A few weeks ago I saw a bumper sticker that made me laugh and it reminded me why I am Catholic. It said, “Honk if you don’t exist.” If I am not mistaken, the bumper sticker was meant to teach one of the central tenets of Buddhism – the anatta doctrine, or the doctrine of “no self.” This Buddhist doctrine teaches that “I” don’t exist, or at the very least, that “I” ought not to worry about whether or not “I” exist. Needless to say, I found it extremely ironic and somewhat amusing to think that someone would honk in order to signal their conviction that they are not there. It’s as if they were saying, “Look, look at me! Here I am, Not!”
Outside the classical Judeo-Christian tradition, philosophical silliness like this occurs with astonishing frequency. The atheist philosopher Alex Rosenberg (professor at Duke University) has gone on record, publically, many times, arguing that there is no such thing as thinking. Thinking, he thinks, is an illusion. In one well-known essay of about 4,000 words (“The Disenchanted Naturalist’s Guide to Reality”), Rosenberg argues that there are no words, no sentences, and no meaningful arguments. (And yet, Rosenberg continues to make arguments, write words, and express both incredulity and moral indignation at those who disagree with him.)
We could easily make a rather long list of this kind of thing. Bishop Berkeley (1685-1753) famously argued that there are no material objects. (Samuel Johnson refuted him by kicking a stone.) David Hume (1711-1776) thought it more sensible to believe that things pop into existence without a cause than to believe in cause-and-effect. I once met a modern gender theorist who stared a beautiful woman in the face and refused to acknowledge that she was female. Tragically, these kinds of mistakes have real-world, moral consequences. Modern “ethicists,” like Peter Singer, rely on them to justify barbarism unprintable in a Catholic paper.
In the face of such absurdity, I reflect frequently on the good sense in being Catholic. Catholicism is, above all, a message about our eternal destiny and the way of salvation. But unlike the nihilistic or world-denying philosophy of the East, Catholicism offers you eternity and affirms the goodness of the material world as well. Along with Buddhists, materialists, and idealists, Catholics acknowledge that that material world on its own is rather hard to explain. But unlike some philosophers, Catholics affirm that language, meaning, minds, intelligence, and matter really do exist. They just don’t exist on their own. We find their meaning in light of the unchanging, immaterial reality of God himself.
The Buddhists, nihilists, and absurdists do make one good point. Life without God is absurd. To live like our pleasures, our bank accounts, or our reputations really matter in some ultimate way is to chase a fantasy. None of these things – on their own – have any eternal significance or any meaning worth pursuing. But Catholicism finds their meaning in light of eternity. Catholic faith sees clearly what every Buddhist or absurdist sees dimly. You shouldn’t live for the things of this world, not because they don’t exist, but because they exist in dependence on God. They derive their meaning from their relationship to the Creator.
Jesus made the point long ago:
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? . . . But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:25-33)
Catholicism does teach many things that cannot be known directly by human reason. Reason cannot discover on its own that God is triune, or that Christ is fully God and fully man, or that the Eucharist really is the body and blood of Christ. But it is remarkable that those who affirm these mysteries of faith are marvelously prepared to resist the absurdities and the irrationality that often accompany unbelief. Those who believe God on the hardest doctrines find it an easy thing to believe in the evident facts of common sense. Those who doubt God end up doubting even that they exist.