Notes from Across the Atlantic
Notes from Across the Atlantic

Notes from Across the Atlantic

Richard John Neuhaus FAITH Magazine May-June 2008s



John Searle, professor of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley, has been writing for years and years on the quandaries of the brain-mind-consciousness connections. We have what I expect are basic disagreements, but he is always instructive. His most recent book is Freedom and Neurobiology(Columbia University Press), and it is reviewed by David Papineau, a philosopher at King’s College, London, in the Times Literary Supplement. A strength of Searle’s approach is that he is attentive to thinking and consciousness as we experience thinking and consciousness. This is sometimes called a commonsensical approach, and Papineau doesn’t think much of it. “Common sense is all very well,” he writes, “but it has many strands, and they aren’t always internallyconsistent, especially when they need to be squared with the findings of science.” Ah yes, the findings of science. Searle is critical of the vulgar reductionism by which mind is exhaustively explained by reference to neural synapses in the pound of thinking meat that is the brain. He says that consciousness is “causally reducible” to the physical world but is not “ontologically reducible”. Papineau thinks this comes close to talking nonsense. “Quantum mechanics,” he says, “tells us that the probabilities of physical effects are always fixed by prior physical circumstances.” Apart from the problems with the idea of “fixed probabilities”, one might think that Papineau’s readiness to surrender to the physicists the last word on human thinking imperils his employment as a philosopher. Thechief difficulty is with the idea of science as the study of that which is under our control and can be subjected to examination and experiment. In this definition of science, the scientist seeking to understand consciousness by studying the brain is not studying consciousness. More specifically, he is not studying the consciousness of the scientist seeking to understand consciousness by studying the brain. John Searle hasn’t figured out how we think and why, and perhaps nobody ever will, but he is suggestive and instructive because, unlike David Papineau and many others, he refuses to define science down.


Marx, Freud and, above all, Nietzsche are atheists for whom one can have a measure of intellectual respect. They, says John F. Haught in his book God and the New Atheism, understood that when God and religion are eliminated life does not go on as usual. Haught calls them the hard-core atheists. It’s quite a different matter with the new crop of soft-core atheists. Haught writes: “Dawkins declares that the biblical God is a monster, Harris that God is evil, Hitchens that God is not great. But without some fixed sense of rightness how can one distinguish what is monstrous, evil or ‘not great’ from its opposite? In order to make such value judgments one must assume, as the hard-core atheists are honest enough to acknowledge, that there exists somewhere, in some mode of being, arealm of rightness that does not owe its existence completely to human invention, Darwinian selection or social construction. And if we allow the hard-core atheists into our discussion, we can draw this conclusion: If absolute values exist, then God exists. But if God does not exist, then neither do absolute values, and one should not issue moral judgments as though they do. Belief in God or the practice of religion is not necessary in order for people to be highly moral beings. We can agree with soft-core atheists on this point. But the real question, which comes not from me but from the hard-core atheists, is: Can you rationally justify your unconditional adherence to timeless values without implicitly invoking the existence of God?”


In late February, much news attention was paid the “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey” released by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, and deservedly so. A landscape survey is just that, however. The methodologies of survey research cannot tell us what is happening on the ground, never mind what is happening in people’s hearts. Researchers set up categories and then ask people to identify themselves in relation to them. The survey describes the American religious scene as “very diverse and extremely fluid”, which is undoubtedly true. That has always been the case, but it is perhaps more so today. Almost 80 percent of Americans identify themselves as Christians, with, despite all the talk about growing religious pluralism, no more than 5 per cent claiming other religions. (Andperhaps no more than 1 per cent identifying as Muslim.) The 16 per cent who say they are religiously “unaffiliated” includes a large majority who say they believe in God, pray, and are more or less like their mainly Christian neighbours, except they don’t identify themselves with a specific religious tradition or community. For Protestants, Pew offers three categories: evangelical, mainline and historically black. If by evangelical one means someone who has had a conversion experience, believes in the authority of the Bible and tries to share the faith with others, there are millions of evangelicals in “mainline” churches such as the United Methodist, ELCA Lutheran and Presbyterian Church USA, as well as the Catholic Church, although most of them would not call themselvesevangelicals. The loose use of evangelicalalso results in frequent headlines declaring that evangelicals divorce, engage in extramarital sex and do other un-evangelical things at more or less the same rates as the general population. To which realevangelicals say that such people are not really evangelicals. With Catholics, it’s different. There are no experiential or behavioural tests for being a Catholic. “Once a Catholic, always a Catholic” and all that. Being a faithful Catholic is something else. The Pew data do suggest an alarming rate of Catholics who no longer identify themselves as such. It seems that one out of ten adult Americans is a lapsed Catholic. I’ll await the results of other number-crunching analysts before commenting further on that. The finding thatreceived most attention is that 44 percent of Americans have changed religions or denominations at least once in their lifetime. With few exceptions, these are changes within the Christian tradition, broadly defined. The new Pew survey, like all such projects since the beginning of modern survey research in the 1920s, indicates that America continues to be a confusedly and, it would seem, incorrigibly Christian society. So one might say there is nothing new in the study, except that increased “fluidity” might be bad news for those traditions, such as Catholicism, with a strong connection between religious identity and ecclesial adherence.


The former editor of America, a Jesuit weekly, offers his response to the Pew data to the readers of the Washington Post, many of whom probably found his analysis plausible. The reason so many Catholics have lapsed, he said, is that Catholic loyalty was once “based on family pressure, ethnic neighbourhoods and lack of competition rather than personal commitment”. They also stuck with the Church “out of fear of damnation”, but people don’t believe that kind of thing any more. Catholics “became educated, got better jobs and moved out of their ghettos and into the suburbs”. One is reminded of the Washington Postdescription of evangelicals as poor, uneducated and easily led. The Jesuit father repeatedly blames the hierarchy of the Church, which he describesas “overanxious” and “authoritarian”. Appeal to authority on questions such as birth control, divorce and women priests “did not satisfy an educated people who wanted to be convinced with arguments”. On those and other questions, one might note, the Jesuits have not been conspicuous in providing supportive arguments. The “creative ideas” of theologians were respected at the Second Vatican Council, he writes, but since then such theologians have been “attacked and silenced by the hierarchy”. As a result, he writes, theologians have been alienated. I expect that theologians comprise a very small portion of lapsed Catholics. “A secular comparison would be to see the church as a company where the management and research division were not on speaking terms. Would you invest in such a company?”Probably not, but, if the problem is that the research division is sabotaging the business the company is in, the answer might be to get a new research division. Under the oppressive hierarchy, “liturgical experimentation was forbidden”. That will come as news to innumerable Catholics in parishes that have had to endure the liturgical creativity of Father Jim and Sister Trixy. “Most Protestant services are more interesting and moving than Catholic services.” I don’t know how many Protestant services father has attended, but is there something more interesting and moving than the Real Presence of Christ in the Mass? But enough. There is not a wisp of self-criticism in this wearily familiar complaint of adolescence coming upon its sunset years in unrelenting resentment that its “creativity”in destabilising, confusing, obfuscating and undercutting Catholic faith and life has not received uncritical parental approval. Just imagine what might have been accomplished were it not for that authoritarian hierarchy and mean father figure in Rome.


Inner-city ministry, as it was called, was all the rage when I was a young Lutheran pastor. That had everything to do with my exulting in my call to a very poor, black and depressed parish in Brooklyn. Later, I considered but finally declined an invitation to head up the Urban Institute in Chicago, which was an ecumenical training school for urban ministries. One of the heroes of that time was Chicago’s Monsignor Reynold Hillenbrand, who inspired countless priests as rector of the Mundelein Seminary. The Chicago Sun Times reports on an exhibit featuring Catholicism in Chicago and quotes Monsignor Hillenbrand, who died in 1978, as telling priests “to get out of the rectories and stop just saving souls and start saving neighbourhoods and people”. All these years later, one cannothelp but be ambivalent about that exhortation. Certainly priests should get out of the rectory, and saving neighbourhoods is a good cause. But when priests stop believing that their premier mission is to save souls, it is unlikely that they’ll be very good at saving anything else. And, of course, Chicago’s neighbourhoods were not saved. As for the number of souls saved, we await the final report.

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