ADVANCE NOTICE: Theism for Non-Theists

Some people have found Why I am not an Atheist unsatisfactory, and I do feel a twinge of guilt. it was never my intention to engage in the kind of bickering between Christians and Atheists that is all to common in blog articles so my article stuck firmly to the meta-argument that Peter Singer wasn’t advancing serious arguments, that he needed to engage serious theologians and take more then about 830 words to deal meaningfully with (never mind dispose of) the central philosophical problem of the Abrahamic religions, how to reconcile an all-powerful, good creator God with evil and suffering in the world He has created. It is the kind of problem that, quite literally, seven-year olds spot. To me the paradox is obviously intended to confront the seeker in the way that people imagine Zen koans to do, something to meditate on in order to gain a deeper insight into reality and the Christian religion, rather than a decision problem, such as, whether the planets orbit the sun in an elliptical or circular path. To treat it like the latter, as a physical, empirical decision problem is, to my mind, to make a serious mistake.

For someone who has no interest in Christianity, who simply finds the system of thought inimical it is an irrelevant question, really a question with no meaning and I see no real point in those outside of Christianity weighing into theological disputes unless they are prepared to do so intelligently. Nevertheless there is the question of what Christians (and Muslims and Jews) mean by an all-powerful, perfectly-good God who created everything. This is an excellent question! And a question that all non-theists ought to take an interest in, not in whether it is true or not (which i think is a fairly meaningless question—it is true for mono-theists and not-true for non-theists, obviously) but what is going on—why are Christians (and Muslims and Jews) positing such a Truth or idea (depending on your point of view).

Now I am not qualified to talk about theology, but as a Buddhist I do take an interest in this question, and it might be useful for me to explain why I, as a non-theist, find that the Christian way of looking at things makes a great deal of sense, even if it is not my preferred framework for making sense of reality. Such an article might help people to see more clearly and less abstractly why I find Peter Singer’s article neither helpful for Christians nor atheists, and it will clearly engage with the issues directly, rather than talking about the way somebody else is talking about the issues, which I can appreciate can be a little frustrating.

I will need some time to prepare the article but I will be attending the Dalai Lama’s teachings in Nottingham from this weekend. As I am helping with the organisation of the event I may not be able to find time to do much blogging, but if I can, I would like to tackle this question in that setting. All going well, I will be able to get something up some time before I leave for Spain on the 28th May. If I have not succeeded by then I should definitely get an opportunity by the weekend (31st May/1st June). I have some other articles that I want to write in the meantime.

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3 responses to “ADVANCE NOTICE: Theism for Non-Theists

  1. I see no real point in those outside of Christianity weighing into theological disputes unless they are prepared to do so intelligently.

    Don’t mistake brevity for lack of intelligence. Singer was stating the problem of evil in its basic form. He was speaking polemically and not persuasively. Polemical speech is not always useless – often it is important, especially in a political context, to just state where you stand on an issue.

    And sometimes the crux of an argument really can be stated very briefly and succinctly.

    And a question that all non-theists ought to take an interest in, not in whether it is true or not (which i think is a fairly meaningless question—it is true for mono-theists and not-true for non-theists, obviously) but what is going on—why are Christians (and Muslims and Jews) positing such a Truth or idea (depending on your point of view).

    But people do want to argue whether something is true or not. What is wrong with that? Unity and understanding are fine and dandy, but so is disagreement and clarity.

  2. I am all for brevity, and if Singer had been able to demonstrate a grasp of the issues in his short piece he would have won my respect and admiration. Unfortunately it doesn’t look like it at all. It looks as if he is trotting out the same old line, which is not so difficult to grasp and merely restating the original paradox. Unless one could see D’Souza’s contribution in his own words it is not easy to tell how well he was defending his position, but there is nothing in the resume I have seen which gives me confidence that he would be able to deal with a sharp attacker like Singer. But all Singer has demonstrated to me is that he is capable of knocking over straw men, and that he is successfully hiding any real understanding of the deeper issues, presumably because he isn’t aware of them.

    Sorry I can only talk in abstractions for the moment. To move any further I will have to sketch out my own understanding. In the mean time to get a grasp of the issues I really, really, do recommend the Humphreys/Williams discussion. It is perfect because you have a real born-again atheist attack-dog (that was a joke) going full bore into one of the best theologians in the business. It really pulls out many of the issues very well, and we really have no reason to believe that the whole business can be condensed into a short blog article (but of course it would be marvelous if it could be done).

  3. I’ve read the transcript of the Humphreys/Williams interview. It’s fascinating as a exposition of the rationales by which people on each side of the god divide tackle the problem of evil, which says more about psychology than metaphysics. Like I stated in an earlier comment, meditating on god enlightens us more about ourselves than god.

    My theory of god belief/disbelief is that we don’t consciously choose to do either. It isn’t like we can put belief on or off like a suit. To a large extent our beliefs our determined subconsciously. I liken it to a jury on which the conscious portion of the mind is merely one member. The mind does not tackle these questions in isolation, but as part of a comprehensive world-view formation. All the pieces have to fit on the framework of the worldview. Where the fit is not perfect, rationalizations smooth out the gaps and protrusions.

    I liken it also to an optical illusion, where a picture can be interpreted by the mind in one of two mutually exclusive ways, like the picture of a vase that can also be the profile of two faces. The subconscious mind forces one or the other interpretation to be made, and presents the results to the conscious mind.

    The problem of evil is one of those aspects of religious belief where “flips” can occur in the interpretation. When rationalizations cannot fill the gap, the world-view is vulnerable to flipping.

    In the context of evil, belief in god is one of those good news/bad news situations. The good news is that there is someone “in charge” of the world, some hope for remediating the evil. The bad news is that there is someone in charge of the world, consciously causing the evil. Which eventuality causes more distress – that evil is random or that evil is willed by an all powerful being?

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