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Bolluxed. Or, You Know, However It’s Spelled

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So here we are, on Saturday of Mother’s Day week-end, which is always a rather bad time. 

I have a terrible feeling that my sons’ idea of what would be the best thing to do for me tomorrow involves multiple DVDs of Marvel superheroes in live action car chases ending in explosions.

In the meantime, however, I’ve been trying to get stuff done, and in doing that I’ve been distracting myself with reading.

This time, the reading began as a look at the new (April/May 2011) issue of Free Inquiry.  

For those of you who don’t know, FI is the magazine put out by the Council for Secular Humanism, which may now be called the Centers for Inquiry.  The organization has been expanding rapidly over the last fifteen years or so, and I sometimes get lost in the title changes and restructurings and all that kind of thing.

For what it’s worth, FI is the best in the very small field of publications.  The Council was founded by Paul Kurtz, who also established Prometheus Press, which publishes books on atheist, skeptical and magic-debunking topics.   It’s been successful enough to be called, now, a mid-sized rather than a small publisher.

I don’t have a subscription to FI anymore.  I used to, but I gave it up when they took on Peter Singer as a regular columnist.   I still read it, though.  It’s partially online, and Barnes and Noble stores have that neat thing where you can sit down a read a bit of something even if you’re not going to buy it.  Most of the time, I manage not to pay for Singer.

Of course, he doesn’t appear in every issue, so there’s that.

What I do make a point of reading every time I see it are the columns of a Canadian academic named Shadia Drury. 

Any of you who read this blog on a regular basis know, by know,  the absolute fascination I have with this woman’s work–a woman who claims to be an “expert” on things like Thomas Aquinas and the Middle Ages and who seems to know about as much about both as I know about soccer. 

I’m also, quite frankly,  still willing to bet the farm that the woman does not read Latin.  

I don’t know.  Maybe she reads it but reads it badly, which could explain why she continues to get poor St. Thomas so thoroughly wrong.

The article by Drury in this issue of FI, however, was the first I’ve ever read that made me wonder if what I was dealing with was not misunderstanding but dishonesty.  Call “Is Islam the Heir of Christianity?”, it is in some ways nothing more than a first rate example of cliched silliness about how Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular produce sheep-like automatons so afraid of going to hell that they’ll do anything the Pope tells them. 

I am, apparently, the only atheist on the planet who has managed to notice the obvious–which is that you can’t get here from there.

But what made me wonder about the dishonesty in this particular article has to do with two prominent figures in Christian theological history–Augustine of Hippo and Pelagius.

Augustine of Hippo was a saint.  Pelagius was declared a heretic for denying the doctrine of original sin.

So far so good, but the issue is far more complicated than that.  Augustine was a saint, but he was also a man who veered very close to the doctrine of predestination, the idea that God decides from all time who will be saved and who will not and that our free will has nothing to do with it, because we don’t really have free will.

I say Augustine only “veered” in that direction, for a good reason.  The doctrine of predestination is heresy in the Catholic Church.   It is just as much heresy as denying the doctrine of original sin.  It’s just heresy in the other direction.

Augustine knew this, and you can find passage after passage in City of God where he tries to reconcile his strong feelings in favor of predestination with what he knew the Church actually taught. 

Just because a man is declared a saint, or because his works have been influential with members of the Church, doesn’t mean that everything he ever wrote is actual Catholic doctrine.

And Augustine wasn’t the only “influential” theologian of the time or after, either.  Plenty of others–including Thomas Aquinas, about whom Drury wrote a book–not only come much closer to actually accepting Church doctrine, but are acknowledged by the Church itself to be using the right concepts and formulations.

The reason I started to wonder about dishonesty was this:  Drury sets up a dichotomy between Augustine and Pelagius, as if those two were the only viewpoints that existed–and she continually talks about how Augustine promoted the idea that man was born in “bondage to sin” and therefore couldn’t choose to be good, whereas Pelagius rejected “bondage to sin” and said that human beings could so choose.

And this is, really, very, very slick.

Let’s dispense with one thing right from the start.  In Catholic theology, nothing–not a stone–can do anything without God sustaining it.  If God got distracted one day, the entire universe would fall apart.   Existence exists because God wills it into existence, and will cease to exist if God no longer wills it.

I bring this up to get it out of the way.  To Catholicism, God will existence to exist, and that becomes a given.   It holds the same status in what comes afterwards as saying “the universe just is, it always existed and always will.” 

That is, after all, what modern science assumes–that what is here is here, it’s a brute fact. 

I bring this up because Drury spends a lot of time in this article sort of skimming over this concept and giving the impression that it means that human beings can’t be free to choose anything (have free will) because God is sustaining them in existence. 

She also spends a lot of time in this article skimming over the doctrine of original sin and implying that that means human beings can’t be free to choose, either, because they’re in “bondage to sin,” which makes them always automatically choose the wrong thing.

In other words, she spends a lot of time deliberately confusing the concepts of predestination and original sin. 

I’ve always thought that original sin was a very good metaphor for the way people actually behave–we know we should diet, but we eat the pecan pie anyway; we know smoking is bad for us, that we shouldn’t cheat on our spouses, that it’s wrong to take all those supplies home from the office–but the natural urge is there, and we tell ourselves we “can’t help ourselves.”

But metaphor or actuality, what should be obvious is that although the natural urge is there, plenty of us decide to refuse it.  We do it all the time.  If we didn’t, civilization wouldn’t exist. 

To be “in bondage to sin” in Catholicism is the equivalent of being “in bondage to natural desires” in secular thought–it’s not an absolute, just a statement of fact about lived human experience.

And the difference between this and predestination should be obvious–obvious enough so that I don’t really believe Drury could have honestly mistaken it.

Her purpose was to “prove” that our present concepts of human freedom could not have developed out of Christian thought, or been prefigured in it–they sprang, she says, from the Enlightenment.

I don’t know how she thinks the Enlightenment happened–apparently, it emerged, sui generis, all by itself and miraculously, without having to evolve out of the intellectual history that preceded it.

Quite frankly, I’d find that more miraculous than a virgin birth. 

And, of course, Locke and his contemporaries, the people who first formulated political freedom as the American founders understood it, did indeed develop out of a specific Christian tradition, that of the free will strain of Protestantism that emphasized the individual’s direct relationship with God and the primacy of the individual conscience over all forms of authority, religious and secular both.

But I can believe that Drury simply understands nothing about intellectual history.

I just only half believe that she could have gotten the original sin/determinism thing quite so wrong without getting it wrong on purpose.

And now, I’ve written a blog long enough to bore  you all to tears, and I never got to my actual topic, which is a train wreck of a book called Handbook of Catholic Apologetics by Peter Kreeft and Ronald K. Tancredi.

Maybe I’ll get to it tomorrow.

Written by janeh

May 7th, 2011 at 9:10 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Bolluxed. Or, You Know, However It’s Spelled'

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  1. “Never attribute to malice that which can be attributed to stupidity.”

    The odds are, she’s just that stupid.

    Not all atheists feel it necessary to denigrate or deny everything that religion has done. But a lot of them do!



    7 May 11 at 12:30 pm

  2. I’m with Cathy. It’s not that there isn’t malice–ignoring facts you know and deliberate flawed reasoning. It’s that it’s third.

    But ignorance and stupidity are only second.

    First place goes to the chronic human tendency to believe what we want to be true is true. If political freedom came from a strain of Christianity, then either at least that strain must be taken seriously, or the logic in support of political freedom is flawed, so Drury takes the easy way out: the one which doesn’t require her to rethink anything. Present people with ten facts, eight of which would mean something is true they don’t want to be true, and just watch them land on the other two.

    This is what makes intellectual monocultures in universities, magazines and political administrations so fragile. The people are bright and well-educated, but there is no one to make them deal with unpleasant facts, so they’ll deal with the comfortable ones instead. Like birds who have an island to themselves, their mental wings atrophy, and no one guards the nests. After a while, the men and rats arrive.


    7 May 11 at 2:49 pm

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