Atheists who won’t admit it: 1. David Bryant

There are two brands of atheists who won’t admit it: religious people who are so liberal that they eviscerate their faith, removing all the dogma and existential claims until it becomes a form of humanism couched in religious language, with God so nebulous that he can’t be described—or even imagined. The other is the true atheist who hides behind labels like “nonbeliever” or “agnostic.” This morning we’ll feature both sorts.

An example of the first type is David Bryant, a retired Anglican vicar who has written an amazing piece at the Guardian, “God is unknowable—stop looking for him and you will find faith.” Bryant is so apophatic that he might as well be an atheist.

Apophatic theology has always puzzled me for two reasons. First, because it attempts to deal with God by asserting what he is not.  (I use “he” by default since one of the things we can’t know is God’s gender, or if God has a gender.) How can one worship something like that? The second problem is related: if you’re going to describe god in terms of what he is not, then why not add that we don’t know whether he exists?  After all, existence is one of the things we can’t know, or don’t know, about a god.  And if an apophatic believer goes one “not” further—as she should—then she becomes an atheist.  I claim that dealing with a god by arguing about what it is not, or by what we can’t know about it, is a self-defeating exercise, because it still accepts that there is some sort of divine being—a claim as unevidenced as that about the nature of said being.

Bryant is one of these religious people a hairsbreadth from nonbelief.  And yet, embracing the ludicrous and intellectually dishonest theology of apophatism, he manages to find advantages in it! This is perfectly in line with Sophisticated Theologians’™ skill at turning empirical necessities into spiritual virtues. In this case, the necessity is explaining the problem of gratuitous evil.

But first Bryant describes his faith:

Faith is not the progressive unearthing of God’s nature but a recognition that he/she is fundamentally unknowable. The signpost points not to growing certainty but towards increasing non-knowing. This is not as outrageous as it seems. An apophatic thread, a belief that the only way to conceive of God is through conceding that he is ineffable, runs throughout Christian history.

It’s science and reason, by the way, that has convinced people like Bryant that “non-knowing” is increasing. Here his “faith” is intellectually honest in one sense: there’s no way to know what God is like. But it’s intellectually dishonest in claiming that there’s a God anyway.  It’s like saying that since we don’t know what Bigfoot is like, or have evidence for it, we’ll worship it anyway and hope for the best.

But here’s the Big Problem that apophatic theology solves for Bryant  it dispenses with theodicy.

This redirectioning of the spiritual path has fruitful offshoots. We no longer have to ask why God orders the world in such an unsatisfactory way, allowing cancer cells and war to proliferate. Nor do we have to bombard him with prayer in order to achieve our desired ends. Such dialogue is only sustainable if you posit a personal being.

As Church Lady would say, “Now isn’t that convenient!”  But that isn’t really pure apophatism, as it pinpoints real characteristics of God: apathy and powerlessness. For if there is a divine being, and it has any recognition of human existence, and any power, then we must conclude that it doesn’t give a rat’s patootie—or does but is impotent It is a positive claim that God can’t, or doesn’t do anything about suffering. Bryant has found a theology that is intellectually dishonest and self-contradictory, but still allows him to avoid thinking about evil.

And what kind of faith is he left with? This:

Is anything left or does this destroy the very fabric of spirituality? What remains is a Quakerlike silence during which we can respond to the numinous, develop our perceptions, hone our morality and enhance our wonder at the staggering complexity of the universe. Instead of ranting at the arbitrariness and high-handed conduct of the God we have invented, it is now possible to rest in a cloud of unknowing which gives us time and space in which to reflect on the fundamental questions of life. Why am I here? How can I best deport myself in this bewildering world?

Now tell me: how does this differ from secular humanism? Only in assuming the question “Why am I here?” has a divine answer. But that’s not worth pondering, either, because apophatic theology stipulates that we can’t answer it.

But Bryant underscores the huge advantages of negative theology:

At first sight this is a distinctly uncomfortable stance. It leaves us rudderless in a sea of uncertainty. All the old props of a father God, prayer as colloquy with a personal deity and faith as a clear-cut assent to a set of credal formulations has been deconstructed and abandoned.

Persist and the rewards are immense. There is an exhilarating sense of newfound freedom. It releases us from the burden of kowtowing to the dictates of a holy book and it relieves us of the intellectual difficulties of accepting the dogmatic assertions of an ecclesiastical hierarchy. We are liberated and can follow our own spiritual path.

Try atheism, Reverend Bryant, and you’ll find real freedom! No need to even think about the numinous!

Bryant’s brand of “faith” not only leaves one rudderless in a sea of uncertainty, but ridiculous in a sea of uncertainty.  And nobody’s going to be convinced by this line of argument except rarefied intellectuals (if that term applies) like Karen Armstrong. Who wants to think that they don’t know anything about God—even whether he’s merciful and loving? There’s a reason why there’s no Church of the Ineffable Savior.

Apophatism is the faith of the intellectual coward. But it has one advantage: if it mandates a “Quakerlike silence,” then religious people will finally stop beleaguering us with their insupportable beliefs.

h/t: James

106 Comments

  1. Posted January 9, 2013 at 6:08 am | Permalink

    [sub]

    • gbjames
      Posted January 9, 2013 at 6:24 am | Permalink

      below [sub]

      • jimroberts
        Posted January 9, 2013 at 7:33 am | Permalink

        more sub

        • Reginald Selkirk
          Posted January 9, 2013 at 7:50 am | Permalink

          Three dreams deep

  2. Posted January 9, 2013 at 6:16 am | Permalink

    I know that I passed along such a stage prior to realizing that I was an atheist. I kept throwing away the supernatural aspects of my religion (originally Roman Catholic): here I mean “supernatural aspects that have a measurable impact on our universe; i. e. miracles or suspensions of natural law. Eventually I arrived to a point where I realized that I believed NONE of what I was reciting.

    • John Scanlon, FCD
      Posted January 9, 2013 at 8:38 am | Permalink

      That was my process: I rationed my ‘Amens’, only saying it in church when I thought the preceding made sense. Then a year went by and I hadn’t said it once.

  3. Matt G
    Posted January 9, 2013 at 6:22 am | Permalink

    Is there any definition of god that is coherent? There seems to be a lot of have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too-ism out there.

    • Nikos Apostolakis
      Posted January 9, 2013 at 7:09 am | Permalink

      There are definitions that at least are not obviously incoherent. For example one could define a scientist god that runs this universe as an experiment or a computer simulation or whatever and doesn’t interfere with it once it’s set up. Actually there are numerus science fiction novels incorporating such ideas in their plot.

      • Matt G
        Posted January 9, 2013 at 7:30 am | Permalink

        I was thinking about things like omnipotence, omniscience, and the other qualities that are assigned to god. Is god capable of creating knowledge to which god is not privy? Can god have all these qualities simultaneously? Is human “free will” compatible with divine omniscience? Can god create something so massive that god can’t move it? Is there a definition or description of god which is not self-contradictory?

        • Darth Dog
          Posted January 9, 2013 at 8:34 am | Permalink

          Doesn’t seem like it to me. I always struggle with the “God is perfect” kind of descriptions. I’m not sure how anything can be perfect other than with respect to an attribute. I understand the idea of a perfect circle. I understand an idea of a perfect square. But which of the two is more perfect, and what would the perfect shape be, a circle or a square? And that’s what got all those theologians into the “can God create a rock too heavy for himself to lift” kinds of contorsions.

      • Tulse
        Posted January 9, 2013 at 9:28 am | Permalink

        one could define a scientist god that runs this universe as an experiment or a computer simulation or whatever and doesn’t interfere with it once it’s set up

        In other words, Deism, which seems to be the only type of god that isn’t actually incoherent (just unnecessary as a hypothesis).

  4. Les Kaufman
    Posted January 9, 2013 at 6:26 am | Permalink

    Jerry, what do you do with people who are self-declared atheists, but treasure all of the non-deistic dimensions of their ancestral culture and ethnicity? Deists of the same clade regard them as lost sheep. Will you damn them as delusional, or delight in them as delivered?

    Case in point, perhaps relevant to your intersts: a branch of Judaism called HJ or Humanistic Judaism (I can not properly say “the Jewish faith” as one conventionally might, for that implies faith in a deity). There is a not bad Wikipedia entry on HJ here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Humanistic_Judaism

    In Boston, deistic congregations do not recognize HJ congregationalists as Jewish and will not admit them to their organization. They do however engage in joint fundraising and social action.

    What I am essentially asking you is whether you see value in the creation of social institutions for humanists who elect to identify with and share an ethnic heritage and set of values rooted in a culture that others see as inseparable from religious trappings. Or alternatively, do you feel that the only true atheism is of the Lone Ranger variety?

    • Les Kaufman
      Posted January 9, 2013 at 6:28 am | Permalink

      …in which case, by the way, we must figure out who Tonto is…

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted January 9, 2013 at 6:34 am | Permalink

      Well, I’m one of those: I consider myself a cultural Jew because there are non-religious things about the group that I like—or perhaps identify with. But you won’t find me in a synagogue; you’ll find me in a deli!

      I’m not convinced that people really need formal social organizations that replace religion, like the “secular churches” proposed by Alain de Botton. But we are social animals, and need a society in which we’re embedded and, more important, in which we feel taken care of. Europe has solved that problem largely by creating government programs to help the poor and afflicted. In Scandinavia, even atheists still go to church, but they do so sporadically, and for ceremonial purposes like weddings and funerals. But the secular alternatives to that seem perfectly palatable to me.

      I guess what I’m saying is that we still need some forms of ceremony to celebrate or mourn transitions, for those affirm our common humanity. But those ceremonies need not be religious, nor do we have to mandate what they should be like. They confect themselves out of our secular feelings.

      • Darth Dog
        Posted January 9, 2013 at 8:36 am | Permalink

        “…you’ll find me in a deli.”

        Amen Brother!!!

      • Tulse
        Posted January 9, 2013 at 9:32 am | Permalink

        I’m not convinced that people really need formal social organizations that replace religion, like the “secular churches” proposed by Alain de Botton. But we are social animals, and need a society in which we’re embedded and, more important, in which we feel taken care of.

        There are plenty of secular models for this, of course, many based on ethnic lines. In my Greek neighbourhood in Toronto, there are a lot of regionally-defined “social societies”, which seem to be mutual benefit and support clubs.

      • Matt G
        Posted January 9, 2013 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

        You’re a follower of the Deli Lama?

        • gbjames
          Posted January 9, 2013 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

          ¡Good One!

      • Posted January 9, 2013 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

        Roy Rappaport and Jon Haidt both talk about the role of “religion” in the evolution of our species. Essentially, they argue that “religion” provided the lattice that was needed for the species to develop the social structures and value systems necessary for the development of the species. This is a very interesting topic . . . and involved. Too much to go into here. For those who are interested in delving into it a bit, I highly recommend Haidt’s book “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion” or his 20-minute 2009 TED Talk.

        The gist of what I got out of studying Rappaport and Haidt was that “religion” has been a factor that has shaped the evolution of the species and that for some people today, it is a core component of their worldview . . .

    • Posted January 9, 2013 at 6:53 am | Permalink

      Jerry, what do you do with people who are self-declared atheists, but treasure all of the non-deistic dimensions of their ancestral culture and ethnicity?

      Now that reminds me of an incident from perhaps 30 years ago. A bunch of us were gabbing in the faculty coffee room. I don’t remember the topic, but I do remember asking “What do you call an atheist who regularly attends Church?” One of my colleagues instantly replied “the organist.” (Need I mention that my colleague enjoyed playing the organ).

      • steve oberski
        Posted January 9, 2013 at 8:14 am | Permalink

        It’s even more likely that it’s the priest/pastor/shaman.

  5. Posted January 9, 2013 at 6:28 am | Permalink

    Apathetic, rather.

  6. Duncan
    Posted January 9, 2013 at 6:35 am | Permalink

    “An apophatic thread, a belief that the only way to conceive of God is through conceding that he is ineffable, runs throughout Christian history.”

    Translates as “We’ve been trotting out this bull for a looooooooong time.”

    Sort of sounds to me like someone’s painted themselves into an ‘unknowable’ corner and will soon disappear up their own fundament.

    • Scott near Berkeley
      Posted January 9, 2013 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

      Well, all of that early Christian thinking was done in an age with no radio, television, movies, vaudeville, and rare theatrical productions. Ontology and thought experiments were the only games in town for thinkers.

      Thanks, Jerry, for introducing me to the term “apophatic”. Wikipedia has the fascinating details, especially the embrace of apophatic thinking by prominent religious groups (as opposed to, say, a mere mention of apophatic thinking in some obscure writing with a very different theme.)

  7. NewEnglandBob
    Posted January 9, 2013 at 6:43 am | Permalink

    “increasing non-knowing” is the sophisticated theology version of north of the North Pole.

  8. Sagra
    Posted January 9, 2013 at 6:45 am | Permalink

    He seems on the verge of becoming a Buddhist, since he seems to like feeling “spiritual”. Buddhism has lovely rituals and meditations but doesn’t require belief in a creator-god.

    I would guess that team loyalty keeps him waving the Xtian flag.

  9. John K.
    Posted January 9, 2013 at 7:02 am | Permalink

    How interesting. Most Christians only assert their god is unknowable when they are backed into a corner. Instead of moving the goal posts, just set them as far back as you can possibly imagine. This kind of reminds me of those who back up so far as to claim that existence is not a property that can be ascribed to their god, which atheists can only laugh at and agree with.

    • Posted January 9, 2013 at 7:10 am | Permalink

      I think Bryant’s just thrown away the goal posts… 

      /@

      • John K.
        Posted January 9, 2013 at 8:34 am | Permalink

        Right, he moved them clear out of existence at the outset.

        • Scott near Berkeley
          Posted January 9, 2013 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

          They’ll be no “goal line stand” either. No lines on the field whatsoever.

  10. Faustus
    Posted January 9, 2013 at 7:10 am | Permalink

    Reading this made a quote of George Orwell’s
    spring to mind:

    “One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool.”

  11. Don
    Posted January 9, 2013 at 7:16 am | Permalink

    Another brand of atheist who won’t admit it is exemplified by a newly elected representative to the House, Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Arizona, who was sworn without a Bible as the first member of Congress to describe her religious affiliation as “none.”

    Trouble is, as Chris Stedman writes, “she seems to think ‘atheist’ is a dirty word.” Someone really ought to send her Susan Jacoby’s recent NY Times op-ed piece.

    http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2013/01/08/my-take-atheist-isnt-a-dirty-word-congresswoman/?hpt=hp_t3

    • Posted January 9, 2013 at 7:23 am | Permalink

      He-he! I’d already alerted Jerry to that… Note that he says, “The other is the true atheist who hides behind labels like “nonbeliever” or ‘agnostic.’ This morning we’ll feature both sorts.” Maybe Sinema will be his example of the this brand! If so, you’ve stolen his thunder…

      /@

      • Posted January 9, 2013 at 7:25 am | Permalink

        (Oh… and he said that he’d already seen it.)

      • Don
        Posted January 9, 2013 at 7:47 am | Permalink

        Yes, but but what’s even more troubling is Sinema won;t even cop to “nonbeliever” or “agnostic.” As Stedman writes, “[she] believes the terms non-theist, atheist or non-believer are not befitting of her life’s work or personal character.”

      • Posted January 9, 2013 at 10:27 am | Permalink

        See!

        /@

    • Pete Moulton
      Posted January 9, 2013 at 7:49 am | Permalink

      ‘Atheist’ pretty much *is* a dirty word in red, red Arizona, so in Sinema’s case it seems likely that she avoids the word out of political necessity. I won’t hold the acceptance of political reality against her. She’s my congressperson, and I’m proud to have her represent my interests in DC.

  12. Alex Shuffell
    Posted January 9, 2013 at 7:24 am | Permalink

    Is was this sort of theology I was taught as a kid attending Church of England schools. No one really claimed to know anything. They had faith because it was the traditional social belief and knew the stories, but read them to us mixed in with other fairy tales. It’s because of that religious education that religious people are seen as unusual around here.

  13. Posted January 9, 2013 at 8:02 am | Permalink

    “What remains is a Quakerlike silence during which we can respond to the numinous, develop our perceptions, hone our morality and enhance our wonder at the staggering complexity of the universe. Instead of ranting at the arbitrariness and high-handed conduct of the God we have invented, it is now possible to rest in a cloud of unknowing which gives us time and space in which to reflect on the fundamental questions of life. Why am I here? How can I best deport myself in this bewildering world?”

    So exactly what is the point or use of this “faith”? All I can see is someone contemplating their navel, but sure that this “numinous” thingie approves of him and his supposedly morality. AKA the same crap that all Christians claim, my version of god approves of *me*, with a few excuses on why the theist doesn’t “really” think that since why that would indeed be arrogant and selfish.

    • Tulse
      Posted January 9, 2013 at 9:42 am | Permalink

      If you don’t know anything about your god, how can it provide a guide to morality? Heck, how can you know your god is actually “good” by any definition? How do you know that your god isn’t actually evil (that would certainly answer the problem of theodicy), or even that it has anything like a “morality”? How do you know your god isn’t effectively Cthulhu?

      • Posted January 9, 2013 at 10:10 am | Permalink

        He doesn’t have enough tentacles… 

        /@

      • Posted January 9, 2013 at 11:39 am | Permalink

        or, that idiot god thing that plays the pipes also from the Cthullu mythos? :)

  14. Chris Quartly
    Posted January 9, 2013 at 8:06 am | Permalink

    A masterful take-down, Jerry!

  15. DV
    Posted January 9, 2013 at 8:08 am | Permalink

    You missed another kind of atheist who won’t admit: the closet atheist who lives among religious people. He participates in the religious culture in which he grew up, but he doesn’t actually believe. He sometimes makes atheistic noises but won’t voluntarily declare his atheism, except when directly asked by trusted friends.

    • Scott near Berkeley
      Posted January 9, 2013 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

      Well, most of us know about “go along, to get along”. Heck, it even affects our food choices, when one is a guest at dinner parties. I rarely eat beef, as my pro-health choice, but when prime rib is the main dish, I go ahead and have seconds, with no pedantic commentary.

  16. Posted January 9, 2013 at 8:13 am | Permalink

    I don’t think that this is your best post. I sometimes think that scientists and academics don’t understand how idiotic and empty a lot of life can be outside of the ivory tower and without tenure. A lot of people really benefit from the fellowship and community that comes from being part of a congregation and if theologians are able to help people transition from superstition to reason without losing that support I think they are doing something worthwhile.

    A lot of people simply don’t have the benefit of good jobs, stable families, etc, and religious communities are their only lifeline in a society ripped to pieces by the free market. I suspect that the fellow being quoted has stayed in the church for these reasons and sees his theology as a means of doing so while retaining some integrity. People like him and Karen Armstrong should be seen as friends that we can enter into dialog with, not people to be churlishly dismissed.

    • JonLynnHarvey
      Posted January 9, 2013 at 8:42 am | Permalink

      I’d be a lot more inclined to agree with this if it weren’t for the fact that Karen Armstrong makes so many false or dubious statements about the history of religion, and even worse blames the decline of apophatic theology on the scientific revolution!! (Frankly, I think the rise of Protestantism had wayyy more to do with it.) Though I’m never one to cut off a conversation.

      I think that Rev. Bryant has retained his Christian identity because it was in a Christian venue that he first had his wonderful numinous experiences. He is, like John Shelby Spong, someone who wants to continue to use Christian !*language*! without really believing the classic creeds. But Carl Sagan and Christopher Hitchens have applauded the importance of numinous experiences while suggesting they be appreciated in a “secular” way, completely independent of any traditional religious framework.

      • Posted January 9, 2013 at 9:11 am | Permalink

        I’m not a historian, but do wonder how anyone can make claims about the history of religion. It’s at the same time an elite phenomenon (what do mystics say?), a popular one (what do ordinary people think?), and, subject to Orwellian manipulation (how many points of view were erased from the historical record or completely misrepresented by orthodox authorities?).

        Armstrong writes for the general public, so I cut her some slack on a subject that I suspect that experts don’t have a handle on.

        • gbjames
          Posted January 9, 2013 at 9:55 am | Permalink

          I don’t understand what you are saying. History of religion is complex. All history is complex. That doesn’t prevent us from making statements about historical events and historical processes.

          And why would it be OK to make false statements about history just because you are addressing the general public? Truthfulness is even more important there when most of the readers/listeners don’t have professional backgrounds with as much ability to verify accuracy?

          • Posted January 9, 2013 at 10:15 am | Permalink

            The question is who gets to say what is or is not historically accurate? It’s probably not fair to respond to a general comment about her making an untrue statement. What exact statement are you saying that she made that was wrong?

            In the past, I’ve seen others write that Armstrong de-emphasizes the role of fundamentalism in the pre-modern world. Is that what you are referring to?

            If that is, I’d suggest that who you choose as the exemplar of “Christianity” will make a huge difference about what you mean by what Christians believed in past times. Do you choose Julian of Norwich? A specific bishop? The writings of an ordinary parish priest? A pope? Each one can be justified as “representing Christian thought”, but each could be dismissed too.

            If someone wants to get into a technical discussion about a specific case, then perhaps we can come up with a consensus opinion. But if we are making broad generalizations, then I’d suggest that what a writer is doing is more emotive and rhetorical than anything else. That is how many popular books are written. Armstrong is not primarily an academic, she is polemicist who is concerned about responding to the influence of fundamentalism in a world that she sees damaged by religious people who are reacting out of fear of modernity.

            Christopher Hitchens was also a polemicist, so I hope that people on this discussion board are not about to say that this is not a good thing to do.

            • gbjames
              Posted January 9, 2013 at 10:39 am | Permalink

              I’ve no need to refer to a particular statement by Armstrong. I didn’t make the assertion. You seem to have me confused with our host.

              I am willing to say that statements like “who gets to decide what is accurate” leaves me stunned, assuming you intend the implication. You really think that all statements about the past are equally accurate? Really?

              • Posted January 9, 2013 at 10:55 am | Permalink

                No, not all statements about the past, just all statements about religion. What does a religion believe? Is it what a majority of members belive? What elite members believe? What the institutional leadership believes? On top of that, the historical record is suspect. Orwell came up with the idea of totalitarian societies manipulating history when he did some newspaper articles about the Jehovah Witnesses and how they rewrote church documents after a missed apocalypse.

              • gbjames
                Posted January 9, 2013 at 11:00 am | Permalink

                not all statements about the past, just all statements about religion.

                That is absurd. There is no reason to grant religion an exemption from history.

                Your argument is self-defeating. If statements about religion in history are off-limits then you can’t refer to something George Orwell wrote on the subject.

            • JonLynnHarvey
              Posted January 9, 2013 at 11:02 am | Permalink

              What I meant is that Armstrong greatly exaggerates the role of non-literal religion in early Christianity. It’s true that many early Christians viewed some of the Bible as symbolic metaphor and referred to God as an incomprehensible mystery, but there were still a lot of specific historical and metaphysical propositions early Christians were committed to in a way that Karen Armstrong massively downplays. Christianity right from the beginning was challenged by Greek skepticism and therefore right off engaged in a lot of apologetics (some would say “rationalization”) of specific beliefs. That’s why it’s a much more theologically minded religion than Judaism.

              But it’s Karen Armstrong’s blaming the rise of Biblical literalism on the rise of science which is just beyond the pale!! There’s no evidence of this at all- it’s a really perverse argument.

              There is no more problem with chronicling the history of religion than with chronicling the history of politics or music. They are all wide fields. Politics includes everything from anarchists to greens. Music everything from Bach to jazz.

              • Posted January 9, 2013 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

                There’s an old hotel in Niagara-on-the-Lake that has a historical plaque on it. I’ve seen it. It says something to the effect that “This is the birthplace of the term ‘fundamentalism'”. It was a meeting place for Christian leaders who were in reaction to more mainstream Christian leaders, who were trying to assimilate themselves to the results of the new Biblical criticism that was coming out of Germany.

                This isn’t a direct reaction to your concern, but it does reinforce Amstrong’s bigger point, which is that fundamentalism is a reaction to modernity.

                So what particular part of Christianity are you saying Amstrong says embraced literalism as a result of science? The day-to-day believers in individual parishes? The elite that were members of monastic communities (if so, which ones—Benedictines, Cluniacs?) Or was she referring to the ecclesiastic leadership in Rome? Oh, and which time in particular? It is a moving target, after-all. Positions change all the time.

                I’m not saying that it is theoretically impossible to make historical statements about religion, but rather that the community of any religion is so amorphous that it is pretty much impossible to make any sort of definitive statement about it with any rigour. Most of the statements I’ve seen tend to be not much more than emotive statements about what a particular person feels is “orthodox”.

    • truthspeaker
      Posted January 9, 2013 at 8:51 am | Permalink

      ” theologians are able to help people transition from superstition to reason without losing that support I think they are doing something worthwhile.”

      Except they don’t do that. They defend superstition, pretend it’s benign, and don’t promote reason.

      • Posted January 9, 2013 at 8:58 am | Permalink

        Now, now. How many times have creationists been rightly criticized on this blog for misuse of quotes? I was clearly referring to a specific type of theologian, your quote inferrs that I meant the entire class.

        • DV
          Posted January 9, 2013 at 9:45 am | Permalink

          He didn’t quote you out of context. Your entire claim about theologians, didn’t say or imply any qualification at all. And in any case, it is still wrong. No theologian promotes transition to reason.

          • Posted January 9, 2013 at 10:21 am | Permalink

            “IF theologians are able to help people transition from superstition to reason without losing that support I think they are doing something worthwhile.”

            Please note the dropped “if”. This sets out the set of theologians being referred to as a subset that are set apart by a hypothetical concern about how reasonable their arguments are. If it is the case that there are indeed no theologians who can help people make the transition from superstition to logic, then the statement doesn’t apply. It appeared from the original blog post that Jerry had found a very rare type of theologian.

            I suspect that you are honestly misunderstanding what I wrote. What does this say about the human ability to “read into” a text what they are expecting to see?

            • DV
              Posted January 9, 2013 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

              Bill: if pigs can fly, that would be great.
              truthspeaker: pigs can’t fly
              Bill: you misquoted me; i’m clearly referring to a specific type of pig
              DV: but you didn’t qualify, and still no pig can fly.
              Bill: Ah, but i said “If”. Therefore you misread me.

              Say What???

              • Posted January 9, 2013 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

                Jerry gave an example of a pig that may not be able to fly, but can perhaps glide in a controlled fall. Your analogy fails.

    • Tulse
      Posted January 9, 2013 at 9:50 am | Permalink

      A lot of people really benefit from the fellowship and community that comes from being part of a congregation

      …or a quilting bee, or a gaming club, or the Rotary, or a sports club, or etc. etc. etc.

      There is nothing inherently special about religion in this regard. At the funeral for an avid gaming acquaintance of mine, almost all the people there were those he had met through gaming. That was his community, that was his support, not religion.

      • Posted January 9, 2013 at 10:06 am | Permalink

        Well lucky you.

        I’ve also seen people who were in really bad shape who were tremendously supported by their church. And churches tend to have a lot more resources for dealing with significant problems than informal groupings of casual friends.

        For example, would a gaming group do the housework, provide meals, and transportation to treatment for a person as they slowly died from cancer? I’ve seen church congregations do stuff like that for people without other options.

        Churches do a lot of very horrible things, but they also do some very good things too.

        As I mentioned before, sometimes I get the feeling that the “Atheist community” is dominated by well-off academics who don’t understand how crappy can be for a lot of people and how much practical support religious groups often offer.

        This stuff isn’t all about—or IMHO even primarily about—abstruse questions of theology. It’s about how institutions respond to needs for community and human connection in a fragmented world. Many prominent atheists are very successful people who don’t seem to understand the needs that religious communities fill. Until there is some attempt to respond to these issues, most of the discussion will be invisible to all except an elite.

        • gbjames
          Posted January 9, 2013 at 10:13 am | Permalink

          Frankly, Bill Hulet, I find your implication that non-religious people and organizations are incapable of providing support for the ill and elderly to be profoundly offensive.

          • DV
            Posted January 9, 2013 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

            Watch. He’s going to say you misread him.

          • Posted January 9, 2013 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

            Of course non-religious people and organizations can help people in various ways. But how many people in our society find that their only access to certain types of fellowship and support has come from, and would seem to only come from, religious institutions?

            How many atheist soup kitchens have you seen? An informal group of friends, or people who meet for a shared interest are simply not on the same order of magnitude as the huge amount of informal and institutional charity work that is done by religious groups. A lot of people who have very little truck with the idiocy of religious theory are still involved in religious institutions because they see them as a force for good in both their own and other people’s lives.

            These are the people who are attracted to the teachings of liberal theologians. They don’t bend themselves like pretzels to stay in the church “just because”, but because the church serves a profound service in their lives—even though a lot of what it says about itself seems batshit crazy at times. Surely it’s a good thing to have these guys incrementally bringing Christianity into the 21st century.

            • Tulse
              Posted January 9, 2013 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

              How many atheist soup kitchens have you seen?

              Are you suggesting the United Way doesn’t fund things like soup kitchens? (And no, the United Way is not “atheist”, but it is secular, which is the issue.)

            • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
              Posted January 9, 2013 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

              Perhaps your society social security is scarce, but here in Scandinavia it is a regular part of secular society. It supports way more people, without the humiliating experience of attending soup kitchens.

              Some homeless doesn’t like that, despite that you can get a legal guardian if you are unable to get the regular help, and to patch that leak (some few thousand voluntarily homeless) there are secular search-and-help services too.

              • Posted January 9, 2013 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

                Great. How do you get from where we are in North America to where you are in Scandinavia? In the interim, what are we supposed to ask people in distress to do? Refuse all help from any group that doesn’t pass an atheist litmus test?

                In Canada, where I come from, we sit somewhere between Scandinavia and the USA. Our public health system was brought into being through a lot of work by religious people—including the person recognized as being most responsible, a protestant clergyman as well as a politician.

                Should we tell people not to use the public health system because it has been dangerously compromised through it’s association with the social gospel?

              • gbjames
                Posted January 9, 2013 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

                Bill Hulet: You are just making straw man arguments. There is no need for that. Stop pretending that you are getting an argument that religious people don’t offer any help. Nobody is saying that soup kitchens should be closed. Nobody is making that case (although some of us at least think that far better ways of feeding the indigent are possible).

                And please stop implying that the idea of a society free of religion couldn’t take care of its poor and infirm. The way things are in your town today isn’t the way it always needs to be. The same is true in my town. The way forward, IMO, is to build better secular social support systems and allow the religious ones to wither. The homeless can be fed without having the Salvation Army pray over them.

              • Posted January 9, 2013 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

                Bill Hulet: You are just making straw man arguments. There is no need for that. Stop pretending that you are getting an argument that religious people don’t offer any help. Nobody is saying that soup kitchens should be closed. Nobody is making that case (although some of us at least think that far better ways of feeding the indigent are possible).

                No, I am not arguing anything like the following:

                1 That only religious organizations can help other people

                or

                2 Only religious organizations should help other people

                What I am arguing is that a very large amount of the current help that is being offered in various places does in fact come from religious organizations. If anyone refuses to accept this as a fact, I simply cannot have a discussion with them, because we are not starting from a similar set of data.

                On the basis of the above, I am further arguing that a great many “liberal” Christians—of the sort that Jerry is quoting—stay within the Christian fold because they see a great value in the help being offered. Please note, I am not simply referring to formal charity (e.g. soup kitchens), although that is certainly part of the appeal. I am also referring to a sense of fellowship, something that is sorely lacking in a great many people’s lives in the 21st century.

                I am arguing, on the basis of my experience interacting with a lot of liberal religious people, that they are not terribly interested in the sorts of intellectual arguments that people throw around vis-a-vis atheism. Instead, they are happy to have found a community that allows them to do “good things” together.

                What is a person who says that they don’t really “know” what “God” means, yet stays in the church doing? I’d suggest that they are saying “I don’t care about all that divisive, intellectual stuff—I just want to get on with helping other people and enjoying fellowship”. It doesn’t have to mean that the person is “moving the goal posts, etc.” It can simply be a statement of humility. It can mean “I just don’t know”.

                Why in heaven’s name would an Atheist attack a religious person who admits that he just “doesn’t know” what God is?

              • Tulse
                Posted January 9, 2013 at 7:02 pm | Permalink

                What I am arguing is that a very large amount of the current help that is being offered in various places does in fact come from religious organizations.

                Did anyone claim otherwise?

              • gbjames
                Posted January 10, 2013 at 5:25 am | Permalink

                Why in heaven’s name would an Atheist attack a religious person who admits that he just “doesn’t know” what God is?

                Please try to understand the difference between attacking a religious person and attacking a religious idea. It is the latter which happens frequently here, not the former. We are attacking the idea that religion is the base of morality, the source of doing-good, the social bulwark we need in order to have a compassionate society.

                Liberal religion gets plenty of attack here, not because there aren’t nice people who attend liberal churches. There are nice people at conservative churches, too. And at masques. And at synagogues. And at none of these because the people are non-believers.

                Liberal religion comes in for attack because the beliefs expressed by these institutions give cover to the more repugnant forms of religion. This is true regardless of whether many, or most, of the members of some congregation choose to ignore the belief systems of their particular sect. Those belief systems are being attacked, not the people, and certainly not their good works.

        • footface
          Posted January 9, 2013 at 11:32 am | Permalink

          I don’t doubt that many people derive great comfort from their religious communities. But your statement is still very condescending. All those uneducated, poor people need the lies of religion. They can’t handle a world without a heavenly helper.

          • Scott near Berkeley
            Posted January 9, 2013 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

            Exactly. Nicely stated.

            When the USA transitioned from horse and wagon to ICEs and automobiles, I am certain many people felt alone and professionally abandoned in their equine-centric world. But it was not a good reason to extoll the horse and wagon as the better means of shipping pianos.

            People will always feel, or actually are, abandoned in large or small part, as the world changes. The entropy of the universe is increasing, and it is not something that makes us feel good. We have to fight against the negative social pressure it imposes. Some choose not to fight, but instead get overwhelmed. But to prop up old institutions (i.e. Church) that are based on untenable suppositions and superstitions is simply distrusting the creativity and change that is a major part of our human society.

            The Apple app store lists 775,000 apps written for the iPhone, yet I have never used or purchased ONE! Not one! Woe is (computer-literate) me!!

            I think about a great exhibit (now gone, replaced by PC exhibits) at Henry Ford Museum in Michigan. It was “Torchlight Parade” societies. If you were a politician (either party, thank you) coming to town on your campaign, you hired the local torchlight parade group to march down main street, in their hats and uniforms, holding staffs with an oil-fired light on top. Impressive display! This social club of torch holders was quite extensive, colorful, no doubt fulfilling. Yet, it all disappeared, for all its wonderful features and social benefits. 9999 out of 10000 people today are oblivious to its previous existence.

            So goes life.

          • Posted January 9, 2013 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

            They don’t need the lies, but they do need the help. Who’s providing the help? And why is it being provided?

            • gbjames
              Posted January 9, 2013 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

              Help is provided by many people. The religious have no monopoly on this. A day or two ago one of the commenters on this site provided us with the clear fact that the Red Cross, which I understand has provided help from time to time, is a clearly secular outfit. His example was how a distribution/support center was moved from a church when the church members refused to stop pushing god.

              The repeated suggestion that non-believers don’t help people is offensive.

              • Posted January 9, 2013 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

                I didn’t write that. Stop putting words into my writing. I wrote that many people’s only experience of being helped, their only opportunity to be helped, comes from religious institutions. Are you saying that secular charities are everywhere? That they are in every single community and offer every single service needed? In small towns and large cities there is an overwhelming presence of religious charities. Moreover, the huge number of churches offer an astronomical number of services for their members.

                Why is it so damned hard to accept that simple fact? Jeeze. Some of you guys are as cement-headed as the fundamentalists!

              • gbjames
                Posted January 9, 2013 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

                If your point is that religious people can do good works I don’t think anyone here disagrees and you are crashing through an open door.

              • whyevolutionistrue
                Posted January 9, 2013 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

                Mr. Hulet, please don’t insult the readers by calling them “cement-headed”. There’s a policy here that we don’t call each other names.

                Thank you.

        • Tulse
          Posted January 9, 2013 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

          I’ve also seen people who were in really bad shape who were tremendously supported by their church. And churches tend to have a lot more resources for dealing with significant problems than informal groupings of casual friends.

          Yes, all that is possibly true, but that doesn’t negate my point that in principle it is not just religion that can provide this kind of social support.

          sometimes I get the feeling that the “Atheist community” is dominated by well-off academics who don’t understand how crappy can be for a lot of people and how much practical support religious groups often offer

          You do realize that most of us here (including me) were brought up with a religious background, right? This isn’t just an armchair discussion, as most of us have intimate personal experience with what religion does.

  17. @eightyc
    Posted January 9, 2013 at 8:28 am | Permalink

    Well I don’t think you can use the Bigfoot analogy because people somewhat know what Bigfoot would look like. At the very least, people would be looking for something that would have big feet!!! lol.

  18. Kenny
    Posted January 9, 2013 at 8:37 am | Permalink

    Robert Jensen is this kind of atheist (Atheist Minus, perhaps?). He has such interesting things to say about journalism and social justice and it’s just sickening hearing him on the topic of religion. “White noise”, as Hitchens would call it.

    He has a(n almost certainly terrible) book about it called All My Bones Shake. Hint- in the Amazon blurb there is reference to ‘fundamentalists on both sides’ of the theist/atheist conflict. Watch out, Dawkins.

  19. Ian Liberman
    Posted January 9, 2013 at 8:46 am | Permalink

    During 2012,there has been quite a few polls printed in Moment Magazine(Eli Wiesel), Pew and the Economist actually indicating that the 60-65 percent of American Jews are atheists and about 85 percent of Reformed are atheists, though they will attend synagogue. The interesting thing about atheist Jews are that they attend Synagogue on High Holidays and other days for reasons of relating to culture, history and socialization and not religious. Reconstructionism has it`s origin in Spinoza. Founder Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan was inspired by Spinoza and created a non supernatural form of Judaism. There is also Humanistic Judaism.It is quite easy to be an atheist and a Jew.

  20. @eightyc
    Posted January 9, 2013 at 8:47 am | Permalink

    This brand of “atheism” is for the mooshy brained.

    Instead of this lame “Why am I here?” type of mental masturbation, the vicar’s time would be better spent actually learning about science and the shit that has been found out since he was born.

  21. TJR
    Posted January 9, 2013 at 9:13 am | Permalink

    Does he mean that god is “unknowable” in the Lovecraftian sense?

    A primal, unknowable blasphemy, perhaps.

    In his house at Edom, dead Yahweh waits dreaming.

    • Tulse
      Posted January 9, 2013 at 9:52 am | Permalink

      Yep, if we can’t know anything about god, how do we know he isn’t actually Azathoth?

    • Posted January 9, 2013 at 10:05 am | Permalink

      Oh, you’re a deep one… 

      /@

  22. Sastra
    Posted January 9, 2013 at 9:21 am | Permalink

    The “unknowable” God is a ruse. The religious can’t really keep it up.

    Is Bryant’s God important? Is it important to believe in this God? Does it make any difference in any way to any thing or any one?

    If so, then Bryant is claiming to know something about God. There has to be some sort of content.

    When theists tell me their God is neither personal nor anthropomorphic, without any mental characteristics but totally “other,” I ask:

    Is God aware? Is it conscious or “consciousness?” Does it think? Does it recognize and/or respond to values, like good and evil? Is it concerned in any way with the ideals, manifestation, or expression of love, justice, beauty, progress, creativity, intelligence, harmony, discovery? Is it anything more than a metaphor for atheism?

    If they answer ‘yes’ to any of the above, then they were wrong: their God IS anthropomorphic in that it has qualities of mind.

    If they always answer ‘no,’ then the technical term for their faith in God is — you guessed it — “atheism.”

    Of course, the usual answers involve a lot of “I don’t know”s and changing of their response when the question is no longer being asked.

    • Scott near Berkeley
      Posted January 9, 2013 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

      I like your use of the word “content”.

      Nonetheless, I prefer “meaning”. Something has to have “meaning” beyond mere sentence construction. As was previously pointed out, “North of the North Pole” is the essence of Bryant’s essay.

  23. Jaime Ospina
    Posted January 9, 2013 at 9:41 am | Permalink

    “Persist and the rewards are immense. There is an exhilarating sense of newfound freedom.”

    Ignorance is bliss.

    • Scott near Berkeley
      Posted January 9, 2013 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

      They are called “beta waves”. They occur when you adjust your mind in such a way as to amplify them.

      As a sophomore in high school, I used to get into a “beta wave” trance when a certain substitute teacher took over the class. From multiple episodes, I knew he was going to stand up there, and proceed with a monologue and ignore all the students. He stared at the back of the room while he talked. I would listen, but eventually drift into this cozy mental half-sleep. And, I could amplify the pleasant buzz.

      Must have been the “exhilarating sense” Bryant is talking about.

  24. Posted January 9, 2013 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

    Bill Hulet: “A lot of people really benefit from the fellowship and community that comes from being part of a congregation and if theologians are able to help people transition from superstition to reason without losing that support I think they are doing something worthwhile.”
    ____

    Or

    A lot of people really benefit from the attention that they get by going to quacks (alternative medical practitioners) and if prominent psuedo-scientists are able to help patients transition from superstition to bona fide medical treatment without the patient losing the support of their quack I think they are doing something worthwhile.

    Mission Impossible, Babe!

    Most of the atheists I know are not well off (though they tend to be educated, either formally or informally), are not part of an academic elite, and were former believers.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted January 9, 2013 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

      Good one.

  25. Posted January 9, 2013 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    I suppose in one sense Bryant’s type of theism isn’t far from atheism. God very nearly isn’t there in apophatic theology.

    But in another sense they couldn’t be more different. Bryant’s theism disengages curiosity, investigation, learning, much more totally than your average theism. At least normal Catholics and Protestants sometimes try to come up with explanations for problems. But Bryant says: “we no longer have to ask blah blah…” Bryant is saying “I DON’T KNOW, therefore there are no problems, no questions. Stop asking things.”

    What an awful worldview.

  26. Sastra
    Posted January 9, 2013 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    The apophatic approach to understanding God — that one can never understand what God is but only realize what it is not — seems to me like the perfect immunizing strategy. It protects the concept of God from doubt by making it impossible to analyze.

    It also reminds me of the popular little game of ‘gotcha!’ which liberal theists like to play with atheists. It allows them to keep the high ground and play tennis without a net.

    “Well, when you say you don’t believe in God, you aren’t talking about the kind of God I believe in. In fact, I bet you don’t even know what it is I believe!”

    “So — how do you define God?”

    “No, you tell me how YOU think I define God.”

    “Um… God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth?”

    “Wrong! That’s not what God is! Try again.”

    “God is a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it.”

    “Wrong again! God is nothing like that! You don’t get it.”

    “God is pure actuality?”

    “Nope. Not my God. Keep going…”

    “God is a field of consciousness that is set up for maximum diversity?”

    “Not even close.”

    “A symbol that points beyond itself to an indescribable transcendence? An eternal spirit who is perfectly free, omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good, and the creator of all things? A being absolutely infinite, that is a substance consisting of infinite attributes, each of which expresses eternal and infinite essentiality? Another name for ‘Love?'”

    “No, no, no, and no. Oh, this is so fun! You understand nothing! I could keep this up forever! Give it another shot, and tell me what you think I mean by ‘God.'”

    “Fuck you.”

    “No! But you’re getting closer….”

    • Posted January 9, 2013 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

      :D

    • Christian
      Posted January 9, 2013 at 6:38 pm | Permalink

      Heck, they would continue like this even if you quoted something they themselves said in the past (of course, only if you don’t give the source away).

    • Mark Joseph
      Posted January 9, 2013 at 8:58 pm | Permalink

      This seems like a likely place to point out the obvious: The one thing that apophatic theologians can without any doubt know with 100% certainty about “god” is that he is unknowable!

  27. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted January 9, 2013 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    And of course, while Bryant’s position is inseparable from secular humanism, it can be used as a token to continue your membership in any abrahamic sect of your choice.

    The emperor is nude, but you can still imagine a cloth to hide your belief behind.

    • Christian
      Posted January 9, 2013 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

      Noo, he’s not nude. He’s just wearing a transparent condom over his wiener.

  28. Uommibatto
    Posted January 10, 2013 at 12:00 am | Permalink

    This “apophatic theology” thing reminds me of homeopathy: both allegedly work better the less substance there is to it!

    • Sastra
      Posted January 10, 2013 at 8:28 am | Permalink

      Ha! Good catch.

  29. Posted January 11, 2013 at 9:17 am | Permalink

    For someone like David Bryant, a retired Anglican vicar, (or for that matter any other religious zealot) to admit that after all these long years of passionate faith, eager kneeling and spirited hallelujahs: “I was wrong. I was deluded.” is virtually to ask him to declare the horrifying and spectacular meaninglessness of his whole life. Such a turnaround is unlikely to happen. A more likely scenario is to continue living like before, trapping oneself in the perplexed state of cognitive dissonance. As George Orwell would have put it: “The point is that we are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right.”
    Cheers!


One Trackback/Pingback

  1. [...] on his blog “website hosted by wordpress” which talk about those who claim to lie under the umbrella of being religious but, well….really don’t actually “believe&#8…? I wonder of many politicians don’t do exactly that. It is hard to [...]

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 27,678 other followers

%d bloggers like this: