Entries from May 2009 ↓

Comment: Is Atheism the same as Naturalism (Materialism)?

In September last year Engaging Peachers posted a comment questioning the automatic relationship between atheism and naturalism (or physicalism or materialism). This came from a debate by Michael Shermer (of Skeptic magazine fame) and John Lennox where Lennox apparently assumed atheists are materialists (with all the pejorative undertones of course). Instead of responding directly, I am a bit late, here is my little contribution.

Atheism is variously defined as non-theism (non-belief) or anti-theism (“dis-belief”) in a god or many gods. An atheist may simply not believe in the existence of god (as with many other things) or she can actively deny the existence of god. The concept has developed within cultures where the prevailing religions venerate conscious, supernatural god or gods. So it is not surprising that atheism is conceived of in those terms.

With the dominance of the monotheistic religions over the last 2000 years, religious beliefs have moved to worshipping a single conscious supreme being that exists outside of the known physical world and, importantly, takes a personal interest in our lives. An interesting reflection is to think about atheism in light of some Eastern religions that posit no particular divine entity. So atheism is saying something about our conception of reality. Of all the things that may exist an atheist does not include a god – a conscious, supreme non-physical being – in that mix.

It is also quite reasonable for an atheist to hold both non-theist and anti-theist views at the same time. We can simply not believe in any form of non-physical conscious entities (non-theism) – there’s no supporting evidence – while actively denying the classical Christian conception of the all-… god as inherently illogical (anti-theism) – I do!

Naturalism, as a world-view, takes a much broader perspective on our view of the world and reality than subscribing to atheism. Also I see that naturalism subsumes materialism and physicalism even though philosophical sites and writings will discuss the subtle differences. Naturalism like other world-views addresses the fundamental questions of existence: (1) what is reality – metaphysics; (2) how do I know – epistemology; (3) how should I behave – ethics. Underpinning the approach of Naturalism is the core belief that there is only a physical reality and that there is no other “stuff”, especially supernatural “stuff”. This contrasts dramatically with most religious world-views that posit a supernatural reality of separate “stuff” that exists outside of our physical world.

To address the proposition that atheism is the same as naturalism (read the pejorative materialism), I would ask a similar question of religious believers. Is a belief that some sort of conscious non-physical entity the same as holding a Christian world-view? I think not.

Alex McCullie

Comment: The Bible, Historical Criticism and Truth

Prior to the European Enlightenment most people accepted the Bible’s account of history. There was no question that the world was created in six days or that the 600,000 or more Hebrews escaped from Egypt after God had orchestrated a series of plagues on the hapless and arrogant Egyptians. Since the Enlightenment we have come to expect a more scientific world-view where truth and actuality are in some way associated with verifiable evidence. Claims of revealed knowledge are seen as more and more embarrassing to modern Western sensibilities.

So what has that done for biblical scholarship? Over the last 200 years many biblical scholars have, at least nominally, applied techniques of historical research to the biblical texts – Jewish scriptures (Old TestamentTanakh or Hebrew Bible) as well the Christian scriptures (New Testament). Firstly, the historical perspective has been applied to the construction of the texts themselves. Scholarship tries to identify multiple authorships, editors and copyists from earlier-sourced documents and oral stories. They also apply historical research to the social and political settings of the authors to understand their worlds and motivations better. So would this be the same as examining any other historical document? No and that is the problem.

Whether scholars are in strictly religious institutions – many are – or attached to secular universities, they are typically seeking greater theological meaning from their scriptures: that is why they started their studies in the first place. They are hardly disinterested researchers. Many biblical scholars today malign historical methods as being either ineffectual or moving too far away from the messages of the divine word. Much of their understandings come from the supernatural aspects of the biblical histories and historical methods like those of science do not recognise any non-physical events. So commonly these scholars promote literary or theological methods as more effective. I see this as coded language for less threatening. Even those advocating historical research (and they are getting fewer) seem to be less dispassionate and seek to approach their research with “sensitivity”.  This isn’t surprising as truly critical scholars of the past have lost their teaching posts in retribution.

Am I too cynical? Apparently not, for John Barton in Historical-critical approaches (The Cambridge Companion to Biblical Interpretation p14) says

“… the general impression an ordinary historian is likely to form after reading books dubbed ‘historical-criticism’ by theologians is that they are predominantly literary in their interests.”

Ironically, though, I too believe that biblical historical research has been relatively ineffective, though for quite different reasons. It is the case of asking too much from too little. Apologists often claim that there are more surviving manuscripts, whole and partial, of biblical texts than other historical texts. And that’s true. However theologians often seek draw highly detailed interpretations from the word-use nuances that we do not with other historical texts. I regularly come across optimistically detailed interpretations, such as Paul used this Greek word here while Luke used a similar but slightly different one here and that also differed from Mark’s use here and all this means that…. This is all on the amazing assumptions about the accuracy of particular manuscripts as well as our detailed understanding of language usage and writer motivations at the time. It is worth commenting here that we have no original manuscripts of even the last books written in either scripture, only copies of copies of copies and so on.

From an historical perspective there is very little extrabiblical evidence supporting the detailed (or in many cases even the broad) claims made by either scriptures. The historical reality is that the Israelites were of little importance in the ancient world and therefore not written of by others. Their lands were surrounded or invaded by the true superpowers of the day – the Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Greek and Roman empires. We may see the Jewish and Christian as history important today through our religious education, but that is far from the reality of the ancient world. Their achievements seem insignificant compared to their neighbours.

Jesus is a good example. The evidence outside of the Christian sources confirms that people subsequently believed that he existed and was executed as a criminal. Followers believed he was divine. However we have no records of birth or execution and no contemporaneously written accounts of his deeds that appeared so momentous according to Christian scriptures. So, if he did exist, then the best we can say is that he was one of many self-declared prophets who raised the ire of the Jewish leadership. The rest comes from the Christian scriptures that were written thirty to eighty years after his death and by people who wanted to promote his divine status. I must say in fairness that many biblical scholars have designed criteria to assess the potential reliability of scriptural text. Does the story come from multiple sources? Is it unpleasant for Christians? Is it consistent with first century Middle East and so on? However, often, these criteria are ignored when there are other overwhelming needs to include the text. The liberal Jesus Seminar is often criticised in this regard.

Ultimately biblical scholars may be better not pretending to do historical research or at least acknowledge the inherent limitations applying it to scripture. The theologians continue derive detailed interpretations from the biblical texts “as is” regardless on any historical reliability – that’s what they do. Ultimately they face the dilemma that Christianity considers itself a religion based on historical fact. Either way historical research is never going to get them closer to their God.

Alex McCullie

News: New Book Evolution of God

Robert Wright of Non-Zero and Moral Animal fame is about to release his latest book, The Evolution of God. Apparently it is a secular look at how religious belief and practice has changed throughout history.

Times OnLine introduction and Amazon link.

Alex McCullie

Comment: Quantum Theory – the Backdoor for God

As our view of the world becomes more physical and more causal, our understanding becomes less friendly to a free-wheeling God that seeks to operate outside of this realm. Well, that is until we discovered the craziness of the sub-atomic world of Quantum theory. This world offers new meanings to remote influencing, time travel and multiple space occupation by one thing not to speak of probablistic causality. For the religiously and mystically inclined this is “manor from heaven” (sorry for the pun) for God, consciousness, and, in fact, any new-age force or energy.

Here is an opinion piece from New Scientist along the same critical lines.

Alex McCullie

News: Can Cats Be Christians Too?

Enjoy this silly video from YouTube.

Alex McCullie

News: debaptism – wonderful new words

Quoted from the Macmillan online English dictionary:

debaptism noun [U] 

a formal act in which a person officially rejects their baptism (=a ceremony in which someone is touched or covered with water to welcome them into the Christian religion) debaptize (also debaptise British) verb [T] [usually passive]

Alex McCullie

Here are some new suggestions deblog (formal act of rejecting to blog), or perhaps detwitter. Or, here is my personal favourite defacebook.

Comment: Government Conspiring with Religious Extremism

A secular society offers our best hope of better treatment for all – religious believers and non-believers. However freedom of speech is a fundamental part of that. Our ability to criticise (as in examine and comment) beliefs and practices and how they affect people should also be protected.

Religious, political, cultural, educational and legal practices should all equally be open to examination and comment. Harmful Islamic, Christian, Hindu behaviours or bad school teachings or hateful political speechs should equally be condemned.

Many secular supporters are increasingly worried that Western governments are conspiring to protect religions from this sort of accountability. That is plain wrong. Even though people can feel strongly about their religions and religious beliefs, that should not in some way protect them from scrutiny. I include the scrutiny of anti-religious diatribes as well.

Here is the beginning of a newspaper article expressing similar sentiments from Brisbane, Australia.

For years, the Western world has listened aghast to stories from Iran, Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern nations of citizens jailed or executed for questioning or offending Islam.
Even the most seemingly minor infractions elicit draconian punishments. Late last year, two Afghan journalists were sentenced to prison for blasphemy because they translated the Koran into a Farsi dialect that Afghans can read. In Jordan, a poet was arrested for incorporating Koranic verses into his work. And last week, an Egyptian court banned a magazine for running a similar poem.

But now an equally troubling trend is developing in the West. … (full article)

Now for a short, sharp line from that wonderfully talented Stephen Fry:

“The cruel, hypocritical and loveless hand of religion and absolutism has fallen on the world once more.”
(Stephen Fry, GT) (quoted from a recent newsletter of the National Secular Society (UK))

Here is a related article from Terry Eagleton in the Guardian on the threats to liberalism:

One side-effect of the so-called war on terror has been a crisis of liberalism. This is not only a question of alarmingly illiberal legislation, but a more general problem of how the liberal state deals with its anti-liberal enemies. This, surely, is the acid test of any liberal creed. Anyone can be tolerant of those who are tolerant. A community of the broad-minded is a pleasant place, but requires no great moral effort. The key issue is how the liberal state copes with those who reject its ideological framework. It is fashionable today to speak of being open to the “Other”. But what if the Other detests your openness as much as it does your lapdancing clubs?


Alex McCullie