If you haven't read your summer issue of Homiletic & Pastoral Review (June 2007), you may be unaware that nonbelievers have been getting feisty. In fact, atheists are breaking the unspoken code of conduct that is supposed to prevent them from saying unkind things about religion. David Carlin of the Community College of Rhode Island explains it all for us: The blame belongs to Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris, secularists who dared to write bestselling books that boldly flaunt the banner of the ungodly.
The sociologically interesting thing about these anti-Christian, pro-atheism best-sellers is that they violate what has been, for most of the 20th century, an unwritten rule of American cultural good manners, namely, that you are not supposed to attack the religious beliefs of a fellow American in a public and conspicuous way....Now don't you feel bad? Attacking religion is unmannerly.
It followed from this rule of good manners that atheists and agnostics were not allowed to attack theism in general or Christianity in particular. There was of course no law against such attacks, but for an unbeliever to attack Christianity was regarded as a great breach of courtesy.
Of course, one might protest that religionists have never balked at heaping abuse on nonbelievers. Yes, that's true. However, as Carlin points out, that is also part of the unspoken compact of courtesy toward religion. Secularists are supposed to just grin and bear it. It's tradition!
One notable and rather inconsistent feature of this speak-no-evil taboo was that it did not require reciprocity between theists and atheists. Atheists were expected to abstain from criticizing religion, yes, but religious believers were not expected to abstain from criticizing atheism. During the first decade or so of the Cold War, it was the most normal thing in the world for those defending the American way of life to denounce Communism as being “atheistic” or “godless.” The implication here, of course, was that atheism is a very bad thing. And if Communism, a bad thing, was made even worse by being atheistic, then non-communist American atheists, while not perhaps as bad as their “red” cousins, must be pretty bad. Another way of putting this is to say that during the middle years of the 20th century atheists were excluded from the theistic consensus—the Judeo-Christian consensus—that dominated American cultural life. Just as African-Americans were “second-class citizens” by virtue of belonging to the “wrong” race, so atheists were second-class citizens by virtue of having wrong views on religion.So, so true. And now you probably think you can tell where Dr. Carlin is going with his argument.
But no. His analogy between the plights of nonbelievers and African-Americans is a red herring. He's not going to go anywhere with it. Certainly he is not going to argue that atheists should be accommodated as people with equal standing in the polity (although I presume he does extend that equality to racial minorities). No. He deeply regrets it. Rather, he is sounding the trumpet for a vigorous counterattack. He views with alarm the growth of secularism in a once “Christian nation.” Even worse, the enemy has seized the high ground and people no longer believe in a uniquely Christian America (or, more grudgingly, a Judeo-Christian America).
Those days are gone—and probably gone forever, despite the wishes of some cultural conservatives who would like once again to define the United States as a Christian nation, or at least as a Judeo-Christian nation. There are now too many atheists in America for the US to return to that old self-definition of itself. Though still relatively small in number, atheists are disproportionately represented in what may be called the “command posts” of American culture[—]refer to elite universities (including law schools), the national press, and the entertainment industry. Their influence in American political and cultural life is very, very great. It is unlikely that theistic Americans will ever again be able to forget that significant numbers of their fellow-Americans are atheists, or to pretend that this atheistic minority simply doesn't count. (In the present discussion I am counting almost all “agnostics” as atheists, since the great majority of American agnostics, while willing to grant that there is a slim—an exceedingly slim—chance that God might exist, are for all practical purposes deniers of the existence of God.)Thus we have come to this pretty pass: atheists and their camp followers gaining equal status. But this cannot stand!
Just as the Supreme Court's Brown [v. Board of Education] decision of 1954 gave a signal to the nation that the days of second-class citizenship for blacks were bound to come to an end, so, although rather less dramatically, the Court's school prayer ruling of 1962 (Engel v. Vitale) signaled that the second-class status of atheists was bound to come to an end. Under our theistic or Judeo-Christian consensus, it was generally felt that schools should not compel students to say prayers that might be offensive to members of this or that religious denomination. The Court's ruling extended this “sensitivity test” (as it may be called) to atheists. Just as there must be no Christian prayers that offend Jews and no Protestant prayers that offend Catholics, so there must be no prayers that of fend atheists. But all prayers offend atheists; therefore there must be no prayers at all.
You see, atheists are anti-Christian. Christians must therefore fight them rather than try to live in neutral accommodation with them. Christians are losing the battle. The rising tide of unbelief has crested in a deluge of open secularism. As evidence, we can note the presence of one member of the House of Representatives, Pete Stark, who describes himself as a nonbeliever. (There is also one Muslim, Keith Ellison, who must be placed with Stark on the anti-Judeo-Christian scales.) No wonder Christians like Carlin see themselves faced by imminent defeat. What must Christians do as they gird their loins for battle?
Although it is too early to be sure (only time will tell), my strong suspicion is that the atheistic sellers I mentioned at the beginning of this essay mark a new stage in the history of American atheism and anti-Christianity. The atheists of America are “coming out of the closet.” They are passing from a stage of practical atheism (which is where they have been ever since the beginning of the sexual revolution) to a stage of practical-plus-theoretical atheism. That is to say, practical atheism will continue (in the form of sexual liberty, abortion, same-sex marriage, and perhaps polygamy and euthanasia) but will be supplemented by theoretical defenses of atheism and attacks upon Christianity.Ah, yes. We have to think of the children. Today's young people are too unsophisticated to resist the blandishments of secular logic and science. You have to be equipped properly if you are to fight the lure of rational thinking.
If I am correct about this development, it presents both a danger and an opportunity to American Catholicism. It is obviously a danger, since it will permit pro-atheism propagandists to seduce Catholics, especially young Catholics, from the faith. Many of the bestseller attacks on Christianity, it is true, are nothing but warmed-over versions of the criticisms made in the l8th century by the likes of Voltaire and Tom Paine or of the 19th century criticisms made by “agnostics” who wielded anti-Christianity weapons manufactured out of the Darwinian theory of evolution or the German higher criticism of the Bible. Philosophically and theologically sophisticated Catholics have long since concluded that these old attacks, while superficially clever, miss the mark and leave the faith undamaged. But the typical young Catholic is not philosophically or theologically sophisticated; indeed the typical young Catholic of today is not even well informed about the contents of his/her religion.
Carlin looks back nostalgically at life the way it used to be in the Catholic “ghetto,” where parochial schools protected young people from the baneful influence of liberal education in public institutions. Immersion used to be rather effective, entangling people in a web of thought that often manifested itself throughout the decades. As G. K. Chesterton's Father Brown said, “I caught him, with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world, and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.”
Carlin wants to embed the hook deeply, so as to be able to jerk the subject back from the brink of secular thinking. But insular Catholicism is past, so the inculcation of dogma and right thinking must be pursued in the world as it is, as not as Carlin and his coreligionists would have preferred it. Carlin does recognize this and thinks it's time to take the fight to the enemy, the bold atheists who are loudly and proudly enunciating their independence from religious doctrine.
Yet the new atheism is an opportunity for Catholics as well. The enemy is no longer hidden, he is now out in the open; and other things being equal, it easier to fight a visible enemy than a concealed one. One of the great deficiencies in American Catholic life since the 1960s is that the leadership of the Church in this country—I mean bishops and priests—seems for the most part not to have realized that a massive attack was being made on Christianity in the form of practical atheism.... These leaders seem to have believed that they were still living in an older America, the America of their youth, a country that was hospitable to Christianity in general and to Catholicism in particular. They were mistaken about this, and, fortunately, the new atheism (as reflected in the four best-sellers) will prevent them from deluding themselves any longer. Realizing the danger, they will now have no choice but to fight back....This is a fascinating (and paradoxical) clarion call. How is one to elevate Catholic scholarship and intellectual endeavor during a time of retrenchment and enforcement of orthodoxy at Catholic universities? The dogmatic straitjacket chokes off the flow of free inquiry that is the life blood of a university or any intellectual community. Galileo was famously uncomfortable trying to wear it and today's Catholic intellectuals may be less than delighted to enlist in a campaign to turn Catholic education into shock-troop indoctrination.
So what is to be done? Atheism (and by “atheism” here I mean both practical and theoretical atheism) will have to be confronted directly in the marketplace of competing ideas and values. Catholic intellectuals, both clerical and lay, will have to reply to the atheistic intellectuals who “prove” that theism and Christianity are wrong; and they will have to make these replies, not simply in Catholic forums, but in the larger forums of American intellectual life. Catholic education will have to be strengthened and expanded, so that ordinary Catholics will be equipped with the knowledge needed to withstand attacks on their faith. And when I say “Catholic education” I don't refer only to Catholic schools. I mean that a strenuous effort will have to be made—through homilies, lectures, seminars, discussion groups, periodicals, books, book clubs, etc.—to reach adult Catholics. In general, the specifically Catholic element in the intellectual life of American Catholics will have to be elevated far above where it is at the moment.
I'm sure that is not what Carlin thinks he is proposing. He believes in the truth of Catholic doctrine, so he sees his call for a war against atheism by means of enhanced Catholic education as logically defensible. Secularists who are standing on the sidelines, however, some of us equipped with Catholic educations ourselves, may marvel at Carlin's sweet and unspoiled faith.
Education is not the friend of faith, Catholic or otherwise. Rational thought is not the ally of dogma, Christian or otherwise. That's why many religion-based colleges and institutions require their faculty members and associations to subscribe to a set of beliefs and promise not to depart from them. Here are the conclusions. Do whatever research and reasoning you want, as long as you don't violate the preordained conclusions. Sad to say, though, you can't rely on unfettered inquiry to leave faith intact.
Faith is based on a need to believe. It rests on a foundation that cannot be examined too closely, else its arbitrary nature becomes exposed. Channeling intellectual endeavor as a weapon against secularism is doomed to failure because intellectual endeavor does not confine itself to channels. Carlin had best step back so as to be ready when it overflows the channel's banks.