I’m About to Do Something Strange…
I seldom answer in my own comment section. So the strange thing I’m going to do today is to answer someone else’s comment section.
Jennifer Fulwiler wrote a fantastic post about the difference between secular giving and Christian charity. Secular giving is just one thing that you do to be an American, but Christian charity is woven into the fabric of our thoughts and actions. To be great, Jesus said, you must serve others (Mt 20:26-28).
The first atheist comment to that post deserves a reply. I think that the replies in the comment section miss the mark somewhat, so I decided to take a crack at it. Call me Jen’s Rottweiler. (If Darwin can have one, so can Jennifer Fulwiler, right?)
The commenter identifies herself as Jemima Cole, and let’s tackle her piece by piece:
Well, this atheist thinks that helping others is great, and if other people need to swallow a big slice of bullshit pie before they help others, well at least they’re helping others after they’ve eaten. If they need some validation or the belief that they’ll get paid back after they die … well, who cares, at least they’re helping.
And there we have the twisting of words right off the bat, in sentence #1. Jen was specific: she helped others long before she became Catholic. And all of us, believers or unbelievers, should help people in practical ways. And many do, as Jen also points out.
Jen never mentioned heaven or reward. That has nothing to do with helping others, nor should it. It’s a red herring, trying to say that the morality of theism is nothing above reward/punishment, like rats in a cage. It’s far more complex than that, but introducing that now comes in handy for Jemima down the road, as we’ll see.
But, again, it’s nothing but smoke.
Here’s the thing for me. After a disaster, I think if one atheist donates a pint of blood, and a billion Catholics all pray, the atheist has done more to help.
I disagree, but that’s a separate essay. Prayer can have more effects than we can measure.
And Christians get all huffy about that, and say things like ‘no, who is to say that knowing people are praying for you doesn’t help?’ or some weird nonsense that boils down to how mailbombing God with prayer has brought the problem to his attention so he’ll see people right. Or something. Or they demonstrate they haven’t got past the title of The Selfish Gene.
Read the book of James. Cloistering yourself in a prayer closet may feel pious, but we are called to do greater works than Jesus, not pray a lot (though we’re called to do that to, see 1 The 5:17).
But they’re letting theology get in the way of the facts. Here’s a much better response: if their religion motivates *two* Catholics to donate pints of blood, now it’s done more good than that atheist. And it motivates far more than that. Of *course* the Catholic church does more good than any one atheist – even an atheist like Bill Gates, who has donated literally billions to the fight against malaria – has or can. For every rogue in it for the bling and the glory, like Agnes Bojaxhiu, there are millions of Catholics who actually just get on quietly doing good things and helping.
I’m not sure what that’s supposed to prove. The next paragraph is juicier:
The danger with Jennifer’s line of thinking – apart from the fact that, as ever, God seems to exist for her solely to validate what she was thinking already – is that it defines religion as, per se, ‘a good work’.
Jen is channeling Jesus’ own brother James, who wrote: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (Jms 1:27).
Religion is a good work! This is why the next commenter down said that Jemima is like a 9-year-old telling her parents why college is absurd. It has nothing to do with literal education, because (allegedly) the more educated are less religious. Or are they?
The next commenter was trying to say that Jemima doesn’t have a good grasp of theology. Actually, she does, but she doesn’t realize she does. That’s probably just as bad.
I think Jen has changed her mind on things and moved closer to a biblical worldview from her former atheism. I don’t think that she always though this way and suddenly found that religion confirmed her line of thinking. Why on earth do atheists repeatedly say things like that about Jen? Would it be because they are trying to say she was never “really” an atheist?
Which, for some reason, when Christians do that, we get accused of a certain non-fallacy fallacy that I don’t think is a real fallacy. So give it up, atheists. Jen was an atheist, and she has now seen the light. She just walked full bore into the light instead of just assenting to the light as former atheists who become deists do (Anthony Flew, Thomas Verenna).
If Jennifer was still doing what she was doing before (and more), with a new sense of purpose, well religion works for her. At heart, this is what atheists have come to call the Santa Delusion. If you want people to be nice instead of naughty, and they think they’ll get presents if they’re nice … well, if they fall for it, you probably end up with nicer people. But it’s also something that’s patronizing and unhealthy for anyone who has passed their ninth birthday. And acting like Santa exists in no way alters the fact he doesn’t, so at the heart of all this, there’s a lie, and I think that’s a problem.
Ah, pragmatism. If Jen is still giving to charity and doing good work, but also does silly things like go church, pray Rosaries, and believe that a sky fairy blesses and withholds as he pleases, and it works for her then great! Then, we have to (of course) bring up the mind control canard.
The religious people I’ve met think outside the box far more than any atheist I’ve ever met. I’ve met some deep thinking atheists — all of my atheist commenters here are deep thinkers and make me a better thinker by extension. But, as if it is the by-laws of some federation of atheists, atheists must compare religion to mind control.
Only if you’re doing it wrong is it mind control!
This mind control nonsense deserves its own separate post. Let’s just move on, since this is approaching 2,000 words as it is.
But again, that’s mere theology. Here’s the real problem: if Jennifer has stopped or scaled back what she used to do, substituting ‘a religious life’ for actual, practical help – more prayer, less blood – then it’s not working. If she used to teach disadvantaged kids and now she only hangs around churches feeling smug she joined the right team when poor people come in, she’s not living a better life. If she does both, well, there’s no net gain, but … whatever.
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. (Jms 2:14-17, emphasis added)
If people would study the book of James harder, we wouldn’t have anybody arguing that since faith saves us, we can just add prayer and church attendance to our normal lives — continuing to swear, use “God or “Jesus” as expletives, embezzle from our places of work, etc — and all is well. All is not well — Jesus repeatedly ties love for him (and for the Father) to obedience. So, you have to actually do something with the faith you now claim, otherwise what good is it for you to have the faith?
Now, if someone was charitable before coming to faith, then merely adds religious devotion to an already pious life, is there really no net gain? Here, Jemima is blinded by her commitment to materialism. Accepting Christ is still a life-altering experience, and brings an inner peace that no secularism can.
There is no gain in the material world that we can see, but a large gain in terms of spiritual things that we can’t see.
Jesus said this, with the Good Samaritan. Although it exposes Jesus as a bit of a racist – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5-nh7xOjkSs – the story spells it out: it doesn’t matter what club you say you’re in, in matters what you actually, practically do. He’d prefer one atheist to donate a pint of blood than a billion Catholics to say in a prayer that they feel a bit sad or think of it as someone else’s problem. We can all agree on that.
A few thoughts in closing. First, that parable traded on the elitism pure Jews felt toward Samaritans and that is exactly what made its message so effective when told to a first century Jew. So Jemima has clearly demonstrated she knows the point of the story, but hasn’t actually “got it.” This what I see with atheists and the Bible time and time again — knowledge of its contents, but zero understanding of what it actually means.
Jemima: Do you know who the Samaritans were, and the reason for the elitism? Bet not!
Second, I can agree that pious devotion with no action is horribly apathetic (but not that God appreciates the working atheist more than a Christian). It very much does matter what one actually does, as (in Christian metaphysical terms) our actions have eternal consequences (not just earthly ones).
In both Screenplay by Syd Field and A Novelist’s Essential Guide to Plot by J. Madison Davis, the writers tell us that characters are what they do. Internal dialogue in novels or voice-over narration in movies do not tell us who a character is until we see them in action.
Why is that true? Because real, live people are also what they do — and moreover, they are what they do when no one is around. If you’re a Christian in public only, but not in private, then you’re not really a Christian. Our character is revealed by our actions.
Therefore, we reveal our faith not by cloistered prayer and daily Rosaries and reciting the Act of Contrition, but by “visit[ing] orphans and widows in their affliction, and … keep[ing] oneself unstained from the world” (Jms 1:27). So, what Jemima levels as a criticism against Christianity is really there all along. She just fails to see it.
Jemima: Open your mind and understand . . .