DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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Head to Head
Theism

One of the most divisive issues facing Christianity since the 17th century has been that of whether or not intelligent human beings can believe in a personal God, a deity who created the vast universe, including time itself, and yet who cares intimately for each one of us. How, it is asked, can a caring, personal God to whom we can relate as a best friend, also put in place a creation in which whole star systems can be destroyed by natural processes. Mick and Rick once more find themselves at odds with each other on the problem.
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Rick

Theism holds there is but one God who created the universe and continues to be involved in the ongoing creation and evolution of the universe. In the case of Christianity, God reveals himself through the life of Jesus Christ and through the prophets. Moreover, God is a personal deity who is concerned about every individual and is inclined to hear their petitions. 

Thus, as a baseline the theist must believe in a supernatural or non-material reality.  This is the first hurdle. It is at this entry point that atheists bridle. Recently there has been a plethora of books by atheist authors who condescendingly characterize theists as unintelligent, non-rational people. They point out that there is no physical evidence of a non-material reality. God is a mere superstition and such superstition leads to bad things in society. 

As there is no way to physically prove the existence of God, there is, of course, no way to disprove there is a God. I know one cannot prove a negative with purely rational argument. 

Thus, to be a theist requires a choice to believe or better yet, to have faith. It is a choice of a world view that I find uplifting and supportive. So, I say why not adopt it? If adopting a theistic world view is congenial, I see many positive reasons to continue it. Mick, I anticipate hearing considerable disagreement with this position. 

Mick
I respect your position as one way of framing a response to the absorbing issue of the ultimate in our lives - though your approach tends to put the matter into a
'Useless to Discuss' drawer. 

We might begin to narrow any gap between us by considering theism's antithesis. 

As I understand it, an atheist has no need for the divine in his or her life. Sometimes this shows in active denial of the possibility of God. Some atheists say that any statement about God is essentially unintelligible; others that the existence of evil and suffering leads them to reject God; yet others that we project human nature onto that which is by definition unknowable. There is a wide range of similar views, the most prevalent of which agrees that there might be a God but that, on balance of evidence, the existence of a deity is unlikely. 

Most often, however, I observe atheism as lack of interest - or if not obvious unconcern with God, then a partitioning of life into the secular and the sacred. A life so split I reckon is essentially atheist. 

The best atheists have produced extremely good arguments. Can we react other than by urging people to have faith?

Rick
I am not sure I agree that atheists have produced extremely good arguments. First I would need to have you cite the specific arguments so I can respond appropriately. But let that go for now. I fully intend to discuss theism further and not put it in some obscure
'drawer', as you say. I am aware of no credible judge who has made the case that either atheism or theism has the deck stacked for the winning argument. 

In his classic treatise, The Varieties of Religious Experience, the eminent American philosopher and psychologist, William James, quotes the American psychologist, George A. Cole, who states, 

The ultimate test of religious values is nothing psychological, nothing definable in terms of how it happens, but something ethical, definable only in terms of what is attained [emphases in the original].

This account makes sense in the context of our debate. In other words, in the case of religion (belief in God) it is what it does for the good of humankind that counts - and not whether it was adopted because of reasons held to be suspect by materialist thinkers. 

If we forget our ontological arguments and say that neither theism nor atheism can be proven and are only artifices of the human psyche, it seems to me an appropriate test of either's validity would be in what they produce for civil society. 

In this regard I refer you to an article entitled Why Religion Matters: The Impact of Religious Practice on Social Stability, by P F Fagen. The article summarizes a number of sociological studies showing the positive affects of religious practice on areas such as illegitimacy, welfare dependency, crime and delinquency, alcohol and drug abuse, suicide and depression and even physical health. The author states, "Social scientists are discovering the continuing power of religion to protect the family from the forces that would tear it down." 

The article goes on to discuss the differences between "Intrinsic" and "Extrinsic" religious behavior. William James, previously cited, was the first to make the distinction between these forms of religious practice. 

Intrinsic practice is God-oriented and based on beliefs which transcend the persons own existence. Research shows this form of religious practice to be beneficial. Extrinsic practice is self-oriented and characterized by outward observance, not internalized as a guide to behavior or attitudes. The evidence suggests this form of religious practice is actually more harmful than no religion.

I am aware of no studies that support the idea that atheism is in any way conducive to creating a better civil society. I would further suggest that had Jesus Christ not been considered divine by the early church fathers, Christianity would not have endured these two thousand years.

Mick
You�re correct: neither theists nor atheists can come up with convincing final answers. And I have considerable sympathy with your argument that theism (religion) makes for better individual lives and a more effective society. Some humanists in Europe are beginning to see that and wonder why their solutions to social problems are not as effective as they had hoped. 

Be that as it may, two difficult problems present themselves. 

First, it's hard to convince humanists using your argument because for every good outcome presented, they can find a bad one. Potential examples of the latter are many - from religious inquisition and genocide, to the stunting of personal growth and autonomy by religious thought control. 

Second, theism is identified with a way of talking about God which many today find difficult, to say the least. I don't think of myself as a theist because the word is identified with a type of God-talk which doesn't fit the way I construe the world. 

I suggest we search for new ways of talking about God. We might start (as Muslims do) by refusing to describe God - for example, not saying that "God is a person". For when we use that phrase, we really mean that God is like a person. I grant you, simile in all its variety has been useful. But let's ditch it as a device and just think of a mysterious "other". Even Paul Tillich's God as the "Ground of our being" could be put aside. (It's actually a simile: God is like the solid ground we walk on."

The problem this would help cure is what seems to be an inevitable human tendency to reify similes and, having done that, insist that everybody subscribe to the �truth� they purport to enshrine. A moratorium on simile would perhaps clear the decks for new ways of construing God. 

Rick
Some years ago, I created an aphorism: Those who keep score are playing games. It is apropos to this discussion. Does a secular humanist want to compare the number of deaths caused by the Inquisition (putatively the Church) to those incurred by the atheist Nazis or Stalin�s communist atheist regime. 

As the American psychologist, Steven Pinker said in 2007 before a conference entitled Beyond belief: Science, Religion, Reason and Survival that ...

Something in modernity and its cultural institutions has made us nobler � Conventional history has long shown that, in many ways, we have been getting kinder and gentler.

It is hard for me to comprehend such an assessment of recent history in the face of the realities I alluded to. One could go on playing this game of counting bodies but I will stop in the hopes I have made my point. It was not the Catholic Church that created Zyklon B. 

Undoubtedly, some individuals have been stunted in their development by religious control. But to characterize the broad influence of the Christian Church as anti-human development is an extreme view not in keeping with the overwhelming good it has done for civil society. I suspect those making the charge are referring to fundamentalist sects, not only Christian but of other religions as well. To this form of oppression I will admit. 

It seems to me that doing away with similes would do away with language itself. I consider language as a vast collection of similes. I can see pre-linguistic humans crawling out of their caves and attempting to communicate with sounds. They probably associated certain sounds with objects or actions in their environment and thereby created similes. With increasing complexity and sophistication similes multiplied to create rich and varied languages. If the concept of God, for whatever reason it was conjured, is real to an individual it seems logical for that concept to find a simile with something already extant in the lexicon of experience. 

When one says (referring to God), "just think of a mysterious other," a simile is created no matter how vague or abstract that mysterious other may be. Mysterious other is ipso facto reified. 

Since neither the atheist nor theistic world views can be proven and some people reject the idea of faith, what can be said in support of either camp? Deciding for either of the two views is a decision with which every human being is or at some time will be confronted. It cannot be avoided unless agnosticism is considered a middle ground default.

We must then consider what faith in God does for the individual and for the society in which he or she lives. In my book, by these criteria, faith in God wins the day. 

Mick
Let
's assume that I fall into the category you think of as middle-ground agnosticism (maybe I do and maybe I don't). As such the best I can do is to use (to take your point) minimalist similes for God like "that mysterious other - rather than "person", or "father" or "friend" or suchlike. So let's give you your argument and take up just your final point. 

I suppose that you are now bound to urge me to get faith and join you in the ranks of theists. If I'm correct in this supposition, what next? What do I do, or how must I change, to get this "faith"? What will be the essential difference between me now and me with "faith"? After all, faith in God wins the day, does it not? 

Rick
It is the furthest thing from my mind to proselytize you, Mick. I hold that every individual has the sovereignty and prerogative to believe in God or not.  Coercion of faith is futile and indeed, harmful particularly with such an informed and rational person as you. 

Being a good Lutheran, I adhere to what Luther wrote in his Small Catechism

             I believe that I cannot come to my Lord Jesus Christ by my own reason or strength [emphasis added]. But the Holy Spirit called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith.

It is God who seeks me out, I cannot find Him by my own powers. He is the Hound of Heaven who tries to overtake me. The answer is in the wind, the wind of the Holy Spirit if we will stop to feel it on our cheek.

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