Rebirth of Reason


An Open Letter to a Catholic High School
by William Scott Dwyer

April 10, 1983

Brother Basil Rothweiler, FSC
25 West Island Avenue
Minneapolis, Minnesota 55401

Dear Brother Rothweiler:

Periodically, I have received requests for donations from DE LA SALLE, and recently received a request from you to share my feelings about my alma mater. This last request was accompanied by an invitation to a 25-year class reunion as well as by statements of former alumni praising DE LA SALLE. Since you have requested to hear from me, I will take this opportunity to convey my thoughts.

Unlike the sample of opinions accompanying your letter, my evaluation of DE LA SALLE is not complimentary. Although the school has improved in recent years, at least to the point of being co-educational, it had few redeeming qualities when I was one of its students.

My most vivid remembrances are negative rather than positive. One incident, which was so shocking it has remained in my memory for the past 25 years, is worth recounting here. It concerns a mathematics teacher I had who, despite his obvious genius, was a very violent individual. One incident which I shall relate is sufficient to bear this out.

I was eating my lunch in the school cafeteria one day when I observed the teacher, who was a prefect at the time, approach the lunch table of one of the students who was sitting quietly, eating his lunch. Without warning, the teacher -- a man of the cloth -- began to assault the student brutally, hitting him with a number of severe blows to the head before knocking the student to the floor. The assault continued with the student crouched on his knees, desperately trying to protect himself by covering his head with his hands and arms. At last, the teacher desisted from his unprovoked attack, and the student, thinking that the storm had abated, dropped his hands and arms. The Christian brother then kicked him viciously in the side of the head, and I saw blood spurt from the ear of the student.

It is worth noting that although this type of brutality was not an isolated occurrence with this teacher (I witnessed other incidents of physical assault by the same man), no disciplinary action was ever taken against him. He was not dismissed or suspended as a teacher, nor were his attacks ever publicly censured by the school administrators. Evidently, the argument was that if the student didn't like it, then he was free to go elsewhere.

The question that needs to be asked here is: why does a religious order professing love for mankind exhibit and tolerate such brutality? Why were Christian brothers given to act this way? To be sure, the victim of the assault had not been sufficiently attentive in the teacher's class. He was caught reading his English lesson when he should have been listening to his mathematics teacher. But he was not disruptive, nor had I ever seen him do anything even remotely severe enough to warrant the kind of outrageous attack which he received. He was simply hated by the teacher for being insufficiently compliant.

Here, I think, is the crux of the matter. Catholicism believes very strongly in both obedience and punishment. Its concern with obedience is evident from the nature of its morality. The Ten Commandments as well as the various rules of conduct prescribed by the Church are not to be understood, nor treated, as practical guides for successful living (even if it is argued that they are in fact practical). They are to be followed because they are commandments and decrees, not because one believes them to be good for one's life. To "obey" someone's commands is not to follow them because one understands their importance; it is to follow them based simply on the say-so of the person issuing the commands, or out of fear of punishment.

By its belief in everlasting, supernatural punishment, Catholicism endorses the infliction of pain and suffering that is both irrational and excessive. Although God is said to love his children, he is nevertheless portrayed as torturing certain of the disobedient ones everlastingly. Nor need the disobedience be particularly heinous in order to warrant such a cruel fate.

For example, Catholicism holds that a mere thought (if sexual, non-monogamous and voluntarily entertained) is a mortal sin, and as such deserves interminable punishment. Thus, if one dies absent proper forgiveness of such a thought, there is no escape from God's unremitting wrath.

Given such notions of obedience and punishment as part of the Catholic religion, the Christian Brother's brutality, while seemingly deranged, begins to make sense. If God, who is portrayed as morally perfect, may deliver the most extreme punishment imaginable for the most innocuous act of disobedience, then surely a servant of God may deliver a vicious beating to a slightly disobedient student. Thus, it is the doctrines of Catholicism themselves that illuminate the violence and tolerance to violence of its most devoutly religious members.

In our secular penal system, we ban cruel and unusual punishment, because we operate on standards of justice that are more humane than those in many religions. In a sane, secular society, punishment is generally endorsed only for its practical value. For instance, we incarcerate criminals in order to protect innocent human beings and to deter crime.

Religion, however, views punishment as vindictive. Certainly, Hell cannot be viewed as a jail designed to protect the innocent from the guilty. Nor can it be viewed as a deterrent to sin, because punishing people after they are dead cannot possibly deter them from committing sins while they are still alive. Granted, a belief in the punishment may deter them; the punishment itself cannot. Obviously, once people die, they are no longer capable of being influenced by the punishment. Nor can punishing the departed set an example for those still living, since the living have no way to verify that such punishment was actually administered.

Indeed, if God were to punish sinners as a means of dissuading them from sin, then it would make more sense for him to do so while they are still alive. That way the punishment would at least serve the purpose of a rational deterrent. Flogging a dead horse or, in this case, a dead person is, from the point of view of deterrence, a pointless endeavor.

Nor can balancing some mythical scales of justice explain the existence of a Hell, for the severity of everlasting punishment vastly outweighs the gravity of any sin that one might conceivably commit in one's finite, temporal lifetime.

There is only one other motive for the existence of a Hell -- one other reason why God might allow such a terrible place to exist: an intemperate vindictiveness toward those arrogant enough to disobey the Most High.

Such is the God of mercy, benevolence and justice whom we are called upon by the Church to know, love and serve. But to know God (at least according to the characterization provided by the Church) is to know that he is neither merciful, benevolent nor just. It is to fear him, not to love him. And the service which he commands is a servitude obtained without one's consent and against one's will. One does not freely obey God; one is forced to obey him by the threat of everlasting punishment -- just as one is forced to obey the religious dictates of an Ayatollah by the threat of imprisonment and execution.

Yet it is also true that a God of Wrath is at best an implausible conception. Does a sadistic, perverse vindictiveness against his own creatures befit a spirit of supreme knowledge and power? If an ineffectual rage is a shortcoming, a weakness, even for a human being, then how are we justified in attributing such an emotion to God who is portrayed as a paragon of wisdom and virtue?

It is tragic that the concept of Hell ever became a part of human beliefs, for it deifies the vice of sadism, and sanctifies pointless suffering.

Unfortunately, this belief in obedience on principle and in punishment from vengeance is such a cardinal element of Catholicism that it will surely persist in spite of itself. DE LA SALLE may change for the better, but unless the changes transcend Catholic dogma, they will merely be cosmetic not fundamental.

What is needed is nothing less than a full-scale rejection of any philosophy -- especially an educational philosophy -- based on religious faith and subservience to the supernatural. Involuntary servitude within a secular context is recognized as demeaning to the human spirit -- as the existence of brutal dictatorships throughout history has given ample testimony. Well, involuntary servitude within a religious context -- compulsory obedience to the commandments of a tyrannical god -- is no less demeaning to the human spirit. But fortunately, a belief in the god of religion is as false as a belief in the ideological gods of secular tyrants.

No rational argument ever offered by theologians has succeeded in proving the existence of a deity. Such arguments that have been offered, including those of St. Thomas Aquinas, have been refuted by philosophers many times over. But that is not something I learned at DE LA SALLE. Two of the most frequently cited arguments are worth noting here, for they show how weak the case for God really is. I am speaking of the First Cause Argument and the Argument from Design.

The First Cause Argument states that everything must have a cause, and that this process cannot go backward in time forever, otherwise you would have an infinite regress. Therefore, there must be a god to have started the process. But if everything requires a cause, then so does God. Was there then a Supergod who created the God of Christianity? If not, then not everything requires a cause, in which case, there is no reason to assume that the universe itself requires one. If god may exist eternally, then surely the universe may exist eternally.

The Argument from Design states that because the universe is orderly, there must be a designer to have created the order. If there were no designer, states the argument, chaos would reign. But how do we determine what is and is not designed? If, for example, I find a watch in the wilderness, I infer that the watch had a designer, because, unlike the rest of the things in the wilderness, it is not a naturally occurring object. But in that case I am contrasting, not equating, a designed object with a naturally occurring one. Since the universe at large is naturally occurring (like the wilderness), it is just the sort of thing that I regard as lacking a purposive design, not as having one.

The universe does not function according to an intelligent, preordained purpose, nor does it function randomly and chaotically. It functions according to causal necessity. Things act the way they do because of the kinds of things they are. If water is exposed at sea level to 100 degrees Centigrade, it boils; if it is exposed to 0 degrees Centigrade, it freezes. The boiling and freezing occur not by accident nor by supernatural design, but by the properties of H2O in conjunction with certain conditions of temperature. Everything has a nature, and everything acts according to its nature. (Even the theist must assume this with respect to God, i.e., that God has a nature and acts according to it.) These facts preclude both the need to interpret nature as a the product of design and the need to interpret it as the product of random chance.

It is ironic that when things do not act in a normal fashion -- according to the way one would expect them to act -- theists posit a miracle, claiming the miracle as evidence of supernatural involvement. For they claim that if God were not involved, then things would act in a normal, predictable fashion. Conversely, if things act in an orderly fashion, theists claim this as evidence of supernatural involvement, citing the Argument from Design. They make sure the cards are stacked in their favor: heads they win; tails, you lose. It is easy to see, therefore, that such arguments are merely rationalizations for a belief in God that has already been accepted on faith.

In fact, if the orderly and beneficent conditions under which we live result from intelligent design, that design is human not divine. Let us give credit where credit is due, not to God but to man. Let us not succumb to the vice of a self-deprecating Christian humility, but let us take pride -- intellectual and moral pride -- in the value and virtue of our own accomplishments.

Let us recognize that human intelligence in the form of science has made life incomparably better for mankind while the Church has all along placed obstacles in the way of that betterment -- from the myopic opposition to Galileo during the Renaissance to its dreadful denial of anesthesia for childbirth in the 19th Century to its burdensome ban on birth control and abortion in the 20th Century. The Church has viewed man's attempt to overcome the adversities to which he is heir as unwarranted meddling in God's handiwork. It has preferred that man not benefit by intelligent design when the intelligence is human. Characteristic of its reasoning is the view that if God wanted women to give birth painlessly, then he would have given them painless childbirth; it is not man's place to contravene God's purposes.

It is this sort of view which regards the purpose of sex as procreation only. Human beings are breeders of other human beings in a manner no different than farm animals that are kept for the purpose of breeding other farm animals. Just as animals are bred to serve the purposes of man, so the Church holds that man is created to serve the purposes of God. God wants us to use sex, not for our own purposes or pleasure, but for his purposes -- to continue what he started -- to procreate what he initially created.

According to the Church, therefore, man is not autononous; he is beholden to God. He does not have sole dominion over his body nor over his life. God owns him outright. In a very literal sense, God is his lord and master; he, merely disenfranchised subject and slave. It is for this reason that abortion is opposed by Catholicism. The right to abortion implies that a woman has dominion over the functions of her own body -- that she is not to be made the unwilling provider of an unchosen human parasite, any more than a man is to be made the unwilling provider, the physical slave, of another man. Abortion, contrary to the Catholic Church, is not murder but self-defense. It constitutes a woman's refusal to be exploited by nature -- just as the improvements wrought by medical science (anesthesia, contraception, etc.) constitute mankind's refusal to be exploited by nature. What the Church says is: let nature run its course; let man and woman be the victims. Since God is the designer of nature, such is his will.

But it is a fact that man survives and prospers best -- achieves his values most satisfactorily -- by altering and manipulating, indeed by exploiting, nature rather than by letting nature exploit him. But then religion is not concerned with helping man to achieve his own values; only the values of God. Whereas the Church regards man as the passive slave of God and nature, science regards nature as the slave of man. Catholicism is thus the spiritual antithesis of science.

While science has been raising men from the jungles and caves to an unprecedented degree of material well-being, religion has been telling them that they live in a universe ruled by a whimsical and sadistic ghost -- a ghost who miraculously and arbitrarily negates the physical rules by which they live, and promises to torture them for eternity if they fail to obey his commands. Science has been criticized for neglecting the moral side of man's nature, even if it has promoted his material well being. Well, religion deserves no credit for filling the gap, since its version of morality is a travesty of monumental proportions.

Let reason fill the moral vacuum just as it has filled the material one -- by developing a moral code for the values of man instead of for the values of God -- one suitable for life on earth instead of for life in the hereafter. Let schools such as DE LA SALLE be replaced by sane and benevolent institutions that teach young people not faith, force and fear, but reason, independence and understanding. Then they can learn what it means to live in a society that does not coerce them into obeying the edicts of either a secular or supernatural dictator.


William Dwyer
Class of '58


December 28, 1985

Mr. Steve Roth
25 West Island Avenue
Minneapolis, MN 55401

Dear Mr. Roth:

Pursuant to our telephone conversation on the 23rd, I am enclosing a copy of the letter that I sent to Brother Rothweiler back in '83.

As I mentioned in our conversation, it is difficult for me to believe that after reading the enclosed letter, the principal of DE LA SALLE could think that I would be interested in contributing to the support of his high school. Evidently, he could not face up to what I had to say, and simply evaded acknowledging the content of my letter.

To your credit, you did not do this, and I appreciated your call and the conversation that we had. As you will see from reading the enclosed letter, there is more to my rejection of DE LA SALLE than simply the gratuitous violence that I witnessed while in attendance there -- although that is a major part of it. Indeed, such violence constituted felonious assault, and was grounds for criminal prosecution. Bewilderingly, charges were never filed against the responsible party, but that was undoubtedly because (as in so many religions) the victim was already demeaned and did not have the moral courage and dignity to defend his own rights.

My rejection of DE LA SALLE goes beyond the violence to the causes for that violence, namely, the spiritual fabric of Catholic dogma. As you will see from reading my letter to Brother Rothweiler, it is not enough to say, "Well, you know, we've changed for the better; we're no longer like that." Like a dormant volcano, the potential for such behavior remains, because the philosophy behind it is still the same. The school is still operated by the spiritual allies of the Catholic Church.

What is needed is nothing less than a full-scale rejection of any philosophy or religion whose basic principles can be seen to justify such action. But, please -- read my letter, and you will understand much better the reasons behind my views.

Thank you for your consideration.


William Dwyer
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