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Tuesday, December 08, 2009

the problem with the new atheists

Since 9/11, several atheists — most prominently Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett — have stepped up their criticism of religious beliefs. To these "New Atheists", religious moderates are as bad as religious extremists:

Here's Dawkins:

However, the moderate, sensible religious people you've cited make the world safe for the extremists by bringing up children -- sometimes even indoctrinating children -- to believe that faith trumps everything and by influencing society to respect faith.

And Harris:

However, religious moderates are themselves the bearers of a terrible dogma: they imagine that the path to peace will be paved once each of us has learned to respect the unjustified beliefs of others.

They are completely wrong, of course. Dawkins and Harris have absolutely no idea what religious moderates teach our kids. Questioning is an important part of learning, and faith-learning is no exception. If we have a healthy faith, we can question our own beliefs; and we'll be very skeptical of the crazy views of extremists.

Ironically, Robert Wright suggests in Foreign Policy magazine that the New Atheists are the ones inadvertently lending support to the extremists:

If you're a Midwestern American, fighting to keep Darwin in the public schools and intelligent design out, the case you make to conservative Christians is that teaching evolution won't turn their children into atheists. So the last thing you need is for the world's most famous teacher of evolution, Richard Dawkins, to be among the world's most zealously proselytizing atheists. These atmospherics only empower your enemies.

So too with foreign policy: Making "Western" synonymous with "aggressively atheist" isn't a recipe for quelling anti-Western Islamist radicalism.

Now Wright may be wrong. It may not be the case that extremists are benefitting from the campaigns of the New Atheists. But Wright does bring an important perspective to the table.

The New Atheists tend to speak in the world of abstracts, where all problems can be solved by simply not teaching kids about religion. Unfortunately, the real world has very concrete problems that require much greater cooperation among people who may not share the same viewpoints about things that cannot be objectively understood.

Living in Kansas, I have watched creationism rear its ugly head more than once in statewide politics. If religious moderates and non-religious people can't band together to put this monster down, Kansas students will be doomed to substandard education. That's a much more serious problem than trying to figure out exactly who is friendlier toward extremists.

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Tuesday, June 09, 2009

"god is not a moderate"

Sam Harris:

Scripture itself remains a perpetual engine of extremism: because, while He may be many things, the God of the Bible and the Qur'an is not a moderate. Read scripture more closely and you do not find reasons for religious moderation; you find reasons to live like a proper religious maniac—to fear the fires of hell, to despise nonbelievers, to persecute homosexuals, etc. Of course, one can cherry-pick scripture and find reasons to love your neighbor and turn the other cheek, but the truth is, the pickings are pretty slim, and the more fully one grants credence to these books, the more fully one will be committed to the view that infidels, heretics, and apostates are destined to be ground up in God's loving machinery of justice.

Is he right?

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Sunday, July 15, 2007

the radical center

Last month Andy Bryan wrote a post, Unclaiming the Center, in which he responds to a friend of his who thinks the solution to divisiveness in the church is for liberals and conservatives to look for common ground in the center.

Andy replies:
Sounds neat, but it doesn’t work for me; I am not in the center, I am liberal. I am an honest-to-God “progressive.” If you are going to label me, label me left wing.

...for me, the solution to the divisiveness in the church is not to artificially move to the center purely in order to find common ground. That would not be authentic to who I am, nor to whom any of us are.

Call him liberal, but don't even think about calling him wishy-washy.

He makes some good points in his post, and I urge you to read the whole thing if you haven't already.

Nevertheless, I tend to disagree with his main point. I think it is vitally important that we do look to reclaim the radical center. But perhaps this disagreement is more in perception than in fact. I may be using the word "center" differently than either Andy or his friend are using it.

As I understand them, "liberal" and "conservative" are political terms that have spilled over into other areas of our lives. In American presidential politics, it is customary for candidates to play up their "liberal" or "conservative" credentials during the primary season, to appeal to the party's "base," then to "move to the center" as the general election approaches, to try to appeal to a wider range of voters.

This can be represented by the following image:

The black part of the line represents the center, and the white parts represent the liberal and conservative wings. Under this paradigm, Andy is correct that liberals (or conservatives) are not being authentic if they try to "claim the center" as a common ground.

But it seems to me that this entire paradigm is missing something.

A few weeks ago my wife took our 4-year-old son to the farmer's market and let him buy something with his own money. He spent a quarter, and got a home-grown peach.

Normally, when he eats fruit from the grocery store, he will eat a little bit from one side and leave the rest. So when they were in the car, and Nicki heard, "I'm done," from the back seat, she didn't expect him to have eaten the whole peach. Yet when she reached back for the remains, he handed her just the pit.

A peach pit is a better metaphor than a political campaign, I believe, for the radical center of the Christian faith.

Here we don't have two fringes at opposite ends, just a solid inner layer with a protective outer layer. The outer, fleshy part of the peach actually provides the nutrients necessary for the seed to grow -- or for a four-year-old boy. One way or another, though, the flesh will be consumed, and only the core will remain.

The core of the Christian faith can be found in the gospels, throughout all of Scripture, and in the ancient creeds. That's not to say that there is nothing more to Christianity than this. The church is one body with many parts, and God calls each of us to fill different roles.

But whether you're anti-oil or anti-abortion, and regardless of how important you personally think those issues are, those are not the essentials of the faith. Likewise, Christianity is not primarily about creationism, fair trade, gay rights, or even a living wage. Our faith may inform us about those issues, but we are almost certain to find ourselves at some point fellowshipping with those who hold different views.

That's when we need to affirm the radical center -- the core -- of our faith. If we cannot fellowship with those who hold differing views on the peripheral issues, we've failed to understand what Christianity is all about.

Unless I'm misreading him, that's essentially what Andy is saying too. So perhaps I don't disagree with him after all.

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Friday, April 06, 2007

talking past each other

In a recent blog, John the Methodist said that conservatives and liberals talk past each other when discussing the virgin birth, the resurrection and other doctrines.

It's true: Conservatives and liberals begin with different assumptions, and therefore cannot help but reach different conclusions. Is there a way around the impasse? I think so, but only if both sides are willing to reexamine the way we talk with each other about our faith.

The Bible is an ancient book, yet we read it through a modern (or postmodern) filter. One of the hallmarks of modernism is to pull things apart and analyze them in detail. This is a major reason our science far surpasses anything premodern people ever developed. We also trust in reason to a far greater extent than our ancient or medieval ancestors.

So even though we start with different assumptions, we still share a number of assumptions that would have been utterly foreign to the Bible writers.

A liberal might say that the resurrection is true, even if it is not factual. A conservative might counter that if it's not factual, it can't be true. To some extent I can see both sides. The truth of the resurrection goes far deeper than the bare fact of an empty tomb. At the same time, if the tomb was not found empty, why shouldn't the gospel writers just skip to the Upper Room? What other purpose can the tomb stories serve?

And yet, it seems to me the whole argument misses the point.

I have more to say about this, but I'm going to wait until Easter morning to post it.

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Friday, January 26, 2007

the problem with religious moderates

Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith, is not impressed with religious moderates. The problem, he alleges, is that moderates don't really believe, but just use God-talk to keep from rocking the boat:

Moderates do not want to kill anyone in the name of God, but they want us to keep using the word "God" as though we knew what we were talking about. And they do not want anything too critical said about people who really believe in the God of their fathers, because tolerance, perhaps above all else, is sacred.

There probably do exist people who fit Harris's description, who value tolerance above all else, but they cannot accurately be called moderates. To elevate tolerance to the point that "right" and "wrong" no longer have meaning is just as extreme as the forceful intolerance of a Fred Phelps or a Jerry Falwell. If tolerance means that we can't make moral judgments at all, then we've lost all sense of balance whatsoever. Moderation, if anything, is about balance. Genuine moderation means avoiding both extremes of absolute certainty and absolute relativism.

Harris's real problem is that religious moderates don't fit into his simplistic view of human nature. He is more interested in bending reality to match his theory than in honestly seeking to understand people who are different from him. Harris bases his disdain for moderates on no less than five false assumptions.

I've already mentioned the first: He confuses "moderate" with "relativist".

Harris's second mistake is to confuse faith with gut-level certainty. Harris would prefer that religious people base their faith on their instincts. He has no use for an honest, soul-searching quest to discover God's will. He wants us all either to know -- without doubt or question -- that what we believe is true, or to dismiss the very idea of God as irrational.

In other words, by Harris's reasoning, "God said it, I believe it, that settles it," is sincere, and, "Now we see in a mirror dimly," is not. But which of these phrases can actually be found in the Bible? Harris can't have it both ways. He can't expect religious people to put their whole trust in a holy book, then ignore the nuances found in that book.

Harris's third mistake is to fail to recognize the limits of reason in making sense of the world. He would like to force every statement through the filter of cold, hard logic. You think God exists? You'll need to propose a battery of tests that we can do to eliminate any competing hypotheses.

The problem is that there are a lot of things in life that are outside the scope of logical inquiry. Consider the arts, for instance. What makes a poem work? Can we subject each line to a battery of tests to determine its veracity?

Consider the chambered nautilus.

When Richard Dawkins looks at a chambered nautilus, he observes that its eye has no lens. It's just a concave collection of light receptors. Nonetheless, it is better than no eye at all. Evolutionary biologists believe the existence of an animal with a lensless eye to be important evidence of the evolution of the eye.

When Oliver Wendell Holmes looked at a chambered nautilus, he saw a stately mansion, a source of inspiration, challenging us to aspire to greatness. Holmes, viewing the nautilus through a poetic filter, saw things a biologist might miss.

Faith, too, is a different filter for viewing the world. Faith does not follow the same rules as logic. Nor does it follow the rules of poetry, although faith can be expressed either in poetic or in logical terms.

Following from this error, Harris makes his fourth mistake, that of not recognizing that people often view the world through multiple filters simultaneously. That's why, for example, a religious moderate might have no problems with the theory of evolution, but at the same time still believe that God created everything. It is not necessary that science be wrong for faith to be right.

Finally, Harris is glibly myopic in comparing the relative progress in religion and science through the centuries:

Imagine that we could revive a well-educated Christian of the fourteenth century. The man would prove to be a total ignoramus, except on matters of faith. His beliefs about geography, astronomy, and medicine would embarrass even a child, but he would know more or less everything there is to know about God. Though he would be considered a fool to think that the earth is flat, or that trepanning constitutes a wise medical intervention, his religious ideas would still be beyond reproach.

First, to say that the 14th century Christian's religious ideas would be beyond reproach today is laughable. The Protestant Reformation brought into question nearly every teaching of the Catholic Church, and gave us a multitude of religious traditions in return. Few if any doctrines remain that are not disputed by one group or another.

Second, Harris cherry picks areas where scientific knowledge was lacking in the 14th century. In other areas, that 14th century Christian might still be considered well educated. The structure of logical syllogisms, for example, has remained unchanged since Aristotle wrote about them. The rules of Euclidean geometry, too, have been known since ancient times. And while it's true that Euclidean geometry is no longer considered an accurate representation of the universe, a person who understands its theorems and its rules for proof is no ignoramus.

But we can go even further. Let's look at one example of a well-educated Christian of the 14th century: William of Ockham. It so happens that Ockham is important to the history of both science and religion. He is most famous today for the rule known as Ockham's Razor: "Entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity." In other words, given two equally descriptive explanations for a phenomenon, the simpler one is probably better. It is important to note that Ockham did not invent this idea, but he demonstrated its usefulness by applying it liberally.

The salient point of all this is that Ockham's razor has become one of the foundational axioms of the modern scientific method. How on earth can Sam Harris call Ockham a total ignramus?

In terms of theology, Ockham frequently clashed with the church. Some of his ideas anticipated Protestantism: his insistence, for example, that faith alone could reveal to us the nature of God. As a result of this fideism, Ockham further insisted that all logical proofs for God's existence were necessarily flawed. Ockham was not afraid to challenge even Thomas Aquinas's cosmological argument for the existence of God.

Ockham himself had his critics, and was brought before a papal court to explain himself.

So, though Sam Harris alleges that a well-educated 14th century Christian's theology is "beyond reproach" even today, the facts show that any theology -- whether the Pope's, Aquinas's, or Ockham's -- was not immune from scrutiny even in the 14th century. Since then, the Protestant reformation has led to an even greater theological diversity among Christians. Harris's allegation that religious doctrine can never be questioned is, quite simply, wrong.

Sam Harris tries to make the case against all religion, but in order to do so, he must rely on several dubious assumptions, and a few assumptions that are simply false. In the end, Harris has proved only that he does not understand the basics of religion.

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Saturday, December 30, 2006

on dialogue

PamBG has some good advice for what she labels "VIII" Christians -- you'll have to read her post if you want a definition -- on how to dialogue with "liberal" Christians.

One thing that makes such dialogue difficult is the assumption on the part of some participants -- and in truth these could be either the "conservative" or the "liberal" participants -- that the world's population can be cleanly split into two groups. If you don't agree with their side, you must belong to the other side.

The reality is that Christian theology is a rich spectrum of ideas, and they can't all be squished into a nice, neat little dichotomy. There are too many angles, too many nuances, to divide the world like this.

That's not to say labels are never appropriate. Labels can be a beneficial shorthand for describing complex theology. If we hear that someone is a Catholic or an Anabaptist, a Calvinist or an Arminian, a Lutheran or a Pentecostal, we already know a few things about that person's beliefs and/or practices. And though these groups have their differences, Christianity is big enough to include all of them.

So the problem is not in labeling per se, but in choosing overly broad labels that don't acknowledge this rich diversity. In a recent post Bob at I am a Christian Too looks at an article by Peter Berger titled Going to Extremes, which examines the pitfalls of fundamentalism and relativism.

Unfortunately, these two extremes feed off one another, each becoming the bogeyman the other side fears. If your worldview allows for no choices but a blind certainty about everything or an absolute rejection of absolutes, it's easy to imagine that most of the world falls in line with the opposing side, no matter which side is yours.

The reality is that each side grasps a part of the truth. Fundamentalists understand that there do exist abolute truths, and relativists grasp that no finite human can be omniscient. It is only when we embrace both of these truths that we are confronted by the reality that some of our cherished beliefs just might by wrong. That realization makes dialogue not just desirable but necessary. Challenges to our beliefs help us clarify our thoughts and refine our understanding.

A retreat into certainty can blind us to the truth just as surely as a retreat into relativism.