The cross was, basically, state-sponsored terrorism, and it did indeed terrify people. The great Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero once described a crucifixion but only through a convoluted circumlocution, for he couldn't bring himself to characterize it directly. After putting down the great slave uprising of Spartacus, the Roman government lined the Appian Way with hundreds of crosses so as to dissuade any other would-be revolutionaries.
Many atheists and agnostics today insistently argue that it is altogether possible for non-believers in God to be morally upright. They resent the implication that the denial of God will lead inevitably to complete ethical relativism or nihilism. And they are quick to point out examples of non-religious people who are models of kindness, compassion, justice, etc. In point of fact, a recent article has proposed that non-believers are actually, on average, more morally praiseworthy than religious people. In this context, I recall Christopher Hitchens remark that, all things considered, he would be more frightened of a group of people coming from a religious meeting than a group coming from a rock concert or home from a night on the town. God knows (pun intended) that during the last 20 years we've seen plenty of evidence from around the world of the godly behaving very badly indeed.
Daniel Dennett, one of the "four horsemen" of contemporary atheism, proposed in 2003 that those who espouse a naturalist, atheist worldview should call themselves "the brights," thereby distinguishing themselves rather clearly from the dim benighted masses who hold on to supernaturalist convictions. In the wake of Dennett's suggestion, many atheists have brought forward what they take to be ample evidence that the smartest people in our society do indeed subscribe to anti-theist views. By "smartest" they usually mean practitioners of the physical sciences, and thus they point to surveys that indicate only small percentages of scientists subscribe to religious belief.
The great British physicist Stephen Hawking has emerged in recent years as a poster boy for atheism, and his heroic struggles against the ravages of Lou Gehrig's disease have made him something of a secular saint. The new bio-pic A Theory of Everything does indeed engage in a fair amount of Hawking-hagiography, but it is also, curiously, a God-haunted movie.
One of the classical demonstrations of God's existence is the so-called argument from desire. It can be stated in a very succinct manner as follows. Every innate or natural desire corresponds to some objective state of affairs that fulfills it. Now we all have an innate or natural desire for ultimate fulfillment, ultimate joy, which nothing in this world can possibly satisfy. Therefore there must exist objectively a supernatural condition that grounds perfect fulfillment and happiness, which people generally refer to as "God."
The controversies surrounding the recent Extraordinary Synod on the Family have often put me in mind of Cardinal John Henry Newman, the greatest Catholic churchman of the 19th century. Newman wrote eloquently on an extraordinary range of topics, including university education, the play between faith and reason, the nature of papal authority, and the subtle manner in which we come to assent in matters of religion. But the arguments around the Synod compel us to look at Newman's work regarding the evolution of doctrine.
The midterm report on the deliberations of the Synod on the Family has appeared and there is a fair amount of hysteria all around. John Thavis, a veteran Vatican reporter who should know better, has declared this statement "an earthquake, the big one that hit after months of smaller tremors." Certain commentators on the right have been wringing their hands and bewailing a deep betrayal of the church's teaching. One even opined that this report is the "silliest document ever issued by the Catholic Church," and some have said that the interim document flaunts the teaching of St. John Paul II. Meanwhile the New York Times confidently announced that the church has moved from "condemnation of unconventional family situations and toward understanding, openness, and mercy."