Sunday, October 24, 2004

leaving theism

So last night, I wrote a post titled "the thinks I think," which included the following question, here slightly edited:

Why do we feel free to speak of the mind, hand(s), and eye(s) of God, but not of the nervous ganglia, tentacles, and eyestalks of God?

Over at AnalPhilosopher, Dr. KBJ's been talking about (and blasted for his opinion of) theism.

Over at Maverick Philosopher, Dr. Vallicella's been exploring philosophical problems with Augustine's notion of divine incarnation.

Dr. KBJ claims:

Nor... have I known anyone who became an atheist as a result of the argument from evil...

Theism is in the air, so I thought I'd talk a little about my own strange path away from a literalist vision of God.

Long ago, in a mental galaxy far, far away, I used to be a creationist. Not a very strong one, mind you, but I shared my father's belief that the world is an amazingly complex place for which terms like "randomness" and "coincidence" seemed extremely unsatisfactory. As many other theists do, I therefore felt there had to be a "bottom" to things, some ultimate explanatory factor, something that started the ball rolling. And not only that, but when this thing, God, started the ball rolling, the event was somehow documented in a writ we call the Bible. I believed in miracles. I believed in a literal resurrection. If the Bible said Jesus walked on water and multiplied a few loaves and fishes to feed five thousand people, then it must have happened.

But I'm also a reasonable person, or so I like to think during my more self-deluded moments. Two events occurred, both education-related, to push me and my sense of reason away from creationism, and, eventually, from theism.

The first was a creationism-vs.-evolutionism debate we had in biology class during my sophomore year in high school. I and some classmates were going to bat for the creationists, and I had a bundle of notes. But not long before the debate was to take place, something occurred to me and I decided to pull out. I'm still not sure how to describe the switch in thinking. Maybe it's the closest thing I'll ever have to a "conversion" experience. What occurred to me was that the debate itself was pointless. I also realized that the evolutionist team's arguments for the imperfection of God made a lot of sense to my reasonable mind.

The second event was during a Problem of God course my freshman year at Georgetown University. All GU students, regardless of major, are required to take two philo and two theo courses. Most freshmen pick Problem of God as one of their two theo courses. It's essentially a philosophy of religion curriculum. If you want to know what our class talked about, pick up John Hick's excellent primer, Philosophy of Religion, 4th edition (non-pluralists needn't worry: Hick doesn't use the book as an excuse to push his pluralist agenda).

The Problem of God dealt mainly with arguments for and against the existence of God, as well as arguments for and against different concepts of God. The stats for the course were interesting: I'd heard that, at GU, around 25% of students who finished the course ended up either losing or changing their faith.

I was and remain Presbyterian. But the POG course effectively knocked God off his pedestal for me. I was surprised and ashamed to realize how little of a critical thinker I'd been up to that point, and I think that, even to this day, that shame is what motivates me to be so critical of thinkers and thought-systems. I'm making up for lost time.

I might just be one of those people who listened to the argument from evil (and other arguments as well) and took a conscious step away from classical theism as a result. I wouldn't call myself an atheist; if my position has a label, I'd prefer to be known as a nontheist (cf. the difference between irrational and nonrational).

Traditional conceptions of God are crippling in two ways: (1) they create too many logical contradictions, and/or (2) they demand that people simply suspend their critical faculties in order to embrace what is, quite possibly, nonsense.

Although I'm not rigorous in this regard, I consider myself a scientific skeptic. I appreciate the empirical. If you read my arguments on this blog, you'll notice that most of the important ones have an empirical point of departure. I believe there is a such thing as an objective reality, and that that reality exhibits behaviors we can label as regular-- regular enough that we can even predict what will happen in many cases. I believe that the physical reality with which we're becoming increasingly acquainted has been behaving this way since the beginning of the cosmos (assuming the cosmos has a beginning, of course). This is important because it serves to undermine biblical claims that are treated by scriptural literalists as scientific fact-- the Bible as journalism or science report. I believe, therefore, that scriptural literalists are making a genre mistake.

Dr. Tony Tambasco at Georgetown University is an excellent lecturer. In the late 90s, long after I'd graduated from undergrad, I found myself taking two night courses with him, one on the Old Testament and another on the New Testament. Dr. Tambasco talked about the problem of genre confusion. The example he gave was this:

Suppose it's the year 3000 and archeologists dig down through the sedimentary layers of civilization and find literature from circa 2000. Specifically, they happen upon the "Peanuts" comic strip. A naive archeologist might take the "Peanuts" imagery literally and conclude that people in the year 2000 were eternally seven years old, had huge heads and tiny bodies, and owned talking pets that had rich inner lives marked by philosophy and romantic, WWI-era fantasy. The conclusions drawn by such an archeologist would, of course, be wrong.

But a more sophisticated archeologist would note first the genre of the literature. "Peanuts," he'd realize, was a comic strip. If he was up on his literary history, he'd further realize that many mainstream comics dealt with existential issues in a whimsical, metaphorical manner. With this as his point of departure, his reading of the strip would uncover truths about Y2K society that would be unavailable to the naive archeologist.

To me, a literalistic view of scripture is a guaranteed dead end in terms of religious practice. An overly literal view simply produces contradictions, which you must then reject, accept, or attempt to ignore (at your peril, in my opinion). Many believers never even note the contradictions in their beliefs; to have them pointed out (as happened to me in the Problem of God class) can be extremely discomfiting.

I was only half-joking when I wrote my question about the eyestalks and tentacles of God. My point was to highlight the fact that, as human beings, we arrogantly anthropomorphize anything and everything (a point made extremely well by Scott McCloud in his book, Understanding Comics). The brain is wired to find patterns in the phenomena around us, and if no pattern is there to be found, the brain has little trouble simply making one up.

People are also gullible when it comes to the supernatural. We like magic; we want to believe-- to be, as Carl Sagan wrote in his The Demon-haunted World, bamboozled. When someone decides to investigate a seemingly miraculous occurrence, we get upset. "You're taking the magic away! Why can't you just leave the event alone? It's not harming anyone!"

And that, right there, is my ethical beef with religious superstition. Personally, I feel that religion is cluttered with an amazing amount of nonsense that is, in fact, harmful to oneself and others. I respect the counter-argument that scientists and philosophers are often guilty of their own hubris, but in reality, this isn't a counter-argument: it's an agreement that we're staring at the same human problem, which crops up in all pursuits, but most conspicuously in religion.

This, in turn, is why I remain sympathetic to John Hick's approach to the question of religious pluralism despite the crucial flaws in his paradigm. Hick is demanding that we actively work to unplug the harmful elements in religious belief. He fully understands that we haven't arrived at an agreed-upon standard for determining what's harmful, but he feels the effort should proceed all the same. I agree.

To speak of God as One who wills, plans, punishes, forms covenants, makes commandments, destroys armies, etc., is to anthropomorphize reality, to make reality human, to put the cart before the horse and ignore what science tells us: people are newcomers to the cosmic story. The cosmos was "cosmos-ing" billions of years before we arrived and retroactively humanized it. Far from being the center of the universe, we're tiny, fragile beings who live on a wee speck of dirt in an incomprehensibly huge, silent vastness.

Some will be depressed by such a vision of things, but I don't see why they should be. Like Carl Sagan, I think the universe, just as it is and without our unnecessary, superstitious, overly pious imputations, provides enough material to feed a proper sense of awe, and even reverence. As Zen master Robert Aitken said to Brother David Steindl-Rast in The Ground We Share, one doesn't have to be thankful to someone to experience a sense of gratitude for this moment.


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