Watering Down


As a followup to my previous posting on Sean Carroll, I ran across another blogger who essentially agreed with Carroll's comments on the supposed incompatibility of religion and science. I found one particular comment by the blogger particularly interesting:

It continually amazes me that theologians like John Haught or scientists like Francis Collins can get away with a definition of “religion” that is completely at odds with how most real non-Ph.D-holding humans practice their faith in the real world. To enforce a compatibility between faith and science, you have to water down “faith” until it becomes a vague deism that doesn’t permit its god to interfere in the working of the universe. And that’s simply not the way that most people construe their faith.
The above quote is pretty muddled in several ways, but one thing I find particularly fascinating is the assertion that any definition of God that precludes omnipotent interventionism is a case of "watering down" faith. How this constitutes a "watering down" isn't exactly clear, but the presupposition seems to be that there is only one legitimate way of conceiving of religion, one that amazingly seems to resemble that of conservative Christians, which involves a certain idea of omnipotent interventionism by a powerful deity. I'm not exactly sure where nontheistic faiths like Buddhism would fit into this strange definition of religion; maybe the blogger in question doesn''t consider Buddhism to be a real religion either, for all I know, since it doesn't involve a "god interfering in the working of the universe". The quote further confuses the issue in its reference to John Haught as a deist; in fact, John Haught, expresses views that are strongly influenced by process theology,which is radically different from deism, since the former entails divine creative activity in each present moment as a lure towards the future, whereas deism sees divine activity as having only taken place as a single creative act in the distant past.

Perhaps most telling is the comment from the above quote that "that's simply not the way most people construe their faith." What's funny about this is that it presumes some sort of dichotomy between a supposed common people's religion of supernatural interventionism and a different theology produced by the ivory tower. I don't know who all those people are who purchase books by progressive theologians, but I somehow doubt that all of them hold Ph.Ds. In fact, I am not a Ph.D-holding human, and yet my views on religion come pretty close to those of John Haught's. So how is it that the above blogger, who incorrectly lumps disparate theologies together under the label of "deism", gets to decide what is and isn't a legitimate conception of faith and God? And how is it that anything that deviates from this standard constitutes a "watering down" of religion?

It is not uncommon that those who disparage religion on the basis of certain stereotypical notions about what religion supposed is, when confronted with theologies that don't conform to those stereotypes, have little choice but to deny that these alternate theologies are legitimately religious at all. Thus the irony: people who are not religious and who are even hostile to religion have set themselves up as the authorities on what is and isn't "religion".

What we see here is an example of the "everyone knows" argument that I talked about previously--supposedly everyone knows what a religion really is. To emphasize the point, it is suggested that a religion is defined by whatever the majority of religious people do--note the comment from the above quote on how "most people construe their faith." Most? Again, even if we exclude from consideration nontheistic religions like Buddhism, and even assuming that the author has some kind of accurate mathematical estimate of what "most people" believe about their faith, the problem is that "most" is not "all", and "most" don't get to decide what the remainder believes about their own faith. Religion is not defined by whatever some purported majority considers their own faith to be about. There is a lot of variety of thinking out there in the world of religious faith, religion is more diverse than some people give it credit for, and the interest in these subjects is not confined to academia.


bdickens said...

I remember bishop Spong relating an anecdote about how he was debating some athiest and the atheiet tried to chastise him for not believing correctly.

Mystical Seeker said...


LOL. I am so not surprised by that anecdote. It is rather telling, isn't it?

liberal pastor said...

What does everybody know about DNA and biology and evolution? No self-respecting scientist would be satisfied with a definition of science that is limited to what the majority of Americans or Brits know about the subject(s). Yet these evangelical atheists are perfectly satisfied with the same kind of lowest common denominator definition of religion. It is such an easy mark.

K. Paris said...

I wandered over to the 'whyevolution' blog and read a couple of the articles. Over and over again it was said that "religious faith" wasn't compatible with science and that believers should admit it.

My thought was "What religion? What faith? What beliefs?" It's not fundamentalism versus atheism. Heck, it's not even Christianity versus atheism.

PrickliestPear said...

Those kinds of comments, about progressive theologies as "watered down," sound very similar to what conservative Christians say about them. "Christianity Lite" is another popular expression with this set.

As if a religion that emphasises believing in dubious fairy tales, and is childishly motivated by the hope of reward and the fear of punishment, is more serious and substantial!