Saturday, November 27, 2010

I often lament about the public debate on legal matters and how it tends to be framed. But the public debate on religion is just as skewed. A recent phenomena is the evangelical atheist. Folks like Bill Maher, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris who, to my mind, represent nothing as much as an adolescent who thinks he knows something that everyone else has missed. Just as science is unlikely - almost by definition - ever to prove the existence of God, it is just as ill suited to prove the absence. So guys like Dawkins, et al., and Dennett and PZ Myers go after low hanging fruit - making fun of caricatures of religious viewpoints and the most simple minded of believers. It's great sport but its largely useless.

Into the fray enters Phillip Goldberg, author of a book on Indian spirituality and the West. He wants to posit an alternative to the cartoonish religion of the Traveling Atheism Show but winds up suggesting a some mix between agnosticism and a religion of the Self. Rather than suggest a religion that is is consistent with reason, he suggests one that is barely religious.

Goldberg's preaching the faith called Spiritual But Not Religious which, at least in his mind, sees God as "a formless, creative power that would not seem out of place in a physics seminar." The SBNR are, apparently unlike the traditionally religious, rational and reasonable. These folks don't see God as an anthropomorphic father figure in the sky and "don't accept all religious dogma as revealed truth ...." "If they value scripture at all," he says, "they do so selectively and read it metaphorically, not as history or as an infallible guide to morality."

The difficulties with such a "faith" are well rehearsed. It amounts to what some have called "Sheilaism" - which threatens to become a reification of whatever one happens to feel at the moment without much regard for the wisdom of others, particularly of one's ancestors. Because it can mean anything, it means nothing.

But more fundamentally, Goldberg has missed much of the Judeo-Christian tradition (I can't comment on Islam) which has always read the Bible as something other than literal history or moral statutes. For Goldberg, people like Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Barth, etc., must never have existed. He obviously doesn't know - or at least care to acknowledge - that people wrestle with the issues that they wrestled with every day.

To say that the Bible is something other than the literal word of God (something that Roman and Anglo Catholicism and the mainline Protestant denominations and Judaism largely do say) does not render it irrelevant. To acknowledge moral complexity is not to slide into moral relativism. To recognize that our images of a personal God are metaphorical because God as God exists cannot be fully known ("we see through a glass darkly") is not to render God the equivalent of some groovy form of Dark Matter.


Anonymous said...

Do you lament Christian evangelism? Do you complain when Latter-Day Saints, Jehovah's Witnesses or television preachers or any other religious folks proselytize?

John Foust said...

I'll take Unproven Metaphors for $200, Alex.

Wow, you or Luther or Aquinas can't even tell us what God is, and now you want us to prove He doesn't exist? And if we can't to your satisfaction, therefore He exists? And the atheists are the confused, non-rational ones?

In your courts, classrooms, or cloisters, who has the burden of proof? I think it's the one making the assertion.

John McAdams said...

In your courts, classrooms, or cloisters, who has the burden of proof? I think it's the one making the assertion.


Foust seems not to realize that saying that God does not exist is an assertion.

But for the agnostics: saying that we lack evidence to know that God exists is an assertion.

Foust wants his secular biases to be the privileged position.

Anonymous said...

I'd have expected better quality sophistry from a professor at a Catholic university. Do you see any assertion in Mr. Foust's comment, professor? Although Foust hasn't actually made an assertion, McAdams accuses him of wanting his "biases" to hold the privileged position. And he doesn't even address the substantive point Foust made. If I didn't know better, I'd say this is just the sort of cheap dialogue the Shark deplores.

For the record requiring some proof for an assertion such as, "god exists" is not, in an of itself, an assertion requiring proof.

John Foust said...

Who said what exists? I didn't say there was a God. When someone asserts there's a God, I say there's no evidence. You've got a definition of God we can use for this exercise, Prof. McAdams?

What's that, you say there's a particular God with a part-human Son, and a cadre of came-before and came-after fellow intercessory magicians? I don't see no God, no how, no where. You do? Who is asserting what here?

George Mitchell said...

The phrase "evangelistic atheist" recalled a visit to New Zealand earlier this year. Dawkins spoke to a sellout crowd of several thousand and received a rock star's reception. In Christchurch, btw. There are now NZ billboards proclaiming that God "probably" does not exist. See

I was struck by the fervor and enthusiasm of Dawkins' reception. Seems really odd.

Free Lunch said...

Professor McAdams:

The defendant has no duty to support his claim that the plaintiff is wrong unless the plaintiff has managed to support his claim in a matter that is adequate to go to the jury. Currently, if the plaintiffs rested their case, their claim asserting that God exists would be thrown out for failure to substantiate the initial claim. The defendant would have to do nothing.

When there is some evidence for any gods, get back to us. Until then, your case is dismissed without prejudice.

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