Materialist Dogmatism

Mark SheaWe all know that religious believers are fools who will tell themselves anything to prop up their preconceived notions, while atheists are hard-headed rationalists who look the evidence in the face and follow the Truth no matter the cost. Still, one’s faith in this common narrative of the chattering classes is shaken from time to time. Consider the case of Matthew Parris, a columnist for the London Times who demonstrates the fact that some allegedly rational people are every bit as bull-headedly resistant to the blandishments of empirical evidence as the most hermetically closed-minded geocentrist or six-day creationist.

Parris, a self-described unbeliever, is much exercised over the healing of Sister Marie Simon-Pierre of Parkinson’s disease, which is currently under investigation by the Catholic Church. According to CNN, the 46-year-old nun “was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2001. Her symptoms worsened with time: Driving became practically impossible, she had difficulty walking, and her left arm hung limply at her side.” Then she prayed for the intercession of Pope John Paul II:

Her cure came on the night of June 2, 2005, exactly two months after the pontiff’s death, she said. In her room after evening prayers, she said an inner voice urged her to take up her pen and write. She did, and was surprised to see that her handwriting—which had grown illegible because of her illness—was clear. She said she then went to bed, and woke early the next morning feeling “completely transformed.”

She had written John Paul’s name.

Parris’s response to all of this is a textbook example of a dogmatist who dislikes being confused by facts and evidence. He begins by linking the story with an absolute and complete irrelevancy, with the declaration that

one determinant of US foreign policy towards Israel is the belief, widely held on the Religious Right, that before the prophecy of the Second Coming and the end of the world can be fulfilled, the Israelites must be given their Biblical lands of Judaea and Samaria.

What on God’s green earth that has to do with the claim of a miracle by the good nun is never explained. We are simply to understand that any claim of the miraculous automatically puts the one who believes it in the class of a fundamentalist with some crazy dispensationalist notion about the Rapture (which, for fundamentalists, is distinct from the Second Coming).

After this sample of lucidity, Parris then calls for “intelligent Christians” to voice their “righteous anger” and “contempt” for this “nonsense” (apparently meaning “any belief in the supernatural”). Cool, impartial consideration of the evidence, that. He speaks mysteriously of the “excesses of Lourdes” and of “the woeful confusion of faith with superstition.” He suggests that “this stuff is the petrol on which the motor of a great Church runs; that without these delusions to feed on, the unthinking masses would falter.” He frets that, even worse, it may be that the bishops of the Church are stupid enough to “honestly entertain the possibility that from beyond the grave the late Pope John Paul II interceded with God to cause a woman to be cured of Parkinson’s disease.” He concludes this dispassionate consideration of the evidence with the following dogmatic declaration:

“But how can you be sure?” Oh boy, am I sure. Oh great quivering mountains of pious mumbo-jumbo, am I sure. Oh fathomless oceans of sanctified babble, am I sure. Words cannot express my confidence in the answer to the question whether God cured a nun because she wrote a Pope’s name down. He didn’t.

And to shut down all criticism of this farrago of non sequiturs, evidence-free claims, baseless dogmatism and insults, he preemptively denies that he is doing what he is, in fact, doing: “Churlish nonbelievers like me are made to feel it is we who are being arrogant, dogmatic, closed-minded.”

Precisely. You are arrogant, dogmatic, and close-minded, Mr. Parris. You have a theory of materialism, and you are radically uninterested in considering anything inconvenient to that theory. So you dogmatically declare that it could not happen without, like, seeing if the nun was in fact inexplicably cured of Parkinson’s disease after prayer to John Paul II.

Parris demonstrates clearly that, despite the common cultural narrative mentioned above, the atheist, when faced with stories like that of the good nun, really only has two choices: He can maintain his ignorant bigotry by simply refusing even to look at her story, or he can entertain the possibility that his All-Explaining Theory of Everything might have some holes in it.

Parris takes the former route, fulfilling to an exacting degree the words of the Prophet Chesterton:

The believers in miracles accept them (rightly or wrongly) because they have evidence for them. The disbelievers in miracles deny them (rightly or wrongly) because they have a doctrine against them. . . . It is we Christians who accept all actual evidence—it is you rationalists who refuse actual evidence being constrained to do so by your creed.

The great disadvantage under which the atheist materialist invariably places himself is that, in despising the supernatural, he refuses to look and see if it does, in fact, occur. Instead, he fools himself with self-deluding sleight-of-hand. He points to the false miracle and pretends that it stands for all miracles. Or he adopts a mocking tone of voice and pretends that it substitutes for a rational argument. Or he links an honest nun with a crazy fundamentalist political theory. Or, in this case, he simply clamps his eyes shut, plugs his ears and screams “Noooooo!” at the top of his voice while declaring that he is the cool rationalist who follows the evidence wherever it leads.

Meanwhile, the nun who no longer has Parkinson’s continues to exist and praise God for her healing, in defiance of the loudest shouts of some ignorant dogmatic scribbler that “He didn’t!”

Mark Shea blogs at Catholic and Enjoying It!

This article first appeared in the November 2007 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.

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