Sunday, May 18, 2008

I "Get" This Part

 
James F. McGrath is one of those theologians who criticize Richard Dawkins and the new atheists. According to McGrath, those atheists simply don't get it when it comes to modern sophisticated theology. The sophisticated theologians say that Dawkins and his fellow atheists are attacking a strawman version of religion.

Alister McGrath's1 defense of religion falls into this category [Alister McGrath's Defense of Religion]. Like most theologians who employ the "sophisticated religion", defense their actual attempts end up sounding very much like the Courtier's Reply.

Over the past few weeks, James McGrath has attempted to educate atheists about modern theology. In response to many questions he has tried very hard to explain "sophisticated religion" and why the new atheists just don't get it. He hasn't been all that successful, in my opinion. I just don't see why his explanation of god is any different than the ones that have already been addressed by atheists over the past several hundred years. It looks a lot to me like the same-old, same-old, argument from personal experience.

That's exactly what it is. Yesterday McGrath posted an honest and forthright description of his views. A view that he has been very reluctant to describe in any other recent posting or in any of the comments that he has posted. Here's what he wrote on his blog in an article that was addressed to his followers [Spirits in a Material World: A Multi-Blog Conversation].
Would if be going too far to say that those who have had mystical experiences are in very much the position of sighted people trying to explain color to the blind, or music lovers trying to explain why a piece moves them so much to someone who is tone deaf? In this conversation, however, it is not clear that the other side of the conversation is "disabled". They simply have no interest in understanding the experience or appreciating the music. And there is no way I can introduce someone to the music or why it moves me just by talking in abstract terms about something that is deeply experiential.

On the other hand, part of the issue is that I have no interest in defending any particular doctrines about God, and so my "views" seem hard to pin down, because I hold them so loosely. I realized long ago that the life-changing experience I had when I cried out to God in surrender and felt a sense of peace wash over me does not prove that a tomb was empty 2,000 or so years ago, or that God is 3-in-one, or any other such claims. What seems to confuse some people is that I still can find Trinitarian language helpful and inspiring and meaningful, not as a statement about what God is "really like" (as though I had a means to study that scientifically or objectively), but as an image of how this God that we speak of only in inadequate symbols and metaphors can be eternal love (since love requires more than one person).
Thank-you James for being so honest. Your sophisticated explanation of God is just the old argument from personal experience dressed up so that it conflicts as little as possible with modern science and rationalism.

Atheists have addressed the argument from personal experience. Dawkins covers it in his book. I wish his opponents would pretending that they have a "sophisticated" explanation of God that atheists have not refuted.

James, I "get" your explanation. I understand how someone can feel "a sense of peace" when you give up the struggle to be rational and "cry out to God in surrender." I can understand why you draw a parallel between your mystical experience and being able to see clearly. I know why you think atheists are like a blind person.

Here's a question for you. People who believe in aliens and UFO's think the same way. They honestly believe that they have been granted special insight. They see things that the rest of us can't see. They will use the same analogies and metaphors that you use. Do you take that as evidence that UFO's and aliens actually exist?

If the answer is "no", then why do you think Richard Dawkins should pay attention to your personal mystical experience if it conflicts with everything he knows about the natural world? You have every right to interpret your mystical experience however you want. But you go beyond that, don't you? You claim that the case for atheism is weak because we cannot explain your sophisticated personal experience. As soon as you make that claim you are stepping outside of your own personal experience and asking others to validate it from the outside. When you do that, you are obliged to present evidence that your personal experience reflects reality and not an illusion. What is the evidence that an objective outsider like me should consider?


1. No relation to James McGrath.

24 comments :

  1. I have taken LSD, for example, and I cannot explain that experience to someone who hasn't done. But I know it is not a mystical experience.

    I could say that people who haven't taken LSD are "disabled" or not wanting to understand.

    "Modern theology" is meaningless. Theology is always the old theology. "Sophisticated religion" is a strange term. If you take the origin of the word, it means "false".

    In the current meaning, it is ambiguous, "Experienced in the ways of the world; lacking natural simplicity"

    Religion is experienced in the ways of the world in that it has learned how to manipulate suckers. Though most tend to think that religion is somehow simple.

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  2. Note that the analogy to blind people is especially stupid, because it's not only possible but trivially easy to convince a blind person that one can actually see.

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  3. I think it points out that God is whatever one wants God to be, and even if people refer to the sophisticated arguments of "modern theology" which make detailed reference to complex philosophical structural "proofs" for God; the proofs come down to personal experience.

    I spoke in tongues when I was a teenager. It was a fantastic experience and I really felt close the the "Christian" god, until I realized that I was making up the utterances in order to match what the people around me were saying.

    So, God is either absolute according to the scripture of one's religion; or else God is just a personal experience that can be simply explained by other phenomena.

    I don't get how it would help me to spend the rest of my life trying to figure out how a sophisticated theology would really benefit me, or even turn me from atheism.

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  4. Have any of these Courtiers ever addressed the relevance of modern theology to the way billions of religious adherents express their faith?

    Religion is what religion does.

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  5. Ned, in what way was your LSD trip non-mystical? I don't think you are using the word the way a religious person would.

    Howard, I know several people in my life whose religious belief falls more in the symbolic category than the literalist one. I grew up in a church in which I'm certain very few people, if any, believed in a literal afterlife. Some may have believed a person named Jesus really existed, that he was or wasn't the son of God, that he was "really" resurrected after death.

    I'm also certain that the pastor of that church would not have been terribly concerned that not everyone was in agreement on whether the stories were literally true or not. And we weren't even Unitarians!

    Churches like this may not comprise the majority, but they exist, in greater numbers than we acknowledge when we talk about "billions of religious adherents" as though they were of one mind.

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  6. position of sighted people trying to explain color to the blind

    I'll grant you that I can't think of any way to convey the experience of seeing "red" or "yellow" to someone that can't see, or even can't see colours. But it's easy to devise simple experiments which can demonstrate conclusively that colours are real and that the experience of "seeing yellow" is actually measuring something of the objective, external world. I would love to see an analogy where we rely entirely on subjective experience and which cannot be validated objectively.

    I know, I know, he'll say "love". Right. Well, think of your behaviour toward someone that you love and toward a stranger you just met or a random coworker. Is there no difference? If you can't spot any difference, be careful, you're chasing a criminal stalking arrest.

    Your sophisticated explanation of God is just the old argument from personal experience dressed up so that it conflicts as little as possible with modern science and rationalism.

    Indeed. Refuse to say what you believe yet protest loudly when those Nasty Atheists don't accurately portray what you believe.

    It may be many things, but sophisticated it ain't.

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  7. You're gonna be proven wrong on UFO's. Possibly God too.

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  8. "You're gonna be proven wrong on UFO's. Possibly God too."

    Good. Isn't that what us skeptics have been asking for? Proof? Or at least some evidence. So, um, where is it?

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  9. Altogether too many theist McGraths, man.

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  10. I think this is getting unfair, with everyone defending themselves against attacks that weren't actually made. Dawkins attacked belief in a supernatural being, not all manifestations of religious thinking (he admits to being a "cultural Christian"). McGrath has let the theological truth-claim go, so he has no fight with atheism per se, as Larry has pointed out. The remaining area of disagreement, therefore, is over the value of theology in the absence of a truth-claim. That puts it in the area between art and psychology, and to deny it any value is to deny the importance of emotion. Everyone has to come to terms with their place in the universe somehow (quite apart from coming to know the universe, for which science is indisputably the best method). It should be no surprise that metaphor is likely to be a big part of this process given our evolutionary and intellectual history.

    The important thing about God is not whether he exists but whether he's useful. Those who find a use for him should, like the rest of us, be judged by their fruits. On the important issues facing science at the moment, McGrath is on the side of the angels (I mean the good guys, ok?), so there's no reason to pick fights with him over mystical experience. If I look at the experiences that made me who I am, several of them are significant only in the realm of art and metaphor (a book, a painting, a performance, a view), that somehow contributed to my sense that the universe makes sense both scientifically and psychologically -- that it's a place I can live in. Those experiences and the human-created art that prompted some of them are worth thinking about for me, in the same way as McGrath's theological tradition is for him. De gustibus non est disputandum.

    So: if there's anything at all to this debate at this point, it's that most tiresome of chestnuts, the sciences against the arts. Surely we've all got more important battles to fight, in which everyone here is on the same side.

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  11. Tolkien invented "sophisticated" cultures for The Lord Of The Rings trilogy. Over the many years of the franchise, a "sophisticated" culture has been developed around Star Trek.
    But, however much some of us might wish it were otherwise, even the most ardent fans accept these are fictional worlds.

    The simple fact is that, unless the gods and/or "spiritual" domains posited by the various faiths actually exist, the whole edifice of "sophisticated" theology becomes just another mythology like those mentioned above. No matter how many personal experiences, revelations or epiphanies are claimed, if God does not exist then they what else can they be but artefacts of the human brain like hallucinations or delusions.

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  12. You know, I no longer believe in magic. I, being a sophisticated person, know that there is no such thing as magic. However, it is still useful. I can transfer my awe of nature, the miracle of it all, the unanswered questions and my bewliderment, into symbols and metaphors, which I will then plant into the magic construct.

    Sophisticated magic! Too bad I can't use my sophisticated magicology to obtain an academic posting, or convince others to donate money to me so that I can be a full time "magician."





    Paul

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  13. I have no problem with the use of religious imagery as metaphors for various aspects of life. I doubt that many atheists do either. The problem a lot of us have with theological arguments is that they so frequently make the assumption that there are real historical facts that back up their metaphorical points.
    If you seriously view religious texts as metaphors then why limit yourself to a single one. Why not mix other mythological points together such that your arguments mixes christian myth with greek, scandinavian and hindu? Surely that would only serve to enrich the metaphorical debate?
    Must theologians always maintain this ludicrous game of symbolic hopscotch, jumping from historical claims to metaphor whenever challenged?

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  14. Bayesian Bouffant, FCDMonday, May 19, 2008 8:50:00 AM

    Why not mix other mythological points together such that your arguments mixes christian myth with greek, scandinavian and hindu? Surely that would only serve to enrich the metaphorical debate?

    Sure. You could point out that the whole talking snake/apple story is the same as the story of Prometheus, but told from the other side.

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  15. I know, I know, he'll say "love". Right. Well, think of your behaviour toward someone that you love and toward a stranger you just met or a random coworker.

    Behaviour towards a loved one validates love in the same way going to church demonstrates there's a God, wearing a tin-foil hat proves there are aliens and avoiding a full moon validates lycanthropy. The behaviour still stems from a conviction based on personal experience. Why is your personal experience of love towards your wife/husband more valid than James' (or anyone else's) personal experience of God?

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  16. Behaviour towards a loved one validates love in the same way going to church demonstrates there's a God, wearing a tin-foil hat proves there are aliens and avoiding a full moon validates lycanthropy. The behaviour still stems from a conviction based on personal experience. Why is your personal experience of love towards your wife/husband more valid than James' (or anyone else's) personal experience of God?

    No...

    Because love is an emotion, a subjective experience, but "a personal experience of God" is a conclusion/wishful thinking based on subjective experiences of mysticism (amongst other experiences).

    The only thing required to establish an emotion is the emotion; much more is needed to establish the conclusion "god did it".


    It's more difficult to establish what someone else is experiencing, but this still doesn't making it tin-foil-hat-land. We all know what it's like to interact with people who definitely don't love us - we do this every day when we meet a stranger or deal with acquaintances at work. Hopefully we know what it's like to deal with someone that genuinely loves us. There are subtleties, like does an abusive husband really love his wife, but the point remains that this is not an intractably difficult problem and if someone does love another, there is evidence of it.

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  17. "Why is your personal experience of love towards your wife/husband more valid than James' (or anyone else's) personal experience of God?"

    Poor analogy. The argument isn't whether James's experience is valid. I think we can all agree that he really feels what he feels and believes what he believes.

    The issue is whether his experience is evidence for the actual existence of God.

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  18. Paul: valid points (though I wouldn't lay money on there being no department of magicology in some college out there), but you're moving the goalposts: if your objection to theology is that it isn't a valid academic subject, are you going to picket it before or after film studies?

    Martinc: "they so frequently make the assumption that there are real historical facts" - so they do, but not in this case - McGrath acknowledged that there aren't.

    qetzal: "The issue is whether his experience is evidence for the actual existence of God." - no it isn't, because he abandoned that position.

    Beating up McGrath is fighting the wrong fight. There are creationists out there trying to destroy science education, and McGrath's on our side. If anyone is going to shift fundies in the direction of rationality, it's more likely to be him than us. It gains us no more to beat up straw men in his name than it would to make fun of his necktie. Keep your eyes on the prize!

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  19. If anyone is going to shift fundies in the direction of rationality, it's more likely to be him than us.

    If James wants to fight that fight, our voices won't hurt and they may be helping. At the very least, it shows that James is on their side.

    Keep your eyes on the prize!

    We may have our eyes on different prizes.

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  20. So Tyro, what "prize" are you aiming at? A self-satisfied feeling of having made fun of people who don't think like you? Something else?

    I think Simea Mirans is right that it is more likely to be someone who understands why fundamentalists speak and act as they do, perhaps have been there themselves, but can communicate to them in terms of their own claimed sources of authority what is wrong with their thinking, that will be effective in changing their minds.

    I've posted yet again as part of this ongoing conversation.

    Ned, you clearly know little if anything about theology. It would be truer to say that theology is always modern than to say that it is always the "same old theology". Sure, there are people who deny that theology changes over time, but I have no idea why you believe their claims. Perhaps they have learned to manipulate suckers, and you are someone who has fallen for their deceitful rhetoric!

    Martinc, you have a wonderful blog! I don't think you'll find me dancing from historical to metaphorical claims. I wonder if you aren't discussing things with people who have different viewpoints, and assuming they speak with a single voice? Or maybe there are people who do such jumping, but I certainly don't think I'd fit into that category. What historical claim have I made that I've then jumped from and replaced with a metaphorical one?

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  21. James,

    So Tyro, what "prize" are you aiming at? A self-satisfied feeling of having made fun of people who don't think like you? Something else?

    Is that what it looks like? I started talking to you because I wanted to understand your perspective and to communicate my own. I feel ignored on the latter and actively blocked on the former. Oh well. Perhaps something has percolated despite the harsh words and maybe something has stuck on both sides so the next time we encounter someone similar, we'll be a little wiser and understand the other a little better.

    Some people (like Sanders) seem uninterested in dialogue and just want to attack others and so I treat them with a lot less respect. I'm sorry you think that I'm trying to make fun of people. If you can suggest a way of communicating my beliefs which does not appear to be making fun of others, I'll try to do better next time.


    What is the prize? Better science education would be nice, but unlike simea, I think that's just one skirmish in a larger battle against dogma, irrationality and superstition. People are literally dying because of this. Sure it would be nice if Creationism wasn't taught in classrooms, but there are more important issues to deal with.

    As it happens, I think that the struggle for good science education is helped by the presence of not just secularists who defend church-state separation (and who may be atheist or theist), but active rationalists or anti-theists who try to knock all religious statements off their ivory pedestals so that it's no longer acceptable to quote the bible and expect your argument to stand. It's a consciousness raising activity, as Dawkins likes to call it, and it has the added benefit of creating some atheistic boogeymen which will make the liberal theists fighting for church-state separation sound all the more reasonable :)

    I think Simea Mirans is right that it is more likely to be someone who understands why fundamentalists speak and act as they do, perhaps have been there themselves, but can communicate to them in terms of their own claimed sources of authority what is wrong with their thinking, that will be effective in changing their minds.

    I'd like to see the evidence for this.

    Since fundamentalism isn't a reasoned decision, I don't think they can be reasoned out of it. Something else is needed.

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  22. Mr. McGrath,

    Can you point to any product of theology which has benefited mankind, say, to the extent of antibiotics in medical science or chemical fertilizers in agriculture? I, myself, with decades of concerted effort to find such a theological benefit, have been unable to do so. Fortunately, no such contribution to the well being of mankind can be found in theology, or runaway exponential human population growth would have depleted the global ecosystem long before now.

    The absurdity of suggesting that theology has something of concrete value to offer people can be clearly seen by realizing that whenever a religionist is dissatisfied with his current theology, he can follow the time-honored tradition of all founders of religions: he can simply make up a new one. Think Joseph Smith. Think Mary Baker Eddy. Think L. Ron Hubbard. Think David Koresh. Think of the continuously evolving face of Catholicism: limbo, Assumption of Mary. Think of the more than 34000 distinct Christian sects throughout the world.

    Theology suffers from the following malignancy: its practitioners delude themselves into thinking that they are producing valuable results when they construct sound arguments and chains of inference starting with assumptions that are observably false or otherwise unjustifiable due to, say, implausibility, bias, or ignorance. What, for instance, might be some well-reasoned conclusions starting with the assumption that witches are real? What if we change witch to demon? Many theologists embrace the assumption that witches and demons exist, despite its being completely unjustifiable since no evidence for their existence exists.

    Truly, I have known many persons professing to be theologists who were great thinkers, but the soundness of their reasoning and the quality of their argumentation has been of no consequence since they choose to begin with what amounts to, "A pig, a chicken, and a Sumo wrestler walk into a bar, and the pig says to the bartender ..."

    Theology is, first and foremost, intellectual farce, but whereas, farce appreciates that its strong suit is that it does not depict the true state of the world, theology falsely claims for itself the exact opposite.

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  23. Simea Mirans,
    Wasn't the original discussion about sophisticated reasons for believing in God? I read James McGrath's answer that "it is not helpful" to describe God as something supernatural, but the question was not about Mr. McGrath's choice of wording. The question is whether a supernatural being exists.
    It is possible that religion can be useful without there being any entity that Mr. McGrath would call God, or any supernatural being for that matter. I think it has also been demonstrated that the usefulness of religion does not indicate whether it is good or bad. Think of the negative acts done in the name of religion often mentioned by Hitchens and the charitable acts mentioned by supporters of religions.

    Where is the sophisticated argument for the supernatural being called God?

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  24. Wow, I didn't see that one coming! From a Courtier's protest to Dawkins' TGD argument to an admission that it is personal experience that can drive a "sophisticated theology". Albeit it isn't a very sophisticated usage, as Tyro notes.

    I guess that is why another haze is spread in McGrath's latest post, that of teleology. Which, of course, has not a trace of evidence in science and was specifically debunked in Dawkins TGD, so the argument goes nowhere.

    More interesting is that again cosmology is used as an illustration of "mystery". In the previous post the specific example was finetuning. Finetuning isn't a mystery nor is the universe finetuned for life as the post claimed (as life occupies a very small volume of it). We just don't know the answers yet, but there are plenty of hypotheses, some of which makes the likelihood of a universe similar to the observed large.

    However, I'm not sure McGrath understands finetuning as he links to an observation that has nothing to do with it. It is an exciting new observation where scientists don't know the explanation yet. This is then an argument from incredulity, which on the face of the articles seems to be a large part of the basis for McGrath's personal experiences and beliefs.

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