Religion, Atheism, and Fundamentalism

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Liberal Pastor and James McGrath have been making a valiant attempt at trying to engage a militant atheist blogger in a conversation about religion. The discussion is, I think, very instructive in showing just how difficult an endeavor like this really is.

The blogger, a Toronto professor named Larry Moran, demands from people of faith a "sophisticated argument" for the existence of "supernatural beings". Of course, as for who gets to be the arbiter on what makes an argument "sophisticated", you can guess who that might be--the blogger himself.

Like a lot of militant atheists, he wears his ignorance of theology on his sleeve. He stereotypes religious faith, and then admits that he knows nothing about theologians like Borg, Hick, Crossan, Griffin, and others who don't conform to his stereotype, but insists that it doesn't matter because he knows already everything he needs to know about religion, and one of the things he knows a priori is that his stereotypes are true. He seems to be unaware of what panentheism is or how it might differ from pantheism. He insists that religion is defined as a belief in "supernatural beings", and when James McGrath points out multiple reasons why that isn't necessarily true--such as that Tillich characterizes God as being of a different order than mere "beings" and instead considers God to be "Being itself"--Moran responds by calling that mere obfuscation--thus showing a complete lack of interest in really understanding the subject matter that claims to be such an expert on. (A more honest response would have been something like, "I don't get it. How is Being itself different from supernatural beings? Can you clarify or explain this?" But why engage people in a dialogue when you can just attack them instead?)

When James McGrath points out that "religious believers differ even within traditions such as Christianity over issues like whether there are 'miracles', and if so whether they are things that occur in harmony with or as a rupture in the natural flow of the material world," Moran seems beside himself with annoyance over this challenge to his preconceived notion of what religion is all about, saying,

Interesting. Tell me more about those people who call themselves Christians but don't believe in miracles. Do they believe that Jesus died on the cross on Friday and did not rise from the dead on the following Sunday? Do they believe that Mathew, Mark, Luke and John were not telling the truth about Jesus and the stories of miracles?
Those exact words could have been written by a Christian fundamentalist--and yet they were written by an militant atheist. What does that tell you? Like all fundamentalists, Moran the atheist fundamentalist can't conceive of the existence of Christians who are not biblical literalists, let alone those who don't believe in the miraculous. Another blogger chimed in with a similar accusation, saying "At least find a brand new name for your religion?" It is really rather ironic how militant atheists allow fundamentalist Christians to do their thinking for them in determining who does and doesn't get to be called a Christian.

There are other participants in this discussion as well, but you get the point.

Liberal Pastor chimed into the discussion with a great comment about what progressive Christianity means to him. Among other things, he wrote:
For me, it is the way of Jesus that matters: peace, simplicity, inclusive community that ignores cultural barriers, taking a stand against injustice to the point of being willing to pay the price (there are some things that are worth living and dying for), etc.

Was Jesus also wrong about some things? Almost certainly. He was a man. It is quite possible that he shared the end-times views of many people in his day and believed that God was about to intervene. He may have even believed that his actions were going to help usher in that moment. If so, he was wrong, just as countless humans have been through the ages.

It is not a deal-breaker for me, because I don't believe in supernatural deities or humans who can do supernatural miracles or be dead and then come to life again. It is what he got right that matters to me. And I am not alone among Christians. I am where (or in the neighborhood of where) most liberal Christians are, which is why the God argument for us is a bogeyman. It sells books for some scientists and I guess makes them rich, and it fires up the fundies and gives them another excuse to keep the fires of fear raging, but it misses the point. We live in a real world with real problems, and addressing those problems and making the world a better place is what liberal Christians care about.
Naturally, one of the responses he got to this was to question his right to call himself a Christian.

As for the ostensible origin of the discussion, I think that Moran's demand for a "sophisticated argument" for the existence of God misses the point. In my opinion, there is no convincing proof for or against the existence of God, "sophisticated" or otherwise. I don't know who is claiming that there are sophisticated and convincing proofs for the existence of God, but I would not be one of them. I've said this before, and I'll say it again--God is for me a metaphysical framework for giving meaning and depth to my understanding of the world. God is a metareality, an organizing principle for my personal life that describes a deeper level of reality than that which science can measure or describe. By its very nature, the concept of God cannot be "proven" by sophisticated arguments, unsophisticated arguments, or anything in between. I, for one, could not care less if Moran or anyone else chooses not to believe in God. If one finds no arguments that are convincing for the existence of God, that is one's right.

Of course, some people don't buy that. Some think that God is something that has to be "proved" in the same way that phenomena in the natural world can be proved. It's one's right to believe that as well. I take nothing away from people who find the metahphysical framework of "God" to be meaningless in their lives. I say, when it comes to religion, live and let live; theology is interesting, but how we live our lives is more important.

But live and let live does not seem to be the operating principle of fundamentalists, be they atheists or Christians. Pretty much all of the problems with militant atheism came to the forefront in that online discussion--the straw men, the stereotypes, the lack of theological knowledge and the arrogant insistence that theological knowledge is unnecessary, and the additional insistence that anything that doesn't conform to the straw men doesn't really count anyway.

But the fact is that neither militant atheists nor their fundamentalist cousins in the religious world get to decide for me what my religious beliefs are about.

13 comments:

Samuel Skinner said...

You are right about sophisticated- valid and true are much better criteria.

Theology is the study of God. If God doesn't exist, it is a waste of time. Of course, I still dabble in it- for the same reason I visit Stardestroyer.net- it is interesting to hear the rationalizations. I happen not to be ignorant of some of their arguments... unfortunately.

Atheism isn't about religion. Atheism is about God. It is a lack of belief in God.

God is a differen order of being... okay, you know nonexistance could be classified as a different order of being too?

"Being itself" is meaningless and he was right to call the guy on it. You may think it is unfair- but you do realize it is a nonsense statement. You said he should have been open minded, but even you couldn't explain it!

A Christian is one who accepts Jesus Christ as the last prophet from God in a line that consists of the previous Hebrew prophets, but no other (to keep out the Hindus- avatar of Vishnu... do they have any idea how tacky that sounds).

If you don't believe that you aren't a Christian because you either follow another prophetic tradition (Islam, Judism), don't believe any of it (atheism) or are of an entirely different faith. This is the loosest definition I could find.

The reason Moran is pissed is because people who are Christians but denying miracles is like a person who accepts microevolution, but denies evolution. It is possible- it just makes no logical sense. Why?

Let's think about it simply. The bible tells about miracles. The bible is the Christians holy book. They can either accept them or reject them. The problem is miracles are an intregal part of the book. Seriouly- the bible is about God and he does alot of intervention. People who deny miracles will have to explain why they are Christians at all... not to mention the whole Moses episode which laid the foundation for Judism.

Seriously- if you deny that Christ rose from the dead on Easter or performed any miracles at all, why do you call yourself a Christian? So you aren't an athist?

I'll make it simplier- if you deny miracles why not be of a different religion. After all, miracles are evidence for a faith and if you deny miracles... you put them all on equal level. Bloody relativism.

Uh... liberal pastor, that isn't religion- it is morality. You seem not to be able to tell the differance which is dsturbing in and of itself. You liked Jesus's message? I'dcall you a pinko, but it doesn't have the same strength it used to... you communist. A better point is just because you like a person's idea's doesn't mean you follow their religion. I'm not a confusiousist, even though I like some of the man's principles.

There are plenty of proofs God doesn't exist.
1 Reality exists. A God would not need reality.
2 God is logically impossible. Therefore he doesn't existt.
3 God is complex, therefore he requires design or evolution. Since, by definition he had neither, he can't exist.

They go on. The usual retort is "but he is super special awesome! He isn't bound by logic, morality, evidence or existance like everything else."

Or in short appeal to the special place where all things are possible.

God is a metareality? You are aware atheist do the same thing... they just call it metareality, not God. They happen to be grammer and vocab Nazis.

Well, things that exist have to be proven. Either God exists or he doesn't. You seem to enjoy redefining God... have you ever heard the phrase "words have meanings, use the right on"?

What you fail to understand is if the fundies are right, than live and let live is insane. If all nonbeliever burn in hell, isn't it your oblgation to save them?

Nope, you get to decide what your relgious beliefs are about. The differance between Christian fundamentalists and "militant" atheists is we won't kill you.

It is this "sophisticated theology" that keeps poping up: "I don't believe in THAT God- I believe in something else. Why can't we get along?"

The problems are you are an atheist- you don't believe in God- you just call something secular God. Also known as idoltry, ironically enough. As for why we can't get along... well if you don't realize this you need to talk to Bin Laden.

I know, he is a fundamentalist. Apparently taking holy books and treating them like they are true is a bad idea. Why don't you try the same thing with the concept of God?

Gary said...

Skeptics are a funny breed.....their sanity is based upon the maintenance of their position, or the so-called scientific theories they postulate as absolute. There is little notion of process or paradigm shifts. Even hard data to the contrary is seen to be false. Ah well, each to their own I suppose.

Samuel, that's weak, just plain weak. What right do you have to say who or who is not a Christian? Also, your 'wisdom' revealed here is sheer ignorance.

JP said...

"Samuel, that's weak, just plain weak. What right do you have to say who or who is not a Christian? "

The Church? History? The Bible? Church Fathers? Christians through the ages?

Christianity must be defined. Saying I am christian because I simply believe that, lets say, Jesus did not physically exist but the teachings that are associated with him are pretty "neat" does not make me a christian. You might call yourself a cafeteria christian, choosing what fits you, what you like, what doesn't offend you, picking and choosing what works in the modern world we live in.

But to deny, orthodox christian teaching, is deny the faith once delivered to the saints.

Mystical Seeker said...

The Church? History? The Bible? Church Fathers? Christians through the ages?

Which "Christians through the ages" would you be referring to? The Ebionites, who were closer in their thinking to the early Jerusalem church of James than they were to Paul's version of the faith, and who were later declared to be heretics? Arius? Michael Servetus?

This is pure circular reasoning. Christians get to decide who Christians are. But wait, who decides who those Christians are who get to decide this? The Christians, of course. But wait, who are those Christians who get to decide who gets to decide who the Christians are? The Christians, of course. But wait, who are those Christians who get to decide who gets to decide who gets to decide who the Christians are? The Christians, of course. But wait? Who gets to decide...

But to deny, orthodox christian teaching, is deny the faith once delivered to the saints.

There is no such thing as a "faith once delivered to the saints". To familiarize yourself with Christian history makes this abundantly clear. A statement like "the faith once delivered to the saints" is pure propaganda, the sort of statement that existing institutional authorities like the Roman Catholic Church likes to throw out to justify the suppression of dissent or free theological inquiry. The "saints" didn't even agree among themselves on matters of theology. Early Christianity was wracked by divisions and disagreements over fundamental theological questions. Christianity in the first three centuries did not have theology "delivered" to them. They argued, they debated, they killed and excommunicated one another, and that is how they came up with a dogma that suited them. And then if someone disagrees with the result of this process, if one wants to propose a minority report, they are then accused of being "cafeteria Christians". That is convenient, and self-serving for the winners in these disputes, who got to write the history and define the terms (like who is a "Christian").

You can read my blog posting "The Apostolic Witnesses" for a recent example of where I discussed this issue.

Faith is not "delivered" from on high on a silver platter. This is one of the biggest myths of orthodox dogma, in my view. Faith is an evolving process, it the result of human beings struggling to try to make sense of their relationship with God. Whether one things that absolute truth is found in the scriptures, or in the Magisterium, it makes no difference--both forms of faith think that faith is somehow "delivered" complete and final from God. It just doesn't work that way, but it is a convenient way of trying to end debates.

Connor said...

You should check out the book "I don't believe in atheists" by Chris Hedges. It is not an attack on atheism but a critique of what some refer to as the "New Atheists."

Mystical Seeker said...

Gary,

heir sanity is based upon the maintenance of their position, or the so-called scientific theories they postulate as absolute.

Yes, there is definitely an attachment to absolutism there. Not to sound like a broken record, but this does strongly resemble the absolutism of religious fundamentalism. The idea that Samuel Skinner expressed that you can't be a Christian unless you accept all the miracle stories as being literally true--well those exact words could have been spoken by a fundamentalist Christian. It is truly amazing how often you see the exact some arguments being touted by militant atheists that fundamentalists use.

Mystical Seeker said...

Conor,

I just found an with Chris Hedges. I'll check him out.

Frank said...

Faith is not "delivered" from on high on a silver platter. This is one of the biggest myths of orthodox dogma, in my view. Faith is an evolving process, it the result of human beings struggling to try to make sense of their relationship with God.

Absolutely not. You are committing the same error as the fundamentalist-atheists you describe. Orthodox theology is not the same as fundamentalist theology. Their difference is not a matter of degree. You are confusing the two.

In this instance, orthodoxy sees faith traditions as being in evolution. That's why we have 4 different gospels and the early chuch was okay with that. People are going to interpret through the lens of their own cultural situations, and their theology will be different as a result, which is why Matthew, Mark, Luke and John had to have different accounts. That is the incarnation pure and simple--our humanity has always been respected by God, and our need to make that connection to God anew in each age is a challenge for all of us, not something handed down. The difference is that each age does not start from scratch, but with the breadcrumbs, tradition and (God forbid) some theological understandings of previous generations as a guide.

The Catholic Church especially understands this notion of tradition, partly because it does not see an attempt at reconstructing early Christianity as the ideal. This is a living faith, not a "probable" one scientifically reconstructed.

I just went through a pretty intense round of readings of Ratzinger, who represents reactionary Catholicism better than anyone today, and I can cite direct quotes that would refute exactly what you are saying. I recommend Eschatology, which is a long read but worthwhile. His theology in that book certainly has its problems, but there is quite a bit of unfolding of how revelation and evolution of tradition work from a conservative mainline position. And if someone that conservative is holding these views, then you can be sure the moderates and liberals are only more so (I do wonder if reactionaries can really claim to be "orthodox" in a similar way that fundamentalists aren't really orthodox, but I'll refrain from that discussion for the time being, since he's the pope I'll say he represents Catholic orthodoxy for the time being).

Now, I'm sure you would have some disagreements with orthodoxy over how much authority goes to the Bible or the Magisterium, and how much has been revealed more directly and how much has come through long periods of meditation and study. This is where I'd argue it is a matter of degree.

Mystical Seeker said...

Frank, it is true that the Catholic Church does have a concept of unfolding faith traditions. But the Catholic Church asserts, as far as I know, that once a church settles on a dogma, it is irrevocable, or at least that's the party line. In practice, it's not so simple. For example, the Church reversed itself on the position that there is no salvation outside the Church, as Hans Kung likes to point out. But officially, they claim that a dogma, once established, cannot be wrong and can't be undone.

The basic problem with this position is that is presumes that faith evolution proceeds in a straight line of derivation directly from the early period of Christianity. Thus there is this notion that "heresies" contradict this original faith, that modern orthodoxy is essentially the only legitimate heir of the original faith that was supposedly "delivered to the saints". There is a denial of the diversity that lies at the source. This denial of original diversity is the justification for modern authoritarianism.

There is a notion of inevitability to this concept of faith evolution. Modern faith is said to be the inevitable product of the early faith, and that's what gives you the right to call these differing derivations "heresies". And the original faith is supposedly "delivered" from on high.

Fundamentalism looks at the Bible as a literal source of truth delivered from God. The RCC Magisterium is just another form of authoritarianism that claims to speak for the Holy Spirit, that claims to represent God's divinely inspired theology. Either way, you have a form of authoritarianism that is justified by claiming that the Truth rained down on this source of authority--be it the Bible or the Magisterium. I just see no real difference between these two views, when push comes to shove. Both are ways of suppressing free theological inquuiry.

Mystical Seeker said...

By the way, Frank, you are correct to point out that orthodoxy is not the same as fundamentalism, and I should be careful myself not to confuse the two.

Gary said...

Funnily enough, at first glance I thought samuel skinner WAS actually a fundamentalist, having only skimmed through the long diatribe. Having re-read it, it's quite possible that he (and many other of the militant atheists) are ex-fundamentalists whose rejection of faith has led to attack on the whole idea of religion. One thing that stands out here is the lack of 'soul', in the sense of being attached to mental positions to the degree of closed-mindedness. In other words, there is no place for the sacred and sublime, and any though to it is lunacy. This could be described as the idolatry of knowledge, a charge that could even be aimed at the fundamentalist Christian.

Mystical Seeker said...

it's quite possible that he (and many other of the militant atheists) are ex-fundamentalists whose rejection of faith has led to attack on the whole idea of religion.

I think that is not uncommon. I've said before that i think a lot of ex-fundamentalists change teams without really changing their outlook.

Frank said...

Fundamentalism looks at the Bible as a literal source of truth delivered from God. The RCC Magisterium is just another form of authoritarianism that claims to speak for the Holy Spirit, that claims to represent God's divinely inspired theology. Either way, you have a form of authoritarianism that is justified by claiming that the Truth rained down on this source of authority--be it the Bible or the Magisterium.

I have to be careful here not to let my desire for what I want to be true drive my thoughts here, but I do see a difference. What you describe is certainly one scenario that has played itself out over the centuries, but it is not the only one.

The RCC does see itself as the direct inheritors of the tradition handed down by Jesus. Due to apostolic succession, they see it as a straight line. Theologies have changed over time, sometimes considerably. But they may say that the "faith" in unchanged even though the theology behind it may change. So the "faith" of the early Christians is considered intact and unchanging, which is different than the theological understanding of that faith, which is often diverse. Heck, the theology of the Gospel of John is quite different than that of Mark, but they are said to have the same faith.

I would argue that the authority of the magisterium is a lot more complicated than a black/white fundamentalist interpretation. I think the word "tradition" is key. If you wanted to change the motto of the Boy Scouts of America, I am sure the institution of the Boy Scouts and the membership would feel a certain right to speak to that more than non-members. In similar ways, the RCC church feels a certain right to speak of things of the Church of Jesus since they see themselves that way. Not that other churches are somehow invalid, but this is the one Jesus started (not that I necessarily buy into that in a limited way, I'm just going with it for the sake of argument). There is a belief that the ongoing faith tradition has authority, which is represented by the magisterium, but the authority is not necessarily within the magisterium alone.

The RCC has boxed itself into an embarassing corner in the last 120 years or so with the doctrine of infallibility, but hopefully they can leave that one behind at some point (thank you, Hans Kung).

I dunno, the limits of church authority is not a topic I know that much about, but I think there is more to the story. There is the model of Church as Authoritian Parent. There is also the model of Church as friend, or as Teacher, or as Elderly Mentor. Depends on how you see your relationship to church. Its a big church, and I just don't pay attention to the heavy-handedness because there's plenty of other sides. Maybe that's a coping strategy, I dunno.

I apologize if I'm taking up too much bandwidth on your blog, just wanted to flesh out an answer here.