Friday, September 19, 2008

Food for Thought from a Philosopher with a Contrasting Perspective

My previous post, “Sniffing Around Amidst the Soccer Match,” was inspired by a recent e-mail exchange with my good friend John Shook, who is a Vice President at the Center for Inquiry (a kind of secular humanist think tank). John expresses his frustration with much contemporary Christian theology in the following message, which I share in its entirety with his permission:

Good luck Eric on your new blog! And have some sympathy for the atheist.
Christianity is nowadays so diffuse theologically that an atheist feels like
he's darting arrows into fog. Christian theology was supposed to elevate
personal religious conviction to the level of rationally defendable knowledge.
The Enlightenment severely challenged traditional theology, and provoked a
counter-enlightenment. That's actually the story behind the eruption of
non-rational "theologies" in the 1800s. Natural theology was going nowhere,
metaphysics was out-philosophizing the theologians, and science was displaying
incredible promise. Dodging strategies (amounting to a retreat) back to
emotion/mystery/dogma seemed the only option. Christianity theology has now
mutated into two kinds of "Fideism" (just believe, baby!) -- fundamentalism and
mysterianism. Fundamentalists cling to their scriptural dogmas and accuse the
atheists of clinging to their own scientific dogmas. Mysterians ensure that
their conception of god is so vague and non-intellectual that no actual evidence
could ever be used against it. For example, "My God always has a great reason
for killing people in horrible ways, but we just can't tell what it is." As
another example, "My God is the ultimate formless ground of all being in and for
itself (or "My God is pure Love", or "My God is this big presence with me all
the time", etc), so the atheist's worries can't ever count against my God's

Fideism was highly convenient for Christians, since
their next tactic was to depict the atheist as dogmatically trying to prove that
their God doesn't exist. The atheist's prompt failure (since God is now safe
behind a bluff of dogma or hidden in a fog of mystery) was declared
supernaturalism's victory. As soon as "agnosticism" was invented, fideists
promply agreed -- human reason cannot reach their God! In other words, once
agnosticism seemed more reasonable than dogmatic atheism, fideism followed suit
and upped the ante -- since you can't prove that my god doesn't exist, then my
belief is just fine and leave me alone. That's all I ever extracted from William
Lane Craig in the end (see my debate with him on Youtube). Quite forgotten in
this debate is the atheist's real position of skepticism towards religion, not
because the atheist can prove that God doesn't exist, but simply because there's
insufficient good reason to believe that God does exist. When fideism replies by
pointing out that the essence of Christianity all along was faith without
reason, the atheist and the fideist reach one thing that they can agree

Alternatively, there's always the pragmatic approach for
atheism: look at what Christians actually do, and critique their religious
beliefs accordingly. Unfortunately, that tactic is going to fail too. Try
confronting a Christian with that problem. It turns out that it is always the
bad Christians doing the bad things (or they really weren't Christians at all).
"My Christianity only leads to good behavior, while my sinning side does the bad
deed." Very convenient how Christianity ensures that we are already such bad
sinners that no bad behavior at all need ever be attributed to a Christian
belief. And criticism of God's bad behavior and immoral commands is just
irrelevant for the typical Christian, who doesn't take the irritable and
murderous bearded guy in the Old Testament too seriously

Maybe skeptical atheism can help purify the Christian's
religion, back into a purely personal conviction. Current Christian theologies
spin the fideistic dodges as positively as possible, of course. That's the
biggest problem the skeptical atheist has with such theologies: they abandon
reason and encourage anti-intellectualism among their followers, who can't
understand what the new theologies are saying anyways. Who among the laypeople
can understand Schopenhauer or Heidegger or Tillich?? Seems to me that
theologians with their heads in the clouds should take more responsibility for
the fact that a majority of Americans can't believe Darwinian evolution. Who is
holding this country back from progress? It is NOT the atheists!

Obviously, my previous post only begins to touch on the issues John raises here, many of which deserve careful and serious attention (for those interested in a deeper look at John’s thinking, his website is Among other things, I think John is right about the (ab)use to which the doctrine of original sin has been put, as a strategy for fending off pragmatic criticisms of Christianity. As my “Angry Atheism and True Faith” post makes clear, I strongly believe in the idea that religion should be subjected to pragmatic tests and evaluated in terms of such tests. Any way of formulating the doctrine of original sin which seeks to immunize someone’s religious beliefs from such tests should be viewed with skepticism.

This will be a topic for a future post, as will a discussion of the kind of responsibility theologians have for the anti-intellectualism of many religious people today (and what can be done about it). But first, I must get to that stack of papers I need to grade…

No comments:

Post a Comment