What’s the appeal of Christianity without God?

I was only previously aware of Daniel C. Maguire as a theologian on the liberal end of Roman Catholicism. But it seems he now rejects belief in God altogether and has written a book called Christianity without God.

I’m not interested in criticizing anyone for what they can or can’t believe. Atheism can be a rational response to the world as we experience it. But what I’m less clear on (even after reading the interview linked above) is why, in the absence of some form of theistic belief, you would still want to place the Bible at the center of your moral and spiritual life.

Sure, you can mine the Bible for ethical wisdom that doesn’t make an explicit reference to God, and you may be able to use its stories as powerful parables of social justice, as Maguire seems to be suggesting. But this seems like it would require an awful lot of effort if nothing else. Why go to all the trouble of jerry-rigging a godless Christianity when there are plenty of perfectly respectable non-theistic traditions available?

It’s strange when people reject belief in God, but still want to give the Bible and/or Jesus pride of place in their moral and spiritual lives. To my mind, the Bible (or the teachings of Jesus) without God would be more than a little bit like Hamlet without the prince.

It could be, as the recently departed Marcus Borg used to put it, that the God Maguire doesn’t believe in is one I don’t believe in either. But I’m skeptical that a Christianity that totally dispensed with the transcendent would be worth holding on to, or even particularly interesting.

New atheism as 19th-century positivism redux

This article puts its finger on one of the problems I’ve long had with the so-called new atheism:

[I]n its basic outlines [A.C.] Grayling’s humanism is that of the nineteenth-century positivists, who built a philosophy around their belief in the perfectability of human nature. For Grayling, and for the other New Atheists, reason doesn’t just answer questions about our origins and our ethics; it moves us toward that city on a hill where, [Grayling’s] The Good Book promises, “the best future might inhabit, and the true promise of humanity be realized at last.”

Meanwhile, this article published in the Nation a few months ago makes a similar point, and also notes how positivism can be yoked to a reactionary political agenda (such as Christopher Hitchens’ and Sam Harris’s embrace of the “war on terror” as an Enlightenment crusade against religion).

What’s striking about all this is that you still have, in the 21st century, people claiming with a straight face that science and reason are the royal roads to absolute truth and moral and political progress. At one time it had become something of a truism that the 20th century, with its world wars, revolutions, and genocide, had put paid to 19th-century optimism on behalf of capital-R Reason and capital-P Progress. And the gas chambers and the atomic bomb were thought to have demonstrated pretty definitively that scientific, technocratic reason could be neatly yoked to the most abominable moral and political goals imaginable.

Both religious and atheistic thought responded to this sense of disillusionment. Christian theology rediscovered its doctrines of human brokenness and original sin; atheism, in the form of existentialism and Freudianism, honed in on the irrational impulses and drives that actually govern much of our lives. Neither was much inclined any longer to speak blithely about the omni-competence of reason or the inevitability of progress. Moreover, both were willing to attend to sources of insight that fell outside of the scientific, narrowly construed. 20th century thought, across a wide swath of disciplines, came to see reason, understood solely as discursive or deductive thought, and empiricism, understood in the manner of logical positivists and their verifiability criterion, as only a part of how we experience and make sense of the world. By contrast, the neo-positivism of the new atheists looks downright old-fashioned.

I certainly don’t think Christians should despise the Enlightenment, as has now become fashionable in some theological circles. At the same time, the version of the Enlightenment embodied by positivism invariably ends in reductionism and scientism. This in turn produces a very narrow understanding of what “reason” is and a correspondingly constricted view of truth, morality, and human experience generally. Religion and humanism alike should oppose it.

Making Sense of Evolution: Multi-layered explanation

I’m reading Catholic theologian John Haught’s Making Sense of Evolution: Darwin, God, and the Drama of Life. Haught is a well-known advocate of “theistic evolution” and argues that theology hasn’t adequately come to grips with Darwin’s impact on our understanding of the world, which he thinks should have serious repercussions on key theological concepts.

Theistic evolution represents the oft-neglected middle ground between atheistic naturalists and creationists or intelligent design proponents, who tend to hog all the attention. Despite their high profile in the science and religion debates, Haught contends that naturalists and creationists/IDers make the same kind of mistake in thinking about God and evolution. They both think that God and natural selection are providing the same kind of explanation for the development of life. Evolutionary naturalists conclude that since natural selection is scientifically well-supported, there’s no role for God to play in the unfolding drama of evolution. Creationists/IDers agree that natural selection excludes any role for God, so they try to attack natural selection as an insufficient explanation.

According to Haught, treating God and natural selection as competing explanations is a confusion of different “levels” or “layers” of explanation. He uses the analogy of a printed page in a book, which can be explained at a number of levels: in terms of a chemical analysis of ink on paper, the mechanics of the printing press, the ideas that the author was trying to express, the intention of the publisher in publishing a book on a particular topic, etc. None of these explanations contradicts or excludes any of the others. They each operate at a different “layer” of explanation.

Similarly, Haught argues, natural selection provides (to the best of our knowledge) a complete explanation for the development of life at its own level. But that doesn’t mean there’s no role for God. To the extent that God enters the picture, it’s at a different level or layer. An appropriate theology of evolution will deny the atheistic conclusion that evolution proves there’s no God and no role for divine providence in the development of life; but it will also avoid the “god of the gaps”-style arguments favored by creationists and IDers. Haught intends to flesh out his understanding of how God acts in a world of evolutionary change throughout the rest of the book. I’ll likely be blogging my thoughts on this as I go.

Taking atheism seriously

Most of the responses I’ve seen by Christians to the “new atheism,” whether in print or online, have come in one of two forms: combative defensiveness or smug complacency. The first is exhibited by those (usually self-appointed) defenders of the faith who take to the ramparts to refute the atheists arguments with their own knock-down syllogisms. The second is more commonly found among the somewhat more “sophisticated” believers who hardly consider the new atheism to be worth engaging because of its crude and simplistic depiction of religion or its philosophical missteps.

While there may be something to be said for both of these approaches (and I’ve probably engaged in each from time to time), I think that they represent a missed opportunity. If Christians want to present a credible witness to the world, they need to engage with atheism and the experiences that give rise to it.

One obvious source of fodder for atheism is the experience of great suffering or horror at the vast amount of suffering in the world–experiences that rightly call forth a cry of protest. Christianity has a long history of responding to this kind of experience, although one that has met with mixed success to say the least.

But maybe a more prevalent cause of atheism is that, for many people, God’s existence is simply not obvious. There do seem to be some souls blessed with a persistent awareness of the divine presence, but for many people–including many believers–this is simply not the case. More prosaically, many people live their day-to-day lives perfectly well without feeling any need to invoke God at all. They make sense of the world around them–as well as anyone can–using the language and conceptual framework of the natural and social sciences, or common sense, or folk wisdom, or some pastiche of these. As far as our daily routines go, the empirical world can easily appear as a “closed” system that we can navigate without resorting to the “God hypothesis.”

Now, there may come times–what have sometimes been called “limit-experiences”–where otherwise secular people catch glimpses of something “more.” This might be awe at the beauty and vastness of the natural world, an encounter with one’s mortality or the mortality of others, or the experience of a love that seems to transcend what is naturally possible. But these are not usually overpowering enough to provide an iron-clad refutation of the “practical atheism” of everyday life. Faith is when we take the next step and trust that these experiences tell us something deep and true about reality.

My point here is not to say that atheism is intellectually superior to faith or that it makes better sense of our experience–it’s that our experience is at best ambiguous between faith and unbelief. I think Christians need to be more willing to enter into the experience of unbelief sympathetically. (Tomáš Halík’s Patience with God, which I read recently, is one Christian response to atheism that is exemplary in this regard.) As long as Christians’ response to atheism is defensiveness or dismissal, they are failing to engage with a form of experience–the experience of God’s absence as Halík puts it–that is very common in our world. (Indeed, Christ himself, we’re given to believe, experienced the absence of God on the cross.)

A better model of response is one analogous to the model of engaging appropriately with other religions: dialogue and sympathetically trying to understand the other’s perspective from within. Given that most Christians in our society probably find themselves experiencing God’s absence at least some of the time (I’d say this is an understatement in my own case), this should in principle be less difficult than sympathetically entering into another’s religious experience.

Of course, there will always be some atheists who have no desire to enter into any such dialogue. For people like the “four horsemen” (Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris, and Dennett) the goal is the extinction of religion, not mutual understanding and possible transformation. But there’s no reason to think that this must be the attitude of all or even most atheists. And for Christians, such a project seems like a much better way of putting the command to love our neighbor–including our atheist neighbors–into practice.

Ruse on The Moral Landscape

Philosopher Michael Ruse takes a sledgehammer to Sam Harris’s new book on morality:

I don’t know what Harris studied in his philosophy courses as an undergrad at Stanford, but they don’t seem to have penetrated very deeply. He denounces philosophers before him (including myself, I should admit) without really addressing the challenge their arguments pose to his claims.

I haven’t read the book (and likely won’t), but from the sounds of things, Harris takes a wild leap from saying that science can inform us about the conditions conducive to human well-being (which seems right to me) to saying that science can define well-being and provide something like a foundation for morality (which seems false). Even assuming something like a hedonistic conception of the good, you still need principles of distribution, justice, etc., and it’s really hard to see how “science” can give us answers to those questions. For instance, Jeremy Bentham’s principle that “each person is to count for one and no one for more than one” is not a “scientific” finding. And yet, without some such principle, how would you decide how “well-being” is to be distributed or fostered? Maybe Harris avoids these kinds of problems, but most of the reviews I’ve read suggest otherwise.

Ruse is also puzzled that Harris goes on a fifteen-page diatribe against Francis Collins, former head of the Human Genome Project, current head of the National Institutes of Health, and a practicing Christian:

Let me make clear why I find this all inappropriate to the point of being repellent. It is not because Harris mistakenly accuses Collins of being both a scientist and a Christian—Collins is without doubt both of these. It is not because Harris criticizes Collins for being a Christian or for thinking that science and religion can be harmonized. He has every right to do this, and, if truth be known, I am much closer to Harris than to Collins on the matter of the truth-status of Christianity. Also, even though I think that science and religion can be harmonized, I am not sure that Collins shows this successfully. My objection is that in a book on the foundations of ethics it is simply out of place to spend so much time on such a personal attack.

I myself am puzzled why the mild-mannered and more-or-less liberal Collins has become such a bogey for the new atheist crowd. Is it because he’s a living refutation of their claim, repeated with smug assurance, that no rational, right-thinking person can embrace both science and faith?

Physicalism, reductionism, and the soul

This off-the-cuff post on atheism generated some interesting discussion with Gaius about physicalism, reductionism, and humanism, among other things. I don’t know that I can express my views on the matter better than I tried to do in this post from a few years ago discussing Keith Ward’s Pascal’s Fire. In short, we often abstract from the phenomena of experience in order to provide a more precise mapping or modeling of certain aspects of reality for various purposes; the error of reductionism is to mistake those abstract models for the whole of reality itself. (Huston Smith once compared it to thinking that an increasingly detailed map of Illinois will–eventually–result in a map of the entire United States.)

Physicalism and reductionism are frequently seen as threats to religious belief. This can be for a variety of reasons, such as that they seem to undermine belief in an immaterial (and possibly immortal) soul, or that they deny the “specialness” of human beings. However, I do think it’s possible for a Christian to affirm a non-reductive version of physicalism. This would mean that human beings are physical beings with consciousness, feeling, and rationality. These are genuinely “emergent” features of the world–features that appeared over the course of evolutionary history and which we share with other animals, but they are not reducible to the physico-chemical aspect of reality. They are not simply the outworking of their underlying material substrate but exert a genuine causal influence on the world. Philosophers and theologians have characterized how this might work in a variety of ways, such as “whole-part” or “top-down” causation. But the point is that the mental introduces genuine novelty into the world and is capable of affecting the course of events. Moreover, if something like this is right, it seems possible that God could, at death, preserve whatever it is that constitutes each person’s unique selfhood (e.g., memories, character traits) and “translate” them into some other medium, whether embodied or not.

Varieties of atheism

Brandon points out the problem with lumping all contemporary atheist thinkers together as “new atheists.” He highlights the work of philosopher Owen Flanagan, whose work I’m not particularly familiar with, as an atheist who doesn’t necessarily fit the new atheist paradigm.

It sounds to me–at least from Brandon’s description–that Flanagan is what I would call a non-reductive atheist. That is, anyone who’s willing to countenance a “naturalized spirituality” isn’t likely to have much sympathy with the view that all things that exist can be explained by reducing them to their most basic elements (genes or fundamental physical particles, depending on what science you want to use as your master-discourse). I’ve often thought it strange that people who consider themselves “humanists” could be comfortable with the reductionist perspective characteristic of some of the “new” atheists.


I like this, from Brandon:

Here and there over the past few years I’ve seen a great many Christians who are of the opinion that argument with the so-called New Atheists should be a major priority among Christians, and I recently saw another instance of this. They don’t generally ask my advice, but whenever people do, I always suggest that this is exactly the wrong way to go. The fact of the matter is, however important they may seem to themselves, and however visible they may be, they are of extraordinarily minute importance in the vast concerns of the Church. Our relations with Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, and Buddhists are all vastly more important, and our relations with our fellow Christians more important still. And of all the foes we fight in our fight against the World, the darkness of the Zeitgeist, the New Atheists are puppy dogs; it is foolish to spend our time focusing so much on the little pups that we ignore the wolves. And of all the problems we face, we ourselves are more of a problem for us than they are; particularly the absurd ease with which we all are distracted from what is truly important by the fact of who happens to have made it to the bestseller list recently, or by some other utterly frivolous thing. And what is truly important, of course, is clear: Love God and neighbor, and when we somehow fail to do so, set out again and again until with God’s grace we succeed. Everything else is hobby.

When’s the last time you saw a serious Christian engagement with Sikhism?

Eagleton on Jesus and “sprituality”

I haven’t read literary critic Terry Eagleton’s new book on the “new atheists,” and I’m frankly not that interested in the whole new atheist phenomenon period (I haven’t seen much to indicate that one wouldn’t be much better off reading, say, David Hume for razor-sharp critiques of religion). But Kim at “Connexions” has some provocative quotes from Eagleton here and here.

My one worry about Eagleton is that he just wants to use Christianity as a bludgeon to beat capitalism with, and isn’t particularly interested in whether or not it’s true. I can recommend his earlier book After Theory, though.

Doubting Dawkins

An excerpt from Keith Ward’s Why There Almost Certainly Is a God, a response to Richard Dawkins. (In Ward’s defense, he’s been debating Dawkins for years, so this isn’t cheap bandwagon jumping.)

The world of philosophy, of resolute thought about the ultimate nature of things, is a very varied one, and there is no one philosophical view that has the agreement of all competent philosophers. But in this world there are very few materialists, who think we can know that mind is reducible to electrochemical activity in the brain, or is a surprising and unexpected product of purely material processes.

In the world of modern philosophy, there are idealists, theists, phenomenalists, common sense pragmatists, scientific realists, sceptics and materialists. These are all going concerns, living philosophical theories of what is ultimately real. This observation does not settle any arguments. But it puts Dawkins’ ‘alternative hypothesis’ in perspective. He is setting out to defend a very recent, highly contentious, minority philosophical world-view. Good. That is the sort of thing we like to see in philosophy! But it will take a lot of sophisticated argument to make it convincing. It is not at all obvious.

Though this is only an excerpt, I think the objection an atheist would naturally raise is that, even if most of history’s great philosophers have been idealists (in the sense of believing that reality has something mind-like as at least one of its most fundamental constituents), we now think that many things can be explained without appealing to consciousness or purpose. Not that I think that’s a knock-down argument by any means, but it’s a challenge that needs to be addressed (and I assume Ward addresses it in the book).