Liberal Christianity: A Dangerous Pretend Game.

We’ve been discussing Liberal Christianity here lately, something rare at DC. Some interesting and provocative thoughts have emerged from it. I have to agree with Wounded Ego who said this about Liberal Christianity: "It is, to my mind, like a giant role playing game - only for keeps…I think an excellent illustration of the kind of illusion you are describing can be seen in the excellent flick 'The Village.'" But let me say more...

James McGrath wrote: But when I ask myself "Why not be an atheist?", I come back to a number of things. The power of an experience that really did change my life. The teaching attributed to Jesus that we do to others what we want them to do to us. The inspiring paradigm (which may owe as much to the author of Matthew's Gospel as to the historical figure of Jesus) that there is a third way of resisting injustice that avoids either passivity or taking up arms.

McGrath knows well enough that religious experiences like he’s had are experienced by people with differing faiths, so he also knows that such experiences provide little or no evidence for his particular faith. HE KNOWS THIS! He’s playing pretend, and like the paranoid schizophrenic who thinks the CIA is out to get him, McGrath actually believes these experiences to be real without any evidence for them.

Richard M wrote: Joseph Campbell said somewhere that fundamentalists say religious stories are the truth, atheists say they are a lie, and liberals say they are metaphor.

Actually atheists say these religious stories are delusionary, or false. I do not question the sincerity of the claims of believers, just like I don’t question the sincerity of paranoid schizophrenics. They aren’t lies intended to deceive, they are simply false. And liberal Christians are simply playing pretend with these falsehoods.

Think of it this way. Christmas is coming and parents will tell their children that Santa Claus will bring presents to them. They tell their kids Santa sees if they “are naughty or nice.” When my kids were growing up I told them about Santa, but I also told them we were playing a pretend game. They might not have initial understood me when I told them “we’re playing pretend,” but as they grew older and asked me if he really existed, I would always say “No.” Children love to pretend. It’s their nature, I think. So do adults, especially if they role play while having sex. Is there value in playing pretend? Yes. It provides spice to our lives. People pretend when they think positively, too, especially sports fans who sit in the same seats, order the same food, and wear the same jerseys to the ball games, as if that’ll help their team win.

This discussion has made me think about playing pretend. I liked the movie “Toy Story,” produced by Disney. The character Buzz Lightyear actually thought he had supernatural powers and could fly. When he learned the truth he was depressed to the point where he didn’t try to help others out for a while. As the movie progresses he learned to do what he could without any of his special powers. I was going through my period of doubt when I first took my kids to that movie, and I asked myself, is Buzz Lightyear better off knowing the truth? I think so, and the reason is clear. Buzz Lightyear could’ve gotten himself killed by bouncing around on spoons and acting like he could fly through the air when he really couldn’t fly. He could’ve hurt himself…badly. The truth is always better, come what may.

Some pretend games are foolish, period. Some provide the needed spice to life. But when pretending crosses over to the point where a person actually thinks the pretend games are real, then I see dangers…many of them, depending on the game being played.

So the question I put forward is whether or not pretending the game of Christianity is playing a dangerous game. I think it is. Sure, it may provide a certain spice to life, since having a heavenly father figure can provide comfort, but it also sacrifices the intellect, encourages others to do likewise, and buttresses the claims of other religious people to maintain their faith who do evil in the name of religion.

Richard M says, “this is my main objection with the views if folks like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. Much as I respect them otherwise, I think they err grievously when they lump liberal religionists with conservative ones. Atheists and secular humanists will find no better friends in the world than reform jews, unitarians, and the like -- they will be the ones who join atheists to vote for atheist candidates, push to keep ID out of schools, promote critical thinking and science education, support liberal social causes, welcome Hindu prayers in congress, support physician-assisted suicide, support same-sex marriage, ban coercive prayer from public schools, and jump at the chance to send Pat Robertson a one-way ticket to Sheol.”

Agreed! However, religious thinking adds several new areas of conflict to life. We already fight over money, our kids, our spouses, our jobs, our races, our genders, and our nationalities. But religions also provide additional areas of conflict over sacred spaces, books, traditions, leaders, and gods. Granted, the liberal is probably not going to fight over these things, so she has a benign type of faith, for which I can be thankful for. But when the liberal participates in surveys where it’s claimed, say, that 60-80% of the people believe in God, this bolsters those fundamentalists who do fight over sacred spaces and gods. There has been a great deal of harm done in the name of Christianity. So it’s like claiming to be a member of the KKK while openly disavowing the beliefs of the KKK. Why do that?

31 comments:

goprairie said...

Georgia prays for rain. Thousands join in. That should scare us. The idea that this was somehow helpful? If some cult wanted to sacrifice a duck for rain on the courthouse steps, what then? But it is acceptable, but no more meaningful or likely to succeed, because it is Christian prayer. Where would that rain come from? Another place that needed it? Would thier God suspend the laws of physics and create some extra rain for them? That such illogic and impossibility is accepted by the masses should be SCARY!

Harm is done to society by things like this. Harm is done to people who do not work as hard for their recovery from illness because people are praying for them. Harm is done when we pray for flood and famine and violence victims instead of doing something for them.

And harm is done when religion gets mixed up in government in any way.

Karl Betts said...

I trust that you are using "pretend" as a metaphor also?!

Indeed a “pretend game” serves as a good challenge, but not an accurate description of the faith adventure for me. For one, it presumes too much about my integrity. Since I applauded your quote of Tarico's analogy of the schizophrenic, I will go ahead and say that even the schizophrenic has inner- integrity about them.

Because -- at least for me -- my liberal experience of faith is of an existential nature, it is more like walking a tight wire. I'm resolute about moving ahead in my faith adventure, but realize that I'm taking a significant risk in moving between the poles of doubt and faith. Let me be clear that there is a difference between doubt and unbelief (Os Guiness).

I'm trying the best I can to piece together what resources I have for faith in with sincere, authentic hope while hoping against hope.

There are polarities, antinomies, paradoxical life situations, contradictions and disturbances. All of these may challenge me and suggest that there’s a futility to my journey, but they may also be a rich soil for the development of wisdom, character, mystical experience, and a better understanding of how I relate to the divine.

Therefore, I connect with the "dangerous" aspect of being a “lone wayfaring stranger,” as the old spiritual goes, however, I state with all honesty and authenticity that this is not a pretend game.

Now as for the injustices that "religion" necessarily creates by cause and effect--the connection is certainly there and Western religion is guilty as charged!

However, it is defective logic to state that there is necessary causality between religion and a host of injustices in the world. By "necessary" I mean automatic, determined and irrevocable, inexorable causality. Religion, and Christianity in my case, serves to address and redress (take Bono for instance) the injustices that Western religion. Redemption toward peace and justice is still possible in this world, and to view it otherwise is a distorted, mechanistic fatalism that does not match the best possible world scenario that can be the goal.

That may sound like a platitude, but purely on the level of reason, there is still room to correct the grievances and still remain in-tact as an expression of concrete faith. Such reductionism does not successfully negate the legitimacy of applied faith to the benefit of humanity and the world.

Richard M said...

John-
"McGrath knows well enough that religious experiences like he’s had are experienced by people with differing faiths, so he also knows that such experiences provide little or no evidence for his particular faith. HE KNOWS THIS! He’s playing pretend, and like the paranoid schizophrenic who thinks the CIA is out to get him, McGrath actually believes these experiences to be real without any evidence for them. "

Well, first I would please be careful with the analogy of schizophrenia, which is a distinct clinical condition which is the result of specific neurochemical abnormalities in the brain. Believers do not have these abnormalities. They may be wrong in what they believe, but they are not clinically psychotic. The difference between most religious believers and schizophrenics (as well as those with delusional disorder) is one of kind, not degree. Schizophrenics are not by any reasonable description playing "pretend". It think its important to remain clear that we are talking epistemology here, not pathology, because that way madness lies (pun intended). (I don’t think you meant anything untoward, I am just aware of these things because I have a clinical background.)

You say McGrath "actually believes these experiences to be real". Think about that! Are you trying to say they are actually unreal? That he thought he had an experience, but actually did not?

He did have an experience. His self-report establishes that. Neither you nor I nor anyone is in a position to tell him that he did not experience *something*. I think what you mean to say, and what I am taking pains to distinguish (because it is important), is that it there is a question as to whether there is anything "out there" that answers to that experience.

Granted! I wholly agree. It is a fair and necessary question. I think we quickly get into some deep epistemological waters by delving into the issue of whether he is "allowed" to accept this experience at face value -- i.e. like it feels, which is that there is something out there -- or whether he is epistemologically "required" to reject it (or whether he can suspend judgment on the issue). But we don’t really have to, necessarily, because I think that McGrath (at the risk of speaking for him -- I invite him to correct me if I am wrong in this) would not claim *certainty* in his interpretation of his experience. Perhaps he does conclude a supreme being explains his experience, but he will not likely tell you he is sure about that, that that clinches the issue, and that you had better convert too, buddy. I think that that issue -- certainty -- is all the difference in the world between fundies and liberals and why they (liberals) are more like us than not – i.e., the tacit falliblism that opens up room for compromise, the finding of common ground, shared values, and at times even democracy itself. And why we ought to let up on them.

For my part I think liberal theology works even if you deny entirely that there is anything “out there” that answers to the experience. Religious naturalism, as it is called, works quite well in this framework. It involves, in a nutshell, an appreciation of the beauty and grandeur of life that finds its best expression – for such an individual -- in the symbol-system of religion. Mordecai Kaplan, a Jewish theologian in the 1930’s worked out such a system that went on to become Reconstructionist Judaism. Don Cupitt in the Christian tradition did the same for Christianity (though he later evolved his thought in other directions).

I disagree with you that liberals “actually think the pretend games are real” (BTW, I think Campbell probably meant lie in the sense of false, not deception). I think they know they are probably false. I think they simply do not care whether they are true or false. That’s the whole point. It doesn’t matter, for their purposes.

The central issue that I think you’re missing is that in most liberal religions, at least in my own humble experience, there is so little emphasis and concern placed on (what you mean by) the question of “whether the pretend games are real” that it almost drops out. For some, like John Spong, it has totally dropped out. But again – lets clear up the language. The pretend game itself is quite real. The experience it is designed to reflect, is real. The thing that it reflects, is also real – something outside the self that occasions the experience. Is that thing supernatural? I think the liberal does not care.

And finally, as to why call it religion when religious thinking can lead to violence – well, again, it just isn’t obvious to me why the game ought to be conceded to the fundamentalists. I think that’s like saying that since much harm can come from the use of government we should quit using it and turn it over to the dictators, who get to tell us what it means. No, we should fight to make it better, to rid it of the destructive elements. Maybe that’s a pipe dream – but no less so than the eradication of religion altogether.

J.L. Hinman said...

No offense John but your whole take on liberal theology is really just a giant exercize in incredulity. All you've really said about it is"

(1) It's not fundie so tis' not Christin

and

(2) I don't believe it.


I have made a post on my blog that answers in a general way the overall thrust of your arguments on liberalism by demonstrating the value of liberal theology and using the liberal method.

http://metacrock.blogspot.com/

John W. Loftus said...

I often ask myself why someone who recognizes the barbarisms in the Bible and the brutality of those who believed it, would ever want to embrace it at all. I have often wondered why African Americans would ever want to embrace the very faith that enslaved them and brought them here. I have often wondered why Hispanics have embraced the Catholic faith which produced so much carnage, bloodshed, and diseases when the Spaniards found America. I realize they did so because they must've concluded that the Christian God was more powerful than their gods, but if I were any of these people I would reject such a faith outright. It would be repulsive to me. I would want to distance myself from it as far away as I could.

Karl Betts said...

Richard M:

First off, thanks for the cautions on the use of schizophrenic
metaphor. Very good points.

Just a little clarification here:

" The pretend game itself is quite real. The experience it is designed to reflect, is real. The thing that it reflects, is also real – something outside the self that occasions the experience. Is that thing supernatural? I think the liberal does not care.

I like the way you are removing the notion of pretending altogether by making it real. Also, while talking about the object of the experience as "something" it runs some risk of reductionism for me in my experience as a liberal. I'd honestly say that I really do care if that object "something" is supernatural.

You help me face that when push comes to shove, what is important is that the object "something" is indeed outside myself.

And now for a twist of irony: In any event that the "something" turns out to be supernatural, well -- as Leonardo DiCaprio who played Frank Abagnale, Jr. in Catch Me If You Can would say --"even better!"

Karl Betts said...

So, in a sense, John, if I'm listening to you, yes it is quite so that the grievances and atrocities done in the name of God are undoable. We can never make up for the carngae and embarrasing track record that we've left behind. There is a sober moment of ownership that must take place.

And the record certainly damages much of a hope at all that somehow, things can be done better.

Without saying anything else, the point you are making must be acknolwedged.

It is a tragic faliure on behalf of western religion in general and christianity in particular.

Richard M said...

John-
Cant you say the same thing about science? It built atom bombs and Zyklon B.

But thats not the essence of science and science has done so much good, you may say. Just so. But religous believers also claim a lifetime of comfort and meaning, and often charity and self-sacrifice for the betterment of the world, from their belief system.

Whoever claims to be able to perform the calculus that weighs the good with the bad from religion had better have some pretty knowck-down arguments to back it up. Dont get me wrong -- the natural history of religion is long and brutal and obscene. I dont mean to downplay that or minimize that in the slightest. My family is Jewish, and nothing sensitizes you to the question of religious barbarism than looking at the history of Jewish persecution under Christian rule. The Inquisition killed 100000 Jews, forcibly converted 100000 more, and drove the rest out. I look at my son and daughter and want to burn the world.

But I still think the dividing line is between those who are sure they are right, and those who admit fallibility. Awareness of fallibility breeds humility, a willingness to compromise and work together. I think the better route is to work to eliminate the psychological events that occasion fundmantalism, and thereby clean up religion from within. Then, if people wish to leave it, they will, and those who remain will be on our side.

For my part, I think religion is like fire, technology, sex, government -- evrything depends on how it is used.

John W. Loftus said...

Richard M said...Cant you say the same thing about science? It built atom bombs and Zyklon B.

Thanks for bringing this up so I can respond to it. I think the parallel is almost completely non-analogous. If we should reject something based on its misuse then we might as well reject the use of knives and guns because they are used to kill people.

So let me explain further why I think the label "Christian" should be rejected by most liberal Christians (LC) depending on the stage of deterioration of the grounding of said faith. ;-)

A LC stands within the Christian tradition, and references her belief to that tradition which includes the Bible. It's not just that people have misused the Bible. In it we read about human sacrifice, honor, witch, gay and heretic killings, along with slavery, and genocide.

What if these same kinds of statements were to be found in the American Consitution: "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live"? And let's suppose that America has also acted on these statements time and again, in the past. What then? You could try to argue that the words don't mean what they mean and that Americans who acted on these words misunderstood them. But it is still part of American history, and it's hard to dispute that the words meant something different to the original hearers of these words. They should never have been written down in the first place!

Let's suppose you mount a campaign to eliminate these statements from the Constitution to no effect. The majority of Americans reject your attempts. Would you not want to leave America, even if you couldn't actually do so? Wouldn't you have distain towards America, not just for the past atrocities, but also for the unwillingness to eliminate that language from the Constitution? Would you be willing to travel to other countries and proudly proclaim you're an American?

I think not. You would want to do everything in your power to distance yourself from being an American. I know I would. I would proclaim I am a human being who is a citizen of the world, when asked.

Now of course, this analogy breaks down a little like all analogies, since as an American I could not renounce my rights or my citizenship along with my other priviledges under the other parts of the Constitution (or maybe not, I don't know). But as long as I had breath in me I would fight this with everything I had in me.

So why are LC's so prone to embrace what they wouldn't embrace in other areas?

Surely you will say that LC's are doing just that, fighting with everything in them against this language in the Bible, and I applaud them for doing so. But it's not like they have to travel to another country or renounce their American citizenship. All they have to do is to say they are "spiritual humanists" or "religious practitioners." I personally could not embrace such a label, knowing the history of Christianity and the Bible like I do. It would be like "throwing away" your vote in an election by voting for a candidate that doesn't have a chance to win, but in so doing you've make a statement. I think it's high time LC's make that statement, and I call on them to come out of the closet.

Richard M said...

John, I appreciate your thoughts and I appreciate where you're coming from. I myself have a similar emotional reaction to Christiantiy. For what its worth, I have made the same decision you have and I *have* distanced myself from Christianity. I decided that, for me, it couldnt be rehabilitated at all or if it could, I wasnt interested in trying.

But I think the danger here is trying to prescribe what any given persons emotional stance on this "has" to be. The fact that you and I feel that Christianity has had enough wrong with it ethically, in its historical manifestations (of course we have other objections as well) does not mean that everyone else somehow "must" feel the same way.

To pick up your analogy, I can well imagine someone concluding that she will continue to fight to make America better, even if it involves long odds. After all -- that witch language hasnt been removed from the constituion *yet*, but that just spurs her to keep trying. After all, she has a not-insignificantly small group of like-minded individuals who share her aspirations.

The point is theres no right answer to this. And actually, I do think the science analogy holds. People have used science for ill. They continue to use science for ill, despite our best efforts. Why then do we not distance ourselves from it? Because, I suggest, we agree it has enough potential to be worth the fight, even if we keep losing in our effort to prevent its misuse.

So why do they not just become generic theists? Well, some do, but I think you are underestimating the power of the symbols systems that they are immersed in. These are not changed like changing underwear. In a way, it could be argued it is actually harder to change this than to change citizenship, for it would involve somehow forcibly altering what you feel. I sure cant do that. Despite my vast and many criticisms of Christianty in its history, theology, instantiations, etc, I find I am still moved to reverie by certain Chritmas hymns -- "O Holy Night" still gets me, even though I believe, literally, none of what it says, propositionally.

If I may, I think we are in agreement that there is a problem with religion (and science) in that it (they) may be, and often are, misused. My assertion is that this is an individual judgment call as to what to do about this, and the decision of the LC is as legitimate as that one one who leaves.

Richard M said...

Sorry for the multiple posts but I have one more thought. You said:

"It's not just that people have misused the Bible. In it we read about human sacrifice, honor, witch, gay and heretic killings, along with slavery, and genocide."

But the way I see it the second sentence reduces to the former. The people have misused the Bible *in that* they have taken these sorts of things as moral exemplars, rather than rejecting them, as they should have. Plato recommended what we would call a repressive authoritarian state that systematically lies to its subjects. Yet if someone were to consider Plato to be the greatest embodiment of human wisdom, and built her life around platonism -- but rejecting those sorts of things -- might might disagree with its precepts, or not find it personally compelling, but we not object to the mere existence of such a way of life.

John W. Loftus said...

Let's just face it. The Bible and the people who produced it were barbaric and superstitious. The only redeeming qualities about the Bible or the Christian tradition are those things that civilized people agree with them about, and hence they are irrelevant to modern scientifically literate people.

Richard M said...

To you. But Im not willing to accept your insistence on the right to decide for me or anyone else what is "relevant". Yes, my values are derived from enlightenment, as are yours. But if I (or anyone) finds an exemplification of those values in the Bible, or the Koran, or Homer, or Goodnight Moon, I have heard no argument as to why that "must" be regarded as illegitimate or rejected out of hand. If that doesnt inspire you, personally, fine, I have no quarrel with that, but I see no justification for your making the sweeping claim that it can have no importance to anyone. I will jealously defend the right to decide whats important and relevnt to me.

Forgive me John, but you are not making a logical argument, you are making an emotional and value-based one.

larryniven said...

"People have used science for ill. They continue to use science for ill, despite our best efforts. [etc]"

Granted - but science, in and of itself, doesn't make value judgments. It can't. Christianity not only makes value judgments, it's designed to. Misinterpreting a value judgment is another thing entirely from inventing one where none can logically exist - if for no other reason than you have to provide a reason why the interpretation is wrong (in the case of science, a value judgment is inappropriate by definition). I think this alone destroys the analogy between science's and religion's sins.

I'm not sure if this was John's argument or not - I don't really know what he was saying with that guns-knives-misuse thing.

(I would just like to point out at this point that science is not the same thing as atheism, agnosticism, and so on, so when I say science cannot sensibly produce a value judgment, I do not by any means intend to say the same of atheism etc.)

John W. Loftus said...

Richard M, I'm making an assertion that I can back up with arguments, some of which can be found in the book I linked to. The Bible is irrelevant to modern scientifically literate people, as is the whole Christian tradition, except perhaps in the lessons learned from history in general which made us think the way we do today.

Granted, people won't accept my arguments. But I can make them anyway. One way to do this is to ask LC's (in particular, which is our focus here) to show me why I should accept anything in the Bible BECAUSE it's in the Bible. This, they will not attempt to do. And I can ask them to likewise show me why I should accept anything in the Christian tradition BECAUSE it's in the Christian tradition. This too, then cannot do. Their ONLY justification for accepting the Christian tradition in the first place is because they were born into a Christian culture, and that isn't good enough. The rest of the grounding of their faith is in religious experiences which are shared by people of differing faiths, along with atheists who sense a feeling of wonder at the beauty of the universe.

Cheers.

Richard M said...

"...science, in and of itself, doesn't make value judgments. It can't. Christianity not only makes value judgments, it's designed to."

Ah, but whose Christianity? I wrote a post on this topic in the previous thread (I'd link to it but I dont know how).

The gist is that there is no Christianity in the abstract, only Christianity as defined and practiced by individual groups. I suspect McGraths Christianity would make alot of value judgments many of us would agree with. Altering the content of a religion when it makes value judgments we cannot accept is exactly what McGrath and other liberals try to do.

Moreover misinterpreting a value judgment, and invention one where one does not exist, is a difference that makes no difference. You still have people acting bad under the perceived influence of the system. People have done awful things, not just using science, but in the name of science -- eugenics, Tuskegee. They thought science backed their value-decision. We may say they are mistaken, that that is not actually science, but that makes no difference to the lives of those affected.

I am not at all a social constuctivist, but there is some truth to the idea that our "reality" is our experience, and it may or may not line up with the way the world really is. Epictetus said: "men are not moved my things but by the opinions they take of them."

Religion is the like this, in this respect. I agree it considers values as a part of its range of discourse, but again we are creating the value system in first place.

My own feeling is we need to be blaming ourselves for the bad things that happen in the world. I will concede that the interaction between humans and religion is dynamic, and each shapes the other, and bad religion can have powerfully and undeniably bad effects. But why is it obvious that we must blame religion, qua religion, whole cloth, rather than bad religion? If we correct and educate those who think science justifies bad behavior, and correct relgion when it seems to license bad behavior, is the result not the same?

If religion is, as we agree, wholly human invention, who is ultimately to blame for what it looks like?

Richard M said...

John-

You should *not* accept anything in the Bible just because it is in the Bible. You should *not* accept the Christian tradition just because it is the tradition. No liberal would argue that, because they dont believe that. Their whole stance on this is completely different from the fundamnetalist one that we are all so used to dealing with. Thats what I hope to get you to see. They are not trying to argue you must do it the way they do it. Thats a hangover from our dealings with fundies, and thats precisely what is not the case here. Liberals are not trying to persuade you of anything. They are simply insisting on the right to decide for themselves -- as you do, and as I do -- what they find meaningful, and what they do not.

"Meaningful" here, as I use it, is a word that connotes emotional significance. It is not a logical relation. Scientific literacy has absolutly nothing to do with it. The grounding of their faith, and the justification for it, is in the "religious" experiences (understod broadly) that they have THAT ARE MEDIATED BY THEIR TRADTION, which is emotionally powerful for them because they grew up with it.

Perhaps thats not good enough for you . Fine, then dont be a liberal Christian. But I fail to understand why you wish so strenuously to decide for so many other people what images, myths, stories, music, and the like is "allowed" to move them. So maybe it is indistinguishable, in its "theology" and bedrock experiences from other liberals. My question is, so what? It may still be the case that reciting the Shema moves me, and the Lords Prayer does not. Why do you think I dont have that right?

John W. Loftus said...

Richard M said...But I fail to understand why you wish so strenuously to decide for so many other people what images, myths, stories, music, and the like is "allowed" to move them. Why do you think I dont have that right?

Richard, where exactly are you going with this? I'm not talking about someone's rights under law. I believe in the separation of church and state. People have the right to believe whatever they want to do.

I am making an argument. Are you saying I should not make my argument (not in a political sense but in a moral sense)? I can see no possible justification for what you are saying at all.

James F. McGrath said...

In the discussion so far, I feel a bit like a composer trying to answer critics who have said "That's not music!" with regard to my compositions. As the discussion progresses, the critic acknowledges being tone deaf and to not actually liking music, and yet seems determined to continue arguing that what I've composed isn't music. Perhaps the main reason for arguing that what I've composed isn't music is because the critic doesn't strongly dislike what I composed, but already knows he doesn't like music.

Is it just me, or is there something slightly odd about this? :)

John W. Loftus said...

The "odd" thing about this is that you've used the term "music" to describe what I'm arguing against, thus prejudging the issue. We all know the difference between music and random sounds, so this analogy makes my argument look odd.

But what if we heard cats fighting over garbage cans and we had a debate about whether or not THAT was music, or for some people Rap Music, or a composition from Dada musicians. If you want to say music is in the ears of the beholder then you can make that argument, and it's an interesting one. But we're talking about what it true and what is correct. Do you also want to embrace postmodernism and say people have different truths even if they contradict one another? I don't see you doing this, otherwise you'd have to let fundamentalists alone to believe in their "truths."

James F. McGrath said...

No, the image of music is chosen intentionally. All language about God is poetry and metaphor. Pretty much every religious tradition has said as much at some point. If it were up to me, I would offer the opening and closing sections of the second movement of Atterberg's Symphony No.2 as the reason I continue to believe in God. But like most religious believers, including the mystics, down the ages, I feel that the ineffable experience I've had is also one I want to talk about, even though I don't feel I can do so adequately.

So let me come right out and tell you what I think my own religious experience proves. It proves that people have such experiences. That the universe has given rise to people that experience it as beautiful and as a pointer to the divine is amazing to me, and I want to do justice to that. What that means is I want to keep using symbols to point to this ineffable mystery that I intuit. That's all.

I like Role Playing Games, and there is apparently a Bible-related one, but I've never played it, and am pretty sure I am aware of the difference between doing that and what I mean by belief in God.

I'm absolutely committed to approaching things in a rational way. I do not deny that love involves brain chemistry which is a result of evolution. But is that all it is? Is beauty just a trick of evolution? Or is it something subjective but real?

Richard M said...

John, Im sorry I was not clearer. My language was perhaps a bit loose. Let me explain

No, clearly I am not talking about legal rights. I know that you know that this is not a legal issue.

I am talking about "psychological" rights, to coin a clumsy term. You stated that the Bible is "irrelevant" to modern people. But relevance is an internal issue. I.e., relevance to who and why and how? That is, I am saying, entirely for the individual to decide.

My objection to your position is not that you have decided that the Bible has no relevance *to you.* You get nothing out of it, or nothing good. I have no quarrel with that. What I am saying, though, is that it is okay, acceptable, legitimate, justified -- i.e., that I or anyone has the "right" -- to make the same decision for myself. I think you are trying make what the Bible means to you somehow objective, out there as it were, to be assented to by all rational agents. Maybe you wouldnt put it quite like that, but you do seem to be saying that there is a right answer as to whether the Bible is "relevant."

What I am saying is that that is an question for the individual. Whether a person relates meaningfully to, say, the Muslim symbols and ideals is for him or her to decide, and there is no right or wrong to it. Those symbols and images can be put to right or wrong uses, of course, but we are presuming (for this discussion) the liberal view, which makes misuse not the issue. So, if I feel that a given story is relevant to my life, wherever it is found, then I think that settles the matter. How can I be wrong about whether i find something relevant?

Let me put it this way. Liberals commonly take the Bible to be poetry. So, imagine a poem. Your argument, then , is that this poem is "irrelevant" to moderns. Dont you think thats a rather hard argument to make? Whether a poem is relevant or not, to me, is my decision. Thats my whole point.

I hope that clears it up!

Prup (aka Jim Benton) said...

I just want to interject a comment about the 'science can be misused -- look at atom bombs' argument, because it is another one that keeps on coming up.

There is a difference between 'science' and 'technology' that keeps getting ignored. SCIENCE discovers principles, discovers 'how the world works.' TECHNOLOGY then takes the principles of science and makes use of them -- and technology is rarely controlled by scientists. Rather it is controlled by industrialists, politicians, etc. (Scientists may accept funding and direction from technologists, but they are still different.)

And, despite the negative connotations people get from 'politician' or 'industrialist,' this is not a bad thing. (It isn't even so awful if the funder and director is the military.) Because once science discovers those principles, they are out there to be used by everybody -- frequently in ways unforseen by the funders.

One simple example. The funders who aided the development of the satellite program in the U.S. (which involved both science and then technology) in the fifties did so for two main reasons, to gain a prestige advantage and a military advantage over the Soviet Union. And they were condemned heartily for wasting the taxpayer's money by doing so, and mostly by anti-technology Liberals of the Proxmire type. (I'm a proud Liberal, but not an anti-technology one.)

No one foresaw the savings in man hours and frustration that would occur from the existence of GPS systems. No one foresaw the hundreds of thousands of lives that would be saved through satellite weather observation. (Just this week a horrible hurricane cost thousands of lives in Bangladesh -- though our tribalism caused most TV stations to ignore it. Yes, this was horrible, but in 1970 a similar hurricane in the same location killed 500,000 people. This time satellites gave warning and cut the death toll by 98% -- even when the uncounted dead of this week are finally counted.)

For that matter, nobody predicted the quiet, minor pleasure I got by looking at the world-wide maps and photographs and being able to see the block and very house I grew up in from my computer.

(The irony is that many people, including myself, feel that one major factor in ending the Soviet Union was the possibility of hearing news broadcasts not censorable by the Soviet government, broadcasts on CNN and the BBC that WERE made possible by satellites.)

But SCIENCE can no more take credit for this than it can take the blame for the misuse of the A-Bomb. That's not what science does, just what it makes possible.

(And one other comment. The inestimable Greta Christina frequently states, on her blog, that
'the number of times a supernatural explanation for something has been replaced by a scientific one is in the thousands. The number of times a scientific explanation has been superceded by a supernatural one is ZERO!')

larryniven said...

"misinterpreting a value judgment, and invention one where one does not exist, is a difference that makes no difference. You still have people acting bad under the perceived influence of the system."

So not a single system is more likely to produce bad results, on your view, than any other, because you can "act bad under the perceived influence" of all systems? I claim that's a willfully ignorant and oversimplified position to take, and a dangerous one. If you want more exposition on why, just ask. If this isn't your position, then you concede that some systems are more dangerous than others and the only question is establishing whether Christianity (or religion, whatever) has *motivated* more evil than science has.

"My own feeling is we need to be blaming ourselves for the bad things that happen in the world. I will concede that the interaction between humans and religion is dynamic, and each shapes the other, and bad religion can have powerfully and undeniably bad effects. But why is it obvious that we must blame religion, qua religion, whole cloth, rather than bad religion? If we correct and educate those who think science justifies bad behavior, and correct relgion when it seems to license bad behavior, is the result not the same?"

The point, though, is that we, as a society or a species, haven't made significant progress in "correcting" any religion's ability to motivate bad behavior. We have, however, done so with science - and we've had a lot more time to work with religion than science. I do agree with your ideas about relevance, though - if nothing else, were the bible totally irrelevant, we wouldn't be talking about it so much.

The only real argument against science from a moral perspective, so far as I can tell, is prup's inadvertent one: it makes certain evils possible. I happen to be of the opinion, though, that (unless global warming drives humans to extinction or something) science has enabled immeasurably more good than evil, but at least it's something you have to consider.

zilch said...

james says:

Is beauty just a trick of evolution? Or is it something subjective but real?

I don't understand how this is a dichotomy. Beauty could be- in my opinion it is- grounded in evolution. But beauty is also something both subjective and real. The "just a trick" is, in my humble opinion, gratuitous.

Jennifer said...

I am putting this here again because it fits with this topic and maybe the idea will sink in a bit?

From The Shack, by William Young

"They arrived at the door of the workshop. Again Jesus stopped. "Those who love me come from every system that exists. They were Buddhists or Mormons, Baptists or Muslims, Democrats, Republicans and many who don't vote or are not part of any Sunday morning religious institutions. I have followers who were murderers and many who were self-righteous. Some are bankers and bookies, Americans and Iraqis, Jews and Palestinians. I have no desire to make the Christian, but I do want to join them in their transformation into sons and daughters of my Papa, into my brothers and sisters, into my Beloved."

"Does that mean," asked Mack, "that all roads will lead to you?"

"Not at all," smiled Jesus as he reached for the door handle to the shop. "Most roads don't lead anywhere. What it does mean is that I will travel any road to find you." "

Why is this hard to grasp?

Jennifer said...

James,

Your point here:

Perhaps the main reason for arguing that what I've composed isn't music is because the critic doesn't strongly dislike what I composed, but already knows he doesn't like music.

is what I find confusing about commenting here, not that anyone is graced by my presence. Only a very narrow view of Christianity is allowed to make sense.

On the one hand we are talking about Christianity, but then the idea of God is taken out of the equation...the premise moves. Or at least that's what I have found.

akakiwibear said...

JWL said ”I have often wondered why African Americans would ever want to embrace the very faith that enslaved them and brought them here. I have often wondered why Hispanics have embraced the Catholic faith which produced so much carnage, bloodshed, and diseases when the Spaniards found America.” . It is a wonder isn’t it. Perhaps there is more to faith in God than meets your eye.

When all reason is against holding a faith, yet people do … perhaps there is more to the world than science and reason, well beside art that is. I guess atheists just have to hunker down and convince themselves that all those people out there and wrong.

I observe an interesting link between two threads of this post. The topic of religious experiences being parallel to schizophrenia and JWL’s wonderment above. I have heard many describe St Paul’s conversion as a psychotic episode or perhaps as an epileptic seizure.

Now I understand why they do.
If Paul’s conversion was a conscious exercise of choice then it was certainly a very stupid move – there was no logical upside to becoming a Christian,- JWL would say it’s a wonder he choice a path of exclusion from his own community where he seems to have had a promising career, a path of certain persecution (he knew about that).

So why did he? Well he had a spiritual experience – something happened to him that made him chose persecution. Now atheists very patronisingly say that they think he was sincere in believing what he says happened, but of course it didn’t really happen, he must have suffered from a mental illness.

I wonder that you can expect anyone to believe that. Now if Paul’s experience was truly unique in that there were no other people before or since who had ever had a religious experience, you may have had a point. But there are countless reliable, credible people who have had spiritual experiences.

The ‘mental illness’ argument wears thin after using it a couple of hundred thousand times don’t you think.

JWL often points to Christians dodging behind “can’t explains” as proof of the weakness of their position. I put it too you that atheists tired use of “mental illness” to discredit what would otherwise absolutely discredit their position does indeed reflect the weakness of their position in the practical world where people actually do have spiritual experiences.

Hamba khale - peace

Andrew said...

Lets face it, the consensus around here is that you all don't want ANY form of Christianity.

All that talk about the "right" being the problem was always bogus, everyone knew it.

It reminds me of the little fanatic Avalos up at Iowa, calling for the "elimination" of religion from public and private life.

I have no doubt a new atheist wave is on the horizon, because the Christians have fallen down on the job and now they're are gonna get it. Its happened before, and in time of persecution the church finds itself.

Let the atheists have their field day and lets see how well they do once they have control. Historically speaking, the record in, shall we say, poor.

T.A. Whiston said...

I'm new here but I find your content compelling so I'm just going to jump right in. First of all let me say that I won't pretend to understand the premise of atheism - I've heard many definitions from many people but I assume like most things each individual who calls himself/herself an atheist has their own take on it.

Feel free to correct me there.

Anyway re: Liberal Christianity and whether or not it's dangerous my thoughts are...

Liberal christians do not pose the same threat to the evolution of our species and the freedom of our minds as their fundamentalist counterparts. Liberals aren't the ones trying to shut down every other school of thought that doesn't comply with theirs.

Is it dangerous to the individual to be a "liberal christian"? Is it delusional?

I don't think in all honesty it's possible to make this conjecture. Maybe you are delusional, or maybe I am delusional.

What we call "reality" is a highly filtered, incredibly subjective experience. I just can't be convinced that anyone has the real playbook on what the life phenomenon is and how it can be most accurately examined.

Everything we know, or think we know, is the result of our own sensory input and analysis. Or it's what we believe based on the convincing presentation of others.

There just seems to be no way at all to be 100% certain that anything we see or experience is real in the absolute sense of the word. I therefore submit that we can't honeslty know what's dangerous for an individual to believe in the privacy of his or her own mind.

Simon said...

"But there are countless reliable, credible people who have had spiritual experiences."

The problem here is that there are many people who experience bizarre things for which the only proof is their recollection, which doesn't make those things any more "true", other than they are part of human mental experience (illness implies abnormality, I think aberration is more appropriate).

People have sudden "spiritual" conversions to atheism, in one well documented case after a bang on the head. There is no church of atheism pointing to these conversions as proof that there is more to atheism than the material world, so you tend to hear less about them. Indeed I suspect most atheists would find a Xtian converting to atheism because of some sort of strange mental episode slightly awkward. We'd much rather they got there through learning to think critically.

John isn't arguing that people don't have "spiritual" experiences, indeed I assume he has had his own, it is the meaning (or lack of) you ascribe to them.

If you think conversions like Paul's to Xtianity count as evidence in favour of some aspect of Xtian truth, then conversions to Islam/atheism/Buddhism must count as evidence against that same truth. If not then you risk confirmation bias, if so then the evidence is against your truth.