Good Friday and Deity-Placation

Today's Non Sequitur cartoon fits how some understand Good Friday perfectly:

Among our oldest traceable concept of gods are the personalities we once assumed to be behind the forces of nature.

How do we find a way to get rain when we need it, or divert illness away from ourselves? Placate the deity.

And how does one placate a person? Flattery and gift-giving. Hence sacrifices and outpourings of lavish praise at the core of so many religious traditions.

There is no longer any meaningful place for gods that are personified forces of nature. Rolling all the forces of nature, or Nature itself, into a single God, may or may not be better. We can discuss that. But what about the other part of the equation?

We understand enough about nature, and hopefully have reached a point where we can think seriously enough about our concepts of God, that we ought to be able to recognize that the placation element is likewise outmoded. Cancer obviously doesn't respond to our pleas. But to posit a God behind the natural phenomena, who is torturing a person with cancer, and is waiting for the moment when we have sufficiently stroked his ego to relent, is to project our worst human characteristics onto our notion of the divine.

A god that is less than us at our best is not worthy of worship – wouldn't you agree?

And so if the cartoon meshes perfectly with your understanding of the cross – with Jesus presenting the best trophy ever to God in order to prevent him from smiting us eternally – then I would suggest that you give the matter some more thought. You could – at least at times – be kinder and more moral than that concept of God, could you not?

Lest I be misunderstood, this argument does not lead to the conclusion that there is no God. Not at all. But it does mean that the truly Ultimate Reality is not where your worship is currently being directed.

Good Friday is a great time to think about this. The holiday may be associated in your mind with an inappropriate and unworthy concept of God. Yet Colossians says that the fullness of the Godhead can be encountered in the life of Jesus. In the New Testament stories about him, we are not presented with an attempt to turn away the wrath of a God who is eager to smite us, but an outreach initiated by God to those in desperate need of rescue, compassion, and kindness.

And so it becomes clear that, for many people today, their idea of God is not only less than the best we can imagine thinking about these things in our time with the assistance of greater scientific and other knowledge. Their idea of God is poorer than the best that was offered thousands of years ago, in the very Scriptures which they believe are the source of their all-too-human image of God. Do you really want an imagined deity whose anger and vanity cannot be anything other than a projection of our worst human shortcomings? If not, then look beyond that concept, and see what you can find.

If you decide to do so, Jesus is not a bad place to start.

 

  • Don Rogers

    Excellent post Dr. McGrath.

  • Bill Heroman

    Wow. Hooray. Thank you.
    Tell us more, please…

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      What else would you suggest I say? :-)

  • Kenneth Myers

    Dr. McGrath – I just had a new book come out on this very subject; very short (to counter Anselm’s 98 page Cur Deus Homo) and easy to read. It’s called “Salvation (And how We Got It Wrong),” and I’d love to send you a copy, either paper or PDF, if you’d be willing to take a look at it.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Sounds interesting!

      • Kenneth Myers

        How can I get a copy to you?

  • Leslie

    Excellent!

  • Nick Gotts

    There is no longer any meaningful place for gods that are personified
    forces of nature. Rolling all the forces of nature, or Nature itself,
    into a single God, may or may not be better. We can discuss that.

    Why would it be? The strategy of explaining the forces of nature in terms of gods has been a consistent failure, while the reductionist strategy of explaining them in terms of symmetries and consequent conservation principles has been a consistent success. What reason is there to expect this to change?

    • Nick Gotts

      I should add that I don’t deny that such (pseudo-)explanations in terms of gods can serve benign (or malign) social functions by shaping human behaviour.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      I don’t grasp how this relates to what I wrote. Spinoza’s pantheism, to give one example of treating Nature as not merely the expression of a single God, but as God, is in no way contrary to explaining the universe in a scientific way. Indeed, it advocates exploring “God or Nature” in that very way. Where did I suggest that we should expect a change in the very successful scientific approach to understanding the world? It seems as though every time you comment, you respond in a way that makes me think you are hearing voices other than my own.

      • Nick Gotts

        I don’t grasp how this relates to what I wrote.

        What you wrote was characteristically vague: “Rolling all the forces of nature, or Nature itself, into a single God” does not say whether “God” is simply the sum of “all the forces of nature” or something larger that contains them all; whether “Nature” is equivalent to “God” or not. Moreover, you didn’t answer the question your own words prompted, and which you said we “can discuss”: why would it be better to “[roll] all the forces of nature, or Nature itself, into a single God” (than to personify specific natural forces)?

        I’m not familiar with Spinoza in any more detail than Russell’s History of Western Philosophy provides. Russell calls him “the noblest and most lovable of the great philosophers”, and speaks favourably of some (but not all) of his ethics; but Spinoza’s metaphysics of “logical monism” (Russell’s term), according to which everything in the world is as it is through logical necessity, led nowhere in terms of understanding the world. What advantage, if any, is gained by labeling nature as God, if this suggests no change in the scientific approach to investigating it? Using an existing word in a radically different way from the current consensus meaning (in which “God” refers to a being with personal preferences and intentions, but with supernatural powers) is in any case certain to cause considerable confusion, so a considerable advantage is needed to justify this change in terminology.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

          Not everyone considers scientific investigation to be the only worthwhile human pursuit. If an aesthetic appreciation of art does not contribute directly to scientific study of the chemicals from which paints are made, that scarcely seems to me to be a relevant criticism. If you do not appreciate spirituality – even in a fully naturalistic sense – then just say so.

          • Nick Gotts

            You persist in the false assumption that because I see no value in the use of religious language to describe the world, I must lack or undervalue aesthetic appreciation. I avoid the uber-mushy term “spirituality”, which is part of the same tendency to assimilate aesthetic appreciation of and emotional response to art and nature, to religiosity.

            • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

              Well, you asked how religious language adds to scientific investigation, and so invited that sort of response. But such language can and has inspired people to pursue science, and has helped them give expression to their awe at the discoveries they have made. I understand that you yourself do not value such language, but can you appreciate why others do even if you do not yourself?

              • Nick Gotts

                It simply makes for confusion. Look at the crapfest that has resulted from the Higgs boson being dubbed the “God particle”, the absurd arguments about what Einstein meant when he issued his proclamations about “God”, and the blithering nonsense of all the mystical babblers about “quantum” this-that-and-the-other, extra dimensions etc.

                • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                  That there are some people who are not careful to understand what is meant by “God” when used by educated people is no more of an objection to the term than the fact that so many people misunderstand “evolution” (even among those who embrace it in the general populace).

                  • Nick Gotts

                    Come off it: most “educated people”, theist or atheist, use “God” primarily to mean a supernatural being with personal attributes such as intentions and preferences. Ask Ken Miller, Francis Collins, John Polkinghorne, Ann Druyan, Richard Dawkins… Even if you mean most theologians, there’s no consensus on a “symbolic” meaning such as you suggest: ask N.T. Wright, Joseph Ratzinger, or your Patheos co-bloggers on some of the other channels. Hence when a scientist uses the term to mean “the sum of natural regularities, which is really really awesome”, it makes for confusion, and the opportunity to profit from that confusion is eagerly seized on by religious apologists.

                    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      Most theists use it in a particular way, and most atheists use the term in the same way. But it is not a term that those two groups (or should I say that one group plus those who have rejected or departed that group?) do not have ownership of the term, any more than someone can deny the extension of “art” or “music” to include that which previously did not exist. But in this case, we are dealing with a tradition that is older than modern English, and which thus ought not to be denied the right to translate its terminology into a modern vernacular, while if we wanted to insist on some original meaning in English, that would take us back before modern theism or atheism. So I don’t think your claim to a predominance of a particular usage somehow justifies your attempt to wrest the term away from those who reflect the at least as ancient mystical tradition.

                    • Nick Gotts

                      if members of that “ancient mystical tradition” wished to avoid confusion, they would select a distinctive term. Not difficult to make one up – indeed, you could use, say, “Ground of Being” (GoB for short).

                    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      We do use that term as well. But why do we have to cede a useful term to others which has a long history of being used in the way that we use it, and whose oldest usage does not make it a term about which modern theists could say “We had it first”?

                    • Nick Gotts

                      For clarity in discussion, significantly different concepts should be represented by different words. What counts as “significantly different” is a matter of judgement, but surely as between those who believe God is a supernatural agent, and those who currently use the term “symbolically” to refer to “whatever ultimately exists”, is a clear case of such a significant difference. If it isn’t, why this blog?

                      Those who use “God” in the second way are, clearly, a minority and one that is well-connected – there’s a lot of communication between you; moreover you have an alternative term ready. It would thus be much easier for you to change your terminology than for the majority to do so.

                      If you valued clarity in this area of discourse, this would motivate you to change your terminology.

                      Conclusion: you do not value clarity in this area of discourse – or there is something else you value more that you fear would be lost by ceding the word “God” to the majority.

                    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      If you valued clarity in discussion – and valued your own identity as an atheist – then you would not be insisting that Christianity has been almost entirely pernicious in its impact, while the negative impact of atheist ideologies were supposedly not really about atheism and perhaps even more like Christianity. Anyone can do that – deny that the worst examples of their own tradition are really connected with their own tradition, and then comparing one’s own best with the worst of another’s tradition, which they are not permitted to dissociate themselves from in the same way. It doesn’t interest me. I would much rather talk about the real traditions of human beings than the imagined pure ones of true believers which do not correspond to reality. If you are interested in that sort of discussion, let me know.

                    • Mary

                      I would like your opinion, Dr. McGrath, on something. It doesn’t seem to me that Nazism was connected to atheism at all. Hitler used Christain rhetoric to go after the Jews. He felt that he was “chosen” by God to punish the Jews. He was a creationist who believed that Adam and Eve were the start of the Aryan race. Other races were created separately and were inferior according to his point of view. Therefore, he was trying to preserve the Aryan race, not create one. He was also heavily into the occult, and so the idea that he was an atheist seems unlikely.

                      It also seems that the Neo-Nazi and white supremesist organations are usually linked to conservative Christianity.

                      I am not claiming that Christianity is all bad, however I think Nick has some good points. A lot of Christians want to blame atheism for things like the holocaust and rewrite history to make themselves feel better about what happened. I am not saying that about you specifically, but rather this is the case in general.

                    • Mary

                      Pardon my spelling. I am tired ;).

                    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      Oh, I certainly wouldn’t link Nazism in Germany in the middle of the 20th century to atheism! Its antisemitism drew heavily on the Christian tradition, and there were churches which supported Hitler. But to make sure I do justice to the historical evidence, I would point out that there were also courageous Christians like Dietrich Bonhoeffer who stood up to Hitler at the cost of their own lives, and that a “Christianity” which denied Jesus’ Jewishness was radically revisionist.

                    • Mary

                      Thank you for your response. Maybe since I am tired I thought that you were saying that Nazism and the Holocaust were caused by atheism. Pardon my confusion!
                      Yes there were a lot of good Christians bravely battled Hitler. On a smaller scale I greatly admire the author of “The Hiding Place” Corrie Ten Boom (?). Who risked her life to hide Jews. I read that as a child and it was my first exposure as to what happened back then.

                    • Nick Gotts

                      I should say that I did not take you to be making that claim. My argument is not that there have been no good Christians or no good effects of Christianity, but specifically:
                      1) That the historical record shows it to be a ready tool in the hands of tyrants and imperialists* – and, I would now add, scammers; and a bastion of misogyny and other bigotries.

                      2) That surveying the current political scene finds specifically Christian contributions predominantly on the wrong side of crucial struggles, and
                      3) That there is a positive association between religiosity and social pathologies at societal level.

                      Concluding that: the further considerable decline of Christianity would be a good thing, and specifically, a necessary although not sufficient condition for establishing a just and sustainable global society.

                      If you have evidence or arguments against these assertions, do bring them forward.

                      * I would say the same of Marxism.

                    • Nick Gotts

                      I caught you in an absurd claim about what “educated people” mean by “God”, and you have no adequate response to my argument that if you valued clarity, you would change your terminology, so you resort to a tu quoque with respect to valuing clarity – and one which really won’t wash, for two reasons:
                      1) There simply is no atheist tradition remotely comparable to Christianity: no founder, no sacred texts, no common festivals or initiation rituals, little institutional structure, no two-millennia of history. That’s why “Christianity” has an initial upper-case letter, but “atheism” doesn’t. Marxism is such a tradition, but I’m not a Marxist. If I’m tarred with the crimes of Stalin, though, it would be as a socialist rather than as an atheist – there is certainly more of a unified socialist tradition than a unified atheist one, but the branch of that tradition I belong to – democratic socialism – has always included both religious believers and atheists.

                      2) But in any case, I have been quite clear in what I’ve said, or at least, you have made no complaints that actually relate to clarity.

                    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      So perhaps I ought to have complained more? I have found you anything but clear, and you yourself have responded at times by saying that my perception of your stance, which resulted from what you wrote in comments, ought to change.

                      I was trying to respond here to multiple comments which you left across the comments section and which make it hard to treat interaction as a conversation, since sometimes the same ing is said in more than one place, and sometimes different but related things are found in multiple comments that come in close succession rather than in a single comment, which again would add to clarity as well as being preferable for other reasons.

                      But on the main topic, let me ask again why, when there is a usage of equivalent terms to “God” that goes back to pre-modern times, and to a period before the modern English language existed, why do I need to cede the use of a term that is useful and has king been found appropriate? If it lacks clarity, it is due to modern assumptions about the term and its range of meaning, rather than a failure to communicate precisely what I mean and articulate it time and time again. And the supposed clarity gained by not using the term is counterbalanced by a loss of clarity that comes with not using the term, since if it conveys that one thinks differently, it also gives the impression that one is talking about something completely different. One need think only of the use of Allah among Muslims in English. Many think that this is something other than what they as Christians or others mean by “God” merely because the Arabic term for God is not translated. But I suspect that your interest isn’t in my clarity, since anyone with even a vague familiarity with the diverse phenomenon of religion would know that when people talk of God or gods, it is always necessary to ask for more information.

                    • Nick Gotts

                      I suspect that your interest isn’t in my clarity,since anyone with even a vague familiarity with the diverse phenomenon
                      of religion would know that when people talk of God or gods, it is
                      always necessary to ask for more information.

                      In the current case, getting that further information has been rather too much like extracting blood from a stone.

                      why do I need to cede the use of a term that is useful and has king been found appropriate?

                      For clarity, as I’ve already said. Whatever the causal story behind the terminology’s current lack of clarity, action to improve clarity would still be beneficial, if one values effective communication.

                      the supposed clarity gained by not using the term is counterbalanced by a
                      loss of clarity that comes with not using the term, since if it conveys
                      that one thinks differently, it also gives the impression that one is talking about something completely different

                      That’s a feature rather than a bug, if indeed one is talking about something completely different.

                      One need think only of the use of Allah among Muslims in English. Many think that this is something other than what they as Christians or others mean by “God”

                      Clarity would certainly be served by consistently using different terms for the (doctrinally orthodox) Christian, Muslim and Jewish gods, since they do have incompatible biographies and attributes. But I can see that from the point of view of a devotee of GoB, they all look pretty much alike, being supernatural agents.

                    • arcseconds

                      It’s an interesting question as to when we’re really talking about two entities under different names, or when we’re talking about the same entity but attributing different properties to it.

                      I know of two theories (or classes of theories) to explain how names work. There’s descriptivism, where names are shorthand for some definite description of the named entity (so we say ‘God’ because it’s easier than saying “the being greater than which no other being can be thought”, for example), then there are causal theories

                    • Nick Gotts

                      I’ll use “God”, Allah” and “Jahweh” for convenience.

                      They agree about most of the properties that would normally be used to pick out God. They also agree about most of the biography

                      A statement that would have risked your life in many times and places. God, unlike Yahweh and Allah, suffers from dissociative personality disorder, impregnated a woman, and got himself crucified – I’d say he’s quite definitely a different chap from the other two. But then Allah, unlike God and Yahweh, wrote the Koran before getting round to creating the universe, told Gabriel to dictate it to Muhammed, gave Muhammed a personal tour of heaven, and wants everyone to circle around the Kaaba at least once in their life. These points are quite significant as far as Muslims are concerned.

                      (which includes plenty of potential baptism events)

                      Of course the case is rather different with fictional characters such as these. When such a character is written into a new story by a different author, it’s rather arbitrary whether they are to be considered the same character. But when the most ardent fans of each version have repeatedly come to blows over whose character is the real one, and when different names are already available, it makes sense to use them.

                      A classic example is Dalton’s atoms. We still use his term, despite the fact that the modern understanding of atoms is very different from Dalton’s

                      But we do not have two competing scientific religions insisting that their particular version of the term’s meaning is the correct one; one meaning is simply anachronistic, except in a historical context, so no confusion is likely to arise. Moreover, we have strong empirical grounds for believing that atoms exist, and for the changes in how we conceive of them.

                    • arcseconds

                      Yes, there are significant differences. Are they really enough to say they’re talking about different beings, though?

                      At some point, yes, they definitely will be talking about different beings (like the old man who rules the Galaxy in Hitch-Hiker’s Guide the Galaxy – ‘the Lord’ is the name of his cat). And there’s some point at which we might get confused about this. But the Abrahamic religions agree on most of the biography; the level of dispute they have about some of the facts is well within the levels of dispute scholars have about historical figures.

                      (the dissociative personality disorder stuff could be compared with people who, for example, diagnose Michaelangelo with autism and say that contributed in a big way to his work, vs. those who disagree. No-one thinks they’re talking about a different person.)

                      I think your points would get a lot more purchase on other takes on the supreme being, though. The Abrahamic God has a completely different biography to the Brahman (if such a being can even be said to have a biography).

                      The moon-hoax people say Armstrong and Aldrin did not land on the moon, but actually participated in a huge US government hoax. That’s an extremely large change to their commonly accepted biography. Does this mean they’re talking about different people, and mean they should give them different names?

                      The ‘fictional character’ thing only tells us about how you think it would be most convenient to name gods for your purposes, or maybe for anthropological purposes or something. Whether or not a (traditional) Christian is making a mistake by their own lights (or at least departing substantially from our usual conventions regarding names) in accepting Allah and God are two names for the same being depends on granting the assumption that God exists for the sake of analysis.

                      (Even on a fictional character analysis, though, the three characters are more similar than, say, different versions of Superman.)

                    • Nick Gotts

                      In the case of Armstrong and Aldrin, we have simply a false accusation about indubitably real people. Not a particularly close parallel.

                      Historically, many Muslims have referred to Christians as polytheists in reference to the Trinity, while many Christians have referred to Muslims as devil-worshippers – so I’m far from alone in concluding that God and Allah are different characters. But I admit, that leads to the thought that it’s all to the good if most Christians and Muslims are less inclined to use these epithets, and if that means blurring the two characters together, the loss of clarity is a price worth paying. But are any fundamentalists likely to declare war on the infidel McGrath if he makes it clear he doesn’t believe in the same god they do?

  • Nick Gotts

    Yet Colossians says that the fullness of the Godhead can be encountered
    in the life of Jesus. In the New Testament stories about him, we are not
    presented with an attempt to turn away the wrath of a God who is eager
    to smite us, but an outreach initiated by God to those in desperate need
    of rescue, compassion, and kindness.

    The historical record of Christianity does not indicate that “acquaintance with the fullness of the Godhead” in this way has been a particularly improving influence. Episodes of horrific violence and oppression in its name have been frequent. The rule of law, the end of slavery, political democracy, the emancipation of women, the knowledge permitting most people to reach 60 – all have arrived during and after the decline in Christianity’s cultural power and influence, at least in the richest and hence most powerful and influential countries. In key areas of ethical concern today, such as women’s rights, equality for GSM* people, economic justice, anthropogenic climate change and other environmental issues – at least as many prominent Christians are found on the wrong as on the right side of the argument as both you and I would see it, despite inspiring examples such as Desmond Tutu. The underlying problem is that Christianity (like most if not all mass-religions) is an excellent tool of social control in the hands of elites. Even if you could show to the most rigorous historical standards that your interpretation of what Jesus intended is what he actually intended, that social reality would be unchanged.

    *Gender/Sexual Minority

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      I have a colleague who views religion’s net influence as zero – as much amazing good as people are inspired to do, there is equally counterbalancing evil done in the name of religion. But that is no less true of anything human beings do or are. And so what answer is there, other than to seek to live and promote the good?

      • Nick Gotts

        It is also necessary to think seriously about how best to do so, which means, among other things, considering the historical record and current influence of religion in general, and Christianity in particular, when deciding what cultural and ethical framework to work within. It appears to me that, observing the withering of supernaturalism both in yourself and increasingly in wider society, you are trying to construct a Christianity in which one can be a Christian and a metaphysical naturalist at the same time. I think this is a forlorn hope – I doubt it is ever likely to appeal to more than a few – but even I’m wrong here, I don’t see the value of the attempt. Neither Christianity’s founding documents, nor its historical record, indicate that it makes a good foundation for ethical judgements. Its misogyny and homophobia, in particular, are both florid in expression and deep-rooted, while virulent antisemitism lurks not far beneath the surface.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

          It is always easy to spot the shortcomings of another tradition – or if it ceases to be easier, a person is liable to convert. But the other tradition that looked so attractive for answering the puzzles of one’s earlier worldview turns out to have unanswered questions of its own. As someone who has had a positive, indeed life-changing experience within a Christian setting, I am eager to preserve and accentuate what I believe is worth clinging to in my religious tradition. No worldview is perfect, and no worldview has no adherents who are a miserable disappointment even by that worldview’s own standards, to say nothing of any other.

        • arcseconds

          I don’t see any value in New Atheism. As a movement arising in the late 20th century and officially embracing rationalism and other modern values, it was an excellent opportunity to adopt the best possible values, but it’s already seeped in misogyny, racism, sanctimony, second-rate scholarship and hero-worship.

          Having expressed my displeasure over it, you will of course walk away from immediately, and never attend another meeting nor like another facebook page.

          Because what some random person on the internet thinks of your activities is not merely relevant, but far more important than whatever silly things like friendship, social support and shared values you think you get out of it!

          Time to start upending your life, Nick!

          • Nick Gotts

            There is much in your criticism of New Atheism, which is why my main online comment venue of choice is FreeThoughtBlogs, and particularly Pharyngula, where there is concerted opposition to these serious faults – although I admit there is a mythicist tendency – which I have queried and will again if it arises. I’m also involved in Atheism+, the “+” standing for a commitment to inclusivity and social justice. The next atheist/sceptical event I’ll be attending (only the second I’ve ever attended) will be “Empowering Women Through Secularism” in Dublin at the end of June.

            Since James McGrath takes the trouble to write a (very stimulating) blog on the “Progressive Christian Channel”, I have assumed that he would welcome critical commentary. If he wants me to stop commenting, or to avoid particular threads, topics or language, he has only to say so.

            • arcseconds

              Oh, McGrath has pretty thick skin, it seems. You have to be pretty obnoxious and recalcitrant before he’ll ban you or anything of the sort. I wouldn’t worry yourself about hurting his feelings. Just as a matter of interest, though, why are we having this discussion? I’m neither James’s goon nor his protective elder brother come to help him out in a playground fight.

              So, despite the fact that you acknowledge the criticisms of movement atheism, you’re still participating in it, albeit in a new guise. That’s interesting, isn’t it? It’s almost as though it has a lot of things you like and you think you can get the good stuff without too much of the bad stuff.

              As for McGrath, I think a lot of why he values Christianity is pretty obvious. He’s obviously quite involved in his church: he plays in the band, and it inspires him to write music. He also loves the Bible both as an object of study and as a source of inspiration and other good things. So he has quite an interest in staying with the tradition. You might not value those things, but he’s probably not going to pay much attention to that.

              I know, I’ve tried to convince him that the new Who is not worth watching, but he simply won’t listen to me!

              • Nick Gotts

                Just as a matter of interest, though, why are we having this discussion?

                Since you began it, you’re in a better position to answer that than I am.

                So, despite the fact that you acknowledge the criticisms of movement atheism, you’re still participating in it, albeit in a new guise.

                Most of my activism is in social justice, anti-militarist and environmentalist groups, where religion and atheism are simply not discussed. My involvement in active atheism goes back only a few years, and was prompted by the dangerous influence of Christianity on American and hence global politics. I don’t regard myself as in any sense a part of the same movement or community as Sam Harris or Christopher Hitchens (often on the same side as the religious right politically), while most “progressive” Christians, including James McGrath, quite explicitly regard themselves as part of a broadly inclusive Christianity. Equating commenting on a handful of blogs and attending a couple of conferences to McGrath’s commitment to Christianity would just be silly.

                As for McGrath, I think a lot of why he values Christianity is pretty obvious. He’s obviously quite involved in his church: he plays in the band, and it inspires him to write music. He also loves the Bible both as an object of study and as a source of inspiration and other good things. So he has quite an interest in staying with the tradition. You might not value those things, but he’s probably not going to pay much attention to that.

                You express it much more clearly and succinctly than he does! But are those reasons for valuing Christianity to be regarded as beyond criticism? If someone valued the Nazi tradition and wished to remain within it alongside genuine Nazis because of the artistic quality of Leni Riefenstahl’s films, the transcendent experience they enjoyed at one of Hitler’s Nuremberg rallies (you didn’t have to be a Nazi to get caught up in the atmosphere), and their historical interest in the sources of Mein Kampf and Hitler’s Table Talk, wouldn’t we consider they had rather missed the point?

                • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                  If you are saying Nazism and Christianity are comparable, then we really need to tackle that. If not, then why choose that analogy? Just out of malice? Or do you really think it is an appropriate comparison?

                  • Nick Gotts

                    No, I’m making the point, with an extreme example, that neither aesthetic appreciation, nor historical interest, nor positive personal experience can justify adherence to a movement or community following or based on a socially harmful ideology. (Nor, I would add, can social or community benefits, for which Nazism made considerable provision for the racially and politically “acceptable” – if the harm outweighs those benefits, or has significant adverse effects those who do not get the benefit.) I consider that the misogyny, homophobia, authoritarianism, covert antisemitism and racism, irrationalism and science denialism rife in Christianity make it such a social formation; and that its considerable further weakening is a necessary, although not sufficient, condition of establishing a reasonably just and sustainable global society.

                    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      All I can say is that you (1) seem to have read only incredibly selectively from the history of Christianity, and (2) you seem to be treating Christianity as something other than a form of human religious thought, so that you attribute the behaviors and beliefs where it is present as the result of what sounds like it is almost a supernatural influence of Christianity on those under its sway. To me as someone more inclined to approach things naturalistically and historically, it is not at all obvious that it is Christianity which causes those things, as opposed to our human tendencies producing them, with the result that they are found both where Christianity is present and where it is not.

                    • Ian

                      I agree with James that I think the evil Christianity has perpetrated is overstated and unhelpfully seen as something that Christianity has caused. One can just as easily see the evils of Christendom in terms of politics, and see Christianity as inspiring the good. Ultimately, while I think there is a lot of evidence that religion is used to justify evils by those who commit them, I think it isn’t clear that there is causation at work, rather than mere correlation. In the absence of religion, do those evils still get carried out under some other banner. The scant history of non-religious groups seems to suggest so to me.

                      Hitchens, in response to this, pointed out that such non-religious groups weren’t really free thinking and rational. They’d just substituted another dogma for religion. But again, okay, but I’m not convinced that won’t always happen.

                      So there is a balance between a) associating with and giving credence to a group that has elements that are clearly a big part of the problem politically and socially, b) making sure that those same sociopaths don’t get to run the whole show – that there are clear voices for reason within, c) enjoying the community and fellowship of like-minded people who are striving to make a positive difference in the world, d) having some spiritual framework that one is comfortable in that induces religious feeling, e) feeling part of something historic and traditional, celebrating the artistic and humanistic inheritance of the faith.

                      In some ways I think of my many friends who are progressive Christians as if they are sticking with a marriage after an affair.It is unhealthy if one pretends it didn’t happen, or if one tries to justify it. But there is nothing dishonorable about it if the errors are acknowledged, the good is prioritized, and there is a commitment not to fall foul of the same temptations again. Although I couldn’t bring myself to stick with it, I understand and respect those who do.

                    • Nick Gotts

                      Of course Christianity is more than a form of religious thought: all the behaviours, institutions,
                      and artifacts produced in relation to that form of religious thought, or
                      which it has been used to justify, are also aspects of Christianity. You can find both good and bad aspects of any ideology or institutional system, but Christianity has a pretty hideous record of justifying bigotry and persecution, and of poisonous misogyny. Since achieving state power in the 4th century, Christians have a long and bloody record of imprisoning, torturing and killing both non-Christians and each other in the name of their beliefs. While most mass religions, and many secular ideologies, persecute, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Christianity has the longest consistent record of such behaviour. Most Christians today belong to churches which institutionalize the inferior status of women and actively oppose their right to bodily autonomy. The opposition to marriage equality is almost entirely Christian, and antiscience predominantly so. Higher levels of Christian belief and practice correlate with higher levels of social pathologies. The empirical evidence that Christianity is now socially harmful is remarkably strong.

                    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      So you are saying that, when state power and Christianity are wed, we a high instance of the sorts of things typical of the use of state power in those times? What do we see in Communist countries when atheism is connected with state power? There is definitely a critique to be offered in light of the evidence you mention, but your attempt to suggest that it is something distinctive of Christianity seems problematic.

                    • Nick Gotts

                      What do we see in Communist countries when atheism is connected with state power?

                      The operative ideology there is not atheism, but Marxism-Leninism – which, as Bertrand Russell pointed out (I don’t know if he was the first) bears a remarkable structural resemblance to Christianity*. Atheism as such is not an ideology well-suited to the justification of elite power**: the only example I know of it being tried in that role – the “Cult of Reason” in early revolutionary France – was a dismal failure, with French rulers quickly reverting to religious justifications (first the deist “Cult of the Supreme Being”, then back to Catholicism).

                      * I don’t claim it’s actually a religion, as it lacks a supernatural element.
                      ** Theism of any kind invites the elite claim to special knowledge of what God, or the gods, want. Marxism-Leninism substitutes the dialectical laws of history, neoclassical economics the Invisible Hand of the Great God Market (the American elite currently uses this ideology in fusion with Christianity). An atheistic scientistic/technocratic ideology might work, but I can’t think of an example of it being tried, and again, atheism would be at most a secondary component, as with Marxism-Leninism.

                    • arcseconds

                      So when atheist regimes go bad, it’s further proof of the evils of Christianity. that’s (if you pardon the pun), capital, Nick.

                      I also saw your association of Sam Harris and Hitchens with the religious right.

                      I’ve always naïvely thought that soviet-style communism, post-revolutionary France, and the failings of the new atheist community show that being officially committed to atheism and reason is absolutely no protection against human beings acting awfully to one another. This being the case, and also seeing as there’s plenty of good theists have done when they haven’t been advancing the cause of some power-structure or other, made me think that the problem was with the power-structure, not the theism.

                      But now it seems that Christianity is structurally evil, and atheism is structurally good, and whenever atheism turns bad it’s because it’s become like Christianity. So the true atheism, once it’s entirely purged of Christianity, will be nothing like bad forms of atheism, and will be all goodness and light (and porridge in the morning with sugar).

                      And any resemblance to the arguments of Christians that if the faith was only understood correctly and purified from distortions, it would also be all goodness and light is entirely coincidental.

                    • Nick Gotts

                      I associated Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens with the religious right because of their shared Islamophobia; in no other respect are they similar. Of course being officially committed to atheism and reason is absolutely no protection against human beings acting awfully to one another. If you would like to point out where I have said anything suggesting the contrary, I’d be obliged.

                      But now it seems that Christianity is structurally evil, and atheism is structurally good, and whenever atheism turns bad it’s because it’s become like Christianity.

                      Won’t somebody think of the poor straw people?

                      1) I have argued that Christianity has the specific undesirable features that the historical record shows it to be an apt tool for oppressors to use; and that misogyny and other bigotries are deeply rooted in it. Would you care to answer those specific points?

                      2) I haven’t said or suggested that atheism is structurally anything. Copying myself from higher up the page:

                      There simply is no atheist tradition remotely comparable to
                      Christianity: no founder, no sacred texts, no common festivals or
                      initiation rituals, little institutional structure, no two-millennia of
                      history. That’s why “Christianity” has an initial upper-case letter, but “atheism” doesn’t. Marxism is such a tradition, but I’m not a Marxist. If I’m tarred with the crimes of Stalin, though, it would be as a socialist rather than as an atheist – there is certainly more of a unified socialist tradition than a unified atheist one, but the branch of that tradition I belong to – democratic socialism – has always included both religious believers and atheists.

                      3) I haven’t said that whenever atheism turns bad, it’s because it’s become like Christianity. I think Ayn Rand’s atheism is repugnant, and it bears no resemblance to Christianity that I’m aware of; and I’d say the same of the misogynist MRAs currently active within online atheism. The main historical example of “atheism gone bad” is of course Marxism-Leninism. It’s an observable fact that Marxism, although of course an atheist philosophy, has some structural features in common with Christianity, particularly of the apocalyptic variety.

                    • arcseconds

                      Haha, Nick, you are the master of innuendo.

                      In the context of offering an incredibly one-sided assessment of Christianity, you table a comparison with continued membership with the Nazi party.

                      But when pressed, oh, no, you only meant that as an extreme example to illustrate a point.

                      You compare Harris and Hitchens with the religious right.

                      But really that’s only about their islamophobia!

                      While dismissing Marxism/Leninism, as a side note you mention it has structural similarities with Christianity.

                      But you’re only stating an observable fact!

                      One might almost think there’s a pattern here, where in sidebars and parenthetical remarks as well as in the main discussion Christianity is always associated with evil, even when it’s atheism that’s under discussion! Whereas atheism is always excused.

                      But of course, there’s always some other reason for your statements, and when pressed, it turns out that you only meant these associations in extremely limited and restricted senses.

                      And if we get the impression that atheism is never really associated with evil, and Christianity is always associated with evil, then that’s our own stupid fault. And if anyone criticises you for this, why, they’re committing the straw man fallacy!

                      I’m impressed :-)

                    • Nick Gotts

                      And if we get the impression that atheism is never really associated with evil, and Christianity is always associated with evil, then that’s our own stupid fault.

                      Yes, since I’ve explicitly said the opposite more than once, it is.

                      And if anyone criticises you for this, why, they’re committing the straw man fallacy!

                      No, if anyone grossly misrepresents my points, as you routinely do, then they are committing the straw man fallacy. That’s what the phrase means.

                    • arcseconds

                      I’m a bit disappointed in you, Nick, I was expecting a hard-hitting and novel response, or at least a decent dodge. Instead you’re just reciting your own refrain.

                      The thing about innuendo is, in case you didn’t know (another thing I’m learning from you: from time to time treat your opponent as though they’re completely stupid. ), is that you get to take the moral high ground because you never actually openly state your charges, you just imply them. You can even explicitly say that’s not what you’re saying!

                      And, of course, accuse your detractors of straw-manning you.

                      (by the way, I’m wondering whether it’s more effective to only sometimes treat your opponent as though they’re stupid? That way, you can rile them and put them in their place, but pretend you’re actually treating them with respect. That certainly seems to be your strategy. I’m wondering whether a similar thing goes with the occasional thanks. )

                    • Nick Gotts

                      I’ve openly stated my charges more than once. Most recently just a few comments above:

                      Christianity has the specific undesirable features that the historical record shows it to be an apt tool for oppressors to use; and that misogyny and other bigotries are deeply rooted in it. Would you care to answer those specific points?

                      Additionally that specifically Christian political activity today is predominantly on the wrong side in key areas such as the rights of women and gender/sexual minorities; and that levels of religiosity at societal level correlate positively with social pathologies.

                      So, are you actually going to get round to saying anything of substance about those points? Or are they conceded?

                    • arcseconds

                      Ah, that’s more like it! An ultimatum! And an insinuation that I’ve not been holding my end up in the argument. Great!

                      However, if you recollect, what I was engaging with was, firstly, your demand (no, sorry, emphatically argued for suggestion and fond hope) that McGrath should give up his Christianity because you, personally, don’t have any time for it. Oh, and Nazis (but actually, no, not Nazis. But later, sorta kinda yes Nazis). Secondly, your continual link back to Christianity even when it’s the failings of atheists you don’t like we’re discussing.

                      So I don’t think I’ve got any obligation to ‘finally’ say anything about those other points of yours, and by not doing so, I concede nothing. No more so than everyone who read this thread but chose not to participate at all.

                      I’m afraid that I’m inclined to concur with McGrath. You’re not actually interested in having an enlightened and informed discussion about Christianity, although you’re certainly highly skilled in making it sound as if you are. Instead, you’re playing some kind of game, where the object is to associate as much badness with Christianity that could semi-plausibly stick (and not just stick: incorporate it into Christianity’s very essence), to neglect the other side of the equation and make any sort of accounting of the good that Christianity achieves, and to ignore or downplay any complications or alternative explanations.

                      (And, of course, to use every opportunity to further your charge-sheet against Christianity.)

                      You’ve already declined to engage constructively with me. I gave a partial explanation of why McGrath values Christianity, which rather than discuss reasonably you instead decided to nuke with your preposterous Nazi ‘example’. I tried again to suggest that perhaps German culture would be a more fruitful analogy, but you ignored that in favour of making a half-pedantic, half-misrepresentative and all-pointless issue over my use of the term ‘demand’.

                      (How does the rule about saying something substantial or conceding apply in those situations? )

                      Obviously under the circumstances any sensible person would be reluctant to try to continue this discussion, because all the signs are it’s going to be hard work keeping your attention on things that don’t fit into the picture you’re already happy painting. I’m not a particularly sensible person, so there is that, but unfortunately, I’m also a rather busy one, and just about to enter into one of those periods where it’s not going to be possible for me to carry out extensive discussions on the intertron, no matter how hilariously masochistic.

                      So don’t worry! It’s not you, it’s me.

                    • Nick Gotts

                      I find I cannot acquit myself of the charges you make. I have been intemperate in argument, and personally rude to James McGrath and to you. I apologize to you both, and to other commenters and readers. If I continue to comment here, I will try to exercise greater self-control and less ego and aggression.

                    • Nick Gotts

                      your attempt to suggest that it is something distinctive of Christianity seems problematic.

                      For one thing, historically, Christianity has been far more actively intolerant than any other religion, both externally and internally. It has placed far more emphasis on doctrinally correct belief than any other religion except perhaps Islam, and has in many places suppressed all outward expression of any religious belief other than the state-approved version. (Early Judaism apparently did the same, if we believe the Tanakh, but for most of the last two millennia has had no association with state power.) Islamic states, traditionally, tolerated at least Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism, so religious plurality was part of everyday life in many places. Systemic intolerance is I think fairly rare in the case of non-Abrahamic state-linked religions.

                      Christianity has also put great stress on the concept of thoughtcrime: that you can suffer the ultimate penalty – eternal torment – for what you think. Surely, then, it is the duty of the church, and of the state authorities in a Christian state, to enquire diligently into the thoughts of their sheep, for their own good, to mould those thoughts carefully, and if necessary, to punish evil thoughts severely?

                    • Nick Gotts

                      you attribute the behaviors and beliefs where it is present as the
                      result of what sounds like it is almost a supernatural influence of
                      Christianity on those under its sway

                      Nothing supernatural at all. Rather, Christianity has proved remarkably well-suited to the needs of ruling elites for a means of keeping the populace in line: “You’ll get pie in the sky when you die” – if you do as you are told here and now. Peter Heather, in The Fall of the Roman Empire, notes how little ideological rejigging was necessary when Christianity supplanted the Olympian cult as the state religion, and what a useful top-down bureaucratic machine the church then put at the Empire’s service. R.I. Moore, in The Formation of a Persecuting Society describes how a new clerical elite wrested influence from the illiterate warrior henchmen of early medieval rulers around the 12th century, using persecution of Jews, “heretics”, homosexuals, sexually independent women etc. as a means of consolidating and demonstrating their power. The blood-soaked Crusades can be seen as another aspect of the same process. Russian tyrants from Ivan the Terrible through Stalin to Putin have made extensive use of the Orthodox Church to cement their rule. The Pope sanctioned the division of the world into Spanish and Portuguese hemispheres, and justified the enslavement of the resulting empires’ existing inhabitants. The majority of those who carried out the Nazis’ wars of aggression and genocides were Christians, and the roots of Nazi antisemitism lie in both the Catholic and Protestant traditions – Aquinas proclaimed Jews “Slaves of the Church”, while Luther wrote the charming pamphlet On the Jews and their Lies, and was greatly admired by Hitler.

                • arcseconds

                  I meant, why are we having the discussion in terms of what James will tolerate on his blog. It was a bit confusing, given that I’m not James, and wasn’t saying that your comments are inappropriate. I just think they’re ridiculous :]

                  I don’t regard myself as in any sense a part of the same movement or community as Sam Harris or Christopher Hitchens (often on the same side as the religious right politically), while most “progressive” Christians, including James McGrath, quite explicitly regard themselves as part of a broadly inclusive Christianity.

                  Are you trying to trick me? Just a few days ago you told us you were a ‘gnu atheist’.

                  I thought I had made a mistake (which happens from time to time) and maybe gnu atheists had repudiated the likes of Harris and Hitchens, but 5 minutes of google suggests not — it’s what I thought it was, a humorous take on ‘new atheism’. And Hitchens and Harris are new atheists almost by definition.

                  So, because comparisons with National Socialism are entirely apt in this discussion, you appear to be like someone who calls themselves a Nazi, but then says “oh, but I don’t have anything to do with Hitler and Goebbels”. Is that any better than admitting that you do? It seems both absurd and kind of disingenuous to me, but there you go.

                  By the way, if we could pretend to be sensible for just a moment, perhaps a more illuminating analogy than Nazis might be German culture. It’s done a lot of terrible things, but also a lot of good things. Like Christianity, being germanic is something you often just end up being through no fault of your own.

                  Maybe it’s done more bad than good overall, after all even when it wasn’t the Third Reich it was associated through the germanic nations with all the sins of any major European power, including wars, colonialism, repression, etc.

                  But it would seem preposterous to demand the dissolution of German cultural groups on this basis.

                  ( Christianity might be easier to get out of, but for some people, it’s not that much easier: it might mean that you sever all ties with your family, lose your job, have to move cities, and essentially start your life over from scratch. Tall order just because your table-napkin arithmetic works out in the utility red.)

                  • Nick Gotts

                    As you might have guessed if you had such a thing as a sense of humour about you, calling oneself or anyone else a “gnu atheist” is something of a joke. I picked it up at Pharyngula, as meaning simply an atheist willing to be disrespectful of religion; AFAIK neither Harris nor Hitchens have ever adopted the label. However, thinking about the matter, you’re right that people I deeply disagree with use it; I will cease to do so. So, thanks for that.

                    But it would seem preposterous to demand the dissolution of German cultural groups on this basis.

                    My my, what a scourge to straw people you are! I have not demanded the dissolution of Christianity; I have questioned the sense of continued adherence to it, given goals I believe James McGrath and I have in common, and welcomed the prospect of its continued decline. Can you tell the difference? It’s rather like demanding legislation banning cigarette smoking on the one hand, versus advising an individual to stop and welcoming the prospect of a decline in the number of smokers, on the other.

                    • arcseconds

                      Hmm… well, if I had done this a few days ago, I would have had to concede your rather pedantic point about what you’re asking for.

                      But I’ve been watching and learning!

                      *) it was only an extreme example! Had nothing to do with your actual statements.

                      *) I didn’t explicitly state how the people who totally aren’t similar to you in any way were demanding this. I didn’t say ‘legislation’, did I? So your analogy is pointless. They might be going up to everyone who attends Goethe society meets and say “look, I really think you ought to repudiate your German culture related activities because Nazis.” that’s still a demand.

                      How did I do? Should I accuse you of straw-manning too, seeing as you’re implying I was implying that you were implying doing it by force of law?

                      I’m worried, though, that there is still a slight gap between strongly encouraging and arguing for and really think it’s a good thing and looking forward to the demise of something and actually demanding it. What would you recommend here? I was inclined to ignore it and hope you wouldn’t notice, but maybe I should own up, but lampshade it by saying it’s hyperbole?

                      Love the pointless and baseless opening jab, by the way. The rest of the paragraph was interesting too: the content basically boils down to admitting I’m right. You dress it up a bit in insults and high-handed instruction, then you just come out with naked gratitude. Interesting.

                    • Nick Gotts

                      Hmm… well, if I had done this a few days ago, I would have had to
                      concede your rather pedantic point about what you’re asking for.

                      You’d have done no such thing of course. Your whole comment has no point at all except how clever arcseconds is. I get that point, I really do.

                    • arcseconds

                      How could you possibly know what I would or would not do? I’m quite capable of conceding points. If you want to think of me as evil-arcseconds, be my guest, but please if you’re going to do that, at least suppose I’m capable of conceding points for tactical advantage.

                      I’ll probably be accompanying the concession with a backhanded insults, though, because that seems like quite a fun idea! Thank you for the suggestion, O curmudgeonly one.

                      There was, of course, a reasonable amount of point to my post apart from hijinks, but either I’ve baffled you with bullshit so much you can’t see it, or you’re pretending you can’t so you don’t have to respond to it — a pretty crude evasion, really. Once again I’m a trifle disappointed, it’s not up to your usual standards. Perhaps you’re not getting enough sleep?

                    • Nick Gotts

                      Incidentally, why is it odd that I should thank you? We may be arguing rather antagonistically, but you did me a good turn by pointing out something I should have given more thought to, so I thanked you. Thanks again.

  • Claude

    Best thing on the matter I’ve read all week.


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