The Cure for Bad Religion


“Atheism deserves better than the new atheists whose methodology consists of criticizing religion without understanding it, quoting texts without contexts, taking exceptions as the rule, confusing folk belief with reflective theology, abusing, mocking, ridiculing, caricaturing, and demonizing religious faith and holding it responsible for the great crimes against humanity. Religion has done harm; I acknowledge that. But the cure for bad religion is good religion, not no religion, just as the cure for bad science is good science, not the abandonment of science.” – Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

I love this quote from Rabbi Sacks (thx to Brandon Vogt for sharing it!). The fundamental flaw of the new atheism truly is that it “criticizes religion without understanding it.” And from there, without understanding it, any mockery, miscontext, ridicule or demonizing just comes off as uneducated. Of course, the fact that most religious folks don’t understand their own religion either is what has given the new atheism any traction whatsoever. But to anyone who understands good religion in the slightest, the new atheist is consistently seen as having entirely missed the point.

And of course, in an age where so many people have tossed out their own bad or (more commonly) misunderstood religion and replaced it with no religion and a hatred for “religious people,” the cure here is ever more important. The cure for bad religion is not “no religion.” The cure is good religion. The cure is going out and learning about and understanding good religion. There you’ll find the peace your heart and mind desire. There you’ll find eternal life.

Here’s some great commentary from Fr. Barron on the same subject of the new atheism:

21 comments Add comment

Rosemary M October 24, 2012 at 3:16 pm

I really appreciate your sharing this. I love a speaker who is so coherent and on target. I really, really enjoyed this posting, the quote and the video.

Michael Marchand October 25, 2012 at 9:52 am

“the fact that most religious folks don’t understand their own religion either is what has given the new atheism any traction whatsoever”

Spot on! How can we expect these new atheists to be exposed to “good religion” when the religious people they meet don’t really know what they believe?

Tod Glenn October 25, 2012 at 1:22 pm

This of course misses the point that some of us are educated about religion, and do see a huge difference between good religion and bad religion. Yes, there are people who live a good faith filled life, but they are essentially living one of superstition. And typically those who follow ‘bad’ religion are exactly the ones that are following the tenants of their faith most closely. At the same time, those who have ‘good’ religion are typically those who reject the teaching of their own religion in favor of modern understanding of what is good, just and moral. Even the most moderate religions – and here I am referring to Abrahamic one – at their core operate from the first principle that humans are born flawed and unworthy, and they must in some way atone for their humanity. The very concept of sin engenders a sense of self hate, and if one supports the idea that humans are born tainted with original sin, how is that good?

Santiago October 25, 2012 at 1:35 pm

I am one of these New Atheists, and I’m curious, does anyone care to give me an example of how the “New Atheists” (i.e. Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, Dennett) have misunderstood religion in their criticisms?

Brandon Vogt October 26, 2012 at 4:43 am

Santiago, thanks for the comment! I haven’t read Dennett so I can’t speak to him, but I’ve read several books by Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris and their errors are myriad. Most of them, as Fr. Robert Barron has rightfully observed, fall into one of four categories:

1. A misunderstanding of what Christians mean by “God” (We *don’t* mean one being among many, the greatest being in the universe, a “sky-fairy” or “flying spaghetti monster”, etc. When we say “God” we mean the sheer act of being itself. This, by the way, is why God cannot be discovered by any empirical scientific experiment. His existence is beyond space and time.)

2. How Christians authentically read the Bible (Dawkins, especially, refuses to engage any other mode of biblical interpretation other than fundamentalism. But most Christians, including Catholics, recognize the Bible as a collection of books from different genres, and therefore don’t read the entire thing literally.)

3. Confusion about the Church and science (The New Atheists try and pit religion–specifically the Catholic Church–against science and reason. But the Catholic Church is in fact the greatest proponent of science in the history of Western Civilization; many major scientists were Catholic priests and monks, her universities educated several others, and she continues to fund and support astronomy labs and stem-cell research among other things.)

4. The Church’s relationship to violence (Again, like their misunderstanding about the Church and science, the New Atheist distort and misinterpret the Church’s history with violence. Dawkins, in fact, says “the Catholic Church is the greatest force for evil in the world”, a laughable claim to most people. Yet even admitting that certain Catholics through history have not lived up to the non-violent teachings of Jesus Christ, that does not invalidate God’s existence, not the goodness of the Church. Christianity is a medicine; a medicine is judged by those who take it, not by those who trample it under foot. Beyond that, the Church’s relationship to violence is ultimately imaged by Jesus, God in the flesh, hanging non-violently on a Cross–absorbing all evil, hatred, and violence into himself and thereby diffusing it.

For more on each of these points, watch the video below:

And if you’d like more examples of the New Atheist’s shortcomings from a Catholic perspective, here are a few excellent books:

– “The Last Superstition” by Edward Feser
– “Answering the New Atheism” by Dr. Scott Hahn and Dr. Benjamin Wiker
– “The Godless Delusion” by Patrick Madrid

Santiago October 26, 2012 at 4:01 pm

Brandon, thanks for addressing my comment. If you don’t mind indulging my curiosity a bit more, that would be excellent.

1. A few things here. Firstly, I’m surprised to see you say that God *isn’t* “the greatest being in the Universe”. I’m also not so sure what you mean when you say God is “the sheer act of being itself”. This seems suspiciously vague, and you’ll have to elaborate. I’d also like to know why exactly the existence of God can’t be determined by empirical evidence, and I’d also like to know how you believe (or know) this God exists if there is no evidence for his/her/it’s existence.

2. Dawkins criticisms weren’t only targeted at Catholicism, and there are indeed many Christians who read the Bible literally enough (e.g. creationists, of which >40% of Americans are of the Young-Earth flavor). However, you’ve sparked my curiosity, and I’d like to know what methodology Catholics and other Christians use to interpret the Bible. In addition, I’d also like to know on what Basis Catholics and other Christians decide the Bible shouldn’t be taken literally? (i.e. How do they know it wasn’t meant/shouldn’t be taken literally?)

3. Firstly, the Catholic Church has opposed embryonic stem cell research quite vehemently, so your last claim is somewhat misleading and spurious. Secondly, the fact that many great scientists were historically Catholic is irrelevant to the truth of Catholicism. Thirdly, you have to again consider that Dawkins’s criticism of religion isn’t excluded to Catholicism, and there are other religious groups who quite vehemently deny Science (from the Big Bang to embryology to Evolution). Although I would add that the dogma of Papal infallibility is a very unscientific, or rather an anti-scientific idea.

4. Blood Libels, Massacres based off of Host Desecration, The Vatican’s alliance with Fascism and Nazism, the Crusades, the Inquisition, Slavery, Colonialism, the forced conversions and oppression of Native Americans, and centuries of Antisemitism and homophobia (which often had violent implications) are all examples of violence and suffering exercised by the religious, often justified or excused because of religion. Obviously, all of these examples are Christian-specific (many more closely tied to Catholicism than anything else), but other faiths have their fair share as well. However, you are correct in pointing out that the violence perpetrated by the religious doesn’t invalidate their beliefs, although it certainly speaks to the believers insecurity surrounding their faith.

Brandon Vogt October 28, 2012 at 3:19 pm

Santiago, thanks for the thoughtful reply! I’m glad to see your mind churning; it’s taking you in the right direction. In response to your questions:

1. God is not the greatest being in the universe precisely because he is not *in* the universe. The very definition of God is one who is beyond space and time. Any attempt to disprove a god who is within space and time is to disprove a straw-man deity.

As for your second question about God as “the sheer act of being”, this means that God’s existence is not conditioned (or contingent) on any other being. In philosophical language, he is “pure being” or “pure existence.” For more on this, read Thomas Aquinas’ simple, short book (70 pages) titled “On Being an Essence.”

Third, the existence of God cannot be definitively established by empirical evidence because again, he exists beyond space and time. Empirical evidence only concerns the natural, only that which can be seen, tasted, smelled, heard, or touched–in other words, only that which is within space and time. But God, by his very definition, is supernatural; he is outside the realm of empirical science.

Let me use an example. There is no way that the character Hamlet in Shakespeare’s classic work could prove empirically the existence of Shakespeare. Though the Bard’s fingerprints are all over the story, he himself is outside of its purview. As the author, he’s in a different metaphysical dimension and therefore can’t be seen, tasted, smelled, heard, or touched within the story itself. The character Hamlet can neither prove or disprove Shakespeare’s existence by empirical science alone.

Now this isn’t to say there isn’t evidence for God’s existence. There is plenty. However it lies in the realms of philosophy, metaphysics, history, morality, etc. all of which touch upon the supernatural in ways the empirical sciences can’t. For a cursory overview of the some of the strongest philosophical evidence for God’s existence, read this article:

2. When you visit a library, what methodology do you use to determine whether a book should be read literally, metaphorically, analogically, morally, or spiritually? You first determine the genre, then study the author and his or her intentions, then you also read the book in light of its historical understanding. Biblical interpretation is similar in the Catholic Church. The Church wrote, collected, and transmitted the Bible, and therefore God gave her the ultimate authority to interpret it. She recognizes the genre, accounts for scholarship, then asks questions like ‘how did the earliest Christians understand this passage?” or “how does this interpretation jive with other divinely revealed teachings?” For a more in-depth look at this great question, I suggest Dr. Steven Smith’s book, “The Word of the Lord: 7 Principles of Catholic Scripture Study”.

3. I don’t accept your claim that the fact that many great scientists were Catholic is irrelevant to the truth of Catholicism. It doesn’t definitively *prove* the truth of Catholicism, but it is certainly relevant.

As for your comment about papal infallibility, I struggle to see how the doctrine is “anti-scientific.” So I’ll ask two things: first, what do you think papal infallibility *is*, and second, in what way is it anti-scientific?

4. I’m glad you agree that the violence perpetrated by Christians in every century of the Church says nothing about her teachings or truth. It’s merely evidence that St. Paul was right in describing the Church as “treasure in earthen vessels”–a hospital for sinners, not a hotel for saints.

That said, I’m not sure how “it speaks to the believers insecurity surrounding their faith.” Are you suggesting these perpetrators only acted violently because they doubted God was real or Catholicism was true?

Again, thanks for the thoughtful back-and-forth. It’s clear you’re a serious thinker who is searching for truth wherever it’s found, and that I truly admire.

Santiago October 28, 2012 at 5:08 pm

Brandon, the article you linked to me is a bit long, so I won’t have time to respond to it anytime tonight. I also live in Maryland, so due to Hurricane Sandy, I probably won’t have any power in the coming days, so my response my take a while. I still have a few more questions/comments though, if you don’t mind.

You mentioned “divinely revealed teachings”? I’d like to know how we know these teachings are legitimate. I know it’s a broad, and perhaps slightly loaded question, but what’s the provable difference between these “divinely revealed teachings”, and say the teachings of Charlatans?

I would still insist that the existence of Catholic contributors to Science, even great ones is irrelevant. If I remember correctly, Jews hold something like 20% of the Nobel prizes, although I know very few Jews who would say this testifies to the legitimacy of Jewish theology, and I doubt you would as well.

On the subject of Papal infallibility, I’ve always understood it simply as meaning whatever the Pope says is always true, at least on subjects of morality and the nature of the universe. If this is flawed in some way, let me know.

As for why it’s unscientific simply has to do with the fact that Science is predicated not on what others say, but rather on the evidence. So, Climatologists don’t assert the existence of Anthropogenic Climate Change because the National Academy of Sciences says so, but because the vast majority of Climatologists who’ve looked at the evidence decided it’s true through that process.

When I made the comments surrounding Believers’ insecurity, I didn’t mean to imply that the violent doubted God. On the contrary, the fact that religious people often turned to killing or banishing those who disagreed with their theology shows they weren’t confident (or competent) enough to engage in dialogue with those who disagreed with them.

Once again, I may not have power for the next week or so, so I may be absent from the internet for longer than is wanted. I’ll hopefully have read most/all of the article you linked by then as well.

Brandon Vogt October 29, 2012 at 1:21 pm

Santiago, more great questions! Thanks for the replies. Here are my responses:

1. You ask how Catholics know their divinely revealed teachings are legitimate. It’s a good question, though you are right in noting it’s a loaded one. Here’s the short, cliff-notes answer. The first step is recognizing that we can know, by reason alone, that God exists. And we can also determine many of his characteristics. The philosophical arguments in the article I linked to above prove that God exists, and that he is eternal, creative, all-powerful, and all-knowing. So that’s the first step.

The second step requires us to wrestle with two possibilities: either God *has* or *has not* interacted with the world. If he has not (and does not), what would that look like and how would we know? If he did (and does), what would *that* look like and what proof would we have?

This second step is really the basis of your query. You’re wondering, *if* God has interacted with the world, then how, where, and when? As you know, Catholics, Jews, Mormons, Muslims, and other religious traditions differ in their answer. So who is right? Well again, we must turn to reason and examine the data, determine which claims are logically consistent, and decide which religious tradition truly has divine authority.

There are many paths to showing Catholicism holds the fullness of divine revelation while those other faiths hold pieces of the complete puzzle. For Catholics, it is ultimately proved by two things: 1) the historical fact that Jesus, claiming to be God, was resurrected from the dead thereby validating his claims to divinity and 2) the historical fact that Jesus definitively established a Church to teach and govern in his name and 3) that Church is the Catholic Church of today. Those two facts prove the Catholic Church’s unique role to authentically receive and interpret divine revelation.

Now that’s a very basic and likely unsatisfactory outline of how Catholics see divine revelation. For a much fuller treatment, read Part 1 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

2. You’re right that a glut of Jewish scientists doesn’t prove Jewish theology. But it does prove Judaism is not inherently at odds with science and reason. The same holds true for Catholicism, and that was my point.

3. If your definition of papal infallibility was true, then I’d totally agree with you: it’s unscientific. But thankfully, it’s not. Papal infallibility *does* mean the Pope cannot teach error, but only on issues of faith and morals, and only in very specific (and rare) circumstances. Since it’s definition in 1870, it has only been exercised one time and the statement referred to a specific religious belief about Mary, the Mother of Jesus which Christians have held for 2,000 years. Papal infallibility does not apply to the realm of science, and therefore cannot be “anti-scientific.” So it seems your charges here are rooted in little more than misunderstanding.

4. Your vague claim that “religious people often turned to killing or banishing those who disagreed with their theology [because] they weren’t confident (or competent) enough to engage in dialogue” requires me to ask some more follow-up questions: Which “religious people” in specific are you referring to? Also, what does a small minority of violent Christians say, if anything, about the existence or character of God?

Thanks again for the discussion. I’ll say a prayer for you and your loved ones as the hurricane hits. It may not matter to you, but to God it does. Stay safe!

Matthew Warner October 26, 2012 at 10:15 am

Thanks for the great reply, Brandon! Also, Santiago, here is a good article (by a guy who wrote one of the great books Brandon recommended) that sums up a lot of the common flaws and errors in the new atheist’s approach: The New Philistinism

Thanks for reading!

Steven July 5, 2013 at 10:37 am

Agreed Matt – this is by far one of the most civil and intelligent discussions of Catholicism and New Atheists I’ve read in a long while.

Yossarian October 28, 2012 at 9:43 am

What I love most about this article is that it attacks people of faith. Anybody not towing the party line isn’t doing it right! Pray tell what is the difference between “bad” and “good” religion? Where’s your evidence?

Bill November 9, 2012 at 5:32 pm

Trying to provide facts in order to prove one’s faith is an exhausting, endless task. My faith in God is mine and mine alone. I feel my belief in the Lord Jesus Christ is beyond faith and more liked being convinced, but hey, that is my opinion.
I have never tried swaying anyone’s spiritual or non spiritual beliefs because I feel I am no way near perfect enough to judge anyone or even worthy to advise for that matter. I basically state my opinion.
I do not wear my faith on my sleeve because actions are a lot louder then words. I try not to be hypocritical based on my faith as I have learned to have an open mind and realize there is a chance I may be wrong. But if I am wrong in my personal beliefs then I, and I alone, will probably have to answer to someone or something when my clock runs out and I have come accept that.

Grant Winney November 11, 2012 at 9:00 pm

I’ve traditionally felt the same way you do Bill. Unfortunately, especially in light of the recent election results, I think this isn’t good enough anymore. Learning more about my faith is exhausting, but do I want to stand before God someday and admit that? The fact that I have that desire but have let myself be daunted by the task sounds a lot like the parable of talents… and I’m the one who buried my talent in the ground out of fear of not being smart enough, or wise enough, or strong enough.

Just look at the stories of the original apostles. God doesn’t look for already perfect people to spread His word. He takes the way less than perfect and completely changes them. I’m starting to wonder if all this talk about “not wearing my faith on my sleeve” has become less about being pushy and more about avoiding ridicule. God never promised this life would be easy, but it seems far better to seek the truth endlessly, to own our faith and have conviction in what is Right and True (no more talk about “a chance I may be wrong” please).

Kudos to Santiago and Brandon, by the way. It’s inspiring to see two people with different world-views having a completely civilized and knowledgeable debate. I enjoyed reading both sides. And thanks Matt for an interesting article. I look forward to browsing around and reading some of the past ones…

Matthew Warner November 12, 2012 at 2:31 pm

Thank YOU, Grant.

Brett December 31, 2012 at 4:42 pm

This is fairly lengthy, but very interesting, enlightening and engaging if you’re interested in this sort of thing. What I love about it is the suggestion that we may all have more in common than we tend to think :)

Tony C. January 9, 2013 at 11:01 pm

This is such a hugely shallow discussion of the other perspective- exactly the accusation leveled at atheists by this piece.

The theists and non-theists I know are happily working together to make the world a better place. Rather than seeing those who think differently about God/the afterlife/ the bible etc in the worst light they ask them for the way to see their ideas in the best light.

If you bother too you can find a/theists who are clever and wise and kind all other the place. The best reads in my opinion are the hardest to classify, not adherents to one clear faith but constantly challenging themselves; people like Slavoj Žižek and Paul Tillich and Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Every philosophy can end up in some dark place (Spanish Inquisition anyone) but neither a theistic or an atheistic philosophy doesn’t have to when possessed by people of good will (as most are).

Number 9 March 20, 2013 at 8:31 am

I’m late to this party but I really loved this post and the comments afterwards. I found this blog through Jennifer Fulwilers blog. I’m a fairly new blogger so I never really paid attention to blogs unless specific posts were emailed to me or recommended. Now I get lost in them. And I’m sure ill be lost exploring this one for some time. Thanks!

Matthew Warner March 20, 2013 at 2:29 pm

Thanks for reading and for the kind words, Number 9! God bless you.

Sage April 29, 2013 at 8:32 pm

1. God is not the greatest being in the universe precisely because he is not *in* the universe. The very definition of God is one who is beyond space and time. Any attempt to disprove a god who is within space and time is to disprove a straw-man deity. (Whose very definition do you refer to?)

If God is not in the universe why do you refer to this being as a “he”? How do you think anyone could ever understand this being and what he wants of us? We humans stand solidly within time and space and you believe we’re capable of knowing such a being? Any attempt to prove a god who is beyond time and space is crazy. To try to say that we know what that is, or what that wants, is ridiculous.

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