Friday, March 23, 2012

Reason Rally

I read this morning about the upcoming "Reason Rally" being held tomorrow on the National Mall in Washington.

To be honest, I think this is a great event. I really do - if, as David Silverman reports, atheism is the fastest growing 'religion' in the country, then it should feel comfortable coming together to celebrate common values. It should gather as a body - a secular ecclesiastical body - and profess its reasons for being together.

I should like to make, however, two requests of them:

First, as the theologian Denys Turner reminds us, eadem est scientia oppositorum - one and the same is the knowledge of opposites. That is to say, when we are in an argument we must be sure that we are affirming, and denying, the same point. An example: if I say the weight of the watermelon is "three pounds" and you respond, "no, it weighs green" we have a problem. "Three pounds" and "Green" are not comparable predicates; we are not, that is, talking about the same thing.

As "Reason Rally" assembles, I should like to hear from them just what God it is in whom they do not believe. They may say, "All of them!" but, nevertheless, it'd be nice to have some clarity on just what it is they are denying. Being interested in the relationship between faith and doubt, belief and unbelief, such a gathering might bring about some type of confessional anti-creed, saying just what it is that is not believed.

Why do I ask for this? Because, very often, it's hard to have a discussion with facile atheism (or moronic theism, for that matter). When students/friends dismiss the notion of a god who created the world in six days, I am in agreement with them. When ideas of a god who sends tsunamis and hurricanes to punish humans, I also agree. Yet I believe in God. It just happens that when I say the word "God" and others say the word "God" it seems that we're seldom talking about the same thing.

Summary of Point One: We need to get clear - all of us - on the meaning of the word "God" so that we can have a genuine discussion about what we believe or do not.

Second, and this builds off of the First point, this gathering needs to avoid becoming what Turner would call "an inverted image of a certain kind of narrowed-down theism." The temptation Turner warns against is allowing one's atheism to devolve into an aping of bizzarre theism.

When the likes of Richard Dawkins takes aim at silly notions of theism, I cheer him onward. When Bill Maher points out silliness, I think it a good thing. Yet, it seems, they are merely picking the low-lying fruit and are failing to grapple with more sophisticated believers or to address the questions that they ask. The recent Dawkins/Williams conversation certainly moves in a salutary direction and, it would be my hope, more such conversations will take place.

Summary of Point Two: rather than allowing one's atheism to be parasitic or a mirror-image of an odd sort of theism, atheists need to put forth a positive doctrine that accounts for the question "why is there anything at all."

One last irony: one of the speakers at this rally is Nate Phelps, the atheist son of anti-gay pastor Fred Phelps. The Westboro Baptist Church is infamous for picketing soldiers' funerals, holding hateful signs aloft, shouting out their epithets. I should hope that tomorrow's rally does not ape this sort of behavior, trading ignorant tit for ignorant tat. This could be a watershed moment for the atheist movement and I hope they don't squander it by trying to mirror groups most serious theists do not take seriously.


Peter Cranny said...

How about the invisible man in the sky - as described at Jesus' baptism?
He definitely does not exist.

Ryan Duns, SJ said...

Now, Peter, we can start a discussion. I don't know that I get "invisible man" because if there is a God, he's certainly not a 'man'. Men are instances of a species and God, if he is worth praising, is certainly no kind of thing. He'd be the reason there is anything at all.

So you've dismissed a question without really engaging in an argument; you've made an assertion, but offered no support. This is what we need to get better at - making our points clear and engaging in argument. Otherwise, we're just playing at parlor games of little importance.

Hansatuofd said...

Ryan, I am not sure request for a"meaning" of the word God is a fair one. If it is God who creates meaning then any definition of God could never capture a God who would be beyond that meaning. So any definition they would provide us would fail. Perhaps a request that they do their best to describe the God they are rejecting would be a fairer request.

Ryan Duns, SJ said...

Hans, a good point. We must always be sensitive to the limitations of our language. Perhaps what I should have asked is for clarification on how the word was being used.

Karl said...

Thanks for this Ryan. You raise great discussion points.

Theists have to prove that belief in God (and by God I don't mean a man in the clouds or a man that lives somewhere)is reasonable. I accept that that. However, I think we have to ask atheists to do the same, that is, to prove that what they believe is reasonable.

Certainly, theists must take a leap of faith, but so must atheists. They must have a deep faith that creation could cause and create itself, i.e. a carbon atom can create itself out of nothing.

It is certainly ironic that to be credible, atheists must take their own "leap of faith" and make it sound reasonable. In that believers and unbelievers have the exact same task.

Great discussion

doubtingthomas said...

In my personal quest to find meaning in religion I've struggled. My main contention has always been the leap of faith (in either direction) to decide on which side of the coin I fall upon. There is a part of me which wishes I could just believe in (a) god, but I've never met one I can truly commit to? Perhaps that's not the best way to describe my internal struggle, but for now we'll proceed. I've been wanting to speak to a priest about this for sometime, but it has always just been one of those things that I've put on the back burner. I'd like to say that I'm a fellow cub, and hold my education and the Society of Jesus in high regard (as well as your irish whistle lessons Fr. Dunn might I add). A question I've always asked myself is how do we know Christianity got it right? I feel it is safe to say that many if not all civilizations have a belief in a higher power. How do we know that they were wrong and Christians were right? That is the main question I've had throughout the last ten years of my life. And although it may sound silly, it has kept me out of church for the past ten years. So I'm not sure what I want or need as a form of a response, but at the very least I felt compelled to say something. So I fall somewhere in between belief and disillusionment. I like the morals and ethics which religion convey, as I feel myself to be a fairly "good" person, but for some reason I just can not take the next step.

Ryan Duns, SJ said...


Perhaps you are closer to faith than you think. If I may use an analogy, How do we ever know that someone loves us? We can point to many different things done on our behalf, or words shared with us, but ultimately there is always the lingering suspicion of an ulterior motive. There is something to be said for relaxing into the relationship, for allowing oneself to 'feel' love rather than trying to figure out all of the reasons for 'being' loved.

One thing to consider is that this is less about "right" and "wrong" than it is about the validity of beginning the Quest for God. I frequently return to this question: does Jesus tell the truth about God? God, the creator and author and sustainer of life who brings life and flourishing, rather than death and ennui. In his words and deeds, Jesus does seem to show this: dissolving barriers, attacking prejudice, restoring life. For me, it is Jesus' modeling the style of God that speaks to my heart and calls for a response of discipleship. It's not a head-level set of doctrines accepted but, rather, a heart-level stirring that speaks to something I know should be too good to be true but, astonishingly, is.