Thomism

11 03 2008

Well, here’s another rant that’s been bubbling away since last week, when I caught the tail end of a program called Creatures That Defy Evolution which made me laugh, then become angry. It happens like that.

Let me start off by saying I’m Catholic. I have nothing against religion, and nothing against what anyone chooses to believe. But I do have a problem with stupidity. Ignorance is okay; a lot of people are ignorant. Amazon Indians are “ignorant” of the internet. Pacific Islanders are “ignorant” of snow. Ignorance is fine. Stupidity, especially that which is cleaved to by people who should know better, is not. Now, I’m not going to list all the evidence for evolution; I may one day, but this is a far more elegant solution than to write a long, long, long list…

As a Catholic, of course, I have the advantage of belonging to a relatively enlightened Church. I know, you’re all going to start yelling about a sexist priesthood, a backwards view on birth control and AIDS, homosexuality and so on and so forth, but they’re matters of catechism; I’m referring to the Catholic Church’s relatively recent embracing of real science, and it’s all due to a remarkable man who lived in the 13th Century.

Thomas Aquinas was really a philosopher’s philosopher; he basically understood that in your head, nothing was really off-limits, and you could think about anything you wanted, whatever anyone said about it. But he was also rigorous and thorough, checking his beliefs against reality at every step. And that’s what brought him to a realization that (eventually, after about 600 years) revolutionized the Church. By rights, it should revolutionize every faith, especially the more fundamentalist ones, but I don’t see that happening for a while. The following may irritate non-believers, but I don’t mean to force any religion down your throats; rather I wish to illustrate a fine piece of philosophy that should appeal to everyone, and give you a good talking point next time the Jehovah’s come to your door.

In the 13th Century, the Church was pretty Fundamentalist itself; the Bible was inerrant, the Earth was created in 4000BC, everything was exactly as laid out in Genesis and so forth. Then Thomas had a revelation (pardon the unintentional religious pun). He realized there were two paths to Truth; God’s Word, and God’s Work. The Word, the Bible, was predicated solely upon Man’s understanding of it, and by definition (and as explicitly stated several times within it) that understanding is limited and imperfect. The Work (i.e. the Universe) is by definition Perfect, being the work of God, and thus the evidence, whether we fully understand it or not, is Truth.

Thomas realized that in studying the Universe, we could come to a better understanding of God; he also understood that if the evidence we gleaned from that study brought us into conflict with the Word, then it was not the evidence that was at fault, but rather our understanding of the Word. Therefore, if evidence seemed to disprove the Bible, we would have to change our understanding of the Bible, since the evidence that led to that conflict could not be in error. Our understanding of that evidence may be in error, but even in the 13th Century, it was pretty well known that evidence was empirical, and interpretation was not; Thomas was talking about empirical evidence, not the interpretation of said evidence.

Now, remember, this was 800 years ago, and this man, who knew nothing of radiometric dating, evolution or cosmology essentially laid the groundwork for what would become the Church’s reaction to these discoveries centuries later. Eventually, he was rewarded by being named the Patron Saint of Education and Learning, and that is why there are so many St Thomas Aquinas Schools around the world.

So what does all this mean? Well, it gives you a very useful tool to use against anyone who claims Biblical inerrancy. The argument is very simple.

God created the universe, according to the Bible, and thus it must, by definition, be a perfect work. Therefore all it’s evidence is equally perfect and true. And yet that evidence screams that the Universe is 12.5 billion years old, the Earth is 4.5 billion years old, Evolution occurs and the world is essentially nothing like the Bible suggests. Given that Biblical inerrancy is fact, that leads to some very disturbing conclusions.

1. The Universe is NOT inerrant in its truth, and therefore cannot be the creation of a perfect being. This flatly contradicts the Biblical account, so therefore cannot be true.

2. The Devil is altering all the evidence, everywhere. This means the Devil is omnipresent, since apparently he is jostling the elbow of every geologist, every paleontologist, every anthropologist, every biologist and geneticist in the world all at once, planting evidence everywhere. This is not suggested by a literal reading of the Bible either, and certainly suggests that God’s power to counter the Devil is limited, and so therefore contradicts, once again, Biblical inerrancy, so cannot be true.

3. God made the Universe solely to deceive, planting the evidence of great age, evolution and the like, to mislead us. This does not contradict a literal reading of the Bible, oddly enough. But it does somewhat fly in the face of every major religion on the planet…

I’ve used these arguments very successfully against Jehovah’s Witnesses in the past; by “successfully”, I mean that after about five minutes of trying to counter them, and failing, they suddenly had to leave, tried to hit me up for a “donation”, and have left me alone for about two years now.
So even if that’s all you get out of this post, I think it’s worth it. Unless you are a JW, in which case, read it again and try to counter the argument. Trust me, it’s fun and entertaining, and as long as you’re actually thinking critically, I’m happy for you, even if I don’t change your mind.

Toodles for now!


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6 responses

11 03 2008
furmatte

Well, dagnabbit, I never thought of that argument before! It’s perfect! Now I’m going to have to go find me a Jehovah’s Witness or two to try it out on.
:)

11 03 2008
rebeldreams

Feel free! For anyone else watching, you don’t HAVE to be Christian to try this one out; I know atheists who take a great deal of satisfaction from using a watertight argument in the face of willful ignorance.

11 03 2008
Bad

Hey, if it makes you feel better, this atheist happily concurs that Catholicism is relatively more enlightened. I don’t really have a stake in which brand of Christianity amasses more followers in the US, but for pragmatic reasons, out of the major groups, I’m rooting for the Catholics. Even if I may not agree with the conclusions of Catholic theologians, at least thanks to folks like Aquinas, the Church has as one of its basic premises the idea that reason and rationality are a starting point when looking at the world and trying to figure it out.

11 03 2008
rebeldreams

Thanks, Bad. I was raised Catholic, and, like many, went ‘lapsed’ – I never described myself by the term I find sneeringly offensive – “Recovering Catholic”, and now I’m back. I came across Thomism when I was lapsed, and it was actually one of the factors that brought me back (I’m certainly not trying a conversion here, BTW!)

As I said in the post, it’s a beautifully elegant, inescapable piece of philosophy. I don’t expect it to make major in-roads in the fundies, since it took the Church almost a thousand years to accept it, but it’s a good place to start. I find that when the fundamentalists are challenged on their own ground with an argument that does not call their belief of a Creator into question, they have many fewer ripostes to it.

I like to keep it civil – kind words win more hearts and minds :D

23 04 2008
calvinlawson

Man, I wish there were more religious people like you! As an aside, I just blogged about Biblical Infallibility and how it relates to ID:

http://calvinlawson.wordpress.com/2008/04/17/answers-in-genesis-part-ii-biblical-infallibility/

Keep it up, man!

24 04 2008
rebeldreams

Thanks calvinlawson! My point really is that those who claim to have complete understanding of the Word are guilty of the same hubris that they claim led to the Fall (if one believes in that). Basically, if the Word is the product of perfection, then ONLY those who are perfect can have a complete understanding of it. By definition, Man imperfect, and thus cannot ever have a full understanding of the Word. He cannot, by the same token, have a full understanding of the Work, either, but neither realizations should stop us from striving to gain both. That said, Thomism essentially blew the lid off the concept of having full understanding of the Word, in much the same way as Gödel blew the lid off completeness.

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