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Yes, That's the Spirit!
By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Oct 17, 2013)
In September 2012, Dr. Robert Stackpole, director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, began receiving letters from his niece who had just started college in New England. He wrote back to her on a regular basis throughout the year, helping keep her mind and heart open to belief in God in the midst of a secular university in which those truths were being questioned and challenged every day. With her permission, Dr. Stackpole shares his letters with our readers, hoping that other young people will be helped by them to see the truth more clearly in a confused and clouded world. Here is his third letter:
Well, you got "clobbered," and, yes, you're right: It was largely my fault. I encouraged you to try that quote from Einstein that I gave to you on your atheist friends, and the "clobbering" you got in response was something I should have prepared you for — or at least warned you about. I didn't mean to send you off "like a lamb to the slaughter." I'm so sorry!
If I've got it right, what they said to you in a nutshell, in front of everybody in the pub, was something like this:
Organized religion has been responsible for more ignorance and superstition, bigotry and intolerance, wars and persecutions, than anything else in all of human history. No self-respecting educated person should have anything to do with it.
Quite a slap-down!
When things cool off a bit you might try to gently clarify the truth about these matters for your friends. For what they said is simply not true. As a matter of fact, the proverbial "shoe" is largely "on the other foot": It is organized atheism that has been responsible for more persecution and death than any other social movement in history. In the 20th century alone, atheist regimes and ideological movements bumped off more innocent people though wars and human rights abuse than all the religious wars and persecutions from all centuries put together!
Just be fair and do the math: Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Castro, atheist totalitarian regimes in Cuba, North Korea, China, Southeast Asia, Russia, and Eastern Europe. These all led to the Soviet "purges" and gulags, the Maoist "re-education" camps, the "killing fields" of Cambodia, revolutionary violence and communist attacks on Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan, the deliberate starvation of the Ukraine, Nazi attempts at genocide and world domination — the list goes on.
The net result was the direct killing of approximately 80 million people. (Some would drop Hitler and the Nazis from this list because Hitler manipulated the religious sentiments of his people to get elected, and many of his closest followers were bizarre pantheist-occultists and not real atheists. To my mind, however, Hitler was the ultimate atheist, because he actually worshipped himself as God. In any case, even without Hitler and the Nazis, the single century death toll is still about 60 million).
It's not clear that the victims of all the wars and persecutions that have primarily been driven by religious motives down through history add up to even 20 million. The main crimes here would include those medieval Crusades that were truly needless, the Spanish Inquisition, a few attempted Muslim invasions of Europe (at Tours, Lepanto, and Vienna), the extent to which British and American slavery was falsely justified by religious arguments (although it was devout Christians who led the abolition movements, too), the 16th- and 17th-century European witch hunts, the Protestant-Catholic 30-years war, and the Sunni-Shia armed conflicts. All of this was, indeed, grim behavior by people who claimed to believe in a God of mercy and compassion. But again, it was spread over a period of 20 centuries, and numerically "small potatoes" compared with the horrors that atheist regimes accomplished in just a single century.
Now, let's add to that the body count from disorganized atheism. Since the early 20th century, when the Soviet Communists first legalized abortion, several hundred million innocent unborn children around the world have been put to death in their mothers' wombs, mostly by unbelievers. In short, if we are really serious about massive abuse of human rights, and understanding what causes it, then we need to "call a spade a spade." From the French Revolution's Reign of Terror onward, atheism and anti-religious ideology has been by far the bigger culprit.
Anyway, Krystal, this all stands to reason. Christians who start wars of aggression or who brutally persecute religious minorities can only do so by ignoring or distorting the fundamental tenets of their faith: e.g., "God is love"; "Love your neighbor as yourself"; "Love your enemies"; all people are made in the "image of God"; etc. It's like swimming upstream. But when you think about it, there is little in atheist ideology that justifies belief in the dignity of each and every person. Atheist regimes and social movements are founded on the principle that the individual is of little value apart from his or her "usefulness" to the economy, to the nation, to the "will of the people," to the survival of the species, to the ideal socialist state, or to the master race. It does not take a genius to figure out that where human life is held to be only of worldly, "instrumental" value, then at some point many of those human "instruments" will get labeled as socially useless or unfit — and then thrown on the rubbish heap. In addition to that, leaders of atheist regimes never have to worry that they will ever be held accountable for their crimes against human dignity. After all, according to them there is no God and no Judgment Day — so ultimately no one is answerable to anyone for anything.
I know that your agnostic friends, Krystal, would have a response to all this. They would say: "You see, that's what happens when anyone, whether they believe in God or not, thinks they know for sure what the meaning of life is: They inevitably try to impose their beliefs on everyone else."
That attitude is understandable, Krystal, but I think it misses the heart of the problem. As far as I can see, the driving force behind persecution and intolerance has not been that people believe something too strongly. Rather, it has been the content of what people believe in so strongly. If you passionately believe that human life is only good for this world and useful for nothing more than the support of some social or political program, then the persecution of those who do not support or cannot usefully build up that program is sure to follow. But if you honestly and passionately believe that we are created by a heavenly Father who made each one of us in His image and loves each one of us infinitely, how can you possibly (without violating your core beliefs) persecute and murder your brothers and sisters? Yes, some people have done just that — it's tragic — but it's self-contradictory. No one can coerce anyone else into an authentic state of faith and love. Rather, the only logical thing for the committed believer in God to do is to — through personal witness and evangelism — share the truth he believes he has found with those who have not found it yet. In other words, to propose rather than try to impose. A fair look at the historical record shows that, by and large, that's what Christian missionaries tried to do, albeit imperfectly.
Meanwhile, it was believers in God who first established constitutional protections for fundamental human rights. In the Declaration of Independence of 1776, the Founding Fathers of the United States based human rights on the Creator's design: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness." These rights were held to be "unalienable" — that is, irrevocable by human governments and social institutions — because of their divine source. Thomas Paine, Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, George Washington all without exception strongly believed in the existence of an all-powerful, all-wise and benevolent God as the best foundation for liberty and democracy.
By contrast, the Reductionist, nothing buttery view of human nature almost inevitably undermines respect for human rights. Pope John Paul II, who lived through both the Nazi and the Communist occupations of Eastern Europe, summed up the matter like this;
The root of modern totalitarianism is to be found in the denial of the transcendent dignity of the human person who, as the visible image of the invisible God, is therefore by his very nature the subject of rights which no one may violate — no individual, group, class, nation, or state. Not even the majority of a social body may violate those rights by going against the minority, by isolating, oppressing or ignoring it or by attempting to annihilate it.
Generally, Krystal, people treat other people either as "things" (mere objects, whether useful or useless) or as real "persons." If you believe that human beings are simply objects, nothing but a collection of atoms and molecules (nothing buttery again!), merely animals with more advanced brains, doomed to be swallowed up by death in the end, then that is probably going to have a dramatic effect on how you relate to other people, and even to yourself.
The perspective of classical philosophy, however, is that there is a deep mystery about each one of us. We are not just animal bodies made up of matter and energy bouncing around in space. There is a depth and personal dignity to each one of us: the human "spirit," a wellspring of longing for truth, beauty, and goodness. In philosophy we sometimes call this deepest aspect of ourselves the "soul." To be more precise, the human "soul" is a "spirit." In other words, unlike physical objects, it is not located in space, and it does not have separable "parts." But it can do remarkable things that no bodily or physical machine could ever do: It can reason, it can love, and it can long for the infinite — that is, for truth, beauty, and goodness that transcend time and space.
The human spirit can do these amazing things best in conjunction with its body, but it is not a bodily entity. This also means that it cannot decompose like a bodily thing. Physical objects composed of parts can decompose and fall-apart, but not the human spirit. As F.J. Sheed once wrote:
Material beings can be destroyed in the sense that they can be broken up into their constituent parts; what has parts can be taken apart. But a partless being is beyond all this. Nothing can be taken from it, because there is nothing in it but its whole self ....
A spiritual being, therefore, cannot lose its identity. It can experience changes in its relation to other beings — e.g., it can gain new knowledge or lose knowledge that it has; it can transfer its love from this object to that; it can develop its power over matter; its own body can cease to respond to its animating power and death follows for the body — but with all these changes it remains itself, conscious of itself, permanent.
In classical and Christian philosophy, as you know, God Himself is a "Spirit." He is not a bodily creature. Since He is confined to nowhere, He can be present everywhere and do all that "Spirit" can do — reason and love — to an infinite and boundless degree. The human spirit is just a little reflection, a little image, of that Infinite Spirit.
How do we know we have this deep mystery inside each and every one of us?
The 13th century philosopher St. Thomas Aquinas can help us here. In his writings he argued that the human soul is the immaterial and immortal aspect of the human person.
Saint Thomas offered several philosophical arguments for this belief. In the human mind and heart, he said, we find many activities which, considered in themselves, transcend the power of matter. For example, unlike any other living creature, the human mind can conceive and know more than purely material things, such as "love," "justice," and "God," and this shows that the human mind is not itself material. For example, we should not be able to work out an abstract theory of physical science were the human mind nothing but atoms and molecules (again, abstract concepts are not material things). Furthermore, self-consciousness is a sign of the immaterial character of the human mind: as human beings we can not only think, we can be aware of ourselves thinking and reflect on ourselves thinking — an incredible mystery! And the same can be said of free choice. If our choices were always just physical events in our brains and nothing more, then they would be involuntary reactions to other physical events happening in our brains, and not "voluntary" actions at all.
If St. Thomas had lived in the 21st rather than the 13th century, he would have at his disposal further indications, drawn from the natural and social sciences, to bolster his claim that human beings each possess an immaterial, immortal soul. For example, psychologists have noted that Siamese twins and identical twins, although possessing the same genetic make-up, and in most cases virtually the same formative environment, can end up with dramatically different personalities. This implies that there is a third element at work, beyond our genes and environment, that makes us the kind of persons we are. That extra element is the human spirit. In addition, there are all those documented cases of people who have been pronounced dead, medically speaking, and yet who mysteriously came back to life again. They commonly describe their experiences as "out-of-body" and "life-after-life" experiences. If you can be "out" of your body, then there must be some aspect of you that is not your body. That aspect is your soul.
Then there is the evidence for free choice complied by Canadian neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield. He experimented on willing patients who were undergoing brain surgery under local anesthesia, and were therefore fully conscious (the brain has no pain receptors, so it didn't hurt!). He found that electrical stimulation of the motor cortex of the brain, the part of the brain responsible for movement of the limbs, gave rise to actions disowned by the patients. In other words, the patients described the actions of their limbs, caused by such brain stimulation, as actions done to them, not by them. There is clearly something different about the way our motor actions are processed when they are done voluntarily (that is, when they proceed from our free choice), as opposed to when they are just caused by electrical activity in the brain. This suggests that our acts of free choice arise first of all from our immaterial soul and not from our brain alone.
It is important to recognize that for St. Thomas, the relationship between the human body and the human soul is a very close one. Body and soul are certainly distinct aspects of the human person, but they are literally "made for each other." Some people get confused about this. As soon as they come to believe that we each possess an immaterial, immortal soul, they start to think that the "soul" is the real "me" and that the human body is unimportant.
On the contrary, according to St. Thomas the human body and the human soul need each other. On the one hand, the body needs the soul to be the body of a living human person. In fact, when the soul definitively separates from the body, that is what we call "death." On the other hand, the soul needs the body, too. In order to gain most kinds of knowledge, the soul needs the sensory data and visual images provided by the body in order to have something to think about. Most forms of knowledge come from the soul reflecting upon, and drawing conclusions about, the data provided by the five senses of the body.
Think about it: If you want to form a relationship with me, how do you do it? In most cases, the only way is by speaking words with your lips, or making signs with your body, or using your fingers to type out sentences on a computer. All of these physical things (sound waves, visual images) are then picked up by my body and stored in my brain, and then my soul can reflect upon them: "Wow! This person is eager to communicate with me — eager to be my friend, or to tell me to get lost!" Without our bodies, interpersonal communication and human relationships would be well nigh impossible. So, too, would all of the arts and sciences. How could your immaterial soul play a piece of music on a piano or perform an experiment in a medical laboratory without a body? The soul has these potentials for attaining knowledge, for creative self-expression, and for interpersonal relationships, but without the assistance of the body we could never fulfill these potentials, they could never come to fruition. That is why St. Thomas once wrote: "It is not to the detriment of the soul that it is united to a body, but for the perfection of its nature."
That is also why, as a good Christian theologian as well as a philosopher, St. Thomas welcomed the biblical doctrine of the final "resurrection of the body" — because a human being is not just a soul without a body (that's a poltergeist), nor a body without a soul (that's a zombie or a corpse), but a compound of body and soul, to the perfection of both aspects of human nature. Our final destiny is not merely to be everlasting, disembodied spirits, like Casper the Friendly Ghost! Rather, Christians believe we are to be raised on the last day in the fullness of our humanity, in a glorified body and soul, in the same way that Jesus of Nazareth, our Savior, was raised on Easter morning.
Peace to you in Him, Krystal. I will try to write again when I can. There is so much more to say about the mystery of you and me, the great mystery of what it means to be human!
Past Letters in the Series
• Letter #1: Can We Really Know Anything for Sure?
• Letter #2: The Problem with 'Nothing Buttery'
Robert Stackpole, STD, is the director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception, based in Stockbridge, Mass. He is also the author of our Divine Mercy Q&A series.