By Father John Flynn, LC
ROME, 15 NOV. 2009 (ZENIT)
The Catholic Church is one of the greatest forces for evil in
the world, at least according to atheist Richard Dawkins. This
is just the latest of many volleys by him against religion and
His remarks were published Oct. 23 on the religion section of
the Washington Post's Web site, when he was asked to comment on
the move by the Catholic Church to facilitate the entry of
The polemics over religion raised by the spate of books and
commentaries in recent years continues to flow freely. A recent
debate in London on the motion that the "Catholic Church is a
force for good in the world," attracted over 2,000 people, the
Catholic Herald reported Oct. 23.
Stephen Fry and Christopher Hitchens, who argued the negative
case, enjoyed a substantial win over their opponents
Ann Widdecombe, a conservative party parliamentarian, and
Archbishop Onaiyekan of Abuja in Nigeria
obtaining 1,876 votes against 268.
Another recent example comes from Australia columnist where
Catherine Deveny put God on the psychiatrist's couch and
proclaimed that: "God has narcissistic personality disorder."
In her Sept. 2 article published by the Age newspaper, Deveny
asserted that God suffers from "feelings of grandiosity," and an
"obsession with fantasies of success," along with being "devoid
of empathy," and "behaves arrogantly."
The atheists' offensive has in its turn given rise to
numerous books defending God and organized religion. An
interesting turn in the debate comes from a book just published
by someone who does not believe in God, but still defends
In "An Atheist Defends Religion: Why Humanity is Better Off
with Religion Than Without It," (Alpha Books), Bruce Sheiman
offers a new perspective to the contest between believers and
The "God question" can't be resolved to the satisfaction of
the contending sides, he states but what Sheiman does set out to
do is to consider the value of religion itself. He does not seek
to prove God exists, but defends religion as a cultural
Regarding his personal views, Sheiman explains that he is not
a person of faith, but he does not "stridently repudiate God."
He describes himself as an "aspiring theist" because "religion
provides a combination of psychological, emotional, moral
communal, existential, and even physical-health benefits that no
other institution can replicate."
The best way to convincingly dismiss the case for atheism, he
explains in his introduction to the book, is not by arguments
that seek to prove the existence of God, but to demonstrate the
enduring contribution of religion.
"Religion's misdeeds may make for provocative history, but
the everyday good works of billions of people is the real
history of religion, one that parallels the growth and
prosperity of humankind," Sheiman affirms.
One way that religion benefits us is by giving our lives
meaning, Sheiman notes. We are aware we live in a world of great
power and potentiality, but in contrast to animals that just
live in a utilitarian relationship with the world, humans are
aware that this world exists apart from ourselves.
Sheiman then recounts some examples of how primitive
societies sought to give sense to their lives in the midst of
the wider world by means of religion. Their myths and rituals
helped those peoples to connect the mortal realities to the
eternal and spiritual.
In the modern world science has in many cases replaced
religion in terms of explaining the world and the universe, but
Sheiman points out, while we can accept what science says about
how the universe works, this does not explain to us what it
means for our lives.
In other words, how the world works is not the same as why
the world works. In our drive to discover what Sheiman terms
facts and knowledge
we have sacrificed uppercase truth
meaning and purpose.
Another aspect of religion is morality. It's clear that
people can be moral without religion, Sheiman affirms, but it's
also evident that religion makes people good. In fact, he
asserts, humans exhibit ethical behavior that goes well beyond
the explanatory power of group cohesiveness.
Sheiman cites research that demonstrates how religious
activity is associated with greater social interaction. Just as
religion builds community, so too does it foment morality, he
It does this through an understanding that moral action is
the path to a union with God and that we have some sort of moral
contract whereby doing good means we participate in the highest
Intrinsic to all religions is a belief in goodness, both that
of the divine and that of humanity, Sheiman explains. Atheists
often lack an understanding of religious morality, he argues.
It's not a simple reward/punishment system. "The most cynical
see in religion a blind obedience to moral authority and an
oppressive behavioral-control system," he commented.
While some religious adherents exhibit an authoritarian
orientation, this can also be the case for just as many
non-religious people, Sheiman maintains. For most people God is
seen as a loving father, and the moral high ground to which
humans aspire, he asserted.
One contribution of religion to society that Sheiman
highlights is the Christian notion that humans are made in the
image of God. Since humans are meant to share in the divine
nature they are to be respected as children of God.
Such a view leads to countless acts of sacrifice and
compassion every day, he comments. In fact, sociological studies
reveal that religious people are more caring and compassionate
than their non-religious peers and give more money to charity.
This practice is not restricted to a particular religion,
Sheiman points out.
Religion also provides a solid foundation for moral behavior
through an adherence to absolute values. By contrast, Sheiman
notes, without religion people can have a morality, but if the
moral precepts are man-made they become fallible and
insubstantial, a function of personal opinions or even
This leads him to comment that our minds are called to
something more than a relative truth. As humans we strive to
find the first cause and if moral imperatives do not depend on
God then they are not absolute and remain relative.
Science by itself cannot lead to a moral culture, he
continues. "Right and wrong do not come from physics or
biology," he states.
"Religion thus becomes the most important cultural and
institutional source of ethical principles precisely because it
is felt to be above human caprice," he adds.
In another chapter of the book, Sheiman relates how religion
was behind the Western world's progress in such fields as
democracy and freedom, and science and technology.
Over time if we have grown as a civilization it has been at
least partly because of religion, he argues. While this does not
absolve religious leaders for their destructive acts it does
lead us to conclude that overall religion has had an overall
positive impact, he concludes.
The alternative conclusion is that we would be further along
in our progressive trajectory without religion. This is
implausible, Sheiman maintains, as historians cannot identify
any other cultural force as robust as religion that could have
carried civilization along.
Sheiman also criticizes the selective reading of history by
some atheists, who are only too quick to attribute the most
negative aspects of history to religion, while rarely conceding
the debt civilization owes to religion.
A believer could well reply to Sheiman that his faith in God
does not depend on some kind of profit and loss accounting of
history or his personal life. Nonetheless, at a time when many
atheists denigrate churches and faith as totally irrational and
negative, Sheiman's book serves as a useful antidote to such a
superficial and irrational attack on belief.