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The Wall Street Journal commissioned Karen Armstrong and Richard Dawkins to write short essays to answer the question, "Where does evolution leave God?"

Armstrong offers the liberal pluralist position that evolution, and science in general, frees us from fundamentalism and allows us to seek meaning from the kind of transcendental god that defies description in human terms, ignores sectarian boundaries, and renders categories like existence and non-existence meaningless.  Science allows religion to be an art of living where god is understood in terms of symbols and the worshipper's goal becomes indiscriminate and universal compassion.

Dawkins offers his standard Skepticism 101 position that science leaves nothing for god to do.  You can go for a transcendental philosopher's god, he concedes, but he argues that such a god is useless for most of the world's population.  They want a god who is real and who does things, and they won't thank sophisticated thinkers like Armstrong for telling them that the question of their god's existence is irrelevant and beside the point. Armstrong, says Dawkins, is a functional atheist, and he thinks the world's faithful will see her the way he does.

(Once there was a time when I sided with Armstrong.  Now I side with Dawkins. I agree with Armstrong that religion can be a mode of living that makes life into an art of kindness; but when the religion itself is reduced to a mode of art, then it might as well be regarded as well-decorated atheism.  And when I look around me, it seems that such artistic purity in religious life is very much the exception and not the rule for human beings and for religion in general.)

But here's where things get interesting:  in what might be an all-time first, Albert Mohler -- president of the Southern Theological Baptist Seminary -- has written an essay in which he agrees with Dawkins.  Ok, he's only agreeing that people like Karen Armstrong are atheists just as much as Dawkins, but still.  How often does a Southern Baptist write an essay to agree with Richard Dawkins?

We should at least give Dawkins credit here for knowing what he rejects.  Here we meet an atheist who understands the difference between belief and unbelief.  As for those, like Armstrong, who try to tell believers that it does not matter if God exists --  Dawkins informs them that believers in God will brand them as atheists.  "They'll be right," Dawkins concludes.

So the exchange in The Wall Street Journal turns out to be a meeting of two atheist minds.  The difference, of course, is that one knows he is an atheist when the other presumably claims she is not.  Dawkins knows a fellow atheist when he sees one. Careful readers of The Wall Street Journal will come to the same conclusion.


I'm amused to find that I, in turn, am in agreement with the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.  I'm sure it doesn't happen often.

However it would be wrong to portray the spectrum of religious observance as limited to the extremes of scriptural literalism on the one hand and atheism on the other.  There is a vast in-between where faith and doubt wrestle and where religion isn't so much about strict belief in propositions as about the cultivation of hope and love.  I'm pretty sure Karen Armstrong wants to claim this in-between region as her own.

But I've lived in that in-between space, and I know that no matter how much faith wrestled with doubt while I was there, god was not just a symbol to me, and I would not have been satisfied with a mere philosophers' god when I rose in praise and knelt in supplication.  And there's nothing about the transcendental philosopher's god that could possibly tempt me back to religion:  I'd have to believe in something.  So I think that the inhabitants of the in-between spaces, no matter how nice they are or how politically moderate they may be, have more in common where belief is concerned with the fundamentalist than with the philosopher.

So let's introduce our fourth commentator, Andrew Sullivan, who equates the atheism of Dawkins with the religious dogmatism of the Baptist Mohler:

It's telling that both Mohler and Dawkins are both dedicated to the maintenance of a certain brand of doubt-free, doctrinally absolutist, fundamentalist versions of faith. There are other kinds. And fighting for that center is an important task in a world being torn apart by politicized religion.

And this is the point where I raise and eyebrow and say, "WTF?"

I admire Andrew Sullivan as a journalist and a writer.  I sometimes disagree with his politics.  But when he jumps into theology his good sense and even his command of English tends to evaporate.  Can he even know what a phrase like "doctrinally absolutist" means if he tries to apply the term to Richard Dawkins? 

Dawkins (and the vast majority of atheists) are happy to concede they can't prove the non-existence of god, after all. We just argue that there's no compelling evidence for preferring one religion's god to another's; we observe that science robs traditional gods of their functions; and we disagree with sophisticated theologians that one ought to invent a new kind of god that inhabits a realm beyond the powers of human description.

We also tend to insist that "fighting for the center," as Sullivan puts it, isn't as important as fighting for the truth.  We tend to think it's dishonest and harmful to fight to construct an intellectual false equivalence as a governing social norm.

And this, I think, is the point where Dawkins and I agree with the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.  We believe it's important to struggle for the truth, and we believe that the truth is something that should have a certain amount of internal consistency.  

So for the fundamentalist who cares about truth it's important to re-write or re-contextualize science so that it agrees with infallible scripture.  Unless he can do this, the world becomes absurd in a very non-enlightening, non-amusing sort of way.  Unfortunately the fundamentalist, in his desire to re-frame science, tends to find himself committing a lot of lies for the sake of the truth:  he must spend a lot of time misrepresenting what scientists mean when they speak to one another about science.  He must bear false witness against his neighbor.

By contrast the skeptic only has to discount the value of scripture and revelation.  And this is easy, because everyone in the world discounts all the scriptures and revelations that aren't their own, after all.  He must also be willing to say "I don't know" about things that he doesn't know.  And this is easy too, because there's so much in the world that we don't know.

"Couldn't there be some kind of god?"

"Maybe.  I don't know.  Got any evidence?"

"What started the whole universe itself?"

"I don't know.  Got any evidence?"

"Isn't a god necessary for morality?"

"Maybe not:  there's a lot of evidence suggesting that morality evolved biologically and culturally along with the development of group behaviors in our species and perhaps others.  But I don't know all the details -- we're still working on the problem."

...and so on.

And this is the kind of worldview that Andrew Sullivan wants to equate with scriptural literalism as a "doubt-free, doctrinally absolutist, fundamentalist version of faith."

It's just not.  Not unless preferring evidence to speculation is absolutist in some meaningful sense.  So Sullivan has fallen prey to the mainstream media's habit -- a habit that he himself spends no small amount of time criticizing -- of drawing false equivalences between opposed points of view. 

He's not doing it to cultivate and capitalize on controversy, but he's made the mistake of thinking that religious competition and violence can be ended by finding some kind of cultural balance point between the different faiths and between faith and science.  But that's like hoping to create peace by balancing a needle on its point in perpetuity.

Instead, Sullivan and Armstrong and all peace-loving people need to learn that the only way to be above the violent competition of the world's religions is to simply stop believing in them.  Not out of spite and not out of fear, but because there's no reason to believe.

That's what I call transcendence.
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June 2012

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