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Ouroboros: (A)Theism Will Eat Itself

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Does God Exist? Christopher Hitchens & William Lane Craig

Christopher Hitchens & William Lane Craig: Atheist and Christian Apologist

Theism and atheism (as conventionally understood) are two sides of the same coin: namely, an emphasis on beliefs. Conventional theism — the faith of the typical American Christian, for example — entails mandatory affirmation of a set of dogmas (derived from scripture) regarding the origins of the universe, of life, the nature of good and evil, miracles and divine intervention, the afterlife, and usually something about the final fate of the universe and the inhabitants therein. Conventional atheism, on the other hand, is the lack of such beliefs.

Atheism does not prescribe any particular set of beliefs. Instead, it proscribes a belief in a God or gods and the doctrines and scriptures derived from such belief. Outside of that, atheists are free to believe whatever they wish. It’s important to note that atheism says nothing about supernatural forces or beings, otherwise. While atheism is often coupled with an insistence on skeptical, rational inquiry, they are not one and the same. There are atheists who embrace New Age spirituality and a form of “sympathetic magic” (e.g. — tarot, astrology, and other sorts of magical thinking). And there are rational skeptics who embrace a sort of pantheism/panentheism or deism and consider themselves religious (though they are quick to distance themselves from dogmatic faith or belief).

In fact, outside the circles of the naively religious, fundamentalists, and religious conservatives, God beliefs are more important to atheism than they are to theism. One simply cannot believe in God and call one’s self an atheist — they are mutually exclusive. But the same is not true of theism. There is a long tradition of religious thought and practice that doesn’t concern itself with God beliefs. And theologians have argued that this form of theism may actually be more fundamental than those that insist on particular doctrines.

While it would be contradictory to find an atheist who believes in God, there is a growing movement of theists for whom the two propositions, “I believe in God,” and “I don’t believe in God,” are equally nonsensical. This is because God is neither a referent nor an object of reason. Instead, God is the name we give to an encounter; an intuition; a projection.

Theology, in this light, is not the study of God. It’s not burdened with the task of producing a coherent definition of some being or entity that can be named God, since no such definition is possible. Instead, it is the study of the religious impulse, or what’s going on when we talk about religious experiences, and the history of such God-talk. Dogmas are the product of contemplation following the religious experience — they are contingent, and therefore secondary. Theology, once it goes beyond mere belief and pushes through to the primary experience or intuition that leads us to point at something and call it “God,” is liberated.

Ouroboros on a cemetery door

Ouroboros on a cemetery door

Ouroboros is the archetype of the serpent eating its own tail, and represents a broad range of concepts stemming from circularity, self-reference, birth-death-renewal, or an essential unity that arises from the interplay of opposing forces — a dialectic. I see atheism as the head of the serpent, eating the tail of theism. Atheism sees itself as consuming and replacing a mortal enemy. Theism sees itself as under attack by a demonic secularism seeking to destroy religion. By destroying belief, atheism seems to hold there is no place left for religion; and yet, without belief, there is no place left for atheism. Atheism is eating itself. And yet, when we track carefully the history of myth and theology, we find that a New Theism emerges when it is stripped of the need for God-beliefs.

This is classic Hegelian dialectic: Thesis and antithesis arise from and entail each other. And although the one is implied in the other, they are locked in contradiction and conflict. By consuming the other, one destroys itself. But there emerges from their mutual opposition — like the Phoenix — a synthesis. Not merely something new, but an apprehension of the whole that entails and requires them both.

Atheism is Not about Theology

Atheism was not a response to theism. At the time, there was nothing we would recognize as theism to which a response was required. Atheism was, instead, a rather natural outgrowth of the explosion of empiricism and rational thought that epitomized the Enlightenment.

As a term, atheism predates theism. In the Greek and Latin forms, it was used to identify those who rejected, dishonored, or disrespected one’s preferred god or gods. It did not refer to the rejection of deities altogether. Hence, the Hellenic world considered Christians atheists because they refused to participate in rituals dedicated to the local gods.

Newton and the Age of Enlightenment

Newton and the Age of Enlightenment

The flowering of Enlightenment thought led inexorably to the expectation that God would be described and explained through rational inquiry and empirical observation. Prior to this, the role of apologetics was to defend this or that doctrinal point against its competitors. God was a foregone conclusion that needed no defense. Specific doctrines were compulsory (and with the Protestant Reformation, sects were sprouting up with a dizzying array of such doctrines, many of them in direct contradiction with each other), but theistic belief was not. It didn’t need to be. What we would call theism today was, during the Enlightenment, nothing more than the an attempt to systematically apply the tools of rational logic and empirical inquiry toward a greater understanding of God. It simply did not occur to these theists that such God might not exist — anymore than it would occur to us that time and space might not exist.

Atheism, as a philosophical stance, emerged during the Enlightenment in the 16th and 17th Centuries. And yet, it was used exclusively in the pejorative sense to describe an impious or godless person. There were no philosophers at the time posing serious challenges to the existence of God. The conflict between religions or creeds was not between God, on the one hand, and the nonexistence of God on the other — it was about which conception of God one believed in and the arguments for or against it. Additionally, there was a long Platonist/Aristotelian tradition holding that language was insufficient to describe God as something that did or did not exist. Pseud0-Dionysus, writing in the 5th or 6th Century and hugely influential in the 9th Century, held that God could not be said to exist or not to exist. God was beyond existing or not existing:

[God] is known by knowledge and by unknowing; of him there is understanding, reason, knowledge, touch, perception, opinion, imagination, name and many other things, but he is not understood, nothing can be said of him, he cannot be named. He is not one of the things that are, nor is he known in any of the things that are; he is all things in everything and nothing in anything.  (Quoted from Pseudo-Dionysus: The Complete Works, in Karen Armstrong, The Case for God.)

Such ineffability reflects the mysticism of Buddha or Taoism in which opposites and contradictions are the subject of meditation and a pathway to enlightenment. It is an exercise designed for the transcendence of the individual rather than a doctrine to be believed.

It’s vitally important to keep in mind that the theistic position was, in accordance with the scientific understanding and philosophy of the times, the eminently rational and evidential one. There simply was no contradiction, yet, between science (broadly) and religion (also broadly). Just as in Copernicus’ day the Ptolemaic (geocentric) system was a better fit for the evidence and a better predictor of planetary movements, there simply were not the tools to explain the ubiquitous nature of religious belief, nor the manifest orderliness of nature, without reference to God. Tellingly, the evolution of theology had come to the point where Deism was the default philosophical position, and that theism emerged as a response — not to atheism — but to the notion that one could apprehend God through pure reason and the observation of nature, rather than through adherence to scripture and doctrinal authority. Theists sought to preserve the belief in miracles and authority of scripture; Deists were skeptical of religious authority and superstition, and grounded God in the evidence. But Deists were not atheists, though accusations of atheism and apostasy were hurled by both sides. The conflict between Deists and theists was over the question of sufficient evidence, not over the existence or non-existence of God.

Avowed philosophical atheism emerged later. It slowly became clear that the advance of reason and empiricism left a diminishing space for God. In Kant and Hume, both pure reason and empirical observation had been defeated as a means for demonstrating the existence of God — dealing an apparent death blow to Deism. A strictly materialist argument for atheism was exemplified in 1770 by Paul-Henri Thiry, baron d’Holbach, in his System of Nature. Around the same time, Higher Criticism of the Bible led Friedrich Schleiermacher to argue against the notion that the scriptures were a divinely inspired final authority, or that they recounted miracles as historical events. He was a religious naturalist, who insisted that dogma and doctrine must yield to advances in scientific understanding, and yet who was convinced that genuine religion — the intuition or direct experience of the infinite, without regard to beliefs — would be liberated once it was excised from this adherence to embarrassingly childish superstitious dogmas.

Schleiermacher gave the first systematic expression of what came to be known as Liberal Theology, which gained significant popularity throughout the 19th Century. In a very real sense, this naturalistic religion was the first organized response from theology to the arguments posed by atheism, and it conceded the essential points: the material world is all that there is, and that both the God of the Bible and the God of Philosophers are childish concepts, bankrupt of meaning, and inessential to the religious experience.

The Fundamentals (1911)

The Fundamentals, published in 1911

Theism, as it’s understood by today’s atheists, emerged as a response, not to atheism, but rather to theological liberalism. It’s mostly a 20th Century phenomenon (with some roots in the late 19th Century). In the days following d’Holbach and Schleiermacher, it was commonly held that biblical inerrancy was an untenable theological position.  Theologians sought to reconcile science and materialist philosophy with religion, and to large degree they succeeded. It was their very success with gave rise to what became known as Fundamentalism, codified in 1910 with the familiar talking points that every New Atheist knows well:

  • The inspiration of the Bible and the inerrancy of scripture as a result of this.
  • The virgin birth of Christ.
  • The belief that Christ’s death was the atonement for sin.
  • The bodily resurrection of Christ.
  • The historical reality of Christ’s miracles.

It is these “five fundamentals” that have since become what the typical atheist claims are the defining attributes of Christian belief. And yet, if that were true, then there would have been little need at the turn of the 20th Century to codify, promote, and defend them. It’s not that these new fundamentalists were concerned with parishioners heeding the call of atheism, fleeing the pews, and tossing out their bibles; they were reacting to the radical transformation of theology within their own ranks. The very nature of Christian religion had undergone a significant evolution away from these beliefs. So much so that they felt it necessary to take action to thwart it.

Atheists of today seem so attached to the Fundamentalist Christian talking points that it might not be a surprise one day to hear one of the New Atheists proclaim that the he would prefer a vengeful God of a literalist Bible rather than an ineffably mysterious God of metaphor that cannot be discussed in plain language.

Atheism Eats Itself

Atheism, to reiterate, does not prescribe a particular set of beliefs. It does not set forth a particular program for understanding the world, or our place within it. Instead, it merely proscribes any sort of belief in God or gods. If it succeeds, and there comes a time when no one seriously believes in God or gods, then atheism has no reason to exist.

If theism were to evolve into a form that does not concern itself with God beliefs, atheism would have nothing to do.

No doubt some atheists might respond, “But this makes no sense. Theism is all about believing in God. No God beliefs; no theism.” However, as has already been indicated, this isn’t necessarily the case. Theism and theology can be about God (as a concept, a projection, a human encounter), without believing in the existence (or non-existence) of God. It’s telling whenever you find fundamentalists and atheists in agreement on theological matters. We find such a case in the ideas of Paul Tillich. I’ve found no clearer example of such sympathetic stance between Fundamentalism and atheism than this post by Austin Cline, the Agnosticism/Atheism Guide on About.com: Paul Tillich and “Modern” Theology.

In it, Cline repeats a quote of R. R. Reno (editor of the ecumenical journal of religion, First Things):

By my reading, Paul Tillich helps the barbarians maintain their illusions. His primary role in the twentieth century was to unburden the consciences of clergy who no longer believed but wanted to maintain their roles and reputations as men and women of spiritual seriousness. I have difficulty thinking of a more destructive writer. Give me the ardent atheism of Richard Dawkins any day over the pseudo-mystery and easy spiritualism of Paul Tillich.

Cline agrees, writing:

Liberal and some moderate Christians may like to cite Paul Tillich as an example of “sophisticated” theology in contrast to the criticisms of atheists, but there are at least as many Christians who would and do reject Tillich as anything but sophisticated. They regard him as a fundamentally negative influence on Christianity because of how he undermined traditional sources of authority. According to them, he’s only treated as “serious” by those who seriously want to abandon all that Christianity has been without also giving up the name and the positive feelings which that name produces in believers.

In effect, then, Paul Tillich produces theology for those who seem to have no more patience or respect for traditional Christianity than atheists do, but who aren’t quite ready to give it all up.

It never seems to occur to Cline that Tillich was part of a long tradition of Christian theological evolution, not the least of which was the Protestant Reformation rooted entirely as it was in a rejection of Rome’s traditional authority. The history of Christian theology is literally built on the rejection of one traditional authority or another. Should we be surprised that the onset of Liberal Theology carries on this hallowed tradition? Cline seems more wrapped up in his desire to defend a particular stance of atheism than he does in considering whether or not Tillich represents a legitimate way of being Christian without falling for the ridiculous superstitions upon which he prefers to heap well deserved derision. And to cement the point, Cline presumes that Tillich speaks for those who have abandoned traditional Christianity, “but who aren’t quite ready to give it all up.” The assumption here is that if one rejects what Cline (and the likes of Rusty Reno) allege to be “traditional” Christianity, then one should reject Christianity altogether. One might expect to hear Cline join Cardinal Bellarmine in condemning Galileo for daring to suggest that one can remain a Christian even if the Earth really does move around the Sun.

Cline’s loins are filled with zealous fire, arguing that biblical inerrancy and superstitious faith should be the defining characteristic of Christian theology. No doubt that Cline would prefer, much as I’ve heard from many other atheists, that the decline of superstitious God beliefs would take religion down with it. But atheism does not replace theism — it only replaces the God beliefs. It, in and of itself, has no other narrative to offer. (There are some non-theistic narratives out there for consideration. One could, I suppose, adopt the narrative of the skeptics, or the secular humanists. Each of these represents something that most atheists could get behind.) But God forbid(!) that one adopt a narrative that acknowledges the bankruptcy of God beliefs, while grasping something essential in the God talk. This is, it seems, tantamount to atheistic heresy.

Hermione Granger using the Confundus Charm

Few things seem to confuse more atheists than God talk in the absence of God beliefs. It seems to hold  power much like Hermione Granger using the Confundus Charm on Cormac McLaggen in the Harry Potter novels. It’s as if atheism recognizes the seeds of its own demise are sown in its success. If religion can keep talking about God without believing in God, there’s really nothing more that atheism has to contribute to the conversation.

Religion shouldn’t get to have it both ways. There’s a sense that it shouldn’t be so easy.

But, why the hell not?

28 Responses

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  1. How silly.

    Do you imagine that atheists are concerned with preserving the label? If belief in God were to fade away, I would be more than happy to concede that the label “atheist” loses its meaning. If your brand of sophisticated (and presumably godless) theism refrains from:

    promoting creationism or other nonsense devoid of evidence in science classrooms
    promoting social discrimination against others based on gender, sexual identification, or competing religious beliefs
    meddling in war and regime change on the basis of ancient “prophecies”
    or in any other way using religion as a social bludgeon to deny the rights of others

    then we have no debate with you.

    You seem to childishly imagine that atheists are opposed to religious fundamentalists simply because we have a competing idea. Atheists oppose religious fundamentalists because they damage society.

    If the word atheism ceases to have meaning when we have eaten the tail of theism – then wonderful. Mission accomplished.

    In the meantime, rather than whine about the sophistication of our beliefs, why not help us protect our children from the stupidity and brutality of fundamentalist religious influences in our society?

    Beau Quilter

    February 19, 2013 at 6:04 pm

    • Excellent! As an atheist, myself, I’m glad to find anyone else who isn’t challenged by the notion of a non-dogmatic and nontheistic religion. I find that we’re in the minority among the nonbelievers. Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins are among those who belittle and savage Liberal Theology. The fact is that there is a small but significant number of religious congregations that have already made the transition, and they are among the most active and vocal of those opposed to Fundamentalism. Let’s work with them.

      parkerw

      February 19, 2013 at 7:17 pm

      • No, I don’t think that I am in the minority of unbelievers. Most unbelievers I know hardly feel “challenged” by liberal theology. More often they could care less about liberal theology.

        Harris and Dawkins “savage” liberal theology? I think you’re overstating the case. They make a case that liberal theology only greases the wheels of religion in general, but their main target is fundamentalism.

        Sorry, but I don’t see liberal theology as a “solution” to fundamentalism. At best it’s superfluous; at worst it’s a distraction.

        Beau Quilter

        February 19, 2013 at 7:50 pm

      • I agree that my point about Jesus’ teaching was too narrow. I left out those naturalistic theologians who find great meaning in the symbols of Christ, and who have developed deep Christology without reliance on supernatural beliefs. And to cast the net a little wider (and this is a point I make in this most recent post), it’s about the role or importance of belief to the theology. When there is a Christian community that de-emphasizes belief, it’s not to say that they actively promote a firmly committed naturalistic view of God or the Bible. The lack of dogma indicates a position that nothing of value comes from dogmatic adherence to a religious doctrine. Such a position is, in fact, anathema to those who actually are dogmatic. This, to me, is a sufficiently naturalistic point of view, and covers a great deal of congregations holding to Liberal Theology. It is a post-theistic religion. Some use the term ignostic, meaning that belief isn’t particularly relevant.

        Be Scofield, a writer for Tikkun magazine and a Martin Luther King, Jr. scholar writes:

        “Dr. King’s interpretation of Christianity I show how he rejected the God-given divinity of Jesus, denied the existence of a literal heaven or hell, thought the Bible was a myth, rejected the creation narrative and didn’t believe in the bodily resurrection or virgin birth of Jesus. In fact Dr. King despised his father’s emotional and irrational preaching and wanted to be a doctor or lawyer. It was only when he took his first Bible course that used science, archaeology and critical historical examination that he realized he could have a role in religion. But for Dr. King’s non-literal understanding of Christianity Hitchens claims that he was ‘in no meaningful as opposed to a nominal sense a Christian.’ And he appeals again to the straw man argument that says religion is irrelevant and unnecessary because it wasn’t required to know that segregation was wrong. Thus, Hitchens wants you to believe that if Dr. King had become a lawyer he could have been just as effective in the civil rights movement. His religion was an unnecessary element because no faith or religion is needed to know that segregation is wrong says Hitchens. Just look at all of those secular civil rights leaders like Bayard Rustin who played a central role in the movement. However, neither Dr. King nor myself ever claimed that his specific theology or religious expression was the reason he knew that segregation was wrong and that without it he wouldn’t have known better. But Dr. King did choose to be a southern baptist mainly for strategic reasons related to the civil rights movement. As Coretta Scott King stated, ‘Oh, I went to Unitarian churches for years, even before I met Martin. And Martin and I went to Unitarian churches when we were in Boston. We gave a lot of thought to becoming Unitarian at one time, but Martin and I realized we could never build a mass movement of black people if we were Unitarian.'”

        So when you say you haven’t noticed any Liberal Theologians as I describe them at the forefront of Civil Rights or similar issues, maybe you just haven’t been looking close enough.

        parkerw

        February 20, 2013 at 10:11 am

    • So I can’t reply to your reply, so I’ll comment here. If you think that Liberal Theology is either superfluous or a distraction, then the implication is that there is nothing to religion beyond its God-beliefs (which is the very point against which my post is arguing). If the harm from religion comes only from Fundamentalist dogma, and if one can bring one’s self to acknowledge that Liberal Christianity has been on the front lines fighting for civil rights, women’s rights, social justice, education (including the fight against Creationists in our schools), etc., then what exactly is it that gives you such a dismissive view of Liberal Christians? What makes Liberal Theology less worthy of our attention and admiration than atheism?

      parkerw

      February 19, 2013 at 10:09 pm

      • From what I’ve seen, definitions of liberal theology vary widely. Consider the bullet list of summary points you provide in your previous post (starting with “The Bible was written by human beings” and ending with “Everything important about Christ comes from his teachings”):

        If this list is a good indicator of who to include in the scope of liberal theology, then liberal theologians must be a small pack, indeed. You lost most self-described Christians in the last bullet, when you say that Christ’s resurrection and divinity are superfluous.

        There have been many groups on the front lines of the fight for civil rights, social justice, etc. – all with different reasons. I haven’t noticed liberal theologians (as you define them) holding any particularly prominent spot. Heck, there are fundamentalists on the front lines for SOME of the these issues.

        Finally, most of your bullet list applies well to me, with a few exceptions. I’ve no idea what you mean by “religious experience”, and though some of Christ’s teachings might be deemed important, you can get the same concepts, such as the golden rule, from other ancient sources. Otherwise, your list could just as easily be summarizing what skeptics believe or what atheists believe. The only “theological” aspect of your list seems to be an interest in the teachings of Jesus.

        Why is Liberal Theology less worthy of my attention and admiration than atheism? I’m not sure that either liberal theology or atheism are concepts meant to be “worthy of admiration”. I will say, though, that in the current vitriolic religious climate of our nation, one is much safer claiming some sort of “religious experience” than to claim the label “atheist” – and that’s a shame.

        Beau Quilter

        February 20, 2013 at 8:41 am

  2. Very interesting. Well thought out and well written. 

    Anitra “In every conceivable manner, family is the link to our past, bridge to our future.” Alex Haley  

      

    Anitra Whittle

    February 19, 2013 at 8:26 pm

  3. My stance is that I cannot know if there is God or not, so I can sidestep that issue, while continuing to be religious. ‘I don’t know’ seems a more and more attractive option, as I get older, and too much certainty in any direction strikes me as dangerous and impolite.

    plectrophenax

    February 20, 2013 at 1:46 am

    • Agreed, plectrophenax. Your stance would fall under my definition of a religious person who lacks God-beliefs.

      parkerw

      February 20, 2013 at 3:42 pm

  4. I was aware of Martin Luther King, Jr biographers who point out his personal tendencies to liberal theology. What’s most telling about your description of King, however, is the fact that he “realized we could never build a mass movement of black people if we were Unitarian”.

    Beau Quilter

    February 20, 2013 at 2:55 pm

    • Telling? What does it tell you? That Unitarians never quite figured out how to include black people? That black people are intrinsically more prone to God-beliefs than white people? Or that sometimes there are more pressing issues at hand than making sure people have the correct view of God?

      parkerw

      February 20, 2013 at 3:39 pm

      • It tells me that when you say that “Liberal Christianity has been on the front lines fighting for civil rights”, you forgot to mention that it is overwhelmingly outnumbered on those front lines by, well, in this case at least, fundamentalists. I might be more convinced of the value of liberal theology if liberal theology had been the ideology that drove Dr. King’s movement. But I think most scholars would submit that Dr. King’s most successful approach was one not borrowed from liberal theology, but from Mahatma Gandhi’s principles of non-violence, which he borrowed from Hindu traditions.

        Beau Quilter

        February 20, 2013 at 10:20 pm

    • So you mean outnumbered by fundamentalists on the other side of the Civil Rights issue, right? (Just want to be clear.) You happen to raise other points, but the statement I was addressing in your comments was this one: “I haven’t noticed liberal theologians (as you define them) holding any particularly prominent spot.” I think you can admit that this one was significantly overstated, unless it really was about how little you noticed the contributions of liberal theologians. Others might not be household names, but you have Viola Liuzzo (the only white woman killed during the civil rights struggles), Rev. James Reeb, and Mary White Ovington, all Unitarian Universalists. Jonathan Myrick Daniels, an Episcopal seminarian, joined the cause of Dr. King in Selma, Alabama. Among other activities, he integrated the Episcopal Church of the area. He was beaten to death in 1965, which galvanized much of the Episcopalian community. He was educated at the theologically liberal Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

      When you downplay the role of Dr. King’s Liberal Theology, are you saying that his theological perspectives did not find fertile ground in the black churches of the time? Are you arguing that they were already well organized and fueled by a pregnant theology, and that the only change wrought by Dr. King was a plagiarized form of Gandhi’s non-violence? It’s almost as if you’re suggesting that he had no particular genius of his own. Was he just another uppity black man, or was he one of the major organizers of the black church into a mass movement? And you’re saying that his particular brand of theology and sermonizing had no particular role in mobilizing that movement?

      parkerw

      February 21, 2013 at 2:35 pm

      • Parker

        You are winning me over with your patience, and complete lack of hostility. I apologize if I’ve not been displaying the same virtues.

        I think you’ve caught me with a wrong-headed attitude in this instance. Of course, you’re right. I do have to admire Dr. King’s contributions to the civil rights movement (and it would be wrong to dismiss it all as borrowed from Gandhi). It appears, I was being rude, dismissive, and thoughtless to say that I hadn’t “noticed liberal theologians holding any particularly prominent spot” in such humanitarian movements as the civil rights movement.

        Thanks for teaching me patience, I’ll give your posts on liberal theology a more careful read.

        Can I ask about a point of interest? Do you consider yourself both an atheist and a liberal theologian, at the same time?

        Beau Quilter

        February 21, 2013 at 10:55 pm

    • I apologize if my tone was overly harsh. It didn’t take much online research to find specific examples of the widely acknowledged role that Liberal Christianity played during the Civil Rights era. In fact, that period marked something of a revival for Liberal Theology, which had flowered in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. To be clear, I was using hyperbole as a rhetorical device, not making accusations. I can get impatient when responding to criticism that is refutable with a little bit of research.

      I don’t necessarily consider myself a liberal theologian, though I do enjoy “doing” theology. I have a fair amount of direct experience with humanistic religion, and have been known to refer to myself as an “atheistic mystic” (to borrow a term from Erich Fromm). I’m an “armchair anthropologist” who believes that the impulse to religion is an essential and worthwhile component of the human character. I’ve grown frustrated by the rise in antipathy toward religion whipped up by the rhetoric of prominent New Atheists, who often speak well outside their area of expertise when making comments about the sociology and psychology of religion.

      I referred to Liberal Theology being savaged by Dawkins and Harris. You thought I was being harsh. Here are a few examples:

      http://www.wayofthemind.org/2009/09/18/dawkins-on-sophisticated-theologians/

      http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2009/12/18/the_god_fraud

      In The End of Faith, Harris writes:

      “Despite the considerable exertions of men like Tillich [whom he calls a "blameless parish of one"] who have attempted to hide the serpent lurking at the foot of every altar, the truth is that religious faith is simply unjustified belief in matters of ultimate concern—specifically in propositions that promise some mechanism by which human life can be spared the ravages of time and death. Faith is what credulity becomes when it finally achieves escape velocity from the constraints of terrestrial discourse— constraints like reasonableness, internal coherence, civility, and candor. However far you feel you have fled the parish (even if you are just now adjusting the mirror on the Hubble Space Telescope), you are likely to be the product of a culture that has elevated belief, in the absence of evidence, to the highest place in the hierarchy of human virtues. Ignorance is the true coinage of this realm—’Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed’ (John 20:29)—and every child is instructed that it is, at the very least, an option, if not a sacred duty, to disregard the facts of this world out of deference to the God who lurks in his mother’s and father’s imaginations”

      parkerw

      February 22, 2013 at 9:06 am

      • I really don’t think you were overly harsh with me at all.

        However, I do think that “savage” doesn’t really fit the mild level of criticism that Dawkins and Harris are laying at the feet of liberal theology, at least not in the links and quotations you’ve referenced here (the only one I couldn’t read was the “foreignpolicy.com” site, which required registration to view.)

        Beau Quilter

        February 22, 2013 at 3:22 pm

  5. The other curious aspect of the New Atheists is that they often seem to take a Protestant view. I mean that they tend either ignore, or be ignorant of, classical theism, and focus a lot on Protestant ideas. Thus their view of God tends towards theistic personalism, which is all well and good, but a good deal of Christianity had a rather different conception. I’m puzzled by this, perhaps most of them were raised as Protestants, or grew up in Protestant cultures. It does give their writings at times a curious naivete, as if God is seen as a Very Large Bloke with heroic powers. Well, OK, some people see God like that!

    plectrophenax

    February 25, 2013 at 1:27 pm

    • Thanks for the comment, and I think you’re quite right. The English speaking world is heavily steeped in the Protestant ethos. Also, I think it’s low-hanging fruit. Catholicism certainly isn’t spared, especially from Hitchens and Dawkins. But even then, it’s the easy targets that preoccupy them.

      It’s somewhat understandable, especially in America, since there are actually quite a lot of people who see God exactly that way, and they’re politically potent, well-funded, well-organized, and undertaking assault after assault against the good society.

      But I agree with you — much of their writing manifests a curious (and often willful) naivete about theology.

      parkerw

      February 25, 2013 at 5:40 pm

  6. Parker and Plectrophenax

    You describe the usual religious targets of New Atheists as “low-hanging fruit”, and suggest that this indicates naivete on their part.

    But the religious groups that New Atheists most frequently aim for are those most prone to:

    – promote creationism in science classrooms
    – impose sectarian religious prayer or sanctions in public schools or government organizations
    – promote an “end times” reckless attitude towards global warming and other environmental issues
    – influence provocative middle east political issues based on Christian or Muslim “prophecies”
    – deny or inhibit access to birth control and condom use where it can save lives
    – discriminate against women, other religions, the LGBT community, and other groups

    These are not “easy targets”, they are necessary targets.

    And while you may consider them “easy targets” in intellectual circles, they are not so easy to topple in circles of politics and social influence.

    I would suggest that you should be picking this low-hanging fruit and shooting at these easy targets yourselves, whether or not someone else decides to judge you as naive because of it.

    Beau Quilter

    February 26, 2013 at 8:05 am

    • OK, my last comment sounded a bit snippy at the end, sorry.

      I just meant to say that there are reasons other than naivete that atheists may target fundamentalist religious groups.

      Beau Quilter

      February 26, 2013 at 8:37 am

    • You’re quite right, Beau Quilter, that the Religious Right is a dangerous political social influence, and they need to be shot down. By “easy target” and “low hanging” fruit, I mean that they are the most obvious and close at hand. I did not suggest that the New Atheists attack these groups *because* they are naive, but rather that the nature of their attacks reflects a *philosophical* naivety — one does not need to have a deep familiarity with epistemology or theology to tackle the worst offenders (they’re even more philosophically naive). Dawkins, like many scientists, admits little patience for metaphysics and theology, and willfully manifests a certain ignorance of the subjects.

      And precisely because the Religious Right can be hard to topple in social and political circles, we are diminishing the cause when we alienate religious folks of the more liberal sort. Among Protestants alone, mainline churches represent roughly 18% of the population in America. Of those, about half of the congregations are theologically liberal. That’s more than 3 times the number of atheists (who represent 2.7% of Americans). They’re better organized, and much better funded than we are. When PZ Myers goes after Michael Ruse or Chris Stedman, hurling “accommodationist” as an epithet, then it seems as if maintaining an ideological purity is more important to some New Atheists than successfully taking down the Religious Right.

      parkerw

      February 26, 2013 at 8:53 am

    • Also — you might be interested in my most recent post, where I go after William Lane Craig and his moral argument.

      parkerw

      February 26, 2013 at 8:55 am

      • Thanks – I’ll check it out!

        Beau Quilter

        February 26, 2013 at 9:05 am

  7. Probably a bit late in this thread, but an example of the Protestant bias of some atheists is penal substitution. I don’t know how many times I have debated with an atheist who insists that PSA is a core Christian idea, and always has been. Incorrect.

    plectrophenax

    March 4, 2013 at 9:27 am

  8. Beau says “I’ve no idea what you mean by ‘religious experience.'” Parker, could you elaborate?

    Sam Day

    June 9, 2013 at 7:58 pm

    • Describing a religious experience is a lot like describing the flavor of salt. In a very real sense a religious experience is simply one in which the individual reports encountering feelings, visions, and/or states of mind that they would describe as religious or spiritual. It’s fascinating that neuroscience is beginning to show a remarkably consistent and unique pattern of brain activity for such experiences. Patrick McNamara’s book, _The Neuroscience of Religious Experience_ is a brilliant and comprehensive survey of several decades of such research.

      parkerw

      June 10, 2013 at 5:57 pm


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