Believer Michael Robbins exhibits Maru’s Syndrome on The Dish

On July 9 I wrote a bit about poet Michael Robbins’s review, in Slate, of Nick Spencer’s book Atheists, the Origin of the Species, a book that has pretty much tanked on Amazon. As he has done before, Robbins didn’t really review the book but, in an essay called Know Nothing” (subtitled “The true history of atheism”), used his essay to bash New Atheism. He really, really despises us all. I should add that Robbins is religious, describing himself as a “leftist Christian.”

You will probably remember Robbins: he’s the hipster poet who wore a Traci Lords tee-shirt and was easily irked. In his review, he faulted New Atheists for being dumb, for not realizing that religion is all about allegory, that its truth claims aren’t to be taken seriously since Church fathers like Augustine and Aquinas read scripture as metaphor, that you can’t fathom religion until you’ve embraced it, and, finally, the oldest chestnut on the Tree of Faith: New Atheists aren’t dolorous enough. We need to be freaked out and distressed by the absence of God, as Nietzsche supposedly was.

Robbins also claimed that I had misunderstood him, but unless he’s such a bad writer that he simply cannot translate what he thinks into English words, I stand by my critique.

Further, Robbins took a shellacking not just at my site (390 comments, very few of them favorable), but also at reader Maggie Clark’s site, and even at Andrew Sullivan’s site, The Dish, where a number of readers went after him. 

Since Hipster Robbins has a fulminating case of Maru’s Syndrome (“When I see a box, I cannot help but enter”), he was compelled to respond in all three places (see my original post for his response to me). He may be hip, but not he’s not savvy enough to learn the First Rule of Blogging: “Do not keep defending yourself when you’re criticized.” He’s also flouted the Second Rule of Blogging: “When a number of people go after you independently, and you respond that they’ve all misunderstood you, it is likely that you’re either wrong or that you didn’t write clearly.”

At any rate, Robbins couldn’t leave well enough alone, and has responded to critics on The Dish. He’s still banging the drum about how un-serious we are, how we misunderstood him, and that religion is certainly not about the literalism of scripture. I’m not going to reprise his arguments except for two of them, for I suspect we’re going to hear this guy whining about New Atheists for some time to come.

I’ll start by noting that Robbins took me to task by saying that I can’t tell the difference between metaphor and allegory, and was simply wrong when I said that people read the Bible metaphorically. But I’ll be damned if there’s a substantive difference between them when you’re talking about the stories of the Bible not as literal truths, but as standing for something else. Here are the Oxford English Dictionary’s definitions of “metaphor” and “allegory”. Note that an allegory (Robbins’s preferred usage) can be seen an extended metaphor (my emphasis):

Allegory:

  1. The use of symbols in a story, picture, etc., to convey a hidden or ulterior meaning, typically a moral or political one; symbolic representation. Also: the interpretation of this.
  2. A story, picture, etc. which uses symbols to convey a hidden or ulterior meaning, typically a moral or political one; a symbolic representation; an extended or continued metaphor.

Metaphor:

1.  Figure of speech in which the name or descriptive word or phrase is transferred to an object or action different from, but analogous to, that which it is literally applicable; an instance of this, a metaphorical expression.
2.  Something regarded as representative or suggestive of something else, esp. as a material emblem of an abstract quality, condition, notion, etc.; a symbol, a token. Freq with for, of.

I do note that “metaphor” can also mean a single word or phrase that stands for something else, as when one says “She was beside herself”. Nevertheless, if it makes Robbins or the Sophisticated Theologians™ happy, I’ll be glad to use “allegory.” The point is that we all know what Robbins was saying: the Bible stories weren’t to be taken literally, but meant something else: moral lessons, observations about life, and so on.

And so on to his first claim at The Dish (Robbins’s words are indented):

Claim #1: No sophisticated believer is a literalist

Which brings me to the readers who write in to inform me of the most obvious fact in the world, that some religious people believe crazy shit. (Although I have to laugh at the trend of quoting the extraordinarily metaphor-rich Jonathan Edwards to prove this.) One of your readers comments:

“When Robbins writes: “Of course the dead in Christ don’t intervene with God to help you find your car keys, and of course the Bible is inconsistent and muddled (no matter what the Southern Baptists claim to believe), and of course I find it extremely unlikely that Mohammed flew to heaven on a winged horse”, that’s when he gets to criticize atheist focus.”

I guess I get to criticize atheist focus, then, since I’ve explicitly written that such beliefs are superstitious nonsense, often, in Slate, the Chicago Tribune, and Commonweal. (The same reader has failed to note that “austere abdication of metaphysical premises” is a quote from David Bentley Hart in which he is praising science for its abdication.) I had assumed it was obvious that Origen and Augustine would hardly have taken the trouble to deny literalist readings of the Bible if such readings did not exist. And some of the more idiotic beliefs held by American Christians (such as young-earth creationism), are, of course, based on no readings of the Bible at all.

Let’s take the colonial American preacher Jonathan Edwards first. He may have used metaphor in his sermons, but he certainly believed in the God of the Bible, as you can see in his most famous sermon, “Sinners in the hands of an angry god,” delivered in Enfield, Connecticut in 1741. Here’s a famous passage:

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince; and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment. It is to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to hell the last night; that you was suffered to awake again in this world, after you closed your eyes to sleep. And there is no other reason to be given, why you have not dropped into hell since you arose in the morning, but that God’s hand has held you up. There is no other reason to be given why you have not gone to hell, since you have sat here in the house of God, provoking his pure eyes by your sinful wicked manner of attending his solemn worship. Yea, there is nothing else that is to be given as a reason why you do not this very moment drop down into hell.

O sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in: it is a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit, full of the fire of wrath, that you are held over in the hand of that God, whose wrath is provoked and incensed as much against you, as against many of the damned in hell. You hang by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it, and ready every moment to singe it, and burn it asunder; and you have no interest in any Mediator, and nothing to lay hold of to save yourself, nothing to keep off the flames of wrath, nothing of your own, nothing that you ever have done, nothing that you can do, to induce God to spare you one moment.

. . . Therefore, let every one that is out of Christ, now awake and fly from the wrath to come. The wrath of Almighty God is now undoubtedly hanging over a great part of this congregation. Let every one fly out of Sodom: “Haste and escape for your lives, look not behind you, escape to the mountain, lest you be consumed.”

Yes, of course the “spider” bit is metaphorical—actually, if we’re precise, it’s a simile—but what is not metaphorical is the idea of an angry god who will send you to hell if you don’t repent your sins.  And of course the “slender thread” keeping you from hell is also metaphorical, but the whole point of this passage is to tell the listeners that they’ll roast eternally if they sin. Hell is NOT a metaphor here, nor is the idea that God is angry. There was a reason why many of Edwards’s audience wept bitterly during his sermons.

What kind of game is Robbins playing when he fobs off stuff like this as metaphorical just because it contains a few metaphors?

Further, if Robbins denies all Biblical claims “superstitious nonsense,” then why is he a Christian? Does he believe that Christ is both God’s divine son and God at the same time? Does he believe that Jesus was crucified and then resurrected? If he believes none of this, then I have no idea what he means by calling himself a Christian, or even religious. By all means let him tell us explicitly what he believes. (I’m not holding my breath.)

Third, it’s palpably obvious to anyone who reads the Church fathers that many, if not almost all of them, took the major contentions of scripture literally, including the divinity of Jesus, his birth from a virgin, his resurrection, God’s instantaneous creation of all plants and animals, as well as of humans, the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve and the Fall, and the inherited sinfulness of humans.  This is literalism, pure and simple, andI have posted about this many times (see here and here for instance). Early theologians may not have believed literally in Jonah’s ingestion by a large fish, of Lot’s wife turning into sodium chloride, but they were all literalists about some things—the major claims of Christianity as set out in the New Testament.

Finally, Robbins says this: “And some of the more idiotic beliefs held by American Christians (such as young-earth creationism), are, of course, based on no readings of the Bible at all.”  Is the man insane? Claims of a young earth come directly from totting up the “begats” given in the Bible, for the Bible provides a largely unbroken lineage of ancestors and descendants up to historical times. From this, Archbishop Ussher calculated that the world began in 4004 B.C.  And he was not alone. As Wikipedia notes about Biblical chronology, after recounting how Ussher did his calculations:

Ussher’s proposed date of 4004 BC differed little from other Biblically based estimates, such as those of Jose ben Halafta (3761 BC),Bede (3952 BC), Ussher’s near-contemporary Scaliger (3949 BC), Johannes Kepler (3992 BC) or Sir Isaac Newton (c. 4000 BC). Ussher’s specific choice of starting year may have been influenced by the then-widely-held belief that the Earth’s potential duration was 6,000 years (4,000 before the birth of Christ and 2,000 after), corresponding to the six days of Creation, on the grounds that “one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (2 Peter 3:8). This view continued to be held as recently as AD 2000, six thousand years after 4004 BC.

No readings of the Bible at all? In fact, the notion that the Earth was young comes largely from a literalistic reading of the Bible, and from calculations based on it. When Robbins makes a statement that palpably false, he is either completely ignorant of the history of Christianity, or he is dissimulating.

And of course creationism itself—the instantaneous appearance of all species (or “kinds”) by God’s fiat—comes directly from reading Genesis.

Creationism is based on no readings of the Bible at all? Really?

Claim #2: Atheists neglect “the best arguments for God”

Robbins notes:

But the New Atheists did not write books that simply attacked creationism. They wrote books that purport to challenge theistic belief as such. They therefore have a responsibility to address the best cases for God, not the dullest. When Dennett asks if super-God created God, and if super-duper-God created super-God, he is simply revealing a lack of acquaintance with the intellectual traditions of the major religions. If you want to argue against something, you have to understand what you’re arguing against. That’s axiomatic.

You know, it would be easier for us to argue against concepts of God if people like Hart and Robbins would tell us precisely what they mean by God. If they simply mean something nebulous, like “Ground of Being,” something that is ineffable but sustains everything (and is divine), then it is up to them to adduce evidence for that, which means being explicit about what God is, what God does, and what the world would be like without Him/Her/It.  If they can’t provide evidence, what reason do we have to take them seriously, or engage them in argument? This is not, after all, an argument about philosophy, but an argument about an existence claim.  The “best case for God,” therefore, comes down to this: “the case for God that has the strongest evidence behind it.” An “intellectual tradition,” as anyone with two neurons to rub together knows, is not the same thing as evidence.  But theologians seem to lack that second neuron.

Since neither Robbins, nor Hart, nor any other Sophisticated Theologian™ or Hipster Poet has produced any evidence for God that would convince someone who wasn’t already a believer or an incipient believer, we needn’t take their claims seriously. The reason people like Robbins sneer at the New Atheists’ call for evidence is because believers don’t have any.

93 Comments

  1. francis
    Posted July 26, 2014 at 8:34 am | Permalink

    //

  2. GBJames
    Posted July 26, 2014 at 8:40 am | Permalink

    Perhaps when Robbins says American Christian idiotic beliefs are based on no readings of the Bible at all he is speaking metaphorically?

    • NewEnglandBob
      Posted July 26, 2014 at 9:31 am | Permalink

      No, alegorically.

      • William G
        Posted July 26, 2014 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

        No, synecdochally. Or metonymically. Or euphemistically. The point is, atheists are ignorant, and there’s a very good literary device out there that explains that.

        • hank_says
          Posted July 27, 2014 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

          I would’ve said optimistically.

  3. Mark Joseph
    Posted July 26, 2014 at 8:53 am | Permalink

    Jerry:

    This is too wonderful an explanation for why there is so much religion, and so much resistance to science, to pass up.

    I went over to your Wikiquote page to add the last four sentences of this post, and the following was Wikiquote’s quote of the day:

    “There’s something in the human personality which resents things that are clear, and conversely, something which is attracted to puzzles, enigmas, and allegories.”

  4. cfunr
    Posted July 26, 2014 at 8:59 am | Permalink

    Meh, evidence… how about starting with making sensical arguments? ‘Ground of being’ is completely nonsensical, and only makes sense in a made up world… kinda like how spiderman doesn’t make any sense in the real world, but makes total sense in the spiderman comics.

    • gluonspring
      Posted July 26, 2014 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

      The notion of a “ground of being” makes sense to me… something has to be the ground of being, the essential reality that the universe we experience is a (proper or improper) subset of. The problem with the “ground of being” is that it can perfectly well be the universe itself, or the quantum vacuum, or the essential nature of things that makes the quantum vacuum what it is, or some other mindless thing we haven’t thought of. There is no logical reason whatsoever to imagine that the “ground of being” is some kind of mind, to say nothing of the evidence which is 100% on the side that minds come from matter. So all the talk about “ground of being” in the context of theism is based on an attempt to fool the listener into automatically equating “ground of being” with some preconceived notion of God, which is fundamentally some kind of mind. It’s bald deception. I always want to grab these people by the shirt collar and shake them and say, “If you’re arguing for a super-mind that precedes the universe, say so dammit!”

  5. Diana MacPherson
    Posted July 26, 2014 at 9:08 am | Permalink

    Sub

  6. Posted July 26, 2014 at 9:10 am | Permalink

    Since when did Augustine (354-430 AD) and Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) become Church fathers? When were they so anointed and by whom? Surely the smart brains of the Vatican.

    When you take an objective, historical, non-Christian, look at those two writers, they don’t seem to have fathered anything in the Church, except a few newfangled ideas. The Church’s existence was very well secure before they were even born. They were astute theologians, heavy-weight apologists, astute philosophers, interesting commentators, and fine writers for their times, but “fathers”? They were probably more like children, almost “enfants terribles” of the Church. This Catholic concept of “father of the Church”, now pushed by the Vatican, is another spongy Christian concept, more elastic than latex of Ceylon. All Vatican-sponsored concepts are suspect.

    And is it really true that Nietzsche was distressed by “Der GottesTod”? He saw the distress more as affecting European civilization, especially as manifested in the bourgeois Germany of the 19th c., than himself.
    He seemed to have been overjoyed, even ecstatic, to be able to return to what he considered the original gods of Western civilization, his beloved classic gods of the ancient Greeks, Apollo, Dionysos, Athena, and the rest. His thesis always was: the real, trustworthy roots of Western civilization are not Judeo-Christian, but those found of the ancient Greek civilization

    The writer who became really very distressed at the loss of white-bearded God was a black-biled Nordic brooder, Soeren Kierkegaard, who loved to frighten himself with delectable fits of fear and trembling.

    • Posted July 26, 2014 at 9:35 am | Permalink

      I didn’t used to call them church fathers, but was informed by Sophisticated Theologians that they WERE church fathers. You can’t win in this game. I really don’t care what one calls them, for both were literalists in many respects.

      As for Nietzsche, I’m no expert on him, but some readers who know more have already pointed out that he didn’t seem to “suffer” the loss of God as much as New-Atheist bashers say he did.

      • Posted July 26, 2014 at 10:18 am | Permalink

        Yes, it’s very much like the legerdemain of theologians, or Sophisticated Theologians to turn “children of the Church” into “fathers of the Church”.

        Christian like to play those linguistic games, turning ideas over their heads into their opposites. Death becomes “life”, abstinence becomes “realization”, abstract interest becomes “love”, “children” become “fathers”, “no-choice” becomes “freedom”, etc.
        They all claim to have a “different way of knowing”, and this applies to language as well.
        This is why, I feel, that for objective historians to talk about or study Christianity and its beliefs, best is to stay away from the concepts Christians have manufactured for themselves to sanctify their own glorification and use more objective names.
        Even the term of “Christian” was originally labelled by outsiders. The followers of Christ liked to call themselves “brothers in Christ”.

        And yes, you’re absolutely right. Nietzsche’s distress at the degradation of Christian beliefs in the modern, scientific world, is only “supposed” by Christian apologists, it’s another myth concocted by Christian themselves, to defuse Nietzsche’s sharp criticism of Christianity.
        Nietzsche always considered Christianity, like others in the German intellectual elite of the 19th c., and especially Christian morality, a residue of old popular superstitions that the modern scientific age was in the process of sweeping away.

        That is exactly why all those vocal Christian apologists are now venting their rage on New Atheists. They are moved by a sense of panic that their cherished worldview is slowly, but surely, collapsing and disintegrating. The wave of New Atheism is nothing more than one of the most visible signs of this movement of mental tectonic plates.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted July 26, 2014 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

          Yes Nietzsche wasn’t freaked out by moving past the need for god; he merely wondered if we were ready for it as a civilization. Everyone always on Nietzsche’s case!

      • Robert Seidel
        Posted July 26, 2014 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

        I guess the “Nietzsche suffered from the loss of god” trope largely comes from this passage in The Gay Science, Aphorism 125, where you’ll also find the “god is dead” quote:

        “God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him! How shall we console ourselves, the most murderous of all murderers? The holiest and the mightiest that the world has hitherto possessed, has bled to death under our knife — who will wipe the blood from us?”

        Yet, even this passage is ambiguous within context, and if you read Thus Spoke Zarathustra, there’s no gloominess at all, but much on how to create your own meaning.

        At the end of the day, making assertions on Nietzsches thinking based on his works is quite fatuous. As a witty journalist said: “Tell me what you need, and I’ll get you the adequate Nietzsche quote.”

        • Posted July 26, 2014 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

          Yes, Nietzsche uses images to convey his meanings. As he is bored with the never-ending games of juggling abstract concepts as philosophers and theologians like to do. And yes, there is a meaning in his images, never mind witty journalists.

          And trying to get Nietzsche’s meanings, which are occasionally pretty clearly expressed, is certainly less fatuous (and much more fun) than making absurd, fantastical assertions based on the mythical elucubrations of an Augustine or a Thomas Aquinas, which don’t have any connection with the concrete facts of human existence.

          • Robert Seidel
            Posted July 26, 2014 at 11:50 pm | Permalink

            I didn’t phrase it well – of course there is meaning in Nietzsche. What I meant by fatuous was: You quoting Nietzsche to say “he thought that and that” doesn’t proof anything, because it’s so easy to take him out of context. And even if it truly reflects his stand, he might have hold contradictory positions during his lifetime, which you could all ascribe to him based on quotes from different works.

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted July 27, 2014 at 7:36 am | Permalink

              People notoriously quote mine Nietzsche, especially with the “god” quote but we are still able to understand what Nietzsche means in his text by reading quotes within their context.

        • gluonspring
          Posted July 26, 2014 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

          It clearly doesn’t matter what he said, really, unless you think the appeal to authority is a good argument.

          It might be interesting literature, it might be quotable or even beautiful (I find the passage above beautiful), but if he made an actual argument of some kind that is worth making then you should be able to make that argument yourself without quoting the man. If you can’t make the argument yourself, in your own words, then you’re just another intellectual pretender who confuses being impressed with someone’s writing and knowledgable of their quotes with actual knowledge.

  7. Posted July 26, 2014 at 9:17 am | Permalink

    All pomp and no circumstance.

  8. JP
    Posted July 26, 2014 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    You’re right on, as usual. Even if Hart or Robbins were to describe a God as something akin to “the Ground of Being” or even a “God beyond Being” they still have to make the leap from this to a very particular notion of a God, a God who speaks and has a relationship with people, (and in the Christian tradition) a God who comes in the form of a man with a particular revelation for others. As soon as they make this leap, they open themselves up to historical-critical critique (both scientific and philosophical). They simply can’t get from their undefined nebulous God to any concrete manifestation of the divine.

  9. johzek
    Posted July 26, 2014 at 9:27 am | Permalink

    Another reason that people like Robbins sneer at the New Atheists call for evidence is that at the present time we are very easy targets. Has Robbins ever directly addressed Christians with his characterization of some of their beliefs as superstitious nonsense? If a large segment of the population holds beliefs that amount to superstitious nonsense then I would think that he might find it worthwhile to disabuse them of these notions.

    • Posted July 26, 2014 at 9:39 am | Permalink

      Agreed, but of course that would alienate a large proportion of the people who provide him with a living. It’s better to go after the much smaller number of New Atheists.

      Just once I’d like to see Robbins write something addressed solely to Christians, telling them exactly which of their beliefs are “superstitious nonsense.” It would be lovely if he’d address the divinity of Jesus and the reality of his Resurrection, as well as the existence of an afterlife.

      • Shwell Thanksh
        Posted July 26, 2014 at 10:29 am | Permalink

        It would also be fun to see him explain to his fellow Christians that Islam is every bit as enlightening as Christianity!

        For once claims of literal revealed truth are set aside, what sense could it make to criticize another for preferring a slightly different allegory?

      • Mark Joseph
        Posted July 26, 2014 at 11:12 am | Permalink

        Agreed, but of course that would alienate a large proportion of the people who provide him with a living.

        “It is very difficult to get a man to understand something when his whole paycheck depends upon him not understanding it.” (source unknown)

        • still learning
          Posted July 26, 2014 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

          The quote is by Upton Sinclair.

    • reasonshark
      Posted July 26, 2014 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

      “Has Robbins ever directly addressed Christians with his characterization of some of their beliefs as superstitious nonsense?”

      Arguably, yes. In the Slate article I linked to below, he’s pretty much talking as though he expects his audience to be that brand of Christian that views Jesus as a “great moral preacher”, and who believes in “God is love” etc. In other words, the 49%: https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2014/07/12/do-believers-see-scripture-as-literally-true/

      I don’t know how many of the “total-Bible literalist” camp frequent Slate’s website, so I don’t think it right to accuse him of hypocrisy here.

    • gluonspring
      Posted July 26, 2014 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

      He does mention this. I went to get the quote but, oddly, his Slate articles on atheism have gone 404. In any case, he seems comfortable enough slamming fundamentalists and the biggest swath of Evangelical Protestants as being absurd and/or insane, but seems only to mention this in order to try to paint atheists as being similarly benighted. So, even though he slams them, I don’t think that really counts as addressing Christians, even though I’m sure many Christians would be offended by what he said there nonetheless.

  10. krzysztof1
    Posted July 26, 2014 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    Excellent essay! (How do you just bang stuff out like that and manage to be so coherent??)

    My favorite line:

    This is not, after all, an argument about philosophy, but an argument about an existence claim. The “best case for God,” therefore, comes down to this: “the case for God that has the strongest evidence behind it.” An “intellectual tradition,” as anyone with two neurons to rub together knows, is not the same thing as evidence. But theologians seem to lack that second neuron.

    “Show us [evidence for] your God.” That’s the best I can do!

    • Diane G.
      Posted July 26, 2014 at 10:34 pm | Permalink

      “Excellent essay! (How do you just bang stuff out like that and manage to be so coherent??)

      My favorite line:”

      My thoughts exactly, right down to the favorite lines. 🙂

  11. Posted July 26, 2014 at 9:39 am | Permalink

    Robbins:

    “And some of the more idiotic beliefs held by American Christians (such as young-earth creationism), are, of course, based on no readings of the Bible at all.”

    Even if that’s true, so what? The point is that those idiotic beliefs, which the people who hold them call their religion, do damage in the world. So we speak out against it.

    I’m beginning to get the impression people like Robbins don’t think Scotland even exists!

    • gluonspring
      Posted July 26, 2014 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

      If Robbins has different beliefs, it’s reasonable for him to want us to address his actual beliefs rather than those of people he considers idiotic. Of course, our problem is that we have no idea what Robbins believes. I think that is by design.

      • Posted July 26, 2014 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

        Sure, if he and I were arguing specifically about his beliefs and I went off on beliefs he doesn’t espouse, then it’s be reasonable to say “hey! Stay on point!”

        But my point was aimed at the problem he and other theists/faitheists have with gnus calling out literalism/other low-brow versions of religion (while ignoring, of course, that we in fact argue against all forms of religion).

        Those low-brow versions of religion don’t seem to count, according to him. “That’s not really religion!” Hence the No True Scotsman reference. Regardless, whatever it is, what’s the problem with us criticizing it?

        • reasonshark
          Posted July 27, 2014 at 1:22 am | Permalink

          “Those low-brow versions of religion don’t seem to count, according to him. “That’s not really religion!” Hence the No True Scotsman reference. Regardless, whatever it is, what’s the problem with us criticizing it?”

          Because Robbins is distancing himself from science and naturalism as much as possible, under the impression that it is “lowly” or “contemptible” to compare religion with it. So he is offended when we criticize religion based on scientific principles such as evidence, falsifiability, and parsimonious theorizing. That’s why he can’t simply say that atheists are incorrect; he also has to ridicule us as “know-nothings”. Religion, by his lights, is “superior” to our “scientism”.

          If I were more cynical, I’d say it’s because he knows he can’t win if he tries to play rationally, so he has to resort to a form of “intellectual sophistication” (i.e. obfuscation) to try to assert religion’s high ground over both creationists and atheists by default, thereby claiming they’re attacking straw. As it is, I think he genuinely believes his own anti-science, romanticist view of religion, what with all that Ground-of-Being, God-is-Love, Jesus-was-a-great-moral-preacher stuff he endorses.

          I think he’s of the Eric MacDonald school of thought that to criticize true religion by saying it’s not true or unevidenced is to destroy “other ways of knowing” and thus “dehumanize” people.

          • Posted July 27, 2014 at 6:39 am | Permalink

            “If I were more cynical, I’d say it’s because he knows he can’t win if he tries to play rationally, so he has to resort to a form of “intellectual sophistication” (i.e. obfuscation) to try to assert religion’s high ground over both creationists and atheists by default, thereby claiming they’re attacking straw.”

            I don’t think it takes much cynicism at all to acknowledge that this is what’s going on, even if it’s not completely and consciously deliberate on the theist’s part. I think that pretty much nails their mode of argument, along with appeals to emotion (“if we don’t have this Other Way of Knowing it dehumanizes us”; as you wrote), and the Argument from STFU (again, as you wrote).

        • reasonshark
          Posted July 27, 2014 at 1:26 am | Permalink

          To put it another way, Robbins is not really asking us to transfer from criticizing creationists to criticizing Ground-of-Being claims. He’s telling us we can’t criticize real religion at all, and mocking our attempts to do so. He’s basically telling us to shut up.

  12. Bhagwan
    Posted July 26, 2014 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    Superb takedown! Hope this knocks him down (doubt it)

  13. Shwell Thanksh
    Posted July 26, 2014 at 10:15 am | Permalink

    Oh my, that’s gonna leave a mark.

    I wonder if he’s having second thoughts about behaving so obnoxiously that he’s got folks taking turns duct taping the box, tying it with string, and painting “Kick Me” on the outside of it.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted July 26, 2014 at 11:24 am | Permalink

      But as soon as a theologian gets in the box and close the lid, he becomes a Ratzinger’s Cat. He is simultaneously a believer and a non-believer, a theist and an atheist, an apologetic and a skeptic, an allegory and a metaphor, a wine drinker and a blood drinker.

      Can such a being really be kicked without being non-kicked?

  14. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted July 26, 2014 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    But theologians seem to lack that second neuron.

    Indeed. When Robbins asks for skeptics to take their responsibility seriously, he should recognize that most do. That is why we ask for, and only ask for, evidence.

    What else should we do, considering that is all skeptics do on everything in existence? It isn’t as if we can treat religion with special pleading. (O.o)

    “Special pleading (also known as stacking the deck, ignoring the counterevidence, slanting, and one-sided assessment[1]) is a form of spurious argument where a position in a dispute introduces favourable details or excludes unfavourable details by alleging a need to apply additional considerations without proper criticism of these considerations. Essentially, this involves someone attempting to cite something as an exception to a generally accepted rule, principle, etc. without justifying the exception.[2]

    The lack of criticism may be a simple oversight (e.g., a reference to common sense) or an application of a double standard. … special pleading most likely falls within the category of psychological fallacy, as it would seem to relate to “lip service”, rationalization and diversion (abandonment of discussion). ”

    [ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Special_pleading ; my bold. ]

    Theology in a nutshell:

    1) Ask for an exception of not providing evidence, without justifying the merits. E.g. “uncaused cause”, “ground of being”, et cetera.

    2) Apply double standards vs empiricism. E.g. when it is obvious that one can grok the basics of general relativity without reading all of Einstein’s works, continue demand that critics of religious claims have an “acquaintance with the intellectual traditions of the major religions”.

    3) Abandon the discussion. E.g. the religious claim “we know there exist magic agencies, our myths say so and so it must be, there is no meaning to do experiments to discover how the world really is”.

    Robbins seem to be 3 for 3 in the game of “oh look, I can so be a Sophisticated Theologian™ (and go after skeptics just for criticizing religion)”.

  15. Roger
    Posted July 26, 2014 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    He thinks Dennett has a lack of acquaintance with the intellectual traditions of the major religions? That’s hilarious. I guess must be a reflex or something. Invoke chestnut “A” here when atheist says “B”.

    • Aelfric
      Posted July 26, 2014 at 11:47 am | Permalink

      Just so. I find that the evangelical (small “e”) sort can’t bear to believe that someone with the same set of information available to him or her could reach a different conclusion. Thus the “you haven’t read the right people/books/traditions” nonsense even when the exact opposite is true.

    • reasonshark
      Posted July 26, 2014 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

      “He thinks Dennett has a lack of acquaintance with the intellectual traditions of the major religions?”

      Mostly, he targets Dawkins and Hitchens as “know-nothing atheists”. Quite what he thinks of Dennett has yet to be seen, unless he’s already mentioned him somewhere else.

      • gluonspring
        Posted July 26, 2014 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

        Yeah, he calls out Dennett in his Dish response:

        “When Dennett asks if super-God created God, and if super-duper-God created super-God, he is simply revealing a lack of acquaintance with the intellectual traditions of the major religions. If you want to argue against something, you have to understand what you’re arguing against. That’s axiomatic.”

        I think he is confusing here a reductio ad absurdum of what the intellectual traditions of the major religions actually claim with a summary of what the major religions actually claim. I would love to see Robbins explain what those traditions claim contra Dennett’s uninformed views. But if there is one thing I have learned from watching Robbins it is that we’re never going to learn what he actually thinks, or hear an actual argument out of his own mouth. He seems only capable of pointing his finger at stacks of old books and saying, “The answer is in there”, but not really up to the task of making any of the supposedly great arguments in those books himself. He’s a pretender, in other words.

        • Roger
          Posted July 26, 2014 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

          Dennet was actually paraphrasing Hume there, and also the quote was probably an out of context quote mine.

        • Roger
          Posted July 26, 2014 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

          More context for the quote:

          Children chant, “It takes one to know one,” but an even more persuasive slogan would seem to be “It takes a greater one to make a lesser one.” Any view inspired by this slogan immediately faces an embarrassing question, however, as Hume had noted: If God created and designed all these wonderful things, who created God? Supergod? And who created Supergod? Superdupergod? Or did God create Himself? Was it hard work? Did it take time? Don’t ask! Well, then, we may ask instead whether this bland embrace of mystery is any improvement over just denying the principle that intelligence (or design) must spring from Intelligence. Darwin offered an explanatory path that actually honored Paley’s insight: real work went into designing this watch, and work isn’t free.

          It’s from Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. So it turns out that Robbins was (probably inadvertently) quote mining.

          Robbins: “If you want to argue against something, you have to understand what you’re arguing against. That’s axiomatic.”

          The irony!

        • reasonshark
          Posted July 26, 2014 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

          Ah, I stand corrected. I’m actually embarrassed I missed that bit.

          “He seems only capable of pointing his finger at stacks of old books and saying, “The answer is in there”, but not really up to the task of making any of the supposedly great arguments in those books himself. He’s a pretender, in other words.”

          Yes. I believe the term is No True Scotsman, and Robbins is presenting a good example. His notion that Jesus was a guy preaching some secular values like “give to the poor” is as good as admitting he either hasn’t read the New Testament in detail or is doing some serious cherry-picking.

          • reasonshark
            Posted July 26, 2014 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

            Not that Jesus in the gospels doesn’t rail against the rich and those who don’t give away their possessions, but given the rest of the New Testament strongly suggests the early Christian movement was basically a self-righteous, originating-in-Jewish-mythology, unbeliever-demonizing, spiritualistic apocalyptic cult that predicted the end of days within the lifetimes of the then-followers, it’s hardly making a stunning ethical treatise on materialism.

            • JP
              Posted July 26, 2014 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

              Besides, how difficult is it to give your belongings away when you think the world is going to end? Just ask the followers of Harold Camping. :/

        • Posted July 26, 2014 at 7:24 pm | Permalink

          I think confusing a reductio as absurdum with a summary happens quite a lot when arguing about theology. Good insight.

          “You’re missing all the complexity, the nuance!”

          “No, I’m stripping away some of the nuance to expose the rotten core.”

  16. reasonshark
    Posted July 26, 2014 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    “If he believes none of this, then I have no idea what he means by calling himself a Christian, or even religious. By all means let him tell us explicitly what he believes. (I’m not holding my breath.)”

    Jerry, judging by his article here (see next paragraph), he’s probably of the school of thought that Jesus was an interesting man who taught people to “give” “to him who asks” and to “sell what you have and give the money to the poor”:

    http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/books/2014/01/molly_worthen_s_apostles_of_reason_history_of_evangelical_christianity_reviewed.single.html

    But the Lutheran pastor of the church in which I was confirmed was remarkably open to my youthful attempts to reconcile the rationalism I had inherited from my father, a liberal atheist, with the attraction I felt to the teachings of Christ. I was, for instance, firmly opposed to the doctrine of hell, on the grounds that it was hardly fair for the creator to subject people who never asked to be created in the first place to eternal torture just because they failed to figure out the mysteries of being in their paltry time on earth (or, you know, for any other reason). Could a Hindu be blamed for practicing Hinduism, having been born into a Hindu culture? The pastor talked to me of allegory and metaphor, and was ready to agree that a God of love was unlikely to resemble the caricature presented by foaming preachers high on sulfuric fumes. He was more interested in grace, and in this strange fellow who pissed off the authorities in ancient Galilee and urged the rich to sell their possessions and give the money to the poor. He wasn’t afraid to say “I don’t know” and “I struggle with that, too.”

    In other words, Jesus is, to him, supposedly a great moral teacher. He is also apparently under the impression that Christianity does not entail “the beliefs that the earth was created 6,000 years ago and homosexuality is evil and there really was a Noah who built a gigantic boat”. Considering what’s in Paul’s letters, that second one strikes me as most uninformed.

    Also, he goes in for romanticism when criticizing atheists, which gives further clues as to his stance:

    “The “undergraduate atheists,” as the philosopher Mark Johnston dubbed them in Saving God, have been definitively refuted by Hart, Terry Eagleton, Marilynne Robinson, Johnston himself, and others. As intellectual bloodbaths go, it’s been entertaining—like watching Jon Stewart skewer Glenn Beck. But of course Richard Dawkins is merely a symptom. I have encountered atheists who seem not only to have never met an intelligent, educated believer, but to doubt that such a creature could exist.

    Such unbelievers seem to me to have missed something quite fundamental about the nature of being, as it appears to the human animal, something that the major theistic traditions attempt to address with rather more nuance and generosity than contemporary updates to logical positivism can muster. You don’t, obviously, have to believe in God to feel humbled and bewildered before what Heidegger called “the question of the meaning of Being.” (Indeed, I often think the notion of “belief” is more trouble than it’s worth.) But you do have to acknowledge that there is a question, “the major question that revolves around you,” as John Ashbery puts it: “your being here.” And you have to recognize that it concerns something outside the scope of the natural sciences.

    “One of the worst aspects of conservative evangelicalism is that too often, especially on its fundamentalist fringes, its literalism encourages know-nothing atheism of the Dawkins variety.”

    Judging from these passages, what you have here is someone who thinks Jesus was no more and no less than a pioneer in ethics, someone who thinks it tackles the Big Questions (“Why are you here? Why do things exist?”), and someone who is skeptical, if not outright contemptuous, of even attempts at natural explanations (note the “logical positivism” jab). And a God of love is involved in there, as presumably the allusions to David Bentley Hart (among others you’ve already met) shows.

    Perhaps that will clear things up.

    Or maybe this will:

    http://xkcd.com/774/

    • reasonshark
      Posted July 26, 2014 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

      Also, there’s this revealing gem:

      It’s a commonplace that something that deserves” the title of secularization “has taken place in our civilization,” Taylor writes. “The problem is defining exactly what it is that has happened.” (The vulgar popular version has it that science in some sense proved religion to be false; this is simply another way of saying that scientism is the faith proper to late capitalism.)

      The “vulgar” version, “scientism”, “scientism is the faith”, “proper to late capitalism”: You can detect the intellectual moralism involved by the tone of disgust at the prospect that science might actually have disproved religious views, the boo-word “scientism”, the attribution of secularization merely to economic factors, and the overall refusal to give it any more credit than religion gets.

      I think Uncle Eric might have company.

      • Posted July 26, 2014 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

        Yeah, that is obviously not the kind of writing born of a dispassionate attempt to describe reality.

  17. ichiban
    Posted July 26, 2014 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    This guy has some brass ones criticizing atheists for not knowing the best arguments against us out there when he goes on to argue that morality is incoherent without positing a god to ground it. Euthyphro’s dilemma destroyed that notion thousands of years ago.

  18. Rebecca
    Posted July 26, 2014 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

    If Robbins thinks that young Earth creationism is not based on the Bible, why not spend time talking to folks like Ken Ham, who often says that his young-Earth creationism is totally based on the Bible, rather than those atheists who say ‘that’s not what YECs say’. Surely they’d take a fellow theist more seriously than a bunch of godless atheists.

    I mean, if a YEC says ‘I believe this Bible verse is literal’ and an atheist says ‘s/he says s/he believes this Bible verse is literal’, one would be better served by going to the source, rather than an atheist repeating what they heard.

    • reasonshark
      Posted July 26, 2014 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

      “If Robbins thinks that young Earth creationism is not based on the Bible, why not spend time talking to folks like Ken Ham, who often says that his young-Earth creationism is totally based on the Bible, rather than those atheists who say ‘that’s not what YECs say’.”

      I think Robbins’ point is that he views biblical literalists in the same way that a Shakespeare enthusiast would view someone who claimed Ariel and Caliban existed. Or at least, that captures the mood rather than the concrete details of his position, since he also claims young earth creationists aren’t basing their views on the bible, which is frankly incredible unless he means that they are based on the bible, but that they’re not interpreting it right (i.e. as metaphor or myth), and so aren’t basing it off the “true and underlying” claims of the bible.

      What also makes it interesting is his God-is-Ground-of-Being view (how does that emerge from anything the Bible says without a huge load of supposition from the reader? I mean at all, much less consistently throughout? Even the New Testament?), and his thinking that Jesus was an ethics pioneer who asked people to give to the poor out of the goodness of their hearts.

      “I mean, if a YEC says ‘I believe this Bible verse is literal’ and an atheist says ‘s/he says s/he believes this Bible verse is literal’, one would be better served by going to the source, rather than an atheist repeating what they heard.”

      In the Slate article I linked to above, he does go after both, saying that the biblical literalism crowd enables the “know-nothing” atheist crowd. He’s basically saying “You’re both wrong: the Bible contains the real Jesus’ teachings about giving to the poor, and tackles the Big Questions better than science does.”

      • JP
        Posted July 26, 2014 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

        The biblical source for God as ground of being is the Exodus passage where Gid reveals himself as simply “I Am”.

        • reasonshark
          Posted July 26, 2014 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

          Ah, of course Exodus. That one in which the Ground of Being is symbolized by an almighty jerkass who teaches Moses such complicated ethical truths as “Don’t kill people, unless they worship golden calves”?

          (P.S. I’m assuming you’re joking ;))

          • JP
            Posted July 26, 2014 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

            No I’m not joking. The passage is as follows:

            Exo 3:13 Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”
            Exo 3:14 God said to Moses, “I Am Who I Am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I Am has sent me to you.'”

            • reasonshark
              Posted July 26, 2014 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

              Granted, capital “A” in “I am” could turn it from a tautology to some implied loftier claim of ultimate existence. It does strike me as a severe case of contextomy, though, and a bit vague. :S

            • NewEnglandBob
              Posted July 26, 2014 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

              Too bad “I Am” has such poor grammar.

            • Posted July 26, 2014 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

              Popeye?

              “I yam what I yam and tha’s all what I yam.”

              /@

              • Les
                Posted July 26, 2014 at 7:59 pm | Permalink

                Argument from spinach!

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted July 27, 2014 at 7:33 am | Permalink

                ….and yams.

      • Posted July 26, 2014 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

        This is precisely where Robbins utterly and completely misses the point though. The “know nothing” atheist crowd is saying that a literal interpretation is quite obviously false in response to a very large percentage of the population making truth claims about these literal interpretations. The same case can be made for the sophisticated arguments. We want evidence for why what they claim is true, and in many cases, as Jerry points out in this piece, we want to know what it is they are asserting. Often, it is unclear or it includes some literal beliefs cloaked in allegory. These underlying claims still need to be evaluated. It can’t be metaphor all the way down.

        • reasonshark
          Posted July 26, 2014 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

          Ah, I think I see where you’re coming from. Are you referring to the “Some believers are literalists about nearly everything, but nearly every believer is a literalist about some things” principle?

          • Posted July 26, 2014 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

            Yes, that is part of it. Though, in this context, I have no need for the part about every believer being a literalist about something. The undeniable fact still stands that many people literally interpret the Bible to varying degrees and the worst of these actively undermine the pursuit of knowledge while trying to insert their religion everywhere.

            Then, there are the one billion or so Catholics who are bound to believe in the literal Resurrection, transubstantiation, the Virgin birth, etc. So the biggest sect of Christianity has an authoritative body declaring at least some literal dogma to be true. The fact that a large number of these Catholics reject some of the doctrines and dogmas only underscores the point New Atheism makes about the need for evidence. The Church also backs the ground of being notion, but the harm comes when incoherent claims about revelation are put forth. On this point, the arguments don’t even get off the ground (pun intended).

  19. Posted July 26, 2014 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps it is the believers who should be more dolorous. With a choice between spending eternity groveling at the feet of a father figure who threatened to torture you or eternity being tortured by said father figure, things are pretty bleak. (Read the above as metaphorical, allegorical or literal and apply the same as a meta analysis of this sentence.)

  20. gluonspring
    Posted July 26, 2014 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    I think I have Meta-Maru’s Syndrome: “When I see a person entering a box they can not help but enter,I cannot help but follow.”

    • NewEnglandBob
      Posted July 26, 2014 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

      That is Mirror-Neuron Maru’s syndrome.

      • gluonspring
        Posted July 26, 2014 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

        +1

  21. still learning
    Posted July 26, 2014 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

    Maru’s Syndrome – instead of intoxification, it’s inboxification.

  22. gluonspring
    Posted July 26, 2014 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

    Curiously, both of Robbins’ Slate articles have gone 404 in the last hour or so (3:00 P.M., July 26). I can find all sorts of other things on Slate, including a Robbins’ about music, but not these two. I offer no theories, just thought it was surprising.

  23. JP
    Posted July 26, 2014 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

    I don’t know why guys like Robbins or Hart are considered “Sophisticated Theologians”. To be honest I’ve never even heard of Robbins (and I have a Phd in Theology), and Hart is far from sophisticated. All the criticism I’ve heard leveled against them by atheists has actually been legitimate from what I can tell(aside from the ad hominem attacks). If they get any time from people in the Church it’s simply a sad commentary on the state of public Christian thinking.

    • gluonspring
      Posted July 26, 2014 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

      Robbins is just a poet who is impressed with Hart.

      In any case, is there someone you would recommend as deserving of time from people in the Church, that you would consider to have a positive contribution to make to public Christian thinking?

      • JP
        Posted July 26, 2014 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

        A positive contribution yes, and more sophisticated than Hart (and what I can tell, Robbin). I would list people like Karl Barth, John Milbank, Jean Luc Marion, Hans Kung, Jurgen Moltmann, for example. There are many more, and some of the ones I’ve listed here are more sophisticated than others. For example Marion is more sophisticated than Moltmann.. though I suppose we have yet to even define “sophisticated”.

        • gluonspring
          Posted July 26, 2014 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

          Well, I guess I should highlight that on this site “Sophisticated Theologian” is a term of mocking, because most people here regard theologians as pure sophists. Time and again we are told that atheists attack only the most banal forms of Christianity and engage in only facile arguments against straw men. We are often told that true theism lay somewhere else than with the believers in Noah’s flood and six day creation, and are pointed to this or that theologian where we supposedly find the nuanced view of theism that we need to address if we really want to honestly criticize the best arguments for theism rather than the banalities of fundamentalism. Our various forays into the theological literature have revealed much smoke and very little light, however. So much so that this whole trope, that there is a sophisticated version of Christianity that is more defensible than the supposed straw men we criticize, has come to be called Sophisticated Theology, and anyone who practices it, professional or not, a Sophisticated Theologian.

          In any case, here I’d settle for “correct”, or at least “not absurdly wrong”, for “sophisticated”.

          • JP
            Posted July 26, 2014 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

            I see! Well from my perspective it would be better to speak of “theologies” rather than a singular theology, and each of these various theologies I consider more or less sophisticated based on the scope of human learning, experience, and tradition they draw on. There is properly speaking no “true theism”. I would suggest that anyone telling you there is, doesn’t qualify as sophisticated.

            • Posted July 26, 2014 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

              So based on your assertion that there’s no true theism, it follows there’s no true theology either. True theology, in the sense that there’s a “better” one in an objective or comparative sense, not in the sense that theology doesn’t exist. Therefore, it’d help if you described what you studied to obtain a PhD in theology. What theologies did you study? Specific Christian ones? World religions? Both?

              I guess it would also help if you defined what a significant addition to public Christian thinking is. In terms of influence, Ken Ham and Ray Comfort have been significant. If we define sophistication in terms of coherence within the context of observation and empirical findings, then influence may not matter but people such as Hart do a subtle context switch in claiming that more coherent claims are equal to broadly accepted claims. That said, I’ve yet to see a theologian make a fully coherent claim that isn’t purely deistic. Jumping to one of the big monotheistic frameworks always introduces an unsubstantiated leap. And, the deistic claims, while coherent, are merely compatible, but far from evidence backed.

              • JP
                Posted July 26, 2014 at 6:32 pm | Permalink

                I wouldn’t have arrived at the conclusion there was no “better” theology from what I said. On the contrary I think theologies can be more sophisticated for the reasons I outlined above. By more sophisticated I suppose one can mean “better”, but not every theologian would agree that sophisticated (as I’ve only briefly defined it) is better. For example some theologians would emphasize faith rather than knowledge (ie historical science), others are more concerned with social action than developing a convincing epistemology (convincing to their detractors!). A “better” theology, in my opinion, would be of broad enough scope to at least address these concerns. I suppose one could say a (more) sophisticated theology would be (relatively) universal in scope.

              • Posted July 26, 2014 at 9:45 pm | Permalink

                I wouldn’t have arrived at the conclusion there was no “better” theology from what I said.

                Here’s my reasoning: if there is no true theism and we’re operating with the commonly understood definition of theology; i.e., <a href="http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/theology?q=theology&quot;“The study of the nature of God and religious belief”, then there can be no true theology if “nature of God” is incoherent. I didn’t say there can’t be a better theology, there just can’t be an objectively better one with respect to the incoherent definition of the word (since the existence of God hasn’t been established and in many cases neither has the definition of God). We can certainly say some theologies are better with respect to other criteria, such as human happiness or ethics, but nothing there can’t be encompassed by secular philosophies and science. As lsnrchrd1 points out, theology, by definition requires some kind of fantastic God-based claim. I don’t think a case can be made that the parts of theology dealing with the divine, the supternatural, proposed afterlifes, and so on can be said to be any better than neutral and are, in many cases, detrimental to society.

                For example some theologians would emphasize faith rather than knowledge…

                Indeed many do, or at least many members of the clergy do and those are the people that lay religious people most commonly interact with. This type of theology can be said to be objectively worse than other theologies which may have some bearing on the real world. I would argue that not only is this type of theology worse, it is harmful. There is the cliché that often circles religious communities, “If God can see you to it, he can see you through it.” If, for example, your child is very ill, there isn’t a more useless endeavor than trusting that God will fix it.

            • Posted July 26, 2014 at 7:32 pm | Permalink

              Theologies have history, they have tradition, and there is a vast amount of human experience directly attributable to all this history and tradition. There is a crucial component absent, however: an actual “theo” (or “Theo”?).

              The various theologies contain some useful truths, until they stray into the fantastic. Which is the theo region. It seems to me that any theism, until it proves its fantastic claims, is equally as true as any/all other theisms past, present, or future. And that this is about as low a bar for truth as can be fixed.

              Regardless of the amount of rational humanism any theism contains (blind pigs/acorns*), each departs the realm of reality the instant insistence on their unique supernatural agency is introduced, with the exception of those rare occasions when serendipitous good fortune* aligns their doctrinal mode of apprehension with actual real things.

  24. JimV
    Posted July 27, 2014 at 7:24 am | Permalink

    “The Dish” doesn’t have comments, but has a button to email it. I used it to respond to Robbin’s response there:
    —–email text———
    Dear Dish,

    I don’t recall replying to the original post (as I usually do to such posts), perhaps because it seemed like a bunch of cliché arguments which had been rebutted many times before. E.g., morality has no ground, no fundamental principle without religion? Then it has no ground, and never did. People making up a ground does not create one (see the Golden Calf in the Bible). However, I will reply to his rebuttal (which by the way skipped some of the arguments you linked to – I wonder why).

    “But the New Atheists did not write books that simply attacked creationism. They wrote books that purport to challenge theistic belief as such. They therefore have a responsibility to address the best cases for God, not the dullest. When Dennett asks if super-God created God, and if super-duper-God created super-God, he is simply revealing a lack of acquaintance with the intellectual traditions of the major religions.”

    Point out the best arguments and I’ll point out where they have been dealt with to my satisfaction. Meanwhile, who is this Robbins that we should be mindful of him when he assigns us responsibilities? Suppose our priorities are to eliminate the more widespread and pernicious theistic fallacies first, why can’t we go about it in our own way? If as he says he contests those fallacies himself, wouldn’t the gracious thing to do be to start off his review with the statement, “I agree with and endorse everything Dawkins et al say in the arguments they make except for these few particulars, and for the fact that there are other arguments which they did not address to my entire satisfaction.”

    By the way, the phrase attributed to Dennett above is from “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meaning of Life” and is Dennett quoting Hume in response to an old theistic argument that only intelligence can create intelligence. I found that out in a few minutes by Googling Daniel Dennett plus the phrase. Mr. Robbins really should read and understand arguments before he responds to them – don’t you think?
    ——-end of email——–

    Other commenters have previously pointed out the Dennett quote-mine above. My only additional point is that Google Books located the quote easily and quickly – so either Robbins is an incredibly poor scholar or an outright liar.

    (So far The Dish has not posted my dissent – which is as usual, perhaps my writing style is not good enough, but I would think the correction to Robbin’s misrepresentation of Dennett would be sound journalism.)

  25. Posted July 28, 2014 at 6:17 am | Permalink

    Holy Hoppin’ Hank, I am so sick of theists pulling the Argument from the Theologian You Haven’t Read crap.

    Haven’t engaged the “best arguments for God?” Give me a effing break.

    And I love how he simply blows off the obvious and never answered refutation of the Cosmological argument: What caused God?

    The Cosmological Argument is special pleading, full stop. By what ground do you get to exempt your God thing from the chain of causation?

    I define it so
    I define God as having always existed
    It just has to be!

    Why would anyone buy those excuses?

    Premise: Everything has a cause
    Premise: Except God (or, God always existed)
    Premise: The universe exists
    Conclusion: God has to exist to create the universe.

    The argument I often hear touted as the “best” is Craig’s “Kalam” argument.

    It’s ridiculous

    One of his premises is: God has always existed

    Conclusion: God exists
    Premise: God has always existed

    See what he did there? My, so sophisticated. Why should anyone waste their time “engaging” with this crap?

    • Posted July 28, 2014 at 6:32 am | Permalink

      So, here’s the thing. If there /is/ a “best argument for God”, why is it that theists need to point out that I haven’t read it yet? Why isn’t this “best argument” first and foremost in each and every book on theology, so that I couldn’t have avoided reading it?

      /@

      • Posted July 28, 2014 at 9:49 am | Permalink

        Or, why do they spend time on what people are claiming to be *bad arguments*?

    • darrelle
      Posted July 28, 2014 at 7:24 am | Permalink

      I was dumbfounded the first time I heard WLC expound on the Kalam. That is some fast talking there. Would turn any carny green with envy.

      At the time I’d never heard the Kalam, and knew little of WLC except that he was considered the absolute top shelf in the theist arsenal. The thing that really grates on me, though, is that there are educated people who seem reasonable and yet still give some respect to this pathetic argument. Apparently it is, in a philosophically technical sense, accurate, and therefore it should be given respect. Bullshit. Precisely the point of view that has led to a lack of respect for philosophy.

      • Posted July 28, 2014 at 9:51 am | Permalink

        He’s proven how dishonest he is with it, because he keeps presenting it, unchanged, and with no acknowledgement that he’s been told it doesn’t work. He *might* be able to get away with claiming, somehow, that he doesn’t buy the refutations, but he from what I can tell doesn’t hardly acknowlege their existence.

  26. Scott_In_OH
    Posted July 28, 2014 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

    It’s hard for me to tell in Claim #1 whether Robbins is saying that Christians DON’T really believe “the dead in Christ” help them find their car keys, but that’s what it sounds like.

    If I’ve understood him correctly, then it will be news to the millions of Catholics to pray to St. Anthony of Padua–patron saint of lost items–to help them find missing necklaces, papers, and, yes, car keys.

    For how to do it it right, see

    http://
    catholicism.about.com/
    od/prayers/qt/Novena_Ant_Lost.htm


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