Monthly Archives: April 2009

A difficult question

I visited a Christian blog recently in which the author, Bill Muehlenberg, castigated Dr. Richard Dawkins for allegedly telling lies.  He framed this allegation by quoting Dostoevsky’s all-too-familiar canard which states, essentially, that absent God-belief, anything goes.  As Bill wrote,

Without God and immortality, the case for an objective, transcendent moral order is awfully hard to make. And therefore the case for moral obligation is difficult to sustain as well. If life is simply about survival, and the replication of genes, then things like morality in general and truth-telling in particular seem quite out of place.

I replied with a simple question:

You link Dr. Dawkins’ alleged lying with his lack of belief in God (citing the fiction writer Dostoevsky as an authority).  When theists lie, deliberately set out to misinform, and deceive, what is the cause?

Like most Christian blogs, the owner has comment moderation turned on (blog owner approval is required before a comment appears to everyone).  But despite a number of allowed comments posted later from others, mine remains “awaiting moderation.”

It’s not difficult to see why Bill has failed so far to open my reply to general viewing.  It places him in a quandary.  He cannot deny theists lie, deliberately set out to misinform, and deceive; they do that all the time.  He’d look extremely foolish, or a liar himself, doing so.  But if he identifies a cause for theistic immorality, it’s unlikely it wouldn’t apply to atheists as well.  He’d then have to acknowledge that non-belief is an insufficient explanation for immorality, which defeats the point of his post.

Not to mention a long-standing prejudice.

My irony meter just broke

There was a chuckle-filled article in the LA Times recently about desperate home sellers burying miniature statues of St. Joseph in their yards to encourage divine aid.  The practice, which has grown so popular now that there’s actually a “kit” (in two languages, no less), apparently has roots in medieval times, and was revived by nuns in the 90s.  The typical religious lunacy abounds, but the best howler has to be this:

Father Pat Lee, lead pastor of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Chicago, regularly pleads with anxious parishioners to pray for divine aid — not to bury their church’s namesake in the dirt. When a nearby religious goods store started carrying the St. Joseph kits, he chastised the staff for encouraging “a ridiculous superstition.”


According to the good Father, it’s perfectly reasonable to believe that uttering a few magic words over some bread and wine transforms, er, sorry…”transubstantiates” them into the actual body and blood of Christ Jesus.  But believing that burying the figurine of a saint in your front yard will help sell your home?  “Ridiculous superstition”!


The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults – a great idea for every religion, even for Catholics

I happened to read recently that Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the US House of Representatives, converted to Catholicism.  What particularly intrigued me was that the twice-divorced, former Baptist apparently had to undergo a lengthy and time-consuming process known as the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA), like every other convert new to the faith.  While many Christian denominations just require some sort of confessional statement for membership, if that, it seems to me the Catholic’s initiation process is the most honest.  One should be told upfront what you’re committing yourself to, as opposed to portions of it doled out piecemeal after you’re a member.  As one Catholic site justified it:

RCIA is the Church’s way of forming new disciples of Jesus Christ. It’s the normative way the Catholic Church welcomes its newest members, but even more important than membership in the Catholic Church is discipleship in Christ Jesus. Through a gradual, complete and comprehensive training in the Christian way of life (Rite, no. 75), the unbaptized come to know Jesus Christ through the Catholic Christian community and they learn to live as Jesus’ disciples. Then, as disciples, they continue the mission of Jesus Christ in the world today.

While Catholicism is admittedly somewhat unique in containing centuries of theology and ritual to bone up on, the logic of its approach to new members is hardly disputable, not just for itself, but for almost every other denomination or religion.  The common term for this approach is “informed consent” – a widely-recognized and practiced ethic, one often enshrined in law.  We are justifiably wary of those who fail to adopt it since more often than not they’re hiding information which would sway us away from their appeals.  Informed consent is considered grantable only by adults, since only they have the life experiences and knowledge to carefully weigh a profound and potentially life-altering decision – well, most of them anyway!

Theologically sound from the inside, ethically sound from the outside, the RCIA represents what every religious initiation process for prospective members should be like.  It’s thus a shock that Catholic Church doesn’t require it of all new members.  If the RCIA is so important, then why does the Catholic Church admit into its fold children as young as seven in a simple ceremony?  Why not wait until they’re adults, put them through some kind of version of the RCIA, then admit them?

My guess is that doing so would shrink Catholic numbers, which are already declining, as the requirement to adhere to a central doctrine would be made explicit.  Currently, the vast body of Catholicism contains a cacophony of voices at odds with each other.  Declaring vast swathes of those voices as questionably- or non-Catholic, as an RCIA program for all Catholics would effectively do, would just encourage schism.

So why not the opposite approach, make membership as easy to obtain for outsiders as it is for those born into the faith?  Probably because of the same reason as before: it would just encourage schism.  The last thing the Church needs is an even wider diversity of viewpoints.  The RCIA is in effect re-education, or perhaps moderate brainwashing, albeit voluntary.  Its goal is to achieve what a lifetime of indoctrination does: produce quiescent Catholics.  The Church knows it can obtain them if it can get a hold of them young, thus, the far lighter membership requirements for children.

But this is pure conjecture, one with which Catholics would no doubt disagree.  Yet, I cannot find an official Catholic reason for the difference, though the logic of RCIA would seem to demand it apply to all new members, not just outsider adults.  Perhaps it’s just another “mystery“.