When we last met Jennifer Fulwiler, the self-described “former atheist” was pointing out some “misconceptions about atheists.” Rather than debunking them, her article only seemed to be aimed at affirming them.
Don’t assume that atheists have a sense of sad emptiness, she said, but they do have one. They just haven’t noticed it yet!
The only thing that the article demonstrated was that for all of her self-applied expertise, Fulwiler really doesn’t know the first thing about non-believers. My skepticism actually goes farther than her claim of having been an atheist earlier in life. I have serious doubts she’s actually even ever talked to one of us.
Well, nothing has changed in her latest article for the National Catholic Register. This time she wants to point out the “Five Catholic Teachings That Make Sense to Atheists.” That is to say, these are the five best inroads that she thinks a Catholic can exploit while trying to convert one of us.
They’re actually worse than I thought they’d be. Let’s get this over with. I’m going to post her arguments in their entirety.
Growing up as both an atheist and a nerd in a particularly status-conscious section of the Bible Belt, I was occasionally on the receiving end of unkindness from Christians. When these same people also announced that they were going directly to heaven when they died because they’d accepted Jesus, it didn’t make any sense to me. I knew enough to know that heaven was supposed to be a place of perfect love and peace, so it seemed illogical to say that people could act like jerks until their dying breaths and then walk right on through the pearly gates. On the other hand, being a jerk sometimes isn’t the worst thing in the world, and it also didn’t make sense to say that a loving God would have people spend an eternity in hell for a few slip-ups. When I heard about the concept of Purgatory when I was exploring religion years later, it made sense to me because it explained how heaven can be a place of perfect love, and God can still be merciful to people who had some work to do in that department when they died.
Um, got any evidence that Purgatory exists? That’s pretty much the only way this argument can have any weight with me.
And besides, how does tossing a Diet Hell into the mix going to change my mind about the existence of gods, deities? Alright, so we now have three options for post-life eternity, instead of just two. Rather than just eternal bliss or agony, I can now also endure…exile in the Phantom Zone?
And if her goal is to fish for compliments that her afterlife dogma is less punitive than that of some other Christians, um… congratulations? Jennifer, there are some Christians who believe that everyone goes to Heaven, does that make their unfounded mystical assertions any more true than yours?
The pleasantness of the delusion says nothing about its truth.
2. The Communion of Saints
The idea of deceased friends and family members being aware of what goes on here on earth is nearly universal. When I studied anthropology in college, I found it fascinating that so many cultures that were separated by time and geography had this same idea about the afterlife—it seemed like we’re wired to believe this. So when I was in the process of converting to Catholicism, I didn’t struggle with this doctrine at all—it struck me as an articulation of a spiritual truth known to the human heart from time immemorial.
Most cultures in the world have had slavery as well. Most people once thought that the world was flat and that disease was caused by evil spirits. Most people can be wrong, and have been before. Frequently.
Atheists know we’re in the minority on the god topic, and we know that our minority status doesn’t make it wrong. Simply pointing out that everyone else is jumping off of a bridge doesn’t make it a good idea.
3. Veneration of Mary
This may not be the case for atheists who had a Protestant upbringing, but most of the atheist-to-Catholic converts I know who had no religious background didn’t struggle with the Church’s emphasis on Mary—and many say that it always kind of made sense to them. To me, overlooking Mary was an example of intellectual inconsistency within Christianity: If you believe that there is a great Creator who, in his unfathomable power, brought forth the universe out of nothing … and you believe that he chose his own mom … why on earth would you not freak out about this woman? How unbelievably special would she have to be to be fit for God himself to call her “Mommy”? So when I heard that Catholics place a huge emphasis on the Mother of God, my reaction was basically to shrug and say, “Yeah. Of course.”
4. Salvation for Non-Catholics and Non-Christians
Another thing that always struck me as intellectually inconsistent about Christianity was the idea that people who hadn’t heard about Jesus through no fault of their own would spend eternity in hell, or that God would bar people from heaven who sincerely sought him but worshiped the “wrong” way. It didn’t see how people could believe this and also believe that their God was good and loving, since the punishment of innocents is inherently unloving. It struck me as fair and consistent when I came across this in the Catholic Catechism:
Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience—those too may achieve eternal salvation.
This is probably the funniest one on the list. If there’s an escape clause for people who’ve never heard of the Gospel of Christ, isn’t it terribly immoral to go around the world telling people about it? Aren’t you just putting billions of souls into danger of burning in Hell?
It’s difficult to sincerely believe this sort of thing and not see Catholic missionaries as the biggest assholes who’ve ever lived. They’re just traveling around the world, removing the ignorance escape clause and consigning people to eternal damnation.
You’d think that the solution would be to destroy all copies of the Bible, suppress all knowledge of the Gospels and work to eradicate all memory that the Gospels ever existed. That way belief is no longer a factor for salvation — just being a good person would be.
But seriously, this is another one of those, “but my faith isn’t as awful as those other Christians’” rationalizations. There’s no attempt to provide evidence, only to point out that her insanity is less nasty than it could be. Still doesn’t make it true.
You may want to sit down. As bad as the arguments have been so far, they didn’t prepare me for what Ms. Fulwiler had saved for last:
5. Apostolic Authority
One of the biggest atheist pet peeves I encounter—and one that I shared when I was an atheist—is the way much of modern Christianity interprets the Bible. It was baffling to see Christians go back and forth about how to interpret some section of the Bible, each person convinced that his own interpretation was the correct one, despite the fact that there were as many other different interpretations as there were people in the group. It fed into the stereotype that religion is a tool that people use to manipulate others when I’d see Christians come up with their own personal spin on what the Bible said, then tell everyone else that they had to conform that that view. Years later, when I was beginning to explore Christianity, I almost gave up on the religion altogether because I couldn’t even figure out what its doctrines were. I couldn’t fathom which church I should go to when there were thousands of different denominations, each claiming to be based on the Bible. Then someone told me that Jesus founded a Church that he guides to this day, and that this one God-guided Church has final authority on matters of doctrine. Finally, I saw a system that made sense.
Wow. The Catholic Church thinks so you don’t have to!
Now I know she didn’t try these out on an atheist, because she would have been knocked over by the gales of laughter that she would have provoked with that last one.
I will repeat her argument, because it is so mind-numblingly stupid that it needs to be repeated: Jennifer Fulwiler thinks that the problem atheists have with Christianity is that parishioners are allowed to interpret the Bible for themselves, and that this confuses atheists. The solution is hand over the keys to our brains to a single church leadership — in this case, the same church leadership that protected recidivist pedophiles from prosecution — so that atheists will find Christianity more appealing.
I don’t feel safe knowing that this woman is allowed to use a fork and knife.
Just once, I wish people like Fulwiler would actually ask an atheist what it would take to convince them that the supernatural claims a religion makes are true. These examples just reek of the sort of preaching that she’s only tried out on those who are already convinced. This is why so many of these attempts fail, and fail badly.
They work on her and the members of her church, so she just seems to assume that they really work on anyone.
If you want to know if your argument is convincing, try it out on someone outside of the echo chamber. Someone who isn’t already biased in favor of your desired position. Someone who isn’t already persuaded.
An umbrella that only works on sunny days is an umbrella that doesn’t work.
The holes in her reasoning are so big and so obvious that a field test with just about any religious skeptic would have exposed them and forced Ms. Fulwiler to take her arguments back to the drawing board.
Ms. Fulwiler, if you’re really interested in learning what it would take to change an atheist’s mind, I suggest actually asking one. Our show did an episode on this very question and I don’t think you’re going to like the answer.
We’re not won over by appeals to popularity, appeals to unity through conformity or by dodging the question of proof by just pointing out that your dogma is less objectionable than someone else’s. Most of us are convinced by one thing alone: evidence.