Tuesday, August 21, 2012

"Faith And Reason" (a letter to Fr Robert Barron)

Dear Mr Barron,

this is probably the first in a series of open letters to you.

Why you?

Simply because you turned up in one of my youtube binges one fine day, you openly perform evangelist and apologetic work as a priest of the roman catholic church, and so I tend to disagree with most of what you say. I dig debates, so I started asking questions on your channel.

Now, you have long ago banned me from that channel, so I can't ask any more questions there. So I'm doing it in my own blog instead.

In your video about "Faith and Reason", you quote Thomas Didymus and Thomas Aquinas as examples for the roman catholic church welcoming questions. "After all", I hear you say, and I paraphrase, "Thomas Aquinas asked whether god exists. If that question can be asked within the church, so can any other question."

I find that a bit ironic. After all, what do those two Thomases have in common beside their name?

Assuming that Thomas Aquinas' answer to the question whether god exists was an emphatic negative, a deeply convinced "NO" -- would you still be quoting him? Chances are, no.  He wouldn't be a "saint" of the roman catholic church. He wouldn't even have lived long enough for that. He would be a sidenote of history, yet another victim of the church's welcoming way to deal with people whose questions, and more precisely whose answers to those questions it dislikes.

No, I do not bring up ancient issues to damn the church. It wasn't me who started quoting Aquinas here.

In other words, my suspicion is that the church, and -- as far as you represent that church -- you, Mr Barron, welcome questions and rational discourse just as long as the answer is exactly the one you like. Yes, one may ask whether god exists, or whether Jesus is the messiah - as long as the answer to both is a loud and clear "yes".  And that seems patently absurd to me. Correct me if I'm wrong...  You strike me as an exceptionally intelligent and learned man, so I wonder what your answer to that might be.

You then move on to talk about Faith being "suprarational, surrender from the far side of reason". And then at the core part of your video, you make a very odd switch... suddenly, the juxtaposition is not about Faith and Reason, but about Faith and Rationalism. You say:

"Is it wrong to question - no. But is it wrong to be so aggressive in one's rationalism that one wants utterly to control the situation - yeah. That's a problem. Cause you'll never get god that way with our grasping, self-asserting minds."

Let me repeat that one more time: CAUSE YOU'LL NEVER GET GOD THAT WAY. Something is wrong because it doesn't lead to the answer that you have already set up to be true. I think that this is a very interesting slip there.

What exactly do you mean by "rationalism"? The textbook definition is "any view appealing to reason as a source of knowledge or justification." That can hardly be what you mean.

See, what I don't get is this odd pairing of rationality and "controlling the situation". It's not like you're the first one to come up with that.  It's an old stock item from the staple of religious apologetics.

Of course, I can only guess what's actually meant by that term. Usually, it tells us something about a person's behaviour in their social relationships. A guy can control the situation by not listening to his girlfriend, by putting words into her mouth, by applying manipulative language or plain old violence. But that's not the context of your video. The context of your video is you trying to set up Faith as a valid source of knowledge or justification. It is trying to show that there are things beyond reason. There is no relationship there. It's a question of facts -- either things do exist that are not to be explained by reason, or not. And the burden of proof is still on your side, of course.

Actually, let me submit an alternative view: Contrary to being a form of self-assertion and control, adhering to reason is a form of submission.  In adhering to reason, e.g. by calling myself a skeptic, I submit myself to a set of well-known, well-defined rules. If I then move on to violate those rules, you can call me out on that. If my syllogisms don't work, or my premises are doubtful, or I show no evidence for my claims - you can criticize me. I may grumble and grouch, but ultimately, I cannot but accept that you're simply right. That's the beauty of reason -- it is universal and takes no sides.

I fail to see how that is "controlling".

Where is the same form of submission in Faith? In Faith, you cannot criticize the sacred doctrines. In Faith, there is no way to have a debate, to amend one's views, to get a better understanding of reality.

Is it not the case that, contrary to your position, Faith is the ultimate form of control? In Faith, you get to choose what you want to believe, and ain't nobody gonna take it away from you, ever. There is simply no way, based on Faith, that I could convince you of anything.  You control the situation much, much more than I do. It's you who ban unwanted commenters, not me. (I'm not butthurt about it, I just made the experience that it is rather symptomatic for apologists.)

But let's not end it here. I know that your reply (in a purely metaphorical sense -- of course you won't ever honor me with an actual reply) will be along the lines of, "that is not what I mean by Faith.  That is not True Faith." And beside the obvious No True Scotsman there, I actually agree.

Let me submit yet another little proposition here: Faith is the position that there is something beyond reason. We cannot hope to falsify that.  But we can safely say that there is no reasonable way to talk about whatever is "there", beyond reason.

I think that you, and your church, completely and utterly fail in going all the way. And that's what we need to do: GO ALL THE WAY. There is probably something beyond reason, and we cannot talk about it, so LET'S STOP TALKING ABOUT IT.

Yes, I do understand submitting to the transcendent. And I think that that is, to a part, what you're aiming at -- most probably it's something that every somewhat mature human being is striving for: transcendence. And of course, we're all failing at it, all the time. And that's okay.

The mistake I see is not having Faith per se; the mistake is having Faith IN SOMETHING. In a doctrine, a dogma. "God is a person", "God is love", "God thinks that premarital sex is wrong". All of those are speculations. Nothing wrong with speculations, but one shouldn't treat a speculation as a fact. (The same goes, of course, for "universal energy", "karma", "the law of attraction", etc.)

You cannot set something up to be beyond reason, and then move on to talk about that something as if you knew it.  It's having the cake, and eating it.  As I'm sure you're well aware after years of academic study in theology and philosophy, in order to talk about something you always need reason.

The mistake is, as I like to call it somewhat cheekily, falling for one's own bullshit.

The moment the roman catholic church stops falling for its own bullshit, and starts recognizing that it has no clue about god, or about Jesus, or about the trinity, is exactly the moment that it may become useful for humanity.

 With kind regards,
Skeptic Tantrika


  1. brent.mosher@yahoo.comAugust 23, 2012 at 2:59 AM

    Hey, the good father banned me from his channel too!!! Small world!!! Although, I had a different channel at that point, so I could go back and bug him some more. Maybe there's something you would like me to ask him for you?

    I'm too sleepy right now to read the whole post, but I will soon. I agree, this guy is infuriating. He accused me of attacking with "cliches", and then responded to my critiques by essentially saying God can do anything...ah yes, that old cliche of christian exceptionalism. I called hima middlebrow apologist and that's when he banished me. Word On Fire indeed...Seriously, let me know if I can post anything for you. Do you think he's celibate? Doesn't look like the type.

  2. brent.mosher@yahoo.comAugust 23, 2012 at 3:26 AM

    Ok, I stayed up and read it. Great response. People like Barron accuse atheists of being "arrogant", and then they go on to pronounce that the truth is god, because they say it is. And we're the arrogant ones, are we, father?

    Also, this business of faith being beyond reason...I don't believe in god, but if there was one, it may be it/god would be "beyond reason or rationality", but shouldn't it/god also at least BE reasonalble and rational, in order to go beyond these concepts? Shouldn't we be able to talk about god to a certain degree within the walls of reason and rationality BEFORE we jump the rails with faith? You'd think so, but we can't. And so people like the good father just pull out that old cliche about faith to justify everything (their own BS, as you put it), because they know, in their dishonest little hearts, they can't "win" any other way.

    1. Well, if there was something beyond the universe, I guess it would make sense to assume that it was completely incomprehensible. Thing is, though, that this implies that "it" cannot be described in human language. Therefore, the church (or anyone else, for that matter) could not have any knowledge about what it's like, what it wants, etc.

      It's really quite simple, once you get behind the complicated theological language.

  3. brent,mosher@yahoo.comAugust 23, 2012 at 12:10 PM

    The next morning...well, I see the good father has removed your post (and mine) from his You Tube page. I've been blocked, again! Maybe you, too? Ah, the good father. I wonder if he has any inkling as to what a hypocrit he is?

    1. I literally laughed out loud at this. I'm not banned, yet, by the way; I guess that will happen only later.

      You have to appreciate the irony. "If that question can be asked, so can every other question." Indeed, Mr Barron, you've just demonstrated that one rather nicely.

      My article contains no profanity aimed at the rc church or Mr Barron, nor did I accuse anyone of anything. I just weighed reason against faith, and asked a few questions.

      I didn't even claim that god doesn't exist - just that it is incomprehensible. And that one is totally compliant with mystical catholicism.

      So, the real fun part is that Mr Barron has banned an article that is well within the bounds of the teachings of the roman catholic church, simply for raising questions and disagreeing with him.

      Nicely done, Father! Good work there showing off your appreciation of free speech, critical thinking, and open and honest dialog!

      As for the sad and frightening part, you have an intelligent, well-educated, (and well-looking) guy. I fancy he's the subject of many-a hot dream that many-a sincere young female follower of the Faith is afraid to talk about! ... Probably even a few of the male ones, too... And this intelligent, decent, friendly man then completely fails to grasp the concepts of dialog, honest debate, exchange of arguments.

      The only explanation I have is that, in his mind, "getting the good word out there" matters more than actually exchanging opinions.

      I think that this is scary. How evangelical attitudes can trump intelligence. How religion overthrows human decency even in the most decent folks. How Mr Barron thinks that he knows the truth and doesn't have anything to learn from his, as he likes to call us, "youtube friends".

      I herebey make a solemn promise to you, dear Father: Should you ever grace one of my articles with a comment, under no circumstances will I delete it or ban you. I will engage you in critical discourse and try to counter your arguments on a logical, rational basis, and I will do so without any consideration for your faith, feelings, or doctrine. But I will not ban you.