Theist vs Atheist: Is It Worth Arguing About Religion?

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Fri, Jun 12 - 11:00 am EDT | 3 years ago by
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Theist vs Atheist

This is the first in an eight-part debate between Stephen Hicks and yours truly covering the main points of disagreement between Catholicism and atheism, or, as I would with all goodwill characterize the matter, the disagreement between truth and emptiness. He and I hope to cover briefly questions that have baffled philosophers since the dawn of time, concerning the reality, ethics, politics, and history of monotheism in general and orthodox Christianity in particular.

While I doubt such a truncated format will allow either to put his full rhetorical force and persuasive powers on display, much less settle the questions finally, for myself, I hope merely to demonstrate that a rational and respectful colloquy is possible in the poisonous and irrational atmosphere of this sad era in which we live.

Therefore, with all due respect, I hold that the opening question is foolish. (But the most foolish questions hide a clever question at the core, as we shall see below.)

To ask if it is worth arguing about religion is the same as asking whether it is worth arguing about truth, virtue, beauty and all other real things of paramount significance in human life. The question should really be “Is anything other than religion worth arguing about?” or, better yet, “Is it or is it not true that all arguments ultimately are arguments about religion?”

But I am not a politician, so I will answer the question that was asked, as asked.

It is worth arguing about religion because we have no choice but to find such arguments worthwhile. Anyone unwilling to entertain an argument on the matter is not thinking about it, not willing to reason about it. This is the same as not having human existence, for man is the animal that reasons.

And this is the one matter — I am tempted to say the only matter — where it is impossible not to have a belief. In all other questions, there is perhaps a gray area or boundary of uncertainty, a spot where one can stand and view the opposing armies objectively, wearing the uniform of neither. Not here.

One is either madly in love with God or one is not. If one is lukewarm on this matter, God himself will spew you from His mouth. Far better to meet a fierce atheist (such as I once was) ready to do battle under the black banner of skepticism, worldliness, and remorseless logic, ready to give and to take mightiest blow unflinching, to unwind each thread of dialog to the last nuance, than to meet a bland and empty agnostic, neither cynical enough to be a skeptic, nor zealous enough to be a Christian.

If the two parties represent love for God and a lack of that love, there is no third party because there is no third option. One side marches under the banner of the Labarum; the other under the black banner without charge or figure that represents that anarchy of the mind called skepticism, disbelief, freethought.

That sad soul found standing in the spot where he views both armies and wears the uniform of neither, whether he wishes or not, is in fact under the black banner. The Christian army will not recognize any neutral parties: either you are with us or against us. Either you will live forever in the infinite and ecstatic bliss of paradise or you will not. And paradise is not available to those who present themselves at the Pearly Gates and explain to Saint Peter that they were tolerantly broad-minded on the question of being madly in love, but did not make any firm decision on it.

Again, one who says, that the question of God is unnecessary to his life, to truth, to beauty, to virtue, or to any of the profound question of life or the great issues of the day is in the same position as a numismatologist chasing down some rare and ancient drachma in London during the Blitz, ignoring the buzzbombs landing to the right and left of him.

If there is no God, it is of paramount significance to discover the truth of that fact, because it alters the outcome of all other significant questions in human life, including the meaning, the purpose, the value, and the ultimate fate of man and the cosmos. The question touches all other philosophical questions and ignites them; and philosophy sets the boundaries and context in which a man lives his life.

A man can chose to think, that is, to be human, or he can chose to elude and evade the duty to think, that is, try to shrug aside the glorious burden of being human; this means he either has a philosophy by which he lives his life and knows it, or he has a philosophy and does not know it, living by precepts and maxims whose origin he cannot imagine, and who justification, if any, he cannot articulate, drifting along with the main mass of slothful and indifferent halfwits of his age, parroting the popular opinions of his peers whose judgment he never questions.

But let us peel back the surface layer of the question and examine its pith, for the question asked is actually two questions: first, is the topic worth pursuing, and second, is argumentation, that is, a rational debate of the type these columns shall attempt, is the proper tool to open this particular puzzle box?

There are some, perhaps, who hold matters of faith to be mystical or irrational in nature, falling above or below the level of reason. I am not one of them.

I am Roman Catholic, and none of my answers here or ever speak for men of other denomination or other faiths. We hold, first, that every man must stand ready to give an answer for the hope he has within him, that is, every Christian must be ready to answer any honest questions from honest skeptics about the astonishing and shocking things we believe. And any Christian who does not think Christian doctrine is shocking has not yet touched the live wire of the love of heaven. Thus, the faithful Christian is required to argue and debate the matter when honestly called upon to do so. (When the call is dishonest, of course, he is forbidden to cast his pearls before swine, since swine cannot see their value, and will merely turn and trample you.)

We hold, second, as a matter of dogmatic faith (it is written into our catechism, see para 35) that any man who seeks God discovers certain ways of coming to know Him. Both the cosmos and man’s nature testify to God’s existence. Hence, as a matter of faith, we hold that reason allows a man to know that monotheism in the abstract is a reasonable theory.

Here is the precise wording:

35 Man’s faculties make him capable of coming to a knowledge of the existence of a personal God. But for man to be able to enter into real intimacy with him, God willed both to reveal himself to man, and to give him the grace of being able to welcome this revelation in faith.(so) the proofs of God’s existence, however, can predispose one to faith and help one to see that faith is not opposed to reason.

Hence, the answer to our opening question is a delicate one. The matter is worth arguing depending on what the specific argument is about. Reason can lead one step by step to Monotheism, as it did in the case of such pagan philosophers as Plato, Aristotle, and Epictetus, but it cannot lead one all the way to Christ.

If the argument is about the being madly in love with God, obviously no one can argue you into being in love. Love is a madness, a divine madness.

But many a man is unwilling, wary, or repulsed with the idea of being madly in love with God. He thinks the matter contemptible, and the talk of love as absurd as talking about loving Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny, or some other fictitious character; or he is repelled by tales he has heard of God; or he annoyed or grossly offended at the demands made on his human dignity and liberty.

One cannot use reason to talk a man in to being in love. But one can use reason to correct errors that prevent that love from taking root. Reason can allow one to see that it is reasonable to fall madly in love.

Hence, for the theist, reason is a shield only, not a sword. No word of mine can grant faith. That is a gift of the spirit.

However, the unreasonable fallacies, follies and fears, absurdities and fatuous objections which uproot or prevent faith can be dispelled by a rational examination.

This is the first topic in our new series — Theist vs Atheist. Two of our columnists, John C. Wright and Stephen Hicks, will be debating key issues in religion. Read more about the series and check out Mr. Hicks’ opening article here.

Image source: Cosmin Sava /

John C. Wright is a retired attorney and newspaperman who was only once hunted by the police. He is a graduate of St. John College (home of Mortimer Adler’s “Great Books Program“). In 2004 he foreswore his lifelong atheism and joined the Roman Catholic Church. He has published over 10 SF novels, including one nominated for a Nebula award, and was described by Publisher’s Weekly as “this fledgling century’s most important new SF talent.” He currently lives in fairytale-like happiness with his wife, the authoress L. Jagi Lamplighter, and their four children.

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