Category Archives: Religion

My Long and Winding Road to Catholicism – Part 1

Editor’s note: this post was originally published more than five years ago on a now defunct blog. It was originally published pseudonymously. I have done some editing to clean up the bits that I wanted to keep anonymous. I’ve also updated it a bit to reflect how my thinking has evolved over five years. But the vast majority of this text is untouched.

My conversion to Catholicism is best described as an uneasy alliance. I am not the best Catholic out there, and I’m not likely to ever be. I still have issues with the church, its theology, and its dogma. But my wife and I jointly came to the decision that it was the best choice for our family. I can’t speak for her. If she wants to tell her tale, that’s her business. I suspect that it was at least in part because she was following where I led, but she’s bright enough and educated enough and strong willed enough that she never would have let me lead her there if she didn’t want to go.

I was raised as a Protestant. Specifically, I was raised Methodist, but I don’t think it really matters much. The nit picky details of their theology may be different, but the different branches of modern liberal American Protestantism are more or less indistinguishable from each other on a day to day basis. The church I was raised in was more or less like any other SWPL protestant church, only more so. In the almost two decades since I stopped attending, it’s grown substantially, to the point where an old friend of mine once referred to it as “Fort God.”

Like most children, I didn’t much question religion when I was small. It was what all the adults told me, so it never even occurred to me to question it. Unlike most children – at least then – I was introduced to the concept of atheism fairly young. A good friend of mine declared in late middle school that he was an atheist. Like most bright people, being introduced to the concept of atheism forced me to rethink everything. And frankly, once you start thinking about it, there’s a lot to find issue with inside Christianity – especially modern “Churchianity.”

Though I didn’t understand it very well at the time, there’s also a lot of social pressure toward atheism, agnosticism, or “Christianity lite” from our “educated” classes. I was most definitely born a part of that class and lived most of my life within it. You could describe my mother’s family fairly accurately as “educational aristocracy”, but the term might not make any sense to anybody who doesn’t know my mother’s family or people like them. I didn’t have the words to express it in my youth, but at a base level “Churchianity” always seemed just silly to me. And growing up in the American south, the other flavor of Christianity I was routinely confronted with was fundamentalist evangelicalism. Although most fundamentalist evangelical Christians are nice people, and many are quite bright, frankly, the kind of thought (or lack thereof) that leads to that particular breed is… well, to me it’s always been the counterpart of radical feminism. Both breeds of “thought” are vapid, empty headed, flim flam that ignore large portions of reality.

Atheism couldn’t hold me for very long, though. Atheists will do all kinds of logical somersaults to avoid it, but true atheism requires a kind of arrogant denial of reality of its own. Like any other religion, atheism itself is an insistence that we know, definitively, all that there is to know about the universe. In a sense, every argument “proving” the non-existence of God has a kind of Black Swan problem. “God can’t exist because we have no evidence of him,” the arguments essentially go. Well, if all we ever see are white swans, we would conclude that there are no black swans. How could there be? We’ve never seen one. Every swan we’ve ever seen is white. Until whoops, along comes a single black one, disproving our argument that all swans are white.

The Christians hadn’t done a very good job of convincing me that God exists, at least not in the way that they described him. But the atheists couldn’t convince me, either. His existence being highly, stupendously, amazingly improbable is not the same is it being impossible. At the same time, it seems abundantly clear to me that there are forces at work in the world that we don’t understand. I don’t even necessarily mean anything supernatural. Relativity has been work in the universe since the beginning of time, but it’s only in the last hundred years that human beings have been able to understand it. What else is out there that science doesn’t understand yet? I’m guessing there’s a lot. Again, there are forces at work in the world that we don’t understand. God is as good a word for them as anything, and at this point in time, Science can’t explain them any better than religion.

Also, Science is still struggling with some deep and difficult questions that push up right against the boundaries of philosophy and religion. Where does conscious thought come from? What causes it? Science tells us it comes from neurons firing, but the simple fact of the matter is that we can’t replicate it. Despite decades of effort, we have no artificially intelligent computers. Indeed, we’re not really much closer to them than we were decades ago. We haven’t genetically engineered highly intelligent rats (to pick a random animal), and if we did, how would we even know that they’re intelligent? Or self aware? Science fiction has spent a lot of time dealing with this problem, but even there we find no real answers. Also, most of the hoopla about such and such an animal being as smart as or almost as smart as man is mostly bull. When you start to look into the studies, you do indeed find aspects of intelligence. But there’s nothing that brings with it the same capacity for abstract thought and reason that humanity has. Who is to say that it isn’t an eternal soul that gives us intelligence and self awareness?

Five years of undergraduate study toward a Philosophy degree didn’t really clear it up very much. Unlike most in the department, I could have skated through pretty easily. It could have been (and in some ways was) the easy path toward a college degree. For me, it was deadly serious. These were all issues that I cared a great deal about. I found a lot there to ponder: Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Nietzsche. I found a lot to ponder in the field of science, too – especially modern physics, which – when it’s not being hijacked by Richard Dawkins types – is doing more interesting philosophical work than modern philosophy (which is mostly a bunch of pseudo-intellectual, New Agey, relativistic nonsense). I didn’t really find a lot of answers, but by the end of college I did know one thing for sure: I was not ready to accept full blown atheism.

True agnostics are rare. It takes a certain uncommon kind of strength to admit that you just really don’t know about anything, much less the really important issues like religion. But for a long while, that was me. The only thing I knew for sure was that there are forces at work in the world I didn’t understand.

Tomorrow in Part 2 – how and why I came to realize that religion in general is important.

The Whole Series

ON THE EXISTENCE OF GODS – Book Review

godsA few days ago I was fortunate enough to receive an advance review copy of On the Existence of Gods by Vox Day and Dominic Saltarelli. Full disclosure: I was given this e-book specifically for the purposes of reviewing it, and publisher and co-author Vox Day has also published one of my own previous works. On the flip side, I specifically requested a chance to review this one. Indeed, I jumped at the chance. As a philosophy major and a former atheist turned agnostic turned eventually Catholic, you might imagine that the topic has some interest for me. Saltarelli was an unknown to me, but I’ve followed Day’s blog for quite some time and I figured this work would at least be interesting.

I was not wrong.

The book is actually a reprinting of a debate between Day and Saltarelli that I believe was originally published on Day’s blog, although I can’t immediately track down the original posts. Somehow I missed it in its original run.

To begin with, Saltarelli is to be commended on several fronts. First, for agreeing to debate Vox Day. Regardless of your opinion on the controversial man, he’s a formidable debater. Second, having accepted the challenge, Saltarelli gave it an honest go. More than most of today’s atheists are willing or able to, he kept it to an honest intellectual argument. He refrained from “that’s just silly” dismissals, ad hominem attacks, attacking straw men, and other dishonest debate tactics. Mr. Day, for his part, held to the same high standard. The result makes the debate a strong one, and well worth the read.

But Saltarelli’s biggest achievement is one he must share with his co-author. I’ve read quite a bit out there on this topic, and I’ve participated in many informal versions of this debate – on both sides of it. This is the first thing that I’ve read in a very long time that actually had new, novel, and interesting arguments – and both authors achieved this, on both sides of the debate.

My singular complaint about the book is that the format of it virtually guarantees that the arguments on both sides will be underdeveloped. This does indeed turn out to be the case – in particular, Vox Day’s argument from the existence of evil is here represented almost criminally poorly, and I’d love to see it fleshed out in greater detail. I believe I can fill in many of the details, but I’d very much like to see his own logic here. In essence, he’s sold me on the argument but I feel that he needs to show his work.

Still, I find myself giving this book five stars purely for the astonishing achievement of presenting novel arguments. After two thousand years of debating the topic, that’s a remarkable achievement.

This book is unlikely to change any minds. But if you’re interested in the topic on an intellectual level, it’s worth the read.

Trump is a Cult of Personality – and So is Evangelicalism

One of the more interesting data points to come out of the South Carolina Republican primary is how well Donald Trump did with self described evangelical Christian voters. Interesting – but not surprising.

First, the data: Trump pulled 34% of their vote, compared with 26% for Ted Cruz and 21% for Marco Rubio.

The reason this isn’t surprising? Donald Trump’s following is a cult of personality. Trump’s major selling point isn’t his policies. It’s not his ideology. It’s not even his good looks, his business sense, or his wealth. Trump’s major selling point is his personality. Voters are attracted to an alpha male who leads the pack with swagger and assuredness, charisma and vitality. Most of all, he’s entertaining.

Evangelical Christianity functions the same way. What draws evangelical Christians to any given church? You’ll hear lots of answers, ranging from the atmosphere to the style of worship to the particular beliefs being espoused. But what you’ll also see, almost universally, is that when the pastor of the church changes the makeup of the congregation also changes dramatically.

Tellingly, when people leave the congregation of one church to join another after a pastor change, the church they choose almost always puts the lie to any other reason they’ve given in the past for choosing. The ideology will be different. The atmosphere will be different. The style of worship will be different. Sometimes all of it will be different. Quite often the spectator will choose an entirely different denomination. And yet the congregationalist will once again use one of these reasons to justify his choice.

Sometimes people are honest enough to acknowledge that they just like (or dislike) the pastor. Most of the time they’re not. We all seem to inherently know and accept that that’s a poor reason to choose a pastor, and a far worse reason to choose a different denomination. It’s even worse for someone to admit that the pastor is the reason they chose to become Christian at all – but that happens, too.

Donald Trump may not be an evangelical Christian. But he appeals to them for the same reasons their pastors do. He’s energetic, bold, assertive and strong. He calls it like he sees it and doesn’t back down. But above all, he’s interesting.

A Strange Blip in History

 

Make Death Proud to Take Us
Make Death Proud to Take Us

The future history of “The Fourth Fleet” (available in the anthologies Make Death Proud to Take Us and There Will Be War: Volume X) makes several assumptions about the course of historical development over the next century or so. However, they were intentionally left out of the story. They weren’t immediately relevant, and including them would have bogged the story down.

A big part of the setting of “The Fourth Fleet” is the course of history of the United States between now and the time of the story. The United States of America, at the time of the story (the specific year is intentionally left off in order to give me maximum story flexibility, but assume that it’s roughly 150 years from now) is no longer the nation that we think of today. It’s borders have changed but also – and more importantly – its government has changed. It is no longer a democratically representative republic. Unlike the government of today, which more often than not acts as an empire, the government of my future world is an empire. However, much like the Roman Empire of old, it strives hard to maintain all appearances of still being a constitutionally limited republic.

Some examples: President Covington is currently serving his fifth four year term in office. Before that, he finished out the term of his predecessor. It’s an open secret that he had his predecessor assassinated, but nobody very much minds because the man was a Nero-like lunatic. He was “elected” by the people in sham contests that garnered him vast majorities of the votes. He will never lose an election in the system as it exists in the books.

Simultaneously, the geopolitical landscape around the USA has changed. In the early twenty-first century, the powder keg we call the Middle East exploded (hmm…). After a time of constant warfare, much of the region was finally forcibly united under a single ruling warlord calling himself the Caliph, and the new Caliphate was born. World War between the US, Japan and Europe on the one hand and the Caliphate on the other left Europe mostly a smoldering husk, including a few literally nuked cities. It is no longer a hub of civilization.

China rose – but not as fast as many feared. Despite the calamity facing the rest of the world, China had its own issues – including economic issues that are unfurling now in the real world and massive wars for Asian dominance against India, Russia, and Japan.

Thus in the story you have a sort of triumvirate of global (and extra-global, as it is a space story) powers: the US, China and India. The severely weakened but not destroyed Caliphate tries to play in this power game as well, but is most often lagging behind.

I would’ve liked to have worked more of this directly into the story. But the reality is that it would’ve bogged it down quite a bit. Even here in this form it took 460 words to very briefly summarize. The entire tale of “The Fourth Fleet” is a mere 8,017 words. Expanding the story by literally 6% (probably more after working it into the story cleanly) just to add this backstory would have ended up being cumbersome, and the reader would have bogged down in details that were only loosely relevant.

Instead, the story provides quite a bit of clues to give the reader just enough of a framework to figure out the major balance of power. It then leaves the rest to the reader’s imagination.

There’s another part of the backstory that I don’t particularly mind didn’t make it into the tale, because it really was irrelevant to this particular story. I am also strongly of the opinion that the Protestant Reformation is an aberration (albeit it one triggered with good justification) and that eventually (perhaps much sooner than many would think) the majority of Protestants will find themselves rejoining the fold in the mother Church. The Church will eventually come to regard this as “that weird little heresy that lasted for a short blip there.” The church thinks on different timescales than you and I. To a two thousand year old church, five hundred years just isn’t the same thing as it is to us mortals.

There Will Be War: Volume X
There Will Be War: Volume X

I also believe that the Church will find itself mending the Great Schism and reconciling with the Orthodox churches, although that will likely be more complicated. The Great Schism wasn’t primarily over issues of doctrine; it’s proximate cause was political conflict with Rome. Egos will have to be soothed and face maintained. But I believe that will eventually happen.

Within the context of the world of “The Fourth Fleet,” the churches largely reunite when a future pope calls for a new Crusade to respond to the potentially world-ending threat of a nuclear armed new Caliphate.

Interesting as it may be, all of this is just the speculation of a sci-fi author, right? Maybe.

Then again, maybe not.