What I Think About Atheists

brother guyFrom Brother Guy Consolmagno, an astronomer at the Vatican Observatory and author of the new book The Heavens Proclaim:

I know plenty of atheists (“some of my best friends…”) but, like most of my churchgoing friends, they don’t make a big public deal of it. The ones who are most likely to go in front of an audience to proselytize their atheism seem to fall into two camps. One group are Brits. What is it about being raised in Britain that turns so many people vehemently against religion? The other group are those who have rejected a faith that is very publicly not-mainstream: apostate Jews, Southern Baptists who have moved to the north; that sort of thing.
I get the feeling that they are desperately trying to distance themselves from roots that they feel somehow embarrassed by, to try to fit into what they see as the mainstream—if not the mainstream of popular society, then at least the mainstream of the “scientific” society they desperately want to fit into. (I am familiar with this desperation myself, of course; like every other graduate of MIT, I am convinced they let me in by accident, since everyone else there was clearly smarter than me.) I’m not saying this is why they are atheists; there are plenty of good reasons to be an atheist—or not to be one. But this may be why it is so important for these proselytizers to be aggressively public about their lack of belief.
We can all recognize that, of course, as the flip side of religious fundamentalism. It’s when you fundamentally lack faith in God’s salvation that you insist on saving yourself by following the minutiae of the law. (St. Paul warned against that.) It is exactly when you are insecure about your own holiness that you most feel the need to parade it, aggressively, in front of everyone else. That is what motivates a few of our more publicly outspoken co-religionists to heap abuse upon science, even as they show how little they understand it. Sadly, they are trying to earn brownie points with God by scorning the study of the handiwork God loves.
Likewise, what I find in many of the proselytizers of atheism is a very naive understanding of religion. If religion were anything like the rigid brainwashing it’s often caricatured as, I would have no part of it either. Clearly, anyone who thinks everyone in a religion rigidly believes the same thing hasn’t been to any parish council meetings lately!
Yet this thinking speaks to the deeper need for teaching, yes, sophisticated theology to an intelligent public that is starving for it. People don’t want debates full of fireworks; they want an understanding of the complexities of good and evil that we all struggle to live with every day.
Clearly, the atheists aren’t providing that. But just as clearly, most of our pastors aren’t either.

Category: Expert Opinion, Featured Expert Opinion


5 Responses

  1. Michael Neville says:

    Southern Baptists aren’t a mainstream religion? Maybe not in Italy, but here in the US, particularly in the South and West, they are very thick on the ground.

  2. Crudely Wrott says:

    Brother Guy, you said, “If religion were anything like the rigid brainwashing it’s often caricatured as, I would have no part of it either.”

    I heartily agree. When the brainwashing is successful, even the cleanest mind won’t know that it has happened.

  3. Guillermo Barron says:

    Hi Brother Guy,

    You say “I get the feeling that [proselytizing atheists] are desperately trying to distance themselves from roots that they feel somehow embarrassed by, to try to fit into what they see as the mainstream…”

    As it happens, armchair psychologizing (that is, vague generalisations based on the “feelings” that you “get”, rather than tested theories and/or empirical studies) has fallen out of favour for probably the last half-century or so. So you may want to see if there’s any evidence for your claims before publishing them under your professional title, especially if you want other people to take you seriously.

    Of course, you may be right that “desperation” drives people to militant atheism. But it’s always good to look at all credible hypotheses – rather than just the ones that paint your opponents in the worst light possible – before jumping to a conclusion.

    Here’s another hypothesis that explains angry atheism but which you don’t even mention: atheists don’t like religion because it frequently encourages people to commit deeply immoral acts.

    You may find this absurd but before we dismiss it, let’s take a look at your own religion. As you know, the Church has been deeply involved with the persecution of Jews for centuries and only fully recanted a few decades ago. And the Pope recently appointed a Bishop who actively denies the Holocaust.

    But that’s all in the past, you reply. True, but imagine a religion that actively practiced racial discrimination. No one in the West would deign its leaders to be admitted to polite society, and even if they pleaded that their religion practiced divinely-inspired racism, rather than the nasty secular form of racism, we would quite correctly reply that one is as bad as the other.

    Well, there is considerable agreement and solid argumentation to show that sexism is every bit as bad as racism, and of course your Church actively practices sexual discrimination by refusing to admit women to the priesthood – which is, if Catholic doctrine is correct, an extremely important profession.

    According to John Paul II, the best reason for Catholic sexism is that Jesus did not recruit female disciples. Nor, it must be added, did he select Polish disciples either. So why is the one category relevant while the other is completely irrelevant? And, of all Jesus’ positive and worthy attributes, why must the Church try so hard to emulate his sexism instead?

    Another reason why atheists don’t like religion is because religious people have persecuted us for so long (and continue to do so), and we don’t believe as if our criticism even approaches the degree of intolerance and hatred that many religious leaders evince toward us.

    Some random examples:

    You’ll recall that St. Thomas, your most famous theologian, argued that non-believers would be cast into the eternal torment of Hell – and that the righteous would delight to view their suffering. Think about that: it’s not enough that we are to suffer endless and infinite suffering, but the most saintly of your own co-religionists would be happy to watch it.

    Tom Harpur, Canada’s most prominent theologian, recently went on national TV to sneer at all atheists as “fools”, using the sole authority of the … Old Testament.

    Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor has opined that “atheists are not fully human” (even though, I suppose, he thinks that fetuses are at the moment of conception).

    Pope John Paul II has argued that atheists are a threat to civilization, even though the least religious Scandinavian countries regularly score at the top of the widely-regarded Human Development Index. If JP II had said such a thing about Jews, he would be universally scorned and ridiculed, right? Instead, he’s coasting to an easy beatification. (Or so I understand; correct me if his anti-atheist comments may be an impediment.)

    And your current Pope just last week blamed environmental degradation entirely on atheists, without a shred of evidence that atheists are worst polluters than theists. His line of reasoning runs thus:

    “Is it not true that inconsiderate use of creation begins where God is marginalized or also where is existence is denied? If the human creature’s relationship with the Creator weakens, matter is reduced to egoistic possession, man becomes the “final authority,” and the objective of existence is reduced to a feverish race to possess the most possible.”

    Well, no. Atheism does not lead inexorably to egoism (I spent four hard years doing volunteer work in W Africa, so I should know) and atheists can often make better moral decisions than sophisticated religious believers.

    Dubious? Well, ask the atheists you know what they would do if they had compelling evidence that an adult under their direct supervision and control had sexually abused a child. My hunch is that most of them would instantly alert the police, and many would argue that is their duty to do so. They would seek to protect the child and punish and/or dismiss the perpetrator if the accusations were proven true. That, by the way, is the morally correct answer.

    But – as you are acutely aware – thousands of Catholic officials, all selected for their wisdom, moral uprightness, and commitment to Catholic virtue, (almost) universally made the absolutely worst decision: to conceal the alleged crime, protect the perpetrator (and in many cases, move him on to greener pastures where he could start anew), and deny justice and compensation to the victim.

    In many cases, they did so because they were threatened with excommunication (and punishment in hell) if they reported a rape. Many who concealed these crimes have been promoted and the Pope himself is one of those who ordered priests to cover up allegations of sexual abuse.

    That’s staggering, isn’t it? The Catholic Church has been through one of the biggest moral scandals ever to be found within a major religion, and your Pope promptly impugns the morality of … atheists? The beam in thine own eye and all that?

    Finally, you allege – again without any evidence – that atheists caricature religion as “brainwashing.” Well, it’s easy to see why passages like this one might be misinterpreted as brainwashing:

    “We are bound by divine and Catholic faith to believe all those things which are contained in the word of God, whether it be Scripture or Tradition, and are proposed by the Church to be believed as divinely revealed, not only through solemn judgment but also through the ordinary and universal teaching office. Now, among those things which the Church has always preached and will never cease to preach is contained also that infallible statement by which we are taught that there is no salvation outside the Church.”
    [Letter of the Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office, August 8, 1949, to the Archbishop of Boston (CH 1256)].

    So if you don’t believe in everything that Church proclaims as dogma, you are condemned to Hell.

    You don’t see a teensy bit of coercion in this approach, especially when it is applied to children?

    And, anyway, who are these atheists who so erroneously equate religion with brainwashing? Dawkins? Dennett? Hitchens? Show us the passages, Brother Guy!

    In closing, I do hope that you will at least consider the possibility that atheists have good reasons to dislike religion (and, especially one like yours).

    For my part, I have always firmly believed that while religion is a mistake, it is still nonetheless possible for one to arrive at theism through intelligence and reason, and not exclusively through brainwashing, self-delusion, and ignorance.

    I just wish you could have enough regard for atheists to actually consider their arguments about why they believe what they do, rather than relying on your “feelings.”

  4. Luci says:

    Brother Guy

    You said: “One group are Brits. What is it about being raised in Britain that turns so many people vehemently against religion? The other group are those who have rejected a faith that is very publicly not-mainstream: apostate Jews, Southern Baptists who have moved to the north; that sort of thing.”

    You live in a very small world. There are millions of atheists who don’t belong to any of those groups. Your view here is very one dimensional.

    You also said: “Likewise, what I find in many of the proselytizers of atheism is a very naive understanding of religion.” Au contraire! While there may be many atheists who grew up completely without the indoctrination of any religion and thus don’t know much about religions, most of us have made a thorough study of religion; the origins of it, the myths and fables associated with it, the history of religion. We find that most believers have a very naive understanding of the religion they belong to; the moment they study it they become disillusioned with all the lies and leave religion behind.

    Knowledge is power. We became atheists through knowledge of the religions and of the bible. Gaining knowledge is liberating and rid us of the yoke of religion.


  5. Scott says:

    Hi Brother Guy,

    The Fall 2016 issue of Frontiers, the BYU College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences features a reprint of a talk you gave at BYU in March of this year. I read that and thoroughly disagreed, but since I’d never heard of you I decided to read some more of your work online.

    As a BYU graduate and former Mormon (now atheist) I have to say that I can appreciate the particular type of religion that you seem to espouse and the particular God that you seem to worship. Sophisticated theology, you call it. I think I could have found a place for that kind of religion to coexist with my scientific worldview, but I was spoiled by a traditional religious upbringing. I have to say, your religion doesn’t seem to have much in common with Catholicism and it’s nothing like the Mormonism that I was brought up in, in spite of the efforts of sophisticated Mormon theologians to make it so.

    Is it all a trick? Is that the stuff that you say to fellow scientists, but behind closed doors you admit transubstantiation? Or does sophisticated theology do away with that too?

    Let’s just say that I became an atheist because I prefer simple solutions. God is such a complicated, convoluted, circular answer. (Or is that what you mean by sophisticated?)

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