Saturday, February 16, 2019

a news service

Defender of the Faith

I wasn’t very interested in the centuries-old debate about the existence of God until Conrad Black entered the lists (National Post, 21 and 28 March, 2015). Black is that rare thing, a big man with a big ego and love of ostentation who made it big, suffered a fall from grace, and rose from that fall with élan but with no indication of having learnt anything about himself. What Black puts on show is typical of most rich and powerful men: surgically-enhanced wife, mansions, and famous friends like the Queen. He’s fond of publicity, too. His fondness isn’t quite typical but it isn’t unusual, either. What is unusual is his love of words. He’s a voluble individual with the gift of the gab, and is no stranger to self-promotion.

Five years ago in these pages, I imagined him at the Coleman Federal Correction Complex telling his fellow inmates, at a Christmas party, the real story of Good King Wenceslas. I assumed, in my fantasy, that Black had little use for institutionalized charity, and so would not be a fan of the good King. Hadn’t Black, in 1983, responded to an Encyclical on poverty put out by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops by affirming that the Bishops should mind their own business? The upstart bishops had argued that, “the needs of the poor have priority over the wants of the rich.” Presumably Black felt that, despite the Bishops’ adherence to the longstanding pastoral mission of the church in improving the conditions of the poor, solving poverty was not the church’s business.

And had not Black, despite Christ’s Sermon-on-the-Mount proverb about considering the beam in your own eye before commenting on the mote in your brother’s, called Bishop Remi De Roo, the spokesman for the Bishops, “a publicity crazed mountebank?” That is how, I deduced, Black would think about Wenceslas. Accordingly, in my rendition of Black’s version of the story I had the king’s attempts to help the peasant end in disaster. While the king and the peasant get drunk, the king’s knights rape the peasant’s comely daughters and even his not-so-comely wife. The peasant’s son, sent out to collect some goods discarded along the trail, freezes to death. Furthermore, I had Black refer to the Pope who canonized Wenceslas as “a geriatric pederast in a pointy hat.”

It now seems that Black was likely, by the end of his incarceration, a devout Christian. It also seems that today he is, if not a card-carrying member of the Catholic Church, a great admirer of its work “in conserving civilization through the Dark Ages, producing the Renaissance, and imparting literacy and pastoral and medical care to countless millions of the underprivileged for many centuries.” It may be that I owe Black an apology.

But maybe not. It can’t be determined from Black’s recent Testament of Faith exactly what his faith actually rests in. He may, for instance, still be a man who would tell the story of Wenceslas as I had it, and he might insult the Pope who canonized Wenceslas. Nor can it be determined what—if any—new values Black acquired when he became a Christian, or what old ones he discarded. Black’s testament to faith contains no biblical exegesis — no interpretation of God’s word. For Black, God is simply a “divine intelligence,” “a higher creative intelligence” that influences the cultures of the world through “the principal religions.” These religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam are mentioned — promote and foster the “duty and responsibility” of “trying conscientiously to distinguish right from wrong,” a duty that is “the supreme criteria of civilization.” It seems that the principal faiths are more or less equally efficient in doing this work, “though the principal religions are not interchangeably benign or influential.” Since Black doesn’t place these religions in order of influence and benignity, he could theoretically as readily have acquired a faith in Allah or Jehovah as in Jesus Christ.

Furthermore, just as it is not important to Black which church best fosters the conscientious distinction of right from wrong, so it is not important what exact distinctions are made between good and evil under the aegis of any of the principal churches: “I have always believed that with religion, as with sex, people should inform themselves and decide their own preferences and precepts, be discreet about them, and respect the practices of others unless they are sociopathic or insane. That is what I do as a Christian and also as a former atheist and agnostic, familiar with their attractions too.” In other words, Black has the same values as a Christian that he had as an atheist and agnostic.

The gift of the gab does not necessarily facilitate theological inquiry, which requires logic and concentration, and really doesn’t have much use for rhetoric. Usually Black uses polemical journalism, the composition of editorials on public issues, to display his gift. Polemicists nearly always favor the ad populum/hominem argument: “my side is smart (rational, sensitive, informed), and the other side is stupid”, and Black is no different. To make this argument, polemicists create strawpersons of their opposition, and then decimate them. The trick is to make those strawpersons seem real and powerful, while making their destruction seem just and obviously necessary.

Black’s side, true to his type, is on the political right. Just as the left-wing polemicist will generally affirm that corporations, corporate CEO’s and the rich are evil or deluded, so the right-wing polemicist generally affirms that all universities, unions and those who worry about the poor are evil and deluded. These days, both sides seem to agree on the evil of government and the media, though the right is most vehemently pitted against the media. The right’s usual argument is that, even though they own the media, it is unavoidably staffed with writers who have been moved to the left by their university training. The left is most vehemently pitted against the government. Even though their chosen party sometimes runs it, it is argued that all governments are unavoidably manipulated by rich and powerful rightists, people like Conrad Black.

Because Black is on the right, his testament of faith is more concerned with beating up on the media and the universities than it is with arguing for the existence of God. His header reads, “The Shabby, Shallow World of the Militant Atheists.” According to Black, these atheists control the media and the universities, so beating up on them is important to the future of a civilization that features (and, it seems, depends for its well-being on) freedom of thought and expression: “The atheists’ domination of our centres of learning and information is a great vulnerability in the West: it creates acute resentment and dissent among the more religiously tolerant majority, separates learning and information from the greatest pillar of our civilization’s historic development, invites contempt from violently sectarian societies, especially Islamists, and is repugnant to the entire concept of freedom of thought and expression that our universities and free press are supposed to be defending.”

The trouble with this, as an argument for the existence of God, is that the most effective of Black’s allies in this battle, by his own testimony, is a professor of mathematics at Oxford University, John Lennox. Lennox, Black affirms, in the tradition of Thomas Aquinas and Cardinal Newman, “made a better argument for the balance of probabilities on the theist side than the atheists did on theirs.” If this is true, how then can he argue that the universities are held in a “stranglehold” by the atheists? When Black further affirms Lennox’s superiority to prominent atheists like Peter Singer, Stephen Hawking, Jonathan Glover and Richard Rorty, he points out that these men are “formidable academics.” This may serve to magnify Lennox’s greatness, but doesn’t it also suggest that the level of theological debate in the universities is sophisticated and that the West is maybe not therefore as vulnerable to ruination as Black believes it is?

Then there’s the Evil Media. Black himself is writing as a journalist for one of Canada’s national newspapers and was once himself the owner of one of the biggest newspaper chains in the world, a chain that owned the National Post. Surely he, by himself, is walking proof that the media cannot be as monolithically atheistical as he claims it is. And obviously, while no one can securely ascertain the proportion of theists to atheists in the universities, most people will acknowledge how hard it is to avoid religious messages in the media. Who, when watching television, can avoid evangelists making their cases, politicians affirming their faiths, and folk who have just survived a disaster testifying, with the eager encouragement of reporters, that God had His hand firmly on their knee throughout the ordeal.

Admittedly, Black affirms that he is not as strong and powerful as his readers might assume. His prominence has not allowed him to avoid, or has not been used to protect him from, calumny in the media. He affirms that over time he has “been more severely and lengthily defamed than anyone in Canada since Louis Riel.” Riel’s calumniators “often had truth as a partial defense,” but Black’s, by implication, do not. Even the response to his first column on faith was “voluminous and highly charged.” Most of the responses, he admits, were favourable, which might suggest again that the atheists are not using their stranglehold to suppress freedom of speech or don’t indeed have such a stranglehold. But the tenor of the unfavourable messages was extreme, “so generally vitriolic, and often abusive and bigoted, that they incite my return to the subject.” I note that the militant atheists were not able to prevent this return.

Black returns to the subject to affirm that the atheists obviously know that they are losing the argument. they “protest too much,” he says, and then goes on to summarize and add to his original argument. The ad hominem argument comes, as always, first — it is in the second article’s header and initial paragraphs. Black affirms that he is “just human”. He cannot respond to “three cyber-assailants who were so unrelievedly uncivil that I asked my IT adviser to ensure that I never received anything from their address again.” He does admit that he got it wrong about Darwin being a Christian: “I was taxed with misrepresenting Charles Darwin as a Christian: he was at times in his life, and to a full age, like many people whose religious views evolve.” (A reader wrote to cite a biography of Darwin to the effect that Darwin evolved into, and died, an atheist.) And he admits that he got Hawking’s Christian name wrong, that it’s Stephen, not David. Still, all the complaints of his assailants, he argues, are merely picky, not addressing the main line of his argument.

Apart from Black’s assertions that theists, he among them, are, compared to atheists, calmer, fairer, better informed, more rational and more attuned to what sustains Western Civilization, what is the main line of his argument for the existence of God? Actually, he offers two separate arguments. The first is from personal experience, but does not, as we have seen, include the customary claim that the new convert is an entirely new person. Black’s values remain what they were when he was an atheist. But Black is now more solidly with those great thinkers who arrived at faith through “science and reason.” Thinkers like Lennox and, most prominently, Newton and Darwin, and never mind that Darwin died an atheist. According to Black, the two famous scientists arrived, in the course of their studies, at an ever stronger conviction “of the existence of a divine intelligence that has created such an intricate and complex mechanism as the universe we are steadily coming to know better.” In other words, science does not lead to what the atheists say it will, a state of total knowledge and self knowledge that will put “all God theories on the skids.” It leads to the conviction that God exists.

Black is also, as a convert, more solidly aligned with organized religion in its work of affirming values. Black’s second argument is that faith in a superior being, the basis of religion, is essential to civilization. God, in this argument, is a higher creative intelligence that influences the cultures of the world through “the major religions.” These help people distinguish right from wrong. This work, which Black admits has at times been perverted by the “religious intolerance” of some church officials and representatives, has nonetheless been beneficial—on balance. This work may have no effect on people like Black himself, who held civilized values as an atheist and agnostic. But without this work, humanity in general would never have arisen from barbarism, carrying people like Black along with it. Overall, he argues, the principal religions have performed “good works” and shown “cultural creativity.” Black knows God exists because of what the principal religions have done for culture, in other words.

Indeed, “societies uninfluenced by serious considerations of a divine intelligence do not have as advanced and institutionalized notions of ethics, equity and impartial justice as those who have been.” This is probably true, since it’s hard to find, across history, a society of more than about twenty people that hasn’t entertained the question of whether some sort of divine intelligence is at work. Furthermore, he argues, “communities untouched by religious influences have been unalloyed barbarism.” His examples of “untouched” communities, meanwhile, are somewhat unsettling. There’s the pre-Christian Romans, “where the leaders elevated themselves to the status of Gods, compelling public celebration.” Or post-revolutionary France, where Robespierre claimed to be the agent of “the Supreme Being.” Or the Soviet Union that featured “the Communist pursuit of ‘the new man’” that “cost the lives of tens of millions.” Or “the pagan festivals exalting Adolf Hitler staged by Josef Goebbels and Albert Speer.” Presumably too, all communities previous to the ascension of the principal religions lacked, and all communities that retain any indigenous religious faith lack, any truly sophisticated ability to distinguish right from wrong.

Black’s hero Lennox is no doubt happy with Black’s evolution into a Christian. Not that Black has awakened to any new understanding of Christ’s word, but that Black is now a happier and more secure man, having affirmed his alignment with the Christian Church and its great work in building civilization.

But Lennox would have to be a bit nervous about the fact that Black has also, in the course of confirming his Christian faith, confirmed his apostolic mission to defend civilization against the forces of barbarism. Black’s arguments for the civilizing force of religion are as questionable as his arguments against the media and the universities. Can it really be affirmed that communities that lacked the support of the principal religions lived in a state of unalloyed barbarism? That the pre-Christian Roman Empire was more barbaric than the Empire after Constantine? That the Church created the Renaissance rather than did everything in its power to prevent it? That free speech, the essential feature of Western civilization, was in some way a serious concern of the churches that fostered that civilization? That most scientists have found their way, through their research, to an awareness that there is a God out there controlling phenomena? That the pastoral work of the church over many centuries in France, Germany and Russia was so fragile that it could be eradicated in a few months by Robespierre, Stalin and Hitler, returning those countries to a state of barbarism? That human beings have not, throughout the past and across the world, manifested the same basic distinctions between good and evil, embodied those distinctions in religions, and experienced the fragility of those distinctions and the weakness of those faiths under stress? What would cultural anthropologists say about Black’s defense of the faith?

Black is assuming the familiar Quixotic stance of the polemical journalist, identifying windmills (media and universities and the atheists who control them) as giants who hold his beloved (civilization) in captivity, deprived of her freedom of thought and speech. Under this delusion, he attacks, waving his rusty ad hominem sword. His defense of faith reads like one of Quixote’s monologues, rambling, inconclusive, self-obsessed, manic. Black is pretty much what he once accused Bishop De Roo of being: a publicity-crazed mountebank.



2,600 words June 4th, 2015

John Harris

John Harris

John Harris is the author of 'Small Rain," "Other Art" and "Tungsten John." He lives in Prince George, B.C.

More from John Harris: