Comment: Religious Reactions to Criticism

The Progressive Christian Network (PCN) in Victoria in Australia posted a series of responses by members in May, 2007 to comments by Richard Dawkins about his book, God Delusion, and to local newspaper columnist, Catherine Deveny. Here are my reflections on the PCN member’s articles. Most are familiar with Richard Dawkins and his knack of irritating people of faith, including liberals and progressives. After holding privileged positions in society, religions seem to react poorly to his type of overt criticism.

Atheists, like Dawkins, see that the sciences provide the most reliable and coherent explanations for our world and, in particular, for our species evolution. In this view we are physical beings in a physical world driven by physical causes, nothing magical. “Physical” means any combination of mass and energy as investigated by the sciences. So, most importantly, our sense of consciousness, self, free-will, and morality has strictly physical causes. In fact, scientists and most philosophers today accept that mental states arise from brain activities and not some “magical source”. Even though not fully understood, researchers continue seek physical explanations without declaring them to be permanently mysterious. Very few promote separate physical and non-physical dualistic-type explanations.

So Dawkins like many others sees declarations of “extra” realities as not only unnecessary but simply wishful, deluded, and misguided attempts to claim something special for humans. And proclaiming this really irritates the religious. Some critics go further to claim that all religions are outright harmful and dangerous. Many non-believers find this claim extreme, even though they often want to reduce or eliminate the special societal and financial privileges that religions and their religious schools receive.

To take one PCN response, Rob Sutherland, in God Is the more, abuses Dawkins and Deveny for attacking a monarchical form of God, the sky-god, as the only form of Christian God instead of recognising Sutherland’s nicer ineffable essence, the “more” (a la William James). He then continues with confusing arguments about atheism as some sort of rejection of non-physical consciousness; new-age mumbo-jumbo about quantum theology, thankfully quoted; and atheistic fundamentalists, Dawkins and company, as close-minded, non-seekers of the truth. Perhaps Dawkins best sums up Sutherland’s type of open-minded searching. “By all means let’s be open-minded, but not so open-minded that our brains drop out.

I agree with progressive Christians that atheists and other non-believers need to be aware of the variations in Christian belief. There are vast differences between the traditional sky-god and the progressive loving essence, the “more”. However progressive Christians also need to recognise that they are a very small part of the world-wide Christian marketplace. From recent Pew Forum surveys in the US, it appears the 70 million religious people over 14 years take their sacred texts as the inerrant word of God. Another 70 million take them as the word of God written through people. So, I would expect millions to believe in the actual physical resurrection of Jesus, a very anti-scientific and unsustainable attitude. These are the true targets of religious critics. The more benign progressive Christians do not register on their radar.

Sutherland construes a unique definition of atheism. Usually atheists do not believe in a god or explicitly reject the existence of a god. Atheists, like most Christians, have a monarchical sky-god in mind. Many atheists then go on to reject any and all supernatural postulates. Naturalism extends this into a worldview of a physical reality, and only then do naturalists need to address questions like consciousness and free-will.

Finally, quantum mechanics is the physics of subatomic particles and its language is mathematics. It appears a bizarre world where a particle can occupy two places at the same time and two particles can affect each other with no apparent connection. Also it is a world of probabilistic determinism unlike the apparent casual determinism of our physical world. But it is pure speculation to draw any sort of metaphysical conclusions about our own reality. This research provides no evidence for spirits, gods, consciousness, the soul or free-will. In particular it is not the “backdoor for God”.

Many religions continue to be sensitive to criticism of all types. Many traditional religions expect blatant contradictions, wishful thinking, unsupported claims of authority, and dangerous moralisations to be accepted without question. Unfortunately they often are! Classifying their most vocal critics as fundamentalists or militants seeks to marginalise them with the bombing-wielding religious fanatics whom we all deplore. It is an effective, though, dishonest ploy.

Alex McCullie


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