Category Archives: Misunderstanding Theology

The Theology of Scientism

If there comes a point when one’s view of an idea is so distorted that one can’t be said to really be talking about it anymore, then Dawkins and his fans have long since reached that point with respect to religion.

But I’m increasingly convinced that it is helpful to go over the reasons why their understanding of Christianity is wrong. The subject is well-worth considering.

The topic for today:

If you’re using the phrase “the God hypothesis” you aren’t talking about Christianity.

God is not a hypothesis for the very simple reason that questions about God are not empirical questions.

This is the most consistent mistake of Richard Dawkins: the unquestioned assumption that the issue of theology is, somehow, a question for science to answer pervades his writings.

It is currently popular, in some circles, to say that all questions are scientific questions. The reasons why this is false have been pointed out many times in the past. Still, there are many in our culture who are so used to thinking of science as the paradigm of all inquiry that they seem to find it difficult to understand the thinking behind logic, metaphysics, or ethics.

But to speak of a “God hypothesis” is no more accurate than to speak of a “Modis Ponens hypothesis”, a “the universe is not an illusion hypothesis”, or a “people shouldn’t be selfish hypothesis”.

God, like many of the things that Dawkins himself takes for granted, is simply not subject to the experiment-observation method employed by science. Rather, God is a transcendent entity who is the ultimate explanation of the universe, not a finite, measurable entity within the universe.

And it is for this reason that God is not a scientific theory. A theory is a general description of a causal chain stretching backward in in time up to the present moment. God, by contrast, is (among other things) an explanation as to why such chains can exist in the first place–why the universe has regular patterns so that it can be studied by science at all.

Nor, to address the tired memetic response, does this make the concept of God untestable or unprovable. It only means that the necessary tests are not lab experiments.

So, whether or not one believes in such an entity, it is no more reasonable to demand scientific evidence for God than to demand scientific evidence that an argument isn’t fallacious. It is the wrong category.

If one starts one’s search with the assumption that everything is scientific, it is no wonder that one only finds the scientific. It would be completely obtuse to conclude that this, somehow, discredits the idea of a transcendent God.

And this is where the New Atheists are often accused of a certain intellectual tone-deafness. They seem to believe that, because they cannot imagine anything other than the scientific (or a test other than scientific tests), there must be no such thing.

Debating Pseudo-Religions

ScarecrowAs far as I can tell, Richard Dawkins has never said anything about Christianity

This is not simply to say that he’s never said anything true about Christianity. Rather, it is that everything he’s tried to say about “religion” is so distorted, so obviously based on a caricature, that he’s not actually talking about Christianity at all.

Nor is this, I hasten to add, because he has not read some complex theological treatise (though he clearly hasn’t). It is because he gets even the most basic points about Christianity (and Islam, for that matter) flagrantly wrong.

I’ve noticed similar mistakes in his fans, as well as their confusion when they encounter actual theology. In fact I’ve recieved quite a few complaints that my views are not simple enough for some to understand.

I’ve long suspected that there are ulterior motives behind the demand that I state my view in a sentence. Still, I thought it might be good to write the occasional post on some of the things that the New Atheists get wrong about the Christianity they claim to have refuted. It is my hope that this will help to clarify, for theists and atheists alike, why the conversation needs to move past anything simple enough to fit on a demotivator.

There is a lot to say, but let’s start with an obvious one:

If you’re using the phrase “sky daddy” you aren’t talking about Christianity.

I want to be clear: it isn’t that this phrase is pointlessly rude (though it is). It is that it is wrong. As such, using it doesn’t prove that theism is silly. It shows us that the one using it is speaking out of ignorance.

How so? Let’s go through the words. (And, to those eager to debate, please keep in mind that I’m merely outlining Christian views, not making a case for them here.)

1. “Sky”

God isn’t in the sky any more than he is anywhere else. Those that use this term seem to be picturing some physical thing flying around space somewhere.

And this is completely unlike the Christian view of God.

That is, God doesn’t exist as part of the universe–or a thing inside the universe. This is part of what it means to be transcendent. While God is aware of, and causally active at, each point in the universe, this is not a physical interaction. It is for this reason that the ancient Romans charged Christians with atheism–Christianity doesn’t believe in gods in anything like the way that they did.

But it’s a bit late to be arguing that ancient Roman gods don’t exist. Monotheists believe in a completely different kind of God.

2. “Daddy”

Presumably, the physical thing flying around space is roughly humanoid. While the Bible does use the concept of fatherhood as analogous to one part of God’s relation to human beings, there is no implication here that God either has a body, or is a “daddy” in anything like the sense that it is used here.

The phrase suggests that theists think of God essentially the same way that very small children think of their fathers. Of course, the Christian view of God is not a glib picture of some divine caretaker or wish-granter, but a far more nuanced vision–as intellectually complex as it is emotionally potent. It would take quite a few books to explain that nuance, but the point is that is a far more sophisticated view than this silly phrase implies.

Again, the problem seems to be the failure to grasp transcendence. The New Atheist appears to think of God’s activity on the model of magic, reading this into all talk of spirit. But magic is physical; it is failed science. Spirit is non-physical, existing outside of the realm of science. It addresses deeper questions than efficient causes.

Of course, one is free to reject the idea–and even to boldly proclaim that there are no answers outside of science. The point is that, if one doesn’t understand the difference between this view and the “sky daddy”, one can’t claim to have understood Christianity well enough to have rejected it.


Plug: Do Atheists Exist?

A great discussion of whether or not humans can really be permanently secular.

In particular, I appreciated the observation that many secular movements can be atheist only by appealing to a very distorted view of what religious belief actually is–then asserting that, because we can live without that distortion, we can live without religion.

Whatever one thinks of the conclusions, it is definitely a thought-provoking read.


Maintain the Ignorance

ignorance-is-bliss-1-quarterThe Religious Education Council for England and Wales has claimed that all children should be educated in the subject of world religion. The counsel wants to start even the youngest students in a curriculum on the subject, and (if the informal poll is to be trusted) most are opposed to the idea.

Personally, I’ve never considered the idea of teaching world religion to primary students, but I’ve long since been bothered by the fact that one can graduate high school with no more than cartoonish stereotypes as one’s knowledge of world religion.

Nearly any time I’ve raised the issue, strong opposition isn’t far behind. The most common response is the idea that a world religion class would simply be a devotional class in disguise.

And this, to be honest, mostly reveals a certain ignorance as to what religion and religious education actually are. Really, this is a little like saying that history shouldn’t be taught in schools because it would be imperialist propaganda in disguise. It is highly questionable, at best, that students learning about all the world religions will be more likely to uncritically accept the most familiar of them. From my experience, it’s far more likely that “exotic” religions will be embraced through these classes. 

But this all misses the point. The potential for problems is not a reason to stifle education. Indeed, this is one of the chief complaints that secularists have with religious fundamentalists: seeking to prevent children from being exposed to opposing ideas. Any platform preaching that it is best to keep young people ignorant is, in my view, on a slippery slope to some rather dark places.

It always surprises me, how indifferent is the reaction to the idea that we’re not educating young people in the beliefs of 90% of the world–as if one can have a robust understanding of history, art, politics, and sociology while remaining completely ignorant  of the beliefs that so often shape those subjects.

I think part of the problem is that many people find it hard to seriously entertain the idea that anyone could possibly want a religious education class for a reason other than to proselytize to students. It simply doesn’t matter how, or how often, you say “knowing something about the beliefs of other people is part of being an educated person”, what too many people hear is “I’m going to try to brainwash your child.”

And this is unfortunate, because it is precisely those who don’t want children to learn who are, however unwittingly, brainwashing children. I’ve run across many young people who are so immersed in white, western, post-enlightenment culture that they have a hard time fathoming that there are other ways of thinking and doing things. Whether or not one, at the end of the day, agrees with those alternatives, it seems undeniable that it is better to reject them out of knowledge, rather than ignorance.

When I was a child, I struggled desperately with the questions addressed by the major religions of the world. Though I couldn’t have expressed it then, I was deeply frustrated and hurt by the unwritten rule that we simply do not talk about life’s most important questions in a place that is supposed to be teaching me to think and ask questions. An atheist, I suspect, may even argue that I am a Christian precisely because, as I quickly learned, the Church was the only place available to me willing to have that conversation.

On occasion, one encounters an idea that, the more one thinks about it, the less sense it makes. This has been my experience with opposition to religious education.

It seems to be connected to the foggy idea that it is somehow acceptable to drift through life without ever seriously considering the most important questions as more than matters of personal opinion–or ever looking into what great thinkers of the past have had to say on the subject. 

Here, one begins to suspect that it is not ultimately fear that one particular religion (presumably Christianity) will be favored in such classes. It seems that it just might have more to do with a certain fundamentalism. A fear that one’s own views will be dismissed by a generation that is better educated than one’s self.

Whether this is true or not, it is hard to see how this is all that different from insular religious groups sheltering their children from outside ideas–something opponents of religious education claim to decry.

The Power of Education

15585Hulk_school_poster_1_Continuing on with Chris Hallquist’s criticism of William Lane Craig, we get to a section on the increasingly well-known Ontological Argument. This is an argument which attempts to show that, once one understands the concept of God, one will see that God must necessarily exist.

I should say right away that I’ve never been persuaded by this argument. Still, I think that some of the objections to it simply miss the point. For instance, Hallquist claims that the argument could equally be used to argue for the existence of a perfect demon, something like God, but perfectly evil. But this is simply untrue.

What the Ontological Argument does show, in my view, is that God’s existence is either impossible or his non-existence is impossible. Hallquist points out that the key issue is that God is defined as necessary (his non-existence is impossible), and claims that all the other properties of God are irrelevant to the argument.

This is simply because he doesn’t seem to understand the argument. He complains that it contains “unnecessary jargon”, but those terms (such as “maximal greatness”) are precisely the key to understanding why goodness and necessity are linked. That is, they are the answer to his objection.

I’ve run across this situation many times in debate. There’s a particular type that likes to complain “I don’t want to understand all those long words, just give me a reason to think you’re right”. It never seems to occur to that person that “those long words” are the explanation.

But this is odd to hear out of Hallquist, because he goes on to show quite a bit of understanding, pointing out the differences between ontological and epistemic possibility, and discussing modal logic with clarity.

To put it simply, Hallquist agrees with the idea that, if God’s existence is possible, then God exists. He simply (and rightly) underlines that “possible” means absolute (ontological) possibility, and not a “for-all-we-know” (epistemological) possibility.

And, personally, I agree with him here. I think this is a good point that is often missed.

This is, incidentally, where those who dismiss philosophy would do well to learn something about it. Because Hallquist understands these terms, he can offer an intelligent response, rather than resorting to mockery and name-calling.

Still, he should study a bit further. He claims that God’s existence being conceivable doesn’t help to show it possible because “we can conceive of a world consisting of wholly physical objects”. Here, he’s clearly taking “conceive” to be synonymous with “imagine”. But this is not the way philosophers use the term.

To say that something is conceivable is to say that it is logically coherent. One cannot simply respond by saying that materialism is logically coherent, because the argument is, itself, an argument for the incoherence of materialism. One can’t simply assume that the argument fails to show this in order to “prove” that it fails.

As above, I’m not convinced of the Ontological Argument. I can see why people believe that the idea that God’s existence is possible is more likely true than not. But I think J. L. Mackie has raised some good challenges. In the end, I don’t claim to know whether it is sound.

What I can say with more certainty, however, is that Hallquist has not offered much in the way of good reason to reject the argument. And I doubt he would have used the objections he did had he properly understood the terms of the discussion.

What Atheists Get Wrong About Atheism

Wrong-Answer-on-JeopardyCNN put up an opinion blog this week entitled “What Oprah Gets Wrong About Atheism”. It had good points, but, ultimately, it’s fairly easy to show why its position is poorly thought out. Let me run through the basic points the article makes:

1. Atheists experience awe and wonder

This is true, and the writer is right to disagree with Oprah when she says that, if you experience these things, you aren’t an atheist. However, there are at least three points being missed here.

First, to a materialist-atheist (which is all but a tiny minority of atheists), an experience of awe and wonder is purely subjective. They may feel it, but in no sense do they believe that there is anything intrinsic about the universe that actually deserves our awe.

And this is an important difference. The atheist who acts on those emotions (such as, say, by protecting the environment) is acting on emotion, not reason. The theist does not need to check his reason at the social activist door. And for those who believe that our beliefs and actions should be based on reason, this is a crucial point.

Second is the glossing over what Oprah got right: God is “not a bearded guy in the sky”. Yes, God is something much more real than the vague sense of wonder Oprah was discussing. But if it is fair to point out that she’s wrong, then it’s equally fair to point out that celebrity atheists (Dawkins, Krauss, et al) are at least as wrong as she is.

And being that wrong about theism means that they are getting something horribly wrong about atheism. It is, most emphatically, not simply a lack of belief in a bearded man in the sky–as they suggest at nearly every turn.

As for the third point, I’ll get to that below.

2. Atheists’ reputation will improve as atheists come ‘out of the closet’

As before, I largely agree with this. I think many people will have a better opinion of atheists as they get to know others who are openly atheists.

However, at least part of the blame for the fact that most see atheists as (quoting the article here): “negative,” “selfish,” “nihilistic” and “closed-minded” can be laid at the feet of atheists themselves.

Not all atheists, of course, but the stridency of the New Atheist movement has done a great deal to convince people that atheists are bitter and close minded. This group tends to rant and take offense, displays a marked indifference to nihilism, and rarely shows any amount of compassion toward those who disagree with them. Much less often do they show even the slightest doubt that they are completely correct.

As unfair as it is to tar all atheists with the same brush, it really isn’t surprising that they’ve picked up this reputation. If atheists don’t want to be thought of as mean-spirited and close-minded, I suggest a sustained house-cleaning project targeting the extremely vocal mean-spirited and close-minded atheists. Personally, I think a “Will the real Richard Dawkins Please Shut Up” campaign would be great PR for atheists.

3. Atheists should emphasize more than the “no” of atheism and talk about secular humanism

Personally, I’d find that refreshing. Any time I’ve attempted to debate with an atheist, it’s only ever been the “no” that they want to talk about. They don’t want to discuss their materialist presuppositions. They don’t even want to claim that God doesn’t exist. Rather, it’s been emphasized, over and over, that they simply lack belief in God and make no other claims than that.

So, if the atheist wants to start talking about secular humanism, that’s great. But I do expect him/her to defend the “secular” part of that. Is it rational to be a humanist without a belief in transcendence? Is it really necessary to be secular to be a humanist? What value judgments can we realistically make without non-material information?

These are hard questions. I won’t attempt to answer them here. But it is clear, to anyone who knows the subject that the “atheists only accept things based on evidence” line of attack will have to go before secular humanism can become a major focus. (And good riddance to it, it was never true in the first place.)

4. Atheists can be spiritual, too

This is the skipped point from the first section, and the only place where I simply, flatly, disagree.

Atheists can certainly have subjective experiences of awe and wonder that leave them with the feeling that life is meaningful. But spirituality requires some version of a belief in spirit, which is precisely what the atheist denies.

To put it directly: when religious people talk of spirituality, they do not mean a personal subjective feeling. They mean a factual connection with a real, external truth of reality that is beyond the physical. The atheist is free to say that its all illusion, but its disingenuous to then say that one is also spiritual. From the atheist’s perspective, no one is spiritual, because there is no spirit.

The article rightly complains about calling things like justice “God”, but it makes no more sense to call things like awe “spirituality”.

What I think we’re seeing here is the fact that all human beings long to be spiritual–no matter what words we use to describe it, we all want to feel connected to a higher and more profound reality than the physical facts of the world around us. Each of us is free to believe that this is possible, or that, sadly, it is not.

But one cannot have the cake of denying that any higher reality exists, then eat the spiritual manna of believing that there is any ultimate meaning in life.

This dissonance, written of at least since Nietzsche, isn’t a problem that atheists can simply ignore.

Let’s be Honest Here

lincolnSmalley, in his “Top Ten Reasons Why I’m an Athiest”, gives us a bonus reason:

11. I simply refuse to be a hypocritical, disingenuous Christian. I could go through the motions, attend the churches, shake the hands, follow the rituals of whichever religion or denomination of Christianity I liked the best, sing the songs, and help with the luncheons. That still wouldn’t make me a believer. It would make me a pretender. I am honest with myself and those around me that these things don’t make sense to me. That doesn’t make me a bad person. It makes me an atheist.

I don’t begrudge anyone the desire to live as they see fit. But the key point here seems not to be a reason to be an atheist at all. Rather, it is simply the statement that he wants to be honest about being an atheist.

I’m very much in favor of honesty, but I think that we should also emphasize the importance of being honest with ourselves.

I don’t know Smalley, personally. Perhaps no one was there to point out his misunderstandings of Christianity to him before he wrote his list. Perhaps he’s all but forgotten it. But anyone who actively thinks that this list offers good reason to reject Christianity, let alone all theism, is very naive. It is based on a terrible misunderstanding of Christian beliefs, and attacks strawmen.

So, no. Being an atheist doesn’t make one a bad person. But attacking horrible distortions of an idea in order to justify rejecting it does make one either ignorant or dishonest. I suspect that it is nearly always the former. And, while that is the less repugnant of the two, it is hardly commendable.

While it is good to be open about one’s atheism, a deeper honesty will offer better reasons for one’s position than this list does. The intellectually honest person will either reject Smalley’s list as a horrible distortion of Christianity, or admit to ignorance about what it actually teaches.

What one cannot do is genuinely study theology while accepting these reasons as valid.