Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Bishop Spong Q&A

Stephen Argent of Sussex, United Kingdom, writes:

Thank you for the stimulation of your published works and weekly newsletter. My question concerns the pastoral care of those Christians who do not have the intellectual capacity or strength of character to tolerate the ambiguity of your message. Rightly or wrongly their "simple" faith sustains them and many would be fatally undermined should they be confronted by doubts concerning such issues as the virgin birth and the bodily resurrection. Is it right to leave their views unchallenged, or should gentle sensitivity necessitate a less direct approach? I am aware that I will appear patronizing in posing this question, but from your own pastoral experience how have you dealt with this matter?

Dear Stephen,

Your question is a frequent one, but in my opinion it reveals things under the surface that I believe need to be faced.

First, is your concern really for those whose "simple" faith is being disturbed by developing knowledge? Frequently I find this question asked by one who is himself disturbed, but projects it on to others.

Second, are you really suggesting that truth should be compromised for the sake of those who might not be able to understand? Does that not make religion a bit of an opiate for the people?

Third, if truth is to be compromised in the realm of the church for the sake of those who might not understand or for those you call simple believers, has not the church become totalitarian? Is that not an example of control by giving people security when they cannot deal with truth? Is such a formula followed in any other discipline of human knowledge? Is religion somehow virtuous when it does what would be deplored in any other human arena?

Fourth, the pursuit of truth in religion is never imposed on people by force. That is not the nature of liberal education. The only people who seem to me to impose specific religious answers on anyone are those evangelical Protestants or conservative Catholics who believe that they possess the unchanging truth of God.

Fifth, the task of the Christian is to love "the least of these" our brothers and sisters. Seeking to protect them from uncomfortable truth is not just patronizing as your letter suggests, it is both demeaning and dehumanizing.

Finally, one of my professors once said, "Any God who can be killed ought to be killed." To which I would add, any faith that can be undermined should be undermined. A God or a faith that needs you or me to prop it up has already died long ago. You do not need to defend a living God. Only dead gods seem to require that.

– John Shelby Spong


Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Legitimate reporting or Religious bias?

This letter was written to the Arizona Daily Sun, Flagstaff, January 17, 1990, in response to a story that run on New Year’s Eve about a tragic multi-vehicle accident in the fog. Many lives were Lost. It was written by Mr. Dan Barker, former Baptist minister and evangelist.
I read with dismay your front page December 31 stories about the tragic pile-up on I-40. Who would not be saddened by such a horror?

I was surprised, however, by what appears to be an unnecessary intrusion of religious bias into the related story, “Family thankful to survive horror.” It is not inappropriate for a reporter to quote the religious beliefs of interviewees, or to mention religion if it is relevant to the story, as long as it is objective and balanced. Sweitzer’s piece, however, seems to cross the line from reporting to Christian cheerleading.

The Singletons prayed before leaving on their trip, and it is their belief that this prayer kept them alive. They are entitled to this belief, but Sweitzer says they “know who saved them.” He gives the complete irrelevant report that “Singleton’s wife talked earnestly to one trucker and he became a born again Christian on the spot.” Assuming that this is a good thing, Assuming that your readers would know what is a born again Christian, and doing nothing to move the story. If the trucker had converted to Islam during the tragety, would that have been deemed relevant?

The praise and thanksgiving should go to the school districts that helped with buses, to the Flagstaff police and fire departments who saved lives, to the expert medical care of the Flagstaff Medical Center, and to the humanitarian efforts of the Red Cross. These are human, secular groups that put compassion into action. It is understandable that individuals will turn to their faith for comfort in times of distress, but using an occasion to thank and recognize a deity is ludicrous.

Why would a deity allow such an accident? Were those who were killed and injured undeserving of protection? Did the victims not pray hard enough that day? When the accident first started too occur, when the first vehicle went out of control, did did the watchful deity say, “Okay, here we go! Let’s see. Car #6 swerve this way because you haven’t prayed all week. Truck #4 can totally flip out of control because the driver missed church last week. Oh look! Van #3 has occupants who prayed this morning; OK smash the van but not too hard, they can probably scramble out and up the hill to observe how I punish the atheist in the station wagon, and let’s see. Yes! I’ll crush the mother, father, and sister, but let the one little girl live for a few hours.” And so on.

Who would love such a monster?

Did it occur to the Singletons. Or the reporter. That if they had not spent time praying that morning before leaving on their trip. Their car might have been a mile or two farther up the road (depending on how long they prayed), avoiding the accident altogether?

Let’s ask the injured (we can’t talk to the fatalities) if any of them prayed that morning. It was the Sabbath, after all. How many of them are (were) deeply religious people? What kind of message does this insensitive story send to those less fortunate?

One of the survivors of the crash of flight 232 in Iowa is an atheist and secular humanist, Peter Wernick. He credits his survival with the heroic human efforts of the pilots and with luck. Many Christians died in that crash. Let’s hear the Singleton’s story. But let’s be careful to avoid ‘Bible-belt journalism” in the reporting.

Dan Barker


Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Gapless God

Jim Burklo is the Associate Dean of Religious Life at the University of Southern California. He serves on the board of The Center for Progressive Christianity.

Recently, at the University of Southern California, I've found myself engaged in conversations about the nature, or super-nature, of God. A few weeks ago, I attended a talk for the evangelical Christian club at our medical school. (The title of the talk was "Why I Am Not an Atheist" - which, sure enough, raised the hackles of our atheist medical students, one of whom showed up to complain. "How would our Muslim students feel," the student asked, "if the title of this talk was 'Why I Am Not a Muslim'?" A really good question....) The speaker proceeded to give the usual arguments, unscientific and illogical, but invoking science and logic, for the existence of a supernatural God. You can look up all these arguments on the internet. The argument from time, Pascal's wager, the argument from morality. If any of them were convincing, then we'd all be convinced... but they aren't, and we're not.

At the question and answer period, I said, "As a progressive Christian, I have found a way to experience God without having to go through this exercise of trying to prove the existence of God. I don't need to believe in a supernatural God to be Christian, so this effort to account for such a God through science and logic isn't necessary. Your arguments fail because they are tautological: effectively they depend on the initial assumption that there is a supernatural God outside the universe who created it and tinkers with it from outside, so it is no wonder that they circle back to that conclusion."

I have yet to meet anyone who became a Christian or came to believe in a supernatural God as a result of any of these propositions. I've met many hundreds of people who became evangelical or fundamentalist Christians because they came into contact with Christians whom they admired and with whom they wanted to belong. They accepted the supernaturalist doctrines of these Christian groups because that was the price of admission. Seeing later that there were serious logical and scientific challenges to supernaturalism, some of them sought out arguments based on science or logic to give support for their beliefs. But not once have I met a person who started down the Christian path on the strength of these explanations.

A few nights ago our Office of Religious Life hosted a stage performance of "Dangerous Descent", written by Colin Cox, at USC. It's a dramatization of the debates between evolutionary biologists and proponents of the "intelligent design" version of Christian creationism. It pits 'scientism', a stridently atheistic expression of the evolutionary biology position, against the supernaturalistic Christian account of the emergence of life on earth. The play made no reference to the progressive Christian movement, which does not posit a conflict between Darwin and faith. But despite and perhaps because of its polemical nature, the play was a good conversation-starter for the audience after the performance. The actors, the playwright, an evolutionary biologist at USC, and myself were the panel initiating the after-show discussion. Of the hundred-odd students and staff who attended, it appeared that a handful were proponents of the 'intelligent design' perspective.

One of them spoke up and said that there was no way that the complexity of certain features of life could be accounted for by a process of random mutation, so an intelligent Creator must have formed those features. I answered: "You are completely entitled to your religious belief. But in order for your idea to be scientific, you have to explain how God did what you say he did." 'Intelligent design' does not and cannot offer such explanations. 'Intelligent design' rests on the idea that God is supernatural. But to explain the processes by which God creates would suggest that God's acts are part of the realm of nature. This would deny the supernaturalism, and thus the existence, of God.

Michael Dowd, author of "Thank God for Evolution!", is the nation's foremost "evangelist" for celebrating the compatibility of sound science and good religion. In a recent blog, Michael points out the consequences of the biblically literalistic defense of supernaturalism. "Is it any wonder that young people are leaving religion by the millions, if this is the 'good news' they are offered? Is it any wonder that the new atheists continue to ride bestseller lists if religion is equated with such 'supernaturalism'?"

All the arguments for 'intelligent design' are appeals to belief in the "God of the gaps", a supernatural deity whose existence is supposed to account for the existence of things that science can't yet explain. In the "Dangerous Descent" play, the actor advocating for 'intelligent design' constantly complains whenever the actor advocating for evolutionary biology says 'not yet'. But science is all about seeking out explanations for that which has 'not yet' been understood. All that has so far been discovered was once 'not yet' explained. Science thrives on the quest to close the very 'gaps' that supernaturalist Christians invoke as evidence of the existence of their God. The "God of the gaps" has been in retreat for centuries now, as each gap is filled by new discoveries.

But there is a gapless God: the One who is one with the process of evolution and ongoing creation. The One who is one with nature. The One who is a verb that moves from within, rather than a noun that stands outside the universe and gives directions. The One who is existence itself, and thus whose existence is pointless to prove. The One whose presence we feel in prayer and worship, the One who is the essence of the awe we feel when we consider the natural marvels that surround us. The God we know in the glow of wonderment, as we consider both our knowledge and our ignorance of how the universe works.

Jim Burklo


Monday, March 2, 2009

Excerpt from The Demon-Haunted World, by Carl Sagan

I am sometimes accused of sounding arrogant and perhaps dismissive when I debate religious topics with some of my ‘believing’ friends. These few paragraphs by Carl Sagan seem to be written just for me….perhaps they will have meaning for you as well.... barry e
In a life short and uncertain, it seems heartless to do anything that might deprive people of the consolation of faith when science cannot remedy their anguish. Those who cannot bear the burden of science are free to ignore its precepts. But we cannot have science in bits and pieces, applying it where we feel safe and ignoring it where we feel threatened – again, because we are not wise enough to do so. Except by sealing the brain off into separate airtight compartments, how is it possible to fly in airplanes, listen to the radio or take antibiotics while holding that the Earth is around 10,000 years old or that all Sagittarians are gregarious and affable?

Have I ever heard a skeptic wax superior and contemptuous? Certainly. I’ve even heard, to my retrospective dismay, that unpleasant tome in my own voice. There are human imperfections on both sides of this issue. Even when it’s applied sensitively, scientific skepticism may come across as arrogant, dogmatic, heartless, and dismissive of the feelings and deeply held beliefs of others. And it must be said, some scientists and dedicated skeptics apply this tool as a blunt instrument, with little finesse. Sometimes it looks as if the skeptical conclusion came first, that contentions were dismissed before , not after, the evidence was examined. All of us cherish our beliefs. They are to a degree, self-defining. When someone comes along who challenges our belief system as insufficiently well-based – or who, like Socrates, merely asks embarrassing questions that we haven’t thought of, or demonstrates that we’ve swept key underlying assumptions under the rug – it becomes much more than a search for knowledge. It feels like a personal assault.

The scientist who first proposed to consecrate doubt as a prime virtue of the inquiring mind made it clear that it was a tool and not an end in itself. Rene Descartes wrote, …

I did not imitate the skeptics who doubt only for doubting’s sake, and pretend to be always undecided; on the contrary, my whole intention was to arrive at a certainty, and to dig away the drift and the sand until I reached the rock or the clay beneath.
In the way that skepticism is sometimes applied to issues of public concern, there is a tendency to belittle, to condescend, to ignore the fact that, deluded or not supporters of superstition and pseudoscience are human beings with real feelings, who like the skeptics are trying to figure out how the world works and what our role in it might be. Their motives are in many cases consonant with science. If their culture has not given them all the tools they need to pursue this great quest, let us temper our criticism with kindness. None of us comes fully equipped.

Clearly there are limits to the uses of skepticism. There is some cost-benefit analysis which must be applied, and if the comfort, consolation and hope delivered by mysticism and superstition is high, and the dangers of belief comparatively low, should we not keep our misgivings to ourselves? But the issue is tricky. Imagine that you enter a big-city taxicab and the moment you get settled in, the driver begins a harangue about the supposed iniquities and inferiorities of another ethnic group. Is your best course to keep quiet, bearing in mind that silence conveys assent?

Or is it your moral responsibility to argue with him, to express outrage, even to leave the cab – because you know that every silent assent will encourage him next time, and every vigorous dissent will cause him next time to think twice? Likewise if we offer to much silent assent about mysticism and superstition – even when it seems to be doing a little good – we encourage a general climate in which skepticism is considered impolite, science tiresome, and rigorous thinking somehow stuffy and inappropriate. Figuring out a prudent balance takes wisdom.