Thursday, July 17, 2008

My take on ‘sophisticated’ religion

This post contains a brief summary of my experience of “sophisticated” theology. I do not specifically address any particular argument, largely because I have yet to find one.

I have been taking a good look at fundamentalist/evangelical Christianity over the last few weeks. I find most fundamentalists to be incredibly rigid thinkers. If it contradicts the bible it must be false. It is that simple in the mind of the fundamentalist. Fundamentalists don’t like gay rights. Why not? Simple, the bible says they shouldn’t have any. In general, a fundamentalist will go to the most absurd lengths to defend the biblical position in any debate. Evolution did not happen. God made everything as is approximately 6,000 years ago. No amount of evidence will sway the biblical literalist from this ridiculous notion. A rational person not knowing what to expect will most likely experience the reverse of Poe’s law. They will assume they are looking at satire when in fact it is the real thing. I found it worrying and a little depressing that views which rightly belong in the realm of satire were being seriously expressed. Fundamentalist Christianity is absurd. That doesn’t stop it from having millions of adherents. You are left thinking “How could it come to this?” As absurd and, to no small degree, worrying as it is; the fundamentalist view is only one of innumerable views held of Christianity. It has been my experience that some people “of faith” derisively dismiss fundamentalist Christianity as a fringe element. They view fundamentalists as holding simple and unsophisticated views of God and the bible. Atheism is a similarly simplistic viewpoint for most adherents to the more “sophisticated” faith. Atheists are often portrayed either as narrow focus logic bots or angst-ridden teenagers rebelling against the establishment. So what exactly is the view that is so sophisticated and advanced?

No idea. I have not a clue. What it took me a while to realize was that the theists themselves don’t have a clue either. They will happily tell you what they don’t believe. They will discuss all day what is wrong with the fundamentalist approach or the Atheist position but if you ask them what they actually believe themselves, you get nothing. You generally get a whole lot of nothing containing lots of big words, flowery metaphors and hippy sounding pseudo-profundity. The one thing generally missing is a positive statement of belief. I should point out that I find most of these theists to be generally agreeable. I have often poked Rev Sam in the ribs but I think he is a decent guy. I mention the Rev. because he was the first such theist I tackled on his beliefs. I found his beliefs were extremely vague when directly addressed but yet he made statements about God, Jesus and so on that were almost in opposition to the very weakly described notions he had previously expressed. It seemed to me that there was a near schizophrenic nature to the beliefs. I will give an example to clarify what I mean. In the course of his discussions of “Sophisticated” and “humorless” Atheisms Sam speaks at some length about idolatry. In order to avoid this most grievous sin, theists declare, “God cannot be the member of any set”. The idea here, if I have correctly interpreted it, is that our ability to understand God and his nature is so insufficient that to apply and characteristic to God would be to create a false image of God. We cannot possibly correctly conceive God’s nature so what we are conceiving cannot truly be God. Now this is adhered to rather more stringently that I would have expected. For example, God is not a member of the set of all things that exist. You might be tempted to suggest that this is saying God doesn’t exist. You’d be right if we were speaking English here but we are in fact speaking in “religious” language. You see God is also not a member of the set of all things that do not exist. It is even worse than that. God is not a member of the set of all things that are not members of the set of all things that exist. Confused yet? God cannot be a member of any set.

The odd thing is that this source from a biblically derived prohibition against idolatry. The same bible that quite blatantly tells us about God’s nature. The bible is ignored in one instance and almost fearfully obeyed in another. Now you may have noticed that there are blatant contradictions above. Contradictions are ok in Christianity. A good example of a commonly held contradiction is the notion of the trinity. Many Christians think that Jesus was both fully human and fully God. That is of course, blatantly impossible. They get around this by appealing to God’s unfathomable and mysterious powers. “We can’t possibly understand….” There seems contained in this theology a kind of subsurface rejection of reason. Not that these theists see reason as a bad thing, more like they view it as useless or even a hindrance when attempting to experience God. This is, incidentally, a view shared by every psychic and medium out there with regard to his or her particular trade. “We don’t know how it works we just know that it does…..logic and reason can’t help you.” The reduction of reason to, at best a supporting role or, at worst a roadblock to enlightenment is the first step in persuading people to believe in something outlandish or even absurd. There is often a smug condescension towards people who do reason out religious beliefs and find them unconvincing. As though we are trying to measure the distance to the moon with a pocket ruler. I find dealing with this sort of thinking very frustrating. Theists are only too happy to point out humanity’s limitations with regard to what we can understand or perceive but yet accept calmly the notion that we have some manner of physics defying God-sense that facilitates “knowing” God. The far more plausible explanation of religious experience is those very same limitations that prevent us from intellectually understanding God. We have wants, needs, hopes, dreams, fears…..etc. Religious belief is the attribution of a unverifiable and unfalsifiable answer to vague and undefined questions. It provides the illusion of stability and permanence, a rock to cling to. It applies a benevolent intention to a perfectly apathetic universe. From my personal experience with religious people, I find the most common driving force behind religious belief is a fear of death. To their credit, it was rarely their own death that was the source of their fear but the deaths of loved ones; an entirely understandable fear. Profound fears are capable of generating all kinds of reactions, quite often, irrational ones. The sophisticated theist is usually someone who cannot hide from the absurdities encountered with more literal interpretation of the bible and needs to construct a more convoluted thought-trap to shelter their beliefs. Many of the statements made by such theists are just as absurd as those promulgated proudly by a dyed in the wool fundamentalist. The absurdity is not immediately as noticeable. You will not hear a sophisticated theist suggest that the earth is 6000 years old but they will suggest something equally absurd. Prayer for example, sophisticated theists in general will pray. They will claim God’s nature, his intentions and his will are unfathomable and yet they communicate with God making all kinds of assumptions all the while. The sophisticated theist hides behind limitations in perception and in knowledge. “We can’t possibly know…..”, “we can’t possibly understand….” They then utterly ignore these limitations and make positive statements about God. “God is X”, “God enables Y”…etc. etc. There is a near constant allusion to “deeper” meaning. The limitations of language are used as an excuse for the vague and insubstantial explanations that are given about what this deeper meaning is. I got the distinct impression that most of the verbose ramblings of theists are smokescreens that hide an uninformed desire for there to be answers and explanations. Much like an artist, who, fuelled by the desire for profound expression creates a mess and calls it art; an effort to inject meaning into the meaningless. The most frustrating thing about these theists is that they claim the bible is not the inerrant word of God but still believe much of its contents despite its obvious implausibility and unreliability. Belief of the religious variety is ultimately a choice. It is choosing to believe in something that is irrational because you want to. I have absolutely no objection to people making this choice. I do object to the pretense that religious belief is rational or necessary. Some theists take it even further and don’t seem to believe anything. Their musings are so ethereal and vacuous as to be rendered utterly irrelevant. Sophisticated theology is anything but in my experience. It is simply confused. Unwilling to either take a particular faith and all of its absurdities or walk away entirely from the comfortable myth they choose to hold to flexible beliefs. Notions might be a better word.

There is a temptation to applaud any take on religion that rejects the frankly idiotic claims of fundamentalists. The problem I see with the more vague interpretations though is that in many cases the theists still hold to many of the same dogmas as the fundamentalist but claim to be reasonable. Indeed they can be. They reason that the Genesis account of the beginning of the universe is ridiculous at least in a literal sense, but yet they believe that Jesus Christ was a God based on information from the same source. That in itself is not reasonable. Religious claims are not reasonable. Faith is not something to be proud of. It is not a virtue. Faith in the religious context is another word for gullibility. Millions of people are proud to be gullible. I can’t help but find that notion a little disturbing especially when they work so hard to make sure everyone else is gullible too. I remember distinctly when I was a young boy being forced to endure the grinding boredom of mass, the priest chanting (yes chanting, not saying) “Let us proclaim the mystery of faith”. I am reasonably confident that not one single person in the congregation ever gave that phrase any thought but really this is one of the most ridiculous notions and it is repeated every mass. I’m not going to do any more than point at the phrase. You can see for yourself what is wrong with it. Mainstream religion is just one of the many irrationalities people engage in. Angels and angel therapy, crystal healing, communing with the dead, reading minds, psychically getting information from inanimate objects, ghosts, talking to trees, bending spoons, astrology etc. etc. etc. The list goes on and on. Religious beliefs are exactly like the beliefs listed. It is no more reasonable. It only has the appearance of being more reasonable because it has such a large following. Sophisticated beliefs are no different from the beliefs listed, they only have the appearance of being reasonable because they are couched in philosophy and verbosity.

P.S. I apologize for the rambling nature of this post. I may attempt to break out some of it and look at it properly at a later time.

18 comments:

Lucian said...

I remember distinctly when I was a young boy being forced to endure the grinding boredom of mass, the priest chanting (yes chanting, not saying) “Let us proclaim the mystery of faith”.

So, ... You were a Catholic also ... :-)

Lucian said...

If there's ONE thing that made the last century, the XXth, what it was, it was Albert Einstein and his modern physics, in which the Universe is treated as a Mystery, as oposed to a deterministical, clock-wise mechanism (think for instance of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle). I'm glad the Universe is apophatical ... aren't You? :-\

The Celtic Chimp said...

Lucian,

Actually Einstein thought that the universe could be understood, he disliked the quantum notions that were arising, in no small part to his own work. I personally have reservations about the heisenberg uncertainty principle. I'm not suggesting it is bad science, only that it may suggest a limitation on our current understanding. Much as quantum mechanics has emerged as a whole field in its own right, who knows what may be revealed in the future. For all we know, there could be a universe of complexity contained within the least massive of sub-atomic particles waiting to be discovered.

The Celtic Chimp said...

Lucian,

Catholic also?

Lucian said...

Nope, Orthodox.

I have no idea what will happen to scientifical thought in the near or far future, whether it'll build on onto what we have now, or just simply morph into something completely different, but... sigh! I think I'm entitled to some selfish, little "spoils of war" also, every now and then... :-) :p

nullifidian said...

Are you aware of Alister McGrath? He's one of those "sophisticated" christians, and as a result is capable of saying almost nothing whatsoever while using an awful lot of words (which I dubbed "theonasm").

the treacherous Lucian said...

NulliFidian,

should I interpret Your dead pirate-fish skeleton as an affront to the Christian Ichtys? :-|

Signed,

The angry, dirty, little anti-Atheist, just waiting for an excuse to sway the sword of Allah against the necks of pious Infidels. >:)

P.S.: wanna introduce You to my wife, Sharia? >:)

The Celtic Chimp said...

null,

Yeah, I've watched some of McGrath's debates. A whole lot of waffle. Those two examples of him gibbering that you have on the linked blog post are hilarious.

nullifidian said...

@Lucian: that's a pirate fish. Take offense if you like; it's no skin off my nose (no pun intended).

@CC: I thought you might think so, which is why I pimp it at any opportunity. ;-)

The Celtic Chimp said...

null,

Pimp on, good sir. Pimp on!

Lucian said...

RELIGION *KILLS* !!!

The Celtic Chimp said...

Lucian,

Well at least he would't have to wait long for the last rites :)

The Celtic Chimp said...

Lucian,

what did you mean by catholic also... what else was I?

Lucian said...

The word "also" was a link to yet another Atheist blog, of a former Catholic man, [whom I've also met via Allan's blog, "Rho(b)logy"]. (Sorry for the lack of clarity: all of this technology also seems to obscure things at times, rather than clearing them up...) :-\

No More Mr. Nice Guy! said...

Interesting post - I discovered it just as I was posting my own reaction to Slippery Sam, which is here.

Sam Norton said...

Something of a response here.

Brandon said...

A note on heisenberg's uncertainty principle:

The uncertainty principle does not reflect a limitation in our current understanding. Rather, it explicitly states that due to the wave nature of matter it is impossible (necessarily so) to know both the position and momentum of a particle at the same time. Of course, we may ditch the wave model of matter (schrodinger's equation) but as long as we accept the quantum model as correct (which has been wildly successful in its predictions) the uncertainty principle stands.

The Celtic Chimp said...

Brandon,

It may well be entirely accurate, I'm just not comfortable with it because I don't understand it well enough. I will look into it more when I get time. Thanks for the info :)