The "Everyone knows" argument, redux.

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I recently commented on some of what atheist blogger Sean Carroll has written about religion, noting that his concept of religion is narrow and mostly defined by Christian orthodoxy. Apparently I am not the only one who called him on this, because last week he wrote another blog entry in which, once again, he attempted to justify his definition of religion. Here is what he wrote:

When I use words like “God” or “religion,” I try to use them in senses that are consistent with how they have been understood (at least in the Western world) through history, by the large majority of contemporary believers, and according to definitions as you would encounter them in a dictionary. It seems clear to me that, by those standards, religious belief typically involves various claims about things that happen in the world — for example, the virgin birth or ultimate resurrection of Jesus. Those claims can be judged by science, and are found wanting.
What I find interesting is that the two examples that he cites--the virgin birth and the "ultimate" resurrection (by which I assume he means a "literal" or "physical" resurrection) of Jesus--both come from Christian orthodoxy. He thus betrays that what is "clear" to him about religion in general is essentially based on one specific class of religious belief, one that he is apparently the most familiar with--and which he then uses to base a generalization about all of religious faith or all conceptions of God. Carroll claims that a basic reference work definition of God or religion matches his own conception, namely one that necessarily involves claims about what happens in the world; it might do Carroll some good to read the Wikipedia article on "Conceptions of God" and then come back and write a blog entry once he has informed himself a bit more on the vast variety of conceptions that fall under that subject. For a scientist, he is remarkably good at throwing around a lot of unsubstantiated pronouncements about what "God" and "religion" supposedly mean to everyone. He goes on to say, for example, that
Most Christians would disagree with the claim that Jesus came about because Joseph and Mary had sex and his sperm fertilized her ovum and things proceeded conventionally from there, or that Jesus didn’t really rise from the dead...
Once again, we see here the "most Christians" argument. If "most" Christians believe something, so the argument goes, then the minority don't get to be included in the definition of Christianity. (And by extension, if most Christians believe in a theistic God, then a theistic and interventionist God is a necessary part of the definition of "religion". ) Since I doubt that he has actually done an opinion poll of what "most" Christians believe, this is just an imprecise assertion that masquerades as an argument. He might actually be surprised at just how many Christians don't believe in the virgin birth. Then again, there is always the possibility of the circular reasoning that says that if they don't believe that, then they aren't even Christians in the first place.

The real question is why any of this matters, and Carroll himself asks this question:
Furthermore, if a religious person really did believe that nothing ever happened in the world that couldn’t be perfectly well explained by ordinary non-religious means, I would think they would expend their argument-energy engaging with the many millions of people who believe that the virgin birth and the resurrection and the promise of an eternal afterlife and the efficacy of intercessory prayer are all actually literally true, rather than with a handful of atheist bloggers with whom they agree about everything that happens in the world.
I really think that Carroll should read a book by John Shelby Spong some time. Many people of faith who reject supernatural theism or an interventionist deity do expend a lot of energy arguing with religious orthodoxy. But it is not a matter of either-or here; if there are more than two sides to an issue, then I will freely argue with both positions that I disagree with. I think the problem here is that I for one feel caught in the middle between Christian orthodoxy and atheism, and it annoys me. Christian orthodoxy annoys me for the obvious reasons, but militant atheism also annoys me because it often shares the same exact assumptions about what religion is or should be that the orthodoxy does. I find myself standing on the sidelines in the arguments between these groups of people, and the problem is that they are both wrong. Sometimes in life, there are more than two sides to an argument, but when an argument is carried out as if certain points of view don't even exist, when those points of view are thus shut out of the debate, one effectively cheats the rest of us out of a chance to really examine the issue from all sides. The reality is that lots of people with a spiritual inclination but who reject supernatural interventionism end up thinking that this is what religion is and join the "church alumni society", when, in reality, that isn't their only option. Not to mention the fact that it ends up being presumptuous and insulting; when someone claims that "everyone knows" what religion or God really is, based on a faulty assumption, what results is a definition that presumes to deny the reality of my own religious belief.

To Sean Carroll I say--sorry, but my religious belief is religious, even if it doesn't fit into your compartmentalized view of things. And that is why I argue with you.

3 comments:

Scott F said...

I can imagine your frustration. I remember a series of exchanges on Jim McGrath's blog trying to pin down whether he is a Christian or not. The effort was almost exclusively a Christian one. I, myself, came out of that discussion confused. The typical labels indeed fall apart at the edges.

That said, You, Dr McGrath and Dr Sponge are at the edge from my perspective. The "religious" people I encounter every day - even in my own home - are miracle-believing Christians. I live among Christians. My background is with Christianity. I am a Westerner. Christianity affects my government's policies and my societies norms. I have no choice but to confront it in one way or another. The only thing I can endeavor to do is remain cognizant of these filters and try not to condemn all religions as if they are all the same. If a Hindu or Zoroastrian starts making silly statements, however, the gloves come off. I will pry my mind open as much as I can but I won't let my brain fall out.

Good luck on your journey

Mystical Seeker said...

Scott, my personal view is that trying to pin down what is and isn't "Christian" often ends up being a futile exercise. I think that the boundaries of faith are indeed fuzzy along the edges, and that religious faiths less clearly defined than their self-appointed gatekeepers would have us believe.

Kay said...

I applaud your efforts Mystical. For myself, however, I can't do it.

In fact, if I'm being honest with myself, I sometimes feel the way the person you quote does.

As I've been reading "Thank God for Evolution" I find myself thinking "Yes. I agree with that. But I still don't get why you call yourself a Christian."

I don't have anything invested in calling myself Christian anymore, however. If I did, I might be willing to fight for inclusiveness. (I've done so in the past.) But as I've stepped back and looked at the life of Jesus through the Gospels and through Paul's eyes, I just can't embrace any of it anymore. :(

More power to you though! Keep them on their toes!