Thursday, September 18, 2008

Sniffing Around Amidst the Soccer Match

A recurring complaint among atheists who are criticizing religious beliefs is that theists keep “changing the goal posts” every time an atheist argument scores a point against theism. Others speak of “slippery” theology that keeps shifting and changing every time you try to pin it down with criticism or arguments, while still others refer to such theology in terms of dodging and retreat, the idea being that these theists refuse to hold their ground long enough for their views to be falsifiable.

This was part of the main point of Anthony Flew’s famous argument in “Theology and Falsification”: Theists keep qualifying their views to avoid this criticism and that criticism until their views become empty. “Death by a thousand qualifications.” What looked like a falsifiable claim about reality has turned into nothing more than vague emotional gesturing towards Mystery. All that remains is the PRETENSE that theists are asserting some truth, making a claim about reality.

But is this really what is going on? In some cases it surely is. “God works in mysterious ways” is a common enough mantra, and it is routinely used as a way for theists to protect their pet beliefs (that God is loving and cares about us) from the obvious objections (based on the amount of suffering and misery in the world). In what sense can you be said to have an idea about what God is like if every challenge to that idea is met with an appeal to mystery? “God” just comes to mean “I-know-not-what.” And it makes little sense at all to say that one firmly believes in the existence of “I-know-not-what.”

But consider the case of Schleiermacher. Schleiermacher initiated the move toward mystery and emotion within Christianity in the modern era, and thereby launched modern progressive theology. But the move wasn’t so much a retreat in the face of challenges to his faith as it was an acknowledgement that what enlightenment thinkers were attacking deserved the attacks, combined with a conviction that there remained something of deep value in his own experience of the religious life (Christianity in particular).

Schleiermacher was a creature of the enlightenment through and through, but unlike other enlightenment intellectuals of his day he also found himself to be deeply religious in some sense of that word—but not in any of the ways of being “religious” that his enlightenment colleagues were busy attacking. There was something which he had hit on within his own religious experience that was entirely compatible with his enlightenment sensibilities and enthusiasm for the burgeoning scientific revolution, and which he thought added richness to his lived experience that did not derive from (and could not be drawn from) these other sources.

And so he tried to articulate what that something of value was, and to extract it from the religious “trappings” he thought it had become entangled with. Later progressive theologians have attempted to do the same. But when their attempts have proved to be flawed, they haven’t given up and concluded there’s nothing there after all. Rather, they’ve kept trying out different or modified formulations of their ideas.

This may look like dodging or “changing the goal posts,” but neither metaphor, it seems to me, really captures what is going on. These metaphors evoke a contest in which each side is aiming to “defeat” the opponent. What we have here is the picture of a zero-sum competition between the atheists and the theists (or between the naturalists and the supra-naturalists), very similar to the kinds of zero-sum struggles that have always seemed to infect the relations among alternative religious communities. And it is painfully easy for human beings to fall into this dynamic, to find themselves approaching the question of religion’s value as if it were a contest between two rival groups, and then to take sides.

I find myself doing it pretty often. Schleiermacher did it. My atheist friends do it. But to play this kind of game, we need to have two sides, and we need to have criteria of winning. Thus, it becomes natural to treat the inquiry as involving two possible answers to a question, and to insist upon a particular set of criteria by which each answer is to be evaluated relative to the other. We need two rival teams and a clear mechanism for determining who is victorious.

If this is the game you are playing, it can be infuriating if those you conceive of as the rival team won’t play together and won’t acknowledge the rules of the game. Their behavior can seem nonsensical. Some of them are behaving as expected and furiously trying to kick the ball into your goal while vigorously defending theirs, but not all of them are defending the same goal. Some keep missing the goal and insisting they’ve scored, and then watching the ball slam into their own goal and refusing to recognize the score. And then there are those who, every time you kick a ball into their goal, scratch their heads for a minute before wandering over to the goal, hoisting it up, and moving it somewhere else, saying “This is the place! You didn’t hit THIS goal!” And when you insist that they are cheating, they give you a puzzled look.

And then there are the opponents who are furiously kicking balls into every goal they see, on any side, but refusing to acknowledge the validity of your scorekeeping and insisting that they are advancing the cause of their team. And then there are the most infuriating of all—namely those who are wandering around sniffing at the air, and when you ask them where their goal is, they shrug and tell you that if you find it to let them know.

(I find myself envisioning an updated version of the classic Monty Python sketch involving a soccer match between the Greek and German philosophers.)

When things begin to look so crazy, maybe the reason is because we’re working with the wrong metaphor. So let’s try a different one. It’s not that progressive Christians are facing off against atheism and naturalism in a soccer match but then refusing to play by the rules of the game. Maybe, instead, they are in the metaphorical House of Christianity, smelling something delicious and looking around for the source of the fragrance.

Conservative Christians are, perhaps, insisting on the inestimable value of the house exactly as it is, and trying to counter the atheists who point out leaks in the roof and black mold under the floorboards (either closing their eyes to these things, or insisting that they must be part of what makes the house so fabulous even though no one can see why, or declaring that these things really aren’t technically PART of the house at all). Meanwhile, the progressive Christians are wandering around trying to find the source of that fabulous fragrance. And as they step into a room and the scent becomes stronger, they say, “I think it might be in here somewhere. It smells kind of like lilacs. Maybe there’s a vase of lilacs in the cupboard.”

Perhaps some atheists see this as a move in their ongoing debate with the conservatives. And so, as the progressive Christian’s gaze turns to one cupboard and the next, the atheist swings each open in turn and declares, “See! Moldy cheese! It stinks! See! This one’s empty! Nothing there at all!”

What progressive Christians should say in response, I think, is this: “Thank you. I now know not to look there.”

And when the atheists shout, "But I've refuted your lilacs in the cupboard hypothesis!", the appropriate reply might be, "I'm following a scent, not clinging to a hypothesis."

In the meantime, they shouldn’t be discouraged from enjoying the aroma. And they certainly shouldn’t be prevented from sniffing around, just because others don’t smell anything, and just because the smell might be “all in their heads.” It might be that, but then again, some people have noses that are unusually keen—like my wife, who can tell when I’m coming down with a cold two days before I exhibit symptoms.


  1. James H. from class here.

    In the course of being one of your "angry new atheists" I run into this type of argument all of the time, and it seems too often that the theist, when backed into a philosophical corner, will try to invent new qualities of their god ("well, you can get around infinite regress with..." or, "no, it's not actually determinism if...") to conveniently get around the problem. It's very frustrating.

    In keeping with the metaphor-heavy nature of the post, I'll note that in this case I'll compare it with someone creating new powers for Superman in order to get him out of tricky fan-fiction dilemmas. Anyway.

    Is it too much that I ask that responses be canon with scripture? Or at the very least, backed by theological precedent?

  2. It may be helpful to make some distinctions. On the one hand, there's the practice to which Flew refers: qualification into meaninglessness. I think this is what you have in mind with the Superman metaphor. For every empirical observation that might be invoked to challenge the theistic belief, a new property of the divine is introduced to make God immune to that challenge, until ultimately one is left with a conception of deity which is consistent with any way the universe might be arranged.

    On the other hand, we have someone who begins with a vague thesis (there is a transcendent reality beyond the empirical world), and then uses what we know about the empirical world to flesh out the thesis on the assumption that to be tenable it must be consistent with what we know. What this activity demonstrates, I think, is that particular conceptions of the transcendent can be challenged by reference to the empirical world, but the very general thesis that there is some sort of transcendent reality cannot.

    Consider an analogy. Suppose I have a specific view about your character, which I take to be something distinct from your behavior but something that impacts your behavior. And let us say that someone starts pointing out behavioral characteristics that are at odds with my claim about your character. Rather than give up my claim, I add strange qualifications to make my claim consistent with your behavior. Finally, my claim no longer says what it seems to say, since it was supposed to be about a character trait that impacted your behavior, but it no longer seems to have any impact.

    Contrast this with my thesis that you HAVE a character, distinct from your behavior, which impacts the latter. And then I keep shifting and refining my account of your character in light of the new things I learn about your behavior. This seems like a reasonable thing to do. But what if someone now insists that there is no such thing as "character" distinct from behavior, that there is only the behavior itself--and then accuses me of trying to avoid the falsification of my "character thesis" by constantly shifting my account of your character in light of new behavioral observations. Is that a fair criticism of what I'm doing?

    The interesting question is whether the "character thesis" is rendered meaningless by the fact that it can be reconciled with any observations about behavior--and likewise, whether the "transcendent reality thesis" is rendered meaningless. Here, my inclination is to ask whether the thesis has any significance for the life of the one who embraces it. Look at the naturalist and the supernaturalist who accept all the same facts about the empirical world, and ask whether their naturalism/supernaturalism makes any difference for their lives.

    As to your question of whether it is too much to ask that "responses be canon with scripture" or "backed by theological precedent," my view is this: it isn't too much to ask of someone who claims to be defending scripture or a theological tradition. It is too much to ask of someone who has no special interest in defending these things, but who is instead in the business of defending something else.