Shuck and Jive

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Religion: Escape or Reinvent?

I have been having an internal conversation as I am finishing Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion. Overall, I am impressed. I thought I would disagree with him more, but I really don't. He lays out the case that many have before him, that there simply is no work for "God" to do. A supernatural being or collection of beings has no where to lay his head. I am not going to bother going into all of that. I have been pretty well convinced of that for some time.

The conversation I am having with myself is in regards to the place of religion. A few posts ago I answered in the negative the following three questions:
  • Is religion, by definition, concerned with the supernatural?
  • Is it forever wedded to the premise that the supernatural exists?
  • Is religion about God and/or gods?
The issue I was having with Dawkins is that I thought he thought belief in a supernatural being and being religious was the same thing. Throw out the supernatural being and throw out the religious tradition as well. I am not going there because I think there is a great deal of value in our tradition and in the social quest to make meaning which I think is the essence of religion. Religion is about practical living--coping with life--getting the most out of life. That is what religion is about. The supernatural beings are an add on, a superfluous (and now troublesome) aspect of religion. In my view they need to be exorcised.

I was thinking Dawkins doesn't want any of it. His at times careless use of the word religious as a synonym for superstitious can lead you to think that way.

When I finished his second to last chapter I saw his concern. It had to do with how we instruct children. Particularly, he sees the role of religion as making people credulous. Rather than have one's mind changed, "faith" as commonly taught supposedly makes you more rigid. Religion is psychologically abusing children by turning them into gullible believers rather than critical thinkers.

He hasn't been to my church yet. I don't want anyone to believe a damn thing I say, including the kids. Folks should question everything. Not only is my church like that, but a lot of churches are like that. I was bumming on Dawkins because he wasn't getting that there are religious people who are not gullible but who value religion as a product of human creativity and as a source for positive social change.

In his second to last chapter he writes about the Bible and the Christian tradition as something that has value:

I have probably said enough to convince at least my older readers that an atheistic world-view provides no justification for cutting the Bible, and other sacred books, out of our education. And of course we can retain a sentimental loyalty to the cultural and literary traditions of, say, Judaism, Anglicanism or Islam, and even participate in religious rituals such as marriages and funerals, without buying into the supernatural beliefs that historically went along with those traditions. We can give up belief in God while not losing touch with a treasured heritage. p. 344
In addition to marriages and funerals I would add Sunday morning celebrations, study groups, protest marches, potlucks, and various other religious trappings. Perhaps he would even show up for Evolution Sunday?

I do share his concern that much of religion (perhaps most?) is pretty pathetic. Marc Adams who will speak at ETSU this coming Thursday had to escape from religion. I am glad that ETSU has this group for students in the midst of a culture saturated with superstition.

Religion is something many people
should escape from. In his appendix, Dawkins lists some organizations that will help you do just that. They include:
and many others.

Again, for some it is escape from religion. For others it is the reinvention of religion. That is what I am into doing. That is why I like:
and many others.

Back to Dawkins. Even if you disagree with him about religion, he is one hell of an evolutionary biologist. I'll be reading The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence for Evolution next.


  1. What I think Dawkins and many other militant atheists fail to grasp is that theism is at least as much a social phenomenon as an intellectual one. Once I got outside the church it was much easier to see the peer pressure and herdmind I'd been largely blind to that held me in for years in spite of my own best judgment.

    Atheism is going to continue to be a really hard sell unless/until it provides a social matrix competitive with those of the major monotheisms; I know a number of functionally atheist people who remain in the Episcopal Church for that reason. Unfortunately, all that Dawkins has to offer is a lonely chorus bewailing the ostensibly manifest stupidity of most of humanity.

    I enjoyed GSoE a great deal, although I felt a lot was missing from the audiobook. Get a paper copy.

  2. From John's post:
    “Religion is psychologically abusing children by turning them into gullible believers rather than critical thinkers.”
    “I don't want anyone to believe a damn thing I say, including the kids. Folks should question everything.”
    Can I get an Amen? This is exactly why I belong to FPC. When I moved my family to the Bible belt, I knew that I had to find a way to educate my children about religion. I found FPC and now I educate my children in religion. Thank you John for thought-provoking posts. I need to find time to read Dawkins again.

  3. I have thought for years that most Christian curriculum (even in the more progressive and even liberal churches like the United Church of Christ) is terrible because they always start with the party line of "belief," supposedly with the thought that children's minds are not capable of understanding the big picture. As though they would get over God like getting over Santa Claus. That's not what happens, as Dawkins apparently points out.

    The Unitarian Universalists are fantastic with their Religious Education curricula from toddlers through high school. Christian denominations might consider looking at UU R.E. for ideas about transforming Sunday School.

    I personally like John Dominic Crossan's definintion of a kenotic God. A kenotic god is a god whose presence is justice and life and whose absence is injustice and death. I have a series of discussions on this on my website, which I developed during Holy Week of 2007. You can read it (and use it if you give me the credit).

    My next comment will have the url.


  5. @JKC social matrix is a key all right..

    @Liz LP Thanks for the good words! So glad you and the fam are with us!

    @SeaRaven The UUs do have some great stuff. The Jesus Seminar publishes a great curriculum about Jesus for elementary through middle school, Jesus and His Kingdom of Equals.

  6. Dear JKC,

    With idiots like Pat Robertson saying horrible things about the Haitian people in the aftermath of their earthquake while claiming to represent Christ then there will never ever be a shortage of us atheists.

    You also need to just accept the fact that some of us don't simply don't believe. And we're not bad or immoral people because we don't share your beliefs.

    Every Atheist Every Where

  7. John, a pleasure to read your post.

    I find myself fumbling in the mouth trying to get out the mix of reason and emotion that comes to me when I hear or read about 'God' and 'Creation.' I am bumfuzzled by such words and see them so grossly smeared and laden with the bric-a-brac of history and childhood that I can not conceive of using them to clarify my mind.

    However, when intelligent and thoughtful people work to give them explicit content, it looks to me like a silly exercise. Deism, pandeism, pantheism, etc, 'that which is most perfect',' that beyond which none could be better', 'first cause', 'prime mover', etc. History has plenty of representatives to this cause.

    Seems best to me to dump the word.

    Religion is different from the search for religion. I've been to two churches that seem to honor the search more than the outcome: a UU church in memphis and First Presb in Elizabethton. As I tell my children: we go to be among thoughtful people talking about important things. But truthfully, I go as well for a sense of being somewhere.

    WHen I was 19, I read Eliade's "The Sacred and the Profane." I ate it up. It got me thinking about religion and I haven't been able to stop since. I'd like to just let it go, but I can't seem to; and lately I've been getting angry at the presumptions of Christendom, especially the local flavors, that it has the cornerstones for decency, morality, awe and wonder.

    Thank you again for your post. I am being led to try to 'spiritualize' randomness and rules, "Chance and Necessity" as Jacques Monod called it. Perhaps I'll find a way to keep from fumbling and join with some thoughtful folks in this enterprise.

    Mike G

  8. I think Dawkins smug attempt to rid the world of faith and religion will go the way of Voltaire and the other enlightened thinkers of the French revolution.

    Timothy Keller's book "The Reason for God" debunks Dawkins & co's way of thinking in chapter 2. Now that's a book really worth reading.

    As for "I don't want anyone to believe a damn thing I say, including the kids" ...that's my prayer, too, John.

  9. Yeah, after all, who's ever heard of Voltaire?

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