The False Debate

Filed under: Con Spirito — Jess at 10:25 pm on Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Recently in the Unitarian Universalist blog-world, much has been made of the printing of an advertisement from the Freedom From Religion Foundation on the inside front cover of our association’s magazine, the UU World.

Here’s the ad (PDF). Here’s a bunch of conversation about the ad, and how it offended many (me included).

For some, the negative reaction to this ad in our religious association’s magazine that features proposed bus signs with anti-religion quotations on them has spurred a debate over whether or not there is enough room in our non-creedal, open minded religious communities for atheists at all.

This question has been asked on both sides: “If you believe in God, why do you go to the Unitarian Universalist church when there are so many other places you could go? And, “If you don’t believe in God, why do you go to church at all, much less a Unitarian Universalist church?”

I really think these are the wrong questions, stemming from a false dichotomy: “Is there a God, or isn’t there one?”

The answer is really, simply, but oh-so-complicatedly, “Yes. There is, AND there isn’t.”

(Well, leaving out the fundamentalist position for now, because it is directly opposite to liberal theology in every way, and Unitarian Universalism is at the very least liberal theology!)

Consider this from Karen Armstrong, printed in the Wall Street Journal in response to the question, “Where does evolution leave God?” (emphases are mine):

Darwin may have done religion—and God—a favor by revealing a flaw in modern Western faith. Despite our scientific and technological brilliance, our understanding of God is often remarkably undeveloped—even primitive. In the past, many of the most influential Jewish, Christian and Muslim thinkers understood that what we call “God” is merely a symbol that points beyond itself to an indescribable transcendence, whose existence cannot be proved but is only intuited by means of spiritual exercises and a compassionate lifestyle that enable us to cultivate new capacities of mind and heart.

But by the end of the 17th century, instead of looking through the symbol to “the God beyond God,” Christians were transforming it into hard fact. Sir Isaac Newton had claimed that his cosmic system proved beyond doubt the existence of an intelligent, omniscient and omnipotent creator, who was obviously “very well skilled in Mechanicks and Geometry.” Enthralled by the prospect of such cast-iron certainty, churchmen started to develop a scientifically-based theology that eventually made Newton’s Mechanick and, later, William Paley’s Intelligent Designer essential to Western Christianity.

But the Great Mechanick was little more than an idol, the kind of human projection that theology, at its best, was supposed to avoid. God had been essential to Newtonian physics but it was not long before other scientists were able to dispense with the God-hypothesis and, finally, Darwin showed that there could be no proof for God’s existence. This would not have been a disaster had not Christians become so dependent upon their scientific religion that they had lost the older habits of thought and were left without other resource.

Newton’s God is the one that usually comes up — the idea that life could only be so complex that some kind of supernatural intelligence had to have designed it.

Most liberal theologians have come to the conclusion that God is not an intelligence, but rather a shortcut word or idea to talk about that which is bigger than the human mind can hold, the very essence of the universe that sustains every living thing.

What I find so sad is that many atheists cling to the idea of Newton’s God when they argue against the existence of anything that one could call God.

Consider this from “notorious” atheist Richard Dawkins’ response to the same question as above (emphases again mine):

Where does that leave God? The kindest thing to say is that it leaves him with nothing to do, and no achievements that might attract our praise, our worship or our fear. Evolution is God’s redundancy notice, his pink slip. But we have to go further. A complex creative intelligence with nothing to do is not just redundant. A divine designer is all but ruled out by the consideration that he must [be] at least as complex as the entities he was wheeled out to explain. God is not dead. He was never alive in the first place.

Now, there is a certain class of sophisticated modern theologian who will say something like this: “Good heavens, of course we are not so naive or simplistic as to care whether God exists. Existence is such a 19th-century preoccupation! It doesn’t matter whether God exists in a scientific sense. What matters is whether he exists for you or for me. If God is real for you, who cares whether science has made him redundant? Such arrogance! Such elitism.”

Well, if that’s what floats your canoe, you’ll be paddling it up a very lonely creek. The mainstream belief of the world’s peoples is very clear. They believe in God, and that means they believe he exists in objective reality, just as surely as the Rock of Gibraltar exists.

He plays right into the false dichotomy: God the divine designer exists, or he doesn’t. But until Dawkins went to this particular rhetorical device, pretty much everything he had to say on this question fit very well with what Armstrong had to say, from the “theist” perspective.

The real question we should be asking, in Unitarian Universalist churches and everywhere else, is not, “Do you believe in God?” but rather, “What does the idea of God mean?” The exercise from there would be to answer such a question without negative statements, no “God is not. . .” but rather “God is. . .”

Even with someone who identifies as atheist, perhaps especially so, I bet that conversation could be really interesting.

The point of such an exercise is not about coming up with “THE” answer, either, but instead to enrich our spiritual conversations with one another rather than staying behind our self-imposed barriers of thinking that we already know what someone of a certain ilk might say.

All of this branding of people as “Theist” or “Atheist,” putting people on either side of a hard and fast line without discussion, doesn’t do anyone any good. This false dichotomy seeks to separate us when religious community should be about bringing us together.

25 Singers in the Choir

Comment by Patrick McLaughlin

September 16, 2009 @ 11:48 pm

Thanks for bringing this back up, Jess. I’d meant to, but somehow between a sore throat, CPE and a couple classes, it slid…

I’ve finally figured out how I want to answer the question, as a good, faithful, life-long UU.

I don’t go to church for god. Nor do I go because of god. God (making the assumption for the moment) in any formulation I can manage to even start to believe in just doesn’t care about that–did you go? And it’s not as if I can’t expose myself to all the theological thinking, ethical contemplation and great music without going.

I go for the people. The people there, and the people not there, those who stumble in as if they just found a life-saving oasis… and those who won’t ever stumble in, but who need us–and we need them–to help heal the world.

If you’re a theist or an atheist, going to a UU church isn’t about god, or belief in god. It’s about doing that work that god knows needs to be done. For our own sakes.

Comment by Roger Marcum

September 17, 2009 @ 8:56 am

I like your journal and the “Best of UU”…

Most theists that I have talked to would agree with Dawkins. The “god” of the liberal theologian is no god at all, but rather just a metaphor. And metaphor is apparently not enough.

I personally find the word useless. I think there are better ways of describing “transcendence” or “essence” than by using such a divisive and confusing term. Of course that’s my opinion.

And Patrick has described very well why I, too, go to a UU church.

Comment by Jess

September 17, 2009 @ 10:08 am

I don’t think that “just a metaphor” is adequate. The vision of god that works most for me is from Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow’s evolutionary theology, where the word god represents all of the universe and everything in it, the tying together of all living things. That’s not really a metaphor, but it is a concept much larger than I can really express in words, so the word god is the shortcut or symbol that seems to work best.

And personally I’ve found that I recoil from attempts to use other terms that seem to be avoiding the word god on purpose: “spirit of life” is the least offensive, but when one gets into multiple word tangles trying to cover every base, I just tune out. I’d rather we reclaimed this very simple, yet powerful word and did better at talking about what we mean by it, at least for those of us for whom it holds meaning. Of course there will be those who reject the whole thing.

Comment by Jacqueline

September 17, 2009 @ 10:26 am

Jess, actually the conversation exhausts me. I think that people are trying desperately not to believe in the god of old and come up with some other word to express ideas that aren’t as simplistic, but are as irrational. (Which is OK- it is what is needed for them.) It is the making up of new terminology that can be tiring - like coming up for the perfect word for the color of the sky at sunset. - agree that the god or no go conversation does just divide people further and that, in and of itself, is particularly damaging to not only the UUA, but humankind.

Comment by Cynthia Landrum

September 17, 2009 @ 10:34 am

Jess, I couldn’t agree with you more about how we’re getting trapped in this dichotomy, while the more interesting questions are being ignored. And I completely agree about Dawkins. I’m going to write a lot more on that subject at some point, or dig up & blog the sermon I wrote about it.

But when you write:

The real question we should be asking, in Unitarian Universalist churches and everywhere else, is not, “Do you believe in God?” but rather, “What does the idea of God mean?” The exercise from there would be to answer such a question without negative statements, no “God is not. . .” but rather “God is. . .”

For me, as an agnostic, part of what the point (as I wrote in my most recent blog post) is about what God is NOT. What God IS, if God IS, is still open to a lot of possibilities. I think including what God is not in this conversation still has merit. And we can’t really talk about people’s ideas of what God is, if we’re not free to say, “I think God is NOT that, personally.”

Comment by Jess

September 17, 2009 @ 10:41 am

@ Jacqueline:

What Karen Armstrong argues for is a return to the god of old, not the literal anthropomorphic god of Newton — read the first bolded sentence in the quote above.

I don’t think it is fair to characterize ideas of the ultimate as “irrational.” There are some things that are too large for singular humans to comprehend — can you really hold even the idea of the vastness of the entire universe in your mind, all at once? There’s a reason that Douglas Adams describes “The Total Perspective Vortex” as the most horrible form of torture imaginable.

Why does a symbol, or a metaphor, have to be called “irrational,” as if it is a terrible thing to feel things rather than to reason them out? Can you rationalize why you find certain types of music or art more beautiful than others, in such a way that no one else could disagree with you?

Human beings are emotional beings, and therefore inherently irrational in all sorts of ways. Wouldn’t it be more productive, or at least kinder, to try and understand that people find meaning in different ways, and that there is validity in different perspectives, without labeling them as “irrational?”

Comment by Jess

September 17, 2009 @ 10:47 am

@ Cynthia:

Of course, because of the way language works, we have to talk negatives when we disagree with someone, but I think it’s an interesting exercise to talk about this particular subject without going there first.

Also, wouldn’t it be fascinating to get to a place where every perspective is considered in such a way that no one is called “wrong” for disagreeing, or rather, seeing things differently but no less “truly” than another? When we’re talking about something as large as god, I think there’s a lot more room for multiple visions.

Though I agree with you that God doesn’t care about football, at least not any God that I can perceive of. I’d love to have a conversation that is deeper than rebutting points like that, though.

Comment by Cynthia Landrum

September 17, 2009 @ 11:08 am

Yes, I would love for us to be having the deeper conversation. I guess I’m coming from two points here. I think we need to be having the deeper conversation in our churches. That’s important. But I think we have an important role as UUs in negating some really bad theology out there in the public arena, including crap that is said, all to frequently and all too publicly, like God sent Hurricane Katrina to punish people for this or that. And we need to have that conversation in our churches about negating that conversation. So it’s a both-and.

Comment by Jess

September 17, 2009 @ 11:45 am

I can totally agree with that.

Comment by Jacqueline

September 17, 2009 @ 3:57 pm

But Jess - there are many things that are too difficult for me to understand - (why people where plaid and flowers together, economic theory as discussed by my college freshman professor, and the physics).

The idea that the world is so complicated that there must be a god just doesn’t work for me. I believe there is scientific solution to this problem. I may not grasp it. In fact, I am sure I don’t, but I am comfortable not understanding it because there are many things that I don’t understand - some of those things are irrational. Again, this is just my opinion.

Comment by Jess

September 17, 2009 @ 4:06 pm

Jacqueline, you’re arguing over Newton’s God, the “Great Mechanik,” not over the god of *liberal* theology as set out by Karen Armstrong in the passage above. She explains that, and then debunks it. That’s the false debate that Richard Dawkins falls into as well — arguing over the existence of a God that many religious scholars have already said they don’t believe in.

Nobody is asking you to believe in *that* God except fundamentalists.

And in fact, no one is asking you to believe in God at all, but rather to expand your understanding of what *others* might mean by the word itself, and to leave room for them in your church without being offended that they think differently than you do, and act on their beliefs.

Comment by Roger Marcum

September 17, 2009 @ 4:14 pm

HI Jess, I guess we recoil at different things. I recoil at using a word that causes such confusion and divisiveness. I still see your use of “god” as a metaphor for the universe, but to each their own. My lack of using the word “god” to describe the universe, or ultimate concern, or whatever else is not because most of the people I talk to see “god” as some kind of being with anthropomorphic qualities. It is simply because it does nothing for me. It has no explanatory value nor spiritual value.

To Jacqueline, instead of desperately trying not to believe in a god, I am desperately trying to be honest with myself, which seems to be UU attribute.

Is there really such a thing as the “god of old”? Aren’t there, and haven’t there been, many different ways of believing in or expressing the concept?

I can certainly agree that if we *are* to use the word god, it’s important for us to express what we mean by the word if we want to be understood.

Comment by Earthbound Spirit

September 17, 2009 @ 9:36 pm

Two observations.

First, I totally get the pointing to that which is transcendent. The Buddhists use the metaphor of a finger pointing at the moon - the finger is not the moon.

When I use the word “god,” I do NOT necessarily think I have to express what I mean by it in every single conversation. It’s enough to use it and know what I mean by it - and that meaning shifts, depending. I had a long conversation with a Christian minister in an interfaith group about the importance of using the common language of faith - knowing that we all mean something different when we use the same words. We UUs seem to think we invented being “different.” Sorry, we didn’t. The meaning varies between Christian denominations - and between Christians.

Understanding that now, I became a lot more comfortable listening to Rev. Sinkford when he began prayers with “Spirit of Life, Gracious God…” And I’ve stolen Bishop Robinson’s words for pastoral prayers: “Spirit of Life, God of our varied understanding…”

Comment by h sofia

September 17, 2009 @ 11:45 pm

I’ve gotten to the point where I tend to only use the word god/God as part of an expression or turn-of-phrase, as in “oh my god,” or “please, god, help a sista out!” I do not take it literally in any sense.

My background is not liberal Christianity or fundamentalism, so sometimes I have to wonder if liberal UUs (especially those from regions that are not particularly religious) tend to downplay the literal-ness of God to sooo many people. Most Muslims I know are NOT fundamentalists, for example, but God is certainly NOT a metaphor for them.

But perhaps among UUs, the spectrum starts further to the left … and there are relatively few UUs who see God as a literal entity (not a metaphor) on one end … and then way down on the other end, are some UUs who think there is absolutely no “one” there.

After a lot of thought and discussion on the matter, I’ve come to the conclusion that I should refrain from using the word “god” to imply ANYTHING because it’s just too confusing to people. Why should I, as an atheist, use the word God to indicate universality, or love, or eternity, etc? I don’t think I should, so I won’t.

Comment by Jess

September 18, 2009 @ 12:01 am

I don’t think the point is so much about how each individual ends up using the word god, particularly those for whom it doesn’t have spiritual meaning, but rather how we listen to others who DO use it, in whatever context, rather than making the assumption that we know what the word means to the person speaking.

Earthbound hits it on the head: a “common language of faith” — but I think where UUs struggle most is on the hearing side. That’s what keeps coming out for me in this “debate” over atheism vs. theism, is that the God that atheists of Richard Dawkins’ ilk rail against is NOT the god that many theists, particularly liberal theists, are talking about in the first place, but he specifically doesn’t care to listen to them.

And as I said above, I don’t think the word “metaphor” works very well, either, since it seems rather tawdry to reduce something as large as god is supposed to be to something that seems small or insignificant. Personally, I do believe there is something there, the ultimate and ineffable, but I can’t find a word bigger than god to describe it — pointing to the transcendent, rather than encompassing it, as Earthbound and the Buddhists put it.

Comment by h sofia

September 18, 2009 @ 1:16 am

“That’s what keeps coming out for me in this “debate” over atheism vs. theism, is that the God that atheists of Richard Dawkins’ ilk rail against is NOT the god that many theists, particularly liberal theists, are talking about in the first place, but he specifically doesn’t care to listen to them.”

I haven’t read any of Dawkins’ books, and very little of his writings, but he is just one guy, and not my representative. I also decided a while back not to be a post-Christian atheist, so I don’t preoccupy myself with arguing the merits and flaws of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic God - or any God. That doesn’t make for very good television or interviews.

Dawkins is pretty important to the literal Christian crowd (I don’t even know what to call them anymore), that’s why they love having him on conservative shows and whatnot. He is a lightning rod, and he is exactly the stereotype of atheists that believers feel comfortable with: white, British, male, privileged, middle-aged, smug. The other popular depiction of atheists is the Fascist or communist.

All I can think when people keep bringing up the name of Dawkins is that there must be something very useful about him.

Comment by Jacqueline

September 18, 2009 @ 9:10 am

But Jess, in my corner of the world NO ONE is using the word god to to describe the universe… they are using it to talk about the man upstairs. If we “take back” that language… what are we taking? I don’t want it. I am happy to have a vast appreciation for all that is wondrous and inarticulate, but that word is infused with so much trouble that, frankly, I don’t want it.

This only became terribly clear when I moved to the South. When I was in California I was all for people using god in a more open way - but now I know that it is language that holds so much oppression, judgment, and stories that I don’t support that I feel I HAVE to reject the word.

(and because so many people believe in Dawkin’s version of god - that fight is still VERY real. Remember Atheists are the most untrusted and hated group of “religious” thinkers.)

Comment by Roger Marcum

September 18, 2009 @ 11:51 am

Jacqueline and I must reside in the same corner of the world. Most theists I talk to (and, since it is well known at my work and social life that I am a humanist, I have talked to many of them) have a conception of god that goes beyond a metaphor or some vague force or feeling. I would argue that the vast majority envision “god” as something that at the very least possesses some kind of *will* that implies anthropomorphism. I don’t feel a need to *reclaim* a word that, to my knowledge, has never represented anything that can’t be sincerely expressed in a better way. Also, the argument of reclaiming a word brings to mind those who want to *reclaim* the word “gay” to reflect a meaning it had before it was coopted by homosexuals.

Having said all of that, I have to point out the obvious: it’s all my personal opinion and observation. Ultimately, I’m not the language police nor would I want to be. If the word “god” means something to somebody other than the way it seems to be used by the majority of our neighbors, then who can (or should) deny them? Confusion will be inherent in such a situation, but many people are confused that an atheist like myself attends a church. That’s the nature of religion, I guess.

Comment by Jess

September 18, 2009 @ 12:47 pm

Oh, but here’s the thing: Unitarians and Universalists both were theists, Christian theists, for over a thousand years before humanism was part of our tradition. If we as Unitarian Universalists are not comfortably with religious language, particularly listening with respect to OUR OWN people who use words like God, then what is the point?

We as Unitarian Universalists have a responsibility, I believe, for keeping religious discourse from being completely overrun by those who would twist our own heritage — in this country, Puritan Christianity, to be precise — for their own ends. Our saving message is that ALL are welcome, ALL are loved, and ALL are worthy, regardless of personal theology. Recognizing that this message grew directly from our tradition’s Christian roots is important.

When we abandon this discourse because we personally aren’t comfortable with certain words, without allowing that other people find GREAT meaning in them that we may not have ever considered, we lose the core of who we are as religious people creating religious community. We lose any footing we might ever have within the greater religious dialogue across this country.

I’m not trying to say that we should rewrite our personal narratives to include words that don’t work for us personally, but rather that throwing out words entirely, assuming that we know their one and only meaning, is detrimental to a larger conversation of faith.

It’s the listening side that we have trouble with. If we turn away from someone in our life who says something about God because we assume that we know what they’re going to say, we miss an opportunity. If we turn away, we KNOW what will happen, but if we stay engaged, the possibilities are endless. And if we can work on hearing what they’re REALLY saying, what lies beneath whatever language barrier we might experience, we have an opportunity to deepen our understanding of another fellow human being, and our own spiritual path as well.

I guess the real point is that the ideas that we need to talk about most are those least suited to the confines of language, so we need to work harder to hear and be heard. Bickering about which words we don’t like doesn’t do anyone any good.

Comment by Roger Marcum

September 18, 2009 @ 2:05 pm

Of course Unitarian Universalism has changed and continues to change. I would argue that humanism is the reason Unitarian Universalism has changed and is distinct from Christianity these days. In any case, maybe I should repeat myself: the word “god” is useless to me, but meaningful to others. But I also don’t think it’s giving up on a word to recognize it’s mainstream usage.

I, too, believe that people should use the words that they believe express meaning for them. And they should be prepared for further explanation that comes from the confusing use of certain words. But, as you point out and I certainly agree, the confusion or misunderstanding might result in deeper understanding.

But, then, that’s religion isn’t it? It’s a personal thing, often shared with others when we’re fortunate enough to have shared values. It’s not science.

I’m not arguing that everyone should give up on the word “god” but rather that I don’t think religious people of any stripe can say what god is or isn’t except as it applies to them personally. You wrote: “Most liberal theologians have come to the conclusion that God is not an intelligence, but rather a shortcut word or idea to talk about that which is bigger than the human mind can hold, the very essence of the universe that sustains every living thing.” This is the kind of thing that causes me to share my opinion. Such a statement comes across as if liberal theologians somehow *know* what “god” is (as opposed to others who have a different concept of god, including fundamentalist Christians). Seems to me it would be more accurate to say “some people believe that god is a shortcut word or idea to talk about that which is bigger than the human mind can hold, the very essence of the universe that sustains every living thing.”

Comment by Jess

September 18, 2009 @ 2:34 pm

I think there is great value in theological scholarship, which is what I was referring to. To say that liberal theologians, who make their lives studying these very things, are simply “some people” is a disservice to that work. Liberal theology as an academic discipline does come to conclusions, which others then build upon. That God is not an intelligence, at least not as human beings understand intelligence, is one of those accepted conclusions of liberal theology as an academic discipline.

This is not to say that every individual member of a liberal faith has to accept what a scholar says without examining it for themselves, hardly. I have no formal theological education and I spout off on this stuff all the time. However, I do find it very important to pay attention to what scholars across the ages have to say, from their deeper perspective, mainly because I don’t have the time to read all of those primary sources and recreate their work from scratch.

Comment by Roger Marcum

September 19, 2009 @ 10:51 am

Okay, instead of “some people” it should have read “some scholars.” But I think the operative word here is “believe.” If we are to criticize atheistic philosophers for rejecting the god concept (and yes, even the metaphorical-type god), then we can criticize the liberal theologians for their god concepts as well. My point is that whenever somebody says “god is” or “god does”, etc., I always hope that the person is making it clear that it is a personal opinion. People can argue until they’re blue in the face (or until they kill one another) over what “god” is, but they never really know because it is such a personal thing. Which is one of the reasons I don’t use the word.

Comment by fausto

September 19, 2009 @ 5:59 pm

I agree with most of what you say here, Jess, (and congratulate you for saying it so well!) but I would quibble with one small point. The strains of Unitarianism and Universalism that we are heirs to are only about 200 years old, not over a thousand. Our religious ancestors were Calvinists who rebelled against certain falsehoods they perceived in Calvinism. When we affirm the nobility of the human condition, the humanity of Jesus, or the universal efficacy of love, we are still carrying on their tradition; but when we claim freedom of conscience and its corollaries, the necessity of congregational polity and the probative value of reason, we are still standing in the shoes of their Puritan ancestors, from whom they themselves inherited these principles.

Comment by Jess

September 19, 2009 @ 7:01 pm

The ideas of universal salvation and a unified god vs. a trinitarian god go back almost as far as Christianity does, though, don’t they? It’s the tradition of theism itself, within these basic theological concepts, that led to the growth of the “official” U’s and U’s I meant to reference — those on the losing side at the first Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, basically.

Comment by fausto

September 19, 2009 @ 8:44 pm

Yes, ideas quite similar to recent Unitarianism and Universalism were circulating widely in antiquity, and were not even fully extinguished at Nicea. (Constantine was subsequently baptized on his deathbead — by an Arian.) But they did fall out of wide circulation not very long afterward — Arianism (which might be called an early form of Unitarianism) after being anathemized at the First Council of Constantinope in 381, and apocatastasis (which might be called an early form of Universalism) after being anathemized at the Synod of Constantinople in 543. So for almost 1,000 years before the Reformation these ideas were pretty much absent from Christianity. And although they emerged again in the aftermath of the Reformation, those instances were only tangentially related (if at all) to the later emergence of similar ideas within the Puritan churches of North America.

None of which detract from yur larger point — that our distinctive Unitarian and Universalist values and beliefs are organic outgrowths of mainstream Protestant Christianity, and can sometimes be most forcefully and effectively articulated in their original, traditional Christian, idioms.

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