Monthly Archives: February 2010

Nuanced Atheism

I was thinking this weekend about positions on the border between atheism and religion. There are a few, I think, and they have a range of features: some closer to atheism, some obviously heterodox forms of belief. Here’s my list.

Bear in mind I have a deep distrust of categories, so I think these are merely labels one might want to adopt from time to time, not pigeon holes to conform to. I, for example, have occupied most of them at some point. I am nearest to a Cultural Christian in this sense at the moment, but I think that hardly does my views justice either!

Please suggest more, and maybe we can grow this post into something more widely useful.

Religious Naturalism. Atheistic and rationalistic, but using God-language to refer to certain experiences such as ‘transcendence’ or ‘spirituality’. The idea that one can have features of the religious experience about the natural world.

The following four categories are relative to some particular established religion. I’ve used Christianity as the example in the first three, but I would imagine there are equivalents for any faith – let me know if there are terms that are in use in other faiths.

Christian Atheism. A follower of the teaching of Jesus, who doesn’t subscribe to the existence of a God, or any supernatural dimension to Jesus’s life. Many Christian Atheists are also independent of the Christian church and do not participate in Christian ritual.

Christian Humanism. A Christian who believes that human action is valuable intrinsically, and that positive change in the word requires human action. At the extreme end, this viewpoint rejects the ability or propensity of God to intervene.

Cultural Christianity. A person who values and participates in the tradition and ritual of the religion, without an associated belief in the existence of its God. This pattern is highly developed in Judaism, where it is called Humanistic Judaism.

Nominalism. Where a person identifies with a particular religion or denomination (on legal declarations, for example) without participating in that religion. This usually includes lack of belief in at least some of the religion’s teachings.

Reverent Agnosticism. A person who feels a sense of sacredness without claiming to understand its origin or dynamics. Reverent agnostics claim no knowledge of any divinity, but  face that ignorance with humility and reverence.

Deism. The belief in a divinity that has no immanent connection with the cosmos. This may be a God who is disinterested, wholly other, or that once existed but now does not. Deists may additionally believe that a God was once involved in the cosmos (as creator, for example).

And finally two positions which I think cross-cut the positions above. So one can be a Pantheist Religious Naturalist, for example.

Pantheism. The belief that God is another way of talking about the totality of the cosmos.

Panentheism. The belief that the cosmos is one part of a greater reality that might be called God.


2010-02-15: Added ‘Reverent Agnosticism’, on tysdaddy’s suggestion.


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Sunday Scripture: Purpose

Sunday is a busy day here, as its the only day we all get to spend together as a family. So in this weekly spot I’ll dig out some interesting bits of religious literature and will post them without much comment.

So what is the purpose of life, how should we act and what should we expect?

And we know that all things do work together for good, to those who love God and are called according to His purpose;

— Romans 8:28

Hat-tip to Sabio on this. I’d always assumed this was one of those passages that would be nice if it were true. Now I’m not so sure.

God’s purpose in creating the universe was to feel happiness when He saw the purpose of goodness fulfilled in the Heavenly Kingdom, which the whole creation, including man, could have established.

— Unification Church. Divine Principle I.1.3.1

This seems to be a common thread, flowing out of Judaism, as far as I can tell, that everything exists and occurs for the pleasure of God. Most religions would nuance this by saying that actions arising out of human corruption do not give God pleasure. But then what about natural disasters? And so on. It just returns us back to the problem of evil again.

But he who performs his prescribed duty only because it ought to be done, and renounces all attachment to the fruit–his renunciation is of the nature of goodness

— Bhagavad Gita 18:9

This is the anti-Romans. Not that everything will work out well no matter what you do. But regardless of what happens, you are only responsible for your actions. The ‘Gita has much to say on this topic.

And then there’s Qohelet, and one of the most famous poems in world scripture:

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.

— Ecclesiastes 3:1-8


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Non-Privileged Reference Frames

Once upon a time we believed we were the center of the universe. Around the earth circled the sun, planets and stars. If we observe light traveling in all directions, it travels at the same speed. But from Newton we know that can only happen in one frame: where nothing is moving. It seems we are in the most privileged situation in the universe.

By 1900, the evidence was pretty conclusive. And then there was relativity. One of the most startling discoveries of human history. It showed that, no matter where you are, you will appear to be special. It will look like you’re in the center of the universe. It will look like you’re the ones not moving.

Relativity was a fascinating beast. Faced with this realization it said: Isn’t cosmology great, its a wild ride, nothing is as it appears! Don’t be content to believe your little corner of the universe is at the center, we can figure out the universal picture.

It is the very opposite of relativism, which would say. Isn’t cosmology crap, it is pointless, nothing is as it appears. Everybody can go on thinking they are the center of the universe, but we’ll never know who’s right, so we’ll pretend nobody is.

Theology is struggling between those who think the earth really is the center of the universe, and those who think that everybody might as well have their own beliefs because we can never decide who is right. We have religious relativism, where is religious relativity?

[It only occurred to me after writing this post that, since this is effectively the question I’m trying to answer, that would make me Einstein :/ Which is pretty darn megalomaniac for a Wednesday afternoon!]


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Let's Take Believers Seriously

I’m reading lots of systematic theology at the moment. And I’ve noticed a worrying trend.

Paul Tillich - Time Magazine

Paul Tillich on the March 16, 1959 cover of Time Magazine. Click the image to visit Time's site for the cover story.

Sophisticated theologians, particularly systematic theologians, like to re-imagine God and redefine God (as well as other religious and spiritual terms). Tillich’s God isn’t Barth’s God. And neither God is the God of Pat Robertson, Rick Warren, or the Pope.

I wrote last week about this tendency among writers on Religious Naturalism. It is particularly pointless there where the notion of a God is redundant, but it is pernicious in Christian theology too.

In my current research project, I’m trying to take the beliefs of believers seriously. On their own terms. The implication of this is that one cannot build a systematic theology around a single concept of God. One has to articulate a theology that can incorporate Pat Robertson’s knowledge of God alongside Paul Tillich’s knowledge, alongside Fred Phelps even. To do anything else is to invent yet another concept of God and attempt to paint over the diversity of belief in a shade that the theologian finds pleasant.

I am (very tentatively) calling this approach ‘objective theology’ – though I understand the problems with the term.

When I first studied theology, Tillich was a white-hot intellect that zinged off the page. I read Tillich’s systematics now and I find a clever and intricate description of a God that I don’t recognize from anywhere except Tillich. Doing systematic theology that way strikes me as intellectual masturbation at best, and at worst extreme narcissism.


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Sunday Scriptures: The Trinity

Sunday is a busy day here, as its the only day we all get to spend together as a family. So in this weekly spot I’ll dig out some interesting bits of religious literature and will post them without much comment.

In a break to the ecumenical nature of this series, here are some Christian scriptures affirming the trinity. These scriptures are significant, because the doctrine of the trinity took 400 years after Jesus’ death to fully emerge. The biblical basis of the doctrine is pretty week. Most of the new testament is written in such a way as it affirms a decidedly non-Trinitarian God. But then there are these nuggets of early theology. Much has be written about what these might have meant to their original authors.

For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.

— 1 John 5:7-8

This is the Johannine comma, which is the only passage that says something theological about the trinity (that its members are ‘one’). Unfortunately, it isn’t considered to be original, even for this very late-written text (1 John is mostly likely 2nd century). It doesn’t appear in most versions of the text we have. It could be a quite late addition (4th century, even) though it is very hard to say. Next let’s go to Paul, who signs off a letter:

May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

— 2 Corinthians 13:14

This seems to be evidence that a trinitarian formula was being used as a blessing pretty early in the life of the church (pre 70 CE). It shows us the three agents involved, but doesn’t attempt to describe their relationship to one another.

At this point it is worth noting that one of the three members of Paul’s trinity is just ‘God’. This is significant, because as the trinity became a doctrine, all three members came to be thought of as ‘God’. This early liturgical form, in the two versions we have in the NT, suggests that initially the three members of the trinity were thought to be distinct entities, only one of which was God, capital G.

Similar is Peter (around a generation later than Paul) who opens a letter:

…chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ…

— 1 Peter 1:2

And finally, we can go to the Gospels for the strongest authentic scripture:

Go and make disciples of all nations; baptise them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit

— Matthew 28:19

Here the trinitarian formula is extended to baptism. The words are spoken by Matthew’s Jesus post-resurrection. They are found in all manuscripts, without significant variation. So they are likely to date from around 60-80 CE. Which is very early. It still doesn’t tell us what the trinity meant to Matthew, but clearly it moves on one step further than a  blessing.

And that’s it. Those are the only scriptures to mention the trinity, as such. There are other passages that mention the three, individually, in pairs and sometimes in threes. But they never talk about them in any trinitarian sense. So the NT witness to the trinity is quite sparse, but suggests that it had quite an early origin as a liturgical form.


2009-02-07: Added 1 Peter 1:2 and paragraph about Paul’s trinity only mentioning ‘God’ not the Father.


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Religious Naturalism

Religious naturalism is an emerging viewpoint on religion and science that, on the surface, attracts me deeply. Yet I feel I can’t really embrace it.

It has lots of good points (in my opinion):

  • It seeks knowledge through scientific discovery, and celebrates what we have learned as a culture from investigating the world. It does not claim an authority or a tradition (therefore all of these points are somewhat dependent on which religious naturalist you read).
  • It finds beauty, meaningfulness and purpose in humanity (it is therefore a humanistic faith).
  • It does not make claims for the existence of supernatural forces or beings of any kind. It (correctly, I think) says that if anything were entirely beyond the physical world, it would be entirely unknowable, and therefore irrelevant.
  • It celebrates all kinds of positive subjective experiences.
  • It acknowledges that we have subjective experiences that could be called ‘spiritual’ (the term is a problem I know, and I’ll come back to it) or ‘transcendent’. It is encouraging of such experiences, to the extent we want to have them. It is therefore a big one-up on the kind of atheism that suggests anything even remotely similar to religious experience is BS.

But it has a major drawback for me: Those who consider themselves religious naturalists use theistic terminology, reinterpreted as metaphor. They are mostly happy to talk about ‘God’ (the sum totality of truth). Or the human ‘soul’ (our subjective inclination) or even things like ‘reincarnation’ (we’re just part of the biosphere) or a ‘creator’ (emergent behavior).

It is isn’t necessary, I don’t think. In fact, I think it is problematic. It feels almost as if religious naturalists are ashamed of their atheism and want to hide it under the blanket of theistic fog that permeates our culture.

I think there are ways to understand God as an atheist (hopefully I’ll post some of the work I’m doing on the theology of atheism), but changing the definition of the word isn’t a helpful one.

Its a shame. Because I read all this stuff and I feel myself drawn in, enjoying and sympathizing. And then wham, the G word comes up, and the mood is lost. Like a lover calling out the wrong name…


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Friday Philosophy: Sorites Paradox

In what I hope will be a regular series, I want to think about a new philosophical question each Friday. This isn’t stuff I’ve thought about deeply or for a long time, so please feel free to make suggestions or corrections.

A pile of sand in a builder's yardThe Sorites paradox is also called the heap paradox.

Imagine a pile of sand. If I remove one grain of sand from the pile, do I still have a pile of sand? Well, of course, removing one grain of sand isn’t going to change the pile significantly.

So for any pile, I can remove one grain without producing a non-pile. But then if I keep removing grains of sand, I’ll end up with nothing – and surely we couldn’t say that is a pile!

The Sorites paradox is the most famous thought experiment in the philosophical study of vagueness. Vagueness is the study of concepts such as ‘pile’, or ‘tall’ or ‘rich’. In fact, almost all predicates seem to display a degree of vagueness.

Some philosophical approaches to vagueness include:

  • There is a particular minimum number of grains of sand that constitute a ‘pile’. Fewer than this number is not a pile.
  • There is a minimum number of grains in a pile, but nobody can know how many that is, exactly. So our association of ‘pile’ with a particular collection of grains is a probabilistic guess.
  • Pile is not a predicate. There can be groups of sand that have greater or lesser degrees of ‘pile-ness’. As you remove grains the collection becomes less of a pile, until eventually one should not call it a pile at all.
  • The collection of grains of sand is a pile if a reasonable number of people would call it a pile.

Any of these resonate? I think I operate mostly with the fourth approach, but all of them seem fair to me. I haven’t looked deeply into each one though, to see where the problems lie. I was fascinated, reading about the paradox, because classification is such a fundamental part of how we represent knowledge. I believe that classification is a double-edged sword: often making important differences appear more minor than they are.


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