Friday, January 23, 2009

Another Open Letter (Sort of) to a Conservative Christian Critic

The other day I received an e-mail from a conservative Christian who'd been reading my book. He had several criticisms, chief among them the following two concerns:

1. You scold those who advocate that God’s goodness is mysteriously compatible with God-imposed judgments (including hell) in the Bible; and you reject their call for a suspension of thoughtful inquiry into the issue. Yet you defend those who advocate that God’s goodness is mysteriously compatible with God-allowed evil (including horrors) in the natural world—as you call for a suspension of thoughtful inquiry into the issue.

2. Similarly, you state that the former group cannot be worshipfully devoted to God, especially because he imposes hell. Yet the latter group can be worshipfully devoted to God, even though he allows horrors.

Since I conceived of this blog as, in part, an opportunity to foster discussion about my book, I’ve decided to post here most of the reply I wrote to this critic.

But before reproducing my e-mailed reply to this critic, let me say first that I don’t agree with the characterization of my views as put forward in (1) and (2). With respect to (1), I absolutely do not call for a suspension of thoughtful inquiry into the issue of whether evil can be reconciled with the existence of a good God. That's a misconstrual. What I argue is that even though the problem of evil has not been resolved, terrestrial evils do not constitute such a convincing a case against theism that it becomes irrational to live in the hope that the world’s evils can be an will be redeemed by a transcendent benevolence. But living in this hope is hardly incompatible with continued intellectual inquiry.

In this regard, my position is very similar to one advocated by Richard Dawkins in relation to evolutionary theory. The fact that there remain persistent mysteries that have yet to be adequately explained in neo-Darwinian terms is not a reason to abandon the theory of evolution. Devout Darwinians (if I may call them that without offense) can and should continue their investigations in the hope that a solution to these mysteries is out there to be found if only scientists search diligently enough. But such a message hardly amounts to saying that thoughtful inquiry into the matter should cease. It simply means you can legitimately be a Darwinian even though there remain phenomena which have yet to be adequately explained in Darwinian terms.

With respect to (2), I don’t state that “hellists” cannot be worshipfully devoted to God. The more I think about it, the more puzzled I am about this characterization. I do think that attempts to reconcile the doctrine of hell with the doctrine of a God worthy of devotion are intellectual failures, but this is not a point I develop at length in my book. What I argue in my book is that one cannot be “worshipfully devoted” to a tyrannical God. Under some (but not all) versions of the doctrine of hell, God becomes a tyrant who spitefully smites with eternal hellfire all those who don’t abide by his arbitrary whim.

But many devoted theists believe in a God of universal benevolence, staunchly rejecting this arbitrary tyrant, and yet still endorse some moderated version of the doctrine of hell. My claim with respect to such theists is that their attempts to reconcile hell with the perfectly loving God in which they believe are failures. But insofar as it is a perfectly loving God in which they believe, it is clear that their God is one in whom it is possible to be “worshipfully devoted.”

In my original response to this critic, I didn’t make these points, instead zeroing in on the key issue as I saw it: the supposed parity between the problem of evil and what Marilyn McCord Adams dubbed “the problem of hell” in her wonderful essay, “The Problem of Hell: A Problem of Evil for Christians.” The main thing I want to do is challenge this parity.

What follows is what I wrote in the attempt to make this point:

The issue you put your finger on is one I’ve explored elsewhere and only touch on tangentially in my book. My reasons for finding the doctrine of hell incoherent within a broader Christian theology are spelled out in a series of articles (citations should be available in the references section of my book). In my book, if you read the problem of evil chapter carefully, you will see, I think, the outlines for a response to your concern. Your observations, in my judgment, assume too much parity between terrestrial evil and our responses to it, on the one hand, and the eternal and therefore necessarily unredeemed evil of hell. I can hope that the former are redeemed. As a matter of definition, I cannot hope that the latter are redeemed. Hoping that the former are redeemed is an essential element of the ethico-religious hope, while believing in hell amounts at best to a fundamental truncations of the scope of the ethico-religious hope.

Let me explain these points with greater care. There are important differences between terrestrial evil and hell. First, terrestrial evil is an experiential given. Hell is not. Second, terrestrial evil is finite. Hell (as traditionally conceived) is not. In fact, I don’t have much problem with those conceptualizations of hell which conceive it as a refining fire, a la Gregory of Nyssa, in which the final outcome of enduring hell is that the spirit is purged and ultimately redeemed (there are, by the way, scriptural reasons for interpreting hell in these terms). This latter difference is of utmost importance, because it entails that terrestrial evil (both moral degeneracy and suffering) might be redeemed—if there is a fundamental reality (God) that is on the side of goodness and has sovereignty in at least the Zoroastrian sense (such that God’s will is irresistible in the long run even if there are opposing forces at work which in the short run God cannot, perhaps for moral reasons, simply will away). But the doctrine of hell entails that there is evil which is never redeemed (the moral degeneracy of the damned, for one, and their horrific suffering, for another—that the latter is an evil is something some might debate, but if divine justice is construed as a species of divine benevolence, and if divine benevolence is the ultimate paradigm of goodness, then I think all suffering is evil unless it is redemptive).

At root, my differential approach to terrestrial evil and hell is motivated by my understanding of the nature of faith, as the decision to live in the hope that there is a fundamental reality decisively on the side of goodness (a hope most fully realized if there is a personal God who cares about the good and has the capacity to act decisively to preserve the good). The decision to live in this hope involves, I believe, living in the hope that all evil will be redeemed. Hence, it entails that we should hope for the redemption of all terrestrial evil. The problem of evil poses an impediment to faith only if it succeeds in dashing this hope. I argue that, even though the problem of evil hasn’t been resolved, it hasn’t dashed the hope of redemption.

But the decision to live in the hope that there is a fundamental reality decisively on the side of goodness does not merely entail that we should live in the hope that all terrestrial evil is redeemed. It entails that we should live in the hope that all evil is redeemed. But the doctrine of hell is, in my judgment, inimical to this hope. The doctrine of hell is precisely the doctrine which holds that some evil will never be redeemed. On the liberal doctrine of hell (which holds that the free choices of the damned confine them to hell, and that God would save them if only they would change their mind, but they never do despite God’s best efforts), the implication is that in God’s war against sin, in the souls of the damned God will confront a final and ultimate defeat. As I put it in a forthcoming co-authored article, “Despite all of His infinite resources, despite infinite time in which to work, despite His perfect knowledge of every nuance of the souls of the damned, despite His unrelenting love, His efforts will be for naught. At least in some human souls, sin will prove more powerful than God.”

To avoid this blasphemous conclusion, we might go with the classical version of the doctrine of hell, according to which (again quoting from my forthcoming article) “God’s salvific aims are truncated such that they simply don’t include the damned.” The reason for this truncation is usually taken to be some demand of justice, such that the damned do not deserve salvation. Quoting again: “On this view, God prevails over sin in different ways: in the saved, it is through their attainment of blessedness, which includes their sanctification; in the damned, it is through their punitive expulsion from the goods of heaven.”

But, as my co-author and I argue at length in our forthcoming article (“Species of Hell”), to be deprived of salvation is to be deprived of the beatific vision, which is to be deprived of a full understanding of the good and hence of any real capacity to order one’s values in conformity with the good. The doctrine of grace is precisely this: that it is only when God dwells in us, when God’s will becomes our will, that we can be good. So our moral sanctification requires the infusion of divine grace. Without it, we are irredeemably corrupt.

“And so,” (quoting again) “on the classical doctrine of hell, the damned are punished for their wickedness at least in part by being confirmed in wickedness for all eternity.”

I close out this line of argument with an extended quote:

“To see the full magnitude of the difficulty here, it may help to reflect for a moment on exactly what is so bad about sin. Sin at its heart is a failure to value things according to their objective degree of value. It is a failure to appropriately express, in actions and dispositions, due reverence for the inherent worth of things. The most significant element of sin, on classical theology, is the failure to do this with respect to God. God has infinite inherent worth, and thus ought to be valued above all things. To fail to do so is an objective affront to the divine majesty, akin to the sociopath’s failure to properly value his victim but magnified in severity by the infinite worth of God.

“According to the classical doctrine of hell, God responds to this infinite affront against His dignity by deliberately acting to ensure that this affront to His dignity continues for all eternity. While He could stop it from continuing, He chooses instead make sure that this most intolerable of all evils persists forever in the souls of the damned by deliberately withholding the necessary condition for bringing it to an end.”

This picture doesn’t sound to me to be compatible with the hope that all evil will eventually be redeemed, any more than does a picture of hell in which sin remains forever victorious over God in the souls of the damned. Hence, if I choose to live in that hope, I must reject the doctrine of hell in either of its versions. Fortunately, I can do so, since the evidence for the truth of the doctrine of hell is hardly decisive (even were I a biblical fundamentalist, I would have to face conflicting scriptural evidence). And so, my ethico-religious hope isn’t dashed. And—again fortunately—the evidence against theism posed by terrestrial evils is not decisive, since there is nothing in experience that precludes the possibility of grander orders of reality within which these evils might be redeemed.

Put simply, if I knew that hell were real, that would be a decisive defeater for my ethico-religious hope. But I do not know this (in fact, I have little reason to think it true), so I can keep on hoping. I do know that terrestrial evils are real, but their reality is not a decisive defeater for my ethico-religious hope. Hence, I can keep on hoping.

Now it is certainly possible that I am mistaken in my thinking about hell. But the fact is that I simply cannot see how any version of the doctrine of hell can be made compatible with the ethico-religious hope. And given this truth about me, were I to believe in hell I would cease to believe that the ethico-religious hope had been fulfilled. Hence, were I to believe in hell I would lose my faith in God. I don’t know about you, but I think God would rather that I trust in Him than that I believe in hell.

And there are very many people who are very much like me on this issue—and many of them have been so steeped in the doctrine of hell that they see it is as an inextricable piece of theistic belief—and so lose the ethico-religious hope altogether. In this respect, I am absolutely convinced that the doctrine of hell is anti-evangelical. It is bad news that drives people away from faith in God. Part of my aim in my book is to invite those people back.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

An Open Letter to a Dear Sicilian Friend

First of all—Carmelo! Good to hear from you. How the hell are you? I recall still, with great fondness, climbing Etna with you while on my honeymoon, and scrambling up rocks and ash to that volcanic cave you took us to, still hot from Etna’s last eruption but cool enough to enter. I remember, in the darkness, running my fingers along the rough surface and hearing the resonance of it like a thousand tiny bells.

For me, at least, that moment was religious. In the language of one of my favorite theologians, I sensed in that moment intimations of the Infinite in the finite.

And so I want to reflect for a bit on your unexpected comment on my last post. I was originally going to just add my own comment, but then I thought, why not a kind of “open letter” to my Sicilian friend so far away? Somehow, it seems more fitting.

Your portrait of religion is clearly true for much that goes by the name of “religion” in history and today. The Marxist critique of religion wouldn’t have attracted the following it did were there not a pervasive reality that is precisely as Marx describes it: an ideological tool shaped by the privileged classes to preserve their privilege, invoking gods of the imagination for the purpose of brainwashing the masses, redirecting their attention away from the injustices they endure.

I am hardly unaware of this reality. In fact, much of my career has been devoted to fighting it for all I’m worth. To that extent, I have something in common with Richard Dawkins and the other “new atheists.” The difference lies in the fact that my horror at the evils of religion is motivated in large measure by a deep affinity for this precious thing I find buried underneath all the garbage.

You call religion something “extremely dangerous” that “must be rejected,” with no room for “middle ground.” In an important sense, I agree. The thing you describe is extremely dangerous. It must be rejected. There can be no middle ground. This thing you describe must be unequivocally opposed, because this thing you describe is crushing the soul of religion. I love religion too much to give this evil thing any quarter at all.

My point, of course, is that there are fundamentally different phenomena that go by the name “religion.” In the real world, they are often bound up together. You have identified what you see as dangerous. It is like poisonous trash that must be thrown away. But let us not also throw in the trash the child who has been poisoned by it.

This is the point I want to really convey: it isn’t all poisonous trash. Much that goes by the name of religion fits the Marxist description. But not all of it. The portrait of religion that I’ve been trying to paint—which you call beautiful but anomalous—is not something I’m inventing. It’s an attempt to capture something that I’ve experienced—in private moments of spiritual reflection, in diverse religious communities I’ve participated in, and vicariously in religious movements I’ve studied.

It is something I see at work in Martin Luther King’s religiously-inspired civil rights movement, in which an oppressed people were moved to stand up against injustice, to say no to oppression, and to do so in a way that had a real prospect of building bridges and healing wounds. It’s something I find in the writings of liberation theologians, who invoke religious ideas not to perpetuate the institutional structures that oppress the masses, but to critique them and work for their dismantling.

It is something I have encountered in Quaker meetings, in which worship is the silent meditation of equals without a priest or religious leader. It is something I encountered during the Wednesday chapel services at Pacific Lutheran University when I was on the faculty there—services rich in beauty, shaped by the intellectually informed homilies of faculty members, and guided by a deep commitment to social justice. It is something I have experienced at a small, rural Mennonite Church in upstate New York during the foot-washing ritual in which everyone expressed their commitment to humble service towards humanity by washing each others’ feet.

It is something I saw in the eyes of PLU’s former chaplain, Dan Erlander, when he spoke of his gentle work guiding and inspiring students towards a deeper commitment to justice and peace. It is something I felt when I was descending Stromboli at dawn, skating down the ash in the way that you taught me to do, and seeing the sun break over the Mediterranean.

In many ways, the religion I am talking about is the antithesis of the religion you (rightly) abhor. And the religion you abhor is all the more horrific because of what it so often twists and corrupts and crushes underfoot, what I call the “germ of true religion.” At heart this germ is a feeling, the feeling that Schleiermacher called “the intuition of the Infinite in the finite,” a feeling swelling with hope, with transformative promise, and with the energy to make us better than we thought we could be. And it feels to me, as it did to Martin Luther King, Jr., as if it’s a connection with the deepest reality of all. That’s part of what gives the feeling its power.

I could treat that feeling as mere delusion. It might be nothing but a biochemical reaction in my brain, brought on by various environmental stimuli. It might be the effect of altitude or the power of suggestion. Maybe my attunement to aesthetic impressions is just a side-effect of evolutionary forces. Maybe this mere side-effect is triggering neurological excitement in certain parts of my brain when I’m standing in a hot dark cave and hearing the resonance of nature’s bells. And that’s all it is. No deeper meaning. No fleeting connection with something transcendent.

But if I believed that, then the feeling would lose its resonance. It would lose the sense that it’s about something fundamental in the universe. And so it would gradually fade away within me.

I could make that choice, but I would be emptier for it. For me, religion is about living in the hope that, despite the possibility of error, this religious feeling (what Schleiermacher named “piety”) is not just a by-product of neural misfirings in the brain, but an encounter with something beautiful and true.

In the complex mess of phenomena that go by the name of “religion” in this world, this religious feeling I’m talking about remains an element, even if it is an element so often twisted by inflexible dogmas, so often suppressed by religious authorities who see it as a threat to their privilege—in brief, so often buried under heaps of garbage.

But what I want to shout from the rooftops (or from the pages of a book, or from a blog site) is this: The fact that “true religion” is only a germ, and that it is so often buried under heaps of garbage, shouldn’t lead us to condemn it along with the garbage. We do more good for ourselves and the world when we strive to dig the germ out from under the garbage, when we identify those conditions that interfere with the germ’s sprouting and those conditions which nurture it, when we celebrate it where it is found by clearing away the things that stifle its growth.

This message probably has more resonance with those who have experienced the germ that I’m talking about than it does among those who haven’t. For me, one of the greatest tragedies of the proliferation of religion as you’ve described it is exactly this: it so obscures the germ of true religion that many people never experience it at all. And this is true even among those who faithfully attend religious services all the days of their life.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Atheism on the Bus

About a decade ago, while I was living in the Puget Sound area, I entered the “Poetry on the Buses” competition—an annual event in which poets and would-be poets compete to have their poems posted in and on Seattle buses. My poem, “Lilac Festival,” was among the winners, and so for a time it could be read by commuters on their way home from work. The poem, which I’m still rather pleased with, was an attempt to capture my memories of the Rochester lilac festival, which I attended every spring as an undergraduate student at the University of Rochester. It runs as follows:

In spring, at a carnival of lilacs and balloons,
of purple-peppered hills and pollens
that glisten on the tail of the bumblebee,
a sun-blond boy with ice cream lips watches
lovers who walk with steps that make the widows nod,
and girls in college jerseys
who flash their smiles in passing, over their shoulders
like petals tossed by children playing love-me-not.

The Poetry on the Buses project has always struck me as a great alternative to using bus walls—a kind of public space—for paid advertising. As a commuter, I’d much rather read a contest-wining poem than a soda slogan. Or worse, a religious ad.

Living where I now live, I don’t get much of a chance to see bus advertising (the bus system in Stillwater is run by the university and is advertisement-free), but I do see billboard ads often enough—and with some frequency the billboard space has been leased by one religious organization or another. One popular campaign (which apparently also does run on the sides of buses) features an all-black billboard with white lettering, the message signed by “God.”

The presumptuousness of this is only matched by the banality of the messages themselves—things such as “Have you read my #1 bestseller? There will be a test,” and “Think it’s hot here?” and “Let’s meet at my house Sunday before the game.” I can only imagine what God thinks of a bunch of religious slogan writers more influenced by Madison Avenue than by any deep sense of the divine, attributing their pithy messages to the infinite and transcendent mystery that lies at the heart of reality.

Now atheists are in on the game. And rather than taking their cue from the Poetry on the Buses project, they are firmly aligned with the Madison Avenue approach: Come up with a pithy message that simply can’t do justice to the deep philosophical issues to which it gestures, and then slap it on a billboard or a bus. But at least they aren’t attributing the products of their merely human sloganeering to the divine. I suppose that’s an improvement.

Thanks to a good family friend, I have a New York Times clipping about the atheist bus campaign in front of me, featuring a picture of a London double-decker bus with the world’s best-known atheist, Richard Dawkins, posed in front of it—trying (it seems) to look dapper. The atheist message on the bus reads as follows: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”

The picture and the message were the first things I saw as I unfolded the clipping. And this fact gave me an opportunity to really experience first-hand the importance of context. Before reading the article itself, before coming to see the slogan in terms of the context out of which its creators were writing, I responded to it in terms of my own context.

My context is a progressive religious one. I live in the hope that the universe is fundamentally on the side of goodness, rather than being “pitilessly indifferent” to it as Dawkins maintains. And I see, in my inner spiritual experience, evidence that this hope is not in vain despite all the horrors in the world.

What does the atheist slogan on this bus mean to someone like me? As I read it, I find it jarring. Not because it’s offensive, but because the first sentence is so incongruent with the second. Given what I mean by “God,” I wouldn’t follow up the first sentence with “Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” I’d follow it up, instead, with something like the following: “So the crushing horrors of history will never be redeemed, and those whose lives have been shattered by suffering and loss and brutality, and who have no prospects of transcending their miserable condition in this life, should just give up hope.”

Not that this would fit on the side of a bus.

But, of course, for me “God” refers to that reality which, if it existed, would fulfill what I call in my book “the ethico-religious hope”—that is, the hope that the universe in some fundamental way is on the side of the good, so that when we live out lives lovingly we are actually becoming attuned to the deepest reality of all.

Perhaps the most important exponent of this hope in American history was Martin Luther King, Jr., who articulated it in terms of his conviction that “the universe is under the control of a loving purpose, and that in the struggle for righteousness man has cosmic companionship. Behind the harsh appearances of the world there is a benign power.”

In fact, King believed that embracing this hope was essential for practitioners of nonviolence. “I am quite aware,” he said in a 1957 speech, “that there are persons who believe firmly in nonviolence who do not believe in a personal God, but I think every person who believes in nonviolent resistance believes somehow that the universe in some form is on the side of justice. That there is something unfolding in the universe whether one speaks of it as an unconscious process, or whether one speaks of it as some unmoved mover, or whether someone speaks of it as a personal God….And this was one of the things that kept people together (during the Montgomery bus boycott), the belief that the universe is on the side of justice.”

And so, when I read the atheist slogan on the side of the bus, here is what I read: “The universe probably isn’t on the side of justice. It’s just as pitilessly indifferent to the good as Dawkins claims in his book, River Out of Eden. When evil shatters human lives in Rwanda, leaving people utterly broken until death, there will never be for them any redemption. It will be permanently true that it would have been better had they never been born. And in the world in which we live, such life-shattering events can happen to anyone, including you. And if they do happen to you, don’t look to the transcendent for hope, because there is none to be had. Your life will be decisively stripped of meaning. NOW STOP WORRYING AND ENJOY YOUR LIFE.”

This absurd juxtaposition of messages might usefully be contrasted with one offered by philosopher Walter Stace, who before becoming interested in mystical experience was very much an atheist in Dawkins’ mold, but with an important difference. In his famous essay, “Man Against Darkness,” Stace discusses what he thinks is the demise of religion in the face of science, but he doesn’t present his atheist picture of the world as a reason to “stop worrying and enjoy life.” Instead, he presents it as a grim truth that we need to confront. It is, in effect, one of the painful discoveries of growing up as a human species.

In Stace’s view of things, the universe doesn’t care about us. Those of us who die in despair and hopelessness will have lived lives without meaning, and no cosmic redemption can be hoped for. The truth as Stace sees it this: There is no God. Now brace yourself and try to make the best of things.

But I suppose that wouldn’t make for a very good marketing campaign on the sides of buses. Too grim. If there’s anything Madison Avenue teaches, its this: you don’t sell a product by claiming that life will be more miserable with it than without it.

But here is where differences in context become relevant. According to the New York times article, “the seeds of the Atheist Bus Campaign” were sewn by a comedy writer named Ariane Sherine. Sherine saw a religious ad on a bus and, when she went to the associated web site, was informed in the materials there that she and her friends were doomed to an afterlife of eternal torment because they didn’t have the right beliefs about God.

When God is portrayed as a fierce tyrant in the sky who roasts those who don’t believe the right sorts of things, atheism can seem refreshing. It becomes a liberation of sorts. In fact, this point was made beautifully long ago by the Greek scholar Plutarch.

Plutarch argued, in an essay called “On Superstition,” that there’s a fundamental difference between belief in tyrannical gods that place harsh demands on human beings on pain of retribution, and belief in a transcendent benevolence that wishes us only good. He calls the former superstition, and reserves the term “religion” for the latter. And he thinks that atheism is far preferable to superstition. Better to think there are no gods at all than to live your life in terror that the gods will smite you unless you scurry to obey their every whim. The superstitious person sees every misfortune as an act of the gods, and is always looking for someone to blame: Who is it that failed to obey with sufficient alacrity? Is it the gays, the feminists, the ACLU—all those whom Jerry Falwell blamed for the 9/11 attacks?

Far better to be an atheist than to live in cowering submission, convinced that we’re all the slaves of some irresistible supernatural tyrant. This is probably at least part of what the mystic philosopher Simone Weil had in mind when she referred to atheism as “a purification.”

But Weil was not an atheist. For her, atheism served the import role of wiping away the gods of the imagination, the deities we invent out of fear and ignorance. She believed that in order to really experience God—the divine presence that appeared to her while she was in the grip of debilitating migraine headaches, and seemed to her “a presence, like the smile on a beloved face”—in order to experience this we needed to clear our minds, to make a space within our consciousness, a place of quiet waiting into which grace might then flood in. But our imagination is always filling up these spaces with deities of our own invention, leaving no room at all for God.

And for Plutarch, the deadliest and most sinister god of the imagination is the supernatural tyrant, the growling monarch who commands us to obey or pay the price. This is a god we must flee, for the sake of our very sanity. But fleeing this god of superstition does not require us to reject all transcendent hopes, to dismiss every mystical report, to scoff at Martin Luther King’s hope that the universe bends towards justice or at Simone Weil’s encounter with a tender presence on the far side of anguish.

And so Plutarch concludes his essay by noting how atheists, in fleeing superstition, end up “leaping right over piety, which lies between.” This message (which, by the way, gives this blog its name) still has resonance so many centuries later. The god that Ariane Sherine is rejecting ought to be rejected. It is the god of superstition. But it doesn’t follow that we ought likewise to reject the God of Martin Luther King.

Walter Stace was, in my judgment, wrong to think that science has decisively refuted the existence of such a God. While nothing in our experience proves that the God of religion exists, there are deep and potent intimations of such a God in the most profound of mystical experiences. And, as I argue in my book, there are philosophical reasons to believe in deeper orders of reality than we encounter in ordinary sense experience—reasons that mean we don’t need to dismiss profound religious experiences as mere delusion.

We are free, instead, to make a different choice: to live in hope, to live as if the reports of the mystics are true, to embrace a worldview in which the deepest of all human longings is satisfied: the longing that the universe, in some fundamental way, cares about the good.

If we do, then perhaps we really can stop worrying and enjoy our lives.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

An Uncharitable Review

I won’t make a habit of this, but I’ve decided to comment on an uncharitable review of Is God a Delusion? that appeared recently on Amazon. I do so in case other readers have misunderstood my arguments in the same ways that this “Hande Z” has.

For ease of reference, I will refer to the reviewer as HZ. Let me walk through HZ’s main points one by one. HZ writes:

Reitan begins with an attack against people like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, calling them "New Atheists" without explaining why the adjective "new" was necessary and what he meant. Would he be a "New Apologist" then?

This is a minor point, but still deserves some reflection. Writing the kind of book I did, I needed a phrase to refer collectively to the authors of the atheist bestsellers I was addressing. Early on I borrowed Schleiermacher’s language and referred to them as “today’s cultured despisers of religion.” This proved to be an extremely clumsy phrase for repeated use. And so I chose “new atheists” for its brevity as well as for reasons mentioned on pp. 3-4 of the introduction.

It turns out I was hardly unique in finding this appellation appropriate. In fact, it’s become the common name for the species of atheism exemplified by Hitchens and Dawkins. Their kind of atheism is characterized by several features. First, it isn’t merely disdainful of religion, but hostile to it. Second, it’s not quietly hostile. In fact, Dawkins calls for atheists to “come out of the closet” and profess their atheism to the world, to express a kind of “atheist pride.” But the pride he advocates is not the sort that can comfortably coexist with respect for religious belief, because it involves taking pride in having avoided the supposed foolishness of religion. And this fact highlights the third distinctive feature of this species of atheism: it’s not just about disbelief in the supernatural. It asserts that to be religious is to exhibit a shortcoming in one’s intellect or moral character (or both). The view seems to be that, on this issue, reasonable people cannot disagree, because to disagree with atheism is unreasonable.

Is such atheism new? Not entirely. Bertrand Russell, for example, seemed to have been an atheist of this sort (at least in his more bellicose moments). But the prevalence of this species of “out” atheist hostility to religion appears to be on the rise in recent years. And so, to speak of the representatives of this brand of atheism as the “new” atheists seems apt.

Let’s move on to some of HZ’s more substantive criticisms. HZ writes:

He tried to garner support and sympathy by flattering people of all religions, but tripped up when he concluded his Introduction with this comment: "We must find ways, not to stamp out religion, but to let true religion loose upon the world." (Reitan's emphasis) Which was that true religion he had in mind? His own belief seems clearly to be Christian (but which model?); and that being so, was he then really empathetic to Sikhism, Islam, and all the other religions he fawned over? At page 61 he distinguishes "the god Hypothesis" from "the God Hypothesis". Who was his "God"? We won't find the answer in this book.

Here, HZ pounces on my use of the phrase “true religion,” but ignores the context which gives it meaning. In fact, two pages prior to the passage HZ quotes, I explicitly state what I mean by “true religion." It is religion that is “born out of a combination of rational insight, profound experiences of a distinctive kind, and morally laudable hope” and is then “refined and shaped by careful and humble reflection in open-minded discourse with others” (p. 9).

Throughout the book I develop these elements into an account of the parameters within which religion can be both intellectually respectable and morally benign, and I also discuss the corrupting forces that can push religion outside of these parameters. Any religion—Christian, Jewish, Sikh, Muslim, Hindu—that stays true to these parameters counts as “true religion” in my sense. Religion that loses touch with them is not.

And one way to lose touch with them is to lose touch with what Schleiermacher calls the “beautiful modesty” and “friendly, attractive forbearance” that naturally accompanies experience of the transcendent. Religion rooted in such experience cannot help but recognize that the subject matter of religion defies finite human efforts to describe it. This is why Schleiermacher insists that anyone whose religion is rooted in such experience “must be conscious that his religion is only part of the whole; that about the same circumstances there may be views and sentiments quite different from his, yet just as pious.”

In short, far from belying my propensity for religious inclusivism, my reference to letting true religion “loose upon the world” is an expression of that inclusivism. By “true religion,” I mean religion that (among other things) views other religious traditions as having something of value to say about the mysteries of the transcendent. Such inclusivism is not uncritical, but the criteria by which religions are judged are not those of doctrinal orthodoxy or allegiance to a single tradition or holy text, etc.

As for the reviewer’s mention of my distinction between “the god of superstition” and “the God of religion,” it is astonishing when he says that “we won’t find any answers in this book”—since developing and discussing the significance of this distinction is one of the book's chief aims.

In briefest terms, my point (piggy-backing on Plutarch) is this: There is a profound difference between believing in a supernatural tyrant who needs to be appeased on pain of harsh retribution, and living in the hope that the universe is fundamentally on the side of goodness. Religions that affirm the supernatural tyrant are what Plutarch called superstition. And belief in this god of superstition inspires the same kind of frenzied efforts at appeasement that an abusive spouse so often inspires, producing a supernatural variant of battered wife syndrome. Such belief is harmful—and atheism in the face of such a god is like a healthy divorce with a lifetime restraining order attached.

But it doesn’t follow that it is likewise harmful to live in the hope that the universe is fundamentally on the side of goodness, that when we act with moral integrity we are aligning ourselves with the most basic truth about reality. I call this “the ethico-religious hope,” and I define the God of religion as that which, if it existed, would fulfill this hope. Such a definition is what I call “functional,” in that it doesn’t specify God in terms of a list of properties (although it implies benevolence) but rather in terms of the role that God serves in the psychological economy of the devout theist—that is, the theist who loves and trusts God. Tyrants inspire neither love nor trust, but only fear and servile obedience.

HZ is unhappy with this kind of functional definition, perceiving it as my attempt to define God so vaguely that the theist can “evade, hide, and shift his ground every time he gets cornered.” HZ wants me to offer what, in my book, I call a “substantive definition” of God—that is, a definition in terms of a list of precise properties.

This is an issue I have discussed in other posts, and so I won’t beat a dead horse here. Suffice it to say that early scientists wouldn’t have gotten very far if they hadn’t left room for non-substantive definitions. Image a Copernican-era scientist who insisted that “star” be defined in terms of the old substantive conception of it as a “pinhole in the firmament,” who then concluded on the basis of the evidence that stars do not exist, and finally accused those who defined “star” by pointing upward, and who offered new conceptualizations in light of new evidence, as being guilty of “evading, hiding, and shifting the ground every time they get cornered.”

HZ writes:

Can he justify his claim that the "cause of the trouble is a fundamentalist insistence that one ought to accept without question that some text or institution or prophetic leader (is perfectly) articulating the very will of God?" (The reviewer leaves out of the quote what I have re-inserted in parentheses for the sake of clarity). Isn't this a circular argument? Who is a fundamentalist? It seems that he would be someone who disagrees with Reitan.

In the passage quoted (found on p. 71), I am discussing ways in which belief in God’s goodness can be stripped of meaning. One issue I focus on is the idea that you “ought to accept without question that some text or institution or prophetic leader” perfectly represents God’s will. For ease of reference I call this way of thinking “fundamentalist,” and I argue that it strips all meaning from the claim that God is good, leaving us with a supernatural being whose will must be followed, but who isn’t good in any meaningful sense. In short: a supernatural tyrant. Fundamentalism in the indicated sense leads to belief in the god of superstition. There is no circularity here, and the meaning of “fundamentalist” is far more substantive than just “anyone who disagrees with me.”

HZ writes:

Reitan called Dawkins a philosophical novice because (or so Reitan believed) he did not understand Aquinas. Reitan and Aquinas believed in God (and since Aquinas was Christian, Reitan's belief must be Christian) because everything in the universe must have a cause except the first cause. They realise d that if they don't put a stop to this then they are stuck in an infinite regress - turtles all the way down. So why is this first cause so personal that he needs and wants to be worshipped? Why not just a bang from a bag of gas? Reitan would believe that a bag of gas must have a first cause. So, can he explain why a bag of gas can't be the first cause that he believed must exist; a cause that had no cause? How does he differentiate his idea of the first cause (his "god") from a bag of gas?

I set aside the invalid argument that since Aquinas and I both believe in God, and Aquinas was a Christian, I must be Christian too. I’ll simply refer HZ on this matter to any introductory logic book. What I want to point out is that HZ is simply repeating the very interpretive errors that Dawkins falls into, and which I discuss in Chapter 5.

Let me put this as simply as I can. It is one thing to argue that everything must have a cause, notice that this leads to an infinite regress, and then try to escape the regress by arbitrarily positing a first cause which, in defiance of the first premise, doesn’t need a cause after all. It is something else entirely to argue that everything which possesses some property P (e.g., the property of coming into existence) requires a cause, notice that if everything possessed property P there would be an infinite regress, and therefore conclude that to avoid such a regress we must suppose there exists something which lacks property P. Aquinas argues along the latter lines, not the former. And, arguing along these lines, Aquinas concludes that there must exist some fundamental reality that never came to be (that is, exists eternally), that does not change but is capable of bringing about change in other things, and that exists necessarily. If HZ wants to make the case that a bag of gas could be eternal, unchanging, and necessarily existent, I’d be very interested to see the argument. However, it would have to be a bag of gas radically unlike anything in the empirical world—including bags of gas.

HZ goes on:

(I)n defending theodicy, he placed the blame(as most theists do) on man (the victim) and not god, the presumed almighty and all good. It is man's free will, he stated, when referring to the evil caused by man. What of the evil caused in natural disasters like Hurricane Katarina? Such evil if caused by god, would be redeemed by god. How? And how does Reitan know that? Perhaps we were not mean to question him on this either.

In the chapter that HZ references here, I provide an overview of a number of different ways in which theists have attempted to respond to the problem of evil. I seek to identify both the merits and the weaknesses of these responses. For example, on p. 192 I critique the appeal to free will by noting that “not all evils result from wicked choices. Some of the worst suffering is brought on by disease, famine, and natural disaster…(and) it isn’t reasonable to trace all the harms from natural evils back to human negligence.” I likewise critically discuss the so-called “soul-making theodicy,” noting among other things that it does not take into proper account the suffering in the non-human world. My aim in this chapter is not to resolve the problem of evil. Rather, my aim is to argue that even if the problem hasn’t been resolved, it doesn’t constitute such a decisive case against theism that it becomes unreasonable for someone to live in the hope that the evils of the world will be redeemed by a transcendent good.

And, just for the sake of clarity, living in the hope that evil will be redeemed is not the same as knowing that it will. I do not know that it will. No one does. Anyone who claims to know this is lying—probably first and foremost to themselves. Likewise for anyone who claims to know that evil will not be redeemed.

Last but not least, HZ writes:

I would not say don't read this book, but I would say read it but also read the counter-arguments (Amazon has a list of books on atheism); in both cases, read all the arguments critically.

Finally, something we can agree on.