Monday, September 3, 2012

Religious infighting isn't for atheists and why I can't read theology anymore

A friend of mine recently recommended to me that I aim my arguments more accurately at the big problems with religion. Surprisingly, he didn't mention the dangers inherent in extremist Islam or the ridiculous behavior of many evangelical Christians or the outlandishness that the ultra-orthodox Jewish community has been exhibiting lately or the terrifying influence that the fusion of religion and politics is having in contemporary America. Instead, he told me that I should be setting my sites on New Calvinism (a branch of Christianity, of course).

Granted, this movement is very scary and very influential, so his eye is keen to point out the importance of addressing it. Indeed, the surprisingly short Wikipedia article about New Calvinism opens with a dry, but still frightening, short paragraph:
The New Calvinism is a growing perspective within conservative Evangelicalism that embraces the fundamentals of 16th century Calvinism while also trying to be relevant in the present day world. In March 2009, TIME magazine ranked it as one of the "10 Ideas Changing the World Right Now." Some of the major movers in this area are John Piper, Mark Driscoll, Al Mohler, Mark Dever, C.J. Mahaney, Joshua Harris, and Tim Keller.
It is, of course, the reference to the 2009 TIME article that is the frightening bit, particularly if one is even casually familiar with the realities of what New Calvinism preaches:
Calvinism is back, and not just musically. John Calvin's 16th century reply to medieval Catholicism's buy-your-way-out-of-purgatory excesses is Evangelicalism's latest success story, complete with an utterly sovereign and micromanaging deity, sinful and puny humanity, and the combination's logical consequence, predestination: the belief that before time's dawn, God decided whom he would save (or not), unaffected by any subsequent human action or decision. (From the TIME piece.)
New Calvinists subscribe to this notion that all is predetermined and thus that good and bad actions in life are a result of that predestination, not a possible source of salvation, rendering our day-to-day choices, particularly regarding moral questions, as irrelevant. Indeed, it goes further, indicating that people cannot possibly be moral, as laid out in Calvin's five points that form the functional basis for all Calvinism. Those five points are utterly disturbing and flatly repugnant. They are
  1. Total depravity -- the doctrine that people are entirely unable to choose right over wrong, are trapped by sin, cannot possibly choose to "love God" or accept His rule, and are incapable of reforming themselves and bringing themselves to salvation. Yikes! [N.B.: Wikipedia notes that this particular doctrine is Calvin's extension of Augustine's conception of original sin, which Charles Freeman informs us in The Closing of the Western Mind (pp. 288-293) is based upon a poor translation of the Greek New Testament into Latin and Augustine's rather outlandish belief that any copy of scripture, because it is scripture, must be the perfect word of God.]
  2. Unconditional election -- the doctrine that God has chosen from eternity who comes with him to heaven, the Elect, and who is condemned to hell. This implies that God did create people (most of them, in fact) as hell-fodder, changing the impact of the moral argument rather substantially. The Calvinist God is actually a monster, and Calvinists embrace it.
  3. Limited atonement -- the doctrine that Jesus' "sacrifice" on the cross was only intended to save the Elect, see above, and no one else.
  4. Irresistible grace -- the doctrine that grace upon the Elect is irresistible, so that they will be saved no matter what, via the Holy Spirit forcing the totally depraved person to cooperate.
  5. Perseverance of the saints -- the doctrine that since God is sovereign and cannot be thwarted by anyone, anyone who ever falls away from the faith clearly was never an Elect to begin with. This is, of course, a doctrinal embodiment of the No True Scotsman fallacy.
As is plain: this set of doctrines is repugnant, and it is no wonder that it gave birth to such charming preachers as Jonathan Edwards with his vitriolic, misanthropic hellfire and brimstone preaching--one of the softer facets of what I call the "Dark Side" of Christianity.

As is to be expected, there are major schisms within the Calvinist movement as well, and this is essentially where I get lost. The Wikipedia articles already linked to here list at least five or six, depending on how you count them, major branches of Calvinism, and mention harsh criticism about how New Calvinists are hardly Calvinists at all, yadda, yadda, yadda. Frankly: BORING!

So this leads me to my commentary about infighting between religious movements: it's not for atheists, outspoken or otherwise, to deal much with. We might note the dangers inherent in these movements, but antitheistic infidels have a broader goal that requires a broader brush--it's all nonsense. Atheists need not worry about the infighting, though particularly worrisome movements might be worth keeping tabs on and raising awareness about. Let them squabble--it only makes them look bad.

For me, getting into these debates is philosophically identical to jumping into the middle of a heated argument about who moves faster, the Flash or Superman. Just as neither exists, and so their minutiae is relatively pointless to debate, all discussion on the nature of God is moot until some evidence for a God is actually presented and verified. I will come back to this point briefly, talking about why getting into these kinds of debates is actually worse than pointless, but first I'll note why I can no longer read theology.

This Calvinism (or New Calvinism, whatever) thing finally pointed for me very clearly what I've suspected for years and felt acutely while researching to write God Doesn't; We Do. I really can't read theology anymore. The reasons are simple enough: first, there is no reason to believe in God, so it is impossibly meaningless to adhere to any discussion about His nature or ways, and second, there aren't even satisfactory philosophical definitions of God that can meet some semblance of agreement. Indeed, all these schisms and quasi-philosophical battles between various branches of the many One True Faiths essentially boil down to an inability to agree upon a definition of God. Why? Because there is absolutely no meaningful evidence to support any given definition. In fact, every definition so far proposed is flatly easy to dismantle and argue as either nonexistent or meaninglessly abstract. (This definitional business, by the way, is the essential argument of Chapter 4 of God Doesn't.) I simply can't read this heap of non-reality pretending to be real until some substance is given to the central premise. An argument about the Flash and Superman would actually be more fruitful and entertaining! At least it would dispense with all the pretending to be serious.

Now, here's why I think targeted attacks on various branches of theology are actually worse than broad-stroke appeals to think rationally--appealing to evidence instead of tradition, authority, or revelation--in a more general sense. As the Wikipedia article for Calvinism alone illustrates, along with the existence of scores of major religions, many One True Faiths, and literally more than 40,000 denominations of Christianity, religion is a hydra. I mean this in the Greek mythological sense, not in the biological sense, and I mean it to say that if you are able to enter the dangerous situation of fighting one of the heads of the hydra and even manage to cut it off, not only do you not kill the thing, but you create a stump from which two (or more) additional heads grow. Specifically here, to cut down New Calvinism completely and successfully would result not in the death of New Calvinism but rather in the birth of at least two new New-Calvinism-derived religious movements, slightly modified to account for the arguments that struck down the original. These new "heads" would be just as dangerous as the original, and for whatever good that was accomplished in striking down some bad ideas, new bad ideas would fill the gap.

Another reason that picking particular targets as a main mode of employment for delivering the antitheistic message is that it gives a certain unwarranted legitimacy to all the rest of the religious movements out there. Certainly, many of those are less dangerous than the particularly egregious ones, but that does not make them more legitimate, just more acceptable.

This isn't, of course, to say that attacking particularly virulent religious movements in specific isn't a worthwhile task or that dealing with the most problematic aspects of religious movements isn't important. Those are both valid. Extremist Islam cannot be taken lightly. New Calvinism's attempt to redefine the world, particularly economically, also cannot be. It isn't a well-aimed attack, however, that will stop these movements. Only a crushing tide of social pressure can actually stop them, and so keeping awareness on the most dangerous heads of the hydra while attacking the belly of the beast itself is, to my thinking, a more fruitful endeavor. Perhaps, then, any targeted attacks that are intended to be delivered have to fall within the much wider context of "yes, this is all problematic, particularly because it gives rise to outlandish and scary movements such as... [New Calvinism, in this case]."

Certainly it would be better if the most frightening aspects of religion were shut down as being as patently primitive and inappropriate as they are, leaving the others be, but given the natures of the scriptures and ideas at their cores, problem faiths are likely to arise again. Calvinism itself, in fact, seems to have arisen from Calvin's cognitive dissonance between the God of scripture, the God of Catholic doctrine, and the real world he witnessed, which simply cannot be reconciled (Cf. Pascal on this point). Calvin, like many others, was content to let God be a monster in order to have the story make sense. This will happen again for as long as those particular definitions of God exist, and since it is appropriate to preserve works like the Bible at least as works of ancient literature even if in a wholly secular world, there are likely to be fundamentalist-type thinkers that reinvent these crazy and dangerous movements. As a movement, "New Atheism" essentially seeks the marginalization of religious influence and a call to Enlightenment-born thinking on morals and the physical world, and so its call is more effectively aimed at the whole than at any of the disparate parts.

So, I can't read theology now--simply because of its lack of grounding--and I didn't even have to mention the frequent academic dishonesty that characterizes theological (particularly evangelical theological) works (e.g. the writing of Lee Strobel, William Lane Craig, etc.). There's only so much nonsense someone can deal with.

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