04 October 2011

Nugent's Nonsense: Spilt Ink in the Irish Times, Part 1

In Edinburgh a few years back I saw a terrible play, but one which I'll not name as it was written by someone I know, and I'd rather not humiliate him further: the reviews at the time were bad enough, with one describing the play as 'flatulent'. Intended as an attack on religion, the play was -- aside from being dramatically dire -- embarrassingly ill-informed. Weeks afterwards the play came up in a conversation with the friend with whom I'd seen the play, and atheist though she was she was left in stitches as I scornfully explained how the author -- her friend, of a sort -- hadn't got even the most basic stuff right.

Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese philosopher of war, got in right when he said:
'Know yourself and know your enemy, and in a hundred battles you will never taste defeat.' 
But then, my English teacher was spot on too when he used to advise us to write about what we know. It's the same principle: don't go attacking things unless you understand what you're attacking.

Michael Nugent: Superman
All of which brings me to Michael Nugent, who has a column -- the first of a series -- in today's Irish Times, and who seems no better informed than my friend's dramatic friend. The series is a response to a rather feeble series of articles in the summer.

I don't know if you know Michael Nugent, but if you take a look at his lengthy Wikipedia entry you'll see that he's clearly a Very Important Man, somebody destined to be remembered for all time. To put Michael's greatness into context, among those with more modestly sized entries are: Filippo Brunelleschi, inventor of linear perspective, architect supreme, and one of the greatest figures of the Renaissance; Charlotte and Emily Brontë, who respectively gave the world Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights; Ludwig Feuerbach, perhaps the most influential atheist ever; Gregor Mendel, the father of genetics; Ana Pavlova, the most famous ballerina the world has ever seen; Kevin O'Higgins, one of the most important founding fathers of independent Ireland; Georges Lemaître, first proponent of the 'Big Bang' theory; Sophie Scholl, martyred member of the White Rose, regarded by many as the greatest German of the last hundred years* ; Jack B. Yeats, arguably the greatest Irish artist of the last century; and Patrick Leigh Fermor, who was until his recent demise surely the Greatest Living Englishman.

The entries on Vermeer and George Eliot are only slightly longer than Michael's. And he's only fifty! Imagine how long his entry will be if he lives another ten, twenty, or thirty years! Michael Nugent, it would seem, is a giant.

Atheist Ireland: A Puzzled Parish
Michael is chairman of Atheist Ireland, a tiny pressure group, with a paid-up membership no larger than the typical Mass attendance on any given Sunday in my parish at home. It  first came to my attention while trying desperately to be prosecuted for challenging Dermot Ahern's blasphemy legislation, publishing as it did a list of 25 supposedly blasphemous quotations. Leaving aside how it's arguable that many if not all of the quotations had literary, artistic, political, scientific or academic value and that as a rule they were not intended to outrage substantial numbers of believers, it's quite clear that publication of this list in order to make a point about free speech was, by virtue of its political character, explicitly exempt from prosecution under section 36.3 of the Defamation Act 2009.

If Atheist Ireland had been trying to prove how toothless Ahern's legislation was, they made their point well, but if they genuinely believed it was a threat, well, all this shows is that they're not very good at reading. Ahern's law was designed to be unenforceable: in accordance with the needs of the Constitution it technically closed a legislative loophhole, while being worded in such a way that it would be impossible for anyone to be successfully prosecuted for blasphemy.

One of the most curious features of Atheist Ireland is its 'Read the Bible Campaign'; I'm not sure why it doesn't have a 'Read the Qur'an Campaign', though it might be because that might seem provocative, or a 'Read the Tanakh Campaign, though it might be because that might seem anti-semitic, or a 'Read the Bhagavad Gita Campaign', though it might be because they have no idea what any of the Hindu scriptures are. Anyway, it seems an odd campaign, as it suggests that far from having a secular agenda, Atheist Ireland has an almost exclusively anti-Christian agenda -- even an anti-Catholic one -- and that it pushes this agenda in an extraordinarily ignorant way.

'Atheist Ireland actively encourages people to read the Christian Bible,' it begins, though this surely invites the question of 'which Christian Bible?'

Do Atheist Ireland mean the 73-book Catholic Bible, as used by most Christians in Ireland and indeed the world? Or does it mean the sixteenth-century's 66-book Lutheran Bible, as used -- sometimes in association with other holy books -- by about a third of the world's Christians? Or does it mean the 77-or-so book Orthodox Bibles as used by the various Orthodox Christian groups? Do Atheist Ireland even realise that Christians don't agree on the contents of the Bible? Does Mister Nugent know this?

I'm rather intrigued by this question, because I'm assuming that when Mister Nugent thinks of the Bible he thinks of the 73-book Catholic version, that being by far the most common version to be found in Ireland. This would make sense, as he seems to be making the implicit case that if wavering Irish Christians read their Bibles they'd realise it was all rubbish. As he puts it, 'It makes many assertions that are scientifically absurd and ethically unjust. And it undermines two key cornerstones of the Christian faith: the Ten Commandments and the story of Jesus.'

Well, aside from errors and dubious assertions in his little proposal, the very notion of the proposal in itself shows how little Mister Nugent understands the Catholicism he opposes. A project like that could well prove deeply damaging to the faith of a Protestant who takes a Sola Scriptura approach to the Bible, but shouldn't have any impact whatsover on Catholics. 

Catholics ought to know that the Church predated even the earliest New Testament books by about fifteen years, that the New Testament was written within the Church reflecting the already existing belief of the Church, and that the books of the New Testament were primarily written to be proclaimed and prayed within the Church. They should further know that it was the Church that kept, protected, compiled, and canonised the Bible as we now have it, doing so informally from the second century on and formally at a series of local councils around the end of the fourth century, confirming the decisions of those councils at the Second Council of Nicea in 787.

The Church knows that Bible has no shortage of passages that are problematic, to put it mildly, if they are read out of their proper context. Reading them in context means understanding them as manifestations of whatever genre in which they were written, in connection with their time and intended audience, in association with other Biblical books, and as perceived through time by the Church which recognised and canonised them as inspired Scripture. The Church's traditional way of reading the Bible has always been nuanced and layered, wholly unlike the more obviously literal ways of reading the Scriptures that were promoted and became common during the Protestant Reformation.

If I can quote Yves Congar's The Meaning of Tradition on this, as it well expresses the mainstream Catholic line on this:
'The reality contained in the sacred text would be described as its literary, historical, or exegetical meaning, but its dogmatic meaning is found outside the text, considered materially, which supposes the intervention of a new activity, namely, the faith of the Church. The place where this is found is precisely tradition as understood by the Fathers; it is there, in this setting and in these conditions, that the holy Scriptures reveal their meaning -- a meaning that is not simply the one accessible to philologists and historians but that which must nourish God's people in order that it may be God's people in the fullest sense.'
Atheist Ireland seems a small and rather silly group, to be honest, and I doubt it's in any way representative of most Irish atheists. I certainly hope it's not. Still, it's a platform of sorts, I suppose, and something to justify Michael being given a series of columns in what was once Ireland's newspaper of record.

Thoughts on Today's Folly
Today's column seems to be little more than a parade of sweeping generalisations and questionable assertions, but I'd not fault it for that as it's clearly intended as an introduction; I imagine Michael's planning on putting a veneer of meat on these flimsy bones over the coming weeks.

Two things, though, are worth saying now.

Firstly, early on he says this:
'Do you believe in a god (small "g")? Atheists reject the idea that your preferred god exists, in the same way that you reject the idea that other gods exist: because there is no reliable evidence that they do exist, and lots of reliable evidence that they are ideas invented by humans.'
This is a colossal category error, and one that I've seen wheeled out loads of times by the likes of Richard Dawkins. Atheists  need to get past this 'I just believe in one fewer god than you do' nonsense.

I don't believe in 'a god', anymore than does your typical Protestant, Muslim, Jew, Deist, Aristotelian, Platonist, or a host of others; indeed, I'd say we all recognise that there's but one God, the God who is the Necessary Being, the Uncaused Cause, the Prime Mover, the Ultimate Standard, the Lawgiver. This is a concept of God wholly different from the gods of the Greeks and the Vikings, and so forth. 

No Greek would ever have claimed that the philandering Zeus was perfectly good, just as no Viking would ever have said that the existence of the Universe couldn't be understood without Odin's existence underpinning it. So no, I believe, not in 'a god', but in God. And I believe that God is one and the same with God as recognised by the likes of Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Maimonides, Averroes, Voltaire, and Thomas Jefferson; we may understand Him differently, but we all recognise that the Godhead subsists in the one being.

And in case anyone thinks I'm off on a limb on this one, take a look at Nostra Aetate, the Second Vatican Council's 'Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions'; just because Catholics believe Muslims are wrong on the nature of God, say, and on the divinity of Jesus, this doesn't mean they're wrong on everything. We all worship the one God.

The other thing worth homing in on is this. Nugent says the following early in his article:
'Why are atheists so certain that gods do not exist? Actually, most of us aren’t. We merely reject the assertion that one or more gods do exist, based on the best currently available evidence. We would change our minds if we were given new and credible evidence that we are mistaken.'
I shall be looking forward to him detailing what he would consider to be 'new and credible' evidence.

* And someone about whom everyone should know

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