Evolving Thoughts

Inherit the windbags

Peter Bebergal has a lovely, lyrical and wistful piece on Nextbook, on how scriptural literalism and creationism destroys what is best in religious imagination. Go read it.

Comments

  1. #1 Eamon Knight
    May 27, 2008

    While I’m not quite up to PZ’s level of vituperation, I have to confess that I don’t quite get it (and probably don’t agree).

    First, I have to partially disagree with Berbergal’s antinomy between literal historicity and metaphorical meaning. Back in my conservative Christian days, I didn’t have a problem with seeing an (allegedly) historical event — eg. the Resurrection, or the liberation from Egypt — as carrying a weight of meaning that it could take a lifetime to unroll. Nor, I think, do many other believers: surely the black slaves he cites accepted the myth of the Israelites as being literally true, and were nonetheless inspired by it. As a Christian friend (and ex-Pentecostal, now a liberal Anglican) of mine recently quoted: “All myths are true — and some of them really happened”. Yes, the hard-line fundies don’t like that, and thus opt for a certain sterility in their faith (which is why I early on became a fan of C.S.Lewis, who brought in that same fairies-and-giants theme that Berbergal longs for).

    Secondly, Berbergal’s preferred form of religion seems to be a kind of performance art, in which the adherent lives out his/her favorite metaphors daily (plus weekly meetings to make sure the community is still all on-script). OK, everyone needs a hobby I guess, but I don’t see the point myself. And I don’t see how “religious” imagination is different from or better than the secular kind — except that while the latter merely asks “What if?”, the former seems to be making claims of some kind. So I have to agree with PZ on this point.

    Or perhaps I’m just getting old and cynical.

  2. #2 DSKS
    May 27, 2008

    Came by this via PZ. I thought it was a decent piece, and I’m inclined to agree that the current conflict between science and religion is one more likely to be resolved by a theological debate rather than necessarily a secular philosophical one.

    In response, PZ invoked the following interesting analogy:

    “Put rats on a variable reinforcement schedule in a cage with a button that dispenses electric shocks to the pleasure centers of their brain, and they will push that button with passion and energy and even, as near as we can interpret it, joy but that is a rat that has thrown away its rattiness and has dedicated its life to a shallow, empty abstraction. It is a rat that has found its god.”

    I need to think about it some more before posting a response over there (feisty bunch), but the idea that the rat is sacrificing its “rattiness” seems a little… neoplatonic? Suggesting that the pressing of a bar for happiness is only “a shallow, empty abstraction” seems like a somewhat dubious value judgment for a materialist to make. A rational argument against this behaviour must surely be along the lines of demonstrating some sort of harm that is detrimental to the pursuit of happiness for the animal concerned. It certainly can’t be based on an abstract quality assessment suggesting that scurrying around shagging, eating and sleeping is somehow more “good” than getting a direct high from a brain-buzzer.

    Bottom line is, PZ’s analogy does nothing to relieve my anxiety that even those of use that rail against dualism still have an innate attraction to it, and that we’re only ever one Freudian slip away from betraying this attraction. Which is precisely why I feel sympathetic to people such as Berbergal as they try (perhaps in vain, but who knows) to find some middle ground between theism and materialism.

  3. #3 David Marjanovi?
    May 27, 2008

    seems like a somewhat dubious value judgment for a materialist to make.

    Translate “shallow, empty” as “boring”, not as “meaningless”.

  4. #4 jeff
    May 27, 2008

    Put rats on a variable reinforcement schedule in a cage with a button that dispenses electric shocks to the pleasure centers of their brain, and they will push that button with passion and energy and even, as near as we can interpret it, joy � but that is a rat that has thrown away its rattiness and has dedicated its life to a shallow, empty abstraction. It is a rat that has found its god.”

    I suspect most sophisticated believers would say their belief systems are more complex than simply pushing a lever. They are “sophisticated”, after all. But obviously, they are reading and writing all these so-called sophisticated things because they get some pleasure from it. The same could perhaps be said of PZ. He seems to have put his affinity for biology in second place, so he can furiously push the lever of atheism and anti-creationism. Obviously, he gets some pleasure from it (as do I).

    But PZ makes an excellent point: does the actual realization of ones “religious” aspirations lead to exclusion, and the loss of one’s identity? It could turn a rational person into a blind religious bigot, or a maybe even a biologist into a bitter atheist. In that case, we should take care that we never actually meet our God, whatever lever he’s hiding under. We will all lose our identity soon enough, through death (or maybe buddhism;).

    It would seem that God is really just a focal point, or a point of perspective in a picture. For a believer of any kind, everything in their lives is structured around that point, providing meaning and purpose. But at the point itself, there’s nothing.

  5. #5 John S. Wilkins
    May 27, 2008

    My goodness. Such as response to a two line post. We get PZ’s standard vituperation here, and a rather good reply entitled The Lout’s Complaint here (ignoring the appeal to Mary Midgley, who is an unrelaible commentator on evolutionary matters).

    Why did I post that link? Not because I agree with the author, or believe in the deity they do, of course. Instead it is because the Courtier’s Reply presumes that such positions do not exist, or they do not matter. When as an agnostic I say that there are forms of religious belief that are not vulnerable to the crude rebuttals of Dawkins or PZ, in addition to being called a Chamberlainist (not by PZ but by Dawkins and Sandwalk), I am told these theists are invisible or absent.

    Now anyone who does know the history of ideas, especially the history of religious ideas, will tell you that the position Bebergal (I spelled his name wrong, which I’ll fix in a bit) has been mainstream since Augustine’s De Genesi ad Litteram, and has been repeated by ancient and modern theologians many times. My first year of theology was spent dealing with Barth, Bultmann, Bonhoeffer, and Tillich. But these are dismissed as being, I don’t know, not popular enough or something.

    Whatever flaws the totality of religion has are enough. We do not need to demonise them on matters they do not all hold. I suspect that the basis for the Lout’s Reply is that if they have to attend to religious thought in all its actual complexity, simplistic books like The God Delusion and simplistic posts like PZ’s linked to above, become impossible. You can’t sell a nuanced view to the choir.

    Of course, there are two take-home alternative messages in that. One is that you can shift the goal posts and change the rules of the game and declare victory. The other is that you can realise that strict atheism is an onerous view to defend, and become an agnostic instead.

  6. #6 John Farrell
    May 27, 2008

    One is that you can shift the goal posts and change the rules of the game and declare victory.

    Best one-line review of Dawkins I’ve read yet,
    ;)

  7. #7 Chris Schoen
    May 27, 2008

    John,

    I recognize that there is still a lot of debate over whether or not Midgley “missed the point” about TSG when she reviewed it 30 years ago, but I commend to anyone who has only read “Gene Juggling” the balance of her work, which very lucidly addresses, among other things, science’s claim to omnicompetence over the last several decades.

    I think this is a central feature of the “Churchillian” atheists’ argument against religion: if science is the only way to understand the world, then it’s fair game to require religion to provide a scientific justification. (We’re also seeing this in the recent articles in the British press to make literary criticism more “scientific.”)

    Many of Midgley’s works are available as free downloads from wowio.com.

  8. #8 John S. Wilkins
    May 27, 2008

    I’m no expert on Midgley, but I have read more than her review of Selfish Gene. She is in my experience generally wrong about evolution, but that’s OK, as it seems to be de rigeur for philosophers (such as Fodor) to be so ill-informed.

    As to omnicompetence; there of course are public intellectuals who think this is true, and have been since Comte, but I think that most sensible scientifically-inclined intellectuals do not think that is true, or at least provide solid (if not valid) argument in favour of that view. The charge of “scientism” is a lazy way to criticise science and those who promote science, and is, in my view, a reliable indicator of antimodernist nostalgia.

  9. #9 Dave W.
    May 27, 2008

    I have seen no reliable empirical evidence of the existence of any god, nor any testable hypothesis regarding the existence of any god, so I don’t see any rational reason to think that any gods exist. How is that an “onerous view to defend?”

  10. #10 John S. Wilkins
    May 27, 2008

    We’ve discussed this in detail before on this forum, but if you also think that you are warranted in telling believers they are being irrational under all construals of religious belief, that is onerous.

  11. #11 Dave W.
    May 28, 2008

    Well, for starters I would appreciate a link to the prior discussion. But I’d have to say that I’ve had some discussion on this before, as well, and fail to see a practical distinction between the “non-rational” and the “irrational” aside from spelling. Both categories include some absence of reason in reaching a belief.

    Aside from that, I find it odd that “strict atheism” is being defined here more as an evangelical rationalism than as a lack of belief in god(s), and then contrasted with agnosticism. The ultra-rationalist agnostic, after all, would claim of himself that agnosticism is the only logically defensible position, and once again theists are left twisting in the wind as irrational (along with the atheists this time).

  12. #12 John S. Wilkins
    May 28, 2008

    Well if you look at the tab The Best of ET and scroll down to “Sermons” you will find my previous posts on the topic. The major one is this.

    As to the difference between being “non-” and “ir-”, consider the difference between “non-sport” and “anti-sport”. Cookery is non-sport. Opposing the rights of sports to play on Sundays is anti-sport. Something that makes a positive denial of some topic is anti- (or in this case ir-); something that is merely not about some topic is non-.

    I do not have any position about religion, one way or the other. That is non-theism (in my case agnosticism). Atheists, such as yourself if your second paragraph reports your views, hold there are reasons not to be a theist. This is anti-theism, and is what atheism asserts, whether one calls it irrationalism or merely unsupported-ergo-false.

  13. #13 Soren
    May 28, 2008

    I still don’t see the difference between not believing in something (the atheist position) and having no position!

    I have no position on their being black swans in the lake in the park I am looking at now – Having no position implies nonbelief – so I am an A-black swanist.

    If you are not a theist – then you are an atheist.

  14. #14 John S. Wilkins
    May 28, 2008

    I’m sorry for those who cannot see the difference; I pity their imagination. But we’ve been there and done that, and nothing new has come up since.

  15. #15 PZ Myers
    May 28, 2008

    No one is denying “religious thought in all its actual complexity” — in fact, I would concur. Religious thought is the most elaborate, complicated, bewildering mass of ideas and rhetoric around. It’s a huge tangled snarl of diverse and mutually contradictory logic, all wrapped around … what? That is the issue. Telling atheists that they must attend to all the layers of accreted obfuscation is a tactic of distraction. Maybe philosophers and theologians can take great pleasure in web work of glop surrounding god belief (and, unfortunately, they also take inordinate pleasure in adding to it), but it’s missing the point: where is the core of theology? Where is this god-thing, what is it, how can it be used, how does it inform our understanding of the real world?

    Strip away the fancy philosophy, and there’s nothing there. It’s philosophy for philosophy’s sake, which I can understand you might find appealing, but it’s all a tangential excrescence to reality, far removed from telling us much of anything about how the mind works, let alone how the planets move in their courses. When faced with nested epiphenomena exhibiting dubious linkages to substantial causality, the scientist is accustomed to brushing it away and trying to drill down to the substrate, which is what Dawkins did in his book.

    I have never denied that the Bebergals of the world exist (although they are a minority — the real problem is that theologians typically deny the existence of the majority pattern of religious belief). My point is that even the non-literalist, metaphorical believer like Bebergal is trying to sell vacuum as the air he must breathe, when it is nothing of the kind.

  16. #16 Adrian Morgan
    May 28, 2008

    So, if I understand this debate correctly, The Courtier’s Reply is based on the view that there’s only one really important aspect of a religious proposition – whether or not it’s true – whereas people like you and I place high value on other facets of a proposition – such as whether it’s interesting, sophisticated, respectable, etc. We also hold (well, I do) that it’s fine if some people happen to be interested only in whether or not a proposition is true (even if they’re missing out on a lot), but the attitude can lead somewhere objectionable if de-valuing the distinction between a sophisticated false proposition and an unsophisticated false proposition leads one to de-value the moral imperative to avoid straw-man arguments which characterise the former as the latter.

  17. #17 Tulse
    May 28, 2008

    Adrian, I can’t tell if your post is a satire or not.

    The Courtier’s Reply is based on the view that there’s only one really important aspect of a religious proposition – whether or not it’s true – whereas people like you and I place high value on other facets of a proposition – such as whether it’s interesting, sophisticated, respectable, etc.

    I can assure you that, for the vast majority of religious believers, whether a religious proposition is true or not is the primary concern. “There is an afterlife.” “Jesus Christ died to save humanity.” “Violation of God’s commands will lead you to eternal punishment.” All of these are not just “interesting, sophisticated, respectable” propositions, they are also propositions that Christian believers think have an actual truth value — they aren’t “metaphorical”, they aren’t about provoking imagination, they are literally true.

    “Interesting, sophisticated, respectable” academics and writers may have “interesting, sophisticated, respectable” religious beliefs that are unconcerned with truth, but these are simply intellectual dalliances and amusements. Almost all other religious adherents are genuinely, and passionately, concerned about the truth value of their religious convictions.

  18. #18 Dave W.
    May 28, 2008

    What can I do but disagree? The ir- prefix means “not,” not “anti.” You’ve essentially defined, for example, blind rage as anti-rational, which would suggest that very angry people seek out and actively oppose rationality, when instead all they are doing is neglecting their own rationality. Equating irrationality with anti-rationality is about as valid as equating agnosticism with anti-gnosticism.

    At any rate, I see little nuance in labeling all strict atheists as anti-anti-rationalists. I find little nuance in asserting that all those who are unable to justify theism are actively opposed to theism. By analogy, I am not a professional baseball player because I lack the required skills, but that doesn’t make me anti-baseball despite my positive denial.

    I apologize if all of this is old hat to you, but the links you provided were identical and I was unable to find on my own your prior discussion of the rationality of religious beliefs. I did happen across your discussion of etymological problems with “atheist,” which seemed rather ironic given that the popular usage of “agnostic” is more along the lines of a wishy-washy “doesn’t know if God exists or not” instead of Huxley’s usage or your own highly-qualified and specific definition, which denies that that very question is even meaningful! Some of us wish to promote and spread the classic etymology of “atheist” and reduce or remove the anti-theism meaning so popular today. But if you’re going to demand your usage of “agnostic” is valid instead of popular usage, you should be prepared to allow the simple “without god” usage of “atheist” for those who wish to so self-identify.

  19. #19 Brandon
    May 28, 2008

    John, I agree with the point you’re making, but I respectfully disagree with your use of terminology. These are the “connotation-neutral” definitions I use.

    An agnostic is somebody who believes that humanity is not or will never be certain, beyond reasonable doubt, whether God exists and His exact nature.
    An atheist is somebody who believes there is no God, or alternatively, no supernatural forces. By this definition, to be an atheist requires faith.
    An antitheist is an atheist who actively opposes religion.

    I like these definitions because they don’t use words like “strong,” “weak,” “angry,” “appeaser,” etc. By these definitions, agnosticism is the only truly logical point of view. Not that I have anything against faith.

  20. #20 Tulse
    May 28, 2008

    An atheist is somebody who believes there is no God, or alternatively, no supernatural forces. By this definition, to be an atheist requires faith.

    An atheist is someone who has no more belief in gods than in fairies, unicorns, or elves. Does disbelief in those last three entities also require faith? I don’t believe that Elvis is alive, or that there is a ’57 Chevy in the Oort Cloud, or that rainbows have pots of gold at their end. Do I require faith for those beliefs as well?

    Atheists disbelieve in god(s) to the same degree they disbelieve in other things that are conceptually suspect and/or for which there is no compelling evidence. Does that really require faith, beyond the faith in empiricism and induction that all human beings have?

  21. #21 J. J. Ramsey
    May 28, 2008

    PZ Myers: “No one is denying ‘religious thought in all its actual complexity’”

    Right, which is why Dawkins’ treatment of the classical arguments for God ranges from the mediocre to downright wrong, or why he isn’t all that coherent in his definition of “God” at all. (The post to which I linked is probably funnier if you’ve heard of the JEDP documentary hypothesis, but I digress.)

    It’s why you replace a range of criticisms about Dawkins’ learnedness, some valid and some not, with the not-quite-equivalent satirical complaint about Dawkins not being acquainted with imperial fashion. Actually, the Courtier’s Reply itself contains another oversimplification. It replaces a difficult question, namely how to demonstrate the probable non-existence of elusive beings that humans have supposedly encountered here and there over thousands of years, with the trivial question of the patent non-existence of a naked man’s clothes. Funny how the former question is more demanding of one’s knowledge about God-stuff than the latter. Then again, if you hadn’t made that dubious replacement, you’d have a harder time sending the message that Dawkins didn’t need to bone up on religion before criticizing it.

  22. #22 jeff
    May 28, 2008

    An atheist is someone who has no more belief in gods than in fairies, unicorns, or elves.

    All depends on your definition of god. If it’s the usual god of the bible (or any similar dieties), then IMO yes, they are equivalent. But if the definition of “god” differs substantially from that (pantheism, etc), then each definition must be evaluated on an individual basis. And of course, there’s always the escape hatch of postulating a god that is beyond human definition or understanding (does an ape understand philosophy?). But a god that has no comprehensible properties is not a god that anyone can say anything about.

  23. #23 Adrian Morgan
    May 28, 2008

    Tulse: If I begin a comment with “Myers thinks this, Wilkins thinks that”, it should be clear that I’m talking about the views of non-religious people. It’s therefore strange that you reply by discussing the views of religious people instead, without seeming to notice that you’ve changed the topic.

    Of course the position of believers is that their core beliefs are true. But what those believers who are sophisticated enough to read Dawkins and compose some sort of reply are often trying to say is this: “If you don’t believe in our God, that’s fine. If you want to explain why not, that’s fine. But please don’t insult us by portraying our beliefs as though they were much simpler and less reasonable than they really are.

    I’ll give you a crude example. Let’s suppose some hypothetical atheist declares that Christians believe in an invisible man in the sky (an unsophisticated belief, I’m sure you’ll agree). In reply, someone points out that the overwhelming majority of Christians believe, firstly, that God is omnipresent (so not “in the sky”, particularly) and secondly, that God is neither male nor female (so not “a man”). But our hypothetical atheist doesn’t care. He thinks it’s OK to keep saying that Christians believe in an invisible man in the sky, on the grounds that the more sophisticated belief is just as false as the less sophisticated one, and therefore the distinction between them doesn’t matter.

    To quote my previous comment, “de-valuing the distinction between a sophisticated false proposition and an unsophisticated false proposition leads [him] to de-value the moral imperative to avoid straw-man arguments which characterise the former as the latter“.

    The point is, it DOES matter. OF COURSE it matters.

  24. #24 Mike L.
    May 28, 2008

    “An agnostic is somebody who believes that humanity is not or will never be certain, beyond reasonable doubt, whether God exists and His exact nature.”

    It would be interesting to ask agnostics how they know that exactly. Indeed, they accuse atheists of merely assuming that gods don’t exist, and then they turn around and make the claim that there is no way to be certain whether gods exist. I’d like to know how they’ve reached this conclusion, particularly as many belivers would disagree with this.

    To be logically constitant, agnostics would have to apply agnosticism to agnosticism itself. Since you can’t know for certain that you can’t know for certain whether gods exist, then agnosticism shoots itself in the foot. Unless you apply the good ol’ double standard fallacy.

    Also interesting is this tendency agnostics have to be atheists with regards to the gods of different cultures (like hinduism) or ancient cultures (like Greek polytheism – funny how they can know for certain these gods don’t exist, eh?) but when it comes to the god of THEIR culture (read: judeo-christian), then you must refrain from having a position. ;-)

    To John Wilkins: The reason one doesn’t believe in gods has no relevence. If you’re without a car, you’re without a car, whether it is because you can’t afford one or because you don’t want to pollute the atmosphere. If you try to create a relevence, that’s because you don’t want to call yourself an atheist. That’s your right, of course, but know that this hurts your reputation as it makes you come across as dishonest. With your intelligence and your education, you know very well that atheism/theism belong in one category (metaphysics) and agnosticism in another (epistemology).

  25. #25 xJane
    May 28, 2008

    It is indeed “lovely, lyrical and wistful”. But so are the poems of William Blake. Beauty does not make something true. (See: Unicorns.)

  26. #26 John S. Wilkins
    May 28, 2008

    Beauty does not make something true

    Nor did I ever suggest that it did. But since the claim was that this kind of theism is rare and/or uninfluential and therefore the Courtier’s Reply applied to all religion that counted, I thought it a good thing to bring to the attention of the critics.

  27. #27 Tulse
    May 29, 2008

    Tulse: If I begin a comment with “Myers thinks this, Wilkins thinks that”, it should be clear that I’m talking about the views of non-religious people. It’s therefore strange that you reply by discussing the views of religious people instead, without seeming to notice that you’ve changed the topic.

    Odd, I didn’t see that quoted comment. And it seemed clear to me you were talking about the religious and the nature of their beliefs, which I addressed. As to your substantive claim:

    what those believers who are sophisticated enough to read Dawkins and compose some sort of reply are often trying to say is this: “If you don’t believe in our God, that’s fine. If you want to explain why not, that’s fine. But please don’t insult us by portraying our beliefs as though they were much simpler and less reasonable than they really are.”

    Sure that’s what they’re saying, but that doesn’t mean their beliefs regarding god’s existence aren’t simple and unreasonable. The point that Dawkins and Myers both make is that sophisticated theology generally isn’t about the existence of the divine, but rather about its nature. Arguments for the existence of god(s) aren’t that subtle, or that difficult to refute, and no amount of name-dropping famous theologians will change that. The courtiers can complain all they want, but talking of invisible finery will get you nowhere.

    the overwhelming majority of Christians believe, firstly, that God is omnipresent (so not “in the sky”, particularly) and secondly, that God is neither male nor female (so not “a man”).

    I am willing to bet that the overwhelming majority of Christians would disagree with you on the latter (He’s God the Father, remember?).

    But our hypothetical atheist doesn’t care. He thinks it’s OK to keep saying that Christians believe in an invisible man in the sky, on the grounds that the more sophisticated belief is just as false as the less sophisticated one, and therefore the distinction between them doesn’t matter.

    And for the purposes of determining the truth of the belief, it doesn’t. You’re welcome to ponder an omnipresent, genderless invisible friend instead of a male sky fairy, but the arguments for the existence of either are the same. The crudity or sophistication of the conception of god says nothing about the crudity or sophistication regarding the arguments for his/her/its existence. That’s the whole thrust of The Courtier’s Reply — you can talk all you want about how sophisticated your notion of god is, but such sophistication doesn’t matter when talking about existence.

    In any case, I really don’t understand your point, as you seem to grant that such religious beliefs may well be false. And honestly, that’s all I care about, the truth or falsity of such claims, because that is precisely the matter in contention.

  28. #28 Adrian Morgan
    May 29, 2008

    The point that Dawkins and Myers both make is that sophisticated theology generally isn’t about the existence of the divine, but rather about its nature.

    Quite often, sophisticated theology is about its internal consistency. It addresses questions such as how to reconcile the concept of prayer with the concept of God’s omniscience, or how to reconcile the observed universe with the concept of a perfectly moral Creator. The answers might or might not be satisfying, of course, but it certainly addresses them.

    Sophisticated theology might well be false, and for the purposes of this discussion I’m assuming it is. However, I do find it respectable.

    Discussing this further would take us too far off-topic, so I think we should leave it there. I feel that I’ve made my point.

    the overwhelming majority of Christians believe, firstly, that God is omnipresent (so not “in the sky”, particularly) and secondly, that God is neither male nor female (so not “a man”).

    I am willing to bet that the overwhelming majority of Christians would disagree with you on the latter (He’s God the Father, remember?).

    And I would take you on without hesitation. I contend that the proportion of Christians who believe God is male is vanishingly small – virtually non-existent. Heck, in my experience even the majority of fundamentalists don’t believe that God is male, let alone mainstream Christians.

  29. #29 Tulse
    May 29, 2008
    I am willing to bet that the overwhelming majority of Christians would disagree with you on the latter (He’s God the Father, remember?).

    And I would take you on without hesitation. I contend that the proportion of Christians who believe God is male is vanishingly small – virtually non-existent.

    It’s a shame we can’t arrange an actual bet, because I’d be holding your money right now:

    “A majority of people think God is male [...] Only 1% of people think of God as female, with 62% considering God to be male, the online survey conducted earlier this month of 1,050 adults in Britain found.”

    “When questioned on whether God is male or female, 36 per cent of respondents said they think God is male, 37 per cent said neither male nor female and 10 per cent said ‘both male and female.’ Only one per cent think of God as a female, according to the poll.”

    Ain’t data great? (And Google is your friend.)

  30. #30 Eamon Knight
    May 29, 2008

    The point that Dawkins and Myers both make is that sophisticated theology generally isn’t about the existence of the divine, but rather about its nature. Arguments for the existence of god(s) aren’t that subtle, or that difficult to refute, and no amount of name-dropping famous theologians will change that.

    But surely at some point discussions about the nature of an entity do impinge on the question of its existence, ie. *this* god certainly does not exist, but *that* one may. And it isn’t clear to me that all or most of modern “sophisticated” religionists are claiming devotion to anything like a traditional kind of Abrahamic God (ie. an immaterial intelligence who runs the universe). Now, I have to admit that I haven’t done a systematic survey of the field of modern religious thought — partly because much of what I have read bogs down quickly in vagueness or incomprehensibility. However, I haven’t yet tried hard enough to satisfy myself that the fault is in their thinking, rather than my comprehension.

    In the mean time, I’m quite happy to call myself an atheist, because that is my best considered response to the god-concepts most current in the wider culture.

  31. #31 Tulse
    May 29, 2008

    But surely at some point discussions about the nature of an entity do impinge on the question of its existence, ie. *this* god certainly does not exist, but *that* one may.

    I’d argue that the specifics for the most part aren’t relevant. Sure, there may be arguments against the existence of specific gods that involve specific contradictions in the way their characteristics are defined, but the point of The Courtier’s Reply is that there are also very general arguments against pretty much any supernatural entity that we would call “god”, and that none of these general arguments are undercut by complexities of theological thought. That’s not to say that the arguments are necessarily true, just that issues involved in most theological discussions aren’t relevant.

    And it isn’t clear to me that all or most of modern “sophisticated” religionists are claiming devotion to anything like a traditional kind of Abrahamic God (ie. an immaterial intelligence who runs the universe).

    It isn’t clear to me that modern “sophisticated” religionists make up anything other than a most minute portion of the faithful. I’m pretty pragmatic about this issue — if you want to be a wishy-washy deist, or see religion as a useful myth that provides meaning, that’s fine by me. But in the meantime, people who also call themselves religious are removing evolution from schools, fighting abortion and stem cell research, and trying to get gay marriage outlawed. They’re the ones I’m concerned about, not those for whom “religion” is actually some intellectual exercise devoid of real belief in a supernatural being who currently interacts with the world.

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