Friday, May 09, 2008

different beliefs, shared values

I'm glad to hear that a Christian has asserted the importance of the mysterious qualities of the Divine, and the need for doubt as a way of deepening faith.

However, the way the discussion is couched, it's as if the only choice is between "belief in God" (with all the Christian bells and whistles attached) and out-and-out atheism.

What about all the other possible theological positions in Christianity (deism, panentheism, unitarianism, Arianism, universalism in both senses, process theology, etc)? What about all the other religions and their possible theological positions (pantheism, polytheism, polymorphism, animism, monism, etc)?

I am fed up with Dawkins' over-simplification of religion, too - but I don't think that responding with another over-simplification is going to help.

Rather, I think we should be concentrating on shared values. I was having a conversation with an avowed secularist the other day (he says he's an agnostic not an atheist) and though we disagreed on the best way to act on many issues, we get on really well because we share the same basic values (freedom, justice, etc.)

On the other hand, whilst I agree with the Cardinal about the mysterious nature of the Divine (a vastly over-used word that I'm not even sure we should be using to describe the numinous other), I disagree vehemently with many of his other views (especially his views on LGBT people and adoption). Also his point about Divine mystery is rather at odds with the Catholic Church's avowed position that they are in possession of the ultimate revealed truth. Because if the ultimate Divine source is unknowable and mysterious, it cannot simultaneously be theologically described.

There are three main possible positions in relation to different religions and their respective truth claims:
  • it's all irrational nonsense
  • one of the religions has the whole truth (usually regarded as obtained by divine revelation); the rest have only partial truth
  • all religions' theologies are only a metaphor for the ineffable; we are finite and it is / they are infinite, so we cannot see from its/their perspective
Dawkins takes the first position (obviously the concept of metaphor has passed him by, then); most Christians take the second position; and Pagans and Unitarians generally take the third position.

4 comments:

damianphipps07 said...

One of the things that I have found to be most frustrating about the attacks on Dawkins is the hypocrisy of many of his detractors. Now I am not going to accuse you of that, but Dawkins explicitly states in TGD which kind of God he is attacking. He defines it as:

"there exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us. This book will advocate an alternative view: any creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything, comes into existence only as the end product of an extended process of gradual evolution."

You must surely agree that he at least defines what he is calling a delusion? As you correctly state in your later post, even if it is a completely unreasonable request, "If Dawkins want to demolish the idea of God, he'll have to demolish all the unique and distinct ideas of the Divine in everyone's heads."

While this is technically true, and the worst thing that you seem to be accusing him of is sloppily naming his book without making sure that the definition was on the front cover(!), the best that anyone can hope for is to show why the most prevalent ideas about god are not supported by either evidence or sound logical reasoning.

In any case, it bemuses me why so many people have completely missed the point of the so called "new atheist" movement. Those books were almost entirely polemical -- designed to encourage non-believers and secularists, etc, to both organize themselves politically, and to stand up for the enlightenment values that are undeniably under threat from, not only religion (and particularly the resurgence of fundamentalism), but also much of the new age nonsense that has crept in to many western societies. In other words, people are giving them too much credit, likely because the books have been successful, rather than actually containing any meaningful advancements in this whole debate. As I keep telling people, there are far, far better books out there arguing against the existence of a god of any kind.

And you also seem to have neglected the fact that, while Dawkins doesn't see any justification for a belief in any kind of god, he has been quite explicit about the fact that many of the more benign beliefs -- "deism, panentheism, unitarianism, Arianism, universalism, etc" -- are not really concerning. Though he has been misrepresented at every turn by his detractors, the truth is that he isn't just out to destroy peoples faith and ideals. Remember, much of the current atheist resurgence is a direct response to the excesses of religious faith, and particularly, as I have already said, of the more fundamentalist variety. If a person supports science and is open to reason in public discourse, atheists may still enjoy an argument with them about the nature of reality, but they are highly unlikely to be overly concerned with their views.

One of the major objections to TGD is that Dawkins isn't attacking the personal definition of god which the individual subscribes to. As I hope to have shown, it is a fairly disingenuous claim considering that he has defined the god that he is attacking, but it is possible to go further than Dawkins, and many atheists do. If there is no evidential basis for your definition of god, and given that god belief often really isn't comparable to the irrationality of, say, actively supporting a football team (as in what the rest of the world defines as football -- I'm English), a case can be made for the claim that a belief in any religion or god is irrational, in some sense. After all, very few people actually believe what you seem to, and the vast majority do allow their beliefs to spill over in to the public square, particularly if we take the world as a whole. And that brings me on to this:

"all religions' theologies are only a metaphor for the ineffable; we are finite and it is / they are infinite, so we cannot see from its/their perspective"

My only question would be, why do we need to use a "metaphor" for that which we don't know, and particularly when it is so often inter-twined with so much (harmful) dogma? Why not just claim that you don't know and leave it at that?

While I agree with your position, many religious people would not. What we believe does not supersede the reality of what is, as I am sure that you would agree, and while there are many good examples of people of faith, it would irresponsible of us to ignore the equally numerous examples of the opposite. Otherwise, we simply slip in to a kind post-modernist thinking, and that has been shown to be irreconcilably flawed.

If there is a well tested method of thinking about the world, that is grounded in reality and has been shown to be the most successful that humankind has ever invented, is it so wrong to argue for that? That is really all that atheists are doing, in my opinion.

But then, I don't even believe that there is such a thing as a spiritual realm, so what do I know? Once again, I don't understand why anyone would want to confuse the perfectly natural feelings that we all experience (which can be explained fairly well by science -- like the feeling of the heart "sinking", which is simply blood rushing out) by claiming things that cannot be supported by evidence. Personally, I prefer to use inclusive terms that can be understood by all people, and for the benefit of all.

Yvonne said...

Hi Damian, thanks for the long and thoughtful comment.

Actually Dawkins defines the idea of God that he is attacking, and then says Some people have views of God that are so broad and flexible that it is inevitable that they will find God wherever they look for him. One hears it said that 'God is the ultimate' or 'God is our better nature' or 'God is the universe.' Of course, like any other word, the word 'God' can be given any meaning we like. If you want to say that 'God is energy,' then you can find God in a lump of coal.

Weinberg is surely right that, if the word God is not to become completely useless, it should be used in the way people have generally understood it: to denote a supernatural creator that is 'appropriate for us to worship'.


So he dismisses all the other ideas of "God" (and with them, centuries of theology from the likes of John Scotus Eriugena, Baruch Spinoza, Giordano Bruno, Paul Tillich, A.N. Whitehead, Charles Hartshorne, etc etc.

Also, he won't succeed in abolishing religion merely by abolishing the idea of God.

I am 99% convinced that it's all happening in the minds of the practitioners - though we may, as I have suggested elsewhere, be evoking consciousness by our interactions with places. Bu I still find value in practising Wicca. Also I don't care how many adherents something has - I'm more interested in whether it works for me and benefits others. Wicca and Unitarianism both do that. (And yes, fundamentalism is wrong and bad and destructive and damaging.)

Mariah said...

When I saw the title of this post I thought you were talking about Unitarianism!

I have indeed found commonalities with agnostics/atheists esp. politically active ones, though I have even more in common with liberal Christians & Jews. I get along with nontheists fine as long as they are not militant about it (a la Dawkins, Samuel Harris etc) those ones sound a lot like the Pagans that think all Christians are fundies. I also have sensed that many nontheists still have a sense of spirituality or the sacred- some of them are really more like pantheists- the "god" they reject is the classical omnipotent, omnipresent, omnibenevelent, that is frankly hard for any modern intellectual to believe in.

Yvonne said...

Ah well I have long thought that agreeing on a concept is one thing, but shared values go much deeper - it's one of the many reasons I am drawn to Unitarianism, because you can find many different beliefs but a fairly similar set of values - inclusivity, freedom, reason, tolerance, etc etc.