Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Progress as Essential to Religion

This popular quote from Stephen F. Roberts in support of atheism delights me:

“I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”

I smile at how so much arrogance, condescension, and pseudo-intellect can be managed into such a short remark. If there really is more than self-aggrandizement at work here and an actual argument present, it would seem to go something like this: you would judge the vast majority of historical conceptions of God as untrue, so you might as well dismiss the possibility of any true conception of God. I’ve also seen the argument presented in list form: one column for the list of “gods” the atheist rejects, and one column for the list of gods the theist rejects. They are, of course, long lists with but one difference at the end, as if the atheist is pointing out, “Look, we’ve all moved on past the days of believing in Zeus hurling thunderbolts from the clouds. There’s really no essential difference between your idea of God and all these others, so why not reject this very last one as well?”

Now, we could just as well direct this line of argument toward science to dismiss the possibility of any true theory by listing failed or supplanted theories like Newton’s Law of Gravitation (not to mention that whole phrenology business). But of course in science we do not take this view; we don’t discard Newton’s Law as false and worthless but instead seek to understand its proper scope and interpretation in light of more recent progress. The correct target of Roberts’ type of argument shouldn’t be the possibility of God but rather the idea that we can arrive upon a final, perfect concept for anything of importance. I’d suggest we always meet claims to having the final theory or word with a raised eyebrow and should expect that in any human endeavor we allow for the possibility of genuine progress, improvement, and refinement. Why should concepts of God, or general religious ideas, be any different?

It’s not helping matters either that many vocal theists buy into just the sort of “one true religion” nonsense that atheists can use to discredit the entire field. If you believe in the literal truth and faithful recording of a book where God acts and speaks, then it can admittedly be a bit troublesome to allow for the possibility of an improved conception of God. The result is that between the demands of the atheists to produce a precise account of God subject to falsifiability, and the counter-claims of theists to infallibility, we get a fairly fruitless dialogue.

So to begin with, let’s allow for the possibility of progress in religion, as we do in science, and at the same time discard the notion that any particular concept of God is the final, perfect concept. Now an atheist might charge that if there really is no God, then there is no basis for religion to begin with, and as a result we should meet the request for permitting refinement and progress as we would for astrology or alchemy: better to do away with the enterprise altogether! I will next argue on behalf of a basis for religious belief and in fact belief in God, and furthermore I hope to ground these in common, everyday experience.

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