Friday, November 4, 2016

Reason versus Atheism:
A Review of "Faith with Good Reason..." (by Ben Butera)

"Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves."  Fides et Ratio, Pope St. John Paul II.


A very early post in this blog, "Top Down to Jesus", recounted my path to conversion, which, as the title suggested, was strictly top-down--no visions, no moments of spiritual enlightenment.   I bypassed the road to Damascus and relied solely on the evidence presented in "Who Moved the Stone," that wonderful book by Frank Morison that presented a reluctant convert's evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus.

Ben Butera has given a much more general account of the role of reason in buttressing faith in his book, Faith with Good Reason: Finding the Truth through an Analytical Lens.   I can't praise the work too highly--as proof, I purchased a copy even though I had been given a free pdf file for review.  To put it another way, this book should be in the library of every apologist.  However, this post will not be a detailed critique.    Rather I'll summarize Butera's main points, and use the review as spring-board  for a general inquiry:  why is it that rational argument  does not turn atheists into believers?


In the first five chapters Butera draws from his experience in reversion to the faith and as a problem solver for a large corporation (and as a teacher of problem-solving techniques) to inquire into how we know (and don't know), how we determine what is real and true.  An important element in such a process is to ask the proper questions and to make the "possible answers visible."  The exposition is clear and the examples are to the point. I'd add one cautionary note here:  logic and rational argument have their limits, illustrated most strikingly in paradoxes such as that of the Cretan Liar.   William Poundstone has discussed these limits extensively in his fine book, Labryinths of Reason";   I'll have more to say below about when (and whether)  rational arguments might be an appropriate tool for conversion.

In subsequent chapters Butera applies these principles of rational inquiry to the following important articles of Catholic faith:
  • The problem of evil;
  • Creation; 
  • Life from conception to natural death as a right endowed by God;
  • Marriage as a sacred covenant, enabling the family to be an essential foundation for civilization.
I particularly like the clear exposition of Fr. Robert Spitzer's metaphysical proof for the existence of God, and of St. Thomas Aquinas's theological arguments.


"But if this fails to persuade our opponents, let them tell us whether there is any wisdom in created things. If there is none, why does the apostle Paul allege as the cause of men’s sins [emphasis added]      :By God’s wisdom, the world failed to come to a knowledge of God through wisdom?"  St. Athanasius,  A Discourse Against the Arians, (from the Office of Readings, 27th October, 2016) 
From St. Augustine to Pope Benedict XVI  Catholic sages have emphasized the essential mix of faith and reason.   (See here and here for expositions better than I can do.)    In contemporary times we have G.K. Chesterton,  Peter Kreeft,  Edward Feser, to name just a few with whom I'm familiar.   Keith Ward, the English theologian / philosopher, has ably defended Christian faith against the evangelical atheist Richard Dawkins, and has shown that science does NOT disprove the existence  of God, as has Fr. Robert Spitzer, S.J., of the Magis Reason and Faith Institute.

Given that atheists are intelligent and not evil, why is it that they aren't convinced by rational argument that God exists?    Although many scientists believe in God (or an equivalent--see "Are All Great Scientists Atheists".) , I have to admit that most scientists are non-believers, some vehemently so, like the Nobel Prize physicist Steven Weinberg.    I know of only two atheists who came to believe because of rational argument, Anthony Flew (many atheists contend that he did this as a senile dotard), and C.S. Lewis, "the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England."

Here is some anecdotal evidence that reason is not always effective in leading atheists to belief.   I follow a blog by the statistician / philosopher William (Matt) Briggs, "Statistician to the Stars".    There are posts in which a theist / Catholic position is taken (for example, here.)    In the comments on these posts several erudite commentors (Ye Olde Statistician, G. Rodrigues, for example) give reasoned, detailed arguments supporting a theist position but they are not accepted by atheists who also comment on the post.   Either the atheist don't accept the premises of the theistic arguments, or they refuse to follow the reasoning (the latter is called "invincible ignorance).   I've had similar experiences while a moderator for the Magis Faith and Reason Facebook site.   The atheistic evangelist trolls who frequented the site refused to read anything or follow any argument that would challenge their position--their minds were frozen.

All this convinces me that grace is the starting point; once grace is given, free will takes over;  we can accept that push that God gives us or reject it.    As the Catechism says,
 "Believing is possible only by grace and the interior helps of the Holy Spirit. But it is no less true that believing is an authentically human act. Trusting in God and cleaving to the truths he has revealed is contrary neither to human freedom nor to human reason."— Catechism of the Catholic Church 154
It was grace that pushed me to read "Who moved the Stone."   It was grace that gave C.S. Lewis arguments that God did exist and that Jesus Christ was His only begotten son.    And if conversion of an non-believer is to be achieved, we must pray that grace is to be given to that end, just as St. Monica prayed for the conversion of her son St. Augustine.

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