Monday, November 20, 2017

What Does Atheism (Typically) Mean?

If "atheist" merely means someone who believes there is no Supreme Being, he might still believe in a whole hierarchy of spirits with different personalities and powers.  Buddhism is perhaps like this, as was early Greco-Roman paganism, though Hindu, Egyptian, and late Greco-Roman paganism see the many gods as manifestations or aspects of one Supreme Being.  In some beliefs, this Supreme Being is more personal, and in some less.

On the other hand, atheism can be defined not not by the non-belief in powerful non-human beings, but in the non-belief in the right of these beings, by virtue of their very nature, to receive worship.

The claim that anyone or anything can have rights due to its nature alone, rather than based on his utilitarian value or his ability to punish or reward, is probably less popular today than it was in the ancient world, but it has not disappeared entirely.  Most people will agree that a child has a right to food, clothing, shelter, medicine, and even education, however inconvenient that might be and whether or not the person (or even society) supplying these benefits gets anything in return.  Most people think that each person has a right to a fair trial before punishment, a right not to be enslaved, etc.  There has always been a feeling that gods have a similar right to worship -- as distinct from human despots like those of the Kim dynasty in North Korea, who often demand worship.

It seems fair to say that modern atheism has more to do with the second point than with the first.  First of all, modern atheists are apt to think it likely that not only are there other intelligent beings in the universe, but that many of them may be so technologically advanced that they could do things that would seem completely impossible to us.  Secondly, atheists tend to believe that the ultimate Theory of Everything in physics is one, simple (in a sense), and beautiful (in a sense); Christians may agree, on the basis of God's creation reflecting God's nature, but atheists make the TOE into a kind of Ersatz God.  Christians say that God is uncreated and responsible for the reality of everything else; atheists say the TOE is uncreated and responsible for everything else.  Modern atheists basically acknowledge a pantheistic god who makes no moral demands, and they occasionally like to celebrate the glories of this god (like Carl Sagan did in the "Missa Gaia" in 1993) in quasi-religious ways, but truly and fundamentally they refuse to worship it.

No doubt there are some exceptions, but practically all modern atheists are moral relativists.  In other words, they would deny that conscience (contrary to, for example, Budziszewski) is a perception of an objective, external, non-physical reality.  On the contrary, they understand conscience as preferences based on (biological, not metaphysical) nature and nurture.  They might paraphrase Yoda:  "Do.  Or do not.  There is no good or evil."

The odd thing is that someone who truly embraces these ideas has no imperative to share them.  He might feel an irrational desire to share them, or he might share them in order to try to induce people to behave in a desired way.  Then again, he might find it more useful to pretend to be the prophet of a god in whom he does not believe.  Look at how many cults -- including cult-like organizations like the Legion of Christ under Marcial Maciel -- end up being schemes to provide the leaders with sex and money; is it really plausible that these leaders truly believe in God?  But if there really is no God and no real right or wrong, it is more rational to be a cult leader than to be an evangelist of atheism.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

USA: Our Diversity Is Our Strength

Carthage:  Our diversity is our strength.
Rome:  Our unity is our strength.

1st Punic War:  Rome beats Carthage.
2nd Punic War:  Rome breaks Carthage.
3rd Punic War:  Rome destroys Carthage.

EDIT:  "Unity" was not exactly the right word for Rome; "cohesion" is more accurate, or perhaps "coherence".  Rome, and for that matter Alexander's Macedonians, had the cohesion and coherence that came from a shared culture and a shared identity.  Carthage and Persia, on the other hand, relied much more on adhesion and adherence.  Obviously those also worked well, or else we never would have heard of Carthage and Persia.  Adhesion and adherence, though, are much more likely to give way to the desertion and defection of whole groups of people, particularly in the tight spots when desertion or defection are most likely to be fatal.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Slow News Day?

I'll concede that much of the 24-hour news cycle is filled not just with fluff, but with stale fluff.  At the same time, I was surprised yesterday to see "Soldier salutes funeral procession in pouring rain", picture and all, held up as a story of national interest.  What's next?  "Man removes hat when entering church"?  "Man opens door for woman"?  "Child thanks grandma for Christmas gift"?  These are all instances of good manners, and Heaven knows we need more examples of good manners these days, but are any of these really news stories?

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Preserving Monuments

Yesterday I visited Serpent Mound in Peebles, OH.  There are not many truly ancient constructions still visible within the United States, but this one dates to about 300 B.C., is relatively nearby, and the head of the snake and several coils appear to be aligned with astronomically important directions, as signs at the site indicate.

These combine to make this perhaps the best local counterpart to Stonehenge.

The precise significance of Serpent Mound to its builders, or for that matter to later people who lived in the area, is not entirely clear.  Think of all the migrations that have taken place in Europe since 300 B.C.; well, people in the Americas moved around, too.  Likewise, since 300 B.C. Europe has seen not only the various pagan traditions that were present at the time, but also Christianity (with significant developments like the Protestant Reformation), Islam (particularly in the Iberian Peninsula and southeastern Europe, Mithraism, and Gnosticism, and these various religions frequently used the same symbols to illustrate different ideas.  Even within the superficially stable area of Egyptian polytheism, there were important changes from pre-dynastic Egypt to the banning of polytheism in favor of Christianity.  Again, the native inhabitants of North America must likewise have had dynamic religions, only they left no written record.  It is safe to say, though, that what American Indians believe today is not identical to what they believed in 1492, and what they believed in 1492 was not the same as what they believed in 300 B.C.

Although we do not share all the beliefs of the people who created Serpent Mound, it is widely accepted that we should respect the monuments for historical reasons.  Not everyone does this, of course.  In 2001, the Taliban dynamited the "Buddhas of Bamiyan" because they did not agree with the ideas represented by those statues.  More recently, ISIS has destroyed countless buildings, statues, and artifacts (to say nothing of people) that represent ideas with which they disagree.  And, in much the same vein, it has become fashionable for universities and cities to remove Confederate monuments that have stood for decades, or even for over a century.  No one (except, perhaps, a Buddhist) who approves of that has any solid basis for condemning the Taliban for destroying the Buddhist statues.

Friday, June 16, 2017

The West's Problem with Islam

Somewhere, I seem to recall, Chesterton said that the best way to understand current events was to read newspapers that were fifty or a hundred years old.  His own writings are now in that range, and they certainly do a good job of explaining the world of 2017.  Take, for instance, this passage from Heretics.

Carlyle said that men were mostly fools.  Christianity, with a surer and more reverent realism, says that they are all fools. This doctrine is sometimes called the doctrine of original sin. It may also be described as the doctrine of the equality of men. But the essential point of it is merely this, that whatever primary and far-reaching moral dangers affect any man, affect all men. All men can be criminals, if tempted; all men can be heroes, if inspired. And this doctrine does away altogether with Carlyle's pathetic belief (or any one else's pathetic belief) in "the wise few." There are no wise few. Every aristocracy that has ever existed has behaved, in all essential points, exactly like a small mob. Every oligarchy is merely a knot of men in the street--that is to say, it is very jolly, but not infallible. And no oligarchies in the world's history have ever come off so badly in practical affairs as the very proud oligarchies--the oligarchy of Poland, the oligarchy of Venice. And the armies that have most swiftly and suddenly broken their enemies in pieces have been the religious armies--the Moslem Armies, for instance, or the Puritan Armies. And a religious army may, by its nature, be defined as an army in which every man is taught not to exalt but to abase himself. Many modern Englishmen talk of themselves as the sturdy descendants of their sturdy Puritan fathers. As a fact, they would run away from a cow. If you asked one of their Puritan fathers, if you asked Bunyan, for instance, whether he was sturdy, he would have answered, with tears, that he was as weak as water. And because of this he would have borne tortures. And this virtue of humility, while being practical enough to win battles, will always be paradoxical enough to puzzle pedants.
This sums up an important dimension quite admirably.  Our current leaders believe themselves to be the "wise few", and whatever they may say, their lives show that they acknowledge nothing truly greater than themselves.  The ISIS combatants are monsters in human form, but they really do know that they are not the supreme beings in the universe.  

Monday, May 29, 2017

The Difference Between Prayer and Magic

Michael Pacher 004


I have to admit to having an attraction to outlandish ideas.  I suspect this is true of more physicists than most people would expect, but isn't it obvious that physics is more about the edges of what is possible than about what is commonplace?  Physicists are fascinated by the detection of gravity waves indicating that two black holes have merged more than a billion light years away, but to anyone who is only interested in the practical, that must seem as wasteful and pointless as detecting the sound of a beetle colliding with a paper clip.  To a physicist, it is an interesting question whether or not it would be possible (in principle) to build a time machine; to an engineer, such a question is a waste of time, because even if the universe permits it in principle, we do not have access to the sort of stuff needed to build one -- exotic matter, black holes, things like that.

That is an explanation, if not exactly an excuse, for listening to a few YouTube channels that deal with outlandish topics such as time slips, Sasquatch, ghosts, unexplained disappearances, etc.  Some of these topics certainly have more substance than others -- in the list I gave, in my opinion the substantiality increases from time slips (which, though making for entertaining stories, are as close to utter nonsense as can be found for any proposed physical phenomenon) to unexplained disappearances (which do of course happen, and which are subject to being explained on a case-by-case basis).  However doubtful the supposed witness accounts may be, they are much more interesting, and more plausible, than the conjectures that the hosts (or guests) typically offer or even positively assert.  Few are able to resist the "mystery religion" temptation to pretend to have secret knowledge.

All this is to explain why, a few days ago, I put on one such channel to keep my mind busy while I was busy away from the computer.  The title of the topic that was to be discussed meant nearly nothing to me; if anything, it sounded like something that might be related to a pirate movie.  (I am being deliberately vague because I do not want to drive even the little traffic that I could drive to either the channel or the topic.)


The actual topic the guest was discussing involved his researches into Western magic.  By "magic" he did not mean stage tricks, he meant the real thing; and by "research" he did not mean anthropological research into it as a belief system or cultural practice, but as a practical means of obtaining actual results.  In fact, this is something he emphasized strongly:  what counted were actual results, which he believed he had witnessed or produced, and failures to produce results were not to be explained away, as has so often been done.

At this point I was able to break away from what I had been doing and shut this discussion off; this is a topic with which I do not wish to contaminate my imagination.  The guest's comments had reminded me a little too much of Chapter 6 in Chesterton's The Everlasting Man, particularly the following two passages.
Whether it be because the Fall has really brought men nearer to less desirable neighbors in the spiritual world, or whether it is merely that the mood of men eager or greedy finds it easier to imagine evil, I believe that the black magic of witchcraft has been much more practical and much less poetical than the white magic of mythology. ... To start with, some impulse, perhaps a sort of desperate impulse, drove men to the darker powers when dealing with practical problems. There was a sort of secret and perverse feeling that the darker powers would really do things; that they had no nonsense about them. And indeed that popular phrase exactly expresses the point. The gods of mere mythology had a great deal of nonsense about them. They had a great deal of good nonsense about them; in the happy and hilarious sense in which we talk of the nonsense of Jabberwocky or the Land where the Jumblies live. But the man consulting a demon felt as many a man has felt in consulting a detective, especially a private detective; that it was dirty work, but the work would really be done.
... But with the idea of employing the demons who get things done, a new idea appears more worthy of the demons. It may indeed be truly described as the idea of being worthy of the demons; of making oneself fit for their fastidious and exacting society. Superstition of the lighter sort toys with the idea that some trifle, some small gesture such as throwing the salt, may touch the hidden spring that works the mysterious machinery of the world. And there is after all something in the idea of such an Open Sesame. But with the appeal to lower spirits comes the horrible notion that the gesture must not only be very small but very low; that it must be a monkey trick of an utterly ugly and unworthy sort. Sooner or later a man deliberately sets himself to do the most disgusting thing he can think of. It is felt that the extreme of evil will extort a sort of attention or answer from the evil powers under the surface of the world. 
Before I move on, let me emphasize that I know nothing of the guest, and I cannot know how far he has trod this path.  Perhaps he is still closer to the "superstition of the lighter sort", with its comparatively innocent gestures.  That said, there is a difference between tossing a pinch of salt over the shoulder (which I would say is today more of a tradition than an actual superstition, and so is likely completely innocent), and a "small gesture" that is, to at least some extent, intended to have a magical effect, such as playing with a Ouija board or playing the "Bloody Mary" game, just as there is a significant difference between playing with a Ouija board and participating in a black mass.

Also, it is worth pointing out that the felt need to do terrible deeds in order to attract dark powers is an observable fact independent even of the existence of those entities.  "Slender Man" is just a creepypasta, but two young teenage girls really did stab another girl 19 times in an attempt to win the favor of the fictional character.

But what about Christian prayer?  Isn't that all about obtaining a result as well?  Isn't prayer just another kind of magical incantation?


Of course, many people mistake it for one.  That's part of the reason so many think there is nothing wrong with the "prosperity Gospel".  It's also the thinking behind the "study" of the effects of prayer on recovery from heart surgery.   This seriously misunderstands prayers of petition, which incidentally are only one kind of Christian prayer as described in the Catechism (which is obviously a good place to look for a much more detailed discussion on prayer).

Perhaps the best place to see the difference, though, is in Luke 11:11-13.
And which of you, if he ask his father bread, will he give him a stone? or a fish, will he for a fish give him a serpent? Or if he shall ask an egg, will he reach him a scorpion? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father from heaven give the good Spirit to them that ask him?   
There are several things to notice here.  Our relationship with God is analogous to that between a child and the child's father.  This is a relationship of dependency and trust, and in the case of God, that trust is justified.  The Monkey's Paw or the old man on Pell Street might provide precisely what is requested -- choose your words carefully! -- but a loving parent will only provide what is actually good for the child, even if the child asks for something harmful.  Note that the father in the example given by Our Lord is not guaranteed to give the bread or the fish or the egg, only that he will not give something bad for the child.  Most modern children have at some time asked for candy and been given a piece of fruit.  Likewise, to a child, a tetanus shot may be as unpleasant as a scorpion, but the the parent knows that the child needs the inoculation; whom the Lord loveth, he chastiseth; and he scourgeth every son whom he receiveth.  The one specific gift we are explicitly offered is one we would never think nor dare to ask:  the Holy Spirit.

These are things Christians are supposed to know.  We are supposed to know that "Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven," and "Not my will, but Thine be done," are implicit in every true prayer.

So what exactly does a prayer of petition do?  God is omniscient, so it does not tell Him anything He did not already know.  God is also all-good; when we pray, "Lord, have mercy!" it is not because He is not always merciful.

I suspect that what prayer actually does is to prepare the right disposition to receive blessings.  If we are thoughtless or ungrateful, material blessings are only material blessings -- which means they are ultimately shallow and unfulfilling.  Besides, the Father already "maketh his sun to rise upon the good, and bad, and raineth upon the just and the unjust."

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Prayer for Permanent Peace?

As Becky Roach describes on her blog, Donald Trump has called for this upcoming Memorial Day to be a day of prayer for "permanent peace".  "Regardless of how you feel about President Trump’s policies and actions, we can all agree that praying for permanent peace throughout the world is a non-partisan desire," she writes.  OK, what she clearly meant was that permanent peace throughout the world is a non-partisan desire for which we can all pray, not that the prayer itself is the desire, but even so, is this something we can all agree to pray for?  I don't think so.

Suppose your granddad is still alive.  You love your granddad, and you hate the thought of one day losing him.  Should you pray for his life and health?  Absolutely.  Would it be wrong to pray that the Lord will grant him many years?  By no means; that is a good thing to pray for.  What about praying that he never undergo death at all?

That is a problem, because "it is appointed unto men once to die, and after this the judgment".  God has already made known His will in the matter, to pray contrary to that revealed will is to have the wrong attitude toward prayer.  I have already written something about this, and I will say more in my next post.

It is the same with peace.  We should pray for peace in our day, and for a peace that lasts a long time, but it has already been revealed that permanent peace will only come with the return of Christ.  

676 The Antichrist's deception already begins to take shape in the world every time the claim is made to realize within history that messianic hope which can only be realized beyond history through the eschatological judgment. The Church has rejected even modified forms of this falsification of the kingdom to come under the name of millenarianism, especially the "intrinsically perverse" political form of a secular messianism.

We can pray for the return of Christ, of course (671 ... That is why Christians pray, above all in the Eucharist, to hasten Christ's return by saying to him: Marana tha! "Our Lord, come!") , but that is not what is really being urged.