Thursday, May 18, 2006

Is Plurality a Serious Problem for Religion?

In a recent post, John W. Loftus of Debunking Christianity directs our attention to an argument by Austin Cline concerning why atheists don't believe in gods. My purpose here is to address the first section of that argument, which asserts that the plurality of religions (or the pluriform nature of religion) is a real problem. At some point in the future I may address Mr. Cline's broader argument, but that is not my purpose here.

Before I address the argument itself, however, I'd like to say that I am pleased to see an atheist advance an actual argument, rather than just refute the claims of others. While I know that atheism is by its very nature negative (the prefix a is a negative prefix, negating the theism, from the root theus, meaning God) it has disturbed me that many critics of the religious project have satisfied themselves picking the nits of the beliefs of others without actually advancing anything themselves.

This impression may be an error on my part - I am by no means an expert on atheism, and so cannot say definitively that advancing theories rather than just refuting them is the dominant atheist project. But I can say that it often, from my perspective, seems that way. Perhaps this is because many of the atheists with whom I interact are "deconverted" evangelical Christians. After all, many evangelicals (and I still consider myself to be an evangelical) make it their project to knock down everyone else's religion so that there will be nothing left to do but to convert to the only religion left standing. So perhaps the atheists with whom I interact retain some of the distasteful methods of their former religion while also applying those methods to even that religion. Turnabout, it is often said, is fair play. But this mode of religious discourse does little to either improve interreligious dialogue or to arrive at anything resembling the fundamental truth of the universe.

That said, here is the first section of Mr. Cline's argument:

Multiple Gods and Religious Traditions:
It is difficult to credit any one religion as being True or any one god as being True when there have been so many throughout human history. None appears to have any greater claim to being more credible or reliable than any other. Why Christianity and not Judaism? Why Islam and not Hinduism? Why monotheism and not polytheism? Every position has had its defenders, all as ardent as those in other traditions. They can't all be right, but they can all be wrong.

The second section is similar to the first, and inherits the biggest problem of the first, so I will include it, too:

Contradictory Characteristics in Gods:
Theists often claim that their gods are perfect beings; they describe gods, however, in contradictory and incoherent ways. Numerous characteristics are attributed to their gods, some of which are impossible and some combinations of which are impossible. As described, it's unlikely or impossible for these gods to exist. This doesn't mean that no god could possibly exist, just that the ones theists claim to believe in don't.

The first section of the argument sees religions as principally in competition with each other. And, of course, many religious people feed into this belief. Rather than seeing our religion as one of many valid ways to experience the sacred, we too often see our religion as the only way, a set or rational and literal statements with a literal-historical truth-value. In the face of this, Cline asks:

Why Christianity and not Judaism? Why Islam and not Hinduism? Why monotheism and not polytheism?

and in doings so he echoes the concern of many religious people. But does he ask a question which is of use to the overall project of religion (to the extent that one can say that there is such a things a "religion," and that this thing "religion" has a project)? Is it, in other words, really the case that each religion is fundamentally in competition with each other religion, and that that competition (if it exists at all) is principally concerned with the literal truth-value of the epistemic claims of each religion? And, is it also the case that religions are fundamentally in disagreement with each other on more than just certain details, such that, for instance, they have as little in common with each other as each respective one has in common with, say, atheism?

To deal with the first question, the groundwork for an answer is laid by Mircea Eliade's The Sacred and the Profane, and in William James' The Varieties of Religious Experience. Eliade, the famous historian of religions [note: religions, as opposed to religion, as Eilade did not wish to engage too much in reductionistic thinking], argued that (again, to the extent that there is such a thing as "religion," and to the extent that this things "religion" can be said to have some purpose, role or function - see this post for my reasons for making that disclaimer) the purpose of religion is to facilitate an encounter with the sacred. The purpose of James' famous book was to study those encounters, generally lumped under the broad category "religious experience."

Whatever the details of any religion, each religion as a religion has in common that it posits a Sacred, the Other or the More. Of course the sacred is not always seen as a god or many gods, and certainly not all concepts of the sacred agree on what the sacred is. But they do all share this: they fundamentally disagree with the project of atheism, and in their disagreement with that project they have more in common with each other than any of them has with atheism.

Another thing that they all have in common - and this is important for understanding my objection to Mr. Cline's argument - is that they all speak of the sacred principally in metaphoric rather than in literal terms. While there are certainly disagreements between religions on the nature of the sacred, and while it is obviously not the case that all religions say exactly the same thing (in fact it is obviously not the case that all expressions of the same religion say the same thing); in general when religions make claims they are not making literal or exclusive claims.

This is the main point which Paul Tillich makes in the section of his Theology of Culture concerning symbolism: that the nature of religious language is symbolic. And while Tillich has a deeper understanding of the word "symbolic" than the common usage of that word (it would, for instance, make no sense to Tillich to claim that a certain use of language is "merely symbolic," as though that were something lesser than the literal) it is pretty easy to grasp that by symbolic, at the very least, he means not literal. And, quite possibly he means greater than literal.

But referring to Eliade, James and Tillich doesn't by itself make my point. After all, most religious people have probably never heard of any of them, and would certainly disagree with their presentation of the nature of religion. It could easily be the case that Eliade, James and Tillich presented some sort of "best case scenario" for the relationship between individual religions in light of the plurality of religious expressions. To answer this concern, let's engage in an honest thought experiment.

Does the average religious person (to the extent that there is such a thing) believe absolutely in a non-symbolic concept of God (by which I mean something more than just the claim that is not only a symbol - I mean, does the person believe that God is more or less accurately described by a single description which is understood purely literally)? Given how often religious people claim that God frustrates human language and human understanding, I expect not. It may be the case that some people do believe that a particular description of God is literally true, exhaustive and exclusive, but I doubt that such people can claim to represent the consensus of religious people.

So, by and large, when we are dealing with language concerning God we are dealing with symbolic rather than literal language. We are, in other words, dealing with metaphor. And it should not be a surprise to us when metaphors conflict. They are, after all, our way of rendering into language that which cannot be rationally described. They are our way of representing something which cannot be understood literally. They are our way, in other words, of wrestling with mystery.

And religion is principally concerned with mystery. Religion is a way of trying to understand and articulate that which can't be completely understood or accurately described. Religious beliefs are our rational response to the ineffable experience of the sacred. Religious language is a mingling of the transcendent with the particular; a way of expressing that which can't be expressed in the symbolic language of a particular culture.

As such, even while religions do in fact disagree with each other, and while it is important to understand that those disagreements are very real and serious and should not be carelessly glossed over as though they do not exist; it is certainly not fair or accurate to say that religions are principally in competition with each other for some literal truth-value.

Plurality does pose a problem for exclusivism, but it does not pose a problem for the essential project of religion. That is because each religion adds its voice to the others, saying that there is such a sacred, and that the sacred can be experienced. In this they are united in their rejection of modern atheism.

This is where is real debate should be: Does the fact that the overwhelming majority of humans throughout history have believed in and experienced the sacred - even though they haven't all described the sacred with the same terms or concepts - point to the existence of something beyond the realm acknowledged by modern empiricism? How do those who deny the sacred explain the epistemic intuitions of almost all humans? I am sure that they have answers, and very reasonable answers. But the argument against plurality is at best a sort of strawman argument in which the worst form of religion stands in for religion as a whole, and gets knocked down without a fight.

That said, Cline does ask a serious question for pluralists like me to consider, which I shall quote yet again:

Why Christianity and not Judaism? Why Islam and not Hinduism? Why monotheism and not polytheism?

Part of this question is a category error: the pluralist does not say one "and not" the other, if by that we mean that one is "true" and the other "false." But the religious person, pluralist or otherwise, still must choose the tradition in which they experience the sacred, the way in which they wish to be religious. If truth-value (in the absolute sense, at least) is removed from the equation, how do we choose?

If we weren't talking about religion, this wouldn't be a problem at all. How, for instance, do you choose what to eat? The absence of absolute truth-value is not a problem. That you can't say "apple is true, and not-apple (be it pizza, burrito, orange, or whatever) is false" doesn't give one pause. But is food a good metaphor for religion? Like all metaphors it isn't perfect, but perhaps it isn't bad.

When looking at both food and religion, you need to consider nourishment. With food you consider the needs of your body, with religion the needs of what we often call your spirit or your soul. Of course empirical studies have taught us what our body needs, but there can be no empirical study concerning the needs of the soul. Absent that, how do we choose a religion in terms of nourishment?

People were eating long before science told them what to eat. How did they decide what to eat? Obviously some of that had to do with what was available to them, but much of it also had to do with intuition. Our bodies communicate our needs to us. Of course this form of communication, absent perfect self-awareness, is very imperfect. Our intuitions aren't flawless. But neither are they totally bad. In the same way, I think, we have spiritual intuitions which communicate what we need in terms of spiritual nourishment. Those of you who are religious, and who have struggled with how to be religious, know what I am saying when I say that we know when our way of being religious isn't working any more. If we listen to the inner voice which tells us that this isn't working, we change important parts of our religious life.

So, intuitions inform us of how particular modes of being religious nourish us spiritually. But we don't just choose food based on the nutrients in it. We also consider aesthetics. There is also an aesthetic component to religion, though I won't go into that here.

We consult many other things in choosing how to be religious, but of the ones not yet mentioned, ethics may be the most important. At some point in the future we may consider the possibility of ethical critiques of religious expressions. But for the moment I think that I have demonstrated that removing absolute truth-value from our consideration of religion still leaves us plenty of ground to choose our way of being religious, while also allowing us to see the cooperative aspects of plurality rather than just the competitive aspects.

When we choose one religion over another, we are not saying that our way of being religious should be normative. Instead we are simply saying that it is our way of being religious, the way in which we experience the sacred. That does not discredit any much less all of the other ways.


Liam said...

As usual, an excellent post and too rich for me to do justice to with a quick comment -- but I will anyway.

I will speak from my 25 years of experience of being an atheist. You ask about atheists advancing and argument. I think it is a good thing to have in mind that there are different ways of being an atheist. One is to identify yourself as such and attach a great amounty of personal meaning to that part of your identification, the other is simple not being able to relate in any meaningful way to the idea "there is a God," so religion as such falls out of what you are and how you live. Those that fall into the first camp are the ones who start organizations and websites and spend time and energy precisely on the question of the existence of God. It is not surprising that many of these atheists were once believers, especially of a particualarly conservative or fundamentalist brand of religion (whose image they project onto all religions in their arguments).

The second type usually don't spend a great deal of time on the question of God's existence, because it's not a problem for them. They regard believers of religion as mistakingly putting belief into something that is, for them, obviously not there. This is the case for many people who were raised in completely secular environments and who never even give much thought to the possibility of becoming religious. I myself was more of the first kind in my rebellious adolescent years, more of the second for the rest of my life until I became religious again.

I still plan to blog sometime on how I got back into Catholicism, but a lot of it has to do with a growing awareness of the sacred which had a lot to do with realizing that that which is truly meaningful to me is meaningful to a transcendent degree. I believe to say that anyone who preceives meaning in their lives is religious to a greater or lesser degree.

Because of that, I don't think there is a great divide between atheists and religious people. I think anyone who says that their life is lived in a way that is 100% rational would be stating something tragic if they weren't lying (don't they fall in love or go to ball games?). When I was an atheist, I found transcendent meaning (the sacred) in romantic love, art, poetry, etc.

I'm not saying that all atheists should just stop fooling themselves and get to church -- that's as arrogant as them telling me to stop fooling myself and to stop going to church. Everyone should relate to meaning in the way that works for them. I also feel closer to atheists who are ethical and caring people than to Christians who are cruel and corrupt.

Just a couple thoughts -- I have to go back to work now.

DagoodS said...

Good post, Sandalstraps. I enjoyed it very much (although that should not come as a surprise.)

A few points of clarification, at least from my position in this whole affair. We are not talking about competing religions. We are talking about competing depictions of God(s). A claim of monotheism precludes polytheism. A claim of a personal God precludes a disinterested Deistic God. It is true, even within beliefs of a particular God, there can be competition among the followers that appear in the form of various religions, and the real question is that of God, not religion.

Buddhists (as you know) have no God, and yet still clearly have religion.

I would agree that plurality poses a problem for exclusivity. Yet by their very nature, all theistic claims are exclusive. A Catholic claims that a Protestant picture of God is inaccurate. A person that claims both pictures of God are correct is excluding both Catholics and Protestants as being incorrect. (Partially correct, yes, but still not completely correct.) Every single theistic belief incorporates some depiction of God that excludes other theistic beliefs. Even a pantheist is stating that excluding ANY god is incorrect. Thus treating “exclusivity” exclusively!

It is not religions that are fundamentally in competition with each other—it is theistic beliefs. (Including atheism, of course.)

This is the problem. If there was some God out there, why do people all disagree vehemently and completely as to its characteristics? Worse, upon inspection, people tend to believe in a God that fits their particular historical, geographical, and depth of scientific knowledge. If the people think the world is flat—so does their God. If the people believe rain is water coming through the windows of heaven, so does their God.

In reviewing the course of history, God(s) have molded and changed with the greater knowledge obtained by humans. While one may argue humans can only work with what they have, I would point out that is an argument for the human creation of God, not vice versa.

It is this perpetual mystery that brings the question. When the Indians could not reach Mackinaw Island, they presumed it was from that Island that the Great Spirit went forth and created the world. To an Indian, the world was only created just before they went out and explored it.

Early cultures thought that Gods lived among us. When discovery failed to reveal such Gods, they moved the Gods out to the “Heavens.” That black space in between the Stars. When telescopes revealed no God there, they were moved to Heavens “outside” the universe. When multi-string theory became popular, all of a sudden it was posed that God(s) could be living in some other dimension.

No matter what we study, no matter how far we go, God perpetually moves beyond reach to the undiscoverable. The carrot and stick come readily to mind.

Plurality does not only apply to the current theistic beliefs, but all those in the past as well. And in reviewing the past, and seeing there are no God(s) on Mt. Olympus, we begin to question the viability of such a creature existing.

While you indicate that discussion of theism is a metaphoric language, this only removes the problem one step. A metaphor of what? An actual thing. Or are you saying that theism is the discussion into a metaphor of something that is not actual? If God is an actual thing, then it IS fair to state that theistic beliefs are in competition with each other as to what that actual thing is. Whether they utilize symbolism, or metaphors, or spiritual language, or allegories or parables, underneath it all is an actual entity with an actual description.

It may not be a description we understand, nor perhaps can articulate, but it still IS. And if a person chooses to articulate what that thing is, one question I would raise, what attributes it has, what attributes can we not know, and by what method do we determine which is which? More importantly, what makes this particular theistic revelation more probable than any other? What makes this God stand out?

One thing I would state is that theism does not fundamentally disagree with atheism. That is not how I see it at all. There are many, many Gods that a theist is atheistic about. Once they understand why they are atheistic about those Gods, they begin to understand why I am atheistic about theirs as well.

I can talk to a particular theist, and they would assure me that Huitzilopochtli does not exist. He can only be fed by Chalchihuatl, or the blood of sacrifice, to sustain him in his daily battle. Human sacrifice. Or Baba-Yaga who turned you to stone, and lived in a house of bones.

Or Ovda who dances or tickles you to death. And then eats you.

Each one of these Gods, the theist is an atheist, even a strong atheist, about. Or fundamentalist Christians are atheistic toward Allah, or Deism, or Mormonism. I am sure you get my point.

I do not see me in disagreement (fundamental or otherwise) with theists, but rather primarily in agreement! We both seem to agree on how impossible the concept of God can be for a vast majority of its proponents.

We both obtain our morals from our environment, history, culture and upbringing. While some theists may hem and haw over exceptions they desire to carve out, we primarily agree. Even literalist fundamentalists do not want to bring back slavery.

Most religions I encounter have some aspect of loving others is a primary goal. So, too, naturalists. We may have different reasons, but pragmatically live it out the same.

Perhaps what is frustrating to me, in this argument, is the fact that I see theists so readily and willingly decrying that another person’s God is not quite correct. Yet when I attempt to determine a methodology by which we can determine which one is correct or not, either the methodology cancels them all out, or it includes more than that particular theistic version. It is that pluralism that makes me question the viability of their God.

Plus the fact that every God has miracles, mystery, stories of changed lives, testimonies, failures. They all have the same claims, yet state the other theist’s claims are not quite correct.

It is fascinating, though, the almost universal belief in a spiritual power, or supernatural. There have been arguments that it came through evolution because of fear of death, or culturally handed down, or through the exertion of power. All fun to read, but all theoretical.

I am not sure, though, we can stretch that to say, “Just because everybody believes in something means that something must be out there.” Especially when everybody’s “something” is vastly different.

My .02. Take it or leave it, as always, of course.

Troy said...

I read this post and comments yesterday, and I've been letting them gestate. Both Dagoods and Sandalstraps make good arguments, I think. It's tough to say who is right or wrong about the non-material.

In some ways they seem to be looking at the same data with very different lenses. I do think, though, that when S says he is a pluralist he means God (for him, the Christian God) has spoken to people and cultures throughout history. He's done so using language they can understand, so of course their human descriptions of this interaction are different, localized if you will. I don't think S is saying that a Christian has to disbelieve in (be atheistic toward) other gods. Some of those others, in some mysterious way invented by the interaction of God and men, have been used to bring men salvation.

At least that's what C.S. Lewis would argue those other myths were doing, and others go farther than even the very orthodox Lewis.

Me? Heck, I don't know. I don't know. Without the NT, especially the gospels, I'd probably be an atheist skeptic. But even then, I'd have to admit the many unknown possibilities in this universe, the odd fact that not only do most cultures have spiritual beliefs but belief in ghosts, many in an afterlife, judgement in the afterlife, a Creator...those ideas can be written off as superstition, but not all can be summarily dismissed. I read the Iliad and feel little spirituality; I read Sophocles and I'm astounded that such a series was written in the pre-Christian world.

Multiple religion is one of the most interesting questions a Christian must face. There is no easy answer, and I have no closure at this time, though I enjoyed reading both sides and am hoping for more.

One final thing: S's point that a religion or metaphysic can be meausred according to how well it feeds the human soul is strong for me. To stretch it a bit, even Jesus says we will know his followers by their fruit. A religion can be evaluated according to how well it cares for its adherents, and how well it touches their core spritual desires. That idea is one that sticks with me as I ponder all this.

Best to you both (and to Liam, nice site; dig the art).


Sandalstraps said...


It is Sunday morning, and I am about to head out the door to church, but I wanted to give your excellent comment (which I read as I checked my email this morning, my most persistent addiction!) an initial response.

We agree completely about two important things:

1. Ideas about God are in competition.

2. This competition (that the truth value of any claim excludes the claims which contradict it from being literally true) speaks to the inherant "emptiness" of each claim.

Where we disagree is over whether or not these claims, taken together, absent their literal-historical truth value, speak to the existence of what I call the sacred. In this sense any form of theism is opposed to atheism, despite your excellent argument about how each theist, in disagreeing with all other forms of theism, has more in common with an atheist than not.

This is because, when theists disagree they disagree about details of claims made about the sacred rather than about the very existence of the sacred itself. As such the disagreement is a more "in family" disagreement. But of course I may be guilty of glossing over some really important disagreements because it is convenient for my argument. It is easy to hypothesize on the similarities between religious positions. It is more difficult to look at the concrete disagreements about the nuts and bolts of religion and to still hold that, by and large, religions are principally in agreement.

I think that absloutely no claim made about the sacred is comprehensively true, but that that isn't a problem for the sacred itself, or for the traditions which arise out of a need to make contact with the sacred.

If you haven't already read it, check out my essay on Xenophanes' Critique of Religion, which more thoroughly explores the emptiness of doctrine, and in particular concepts of God.

Finally, I make an important distinction between the sacred, which I call God, and concepts about the sacred, or doctrines of God or gods. I recognize that this is a problem, since every time I talk even of this distinction I am making claims about the sacred, to which I should not become attached. We'll have to have this conversation in more depth later, as I have to go now.

Thanks again for making such good comments. I always enjoy reading what you write.

John W. Loftus said...

Sandeltraps: This is where is real debate should be: Does the fact that the overwhelming majority of humans throughout history have believed in and experienced the sacred - even though they haven't all described the sacred with the same terms or concepts - point to the existence of something beyond the realm acknowledged by modern empiricism? How do those who deny the sacred explain the epistemic intuitions of almost all humans?

In my opinion human need may be the reason why people believe in God in the first place, not because of the arguments pro and con. As humans we simply cannot bear to believe we have no ultimate purpose in life, and that our existence is absurd. We think we’re more important than that!
Harvard professor and evolutionary psychologist, Steven Pinker, has argued that the mysteries of our existence first provoked the belief in God or gods in the first place. He asked, “who benefits” from the pervasive religious belief in our world? There are the “consumers of religion” who are confronted with the mysteries of death, dreams, and questions about existence. Then there are the “producers of religious beliefs” who seek to come up with answers to these questions. As these producers come up with satisfying answers to these mysteries, the consumers grant them power, some measure of fame, and money. In this way everyone benefits, but the producers benefit much more, and in this way religion is propagated all over the globe. [“The Evolutionary Psychology of Religion” (Free Thought Today, Jan/Feb 2005)].

And what better answers are there than that we are significant, and that life does have meaning? These are the answers we desperately want to hear, so it’s no surprise to me that there are more religious believers in the world. The producers of religion offer solutions that are very fulfilling indeed, especially the story about a God who cared about us so much that he came down in Jesus and died in our place! The question is how many people would follow a “producer” if his answer were that life is ultimately vain?

When these originating producers of religion gained a foothold of power in a society and that society economically and militarily flourished it validated those religious answers. According to Edward O. Wilson, “All great civilizations were spread by conquest, and among the chief beneficiaries were the religions validating them.” [(Consilience: The Unity Of Knowledge (Knopf, 1998), p. 244].

In my opinion, Christianity is a legendary development from a person named Jesus that lucked its way into political power.

Sandalstraps said...


Thanks for the comment, and also thank you for reminding me of the evolutionary take on functional reductionism in religion. My college biology professor loaned me that E.O. Wilson book, and I was much impressed with it.

My response to your question will be brief, as I don't have enough time to give it all of the attention that it deserves.

Your comment is, if I understand it correctly (feel free to correct any misunderstandings, of course) essentially a rehashing of the "vital lie" critique of religion. If I understand this critique correctly, it argues that because religion meets a basic psycho-social need, it can be reduced to its function in meeting that need, which is incidental to its truth value.

It then goes on to argue that because there is no reason to believe that something is true simply because it meets a need, there is good reason to believe that it is not true.

I have no interest in providing a strawman of this argument, and I can see that my basic sketch of the arguement seems to do that, particularly in the last paragraph. So, before I get into my objections to the argument let me show some solidarity with and sympathy for the argument.

One of the fundamental insights of Buddhism is that all (mental, the kind that can be avoided) suffering comes from a gap between our expectations and our reality. We expect the world to be a certain way; we need the world to be that way. But it isn't that way, it fails to meet our expectations, we become frustrated and suffer. Clinging to our expectations and beliefs in the face of a world which will never conform to those expectations and beliefs is the cause of suffering.

This, as a critique of religion, is the most appealing component of the doctrine of anatman (no-self). The indigenous Indian religions of the Buddha's day (which, thanks to British colonists and their need to distinguish the native spiritualities from Islam, we call Hinduism) had as one of their goals the cultivation of and discovery of atman, the "true self," with the goal of merging atman with Brahmin (absolute, fundamental reality). But the Buddha saw no reason to hold that there was such a thing as atman, and further saw that the religious quest to find such a thing caused in many people a great deal of suffering, as their quest to find and become something that doesn't exist would always be destined to failure.

It seems that those who, like the evolutionary biologists who seek to reduce religion to its evolutionary or psychological function, advance the "vital lie" critique of religion and religious beliefs, participate in this salient critique provided by Buddhism.

However, the nuts and bolts of the critique rest on two flawed assumptions:

1. That something psychologically necessary must be false, even and especially in the most universal cases. That is, in this case, that there is a nearly universal need to believe in something like our descriptions of God or the sacred, and that the need implies a falsehood in the belief.

Of course, many things that we think we need turn out not to be the case, but it is still true that:

a. those false beliefs are not false because they are needed, and

b. it is not the case that all the things that we need to be true turn out to be false.

The need, the function, is incidental to the truth value. It should not be advanced as a reason for the truth of a belief, at least not without some serious additional arguing. Similarly, it should not be advanced as a reason for the falsehood for a belief, as the need is indeed incidental to the truth value.

2. That because something is describable in terms of its function it can be reduced to that function. This was once a very popular method, but it has been called into serious question by phenomenology. You can see my treatment of reductionism as it applies to religious study here.

I often use the terms "functionalism" and "reductionism" interchangably, as

1. most forms of reductionism are also functionalistic; that is they seek to reduce the object of their study to its function, and

2. my objection with understanding something in terms of its function is not that it is unimportant to understand the function of something culturally significant like religion, but rather that it is impossible, even if you can identify the function of a thing, to reduce it to that function, as I argue in more detail in the post linked to above.

Again, thanks for your comment, and for turning my attention to a subject I haven't studied in far too long. Alas, while the book you reference from E.O. Wilson gets a passing mention in my post on reductionism, it is not actually addressed there. I ought to read it again, and try my best to address the concerns in it. It truly is an excellent book.

Troy said...


just took a quick read through your final post here: you have thought things through in a most concise way. As a fellow Lewis fan, I remember in Pilgrim's Regress when he note that atheism could be wish-fulfillment. The problem is that atheism can lead to the existential crisis, often does at least for a time in sensitive people or with those who had faith and then lose it. I would argue, actually, anyone who thinks long and hard, or almost anyone, will find the existential crisis behind human life without transcendent meaning, purpose, transcendent ethics, final justice. I know plenty of people who swear they are happy atheists and agnostics, but I stick by my belief the harder I look. More than one of them, as I've gotten closer, in fact does believe in something transcendent which provides them structure or meaning.

What would be the wish-fulfillment value of atheism? I wonder. It often seems to me agnostics or atheists look at the data we have in a special, and by no means unassailable, way. I wonder if that perspective doesn't come from personal experience; frustrations and wounds, perhaps. Perhaps, as with John in PR, those who have a damaged religion, a harsh faith, do need to lose it and that loss is in fact wish-fulfillment.

What interests me (and Eliade's book and James' book have been on my list for a long time) is the fact that we have good gods and bad ones, at least in the literature. (In cultus, some Gods have demanded horrible things, like sacrifice of children). But when I compare some of the actual spiritual experience I believe some ancients had with the goofy stories in Homer and see where I'm headed...there was something happening, for some, even in the worship of those oddballs.

I'm not sure if this proves Christianity or any kind of theism, but it is certainly true that just because we want something doesn't mean it doesn't exist! Lewis' argument that God must likely exist because we crave him may not be any stronger, but the wish-fulfillment development belief in the supernatural has not been observed. By this I mean that so much of ancient history is unknown to us...we see the tiniest sliver. It's impossible to say what role the sacred played sixty thousand years ago, if any.

But I'm drifting. I think the wish-fulfillment idea is an interesting one, but hardly decisive. It looks very strong, but when analyzed closely, it is assumption largely based on the clever assumptions of authorities who are not unbiased themselves.

We simply cannot see past the veil; Kant may well be right in the limits of reason. But one swore he came through that veil, back and through again, for those who would or could hear him.

Gotta run bro.


Tyler Simons said...

Augustine of Strappo wrote:

Rather than seeing our religion as one of many valid ways to experience the sacred, we too often see our religion as the only way, a set or rational and literal statements with a literal-historical truth-value.

Chris, it does my heart good to read you, Liam and Troy, confessing Christians the lot of you, to get this whole big thread together on the truth of religious belief without even mentioning that the vast majority of our sisters and brothers in Christ, now and in ages past don't think Paul is trading in metaphors when he writes, "If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins." (1 Cor. 15)

I mean, I think a literal sense of the Christ event is a pretty big deal for almost all Christians. Kierkegaard's absolute breaking into the historical and whatnot. I don't really buy into it, though, I am an Episcopalian, after all. I guess y'all aren't discerning a call to ministry at the moment, so this kinda thing doesn't keep you up at night. That actually makes me feel a little better, knowing that you guys are out there. Thanks.

Sandalstraps said...

Anonymous pot shots from people who don't bother to read my writing in context won't be tolerated here.

Bad form. Bad form.