Friday, December 12, 2014

Christmas a fairy tale? Letter to the parish

Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe
12 December 2014

Dear St. Francisfolk

I have looked in vain on the internet for a good response to The American Atheists’ recent anti-Christmas billboard campaign. A common response is that it is wrong to use children in this manner. That may well be true but it in no way challenges what the atheists are saying but only the way they are saying it. I am afraid that I have in the past used the very same tactic: telling my children that the Democrats are abolishing Christmas this year. However, my children have two things that atheists seem to lack: an ability to discern BS, when they hear it and a sense of humor.

Until the heavy hitters of Christian Apologetics step up to the plate, I will have to try my feeble best to reply to this latest attempt to abolish Christmas. I understand why they are using billboards and especially at Christmas; Christmas is a bad time for atheists even in a highly secularized culture. But I must say that this apes bad religion. Instant messaging is not the way to impart serious matters to folks. That many Christians rely on clichés and slogans to win adherents to the faith is not something we should imitate. Politicians may use this approach to some effect but when we evangelize we are not trying to get people to vote for us and then maybe vote for someone else next year. It will not work for atheists any more than it works for Christians. I want to take atheists seriously just as I want to take Christians seriously and that is nearly impossible when both parties imagine that I am the kind of creature who can be convinced by a billboard.

Some folks have counter-charged that atheists believe in the ‘fairy tale’ of evolution. The difficulty with that is that evolution whatever else it might be, is not a fairytale. Fairy tales begin ‘once upon a time’ and involve no real places, people or events. The theory of evolution does not begin that way and does require real places, people and events. The Christmas story in St. Luke’s Gospel, the Gospel read on Christmas in liturgical churches, also does not begin ‘once upon a time' but this way:

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be enrolled, each to his own city.

From the very beginning of his gospel Luke insists that he is trying to get the facts straight:

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us, just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed.

What Luke intended to do was write history based on evidence. You can say that he was not a very good historian, that he was not objective, and that he was mistaken about the facts. But you cannot dismiss his account as a fairy tale, any more than you can dismiss Darwin’s account as something other than an attempt to give a scientific account of the ‘Origin of Species’. Darwin too may not have been a very good scientist, may not have been objective and most would now say certainly he was mistaken about some of the facts.

It is hard to say what people who see the billboard might imagine a ‘fairy tale’ to be. It is possible that the fairy tale angle could backfire on the atheists. Many people rather like and enjoy fairy tales with damsels in distress, knights in shining armor, dragons, talking animals, magic wands and all the rest. Hollywood bears this out: most TV shows, movie, and computer games are reworks of fairy tales.

But what atheists mean by a ‘fairy tale’ is a ‘fantastic story meant to deceive’. American Atheists President David Silverman has said, “Even children know churches spew absurdity, which is why they don’t want to attend services. Enjoy the time with your family and friends instead. Today’s adults have no obligation to pretend to believe the lies their parents believed.  It’s OK to admit that your parents were wrong about God, and it’s definitely OK to tell your children the truth.”

It is my experience that children press their parents to let them go to Midnight Mass long before the weary parents are willing to take them. The atheists will say that this is because they have been duped by their parents. However, it is also true that churched children are often asked by their unchurched friends if they can go with them to Midnight Mass. Part of it no doubt is the attraction of being able to stay up late. But there is more to it: the romanticism of the High Mass, the splendor of the music, the ancient drama of welcoming not some old codger but a child, not a mythical creature but a child just like them. I can easily think of church services which are boring and which I would only attend under duress but that is not the way we worship around here. It has often happened in the past that the parents want a more mainstream style of worship and it is the children who say “no way.”

But are churches spewing absurdities or parents believing lies, wrong about God and not telling their children the truth? This is the real agenda of the American Atheists: not to protect children from boring church services but to suggest that people who have faith are lying, only pretending  and believing  absurdities. Although you might not know it to listen to many Christians, faith is not irrational or absurd but based on science. Sound impossible? “Science” before the natural scientists began to monopolize the word meant simply “knowledge”. Knowledge can be acquired in different ways: observation, experience but also rational logical thinking. Faith is not based on nothing. There are at least two dozen or so arguments for the existence of God, some more convincing than others. But there are no convincing arguments against God’s existence. That is why in an earlier atheist campaign in the UK the sign on the side of the bus said “there probably is no God.”

Faith, writes Dr. Brian Davies, “in much day-to-day discourse  and in much that is written is what you have when you believe in the existence of God”. But for St. Thomas Aquinas “the existence of God is not strictly speaking even part of faith . . . it is what faith presupposes.” Even if you are not able to construct an argument for God’s existence or even follow one, it is enough for you to know that it is perfectly reasonable to say that God exists. We cannot prove the Trinity and the Incarnation, but these doctrines are not based on nothing but on the reality of God who reliably reveals himself as the Triune God and the Incarnate Word. We believe all the rest on the basis of the truth that God exists. One of those awful, mean, nasty medieval theologians, Hugh of St. Victor said that faith is ‘midway between science and opinion’. More than just a fantasy but less than a philosophical, mathematical or natural scientific certainty.

In fact Christianity is not the only view of the world which depends on faith. So does natural science. Natural scientists assume that the world outside their minds is real and objective and is structured so that we can discover laws by which to explain what goes on in the world. Scientists do not sit down first and prove that the world is real. They just trust that it is real. Anyway you cannot prove scientifically that there is a real world outside your mind. But you can prove philosophically that there is and indeed Plato and Aristotle proved that very thing not by using the scientific method but logic.

The atheists tell us instead of going to church at Christmas “enjoy the time with your family and friends”. This seems to me the rankest hypocrisy. If you really hold that Christmas is a fairy tale, a lie, and a deception, you should ignore it entirely, go to work, forget family, friends, the presents and the food. The atheists think that they are very brave to challenge the Christian consensus. What would be really brave would be to have nothing to do with your family and friends at Christmas. 

Fr. Allen


Anonymous said...

"Natural scientists assume that the world is objective." Christians and non, agnostics, atheists all set their alarms for the work day each morning. Has anyone yet "proved" the Uniformity of Nature? ...Thanks for your interesting thoughts. Brent

LSP said...

Thanks for that.

But do you think Chesterton might take a different approach? It's in the fairy tale and the enchantment of things that we begin to discern their reality.

It's the atheist who believes the lie, opting for a two dimensional simulacrum of reality.

As with everything the limo-lib Illuminati left touches, they achieve the exact opposite of their intended result.

Also, we have to question the sincerity of the porcine poster child. It's all very well to smirk greedily after consuming a developing country's share of Christmas pudding, but let's not skip the church that put the feast there in the first place.

Happy Kwanzaa.

Feed Room Five said...


I am of course familiar with the limey C.S.Lewis 'true myth' and Chestertonian 'fairy tale' approach. My own view is that as charming as this may be, it is ultimately just a slight twist on the old tired Cartesian dualism. The ordinary language folks can help us here: when most people use the word 'myth' or fairy tale' that mean something which is not true or real.. We ought to insist on reasoned faith and the historicity of the Gospels. The fairy tale/myth bit causes us to concede to the opposition more than we need concede. Never did much care C.S. Lewis myself -- he was no philosopher. Got thoroughly out shot down by Elizabeth Anscombe, not an atheist but a devout Roman Catholic. Chesteron is a different case because he darn well knew that Christianity is not just a special case fairy tale.

LSP said...

Are you really sure you want to accuse CSL and GKC of Cartesian dualism?

And at the risk of offending all the LGBTQ readers here, we need to take the fairy off the tree and replace it with an angel.

Merry Festivus!

Feed Room Five said...

I did not say that Lewis and Chesterton were not good Christians. You can be a good Christian and a Cartesian.Most Christians are these days. In fact Descartes himself was both. Myths and fairy tales can be used to illustrate theology, morality and common sense propositions. I think that was the way Chesterton used this material for the most part. But no one would say that myths and fairy tales are particularly useful for natural science and mathematics (the classical minded would add for philosophy). But many people would say that for religion fairy tales and myths are not only useful but in some sense essential.the unique way in which religion expresses its truths. Sounds like dualism to me. Of course the Christian religion is enchanting but do we mean by saying that it casts a spell on us which gets to believe. What is enchanting (in the sense of attractive) about Christianity is that it is true. I am not dismissing Lewis and Chesterton but asking is their approach the right one to evangelize a secular culture dominated by scientism and solipsism? I think not.