Thursday, November 12, 2009

Thomas Moore vs. the New Atheists? Buy Me Tickets!

So I'm here at the UUMA Convocation, and the keynote speaker this morning was Thomas Moore.

What I took from what Thomas Moore shared with us is that there is a divorce in American culture between science and religion, which is the split between mind/intellect and soul. There's nothing surprising in that idea, of course. But Thomas Moore put it simply pointedly, saying (or this is my interpretation of what he said) that most people stop developing their idea of God as children, and the ideas of God put out there the most in our culture are essentially the God we learn at age 6 or 7. Now, reflecting a bit on what he said, imagine if you stopped your understanding of what math is or literature is or science is or medicine is at age 6 or 7. Why do we think that this childhood idea of God is sufficient? My own question is why do even ministers support, uphold, even preach this childish idea of God?

One question that was put to Thomas Moore in the question and answer time was about the New Atheists. People have probably heard me rant about the "New Atheists" before, as I beleive that they misrepresent or ignore the existence of liberal religion. Well, Thomas Moore said something very similar, which is that they haven't debated a worthy opponent. They only set up the straw man of fundamentalism and then knock it down. He suggested Dietrich Bonhoeffer, for example, as a more worthy opponent. But then, he said, atheism would just melt into God. Moore also suggested he'd be willing to debate them. Now that's a discussion I'd like to see!


Robin Edgar said...

"My own question is why do even ministers support, uphold, even preach this childish idea of God?"

Perhaps because they can't deal with God as God really is. . .

Steve Caldwell said...

Rev. Cyn -- first, thanks for using the "new atheist" term and not using the "fundamentalist atheist" term.

My experience with the latter term in Unitarian Universalist settings and elsewhere is that "fundamentalist atheist" is used as a put-down and is basically an invitation for the person expressing non-theist views to just shut up.

However, the "new atheist" term can be an over-simplification of of a generally productive, useful, and positive attitude towards life.

Here's a critique of the "new atheist" term from PZ Myers (biology prof from University of Minnesota - Morris and prominent writer on atheism):

"The "new atheism" (I don't like that phrase, either) is about taking a core set of principles that have proven themselves powerful and useful in the scientific world — you've probably noticed that many of these uppity atheists are coming out of a scientific background — and insisting that they also apply to everything else people do. These principles are a reliance on natural causes and demanding explanations in terms of the real world, with a documentary chain of evidence, that anyone can examine. The virtues are critical thinking, flexibility, openness, verification, and evidence. The sins are dogma, faith, tradition, revelation, superstition, and the supernatural. There is no holy writ, and a central idea is that everything must be open to rational, evidence-based criticism — it's the opposite of fundamentalism."

Given human history and our tendency to self-deception and deceiving others, the suggestion that one is expected to provide evidence for any claims that are made is a healthy one in my opinion.

As a Unitarian Universalist, I wouldn't say that "revelation" should be rejected totally. I do think it should be critically examined and perhaps discarded if found wanting. Otherwise, one ends up with revelation that can harm others.

For example, the Baha'i faith has a lot of postive things that we Unitarian Universalists would agree with (racial equality, gender equality, promoting universal access to education, etc).

However, their attitudes towards homosexuality are very similar to conservative Christian attitudes (e.g. "pray away the gay" religious therapy that is considered to be harmful by the secular mental professional groups).

This demonstrates a potential problem with unquestioned revelation and why we should be OK with skepticism in Unitarian Universalist communities.