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.”

  • http://aceofsevens.wordpress.com Ace of Sevens

    This is why I say it’s useless to talk about whether any god exists in general terms. Spinoza’s god an Demeter, for instance, have basically nothing in common. For that matter Ra was the sun in some tellings. The sun exists. When people try to express the question so broadly, it’s so full of equivocation as to be meaningless.

  • mnb0

    Sure this piece is fine. It has been too long since I read chapter 2, so only remember that I didn’t like it, not why. I cannot indicate where exactly you have improved it.
    You might consider adding one point. When scientists disagree – like evolutionary biologists on some issue of the evolution theory – they typically develop an empirical test to decide pro or con. If you ask any theologian how they do it silence is always your answer.

    • Jonathan

      When scientists disagree – like evolutionary biologists on some issue of the evolution theory – they typically develop an empirical test to decide pro or con.

      This does not principally work. One of the few examples I can think of that actually tried such a procedure failed. Look up “El Kef blind test” on google scholar to find the example. One paleontologist (Smit) thought species of microfossils disappeard suddenly, the other (Keller) thought they disappeared gradually. So they devloped a test: four impartial paleontologists would look at fossil samples and publish the species they found. Of the four, two concluded that the extinction was gradual, and two concluded it was sudden. That was bad enough, but Smit and Keller both published reviews of the four papers, interpreting the results in such a way that confirmed their own theories.

      • Reginald Selkirk

        Wow, Jonathan, who is clearly not a scientist, found one example in which an attempted strategy failed. This proves that the strategy is completely worthless.

        • Jonathan

          The example illustrates Thomas Kuhn’s point that in normal science, the paradigm prescribes what kind of observations can be done.

          If tests could logically prove theories, such an instance would be impossible, because the test would be set up in such a way that only one theory could be corroborated, or that it would be inconclusive. In this case, none of these happened. Judging the result to be ‘inconclusive’ would not do justice to the interpretations of Smit and Keller.

          I don’t think it is in an absolute sense impossible to test rival theories in such a way, but it depends on the scientific community to make it work. Larry Laudan describes in one of his articles how French scientists went out to test the theories of Descartes and Newton for gravity. Newton predicted the radius of the earth would be different at different latitudes, Descartes predicted it would not. After careful measurements, it turned out that Newton’s prediction was correct, and Descartes’ theory was discarded.

          Laudan believes this falsifies Kuhn’s particular version of the thesis of underdetermination, but I disagree. I think it shows the community of French scientists were willing to accept Newtonian theory, and that the switch from Cartesian theory fitted in a broader historical picture. The point is not that logical reconstruction is impossible, but that theory choice is just as much or more dependant on the combined psychology of the scientists.

          Getting back to the topic, *principally* it is difficult to say that a test will decide between two theories. It might, but whether it does depends on psychological factors. Is theology very different? Perhaps, but the differences are probably small, assuming that scholars also form a community with their own criteria for theory choice.

          • KG

            You seem to be misusing “principally” (or, as it would usually be phrased in English, “in principle”). Certainly psychological or sociological factors can prevent the result of a test that distinguishes between two theories being accepted; but that does not affect the fact that in principle, the test can indeed distinguish between them. If Kuhn (or at least, your interpretation of Kuhn) were right, it’s inexplicable that scientific theories explain much more about the world now than they did a century ago. Science progresses; controversies are settled and new ones arise on the basis that there is now a consensus on the earlier controversies. Nothing remotely similar happens in theology.

    • mnb0

      You are not going to conclude from one failure that the entire method is wrong, are you? If not my argument still stands. If yes you have to show up with something better.

  • Jonathan

    “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.”

    Are you really suggesting that you would accept religion if its metaphysics (or lack of them) are in line with a naturalist worldview? In other words, if Paine had argued that God principally couldn’t have performed the miracles as described in the bible (which is basically Spinoza’s position) you’d have accepted his form of Christianity? What would that mean – going to a Painian church, if such a thing exists? Would you have accepted Spinoza’s God if his views on metaphysics had been those of logical positivism? You might be interested in modern Zwinglian thought or the Arminian brotherhood, but that’s neither here nor there.

    There actually have been theologians who have tried to criticize supernaturalism – Bahrdt, Paulus, Schleiermacher and ofcourse Strauss from Germany in the 18th and 19th centuries argued that miracles could probably be explained naturalistically and that true miracles were unnecessary for Christian faith. See: “The Problem Of Miracles” by none other than W.L. Craig.

    This does not compel me to become a Christian, nor can I choose what Christian brand of faith is right one to follow. But I can still have an opinion on the matter, because these men brought rational arguments to the debates. Which leads me to reject the following shenanigan:

    “I can’t go to “the experts” (meaning theologians) to find out what “true religion” is because theologians don’t agree either.”

    Why not? If one theologian says Jesus did not rise from the dead because it would contradict simple biology and the other claims Jesus did walk out his grave because Christianity depends on it, who do you think has the best arguments? Any percentage of Americans supporting one theologian doesn’t mean shit, because the arguments here are clear enough and should be the deciding factor, regardless of majorities. Experts in theology make rational points that we atheists can understand just as well as anyone.

    The dilemma is this: if there exists some version of Christianity that is actually compatible with ontological naturalism and skepticism, you’d rationally be compelled to defend that version against others. Which would, in fact, force you to make arguments that favor Christianity. Against orthodoxy, for sure, but in support of some kind of Christianity nevertheless. Oh, the horror!

    To prevent this, it seems that only the orthodox and fundamentalist versions can be recognized as falling under the term “Christianity”, leading to fallacious reasoning as the above blogpost. Conveniently, you live in a country where the majority confirms to your presuppositions, making the Black-or-White fallacy committed here less obvious. If only 10% of Americans believed a personal transcendent God existed, the fallacy would be more clear.

    “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.”

    Fundamental attacks on scientific theories – i.e. those that truly propose new paradigms – usually do not agree on basic definitions. This is not a good distinction between science and theology. Both theologians and scientists form communities on the basis of common definitions, methodologies and theories. Within these communities, they can agree on what the important questions are and how they should be tackled.

    Note that scientists certainly do not agree what the best current form of the theory of evolution is (See N. Eldredge: Reinventing Darwin).

    Also, I don’t think theology is a science, just that your criterion for distinguishing them is wrong.

    • mnb0

      Again you’ll have to show up with something better. While it’s true that there are disputes in the community of evolutionary biology, there is general consensus on a lot of subjects. At the other hand I have asked a few theologians to give me an equivalent of Newton’s Laws Gravity. They couldn’t.

      “The dilemma is this:”
      It’s not a dilemma for me and I doubt if it’s for CH. Fine if some believer manages to combine his/her belief system with science without any contradiction. Pastafarians do very well in this respect. Still I have to meet yet one believer who converts for this reason.
      In the end it needs faith to believe. I don’t have it.
      As far as christianity goes I have a few other objections and so does CH. See his other chapters.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    However, Paine doubted that God had revealed himself to humans in the way that … At that point, the message would become hearsay rather than revelation.

    Thus showing that Paine probably read him some Hume.

  • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ vinnyjh57

    Is Zen Buddhism a religion?

    • KG

      The head of a dead cat.

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  • http://surgoshan.blogspot.com/ Surgoshan

    You’re missing a word in the fourth paragraph. I’m pretty sure it’s supposed to be “You can’t judge religion based…”

  • http://skepticiality.wordpress.comhttp://skepticity.blogspot.com Lord Griggs[ IgnosticMorgan,InquiringLynn,Fr. or Rabbi Griggs, CarneadesofGa]

    Armstrong’s apopathicism makes the case for ignosticim: God is no more than a square circle!
    Ignostic Morgan finds that ignosticism pervades arguments about God, thereby disagreeing with Theodore Drange and Alfred Jules Ayer;for intance, the Coyne-Mayr-Lamberth teleonomic argumen alone shows that: as science finds no divine intent, then God cannot be Himself as His intent must exert itself in Nature!
    Smoltczyk’s argument that God is neither a principle, nor an entity, nor a person, but instead the Ultimate explanation, revels in obscurantism,because then He cannot instantiate Himself as that very explanation!
    ” Logic is the bane of theism.” Fr. Grigggs
    ” God is in a worse position than the Scarecrow who had a body to which a mind could enter whilst He has none. He is that square circle. No wonder, He is ineffable!”
    ” Life is its own validation and reward and ultimate meaning to which neither God nor the future state can further validate.”
    Google those three names for a fuller exposition of why He cannot possibly exist! Thus by analysis, we anti-theists can declare that no God exists without having to traverse the Cosmos [ the Metaverse] nor have omniscience ourselves!

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