Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Change Religion Before It Kills Us

By Frank Schaeffer


The media-labeled “New Atheists” such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have put forward what they regard as the answer to religion: grow up human race and abandon your myths!

Most Americans and maybe even most people around the world, have another answer to the extremes of religion that infect people like Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab who (allegedly) tried to blow up an airplane over Detroit: hunt down and kill the extremists.

I think just about everyone has missed the real point: religion won’t go away because – like it or not—people are spiritual beings.

Telling religious people to be moderate is not going to solve anything once they are convinced everyone not like them is the enemy of “truth.” Killing more people just makes martyrs. That being the case the way to confront religious poison is to change religion, not try to win by eliminating it. And that change means we have to try and get to the next generation before the fundamentalists do.

The only real solution to religious extremism is to change the conversation about religion altogether.

We urgently need to make that conversation center on embracing paradox rather than seeking – then trying to impose by force and or “reason” – our pet certainties on others.

How do we change the conversation about religion, roll back the violence done in the name of God (be that by gay-hating American “Christian” fundamentalists or world-fearing “Islamic” radicals -- and while we’re at it end the culture war here at home that divides us on everything from the existence of God to abortion and gay rights?

How do we live together in a world where some people fervently believe that the earth is 6000 years old, that gay men and women choose to be gay and can “change” if they want to, that Jesus will soon return (and thus that war in the Middle East is a good thing because it is a “sign” of the much-hoped-for “End Times”) while other people just as fervently believe that people who hold such views are dumb, evil and dangerous?

Do the New Atheist really believe that “Reason” (whatever that is) will win the day after people are indoctrinated? Good luck with that! Do they see signs of that happening? Or do the evangelicals like Pastor Rick Warren really believe that they will convince the world to sign on for a dose of Jesus-induced American middle class-style “values” by following Warren’s trademark narrow minded “purpose driven” model of fundamentalist Christianity?

Does raising the volume help as we shout at each other, mock one another and ramp up our own self-fulfilling “prophecies” of doom? Or is there an alternative?

Put it this way; what might have helped the misguided and inept young man – Abdulmutallab -- who allegedly tried to blow up that plane? Say he’d run into you or me in London when he was living there and studying how could we have talked him into another frame of mind other than that of absolutism and aggrieved confrontation with the “other”?

Would he have changed his views if Rick Warren had handed him a copy of The Purpose Driven Life? And had he converted to Warren’s brand of Christianity would Abdulmutallab have also signed on – as did many of Warren’s followers in Africa -- to Warren’s homophobic campaign that (in Uganda) allegedly contributed to proposed legislation to impose the death penalty on gays? (Something that very belatedly Warren spoke out against when pressed by the media). What would have been the use of converting Abdulmutallab to the American moral equivalent of the Taliban’s brand of “Islam” -- a version of Christianity that excludes gays, Jews, atheists, and anyone else regarded as the “lost”?

Would Bill Maher have been able to mock the would-be bomber into a change of heart by making fun of his belief in “imaginary friends?”

Or could Christopher Hitchens have convinced Abdulmutallab to abandon religious belief based on a one-sided list of all of the evils in history ascribed to religion?

What if our radicalized and hate-filled American gun-loving, Obama-hating evangelicals with their gay bashing rhetoric could also have once been reached? If so how?

Evangelical/fundamentalists, Islamic fundamentalists and for that matter atheist fundamentalists who stick with their program are forced to try to reconcile the irreconcilable. That tends to piss them off! That tends to make them look for simple solutions from one line Maher-style punch lines to suicide bombs that will once and for all “answer” people with another point of view and shut them up!

Evangelical/fundamentalists and fundamentalist atheists have bought into an idea that my evangelical missionary mother used to phrase as a dire warning: “If you pick and choose between verses in the Bible, the whole thing will unravel! If it’s not all true, none of it is!”

Because picking and choosing is what thinking is, thinking becomes a threat to people who are certain they are right. Who knows where asking questions might lead?

What Islamic, Christian and/or atheist fundamentalists won’t admit is that all fundamentalists do pick and choose, by necessity, when interpreting their beliefs.


Seen any adulterers stoned to death in a church lately? Somewhat less dramatically, but just as tellingly, if you are an evangelical/ fundamentalist churchgoer, have you recently heard that Bible verse in Genesis about how “the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives” preached on? And if you are a Hitchens/Dawkins/Maher follower have you read any good essays by them on the weirdly symbiotic relationship between some bloodthirsty secular regimes (China anyone?) and atheist beliefs?

As I point out in my book Patience With God-- Faith for People Who Don't Like Religion (or Atheism) Christian fundamentalists having elevated the Bible (or at least the nicer bits that they like) to the status of a magic book in which God is trapped and kept somewhat like a tame pet, can’t admit that the Bible has flaws and is just plain crazy in places. And try criticizing Dawkins on his website and see how the word “infidel” can be resurrected in spirit if not literally by “open-minded” atheists!

Is there another way to look at “truth” issues that might not lead to hate? Yes. It’s called apophatic theology and can be applied to both secular and religious ideas.

Evagrius Ponticus (a fourth century monk) summed up this view, saying “Do not define the Deity: for it is only of things which are made or are composite that there can be definitions.” In fact, a whole anti-theology came to be called apophatic theology, or the theology of not knowing, or negative theology. It speaks only about what may not be said about God. And this way of perceiving God is found not just in Christianity but in other religions too.

This theology takes a mystical approach related to individual ex­periences of the Divine beyond ordinary perception. It teaches that the Divine is ineffable, something that can be recognized only when it is felt, then remembered. And therefore all descriptions of this sense will be false, because by definition the experience of God eludes description.

Apophatic descriptions of God acknowledge (1) that neither the existence of God nor nonexistence, as we understand these words in the material world, applies to God, (2) that God is divinely simple and that one should never claim God is “one” or “three” or any “type” of being, (3) that we can’t say that God is “wise,” because that implies knowledge of what wisdom is on a divine scale, and (4) that to say that God is “good” also limits God to what that word means in the context of human behavior.

If we want to change the religion debate the same could and should be applied to all philosophy and even to science. There is a difference between opinion and changing/evolving information and absolute and changeless fact. If we’d divide the practical everyday “facts” from making huge and out-sized cosmological “conclusions” we’d all be better off.

We’d also be closer to the truth that we can’t know anything conclusively because we are evolving and not “there” yet (wherever there is!) and also we are part of the paradox we’re seeking to unravel. In other words rather than strapping bombs on ourselves to eliminate the other, we might instead “strap” on a bit of humility be that atheist humility in the face of tenacious spirituality or religious humility in the face of the very apparent contradiction of some of religion’s fondest beliefs by science.

Recognizing that paradox is the way things are is about more than theological conflicts.

Science (grudgingly) embraces paradox too. Take, for example, what seems to be the contradiction between Ein­stein’s proven Theory of General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics. The first theory holds that if you know the initial conditions of a physical system with absolute certainty, then you can know the future outcome of the system you are modeling. Theoretically, then, everything in the universe is as predictable as the speed of light—if you have enough information.

The second theory (Quantum Mechanics) says that you can never know the initial conditions exactly and also that you can’t know what will happen in the future of any physical system. You can only know, to a greater or lesser extent, the probability of something happening because, for instance, some particles can be in two places at once. Quantum Mechanics might be described as the apophatic science of uncertainty.

The point is to agree on a better vision of where we want to evolve to, not just physically but also ethically.

That is a project that believers and agnostics and atheists can and should agree on. We don’t have to “fit” our ideas about how we perceive things together in order to work together. We can be the same “particle” but exist in two places at once.

If the Umar Farouk Abdulmutallabs of this world (of whatever religion or no religion at all) could be reached with an “evangelism” of paradox and blessed uncertainty before the people so certain that they are right get to them, we could change our world dramatically for the better.

Uncertainty is not to be “solved” it is to be embraced. That has to be our message as we press into the next decade of this so-far violent and disastrous century.

Frank Schaeffer is a writer and author of PATIENCE WITH GOD: Faith for People Who Don't Like Religion (or Atheism)

12 comments:

Izgad said...

I have been getting upset at you recently for your political rhetoric, (http://izgad.blogspot.com/2009/12/sarah-palin-is-evita-peron-lipstick.html) but this piece was just beautiful. Keep up with posts like this one.

Jr. said...

Greetings Frank: As I started to read this I thought, uh oh, Frank's turned into a liberal (but I know better). Apophatic theology is all about God being greater than all of us, but being this is Christmas, I'd say the Incarnation is a better approach. As Saint John of the Cross (Carmelite) says, "In the end, we will all be judged by our love." Fr. Bill

Michael said...

Frank,
An interesting concept to consider--apophatic theology. I think you're onto something with the humility. Cock-sure theology and atheism, and even science (a lot of 'opinion' gets billed as science, e.g. Dawkins' cosmological conclusions), is ugly and divisive. Separate the real facts from the hype and have some humility about it. Then maybe society could outgrow the "us vs. them" mentality and embrace each other as beings on the same journey. Good post.

mom23 said...

Your argument for apophatic theology would ring more true if you didn't, yourself, define god with christian ideas. If we can't really know anything about god, then stop trying to describe her/him/it and what she/he/it is doing or making you feel.

Some of use are interested in truth. It's pretty obvious that the god of the bible/ Jesus are not god if one takes the time to investigate the evidence. But that doesn't seem to bother you at all. Why is that?

Robert said...

Ah tolerance. Isn't that what allowed your father, Francis Schaeffer, to get any traction 30 years ago. When I was in seminary I don't know of any self respecting theologian or philosopher that took your father seriously, but they tolerated him. That allowed you and your father to go around and pretend that you were giving intellectual credence to the craziness that has grown into the religious right of today. I say no. 30 years ago we needed people with the courage of Dawkins, Hichens, etc. to speak out. What if the cowards who mocked your father behind closed doors 30 years ago had stood up in public and called his teaching for what it is. If I could go back 30 years I would not have remained silent. I would not have tolerated your father's pseudo intellectualism. At least today I would live with my conscience. Don't buy this load of rehashed garbage that the Schaeffer's are still throwing at us. Thank goodness for people of courage. "Spirituality" as was shoved down your throat will not continue forever. Only as people have the courage to step out of their silence will voices like yours be silenced.

gmftech said...

Frank have you read the book, 'A New Earth' by Eckhart Tolle?

Robert said...

The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao.
Well said Mr. Schaeffer. We can all us a healthy dose of Humility. The only thing I can truly know about God is that I am not Him, Her.....

bobwhitmore_ said...

Frank, I enjoyed this post and it made me think about your father's constant echo about " absolutes". In that you still embrace christianity, I was wondering how you reconcile the two? (absolute/apophatic theology)

Dave C said...

You said 'Gun Toting' like it was a bad thing.

The Elephant's Child said...

The problem, I think, is that people vary in their tolerance for uncertainty. There could be various reasons for this variance, from genetic predisposition to personal experience. But I'm not sure there will not always be a core group of individuals who cannot bear the terror of the unknown.

godwillbegod said...

"Killing more people just makes more martyrs."

Awesome. Just awesome. Anyone that has ever even used the term 'Christian' or has any sense of history should get this.

I'm a little late to this conversation (picked up an old link through eugencho.wordpress.com) but just want to add something my father, a retired and still-doubting minister, has said to me. He's read Hitchens, Dawkins and a few others and keeps insisting that they aren't exactly arguing anything new -- he had to face all these ideas 40 years ago in theological college.

It's been the church's failing in not bringing the population up with proper leadership and education. But very few people want to live in uncertainty, so it's easier to give the congregations what they (think they) want. As Elephant's Child said, "people vary in their tolerance for uncertainty."

For some, being right is more important than being comforted, or even being in love or living well.

Have you heard of Gretta Vosper's book, "With or Without God"? She tries to show that how we live is more important than what we believe.

Robert's statement from above should ring true for a lot of people, especially since everything in the world has changed in the last 80 years:
' "Spirituality" as was shoved down your throat will not continue forever.'

Luke Gillespie said...

I'm also a little late to this conversation, having commented on some of Frank's other posts, but I'd like to respond to mom23's comment above:

Maybe one reason why it doesn't bother Frank is that it is NOT obvious that "the god of the bible/Jesus are not god if one takes time to investigate the evidence." I echo your and Frank's critique of christian fundamenatlism. You also mentioned Bart Ehrman in another post. I've read Ehrman and appreciate much of what he says, especially his critique of the Da Vinci code material, but, after decades of studying dozens of theologians, biblical scholars and critics, theistic and atheistic philosophers, east and west, I am not persuaded to abandon my faith in God. Pascal still resonates and rings "true" to me, as does the biblical message of love as exemplified in the gospel of Christ. My brother, T. H., and I have already implied in Frank's “Talking Heads” blog that many believers of the Judeo-Christian faith tradition do not accept everything blindly, but have carefully weighed the "evidences" for and against whatever, and they continue to have faith in God at the core of their “Pilgrim's Progress”. May I encourage you to read some of the more theistic philosophers and "moderate" and "liberal" theologians? Not to change or “convert” you, but to ask that your critique be a little less “wishful thinking” (to use your phrase from another post) on your part, though I appreciate your intellectual efforts and perhaps one day you might consider applying them as a strong apologist for faith.

You say you are concerned with truth. Truth, by definition, requires faith as a prerequisite. My sense is that you are instead referring to facts. Fact and truth are not the same thing. Facts require no faith. Facts only can be accepted or rejected. Truth requires faith because truth is beyond just facts. To paraphrase Jesus, "No one can live by facts alone." "Belief," as a concept at all, is not the main requirement to accept or reject facts, unless one realizes that one must "believe" in meaning of some kind to interpret facts--otherwise, we can't have a discussion about anything. There is a strong philosophical reason why Kierkegaard said “Truth is subjectivity.” Truth requires faith that is subjective and relational to more than just a fact.

Yes, faith may be an apophatic paradox, but it is a prerequisite for truth, or at least our own finite and inadequate awareness of truth (and I would add that faith is a prerequisite for love, too), and explains to me the wonder and awe of God, the biblical message of Christ, love, forgiveness, the world, the human condition, and why we are here on this earth in ways that science alone cannot begin to fathom or address.