Saturday, November 05, 2005

Axiomatic Catholicism

A game for the skeptical masses

Most people manage to hang on to religious beliefs even after abandoning their youthful devotion to the cults of Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy. A few, however, continue their progression toward enlightenment and may feel some pangs of loss as they join the oppressed ranks of the unbelieving. The nonbeliever in the United States is surrounded by people who speak the peculiar in-language of their "Christian walk" and "give witness" to being "born again." Perhaps you know what I mean. Perhaps you were once one of them.

If you have not experienced a Roman Catholic childhood, you may find it difficult to imagine the sense of pride and security that comes from belonging to the "one, true religion." While Mark Twain may have said, "[Man] is the only animal that has the True Religion—several of them," I believe it's easier to maintain one-true-religion smugness as a Catholic than as a Protestant. Episcopalians, for example, can shift uncomfortably from foot to foot while contemplating the unavoidable historical truth that their Anglican origins sprang more from Henry VIII's pursuit of a male heir than from any wellspring of reformist faith. Roman Catholicism retains a certain monolithic solidity while Protestantism shattered into tens of thousands of splinter sects. It just takes more work to persuade yourself of the primacy of your faith when its source is a disaffected preacher who decamped from some other denomination a few decades or even centuries ago. Catholicism, however, reaches back farther into the two millennia of Christianity than any of its wayward offspring.

Defensor Fidei?

As you might have guessed by now, I had one of those Roman Catholic childhoods. Curiously enough, my participation in the rites survived for several years after the end of my belief. Force of habit is powerful and the context of family offers numerous opportunities to follow the forms if not the substance of faith. Lapsing was not an act of rebellion, it was simply the eventual acknowledgment that I didn't believe the stories of resurrection, transubstantiation, and other miracles. The one thing that did not, however, go away was my belief that Catholicism was the authentic form of Christianity and that all other variants were inferior. This remnant of my childhood faith fascinates me. I pondered it until finally realizing that today I am a kind of "axiomatic Catholic." That is, I am not in any sense a practicing Catholic, but if we take the basic tenets of Christian faith as a starting point, I remain perfectly willing to dispute with those who argue that their preferred flavor of Christianity is the best. It is a kind of mathematical thing. Choose a set of axioms with which to begin and thereafter adduce the consequences of those axioms. If you don't really believe your axioms, then you're not going to believe the elaborate formal structure that may be erected on their foundation. In the case of Roman Catholicism, however, the structure is already there and the reality of its existence provides an odd sort of context for my logic spinning.

I drifted into axiomatic Catholicism by accident, although to a degree it is my adulthood's inheritance from my youth. Perhaps most of the credit (or blame) belongs to Bill, a friend of a friend who today is either enjoying his eternal reward for faithfulness or no longer exists in any sense except in the memories of his survivors. (Lucky believers! If they're wrong, they'll never find out!) Bill had made the long journey from left-wing labor organizer in his youth to right-wing evangelical in his old age. Still tied by bonds of affection to some of his comrades from the union movement, he would frequently participate in a Friday lunch group, wincing at the vocal criticisms of neo-conservative politics and patiently proselytizing on behalf of the gods of his old age. Bill was, by his own unblushing account, a phenomenal scholar. He could cure homosexuality (proof: a supposedly gay man he had once counseled had married and produced children!), disprove evolution (with probabilistically illiterate arguments about windstorms and junkyards), and give witness to biblical inerrancy.

Bill and I broke a few lances while jousting over biblical inerrancy. He was passionate in his devotion to sola Scriptura ("Bible alone") as the foundation of Christianity. I told him that sola Scriptura was a clearly specious argument because it had led to a proliferation of rival Christian sects who disagreed furiously in their interpretations of the Bible. If the Bible was the clear standard for Christian practice, why were there such disputes? In all seriousness, Bill patiently explained that the divisions arose because people were not interpreting the Bible correctly. I asked if he interpreted the Bible correctly. He admitted that he did. I asked if those who disagreed with him were damned. No, he said, unless they disagreed on fundamentals. I asked if there was agreement on what constituted the fundamentals. Bill said those were clear from the Bible. I asked if he would like to be the Protestant pope so that he could straighten out all those who disagreed with him. He repeated that a correct reading of the Bible would settle all the disagreements without the need for an authoritarian referee. I reiterated my claim that his co-religionists would likely agree with his declaration that "correct" interpretation was sufficient for Christian unity and then immediately begin arguing over what that meant. Clearly the combination of scripture and tradition, preserved by a long-lived hierarchy, was a sounder method for settling disputes and ensuring orthodoxy. Bill discerned that my statement reeked of Romanism and demurred. He and I never returned to sola Scriptura. I say it's because I utterly defeated his arguments, but I suspect he would say (if he were still here) it was because I had shown myself incapable of understanding the truth of his position.

Shouting in a vacuum

Axiomatic Catholicism is an intellectual game, hollow at its core, a pastime of perhaps no more significance than a round of checkers. It resonates with the training of my early years and keeps it alive in an artificial way. Sometimes, though, I think my dalliance with exegesis is slightly more than mere diversion. We live in a religion-saturated culture and must be prepared to contend with its excesses. Aggressive religious groups in this country are eager to enshrine conservative Christianity as a state religion, intruding on personal freedoms and opposing the secularism of the public classroom. While Bill was a friendly acquaintance, he showed to me the human face of a well-intentioned person who thought he was "doing the Lord's work." His vision of a well-ordered society was anathema to me. Creationism would be forced into the school curriculum, so-called "reparative" therapy would be the standard required treatment for anyone who exhibited same-sex attraction, and non-Christians would be second-class citizens ineligible to hold office (because they're wrong, you know). Bill embodied in full the agenda of the Christian right.

Mind you, my criticisms of the Christian right do not mean that Roman Catholicism is, by contrast, a benign influence in American politics. Many Catholics have made common cause with extremist evangelicals in their quest to outlaw abortion. Catholic radio broadcasters like EWTN regularly treat people like Patrick Buchanan and writers for Human Events as if they were representatives of responsible points of view instead of extremists on the very fringe of American politics. EWTN is an active participant in the mainstreaming of neo-conservative radicalism.

There is one area, though, in which the Roman Catholic hierarchy has demonstrated its capacity to learn—even if it is oh so painfully slowly. It was only a few years ago that John Paul II issued a statement on the Galileo case, expressing regret over the church's missteps in its dispute with the great scientist. John Paul also said that evolution was "more than a hypothesis" and thus warned Catholics not to get on the wrong side of yet another scientific argument. When Cardinal Schönborn recently served as a mouthpiece for some ID-inspired nonsense about problems with evolution, the Vatican moved more quickly than usual to dampen expectations that conservative church politics could be enlisted in the cause of creationist attacks on the biological sciences.

If Benedict XVI would encourage the church to pursue its charitable endeavors, minister to its communicants, and edge away from right-wing interference in American politics, my axiomatic Catholicism would be a bit more comfortable. I have no delusions that that is likely to occur. Hence it is not enough to argue, as the occasion may present itself, that most forms of modern Christianity are distortions of its tradition and that Roman Catholic deference to science should be emulated. I must also argue that this deference needs to be pursued more consistently and disentangled from the confounding effects of dogma. Don't expect Rome to hear that argument, no matter how many people are making it, but do expect the church to make reluctant accommodation with reality, ever so slowly, if we stand our ground. After all, Galileo got his apology in less than 400 years.


Anonymous said...

Does an axiomatic approach imply an appeal to "truth"?

At some level isn't "truth" simply what we were told as kids?

I was told that all non-empty subsets of the natural numbers contain a least element.

Zeno said...

An axiomatic system doesn't have to worry about "truth" as such. It merely has to be consistent (non-self-contradictory). In practice, though, the richest axiomatic systems are more than formal constructs. Euclidean geometry is the most famous example. When we say it's an axiom that two points determine a line, that axiom is meaningful to us and corresponds to our perceived reality. A formalist might not care, but most people like mathematical structures to be about something, instead of just an exercise in symbol manipulation.

Anonymous said...

I like the "non-contradictory" test. Do any religions satisfy this condition?

Do any religions care to satisfy this condition?

For those that don't, is this when faith comes in?

Zeno said...

As you may know, the implication "p implies q" is trivially true if p is false. In other words, you can conclude anything if you start with a false premise. Should your axiomatic base contain a contradiction, then anything goes (an interesting concept for a religion, come to think of it).

Are there any consistent religions? I doubt it. In the case of Christianity, the sects generally agree that the Bible must be regarded as true. For those who espouse the literal "every jot and tittle" approach to biblical truth, severe contortions are needed to reconcile small details like the two divergent accounts of creation in the first chapter of Genesis. That one's a bitch. Catholicism has a more relaxed standard, as well as more practice in squaring the circle as needed. I think this is one of the reasons Catholic dogma lapses into insanity less often than the fundamentalist cults. (Unfortunately, "less often" is not the same as "never.")

Steve said...

It was through defending the Catholic Church as a lapsed Catholic that I was led to return to the faith.

I'd hear people say things that I knew were incorrect and, as I do when I hear mistakes about any subject, correct them.

Eventually I realised that Catholicism, despite my lack of faith, was the true form of Christianity. I realised that I could cross off the list those Churches that practised doctrines like sola scriptura, or had abandoned the episcopate and apostolic succession.

From there I realised the compatibility of the Church's teachings with my scientific research (and all such).

Being faced with such a colossal, coherent worldview, with profound moral and ethical teachings, that had produced so much great culture I found myself teetering ...

Of course, it still requires a leap of faith.

Zeno said...

Thanks for the interesting comment, Steve. The "leap of faith" is exactly what I don't have, so I won't be going back. On the other hand, it sounds as if you thoroughly grasp my main point because it's part of your own experience. You understand.

Anonymous said...


I have been having some discussion like your quote:

"'p implies q' is trivially true if p is false. In other words, you can conclude anything if you start with a false premise."

If the assumption is that NO p is true - ever - is there a way to establish that p is ever true?

Also, in response to 'Steve,' I think you probably mean co-existence of science and religion, rather than 'compatibility'. They actually require different forms of belief, regardless of how similar they are after the point of adopting a belief. It has to do only with whether taking up the belief in something is at any point required to be indisposable. Religion is at it's core an indisposable belief. That does not mean you can't change your mind, only that religion requires that you do not. Science demands at it's core that belief is disposable.


Anonymous said...

Something is missing from this puzzle.

How does logic and faith reconcile itself?

As Douglas Adams writes in The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy:

"I refuse to prove that I exist," says God, "for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing."


Zeno said...

How does logic and faith reconcile itself?

I don't think that logic and faith have to be reconciled. Stephen Jay Gould liked to call them non-overlapping magisteria; he reconciled them by keeping them separate. I prefer logic at the expense of faith, reducing faith to that little nubbin at the very beginning of the process, since you have to decide you believe in something to get anywhere. And I do believe that I have faith in logic, the least bit of faith that I can manage to get by with.

Anonymous said...

'but if we take the basic tenets of Christian faith as a starting point, I remain perfectly willing to dispute with those who argue that their preferred flavor of Christianity is the best. '

I think this is abit absurd. The exact reason for the Protestant reformation was because the RCC had become so bad at emulating what the religion really was meant to be.

I think the RCC in it's present form is far from the best. I think Methodists, American Baptists and the ilk are more close to the one real faith than the RCC.

'Eventually I realised that Catholicism, despite my lack of faith, was the true form of Christianity'

You then got suckered. Protestant scholaship has shown again and again that many RCC dogmas ar simply false. The practice of using tradition just perpetuates century old errors.

Alot of Protestant critics miss the boat when they say , well there are so many divisions. This istrue but on the primary issues(salvation, resurrection, etc) there
isremarkable consistency. It should also be mentioned there are subdivisions in the catholic church as well.

Zeno said...

"Protestant scholaship has shown again and again that many RCC dogmas ar simply false."

Easy words. Name one. That "simply false" claim is just a facile argument that avoids actually making a case. I know that Protestants like to argue that they have unity on the supposed essentials of Christianity, but they can't even agree on whether one's salvation can be lost.

Subdivisions within the Catholic Church? Hardly. There are distinct rites within the Church, but doctrinal unity stems from their uniform allegiance to Rome. If you don't agree with official doctrine, you aren't in a "subdivision" of Catholicism -- you just aren't a Catholic anymore. Like me.