency. But by and large they are restrained by that essential ingredient of their cultural heritage – the charity of Christ.

Take a random comment thread from any faith story on the internet and what are you likely to find? You find yourself wading into a quagmire of irrational contempt, animosity and downright hatred towards anyone professing faith. You don’t even have to go anywhere near the more extreme end of this spectrum, the Dawkins Quarter, to get this. Scroll through any of these stories and you will find yourself not a little depressed by the experience. If you don’t encounter mockery then it will be sterile cynicism or worse.  But you will hardly ever encounter an attempt at a real engagement of minds. It is seriously sad.

Over the past few years the secularist/religion debate was frequently pitched in terms of one motion: The Catholic Church is (is not) a force for good in the world. Sometimes it was broader and put in terms of “Religion is (is not) a force for good in the world”, a Christopher Hitchens-style generalisation. Hitchens’ book, God is not Great, underlined the problem of debating the question in those terms. Its subtitle, “How religion poisons everything”, said it all. Hitchens’ “religion”,  by his definition, is really no religion. The opponent of any and every faith has the faithful at his mercy on this platform. Hitchens’ generalisation of faith allows him to bundle together, for the purposes of confusion, every kind of lunacy which men have for millennia described as religion.

The only meaningful debate on this topic will be one where religion is defended and professed on the basis of the specific doctrines it teaches and the way of life it proposes for its followers – regardless even of how faithfully its followers succeed in living up to those teachings and that way of life.

In many of those debates over the past few years the defenders of the mainstream Christian Churches – and for the most part it was the Catholic Church which was put in the dock – were on the losing side. This was primarily because they failed to demand that the teaching of their church, and not the motley collection of red herrings thrown at them, be made the focus of debate. If that were done, and if the cumulative effect of the effort of millions of Christians across the world to live according to the authentic Christian principles of their church, taking account of the development of its teaching down through the ages – and its influence on our civilization as it did so – then there would be no contest.

Leave aside the red herrings of issues generated by the inherent weakness, folly and sinfulness of mankind and you will find in the teaching of the Catholic Church, enshrined in its moral and social doctrines, a guide second to none for mankind’s flourishing. Examine all of these as closely as you like and you will not fail to find in them an understanding of our human condition which if acted on universally would be the greatest imaginable force for good in the world, bar none. Just do it, and see.

The argument against religion on the basis of the ignorance, weakness or malice of those who profess to follow Christ’s teaching while in fact following some aberrant concoction of their own, is no argument against the truth and value of this teaching. We might use an analogy. Great art is not diminished in its value to mankind, nor in its power to move our race, when confronted by the ignorant, even when they collect it and hoard it as a marketable commodity.  The sense of loss felt after the recent burning of some priceless works of art by some crazed woman underlines our appreciation of the value and power to do good of the world’s great literature, music and art.

Ignorance is ever a threat to beauty. Ignorance, culpable or otherwise, has also always been a threat to goodness an truth. That the truth of the Christian religion has historically and contemporaneously been held hostage by the misguided, the ignorant, and even evil people (like vicious slavers in the New World), is inadmissible as evidence against it.

A gem of moral wisdom encountered recently in a book of moral questions and answers compiled in the last century – with resonances very pertinent for our own times – might illustrate how much of the misery we inflict on each other globally might be alleviated if we were more attentive to the teaching of Christ’s Church.

The question, from a person with an eye on Irish history, was asked:

 Suppose a person is in possession of land by ancestral right –  land confiscated in the time of Cromwell, and given to one of his ancestors. Legally, he owns the land. Is it the teaching of the Cathoiic Church that he morally owns it or does the land rightly belong to the descendants of the original owner?

 The answer, from a renowned moral theologian of his day[i], was this:

 The confiscation was unjust, and the newcomer held the land on a title that no moral law could sanction. But time heals many wounds. Some of his successors were better than himself; they became bona fide holders of the proceeds of his robbery. The best moral instructors of mankind – and among them the Catholic Church takes the prominent place – have come to the conclusion that to safeguard public order and the rights of the community as a whole, the claims of these successors must be maintained, even in conscience, when a long period of peaceful possession has elapsed.

 The principle is termed “prescription,” and is universally acknowledged. The period varies in the different countries, but the time since CromweIl is long enough to satisfy the most exacting reading. The present holder may keep what he has without being troubled in conscience.

 If a person questions that conclusion, he must meet certain difficulties. The real owner in the days of Cromwell held the land from an ancestor who disturbed the previous owners in the days of a previous invasion. So through the days of the Milesians, the Firbolgs, and the countless other regimes of which history knows nothing. If we reject the principle of “prescription” we must face the suggestion that no human being on the globe at the present moment owns a single particle of anything he holds.

 Another question was asked. This was probably some time early in the last century. It’s clarity is uncompromising.

 Should the right of conquest be always recognized?

 The “right of conquest” , he answered, has been asserted by bellicose invaders and by their “scientific” supporters. It is no better than the right of the highway robber to seize all he can on a night-raid.

 Can we see anything but wisdom and a force for good in a world view which enshrines principles of common sense and justice like these? This is just a glimpse of the patrimony of the authentic Christian Church, passed from generation to generation in the manner eluciadated in the first encyclical letter from the current incumbent of the See of Peter, “Lumen Fidei.”

 The Church, like every family, passes on to her children the whole store of her memories. But how does this come about in a way that nothing is lost, but rather everything in the patrimony of faith comes to be more deeply understood? It is through the apostolic Tradition preserved in the Church with the assistance of the Holy Spirit that we enjoy a living contact with the foundational memory. What was handed down by the apostles — as the Second Vatican Council states — “comprises everything that serves to make the people of God live their lives in holiness and increase their faith. In this way the Church, in her doctrine, life and worship, perpetuates and transmits to every generation all that she herself is, all that she believes.

 The often flawed striving and rough hewing of mankind to implement this patrimony should not be the measure of the value or goodness of the Foundation itself. What is frightening in the contemporary debate – and it is often hard to recognise it as a debate – is the flight from reasonableness in failing to recognize this distinction, a flight accompanied by what appears to be a visceral hatred of the very idea that underlying our existence there might just be that benign “divinity that shapes our end” and that this Divinity subsists in the Catholic Church.


[i] Dr. Michael J. O’Donnell, Professor of Moral Theology in st. Patrick’s College, Maynooth, Ireland, in the early decades of the twentieth century.

The poverty of a life lived under an illusion

Christopher Hitchens

Atheism is in decline, according to George Weigel. Really? Well, he reported last month from the Ethics and Public Policy Centre at which he is a Senior Fellow, that their global number is now 137 million , showing a steady drop over the past decade. His figures came from the International Bulletin of Missionary Research and seemed fairly reliable. However, I still found myself a little sceptical until I read and reflected on an interview in the Daily Telegraph last week. This was both poignant and terrifying. Mick Brown, one of the Telegraph’s veteran interviewers had gone to Washington to meet the one of the arch-priests of the New Atheism, Christopher Hitchens.

As most people who know of Hitchens are already sadly aware, he has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Hitchens put it rather starkly to Brown, telling him that the cancer is now at stage four. ‘And the thing to note about stage four is that there is no stage five.’ He has been told that of 1,000 men of his age and in his condition, half could expect to be dead within a year.

What was poignant about all this is fairly obvious: a man in love with life, and man surrounded by admiring friends who enjoy his wit, intelligence and superb powers of expression, now considers that he has made his last journey – to a place he calls “Tumourville”.

What was terrifying was less obvious and lurked in the shadows at the back of the mind for days until gradually it overwhelmed the poignancy with the full force of Mr. Kurtz’s dying words in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, “The horror, the horror”. This is surely one of the reasons for the decline in atheism. There is no suggestion here that Christopher Hitchens has on his conscience the catalogue of crimes against humanity which Mr. Kurtz – or Col. Kurtz, if you are working to the text provided by Francis Ford Coppola in Apocalypse Now – had. What exactly it was that Kurtz saw in those dying moments which drove those terrible words from his heart and soul is open to interpretation, but it is hard not to have that same sense of horror at the prospect of someone departing on his final journey while thinking that he is coming to a full stop – while in fact he is not.

The poverty of a life lived under the illusion induced by a fallacy of reason – that just because you cannot prove something according to the rules of what we call science, then it is not true – is a dreadful condition. The bleakness of that life makes the prospect of atheism for the vast majority of ordinary mortals too much to bear. T.S. Eliot reminded us that “Humankind cannot bear very much reality”. The reality he was referring to was, we know, a limited reality. Eliot knew the full picture and knew that this was where the heart of peace was. But it is this limited reality which Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennett et al. are proposing to us as the be-all and the end-all of our existence. Humankind is clearly not buying it.

Brown tells us that Hitchens has faced his illness with great courage.  He has, and it is admirable. But as far as death is concerned courage does not enter into it. There is nothing for him to be afraid of beyond a full stop. But mankind from time immemorial, and by the looks of it from the statistics Weigel puts before us, for all time to come, as long as common sense prevails, knows in his heart of hearts that there is no full stop. How, one wonders, does the evidence of history and nature not make the atheists ponder their judgements on all this? Does every natural phenomenon we find in the world around us, and in every species of being in that world, not point to some purpose related to the destiny of that being? How then could this one universal phenomenon of belief in a first mover and an afterlife – which all of human history records in one form or another, and modern man still exhibits in overwhelming numbers, – be so meaningless? It makes no sense.

Brown tells us that talking with Hitchens about this, “you sense not only an anger with the institutions, teaching and practices of religion, but also an exasperation and bemusement with the very fact of belief. Put simply, he just doesn’t get it.”

“’With religion, try as I may, I can’t think myself into the viewpoint of the faithful. I can’t think what it would be like to believe that somebody had died for my sins, for example. I don’t get it at all.’ So it is that people’s experiences of faith will always be ‘delusions’; the consolations they may derive from it always ‘false’ ones.” But one feels that part of the problem is that what might be a consolation for others would be nothing of the kind to Hitchens. Boredom, he admits is his great enemy.

Brown and he discuss another notable – and late – atheist and his fear of death, the poet Philip Larkin. “‘What Larkin was saying was, you bloody fools; that’s exactly what I’m afraid of – annihilation.’ He pauses. ‘It is a disagreeable thought.’

“’However, put the contrary case. You get tapped on the shoulder, but guess what? The party’s going on for ever; you have to stay. And not only that, but you have to have a good time – the boss says so.’ He gives a slight shudder. ‘Anything eternal is probably intolerable.’”

Brown asked him if he thought he had been a good person? ‘No, not particularly. Not as the world counts these things, because the world expects, for that definition to apply, a good deal of selflessness. And while no one scores very high on that, I score lower than most. I don’t do much living for others, I really don’t.’

That is, perhaps, the real crunch. The prospect of eternity in that state of mind or soul is intolerable. And that is where “the horror, the horror” really bites.

While the medical prognosis for Christopher Hitchens is grim, there is one glimmer of hope and one that has no small suggestion of irony in it. Shortly after his diagnosis he was asked if he would be willing to take part in an experiment looking for a cure for cancer through genome sequencing. It is complicated but early this year he got news that there is a genetic mutation expressed by the tumour for which there already exists a drug. Chemotherapy is now underway making use of this information.

The ironic part of this is that one of the doctors taking an active interest in Hitchens’s treatment is Francis Collins, a pioneer of the Human Genome Research Institute. Collins is an evangelical Christian, the author of a bestselling book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. ‘It is a rather wonderful relationship,’ Hitchens told Brown. ‘I won’t say he doesn’t pray for me, because I think he probably does; but he doesn’t discuss it with me.’ Perhaps all this will prove to be something beyond irony.

Pullman Having His Cake and Eating It

The problem with Philip Pullman – well, one of them at any rate – is that he wants to have his cake and eat it. Pullman is the author of a series of children’s books which purport to expose what he sees the myths that make up our Christian faith. The first of these has now been filmed at an estimated cost of €120 million. “The Golden Compass” is probably showing at a cinema near you just now. Pullman wants to be an atheist who thinks that “God” is dead and who thinks that religion has brought nothing but suffering for the human race. However he now has a would-be blockbuster film for children to promote and the promise of a rich harvest of book sales on the back of it. If he doesn’t backtrack from his more militant stance and some of his stated intentions – “I’m trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief”, he was quoted as saying in the Washington Post in 2001 – his Hollywood producers and his bank balance may suffer. Undoubtedly there are people out there who either think like him on the question of God and religion and there are probably more who don’t care one way or the other. They won’t mind bringing their children to what they see as a well-made film which is a bit of exciting fun and full of marvellous special effects. However, the market place has a lot more to offer if it is carefully manipulated and this marketplace has a large segment of families to whom the meaning and intention of Pullman are important: the nascent faith of their children is not something that they are going to be happy to put at risk for a bit of fun. The cohorts of Pullman’s legion are pulling up behind him in his defence. Shane Hegarty in the Irish Times took up the issue of Pullman’s critics. Mockery was the tactic used as he lined up the easy targets of those who talk about banning Pullman. He quoted Pullman’s own view of his critics – “oh it causes me to shake my head with sorrow that such nitwits could be loose in the world”. My goodness. That’s strong. What would he like to do with them? Lock them up, or worse? And this is the man who thinks C.S. Lewis “was dangerous”. Of course, the notion that anyone might suggest that what he writes is dangerous is laughable. It’s that cake again. The trouble with this camp is that they are not really interested in a debate which might help us arrive at the truth. Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Good) , Pullman, et al, do their utmost to stifle debate by setting up easy targets, those they can label as “fundamentalists”. Dawkins and Hitchens take the extreme manifestations of belief and use them as evidence to condemn those who have already stipulated these manifestations as aberrations and heresies. Nicole Kidman, one of the stars of the film has even had to row in with a fluffy sort of defence. “I was raised a Catholic, the Catholic Church is part of my essence” – whatever that means? “I wouldn’t be able to do this film if I thought it were at all anti-Catholic.”  Poor  Nicole. She shouldn’t say things like that or we might think that “thinking” is not one of her strong points – or that she has not even bothered to read the script properly. In the film, as Mrs. Coulter, Ms. Kidman is the evil emissary of “the Magisterium.” Does she not know that the “magisterium” is the term which Catholics use to identify the teaching authority of the Church? In the end of the day we can’t allow this to be just a battle between those who believe in a world beyond this world and those who believe that this world is all there is – because science can’t take them any further. That makes it too easy for the non-believer since it gives him so many straw men to demolish. It has to be engaged on the level of the truth and the teaching of Christ and the Church he founded.  Apparently Pullman’s next book is going to address the question of whether “people can be helped by something that is palpably not true, is this better than denying the thing that is not true and not being helped.” While this doesn’t sound much like a bestseller it is clear that he has not the slightest interest in honestly asking whether or not something is true. He has already made up his mind and just wants to destroy the “nitwits” who think otherwise than himself.