Mar 2, 2013

A Catholic in an Atheist's Body?

I really like Roger Ebert. He may not be the most insightful movie critic around (in fact, the most insightful reviews are often written by amateurs because they have the luxury of writing only when they really have something to say), but he has a consistency of taste that usually allows me to infer from his review whether I would like the movie, even when I predict I would disagree with him. He is also a prolific humanist writer: both his reviews and other writing generally promotes humanist values and a sense of decency. Besides, I admire how he has kept his vigorous productivity despite his illness and disfigurement.

But I really don't know what to think about his recent blog post, "How I am a Roman Catholic". I think he is terribly confused, and his persuasive writing spreads the confusion to his readers.

The centerpiece of confusion is the following statement:
I consider myself Catholic, lock, stock and barrel, with this technical loophole: I cannot believe in God. I refuse to call myself a atheist however, because that indicates too great a certainty about the unknowable.
Sorry, but this makes no sense. If you don't believe in God (or gods), you are an atheist. That is by definition. "I don't believe in God" and "I am an atheist" are factual statements with exactly the same meaning. You cannot claim that one is true and the other false. The "certainty" argument is a fallacy of which, I am sure, Ebert is well aware. (And yes, I am aware that he said "I cannot" rather than "I don't" believe in God. But the former implies the latter.)

A commenter suggested that he should perhaps call himself a "secular Catholic" or "cultural Catholic" like some people call themselves secular Jews or cultural Jews. I agree, but I also know people who call themselves Jewish atheists and even some Catholic atheists, and that makes complete sense because they acknowledge their cultural background and the default religious milieu in reference to which they developed their atheistic views. There are various ways in which one can embrace one's cultural background (which often includes religion) as well as one's unbelief in the supernatural.

That said, I think Ebert's article is worth reading, precisely because it honestly lays bare the mind of a religiously confused modern, liberal, humanistic person. His confusion is, I suspect, fairly typical among educated people in today's Western civilization. Many people I like and respect are probably similar to Ebert in this respect, and I can also use an occasional reminder to examine what I believe and why. Even the most comfortable atheists among us developed amidst all kinds of religious influences.

But, let anyone speak honestly for long enough, and they'll end up saying something really troubling. Here is where Ebert's confusion becomes harmful:
Birth control? Here I subscribe to an unofficial "double" loophole often applied in practice by Catholics faced with perplexing choices: Do that which results in the greater good and the lesser evil. I support freedom of choice. My choice is to not support abortion, except in cases of a clear-cut choice between the lives of the mother and child. A child conceived through incest or rape is innocent and deserves the right to be born.
Be careful not to step on the shards of the broken logic here, it could be really painful. I didn't know Ebert had such strongly Roman Catholic views on abortion, and I am surprised, given his generally liberal positions. And he seems to try to reconcile it with his liberalism. His language about choice, though unclear, suggests that he is speaking of his personal belief, but that he does not want to impose it on others. However, that makes sense only when a woman says it. A woman can hold the position "I would not choose an abortion, but others can make the choice for themselves." For a man to say that is obviously ridiculous. A man cannot consistently have a personal view on abortion distinct from a public policy position. Sure, a man can be a hypocrite and choose a laxer standard for his family or people of his social status than for the rest of the society (Remember Dan Quayle's "I would trust my daughter's choice"?), but it simply makes no sense for a man to have a personal opposition to abortion that he is not imposing on others.

So the confusion is not just about semantics. It is also about ethics and liberty. As religious confusion often turns out to be.