Re: Reclaiming Atheism
- From: Gareth McCaughan <Gareth.McCaughan@xxxxxxxxx>
- Date: Thu, 12 Jun 2008 00:06:58 +0100
Eric Potts wrote:
[about quasi-anthropomorphic language about God, which Eric
points out is potentially misleading and says he has "tried
to move away from"]
Of course it has a distinguished pedigree. And I have indicated that
in the course of my preaching and pastoral ministry I continue to use
such language. You talk as if I were ruling it out altogether. I am
I said some things about God. You responded, roughly: "Bah, you're
using outmoded God-as-super-person language, which always causes
confusion. I've tried to move away from such language for that
reason". I haven't claimed you're "ruling it out altogether", but
you do seem to be (1) saying it's bad and (2) taking the fact that
I used it as grounds for not engaging with what I said using it.
If anything I've said assumes, or requires in order for it to make
sense, that you were "ruling [anthropomorphizing language] out
altogether", then I apologize, and would be glad if you'd point
out specifics so that I can either fix or retract whatever I said.
But in a group like this, where I am trying to communicate with people
who do not themselves believe in God and who, in some cases, seem to
take delight in mocking such language; and also in a context where I
am trying to set out my own personal understandings of God; then it
seems to make sense to use language and concepts that express my ideas
Please feel free to use whatever language and concepts express
your ideas best. (In case I need to say this: no, I am not being
sarcastic or anything; I mean what I say.)
[SNIP: Various theologians at various times have adopted new
ways of talking about God.]
Well, sure. (I do hope I didn't deny *that* or say anything
that seemed that way. Do you think I'm nuts? :-) )
But in each case it was not that any of these (or, at a much more
modest level, myself) is abandoning the faith.
I have not said, hope I haven't implied, and certainly don't
believe, that every introduction of new ideas or new language
into religious discourse amounts to abandoning the faith.
And always - something
I have already said I stand by - there is the yardstick of the Nicene
Creed which may be reinterpreted over and over again, but always
remains in the original as a means to test new language.
Could you say a bit more about how that testing works?
For instance, you say that God doesn't "intervene" -- you used the
term "stepping in from outside" to describe how some people think
about that. The Nicene Creed says that he "came down from heaven".
You say that God doesn't "think or speak or have a mind [...] in
any sense of those terms that we would recognize". The Nicene Creed
says that he "has spoken through the prophets". On the face of it,
you're flatly disagreeing with what the N.C. says. So, I take it,
you consider that what you're doing is "reinterpreting" rather
than disagreeing. Fair enough.
But: What *would* it take for the N.C. to show you that some bit
of "new language" (though I note that it seems to me that more
than just "language" is really at issue here) is out of bounds?
(Note 1: when I talk about "logic" I don't mean the
sort of highly formalized stuff that you can find
in mathematics textbooks. Just the ordinary everyday
application of reason. If all you and Paul Dean mean
is that formal logic is unlikely to be helpful when
discussing God, then I'm not sure whether I agree
but I don't think it amounts to wilful irrationalism;
but since the discussions that have led you both to
make such statements haven't involved any formalized
logic at all, it looks to me as if it really is
plain ordinary reason you're objecting to.)
If that's how it looks to you, then that's how it looks. Shame,but
there it is.
That seems an unnecessarily defeatist attitude, unless you
have decided that I'm impervious to reason and evidence.
If I've misunderstood what you're saying, why not show me
(Note 2: I haven't seen any sign that either you or
Paul Dean have any sort of trouble with applying reason
to discussions about God when doing so doesn't produce
such disagreeable consequences as the conclusion that
he probably doesn't exist.)
We are saying (well, I am, and I think Paul is saying something not
very different) that it is fine to use reason but that human reason is
inadequate and fallible and can only take us so far.
Human *anything* is inadequate and fallible and can only take us
so far. If you think it's time to switch from reason to something
else, then let's hear why you think that something else will
actually do better.
I mean that we appear to have ceased to communicate, except when we
are doing little more than going round in circles.
Well, if that's true then it's regrettable, and if it's true and
also my doing then I'm extremely sorry.
Do I not keep saying that I distrust so called systematic theology,
because it sets up a human construction and thinks it has told us
about God? Do I not keep saying that we approach thinking about God
by use of analogy and poetic imagery rather than through scientific
Yes, you do.
Then I can say little more than that, I fear. Such talk does not seem
to reach you, and I regret that.
(I do find the there's-something-wrong-with-your-brain gambit
rather tiresome, but no matter.) The trouble is that none of
your allegedly poetic imagery seems to me to be to the point.
You offer a concept of God that makes him responsible for
atrocities; I find this unconvincing; but you don't then
respond with some bit of poetic imagery that even purports
to address the problem, you just say that I'm not thinking
poetically enough. So, where's the poetry? And how is it
supposed to help?
I mean, if you think that parables are more helpful than saying
things explicitly in this domain then I can speak in parables ...
Once there was a man beset by robbers, beaten, and left for
dead by the roadside; and the ruler of that country came by,
and passed by him on the other side of the road, saying "For me
to intervene here would disturb the natural working of things;
far better to let nature take its course". Again he passed by,
just as another group of robbers were laying into the unfortunate
fellow; and he said as he crossed to the other side of the road
"It would never do to interfere with their freedom to act as
they please". And a third time he came past, the ruler of the
country who was in fact also the author of the book in which
this tale is told; and he did nothing, for how can the author
of a story be rightly said to interact with the characters
within it? -- It happened that the author's son read his book,
and grew angry, and said to his father: I take my leave of
you; for I feel that man's suffering as if it were my own;
I was injured and you did not care for me, I was abandoned
and you walked by me, I was dying and you gave me no comfort.
So he left his father and travelled to a distant land, and
after some years he came to think that perhaps he and his
father might be reconciled. So he headed home, thinking that
perhaps his father would be there waiting him, or might even
come to meet him. But when at last he arrived at the place
that had been theirs, he found it deserted, seemingly for
thousands of years, and the people in the houses nearby
declared that it had always been so, and that the old man
whom the son half-fondly and half-crossly remembered was
but an old wives' tale. As the son was departing again in
sadness, he heard a voice cry "Wait!" and recognized his
elder brother, who was evidently still living thereabouts.
"At last!" he thought, "I have found someone who knew my
father as well as I did." So they sat down to talk of old
times. But the two brothers could not agree; it was as if
they were remembering entirely different people; or different
childhood stories that each had taken for reality. And so
at last the younger son left the place again, this time
.... but does that leave us any better off than if I'd just
said what I meant as clearly as I could? I don't think it
does, not least because I find that I cannot say in parable
form all the things I can more straightforwardly, and that
what I say gets pulled in directions that aren't always best.
For instance, if you took the stuff above as if it were
meant to be some kind of coded statement of my principal
ideas about religion then you'd get terribly far astray.
Well, it seems to me that it all depends on whether you think that
the things you say about God are true, or whether you're happy to
say something like "these are things I say; truth isn't the right
thing to ask of them; I find them helpful in some way that isn't
dependent on their truth". That's the sort of thing I would say
about poetry. If it's also the approach you wish to take to
theology, why then we have no disagreement, because you aren't
actually saying anything that one could agree or disagree with,
and I'm sorry for misunderstanding the nature of what you've
You pose a false dichotomy, in my opinion.
Because the alternatives I offer overlap (how?), or because
there are options they don't cover (what?) ?
But whatever I say here is
likely just to compound the problem.
This again seems needlessly defeatist unless you've decided
that I'm impervious to reasonable discussion, which would be
a pity. (But you have of course every right to decide that.)
I do believe in the truth of what
I say. If I didn't there would be little point in saying it. But there
are more ways to truth than pure reason.
Probably there are. (I don't even know what you mean by "pure
reason", though, so it's hard for me to be sure.) But, assuming
(I guess correctly) that there are in fact some particular
"ways to truth" that you have in mind, how have you arrived
at your opinion that they work?
And, although I believe there
is such a thing as absolute truth, I certainly would not claim that my
beliefs are the same as that truth.
OK. Did I say, or imply, or even hint, that you would claim
any such thing? (Maybe I'm misunderstanding you. I'm guessing
that what you mean here is that you acknowledge that your
beliefs, even though of course you believe them, are not
a perfect and complete account of what's true. Just as any
sane person would do. Have I misunderstood?)
If, on the other hand, you actually do wish to affirm that what
you say is true, then it seems to me that you've given no good
reason for not applying the best tools we have for finding truth.
And the chief such tool, I think, is the application of reason
to evidence. "Logic" is just what you call reason when it's
done more formally than usual. "Science" is just what you call
applying-reason-to-evidence when it's done more formally than
usual. I don't know whether "logic and science" as such are the
order of the day here; I certainly haven't claimed that they
are; but if you wish to reject applying-reason-to-evidence, then
it seems to me that that makes sense only if you don't much care
whether what you say is true.
"Reason"; "evidence". But what constitutes each, in any given
situation? And how are they to be weighed? And what if either or both
are inconclusive in that they do not point to only one possible
answer? Then you make your own assessment; but based on what?
Both are *always* inconclusive; absolute certainty is not ours
for the taking. That doesn't mean that I abandon reason and
evidence; it means that my own assessment, based on reason
and evidence, takes some such form as "I can't yet be very
sure what's true here, but X looks a bit more likely than Y".
(I am of course not claiming to be perfectly rational. Only
that uncertainty doesn't *require* the abandonment of reason.)
To you, it would seem, the Holocaust is evidence that is extremely
powerful in one direction; that of the rejection of the idea of a good
Yes, one piece of evidence. There is plenty more; the Holocaust,
awful as it was, accounts for only a small fraction of the
apparently pointless and counterproductive badness in the world.
But is it, incidentally, a powerful argument for rejection of any
idea of divinity?
Of course not. For instance, some people might believe in an
omnimalevolent being, and the Holocaust wouldn't be much evidence
against that. (But then I'd point to the existence of all sorts
of good things. I don't think an omnimalevolent god is any more
credible than an omnibenevolent one.)
For, if it is not, then maybe it is your idea of
divinity that is wrong,
Always possible. If you believe in some god other than that of
Christianity, and have some reason why I should believe in it,
then I'm all ears.
(I suppose I should really say "than *those* of Christianity,
because there are many versions of Christianity. Some have gods
for which the badness of the universe isn't strong contrary
evidence because those gods are powerless or indifferent; but
such gods are also, to my mind, not very interesting.)
or even of what constitutes a good divinity?
Also possible, but if your suggestion is that my idea of what
constitutes good and evil is so far out that, say, the Holocaust
might be an act of perfect love, then I'm afraid I'm going to
take a *lot* of convincing.
Perhaps our time scale is wrong. Perhaps we evaluate human suffering
on an inaccurate or distorted scale. I do not say that such is the
case, necessarily. But I simply raise the questions to show that it
is not as simple as appealing to truth and evidence.
Nothing is simple to someone who is sufficiently motivated to
ensure that it isn't simple. Anything can be doubted by someone
who is sufficiently motivated to do so. In particular: yes,
sure, one can speculate that maybe the ideas of good and evil
that are shared by pretty much the entire human race when they
aren't engaged in theodicy are completely broken; yes, sure,
one can speculate that maybe there are metaphysical laws that
mean (e.g.) that God couldn't possibly have made a world better
than this one. If these constitute grounds for not rejecting
Christianity on the basis of the obvious gross suboptimality
of our world, then it seems to me that we have equally good
grounds for not rejecting Flat Earth Theory on the basis of,
say, the fact that people have gone into space and seen the
earth for the roughly spherical lump it is. Maybe there are
hitherto unknown laws of physics that mean that flat things
look spherical when seen from outer space. Maybe there is
something terribly wrong with our perceptual systems that
makes some things seem roughly spherical from all angles
when they're really disc-shaped. But you'd be unwise to bet
And what if I am right that the truth about God is not open to be
found by reason alone?
Then I invite you to tell me how else we might hope to find it,
and how well those other ways of finding it work, and why I should
agree with you that they do.
(And what if I am right that the truth about the shape of the earth
is not open to be found by reason alone?)
How then do we assess the evidence? And what
place do we give in the process of truth searching to our emotional
reactions, to gut feelings, to intuitive responses? Can we allocate a
percentage to each so that we can weigh so many pounds of intuition
against so many pounds of logic?
Yes, we can. We can look and see how well intuition actually
serves us in practice. We can look for regularities -- see
what intuition is good at and what it isn't. We can consider
whether the existence and nature of an ineffable being, or
perhaps some"thing" even more mysterious than an ineffable
being, is likely to be something that our intuitions are
well equipped to give us reliable information about.
Oh, oops, there I go using reason and evidence again. Is that
a problem? I mean, are questions about God *so* unsuited to
reason that we not only can't answer them by reason but can't
discover anything using reason about how we can answer them?
(And, again: if you think so, why do you think so and why
should I agree?)
Does the fact that your beliefs lead to a conclusion that it's
"enormously difficult" to fit with those same beliefs have any
evidentiary force, for you?
Yes of course it does. Do you really think I am stupid, that you have
to ask such questions?
No, I don't think you're stupid.
I ask the question because nothing you've said so far so much
as suggests that you have, or even claim to have, any comparably
strong evidence in favour of those beliefs that lead to such an
"enormously difficult" conclusion.
What do you find unsatisfactory about my (very sketchy, obviously)
account of why atrocities happen? Do you consider that if my beliefs
are correct then we shouldn't ever expect atrocities? (I.e., that
it's a bad explanation, as surface tension would be a bad explanation
for a story about Jesus walking on water.) Or is the problem that
you find it depressing, or emotionally unsatisfying, or something?
I find it incomplete. You describe elements of process and seem to
think you have described the explanation.
The word "explanation" has multiple meanings. If (as seems
to be the case from what you say above) you're using "explanation"
in a way that applies only to explanations in terms of *purposes*,
then it seems to me that you're begging the question. That is:
you find any explanation unsatisfactory unless at bottom it's
about purposes; which seems to me to make sense only if you
*assume* that there's some purposive Something behind the universe.
Well, of course non-theistic answers to ultimate questions aren't
going to satisfy you if you take theism (or at least something
very like it) as an assumption when evaluating them.
Ultimately, I guess, we are
driven back to the questions of origins: why cannot meat think well?;
why does meat need to think at all? why does meat exist? why does
anything? Does existence have purpose or direction or not?
So the reason why my answer to "why do atrocities happen?"
is unsatisfactory is that I didn't include in it an answer
to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe And Everything?
I don't have an answer to "why is there anything at all?".
So far as I know, no one does. So far as I know, theists
aren't any closer to having an answer than atheists. (If
the answer to "why the universe?" is "God", then you're
just left with "why God?" instead. Declaring God to be a
Necessary Being by definition doesn't help any more than
declaring the universe to be a Necessary Object does.)
If your objection is of the former sort, then I'm all ears: if
there's a problem of that kind then my beliefs need revision and
I'd better give some thought to revising them. If it's of the
latter kind, though, then it seems to me that you're effectively
presupposing that the universe must be a comfortable place. Not
only does that seem groundless to me; I also don't think your
account of things is any more comforting than mine. After all,
it says that the Ground of All Being, the being-or-entity-or-whatever
that is responsible for all that happens and whose purposes are
all-encompassing, is the sort of being-or-entity-or-whatever that
considers atrocities acceptable. If I'm going to engage in wishful
thinking, I'd prefer at least to do so in support of things that
are worth wishing for :-).
Well, I happen to think that creating love is worth wishing for;
As long as you call it "creating love" and forget about the
fact that the thing you call "creating love" has atrocities
among its purposes, that sounds reasonable. I decline to
forget that, though.
is. I cannot offer you an equation or a theorem with QED at the bottom
of its proof.
Oh, for [expletive]'s sake. I haven't asked for one. I haven't
said anything that comes close to asking for one. You keep on
doing this, and it's annoying. Please stop.
I don't particularly need to or want to. Faith is
primarily not about what I believe but about the way I live and
who I am.
And yet the Nicene Creed (a set of propositions, starkly
stated with "I believe" or "We believe" in front of each)
is your yardstick for testing how you talk about your
faith. And the start of this discussion was when Emma Pease
made some comment about what some Christians believe about
the nature of God and you offered your own opinion about that.
None of which is in the least inconsistent with saying that
faith for you isn't *primarily* about what you believe; but
it does seem to indicate that it is (perhaps secondarily or
tertially or whatever, but) *importantly* about what you
I know you don't. But I have yet to understand what grounds
you have for not doing, that don't also require you to reject
the concept of God you apparently *do* have.
Then I throw in the towel in the explanation tussle. You keep looking
for grounds; I find the coffee tastes better when the grounds are left
in the bottom of the jug.
(How very foolish of me to have used a word that has an
I can see two kinds of reason why one might believe that God
doesn't override human freedom.
1. He chooses not to, because human freedom matters more to him
than the goods and evils that he could have influenced by
overriding human freedom.
"He" does not "choose" not to. He does not because he does not. In
human terms, human freedom is an absolute good in God's eyes. (My
That is obviously inconsistent with reality. We are not,
in fact, all that free; we are often unable to do what we
wish to; our wishes are often shaped by things we don't
really endorse, such as habits; the factors that constrain
our freedom are often things other than human freedom. If
human freedom were an "absolute good in God's eyes" then
there are any number of ways in which he could make us
2. He can't, because he doesn't have the power or because he
isn't a being about whom one can talk of "can" and "can't"
(The trouble with this is that it's hard to see how any
being-or-whatever about whom it's better to say "he can't
override human freedom" than "he can override human freedom"
would be rightly called "God". Note that "he can't ..." is
no less anthropomorphic than "he can ...".)
Either you haven't been listening to a word I've said or we have got
to the starting point on our carousel of logic chasing.
I have read everything you've written. I have done my best
to understand it. I merely don't agree with it.
Which is fair enough, I suppose, if the existence of a perfectly
good and loving God isn't in question. But, in this discussion,
Only in your mind. I am not trying to establish anything, merely to
answer questions about what I believe and why.
That statement doesn't appear to me to be consistent with
the actual history of this thread.
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