Father Barron: With false conception of God, atheists attacking ‘straw man’

| April 14, 2015 | 0 Comments

They call it “Pastafarianism” — a farce religion constructed around the belief in a “Flying Spaghetti Monster” deity, “a fantastical, imaginary being for whom there is not a trace of physical evidence.” It stands in comparison to the Christian God, whose existence, Pastafarianists argue, is also unsupported by science.

This religions’ “adherents” are among those classified as “the New Atheists,” who, Father Robert Barron said at an April 9 presentation at the University of St. Thomas, are just like the old atheists, but nastier, because they hold religious believers in contempt.

They’ve also got the wrong conception of God, he said.

“[God] is as far from a Flying Spaghetti monster as metaphysically possible to be,” he said.

In arguing against the existence of God, the New Atheists present God as “one being among many,” Father Barron said — a being with matter and form who exists in time, who is created.

The God Christians believe in is none of those things, he said.

By arguing against “caricatures of God,” the New Atheists attack straw men arguments, or arguments that misrepresent an opponents’ view, said Father Barron, whose academic work and online ministry Word on Fire bring him head-to-head with atheists trying to debunk God’s existence.

He acknowledged his presentation had a provocative title: “Aquinas and Why the New Atheists Are Right.” He contended that when atheists try to explain who God is — and get it wrong — Christians can agree they don’t believe in that god either.

“I’ve always found atheists of all stripes helpful, both spiritually and theologically, precisely in the measure they clarify what the true God is not,” Father Barron told a large audience in the university’s Wolfe Auditorium. “They expose and implicitly undermine new forms of idolatry.”

Father Barron’s presentation was hosted by Classical Theism Project, led by Gloria Frost and Timothy Pawl, faculty members in the University of St. Thomas’ philosophy department. The project is funded by a $200,000 grant from the John Templeton Foundation.

“Classical theism” refers to an understanding of God as existing outside of the physical world, and is often conveyed through describing God as simple, eternal, immutable and

impassible, and essentially different from his creation.

Father Robert Barron of Word on Fire ministries presented “Aquinas and Why the New Atheists Are Right” April 9 at the University of St. Thomas. Courtesy Michael Ekern/University of St. Thomas

Father Robert Barron of Word on Fire ministries presented “Aquinas and Why the New Atheists Are Right” April 9 at the University of St. Thomas. Courtesy Michael Ekern/University of St. Thomas

God as indefinable

Unlike atheists’ descriptions, God does not exist within the universe and operate alongside other agents in the universe, Father Barron said, and therefore cannot be simply a construct designed to fill the gaps of science as some atheists contend.

“I maintain that the exertions of the New Atheists in regard to God are, for the most part, an exercise in knocking down a not very impressive ‘straw god,’” he said. “A god who dwells in or alongside the cosmos, whose existence or non existence can be determined by scientific investigation, who himself can be susceptible to causal influence, who bears even the slightest resemblance to a Flying Spaghetti Monster and presides over the human project in a manner keeping with Kim Jong-Il presiding over Korea, is simply an idol of the worst type.”

St. Thomas Aquinas, a 13th century Dominican priest, outlines God’s essential otherness from creation in his seminal work, the “Summa Theologiae.” The work offers five logical arguments — commonly known as “the Five Ways” — to prove the existence of God.

According St. Thomas, God cannot be understood as a being composed of matter or form, nor as one natural being in a series of beings. Rather, he argues, God’s essence is identical with his existence — which, as the Book of Exodus recounts, is revealed to Moses at the burning bush: “I am who am.”

Apologists encouraged to look back
 
St. Thomas also said finite minds cannot understand God’s qualities, Father Barron explained: God’s immateriality and timelessness are incomprehensible to minds bound by matter and time. Jesus’ parables also confound conventional understandings of justice and compassion, Father Barron said.

“Because God brought the whole finite universe into existence, God cannot be an ingredient within the universe,” Father Barron said. “He must be ‘other’ in a way that transcends any and all modes of ‘otherness’ discoverable within creation.”

Even some descriptions some Christians use, such as “the highest being” are inadequate and false, he said, because they suggest God could be categorized among beings, which is impossible. God, he emphasized, cannot be “positively defined” — meaning that one can say who God is not, but not who God truly is.

Likewise, there is some truth in atheists’ descriptions of who they see God to be, but not the whole truth, he said.

Understanding God’s “otherness” also illuminates God’s interaction with his creation, Father Barron said, which is not the tyrannical relationship some atheists purport. Because God is “otherly other,” he said, he can “lure” the human will into concert with his will, but still within the framework of a person’s free will.

“God delights in human freedom. God delights and glorifies in the integrity of the natural world. They’re not at odds with each other,” he said.

Father Barron added that Catholics must become better at articulating their belief in “a simple God whose otherness is enhancing to the world and not competitive with it,” he said.

“I’ve become convinced that the Catholic Church in the years following Vatican II has become rather inept at presenting its own texture and intellectually satisfying understanding of God,” he said. “We have to formulate a new fundamental apologetics. … Ironically, it’s the pre-modern doctrine of St. Thomas Aquinas that provides the surest foundation for this evangelical apologetics in our post-modern world.”

Father Barron is the founder of Word on Fire, a global media ministry known for its popular 10-part DVD series “Catholicism;” a priest of the archdiocese of Chicago; and rector and president if Mundelein Seminary and the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Illinois.

The Classical Theism Project’s goals are to “help disseminate philosophy to folks who don’t know very much about it, with the hope of helping them understand the perennial conception of God in classical theism,” said Pawl, one of the event’s organizers.

“Classical theism is so important because it’s the perennial conception of the church,” Pawl added. “Most of the dogmas of the church depend in some way on this sort of conception of God.”

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