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Atheism I – Atheism as a Religious Affirmation

I have published my first article for the Milwaukee Examiner titled “Do we have options in the religion verses science debate?“.

Article

If a single entity created the stars, gynecologist planets, doctor time, space, and life itself then science is the very study of that wonderful and potentially divine creation. Scientists of all sorts have the job of trying to understand the very things that the hand of the creator has created – from geologists, biologists, and psychologists to geneticists and quantum physicists. For some their scientific  study and exploration can be an awe inspiring and faith affirming exercise. For others it can be a source and angst and internal conflict.

If science is the study of all that has been divinely created then why is it all too often at odds with religion? Throughout history scientists and visionaries such a s Copernicus and Galileo were afraid to speak their ‘heretical’ idea of (heliocentrism vs the predominant and church accepted geocentrism) or were even demanded to recant their views under threat of being burned at the stake. Even today’s modern evolutionary and geological scientist are under a similar, though less harmful, assault by a religious front.

Take evolution vs creation as a specific example of a modern science vs religion battleground. Evolutionary sciences has modern humanity (homo sapiens) as being approximately 40 thousand  years old and the earth at several billion years old, while the counter religious movements have both at less than 10 thousand years. This is quite the significant disparity in age between the two views, and, in this enlightened age there is still much bitterness and vehemence in arguments against each other.

I wonder why this has to be. Why are some religions so afraid of scientific advancement and the furthering our understanding of this wonderful and potentially divine creation that has given us the miracle of life and free will?

For me, such bridge theories such as evolutionary creationism and biblical to geological correlations via Day-Age Creationism help to make sense of things and to bring science and religion together in a non-aggressive and logical manner.

Why could not the creator have created all of life with evolution as its impetus for change and existence? What exactly is a biblical day to a potentially omniscient and omnipotent creator who created time and matter itself? Does the creator live by our Earth centric view of time at 24 hours per day, which may be horribly arrogant of and presumptuous of us, or does this entity who created time itself have a more fluid day in the billions or hundreds of millions of years as geological evidence would have us believe? This is for you to decide with evolutionary creationism and Age-Day Creationism as a good middle ground.

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Sauk City Part 1 talk by Andrew Kerr on May 20, info
2007 at Park Hall

First I would like to thank all of you for the opportunity to speak to you about such a fascinating topic. The topic is timely as well, order
and when fascinating topics become timely, information pills
the effect is quite exciting. My thanks, too, to Michael Whaley for extending the invitation to speak and for giving to me the chance to learn something about your congregation. I respect your commitment to reason and to conversation as sources of insight. It will be these resources that I hope to bring to bear on today’s topic.

I do not come here as an academic, not intentionally. Philosophy belongs to all of us. It is a human activity.

The philosophical point that I would like to offer to you today is the thesis that atheism can be religious. I am not saying that it must be. But I am saying that it is reasonable to entertain a religious atheism. It is reasonable, it seems to me, for two reasons. First, religion I warrant is best understood as a question rather than an answer. If so, then atheism can be defined as the family of non-theistic answers to the question of religion. Atheism can be a body of religious thought. Second, some atheistic answers to the question of religion have attributes resembling those of the sometimes more popular answer to the religious question, God. ‘God’ is often a troubled choice of answer to the religious question, when people think about it. But the qualities bound up in the idea of God which make God such a popular answer – qualities such as inclusiveness, persistence in experience, cosmic scope – I believe can also be part of an atheistic answer to the question of religion.

A commitment to reason demands that I tell to you the assumptions informing my conclusions about atheism. My assumption is that philosophy can adequately understand the topic of atheism, the topic of God, the topic of religion. What do I mean by philosophy? Philosophy is the work of understanding ideas completely using logic and the facts. Whitehead once wrote that philosophy is the one avocation denied omniscience. Ignoring for the moment the intelligibility of ‘omniscience,’ I agree with Whitehead that humans pursue philosophy because we are fragmentary. We cannot grasp reality all at once, so must learn through inference and exploration. Philosophy is adventure.

Because the philosophic effort at conceptual clarity requires consistent thinking and fact-checking, it is a rational enterprise. To say ‘rational’ is to say that we must give reasons for our claims, we must appeal to principles rather than personal experience or authority. Philosophy is a rational adventure. Let me say as well that is it impossible for this talk to possess more insight than its assumptions possess. It may, of course, possess less.

If philosophy is the work of understanding ideas completely using logic and the facts, then it becomes an approach used in all the arts and sciences. Philosophy is not simply a topic of its own, but a way of pursuing many topics. It is certainly used in physics and biology; examine writings reflecting upon quantum physics or upon the meaning of the term ‘species.’ Philosophy, I warrant, is found in abundance in literature and in the visual arts.

Because philosophy means the application of reason to the study of ideas generally, it offers a standard of rationality to which all human endeavors must appeal. If so, then each of the several arts and sciences are best understood by the distinct question they ask, and philosophy is one manner of assessing the various proposed answers.

This conclusion about the relationship between philosophy and the arts and sciences brings us to two relevant conclusions already. First, as we assess together the possibility of a religious atheism, we must now part company with much of the orthodox tradition of the Abrahamic faiths: Christianity, Judaism, Islam. For these faiths, religious truth is not assessed philosophically, but through the putative irruption of a superior, supernatural world into our natural world. Religious truth is revealed, is confessed; human reason cannot grasp it completely. But our commitment to philosophy tells us that reason can understand anything possible or actual; for philosophy, there is no supernatural. So whether religion is atheist or theistic, if it is philosophical it will not look like many of the religious traditions we know.

Second, a thorough commitment to philosophy means that religion, too, is another of the human arts and sciences. It is a question, not an answer. This point is so important, I think. Critics of religion often understand religion as an answer. Of course, they have a right to use the word this way, but rhetorically this usage encourages suspicion of the question. But we should never become suspicious of questions. Easier, I think, to understand religion itself as a question, and to understand the world’s religious traditions as some of the possible answers to the religious question.

What is the question of religion? Kahil Gibran tells us:

Is not religion all deeds and all reflection, [a]nd that which is neither deed nor reflection, but a wonder and a surprise ever springing in the soul, even while the hands hew the stone or tend the loom?

(P, 77)

What this passage tells me, anyway, is that religion points to the thoughts and motivations that inspire us to do anything at all. Religion explores why our lives can be filled with meaning even when ordinary. Whitehead writes:

“What should emerge from religion is individual worth of character

(RM, 17)

But if we are to assess individual worth in a rational way, we must appeal to some principle of worth. So the question religion asks is, what gives to each of us individual worth of character? What gives my life meaning? To what in life do I cast my ultimate loyalties?

The commitment to philosophy means that we seek answers to religious questions under the banner of logical consistency and fact-checking. Seeking the answer to the question of the meaning life is every bit a rational pursuit as is seeking the answer to the question of the nature of dark matter or of the impacts of global warming. To see religion as a philosophical, rational pursuit is to see religion as an exploratory enterprise. It expresses human curiosity, not supernatural authority. It is pursued in conversation and community, not pronounced by so-called officials. Religion invites all the imagination and wonder we humans have to offer, and when philosophically pursued, provides a rational standard for the democratic assessment of putative religious thoughts and feelings.

If religion is indeed a question for human reason to answer, we can develop a typology of logically possible answers. To do so is important, I warrant, because typologies make clear positions of agreement and disagreement. A popular type of answer to the question of religion since the Axial Age is ‘theism.’ Here, atheism identifies a set of answers to the religious question including things besides God. ‘Atheism’ is not the denial of God per se, but the offering of different kind of answer. If religion is a question, then atheism is a positive movement of thought, offering a variety of answers.

But what is wrong religiously with the mere denial of theism? If religion is a question to be pursued philosophically, and theism is one type of answer to this question, thorough philosophical critiques of theism can only help our approach to religious truth. Philosophical critiques of theism have shown that the very concept of God seems troubled. Consider the criticisms of Carneades, a renowned skeptic of the second century BCE. Carneades argued that God cannot exist because the very concept of God – that of a person with unlimited existence – is nonsense, contradictory. How, Carneades asks, can any person in principle be unlimited when all the qualities by which we define personhood – life, sensation, virtue – imply some kind of limit. To my knowledge, the classical tradition of theism upon which is based the theology of all the major theistic faiths have never answered this objection successfully, even with over 2,000 years of effort. So atheism certainly should seem attractive given its success criticizing the fundamental concept of its religious rival.

But we must remember that Carneades was a skeptic, he belonged to the skeptical school at Athens. So he mostly critiqued other theories. Mere criticism is usually not persuasive; people expect the critic to offer some other commitment to fill the blank. The Romans expelled Carneades from the City once because he argued convincingly for justice, then promptly argued with equal conviction against it. So there you go. The Romans were effective governors, and they knew that skepticism alone ends in chaos.

Political limitations aside, the philosophical problem with atheism as mere skepticism is that a theistic skeptic can only criticize the theism she knows. Carneades only knew Greek theology. He did not know, for example, the temporal theism begun in Europe by the anti-Trinitarian Socinus and developed extensively in the 20th century by Whitehead, Hartshorne, and Weiman. When the Enlightenment of the 18th century begun the long work, still in progress, of supplanting the habit of authority in western culture with the habit of reason, the West discovered the virtue of tolerance, a habit of mind virtually unknown in much religious expression up to that point. But tolerance does not function, in the last analysis, to defend the opportunity to criticize. Whitehead writes:

The duty of tolerance is our finite homage to the abundance of inexhaustible novelty which is awaiting the future, and to the complexity of accomplished fact which exceeds our stretch of insight

(AI 52)

We can’t know everything, so reason demands that we offer something new, something inspired by the abundance of possibility and the complexity of fact. If religion is a question, then skepticism may help us to find the answer, but in itself it is no answer. Free thinkers of any kind, of whatever commitments, must understand free thinking as the responsibility to propose, not simply as the freedom to dispose. We are fragmentary beings called to adventure, adventure in science, in arts, in religion.

I venture the observation that I have now finished the first movement of today’s talk, to suggest to you all that atheism can be religious in character. It can offer a positive, rational, non-theistic answer to the question of religion, the question of the meaning of one’s individual’s life and life generally considered. The rest of today’s talk, and all of next month’s talk, will be to attempt to do exactly what the rational commitment requires, to suggest reasoned, atheistic answers to the religious question.

If ‘atheism’ and ‘theism’ mutually identify logically exhaustive sets of all possible rational answers to the religious question, then atheism itself, understood as the set of positive, non-theistic answers, can itself be resolved into two, also logically exhaustive sets of possible atheistic answers. The first set identifies answers in which humans in some way create the meaning of life for themselves. In the second, humans find life’s meaning in the nature of things conceived in some non-theistic way.

Common to both forms of religious atheism is the firm conviction that humans are responsible for discovering the element of meaning in their lives, individually and socially. Humans must do rational work, work of the mind and of the imagination, to acquire a sense of meaning. The final loyalties of our lives are not announced clearly for all time by a supernatural power. Sometimes the term ‘humanism’ refers to this common conviction of human responsibility for religious truth and for any kind of truth. Certainly the religious temperament here is very different than the temperament of the Abrahamic faiths. It is the temperament of engagement rather than the temperament of passivity.

The two forms of religious atheism, though, also suggest that atheists, when not banding together under the banner of reason and responsibility, might disagree. They might, it is conceivable, develop distinct, independent congregations who gather under the different atheistic answers to the religious question. Perhaps only the overwhelming pressure of theism in our culture inhibits these possible developments. I would like to offer to you all in the time remaining that the first set, the atheistic school, if you like, that says that humans must make their meaning, is not philosophically sound. Therefore, atheists should focus upon the positive options found in the teaching that humans, while responsible for life’s meaning, nevertheless must find it in the nature of things.

Jean Paul Sartre provides a lucid, honest, and courageous expression of the first atheistic type. It is all there in a wonderful essay he wrote entitled “Existentialism is a Humanism.” The title of the essays catches the eye because Sartre was often a critic of humanism. And, indeed, he is clear that humanism is absurd when it tries to deny God but then give to humanity God’s religious status. But existentialism is a genuine humanism, Sartre claims, because existentialism genuinely understands what it means to be human in the absence of God. He writes:

Existentialism is nothing else but an attempt to draw the full conclusions from a consistently atheistic position

(EDS, 369)

The absence of God, says Sartre, means that humanity can appeal to no essential goodness or essential human nature to decide how to choose. Instead, the act of choice completely creates the individual person. Sartre uses phrases like “man is condemned to be free” or “man is freedom.” The condemnation lies in the fact that no aspect of reality exists to provide guidance for choice. ‘Choice’ for Sartre does not have the meaning of uncertainty as to which particular option best expresses some general goodness or true human nature existing independently. There is no general goodness and there is no human nature.

Thus, the statement ‘man is freedom’ is an ontological statement; to be human is to create yourself without some ‘given’ element in experience. There is nothing in reality which is universal or necessary and so must exist in any possible choice and helping to determine that choice . “[T]here is no determinism” Sartre tells us, or “we ourselves decide our being.” Likewise, because humans must choose a morality without appeal to any moral essence preceding the choice, humans must create their own morality, their own meaning. Again, Sartre writes:

Man makes himself; he is not found ready-made; he makes himself by the choice of his morality, and he cannot but choose a morality

(EDS, 365)

Sartre articulates an inspiring and courageous position, demanding that we take complete responsibility for our lives. Freud once observed that religion is infantile. Sartre’s answer, however, to the religious question certainly gives to us a pathway to a religion of adulthood. The problem is that if a philosophical approach to religion demands that putative answers to the religious question be logically consistent, I suggest that Sartre’s proposal fails that test.

He fails this test because his denial of any universal element in reality, and subsequent affirmation of human freedom, also becomes an affirmation of freedom itself as a universal. Sartre says as much; although he at first seems to want to deny any kind of general morality, he concludes that freedom as an end in itself. He writes:

I can pronounce a moral judgment. For I declare that freedom…can have no other end and aim but itself…the actions of men of good faith have, as their ultimate significance, the quest of freedom itself

(EDS, 366)

Note, too, that this moral goal, to maximize freedom, is itself not chosen. Because humanity is free, humanity must pursue this goal to be good. But if humanity must pursue the goal of freedom, then freedom must be a universal, a quality logically prior to any individual human choice. The liberal Christian theologian Shubert Ogden, in an essay critical of Sartre’s atheism, puts the point nicely:

If man is condemned to be free, then there is one thing, at least, with respect to which he has no freedom whatever; his own distinctively human capacity for free and responsible action

(RG, 130)

If so, then Sartre’s own reasoning betrays his conclusions. In fact, humans do not create their own meaning because our freedom to choose our values and our lives implies that freedom is not something humans create, but something established in the nature of things. The religious question, what is the meaning of life, cannot have as an answer, humans must create their own meaning. Existence precedes essence, Sartre writes repeatedly, but his own reasoning discloses freedom as an essence which precedes existence and is expressed in all human existence.

Ogden, the Christian theologian, concludes that Sartre is an example of “the strange witness of unbelief.” In other words, since Sartre understands his conclusions as logical implications of his atheistic premise, the contradictions of his conclusions imply the failure of his premise. Thus, Ogden concludes, Sartre in effect argues for God’s existence.

At this point, it becomes explicitly crucial define philosophical terms like ‘God.’ What does ‘God’ mean anyway, whether true or false? If an atheist denies God’s existence, then the positive meaning of atheism is not clear until we have a clear definition of God. Ogden’s conclusions about Sartre in effect equate the term ‘God’ with the metaphysical notion of ‘necessarily existent’ or ‘universal’ or ‘unconditioned.’ But ‘necessarily existent’ is too broad a definition for ‘God.’ For example and back to Sartre, on Ogden’s use of the term ‘God,’ freedom is God, at least for Sartre. Better, I think, to call freedom simply freedom. ‘God’ I offer generally means a cosmic personality or creature. On this definition, Sartre is no theist, even if his atheism suffers from fatal errors.

Most important, defining ‘God’ generally as the notion of a cosmic personality opens the mind to the second type of religious atheism I mentioned earlier. This variety of religious atheism agrees with theists, and disagrees with atheistic existentialism, that the answer to the religious question is something ‘given’ in experience. The meaning of life is found by philosophically exploring elements in experience which in fact do influence us, do determine who we are to some extent. Like theism, this second form of religious atheism acknowledges that finding the answer to the religious question requires some movement, mental and emotional, of reception, of dependence, of being given something. Religious atheism of this second kind may embrace, I warrant, some notion of grace.

I will call this second kind of religious atheism: atheistic natural religion. For if humans cannot create meaning, and God does not exist, then the answer to the question of religion must be found somehow, somewhere, in nature. Humans remain responsible for finding meaning. The traditions held by this congregation tell us that truth is discovered by consulting the book of nature. It is my hope that today’s talk gives greater philosophical warrant to this atheistic approach.

The book of nature may include answers to the question of religion which are cosmic and mystical. It will be the effort of the next talk to suggest such answers. We will explore the tradition of Buddhism and the writings of John Dewey and Carl Sagan. Thank you very much.

Day of Angels

May 7th, web Day of Angels, is a holiday that I have started to celebrate the ‘angels’ in my life. The special people that have helped me in times when I thought I was lost or needed that special touch or word.

Take some time today to say thank you to those people in you life that have helped you, supported you, or have given you that uplifting moment to help you continue on or maintain hope.

This is the day to say ‘Thank you.’ to those special angels in your life.