Strategically Supporting Religious Charities

Are there any circumstances under which an atheist can support a religious group doing social work, even if doing so may advance a religious message we disagree with?

This is on my mind because of the post I wrote last month about the Foundation Beyond Belief supporting a Quaker charity, and because I just finished reading Nomad, Ayaan Hirsi Ali's excellent second book, which serendipitously touches on similar ideas. Nomad is about the closing of the Muslim mind: the way that Islamic immigrants to Western countries often form isolated enclaves, rather than assimilate into their new society and absorb its values. The result is that barbaric practices like honor killing, female genital cutting, and violent jihadism that were once confined to third-world theocracies are appearing in Western countries, rather than immigrants taking up our ideals of tolerance and secularism.

To turn back this tide, Hirsi Ali proposes that the institutions of Western civilization need to make a greater effort to reach out to immigrants. This appeal, to my surprise, includes a section aimed specifically at Christian churches, encouraging them to make greater efforts to proselytize, and urging atheists to support them in this:

I hope my friends Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens... will not be dismayed by the idea of a strategic alliance between secular people and Christians... [p.240]

That is why I think we must also appeal to other, more traditional sources of ideological strength in Western society. And that must include the Christian churches... We should bury the hatchet, rearrange our priorities, and fight together against a much more dangerous common enemy. [p.243]

Even though Hirsi Ali stresses that she intends us to work together with "mainstream, moderate denominations" and not the fundamentalist "freak-show" churches that oppose women's rights and science, I was taken aback by her argument initially. After all, it runs against the grain of what atheists tend to believe.

Hardly any atheists are willing to aid religious groups that proselytize, and it's easy to come up with good reasons why. Doing so means that our contributions, directly or indirectly, will be used to advance religious beliefs that we don't agree with - and history has shown over and over again that churches which accumulate secular power, even the mainstream ones that are allegedly more enlightened and tolerant, tend to use it to restrict the freedom of nonbelievers. In most cases, there are secular competitors that do just as much good without spreading unreason. And even more important, there's a growing humanist and secular community still establishing itself, one that needs our support to build an infrastructure and could put our aid to worthier use.

All these arguments are good ones, and I think they offer convincing reasons why atheists shouldn't support religious groups under most ordinary circumstances. But there's a counterargument that I find more difficult to dismiss.

Although I think atheists should evangelize, we can take it for granted that we're not going to reach everyone, no matter how vigorous our effort. Becoming an atheist is a big leap, one that a lot of people just aren't ready to take. There are many who still need the comforts of religious belief, illusory though they are, and won't even consider our arguments in good faith. Given that this is so, isn't it better for us if those people join a moderate, liberal faith - one that respects secularism and teaches reasonable moral ideas, one we can easily coexist with - rather than a fundamentalist cult that attacks science, opposes equal rights for women and gays, and fights for theocracy?

This is a similar dilemma to the one that faces American freethinkers in the voting booth. For the most part, open atheists don't stand a chance of winning elections, which means our choice is usually between a Democrat who panders to religious voters but by and large respects separation of church and state, versus a Republican who courts the religious bigot vote and is an active supporter of theocracy. Given these choices, I believe it's better to support the religious progressive - even if I have to hold my nose and ignore insipid, god-drenched campaign rhetoric. Admittedly, this boils down to choosing the lesser of two evils. But withholding our votes in protest means only that the fundamentalists and theocrats, who definitely aren't going to sit an election out, become that much more influential.

That's why, on balance, I do agree with Hirsi Ali that there are cases where alliance with religious moderates, even evangelical ones, pays strategic dividends. Whether we should underwrite Christian efforts to convert Islamic immigrants, I'm not so sure. But I think it's worthwhile to, for example, support courageous reformers like Irshad Manji who are trying to liberalize Islam from the inside. This is basically the same argument I made in "The Soft Landing": we want the world's transition away from religion to be as calm as possible, not a world where the moderates fade away and leave only belligerent fundamentalists. When we can further that aim by tactically supporting religious moderates and reformers - shifting the overall tenor of a religion in a direction that's friendlier to us - we can and should.

I do want to stress one point: we shouldn't ally with believers when doing so requires us to give up our own voice. (This is how my argument differs from that of the accommodationists who tell us to pipe down and stop criticizing religion.) Our alliance will be most effective when we unite in pursuit of a common goal, not a common message. We'll always have differences of opinion and we should be free to air them. And we certainly shouldn't enter any alliance that's conditioned on our subservience.

August 2, 2010, 7:06 pm • Posted in: The GardenPermalink35 comments

Anarchy in the U.K.: The Anglican Crackup Continues

I've written before about the ongoing schism within the Episcopal church, but those posts only concerned the goings-on in America. Now that battle has spread across the Atlantic and into the heart of Anglicanism, and it's looking more and more likely that the church will be cloven in two at its roots. As reported by the Telegraph, the Anglican General Synod has rejected a last-ditch compromise brokered by Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury and nominal head of the Anglican church, to prevent conservative members from breaking away.

Conservative and evangelical Anglican sects have been growing increasingly angered by the appointment of women and gay men to be bishops. They exerted their muscle last week to block the promotion of Jeffrey John, a gay man, to the post of Bishop of Southwark. But the conservatives weren't satisfied with that victory - in fact, as is usual with the religious right, it only led them to make further demands.

The conservative faction of Anglicans don't like women serving as bishops, and they especially don't like being subordinate to women bishops. What they wanted was, in effect, religious apartheid - a certain number of bishop positions reserved for men, with the assurance that conservative congregations wouldn't have to report to or deal with a female bishop if they didn't want to. Rowan Williams backed the proposal - though a liberal himself, he's apparently willing to compromise with bigots, as is also shown by his revolting remarks on sharia law. But the larger Anglican Communion wouldn't go along with the deal, and in a shock vote, Williams' proposal was defeated by a narrow margin.

What's next? The likely result of the vote is that hundreds of conservative clergy and parishes will split off from the Anglican Communion, defecting to the Roman Catholic church, which has offered to accept them and their prejudices with open arms (no surprise there). Personally, I don't see why the liberal Anglicans are going to such effort to keep them. Why would you want to share a church with a bunch of bigots?

If I were a liberal Anglican, I'd not only be welcoming the conservatives' exit, I'd be encouraging them. Yes, they'll diminish the church's numbers and prestige; yes, the money they contributed will be lost. But are those the most important things? This ridiculous effort to preserve unity at any cost, even if it means coddling the feelings of homophobes and misogynists, suggests that the Anglicans aren't ready to move into the 21st century after all. I say to them, kick the bigots out and move on with your lives! Show the world that you really value justice and equality. And while you're at it, you might want to consider reevaluating that book that gave them those ideas in the first place. Get rid of that, and you'd really have a religion worth believing in!

July 14, 2010, 5:51 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink13 comments

Why Won't You Atheists Just Go Away?

The Newsweek/Washington Post blog On Faith has posted a series of responses from panelists to the American Humanist Association's new holiday ad campaign (HT: An Apostate's Chapel). Here's the question they asked:

What do you think of the American Humanist Association's new "Godless Holiday" campaign? The ads, displayed on transit systems in five major U.S. cities, will say: "No God? ...No Problem! Be good for goodness' sake. Humanism is the idea that you can be good without a belief in God." Is this another front on the so-called secular "war on Christmas"? Or is this another example of the pluralistic strength of America?

The responses run the gamut, including the usual plaintive whines from theologians who stomp their feet and insist that we're not allowed to be good people unless we believe in their god. There's also this air ball from John Shelby Spong:

The religious community needs to understand the God that the humanists are rejecting. This God is defined as a being, supernatural in power, external to the world, who periodically invades the world in miraculous ways.

No, Mr. Spong, that is incorrect. We atheists reject your thin, watered-down porridge of a god as well, just as we reject the traditional theistic understanding. That is the definition of what it means to be an atheist: we reject all notions of gods, without preference or partiality.

But this is all old hat. I wanted to focus on a more interesting response from Susan K. Smith, a pastor in the liberal United Church of Christ. You might expect someone from such a denomination to be sympathetic to us - but her post is titled, incredibly, "Humanists, leave us alone".

I cannot for the life of me understand why humanists don't just leave people who believe in God alone.

...People like me who believe in God find comfort in the thought of an Almighty. Belief in that Almighty has been a mainstay of my life and of the life of my ancestors. I choose to continue to believe and will do so, and so I resent people telling me that I should not.

If your sympathies were with the accommodationists, you might want to use this as another piece of evidence for how disrespectful and rude the New Atheists are, that we're driving away even liberal theist groups like the UCC. But look again, and see what Smith is complaining about: not some scathing attack or vicious polemic, but an ad which simply expresses the message that belief in God isn't necessary to be good. You can't get less confrontational than that, short of being silent. But even this mild, cheerful message is enough to provoke Smith to wish that we would just go away and leave her alone.

Glaringly absent from Smith's piece is any recognition that religious people "don't just leave humanists alone". In fact, there are large, multimillion-dollar media and political ministries whose sole mission is to tell the rest of us what we should believe. The atheist ad campaigns, as laudable as they are, are just a drop in the bucket compared to the blizzard of religious evangelizing that pervades our society. And yet it's our ad campaign, not theirs, that raises her ire.

Michael Otterson, a PR spokesperson for the Mormon church, strikes a similar note in his response. He essentially says it's okay for humanists to speak out, just so long as they don't make any religious person upset:

The potential for trouble lies in whether a message like theirs is allowed to descend into ridicule or condemnation of those who do profess a belief in God. Just as those who consider themselves nonreligious expect their lack of belief to be respected, religious Americans should also be able to safely assume their profession of faith will be respected and not just tolerated.

First of all, I hope I'm not the only one who feels a small chill down my spine when I read the phrase "is allowed". This choice of wording carries the unmistakable implication that there should be some third party deciding which ideas may or may not be expressed.

But what really leaps out at me is the gigantic whopper in the second sentence. Did you catch it? Look again: He writes that atheists "expect [our] lack of belief to be respected", and so religious people have a right to ask for the same.

This is an utter fabrication. We atheists ask for the same legal rights as believers. That is all we have ever asked for. We emphatically do not seek to be exempt from criticism. As a look around the atheist blogosphere shows, we do not fear theist arguments - we're more than confident that we can defeat them, and generally speaking, we welcome the opportunity.

Otterson has distorted our position so that he can draw a false equivalency between our views and his. We seek only equality before the law, while he seeks the same thing religious groups have always demanded: freedom from outside scrutiny, from difficult questions, and from being held to account for the wrongs his church commits. He fears criticism and debate, while we welcome them. Make no mistake: he clearly wishes to be free from ridicule and condemnation even when his church does things that deserve to be ridiculed and condemned.

Remarkably, the person who most clearly grasps the point is an evangelical himself, Richard Mouw:

We evangelical types have paraded enough of our own in-your-face stuff in public places, so why should we complain when the unbelievers do the same?

Bravo! It seems almost superfluous to praise someone for recognizing such an obvious point, except that so many of his fellow believers seem incapable of grasping it. Religious groups of every kind, and Christian groups especially, have always had the freedom to advertise their beliefs, to argue with and persuade others, and to criticize beliefs that they disagree with. They have that freedom and they have exercised it to the fullest extent. It's much too late to complain now that atheists have started getting into the persuasion game.

And what's so terrible about atheists arguing for our point of view, anyway? America and the Western nations in general have a strong, lively tradition of free speech, which includes debate, ridicule, satire and harsh criticism. Every moral advance our society has made was because of rabble-rousers who spoke out against popular prejudices, even when they incurred the wrath of the majority or inspired fervent wishes that those nasty, uncouth radicals would just go away and stop disturbing the status quo.

This idea that public discourse should be gentle and peaceful and not disturb anyone, as if we were all elderly grandmothers meeting for tea, is a modern aberration. The reason we have a First Amendment is precisely so we can speak truths that other people would rather not hear. Free speech is only doing its job when it inspires action, passion, and anger, and so the New Atheists must be doing things exactly right, judging by the response we've received. So, no, we're not going away, and we're not going to be silenced. We're going to say precisely what we think, and we're going to do so as loudly and as often as possible. Do you have a problem with that? Tough!

December 2, 2009, 6:50 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink40 comments

The God of Shadow and Vapor

In April, I wrote a piece chastising Madeline Bunting for her willful invocation of the Courtier's Reply, in which she attacks atheists for criticizing the beliefs actually held and practiced by billions of people, rather than the beliefs of a tiny minority of theologians and pundits like herself.

But let it not be said that we shy from a challenge. In this post, I'll take up the issue of religion as it is held by Bunting and others of like mind.

Here's how she defines her own beliefs:

Apophatic is a word no longer even in my dictionary, but it's a major tradition of Christian thought, and central to the thinking of St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas: it is the idea that God is ineffable and beyond powers of description. S/he can be experienced by religious practice, but as Armstrong puts it: "In the past, people knew we could say nothing about God. Certain forms of knowledge only come with practice." It makes the boundary between belief in God and agnosticism much more porous than commonly assumed.

...But the modern distortion was to make God into a proposition in which you either did or did not believe. He was turned into an old man in the sky with a long white beard or promoted as a cuddly friend named Jesus. Arguing about the existence of such human creations is akin to the medieval pastime of calculating how many angels could fit on the head of a pin.

Bunting quotes Karen Armstrong, author of A History of God, who holds similar views:

The reality that we call God, Brahman, Nirvana or the sacred is transcendent. That is, it goes beyond our mundane experience.... The Greek Orthodox believed that every statement about the divine should have two qualities. It should be paradoxical, reminding us that the idea of God cannot fit neatly into a human system of thought; and it should be apophatic - it should reduce us to silence, in the same way as a great poem or piece of music.

As I wrote in "One More Burning Bush", the record shows that, throughout recorded history, the gods have been shrinking. They started out as very tangible beings, present in the world, continually performing miracles. But with time and the advance of knowledge, every substantive, testable claim about them has been gradually chipped away, until we arrive at a god whose existence is indistinguishable from his nonexistence. The logical conclusion of this process is this, what's called apophatic theology: a god whose believers make no positive claims about him at all.

I have to admit, I've never had much affection for incoherentist arguments for atheism. The notion of "God" as believed in by most Western religions is perfectly comprehensible to me. I may differ with theists about whether there is anything in the real world that matches their description, but I can understand what it would mean for such a being to exist. But with believers in apophatic theology, this criticism has more merit. Their belief does not seem to have any content, indeed does not seem to be a belief about anything at all. It's the philosophical equivalent of the empty set. Can these people even explain what it would mean for their belief to be true, versus for it to be false?

This is a god of shadow and vapor. Advance towards it, and like a shadow, it disappears; try to grasp it, and all you grasp is insubstantial mist. While all gods share the distinction of not existing in the real world, this god seems to have the unique quality of not existing even in its own believers' minds. If they don't hold any positive beliefs about God, then what exactly is it that they believe?

Armstrong again:

....In the modern West, we have lost sight of this apophatic vision, and imagine that our statements about God and the ultimate are accurate expressions of this transcendence, whereas in reality, they must point beyond the limitations of our human minds.

The problem I've always had with statements like this is that our human minds, limited though they may be, are the only tools we have. If there is something that truly cannot be comprehended by the human mind, then it is pointless to talk about it or believe in it. The phrase "statements that point beyond the limitations of the mind" is just a string of words without meaning. By definition, any such statement would be indistinguishable from nonsense and gibberish. (Bunting's claim that "certain forms of knowledge only come with practice" sounds clever, but anyone who thinks about it for a few seconds will see that it's nonsensical: If we know nothing about God, how can we know what practices are appropriate?)

The only real difference between Bunting, Armstrong and other apophatic theists on one hand, and atheists on the other, is that they feel compelled to slap the label "God" on something, even if that something is a philosophical abstraction with no content. And that's fine if that's what they want, I really couldn't care less - until they start insisting, inexplicably, that belief in this nullity is a prerequisite for virtue; or worse, that this is what all theists really believe. Both of these claims are transparently false, and when they try to defend them, the apophatic apologists look just as disconnected from reality as the deity they claim to believe in.

June 26, 2009, 6:39 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink25 comments

Fundamentalism Is Alive and Well: A Reply to John Shelby Spong

I recently finished reading two books by the Anglican bishop John Shelby Spong, Rescuing the Bible From Fundamentalism and Why Christianity Must Change or Die. Spong is infamous for his near-total rejection of the tenets of Christianity, despite being a member of the clergy, and these books witness to that: he doesn't believe in miracles or an afterlife, denies the Trinity, denies the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus, and in fact, doesn't believe in God as an external supernatural being at all. In place of all these things he proposes a nontheist form of Christianity, similar to some forms of Quakerism or Buddhism, in which God is understood as the ground of all being or the impulse calling us to love one another, and Jesus as a person who uniquely manifested that attitude of universal love.

There are other aspects of this theology I want to discuss later, but for today I want to focus on just one point: Spong's insistence that Christianity's evolution into a nontheistic form is inevitable. This is necessary, he says, because traditional theistic religion is losing its power to command educated human beings' allegiance, and if Christianity does not adapt, it will die out. In fact, he says, the demise of fundamentalism and literalist religion is coming very soon:

"Organized religion as we have known it in the Western world is considered by many a friend and foe alike to be sick unto death. The periodic revivals of fundamentalism are momentary blips on the EKG charts of religious history."

Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, p.107

On this point, Spong couldn't be more wrong. He envisions fundamentalism as a dying movement, one that's losing its strength and vitality. In fact, fundamentalism is still a powerful force, and there are signs that it is gaining strength at the expense of more traditional, liberal denominations such as his.

Although Spong alludes to the appeal of fundamentalism, he seems not to grasp its full force. Fundamentalism's great strength is that it offers easy answers, a reassuring sense of certainty in an uncertain world, and a promise of wish-fulfillment for the believer. Spong writes that these advantages are counterbalanced by the fact that the fundamentalist view of God is "naive at best and unbelievable at worst" (Why Christianity Must Change or Die, p.140). But what he really seems to mean is that he, himself, can no longer take these stories seriously, and he assumes that his skepticism is widely shared.

In reality, there are hundreds of millions of people worldwide who see no difficulty in believing that creation happened six thousand years ago, that God does miracles on behalf of the faithful, or that Jesus rose into the sky because that's where Heaven is. Some of these people have never been exposed to rational thinking; others have consciously chosen to reject it in favor of a simpler, older, and more reassuring vision of the world.

For all its virtues, Spong's theology is weak and colorless. His faith of homogenous, universal love is well and good, but the fact remains that there are other, powerful motivating factors in human psychology that he never attempts to tap. The desire to obey one's superiors, and the sense of righteous judgment at those who break the rules; the sense of privilege and exclusiveness, belonging to a community that is united against the world; and its opposite, the xenophobic sense of hate and rage directed against the outsider - these are extraordinarily strong psychological impulses which his theology does not speak to or address. Fundamentalism does, which is why it's no surprise that it finds willing converts in the millions who are driven by their baser instincts.

Spong's mistake is a common one: he assumes that everyone views the world the same way he does. (Ironically, religious fundamentalists often do the same thing, which leads them to conclude that every nonbeliever must be a stubborn sinner who willfully denies their own knowledge of the Truth of God.) Since he personally finds supernaturalism unbelievable, he thinks everyone else believes the same thing, which is why he predicts the imminent demise of theistic religion. But the truth is that, although the world's religions have been forced to adapt in various ways to modernity, they are alive and vital all the same. Fundamentalism is a highly adaptable creed, able to accommodate itself to almost any era. The rumors of its demise are greatly exaggerated.

In the long run - and here we're talking several hundred years or more - I do believe that religion will die out. As we become more and more able to understand and control our world through reason, its inadequacy will become more obvious, and the secularization of humankind will accelerate. But that doesn't say anything about which kind of religion will survive the longest. I strongly suspect that some form of fundamentalism will be among the diehards. A watered-down, contentless theology like Spong's, on the other hand, offers nothing to compete with a robust philosophy of humanistic atheism, and as the atheist movement grows more influential, such faiths will probably be the first to go.

June 8, 2009, 7:30 pm • Posted in: The LoftPermalink28 comments

The Soft Landing

Although it's much too early to look forward to a world without religion, one thing we can be confident of is that the numbers and influence of atheists will continue to grow in the near future. Census figures over the last few decades have consistently shown the rise of the nonbelievers in the educated and industrialized nations of the First World - even in America, despite its high religiosity as compared to its cultural neighbors. We can expect this trend to continue, to the point where it's reasonable to predict that within twenty to fifty years, atheists will be a significant political lobby in their own right.

This is a hopeful vision, but there's a potential dark side to it that concerns me. My concern stems from this thought: At whose expense will the rise of atheism occur?

It's not likely to be from sheer population growth, considering that atheists most often come from the educated and relatively prosperous sectors of society that are correlated with smaller families. Nor do we subscribe to ideologies like Roman Catholicism or its Protestant equivalent, Quiverfull, that encourage us to raise as many children as possible. Instead, the growth of atheism will probably be through rhetoric and persuasion, winning believers over by the power of our ideas and convincing them to deconvert.

The question, then, is who will be deconverting. What types of believers will we have the most success at persuading? Who is most likely to pay heed to our arguments?

Ideally, what we want is a soft landing. We want the extravagantly supernatural faiths, those whose members believe in a world drenched with miracles and demon possessions and faith healings, to transition to a gentler, less extreme form of belief. Those more moderate churches, in turn, will fade to a more rationalist outlook that holds miracle stories to be only symbolic, similar to many Unitarian Universalists, Buddhists or secular Jews. Finally, these cultural institutions will become outright atheist. This is the blueprint for a peaceful and smooth transition to a more rational world.

But I fear it may not happen this way. What I worry about is that, instead, the moderate, mainstream religions will be the first to go. After all, their members inhabit a world similar to ours, with few outright miracles and little explicit supernaturalism. Our arguments will make the most sense to them. If that happens, what will be left behind is a world polarized between atheism and religious fundamentalism; those theists who remain will be the members of the most extremist, hardcore faiths, the ones that are separated from us by such a wide gulf in worldviews that we scarcely even agree on any basic principles with which to start talking. A world like that would likely see more outbreaks of violence, theocracy and destructive fundamentalism.

How can we avoid this outcome? Withdrawing from the field is not an option, for that would just give the extremist believers free rein to grow their own ranks. (For reasons I've set out elsewhere, I doubt that moderate religionists have the ability to effectively counter their fundamentalist brethren.) This could lead to an even worse outcome. We do need atheists to lobby and to speak out - but if we can't sap the power of militant and power-hungry religion, we're going to have a much tougher field to fight on.

For this reason, I think that atheists should team up with moderate believers - whenever and wherever they're willing to work with us - to oppose destructive fundamentalism. We each bring our own strengths to the fight: we have the passion and uncompromising rationalism that effectively strikes at the heart of fundamentalism; they supply a welcoming but still theistic alternative, for people who need that, and the credibility to counter apologetic assertions that atheists are anarchist radicals who only want to destroy.

January 31, 2009, 11:30 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink56 comments

On Fear and Seeking

Slacktivist, a progressive Christian blogger whom I read regularly, has some words of advice for the new atheists on how best to win converts. You'd wonder why a Christian would want to give advice to atheists about how to do this - indeed, such "advice" is usually just concern trolling when it comes from the religious right - but Slacktivist is a different kind of Christian, emphatically not a member of that political group, and his advice is doubtless in good faith and worth considering. In this post, I'll say a few words by way of reply.

According to these Dawkins- and Hitchens-style arguments... religious belief arises from a core emotion of fear -- fear of death, fear of the unknown, fear that the universe might be an unjust and meaningless place.

I'm sure that there are some believers and some forms of religious belief -- particularly those unsatisfying, white-knuckled varieties -- that are in large part motivated by fear. But not all forms or all believers. And not most. And never entirely.

I think there's ample reason to believe that many forms of religious belief are motivated by fear - not necessarily metaphysical fears about death or meaning, but more tangible phobias. Consider the evidence I cited, in posts like "Groundhog Day", that many who call themselves Christian consider legalized gay marriage the worst disaster that could possibly strike a society, worse than Hurricane Katrina, worse than 9/11. They say this because the god they believe in is a psychopath, and they consider themselves hostage to his whims; if they don't succeed in ordering society the way he wants it, he will strike that society indiscriminately with disaster and catastrophe, causing them to suffer as well as many others. This dynamic of vicarious punishment, of causing the innocent to suffer for the sins of the guilty, is prominent throughout the Bible, as Slacktivist surely knows.

Or take the many charismatic churches, popular in Africa but also some of high prominence in the West, that see daily life as a continual struggle against demonic attack and worldly culture as an ever-present source of temptation to sin, and believe that putting even one foot wrong can lead to an eternity of damnation. Fear pervades every aspect of their belief system and forms the background of their daily lives. And what is the point of books about the Rapture if not to evoke terror in people at the thought of being left behind?

Or, again, take the Muslim world. What motivates so many Islamic states to force their women to veil and shroud themselves, to forbid them to drive or get an education? What is behind this if not fear - fear of women's sexual power, of their autonomy, of their independent thought?

The first problem with this diagnosis is that these arguments don't follow through on it. They're not providing a prescription to match their diagnosis. It does little good to argue that religious believers are responding to a core emotion of fear unless you're also willing to address that fear.

Very much to the contrary, I think atheists do offer an antidote to the irrational fears described above. Our solution is the simplest imaginable: the recognition that there are no gods, no demons, no hells, that there are no divine overseers standing over your shoulder with whips at the ready, that society will not be punished if we recognize the equal rights of gays, and that you will not be boiled in oil for eternity if you vote Democrat, have premarital sex, or learn about evolution in school. For people afflicted with these superstitious terrors, atheism is a release and a source of peace and contentment, as many former believers have testified.

To disabuse us of belief in the transcendent, you will need to convince us that we are seeking the wrong thing or that we are seeking in the wrong place.

But again, this is a major part of the new atheists' campaign. Sam Harris, for instance, extensively discusses mindfulness meditation, Richard Dawkins the awe and wonder of knowledge gained through science. Though we lack belief in supernatural beings, we do find ample reason to believe in the transcendent, and say so; we just believe it's found in different places than traditionally conceived. And why do atheists continually cite the absence of evidence for the existence of God, the contradictions and flaws within all the major holy books, the lack of clear answers to prayer, if not in an effort to persuade theists that they are seeking in the wrong place?

January 17, 2009, 12:16 pm • Posted in: The GardenPermalink85 comments

On Inerrancy

Pandagon's recent post on Carlton Pearson, and the comment thread there, got me thinking about the question of inerrancy.

Last February, in "The Aura of Infallibility", I observed that the apologist's claim of scriptural inerrancy is really a claim of personal inerrancy. Even if I believe a book to be without error, I must rationally admit that I could be wrong about that. The only way to maintain a claim of inerrancy with absolute confidence, as many theists do, is to believe that I myself am incapable of committing error in that judgment - which is just what many believers do, even if they don't think of it in those terms.

But people are not infallible, and the claim of biblical inerrancy cannot be sustained. The Bible contains many verses that contradict each other, as well as others that contradict established facts of science or history. Whether in its original autographs or its modern translations, the text is plainly errant. Given this, we must consider what the implications are for believers - and for atheists. Can it make any rational sense to follow the dictates of an errant Bible?

Some Christians have said no - if the text has any errors at all, we must throw it away. For instance, the Methodists' founder, John Wesley:

If there be any mistake in the Bible, there may well be a thousand. If there be one falsehood in that book, it did not come from the God of truth. (source)

And many modern atheists have taken this and run with it, asserting that if the Bible contains any errors, it cannot be the word of a perfect god and must therefore be valueless and should be discarded. Moderate believers, by contrast, hold that even if the text has faults, it still contains divine wisdom that we can use to our benefit. Is this a sustainable position, or should we side with the fundamentalists and argue that the Bible must be taken as either all or nothing?

I'm of two minds on this topic. I can see the logic in arguing that, if the Bible was the handiwork of a perfect god, it would itself be without error. I can't imagine why a deity who desired to communicate with us would permit the mistakes and prejudices of human beings to distort his message; that makes no sense to me. But to be fair, the psychology of the fundamentalists' god strikes me as equally irrational, just in different ways.

So are the two views, the fundamentalist and the liberal, equally implausible? Not quite: in my opinion, there is one small asymmetry between them.

I don't think that only inerrancy could justify belief in the Bible. Nevertheless, if you assume the text to be the product of divine revelation, it raises some serious questions as to why it would be imperfect. If God had a message he wanted to convey to humans, one would think he would want to communicate clearly. Surely, if God is benevolent, he would want humans to understand his will; he would not desire that we be confused or divided. The consequences of his leading us astray are terrible - just witness the rivers of blood spilled by people warring, persecuting, and torturing each other for the sake of their differing interpretations of God. Yet all this religious dissension also shows that the message is anything but clear.

So, did God not want to communicate his message more clearly? Or did he want to, but lacked the ability to do so? Either option poses a serious challenge to belief in a benevolent, all-wise deity. Why would God even write a book - a single book, one whose origins lie in a long-ago time and a very different culture, one that is prone to mistranslation, misinterpretation and deliberate alteration? Why grant some people special access to his word, and convey the message in such a flawed and imprecise format? Why not just speak to all of us directly, impress his message on everyone's heart?

For all their faults, the fundamentalists can deal with many of these questions more adequately. They would say that God did inspire a perfect book, one that conveys his message exactly as he wanted it, and it's only human fallibility that is to blame for all the religious dissension. But the liberal theology, for all its virtues, does not have satisfactory answers for these challenges. By positing that God has permitted human error to creep into the Bible and mingle with his own message, they can account for the Bible's errancy - but only at the cost of a more illogical and convoluted theology that has no answers for several obvious and vital questions. By far their best option, liberal or conservative alike, would be to stop making excuses for the Bible and adopt a more rational philosophy.

December 15, 2008, 9:48 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink182 comments

A Glimpse of the Garden

By way of Pandagon, I came across this incredible story from NPR's This American Life, an hourlong report on, and interview with, the evangelical pastor Carlton Pearson.

Pearson was once one of the rising stars of the religious right: a hardcore Pentecostal preacher, head of an Oklahoma megachurch, a protege of Oral Roberts and a spokesman for George Bush's faith-based initiatives who had the ear of the White House under three different presidents. He preached alongside Jerry Falwell, Jim Bakker, Pat Robertson and other leading lights of the evangelical world, hosted his own show on the Trinity Broadcasting Network, and founded Azusa, a wildly popular Christian festival that combined ministry and gospel music. He had it all, and could have kept it all, except for one thing: a rebellion of conscience which convinced him that the Christianity he was teaching was morally wrong. And for the sake of that conscience, he lost nearly everything.

I've written before about fervent believers who've become atheists, like the former Pentecostal preacher James Young (An Inspiring Story), or the religion reporter William Lobdell (Nothing Behind the Altar). Pearson hasn't gone that far - he's still a Christian, though he now holds a universalist view he calls "the gospel of inclusion". But he's eliminated eternal damnation from his theology, and even that small step towards freethought was enough to get him branded a heretic and earn the scorn and exclusion of his former colleagues and friends.

In his youth, Pearson was a fiery Pentecostal; he was hailed as a hero by his congregation after he exorcised demons out of his girlfriend at a revival meeting. Of these days, he said in the interview, "I expected demons. I saw them everywhere, so that was part of my life... The Devil was as present and as large as God. He had the people. He was ultimately going to get most of the people. Demons were all over, in the church, in the schools, in the neighborhoods. Everything was a devil. So if you believe it, you experience it."

Pearson attended Oral Roberts University, where he joined the World Action Singers, a student choir that Roberts groomed to perform on the networks and other mainstream media. He became a friend and protege of Oral Roberts himself, who called Pearson his "black son". He ultimately quit the group after battles with Roberts' son Richard Roberts, though he and Oral remained close.

After leaving ORU, Pearson founded his own church, Higher Dimensions. Powered by his undisputed charisma, the church flourished and grew, reaching a membership of around 5,000. Other, still-influential megachurch preachers such as T.D. Jakes owe their success to Pearson's initial mentoring.

The turning point came in the late 1990s. Pearson, until then, had preached a conventional evangelical theology - eternal damnation for sinners, hellfire and gnashing of teeth, and being born again in Jesus as the only way to be saved. But a small seed of doubt was growing in him, and eventually it began to bloom. In the interview, he describes his moment of epiphany while at home one night watching television, a news report about war and famine in Rwanda:

"I'm watching these little kids with swollen bellies, and it looks like their skin is stretched across their little skeletal remains, their hair is kind of red from malnutrition... the babies have got flies in the corners of their eyes and mouths, and they reach for their mother's breast and the mother's breast looks like a little pencil hanging there, and the baby's reaching for the breast, there's no milk...

"I said, 'God, I don't know how you could call yourself a loving, sovereign God and allow these people to suffer this way and just suck them right into Hell,' which was my assumption.

"...The way the God of the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, is presented: he's a monster. The God we've been preaching is a monster. He's worse than Saddam, he's worse than Osama bin Laden, he's worse than Hitler, the way we've presented him. Because Hitler just burned six million Jews, but God's going to burn at least six billion people, and burn them forever. He has this customized torture chamber, called Hell, where he's going to torment, torture. Not for a few minutes or a few days or a few hours or a few weeks. Forever."

Many Christian believers experience these flickers of conscience, but in Pearson's case, they became a full-blown crisis of faith. Under the pressure, the content of his faith changed, and when he returned to his church, he brought a different message. Now he said the Bible was "not necessarily infallible or inerrant", that there was no eternal damnation, and that Jesus' sacrifice had redeemed all of humanity - Christians, atheists and everyone else - whether they believed in him or not.

Pearson's new gospel received a frosty reception. Higher Dimensions' congregation dwindled from 5,000 to just 200. The church's other pastors resigned in protest. Oral Roberts University removed him from its board of regents, and influential evangelicals across the country denounced him. Pearson became persona non grata with his own friends and colleagues; to them, he says, it's "like I died". Even his parishioners - the ones who stayed - describe being accosted on the street or in the supermarket by friends or neighbors demanding to know why they were still attending a church that teaches such heresy.

Today Pearson is a minister in the United Church of Christ, using the rhythms and cadence of Pentecostalism to preach a new message of tolerance and unity. His preaching attracts a new crowd - more liberal, more gay-friendly - and slowly, attendance has begun to inch upward again.

Pearson's story shows that the evangelical church, in its essence, is based on fear of Hell and not love of God. Had he preached that some other church was not strict enough - that God was withholding salvation from some group formerly believed to be saved - I doubt anyone would have batted an eye. But to widen the circle of the saved was, for his brethren, an intolerable heresy. Theirs is a theology that elevates wrath over mercy, punishment over grace, and judgment over love. One of Pearson's associate pastors admits as much, candidly saying that teachings about eternal torment and the Rapture did far more to fill the pews than teaching about love and forgiveness ever will.

More than anything else, evangelicals are united and motivated by belief in Hell. Eternal torment lies at the heart of their faith; it defines their self-image and forms the lens through which they view the world. And there's a reason for that: in their theology, God's love is indiscriminate, but God's salvation is highly selective. Their belief that they are saved and most people are not gives them a sense of privilege, of sanctification - a feeling that they possess something rare and precious. Taking Hell out of the equation directly threatens this belief - it threatens to make them no different from anyone else - which explains why the denunciations of Pearson by his fellow evangelicals were so swift and so vehement.

But despite its superficial advantage in motivating the flock, belief in hellfire more than loses out due to its horrendously evil implications. Carlton Pearson has glimpsed a better way - rejecting the moral absurdity of a God who permits innocent humans to suffer indescribably, then casts them into eternal damnation. He ought to take the next step and ask himself: why believe in a God that permits people, like those people in Rwanda, to suffer so terribly even during this life?

The answer that humans do this to themselves is too facile. Even if that is true, it would not excuse a deity with the power to help from the moral obligation of aiding the innocent. Pearson has already had the strength of conscience and the basic honesty to reject so many of the old, inadequate apologetics. Now he has the opportunity to go just a bit farther, to leave behind just a few more unnecessary beliefs, and follow many of his former colleagues into a better place: a garden of free thought and clear air, where all the supernaturalisms that plague us are finally left behind.

December 12, 2008, 8:34 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink121 comments

Further Thoughts on John Haught

Since the comment thread for my post "On Amateur Atheism" has sparked a lively debate, I looked around on the internet earlier today for some further explanation of John Haught's views. I found them in this Salon interview, and I'd like to offer some further comments on the theology outlined therein.

One of Haught's major points regarding modern atheists that they rely too much on scientific inquiry to learn about the world:

Therefore, since there's no scientific evidence for the divine, we should not believe in God. But that statement itself -- that evidence is necessary -- holds a further hidden premise that all evidence worth examining has to be scientific evidence. And beneath that assumption, there's the deeper worldview -- it's a kind of dogma -- that science is the only reliable way to truth.

The problem with this paragraph is that Haught, like the many other theologians who deny that science is the only way of knowing truth, inevitably never explains what alternative he has in mind. If you have knowledge that you did not come by scientifically, how did you come by it? What is your method for discriminating true statements from false ones? We never get an answer to this. I'm confident that it's because their actual method, if it were stated explicitly, is so transparently silly that even its backers would have to recognize the absurdity of it: they simply assume that their own personal convictions are a totally reliable guide to external reality, and cling to the faith that the particular religious beliefs they were taught, and not the millions of different religious beliefs, are the one true way.

Like many theologians, Haught wants to have it both ways with regard to science. Despite his lengthy complaints in the article about "scientism" - he says that atheists like Steven Weinberg illicitly assume that "that science itself has the capacity and the power to comment on things like [God]" - he does not hesitate to draw the opposite lesson when he thinks it's warranted.

We have to distinguish between science as a method and what science produces in the way of discovery. As a method, science does not ask questions of purpose. But it's something different to look at the cumulative results of scientific thought and technology. From a theological point of view, that's a part of the world that we have to integrate into our religious visions. That set of discoveries is not at all suggestive of a purposeless universe. Just the opposite.

The hypocritical message of this statement is that Haught is permitted to make claims about the implications of "the cumulative results of scientific thought and technology", but atheists are not. When a theist says that science suggests the universe is continually growing toward greater complexity and this suggests a divine purpose, he's fine with that. But when atheists say that the rampant evil and diaster in nature suggests that the universe was not made with us in mind, suddenly Haught is indignant about this "abuse" of scientific reasoning to discuss areas it has no right to talk about. The double standard he's using is very obvious when you look for it.

So what is the proper place of Haught's god, if it can't be discovered through science? Apparently, according to Haught, the proper answer is to assume that God is found only in the realm of "higher" reasons - that is, what Aristotle would call final causes, rather than material causes. Science can provide explanations of how physical phenomena unfold, but according to Haught, God resides at the level of why those things happen. A corollary of this is that God does not intervene in history. As Haught puts it:

Careless Christian thinkers wanted to make a place for God within the physical system that Newton and others had elaborated. That, in effect, demoted the deity as being just one link in a chain of causes that brought the transcendent into the realm of complete secular immanence. The atheists quite rightly said this God is unnecessary.

...What intelligent design tries to do -- and the great theologians have always resisted this idea -- is to place the divine, the Creator, within the continuum of natural causes. And this amounts to an extreme demotion of the transcendence of God, by making God just one cause in a series of natural causes.

But now Haught has a large problem: Christianity absolutely does require an interventionist god. Even if one dismisses the Old Testament narratives as allegory, even if one believes that God does not provide miraculous answers to prayer, Christianity is still built on a fundamental, keystone claim - the resurrection of Jesus - which implies that, on at least one occasion, God intervened in the world to change the course of events in a way that natural law would not permit.

Haught strains mightily to get around this problem. Here is his solution, which I'll quote in full so I'm not accused of misrepresenting him:

But if you ask me whether a scientific experiment could verify the Resurrection, I would say such an event is entirely too important to be subjected to a method which is devoid of all religious meaning.

So if a camera was at the Resurrection, it would have recorded nothing?

If you had a camera in the upper room when the disciples came together after the death and Resurrection of Jesus, we would not see it.

...We trivialize the whole meaning of the Resurrection when we start asking, Is it scientifically verifiable?

In the end, it's not at all clear what this theological contortion actually means. It's a simple question of fact: Did Jesus physically rise from the dead or did he not? Did his body resume functioning? Did he get up and walk out of the tomb? Did his disciples see him in the flesh, handle him, and watch him eat and drink? These are all yes-or-no questions!

This is where Haught's contorted theology is stretched to the breaking point. Even if we grant his argument that science cannot speak to teleological claims, science most certainly can examine empirical claims, and the resurrection of Jesus absolutely is an empirical claim. Clearly, what he's trying to do is to somehow remove this empirical claim from the realm of science and place it safely within the realm of faith, where it can't be examined or disproved. The only way he can do that is by asserting that the very occurrence of the event is somehow just a matter of faith.

It's not at all clear what he means by this. If we'd had a video camera in the upper room, would it have recorded the disciples interacting with an invisible, inaudible person? Or would it have found the room itself empty, as though the disciples resided in some parallel universe where their existence was only accessible to those who believe? More importantly, if we'd trained the video camera on the dead body of Jesus, would that body have winked out of existence at some point (as it entered the "realm of faith"), or would we have seen the body remain dead, as if a totally different set of events happened for those who chose not to believe versus for those who did?

Whatever the answers to these questions, it seems Haught's god is so far removed from the real world that it is, literally, indistinguishable from a god that does not exist. Haught is adamant that science cannot detect God, and yet, all that science is is a way of examining claims about the physical world to determine which ones are verifiably true or false. If science cannot speak to Haught's god, then that means that Haught's god has no influence or effect on the physical world in any way whatsoever. By his own definition, then, Haught's god and Haught's theology are literally irrelevant. We should treat them as such.

March 2, 2008, 2:16 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink59 comments

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