Assuming a Circular Religion

I thought I would follow up after reposting my “Assuming a Circular Bible” cartoon with a post on assuming a circular religion. The reference of course is to the attempt to deal with things by addressing an abstraction that is much simpler than the complexities of reality – like the famous joke about a physicist coming up with a solution to a farming problem that only works for spherical cows in a vacuum.

The impetus for my post is a review by Jason Rosenhouse of Evolution and Belief: Confessions of a Religious Paleontologist by Robert Asher. In the post, he refers to Asher’s religious views in a manner that makes conservative definitions of orthodoxy normative. For instance, he talks of Asher’s “massively watered-down version of Christianity.” While, on the positive side, Rosenhouse shows that he is aware that there is a spectrum of views that fall within the range of the phenomenon called Christianity, he assumes that as one moves from one end of the spectrum to the other, one is dealing with something less and less deserving of the name:

The sort of religion promoted by the young-Earthers is obviously incompatible with science, but they don’t get to define Christianity for everyone. By contrast, the very liberal versions promoted by people like John Shelby Spong can easily be reconciled with science, but only at the cost of discarding almost every major point of Christian theology. Go that route if you wish, but some will complain that you are thereby left with a version of Christianity that is scarcely distinguishable from secular humanism. The really interesting discussion takes place between those extremes.

Can you see the problem?  Why is the conservative end assumed to be the more Christian? Why is resemblance to secular humanism considered less Christian, and why is it not considered from an inverted perspective, asking whether it is something to be complained about that secular humanism is at times scarcely distinguishable from liberal Christianity?

In short, I think that Rosenhouse assumes a particular definition of Christianity as normative. But that allegedly normative version has never been the only form of Christianity, nor is it clear that it has ever predominated among educated Christians.

What would the discussion look like if instead we took the most liberal, most educated, and most open examples from Christian history as normative? How would the conversation need to be recast?

Here are some links to other recent blog posts and articles that are of related interest:

Tenzan Eaghll wrote an open letter to Richard Dawkins about religion.

Chris Heard at long last continues a series on the inspiration of Scripture, which was inspired by something I wrote a while back.

David Hayward and Clint Roberts tackled ideological elitism among atheists and others of a secular viewpoint.

Kevin Miller’s recent post focused on fundamentalisms of various sorts.

Charles Reid on the need for Christians to combat science illiteracy.

Henry Neufeld shared his pastor’s letter about science and theology.

Inside Higher Ed had a piece about academic freedom and a course about different kinds of creationism at Ball State University.

Zack Hunt’s post about the Bible testifying to its own imperfection was reposted at Red Letter Christians.

The Lead and IO9 highlighted the recent Gallup poll about current trends in religiosity.

A pastor named Dwight said the following in a blog post about doubt:

But the identification of Christianity with a bulk of propositional claims needs to be questioned. Not because propositional claims don’t matter. But because the answers matter less then who you are in community with in struggling with these questions.

Craig Watts followed up on the study about certainty and persuasiveness.

Adam Kotsko offered some thoughts about the Emergent Church and the New Atheism.

And finally, a post suggesting that certain conservative voices need to heed Proverbs 16:19.

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  • Anthony Lawson

    Rosenhouse is like a lot of atheists that I’ve come across who have never been Christian, they presuppose that “normal” Christianity (the default position) is conservative or fundamentalist. Unfortunately part of the reason that many do this is because they have adopted the New Atheist view that religion poisons everything and it’s easier to point out the problems and evils of fundamentalism and equate that with the whole of Christianity.

    • arcseconds

      I think there’s a more basic reason than that.

      The media tends to present conservative Christianity as ‘real Christianity’, especially in the United States. People outside a school or whatever carrying ‘God Hates Fags’ signs are described as ‘Christian groups staged a protest’, not ‘fundamentalist conservative Christian groups staged a protest’. Whereas the views of the large percentage of Christians who would never hold such a sign are seldom discussed, and they’re certainly not presented as ‘Christian (without modifier)’ views.

      There’s also the fact that the media tends to quote religious leaders, who of course tend to be conservative or at least in the position of having to maintain some kind of political balance, as being ‘the views’ of Christianity.

      So you hear a lot about what the Vatican thinks, but not a lot about the views of millions of American and European Catholics who take little notice on ‘the Church’s teaching’ on contraception, and often on sex outside marriage and same-sex partnerships as well.

      I think it’s very easy to get this impression without ever looking at a New Atheist site. A lot of non-religious people have this view, and most non-religious people don’t follow atheist weblogs.

      • Ian

        I think there’s an even more basic reason than that.

        When Christians talk about God the Creator, the Resurrection, Heaven, Salvation, Prayer and so on, without prefixing their talk with a disclaimer that they mean it all metaphorically, then you can’t fault people for taking what is said at face value.

        People assume that Christians take their myths seriously because:

        a) many do, very vocally,
        b) those that don’t, tend to use the mythic language in a way that is indistinguishable from those in (a).

        • arcseconds

          Well, I guess it depends on what level of conservative bias in the presentation you’re complaining about.

          Anthony Lawson said ‘conservative or fundamentalist’, and repeated ‘fundamentalist’ later, so I doubt he’s complaining about the presenting Christians as believing in the Resurrection, but rather about presenting Christians as being say, anti-gay, biblical inerrantist, or YEC.

          There are lots of Christians and Christian groups who are very obviously none of those things, and with the last two, the majority are not. Biblical inerrantism in the sense meant by modern protestants has not in fact been the position of the Church for most of its history.

          But somehow many people, including many atheists, have the impression that being a biblical inerrantist (which is often the stated asis for being anti-gay or YEC) is a core Christian doctrine, and if you’re not, you’re somehow practicing a watered-down, pick-and-choose, inauthentic version.

          • Ian

            Well, the same goes for how Christians talk about the bible. Its rare to hear progressive Christians being clear about its moral problems and their rejection of its morality. It is much more common to hear them talk of their respect and love for it, its inspiration for them, and its deep moral truths.

            Even James here (who seems to be more willing than most to discuss the bible’s moral issues) spends a lot of time on theologically constructing a hermeneutic (as well as more academic interest in the bible, of course).

            Its no surprise that people don’t follow through the intricacies of your hermenutic, to figure out which bits you want and which you don’t.

            a) many loudly profess that the bible is the objective moral standard
            b) those that don’t tend to use language about the bible in ways that are indistinguishable from (a).

          • arcseconds

            Your ‘one group is loud and the other cryptic’ might work with interpretations of the Resurrection and the Kingdom of Heaven that don’t involve miracles or an afterlife, and I understand why people think that Christianity makes supernatural claims, but it doesn’t really wash with the explicit examples I gave.

            It doesn’t require any following of intricate hermeneutics to see that many Christians and Christian groups are supportive of same-sex relationships. They state so openly, in plain language, for all to read on their websites!

            (they also think that the Bible, or at least Jesus, requires this of them)

            It also doesn’t require any sophistication, just asking the right question and 10 minutes on Google, to find out that a great many scientists are Christian and virtually none of them believe in YEC, and that major denominations of Christianity have no objection to an old earth and evolution being taught as science.

            It requires a little more thought (but not a vast amount of deep thought) to work out no-one believes everything that’s stated in the Bible, or follows or the rules, or even tries to, so that no-one can really be a biblical literalist.

            It then only requires a smidgen of curiosity and respect to ask people what their approach to the Bible actually is, rather than assume they’re all a bunch of sillies or hypocrites.

            Also, who are these ‘people’ of yours? You talk as though Christians are doing stuff ‘over there’ somewhere separate from the media and the media’s consumers. But that can’t be true in any Western country, certainly not in the United States at any rate. Many of the people who describe anti-gay protests as ‘Christian’ without modifier must know, or even be, a Christian for whom that is not true.

          • Ian

            I still think it works for gay marriage and YEC. We’re talking about people assuming that conservatives are orthodox, remember.

            So take the issue of YEC, say.

            Both conservatives and liberals claim the bibles authority, and claim to honor its teaching. The bible talks about a six day creation. It isn’t surprising the YEC is seen as more orthodox, and a theistic evolution seen as a watering down of that authority.

            Some churches come out very clearly *in favour* of theistic evolution. But not many, most hedge their language, talking of ‘no inherent conflict’, or ‘no reason to discard science’, or ‘science can help illuminate issues of origin’ or ‘god created through some process’. Almost none say clearly ‘the bible has no authority over questions of origins: science is the only way we can uncover that information.’ I suspect you’ll find it hard to find many (any?) churches who’s statements of belief make explicit and then deny YEC teaching, or that feature a description of evolution that would be recognisable to a scientist. Most will still talk generally about creation, and at best hint that science has a role to play in helping us understand how God did it. I don’t blame them for that, I probably would do the same. But it isn’t surprising that the explicit version is considered the more orthodox and the handwaving equivocation is seen as watered down.

            I know progressive Christians who harbour angst over their use of the bible. I know progressive Christian ministers who talk about their battle with “Fundie envy” in their congregations. So it is hardly surprising that less theologically sophisticated people do too.

            To be clear: I’m not taking a stand over whether any of these are correct. I’m just saying, in my experience, it is no surprise whatsoever that progressive Christians are perceived as non-orthodox by a theologically naive general audience.

            Also, who are these ‘people’ of yours

            Identification as Christian is much more common than religious observance. A large number of people don’t have a sophisticated understanding of what their putative denomination believes and why. Some of my extended family, for example, believe they hold their views on gay marriage despite, not because of their (liberal) faith.

          • David Evans

            “Many of the people who describe anti-gay protests as ‘Christian’ without modifier must know, or even be, a Christian for whom that is not true.”

            Agreed. Not all Christians are anti-gay. Perhaps most are not. But I think it’s true that most of the anti-gay protesters are Christian (or, in other places, Muslim).

    • David Evans

      I am an atheist who was educated in church schools and attended church services (Church in Wales, a moderate protestant denomination) until I was about 17. I never got any hint that the preacher or my fellow worshippers disbelieved any part of the Genesis story or the Gospels, including the miracles and the resurrection. In fact I was much older before I realised that there were Christians who did not accept these stories as literal fact.

      • arcseconds

        That might not reflect their actual beliefs, though.

        Plenty of pastors have much more theologically liberal views than they display in their sermons on sunday mornings. And just because someone goes to church doesn’t mean they believe in God — a friend of mine recounted an experience they had in church when the pastor asked the congregation ‘who believes in God? and be honest now’. Quite a few hands went up, but a long way short of all.

        • David Evans

          So the pastors are lying to their parishioners? And those who don’t believe are sending their children to Sunday school to be taught lies? I don’t think that does them any credit.

          • arcseconds

            Well, not necessarily lying. If you don’t believe Genesis is literally true, but don’t want to offend your elderly conservative parishioners, many of whom sit on the church board that hired you, you either don’t discuss Genesis, or you discuss it as a moral lesson in a way that doesn’t let on you don’t literally believe it.

            I know for a fact that most of the ministers I’ve had anything to do with don’t take Genesis literally, but with some of them you could go to church every week and never discover this.

            Some pastors are, though, if not lying, misrepresenting their beliefs in a fairly radical fashion, because they’ve actually give up their faith. It’s a difficult position to be in, as you might imagine, as you’ve got a family, and a job, and the church is everything you know, and it’s not like you’ve got a CV that makes it easy to get into another industry.


            Why are beliefs the most important thing, anyway? There’s plenty of other things churches provide apart from beliefs.

            An atheist philosophy professor of mine sent her kids to Sunday school. When I questioned her on this, she said “well, where else can they spend a morning learning how to be nice to people?”

          • Nick Gotts

            Is there any evidence that being sent to Sunday school actually makes children nicer to people? I suspect this was just a convenient excuse for a bit of child-free weekend time. Fair enough to want that – but I wish my parents had found some alternative that was not such a brain-blisteringly tedious waste of my time.

          • arcseconds

            Is this a joke, or perhaps just an opportunity to carp about being sent to Sunday school, or are you really intending this as a piece of reasoning to be taken at all seriously?

          • Nick Gotts

            It was a casual contribution to an online conversation.

          • arcseconds

            Sorry, probably said that a bit harshly. I took it as a serious thing at first, started writing a rebuttal, then thought ‘maybe I shouldn’t be taking this so seriously’.

            I don’t know, but my money would be on there not being any really compelling statistical research on sunday schools and niceness. However, I don’t think most parents only make decisions for their children on the basis of solid statistical research. I’m not even sure such a thing would be possible. I think parents end up having to make most decisions based on plausible guesses and anecdotal evidence and feedback they get from their child.

            Also, there’s a very broad variety of sunday schools, some sound like they’re horrible things to do to kids.

            However, in my personal experience (and obviously I realise this doesn’t apply universally), committed Christians or people who were committed Christians until at least their late teens or early twenties do tend to be much nicer people than average. Other people (athiests) have mentioned this to me without me mentioning it, so it’s not just me that thinks this. However, I live in a place which is barely majority Christian, and most of them are highly lapsed. Consequently, there’s little social capital to be had by passing yourself off as Christian. Also the churches have a reputation for being politically left-wing, and in my experience, light on the fire and brimstone and strong on trying to make people nice.

            Maybe my professor had similar experiences.

            Anyway, you doubt that the stated reason is the real reason. I don’t really see why you’d say that, as you only know one sentence’s worth about the person, but if we were to doubt her on this, there’s plenty of other reasons they could have for sending their children to sunday school.

          • Nick Gotts

            My doubt was based on my own experience – my mother said years later that we were sent to give my parents some child-free time together (though I can’t imagine why they would have wanted that :-p); you could add low-cost or free child care to the things religion provides. It’s true I don’t know your professor, but unless she was committed to absolute honesty in all circumstances, she could have given the reason she did to avoid embarrassment, if the real reason was the same as my parents’, or, for example, to placate a religious grandparent.

          • arcseconds

            Well, I think it must be the case that your mother is lying! Everyone in my experience sends their children to Sunday school to be nice, so your mother must have done, too.

            Probably the tale she told you is to cover up her embarrassment at the fact it evidently didn’t work 😉

          • David Evans

            Maybe “lying” was too harsh.

            “Why are beliefs the most important thing, anyway?”

            Because if people believe that they know the Truth, they are often inclined to impose their beliefs on others. If churches were just social clubs the rest of us could ignore them.

            Why should we go to the churches for moral guidance on (e.g.) abortion, if not only is there no proof that their beliefs are true, but a significant proportion of their members don’t even belief what they are supposed to?

          • arcseconds

            Who is saying that we/you should go to the churches for moral guidance?

          • David Evans

            I’m thinking of Savita Halappanavar, who was denied a life-saving abortion because “Ireland is a Catholic country”.

            I’m thinking of the bishops who sit in the UK’s House of Lords as of right, who are always consulted when any question of morals arises and who are now mobilising to prevent same-sex marriage.


          • arcseconds

            I’m afraid I’m not following you.

            I can’t see what the two cases you mention really have to do with people dissenting from the official view of their church. In fact, the problem seems to be more the reverse: that the people involved enthusiastically stick to what they think are ‘the rules’.

            With the Savita Halappanavar case in particular, it seems a rather obscure (and tragic) business, but given that the Supreme Court had already ruled that abortions are OK if they’re to save the life of the mother, and that abortions had apparently been performed before in that hospital, it seems fairly likely that it was overly enthusiastic or hidebound or ignorant hospital staff that prevented the needed termination from occurring until it was too late.

            Would you be inclined to think that churches have more moral authority if the people sitting in the pews believed and practised what they are ‘supposed to’?

        • Ian

          One of the events that fed into my loss of faith was similar.

          I was asked to serve on the leadership team of a church as an ‘elder’: with partial responsibility for spiritual health of the congregation. It became very clear to me, very quickly, that no more than 50% of the congregation believed the creed in any straightforward sense. But that there was no willingness to generally acknowledge that, or say clearly that it either did or didn’t matter. My discovery was not a surprise to the minister, and I got the definite sense he was among them.

          When (for other reasons), I found myself in the same boat theologically, this observation motivated me to stop calling myself a Christian. Because I recognised that the duplicity is quite intentional, and unhelpful. I’d be very happy to be a part of a church who’s language reflected the spiritual and human value of its atheists as much as its ardent theists.

          • arcseconds

            Thanks for this, I shall add it to my ‘don’t assume everyone going to church believes the things you think they do’ dossier 🙂

            It may cause problems, but might it not be achieving what most of the people want out of the situation? After all, the 50+% of people who don’t believe the creed in any straightforward sense are still going, and there must be a reason for that.

            If the reasons are that they feel socially obligated to attend a traditional church (because of family commitments), or they think they ought to be good Christians and this is the best they can do, or they just like pretending, or they take comfort in exactly the same things happening every Sunday, or any one of a whole range of similar reasons, they might not like the pastor or other people suddenly getting a case of brutal honesty and openness.

          • Ian

            Its a very good point!

            One or two confided that they felt bad because they thought they weren’t being ‘real’, and they thought they were the only ones. One was frustrated that she’d pointedly not taken communion for 5 years, and nobody had asked her why (I said because they were trying not to be rude, and nobody was taking notes). So I suspect there’s some desire to be known.

            But your last point is crucial, I think. Would it help to be totally frank? I don’t know. I’ve not seen it tried though.

          • arcseconds

            Well, it’s a huge risk. There’s quite a possibility that it would end up destroying the community altogether, and you can be pretty sure that nothing would remain the same. It has quite the potential to ruin people’s lives, as well. Think of someone who’s spent decades at the church, never realising that half their fellows don’t believe in anything like what they do — they could easily end up believing that they’d been unwittingly living a lie.

            I think it’s pretty understandable why few people attempt this.

            It’s also not something that’s really amenable to corporate decision making. You can’t really have an open and frank discussion about whether to acknowledge the elephant in the room without mentioning the fact that there’s an elephant in the room!

            on a pure utilitarian analysis, it seems like a bad bet. While some people might be uncomfortable now, it seems that most of them aren’t utterly miserable and many of them may actually like it. calling it out is very likely to mean pain and discomfort and may ruin lives.

            maybe it would mean that everyone works through stuff together and they end up with far richer spiritual lives and have deeper and truer bonds with one another, but everyone getting pissed off and hating each other (and you) seems at least as likely.

            on the other hand, one shouldn’t take solace in such inauthentic conditions.

            or, you know, anything else.

          • Ian

            I was never going to try and make that conversation happen. For the reasons you say.

            But the dishonesty is why I can’t be part of it now I know.

            And that is why, as understandable as it is and as sympathetic as I am, I can’t see it as anything but a morally bankrupt way of being in community. Particularly one that likes to talk big about finding truth and being authentic.

            I’ve a low threshold for hypocrisy (specifically in myself: it would be my complicity in the deceit that would be unacceptable, not judgement on other’s decisions to play along).

          • Gary

            Might want to visit a UU church. They’ve got everybody covered. I’ve got some friends that go there. But conservatives must cover their ears, and run away in horror. 🙂

          • Ian

            There are some UU churches I’ve been to in the US that I could see myself being part of. Unfortunately UU doesn’t exist in the UK, only Unitarianism, with around 5,500 people in the country, with the only congregations anywhere near here are more in the dissenting Christian mode rather than the non-credal universalist mode of many US congregations.

      • Pseudonym

        I was brought up in a neo-orthodox-to-liberal protestant church in Australia (and a very mainstream one at that), and I think I was about 19 before I realised that there were Christians who believed that the Genesis story was scientific fact existed.

        OK, that’s not quite true. I knew that there were weird televangelists in the US, because a lot of them were busted in the 80s and this made international news. This was also the era of weird cults like The Family which were also busted, and my teenage brain put them in the same category. Yes, they existed, but it’s not like it was actually Christianity, right?

        I’m almost 40 now, and it’s still a foreign concept.

        • David Evans

          I’m now realising how untypical my experience was. I’m 73, and didn’t see television until I was 13. From 7 to 18 I lived in small Welsh villages. My knowledge of Christianity came from local churches, encyclopedias and C. S. Lewis (!)

          • I think most would say that those are better sources than TV! 🙂

          • David Evans

            True in general. But TV, like the internet, is good for showing that there are people who don’t believe what one takes for granted.

            From C. S. Lewis and my church I got the message that Adam, Eve and the serpent were historical figures. Even from A Preface To Paradise Lost, one of my favourite books. The idea that they might be a metaphor was simply not within my horizon.

          • Interesting! I have perhaps not read as much Lewis as I ought to have – or at least not recently enough – but I didn’t have the impression that he emphasized the need to treat those figures as historical. At least not in the way that say young-earth creationists and other modern-day conservatives do.

          • David Evans

            My impression is that he didn’t emphasize the need because he took it for granted. I don’t have the books to hand but what I remember is that in A Preface To Paradise Lost he raised the question, what would the world be like now if Adam and Eve had not disobeyed God? He answered that they would be ruling the world as King and Queen, and that people might, perhaps once in a lifetime, make a pilgrimage to see them. That only makes sense if they are real people, though you might say that he was doing literature not theology in that book.

          • I’m not sure which he meant. Some have a frustrating habit of using such language when they don’t take it literally. And sometimes someone’s views develop over time. I would need to look into it more to be able to tell.

          • Nick Gotts

            What about school? At my English state primary school in the early 1960s, we got Bible stories, including the creation and Noah’s flood as well as Jesus’s birth narrative, in “Scripture” lessons, without any indication they were metaphorical. But “History” lessons started with “cavemen”, with a rather Neandertal appearance if I remember right, and equally presented as fact; and I knew dinosaurs lived millions of years ago, when there were no people, although I can’t recall if we were taught this at school. I wonder if it occurred to the educational authorities that we might notice the inconsistencies.

          • David Evans

            That sounds very like my schooling. I can’t remember being taught a timescale for the dinosaurs or for Genesis, so maybe there was no explicit contradiction.

  • Nick Gotts

    But that allegedly normative version has never been the only form of
    Christianity, nor is it clear that it has ever predominated among
    educated Christians.

    Can you give us some specific examples of the type of Christianity you claim Rosenhouse is ignoring from, let’s say, the period between the 6th and 16th centuries inclusive?

    • Would you categorize people like Thomas Aquinas or Abelard in the same strand as today’s young-earth creationists? And what about the mystics, to say nothing of the various Gnostic groups that have existed time and again? The specific period you ask about is the one that is least familiar to me, since my work has mostly focused on the first five centuries or so, and then relatively recent times. But certainly of all the names that come to mind, there are significant differences from modern-day fundamentalism and conservative Christianity.

      • Nick Gotts

        Aquinas and Abelard – the only specific examples you give – are quite obviously not the kind of people Rosenhouse is talking about when he refers to the sort of liberal Christianity that is scarcely distinguishable from secular humanism. Aquinas thought that killing “heretics” was thoroughly justified – he’d have had you and John Shelby Spong slaughtered without a qualm, no less than an admitted atheist like me. There are not many YECs who go that far. Both he and Abelard accepted the supernatural without question: miracles including the virgin birth and resurrection, an afterlife of punishment or reward, the divinity of Jesus, the doctrine of the Trinity, the creation of human beings directly from non-living material, a universal deluge. Of course they differ from “modern-day fundamentalism and conservative Christianity” because the latter are responses to modernism – but in terms of belief, they were far closer to the fundamentalists than to the spongians, as, I contend, were the vast majority of educated Christians before modern science called the beliefs I’ve listed into question. Can you find any specific counterexamples to that contention?

        • But this misses the point. The reason modern liberal Christians embrace science is the same reason modern atheists and secular humanists do – because we have this information available now. Others before us did not. But the Medieval and Renaissance thinkers were engaging Islamic thinkers as well as the Greek philosophers whose works the Muslims had preserved. If you are looking for pre-modern Christians who engage with modernity, I think the suggestion is frankly odd. Do pre-modern atheists engage with evidence unavailable in their time? Or have I misunderstood what you are asking for?

          • Nick Gotts

            Of course I’m not looking for “pre-modern Christians who engage with modernity”. Look back at what you say in the OP:

            Why is the conservative end assumed to be the more Christian? Why is resemblance to secular humanism considered less Christian

            The conservative end is considered “more Christian” and the versions more similar to secular humanism “less Christian” because the vast majority of Christians, including educated ones, held beliefs utterly remote from secular humanism and much closer to those of modern fundamentalism, until modernism brought them into question.

            Moreover, modern Christians, including educated ones, can’t simply be divided into “fundamentalist” and “liberal”. Spong’s views, and Asher’s, and yours, are much nearer secular humanism and much further from historical Christianity than those of N.T. Wright or Francis Collins, who accept the reality of evolution and the non-occurrence of a universal deluge, but still believe in a personal god, a literal resurrection, the virgin birth (at least Wright does, I don’t know about Collins), an afterlife and so on. Here is part of what Rosenhouse says:

            But actually it is Asher who is failing to reach out to people where they are. He’s the one pretending that his massively watered-down version of Christianity will be sufficient for people worried about evolution. When they read Asher’s book and discover that science makes it not rational to believe that Jesus was born of a virgin, they are not going to find their worries relieved. They will, instead, find them confirmed.

            So Rosenhouse is saying, and I agree, that people like you, and Asher, and Spong, hold views remote from those of most Christians either now or in the past, and far closer to secular humanism than those of most Christians, now or in the past. Do you deny that? If so, on what evidence?

          • But historically speaking, isn’t it more apt to say that secular humanism looks like Christian humanism with fewer of the religious trappings? Why make modern secular humanism the standard as though it has always been around and then some Christians eventually shifted in that direction?

          • Nick Gotts

            Rosenhouse doesn’t do that, as far as I can see: he simply says – which is true – that Spong’s version of Christianity is “scarcely distinguishable from secular humanism”; he focuses on the current range of Christian belief, and Asher’s position within that range, making no comment at all on the historical relationship between religious and secular humanism. You are reading things into his review which are not there.

          • He focuses on the current range, but he assumes that one end represents the faithful heir to earlier Christianity while the other is a radical departure from it. But Liberal Christianity is a natural outgrowth of the challenge to authority which emerged out of a particular set of internal Christian emphases within the Christian tradition itself, with deep roots in that tradition.

          • Nick Gotts

            Since such an assumption would be made by the vast majority of both Christians and non-Christians, and since it’s at most implicit in a few sentences of the review, I think you’re being quite unfair to Rosenhouse.

            Can you be any more specific than:

            Liberal Christianity is a natural outgrowth of the challenge to authority which emerged out of a particular set of internal Christian emphases within the Christian tradition itself, with deep roots in that tradition.

            From my current knowledge of the history of Christianity, which I’m sure is much less extensive than yours, the assumption you attribute to Rosenhouse seems a fair one. What exactly do you mean by “liberal Christianity” (it can’t just mean “non-fundamentalists”), who specifically are you claiming as its forerunners, and on what grounds? Refer me to other posts if you wish.

          • Perhaps we could define Liberal Christianity as that approach to Christianity which recognizes that ways of thinking change and must change over time, and that there is much to be learned through dialogue with other perspectives and careful observation of the world around us? If so, one can trace the line from pre-Christian roots (Ecclesiastes for instance) through the NT to Clement of Alexandria and Origen and beyond. The further one gets away from embracing that approach, the more one will self-identify as conservative, but even self-proclaimed conservatives are not in practice (think Tertullian for an ancient example).

          • arcseconds

            I was going to make a similar point.

            What’s important about science is not any particular belief, or even any particular methodology, but rather the attitude towards the world. So we can reasonably call Bacon, Newton, Feynmann and even Aristotle scientists (although using the term a little loosely) even though there is not a lot of collective overlap of their beliefs. No-one thinks it’s somehow a failure to be a proper scientist by failing to believe in accord with Bacon and Descartes and the other founders of modern science.

            Why can’t a simiar consideration be applied to religion? Of course, there is the stumbling block that dogmatic elements in religion have often proclaimed the religion to be about affirming clear eternal truths which may not be revised, but you just have to look at history and note that no religion has ever really been like this to see that this claim is little more than propaganda.

            What’s more, there’s plenty of places in the Bible where this is pretty obvious, and even a few places where it is explicitly condoned (Peter’s dream being an excellent example).

            Incidentally, we also apply the ‘what’s important is believing in the right canon’ criterion to scientists sometimes. We laud Copernicus and villify his geocentrist contemporaries because he was ‘right’ and they were wrong, even though there were very reasonable objections to Copernicus’s theory with the knowledge available at the time.

            Worse, we pat Democritus on the back and laugh up our sleeves at the weird views of the other early natural philosophers, because his happens to look like modern theories of matter (a bit, if you screw up your eyes enough), but his theory was just as speculative and equally unrooted in anything that we’d regard as empirical proof.

            This never fails to annoy me.

          • Nick Gotts

            Why can’t a simiar consideration be applied to religion?

            You give the reason yourself in the next sentence. Modern science explicitly affirms the provisional nature of its conclusions; insofar as it is concerned with belief, religion – apart from the recent liberal forms that have grown up in cultures profoundly changed by modernism – proclaims its possession of eternal verities handed down from gods, ancestors, or traditional founders. (I note that even James McGrath is keen to establish that his version of Christianity has “deep roots in the tradition” – indeed, his complaint about Rosenhouse’s review is precisely that this is not recognized. Most practicing scientists know little of the history of their discipline, nor do they need to.) Of course religion changes in practice, but the explicit recognition that our understanding of the world is subject to continual revision in the light of empirical evidence and theoretical advance was a key development.

            We laud Copernicus and villify his geocentrist contemporaries… Worse, we pat Democritus on the back and laugh up our sleeves at the weird views of the other early natural philosophers

            You don’t, I don’t, I’m sure James McGrath doesn’t, so who is this “we”?

          • arcseconds

            Well, yes, people seem to be basing their understanding of what religion is by what they read off the backs of cereal packets, as it were, but that’s really my point: saying that a changed Christianity is an inauthentic Christianity is evidence of religious illiteracy.

            It’s even illiterate by the standards of the official views of conservative establishments such as the Roman Catholic Church! While they certainly promote that some of their beliefs are eternal truths, they don’t at all deny that the Church can change and update their views. And even the eternal truths can be better understood over time. They don’t pretend the counter-Reformation never happened, for example. Theology is still a going concern — how does that even make sense as a subject if nothing can ever change?

            Even the rigidly dogmatic and uppity Ratzinger thinks (or thought at one stage) that Catholicism can learn things from Buddhism.

            It’s true that the Vatican has a great deal of trouble jettisoning previous judgements, but it’s certainly not the case that Catholic teaching has remained unchanged since 300 A.D., and they’re completely open about this.

          • Nick Gotts

            True, some change is admitted, but the general point stands: there is a qualitative difference between the attitudes of science and religion (other than the ultra-liberal forms that have arisen post-modernism) to changes in belief, and to authority in matters of belief – whether that authority is assigned to a book or a hierarchy.

            I’m not interested in judging whether forms of Christianity are “authentic” or not. The fact is, as Rosenhouse said in his review, some modern forms are almost indistinguishable from secular humanism; those forms are not the norm; and their proponents will not persuade anti-evolutionists they can safely abandon that position and remain Christian – they would not regard McGrath, Spong or, probably, Asher (all I know of his stance is what I gleaned from the review) as authentic Christians. So McGrath’s criticism of Rosenhouse is unjustified.

          • But this assumes that conservatives are the ones who have accurately understood what Christianity is and get to decide who is or isn’t one. But what if spiritual or religious humanism is precisely what the core of Christianity is all about, and secular humanism’s resemblance to it merely illustrates how persuasive its view of what is important really is?

            I suspect that, when it comes to the majority of human beings, more people misunderstand mainstream science, philosophy, economics, and maybe just about everything. That misunderstandings are more popular than correct ones does not change the status of the former. In the same way, that more people who have called themselves Christians have used state power to impose their views on others than have lived lives of humble self-sacrifice is of dubious relevance to this discussion, from at least one possible perspective on the matter.

          • Nick Gotts

            Contrary to the line you’ve taken elsewhere in this thread, you appear here to be taking an essentialist view of Christianity, in the phrases “what Christianity is” and “what the core of Christianity is all about”. Unless it can be shown (and I think you’d agree that it can’t) that Jesus intended to found a new religion (and had a consistent message to provide it with a “core”), the second of those phrases doesn’t succeed in referring to anything, and the first can only mean “Whatever has been done, said or written in the name of Christianity”. The “norm” is then anything that has predominated heavily enough in the history of Christianity, and that norm is conservative, and closely linked to state power. Historically, if it had not been linked to state power in the Roman Empire, or had later lost this link, it seems likely Christianity would have dwindled to a minor religion like Mandeanism or Zoroastrianism, or even disappeared altogether like Manichaeism.

          • arcseconds

            You don’t, I don’t, I’m sure James McGrath doesn’t, so who is this “we”?

            [EDIT: deleted the first bit as on reflection it’s uncharitable and not worhtwhile]

            To answer your question, ‘we’ there means western society, in particular the moderately scientifically informed part of it.

            [EDIT: deleted a sentence here too, added the following one]

            I think it was reasonably obvious from the context it probably didn’t refer to you, James and I.

            I’ve seen both Democritus and other early atomists being praised as being proto-scientists and the Copernican treatment being treated as though it should have been accepted by everyone at the time in numerous accounts, often in science textbooks. I believed it myself at one time (because that was how I was taught, using science textbooks that said this sort of thing), and I’ve had numerous discussions with people who are pretty scientifically informed (even to the point of studying science at tertiary level) who also believe these things.

            Sometimes these things have taken the form of trenchant arguments!

          • Nick Gotts

            But given that definition of liberal Christianity, it seems clear that it has been conservative Christianity that has predominated among Christians, including the most educated, for most of its history. Clement and Origen both predate the establishment of orthodox doctrine and Christian state power – closely connected events. From the sixth through sixteenth centuries I dispute that liberal Christianity had any significant public existence – dissenting movements (Bogomils, Hussites etc.) invariably represented themselves as representing the true, uncorrupted Christianity, while Plato and Aristotle were viewed by the doctrinally orthodox as unconscious or proto-Christians. Even the engagement with Islamic thinkers you mentioned earlier was pretty limited – on any theological point where they differed from Christianity, they were simply viewed as wrong, and to be refuted. Liberal Christianity in your sense arose as Christian state power declined, and sustained contact with non-European cultures increased, from the seventeenth century onward – developments which also permitted the pantheism of Spinoza, and the deism or atheism of the philosophes. So I still see no reason to criticize Rosenhouse for treating conservative Christianity as normative.

          • So your definition of normative Christianity has to do with its alliance with state power? I don’t see why that should be the case. But even so, we can see at work in the Council of Nicaea (for instance) other forces besides those of mutual condemnation as apostates, people working to try to find common ground in the midst of attempts to exclude and denigrate.

            I suppose one could make the argument that the vox populi represents the norm, being the majority, rather than official thinkers. But even then it isn’t clear that the vast majority of people connected with Christianity all agree with one another. They certainly don’t adhere rigidly and consistently to the official views of the churches, when such exist.

            And so, if I have objections to conservative Christianity being considered normative, I also have objections to the attempt to essentialize the tradition. It seems that there has been diversity as far back as we can trace.

          • Nick Gotts

            So your definition of normative Christianity has to do with its alliance with state power

            Well for most of its history, that alliance has been the norm, in the sense that most Christians, including most educated Christians, have lived under an alliance of Christianity with state power. Even in supposedly secular states such as the USA, there are still aspects of that alliance in operation. “One nation under God”. “In God we trust”. National Day of Prayer. A Christian preacher speaking at the Inauguration…

            But even then it isn’t clear that the vast majority of people connected with Christianity all agree with one another.

            No, but for most of Christianity’s history, they have pretty much all agreed on theism, miracles, the virgin birth, the resurrection, the Trinity, the divinity of Jesus, an afterlife of reward or punishment, the falsity of all other religions – all marks of conservative Christianity today.

            They certainly don’t adhere rigidly and consistently to the official views of the churches, when such exist.

            And where they fail to do so, their views seem usually to approach more closely to… secular humanism.

            I also have objections to the attempt to essentialize the tradition. It seems that there has been diversity as far back as we can trace.

            There’s diversity in the number of digits people have, and we don’t say that someone with fewer, or more, than 20 is not human. But is it essentializing to say that 20 is the norm?

          • Your generalizing from an American context simply doesn’t fit much of the history of Christianity down the ages in many parts of the world. And I find it hard to regard something like the Trinity, which isn’t even there in the earliest period, as something definitive of Christianity. But it certainly does become normative, and remains so.

            Does the fact that secular humanism resembles the Christian humanism which existed before it did mean that secular humanism is less faithful to secularism than other forms of secularism with less resemblance to things in the Christian heritage?

          • Nick Gotts

            I’m not generalising from an American context at all – simply pointing out that even in that supposedly secular state, an association between Christianity and state power persists. Nor did I say the doctrine of the Trinity is definitive – simply that it’s normative, as you agree.

            Does the fact that secular humanism resembles the Christian humanism which existed before it did mean that secular humanism is less faithful
            to secularism than other forms of secularism with less resemblance to things in the Christian heritage?

            Where does this “faithful” come from? I haven’t used it, Rosenhouse didn’t use it.

            Secularism is simply the belief that the state should not take sides in religious matters, so you can be a Christian (conservative or liberal), a Muslim, a pagan, a Hindu… and be a secularist. While most if not all secular humanists are secularists, the former seems more accurately regarded as a subtype of atheism non-religiousness* than of secularism.

            Added later: Personally, I prefer to identify as an atheist, not a secular humanist, because of the somewhat squishy, accommodationist feel of the latter – its “resemblance to things in the Christian heritage” if you like.

            *I edited this, changing the term used for accuracy, at the expense of clumsiness – some secular humanists would no doubt deny being atheists.

          • newenglandsun

            Question in regard to the miracles. Didn’t Augustine view some of Jesus’s “miracles” as allegorical. What about Balthasar Bekker?

          • There was a lot of allegorization down the ages, but that didn’t necessarily mean they did not also think they actually happened in most instances.

          • newenglandsun

            “The conservative end is considered “more Christian” and the versions more similar to secular humanism “less Christian” because the vast majority of Christians, including educated ones, held beliefs utterly remote from secular humanism and much closer to those of modern fundamentalism, until modernism brought them into question.”

            Reminder Nick, you and I are outsiders. We don’t view Christians in such a dichotomy. We view there are “liberal Christians” and there are “fundamentalist or conservative Christians” but we do not view one as “more Christian” and the other as “less Christian”.