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January 2014 Vol 53 No 1

The Science of Belief

The Church in Dialogue with New Scientific Atheism

Does the fact that the natural world appears to be governed by laws require that we postulate a law-giver in our attempts to understand it? For Mary Frances McKenna, this is the basic philosophical question insufficiently considered by proponents of the new scientific atheism, and it is the kind of question that those with Christian faith need to address.

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What Does It Mean to Be a Person? The Constraints of Atheism versus the Abundance of Christian Faith

Keith Ravenscroft ‘spent most of [his] adult life as a hard-line atheist’, and here contrasts the outlook of that position with that of his new-found faith. He now believes that the atheistic world-view is a narrow and incomplete one, nowhere more so than in its understanding of the human person.

The Brain and the Soul

Recent scientific advances in our understanding of how the human brain works can seem to make the idea of a soul redundant. Here Joseph Lee argues that, properly understood, the functions of the brain and the soul should be seen as complementary, and that any attempt to explain one without considering the other is at best impoverished.

Beyond the God Spot: Transcendence and the Brain

How far can neuroscience go in providing an explanation of religious experience? Reductionist accounts assume that they have completely explained away such experience. Isabel Clarke postulates instead a path of experiential knowing, which is distinct from that of precise logical processing and which enables human beings to be open to transcendence.

Don't Forget to Look at the Trees: A Spiritual Path from the Beauty of Nature to Ethical Action

Abraham Heschel was a twentieth-century Jewish writer who outlined a spiritual itinerary that begins with an appreciation of God through nature. Here Chad Thralls shows how Heschel’s thought can help Christians make a clearer link between such appreciation and their own quest to live moral lives.

Interrelatedness and Spiritual Masters: Why Martin Buber Still Matters

Hasidism is a movement within Judaism, originating in the eighteenth century in reaction to the rather dry and cerebral outlook then prevailing in that faith. It is best known to Western readers through the work of Martin Buber. Peter Feldmeier outlines what this approach to God might have to offer contemporary Christianity.

Albert Camus and the Dilemma of the Absent God

The year 2013 marked the centenary of the birth of Albert Camus. In this article Eamon Maher considers Camus’ writing on religion, focusing in particular on two novels, The Outsider and The Plague. They offer a powerful analysis of the seeming absence of God from a world of suffering, a challenge for all who profess Christian belief.

Aggiornamento as Healing Commemorating Vatican II’s Fiftieth Anniversary

Fifty years ago the Second Vatican Council was meeting in Rome. Pope John XXIII had called upon the Council to provide the Church with an aggiornamento (‘updating’). Kenneth Overberg sees this updating as a process of healing, of divisions which existed within the Church at that time, of the divide separating Catholicism and other denominations and religions, and of the gulf between the Church and the world.

Leaving ‘the Church’: A Painful Blessing?

Over the last few decades, many people have abandoned the practice of formal religion, or ‘left the Church’, often claiming to have been disillusioned by its various failures. George Wilson offers an analysis of this situation which suggests that in many cases what these people originally had was precisely an illusory view of what the Church can or should be.

From the Foreword

A LTHOUGH HE HIMSELF would undoubtedly reject the question out of hand, as a Christian believer you might conceivably find yourself asking what part Richard Dawkins plays in the divine plan. The question itself is not, of course, wholly serious. No one could presume to declare authoritatively what God is doing in or through the life of another person. Yet the recent work of Dawkins, and of the other ‘new atheists’, is inviting people of religious faith to present their beliefs with greater precision, avoiding all tendencies to credulity or superstition and acknowledging the limits of what can in truth be said or known. It is not wholly fanciful to see the hand of God at work in all this.

Nor is the process a new one. Karl Marx’s description of religion as ‘the opium of the people’, sedating them against the hard work of combating injustice in the world, challenged Christians to avoid preaching a ‘pie in the sky when you die’ religion while passively accepting the suffering caused by the political status quo. Responding to this challenge would, over the following century and a half, transform the face of Roman Catholicism in much of Latin America and beyond. The full impact of the current debate with atheism remains to be seen. However the aim of many of the contributors to this edition of The Way is to carry that debate forward.

Mary Frances McKenna and Keith Ravenscroft both tackle the atheist position head-on. Ravenscroft was himself a professed atheist for much of his adult life, but suggests that his new-found Christian faith offers a broader understanding of what it is to be a human person. McKenna admires the work that modern science has done to deepen our outlook on the universe, yet believes that it does not go far enough in its quest for comprehension. Albert Camus shared with today’s atheists a strong sense of the absence of God in the world. Yet in his novels, as Eamon Maher demonstrates, he analyzed this sense of absence in a way that can help those who believe in God to clarify their own ideas.

One target for scientific atheism has been to eliminate the need to postulate a soul as a necessary component of human beings. Our growing understanding of the brain and its functioning, it is suggested, makes such a hypothesis redundant. Two articles argue, from different perspectives, that such a reductionist account of human experience is inadequate. Joseph Lee sees a complementarity between the workings of the soul and the brain, and Isabel Clarke looks at how neuroscience itself supports the case for a form of knowing that goes beyond logical processing.

Two Jewish writers who also felt that more than logical thought was needed if we are to live a humanly and morally adequate life are the subjects of essays here. Peter Feldmeier revisits the work of Martin Buber, suggesting how the sense of interrelatedness that Buber found in Hasidism has an important message for contemporary Christianity. Chad Thralls’ study of Abraham Heschel begins with Heschel’s emphasis on being attuned to the natural world.

Paul Nicholson SJ

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