Sunday, October 03, 2010

Defending religious viewpoints

One has to read quite a ways through Peter Wall's wall of text to get to an actual point, but there really is one. (Trust me.) I was so thrilled to have found one that I stopped reading with a sigh of relief.

Basically, John Shook asserts that "Many kinds of theology have emerged, replacing a handful of traditional arguments for God with robust methods of defending religious viewpoints." Larry Moran responds, "Too bad he doesn’t mention even one of those supposedly robust new arguments for the existence of supernatural beings." Wall notes that Moran demands something different — "new arguments for the existence of supernatural beings" — from what Shook offers — "robust methods of defending religious viewpoints." To a certain extent, it's a fair cop: Larry Moran should have been a little more clear about why and how he went from "religious viewpoints" to "supernatural beings".

But the connection is not all that hard to make; I suspect Wall is guilty of some degree of obtusity (and certainly turgid prolixity in the first degree).

There are only four ways to interpret Shook's demand.

A "religious viewpoint" is a viewpoint that relies in some substantive sense on the existence of a supernatural being. At least this is the definition you have to use if you're going to talk specifically about atheists' stance towards religious viewpoints. If, for example, you want to label Einstein's viewpoint as "religious" — if you want to label the underlying order and simplicity of physical law as "the mind of God," — you're using "God" and "religious" as literary metaphors, a use that the vast majority of atheists have no (social) objection to. If Shook were as diligent about understanding atheism as he demands atheists be about understanding theology, he would see that we object to "religious viewpoints" only insofar as they rely on a supernatural being. Take the supernaturalism out of "religion", and you will find atheists* entirely uninterested in what's left.

*They would uninterested as atheists; they might be interested as scientists or literary critics.

So Shook might mean that the vast majority of theology really has taken the supernaturalism out of religion; theology is, by and large, indistinguishable from literary metaphor and/or naturalistic ethics. That might well be true, but if Shook really believes it, it seems perverse to censure atheists for ignoring theology exactly as billions of religious people would have to be ignoring it.

Shook might also be saying that one can legitimately "robustly defend" a religious viewpoint by saying that it doesn't matter whether if the supernatural being the viewpoint rests on does not actually exist: it's OK to have a viewpoint that rests on a false position, or it's OK not to care about truth at all. Shook expresses himself with all the precision and candor of, well, a theologian, so it's hard to get what he really does mean. But unless he were to take one of these positions explicitly, I think we must exclude both on the basis of simple charity.

Which leaves only one option: "Robust methods of defending religious viewpoints" really must rely on "new arguments for the existence of supernatural beings." Hence Larry Moran's demand.

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