Monday, April 19, 2010

A review of From Atheism to Catholicism By Kevin Vost

From Atheism to Catholicism

By Kevin Vost
Published by Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division
Available through The Catholic Company
US $16.95

Jean Shepherd, the author of “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash”, once told his radio audience a story of a man who had the misfortune of purchasing a car with a balsa wood transmission. That’s right, a balsa wood transmission. You couldn’t get very far in a car like that, and that was the end of the story. I don’t remember the particular details as to how it all came about, but I do remember, to this day, Shep’s concluding remarks. He opined that while the owner of a car with a balsa wood transmission would quickly discern his error in judgment, there were many out there in the world who had adopted egregious philosophies who were destined to suffer many years, if not entire lifetimes, as a result of their poor choice. “Better to have a balsa wood transmission than a balsa wood philosophy”, was Shep’s conclusion. The quicker that a “crash and burn” resulted from that kind of poor choice, the better off you were.

Today, in our culture, atheism is on the rise. Alarmingly so! Consider this line of thinkers: Voltaire, Lyell and Darwin, Nietzsche and Wagner, Hitler and Sanger. Hitler murdered between six and twelve million. He was a piker compared to Sanger’s brainchild, Planned Parenthood, which has murdered over fifty-two million and which operates in a nation whose foundational document states that all men are endowed by God with the inalienable right to life. And where did this train of thought begin? With the train’s locomotive force being provided by Voltaire, a man who lacked the courage to even admit his own atheistic convictions. Many have willingly died for their faith, but few are willing to die for their atheism; yet, many others die because of it.

Kevin Vost’s treatment of atheistic thinkers is neither systematic nor comprehensive, but rather from the viewpoint of one who has traveled along the road of atheism for awhile, and then, thankfully, got back on the right road – with a little help from his friends. It is a personal journey that begins in his youth with an assortment of icons: Clark Kent, Superman, Charles Atlas, Joe Weider, and Mike Mentzer.

So we are basically talking about super heroes at the early stages of adolescence and body builders in his later teen age years. So how did these icons lead to atheism? Well there is a dichotomy that develops between the icons. Vost makes a comparison of similarities between Superman and Jesus early in the book, but it is Weider and Mentzer who lure the teen age Vost to the dark side, i.e. Nietzsche. This occurs at that point in life where a young male is most vulnerable to the likes of this philosophy. It is the time of life when a young male can easily believe that he is the center of the universe. Vost uses the word intoxicating to describe his reading of Nietzsche. There was only one problem. While Nietzsche writes of a superman at a far future time and place he writes that it is the reader’s altruistic duty to sacrificially pave the path for that day. Did I just hear the sound of a balsa wood transmission falling out of the car? Suffice it to say, Nietzsche died insane.

The next thinker Vost encountered was Bertrand Russell. I’ll quote from Russell’s prologue to his autobiography -- “Echoes of cries of pain reverberate in my heart. Children in famine, victims tortured by oppressors, helpless old people a hated burden to their sons, and the whole world of loneliness, poverty, and pain make a mockery of what human life should be. I long to alleviate the evil, but I cannot, and I too suffer.” Boy, what empathy! A peer of the Realm, he too suffers! But wait a moment, isn’t this the same guy who responded to the question of why he did not contribute to charity with: “I’m afraid you’ve got it all wrong. We are Socialists. We don’t pretend to be Christians.” So what was the attraction of this atheistic thinker to the young Vost? Undoubtedly it must be the views Russell had on sexuality, although this is not explicitly stated. One other aspect of Russell’s thinking was the denial of free will. In spite of his denial, Vost notes that Russell made some useful comments concerning our ability to control our thoughts and emotions, and these thoughts had profound influence on Albert Ellis.

Vost is by profession a psychologist, and Albert Ellis invented a system of psychotherapy that proved to be more quick and effective than psychoanalysis, aka Freudian psychology. Ellis introduced a form of analysis termed Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, REBT for short, which analyzes human interactions in terms of Stimulus, Activating event, Belief system, Response and Consequence. We tend to believe that Activating events have Consequences, but Ellis demonstrates that Consequences quite often arise from our own Belief system.

Imagine that you are at a party and a member of the opposite sex approaches you with a cigarette between their fingers and asks you for a light. So you whip out your trusty Bic lighter and give it a flick and move the flame toward the cigarette end. As flame approaches cigarette the smoker softly, gently but firmly places their hand over your hand with the lighter until the cigarette is lit. They thank you for the light and slowly release their grip on your hand and move away.

The Consequence in this case can be different depending on the Belief system of the person with the lighter. Suppose the person with the Bic is male and rather unsophisticated, and has rarely lit a cigarette for a woman. This person may mistake that firm but steady hand holding as an invitation to further intimacy, whereas the sophisticated male realizes the hand holding is a defensive posture taken by the woman to insure that the flame lands on the cigarette and not in her face.

What’s the moral of the story? Hand her the lighter, and let her do it herself? Ellis suggests that, when there is time to anticipate outcomes, imagine the worst possible outcome and train yourself to accept the worst that can happen. This is basically the attitude of a stoic. So where does the atheism come in? It appears to be a consequence of Ellis’ misguided thinking concerning Christianity. Vost does set up a matrix disproving the top six of Ellis’ objections to Christianity. What I find especially ironic about Ellis’ criticism of Christianity and Vost’s appreciation of Ellis is the fact that REBT in action ferrets out irrational self-defeating beliefs and seeks to replace them with rational self-supporting and constructive beliefs. Now given that, I just can’t get the following little scenario out of my mind. We have two practitioners of REBT, Ellis and Vost, and we have two patients with very similar problems who both happen to be Catholic and daily communicants. Assuming one patient seeks the services of Ellis and the other the services of Vost, what will be the outcomes? I’ll leave this one as an exercise for the reader. It’s time to move on.

Ayn Rand is the next atheistic thinker discussed, and she is the only woman writer covered in the book. Her two major novels, beautifully poetic “The Fountainhead” (1943) and awesomely prophetic “Atlas Shrugged” (1957), are still being read today. If you have any questions about how a culture war is waged you should read “The Fountainhead”. If you are considering reading both novels, read “The Fountainhead” first. If you just want to watch the Gary Cooper movie, read “The Fountainhead” first, and then forget the movie – even though Ayn Rand wrote the screenplay, Gary Cooper was completely unable to internalize the character of Howard Roark, and delivers an inept, wooden performance. In defense of Cooper, the characterization in these novels is extremely rich and complex, and character development sometimes proceeds over literarily hundreds and hundreds of pages. Even the most minor characters have back stories. It’s hard to put something like that into a screenplay -- even if the screen writer was the author of the book.

Ayn Rand was not a moral relativist. She believed in absolutes, free will and called her philosophy “Objectivism”, because she believed in an objective reality. Her truth, my truth, your truth and the truth are all the same thing, and that is unusual among modern atheistic thinkers.

I have neglected to mention a nice little feature of Vost’s book, and this is a good place to introduce it. At the end of each chapter is a one or two page summary of the specific concept that Vost is trying to get across. These serve as a kind of a reality check for the reader and Vost refers to them as “truth boxes” because they contain Vost’s take on the particular philosophy that is under consideration. If you were paying attention as you were reading the chapter the truth box should make sense to you; if not maybe you should go back and reread. Ayn Rand would say “Check your premises”. In reading the truth box for Ayn Rand, I had difficulty understanding Vost’s criticism of the Objectivist’s Aristotelian motto: “Existence exists”. Quoting from the book: “...I also think she tries to milk the statement ‘existence exists’ far beyond the capacity of its udders.” Then it occurred to me that between the time that I first read “Atlas Shrugged” and the time that Vost must have read it a revolution had occurred within the science of Cosmology which, strange as it seems, had direct bearing on that Aristotelian motto. Allow me to digress a bit.

“Atlas Shrugged” was first published in 1957. In October of 1957 the Russians launched Sputnik I and that was the start of the space race. I was ten years old at the time and there was great angst in America over the Russian achievement. The race was on, and the US was behind. In the aftermath of Sputnik great criticism was heaped upon the US educational system. Two study groups reviewed the state of Chemistry and Physics education within the secondary schools of the United States. They were called “CHEM Study” and “PSSC” or the Physical Sciences Study Committee. As a result of this review, which took a while, all high school science curriculums were made to conform to CHEM and PSSC recommendations. In 1964, one of my required books for summer reading was the PSSC book on Cosmology which was titled “The Universe at Large”. This little book was part of a portable library of PSSC approved books which was available in every high school Physics classroom across the United States during the Sixties. The author of “The Universe at Large” was Hermann Bondi who together with Fred Hoyle and Thomas Gold had pioneered back in the Forties what was to become known as the Steady State Theory of Cosmology. This was state of the art in the science of Cosmology as far as the PSSC was concerned. It was the latest and greatest description of the universe at the time. Steady State theory’s “bedrock” was an assumption which was called the “Perfect Cosmological Principle”. This principle stated that at large scales, the universe did not change or evolve over time. It further stated the universe: was infinitely old; had no beginning; had no end; and as it expanded, new material was continuously being created in the voids created by the expansion. In the steady state universe there was no beginning and there was no end; the universe just existed. Moreover, in any given epoch and from any given place within, it looked the same. It was: all very Aristotelian, all very “A is A.”, all very very very “Existence just is”. And it was being taught to High School students all across the United States as a part of their education in the physical sciences. It was being taught as Physics, not as Philosophy.

“This is reality, kids.”

Infinitely old, no beginning, no end, just exists, existence is… So how far is that from “And God said to Moses ‘I am who am’”?

Now, the bedrock principles of Objectivism were developed in the Fifties by Ayn Rand as she was writing “Atlas Shrugged”, and they are contained in the chapter of that book titled “This is John Galt speaking”. To me it becomes a question of what did you know and when did you know it. The discovery of the 2.7 degree Kelvin Black Body radiation by Penzias and Wilson in the mid-sixties led to a revolution in Cosmology which demolished the Steady State Theory together with the Perfect Cosmological Principle and enthroned the Big Bang Theory. A Nobel Prize was awarded for their discovery in 1978, but it is not clear to me just when the Big Bang Theory became the focus of water cooler talk across America. It certainly was in 1978. Those were the days before the internet and twenty-four hour news. Certainly by the time Vost read “Atlas Shrugged” cosmology had undergone this radical change and the Big Bang was embedded in the culture.

Approximately 14 billion years old. Had a beginning – with a big bang… So how far is that from “And God said ‘Let there be Light’”?

It is legitimate to ask an Objectivist why were not the premises checked when this upheaval in Cosmology occurred. It appears that Rand’s health was in decline in the late seventies so that may be why the premises were not checked then. Perhaps it would not occur to anyone politically active in the Objectivist movement to check the premises in light of a revolution in Cosmology. If true, then that is unfortunate for the movement. You just have to keep your eyes on the basics. Vost has a legitimate complaint, and in my opinion Objectivist principles need to be updated in keeping with advances in the sciences. Vost should realize, however, that in the milieu in which “Atlas Shrugged” was written the very concept of existence as the eternal physical reality was radically different from the concept of existence post Big Bang. The greatest paradigm shift of the twentieth century had occurred. The Big Bang itself presents a challenge to atheism, and the theory was originally proposed by Georges Lemaitre, an ordained Catholic Priest, but that’s another story.

Unlike the next atheist presented in Vost’s book, Ayn Rand espoused a kind of soft core, non-militant, genteel atheism. She was the kind of atheist who was neither afraid nor embarrassed to say “God bless you.”

Richard Dawkins, the author of “The God Delusion” is the second to the last atheist thinker Vost discusses in the book. It should be emphasized that Dawkins played no role in Vost’s journey along the road of Atheism. Vost notes that Dawkins is included because he is representative of the new class of atheistic writers who use scientific theories in their attempts to espouse their atheistic viewpoints in what are essentially philosophical and theological arguments. In common parlance, that’s a lot like bringing a knife to a gun fight, and when you do that, they bring you home in a box. The tragedy is that the target audience for these books is so brain dead they lack the ability to discern the difference between a corpse and a real live person. As the saying goes, they see the hearse pull up with the corpse laid out in a coffin, and think he must have won because he’s being chauffeured in a fancy car while he lounges about on a nice piece of furniture.

The scientific theory specifically used by Dawkins is Darwin’s theory of Evolution. Briefly stated, individuals within a species have varying traits. These differences may help, hinder or have no effect upon the individual’s ability to procreate the next generation. Over very long periods of time, traits which help the ability to procreate the next generation win out. This helps explain why small forest and woodland creatures do not come in day glow orange or day glow yellow colors, but instead they have colors which blend into the background. Or it may not because small forest creatures may never have had colors like that. The other aspect of this theory is Darwin’s belief that this process is all for the good. The species benefits from natural selection – “…all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress towards perfection…”

Could someone show me this perfection?

Dawkins believes Darwin’s theory is true, and that leaves God out of the picture. I am forced to make an educated guess that Dawkins is putting forth an assertion without substantiation. Furthermore Dawkins crosses the boundary of evolutionary biology into clinical psychology when he makes statements like the belief in God is a delusion. Vost takes issue with Dawkins’ pronouncements on issues outside his field.

The Truth box for Dawkins make the point that in his writings, he establishes a straw man which greatly resembles a knuckle dragging backwoods fundamentalist, a William Jennings Bryan sans law degree if you will. He then proceeds to deconstruct the straw man. Vost’s objection is basically why pick a fight with an unarmed man? Why not take on Aristotle? Why not take on Thomas Aquinas? I think to ascertain the answer one needs to look no farther than the target audience. Why risk a brain cramp in either yourself or in your target audience by breaching the subject of reason and logic when smear and innuendo will get the job done cheaper and quicker? The truth box title for Dawkins is appropriately titled “An Ignorant Atheism”.

With Alfred Adler, Vost enters the middle ground of his book called “Signs of Life”. Alfred Adler, like Ayn Rand, is a soft core atheist thinker whose background, like Ellis’, is psychology. Adler’s system is called “Individual Psychology” because that is the way he viewed human persons – as unique and individual. An individual’s personality hangs upon a framework termed his or her “lifestyle”. The lifestyle is forged in our early years of childhood, and can be analyzed in terms of our earliest childhood memories. Lifestyle can be altered in adulthood through attentive, diligent effort. Further to this is the concept of God as a “Fictive Goal”. Adler, the Atheist, saw God as an abstract concept of “The Ultimate Good”, and, furthermore, he believed that this was a good and worthwhile idea. He saw the love of neighbor as a worthy goal, and saw the roots of many mental disorders in the individual’s refusal to serve others while at the same time attempting to force those around them to bend to his or her will. Alfred Adler’s impact upon Vost was to soften Vost’s own views on self-interest.

Vost next discusses those classical philosophers and writers known as Stoics. These are: Zeno of Citium, the founder of the school (not the originator of Zeno’s paradox – that was Zeno of Elea); Seneca, the Roman attorney and politician; Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor and general who owed much to Epictetus, a freed slave and stoic lecturer. Stoics mainly believed in a monotheistic god, but in the main he was a being who dwelled within the universe and was not its creator. God was considered the first cause but not necessarily being itself, but views varied with some being more pantheistic than what I‘ve just described.

The last thinker to be examined in this middle ground area of the book is Mortimer Adler whom Vost terms a champion of “great books and great ideas, eternal truths and man’s capacity for grasping them”. Two of Adler’s books which are mentioned in particular are “Aristotle for Everybody: Difficult Thought Made Easy” and the bestselling “How to Read a Book”, but the two that may have had the biggest impact on Vost’s atheism is “How to Think About God” subtitled “A Guide for the 20th Century Pagan” and “The Difference of Man and the Difference It Makes”. Adler’s main point is that belief in a Creator God is not necessary because knowledge of Creator God can be reasoned from the very fact that the universe was created out of nothing. We can further reason that “He is a supreme, omnipotent, immaterial, living, all-knowing, and willing being.” These concepts are developed in the first book, “How to Think about God”. Although not specifically stated, I assume that these concepts are further developed in the second book to conclude that God is an all-loving God.

Reviewing the above paragraph, I should note to the reader that Adler applied a somewhat similar line of reasoning to a purely steady state universe -- no beginning or end -- as was previously discussed. I am hesitant to go there, however due to Adler’s assumptions that within such a universe nothing is either annihilated or exnihilated. Suffice it to say all empirical evidence points to a created universe.

Vost became aware of St. Thomas Aquinas through the misrepresentations of Bertrand Russell, a man long on wit but short on wisdom, and the esteem and praise heaped upon him by Ayn Rand and the Objectivists for bringing Aristotelian wisdom back to the western world. Within Vost’s own profession, Francis Yates book, “The Art of Memory” cites St. Thomas as the patron saint of the art of memory. Vost comments that many think St. Thomas does a better job of presenting the ideas of Aristotle than Aristotle did himself. St. Thomas was blessed with a great intellect and an acute memory. Not only did he command a vast knowledge of scripture, he also had command of the writings by the early church fathers as well as the writings of the Greek and Roman Philosophers. To St. Thomas there was no contradiction between Faith and Reason, and a great many ideas that you and I might see as being part of a belief system were seen by St. Thomas as being the natural result of applying reason to the events we see in the world around us. St. Thomas taught that the eternity, omnipotence and omniscience of God can all be logically deduced. Dawkins argues omnipotence and omniscience are impossible to God because they are self-contradictory. The contradiction only exists within any realm that is bound by time, but God does not dwell within time; He is eternal and completely outside of time. Perhaps Dawkins’ greatest failure is that he tries to show God as a being possessed of our own limitations.

When you are talking about C.S. Lewis within the context that Vost presents in “From Atheism to Catholicism”, you must include “Mere Christianity” as your point of embarkation. This book’s genesis was a series of radio presentations which was subsequently spiffed up by Lewis, himself, and published as a book. And what a marvel it is -- apologetics for the masses! It starts with the observation that people have an innate sense of right and wrong, and questions why that is so. Lewis, paraphrasing St. Augustine, writes “God designed the human machine to run on Himself.” He further observes that the tragedies of human history most often arise when God is neglected in favor of the Evil One, and the human machine “conks out”. Other works of C.S. Lewis that are mentioned are “Surprised by Joy”, “A Grief Observed”, “The Four Loves”, “The Screwtape Letters”, “The Great Divorce”, and “The Chronicles of Narnia”

The paradox of G.K. Chesterton, a man who relished a paradoxical turn of phrase, is that he has been seemingly abandoned by his own. Vost remarks that he went through thirteen years of Catholic education as an honor student and not once encountered G. K. Chesterton. I myself can testify very much to the same experience. I have sixteen years of Catholic education and the only time I encountered G.K. Chesterton was when I read “The Blue Cross”, a short story featuring Father Brown, as part of an assignment in my freshman year of High School. Here we have the preeminent Catholic Social Commentator of the twentieth century and he seems to have missed the cut when it comes to Catholic education. But he is still being published; Ignatius Press is in the process of publishing his complete collected works. There are 35 volumes in the set – and counting. Dale Ahlquist and the members of the American Chesterton Society have done a lot to put Chesterton in front of the public, but it’s up to the public to read.

Vost’s introduction to Chesterton was through the book titled “What’s Wrong with the World”. “The Everlasting Man” turned C.S. Lewis away from atheism. “St. Thomas Aquinas”, is considered by some to be the best biography written on St. Thomas Aquinas as well as the most readable. Chesterton’s “Orthodoxy” and “Heretics” are two other books mentioned in Vost’s book (He refers to “Heretics” as “Heresies”).

Reading Chesterton can be a bit of a struggle, he was by profession a newspaper man, and very much enmeshed in the events of his day particularly those timely events which are the business of newspapers. Even though Chesterton writes about ideas and concepts of lasting significance, he often makes reference to long forgotten people or incidents to illustrate a point. This can prove maddening at times. It is handy to have the ability to Google at a moment’s notice while you are reading him. I eagerly await the “Annotated Chesterton” or even better the “Navarre Chesterton”; in the meantime, for those who would like to start out with “training wheels”, consider “G.K. Chesterton - The Apostle of Common Sense” by Dale Ahlquist.

The last thinker Vost describes is Pope John Paul II. The focus is on his next to the last encyclical, “Fides et Ratio”. Vost considers this work a continuation of St. Thomas Aquinas. Whereas St. Thomas reconciled the Faith with classical philosophy, John Paul sought to reconcile Faith with science.

The ancients of the past saw man as a created being with the special attributes of intellect and will and entirely separate from the animals. This was regarded as a fundamental truth of their existence.

Moderns and Post moderns take issue with that “entirely separate” term, and argue that the difference between man and animal is one merely of degree. This kind of thinking is directly responsible for absurdities like the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals picketing Puxatani Pennsylvania’s celebration of Groundhog Day.

In conclusion, I hope that you were able to get a feel for the scope of the book as well as its breadth from what I have written here. The book is a quick, easy read. Those who are fans of Vost’s other books are sure to enjoy this one. For others who are new to Vost’s writing, the book makes an excellent springboard for further exploration of the ideas of some of the thinkers presented here.


RIP Churchmouse 5/2013


Christian Prophet said...

Ayn Rand is so thoroughly misinterpreted! You may or may not have seen the article: "Ayn Rand, 20th Century Prophetess."

Churchmouse said...

I urge you to visit Sharon Lee Giganti's Web Site, and to read her warning about "A Course in Miracles”. There, you will also find the information necessary to contact her yourself. She has gone through what you are going through, and she will be, I believe, most helpful to you in seeing your error.

Elizabeth Mahlou said...

Thanks for the comprehensive review. I feel like I just read the book!