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Monday, 30 March 2015

A Sermon

[I imagine that I am in a Catholic parish, that each parishioner has been encouraged to invite a friend, neighbour or relative. Bizarrely, I have been asked to preach a welcoming sermon.]

Good morning. It is good to see so many of you here. Some of you are here at the personal invitation of one of our regular worshippers. You are very welcome.

My remarks are very general – a mile wide and an inch deep (JR). There are many relevant topics that I could address that I do not address.

Christianity is under attack. Christians are persecuted in many countries where they are in a minority. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Christians are killed every year. We rejoice in the faith and fortitude which they display. The saints (and many were martyred) are our pride and joy. At the same time we grieve over every Nigerian Christian done to death or sold into slavery. We are appalled when Coptic Christians, whose tradition goes back nearly two millennia, are murdered in cold blood.

Christianity is under attack in the West. You will all have heard of ‘the new atheists’, hard core materialists who allege that teaching Christianity to our children is a form of abuse. It is about this attack that I wish to speak this morning.

The first thing to say is that in grand scheme of things these atheist materialists are in a tiny, tiny minority. This doesn't mean that they are wrong (though they are). But they swim against the tide of humanity. At all times and in all places, until very recently, nearly all human beings have intuited that their own sense of right and wrong and, indeed, the very existence of the universe are clues to a divine purpose. Even in the secular west this is probably true of most people, if they bother to think about it at all. If this is you, the new atheists despise you. Perhaps they ought to find more deserving targets for their contempt. Perhaps they should get out more.

Some of the new atheists have a belief in ‘scientism’. In other words, they proclaim that Science is the only way we have to know and understand the world. Matter, energy, space and time are all that exist. Science deals with matter energy, space and time. So, according to their assertion, Science is all we need to explain or understand the universe. This is, I venture to say, self-evidently false.

There is more to the universe than matter, energy, space and time. Think for a second or two. There is beauty; there are right and wrong. Science can tell us nothing about right and wrong, nothing about beauty.

I would go further and say that they are self-contradictory. That Science is the only way we have of knowing and understanding the world is not a scientific statement. Let me repeat: when a materialist says that Science is our only reliable tool for making sense of the world, he is not making a scientific statement – so when he says it, we have no reason to pay any attention to him. It’s not Physics, not Botany, not Geology, not Astronomy – it is pure dogma. I am not sneering at dogma – we have plenty of dogmas or doctrines that are not scientifically proven: the doctrine of Creation, the doctrine of Original Sin, the doctrines of the Incarnation, of the Resurrection and of Redemption. More than you can shake a stick at. Some doctrines are very hard. We do not claim to prove any of them by experiment in a laboratory. We believe that our doctrines are revealed to us by men and women whose thirst for God has enabled them to draw near to Him. The atheists say, ‘Only Science reveals Truth’ and they want us to believe this is True; but they neglect to give us a scientific reason for believing that it is True. Truths are revealed only by Science – except this one, which I made up.

I have been talking about Scientism, which I think is clearly false. It falls at the first fence. I would hate you to think that I am anti-Science. I am not. I am almost reverent about Science. The scientific method has allowed us to discover an enormous amount about the physical world. The astonishing technology we enjoy in this century is the fruit of Science. But Science does not come from nowhere. What we think of as the sophisticated (mind-blowing) Science of our time has developed at an increasing rate since the sixteenth century, with one discovery after another providing scientists with new questions, some of which they have succeeded in answering.

This not to say that people before the sixteenth century were dunces. They built astonishing cathedrals and they made rational observations about cause and effect. They knew what caused babies. Civilisations as different as Ancient China, Ancient Egypt, Ancient Babylon and Ancient Greece developed practical technologies undreamt of by even more ancient hunter-gatherers and even they invented the bow and arrow.

It is the worst kind of arrogance to belittle our forefathers. But my point is this: what we think of as the scientific method (observation, hypothesis, experimental testing, as well as refutation), which took off in the1500s, gathered pace in the 1600s, moved through the gears in the eighteenth century and achieved warp speed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, happened in a corner of the Asian continent which we call Europe – Christian Europe. Brilliant men and women (from Copernicus to Marie Curie) worked tirelessly to discover true things about the universe. Why did this not happen in Japan? They are at least as intelligent as Europeans. Why not in India? We know that Indians have done some of the most spectacular mathematics in history. Why was it in Catholic Europe that Science with a capital S was born?

I am not alone in believing that it is Catholic doctrine (dogma, if you like) which provided the soil in which Science took root. Catholics believe that the Natural World springs from the mind of God and that it is therefore supremely rational. It cannot be self-contradictory. We also believe that God made us in His image. We believe that He has free will and that He has endowed us with free will. He is creative and has blessed us with creativity and reason. God creates ex nihilo, out of nothing. We can make no physical thing except with the materials He has provided but we can create hypotheses to explain the natural world. But, to match the real world, in other words to explain it, our hypotheses, our theories, have to be congruent (like two triangles with the same sides and the same angles) with the natural world.

This view, that our minds (which are rational) can make sense of the universe (which is rationally constructed) has not been held by all peoples at all times. Animists, who believe that every tree, every stream, every rock, every cloud, every breeze is endowed with a ‘spirit’ which bloweth where it listeth, are not likely to create the edifice of modern Science. According to this view, we ‘persuade’ things to happen by appealing to, by propitiating the spirits. Our Muslim brothers and sisters never refer to the future without a pious ‘inshallah (if God wills it)’. Some have declared that it is impious to (as they would have it) make predictions about God’s world. I applaud their piety but it is no wonder that modern Science did not take off in the Muslim world.

In my view and, I think, in the view of many historians and philosophers, a direct line can be traced from Catholic theology to modern Science.

People who take a different view from me allege that there was a huge conflict between Religion and Science and that Science won. This, I believe, is a narrative with not a shred of evidence. Bad Science is driven out by good Science; and, inshallah, bad religion is driven out by good religion. There’s the conflict.

So, without Catholicism you won’t get Science. For me, the case is clear. You may not agree; but I hope, at least, that you will grant a case can be made.

I am prepared to go further – much further. We like Science, right? What else do we like? I like Human Rights! If I, as a Catholic, believe that every human being on the planet is made in the image of God, I should tremble at the thought of placing my goals ahead of his – especially at the thought of cruelly exploiting him for my benefit. Universal human rights (specifically, the rights of non-Catholics) were first articulated by scholastic theologians who condemned the vile treatment of South Americans by Spanish conquistadores.

It was an atheist, Ayn Rand, who said that every man is an end in himself (can’t get more Catholic than that) not the means to the end of another. St Paul himself could not have put it better. It seems to me that the very concept of human rights makes the best sense in the context of Catholic theology. Curiously enough, egalitarianism cheerfully sacrifices individuals (on the guillotine, in the gulag and in the killing fields of Cambodia). Stalin made my case very eloquently: ‘Death of individual is tragedy; death of millions is statistic’.

What else do we like? We like Democracy. I confess that I have reservations about democracy. I agree with Winston Churchill that that it is the worst form of government apart from all the others which have been tried. CS Lewis, author of the Chronicles of Narnia and many other books and essays, put it best when he said, ‘Democracy is to be desired not because human beings are so good that their aggregate decisions will be good but because human beings are not good enough that any one should be in charge’. That is a paraphrase.

Catholicism has given us Science. Catholicism has given us Human Rights. Catholicism has given us (implicitly) Democracy. What’s not to like? Oh, and Salvation – the only free lunch.
I hope you will come back. I hope you will be a much better, more thoughtful Catholic than I am. And more charitable.

I will close by citing some findings that I think are relevant. There is no doubt at all that religious people are happier than non-religious people. In America, surveys show that the happiest people are orthodox Jews and Evangelicals. They stay married and therefore bring up children who are less likely to succumb to drugs and crime. They therefore contribute to the future. Religious people are healthier, as well as happier.

If you care at all about yourself, your children and society as a whole – be a Catholic.

God bless you!

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