The Catholic League’s Bill Donohue has a new book out today called The Catholic Advantage, all about how great it is to believe as he does.
It’s not enough, however, to promote Catholicism. Donohue spends a huge chunk of the book talking about how awful atheism is. In fact, here’s the bulk of the book in a nutshell: Donohue claims that atheists are more likely to have mental health problems, be depressed, and commit suicide. We’re also less charitable and happy than our religious counterparts.
He more or less ignores the fact that religious people have very strong built-in communities and social networks (not to mention ways to donate your time and money), all of which contribute to one’s well-being. Very few atheist communities have the numbers that churches do, though there have been more attempts in recent years to build these up. No doubt we have a long way to go, but there’s nothing inherently bad about atheism — unless you think a lack of false hope is a problem — and Donohue never bothers to explain why Catholicism (as opposed to any other belief system) makes any sense.
I’ll give you an example of the kind of argument Donohue makes. Right in the introduction, he claims that people like us are atheists because we have bad relationships with our father:
In one way or another, [psychologist Paul] Vitz found, the relationship these [“prominent atheist intellectuals”] had with their father was deformed. In some cases, their father died when they were young; often their father abandoned them; for those whose father was present, he was “obviously weak, cowardly, and unworthy of respect”; or he was abusive, psychologically, sexually, or physically. In all cases, the father’s authority was missing or severely compromised. (p. xviii)
Vitz’s whole theory, as we’ve discussed on this site before, is full of holes — it’s a lot of cherry-picking minus all the peer review.
But Dohonue doesn’t need to tell his readers that. His currency is scare tactics, not the truth. Which is why he claims we’re so damn powerful:
What [atheists] lack in numbers, they make up for in clout: nonbelievers disproportionately occupy the command centers in our culture. (p. xvi)
If that’s true, it’s news to me, considering there are zero of us in Congress.
(In case you haven’t noticed, we’re not even done with the introduction yet.)
Let me just mention one other bit, about how atheists are supposedly more suicidal. That part is especially interesting because he uses an atheist blogger to illustrate his point:
Blogger Staks Rosch lost three of his friends in a few months; like him, all of them were atheists. He knows for sure that one committed suicide, and suspects the other two did as well. The latter two were recent converts to atheism (he admits to “de-converting” one of them); the one who clearly did take his life was an activist in humanist circles. Rosch is not a psychiatrist, but he believes they were all depressed.
No amount of training is psychology or psychiatry is likely to prove a sufficient tonic for those who are suicidal. There are medications that can help, but unless the underlying causes are addressed, they can only do so much. There is no substitute for feeling whole, and at peace with oneself, and that is another reason why the Catholic advantage is real. (pp. 61-62)
I showed this passage to Staks, an online acquaintance, and asked him what he thought about it. With his permission, I’m reprinting his response below (with a few edits for clarity):
For starters it isn’t accurate… My one friend who I do take some credit for de-converting might not have even died from suicide. He was a black gay man who had recently been in the process of reconciling with his crazy fundamentalist family who pretty much threw a party at his funeral. The situation around his death had absolutely nothing to do with his atheism. He did suffer from depression and anxiety and had been taking medication for that. He had overdosed on that medication and that may have been due to a particular situation that was going on in his personal life. He did not share that situation with even his closest friends.
The second friend Donohue referenced was a local humanist activist. He had apparently been suffering from clinical depression for a long time. Again, his suicide had nothing to do with his atheism. The point of my blog post on suicide was to point out that atheists don’t have a strong support system and that religious believers often marginalize atheists and make atheists feel isolated much like how many fundamentalists treat those in the greater gay community.
I did reference another friend in the blog post who had recently de-converted. He was a fundamentalist Christian who I became friends with in college and we stayed friends after college. He went on to Yale Seminary and over the course of a decade, had de-converted. After his de-conversion, he was having some existential angst and having a hard time finding a new secular direction in his life. For the record, he is still alive and well.
The takeaway here is that Donohue didn’t do his research for this book. He cherry-picked information without providing proper context for his readers, all to make himself and his beliefs look better than they really are.
Not that anyone is surprised. This is how Donohue operates: He finds pieces of information and blows them completely out of proportion.
If there’s a “Catholic advantage” at all, it’s with money and tradition. It sure as hell isn’t in any evidence justifying its beliefs.
But if anyone wants to write about the Catholic disadvantage, I promise you there’s more than enough material for a lengthy book.