Materialist Dogmatism

We all know that religious believers are fools who will tell themselves anything to prop up their pre-conceived 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-close-minded geocentrist or six day creationist.

Parris, a self-described unbeliever is much exercised over the healing of Sister Marie Simon-Pierre from Parkinson’s Disease, currently under investigation by the 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 surpassed 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’ response to all this is a textbook example of a dogmatist who dislikes being confused by facts and evidence. His response is to begin by linking the story with an absolute and complete irrelevancy with the declaration:

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 elaborated upon. 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 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 pre-emptively 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.

Yes. 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 fact is that 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 to even 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 tricks. 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 “NOOOOOOOO!” at the top of his voice while declaring that he is the cool rationalist who follows the evidence wherever it leads while the believer is the credulous fool who only believes what he wants to believe.

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


Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog and regularly blogs for National Catholic Register. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.

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  • Joe DeVet

    The favorite refuge of the materialist dogmatists is, of course, “Science.”

    They fail to recognize that disbelief in the supernatural is in its essence unscientific for at least two reasons. The first is that the question of the existence of the supernatural is beyond the competence of science as we define it–i.e., empirical science.

    The second reason is that the whole history of scientific discovery, and the whole engine of current scientific research, is the belief that there is something out there that is not yet discovered or understood. To assert that a thing which has not been scientifically proved does not exist is absolutely contrary to the wonderful curiosity which has prompted the discoveries OF SCIENCE, which give us increasing awe and wonder at the power and creativity of God.

    Here’s an easy example. If someone had offered the idea of black holes in, say, 1900 (and especially if that someone offered the idea that black holes are part of God’s wonderful creation) people of Parris’s ilk would have scoffed at the superstition of such a person. However, we now have both theory (General Relativity) and evidence (orbital behavior near black holes, etc) such that black holes are generally accepted as scientifically proven.

  • Warren Jewell

    I am confused – a not unusual state for me, I confess.

    Mr. Parris is presented as dogmatic atheist, and seemingly rightly so, until the paragraph and quotation starting with “Parris takes the latter route . . . The believers in miracles accept them (rightly or wrongly) because they have evidence for them . . .”

    Did he actually “. . . entertain the possibility that his All Explaining Theory of Everything might have some holes in it”? Or, did he take to the _former_ stand and “maintain his ignorant bigotry by simply refusing to even look at her story”?

    Not that Parris’s article interest me nearly as Mr. Shea’s analysis does, but, am I missing some connection or something, here?

  • Mark Shea

    Parris fulfills Chesterton’s description of the materialist who denies miracles, not because he has evidence against them, but because he has a dogmatic creed against them.

  • Mark,
    Warren is right. You mistyped, or something.

    “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 to even 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 latter route…”

    The latter route is the one he did NOT take: entertaining the possibility that his All Explaining Theory of Everything might have some holes in it. Maintaining his bigotry would have been the FORMER route.

  • Mark Shea

    D’oh! Fixed it! Thanks for catching that!

  • GaryT

    Actually your scenario is closer to the truth than you perhaps realize.

    In 1900, scientists generally believed the universe to be static and unchanging. When the big bang theory was first proposed (by a physicist who also happened to be a priest), the scientific community scoffed at the theory because it sounded too much like a religious view – for the universe to come into being out of nothing.
    Mind you, he was not attacked for his science which has proven to be sound.

    So there you have it – scientists attacking valid science on, well, dogmatic grounds. The reality is that science is too frequently not particularly scientific.

  • GaryT: Here’s another example, of Science! but this time, leading to belief in something that absolutely did not exist:

  • GaryT

    Interesting. I never heard of N-rays before. I guess we didn’t cover that in physics :).

    The big bang theory was discounted purely on dogmatic grounds. Here’s a little more detail:

    In the late 1800s, the popular belief in the scientific community was that the universe was static. Not that there was any real scientific basis to believe it, but nonetheless, it was the accepted belief. When Einstein developed his general theory of relativity, he even added a term to his equations to avoid it predicting an expanding universe. In 1927, using Einstein’s equations, a Roman Catholic priest (who was also a very capable physicist) named Georges Lemaître proposed a theory that the universe started from a single point; a theory which eventually became known as the Big Bang theory. Although his theory has since shown to be a very good one through many empirical measurements, he was attacked at the time by many in the scientific community. Because his science was bad? Clearly no. Because his theory implied a beginning to the universe, and thus the possibility of a Creator God, who created the universe out of nothing? Let’s see what the scientists themselves said:

    The physicist David Bohm rebuked the developers of the theory as “scientists who effectively turn traitor to science, and discard scientific facts to reach conclusions that are convenient to the Catholic Church.” Sir Arthur Eddington, wrote, “The notion of a beginning is repugnant to me … I simply do not believe that the present order of things started off with a bang. … The expanding Universe is preposterous … incredible … it leaves me cold.” Georges Politzer, wrote: “The universe was not a created object, if it were, then it would have to be created instantaneously by God and brought into existence from nothing. To admit creation, one has to admit, in the first place, the existence of a moment when the universe did not exist, and that something came out of nothingness. This is something to which science can not accede.”