Monday, October 6, 2014

Religion as a natural phenomenon


I recently read Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon by Daniel C. Dennett (New York: Viking, 2006). Dennett, along with Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hichens, is a leading exponent of the new atheism.

Breaking the Spell is not worth reading, unless you cling to an antiquated notion of a supernatural deity, an idea that Dennett takes almost 400 pages to debunk. Dennett is explicit. He considers anyone who does not believe in a supernatural deity an atheist: "If what you hold sacred is not any kind of Person you could pray to, or consider to be an appropriate recipient of gratitude (or anger, when a loved one is senselessly killed), you're an atheist in my book." (p. 245)

Amazingly, Dennett thus implicitly describes existentialist theologians (e.g., Paul Tillich) and process theologians (e.g., John Hick and John Cobb) as atheists. A few pages after his definition of atheism, he cavalierly dismisses Tillich's concept of God as the Ground of Being with an aside, "whatever that [the Ground of Being] is," having already noted his indifference to the idea. Dennett's definition of atheism sweeps up a great many religious leaders and prominent theologians, underscoring the weakness of Dennett's analysis.

In short, as a theologian reading Dennett's book, I wondered, analogously, what a contemporary physicist might think of a twenty-first century book that evaluated physics based on Newtonian rather than quantum principles.

What reading Dennett's book did prompt was an effort to summarize succinctly my basic approach to religion, which I prefer to label post-theism or progressive Christianity:

  • The cosmos exists and favors complexity, suggesting the existence of a prime mover (otherwise, why would anything exist?). A methodological problem with scientific reductionism is that it does not recognize the existence of emergent entities, e.g., the characteristics of a molecule differ from those of its constituent components, as do the characteristics of human consciousness from those of the brain that makes consciousness possible.
  • This prime mover, God, is not omnipotent but omnipresent (panentheism – cf. David Ray Griffin's book, Panentheism and Scientific Naturalism). God is not supernatural, but natural; God, consequently, always act through natural rather than supernatural means. The presumption of science that all aspects of the natural world are susceptible to study using the scientific method is incorrect, i.e., there are observable aspects of nature that are not predictable (e.g., which sperm will actually fertilize an egg) and probably aspects of nature that are not directly observable by humans (e.g., the cosmos as a whole).
  • God seeks to lure creation in a direction of God's choosing, but does not exercise total control (this avoids the problem of evil). The way in which God lures creation (all entities, from a quark to humans to the cosmos as a whole) is neither observable nor quantifiable.
  • God's will for humans (the basis of morality, part of God luring the cosmos) is evident in reciprocal altruism. Reciprocal altruism begins as kin altruism (impossible for a newborn to exist without care) but is developing into reciprocal altruism toward all life forms. All religions promote loving one's neighbor as one's self.
  • Participating in religion builds community, reinforces moral behavior, and (as even Dennett concedes) has proven to have health benefits for its adherents.
  • The basis for religious activity is experiencing God's presence luring one to act or move in a particular direction (what Griffin calls prehension and panexperientialism). The God who exists is the God whom we can know but of whom we cannot speak.
  • As mystics have long recognized, the particulars of religious narratives found in Scripture are less important than the common experience of God that lies behind and beyond those stories. Religious pluralism, not religious particularism, points the way; major religions represent different paths, culturally determined, to the one God.
  • Scientific reductionism ignores the emergence of the human spirit, e.g., the ability to transcend self, our linguistic capacity, our aesthetic sense, and our capacity to love and be loved. All of these aspects of the spirit have a naturalistic explanation but reductionism offers no hypothesis why humans (or any life form) should develop a spirit or what might be next.

This credo is a work in progress. Comments are most welcome.

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