Category Archives: Misunderstanding Theology

Debating with Caricatures

terry-bennett-006I’d like to start this post by agreeing with the New Atheists. So, please pay attention, this doesn’t happen very often:

I completely agree that the god they don’t believe in is a silly and monstrous concept, and that no one should believe it.

If there are any theists out there who actually believe in the kind of religion the New Atheists attack, I urge such people to abandon those beliefs for a less barbaric, anachronistic, and cartoonishly silly understanding of what Christian theologians have actually said.

And, of course, to the New Atheists themselves, I would urge them to learn something about what theologians have said and address that before making vast pronouncements about religion in general.

We hardly needed Richard Dawkins to figure out that the Westboro Baptist Church has some silly and unethical beliefs. If the New Atheists think they have something to say about the rest of theists, they are free to share, but simply assuming that our beliefs are the same as the Westboro Baptists is more akin to bigotry than rational analysis.

I’ve had it put to me that atheists don’t make claims about the particulars of belief–that they only respond to what theists claim. In response, I offer the bulk of the New Atheist literature. Christopher Hitchens demanding that religious people don’t doubt, Dawkins presenting an argument for atheism which assumes that God is a composite object, made out of physical parts and flying around in space somewhere, Harris insisting that Christians revere death itself (as opposed to respecting those who are willing to sacrifice their lives).

And so on it goes. I’ve been told a large number of things about what I believe by atheists who, by all accounts, haven’t a clue what I actually believe: what it means to speak of the non-natural as something altogether different from the physical, how explanations of the physical traits of systems are distinct from the question of whether or not those same things have traits of a different sort, and why there isn’t the slightest shred of scientific evidence in favor of the New Atheists’ conclusions along these lines.

And trying to correct this misinformation, to explain my actual beliefs, is met only with more demands that I prove the truth of precisely those views that I don’t believe in. That is, the fans of Dawkins loudly demand that I prove that there’s some physical, composite thing in space called ‘god’, or some other such inanity.

Whatever one calls this approach, it is not intellectual, open-minded, or interested in furthering knowledge. It is, to put it gently, mind-numbingly dense. On the one hand, it dismisses anything too difficult or abstract as not to be discussed–not refuted or dealt with, just the sort of thing that’s too hard to think about. On the other, it refuses to give up the adolescent demand that it has somehow found found the answer to all truth claims in a ridiculously simple formula.

Nearly all its attempts at argumentation take the form: “Rhetorically, religion sounds silly by the end of this sentence. Now, let’s quickly halt all thinking right there.”

Those who don’t take such an approach, who are actually trying to understand the claims of the world’s great religions, never fall into the anti-intellectual trap of thinking that repeating an internet meme settles a centuries-old debate.

I appreciate those sorts, whether they are atheist or theist, and urge everyone who engages on these issues to address what people actually believe. Whatever the emotional benefits of shredding straw-men, it accomplishes nothing of value.

If You Redefine Christianity, it’s Ridiculous

redefineIn my time discussing apologetics, I’ve encountered two types of atheists:

1. Those who don’t, at the end of the day, believe religious claims, but consider theism a respectable position worthy of serious consideration.

2. Those who know almost nothing about theism outside of wild distortions and straw men.

One such distortion, that comes up semi-regularly, is the patently false claim that Christianity holds that “God sacrificed himself to himself”. Usually, it is followed with intimations that God threatens people with Hell, as well as the insistence that this is the basis of Christianity.

With all due respect to those who believe such claims, this is borne of a deep ignorance of the facts.

Personally, I don’t believe that there is anything wrong with being ignorant, so long as one is willing to learn. Its entirely possible that the second sort of atheist could become the first sort simply by availing his or her self of the writings of actual theologians.

Those that do will find that, according to Christian theology, Christ was indeed a sacrifice, but not remotely “to himself”. That is, he was not a ritual sacrifice, but rather a sacrifice in the same sense that a soldier might sacrifice his life in battle.

Such a person would not be sacrificing “to” something, but rather “for” something (such as freedom or some other cause).

Christ, according to Christians, sacrificed himself to bridge the infinite gap between a perfect God and a finite, fallible species. This wasn’t remotely because God, personally, wanted a sacrifice, it was because (among other things) the distance was so great.

Bridging such a gap, and forgiving great wrongs, is always extraordinarily painful. It is always an act of sacrifice.

It is also well within mainline Christian teachings that Christ died not merely to suffer for us, but to suffer with us. That is part of bridging the gap in any relationship, after all. I’ve even read essays from black Christians who claim that they love Christ not so much because he died for them, but because he was, in effect, lynched. He knew what it was like to suffer under an unjust socio-political system.

Much, much more could be said, but it already seems obvious enough that the common internet meme is far too glib.

It is less so, however, than the even more common claim about threats of Hell. I can’t imagine that the idea that Christianity is a religion of forgiveness is an obscure fact. Yet I run across people who confidently claim that the threat of Hell is the motivation for good behavior to be found in Christianity.

But, as I’ve already written about the actual motivator, I’ll simply respond by wondering how someone who doesn’t seem even to know that Christianity offers forgiveness can claim to know anything at all substantial about the religion, let alone seen through it.

These kinds of claims are no part of what Christian theologians have claimed. Much less are they the basis of the religion. One can believe, or disbelieve. But, what one can’t do, if one is to be rational, is claim that these silly straw men have anything to do with Christianity.

Religion, Naturally

Beauty-of-nature-random-4884759-1280-800As with his previous comment on the histories of religion, I largely agree with Mackie when he turns to the question of what the origin of religion says about the truth of theism.

His answer: It says very little.

He rightly sees, as many in our current culture do not, that explaining the appearance of an idea does not tell us whether or not that idea is true. This is the classic genetic fallacy, after all. It may or may not be true that “you only believe in x because of your personal motivations”, but that tells us nothing about whether or not “x” is true. Mackie sees this, and dismisses the idea that natural histories of religion are, in themselves, reasons to reject the truth of theism.

He goes on, however, to argue that these can be used as a counter to the idea that the existence of religion cannot be explained apart from supernatural intervention.

Again, I agree with him, though I’m left wondering who it is that Mackie thinks has given this argument. He does not tell us, and even goes so far as to complain that theists often point out a fact that runs counter to it: that humans have a natural psychological desire for God.

Of course we do. And this should have signaled Mackie that theists, with very few exceptions, have never argued that the natural desire for God is itself in need of a supernatural explanation.

Mackie seems to think otherwise, and Daniel Denett dutifully informs us that the natural desire for God is a desire for God that is natural–as if that were a revolutionary concept.

In this, and many other places, it seems that those who argue against the truth of theism tend to have a very weak understanding of what theists are actually claiming.

If I’m Guilty, it’s Your Fault

Passing blame for guiltIn making a case against theism, Mackie offers a side comment that I think is worth attention–if only because so many keep making it.

That is, Mackie suggests that religions themselves create the very sense of guilt they claim to cure–and that the relief and elation they offer do not adequately compensate for this pain.

As in nearly every case, Mackie merely suggests this, making it unclear whether he’s actually claiming it (without defending the idea) or simply mentioning it in passing. It isn’t until the end of each section, when he often declares that a line of argument is completely defeated, that it becomes clear that he was actually making claims.

But others have been quite a bit more bold in making this accusation of religious traditions, if no more able to make a legitimate case for it.

Of course there are particular religious groups, sects, and leaders that have done this very thing. I don’t know of anyone who denies that guilt has been abused.

But to say that this is somehow universal strikes me as completely strange–and I’ve never seen a legitimate psychological study which supports the idea that religion in general increases feelings of guilt.

In fact, it’s pretty obvious that all thoughtful people realize that we can and should be much better than we are. It only makes sense that our belief systems will reflect this fact.

I suspect that part of the problem here is simple appeal to novelty. The common-sense idea that people aren’t as good as we should be just isn’t as exciting as conspiracy theories about evil Popes wringing their hands in glee over causing pain. But there is, I think, at least one more factor.

We happen to be living in a time where guilt is often scorned as one of the great evils. Like all eras, we make a point to remember those times and places which best illustrate our beliefs. We know all about excesses and abuses of guilt. We seem to almost studiously ignore the fact that a lack of guilt is also very dangerous.

Though it would be healthier to seek a balance here, it is much more in line with the popular narrative to demand that guilt is some unnatural thing foisted upon us by religion. But those who demand evidence before believing a thing should reject that view out of hand.


Plug: The Experience of God

If you’ve not already heard the buzz about David Bentley Hart’s “The Experience of God”, be sure to have a look. It is a book worth reading: both for the thoughtful theist who wants to draw clear lines of distinction as to what she means by asserting that God exists, and for the thoughtful atheist who wishes to know exactly what it is that she’s rejecting.

Hart takes the New Atheists to task for their deep misunderstandings of what theists actually claim–and points out that their arguments all hang on making these errors.

I don’t, of course, agree with everything that Hart writes (I suspect it would worry him if I did), but he’s definitely right about this much: the current, often shrill, popular debates over theism are only very rarely ever talking about God at all.

God, as educated theists have always understood him, has simply been ignored–and thoughtful people will seek to rectify this in their own thinking.

Forget the Experts; What do the Most Ignorant People Think?

bad-teacher-filmI’ll continue to clarify the difference between a transcendent God and the basically physical god that many atheists think Christianity teaches (or try my best to clarify, anyway).

In the mean time, I’d like to move on to another very common misunderstanding among the New Atheists:

If you’re dismissing a more academic version of theism by claiming that “most” Christians see God the way you do, you aren’t talking about Christianity.

There are essentially three reasons for this.

First, it isn’t true.

It may be true that “most” Christians don’t see God in exactly the way I do. In fact, I expect that each of us has our own unique perspective. But I’m not sure how the atheist knows that his/her view is any better a representation of what the average theist believes.

I’ve never heard a theist affirm the idea that God is flying around in space somewhere, that he’s a complex arrangement of physical parts (as Richard Dawkins assumes without giving a reason), that he’s humanoid, or most any of the descriptors that New Atheists delight in mocking.

Really what “most Christians” seems to mean here isn’t actually most Christians. It isn’t even “Jerry Falwell” (bad as that would be), but “what Jerry Falwell’s opponents take him to be saying”.

Yes, if you ask the typical Christian “do you believe in a literal God, heaven, hell, angels, etc?”, she’s likely to answer in the affirmative. But this doesn’t contradict anything I’ve said.

To do that, you’d have to follow up with an “And by ‘literal’, I mean ‘physical’. Do you believe that God, heaven, etc. are all physical parts of the universe, made out of sub-atomic particles?”. The idea that most Christians would agree to that is highly questionable, to say the least.

And, getting to the second reason, it’s irrelevant what most Christians think.

In any field of study, most people are going to be largely ignorant, and have some strange ideas. To demand that we judge a view based on the popular idea of it is completely strange.

No one, for instance, would argue that, while some biologists might have a pretty defensible view of evolution, what’s really important is what “most evolutionists” believe. If you ask the average person who believes in evolution if people evolved from the Cro-Magnon, she’ll probably agree that we did.

That is a fairly easy view to discredit, but it doesn’t refute evolution. And it wouldn’t make any sense to simply assert that all biologists do is, in spite of denying that they believe it, come up with more elaborate excuses for believing that humans evolved from the Cro-Magnon.

The same is true for theism. Of course the average person is going to have a less well-thought-out position than an expert. This doesn’t mean that the expert view can be ignored, or is “really” just a rationale for the average view.

This is why Dawkins, who has confessed to being ignorant of theology, is forced to interact with the lay-level view. He simply doesn’t know enough to engage actual experts. And that would be fine, if he were willing to admit that it is only the crudest forms of theism that he’s refuted. It is when he starts boldly declaring that “religion”, in a much broader sense, should be dismissed that he’s making ignorant proclamations.

That being the case, demanding that theists offer proof of the God that “most Christians” believe in is no better than demanding that Dawkins, as a biologist, should prove that people evolved from the Cro-Magnon because “most evolutionists” believe it.

But for the third, and most important, reason: the New Atheist caricature is not the view being defended. The form of theism I’ve defended simply isn’t the view being attacked.

That leads to the very simple conclusion that the attacks of the New Atheists are simply talking past my actual beliefs, and are therefore irrelevant. In general, I get a lot of arguments being made against things that I’ve never actually believed, let alone said.

And, if that is what it takes in order to have one’s argument work, then it was never a good argument in the first place.

The Hooked on Phonics Approach to Deities

fullContinuing on with the ways in which New Atheists misinterpret theism, we get to the argument from other religions. This is a popular meme within the group, and I think it touches on one of their most fundamental mistakes.

So, the topic for today:

If you think “God” and “god” mean the same thing, you aren’t talking about Christianity.

Simply because the words sound alike, are spelled (nearly) alike, and we could draw a few dubious parallels, does not make them the same. The idea that it does usually takes the form of “we’re both atheists with respect to every other god…” or “but, even if that showed that God exists, which god would it be?”.

Or, it simply comes in the form of someone repeatedly failing to capitalize the term “God” in writing. I suppose this is meant to squeeze in another insult to traditional theists, but it really only shows off one’s lack of understanding. And poor grammar doesn’t make for a good argument.

All this is to say that, asked by someone who’s genuinely interested in which particular religion might be true, the question of gods can be an important matter. As a reason to be an atheist, it’s completely worthless.

The only reason it isn’t instantly recognized as worthless is because there are many who simply don’t understand that gods are completely irrelevant to the arguments monotheists actually give for belief in God. Presumably, these same people understand that different proposed scientific theories, political philosophies, and ethical systems can be different–and that we can’t simply dismiss them all because most ideas will turn out to be false, but this same knowledge doesn’t seem to extend to deities.

Of course, I’m aware that it is often demanded that “there is as much evidence” for all gods. But, I’ve been over the “no evidence” argument. If there’s any point in bringing up ancient gods at all–that is, if it is supposed to be a legitimate point, and not just an emotional/rhetorical debate trick–it is to suggest that the reasons for rejecting God would be the same as the reasons to reject Thor or Apollo.

As such, it seems that anyone making this argument simply does not understand why the same reasons don’t apply.

The God of monotheism is transcendent–the ultimate explanation of all things. The gods of ancient temple religions were proposed physical entities, seen as immediate causes of physical events (and so overturned by science in a way that monotheism simply is not); God is an explanation as to why there are any physical events in the first place. The gods are (poor) explanations of the patterns in nature; God is an explanation as to why nature has patterns at all. The gods  (purportedly) exist within the universe, and depend on it for existence; but the universe exists in God, and depends on him for its existence. The gods are subject to moral judgement; God is the paradigm of the good.

And so on it goes. Anyone who can’t see why arguments for God don’t defend the gods, and that arguments against the gods don’t refute God, simply doesn’t understand the basic terms of the conversation.

Nor does it do to simply respond by claiming that these ancient deities aren’t actually scientific either–that they are invisible or otherwise beyond scientific test, as if this somehow defended the point that all deities are the same.

Many have given me exactly this response, and it is easy to answer. If one is simply going to change, step by step, what is meant by the word “Zeus” until it perfectly matches a monotheist view, then one has abandoned everything about Zeus that discredited the idea in the first place. One could, I suppose, alter the meaning of “Zeus” until it is exactly like gravitational theory, but this wouldn’t discredit gravity.

Likewise, this doesn’t discredit monotheism.

What it does instead is drill home how different monotheism actually is from the religions it displaced. The difference between magic and spirit is hard to overstate. Magic is failed science; spirit is another topic altogether.

Of course, I’ve encountered those who, hearing this, insist that I’m simply altering the definition of the monotheist God. And there are two very obvious answers to this:

First is the fact that it simply isn’t true; anyone making this retort is simply unaware of the history of theology.

Second is the fact that it doesn’t, in the end, matter. Even if this were some completely new understanding of God, all this response would be is an admission that I’ve hit upon an idea of God that, while remaining an explanation for everything I’ve said (here and elsewhere) that God explains, is immune to the objections of the New Atheists.

Of course, I can’t claim to be anywhere near that clever. I’m really just presenting the traditional view of God, and pointing out what geniuses of the past have said. But the point is that the “you’re changing definitions” retort is a tacit concession, not a rebuttal.

In the end, one can believe or disbelieve in transcendence. But, if one is going to be rational, one must avoid the sloppy, fallacious thinking that the existence of a monotheist God can be tested in the same way that Poseidon would be.