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Thank you again for this exchange, Michael; I am grateful that you took the time to teach me with such patience and tolerance.
In all honesty, I can’t follow your subtle discussion of the relationship between natural laws and Divine Providence. The fault is mine. I think you are saying that miracles and divine intervention are consistent with the laws of nature. In any case, I am perfectly happy to grant you miracles for the sake of argument. The question I have been trying to pursue is rather an epistemological one: How do we tell a true act of God from a false one? Do you, Michael, approach the claims of other faiths with the same expectation of plausibility as you would a non-religious claim?
I really enjoy the way you conduct a path through our disagreements. You are tough, but open to differences. As we have agreed from the first, to achieve real disagreement is a long-term task; it takes a lot of brandies sipped slowly together (so to speak) to get past the misunderstandings that masquerade as disagreements, in order to find the deep place where the two parties (amicably) part ways.
Some atheists do invent a heroic image of themselves, but maybe that generation has passed. Bertrand Russell compared himself to Prometheus, Camus to Sisyphus, and Dylan Thomas raged, raged against the night. If I may say so, even you find distasteful the believing peasant’s use of “amulets.” Note, though, that there are village atheists, too. What do they have, those who are unlearned, to rebuke their belief in magic and superstition? I have noticed – have you? – that the more secular our universities have become over the last few decades, the larger have become the sections of bookstores devoted to witchcraft, Ouija boards, astrology, and pet rocks. Christian believers are told that such things are sinful, idol-worship, the deification of silly human fetishes.
You say (and I agree) that the world is awash with meaning.
Thank you so much for your candid and probing response; it is most illuminating.
Before addressing your final question, I am going to risk characterizing your presentation of religious faith. Some of our readers, if not you yourself, may find this presumptuous; if so, I accept their criticism.
It seems to me that your version of religion is a highly intellectualized one–admirably reflecting your own passions. But those aspects of faith which you label “kitsch,” Michael, are as central to many believers’ experience of religion as a drive to ask questions. The Church itself has not discouraged–one might even say it has authorized–such manifestations of kitsch as relic worship, rosary counting, and saint idolatry (see, for example, the cult of the Virgin of Guadalupe). Papal Rome has even done its own brisk business in “buying and selling.”
These manifestations of “peasant piety,” as you call them, suggest to me that for many people, religion is as much about providing an amulet against misfortune and a shelter from fear and death as it is about intellectual inquiry.