Kinds of atheism, kinds of theism

Elisa Freschi, a philosopher specializing in Indian-subcontinent philosophy, has written an interesting post about atheism, in which she says: “in European history, atheism is the refusal of theism as conceived in modern times, with God as one ‘thing’ among others.” Thus if you refute a theism in which God is a “natural cause” — which is mostly what modern atheism does — you wind up with modern atheism, which can be defined as atheism-as-naturalism. However, such atheism-as-naturalism doesn’t have much to say about the God of Meister Eckhart.

In Indian philosophy, according to Freschi, when people talk about God, “God” may have at least four different meanings: the devatas (the mythological gods); the isvara (the God of rational theology); the Brahman (an impersonal deity); or the bhagavat God (the God of personal devotion). Freschi contends that “atheism in India is mostly targeted at two concepts of god, on the one hand the gods (devata) of mythology and on the other the Lord (isvara) of rational theology.” Freschi goes on to outline how in the 13th to 14th centuries C.E., Indian philosophers such asĀ  Venkatanatha responded to the atheism of the earlier Nyasa school by developing new forms of theism, which Freschi calls “post-atheism theism.”

This discussion becomes relevant to Unitarian Universalism when one considers that many current arguments against theism in our congregations are arguments for naturalism; that is, arguments for modern atheism, which considers God as a “thing.” These arguments become less intelligible when considered as arguments against, e.g., Martin Buber’s conception of God as “Thou,” or God considered in panentheist or pantheist terms.

Another way of saying this is that when using the English-language term “God,” you have to be careful to define in what sense you are using that term. When you argue against God as a thing which is a natural cause, your arguments will have little effect on those for whom God is defined in terms of a personal devotional relationship.

Furthermore, if a modern atheist winds up arguing with a mystic, someone like Henry David Thoreau or me, they might find they’re arguing with a religious naturalist who agrees entirely with their naturalist arguments, but who does not define God as a thing which is a natural cause. If we don’t clarify which definition of God we’re using, the argument is going to get confusing very quickly.

Moving away from the humanist-theist debate

Tonight Amy Zucker Morgenstern, the senior minister at the Palo Alto church, and I led a class on humanism, theism, and naturalism, part of a series of classes we’re doing on current issues in liberal religion. We each began with a presentation on the topic; the text of my presentation is below. Our presentations were followed by a lively and enjoyable conversation with the 14 people who came, a conversation that ranged from metaphysics to demographics.

When Amy and I started talking about this class, I knew right away what I wanted to talk about: I wanted to talk about religious naturalism. I wanted to talk about religious naturalism because at the moment it is the only theological “ism” that I have any interest in associating with.

The reason I wanted to talk about religious naturalism is because in my experience it is the only theological position within Unitarian Universalism that doesn’t by definition shut out one or more other theological positions. Humanists and theists each want to shut the other group out, even force the other group out. Humanists and christian theists want to keep those doggone pagans out, and pagans, given half a chance, would shut out the humanists and christian theists. The Buddhists sit there smiling smugly at everyone else as if they have the real answers, and they’re willing to tolerate us until such a time that the rest of us get with their program. And so on.

This is all very fine and good. I like a good knock-down, drag-out argument as much as anyone. (Though I will admit I prefer theological bar fights to what academic theologians do — that is, I prefer an out-and-out fight with shouting, throwing of bar stools, and fisticuffs, to the refined intellectual backstabbing that is too often characteristic of the academy.) In fact, I think arguments are a lot of fun, as long as those who are involved are all basically healthy, and all basically want to get involved in the fight. Continue reading “Moving away from the humanist-theist debate”

New blog on theism vs. atheism

Chris Schreiner, who is both brave and smart, has started a new blog on how to get theists and atheists to talk with one another sanely and productively. I say that Chris is brave because every time I have tried to start such a conversation, I find myself standing in the middle of two warring camps who are hurling things at each other. Chris is also really smart: he’s a minister, psychotherapist, and author of five books, including Bridging the God Gap: Finding Common Ground Among Believers, Atheists and Agnostics; beyond that, when you sit and talk with him, you quickly discover that he is kind, perceptive, well-read, and articulate.

So what are you waiting for? — go read his new blog, Theists and Atheists, Communication and Common Ground.