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1. Relationships between nonbelief and evil
  1. I worship as part of a community
  2. Quakers and God
  3. Finding the Ideal God - Could it be the God of the Bible?
  4. Finding the Ideal God

People living several centuries ago may have read the biblical story about the world being created in seven days and had little trouble believing that this really happened in that space of time. They may have heard that God created Adam and Eve about 6, years ago and figured that was exactly when it happened. A person nowadays with no education might have heard these yarns from a family member and have had no reason to question them. A child could learn the story about Noah's ark in Sunday school and think how nice it was that all the animals were saved from the flood.

But educated people should have reasons to question all of this. They might still believe in God, and yet they would surely have doubts about many of the things people claim to believe about God. They would certainly disbelieve that the Bible stories should be taken literally. They might have difficulty praying to a God about whom so much false information has been presented. In short, popular concepts of God would be a problem.

Much of Dawkins' work is devoted to demonstrating that religiously-inclined people are simply uninformed about science and especially about scientific arguments that contradict faith or more easily explain natural phenomena. Many of his ideas are directed more at theologians and other apologists - whom he concludes are "often chronically incapable of distinguishing what is true from what they'd like to be true" - than at ordinary readers. He does an excellent job, though, of poking holes in arguments that might be termed resort-to-authority, such as, well, so-and-so scientist believes in God, or Pascal settled that a long time ago.

He also goes a long way toward making atheism respectable by showing that beliefs about God are unnecessary to support moral arguments and that solace and inspiration can be found elsewhere. The emphasis on cultural evolution evident in Dawkins and many other critics of religion offers another argument about the difficulties of being well-informed and devoutly religious.

In this view, the essence of religion is ritual, which serves as a primitive means of communicating and affirming group loyalty in small, homogenous, local societies, almost like grunts and gestures did before the development of verbal language. But in modern, complex societies these rituals serve less well and indeed are replaced by rational modes of communication. As Jurgen Habermas, one of the leading proponents of this view, observed, "with the development of modern societies, the sacred domain has largely disintegrated, or at least has lost its structure-forming significance.

There are numerous ways in which being informed can lead a well-educated person to have trouble with standard beliefs about God. Scientific information about evolution or about how big Noah's ark would have had to have been to hold representatives of every species is only one. A thinking person knows that cancer sometimes goes into remission from natural causes.

The patient who lives to tell a miracle story about answered prayer has to be considered in relation to the patients who prayed and did not live to tell their story. If a friend says getting a cushy new job was a "miracle," it probably takes only a split-second to translate this into something other than an event like somebody being raised from the dead.

Being informed means knowing that people kill in the name of God and pray to deities that command human sacrifice. It involves an awareness that the other side is praying to its God for victory and that more than one religion claims to be the only path to divine salvation. If Habermas is right, a thoughtful person would understand that religious rituals are a carry-over from an earlier stage of human evolution and that they work better in isolated contexts than for people with cosmopolitan tastes.

If nothing else, participating in religious rituals may seem a waste of time compared with devoting oneself to areas of life requiring more specialized knowledge, such as science or medicine. Believers themselves sometimes argue that too much knowledge is a bad thing and affirm that ignorance is the basis of their faith.

I worship as part of a community

They disrespect intellectuals or argue that faith must be blind, meaning that it cannot withstand intelligent scrutiny. To a person who values education and reason, people who embrace this kind of blind faith seem to have fallen recently from the proverbial turnip truck. Dogmatic religion poses special problems in this regard. An adherent of dogmatic religion may be very well versed in the teachings of his or her faith, and yet be closed minded about everything else.

That person is likely to be uninformed about the teachings of other faiths, about the cultural factors that shaped the history of these faiths, or about the arguments of critics. If nothing else, studying the fine points of one's own dogmatic tradition becomes a higher priority than spending time learning about art, music, or science. The opposite is to be open to new ideas. Dogma requires believing in what a person has been told by a religious leader or in a creed or sacred text.

It means defending wisdom from the past, rather than exploring new ideas. It stifles intellectual curiosity.

Quakers and God

I am not suggesting that a religious person cannot also be an informed person - and critics of religion generally do not make this argument either. Saying it is impossible to be both is easily refuted by pointing to Isaac Newton, an example of a religious believer who was clearly well-informed, or to the genomics expert, Francis Collins, as a current example, or to many other leaders in their fields who have combined intellectual curiosity and faith. The point is rather that a thoughtful, well-educated person has to figure out a way of being informed and devout.

Otherwise, the bias in dogma is toward the view that all important knowledge has been revealed in scripture or can be heard by listening directly to the voice of God instead of exploring widely in other paths of learning. The God problem is not unsolvable, but it is a problem. Newton and Collins had to find ways to pursue higher learning and yet reconcile their faith with what they learned. A third, rather different set of criticisms is that beliefs about God are anti-democratic and are for this reason ones that educated people should consider problematic.

Finding the Ideal God - Could it be the God of the Bible?

These criticisms stem from the view that democracy requires citizens to be able to defend their beliefs through rational argument and thus be open to the beliefs of others, including a willingness to compromise in service of the common good. Belief in God is said to be anti-democratic because it leads to arguments that cannot be questioned.

In simplest terms, believers assert that God told them to do something or that something is right. End of story. No debate, no discussion. And this is especially problematic when people of different faiths come together because each group holds its own unique convictions about truth. These convictions are divinely revealed and inviolate, subject neither to compromise nor to rational explication in terms that other groups can understand.

This argument has had special resonance among political theorists interested in the conditions under which democracy can flourish. Presumably everyone in the United States, Western Europe, Canada, and countries with similar political traditions believes in democracy. A person who has invested considerable time and energy in acquiring information and learning how to apply reason to important decisions will be inclined to think that information and learning are especially appropriate to the workings of a democracy.

When a religious leader declares that God wants people to vote for a particular political candidate, or when a politician asserts that God told him or her to run for higher office, thinking people are likely to have questions. They may only doubt that God actually spoke. But they may also wonder if faith should be allowed in the political arena. They might argue that it is fine for a person to hold strange views about God privately, but feel that it is really better if intelligent people use their brains when thinking about difficult social issues. This criticism is not about the compatibility or incompatibility of religious traditions and democracy.

That is an important question, but different from the one at issue here. It usually focuses on specific countries and asks whether Islam and democracy can coexist in, say, Indonesia, or whether Protestants were correct or incorrect in accusing U. Catholics of being anti-democratic during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. However, the question that critics of religion raise persists. This question, as posed forcefully by political theorist John Rawls, is whether claims about religious truth can be reconciled with the functioning of an effective democracy.

They cannot, Rawls argues, because citizens in religiously and culturally pluralistic societies have to agree on freestanding conceptions of justice, rather than ones grounded in different religious traditions. Practically speaking, religion needs to be irrelevant. A person must be able to argue that a particular policy is fair to all and on grounds that all can accept, not because it conforms to the dictates of his or her religion.

It was this concern about the incompatibility of faith and democracy that prompted John Dewey to argue that religion in America would serve the nation better if it abandoned, of all things, its beliefs in the supernatural. Religion as an institution, Dewey argued, contributed many good things, including charitable behavior and a sense of civic responsibility. But devotion to the supernatural established an alternative loyalty that competed with citizenship.

The very experiences of life, and especially those aspects deemed to be sacred, were shaped by the doctrines with which they were interpreted. A Christian Scientist and a Lutheran would inevitably experience life differently and appeal to different versions of divine authority to justify their conceptions of the good.

Many arguments have been made on the other side to show that faith and democracy are compatible or can be reconciled. These claims can be constitutionally bracketed and the more agreeable aspects of religion, such as teachings about good neighborliness, can be emphasized. But when religion encourages people to believe that they speak for God, religion then becomes, in Richard Rorty's memorable phrase, a conversation stopper. Another set of concerns that is not fully expressed by any of the foregoing is the argument that beliefs about God are destructive.

This is the idea that religion is actually harmful, either to the individuals who believe in God or to innocent bystanders who do not. It goes beyond the view, for instance, that asking God for help is irrational but unlikely to cause harm. The list of destructive acts condoned by religion is quite long. The Bible tells of God wiping out whole cities and instructing the chosen people to slaughter their enemies, including women, children, and livestock. The biblical prophets call down divine wrath on false teachers.

The psalmist cries out for the Lord's vengeance. The relatively milder teachings of the New Testament condone slavery and tell of people stricken dead for seemingly minor offenses. Concerns about the destructiveness of religion were less frequently heard during the twentieth century, when atheistic communism and near-atheistic fascism slaughtered millions, but they have returned to the front burner since the September 11, , attacks.

Religions that in other eras were thought to be benign or even peaceful are now popularly viewed as promoters of violence. Terrorists engage in religiously motivated holy wars. Suicide bombers imagine themselves being rewarded in paradise for their atrocities. If there is no transcendent person, there can't be transcendent meaning.

All that's left is subjective, person-to-person meaning. I guess I don't see how it's possible to develop objective transcendent meaning if naturalism is true. Finding transcendent meaning in a naturalistic framework seems like looking for evidence of ghosts. The framework doesn't allow for the phenomenon to be possible, so why go looking for something that can't possibly exist in the first place? There's no costly-signalling element in this imagined naturalistic community. And we know that that element is critical to the success religious community has achieved.

There is something almost quixotic about trying to form a community which can compare to those of religion, but which is defined by commitment to the unvarnished naturalistic truth about its own functioning. Who wants to always be afraid of doing the wrong thing and risk being rejected for eternity in a place that will burn your skin forever without ever killing you, because you're already dead? I can't imagine a life like that.

Living life my entire life as a test, as a mean to prove my worth, instead of living it fully seems like it would suck the joy right out of it. The perceived need for a transcendent meaning ends up demeaning this life; this world. We need to outgrow the egoism behind this impulse and do the work of creating meaning as individuals and as a society. All religions based upon supernatural metaphysics ultimately are world-denying and we need world-affirming religious impulses. That's what's behind zen naturalism and other naturalistic religious movements.

Finding the Ideal God

Don't forget that most people are brought up in a religion from a young age, so they have to break away from that religion to go elsewhere. Naturalist groups should be able to keep growing as families join them and spread their ideas to their kids, etc. What an excellent article and excellent comments. Thank you for your contributions to a very important discussion. It's tough to consider a life that doesn't continue for those who love their family in explicable ways.

There are two fundamental views of the universe: the universe is on purpose or the universe is by accident. Everything else is commentary but everything flows from these two world views. That which is by accident cannot have meaning; that which is on purpose cannot be without meaning. Science is a reasoning system that investigates the HOW of the world; it cannot, by its very limitations, investigate the WHY of the world.

Michael Price, Ph. Science has already made surprising progress in answering "religious" questions. How life could have a natural purpose, and why it would matter. Back Psychology Today. Back Find a Therapist. Back Get Help.

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