Saturday, July 12, 2014

Is faith belief without evidence?

The book C.S. Lewis vs. the New Atheists cites several skeptics' understanding of faith:
Victor J. Stenger asserts: 'Faith is always foolish...Science is belief in the presence of supportive is belief in the absence of supportive evidence and even in light of contrary evidence.' Christopher Hitchens portrays all religion as 'a surrender of reason in favour of faith.' A.C. Grayling states: 'Faith is a stance or an attitude of belief independent of, and characteristically in the countervailing face of, evidence. It is non-rational at best, and is probably irrational given that it involves deliberate ignoring of evidence, or commitment despite lack of evidence.'
The examples continue, but you get the gist according to these opinions: Faith is a belief absent of evidence, often in the face of contrary evidence. So some say.

While it is true these authors' propensity for high-flown bombast may betray the assertion of rationality proposed by these same authors, perhaps a less-dramatic skeptic or other layperson may still wonder whether or not faith is something necessarily lacking "evidence."

As always, this blog focuses on explanations of Catholicism. It is worthwhile to demonstrate whether or not the Church, when referring to faith, is asking souls to believe in the absence of evidence or in the face of contrary evidence.
So "that the submission of our faith might nevertheless be in accordance with reason, God willed that external proofs of his Revelation should be joined to the internal helps of the Holy Spirit." Thus the miracles of Christ and the saints, prophecies, the Church's growth and holiness, and her fruitfulness and stability "are the most certain signs of divine Revelation, adapted to the intelligence of all"; they are "motives of credibility" (motiva credibilitatis), which show that the assent of faith is "by no means a blind impulse of the mind". (CCC#156b)
You see here that the Church does not ask for belief in the "absence of supportive evidence" as one of the above-mentioned critics asserts. And the Church proceeds to cite examples of evidence such as miracles, prophecies, holiness, and fruitfulness.

Let's take a look at a few examples of just a few characteristics: miracles, holiness, and prophecies.

Certainly, the idea of Christ's resurrection from the dead is a foundation of Christianity. St. Paul went so far as to say, "If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile..." (1 Cor. 15:17) Miracles in Scripture are manifold. And the account of believers described therein were often compelled by such evidences among others. But let's also take a look at a few modern examples, which occurred in an age where scientific advancements allow for empirical scrutiny.

St. Edith Stein
In 1987, two-year old Benedicta McCarthy "accidentally ingested 19 times the lethal dose of acetaminophen," or Tylenol. As Benedicta lay "near death from total kidney failure and a deteriorating liver," the family asked others to pray to a deceased nun and the child's namesake, Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, who was born Edith Stein.

Recounting what happened as an adult, Benedicta explained her healing: "Like there was no gradual recovery. When they looked back at the doctors' notes, one of the doctors that had seen me that morning had wrote in the notes, this child has made a remarkable recovery."

The Church held tribunals to investigate the validity of this phenomenon as a potential miracle. Dr. Ronald Kleinman, the doctor who had tended to young Benedicta, explained, "I expected she would die..." and spoke of the human body's "hidden capacity to survive and when it comes it's for reasons we don't understand."

Additionally, Kleinman, said, "I don't believe in miracles in the Catholic sense. I don't believe in saints or intercession. I was blunt in saying that to the tribunals. But I said that I'm enough of a humanist and a scientist to feel that miraculous things happen beyond my understanding."

St. Marie-Marguerite d'Youville
Another modern case involves the intercession of Marie-Marguerite d'Youville, who would later be canonized a saint. A young woman was dying of acute myeloblastic leukemia. Her aunt had encouraged the girl to pray for the intercession of Marie-Marguerite. The girl was healed. This occurred in the 1970s.

In 1986, as part of the investigation as to whether or not this healing was miraculous, one of the scientists consulted was Dr. Jacalyn Duffin, a hematologist and atheist. Without being told details of the patient's record, Duffin was given laboratory slides from the 1970s and asked to report on what she saw.

Duffin explained, "I reasonably imagined that this woman was dead," and said that this type of cancer was "the most aggressive leukemia known." When she continued to review more slides of this patient over time, she was dumbfounded that the patient had gone into remission, relapsed, and gone into remission a second time, something Duffin perceived as most unexpected.

Dr. Jeanne Drouin, who had been treating the patient, told Dr. Duffin that the patient was still alive those many years later. Duffin recalled, "I was like thunderstruck that the woman was alive. But I was not going to say this was a miracle." Although skeptical of supernatural intervention, Duffin testified to a panel of investigating bishops and priests. Duffin described the inquiry:
"They never asked me to say this was a miracle. They wanted to know if I had a scientific explanation for why this patient was still alive. I realized they weren't asking me to endorse their beliefs. They didn't care if I was a believer or not, they cared about the science."
Of her life experiences in the face of what she had seen, Dr. Duffin said, "I'm an atheist, but one who believes in miracles."

Eucharist in Buenos Aires
Another inexplicable event in recent history occurred in Buenos Aires. On August 18, 1996 a consecrated Eucharistic host was found dirty on the floor after the liturgy. The priest placed it in water in the tabernacle and waited for it to dissolve to later water a plant with it. Instead, after several days, red stains formed on the host. Over time, it appears to have transformed into human tissue and blood.

At a 2008 faith and science conference, Dr. Ricardo Castañón Gómez explained his examination of this host, which remains without decomposition to this day. Gómez testifies that he had the tissue sample sent to a laboratory in California, asking them to examine it. He "did not tell them this came from a host." They told him that the tissue was "muscle from the heart; muscle from the myocardium of the left ventricle." He later took the sample to Dr. Frederick Zugibe, a forensic pathologist and medical examiner whose expertise includes determining cause of death based on forensics of the heart. Zugibe told him that the tissue indicates the person whose heart tissue this was had suffered many wounds. Catholics, of course, believe the Eucharist is truly the sacramentally veiled but true body of Christ, who underwent many wounds in his Passion. Gómez notes that Zugibe "didn't know this was a host" when he examined the tissue. Zugibe also asked Gómez how the latter was able to provide a tissue sample that was "alive."

Dr. Gómez describes the amazement of the moment, "Imagine me telling a person that a piece of wheat has turned into blood, coagulated, and become heart muscle!" In the above video, he describes other inexplicable characteristics surrounding the Buenos Aires Eucharist.

Gómez, once an atheist, since converted to the Church as a result of his studies. Also of note in this incident is that in 1996, when the miracle first occurred, it was Bishop Jorge Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, who helped initiate the investigation into the phenomenon.

Miracle investigations
A recent article at ScienceNordic examined the Church's propensity of applying scientific scrutiny to miraculous claims:
When a potential miracle is reported to the Vatican, the report includes testimonies from astounded doctors who cannot find a natural explanation for the phenomenon in question.
The cardinals then pass these testimonies on to the miracle commission, which then sends a delegation to the location where the unexplainable event took place. If the delegates fail to find a satisfactory scientific explanation for the strange phenomenon, they can call in external experts.
These inexplicable stories by no means come close to exhausting the hundreds of inexplicable testimonies throughout the centuries that have been understood as miracles, including those which have mystified science, even according to skeptical scientists. In light of the original critics' claim that "faith is belief in the absence of evidence," a number of questions arise in the face of these unexplained phenomena. Why, if faith is belief in the absence of evidence, does the Church bother to consult evidence? Why would the Church call on the scrutiny of skeptics? Why should these stories and testimonies not count as 'evidence'?

For the purposes of these examples, it is not critical to demonstrate that these inexplicable results were caused in some sense by a particular heavenly saint. Suffice it to say, it does not seem reasonable to dismiss such case studies as "non-evidence" with regard to the supernatural. The skeptic dismissing the evidence merely as something that has a natural explanation which has not yet been discovered must himself resort to a view that is itself speculative and absent of evidence.

St. Maximilian Kolbe
During World War II, the Franciscan Friar Maximilian Kolbe arranged for the shelter of some 3,000 war refugees, including 2,000 Jews, lamenting that they had been deprived of "even the most basic necessities." In early 1941, he was arrested by Nazi forces and was imprisoned at Pawiak prison in Warsaw. After enduring beatings for his faith, he was transferred to Auschwitz.

During his imprisonment at Auschwitz, three other prisoners escaped. To deter further escape attempts, 10 prisoners were chosen to starve to death. At hearing his name selected, one prisoner, Franciszek Gajowniczek, cried out for the wife and children he would never see again. Kolbe, who had not originally been selected for death, stepped forward and offered to take the man's place.

The guards accepted the exchange. Kolbe and the others spent their final days in a starvation bunker, known as the "death block." The priest led prayers and songs, emboldening the other prisoners. It signaled that his act of heroism was not merely a humanistic gesture, but rooted in the faith he lived. Kolbe was the last surviving selected prisoner. An interpreter and assistant janitor in the bunker, Bruno Borgowiec, described how Kolbe was given "an injection of carbolic acid in the vein of his left arm. Fr. Kolbe, with a prayer on his lips, himself gave his arm to the executioner."

Another prisoner, Jerzy Bielecki, testified that the aftermath of Fr. Kolbe's martyrdom was "a shock filled with hope, bringing new life and strength. ... It was like a powerful shaft of light in the darkness of the camp."

St. Thomas More
In the early 16th century, King Henry VIII sought a declaration from Pope Clement VII that his marriage to Catherine of Aragon was null, i.e. that it had never been a valid marriage. Henry and Catherine had no son and, according to the custom, could not maintain succession without a male heir. A 1530 letter from Henry's delegates to the Pope makes, not a theological appeal for an annulment, but a political one. It reads in part: "[Henry] will surely guarantee stability to the kingdom if he will be able to entrust its government to a male heir." At Catherine's request, the Pope authorized an investigation into the king's demand and did not grant the decree of nullity the king desired.

During this time, Sir Thomas More served as English chancellor and held much influence. Henry tried several times to obtain More's favor that the king's marriage to Catherine was null. More consistently refused. After much effort to acquire his decree of nullity from the Church, the king usurped for himself religious authority and also secretly "married" Anne Boleyn in 1533. In 1534, he issued an Act of Succession, which described valid succession of the throne through the king's "lawful wife Queen Anne." Soon after, the king issued the Oath of Supremacy, which declared the king "supreme head of the Church of England." All nobility and even clergy were called to take this oath. More was one whom refused to take the oath, insisting on a position of silence.

Eventually, More was imprisoned for over a year for treason. At the trial of Thomas More, the prosecuting attorney, referring to More's refusal to take the oath, said, "we have your silence, which is an evident sign of the malice of your heart: because no dutiful subject, being law­fully ask'd this question, will refuse to answer."

Aware of his fate if he refused to consent to the king's usurpation of religious authority over the Pope, More replied, "As to the principal crime objected against me, that I should say upon my examination in the Tower, that this law was like a two-edged sword; for in consenting to it, I should endanger my soul, and in rejecting it should lose my life."

It is this reckoning which More considers. He can preserve his life and gain high favor with the king if he simply complies with the king's decree. Yet More bears witness to a higher prize by accepting the ultimate temporal penalty when he could have easily obtained temporal glory. More was eventually found "guilty" and beheaded soon after the trial.

Another feature of the strength of Christian truth is the fulfillment of prophecy. Skeptics may insist that prophecies are too "vague" or some such, but this form of evidence does not stand alone, as we will review later. For now, let's look at a few examples:

The expected Messiah would come from Bethlehem.
But you, O Bethlehem Eph'rathah, who are little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days. (Micah 5:2)
Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king... (Matt. 2:1a)
If the Jews recognized that Jesus was from Bethlehem, as the record states, his fulfillment of the Mican prophecy would be strengthened. To this day, it is almost poetic for someone from a "little" town to rise to some degree of fame. Of course, a number of persons came from Bethlehem, but Jewish and Gentile converts didn't just follow any of them. This was merely one characteristic they expected their leader to have. It is evidence.

The Crucufixion
The expected Messiah would die by crucifixion.
Yea, dogs are round about me; a company of evildoers encircle me; they have pierced my hands and feet -- I can count all my bones -- they stare and gloat over me; they divide my garments among them, and for my raiment they cast lots. (Psalm 22:16-18)
Here we see some specifics that Christ's followers considered compelling evidence. The Gospels' account of the crucifixion reflects all this. Christ, surrounded by murderers, was crucified (Matt. 27:35; Mark 15:24; Luke 23:34-35), was mocked and put on display for staring (Matt. 27:37, 40ff; John 19:37), and had his clothing divided by casting lots (27:35). John also specifically describes the nails that pierced Christ's hands (20:25, 27), and in Luke, the resurrected Christ reveals his identity by showing his hands and feet to the disciples (24:39). What is worth noting is that there were prior attempts to murder Christ, such as by stoning him (John 10:31), but Christ escaped.

John, who was at the foot of the cross, also notes additional features of the crucifixion consistent with prophecies. Pilate had ordered that the legs of the crucified Christ and the two thieves be broken. But John recalls how the legs of the two thieves were broken, but they did not proceed to break Christ's (19:33). Why? Because Jesus already appeared dead and to test that diagnosis, one of the soldiers pierced him in the side with a spear (19:34) instead of breaking his legs as was originally ordered. In these two characteristics of the event, John recognizes two other prophecies of the crucifixion:
He keeps all his bones; not one of them is broken. (Psalm 34:20)
And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of compassion and supplication, so that, when they look on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a first-born. (Zech. 12:10)
Incidentally, John also recognizes theological fulfillment in that Christ's bones were not broken, because he both recognized Christ as the fulfillment of the Passover lamb (John 1:29, 36) and that the Jewish custom of celebrating the Passover specifically called for a lamb with no broken bones (cf. Exod. 12:46; Num. 9:12).

The Gospel writer John asserts that he saw this incident with his own eyes (John 19:35). These features of the crucifixion prophecies constitute "evidence" that the Apostles and subsequent Christians have considered when measuring the identity of Jesus Christ.

Palm Sunday
Old Testament prophecy said the Messiah would ride into Jerusalem as a king, yet humbly on the back of a donkey (Zech. 9:9) which occurred (Matt. 21:1-11). The crowd reacted accordingly, crying out "Hosanna!" (i.e. "save us"). Matthew 21 also records the crowd shouting "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!" This signals such Old Testament texts as Psalm 118 sung during the Feast of Tabernacles. This feast includes a procession of palms (also recorded by Matthew), which are offered for the saving Lord (cf. Lev. 23:40; 2 Macc. 10:6-8). Matthew records them laying branches on the road for this man on the donkey. In the context of these Old Testament texts, we can better see why the crowd reacted as they did for a humble man riding into town on a beast of burden. It was hardly the image of nobility, but they recognized what many of these details signaled.

Other prophecies
Many other articles about Biblical prophecy could be discussed here. Some include:
Fish Eaters: Palm Sunday
The Sacred Page: Jesus' Triumphal Entry, the Descent into Hell, and the Coming of the Messiah (Palm Sunday, Year A)
The Sacred Page: Luke 1-2: 490 Days and Daniel 9
Jimmy Akin: Who says Jesus couldn't predict the fall of Jerusalem
CatholicApologetics.Info: How Christ Fulfilled the Prophecies of Scripture
Dr. Brant Pitre: The "Ransom for Many," The New Exodus, and the End of the Exile (PDF)
Joe Heschmeyer: Three Prophecies About Christ That Could Not Have Been Made Up
Joe Heschmeyer: Daniel 2's Proof for Jesus Christ and His Church

Now, while many prophecies have the character in the form of a "prediction," that is not the only form. For example, taking a panoramic view of the Old Testament, we see the account of a certain rhythm of "two brothers," in which the firstborn or elder brother has high expectations. Examples include Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, or Esau and Jacob. In each example, the historical account of these firstborn sons describes how they ended up disinherited for one reason or other. This pattern, which finds its way into divine revelation signals the two covenants: The Old with Israel (the firstborn, cf. Ex. 4:22) and the New with Gentiles also (the younger son.) Christ is thus seen as the "firstborn" (Luke 2:7) son who finally succeeds and delivers the due inheritance of the Father. Parallels like these are manifold in Scripture and lend to the Christian faith a certain coherence and also prophetic magnanimity.

I will merely give one more example for the sake of brevity. The account of Matthew 12:40 records Jesus responding to a Pharisaical interrogation. He says, "For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth."     

Not only does Christ predict his burial for three days,1 but the reference reveals the mission of Christ. For he follows the statement with "they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here." (v. 41) The story of Jonah is thus not only historically prophetic in the story of "three days," but for identifying the importance of the coming prophet as one calling for repentance. As with stories of "two brothers," this is a theological prophecy which gives a certain credence, a certain coherence and consistent trajectory even from the Old Testament, and examples of evidence to the accounted record of Christian salvation history.

It is not uncommon to hear skeptics respond to any of the above arguments, or similar arguments from Christian apologists throughout history, by offering counter-explanations for each individual bit of "evidence" the Christian may posit.

For example, a skeptic arguing against martyrdom as evidence for the truth of a religion states:
The willingness of someone to die for a belief is not proof of its truth. For example, terrorists who blow themselves up or die in battle do not establish the truth of their beliefs. And believers of all religions have been martyred.
As it is stated, this conclusion is reasonable. However, I would submit at least the following two responses to this reaction.

First, this objection actually confirms that there is "evidence" to be assessed with regard to Christianity or even a different religion. The evidence is the reality of martyrs for a belief. But remember, our skeptics quoted at the beginning of the article insist there is "lack" of evidence or even contrary evidence. However, there is a difference between assessing the evidence in question and coming to a different conclusion than insisting there is no evidence to even examine with regard to this or that religion.

Second, the notion of trying to debunk a characteristic of Christianity or another religion by offering alternative explanations for the evidence is not compelling if one attempts to debunk each piece of evidence one at a time. In CCC#156 quoted above, the evidence for the faith includes the endurance of the Church, miracles, holiness in faithful members, signs in divine revelation, or other "external proofs," etc. The skeptic might react to this by arguing that there is also evidence of endurance in Religion A, evidence of miracles in Religion B, evidence of holiness in Religion C, and so on. Therefore, concludes the skeptic, the case for Christianity is equally convincing or unconvincing as any religion, and thus, none of them are compelling.

However, what is the problem if a skeptic rejected Christianity on the grounds that martyrdom is not unique to it? I submit the problem with this reaction can be seen in the notion of irreducible complexity. The term irreducible complexity has found its way into the vernacular with regard to evolution (see and In short, the idea says that an incremental notion of evolution, which says an organism naturally develops piece by piece over time, cannot explain the existence of an organism which ceases to function if any single piece is removed. In other words, a foot doesn't develop of its own accord, followed by a leg, and other parts later. These parts function as part of a complete system. This post is not to get into the details of that argument, but I bring up the term irreducible complexity because its principle relates to this subject of religion and evidence.

Permit me to offer an illustration of why it is specious to claim to debunk evidence for a religion by offering alternative explanations for each evidence one at a time.

Detective work
Let's say you are a detective investigating a crime. After interviewing the witnesses, you determine that the suspect is a male caucasian, six feet tall, with brown hair, and a tattoo on his left arm. Eventually, several candidates are brought in for a police lineup. Let's take a look.

As we examine our suspects here, we can see that suspect #2 has all 5 characteristics described. However, shall suspect #2 be dismissed on the grounds that #1 is six-feet tall and male? Shall suspect #2 be dismissed on the grounds that #3 is a caucasian male with brown hair. Suspect #4 is a male with brown hair with a tattoo, although on the right arm. Suspect #5 likewise has some of the characteristics of the description. She is caucasian and has a tattoo on her left arm. Shall suspect #2 be dismissed as the culprit on the grounds that all the other suspects have some characteristics that match his?

Of course, suspect #2 is the most likely culprit in this lineup because he has all the characteristics at once. The witnesses' description of the suspect is "irreducibly complex." Having only one or two of the characteristics falls short.

Now, let's return to the matter of faith. Should Christianity be rejected on the grounds that there are holy people in other religions? Should Christianity be rejected on the grounds that other religions also have martyrs? You see the parallel here. What is a compelling sign of the truth of Christianity is that it contains all the signal characteristics at once. Miracles. Prophecies. Holy followers. Martyrs. Historicity. Spiritual experience. Etc. The more characteristics a particular faith has that reasonably signal its truth and divine pedigree, the more compelling a case for that faith.

Thus, it is imprudent to reject Christianity, for instance, because other faiths have martyrs because to dismiss Christianity on these grounds is to dismiss suspect #2 in our above example on the grounds that he shares a characteristic with others.

Faith, even in the eyes of the Church, is not "blind," which is to say, something followed without seeing due cause. There are a number of evidences for the truth of Christianity. If someone were to reject the faith, or even embrace the faith, it would be prudent to do so in such a way as to confront these evidences as an irreducible total native to the Church. No doubt, the persistent quality of the Church throughout the centuries includes these compelling evidences among those who say with St. Peter, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life." (John 6:68)

1It is not uncommon to hear an objection that this prophecy did not come true in accord with the language of Matthew 12:40 on the grounds that Christ rose Sunday morning, and thus, three "nights" had not transpired. However, the phrase "day and night" is a Hebrew idiom in which part of a day encompasses all other parts of a day. The term is not necessarily understood in the same sense as a modern English speaker might insist. For an analysis, see Dave Armstrong's  Jesus' Three Days and Three Nights" in the Tomb: Is it a Biblical Contradiction?

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

God the Father and Reconciliation

I spoke at St. Jude church in Joliet, IL on April 7, 2014 on the subject of God the Father and the sacrament of reconciliation. Below is the audio.

Right-click here to download an MP3 of the talk. (54:36 minutes)

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Difficult questions modern Catholics face

I spoke at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton church in Naperville, IL on Feb. 25, 2014 on the subject of difficult questions modern Catholics face. Topics included suffering, hell, marriage, contraception, abortion.

Right-click here to download an MP3 of the talk. (40:21 minutes)

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Notre Dame professor's flawed argument for abortion

Sketches by Leonardo da Vinci of child in the womb, ca 1510-1512 (acquired from Wikimedia Commons)

This past January 23, 2014, the New York Times ran an opinion from Notre Dame professor Gary Gutting. Claiming to base his argument on Pope Francis' recent apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, Gutting cites "reason" and argues that the Pope should announce a "revision of the absolute ban on abortion."

The opening sentence of Gutting's opinion reveals an inaccurate understanding of what the Church means by moral dogma. Gutting writes:
Pope Francis has raised expectations of a turn away from the dogmatic intransigence that has long cast a pall over the religious life of many Roman Catholics. 
A "dogma," is the Church's term for the highest degree of certitude of a revealed "truth" in the order of faith or morals. Dr. Ludwig Ott describes dogma in his classic Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (which is used in seminaries, as I understand):
By dogma in the strict sense is understood a truth immediately (formally) revealed by God which has been proposed by the Teaching Authority of the Church to be believed as such. (Ott, p. 4)
A dogma is a divinely revealed "truth." Compare this to Gutting's opening line which speaks of the supposed "pall" cast by a Church with "dogmatic intransigence." To put this in context of what a dogma is, Gutting expresses displeasure that the Church refuses to budge on truth.

To put this in another perspective, imagine a college professor criticizing someone else for refusing to budge on the number 4 as the answer to 2+2. It is nonsensical. Neither Pope Francis nor the Church can change truth. Truth can't change.

Whether or not someone wants to recognize the Church's capacity to have passed on a revealed truth is not the point here. The Church believes it. It is thus silly for Gutting to ask the Church to declare what she believes to be an immutable truth untrue.

In founding his argument, Gutting quotes the bold portions of the below excerpt from Pope Francis:
Yet this defence of unborn life is closely linked to the defence of each and every other human right. It involves the conviction that a human being is always sacred and inviolable, in any situation and at every stage of development. Human beings are ends in themselves and never a means of resolving other problems. Once this conviction disappears, so do solid and lasting foundations for the defence of human rights, which would always be subject to the passing whims of the powers that be. Reason alone is sufficient to recognize the inviolable value of each single human life, but if we also look at the issue from the standpoint of faith, “every violation of the personal dignity of the human being cries out in vengeance to God and is an offence against the creator of the individual”. ...  Precisely because this involves the internal consistency of our message about the value of the human person, the Church cannot be expected to change her position on this question. I want to be completely honest in this regard. This is not something subject to alleged reforms or “modernizations”. It is not “progressive” to try to resolve problems by eliminating a human life. (Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, 213-214)
Even though Pope Francis said "the Church cannot be expected to change her position," Gutting proceeds to say:
I want to explore the possibility, however, that the pope might be open to significant revision of the absolute ban on abortion  by asking what happens if we take seriously his claim that “reason alone is sufficient” to adjudicate this issue. 
He proceeds to offer what he claims is an argument for abortion based on "reason." But as we will see, his assertions are not reasonable.

After assuring his readers he is opposed to late-term abortions, Gutting then states, "an embryo or fetus is at least potentially human..." He also says killing someone includes taking away a human future and that the "same is true when you kill a potential human being." The problem with his argument from the onset is that there is no such thing as a "potential human being." This is Dr. Gutting's "dogma" and his reason for making the claim is irrational.

This is the logical fallacy of "confirming the consequent," the idea of running ahead with a claim when it's basis is flawed or absent. We'll see Gutting later posit arbitrary and unfounded criteria that supposedly demarcates the threshold between "potential" and "actual" human.

He commits the same fallacy of "confirming the consequent" again a few sentences later: "[T]he 'inviolable value of each human life' does not imply that no abortion can be moral." Actually, it does. If every human life is inviolable, then to deliberately kill any human life is a violation, i.e. immoral. To deny this is to deny some part of the premise that "every" life is inviolably "valuable."

So how does Gutting justify this claim that abortion could still sometimes be moral? He says:
It is hard to claim that a rape victim has a moral duty to bring to term a pregnancy forced on her by rape, even if we assume that there is a fully human person present from the moment of conception
There are at least a couple fallacies of argument at work in this sentence. One is the appeal to emotion. Since a rape victim is truly a victim who deserves love, whose situation abrades any sensible person's heart, we are led to believe that termination of her baby is made moral by her situation. Yet, this ignores the premise he granted, that "every human life is inviolable." He actually ignores that premise even though he granted it a moment earlier. The Church's reason for teaching the immorality of abortion is that it kills an innocent human being. Gutting could have made the same appeal to emotion to the innocent baby who neither is responsible for the rape, but he simply choses to forgo such thought in this essay.

The second fallacy of argument in his appeal to the situation of rape is something similar to the "fallacy of equivocation." In this fallacy, two different concepts are confused for one another. The emwombed person is a person regardless of the mode of conception, regardless if love or a cruel act of injustice were involved. The intrinsic value of a human being is not dependent on how he or she came into being. Following Gutting's logic, the equation goes as follows: Conception good = valuable person (with caveats described herein); Conception bad = valueless person. What is especially vexing here is that Gutting proceeds to say that a raped woman who gives birth still exhibits "heroic generosity." Why? If the emwombed entity is valueless enough to make abortion "moral" in this situation, as Gutting argues, what would be heroic about bringing forth something valueless? He can only make the statement if there is value in the enwombed person, otherwise bringing the child forth wouldn't be "generous."

Once again commmitting the fallacy of "confirming the consequent," Gutting writes:
Other exceptions to the condemnation of abortion arise once we realize that an early-stage embryo may be biologically human but still lack the main features — consciousness, self-awareness, an interest in the future — that underlie most moral considerations. An organism may be human by purely biological criteria, but still merely potentially human in the full moral sense. ... there’s no reason to think that we are obliged to preserve the life of a potential human at the price of enormous suffering by actual humans.
This paragraph is especially vexing. He is willing to admit that a biological analysis will demonstrate that a human life is present in the womb. I won't delve too long into the irony that the Church, which is often misconstrued as an enemy of science, is validated on this issue by science. A human being is in constant development from conception to death. To cite a point in the timeline as a change in "humanity" is to fail to recognize the fluid continuity of development from the nascent stage to the end. It's not just a toe growing and then suddenly the ingredients for the rest are added at some point. Humanity is inscribed from start to finish, as even science will show by genetic analysis. Throughout the decades, the effort among abortion supporters to identify a threshold of when true life begins has only proven to be a carousel of inconsistency from person to person, from state to state, and includes thresholds from the first trimester, up to, and including, post-birth. I don't want to say their incoherence is the deciding factor in the error, but is evidence of unreasoned subjectivity at work. And certainly none admit to the continuity of valued humanity, developing from conception.

But let's look at what Dr. Gutting has offered as criteria of human value.

Gutting says, "consciousness, self-awareness, [and] an interest in the future" are the factors in determining whether or not it's "moral" to abort that which is in the mother's womb. According to whom are these the benchmark factors of being a "fully moral human" (since he would concede that "biological" humanity is present)? He shows no cause for so-called "actual" humanity to be contingent on these attributes. Regardless, if we were to go forth with this reasoning, it would be okay to kill anyone unconscious. This is also a call to justify the murder of anyone with severe mental handicap. This logic actually undermines his entire claim to be against "late-term" abortion because such an infant might not have "an interest in the future."

If we were to go forth with his above concluding statement, more problems arise. He argues in favor of terminating so-called "potential humans" (a concept he fails to demonstrate even exists) on the grounds that another person will be spared "suffering." Imagine if terminating another person would be "moral" if you could be spared suffering. You can kill someone who calls you bad names. You could justify killing someone ahead of you in line for a promotion. You could kill someone who snores a lot. Etc... etc... After all, if one person's suffering trumps another person's right to life, an argument might be plausibly made to morally kill anyone.

A final argument Gutting advances goes as follows:
[N]ot even pro-life advocates consistently act on their belief that any embryo has full moral standing. As the philosopher Peter Smith has noted, they do not, for example, support major research efforts to prevent the miscarriages or spontaneous abortions (many so early that they aren’t ordinarily detected) that occur in about 30 percent of pregnancies. If 30 percent of infants died for unknown reasons, we would all see this as a medical crisis and spend billions on research to prevent these deaths. The fact that pro-life advocates do not support an all-out effort to prevent spontaneous abortions indicates that they themselves recognize a morally relevant difference between embryos and human beings with full moral standing.
There are at least three problems with this line of thinking in order to justify abortion, which is Gutting's intent in this essay. First, the conclusion of this paragraph is nonsensical. No one is committing an act of murder when a miscarriage occurs. In the eyes of Catholic pro-lifers, the stakes of sin, heaven, and hell trump temporal difficulties. In Church theology, having a miscarriage isn't potentially going to be the reason someone goes to hell, whereas the sinful taking of another human life certainly could be. Christ died for sin because this world does not ultimately have the final word. So it would not be hypocritical for someone to focus on something that was fatal and sinful versus something fatal.

But second, many pro-lifers are advocates of all kinds of health and medical issues, organizers of women's health research, fundraisers, Catholic hospitals, and a plethora of similar causes and efforts. What standard or evidence is Gutting using to deny that there is not "major research effort" spent on such research? He offers none here.

And third, let's assume––hypothecially now––that Gutting were correct and pro-lifers were hypocrites. All that would prove is that pro-lifers were hypocrites. Whether or not there are hypocrite pro-lifers has no bearing whatsoever on whether fertilized eggs are human lives nor whether 2+2 is still 4. If his goal is to get to the truth of whether an enwombed entity is a human being, the hypocritical behavior of this or that person is completely immaterial.

As if on cue, delegates from Notre Dame visited Pope Francis on January 30, just one week after Gutting's opinion published. Addressing them, Pope Francis stated:
This commitment to “missionary discipleship” ought to be reflected in a special way in Catholic universities (cf. Evangelii Gaudium, 132-134), which by their very nature are committed to demonstrating the harmony of faith and reason and the relevance of the Christian message for a full and authentically human life. Essential in this regard is the uncompromising witness of Catholic universities to the Church’s moral teaching, and the defense of her freedom, precisely in and through her institutions, to uphold that teaching as authoritatively proclaimed by the magisterium of her pastors. (Pope Francis, Address to Notre Dame delegation, January 30, 2014)
Dr. Gutting will not receive a papal declaration that abortion is "moral." Because it isn't, and the Church is powerless to change truth. And Gutting did not, as he claims in his opinion, use "reason" to demonstrate otherwise.

Gutting did ask for prayers at the end of his essay, and I encourage anyone to oblige that request with sincerity.

¹No doubt, the situation of pregnancy and rape is difficult, as even Pope Francis articulated later in paragraph 214 of his exhortation. The Church would agree that such a woman is heroic largely for the very reason that she dignifies the intrinsic value and life of her child. Testimonials of women surviving rape with regard to life and abortions, as well as testimonials of those children born of this violation can be read at Silent No More, Live Action News, and other places. See those sites also for victim resources. Guttng also appeals later in this paragraph briefly to a 1971 philosophical argument attempting to analogize a woman impregnated by rape to kidnapping someone and attaching their kidneys to a dependent innocent. A review of the flaws in that analogy can be seen in a variety of places including at Human Life Review or Madison Catholic Herald.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Book Review: How to Talk to a Skeptic

How to Talk to a Skeptic (2013) by Donald J. Johnson is an outstanding, tidy resource for any Christian looking to sharpen and/or develop sound evangelization skills. I give it 9.5 out of 10 stars.

This book is timely in an era of Christian history in which the ideas of God and Church and morality are regularly affronted in popular media, governments, and other channels. Johnson's 273-page book is a fast, articulate, and coherent plan for interacting with persons who express varying degrees of skepticism toward God and Christianity.

Each chapter is organized by different topics dealing with criticisms of Christianity such as the ideas of heaven and hell, relativism, Scripture, human experience, morality, and more. In each chapter, he presents both sides of the argument. What makes this book powerful, is that Johnson compares Christianity not as a religion versus those who are un-religious. Rather, he compares Christianity as a "worldview" and its capacity to make sense of reality versus competing worldviews. He makes the case that Christianity offers the single best worldview in light of reality.

Johnson's portrayal of the skeptic's view is consistently charitable, quoting at length various competing viewpoints. As president of Don Johnson Evangelistic Ministries, he also hosts The Don Johnson Show on radio from which he quotes a number of skeptical callers and is able to present common viewpoints and patterns in skeptical thought.

He covers several arguments from pop atheists like Sam Harris or Christopher Hitchens. Although these skeptics are known for specious or bombastic approaches toward religion, you will not find any reverse-halo bias in Johnson's book. Where these atheists raise valid concerns, Johnson acknowledges their point.

One aspect that especially makes How to Talk to a Skeptic valuable is that it sticks to a fundamental principle in analyzing reality. Johnson examines ideas in terms of right/wrong, true/false. At one point, he even cites one of my favorite C.S. Lewis quotes, one I have quoted more than once on this blog, when pertaining to human thought. In Lewis' The Screwtape Letters, a veteran devil trains an apprentice devil on how to get a human subject to deceive himself. The veteran devil speaks of getting subjects to avoid thinking in terms of "'true' and 'false'" and that "Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church." In sticking to the right/wrong, true/false principal, Johnson is able to make numerous, unshakable points and avoid fallacies of argument. This is the case both when he defends the Christian position and when he prompts the skeptic to analyze his own.

The book is also fraught with footnotes and resources for further information useful to the cause of a Christian seeking to defend and present the value of the faith to others. Although this book does not focus on Catholicism specifically, Johnson quotes regularly from Catholic sources, and the book itself is extremely useful for Catholics and all Christians.

Any skeptic should, at the very least, when faced with the presentation in this book, recognize that Christianity is not some "blind" faith in the absence of evidence. Rather, at one point, Johnson even notes, "Christianity welcomes an examination of the evidence. Indeed, it relies on it!"