Wither Atheists

The new polling news from Gallup shows an even more pronounced trend away from religion and churchgoing. It isn’t surprising, as polling data for the past 20 years have demonstrated this trend, but the data shows the trend line passing over the notable milestone of 50%; now fewer than half of Americans go to church.

Pundits might have you believe that this is due to the malicious influence of Satanists and Atheists (or Communists, or devil-lap-dancing pop singers, or whomever is the villain du jour). If this were true, we’d be seeing Atheist affiliation skyrocket, and yet the number of atheists has barely budged. These formally church-going people don’t seem to become atheists, they instead get lumped in with the religious “nones,” that is, people who don’t claim any sort of affiliation.

Based on how defamed and vilified atheists are, this isn’t that surprising. Atheists are just unpopular, and they always have been. But it seems somewhat inescapable to me that if you begin to devalue or reject religion that you then must turn to some other worldview, which by definition becomes atheism or agnosticism. That people, in large numbers, aren’t making this logical jump indicates to me that they’re living in an even more relativistic metaphysical space than we’ve previously imagined. Lots and lots of people, in growing numbers, now refuse to say there is no God, and yet also refuse to support the existence of God in the guise of a religion. It is a liminal space between theism and atheism, a grey area. And we love grey areas! But it is hard to live in one regarding your fundamental belief about the nature of the universe.

One other note: this research says that 4% of religiously unaffiliated still attend church regularly. These people are the very definition of Catholic Atheists! Hey everyone!

Death by a Thousand Harmless Torturers; why Religious ethics were so effective

The thought experiment originally offered by Derek Parfit about the “harmless torturers” pops up now and again in so many different circumstances, which is why its such a good thought experiment. Take this old article from the New York Times where its applied to online behavior and what we would now call cancel culture, for instance. Parfit’s experiment shows some of the shortcomings of both deontology as well as consequentialism, the main ways philosophers have thought about ethics.

It goes like this: there’s a person in a torture cube (think the Agonizer from the Mirror Universe in Star Trek) and the torturer has a knob which increases the level of pain to the person in the device. One torturer can turn it all the way up, killing the person, and this (stripping away any question of why the person is in the Agonizer in the first place) is clearly wrong. But it is possible for the knob to be adjusted at an imperceptible level; one torturer may turn it up with no obvious effect or consequence and then leave. Imagine, thousands of torturers all have separate access to this control and the thousands of adjustments are equivalent to one person turning it up thousands of times, so the person dies. The ultimate amount of pain and death to the victim is the same, but in the thousand torturers instance each individual torturer didn’t cause any perceptible amount of pain.

The consequentialist says, “well, the individual torturer isn’t doing anything wrong,” since their contribution didn’t result in any real results. The deontologist says, “inflicting pain is wrong,” regardless of the ends or results. The contractualist asks, “well, did you have any sort of agreement about this?” The egoist says, “hey, not my problem as long as I’m not the one in the pain booth.” And so on.

Religion gave us a tidy way to embrace deontology; we have a set of commandments, and they don’t change based on the circumstances or the outcome. Further, religion created a sense of self-interested consequentialism within this deontology: although the ends never justify the means, the ends will bring about a good consequence (heaven) for you personally in the afterlife. Furthermore, by its ubiquity, it created a social contract: all people of faith agree to act the same way, and when they break the rules they know they’ve done wrong.

When we remove the dictum from on high, religious ethics fall apart. Why are certain things bad if it isn’t God that’s telling us the rules? Furthermore, removing the consequence of hellfire, the only real ground for post-supernatural religious ethics is the agreement of all of those religious people about what rules they’ll follow. That’s one reason why contractualism seems to have developed in the 20th century, alongside the death of God and a decreasing reliance on the supernatural. It’s also why the Catholic Church has become so deluded about it’s own approach to ethics.

It’s also why atheists are viewed as bad. They can’t possibly have any ethics at all, the theist says, because there isn’t a rule from on high, a consequence for their action, or a community of people with whom they made an ethical agreement. This is, of course, very silly! Atheists can be moral, by any standard one applies.

The torturers experiment applies so neatly to our current global crisis, too. Individual risky actions (like gathering in a group or shunning a facemask) doesn’t necessarily effect any change in isolation, but everyone’s insignificant choices can have massive effects on public health over all. Voting, too, is closely linked to the thought experiment: one vote never made a difference and one person choosing not to vote will have insignificant effects on the system, but the aggregate of nonvoters makes for an untenable structure.

The Lives of the Saints: making up miracles

“Sainthood” is decidedly medieval as a concept, and yet the Roman Catholic Church continues to canonize more saints than ever before. Beginning with unprecedented numbers of saints elevated during the reign of John Paul 2, and in part because of a sweeping rule change that allowed greater numbers than ever before, the church is claiming incredible numbers of new saints each year. In the case of the quickly canonized John Paul 2, there is some criticism of sainthood, and the very criteria for canonization, namely miracles, is already so bonkers that it raises the question: what does it mean to be a modern day saint?

The first steps to sainthood make enough sense: the person is a “servant of God,” a qualifier that is vague but intuitive. They further must have led a life of “heroic virtue.” This sets up the entire process to be one of subjective public opinion, since these adjectives don’t describe quantifiable metrics. That’s a good thing: sainthood is like pornography, you know it when you see it.

The last, and weirdest, qualification is two verified miracles. Sometimes it can be waived down to one, and if you died as a martyr for the faith you don’t need any miracles at all to qualify, but a central hurdle of the process is “verifying” miracles. These are normally performed during the saint’s lifetime but frequently verified much later: in the case of Laura Montoya, the first saint canonized by Pope Francis, the verification of her miracles was conducted over 50 years after her death. How could investigators possibly verify miraculous acts decades (or sometimes centuries) later? They conduct interviews, they do research, they ask around, check out physical evidence (if any exists), and then make a determination. Naturally, these determinations largely support the existence of “miracles,” especially once public opinion has moved the status of beautification far enough to warrant the verification process in the first place.

Rarely, the miracles are performed after the saint has died. This was the case with John Paul 2, who cured two people of illnesses after he he died by the intercession of their prayers. These miracles were verified and verifiably attributable, the panel said, to JP2, because the sick people prayed to him in their hour of need and so he became responsible. It was definitely him, they claimed, because the sick people prayed directly to JP2 and no one else.

Of course, there is suspicion surrounding the nature of these miracles. In the case of medical miracles, what appears miraculous in one decade becomes commonplace in the next. In the case of John Paul 2, the nun’s Parkinson’s seems to have relapsed several years after the saint’s canonization. Was it a miracle if it didn’t “stick?” Was it even Parkinson’s at all, or maybe some different undiagnosed condition? Or maybe the illness was inevitable, and the ghost of JP2 miraculously delayed it?

The process has the aura of scientific rigor: they make sure only one saint was addressed so there’s no confusion over who gets credit, they make sure medical miracle recoveries were from terminal prognoses only, they make sure the miracle is “sudden” and “unexplained.” But ultimately these situations are simply ones where something unexpected happens, and those situations happen in everyone’s life if you look hard enough. Usually, retrospect proves they weren’t so unexplained at all.

Hiding behind this veneer of science is bad for the church; every time science catches up with the miracles, the church can’t help but lose credibility. It is also bad for science; trying to give verifiable scientific explanations for things that are obviously unexplained happenstance muddies what the scientific method actually stands for.

Ultimately, the church doesn’t need to verify saints in this way at all. Of course there must be a measured way to elevate certain people to such a celebrated status, but this shouldn’t rely on sneaky investigators making arbitrary decisions. The example of their servitude and their heroic virtue should be enough, especially viewed through the lens of some time and retrospect.

Polls and Pews: complexity in self-identity

The ongoing polling research done by Pew on religion in America has been a major touchstone in understanding national trends, but new research by Pew further affirms how difficult it is to get a sense of what religion means in this country, and how impossible it is to capture a picture of that.

Photo by Emmanuel Appiah

By changing the method of polling from one primarily based in phone interviews to a system where a panel of pre-selected people fill out online surveys, the pollsters are realizing that people are more likely to represent themselves as “religious” and “church-going” to a person on the phone than they are when privately answering on their own. It is objectively funny that people would lie about being a part of a religion which condemns lying, but Pew points out that it isn’t necessary a lie. Someone who says they are “moderately religious” one day might, because of circumstances or how the question was asked, say the next that they are “only slightly religious.”

Of course, actual church attendance is a more empirical metric, and we should be able to hypothetically track actual attendance versus self-reported attendance. This gets a little sticky too, though, as the research notes:

“[…] when respondents in a telephone or face-to-face survey overstate how often they go to religious services, they may not be consciously telling a lie so much as projecting a self-image that is important to them. They may be saying, in effect, “I’m the kind of person who goes to church every week” rather than, “Without fail, I actually go to church every single week.” When answering the same question online, without the subtle psychological impact of speaking to another person, respondents evidently give answers that are closer to their actual behavior.”

Pew Research Center

Which is to say, people’s identity doesn’t necessarily align with their actions. Is someone who self-identifies as church-going but never actually goes to church actually a church-goer? A simple quantitative question becomes a complicated metaphysical puzzle. If anything, the enterprise of the 21st century has demonstrated in sharp relief the many complexities of identity.

The problem isn’t necessarily that someone would misrepresent themselves to a pollster because they prefer to give an answer that is socially desirable. The problem is that the person doesn’t recognize this answer is at odds with their behavior, and that matters of self-identity are unassailable. Instead of simply writing off a non-church-attending person who identifies as church-going by saying they are lying, we must accept that some actually identify as church-going, maybe even if they don’t actually attend church at all. The fact that they don’t enter into the building doesn’t change their self-image as a “church-goer,” and presenting them with the facts shouldn’t change it either; they simply see themselves as “church-going,” even if they don’t satisfy the generally accepted reality of that term.

There is a way in which this is simply a semantic argument and not a metaphysical one. I certainly don’t mean to suggest that a person’s self-identity has a material change on the reality around them, but I also don’t want to reduce identity down to a matter of definition of the terms. There is a real sense in which the person who never sets foot inside a church but thinks of themselves as a devoted church-goer is what they see themselves as, because, after all, who is anyone else to tell them what they are? As with all questions of identity, the conclusion is ultimately a self-identification, which means others cannot dispute the conclusion.

This also doesn’t just boil down to solipsism. Self-identity doesn’t change the fact of how often someone’s physical body enters into a worship space. But it does change how we view research, as well as how we view others: when people tell you who they are, believe them.

What is a Catholic Atheist?

A purportedly benevolent magic force who listens to our thoughts impregnates a woman against her will with a half-human/half-god hybrid that is meant to cleanse the world of sin by being violently murdered since, even though the magic force is supposedly all-powerful, having their son tortured is the only way to demonstrate the sort of “love” that will absolve the world.

It is hard to believe. In fact, most reasonable people would say that it is impossible to believe. Yet we’ve organized life in the Western Hemisphere around these beliefs for the past couple millennia. In other parts of the world, most of their histories are centered around equally bizarre myths, mostly stemming from the same historical roots.

The reason we, as a society, haven’t simply looked at the lunacy of these beliefs and laughed them off is that we have simply have too much invested in God. We’ve been asked to place our entire trust in God, to center our identity around these supernatural beliefs, to accept a version of history so deeply woven with these bizarre ideas that to reject them would be to reject our entire cultural concept of history, identity, and metaphysics. There are lots of structural, political, and historical reasons why these power structures have been put in place and plenty to say about how they have been corrupted, manipulated, and exploited, but for us humans currently living in the 21st century it is enough to say that religion saturates every aspect of our day to day lives in ways we barely recognize or understand.

The Catholic Atheist is an Atheist because they cannot accept supernatural explanations any longer. They are unwilling to live in the Dark Ages when science has offered us all the tools necessary to understand the world in which we live; even if we don’t have the answers we seek currently, we know now that we can hope for better understanding in the future instead of substituting knowledge with made-up magic.

The Catholic Atheist is a catholic because they recognize the universal influence of world religions on every aspect of modern life. They know that, because so much of the good in our culture, art, and society is rooted in religious influence, that we need to understand and respect that influence if we want to retain and cultivate those things.

A Catholic Atheist needn’t be a Catholic. The word does mean “universal,” after all. You can be the type of Catholic Atheist that is true to your identity and cultural history. The Catholic Atheist also needn’t be an Atheist, per se. Although The Catholic Atheist is committed to empirical science and rejects supernaturalism, there is room for a variety of other beliefs that wouldn’t be called Atheistic, like agnosticism or spiritualism.

You may already be a Catholic Atheist, even if you haven’t used those words to identify yourself that way. You may already have deep misgivings and doubts about the supernatural teachings of the religion you otherwise love. You may mistrust your church for beliefs which today seem antiquated, or perhaps because your church has been responsible for much evil in the world. You may have never attended church nor believed in God, but you see the incredible influence of religion on the world and want to understand that influence better.

Above all, The Catholic Atheist is committed to critical thinking, measured analysis, and the search for truth and meaning. Isn’t that something we can all get behind?