Unorthodox theology

The following is an excerpt from Chapter 2 of my book in progress.

At this point, a few readers, especially ones with highly unorthodox religious ideas, will cling to the “God I don’t believe in either line.” They might say, “My version of religion doesn’t require believing in miracles or anything superstitious like that!”

First, let me cite some statistics. A 2009 Harris Interactive poll found that 82% of Americans believe in God, 76% in miracles, 72% that Jesus was God or the Son of God, 72% in angels, 71% that the soul survives death, 70% in the resurrection of Jesus, 61% in Hell, 60% in the Devil, and 40% in creationism (compared to 45% who believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution) [2].

So if you’ve understood everything I’ve had to say so far, and still tell me that the gods I don’t believe in are gods you don’t believe in either, a big part of me thinks, “Great! That means you think there are no gods in the sense most people mean in the US mean. You’re siding with me against three-quarters of my fellow Americans on the question of miracles.”

“But,” someone might protest, “that’s not true religion. You judge religion based on what most people believe about religion, any more than you can judge science based on what most people believe about science.”

Unfortunately, while I’m sure you think your version of religion is the true one, so does every other religious person on the planet, most of whom disagree with you. As an atheist, I have no reason to accept your version of religion as “true religion” while ignoring other people’s version. And I can’t go to “the experts” (meaning theologians) to find out what “true religion” is because theologians don’t agree either.

This is one way theology is different than science. If someone is going to attack the theory of evolution, it’s reasonable to ask they deal with the form of the theory modern scientists actually accept, because scientists mostly agree on what the best current form of the theory of evolution is. You will find no such agreement among theologians.

At this point, self-identified religious people who don’t believe in a miracle working god may be hoping that I’ll still accept their version of religion. They may be disappointed.

For example, in the last chapter, I mentioned Thomas Paine, author of The Age of Reason. Paine is usually described as a deist, someone who believes that God created the universe and then did not interfere with it after the creation. This does not mean Paine thought miracles impossible. In The Age of Reason, Paine states his belief that God is Almighty, the creator of the universe, for whom creating a mountain is no more difficult than creating a single atom. Paine says he does not know whether there is an afterlife, but believes, “that the power that gave me existence is able to continue it, in any form and manner he pleases, either with or without this body.” And Paine does not doubt that God could give messages directly to humans if he wanted to.

However, Paine doubted that God had revealed himself to humans in the way that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam claim. True, God might give a message to a prophet, but when the prophet relayed the message to others, how would they know the prophet was telling the truth? At that point, the message would become hearsay rather than revelation. Far better, Paine thought, for God to reveal himself in the majesty of his creation: “the Creation we behold is the real and ever existing word of God, in which we cannot be deceived. It proclaimeth his power, it demonstrates his wisdom, it manifests his goodness and beneficence.” [7]

Paine then, doubted the miracles recorded in the Bible, but did not doubt that God could have performed them if he wanted to. He also affirmed that God literally did create the universe; the doctrine of creation was not a metaphor for Paine. That means Paine’s god was still a supernatural being. So when I say I think there aren’t any gods, I am rejecting even deism and Paine’s god.

One philosopher whose was even less orthodox than Paine is Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677). I have immense respect for Spinoza. His Theological-Political Treatise defended ideas both about Biblical criticism and about intellectual freedom that no one else in his time dared publish. The Treatise car nearly two decades before John Locke’s famous Letter Concerning Toleration, and was arguably a better book (Locke was really only defending religious liberty for Protestants). Publishing the Treatise was also incredibly brave—this was, after all, a time when religious and intellectual freedom were new ideas, and the book originally had to be published clandestinely [8].

Spinoza also wrote a book called the Ethics, (unlike the Treatise, published after his death), which sets forth an elaborate metaphysical system centered around what Spinoza called “God.” While the Ethics borrowed many ideas from previous theistic metaphysics, Spinoza’s God ended up being so different from that of traditional theism that Spinoza was accused of atheism. Among other things, Spinoza denied that miracles were even possible.

Spinoza’s God, then, isn’t mainly what I’m denying when I say I think there aren’t any gods. However, that doesn’t mean I agree with Spinoza’s metaphysics. Spinoza’s metaphysics are famously strange, and his arguments for them don’t seem to me to be any good. I say this partly to make the point that if what you mean by “God” isn’t what I’m mainly talking about in this book, that isn’t grounds for you to assume I’m necessarily going to agree with your beliefs about whatever it is you call “God.”

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