Sunday, May 16, 2010

Dumb of Headless?

Somebody call a communications expert. My tender feelings are a-smarting at the shrillness, the meanness, the dismissiveness, the rudeness, the abrasiveness -- the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad contemptuousness of believers these days:

I wish Christians would recognize ... [w]e have to abandon the politically correct notion that atheism is intellectually respectable.

Historically speaking, this concession to the greatest lie in the universe is a rather recent development. While there have always been people who deny the existence of a deity, it has not been a prominent view among intellectuals, much less a serious alternative to Christian theism. What previous cultures instinctively understood, and that we in turn have forgotten, is that atheism is a form of (self-imposed) intellectual dysfunction, a lack of epistemic virtue, or—to borrow a term from my Catholic friends — a case of vincible ignorance.

Vincible ignorance is lacking knowledge that is within the individual’s control and for which he is responsible before God. In Romans, St. Paul is clear that atheism is a case of vincible ignorance: “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” Acknowledging the existence of God is just the beginning — we must also recognize several of his divine attributes. Atheists that deny this reality are, as St. Paul said, without excuse. They are vincibly ignorant.
To the list above I now add the circularity of it, given the way Carter grounds his absurdly confident theological convictions in the theology's primary text. A tenet of Christian theology is true because the Bible says so. Neat!

The circle gets tighter when we look at the cited Biblical passage, in which "Saint" Paul says nothing more sophisticated, substantiated, or reasoned than "Look around! It's bleeping obvious god exists with loads of amazing attributes and powers!"

It's true that atheism has tended not to be "a prominent view among intellectuals" until relatively recently, and while this might be for the reason Carter has offered -- namely, because atheists are dolts -- the case of 17th century Polish nobleman and intellectual Kazimierz Łyszczyński suggests a different explanation:
Łyszczyński's first privilege of a Polish noble, that he could not be imprisoned before his condemnation, was violated. Łyszczyński's affair was brought before the diet of 1689 where he was accused of having denied the existence of God and having blasphemed against the Virgin Mary and the saints. He was condemned to death for atheism. The sentence was undertaken before noon at the Old Town Market in Warsaw... Bishop Zaluski gave the following account of the execution:
After recantation the culprit was conducted to the scaffold, where the executioner tore with a burning iron the tongue and the mouth, with which he had been cruel against God; after which his hands, the instruments of the abominable production, were burnt at a slow fire, the sacrilegious paper was thrown into the flames; finally himself, that monster of his century, this deicide was thrown into the expiatory flames; expiatory if such a crime may be atoned for.[3]
As this is what became of a well-connected, wealthy, privileged atheist intellectual, it's not difficult to imagine why it failed to attract a large following among the students, artists, and scribblers of the day.

David Hume at Secular Right gives more illustrations of the principle: it's sensible to assume that people under the threat of torture, dismemberment, and beheading for thought crimes will, all else equal, tend to shy away from committing those thought crimes. Joe Carter will not find that in the works of "Saint" Paul, but it only shows that he should look beyond those pages if he hopes to understand reality.

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