Monday, November 16, 2009

Atheists Heap Abuse on Mother Theresa: Scriptural and Theological Reflections

Altruism is difficult for atheists to explain within their worldview. This can be seen in their reaction to the modern icon of altruism, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta.
The famous sociobiologist E. O. Wilson argued that goodness was the result of “lying, pretense, and deceit, including self-deceit, because the actor is most convincing who believes that his performance is real.” He attributed Blessed Teresa’s altruism to self-interest. She was just “in it” just to get to heaven: “Mother Teresa is an extraordinary person but it should not be forgotten that she is secure in the service of Christ and the knowledge of her Church’s immortality.”

Wilson’s comments are mild compared to Christopher Hitchens recent comment during an interview with Dennis Miller (here). I have edited some of Hitchen’s crudity:

"Mother Theresa spent her whole life saying (that what Calcutta needs) is a huge campaign against family planning. I mean, who comes to that conclusion who isn’t a complete fanatic? She took – and I would directly say stole…millions and millions of dollars and spent all the money not on the poor, but on the building of nearly 200 convents in her own name around the world to glorify herself and to continue to spread the doctrine that, as she put it — when she got her absurd Nobel Peace Prize — that the main threat to world peace is abortion and contraception. The woman was a fanatic and a fundamentalist and a fraud, and millions of people are much worse off because of her life, and it’s a shame there is no hell for your b**** to go to."

As offensive and erroneous as Wilson’s and Hitchen’s remarks are, I think there is some benefit to reflecting on them, especially in this month of November as we contemplate the saints, the faithful departed, the final judgment, and the Last Things generally.

First, the venom of Hitchen’s remarks reminds me of the response Jesus received from the Pharisees with regard to his healing ministry. In the face of direct evidence of divine power and obvious goodness (miracles of healing), the Pharisees attribute Jesus’ powers to Satan. Likewise, Hitchens thinks Blessed Teresa is worthy of hell, if there was such a place. Sometimes the Gospels seem distant from us because we cannot relate to the social dynamic in some of the stories. Hitchens helps us close the gap between reader and text by showing us up close the twisted logic that can lead people to consider some of the clearest examples of goodness as evil.

Both Hitchens and the Pharisees are confronted with people who challenge their worldview, people who—according to their Weltanschauung—ought not to exist and do what they do. The reaction is violent revulsion, because nothing is more threatening to a person than to have their entire worldview threatened.

Secondly, Wilson’s attribution of Blessed Teresa’s goodness to self-interest based on her hope in heaven actually sheds light on a fact that has somewhat distressed me. Many of you know that after Bl. Teresa’s death her memoirs revealed that, in fact, she frequently did not have spiritual consolations nor a sense of the assurance of her salvation. She worked for long periods in spiritual dryness. When this information came to light, I was troubled personally, because I could not understand why God would not have granted such a selfless person the spiritual consolations that I felt she deserved.

The story of Job comes to mind. Like Wilson, Satan in the beginning of the Book of Job attributes Job’s goodness to self-interest. “Does Job fear God for nothing?” (Job 1:9). This is the “hermeneutic of suspicion,” the same hermeneutic Wilson and Hitchens employ. No one does good for goodness sake; everyone is “in it” because of something “for them.” Does any one do good only for the sake of good? Which is the same as asking, does anyone serve God for the sake of God alone?

Perhaps this is why God permitted Blessed Teresa to serve without spiritual consolations: to silence the Adversary. Her diaries showed E.O. Wilson to be wrong. Blessed Teresa was not some sanguine simpleton serving God for “pie in the sky by and by.” She was not continually consoled with assurance of heaven. Yet she continued to love both God and neighbor without guarantee of any return for herself. Thus her love was perfected and purified, because it was enabled to be without any self-interest. Her spiritual dryness enabled Blessed Teresa to make a perfect self-offering. God gave Bl. Theresa the opportunity to make a pure self-gift. We ought not to be surprised if at some point in our walk with God, we are given a similar opportunity.

(I originally wrote this post on All Saints Day, but it has taken a while to get it proofread and online.)


Anonymous said...

What is strange about the world's morals is well summarized in a Santa Clause song, "Santa Clause is coming to town." There, we discover that the jolly old elf gives toys to good little girls and boys, but they should be good for goodness' sake. As a child, I can tell you, in light of the commericalism of Christmas by stores, movies, business, etc. (though I did not as a child ever grasp commericalism, nor recognize it, but only saw it as the true celebration of Christmas: like a second birthday), I believed that by being good for goodness' sake, I would be rewarded; in others, I identified goodness as not the act of doing good, nor as the respect owed to others, and not even as morality, but rather as presents, gifts, rewards. This, it seems, is what children are taught by the world: To be good for goodness' sake is to be good for a reward. It trains you to be a mercenary, when in reality, both by human nature and by God's Law, one ought to be a lover, a friend, a helper. Yet this something few can grasp, as is clearly illustrated by the remarks of such men as Hawkins.

Anonymous said...


Not Hawkins.

Alfredo said...

It isn't just atheists who have had problems with Mother Teresa.

I can remember an article in the National Catholic Reporter, sometime in the 1980's (I believe), which attacked Mother Teresa for (in effect) not becoming a political lobbyist. As I recall, it was entitled, "Why are they poor, Mother Teresa?"

If I remember correctly, it was written by a woman religious. She apparently did not have the present Pope's understanding of the distinction between the Church's official ministry of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, on the one hand, and the role of laypeople in working through the political process for a more just social order, on the other.

My reaction at the time was similar to yours, John. I imagined an irritated Judean Zealot penning an article entitled, "Why are they poor and imprisoned, Jesus?"

I suppose today we could imagine a Hitchens-like Judean atheist writing a piece entitled, "Why are they lame, deaf, and dumb, Jesus?"

Danny Zacharias said...

Take out the rhetoric of Hitchins— do you still disagree with him? I'm interested in whether or not his substantive statements are true (she had millions and didn't use it for ministry to the poor but building convents)

steph said...

"Altruism is difficult for atheists to explain within their worldview". That is just as much ridiculous rhetoric as the rhetoric of Hitchens and indeed all Ditchkinian atheists.

But like Danny, I would like to know whether his basic statements are true.

John Bergsma said...

Mother Teresa's "convents" house religious sisters (not nuns, who are cloistered) who dedicate themselves to service of the poor. I'm not sure what Hitchen's meant by his complaint: did he feel that it was not right for Mother Teresa and her followers to have shelter for themselves as they pursued their works of mercy? One does need to keep oneself alive if one is to continue serving the poor.

Anyone is free to research the substance of Hitchen's claims. The Wikipedia articles on Mother Teresa and her order (Missionaries of Charity) are reasonable places to start.

I don't understand why it is ridiculous to say that altruism is a problem for the atheist worldview. Atheist thinkers will admit this themselves, just as Christian thinkers admit that the widespread evil in the world is a problem for their worldview. I didn't claim it was a fatal problem, just a problem. All worldviews have difficulty explaining some aspects of reality.

steph said...

John, I find that extraordinarily naive and extremely offensive despite the fact that I don't identify myself as atheist. There are plenty of atheist defences of altruism John. There are plenty of atheist altruists. It is a common debate over ethics. Generally fundamentalist Christians are the ones accusing atheists of being selfish and having a worldview which can't accomodate altruism. I also think it extremely regrettable that you consistently paint all atheists as Ditchkinian. That's as ludicrous as Ditchkinians painting all Christianity with fundamentalist colours.

I have heard similar accusations of misuse of money elsewhere. Perhaps I should follow them up before deciding if there is any truth. I do to be honest find them hard to believe but then perhaps that is because I don't really want to believe them true of her.

Jeff said...

Steph, if I may, I think you are slightly misunderstanding what Dr. Bergsma is trying to say. Although I could be mistaken, I don't think he is trying to say that Atheists cannot be altruistic. There are in fact many atheistic defenses of altruism, as you correctly point out. There may even be atheistic defenses of altruism by theists. Frans de Waal's, Good Natured, is one example of a naturalistic argument for altruism that could be advanced from an atheistic standpoint (although I don't recall de Waal's position on God). I think Dr. Bergsma's point, however, is that altruism is not a "no-brainer" from an atheistic standpoint. It's less clear. One might say, as Dr. Bergsma does, that it is "difficult" to explain. Most of the atheists I know are altruistic. In fact, most people I know, in general, are altruistic, at least to some degree...not to the level of Blessed Teresa of course. Philosophically speaking, however, atheism does not clearly call for altruism. This requires some explanation, which is difficult work, and the explanations are not equally satisfying (for some, they may not be satisfying at all). I think Dr. Bergsma clarified his point well by comparing it to the problem of evil for theists. The belief in God (particularly an all-powerful and all-good God) does not clearly call for the existence of evil. Sometimes this may take some explaining to clarify how the two can be compatible, and again, these explanations can be of varying degrees of satisfaction (and some are not satisfied by any of them). I think most of those who have problems with Blessed Teresa have more problems with her stances against abortion and against contraception, and in favor of the Catholic Church, than with her actual work among the poor. Charges of the misuse of money will always be with those who do good in this world who use money. Sometimes these charges are justified. In general I try (with differing levels of success and failure on my part) to think the best of everyone (without evidence to the contrary)----obviously I fail here more than I succeed----, and am skeptical about such claims concerning Mother Teresa. I've heard lots of claims, but nothing that leads me to believe she used money unjustly. On the other hand, while many of us sling mud at her and at other such individuals, they are in the trenches trying to do good on this earth. The more I sling mud, the more I realize how little actual good I do in the world. Christopher Hitchens can say what he likes about Blessed Teresa, and criticize her work among the poor...I hope he spends more time helping and serving the poor than he does slinging mud at Blessed Teresa. There I go: I've written too much, and said too little. Dr. Bergsma, thanks for your fine work. The quotation you included brought tears of sorrow to my eyes. Blessed Teresa, pray for us. Jeff

John Bergsma said...

Most public intellectuals who are atheists these days are also materialists and Darwinists, who hold that random mutation and natural selection has created all life. According to this theory, natural selection should favor behaviors and traits that benefit the survival of the individual. Richard Dawkins wrote about this in "The Selfish Gene." On the face of it, one would think that evolution would result in a world in which every living thing always acted selfishly (in its own best interest). However, that is not the world we observe. In fact, both animals and humans can be observed to act altruistically--that is, in the interests of others and not in their own interest. This fact of altruism poses a problem for the form of atheism most common in public discourse in Western society today, which, as I said, combines atheism with materialism and Darwinism. I am not claiming that the problem is fatal, but I am claiming that it is a problem. Wilson and Hitchens recognize that pure altruism, like that displayed by Bl. Teresa, poses a challenge to their way of viewing things, according to which our genes should always make us act selfishly. So both, in different ways, deny that Teresa was actually acting altruistically. Wilson says she was acting essentially in her own "eternal" best interests--of course, there is no eternity, so she was confused about her real best interests, but she was still acting "selfishly" in her own misguided way. Hitchens, on the other hand, argues that Teresa was really scamming money and doing things for her own glory. Note that neither thinker, Hitchens or Wilson, is willing to concede that Bl. Teresa was actually acting altruistically. That illustrates my point that altruism is a problem in their worldview. They resist admitting that it actually exists.

There are other ways atheists can deal with altruism. Some suggest that altruism may be bad for the individual but good for the group; therefore, natural selection working on the species as a whole has "selected for" altruistic traits. The problem here is getting the math to balance out between the competing adaptive interests of the individual and the interests of the group. The most rigorous work I've seen in this area indicates the math does not work.

I didn't make the claim that all atheist thinkers are "Ditchkinian."

The problem of altruism in an atheist framework is a known philosophical problem, just as the problem of evil is a known philosophical problem for Christian thought. We discussed this issue in my doctoral work in philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. I did not make the claim that the problem cannot be addressed by atheists or that no atheists have an explanation for it. I continue to be at a loss for how I have been naive and offensive. I would not be personally offended if someone told me "the presence of great evil in the world is problem for your worldview"--I would say, "You're right, it is, but I have an explanation for it." There are many other realities that pose problems for my worldview, and I am not offended if people point them out.

steph said...

thank you for your kind defence of John. However I did not think it at all clear that that was what he was saying.


I am not concerned with what Wilson, Hitchens or Dawkins say, or any other public intellectuals who attack religion and religious people We are all born with an instinct to survive, and hence our selfishness. It is as much a problem for all of us. But while religious people have their belief system to tell them it's wrong, non believers have independent minds living in a social world to teach them it's wrong. Jeff is right, most people are altruistic including atheists. You are still using the Ditchkins model to paint atheism. While Hithchens and Dawkins and Wilson might deny Mother Theresa's altruism, I don't. It is all about intent. Her intent was altruistic. I might have problems with reconciling here wonderful work for Aids victims with her campaign against contraception in Africa, like the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff, and I might perceive that campaign to have cause much damage in the world, but that doesn't detract from her altruistic intent. Her devotion to the Catholic Church and love of God told her this was the right thing to do.

Anonymous said...

Re: Her devotion to the Catholic Church and love of God told her this was the right thing to do.

Mother Teresa did not go to India out of piety but out of obedience to Jesus Christ. She received a private revelation of Christ, who told her to serve in India, and she obeyed. Furthermore, before going to India she complained to Jesus about having to leave the good life she had. So it was not out of cult-like piety but out of obedience to Christ that she went to serve India, and her canonization vindicates her work and the private revelation she received, because, the same God work spoke to her and worked in her is the same God who raised her to the Altar and works miracles through her.