If “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth” ((John Paul II, Fides et Ratio, Prologue.)), we must not forget that there are also any number of birds of prey stalking the cliffs waiting to capture such a spirit. Call them doubt, fear, pleasure, agnosticism, and rationalism, just to name a few.
In today’s culture, both the concepts faith and reason have become so distorted for the average American, and even for Catholics themselves, through so many conflicting claims from both, that it is no wonder that so many people are left helpless and confused, as if tossed about and exhausted in a whirlwind of half-truths – easy prey to our secular culture and its agents.
In order to fulfill our mission it is not only essential to have a clear diagnosis of the cultural situation in which we find ourselves, but also a clear idea of how we as Catholics are perceived in such a culture.
In Jonathan Swift’s famous 18th century adventure-satire, Gulliver’s Travels, Gulliver, on his fourth and final voyage, finds himself washed up on the shores of the Country of the Houyhnhnms. This land took its name from the creatures that inhabited it, having the form of a horse but a mind and a moral character far exceeding our own, thanks to their innate rationality. He described them in the following manner:
“As these Noble Houyhnhnms are endowed by Nature with a general Disposition to all Virtues, and have no Conceptions or Ideas of what is Evil in a rational Creature, so their grand Maxim is, to cultivate Reason, and to be wholly governed by it.” ((Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels, chapter 7. http://4umi.com/swift/gulliver/)).
Also inhabiting this island are a breed of brutish animals, each seemingly more disgusting and immoral than the last. These were the Yahoos, and they had a striking resemblance to Gulliver himself, at least in physical form; so much so that most of Gulliver’s time in that country was spent trying to convince the Houyhnhnms that he was not a Yahoo at all but much more like the Houyhnhnms themselves. This cultural satire, with which Swift criticizes and condemns much of English society, ends in failure for Gulliver, who is found wanting and shortly banished from the land, and who is forced to admit that he is indeed more Yahoo than Houyhnhnm. But I will have to leave Gulliver aside till later on.
A few months back I came across a rather intriguingly-titled 2010 TEDtalk by Sam Harris called “Science can answer moral questions” ((http://www.ted.com/talks/sam_harris_science_can_show_what_s_right.html)). I watched with interest as he argued that despite modern relativism, there are indeed clear, scientifically (or at least rationally) measureable operational boundaries that form a “moral landscape” of what is good and bad and that we, as a society, should guide ourselves by ((His argument is basically a modern apology for the Aristotelian maxim “an ‘ought’ can be derived from an ‘is’”, thus circumventing the difficulties we as a culture have had with this assertion since the Enlightenment, especially Hume’s famous “Guillotine” that limited modern science (and reason) to producing merely descriptive statements, as opposed to prescriptive ones.)). Mr. Harris made use of several crowd-pleasing and insightful critiques of American culture and values which disposed the audience well for what he would say next.
Without going into too much detail (because my point here is not Mr. Harris’ thesis per se) he claims that “values reduce to facts, facts about the conscious experience of conscious beings” and that the “well-being” or “flourishing” of the animal or human in question confirms or negates whether this value is good or not. According to Mr. Harris, this is “revolutionary” stuff. Let it be known however that the general notions go back more than two millennia to Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics and are shared even by 20th century thinkers ((Hans Jonas and Hans Gadamer for example.)). In fact, he sees himself as almost entirely alone in his opinion about the existence of these moral standards. However, he does recognize one group that shares this opinion: what he calls “religious demagogues”.“They think they have right answers to moral questions because they got these answers from a voice in a whirlwind;” he states dryly, “not because they made an intelligent analysis of the causes and conditions of human and animal well-being…”
The slide he put together to accompany his assertion features three individuals: on the right, the Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini ((An Islamic marja and TIME Person of the Year who overthrew the Shah in 1979 and was recently featured in the movie Argo.)); on the left, the “Rebbe”, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson ((The famous last leader of the Chabad-Lubavitcher Jewish movement, who was accused of forming an “empire” and permitting the growth of a cult of personality.)); and center, none other than Pope Emeritus, Benedict XVI. Here, dead center, was a picture of the man who has been referred to as “the Pope of Reason” and “the Pope of Dialogue”; the one man who has tirelessly defended the proper use of reason for decades, openly dialoguing with atheists, agnostics, religious leaders and the general public through books, articles, and debates. Needless to say, I felt like I was five years old again, watching Sesame Street when they would sing the “one of these things is not like the others, one of these things doesn’t belong” bit. But no one in the audience (or in the YouTube commentaries) seemed to find anything amiss with the situation.
This is just one example of many similar cases in which we hear the confusing contrast between the expression of a very reasonable reflection and the assertion by its author that religion or faith have absolutely nothing to do with it. This obviously brings up several important questions: How in the world does an assertion like this pass as acceptable if it is so obviously untrue? Even if the general population doesn’t understand, why doesn’t a Catholic speak up and have it corrected? Do Catholics not realize that it’s untrue or are they simply apathetic about the situation, or both? Does Mr. Harris really have no idea what he is talking about or does he have a deeper agenda for which this is part of his strategy?
As it turns out, Mr. Harris’ extra-TED activities are aimed almost entirely at the secularization of the United States of America. He clearly works actively in American culture to transform the way Americans think (and vote) about morals, politics and faith. The End of Faith (2004), Letter to a Christian Nation (2006)and The Moral Landscape (2010) make up a shortlist of his most popular titles that puts him right up there with Richard Dawkins, Tom Brown and Christopher Hitchens as one of the top promoters of secularization in Western society in the last decade. He speaks in the most influential universities across the country, appears on all the most popular late-night talk shows and is also the CEO of Project Reason ((proyect reason at http://www.project-reason.org)) (founded in 2007 with the motto “Spreading science and secular values”) as well as a member of the advisory board of the Secular Coalition for America. ((This Coalition was founded just over ten years ago in 2002 as a Washington-based lobbying group that recently published “Our Secular Decade,” a “10-year plan to realize a more rational and secular America, and to raise secular Americans to their rightful national leadership role. The plan includes strategies for increasing lobbying, media outreach, and grassroots support for the Secular Coalition and its 11 member organizations in the years to come.” http://secular.org/))
What is his and other secularists’ strategy? Obviously it is multi-faceted but perhaps the linchpin of their entire strategy is to become the sole possessors of Truth which is achieved only by Reason as they define these two terms. For them, “Truth” is that which has been empirically proven and “Reason” is the function of the human mind that, by never leaving the realm of empirically proven material world, brings to light more empirically proven, material “truths”. Thus, anything that is not empirically-proven must be put into the category of “opinion” and any attempt to discover truths using non-empirically-proven data or arguments must be labeled “irrational” and be strictly prohibited from the public realm. Thus the statement “Catholics are irrational” seems entirely legitimate.
I do not intend to analyze how well and how often Catholics defend themselves against this accusation but the truth is, Catholics in the U.S. are certainly not invited to the table or given the chance to voice their conviction that their faith is indeed reasonable within the public square. Rather than confronting Catholics in debates on university campuses, American atheists are able to avoid the problem altogether, through the power of mass media, by simply labeling Catholics as irrational religious fanatics.
This is an effective strategy: convince the average American that the only group that defends the deepest and most human understanding of reason is as irrational as those who picket soldiers’ funerals ((Westboro Baptist Church. http://archive.adl.org/learn/ext_us/WBC/default.asp?LEARN_Cat=Extremism&LEARN_SubCat=Extremism_in_America&xpicked=3&item=WBC)) and suicide bombers. Not to over-dramatize, but let us not forget that in Mein Kampf, Hitler wrote, “in the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility.” ((Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, volume 1, chapter 10.)) Then there’s the unattributed yet more popular: “If you repeat a lie often enough, people will believe it.” Both of these would seem to be a good summary of the secular elite’s strategy whose fruits may be more real than we think. It was reported in April 2013 that in the previous year a U.S. Army Reserve presentation classified Catholics and Evangelical Protestants as extremist religious groups along with al Qaeda and the Ku Klux Klan. ((http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2013/apr/5/dod-presentation-classifies-catholics-evangelicals/))
The first and most obvious consequence of this situation is the systematic exclusion of Catholics from the public square if we do not “leave our beliefs at the door.” This occurs not just in the cases of national leadership – as with John F. Kennedy, whose words were brought back to our attention by presidential hopeful Rick Santorum several months back ((See Patrick Travers, “Does Religion Belong in Politics?”, http://cecglob.com/does-religion-belong-in-politics-2/)) – but in practically any discussion that involves ethical judgments.
From this springs the second: the consolidation of Catholic ghettos, which has both positive and negative aspects that I don’t intend to elaborate on here.
Before mentioning the last and most important consequence Catholics have suffered I would like to point out that these previous two, to the eyes of secular America, make us appear more and more similar to other groups with which we do share some important characteristics but certainly not all. In fact, in the midst of our battles to defend life and the family these groups have become some of our greatest allies – namely Protestant and Evangelical Christians. The problem however is that as we associate ourselves ever more closely with our separated brothers (which without a doubt has produced great fruits of unity and permitted moral and political advances in these troubled times) we simultaneously become associated with one characteristic of theirs which can only discredit us when we seek to make our voice heard in an increasingly skeptical public square: namely, their very different conception of logos (Reason) and its place in the faith. To put it simply, for a few of them, at the end of the day it’s all “because the Bible says so” and a reasonable explanation is, at best coincidental yet secondary. (That’s probably why American Catholics have such a strong tendency towards moralism and often forget that things like sexuality and emotions are, in essence, good, for they are part of creation; something St. Thomas cleared up for us nearly 800 years ago.)
I believe that lastly and most importantly, the constant bombardment from mass media leads Catholics themselves, thanks to the often poor formation they’ve received, to become confused about what their faith is really built upon. And this inevitably leads to A) propagation of this misrepresentation of the Catholic conception of faith and reason by Catholics themselves who resign themselves to the idea of an irrational faith, or B) Catholics leaving the Church in their search for truth and the logos their hearts intuitively long for but who no longer believe that it is to be found in the Church.
In other words, in the eyes of the self-declared, all-reasoning, all-noble secularist atheist Houyhnhnms of our society, we as Catholics are just another breed of Yahoos striving to appear civilized but essentially incapable of ever succeeding to meet their criteria. Thus, we must be banished from public life. And perhaps we even believe them when we hear them use words like “reason” and “science” and discover that we do not have the formation necessary to understand or reconcile the differences we discover between ourselves and these kings of culture.
The truth is that many Catholics themselves do not know the depth and reasonableness of the Catholic teaching on Reason. Benedict XVI has fought tirelessly against this trend. One of the most stellar examples is his address at Regensburg where he explains the historical roots and trajectory of the relationship between Faith and Reason which I intend to outline in part two of this article along with a brief reflection on how we might more effectively to respond to this situation.
[alert type=”notice”]Read Part 2: The secularization of reason in the US: Opening horizons[/alert]
© 2013 – Michael Taylor para el Centro de Estudios Católicos – CEC