A few days ago I had a call from my brother. When I told him that my studies in seminary were going well, he was moved to tell me he had lost his faith and had been an apostate for years.
This was devastating to hear. Even after admitting his apostasy he still tried to praise me for becoming a pastor. His inconsistency is hurtful and confusing. Most of me wants to not call him my brother any longer, as in many ways he simply is not anymore. But a part of me is honestly intrigued by this, and I try to understand how apostates get to the place they are.
He says being a "hardcore atheist" and a "skeptic" is fundamental to who he now is -- it sounded like someone coming out of the closet. I can imagine original sin can do that to a person. But still.
I know I do not have all the reasons on the planet to back things up on my end as a faithful Christian. How would you respond to someone like my brother, who says things like ...
I’ll try to answer your concluding question, but let me respond to a few other things too.
"Even after admitting his apostasy he still tried to praise me for becoming a pastor. His inconsistency is hurtful and confusing." Perhaps your brother is less inconsistent than you think. Even though he thinks your faith a delusion, he admires you for giving your life to what you think is true. Perhaps something deep down even whispers to him that it is true after all. Even if he is inconsistent, accept his compliment as a compliment, rather than viewing it as an insult. It is not you he is rejecting.
"Most of me wants to not call him my brother any longer, as in many ways he simply is not anymore." This statement comes from your hurt, not from the reality of the situation. Though he is no longer your brother in Christ, he is still your natural brother, and in Christ, you should love him no less. He has not cast you off; why should you cast him off?
Besides, no matter what he says now, for all you know he may some day return to the faith. Your love for him may be what he needs in order to do so. Stay in relationship with him. Pray for him without ceasing.
"I try to understand how apostates get to the place they are." They get there by a variety of routes. How did he get there? You could ask him! Why don’t you?
"How would you respond to someone like my brother, who says things like..." Whatever he says, the most important thing to understand is the difference between honest questions and smokescreens. This requires discernment, and God’s help.
Sometimes people ask questions or raise objections because they want answers or solutions. When that happens, the proper response is to try to provide them.
But sometimes people ask questions or raise objections because they want to deflect honest conversation into rabbit trails, or avoid it altogether. When that happens, the proper response is to dissipate the smokescreen. For example, you might ask your brother whether he would change his mind if you were able to answer all of his objections. Suppose he were to answer “No.” Then you might point out that since his objections to faith are not his real reason for rejecting it, the two of you don’t need to waste time on them – and you could ask him what he thinks his real reason is.
"... things like 'I just believe in Reason. I believe in things based on evidence and I'm entirely convinced atheism is the truth. You have your faith and I believe in evidence. Any conversations we have are going to end right there."' That is a false way to frame the issue. Faith and reason are not adversaries, but partners, like the two wings of a bird. Your brother is choosing reason without faith, which cannot even explain why reason is reasonable. You, I hope, are choosing reason together with faith.
I say “I hope” because I don’t know your family background. It may be that the faith which your brother is rejecting is a mistaken, fideistic faith which does view faith and reason as adversaries. Fideism, however, is not Christian doctrine, but a Christian distortion or heresy.
"... like 'I love talking about religions. But they are all wrong -- I am way past conversion. Don't try to talk me into anything. I'm just way past that stuff.'" If your brother doesn’t want to hear arguments for the faith, then don’t give him any. What good would it do to browbeat him? Don’t indulge him in “talking about religions”; he has already made it clear that this is merely an amusing game for him. Do try to understand why he really rejected the faith – but remember that the reason he gives himself, or that he gives you, may not be the real one. He may not know the real one.
Christians have crises of faith; atheists have crises of faithlessness. I once met an atheist who boasted when he was sober of ruining the faith of his students, but who told me after a few glasses of wine how religious he was. So in the meantime, pray to be ready for that moment of crisis when your brother does want to talk about God. And pray that when that happens, he will tell you.
"... like 'Of course it doesn't matter that I was baptized. That was entirely insignificant to me.'" Baptism is objectively significant because something really happens. When your brother says it is insignificant “to him,” what he means is that he subjectively rejects that significance. And he does reject it. You don’t need to argue with him about what you both know to be true.
... like 'Of course atheism is true, and you know it ....'” You might ask, “Suppose I said ‘Atheism is false, and you know it. Would you find that convincing?” If he says “That’s different,” simply ask him to explain the difference. Let him give the answers. It sounds as though he may have been making you give them.
".... like 'I just have one less god than you.'" In a way, this statement is encouraging, because by making it, your brother is conceding that he has a god. He is confessing that there is something to which he bows down, something for which he is prepared to give up everything else. Of course it is a catastrophe that the god that he worships is a false one, but for an atheist to say “I don’t worship your God” is much more honest than to say “I don’t have any gods.” Never despise honesty.
Do your brother the courtesy of taking him at his word: Ask him what his gods are. He may be surprised by the question. He may never have asked it of himself. Not many people have enough self-knowledge to know who or what their gods are. For example, someone may glibly say “My god is social justice,” though his god is really the social approval he gets for saying so.
"I am stuck with the fallout our family will face when he reveals his apostasy publicly. I need to protect myself and my family and prepare them for the spiritual challenge that will come." I am not sure how to reply, because I don’t know what you mean by protecting your family from the fallout and the spiritual challenge.
By the fallout, you may mean the anxiety your family will suffer for your brother’s soul, the pain it will suffers because it thinks he has betrayed it, or the scandal it will suffer when friends of the family find out. All very different things.
By the spiritual challenge, you may mean the challenge of loving a brother who no longer shares with you the foundation of all love, or the possibility that some members of your family will themselves begin to doubt. Or that you will.
Forgive me: Because I am a teacher, I tend to take everything as a question, even if it isn’t one. You may only have been expressing your sadness.
I will pray for you, your brother, and your family. If you think of it, pray for me too.
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The law is reluctant to criminalize an act unless it can be framed in terms of the harm the act causes to others. Although this principle is often credited to John Stuart Mill, he does not deserve the credit. Versions can be found in Aristotle in the fourth century B.C., and in Thomas Aquinas in the high middle ages.
The difficulty is that many different versions of harm principle compete in the public square, and each gives a different answer to questions such as what sort of act is really harmful and how harmful it is. Mill was the author, not of the generic harm principle, but of an influential, dangerous, and highly misleading brand of harm principle.
How did he promote his brand? Mainly by pretending that it was the only one on the shelf. Consider his arguments against Lord Stanley, who wanted to prohibit the sale of strong liquors. Just for the record, I disagree with Lord Stanley concerning the prohibition of alcohol. However, I think arguments like Stanley’s should be answered, not merely ruled out of order, as Mill tries to do.
For the truth is that both men couched their arguments in terms of harm. As Mill's own quotations make clear, Stanley held that the sale of strong liquors harmed him as a representative citizen in four ways: (a) by endangering his security, (b) by creating a misery that he was taxed to support, (c) by tempting him to conduct which would threaten his moral and intellectual development, and (d) by weakening and demoralizing society, from which he had a right to claim mutual aid and intercourse. Now there are many legitimate ways to argue against Stanley. For example, one might argue that in this particular case, prohibition would cause greater harms than it prevented. Yet Mill pretends that Stanley was not speaking of harms at all – that he merely demanded the right “that every other individual act in every respect exactly as he ought.”
How could Mill get away with such preposterous misrepresentation? By definitional sleight of hand. Mill thinks there is a large, easily identifiable class of acts which have no effects on other people at all. The way he arrives at this conclusion is simply to redefine most harms – including those which Stanley mentions -- as non-harms. For in most cases (he is a bit inconsistent), Mill assumes:
Although all of these harms are real, Mill persistently resorts to the fiction that he is mapping out "that portion of a person's life which affects only himself."
By the way, he also ignored the troublesome fact that harms cannot be weighed in a vacuum. Just how much harm a particular line of conduct is likely to bring about depends on the context in which it takes place. For instance, how much harm might be caused to others by my riding a motorcycle without a helmet? That depends on such things as whether I have a family that counts on me for love, counsel, and financial support, what other duties I may have that my death would prevent me from fulfilling, whether I pool my risks with others through private or social insurance, and whether those who see me injured are ethically bound to render aid.
Mill’s latter-day followers go much further than he did. As we have seen he opposed only the criminalization of so-called self-regarding acts. Our would-be Millians oppose “judging” or discouraging them in any way. On this point, surprisingly, he was on the side of moral conservatives. Not only did he admit that some of the acts he called self-regarding may be morally wrong, but he thought that morally wrong self-regarding acts may and even should be discouraged, and in all sorts of ways.
For example, he thought that we should be far more willing to argue with those who commit them than common notions of courtesy permit; that we may avoid the society of such persons; that we may warn others against them; that we may give them last place in the distribution of those benefits to which nobody is entitled as a matter of right; and that we may warn them ahead of time that this will be one of the consequences of our disapproval. Today’s Millians tend to forget all of this.
But that is what happens when one reasons recklessly. Careless arguments do not attract followers through what is careful in them, but through what isn’t. Is it surprising, then, that each new wave of followers is more reckless than the one before?
Recently I discovered that three of the links to videos of my talks were broken. I've set the fractured bones, and the three convalescents are as follows. If you discover any other broken links at this website, dear reader, please let me know.
Annual Conference of Courage (the Catholic ministry to persons with same-sex attractions), 2013
Veritas Forum, University of Wyoming, 2012
Interviewed by Marcus Grodi, EWTN, 2005
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In my recent post “How Not to Have Clean Hands,” I criticized libertarians who pretend that they take no ethical position about what to do. Someone unfamiliar with what I’ve previously written about libertarianism might mistakenly conclude that I think all libertarians are like that. Since I don’t, I thought it might be good to replay a few thoughts which I posted to this blog several years ago.
Is it possible to be a libertarian and still believe in natural law?
It all depends on what you mean by libertarianism. There are two kinds of libertarianism, corresponding to two different understandings of what liberty is and why we need it.
One kind of libertarianism holds that we need a rich palette of definite liberties so that we can perform our duties and obtain what is good for human beings. For example, it maintains that because parents have a duty to educate their children, they also have a right to do so, and because human well-being depends on finding the truth about God, every person has a natural right to seek it. This kind of libertarianism is perfectly compatible with natural law. In fact, it’s based on it.
The other kind holds that we need indefinite liberties so that we can escape our duties and obtain what we merely happen to want. For example, it maintains that we have a right to behave however we please in sexual matters, even to the detriment of families and children, and that if unwanted children are conceived, we have a right to kill them. This kind of libertarianism is radically incompatible with natural law.
The name “fusionism” is sometimes used for an alliance between social conservatives and libertarians of the former kind, based on shared belief in natural law, shared respect for the proper functions of government, and shared mistrust of government which exceeds these functions. I take it that this is where you stand. So do I.
The challenge to fusionism is that today, the great majority of people who call themselves libertarians are libertarians of the latter kind, who may speak against all-powerful government, but who paradoxically end up embracing it.
The most common reason for this embrace is that when they say they are libertarians, they mean that they are libertarian in sexual morality. But they have to be statists, so that when the dreadful social consequences of libertarian sexual morality come rolling around, someone else is forced to pick up the tab.
Consider for example the popularity of the Obamacare contraceptive mandate among certain groups (by the way, although the mandate has recently been weakened, it has not been abolished):
“I believe in liberty! How dare you tell me how to run my personal life! What do you mean, you aren’t telling me how to run my personal life? You refuse to pay for my abortions and contraceptives, don’t you? In the name of being able to do as I please, I demand that you do as I please!”
I'm an economist and follower of Natural Law idea. What do you think about Thomas Mann's statement that "tolerance becomes a crime when applied to evil"?
Good question. The statement is made by a character in one of Mann’s novels, but let’s leave aside what Mann himself might have thought, and consider the statement itself.
If it means that some evils must never be tolerated, then it is true. Only a madman, a thug, or a fool would boast of his “tolerance” for rape, murder, or pillage.
But if it means that no evils should ever be tolerated, then it is false. One must balance the evil of the thing itself with the evil that might be brought about by legal prohibition.
Some evils cannot even be detected – a law that fined people for having nasty thoughts would merely increase hypocrisy. Prohibition can also provoke people into greater evils, whether by making the forbidden things glamorous or by making those who love them rebellious. At times, the prohibition of an evil even risks destruction of nearby goods. Suppose we tried to encourage faith by outlawing the expression of doubt. Unable to ask questions, could anyone ever find his way to God? Or suppose we tried to suppress avarice by outlawing the making of money. As an economist, how long do you think it would take until the economy collapsed and the population was starving?
Now about some matters, there is no such thing as “just enough.” The classical example is that we should not praise a man for committing “just enough” adultery.
But about other matters, there is such a thing as “just enough.” Courage, for instance, lies in a mean between cowardice and rashness. The coward has too much fear, the rash man too little. You could also say that the coward has too little audacity, and the rash man too much.
The virtue of tolerance also involves a “just enough,” because it lies in a mean between excessive severity and softheaded overindulgence. We can err either in failing to tolerate what we should, such as chewing too loudly in restaurants, or in tolerating what we shouldn’t, such as using violence for political gain.
One of the lessons to be drawn from all this is that contrary to common opinion, the virtue of tolerance is not attainable by relativists, but only by those who believe in moral law.
For in order to know when to tolerate, to what degree, for what reasons, and in what ways, we have to judge real goods and evils.
My ethics class was assigned to read a section of one of your books about formal and informal logical fallacies. I consulted my teacher for clarification of a statement you made after explaining appeal to the excluded middle: "Unfortunately, entire political and ethical philosophies are based on the illusion that one never really has to take sides." His advice was to ask you directly.
I was curious as to whether the philosophies you mention would include libertarianism in politics, and relativism in ethics.
A wide variety of ideologies hold that one never has to take sides – in effect, that one can make a decision without making a decision. This is always fallacious, and usually a fraud.
The most famous examples of a public official pretending that he could make a decision without making a decision was Pontius Pilate, who said to the mob that wanted to crucify Jesus Christ, "I am innocent of this righteous man's blood; see to it yourselves." In other words, he was claiming that even though he had authorized the execution, he was not taking sides as to whether it should be done.
In the nineteenth century, many people said that they took no position on whether slavery was right, but they did not want to pass a law against it. To say that masters should be allowed to keep their slaves is, of course, taking a position in favor of the masters.
Since Roe v. Wade, many people say that they are not in favor of abortion, but only in favor of choice. But of course to be in favor of the choice to commit an abortion is to take a side against those who think it should be illegal and in favor of those who think it should be legal.
Some people say that they have no opinion about whether the law should reflect monogamous or polygamous legal arrangements; they say the law should be neutral between them. But what they mean by being neutral is to permit a person to have more than one wife if he wants to, and that is the polygamous legal arrangement.
Libertarians, and also relativists, often claim that they take no ethical position about what to do, but want people to make their own choices. But of course they do not think people should have the right to make every sort of choice; for example, I don’t know any libertarians or relativists who think people should have the right to shoot convenience store clerks. Usually, though, they do think people should have the right to enter any sort of sexual arrangement they wish. Obviously, then, they are making a moral distinction between shooting people and sleeping with them, but the language of liberty obscures this decision. Notice that I am not saying that people do not have any rights. However, to recognize which rights are real and which rights are not, one needs a moral philosophy. There is no way to make this decision neutrally or relativistically.
Not just libertarians, but many political theorists, mostly liberals, sometimes conservatives, say that the law should be neutral among different “conceptions of the good.” This is absurd. To pass a law is to hold that the law is good. To hold that the law is good, one must hold a view of what is good and what is not. So the law is never neutral among different conceptions of the good.
Whenever someone touts neutrality, what is usually happening is that he is condemning the other fellow’s moral opinion by pointing out that it is a moral opinion, and smuggling his own moral opinion into law by pretending that it is not a moral opinion. This is why I call neutrality a fraud.
Of course, it is not a fallacy to choose a third alternative if there really is a third alternative. For example, one may choose to vote for candidate A, choose to vote for candidate B, or choose not to vote as a protest. But if the alternatives are logical contraries, such as “permit” and “don’t permit,” there is no third alternative, and pretending that there is one is evasive.
Some people mistakenly think that if they admit that the law inevitably involves moral judgments, then everything we judge wrong or untrue will have to be illegal. Surprisingly, this is not the case. However, the good reasons for not prohibiting everything wrong or untrue are not neutralist; they are themselves moral in nature.
To mention just one: Truth is good, and promoting truth is right. However, even when we think we know something true, the best way to promote it, to clarify it, and to discover whether we have made a mistake about it is often to debate, and obviously, one cannot have a debate if the very act of expressing the other opinion is illegal. In such a case, prohibiting the expression of the opinion we believe to be false would injure the noble cause of truth itself.
I’ve given short and long versions of this talk over the years, most recently by invitation to a group of Christian scholars at another school in 2013. Perhaps it will not be out of place in this blog.
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In his letter to the Colossians, St. Paul says that whatever we do, we should do from the heart, “as unto the Lord” and not men, because it is Him whom we are serving.
Whatever you do, Paul says. That includes our scholarship. Scholarship is no more special than anything else we might do that pleases Christ. But whether we prove theorems, sweep floors, write articles, dig wells, design circuits, or lay bricks, we should do it for Him.
What does it mean to practice scholarship "as unto the Lord"? Does it mean just working hard? No, a Christian professor of English literature is something more than a hard working professor of English literature. Nor does scholarship "as unto the Lord" mean merely working with a nicer attitude. An electrical engineering professor who has long office hours and remembers to thank the secretary has not thereby done everything that being a Christian scholar of electrical engineering requires. To be a Christian scholar is to work with a radically different purpose, a radically different orientation, and even a radically different approach to truth. In our time, under the dictatorship of relativism, the very conviction that there is a truth sets us apart from a great many of our colleagues.
Now a mathematician must learn how to prove theorems, and a scholar of history must learn how to scrutinize documentary evidence. So too, there are prerequisites for doing our scholarship in such fashion that it can be offered unto Christ. I count at least four of them.
The first such prerequisite is commitment to Christ’s lordship. We may understand quite well that God wants our friendships, our spouses, our children, our entertainment, and so forth. Do we always understand that He wants our scholarship, that He wants what we do for a living?
The second prerequisite is the practice of the virtues. When you applied for your academic position, probably no one asked about your moral character, but everything depends on it. I’m not just talking about honesty, but about the whole range of virtues. Every unrepented vice requires lies. Eventually, therefore, every unrepented vice metastasizes into the intellect. If I don’t live right, pretty soon I can't think straight. But thinking straight is a scholar's job.
The third prerequisite for scholarship "as unto the Lord" is a Christian view of one’s own discipline. Consider philosophy. Two generations ago, perhaps most American philosophers were atheists; today, most are theists, largely because of the work of Christian thinkers. What would it mean to rethink the other disciplines in a Christian way? How about economics? Political science? Mathematics? Surely not mathematics, you say. Isn’t "Two plus two is four" just as true for atheists as for Christians? Yes, it is, but don't draw from this fact the false conclusion that mathematics has nothing to do with theology. For example, some mathematicians accept the ancient pagan idea that the ultimate ground of all reality is not God, but mathematics itself. This particular idolatry has been around for a long time. One of the books on my shelf includes a Pythagorean prayer to the number ten. Oftentimes such idolatries affect the way we do our work, but in ways that escape our notice. We should make it our business to notice them.
The fourth and final prerequisite of scholarship "as unto the Lord" is discerning that scholarship is one of the ways of life permissible for you. For many of us, perhaps most of us, more than one use of our gifts may be pleasing to God. Yet from the fact that more than one way to use your gifts may please Him, it does not follow that every way of using them will do so. Many of my students enter scholarship just because they like their field, or because the life of a scholar appeals to them, or because some teacher told them they had promise. These things are well and good, but they do not add up to serving God. I should not wish to be misunderstood, for it would be surprising if Christ wanted you to something for which you did not have promise, and something would probably be wrong if you disliked your field. But your feelings are not the final measure of His guidance.
If you have done your best to discern what He wills for you but still cannot tell, then do not be unduly concerned. As John Henry Newman remarks, even our perplexity may serve Him. We must just make sure that our perplexity does not result from not wanting to know His will. In the meantime, we should keep the commandments, and do the work before us as well as we can. When the time comes, what He needs us to know, we will know.
Having spoken of the prerequisites for scholarship “as unto the Lord,” let me now speak of the snares. By my count there are at least five.
One snare is intellectual pride, our tendency to take personal credit for our intellectual gifts. I have never met a scholar who didn't suffer this tendency to some degree. For some reason, scholars are more inclined to pride in their intellectual gifts than plumbers to pride in their technical gifts. Like me, do you find this fact rather terrifying? God gives us our gifts for His kingdom. In the next life, we will not have the pleasure of those gifts which we have refused to offer to His service during this one.
The second snare is intellectual selfishness, the tendency to do the scholarly work we prefer rather than the scholarly work which most pleases God. We may prefer it because we find it easier, because it is more familiar, because it is more interesting, or because it earns the greatest worldly recognition. If it is not work that glorifies Him, none of this matters.
Snare three is intellectual clubbishness, the urge to conform ourselves to the prevailing views of other intellectuals. As the historian Paul Johnson has suggested, intellectuals “are often ultra-conformist within the circles formed by those whose approval they seek and value.” God does not intend us to stop being social creatures, or to refuse to learn from others, but He does intend us to think outside of the prevailing secular orthodoxies. Clubbishness should have no power over us.
Snare four is intellectual cowardice, the tendency to hold back from speaking our minds even when we do think outside of the prevailing secular orthodoxies, for fear of disapproval and penalty. Of course we have to exercise discernment. There are times not to speak of certain things. But there are certainly times to speak of them, and sometimes to speak of them loudly. In general, the time to speak loudest is just when we are running into the greatest opposition just for being Christians.
The fifth and final snare is intellectual sloth. Sloth is the failure to love the good with the ardor that it deserves. The essence of intellectual sloth, the kind of sloth that tempts us as scholars, is loving the intellectual life more than the intellectual goods which this life is ordained to seek. I mean especially the good of truth. Do we suppose that it is enough to love the truth? It is not enough to love the truth. We must love the truth more than the pursuit of truth. We must also love it more than the pleasures of the scholarly life. If I love truth less than I love the smell of a book in which truth might be written -- if I love it less than the fact that the book belongs to me -- if I love it less than the fact that I wrote the book myself -- then I am no friend of God. If I love truth less than the privilege of controlling my schedule -- less than the pleasure of going to conferences -- less than the petty thrill of being thought smart, or even truthful -- then I am in peril of hell.
If you think Christ has nothing special for you to do with your scholarship, you aren't listening to Him. He does have something for you to do. Listen; He is telling you now. Perhaps it is something that others have done. Then again it may be something that no one has done. It may even be something that no one else can do. You must be willing to be small, because it may be a small thing. It may be a single small insight, a single species of fact. How large it is does not matter. The point is that whatever it is, it is committed to your stewardship. Find the stone. Mortar it carefully into the ramparts of the palace of knowledge, for the glory of God, King and Architect.
I began with a quotation from St. Paul, and I close with another. He urges us in the letter to the Romans, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” Although this passage is directed to the whole Church, I think it applies in a particular way to Christian scholars. After all, it concerns the formation of the mind. It could serve as our intellectual charter.
So may we be, not Christians who happen to be scholars, but Christian scholars: Servants of the Lord Jesus Christ, who rules not only matter, but the mind.