Friday, July 29, 2011

Christianitys' Dangerous Idea

A review of Alister McGrath’s Christianity’s Dangerous Idea. (Harper One 2007)

Alister McGrath can’t be faulted for lack of ambition with his book Christianity’s Dangerous Idea. In about 500 pages McGrath attempts a history of Protestantism unlimited by geography or denomination from the pre-reformation humanists to the modern day. In addition McGrath gives a rendering of the primary debates and divisions within Protestantism. Then he speculates on the future of the Protestant church(es) particularly via Pentecostalism.
The consequence is that much of McGraths book has to skim detail. Unlike a 2000 page biography of Calvin where a reader can be led through events to draw their own conclusions McGrath has to summarise. He does this with great care and takes pains to make the reader aware how historians’ perceptions also have their own histories. There are inevitable disappointments for the adherents of minority philosophies or fans of particular figures of history. Theistic existentialists like Kierkegaard don’t make the cut. Liberation theology gets one sentence. I was saddened to see that Dickens’ A Christmas Carol wasn’t given a mention (whilst The Chronicles of Narnia briefly was).
In my opinion the only truly grievous oversight is McGrath’s far too superficial treatment of women’s status in the church.  I am probably influenced here by how large this issue looms in Australian Protestantism. The church leaders of Australia’s wealthiest and arguably most powerful Anglican diocese in Sydney consider feminism a deeply anti-Christian philosophy with “biblical” gender roles connected to the doctrine of the trinity, part of the created order and a core component of God’s plan. There are alliances with Australian Presbyterians in this regard and threats of schism over the ordination of women.   Around Adelaide a very different Anglo-Catholic grouping in the Anglican church are making overtures to rejoin the Catholic church with a concern over women’s ordination also one motivation. In this context the close link between feminism and protestant Christianity’s priesthood of all believers (the first feminists were overwhelmingly Christian) would have been very interesting to read more about. Instead McGrath spends more time on hymnody than gender struggles in the church.
McGrath knows defining Protestantism is a dangerous decision itself. For McGrath this is Protestantism; a belief in the supremacy of the Bible to which all doctrines must apply for authority. The consequence of this is the dangerous idea that no other authority can absolutely mediate the believers’ interpretations and access to the Word.
Others may wish McGrath defined Protestantism more narrowly. Lutheran and Calvinist theology share an anti-pelagianist emphasis. Pelagianism is the name given to any belief that suggests human salvation can be earned. Luther was so adamantly opposed to Pelagianism that he questioned the inclusion of the letter of James in the canon. (James is often used to challenge the doctrine of “justification by faith alone”.) Calvin argued that even the suggestion that people could accept or reject unmerited salvation was a kind of Pelagianism. For both these church fathers and their descendants Sola fide (Faith alone) is as important as Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone). Understandably some readers will be uncomfortable with a definition of Protestantism that isn’t faithful to either of its most famous heroes.
McGrath however makes his case well that Protestantism can’t reasonably exclude leaders and churches who didn’t and don’t accept Sola Fide. In fact the forefather of Protestantism is generally considered to be Erasmus who had no significant doctrinal disagreements with Catholicism but who believed in a need for general access to Scripture and moral purity. From the very beginning of the Reformation Zwingli and the Ana-baptists felt that moral reform of the church was crucial for its restoration as a Christian church. Both Lutherans and Calvinists considered this emphasis on moral reform to be pelagianist. Wesleyans and some Pentecostalists would also be excluded by a strict requirement for Sola Fide. In fact Sola Fide is less well understood than Sola Scriptura even in Lutheran and Presbyterian churches. It’s not impossible to imagine these churches moving away from Sola Fide while still remaining Protestant. It’s much harder to imagine a movement away from Sola Scriptura.
McGrath recognises that Sola Scriptura faces challenges in application. If there is no authority above Scripture then how is there to be any adjudication about the various interpretations of Scripture (such as in the issue of Sola Fide or even more critical issues such as the Trinity). Any naive hopes about the clarity of scripture in its plain language were shattered by early disagreements about the real presence of God in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. To resolve this (albeit with different conclusions) Lutherans and Calvinists accepted the creeds of the early churches as divinely inspired formulations (though under scripture) and paid attention to the writings of Augustine in particular. The Ana-baptists did not.  For the Ana-Baptists scripture alone meant exactly that and they subsequently took a Congregationalist approach with individual congregations drawing their doctrinal conclusions from scripture by God’s grace. If disagreement arose, such as over the biblical basis of the trinity, Congregationalists would either leave to establish a new church or tolerate difference. Whereas Lutherans and Calvinists were able to produce confessional documents which have been resistant to change Ana-baptists and their descendants have been remarkably adaptable.
This adaptability eventually even raises difficulties for McGrath’s schema. It is only a difference by degree to say that the Holy Spirit ensures true interpretation of scripture to saying that the Holy Spirit can provide additional new revelation. After all one persons new interpretation if radical enough looks like a new revelation to others. Pentecostalism fits this bill and McGraths claim that it may be the future of Protestantism is a contentious one. Is a God as present as the Pentecostalists’ one, a Holy spirit who provides the gift of prophecy amongst others, consistent with Sola Scriptura? Even if there isn’t any new teaching wouldn’t a documenting of the workings of this spirit at least form another book of Acts?
I feel more ambivalent than McGrath about seeing Pentecostalism as a continuation of the protestant reformation. To me it has the look of a new reformation. In fact I think there are more parallels between early Christianity and Pentecostalism than between early Christianity and Protestantism. Early Christianity like Pentecostalism was a religion of the poor, largely shared orally and uncontained by geography which astonished the establishment of their time by its rapid growth. Protestantism was immediately attractive to merchants and princes wanting relief from church control and often blind to the needs of the poor (in England the destruction of the monasteries equated to the removal of a welfare and hospital system for the poor), extremely literary and scholastic and rapidly organised by geography (coinciding as it did with the emergence of the nation state).
In fact this dissonance with the early church raises a fascinating contradiction. Sola Scriptura is itself not particularly scriptural. For example it is often said that Christ only instituted two sacraments – baptism and the Eucharist or communion. McGrath mentions how in the Reformed tradition (excluding Lutherans) the place of the Eucharist as the central focus of the architecture and worship service was supplanted by the gospel reading and sermon. An alien observer would have to consider that this reading of the gospel was a more important element of Christian tradition, a sacrament in itself.
Another subtle shift in the early reformation is a move away from emulating Christ to understanding his message. To express it imperfectly, the medieval spiritual ideal was the saint while the protestant spiritual ideal was the theologian. This is certainly too simplistic - Luther’s courage and piety are celebrated and Aquinis is a theologian of high regard in the pre-reformation church - however there is some shift in the mean between ideas and example. It may be that Sola Fide rather than Sola Scripture is the real cause here however increased access to the bible aids the shift. In a world order with the bible at the centre it is natural that the biblical scholar is king. Ultimately the institutionalised practice of Sola Scriptura ironically resembles the biblical representation of the Pharisees with their scriptural trap-setting. In it’s extreme form the behaviour of Jesus (such as generosity, non-prejudice, forgiveness and self-sacrifice) are seen entirely as messages about what God is like and nothing mere humans should try and repeat. I think this creates a spiritual vacuum which we see filled in Protestantism by Pietism and their bold question “What would Jesus Do?” amongst many others.
I had a great time reading the first half of McGrath’s book. Calvin and Luther often dominate histories of the early reformation merely because Calvinists and Lutherans as creedal movements are more interested in their origins. McGrath’s book helped to fill major gaps in my knowledge about Zwigli and the Ana-Baptists. McGrath has also served to remind me how much I really need to read a decent biography of John Wesley and a history of the Methodists.  
One very interesting section of McGrath’s book was his discussion of the role of missionaries under colonialism. McGrath gives solid evidence that they were often defenders of indigenous culture and language, against state and commercial interests. Sponsoring churches were not always understanding of the virtue of protecting what they saw as heathen ways of life so some missionaries stood against their own faith communities as well.   Certainly there is the famous case of David Livingstone who sought to open up Africa for Christianity and commerce, but less well known is Hiram Bingham who in the 1820s refused to teach Hawaiian islanders English believing this would destroy their culture or Silas T. Rand who advocated for the Micmac people of the Canadian Maritimes in land rights disputes. Our Australian history of missionary interaction with indigenous peoples is a similarly complex and contradictory one.
I found the latter half of Christianity’s Dangerous Idea a lot harder going. Partly this is due to the missing detail on women’s status in Protestantism. Partly this was due to my uncertainty that Pentecostalism belonged in this history. Also I think McGrath excels at compiling and combining the work of other historians. McGrath has not only read and comprehended broadly but he is sensitive to ongoing debates as well as clever with his choice of examples. As McGrath moves into areas which haven’t been so extensively explored his book becomes weaker merely because he has less to work with.
I not sure how good a history can be when it tries to do as much as this one in so few words. Still there is definitely a place for trying to tie everything together which a more specific history couldn’t do. Subsequently I’d make a qualified recommendation of Christianity’s Dangerous Idea. At least the first half serves as an excellent springboard to further reading.
As an interesting aside while reading this book I attended a talk on “New Monasticism”. This movement is friendly with another called the Emerging Church and together they put forward a very intriguing vision for the future of Protestantism. These small home church movements and devotional communities emphasise living and evidencing the Gospel rather than doctrinal exactitude. They are a reaction against the logocentricism of Sola scriptura as well as the emotionalism (and lack of relationalism) of the Pentecostal mega-church.  McGrath discusses this movement briefly as “the church of cells” which he relates to origins in Asian Pentecostalism. The talk I went to connected the movement to medieval monastic movements like the Franciscans and Benedictines. I’m not sure they are talking about the same thing. Indeed given the “dangerous” idea of direct access to the scriptures it’s perfectly possible that McGrath’s book has become outdated since publication in 2007. The future of Protestantism remains fundamentally up-for-grabs with Neo-Calvinism, Pentecostalism, reconciliation with the Catholic church and New Monasticism all likely to play some part.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Whether you believe in God or not is just not that important. (A Draft)

I’m not 100% happy with this piece. I’ve made some sloppy use of the word evidence for example. How I describe religions impact in history also needs a tidy up. In fact I’ll probably make that the topic of a future blog.
I think however I’d rather publish and be damned. The central arguments are solid IMO and perhaps people’s comments can help me tighten it up. Besides keeping to a posting schedule has its own benifits.
Consider it a 1st draft.
Where you stand on whether God exists is not that important.
I just finished Ravi Zachiarias’ The End of Reason. This noxious little book is a response to the larger odious book The End of Faith by Sam Harris. This is about the fifth book I’ve read in this depressingly common series of pro and anti theist writing. That’s on top of journal articles and essays and enough you-tube clips to blind me. Unfortunately these debates are having a similar effect on philosophy as pop-psychology has had on its discipline. We are getting dumber.
I remember reading The End of Faith and feeling like Sam Harris was pissing on my brain. His book contains a few important questions but he makes them into conclusions. For example  it is a worthy question to ask “What of those instructions from the Judeo-Christian God in the Old Testament that don’t measure up to my most basic assumptions of morality?”, “How can religions that supposedly foster a sense of universal siblinghood be the sponsors of the dehumanisation in honour killings or the bombing of schoolbuses?”
But are the only answers to these questions that God doesn’t exist? Hardly. Are these selective examples of the fruits of theism? Absolutely. What Sam Harris manages to provide is a lengthy description of how religion makes him anxious. His reasons show him to potentially be a considerate and thoughtful person. His leap from his own anxiety to a general condemnation shows him to be a twat. You get the impression he never gets past his own “issues” to either listen to religious people or to take a balanced look at history.
For his part Ravi Zachiarias blames atheism for his own suicide attempt and he credits Christian theism for his re-engagement with life. Zachiarias makes no attempt to get past his own issues or it seems take responsibility for his own actions. He begins his book with a fictional piece about a family distressed when the eldest son becomes an atheist after reading Sam Harris. The mother is so heartbroken that she commits suicide. Although the mother is a theist when she kills herself her death is unequivocally Sam Harris’ fault and by extension the fault of atheist advocates. Seriously, this is infantile thinking that Zachiarias never escapes.
In Harris’s opinion the more religious you are the more likely you are to commit terrible acts. Harris predicts that his readers (in their Western societies) will immediately think of their peers who actually do jolly good things from a religious basis. Harris states that these people simply do not take their own faith seriously. For Harris the lukewarm in their faith who balance their religious beliefs with “common sense” are dangerous because they disable criticism of their more fundamentalist peers. For Harris you have to define these faith based philosophies from their most literal and logically extreme positions.
In The End of Reason, the more atheist you are the more likely you are to commit terrible acts. Zachiarias doesn’t waste much time on explaining pleasant luke warm atheists however. His book is shorter. Instead there are examples given of famous atheists which either imply they weren’t so atheist after all or make character assassinations of them. I was physically sickened by the distorted and homophobic description of Foucalt. Zachiarias suggests Foucalt wilfully contracted HIV to fulfil a death wish born of his atheism. Even the most basic scholar of Foucalt would guess that he would have liked to enjoy a long life and that like all gay men of the 70s had no idea AIDs was over the horizon. But Zachiarias has no time for the possibility of a happy gay atheist. For Zachiarias, Harris also is not taking his philosophy seriously because he is not suicidal. For Zachiarias, only something transcendant (or supernatural) can give meaning to life and because atheism supposedly rejects this it produces a meaningless life – the only logical result of which is either despair or the extreme pursuit of power and pleasure.
Both of these books are just filthy propaganda. There is simply no honest way a Christian apologist can maintain that relying on scripture or a direct experience of God doesn’t come with difficulties. In the end the Christian is operating from a theology which disagrees with other theologies often because of clear harms that it thinks those theologies will produce. Rev Phelps and his church of gay haters are theists.
There is equally no honest way that a historian can call religion a negative (or clearly positive) force in the world.  The most religious tend to be the most at odds with the world around them because religion enables this, but when the world around them is suggesting the slaughter of an indigineous people lo it’s the religious madmen in their way. Similarly it’s the most religious who led the campaign against slavery in the Western world. In fact if you believe that our time is any improvement on the past you have to credit religion for this to some extent because for all of history atheism has had a very small cultural influence.
Of course it’s also true that pretty much every war has had strong religious rhetoric supporting it. However, most great literature (Jane Austen for example) also has a religious basis. Hang on, why it’s almost as if religion permeated everything up until relatively recently. So yes, Capitalism, Colonialism, Democracy, Tyranny, Feminism, Patriarchy, Racism, Anti-Racism, that would be religions’ children. Secularism is a baby itself. Perhaps it can lay claim to Psychology?
So both books rely on bad sociology and bad history however the real crime is what Harris and Zachiarias do to philosophy.  I’ll refute Harris first because it’s so bleedingly obvious.
Harris makes the target of his attack “Faith”. Let’s accept its definition as the belief in something without evidence or deductions from evidence. What Harris fails to do is explain how he can have any kind of philosophy without atleast a modicum of this Faith. Even if you are an absolute empiricist who attempts to believe only in sense data you have to have some faith in sense data (the data can’t justify the data as this would be circular).
Now there are different types of “Faith” – there are assumptions, intuitions and convictions (in the Calvinist sense) – but these all share in our definition as beliefs based on something other than evidence or deductions based on evidence. Assumptions are the most mundane being just mental leaps over gaps in the logic. If you believe an assumption then your belief has a tentative and reluctant nature. Its like saying you know you’ve cheated. Assumptions are very open to being wrong.  Intuitions are a type of knowledge that emerges from the knower in a way that can’t be described from the evidence. If you can imagine perceiving with your “heart” or your “gut” or your “third eye” then you have the concept of intuition. Intuitions have some openness to being wrong. They can be overturned by new information leading to a new intuition. “Convictions” are a way of knowing that comes from the object of knowledge. This can be hard for modern people to comprehend because almost the only way we apply this kind of knowledge since the rise of science is in relation to God. The concept is that God, or the Scriptures or if you like a person or even an object communicates its “truth” so forcefully you will know it whereas if you just surveyed the evidence without that communication you could never be sure (even by intuition). Convictions are the least open to being wrong as they come from the source. It’s still possible that the source could be deceptive as in a devil masquerading as God but convictions are by their nature harder to challenge.
Now here’s the rub. You can’t have any system of knowledge without either assumptions, intuitions or convictions. Whatever your epistemology you have to have some kind of Faith. And the type of knowledge Harris and Zachiarias are contesting is in fact moral knowledge – knowing right from wrong. For that kind of knowledge you need a busload of Faith to get by (thankyou Lou Reed).
Why so much Faith (assumptions, intuitions or convictions) you may ask? The reason is a very old philosophical problem known as the is-ought divide. There is simply no way to get from what is (ie. The child is hurt) to what ought to be (ie. I should hug them) by deductive logic. You can only cross the divide with an assumption, intuition or conviction (or something derived from them). After all multiple conflicting oughts can be applied to any specific IS. (ie. The child is hurt so I should tell them to toughen up or avenge them with some dual katana action or ignore them) So Sam Harris is in a quandary because he attacks Faith but then can’t explain how he navigates a moral landscape without it.
Zachiarias’s mistake is to think that somehow he is in a different boat to Harris because he is a theist. Zachiarias states that because he has credible evidence that there IS a moral lawgiver in God, then he knows what he OUGHT to do. Can you spot the problem? Zachiarias omits to mention that he like Harris must have some Faith to cross the gap from Is to ought. What Zachiarias means is that he knows God is the LEGITIMATE moral lawgiver but this legitimacy can’t be derived from the evidence because the evidence will only show what is – not what ought to be. Zachiarias is either making an assumption (ie. A creator has moral rights), relying on intuition (ie. Feels like a loving God) or receiving conviction (ie.Being claimed by the Holy Spirit).
And... this is important... if Zachiarias can allow himself to use Faith to cross the divide from Is to Ought then he can’t fairly deny the same to an atheist. Why can’t an atheist assume, intuit or even be convicted by a moral position. Conviction is a hard one to imagine without a personality to communicate its truth but I wouldn’t deny the language to the atheist entirely. It’s possible to say that the oneness of all beings is a truth that convicts. Or the dignity of another person.
Even more importantly (I repeat) what IS doesn’t lead to what OUGHT to be. There is no way to conclude from the statement that there IS no God that one OUGHT to be suicidal or a Stalinist dictator or anything. Zachiarias joins a chorus of Christian apologists who argue that whimsical cruelty, naked self-interest or paradoxically self-destruction can be logically deduced from atheism. That statement is nonsense. Even if we make the mistaken claim that a theistic IS contains an undeniable OUGHT then all an atheistic ISN’T would contain is the space for other OUGHTs including infact the theistic one. Whatever moral system the atheist ends up with (including an amoral one) can’t be a pure conclusion of their atheism.
Perhaps the only thing that can be said is that theistic beliefs are more conducive to the reception of conviction as the means of bridging the gap between IS and OUGHT. Atheistic beliefs are more conducive to using intuition or assumption with the latter preferred by empiricists or logical positivists (your typical “New Atheist”). Because conviction is the hardest of the three to overturn while assumption is the most tentative theists are more likely to have stronger moral convictions than the New Atheists. Whether greater conviction is a good thing or not depends on the situation and one’s own moral assessment. Harris can present the conviction of a terrorist bomber and be sure that his western readers will recoil in disgust. Zachiarias can present the idea of ambivalence towards the modern sexual slave trade and expect his readership to strongly disapprove. In fact though, there is only a soft distinction behind these exaggerations. There are also hard-line atheistic moralists and morally flexible theists.
Even the above summary of the theist-“new atheist” distinction over morality is dubious. Most of our moral decisions are not about child abuse or mass murder, the examples that tend to dominate these books. How much should I sacrifice for those needier than me is a more relevant moral question for both atheists and theists.  A very small number of people would believe that they can hold a very certain and unchanging answer to this question. And the line between what IS and any such answer is likely to be highly circuitous, involving multiple assumptions, intuitions and convictions.
The genre of pop-philosophy which debates theism wants to make out that whether you believe in God or not is supremely important. The End of Faith and The End of Reason in particular pretend it is supremely important to ones morality. In doing so they have to deliberately overlook the dilemma of the IS-OUGHT divide. It makes for a black and white world for both authors and a dumbing down of their readership.

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Universe Next Door. - A Review

The Universe Next Door. By James W. Sire
James Sire’s book The Universe Next Door is a polemic in favour of a very specific Christianity. Although it purports to be a “catalogue” of a range of differing belief systems which Sire organises into mutually exclusive world views, it’s obviously not committed to that enterprise.
There’s something tragic about The Universe Next Door by James W. Sire being “used as a text at over one hundred colleges and universities” according to its back cover blurb. It’s a tragedy that compelled me to complete it because its a tragedy that is common in the distance between religious apologetics and real humble scholarship.
It’s not that Sire doesn’t know his stuff. He is noticeably weaker in his grasp of “Eastern” thinking and Postmodernism (and he hands the chapter on Islam to a colleague) but he has read and comprehended widely and he links his sources into his arguments well.
The real problem is that Sire’s project is fundamentally intellectually dishonest. This probably shouldn’t surprise. Reading one world views’ approved book on other world views is a shortcut to understanding that should raise suspicions. When the text turns to another “scholar” to contribute the chapter on Islam and pointedly doesn’t turn to an Islamic scholar then the claustrophobia of its academic perspective is obvious.   
Sire’s catalogue is actually a view from his own window over the range of other world views he can see at - but he never sees from those world views. He never leaves his own house. As a part of this Sire never sees his own house clearly. Subsequently his Christian Theism is probably the least investigated of all the world views he describes. Sire makes no mention of the great controversies and paradoxes of Christian Theology. Predestination and the dilemma of responsibility without free choice is actually ascribed to Islam but not mentioned in Christian Theism. Instead Sire ascribes to Christian theism a notion of “an open universe” where human creativity can genuinely create (and even author beauty) outside of Gods permission. No conflict is mentioned between this and “total depravity” or Gods complete sovereignty (hardly obscure points).  Sire also can’t see how divine command ethics could fail to satisfy our sense of right and wrong (ie. That it feels wrong to kill your child even if God says to). The propositions of (Sires’) Christian Theism are just allowed to float on the page unmolested by further investigation.
This is not the case for any other world view in the book. Sire takes every other world view’s answers to his questions (which he admits are theistically biased) to their logical extreme. With Deism, Naturalism, Existentialism, Postmodernism and even Islam (by another author) Sire ends up at Nihilism. (He doesn’t quite get there with Pantheistic Monism so he resorts to some very basic slander about Eastern “skulduggery” at the end of that chapter instead).
Basically Sire has invented a game which requires a perspective to provide both meaning and agency to its adherents. Losing lands you in the Nihilist camp, forced to endure repeats of Samuel Beckets’ Breath. The rules of the game are to answer a series of questions with definite statements (no uncertainty allowed). If you can’t or won’t answer Sire will answer for you (hence Postmodernism is considered atheistic despite it not being about absolute truth statements). Your answers will then be tested for logical consistency and taken to their darkest extreme. There is no room for a Catholic sense of mystery or even the importance of a Calvinist conviction of the spirit in comprehending your views. Sire can do it just as easily from his own perspective as you can from your own.
When I step back from The Universe Next Door I realise there are only really two points in the book. The first point is that ethics is in difficulty without a transcendent moral authority such as a creator God. This is a fascinating area of discussion. If Sire was more humble he might learn from moralities which didn’t have a creator God at their centre. Instead he declares that those people must be “inauthentic” adherents of their creeds – unwilling to see the obvious implications of their propositions. To explain, to a Buddhist morality can be explained as self-evident on the basis that there is no distinction between oneself and another. Compassion and enlightenment are inseparable. A real student of other world views would try to see how this could make sense even if they ultimately concluded it didn’t satisfy them. Alternatively there are ethics within Christian environments which make no claim to divine (or at least biblical) authorship – politeness for example.  Exploring how they operate would be a way towards understanding how a non-theist could be moral without being any more “naive” than a Christian.
The second point of Sires’ is that a “closed universe” where free will is an illusion and only one future is possible is catastrophic for humanity. Art, the law, romance, science and everything else humans feel they do by choice has to logically be abandoned. Or rather has to completed as a kind of sad drudgery produced by compulsion. Once again this is a fascinating space for discussion. The fact is that people who believe in a “closed universe” include most obviously strict Calvinists but to a certain extent Christians in general who would believe that no amount of free will is going to change the outcome of the end times. We all have to accept some limits to our free will and we can all feel those limits as chokingly narrow at times. There are so many other responses to this other than despair. Honouring those responses is infinitely more rewarding than declaring them naive or inauthentic.
I want to praise Sire for the extensiveness of his source materials. I think he shows more integrity than your average polemicist by not cherry picking his quotes. And it’s not like he makes no effort to try on other world views. He just doesn’t try hard or rather humbly enough. He acknowledges that his schema is a poor way to appraise foreign belief systems but he’s not brave enough to abandon it. In the end seeing his own philosophy winning his own game is more important to Sire than genuine understanding. If that’s a university standard for a text then that’s a tragedy.

Where I'm at. A summary of my non-theism.

The following is an essay I wrote because I felt the need to clarify where I stand in the atheist and non-theist debate. I also had to express the deep dissatisfaction, even anger I was feeling with the way Christian theology (inspired by Paul) "convicted" atheists for their atheism. I still feel it is not only unreasonable but  undermining of honest faith to treat non-belief as sin.
Its a fitting first post to this blog for no other reason than it was the first thing I wrote after a long hiatus.
I'm not exactly sure what to title it. "Where I'm at" works for me.
I am not all about being an atheist. I don’t consider myself particularly and especially distinct from theists, just as a theist is unlikely to consider themself in fraternity with every other theist. In that vague way in which a theist may consider the term theist meaningful I am likely to share common ground in spirit at least. While I am in awe of processes of creation that are not designed from above, like evolution and emergence I don’t consider human scholarship as only recently having stepped out of ignorant darkness. Theism is a part of the same great imagining of the universe. I also see God is as often a tool of liberation – the great equaliser – as buttress of tyranny. Political atheism is not my bag. I would much rather share a conceptual boat and a political movement with the hopeful and kind than with every fellow atheist.
Further how could a negative word like atheism sum me up? I am as positive as sunshine. Seriously there is no more information to be gleaned from calling me an atheist as there is calling a Christian a non-Hindu or vice-versa, except that more is ruled out. Though not necessarily a lot more. The line between God and no-God is actually quite blurry. (Just as we might expect if people were genuinely trying to figure out the universe rather than focusing on debating each other.) Atheism makes the most sense in opposition to faiths with a clear and relatively unchanging deity like Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The opposition struggles a bit with some of the mystic approaches within those faiths or whenever God is a diffuse force like in pantheism. It is harder to dispute a vibe’s existence than a personage’s.
Then there are the many faiths which are even less “theistic”. Hinduism includes a whole spectrum of beliefs about Brahma (the supreme divine whatever, not necessarily an entity) which are hard to translate to Western concepts. Some even talk about Maya – the illusory nature of the world – as extending to Brahma, while others firmly disagree. That’s as far as I can comprehend.
Many indigenous beliefs are full of metaphysical forces and beings but hardly a ruling theos. I get a sense that the dichotomy of real and unreal is poorly applied to these phenomenons by outsiders. How does atheism relate to this?
When we get to Buddhism the common usage view that atheism is also its opposite reaches the height of nonsense. Zen Buddhism includes some of the most aggressive atheistic pronouncements in human history. Other Buddhist schools (Perfect Land Buddhism) have a pantheon of allegorical characters like the monkey king.
I mention all the above because in order to accept the label of atheism I have to first strip it of its associations and disassociations. There is nothing new in the way in which a word like atheism constructs an opposite along the lines of its own history, obliterating their distinctions or the way in which it gathers around it a cluster of  fashions. That’s the function of language backed up by social power. I have however needed to disavow the above elements of it.
So how am I an atheist? Simply, I do not believe in a discrete consciousness (or family of such) standing outside of time and space who is creator and sustainer of the universe and who intervenes consciously upon it. From here on I’ll refer to this being as God – begging the forgiveness of those Gods who don’t meet this description. I don’t replace this God with anything by the way. In my view there is neither need nor room for such a being. However the view does not precede my disbelief in God. It’s just the view I end up with after the disbelief.
The disbelief itself is a consequence of the exhaustion of belief. I sought God earnestly and honestly. I even believed I found them. This belief however needed constant maintenance and protection until I could no longer sustain the effort. The problem was that my belief in God was never based on any feedback in the way that a belief in a body of water is reinforced by wetness, cool air, and the smell of mud, the fecundity of surrounding vegetation or a splash. I was never even aware of God with that subtle sense by which we perceive someone behind us in the dark. After a while of accepting that God was invisible, inaudible (or silent), weightless, odourless, precenceless?....I began to doubt God was there.
So I prayed. I begged God to rescue my faith. Any sign at all was acceptable to me. It didn’t need to meet scientific standards of evidence or result in anyone else believing me. And the answer was... Nothing. Not a sound at all from outside my own head. What else could I do but cease to believe? 
The transition wasn’t that smooth. I had to leave behind a chunk of my identity. My belief had been reinforced by intense collective emotional experiences. These weren’t anywhere near as powerful as solitary moments of the same induced by whipping myself into a frenzy of devotion. Those moments had been very dear to me – they were how I belonged to the community of the saved. Still nothing I could honestly call real. Nothing from beyond. I could possibly generate such a moment now with a little effort. I am quite the sentimentalist.
Still there are other identities for a young man to walk into. The real pain was leaving behind God – not just the comfort of God but God. You see I had repeatedly been taught that God feels terribly pained when people refuse to believe in “Him”. As God loves us, God wants us to be in relationship with “Him” (where we are happiest) and when we reject “Him” we cause him great sadness. For a long time after ceasing to believe in God I was vulnerable to charges that I was hostile to God. This was a God who in this depiction had personally suffered for our salvation. It wasn’t a pleasant feeling. We sentimentalists don’t enjoy being hostile even to beings we don’t believe in.
As a consequence I needed to make my peace with God. And I believe I have. I am not angry at God. Should God somehow establish their existence I’d be very open to knowing them. Should I get to heaven and find God there I imagine we will have a very pleasant chat. I’ll be mother. I feel no need to apologise for my disbelief as I feel confident there’s no malice to it.
Some of you may have guessed my “spiritual journey” to atheism was through Christianity. In particular Pentecostal Christianity –in a lower Anglican congregation – after a childhood raised as Catholic. It is fair to say I may have been barking up the wrong tree. I have subsequently explored other theistic traditions but to be fair never with the same open-hearted commitment. There are two reasons.
Firstly I feel that a conscious supreme being would be capable of responding to a genuine penitent regardless of errors in theology. It seems facetious to suggest I have to spend similar years in an orthodox and then a liberal synagogue, a Baptist and then a Lutheran church, a Suffi mosque, a Sunni mosque and so on with the same uncritical spirit. Also impossible.
Secondly in reflection on my time in Christianity I had to wonder how I could have believed in anything let alone a relationship with a personal God without any feedback. I think I can describe adequately the mechanisms by which this was possible. I have above described them subjectively but I want to show their universal nature as I see these mechanisms operating in the production of other theistic beliefs (and also many non-religious beliefs as well). Seen clearly these are sinister Orwellian devices which my general positive regard towards all things does not extend to. I am not about to subject myself to them again and again.
To illustrate let’s look at the doctrine of transubstantiation. This harmless Catholic belief holds that the host and wine of the mass are actually transformed into the body and blood of Christ. Surely a simple smell – let alone a chemical analysis would be able to establish if this is true. Alas no. The host and wine are transformed into the spiritual body and blood of Christ. Who even knows what this means? However it is important that the “actual” transformation is believed – not as metaphor but as an actuality.
The statement of transubstantiation is untestable, contrary to any sensory feedback and completely alien to the rest of our experiences. Yet to fail to believe it is to stand apart from Gods family and to believe it is to be able to share in the breaking of bread with one’s own family and friends and God. It is a rite of adulthood, a sign of maturity and after all it does no harm. And so it is achieved (at about age 11 for most catholics) through the twin mechanisms of celebrating belief and vilifying disbelief belief without understanding let alone real cause is normed.
Over time strange phenomenon emerge to protect the presumption of belief. Belief is seen as a gift – no amount of thinking can gain or alter it. Almost in contradiction to this, disbelief is treated as wilful – a rejection of God’s gift, a hatred of the church and God. The last is particularly hurtful. Although the fear of heaven and hell is employed they are far less pernicious motivators. We can choose the virtue of courage when faced with the prospect of hell however we are left with our ingratitude when we are willing to offend God. Policed by parents, teachers and peers, most of us crumble and believe without even knowing what we are talking about.
What’s been said of transubstantiation can also be said of the existence of God. Perhaps some (even many) believe in God because of feedback but there can be little doubt all theists are encouraged to believe in God regardless of feedback through the same mechanisms of virtue and vilification. Children are not encouraged to pray only when they perceive Jesus in their room but before to thin air (in which Jesus may be floating weightless, odourless, silent and presenceless but why presume so?). Doubts (seldom emerging until adolescence) are responded to with sadness escalating to charges of sinful pride breaking Gods heart. Just believe and you can return to the fold and somewhere God is made happy.
Virtue and vilification - these are the mechanisms of charlatans and cults, and of drone producing political parties or sanctimonious new age baloney. In other spaces theists generally reject them as manipulative. It is their universality across theistic faiths that mean I won’t be barking up with the same guilelessness any other similar trees.
Now does it follow that for the reasons I am an atheist others should be too? Absolutely not. The inducements to belief in Christianity and similar faiths are manipulative but this could be a secondary fact. It doesn’t preclude that they are true. Rejecting them because they are manipulative is no better than believing in God just because it is virtuous to do so.
The primary reason for my disbelief in God – the “response” to my prayer – and absence of any preceding feedback – should also not compel any theist to change their mind. It’s certainly not proof that God doesn’t exist. God may have chosen not to answer me or may even have answered me in a way I am not wise enough to appreciate. Certainly there’s no scriptural basis in any holy book I know of suggesting that God mightn’t reveal or conceal themself as they see fit. So I don’t think it produces a theological bombshell if God hid from me.
That said I think any reasonable person following my story would accept that my atheism is a perfectly un-spectacular response to my experiences. Rather than wilfully denying an obvious God I am simply following my nose.  Those who must see me as motivated by sinfulness and rejecting the gift of faith have my sympathies. I was once also in the thrall of such manipulative illogic.
The other point I would hope that theists concede is that if they wish to change my mind the burden of proof is theirs (or alternatively their Gods’). If two people look at a hilltop and one sees a deer it is their duty to evidence it to their companion – not the other way round. A simple “There” is good enough but if the deer has flown then fresh tracks will do. It is ludicrous to ask the person who believes there is no deer – because they were looking at the hill and saw nothing - to prove their case. How should they start?
The game becomes even sillier when instead of a deer we have a being outside of space and time who could dance on a pin head with a thousand angels should they want. How on earth could anyone disprove such a being? Why should I try? A simple “Where?” is all I need to say.
Unfortunately this leads the atheist and the theist into an Abbot and Costello routine of “Where?”, “There.”, “Where?”, “There.” At its strangest the theist points to the miracle of birth or the beauty of a sunset as proofs of God which to an atheist are merely jolly good things.
I think both theists and atheist have to concede that even more credible sounding forms of this contest are pointless. Here my sympathies lie with the theist whose frustration is more understandable. Time after time the theist can present situations in nature for which no explanation exists other than God but the atheist is unconvinced. The atheist can counter with natural phenomenon where there are clear observable causes but why should this concern the theist – they prove nothing conclusively. Neither however do the theists examples but the reasoning is less obvious.
Lets look at the example of the bumblebee. For a long time the bumblebees ability to fly contradicted the laws of aerodynamics. Science had no explanation. No-one however proposed that this proved Gods existence. When the science of aerodynamics figured it out and the bumblebees flight was understood according to natural laws this didn’t prove anything either.
At the moment there are serious questions regarding the origin of life which science cannot answer even tentatively, just as there is much of the development of species that can be explained without reference to God. Again both theists and atheists can legitimately say “So what.”
Then there are the modern miracles. God saves a family from a burning building or a cancer is healed by faith. Personally I find these proofs offensive to the people who are not so lucky. To me the overwhelming picture drawn by calamity and tragedy is of an indifferent universe where the flu virus is as favoured as a human child regardless of prayer. It certainly seems unfair to accept as proof of God a successful prayer when a thousand more unsuccessful prayers mean nothing. Miracles or their absence seems to only serve to reinforce belief.
Lastly there are the spirit mediums and angel channelers whose amazing insights come from beyond. Maybe they are proof of their beliefs and some of them are theistic– however so many of them are exposed as frauds using subtle deceptions (sometimes unwittingly) that its impossible to feel confident. Personally I find those kids with amazing recall of their past lives compelling but friends of mine assure me they are coached.
What are we left with then? Are atheists and theists just unable to communicate – trapped in their own predispositions? It seems to me that all the usual arguments are doing nothing to help either side hear each other. If anything we just seem to be financing authors preaching to their own camps.
One more thing remains to be mentioned. If there are theists who are not just caught up in celebrating belief and vilifying unbelief, then they have actually “seen the deer” or to use the earlier metaphor, swam in the lake. That event - what they have experienced and I have not - is at least something new in the conversation.  It may not be convincing but it will atleast be better than the “Where?-There” game.
I do urge all theists to examine carefully if they are victims of manipulation and even more so that they are not manipulating others to perpetuate unevidenced beliefs through virtue and villification. I haven’t discussed why this is so terrible as I consider its cruelty to our cognition and self-confidence to be self-evident. If you disagree I’m not even sure we have the common ground to have much of a conversation.
To those whose theism survives this investigation I extend the offer of further conversation. I would be happy to hear what you’ve seen.