What a marathon! Over the last couple of months we’ve spent 21 posts with close to 30,000 words dissecting a long video about soft theism. I think it’s been worth it, and the nearly 4000 comments from readers suggest that it’s been engaging for them as well. I thank all readers for their time and the commenters for their participation. (Read part 1 here.)
I also want to thank Miklos Jako, the video’s author, for enduring the spotlight. If he wanted a higher profile and a frank critique of his ideas, he got it. I’ve now had the last word over twenty times, and he has accepted my invitation to a last word of his own with a guest post giving his evaluation.
What is soft theism? And how is it better than Christianity?
Soft theism is theism in that it imagines a god that cares about and engages with our world. It’s unlike deism, which imagines a god who created our world but doesn’t engage with it. And it’s unlike Christianity in that it’s not burdened with the clearly mythological Yahweh with his violent Bronze Age morality.
I described it this way in the first post: “Take Christianity and pare away the Bible, a couple of dozen ecumenical councils, church tradition, a long history of political meddling, and fear of science, and what’s left? Jako calls this Soft Theism.” Imagine Christianity without the unpleasant baggage.
I was drawn to this topic because it’s a fresh approach to religion. It’s also timely. The rise of the Nones—those who don’t identify with any religious denomination—is one of the biggest news stories within American religion from the last twenty years, but only a minority of these Nones are atheists. Most have spiritual beliefs, just not the conventional ones. This series has been our opportunity to take a deep dive into one representative worldview.
I’ve pulled from the posts in this series some of the key ideas. I’m sure I’ve missed some from Jako and others in the comment discussions. Feel free to add anything important in the comments to this post.
Science can’t answer the ultimate questions
Jako argues that we have a gap that science will never fill. He accepts all the marvelous things science has taught us about reality (refreshingly, that includes evolution) but points to the meta question: what explains science? Does its remarkable record not need an explanation? And suppose science explained everything in the universe. That still leaves unanswered, what explains the universe itself?
The infinite-regress problem
And even if science takes it a step further back—say, by explaining our universe as a tiny part of a vast multiverse—where does it end? Whatever scientific explanation you come up with, no matter how elegant or mind-blowing, is susceptible to the demand, well, what explains that? It’s the child’s dreaded “Why?” given in response to science’s every answer. Jako resolves this with God to eventually terminate this series of questions. The buck has to stop somewhere, right?
Maybe not. Common sense is not especially useful at the edge of understanding. If a smart and determined mind could answer these questions from first principles, Aristotle would’ve done so 2300 years ago. Discoveries at the frontier of science offend our common sense, but evidence backs up the science, not the common sense. Our common sense was tuned for a middle world. It’s untrustworthy in the world of the very small (quantum physics) or the very large (cosmology).
Jako is careful to remind us that he’s neither a scientist nor a science denier, just someone interested in reality’s ultimate questions. He’ll say, “It seems to me, . . .” being careful to not claim any evidence pointing to his conclusions and wondering if science’s winning streak will end somewhere.
But there’s no “therefore” there. If Jako wants to remind us of science’s unanswered questions and offer supernatural answers, that’s fine, but all he has is a lack of answers, not positive evidence.
And he can’t resolve the regress problem when his own “God did it” solution just raises more questions. Who is this “God”? What are his properties, and how do you know? Has he been around forever, and, if so, why did he decide to create our universe 13.8 billion years ago? And so on. These are questions only resolvable by (dare I say it?) evidence.
What’s the rush? If we have a question and don’t know the answer, let’s be honest and say so. “God did it” just replaces scientific questions with theological ones.
Science: the only game in town?
Jako insists that atheists lean too much on science. He doesn’t have evidence for his position, but that’s okay, he says, because he makes no scientific claims. Instead, he lives in the domain of philosophy.
But you can’t have it both ways—you either make a convincing case by providing evidence, or you ignore the demand for evidence with the justification that you aren’t making a scientific claim. This Philosophy can be a refuge for those who have no evidence but at what cost? Evidence is important if you want to make a convincing case.
If he has a reliable new route to the truth that doesn’t rely on evidence, he must demonstrate this approach by actually uncovering something new so that we can all see its value. But if he’s not claiming anything new and is only playing the jester, asking the tough questions that the rest of us may be ignoring, then “Philosophy” is just an important-sounding label to hide the fact that all he has are questions, not evidence. That doesn’t make his position worthless, just commonplace.
The value of naturalism
We’re to believe that science, the discipline that has gotten us this far, is spent. We must now rely on spirituality and philosophy, the disciplines which to this point have answered no puzzles at the frontier of science. In fact, they’ve taught us nothing at all about reality. This makes even less sense when we remember that spirituality and philosophy didn’t even come up with the questions. But we’re to turn to them for the answers?
If we don’t know, I suggest we say that instead of “God did it.” The God hypothesis is a solution looking for a problem.
The lack of value in philosophy
A naval commander will tell us that a ship in a harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships are for. The same bold attitude applies to ideas. The extent to which you are able to stay safe, hidden behind Philosophy’s skirt, is the extent to which your ideas are irrelevant. Bring them out in the open so they can be criticized and tested (yes, with evidence).
You tell us that you don’t need to—or intend to—provide evidence for your statements. Okay, but then what good are they? “You haven’t proven me wrong” is hardly sufficient grounding for a worldview. And if all you have are provocative ideas, that doesn’t take us very far.
The homeopathic parallel illustrates the limitations of Soft Theism. A homeopathic “medicine” starts with a poison and gradually dilutes it down to nothing, but that’s as far as it can go. It no longer has a bad component (poison), but that does nothing to give it a good component (actual medicine with proven therapeutic value).
Soft theism is homeopathic religion. The bad stuff from a familiar religion like Christianity with its Bronze Age morality, barbaric god, and Bible verses that support slavery, genocide, and more has been reduced to zero. Less bad stuff is a great improvement, but there’s no actual good there—no wisdom from an omniscient god, no new science or technology to vault us to a more equitable society, and so on. It compares well against Christianity, but it’s still manmade.
But that may be soft theism’s superpower. As a supernatural worldview, I find it no more convincing than Christianity or any other theistic worldview, but it’s much less dangerous. There are no zealots eager for the End Times or science deniers who reject evolution or climate science as there are in Christianity.
We’ve made little progress in showing Jako that his soft theism is no better grounded than Christianity, but there may be bigger fish to fry. While he probably hasn’t made any atheist converts, he’s also interested in sharing his ideas with Christians. Imagine if soft theism made inroads among those who now embrace the most toxic forms of Christianity. If people need answers or comfort, a homeopathic religion provides a much safer version.
I wish him Godspeed there.
he would have been called prophet.
— epitaph on comedian Sam Kinison’s grave