Fr. Barron Doesn't Get Atheists

The most difficult part of being an out atheist usually comes from the response others have to you. The obvious example is the survey that shows a majority of Americans distrust atheists as much as they distrust rapists. The results of that survey are another topic of discussion entirely, but it clearly demonstrates that society overall has some pretty gross misconceptions about what atheism is and isn't, and those misconceptions drive responses towards us.

As I noted in earlier blog posts, my coming out, both as gay and an atheist, was not particularly well-received by my parents. About a month after coming out, my father emailed me a link to a video by one Father Robert Barron, a leader in Catholic evangelical and apologetic efforts. I watched the video carefully and wrote a fairly scathing response and rebuttal to the whole thing, but ultimately opted not to send my response at all. Any response that I would have wanted to send with honesty would have been taken poorly, and may have even done further damage to our relationship, and any response that was dishonest would have been... Well, dishonest, and thus, pointless. Either approach would only worsen a situation that was already fairly tender. I'm sure my silence was probably treated as acquiescence to the brilliance of Fr. Barron, but there's very little I could have done about it at the time.

Because my sister and I are on Twitter, at some point, my dad decided to make his own Twitter account. It has gone unnoticed until recently, because my dad obviously does not tweet very much, but at the end of October, he tweeted this article. Not explicitly to me, mind you, but considering he has three followers, (my sister, myself, and some spam social media account), there's no doubt that it was intended for me.

So, even though my response to the video went unpublished, this time, I feel compelled to respond to this article. Let's begin with Fr. Barron's opening remarks.

The most signal contribution of David Bentley Hart's The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, and Bliss is to clarify that serious theists and atheists, though they debate frequently concerning the reality of God, are hardly ever using the word "God" in the same way. This fundamental equivocation contributes massively to the pointlessness and meanness of most of these discussions.

I will assume, for the sake of simplicity, that by "serious theists and atheists," Fr. Barron means those individuals that are educated, and experienced, in the nuances and mechanics of debate. The first time any theist says "god," the atheists' first question should always be, "Which one?" In any serious debate, establishing definitions is key, for the simple purpose of ensuring that the two parties are not talking past each other on the issues being raised, by one side or the other arguing for or against the wrong definition. Mind you, casual conversations on the subject are always going to commit some level of equivocation, because most people sitting down for lunch who happen to talk about a "god" in one way or another are probably going to leave unspoken, unshared assumptions hanging in the air between them. But ideally, in any situation where the debate is "serious," these equivocations should be exposed as soon as possible. By beginning this way, Fr. Barron is committing an equivocation of his own, by asserting that the atheists who debate the existence of "god" approach it from any other angle than the one they are presented by the theist they are debating. That's not always what happens, and those debates that dispense with this at first usually correct course eventually.

It is not so much that Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins disagree with Thomas Aquinas on the existence of God; it is that neither Hitchens nor Dawkins has any real grasp of what Aquinas even means when he speaks of God.

Some brief research shows that both Dawkins and Hitchens address Aquinas in some of their written works, but I've not studied these, so I can't comment on them. I'll leave this passage with a skeptical, "Sure, whatever. (though I doubt it)"

To a person, the new atheists hold that God is some being in the world, the maximum instance, if you want, of the category of "being." 

Once again, this is categorically untrue. This amounts to atheists making a claim about a "god," which is not what we do. We don't make claims about what a "god" is or isn't, theists do. The only thing atheists do is address the claims being made. It seems to me that Fr. Barron should address this article, not to atheists who "don't get god," but to theists.

But this is precisely what Aquinas and serious thinkers in all of the great theistic traditions hold that God is not. Thomas explicitly states that God is not in any genus, including that most generic genus of all, namely being. He is not one thing or individual -- however supreme -- among many. Rather, God is, in Aquinas's pithy Latin phrase, esse ipsum subsistens, the sheer act of being itself.

This is familiar phrasing from Fr. Barron. In the video my father sent me, Fr. Barron used several different nonsense expressions of "god is _____ itself," comprising a list of truth, goodness, justice, and now, in this article, being. I could say my pinky is truth, goodness, justice, and being, itself, and those statements would contain as much meaning. How do you empirically prove some invisible force is the sum total of truth, goodness, justice, and being?  

Truth is as simple as what can be empirically observed, tested, and reproduced consistently, and it's not true that I could ever run a reproducible test that would show some greater unseen force contains the wholeness of truth.  

God is not goodness itself. It makes theology more pallatable to think of good things in the context of a god, but like George Carlin used to say about football players, no one ever talks about god when bad things happen. A runningback who may have lost his team the game never goes on camera and says, "The good lord tripped me up behind the line of scrimmage." If god is goodness itself, it leaves him out of everything that therefore follows. Or it doesn't, and we truly misinterpret exactly what goodness is. What is more comforting, that there is a god who considers suffering and the loss of life in such a way as we see in this world as good, or the lack of existence of some agency which directs those events? I would champion the latter.  

In the same way, god is not justice itself. Justice is even more intangible and harder to pin down than goodness or morality. Justice ebbs and flows with society at large. You can't find any one society throughout history that truly adheres to its laws in the original form and spirit in which they were written. And if we're talking about the justice of, for example, the Christian god, those people who are ostensibly good people for their entire lives but say, "God doesn't exist," and unrepentant child rapists will suffer the same eternal fate. That's not a justice I would want. And what kind of all-powerful being stands by and says, "Don't do these horrible things or you'll suffer for eternity," but stands by and allows them to happen in the first place?

Being... This is the most nonsensical of them all. How do you quantify "being" as some kind of act? The pair of shoes on my floor are not actively being anything. What is your god "being?" The universe? Existence overall? Why make the claim that your god is those things? How can you demonstrate this, and what is your reasoning for this conclusion?

It might be helpful here to distinguish God from the gods. For the ancient Greeks and Romans, for example, the gods were exalted, immortal, and especially powerful versions of ordinary human beings. They were, if you will, quantitatively but not qualitatively different from regular people. They were impressive denizens of the natural world, but they were not, strictly speaking, supernatural. But God is not a supreme item within the universe or alongside of it; rather, God is the sheer ocean of being from whose fullness the universe in its entirety exists.

Addressing the first part, I'm not sure if Fr. Barron is entirely familiar with the god of the old testament. Yahweh is rather indistinguishable from most Greek and Roman gods in his personality, demeanor and prerogative. And the claim that the Greek and Roman gods were not supernatural is more than a bit disingenuous. And let's not forget that his own church teaches that his god is three persons in one god: a father, a son, and a spirit. More importantly, we're meant to believe that the "son" portion was, at one point, a living, breathing human being, who was meant to experience existence as we mundane humans do.  

Taking the second bit, let's set aside, for the time being, that I've already twice addressed that when atheists debate theists, they're approaching from the definition of a "god" that they're given from the theists. At this point, we can shift to Fr. Barron making claims about his god and move from there. That said, I can only really repeat the questions I left at the end of the paragraph before this quote. 

It is absolutely right to say that the advance of the modern physical sciences has eliminated the gods. Having explored the depths of the oceans and the tops of the mountains and even the skies that surround the planet, we have not encountered any of these supreme beings. Furthermore, the myriad natural causes, uncovered by physics, chemistry, biology, etc. are more than sufficient to explain any of the phenomena within the natural realm. But the physical sciences, no matter how advanced they might become, can never eliminate God, for God is not a being within the natural order. Instead, he is the reason why there is that nexus of conditioned causes that we call nature -- at all.

Believe it or not, I mostly agree with Fr. Barron on this paragraph - up until the last sentence. We actually have very little knowledge of the depths of the oceans, and even less about what exists in our own solar system, other star systems and the exoplanets we have observed, let alone those we haven't. There's a tremendous amount of uncertainty about what we'll discover out there. And it is provably beyond our capacity to ever fully eliminate a god's existence as a possibility, scientifically. You can't prove a negative in that way. You won't find any atheist who will disagree with that assertion at all. But Fr. Barron jumps to a dubious claim, that there is something called the "natural order" over which his god dominates.

Fr. Barron commits a classic theist fallacy with this, but in a new way. Normally, I would call this a "god of the gaps" assertion, that something which is thus far unexplained, a gap in our knowledge, gets filled in with god, because no other explanation exists. Fr. Barron forces open a new gap, the "act of being," and shoves his god in, to make a place for him outside of logical or empirical scrutiny. Which of course is simply the familiar, old fallacy of special pleading. Since Fr. Barron's next few paragraphs essentially expound upon exactly how special his pleading is, and the gaps his god fills, (including some Olympic-worthy logical gymnastics to reach some kind of conclusion that existence requires some kind of being to be existence itself...?!) I'll leave them off, and proceed further in the article.

I fully realize, of course, that the vast majority of religious believers wouldn't say that their faith in God is a function of this sort of philosophical demonstration. Nevertheless, they are intuiting what the argument makes explicit.

I am including this to note two things. One: I'm amused that Fr. Barron acknowledges exactly what I've already said: that his article should actually be titled "Theists Don't Get God." As I said, atheists are addressing the claims made by theists. We don't make claims about what a god(s) is. Two: this exposes his initial premise, that atheists and theists are hardly ever talking about the same thing when it comes to a god, as a pretty blatant lie, if he's trying to convince the reader that his amorphous definition of his god is the one being discussed all the time.

I often tease the critics of religion who take pride in the rigor of their rationalism. I tell them that, though they are willing to ask and answer all sorts of questions about reality, they become radically uncurious, irrational even, just when the most interesting question of all is posed: why is there something rather than nothing? Why should the universe exist at all?

With this paragraph, Fr. Barron resorts to misrepresentation and, perhaps, downright dishonesty. I don't know of any atheist who has ever been in a serious debate who wouldn't have an answer to this question. The simplest, and only truly rational answer, is, "I don't know." I also don't know of any atheist serious enough to be interested in debate who is not curious about the answer to that question. What is purely irrational is to state that something that cannot be observed and tested exists.  

Fr. Barron puts forth an idea of his god that is indistinguishable from nonexistence, and not only that, but claims it is the reason for existence. He blames atheists for not getting his god, but ignores that atheists are addressing claims, not making them. If Fr. Barron is as familiar with debates around theism and atheism as he seems to be, the only conclusion that I can draw is that I am not the intended audience for this article, because he knows that people like me will see through it in all the right spots. This article's dishonesty is intended for believers, and ignorant nonbelievers.