In which I take my leave from the new atheism
The following is a conversation that I had recently over at whyevolutionistrue.com, beginning with my comment, here, in response to Jerry Coyne’s post “Critical Mail of the Week”, here. I do not record it as purporting to show that my response is more correct or more able than those of my interlocutors. I record it as what is currently on my mind. I have found myself, over the last year or two, distancing myself more and more from the new atheism, although I was, I think, once associated more closely to it. Part of the reason for this was the anger I felt towards the churches (an anger I still feel) because of their intransigent approach to issues of assisted dying, an approach which made my wife Elizabeth’s torment more tormenting than it need have been, and which, in the end, I believe, dramatically shortened her life. I do not think that a reasoned theological argument can be produced for opposing assisted dying, and I hold Christianity and other religions largely to blame for the way in which my wife was forced to live in fear and torment, as well as for the way that she was forced to go to Switzerland in order to bring her increasingly intolerable quality of life to and end before she need have done had assisted dying been readily available in Canada. So, I adopted a very negative and angry response to religion, and expressed this anger in what I hope were often reasoned posts on this blog, 900 of which I have archived for my own use, but are no longer available here. I may repost some of them in the days ahead.
However, as time went on I found myself at loggerheads with much that sailed under the banner of the New Atheism, finding its conception of religion so contrary to anything that I would have said about my faith in earlier years that I find myself no longer able to associate myself with this movement. Much that new atheists say about religion is simply so much straw. Of course, it does apply to the fundamentalists and some evangelicals (two separate points of view), but some Christian theology is so much more sophisticated than this as to make much new atheist opposition to religion sophistical. Some of that theology may simply be composed of what have come to be known as “deepities”, though that classification seems to me to have arisen because of the unwillingness of atheists to engage with what theologians and other religious believers have to say in defence of their worldview. And that it is an opposition of worldviews is, I think, something that has been lost sight of.
I think some of this comes out in the following conversation. There seems to be a belief that theology must simply be delusional, because there is no objective supernatural existent corresponding to the word ‘god’ — or at least that no “slam-dunk” arguments can be produced for such an existent. Consequently, it has become fairly normative to believe that religion has to do with “confected” entities, and religious thought itself not only delusional but even pathological. (Boghossian — in his book on making atheists — repeats the accusation that faith is pathological in his book so often that one is reminded of the George Orwell’s 1984, or the common practice in the Soviet Union of placing dissidents in psychiatric hospitals. There is a deeply threatening aspect to the belief that those whose ideas you oppose are somehow mentally ill, or victims of pathological ways of thinking in need of a cure.) I do not think this is true, even though I dissent from much that is said in defence of Christianity. Empirical science is not the only source of truth or understanding. Indeed, I believe that the new atheism is quickly attaching itself to beliefs that are as dogmatic and irrational as many religious dogmas, and to a kind of ideological certitude that may be as dangerous as the ideologies of the past that caused so much harm in the course of what Robert Conquest has called The Ravaged Century.
With that introduction, here is the conversation. It is hard to present it in such a way as to be always in sequence, but I am sure that you will be able to find your way. I have not asked permission of those who participated in this conversation for its reposting here, but since it is a matter of public record, beginning with my own comment (you can click on the permalinks to access the conversation in sequence and in their original context, if you wish), that I beg their indulgence in using it as a way of expressing some of my concerns about the new atheism. (In addition to this post I suggest you read the defence of Massimo Pigliucci at aRemonstrant’sRamblings, and follow some of the links in or after that post. In some instances I have edited the following conversation for spelling and added quotation marks to indicate quotations, where this helps to make the bones of the conversation more clear):
Posted March 2, 2014 at 6:47 am | Permalink
Jerry, you say: “But I have to say this—I don’t think, based on other things I’ve read, that Hart makes a slam-dunk case for God.” But of course, if you read Hart, you will see that he makes no case for a “slam-dunk” case for God, and disavows any such intention.
Indeed, can you really make a “slam-dunk” case for anything? Even evolutionary biology is an evolving science, as are all sciences. As has happened in the past, it is always possible that some little thing has been missed, and evolutionary science in the next hundred years will look very different to the way that it looks today. The point is not about making slam dunk cases, but whether there is at least some rational basis for religious belief and practice. And, while I can’t follow Hart in everything he has to say in his new book (and I have read it once rather quickly), it is hard to fault him on his endeavour to apply rational argument to “belief” in God.
If it sounds condescending, as some of the comments above suggest, to be told that you first have to read something before making critical remarks about a book or an essay or a position adopted by just anyone, the condescension is surely well placed. One of the things that I am increasingly finding, as time goes by, is that there is a reluctance to read what others write if you disagree with them (I do not include you in that number), but there is also a tendency to approach, as an outsider, whole complexes of thought without immersing oneself in the thought itself, and trying to put the best construction on it.
I am willing, with the best of them, to treat religion in a high-handed way, but religion can really only be understood from the inside. It is not a theoretical system of thought in the same way that science is, and its conclusions concern people as individuals, and how they understand and interpret the very complex things that pertain to them as persons, often in very trying circumstances. I suggest, to anyone who is prepared to dismiss religion out of hand without really making an effort to understand how it functions in a well-lived life, to read Ronald Dworkin’s little book Religion without God and see how interpretive frameworks work for one’s understanding of what overall or overarching meaning may be given to a life.
Religion is like that. It is not a list of propositions to be believed or not believed. It is an interpretive approach to life. I find that, at crucial points, this approach has made forays into public life which are extremely damaging to that life, and I oppose religion on those grounds. But I find it hard to fault the effort to make sense of one’s life as a whole, which is what religion is really all about. That is why liberal “believers” can read myth as myth, and use it as an element in such an effort. But to think of religion as either desiring to, or able to, make a slam dunk case for the existence of God is simply to misunderstand religion where it really counts, and it distresses me to see people casually dismissing people’s religious understanding in a cavalier fashion, without trying to see how religion fits into the context of an entire life project. So far, I see little evidence that anyone else is trying to provide this, and if atheism can’t, it is not going to be an alternative to religion, but merely a carping annoyance on the margins of religion.
And remember, if you will, that Plantinga is a philosopher of religion, not a theologian, or someone with the “cure” of souls (as it is often put). His arguments endeavour to do what most religious people do not, and have no intention of doing: to prove, rationally, that it makes philosophical or scientific or objective sense to interpret life in terms of religious stories and their expression in a life. Indeed, where religion attempts to do this in ways that in some way parallel the achievements of science (as in the fundamentalist project) it is, in many respects, distant from what religion has traditionally been understood to be. For fundamentalism is precisely the religious mimicking of science, and a pretty poor substitute at that. It wants to be able to claim the same kind of certainty for its conclusions as science claims for its. It is a lost cause, as modern theology and philosophy of religion have almost unanimously agreed.
But to take that failure as the paradigm case of what religion is is simply to have misunderstood religion. I think Plantinga comes within the scope of the fundamentalist project to some extent (where my doubts about his own philosophical project arise for me), although in many respects more sophisticated (though this sophistication is scarcely to be expected in an email interview). I disagree heartily with most of his arguments, and there are powerful counterarguments to them. I do have a considerable sympathy for his argument about the self-defeating nature of naturalism, though I think, in the end, it is invalid, but understanding the argument, and showing that it does not succeed is, I suspect, not so easy to do as is often suggested. The kinds of things that he is discussing comprises a fairly large area in philosophy, of which I do not have a very strong or comprehensive grasp, but the supposition that it can be dismissed simply by suggesting that there is no “slam dunk argument for God” simply won’t do as a response.
This betrays a serious misunderstanding of what Plantinga thinks he has done, and certainly it has nothing whatever to do with what David Bentley Hart is doing, and touches not at all the ordinary life of those who are trying to live out their religious faith in their lives. I have said it before, and will say it again: most neu Atheismus simply fails to reflect how religion functions for many people. That isn’t to say that the new atheism does not respond appropriately to fundamentalists, for fundamentalists make outré claims that are simply indefensible, but so long as atheism does not distinguish, from amongst a rich variety of ways in which religion has been understood, those ways that are not amenable simply to scorn and confident dismissal, and begin to shape its opposition with greater sophistication, it will only be talking to itself, as, it seems, it increasingly is.
Posted March 2, 2014 at 7:36 am | Permalink
Thanks for this comment. But if you really think religion can be understood only from the inside, then isn’t atheism self-defeating, except for fundamentalists. The fact it, though, that New Atheism hasn’t been effective just in converting “fundamentalists,” (indeed, that’s probably the worst target), but those who are young or on the fence. Just read Dawkins’s “converts corner”; and I get some (albeit many fewer) emails saying I’ve helped people transition out of religion.
Of course we all recognize that religion is more than just a series of empirical propositions, but those empirical propositions are the buttresses for everything else. How many people would remain Christian if they knew for sure that Jesus didn’t exist, or was not divine or not resurrected?
In fact, I’m perfectly happy with the progress of secularism in this country and attribute that to the unceasing efforts of atheists–both of the strident and conciliatory stripe–and the prevalence of the internet, which lets doubters know that they are not alone.
I don’t know where the idea comes from that New Atheism is ineffective, or we’re doing it wrong. The fastest growing group of believers in America is those with no religious affiliation (even though many of those are either spiritual or believer in God.)
As for Plantinga, or (probably) Hart, I’m sorry, but I can’t take this seriously. They surely are trying to make sense of life, but they do so in a completely irrational way, confecting fictitious beings, moral rules, ideas about “ground of being” and so on. That might have sufficed in the twelfth century, but we’re adults now, and should put away our childish things. Why should I take Plantinga any more seriously than, say the Aztecs, who sacrificed childen and others to their gods by ripping out their hearts. It’s all childish nonsense, and it’s hard for me to dignify it by taking it seriously. Often pointing out its irrationality is the best tactic, at least for me.
Posted March 3, 2014 at 7:10 am | Permalink
Jerry, thanks for the reply. First of all, let me make it clear that I am not criticising the drive towards secularism, since secularism, to my way of thinking, is an impartial public sphere in which metaphysical beliefs (such as those adhered to by some religious believers) should play no foundational role in determining public policy. This is very important, and it is important that the religious understand that their beliefs should not be given central billing in determining what our laws should be. This already deals a blow to religions, since most religions are also cultures, and where they have been regnant have truly ruled over the actions and thoughts of citizens. It is right that secularism should be given primacy of place in the context of the public conversation, and those religious believers who think that their religious beliefs should govern public policy and law should be peremptorily put in their place.
My point, however, is different than this. I am not arguing — how could I possibly so argue? — that religion should regain its privileged ascendency in the public sphere. What I am arguing is regarding the rationality of religious belief, and the possible arguments that can be raised in its defence. There is a fairly large contingent of philosophers of religion as well as theologians who argue, not only for the rationality of religious belief (over which there can be all sorts of dispute — that is in the nature of philosophy, and theology as well), but for the primary this-worldly character of religious belief and practice.
Take D.Z. Phillips’ The Concept of Prayer, for example, where he makes it clear that God is the unknown and unknowable centre of the religious life, and that religious ritual and practice, including prayer, must be understood against the primacy of this unknowing. Don Cupitt points out somewhere that our regard for our beloved dead is very similar to religious practice. We cannot change them. They are fixed in time and forever. They do not exist as the persons they were. And yet we pay them homage, and in doing so our own lives can be transformed. Religious people talk to God, and in doing so do not transform God, for after all God is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. But we can change, and in the process of encountering the unchangeability of the divine, we undergo change ourselves, perhaps only an acceptance of ourselves as we are (which Christians would call forgiveness and grace).
The point that I am making is that, for most of the time that I was a priest I did not speak of God as a real being over against us, while I did speak of God as the ground of our being only insofar as he is the unchangeable goodness against which we judge ourselves (and find ourselves judged in the encounter). At the same time, at the periphery of our believing, since we are, after all, a quizzical and incautious species, we not only tell stories about our god or gods, stories which in some sense reflect our own understanding of ourselves as this is provided by our encounter with the silent inscrutability of the divine, but we also try to reason with our understanding of what underlies the personal transformations that we experience as we encounter that inscrutable unknown in our own lives, an encounter and transformation that, in Christian parlance, is called grace and forgiveness. None of this is in any conflict with science. Indeed, it is foolish to think that religious believing should in any sense be in conflict with scientific discovery, just as Ronald Dworkin does not see his “religion without god” as in conflict with science either.
My break with the church came, not because of my suddenly realising that there is no god “out there” in some objective sense in the way that my car is in the garage (if gods are finite existences and part of the furniture of the universe, then they are, as Hart rightly says, not the god of Christianity). I never thought there was such a being. I broke with the church over the fact that the church thinks it can parlay the unknown and inscrutable God (the vanishing point towards which all our devotion and commitment is directed) into absolute moral rules. This kind of certainty is unwarranted and dangerous, and religious believers need to be reminded that at the heart of their belief is mystery, not certainty. And, surely, no matter how much science learns, at the heart of our lives as individuals there is a mystery, the very mystery of there being a universe and living beings like us and the rest of the biosphere in it. Our lives are lived between two nothingnesses, and are characterised by conflict, suffering and doubt (amongst other things like love and wonder, beauty and sublimity, as well). Within the scope of our lives there is much to wonder about, to question, to doubt, to fear, to regret, to be thankful for, to be mystified by. Religion’s function has always been, in a sense, the discipline of these two nihils, and a way of accepting the shortness and uncertainty of life in the context of the effort to live most fully in the light of an obligation that extends far beyond the individual. This seems to me still a worthy task.
Of course, you could say that those who think like this are hypocrites, but there is much confirmation for this dimension of religious belief within most religious traditions. Religions do not so much make knowledge claims (though, under the pressure of science, religions have been put on the defensive, so that they feel bound to cash in their faith in terms of such claims), as to provide an interpretive framework within which to craft a life story. As most spiritual directors would say, this is something that can only be achieved with great discipline and commitment. Notagod suggests that this can be found in any myth, and that may be true. But, wherever it is found, it has to be within a living tradition of some sort. What is needed is an interpretive framework for an entire life, and that kind of resource is not accessible to those reading the Greek myths, for instance, for they are no longer, as William James realised, living options for most people.
However, don’t get me wrong here. The position of the church over such things as assisted dying, the acceptance of gay people, and other issues of morality are enough to make the Christian myth inaccessible to me too. Even Hart recognises (in his book Atheist Delusions) that institutionalisation of Christianity has been largely a disaster. Religions are dangerous because they represent accumulations of power. For this reason liberal societies must place limits on institutions that can form power blocs that can be subversive of democracy. Liberals frown on that, but one of the insights of the Enlightenment was a warning against such aggregations of power, and the way that they can make democratic governance impossible. I reflect on that sometimes regarding about the Arab Spring in Egypt. Some people say that it is better to have an elected Islamist than a military dictator. Really?! I’m not sure. Democratic polities have grown up over centuries. Such a polity cannot be imposed on a society divided into power blocs, if those blocs are unwilling to compromise. Africa is riven by such divisions, and by the impossibility in many if not most African countries of developing indigenous forms of democracy. To my mind, this is the main reason for opposing religion and especially religion’s role in public discourse. The epistemic point, so far as fundamentalist religion goes, is unanswerable. But it is, I think, unfair to lump all people in that particular demographic, and to dismiss as nonsense all that religious writers (philosophers as well as theologians) are trying to do. Much of it is, of course, shallow and inconsequential, but it is important to remember that not all religious thought is of that quality.
Posted March 2, 2014 at 9:43 am | Permalink
As is the case with many christians and christian supporters, they haven’t experienced life that isn’t centered on a mythological father figure and fanciful stories. The things that you covet so strongly and frame as not available outside christianity, can really be found without the deception and manipulation inherent within all mythology. You seem not to acknowledge though I’m sure you are aware that many, if not most, atheists have experienced life from a “believer’s” perspective and found that life to be wanting, among other things, honesty, integrity, and sincerity. No matter what else can be attributed to christianity, the foundation is deceptive and manipulative.
Deception and manipulation is the foundation of religion no matter which of the millions of christian gods you choose to worship or support. It is ridiculous to expect a special treatment of each brand of christianity when each brand claims to worship the same god as all the others. The distinction and definition of ownership of different gods should be the responsibility of the creators and owners of those gods, don’t you think? If they aren’t willing to state that they have a different god, how should I be responsible for defining the character of those gods for them?
Posted March 2, 2014 at 9:45 am | Permalink
Eric, the problem is that of the fruit of the poisoned tree.
The heart and soul of the religious quest for Truth, Justice, and the American Way is the principle that there is an intelligent agent who represents the ultimate moral authority. And, however you get to that position, there are some very obvious and very common conclusions that directly and shortly follow from it.
Most obvious, of course, is that you’d damned well better make sure you’ve aligned yourself properly with this ultimately moral agent.
How you’re supposed to do that is, obviously, a matter for no small debate, but the general — and, given the initial insanity, only logical conclusion, is that this agent somehow communicates to us what is ultimately moral.
This is the point at which it all breaks down, and spectacularly so. We know every such proposed agent is entirely fictitious, which means that everything that is ever proposed as the agent’s communications is a purely human fabrication. Some small few of those fabrications — but an increasing number over the generations — have come through attempts to independently derive morality through empirical observation, with the premise that that’s the method by which the agent communicates with us. But the overwhelming majority are clearly nothing more than cynical and exploitative efforts by sociopaths to appropriate for themselves the ultimate moral authority of the agent on whose behalf they speak.
And that’s why it’s so important that we, as a civilization, do away with the notion that there’s some powerful alien whose idea of morality we should accept. Even in the most generous case, should it be true that some powerful agent exists, since it is ultimately alien, there’s no way even in principle we could trust it with our own moral principles; as the Man who was about to be Served belatedly discovered, it could well be a cookbook.
Only humans are even theoretically capable of deciding for ourselves what is and isn’t in our own best interests. The abnegation of that responsibility by so many people represents the ultimate moral failing — indeed, the ultimate evil — that is possible for humanity.
That’s why it’s imperative that we cut this whole nonsense off at the root. As soon as it’s clear that, yes, Virginia, we really are on our own and it’s up to us to figure this out together, that’s when true progress towards civil society can finally take off. But as long as so many still cling to their imaginary friends…well, frankly, we’re divinely fucked.
Posted March 2, 2014 at 12:53 pm | Permalink
…without trying to see how religion fits into the context of an entire life project. So far, I see little evidence that anyone else is trying to provide this, and if atheism can’t, it is not going to be an alternative to religion, but merely a carping annoyance on the margins of religion.
Please see the Council for Secular Humanism, the American Humanist Association, the International Humanist and Ethical Union and many other similar efforts to do exactly what you say–the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard, for instance, atheist Unitarian churches, etc.
Transitioning from a myth-ridden to a rationalist society is a multi-pronged effort; “new” (and most “old”) atheists are concerned with addressing people’s reasons & fear-motives for clinging to superstition, the first hurdle to be overcome before minds can be open to a secular ethics.
Posted March 2, 2014 at 2:07 pm | Permalink
Also see much (but not all) of Europe as well as Japan — healthy societies with few believers and marginal church attendance. Rather, they do much of the same stuff that Americans do when Americans aren’t being religious: spend time with family and friends, enjoy the arts and sports (whether as spectator or participant), pursue hobbies — in general live life.
That’s where I don’t get this need to replace religion.
You don’t need religion or a church in order to sing in a choir or listen to one.
You don’t need either to have a book club or pot luck dinners.
Neither is necessary for a lecture series on ethics, or poetry slams, or heated debates on existential matters.
And you certainly don’t need either in order to have an extended community of family and friends.
All of that is clearly true even if either currently serves as a one-stop shopping experience for “all of the above” for a sizable minority of the American population.
So what’s left that people get out of churches and / or religion that they don’t already have lots of access to elsewhere? What, aside from the crazy mythological bullshit, is left that we’d miss?
Posted March 2, 2014 at 2:19 pm | Permalink
Couldn’t agree more. (I just listed the organizations I did as apparently they fill the bill for some people; and some of the people involved have been trying awfully hard to do just what Eric says nobody’s doing.)
Posted March 2, 2014 at 6:11 pm | Permalink
I’m not sure I have much to add to the comments above, but perhaps I’d frame it in this way.
However “interpretive frameworks work for one’s understanding of what overall or overarching meaning may be given to a life”, religion as an interpretive framework is fatally flawed insofar as it makes a virtue of faith and denies that the world is wholly naturalistic.
I would suggest that the best way for people to “understand and interpret the very complex things that pertain to them as persons”, should be based on reason and evidence (science, broadly defined). Someone might that find myth or poetry, history or literature, art or music helps them to make sense of their life as whole, but how else can they distinguish helpful truths from comforting lies?
It may be that “liberal ‘believers’ can read myth as myth, and use it as an element in such an effort”, but your scare quotes suggest that you already realise that such people are no longer religious in any meaningful sense (see, e.g., Anthony Grayling’s Ideas that Matter), that they have left faith and supernaturalism behind.
(If they have not, then likely they are still reading myth as metaphor, and their efforts are thus undermined by the same fatal flaws.)
But atheism qua atheism shouldn’t even try to be an alternative to religion.
Sean Carroll said, “We don’t have final answers to the deep questions of meaning and fulfilment and what it means to lead a good life. Religion doesn’t have the final answers, either; but maybe it has learned something interesting over the course of thousands of years of thinking about these issues. Maybe there is some wisdom to be mined from religious traditions, even for naturalists (which everyone should be).”
Let’s be generous to religion and say that this is true. (Although superior wisdom might come from a multitude of seams.) But please God, don’t let it be Alain de Botton that’s in charge of the mining!
More seriously, don’t let anyone be in charge of the mining. That mining is a social project, not one for (new/gnu) atheism alone. (Or for any single atheist or cadre of atheists.)
It may be that secular humanism has already mined some of that wisdom. But no-one set out to provide all the nones in Europe and elsewhere with an alternative to religion — nones who are a majority in many of those countries (including the UK, according to the British Social Attitudes survey, if not the recent census) – and the majority of nones are not humanists. It seems they’ve just figured things out for themselves. (But, sadly, at least some of them have been indulging in other kinds of supernaturalism and similarly flawed projects.)
It behooves us, as atheists and scientific sceptics, to focus on weeding out the bad interpretive frameworks (i.e., those that have no basis in fact), to allow the good ones to flourish. But I don’t think it’s for us to say what the “alternative to religion” must be.
Posted March 3, 2014 at 2:30 am | Permalink
PS. “It seems they’ve just figured things out for themselves.” Of course, I was subconsciously channelling this.
“no longer religious in any meaningful sense (see, e.g., Anthony Grayling’s Ideas that Matter)” Grayling defines religion as: “a set of beliefs about a supernatural agent or agents, and a set of practices entailed by those beliefs, usually articulated as responses to the wishes or demands of the supernatural agent or agents in question.”
Posted March 4, 2014 at 6:09 am | Permalink
Well, Ant, what can I say? I’m not sure, for starters, what “wholly naturalistic” means. Showing that reality is wholly naturalistic is, I suspect, self-contradictory, since it would include a non-scientific (and hence, non-naturalistic) form of reason. That’s really the basis of my concern. So soon as you begin to look at life as a whole, with all the practical, moral, and aesthetic questions that arise when you do so, you are already deeply embedded in interpretive uses of reason, which naturalism (which is quickly taking on the tones of scientism) dismisses as non-empirical, not empirically verifiable, etc. Even humanists (to refer back to Diane G) recognise this. AC Grayling, for instance, in a recent book, speaks about free will as a foundational necessity for humanism, whatever science may say (apparently). All I am saying is that dismissing religion out of hand (and recall that I have not suggested any reference to the transcendent, or at least the supernatural in my remarks about religion) is merely a move in an ideological game in which the only meaning given to the word ‘truth’ is basically understood in terms of verificationism. This is an entirely unsatisfactory way of understanding what it means to be human; and your reference to the uses of faith really begs the question, because, while fundamentalism insists on faith as an epistemic stop gap, just as Boghossian claims, that is not the way it is normatively used in many religious/theological contexts.
As for your follow on note about Grayling, it is not at all clear that religion necessarily includes belief in a supernatural agent or agents, as I have already tried to make clear. As to the use of scare quotes around “believers”, the reason for this is (as just stated) that it is largely critics of religion who consider the belief in supernatural entities “out there” as definitive of religion. Indeed, as I see it, much of the controversy over religion consists in two solitudes talking past each other. Each characterises the other dismissively, with a kind of uncritical certitude, without any effort at all to try to understand what is being said. On the new atheist side there seems to be no recognition that contemporary theology begins with questions, doubts and a sense of mystery, and recognises itself as an entirely human work of interpretation. Gordon Kaufman, for instance, in his book In Face of Mystery: A Constructive Theology is very clear that religion is not just (or not even) a collection of beliefs in supernatural beings, but is primarily an attempt to understand what it means to be human, and how religious myths and metaphors may be used in order to provide the interpretive basis for doing this. The idea that science is adequate for doing this kind of interpretive work is almost as silly as supposing that science can replace literature and music, art, dance and theatre. The idea that mystery is simply a fillip for scientific enquiry and discovery simply ignores vast areas wherein science is simply of no help whatsoever in determining how human life makes sense, which is why I have consistently opposed the idea that scientific truth is the only sort of truth or knowledge that there is.
Posted March 4, 2014 at 6:16 am | Permalink
I might add here, in a follow on note of my own, that it really is a bit tiresome when people express, with so much certitude, opinions about things where certitude is not likely to be found. New Atheist dismissals of religion, just like fundamentalist cavils over evolution, seem to me to be parallel ignorances, based on ideological certainties for which there is insufficient evidence. You may think I am making a 180 degree turn here, but that is not so. From early days I found the ideological certainty of scientism self-defeating, as self-defeating as the know-nothing fundamentalism to which, increasingly, it now seems, the new atheism was a response. I used to say that scientism was an accusation levelled against viewpoints not shared by the accuser, and that no one espoused scientism, until it seemed clear that that is exactly what many new atheists espoused. It is here that I found I could no longer follow. I am just as resistant to religious certainties.
Posted March 4, 2014 at 7:00 am | Permalink
That’s all very well, but most people when they use the word religion are referring to the traditional beliefs represented by religious organisations, such as churches. And those organisations do generally make very specific claims about the existence of supernatural deities. And that’s the kind of religion that atheists don’t believe in on account, generally, of insufficient evidence for supernatural entities.
Mystery, sense of wonder etc. are not precluded by atheism, by definition, since they don’t imply the existence of deities. If people want to define theology so that it addresses these issues only and makes no particular claims about Gods then there is no reason why atheists can’t encompass it. However, given it’s traditional associations it would probably be wiser to use another name.
Posted March 4, 2014 at 7:46 am | Permalink
In response to roqoco:
“most people when they use the word religion are referring to the traditional beliefs represented by religious organisations, such as churches.”
Perhaps, though it is not clear what you mean by ‘most people’. Most religious people are unclear about the core teachings of their churches. So if an unreflective belief in supernatural entities is definitive of ordinary religion, it does not follow that all religion falls into that category. Some people who “believe in” evolution do not understand evolutionary theory in the slightest. Should responses to evolutionary theory be aimed at the evolutionary theory of the ordinary man or woman in the street, or to the more sophisticated and much more definitively founded beliefs of authorities in the field? Sure, if atheism wants to reject common, garden variety supernaturalism, by all means do so, but say that that is what you are doing, but don’t pretend, as you do so, that any last words have been said about religious belief, or religious forms of life.
Mark you, I’m not defending most religion. What I am saying is that the simplistic notion that many atheists have of religion and its beliefs is not representative of some of the best that religious writers have said. Much religion is a mass phenomenon, and intellectually lazy and uncouth. Yes it is. But why take that as definitive of religious interpretations of human life?
To be honest, it seems to me that the new atheism is largely aimed at American fundamentalism, which deserves fairly short shrift. That’s probably why Dawkins spends most of his time flogging his books in the United States. But at the same time he dismisses what might be called “interpretive” types of theology as evidence of hypocrisy. They should believe, he thinks, as fundamentalists believe, because, in some sense, this is what religion really is. He’s said it often enough. But this is like shooting ducks in a barrel, and defining your opposition out of existence. The non-realist Anglican isn’t even religious, let alone a Christian. Well, maybe so, but if he really wanted to oppose religious ways of interpreting life he should dig a bit deeper. This is my problem. I don’t care a fig about fundamentalism, except insofar as it is a danger to civil society and human rights. Intellectually, it doesn’t exist. But if intellectually fundamentalism doesn’t rate on the intellectual significance meter, then atheism that opposes it doesn’t register either. That’s why I have almost entirely stopped reading atheist blogs, because they are repetitive and uninteresting, going over and over the same ground with the same mind-numbing declarations of certainty. Fundamentalists pay them no mind, and those who understand religion differently will find most that is said on them irrelevant, as I increasingly do. What most people believe is simply irrelevant to the question whether religion is or is not rational or can be understood in rational ways. That is the only point I wanted to make.
I hold no brief for religion, and find that institutional religion intervenes in public policy disputes in unhelpful and often disastrous ways, but it seems incredible to me that it can be dismissed so simply as some atheists think. Religious language is far more complex than that and serves more purposes than is imagined by so many who no longer believe, sometimes for laughably jejune reasons. I do not think this is particularly helpful in the long run, and find myself no longer able to participate in it, though at first I misunderstood the main motivations underlying the new atheist rejection of religious belief.
Posted March 4, 2014 at 8:02 am | Permalink
“…the simplistic notion that many atheists have of religion and its beliefs is not representative of some of the best that religious writers have said.”
Eric, the vast majority of adult atheists were brought up in a religious faith, so I think it’s unfair to say that our notions are “simplistic” — they are largely informed by our experiences as active believers. When I was a Catholic, what was taught in Mass and at Sunday School was not “the best that religious writers have said”, but was instead that Jesus was born of a virgin, rose from the dead, and that gays are going to hell.
“Much religion is a mass phenomenon, and intellectually lazy and uncouth. Yes it is. But why take that as definitive of religious interpretations of human life?”
Because that is how religion impacts on human life for the vast majority of people. If you prefer an academic debate about some rarified form of innocuous belief, that’s fine, but that’s philosophy and not sociology.
“What most people believe is simply irrelevant to the question whether religion is or is not rational or can be understood in rational ways.”
Perhaps, but that view is itself irrelevant to the way that religion impacts the world. I don’t see the point in arguing over some abstract, idealized representation of one particular variety of religious belief when, on the ground, actual religious beliefs of actual believers are doing so much harm.
Posted March 4, 2014 at 9:49 am | Permalink
Precisely, that’s philosophy, not sociology. I am the last person to deny the damaging impact that religion, as a social phenomenon, has on society. That’s why I am agin it. But that says nothing at all about the rationality or truth (or whatever) of religious beliefs, or as to their appropriate meaning. Fundamentalism is a well-known deformation of religious belief, not a good example of it. Defeating fundamentalism is defeating a simplistic, not to say stupid, version of religious belief. That it has terrible social consequences in unquestionable, and for that reason alone needs to be opposed. But atheists are claiming more than a response to the social impact of religious (or some religious) beliefs. They seek to say what is true. And that’s the province, in this case, of philosophy (at least partly), and needs to be attended to. Oppose fundamentalism and other simplistic forms of religious believing all you like — even as an active priest I was opposed and criticised it strongly — but don’t suppose that this puts paid to religious belief in any but a superficial way.
Posted March 4, 2014 at 10:20 am | Permalink
“Fundamentalism is a well-known deformation of religious belief, not a good example of it.”
Says who? I think it’s silly to demand that atheists now act as judges on theology in addition to everything else. Why do you get to say that fundamentalism is a “deformation”? More to the point, how are atheists supposed to react when you say that but fundamentalists declare that it is other views that are “deformed”?
It’s not the job of atheism to adjudicate theological disagreements — we have to take what people claim at face value. And as far as New Atheism goes (to the extent there is such a thing), one main feature seems to be a focus on religion as actually professed, rather than the airless, abstract, academic versions that few people actually believe.
If you want to argue that there may be some highly philosophical and refined version of astrology, or homeopathy, or leprechaunology, which can be defended as rational, well, that’s fine, but those views have no practical import. What is at issue, at least in my view, is the rationality of actual beliefs and their impact on the world.
Posted March 4, 2014 at 11:09 am | Permalink
“I think it’s silly to demand that atheists now act as judges on theology in addition to everything else. Why do you get to say that fundamentalism is a “deformation”?”
First of all, isn’t that what atheists are? Judges of theology and other expressions of religious belief?
Second, historically, fundamentalism is the odd man out, so it is, from an historical point of view, a deformation, and what is more, obviously false. There are more sophisticated expressions of religious belief, and, while they are no more likely to be decisively refuted than atheism is likely to be confirmed, there is at least more to be said once the superficially destructive work of the new atheists is done. That’s all.
And, as for being able to state evolutionary theory. Yes, I think I can too, but lots of people who think they know what is implied by the neo-Darwinian synthesis do not understand it, and many people are ill-equipped, whilst they know the outline of evolutionary theory quite well, to deal with criticisms of it. Hey, I’m not a believer; I just think atheism has to be a bit more sophisticated. Simplistic denials are not going to go very far, especially in a world that is falling apart at the seams. Religions have terrible social consequences, but some of them have good social consciences, and it is only fair to make a distinction here, as well as to distinguish arguments which are decisive from those that simply are not. There is a lot of stuff being done in philosophy of religion, some of it by atheists who take religion seriously. There are students of religion, like Joseph Hoffmann, who are also defenders of more sophisticated conceptions of religion, and yet are atheists and humanists for all that. All I am saying is that if the new atheism is a kind of know-nothing scientism (parallel to the equally troubling know-nothing fundamentalism), then for wisdom we will have to look elsewhere.
By the way, your “pop” responses are as childish as a lot of the other things that you say. Grow up.
Posted March 4, 2014 at 11:31 am | Permalink
“First of all, isn’t that what atheists are? Judges of theology and other expressions of religious belief?”
Well, of course, certainly, some are, but huge numbers of especially Europeans and Japanese simply never gave it any thought, and modern religions are no more significant nor interesting nor sophisticated to them as the newspaper’s daily horoscope.
And that’s the fundamental point that I think lots of us are trying to make: we think the European model of atheism, in which religion simply isn’t a factor in daily life yet people still have strong communities (stronger than typical American ones) and fulfilling lives (with higher GINI scores than us). And they didn’t get there by manufacturing atheist churches, but simply by coming to their senses.
“Hey, I’m not a believer; I just think atheism has to be a bit more sophisticated.’”
What you’re trying to do is herd cats. “Good luck with that,” as they say.
You yourself have done no small amount to help build a better religion-free society with your work at promoting the radical notion that we should have as much compassion towards each other as we do our cats and dogs. We need more people like you doing more work like that to demonstrate how to live (and, eventually, die) rationally than we need people trying to model a religion-free society after our current religion-infested one.
Atheism can’t be a better religion than religion; it’s a category error.
But individual atheists can and do build meaningful secular societies, which is all that really matters in the end.
And, of course, if you start up a new choir of mostly atheists and some religious person wants to join you because you sing better than the choir at the church, you’d be most welcoming — and that’d be one more brick moved from the dysfunctional sacred society to a modern secular one.
Posted March 4, 2014 at 11:56 am | Permalink
Thanks for your comments, Ben. There are a couple of points that need to be made in response.
First, I’m not trying to herd cats. I saying that there is a place for more sophisticated discourse about religion, and I’m not sure that this has really been achieved by the soi-disant new atheists yet. There is a lot of sophisticated atheism, but there seems to be a tendency to by-pass this in favour of a more populist approach. And while populist approaches have their place, there comes a time when more sophisticated takings account of religion needs to be made. But I’m not saying by any means that all atheists should be involved in this more academic task.
I guess my concern is that there are already better voices in the choir, and they have been given pretty short shrift in favour of a more (as I said) populist approach. But when this approach becomes, as I think it has a tendency to do, a kind of paean of praise to science, marginalising all other forms of knowledge, including that accessible by way of imagination, and even, in some cases, religious reflection, then I think a serious wrong turn has been made.
You say that atheism can’t be a substitute religion, but then, in a sense, it really can. This is what humanism is, by any measure, and it has offered itself as such a substitute for a long time.
My comments began as a remark about David Bentley Hart’s book The Experience of God which, whatever else you say about it, is a tour de force of reason. Maybe not science, but of reason. And no one reading it can simply dismiss him as in some sense pathological, as I think Hart himself tends to do with the new atheism. I don’t think you could call what he does an epistemic pathology, as Boghossian would. It is in this spirit that I have offered my comments. We do need to take account of what sophisticated religious believers are doing and saying. Simply dismissing them with clever-clever remarks won’t do. Doing so is itself a betrayal of reason, in my book, and it is, to a certain extent, because of this growing tendency to a kind of irrationalism masquerading as science that I have more or less shut down my blog.
Posted March 4, 2014 at 12:55 pm | Permalink
“I saying that there is a place for more sophisticated discourse about religion, and I’m not sure that this has really been achieved by the soi-disant new atheists yet.”
But isn’t that just the Courtier’s Reply? (I’m sure you know the one.)
“And while populist approaches have their place, there comes a time when more sophisticated takings account of religion needs to be made.”
The foundational premises are hopelessly wrong, so we know that whatever that’s actually useful that’s associated with religion doesn’t have its origins in religion and isn’t in any way dependent on religion.
Sure, if you get a kick out of pig-wrestling — as so many of us here do — then, by all means, hop in the sty and get dirty. But there’s certainly no practical reason to do so. We don’t need to do a molecular analysis of the tree’s cambium in order to know that its fruit is poisoned. Sure, that sort of thing is of academic interest, but there’s absolutely no additional culinary knowledge to be gained.
And I don’t see any significant strategic nor tactical advantage to that sort of thing, either, except, of course, possibly for entertainment values. The majority of Americans who think we don’t share a common ancestor with the rest of life on the planet have no need of sophisticated religion, so what are we going to do with it? Convince a few obscure theologians to forego their pensions because we’ve convinced them that their theology isn’t as sound as they make it seem? Then what?
“But when this approach becomes, as I think it has a tendency to do, a kind of paean of praise to science, marginalising all other forms of knowledge, including that accessible by way of imagination, and even, in some cases, religious reflection, then I think a serious wrong turn has been made.”
This is also the heart of the debate going on elsewhere on this site about the value of philosophy. And it’s my firm position, along with many (but certainly not all) of the other regular here, that imagination is very important, yes, but you don’t actually know anything until you test your imaginings against reality — and that process of testing and the knowledge gained therein is what constitutes science. And, yes, we’d assert that anything else you think you might know but haven’t actually tested…well, you’re only fooling yourself and you don’t actually know it. This is because, time and again, our imaginations have tricked us into unfounded confidence, even certainties, that turned out hopelessly worng. No prime mover is responsible for motion; rather, inertia and gravity work together to keep the planets in their orbits. The Luminiferous Aether was a loverly theory; such a shame it had to be put to the test. And, of course, the gods and all things supernatural.
Indeed, the hard part isn’t imagining things; that’s the easy part. The hard part is sorting out amongst all the things we imagine which are useful and which are mere playful fantasies.
There’s nothing wrong with fantasy, so long as you remain consciously aware that that’s all they are. That includes science; before the CERN team confirmed the Higgs, every physicist you would have spoken to would have been most careful to explain that we well might not find it and what it would mean either way, even if she was in the midst of writing a dissertation hypothesizing future physics based on an assumption of the future confirmation of the Higgs. And half of said dissertation would be caveats about how failure to find the Higgs would invalidate this or that bit of her work.
“We do need to take account of what sophisticated religious believers are doing and saying.”
Yes, agreed absolutely — but not by drinking their KoolAid and chasing them down their own rabbit holes.
Even if they’re absolutely sincere in their delusions, they still remain deluded. And we do neither them nor ourselves any flavors by patronizing them by treating their delusions with dignity. They’re (mostly) responsible adults who can and must be prepared to take full and direct criticism of their firmly-held beliefs, and to fail to do so is as insulting as failing to give somebody the opportunity to zip up open trousers.
The damage has already been done by the mere fact that they’ve failed to align their beliefs in proportions indicated by a rational analysis of empirical observation. Only science is capable of curing that illness, and not helping to administer that treatment, even if it might hurt, is as irresponsible as failing to set and splint a broken bone.
Of course, every patient has the right to refuse treatment…but we’re also now starting to get into serious public health concerns akin to those related to infectious diseases. We’ve got to protect ourselves from Typhoid Mary somehow, after all. And, since there’s nothing but cognitive discomfort as a negative result from application of this particular cure, why should we even think to avoid broadcasting it as far and as wide as is reasonable?
Posted March 4, 2014 at 1:12 pm | Permalink
“First of all, isn’t that what atheists are? Judges of theology and other expressions of religious belief?”
No, not judges of the quality of the theology, what is “correct” versus “deformed”. We’re not interested in some sectarian argument over which is the “truest” form of a particular religious belief. What we are evaluating is the quality of the arguments from a secular point of view.
“Second, historically, fundamentalism is the odd man out, so it is, from an historical point of view, a deformation, and what is more, obviously false.”
“False” in what way? I’d argue that in terms of
its philosophical commitments Catholicism is just as “false”. And arguably fundamentalism is at least more philosophically consistent with its initial axioms than most other theologies. Honestly, I don’t see it the job of atheists to pick and choose among equally silly beliefs.
“There are more sophisticated expressions of religious belief.”
“Sophisticated” in what way? Again, you’re using terms as if it’s just obvious what they mean and how they get applied to belief systems, but that seems based purely on bias and preconceptions.
Is believing the earth was created in 6 days 6000 years ago any more philosophically absurd than to suggest that a man turned water into wine and rose from the dead? Or that an angel provided golden plates describing the arrival of Israelites in the New World? Or that an evil being named Xenu cast aliens into volcanoes? Don’t all of those claims involve in principle similar violations of our understanding of the world?
As I see it, part of what is “new” about New Atheism is a refusal to grant respect to traditional religious beliefs just because they are traditional.
Posted March 4, 2014 at 1:52 pm | Permalink
As I see it, part of what is “new” about New Atheism is a refusal to grant respect to traditional religious beliefs just because they are traditional.
Indeed — no Christian would think twice about mocking the Egyptian myths about Horus and Set with the semen lettuce wrap and the rest. But making remarks about enchanted gardens with talking animals and angry wizards, talking plants that give magic wand lessons to the reluctant hero, and zombies with an intestine-fondling fetish and that’s deemed disrespectful.
Sorry. The whole point of atheism is the recognition that nothing is sacred, even if it’s traditionally been spoken of in very somber tones. Ideas have to compete on their merits, and those merits are judged by a rational analysis of empirical observation. You may think your invisible friends aren’t silly, but the mere fact that you still believe in them at best entitles those beliefs to pity and more likely scorn, neither of which is compatible with respect.
Again, the outsider test is applicable. Imagine a modern-day revival of ancient Egyptian paganism that had a sacred ritual of serving a meal of semen wrapped in lettuce, perhaps with mayonnaise as a substitute. Is that really any less bizarre than serving play-pretend flesh and blood in the physical form of crackers and grape juice? How is either undeserving of mockery?
Posted March 5, 2014 at 6:36 am | Permalink
Thanks for the discussion. This will be my last comment on the subject. There is very little distance between some forms of humanism and religion. Why I continue to thematise religion is because many people still adopt a religious outlook on life (such as, for example, Ronald Dworkin, and I regret that he did not get the chance to enlarge on his Swiss lectures which are now published as Religion without God). Religion need not be theistic, and some are not, such as Jainism and some forms of Buddhism.
Diane, you ask whether it is more ridiculous to believe that the earth is 6,000 years old, than to believe that someone walked on water or turned water into wine. Yes it is, because those who believe the 6,000 year age of the earth obviously hold this to be factually true (and, as I said, this is simply false). What is meant by turning water into wine or walking on water is less clear. Indeed, there are plenty of clues in the gospels that these are more in the nature of myth and symbol (to assimilate Jesus in some way to the Yahweh of the Jewish scriptures), than factual claims about contrary-to-fact events. But this is something that must be looked at from a critical hermeneutical perspective, and for that more familiarity with the terms of this perspective in contemporary critical historical study of the Bible is needed. Religious understanding of the world is far more highly nuanced than you seem to think. You may still want to reject it, but not treating it on its own terms is to fail to answer the case made by those who understand religious belief in these terms. And if you can’t tell the difference (this goes for Tulse and Ben as well) between the know-nothing insistence of the fundamentalist that biblical texts are literally true, and those who use sophisticated philological and other techniques to discern the meaning of ancient texts, then there is no place where the present discussion can go.
Ben tells us that no Christian would hesitate to mock Egyptian religious beliefs. That may be so, but those who know the most about them would not mock, but try to understand what it was about those beliefs that made them compelling to the early Egyptians. And they would not hesitate to point out that (1) these beliefs at one point were subject to internal criticism, and replaced by a short-lived monotheism, and (2) that Judaism recognised a relationship between its beliefs in one God and Egypt. The point, however, for most thoughtful Christians, would be to seek to understand the diversity of religious beliefs, and try to discern what it is about religious beliefs that have been so persistent over millennia, and what this has to tell us about religious belief and practice now.
As to the claim that “Ideas have to compete on their merits, and those merits are judged by a rational analysis of empirical observation,” this goes without saying (so long as you recognise that rational analysis and empirical observation are distinct critical tools), and contemporary theologians make every effort to subject religious belief to examination, criticism, and very often revision. Gordon Kaufmann, for instance, speaks of religions as human imaginative constructs for which religious believers are responsible. Don Cupitt has spent a lifetime trying to understand what religion is for, how it functions, and how Christianity can be reinterpreted in ways that make it conformable to the worldview of today. Lloyd Geering, in New Zealand, writes about Christianity without God, and, though tried for heresy by his own (Presbyterian) church (despite being the head of a theological college) was exonerated. There is lots of very sophisticated work done by theologians today, and it is more sophisticated, thoughtful and morally responsible than the know-nothing fundamentalism that insists, in the teeth of the evidence, that humans and dinosaurs shared the earth, and that the earth is no more than 6,000 years old. To lump these know-nothings together with someone like Lloyd Geering or Don Cupitt, or Dominic Crossan is foolish and irresponsible. It is foolish because the intellectual sophistication of the latter is obvious to anyone who reads them, and irresponsible, for it is a claim made, just as fundamentalism is, in the teeth of evidence to the contrary.
As I say, this will be my last comment on this. It is clear that, in the presence of this kind of uninformed rejection of contemporary theology and philosophy of religion, there is not much point in saying anything more.
Posted March 5, 2014 at 9:43 am | Permalink
“What is meant by turning water into wine or walking on water is less clear.”
Eric, we keep hearing variations on this theme from “sophisticated” theologians as well as those like you who defend them…but, frankly, I just don’t see these claims as being backed up by the evidence.
As a professional musician, I’ve played more church gigs than I can count at churches all across the spectrum. And, even in the most sophisticated of them, they literally do believe that Jesus literally turned the water into actual wine and that he set foot on wet water and did not sink.
I’ve heard sermons by the Jesuit head of the region’s largest Jesuit parish at a church that hosts the most respected Catholic high school in the area…in which he made quite clear that it is good to have faith because Thomas literally thrust his hand into Jesus’s side.
And I’ve heard sermons by the pastor of a very politically liberal UCC church that’s made up mostly of urban professionals (including university faculty) and does great things for social justice…in which he expressed painful longing to wish he had been amongst the Israelites when YHWH moved amongst them like the wind so he could personally connect with him as they did. And, if I remember right, he made no hint of the allegorical nature of the water-into-wine miracle when telling that story at a wedding ceremony.
And I don’t think I’ve ever done an Easter gig in which Jesus didn’t bodily rise from the grave and appear personally in the flesh to the Disciples, or a Christmas gig in which Gabriel didn’t personally Announce to Mary that she was with Child.
Ben tells us that no Christian would hesitate to mock Egyptian religious beliefs. That may be so, but those who know the most about them would not mock, but [...]
That’s just the point! You’re asking us to judge the majority of Americans who think that humans were magically created by Jesus by the standards of an half a dozen (at most) “sophisticated” Christian theologians with a deep understanding of Egyptology, when nobody even knows who they are or would recognize their concept of Christianity.
Should we not judge Catholics by Catholic doctrine because the Reformation somehow made Protestantism more “sophisticated”? Should we not judge Lutherans by Lutherain doctrine because Joe Smith’s much more “sophisticated” revelations rendered it moot? Should we not judge Morons by Smith’s hallowed works because Hubbard’s own “sophisticated” told us that it’s all just illusions from body thetan infestation anyway?
There’s really only a very few practical approaches we can take, all empirical.
We can go by official publications, such as the various variations on the Credo or the Catechism or statements of faith or the like. In that case, the literalism is clear and indisputable.
We can go by that which is preached to the masses by those in authority, again, in which case, the literalism is clear and indisputable.
We can go the statistical route and survey believers for what they themselves say they believe, once again, in which case, the literalism is clear and indisputable.
The only way to get to a conclusion other than literalism is to limit your survey to an insignificant and obscure population whose main function is to serve as a source of propaganda — apologetic theologians. And, frankly, that makes as much sense as trusting press releases from politicians under indictment. Sure, they’re not entirely devoid of facts, but you’d have to be insane to take anything in them at face value without independent verification.
Posted March 5, 2014 at 1:50 pm | Permalink
Sorry, Ben, but what you have just shown is how much you do not know. No problem there, of course: we’re all ignorant of something. But there’s no point discussing with someone who thinks he knows it all already. Read a few non-apologetic, constructive theologians, and then try to say what you’ve just said. Until then — this is the point, sadly — there’s scarcely a connecting dot between you and theology. Oh, sure, there’s all sorts of “sophisticated” theology that’s just apologetics by another name, but then there’s a lot of other stuff that is being done in which the tradition is tormented and tortured until it begins to appear that religion is so much different than the literalism that you think religion must be tied to. But there’s scarcely any point in discussing any of this if there is an unwillingness to learn. Read some Cupitt or Kaufman (Gordon), if you like, and see how far you are away from capturing even a whiff of what they are saying. But don’t pretend to know what you don’t know. By all means oppose the silly fundamentalists, of whatever stripe, and the canonical beliefs of most religions are stated in literal terms; but don’t suppose you’ve thus put paid to the religious quest, which is something else altogether. It can even be carried out by atheists, and perhaps all who carry it out faithfully are atheists at heart, even though they speak in terms of God. A bit of epistemic humility, as well as openness, is always advisable. Truly my last comment.
Posted March 5, 2014 at 2:18 pm | Permalink
But my point, Eric, is that the leadership and the laity stand in stark contrast to the sophisticated theologians…and that, not only is there no reliable objective method to resolve such differences (Why should a small group of theologians get a louder voice than, say, polygamous Morons?), any objective method that one would normally apply would inevitably discount the sophisticated theologians as irrelevant. They’re a negligibly tiny fraction of the population, they’re virtually unknown and generally ignored when known, they’ve got no official standing, and their positions are diametrically contradicted by official positions.
Even before we get to the substance of the arguments of the theologians, we first have to establish their relevance — and I simply don’t see how that can be done, aside from propagandistic arguments.
Answer me honestly: what percentage of weekly churchgoers would recognize the names of Cupitt or Kaufman? For that matter, what percentage of practicing ordained clergy would? And, regardless of name recognition, how many of both groups, if presented a characteristic sample from either theologian, would agree that the theologian’s arguments are a significant factor in that person’s personal faith?
You can cite the most brilliant and moving and sophisticated theologian imaginable, but it doesn’t mean anything unless he’s actually representative of religion. Not theology, but religion.
Posted March 4, 2014 at 1:55 pm | Permalink
Is that really any less bizarre than serving play-pretend flesh and blood in the physical form of crackers and grape juice? How is either undeserving of mockery?
And how are we to judge the relative “sophistication” of each? Which is less “deformed”?
Posted March 4, 2014 at 2:15 pm | Permalink
That’s exactly it. One could employ a scientific analysis and rationally analyze relevant objective evidence — in which case the obvious conclusion is that both are batshit fucking insane. Philosophically, however, there’s no way to distinguish — or, rather, you can come up with any philosophical justification you want for any conclusion you desire, which amounts to the same thing.
Which comes right back to the question of honesty. If you’d barely be capable of holding your ridicule and contempt for the Neo-Egyptians for their ritual, in what sense is it honest to smile and pretend to respect the Christians for theirs?
Posted March 4, 2014 at 8:16 am | Permalink
Posted March 4, 2014 at 8:15 am | Permalink
So the “real” religionists are some kind of elite cognoscenti of intellectuals and everyone else who thinks that religion is about the doctrine of their particular church are just misguided? Sounds a little like the Da Vinci Code. Of course this intellectual fraternity, whoever they might be, wouldn’t include the catholic church, or do you imagine that the pope and his cardinals don’t actually believe in God, but just get some wishy washy feeling of awe and mystery, whenever the topic is brought up?
And it may be that over here in the UK some of the clergy have lost their faith, but no doubt they reason that it’s better to stay put and not lose their stipend as well. Faith can be very tenacious if your living depends on it.
Posted March 4, 2014 at 9:25 am | Permalink
Now you’re just being silly. The point is that the attempt to make a rational case for religion is not being made by ordinary believers, just as the case made for atheism is not made simply by those who, for whatever reason, disbelieve. If you want to oppose religion, you have to give its strongest case, not the beliefs of those who do not reason about religion. In the same way, evolution needs to be defended by those who really know what is entailed in the theory, not by those who pick it up incidentally by listening to science programs on TV.
Of course, faith can be very tenacious if your living depends on it, but those who make a living from it can also understand their faith in ways established by theologians whose living does not depend on any particular theological method or conclusions. There are lots of radical theologians as well as radical believers in the church (to take only the church as an example), and there are many ordinary believers who, given the chance, do in fact welcome more liberal understandings of their faith.
But I did not simply dismiss believers with a simplistic faith, though I would hold their leaders to account, and I am not saying that the only “real” religionists are … etc. This is really jejune, as I said.
Posted March 4, 2014 at 10:23 am | Permalink
Posted March 4, 2014 at 10:22 am | Permalink
@Eric: The theory of evolution is a clear scientific theory and does not need experts to either state it or understand it, at least in it’s fundamental form. I am not an evolutionary biologist, but I can articulate it’s main tenets, as I expect can you. But what is this theory of religion that is so much more compelling and different from the beliefs of the vast majority of religious believers? You don’t in fact say and neither do you name anyone who is capable of articulating it, or any place, where it is articulated.
The word “religion” has a meaning in the English language and here is a dictionary definition:
“a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.”
It should be apparent then, that there is more than one religion and since they are all different any attempt to formulate a theory of religion that encompasses the specific claims of all of them is doomed to failure. It should also be apparent that most religions involve some kind of supernatural agency, i.e. a God, and that is the part of religion that atheists (and new atheists) specifically do not believe in. So, if your argument isn’t just an equivocation on what the word religion means, then that is the part that you need to defend in order to convince atheists to change their minds. So far attempts to defend this aspect of religions have resoundingly failed and, of course, if you do know of some body of thought that does justify the existence of supernatural entities, then lay it on! And, if there is some other aspect of atheism, that you feel all atheists (or new atheists) share and that you think sophisticated theologians have refuted, then you need to make that explicit.
Posted March 4, 2014 at 8:41 pm | Permalink
“Even humanists (to refer back to Diane G) recognise this.”
“Only humans are even theoretically capable of deciding for ourselves what is and isn’t in our own best interests.”
That last is pretty much the definition of humanism. I’m amazed that you felt like there was any need for an “even” in the first sentence I quoted.
The mystery to me is why you’re clinging to the word “religion.” What you’re propounding sounds totally humanistic to me, and to complain that no one else is doing anything like what you describe as necessary is to completely overlook a long tradition of exactly what you’re talking about. Have you ever looked at the work of Paul Kurtz?
I’m being a bit of a Devil’s advocate here, as I’m a very unherdable cat, so I mostly avoid the organized Humanist associations, but there was a time in my life when I needed to know that there was a non-religious (read: non-supernatural) framework for living an ethical life, and was delighted to learn of all the humanistic initiatives throughout history and especially the contemporaneous ones. (A history which, of course, includes a separate branch called religious humanism.)
AFAIC humanist (little “h”) is what we all are once we give up supernatural beliefs.