An Open Letter to a Catholic Friend

A friend of mine recently published a column in one of our local newspapers decrying the morality of atheists. This man is a good friend of mine and he knows very well that I am an atheist.

I had the good fortune of having this friend tell a classroom of students that they better keep their eye on me because I am a very dangerous man. He laughed when he said it, and I took both his words and his laughter as a mighty high compliment.

He also gave me an A in his class, the topic of which was how to write an argumentative essay. If I know how to write an argumentative essay at all, he must, in all faith, receive his due.

Throughout my college years and well beyond, we have remained friends. We do not see each other as often as I think we would like to, but I do believe we think well of each other.

I believe this because he and I have sat on his backporch for hours at a time discussing the merits and demerits of religion and atheism. He has brewed me perhaps some of the best homemade coffee I’ve ever had while arguing with me about the tenets of Catholicism. He has shared my writings on atheism with his local priest, and suggested (I imagine) that the priest write me a letter in return, which, in fact, the priest did.

Now in semi-retirement, my friend regularly escapes Vermont for Mexico, in part because he prefer the richness and depth of Mexico’s Catholic culture.

Earlier this week, my friend published an article in my local newspaper calling atheists immoral. I commented “Hahaha” on his Facebook page, and a while later, he clicked “Like” on my comment.

I decided, in the spirit of our long-running debates, to take his article as nothing less than a personal and friendly challenge.

While I had scanned the article before leaving my comment, I had not read it too closely, knowing that I didn’t yet have the time to give it my full attention.

But now I do. And I am no longer laughing. Not one bit.

My friend begins his article by establishing the relevancy of his topic to the world of current events, as he must do if he’s hoping to publish his words in a newspaper. The current event is recently-released research that, according to its title, demonstrates “Global Evidence of Extreme Intuitive Moral Prejudice Against Atheists.”

The researchers find that, across the entire globe — across cultures and across nations — atheists suffer from prejudice when it comes to “employment, elections, family life, and broader social inclusion.” It finds that this “prejudice stems, in part, from deeply-rooted intuitions about religion’s putatively necessary role in morality.”

My friend summarized it in the following way: “a wide majority of people share a strong intuition that those who are lacking in religious convictions are likely also to be lacking in consistently moral behavior.”

My friend does not dispute the findings of the researchers, but he wonders what drove them to characterize their findings as evidence of “prejudice.” He believes, instead, that the research supports the intuitive conclusion that morality, indeed, requires one to have some form of religious conviction.

He then does what every religious believer must do when discussing atheism and morality: He invokes the four unholy horsemen of Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, and Mao. This demonic invocation leads him on a bloody morality tour of twentieth century fascism, which he apparently equates with the apotheosis of atheism.

My friend then takes his reader a little deeper into history, reaching back into the 19th century to invoke the philosophical atheists of Feuerbach, Marx, and Nietzche, all whom he claims “set the stage for the bloody triumph of Modernism.”

He then equates atheism to the “shutting down of religion” and all atheists with his four unholy horsemen, whom he also characterizes as “haters of religion and God,” which, through the transitive property, would make all atheists “haters of religion and God.”

“In light of these facts,” he asserts, “it isn’t ‘prejudice’ to be skeptical of atheists’ abilities to be reliably upstanding and humane in moral behavior. It is not prejudice when our collective human knowledge is based on actual, well-documented experience and our use of reason to analyze events. That is not prejudice, that is common sense — or maybe even something called wisdom.”

All of which is to say that my friend, who knows I am atheist, believes that “our collective human knowledge based on actual, well-documented experience” supports the exclusion of atheists from the enjoyment of their human rights.

He believes that everything we know about atheists tells us to prevent them from obtaining employment, from having a voice in the public houses of our democracies, from celebrating events with their more religious family members, and from just generally feeling a sense of inclusion in humanity’s broader social sphere.

He believes that I should not be allowed to be a teacher who is responsible for inculcating the values of human culture into the hearts and minds of the next generation.

He believes that I should not have a voice in my town meeting, that I should not be elected to a public office, and that I should not be allowed to represent the interests and values of my neighbors on the floor of a House or Senate.

He believes that I should be made to feel awkward among my more religious family members, that I should feel even in the security of my mother’s and father’s home a sense of exclusion from everyone I was raised to love.

He believes that when I walk down the street I should lower my eyes from all that he says is sacred, and that I should feel, in my heart of hearts, cast out from the grace of my community.

This man who, with Jesus, promises not to cast the first stone, is aiming his rock right at my forehead and — if I have anything to say about it — the forehead of my daughter.

How dare you, sir?

How dare you publish under your own name in a record for all to see the hostile vile that, in all truth, led to the slaughters of the twentieth century?

You are too smart to not realize what you are doing.

You are attempting to make a sacrificial goat of atheists to cast out the demons (specters) that have haunted at least three generations of human beings. The evidence found by the researchers suggests, and your article prescribes, that atheists may be the most outcast members of human society, and yet you want your fellow man to cast us out even further, and to see that action as wisdom.

You believe that everything that went wrong with the Enlightenment experiment finds its home in its deal with the devil, whereby, to enjoy the fruits of knowledge provided by the discoveries of science, humanity had to allow for, at the very least, the non-majesty of God.

You see the four unholy horseman as usurpers whom were let into the city on the hill only due to the liberal logic of tolerance and equal opportunity, each of which were discovered at the intellectual height of the Enlightenment. You believe that your four fascist atheists snuck inside the city walls on the Romantic backs of your German philosophers before they finally seized power through a series of revolutions and counterevolutions, each more bloody than the next.

And now you believe that best thing humanity can do is drive these invaders back beyond the limits of your society and to use every (at least at this point) non-violent tool at your disposal: no right to employment, no right to a vote, no acceptance from the family, and no sense of belonging to a community.

By casting atheists from the Eden that humanity once was, you believe that the Kingdom of the Lord will finally return.

All I have to say is: Go fuck yourself.

I don’t need to defend my morality to you. I’ve sat in your kitchen. I’ve laughed with your children. I’ve broken bread at your dinner table. I’ve engaged you face to face with every ounce of good will I can imagine. And yet, you still pick up that rock?

It’s not rocket science: Be nice to each other. That’s the whole and short of it.

Everything else is just a language game.

The fact that you would equate me with “haters of religion and God” not only signals your inability to understand anything I’ve ever said or written, but it signals your inability to understand the wisdom of Catholic (Universal) love.

Catholicism teaches that God became Man in order to demonstrate what it means to love. In that demonstration, He shows that love radiates at its brightest when it is extended to those whom we have every reason not to love. With his Father’s words behind him, He shows what it means to not bear false witness against one’s neighbors, demonstrating this not only in the Roman and Jewish equivalents of a courtroom, but also in the public square, where he dares those who have not committed a sin to cast the first stone at the sinner lying helpless on the ground before them.

In what way do you take those basic principles of Catholicism to mean that humanity should spill their collective guilt on the pure white coats of atheists?

When Jesus teaches that the love of God can be subjectively experienced by putting ourselves at the service of those whom society has cast out, where do you find the logic to threaten my daughter’s ability to experience God’s grace through the embracing hug of collective human society?

That you would, for one second, judge my humanity by the measure of monsters such as Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, and Mao is to stand on the highest rock to exclaim your love of the golden calf whose name is “the Word.”

Cast aside your idol and experience the grace of true human communion, the spiritual sensation that arises when you look into a suffering stranger’s eyes and see the face of God.

Now turn and look at yourself. In a flash of lightning, see your arm raised like Cane and your face flushed with anger. Oh, you coat it in the dispassionate language of Enlightenment thinking, with your markers of reason and evidence, but at its heart, your message is vile, and it judges me and my daughter with the verdict of guilt.

I say again, standing here with my fists on my hips (for I can do no other), how dare you sir?

I have every urge to slam the door you opened right back in your face, to cast you from the bosom of my communion forever, but I know, deep in your heart, that this is not your intention. I know that you know that I am a good man, and that I act honestly and earnestly to improve the subjective experience of those whom I am lucky enough to meet face to face (failing as often as I succeed, of course, for what am I if not human?).

And so, like a man often does, I turn back, and on my face, an earnest offer of forgiveness.

I only hope you are graceful enough to accept it, and smart enough to realize why it was required.

There’s more in your article to be debated. But before we can begin, you must realize the personal offensiveness of your error. Otherwise, you’re hardly worth the Word.