Recently in the secular(ish) West the common belief and bias about those who identify as religious goes something like this: people who identify as religious don't tend to love new ideas, think belief is sufficient to pave over the messy bits that crop up out of Holy texts, and don't mind following rules, even if they don't understand the rationale behind them. For many of us, that's not the world we want to live in. With science answering many of the tough questions that religion tried to answer, and with fundamentalism and corruption not exactly helping religion's image, is it possible to be a critical thinker and still practice as part of an organized faith community?
In today's secular, scientific, rational, post-modern Western society, atheism has risen to prominence, with brilliant authors like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens writing some of the most compelling books of the past decade. While not identical, their argument against God and religion can be summarized like this:
1) God does not exist because science answers the tough questions about our universe without needing a supernatural Creator as part of that answer.
2) God is provable i.e., it is something that can be proven to either exist or not, and currently can be proven to be highly likely not to exist.
3) Religion ruins everything i.e., it is responsible or at least can lead to irrationality, violence, sexism, stupidity, corruption, war, ill health, tyranny, slavery, genocide, racism, thievery and, yes, even bad sex.
So let's see if they are right.
Argument 1: Dawkins sets up his definition of what he means by God very clearly: "...there exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it." (The God Delusion, p.52) It's the all-powerful, all-knowing God of our childhoods and the one that makes a great comic book or movie character (see the Emperor and Obi-Wan Kenobi from Star Wars). It's the God that is Human, all too Human, just with some extra strengths. This is not the Divine depicted in Buddhism, nor the formless presence that stirs creation in Genesis, and once Dawkins goes here, he doesn't tend to depart from this version to address any other version of God (given that he thinks all versions are irrational, I'm guessing he felt he had better things to do). Both Dawkins and Hitchens then go on to note that the theory of evolution, contemporary physics and modern or post-modern science can all provide adequate answers to questions like "how did life come about?" and "what is the nature of the universe?" without ever needing to rely on the necessity of any deity.
Fine, you say, I agree that evolution is true and rational, but wait, surely this amazing complexity and interconnectivity of life is not random, not chance? Sorry. Dawkins breaks down this "theory of improbability" by showing that biologists depict natural selection as a cumulative process: adaptation and change happen slowly and cumulatively over time, thereby making the complexity of life amazing but really not all that improbable (God Delusion, p.147). Dawkins even offers a mathematical formula for the admittedly amazing odds that life arose on this planet: "If the odds of life originating spontaneously on a planet were a billion to one against, nevertheless that stupefying improbable event would still happen on a billion planets (God Delusion, pp. 165-166)." Finally, Dawkins slams the door shut that many thinkers have tried to bolt through: "Well, God is the mystery then." But Dawkins counters if God becomes whatever science can't answer currently, then God will continually shrink into nothingness as science will surely continue to grow and provide answers (God Delusion, p.151). Um, ouch.
Argument 2: Some of the tension between the religious and the non-religious has been over whether or not God can be proven to exist. During pre-Newton, pre-Einstein and pre-Darwin times, religion was a potential source for answering questions about the nature of our world. But in post-modern times, what kind of proof are we looking for, now that many of the mysteries have a scientific explanation (and often one that is no less wondrous than angels and voices from the sky)? Post-modern atheists want a proof that comes from a strict empiricism that is demonstrable by the scientific method. In this perception or framing, God becomes by necessity either an entity or a force. In many religious perspectives, this might be a fair framing. If one follows that line of reasoning, it becomes quickly clear who will win this debate: it is becoming increasingly unlikely we are going to find something we can call a "God molecule" or a "God force" that is found in all matter in the universe. The other move, they argue, is to bring in our own subjective experiences, but this takes a decidedly relativistic and unsatisfying turn. Once again, if this is the only framing of the discussion on God, it would appear that the atheists have got it right.
Argument 3: Interestingly enough, while religion can lead to all the negative aspects of humanity, it is apparently not responsible for anything good, such as art, music, architecture, literature, community, social programs, or ethics. When that occurs, Hitchens thinks that could all arise without religion (which may be true) and Dawkins is too busy being disgusted by religion to bother thinking about that possibility. Where they do have a more compelling point is here: when religion insists on "one true way", "one answer" above all, it is a recipe for violence, hatred, exploitation and lack of thought. Damning, indeed. But surely a bit overstated? Neither author really convincingly argues that it is religion itself that is the first cause of the violence. In most examples cited, other factors like economics, politics and poverty cannot be separated from the situations. This is in no way to say that religion is not a significant factor, but it is not clear that it is a necessary factor.
So now what? Is there a post-modern theology that can tackle this? Process theology might be it. Originating with Alfred North Whitehead out of the collapse of Newtonian physics and the rise of Einstein's transformative discoveries, Whitehead crafted a metaphysics that included a view of a universe that flowed and changed. In process theology, God looks more like this:
1) Not omnipotent, infallible, immortal, impassible, immutable, omniscience
2) God is panentheistic: God is the whole and greater than the whole, the whole is in God,
3) God is panexperiential: takes into account all the feelings, sensations, apprehensions that make up the fullness of being and being a Being.
4) God acts as a lure to all creation. Process theologians look at life's tendency to move towards greater complexity, to not give in to entropy, to evolve, and see that as the Divine. As Process theologian Marjorie Suchocki puts it "The simple did not contain the complex; when complex shell life emerged it was a leap beyond its past to a new form of existence. It moved into a future that transcended all achievements of its past. Presumably shell life has no consciousness, as we know it, such that it could imagine possibilities that go beyond its past. What accounts for the pull towards its future?" (Divinity and Diversity: A Christian Affirmation of Religious Pluralism pp. 46-47).
5) Feelings matter. Radical empiricism is defined by the understanding that sense-perception is neither the only nor the primary mode of experience, but is rather derived from a still more elemental and organic togetherness of the experiencing subject and the experienced environment. This allows for all that messy stuff that many of us rely on for shaping our reality and knowledge: the unconscious, the cultures and environment around us, memory, quantum fields, and all that spooky, hard-to-quantify stuff.
6) God is the creative drive: God, according to process thinkers, is essentially creative, and when we participate in God we are in the creative process, drawing on past experiences and impressions to create a future in every moment. John Cobb Jr, who is one of the driving forces behind this approach defines it this way: "It must take account of its past, and this past sets boundaries determining what is possible for the present individual. However, precisely how the present subject responds to its past, precisely how it incorporates the past feeling, precisely how it integrates the multiplicity of feelings into a unified experience- this is not determined by the past. The past does not dictate precisely how it will be immortalized. This is determined by each present actuality. For each actuality is partially self-creative; it finally creates itself out of the material that is given to it." (Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition, p. 25)
In short, this is a post-modern God, a Divine that frees us from a still-mechanistic nature-as-robot-master viewpoint that contemporary or the The New Atheism atheism appears to reduce us to i.e., it's all just brain states, we are "bio-robots", and evolution as a scientific paradigm only.
So does Process Theology transcend the Dawkins/Hitchens test? Would they invite me out for a pint or send me down the block to the pub that they weren't actually going to? The answer is not definitive. First off, they and other atheists have to be willing to entertain a God/Divine that doesn't look like a superhero. The fact that there are significant religious communities that practice in that way should at least allow for that possibility to be discussed, but reading and listening to many atheists has shown me that it still does meet with surprising reluctance when offered as a counter-argument. They can't argue about a Divine that's only on their terms, there needs to be a better understanding as to what people are meaning, practicing, or experiencing as God before they can declare that God is dead.
Secondly, there needs to be a discussion on what constitutes proof. If the universe is going to be defined by only a strict empiricism then we have a problem. Strict empiricism doesn't cover the full range of human (or even quantum) experience so if atheists are going to use that, they have to be fair to their method and allow for some of the messy stuff (hey, even Einstein didn't like this*) to be part of the discussion . It seems oddly, well, Modern, instead of Post-modern to limit the discussion in this way.
Thirdly, there needs to be a willingness on all fronts to remain open-minded to our own beliefs, convictions and dogmas. I had a telling exchange as a grad student with Daniel Dennett when I brought up David Chalmers's work in the Problem of Consciousness, which he thought was such an incorrect track to traverse i.e., the bio-robots verses the interiority of experience argument again. He basically refused to have the discussion because he felt it was a waste of time. Atheists and religious practitioners get stuck in a similar discussion with the religious pointing out that science does not tell us the meaning of Life nor how to live a good, just, fulfilling or ethical life, which Atheists then answer, so? Atheists, including Hitchens and Dawkins, can be blind to their own inherent existentialism or empiricist epistemology, and this stalls the discussion as much as they feel religious folks are stalling it by not applying some rational criteria to their beliefs. So we all need to expand and stretch a bit here.
Fourthly those of us practicing in a religious community need to acknowledge the hell on earth that some of us have created in the name of religion and work towards transforming it.
Fifthly, some of us religious people are going to have to go through the sometimes painful and sometimes freeing process of realizing God might not be what we thought He/She/It was and seeing what our faith looks like in light of our current knowledge and time. For some of us, this makes for a God that "makes sense" and is removed from fantasy; for others, this will crush belief. But the way Hitchens and Dawkins frame religion, you'd be left with the impression that this never happens, when in fact it happens in Churches, Mosques, Temples and Synagogues all the time. Religion and religious belief is not static, nor do even many of the more "traditional" of various beliefs frame it that way.
If faith doesn't inspire dialogue and transformation in all of us, likely we are missing the point. The New Atheist perspective seems to make the disappointing move that was characteristic of modern versus postmodern thought: it ignores the full(er) experience of being human, ignoring the interior lives of human beings which provides a perfectly valid way of learning and coming to wisdom of all sorts. Recent bodies of study and knowledge, including the Integral movement, have been challenging more compartmentalized ways of understanding the world and ourselves, hoping to address this strange defect of compartmentalization that has impoverished so many disciplines and left many of us hungry for a more integrated way of thinking of ourselves and the world. And ignoring all the examples in the world where religion has yielded exceptional individuals, communities, art, compassion and traditions seems a grossly simplistic misunderstanding of what religion is capable of.
So perhaps we are each buying a round: me to acknowledge the negative things that religion has wrought in its name and to do the work of evolving it forward for our time, and New Atheists to actually learn about religion(s) and their beliefs and admitting that perhaps, just perhaps, there is more "in there", then they first realized.
* Einstein called quantum entanglement, "spooky action at a distance."