This regularly-occurring series trades on the notion topics of religion, especially in a theist vs. atheist context, are interesting. For those who grew up in the church and have left or happily remain immersed, the following dialogue will at some point elicit a strong response. Good. This series also intends to dispel the myth often held by textbook atheists that people who believe in God are naive, dumb, and defenseless. And, for the theists, to show not all atheists are bitter, had a bad experience in church, or are in a stage they just need to grow out of.
Many self-proclaimed intellectual atheists and genuine ones, too, are able to hold their own in arguments championing the absurdity of religion and spirituality. And many self-proclaimed theist intellectuals and genuine ones, too, are able to defend their faith using thoughtful, robust arguments. The Spectator Tribune will only narrate this conversation and ensure both parties play by one rule: No fisticuffs.
By: Gary Conway (theist) & Brett Geisel (atheist)
Greetings and salutations from a confirmed apostate! I am looking forward to our dialogue and hope that we can manage this with a minimum of bloodshed.
At the outset I think it only wise to share that you have spent far more time educating yourself formally about spirituality and religion, while I have formulated my opinions based on my own internal examination of what I find credible in the spirituality department. And the opinion I have formed is this:
We, as a species, no longer need God.
Once we did, for sure. Belief in God is what kept us from killing each other. Belief established a set of rules to live by that forms the basis of many of our laws and our understanding of morality today. Valuable laws. Laws that we need in order to live together.
We have evolved to the point where we must move on. “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” It is time for us to do just that. Our culture, philosophy, art, science – all have progressed to a point where we no longer need to externalize understanding of our existence. We don’t have to justify our being here as the act of an omnipotent being. We can simply accept that our existence is a wonderful, amazing, profound thing without being the project of a deity. Like children who have grown to adulthood, it is time for us to move out from under the paternalistic intellectual shadow that is religious belief. For too long we have justified our actions as the will of other than ourselves.
I would be interested to know what you think of that.
Do we need God, or, have we evolved to the point where we must move on, no longer externalizing our understanding of our existence , but, like grown children, move out from under a paternalistic intellectual shadow that is religious belief?
In an effort to create a dialogue on the role of religion in our culture, this is the question we have chosen to spark the debate. Speaking from a Christian perspective, I think the question is more than appropriate. It highlights immediately the reality that the theist and the atheist begin from a fundamentally different starting place or set of presuppositions, one of the most important of which is not the question of God, but what it means to be human.
The theist is going to answer our starting question with a resounding ‘Yes we still need God!’ Yet, the question itself is, at a certain level, rhetorical, answering itself in the negative. As it is extrapolated in its following clauses, it assumes we no longer have any need for a deity, but have grown out of a state of childhood and adolescence, to a mature state where the idea of God as the great father in the sky is no longer necessary nor even appropriate, even though it may have been at an earlier stage of our development.
The idea that humanity has reached a state of maturity is of course open to question based merely on the history of the secular societies of the twentieth century. We saw our vision of humanity reduced by economic theory to its use value. We saw sex reduced to a commodity or pornography. The great strides of science are often off-set by the use of science to create environmental problems on an unprecedented scale, and the quickly increasing ability and practice of humanity to destroy each other, our species, and possibly our planet’s ability to produce and sustain life. All of which deserve greater explication, and counter examples and a score sheet may need to be kept in order to determine if we are actually evolving or devolving.
For now we need merely note that for the Christian this history reminds us of the inherent brokenness of humanity, our world and the need for redemption that this underscores. From the Christian perspective the assumption that humanity is capable of reaching such a state of maturity is dubious at best. We are not immature, evolving or growing into maturity, but a broken species living in a broken world. We are caught in the tension between our evil and good sides, and in serious need of outside help.
Our question also assumes a psychological foundation as central for its theory of the human. To analyse religion through the discipline of psychology is both appropriate and insightful. However, to use the psychological theory of projection to explain God as the externalized projection of an idealized self, community or nation is dangerously reductive for a phenomenon as variegated as religion. As an intellectual enterprise religion is open to fruitful analysis by disciplines as varied as sociology, philosophy, linguistics, aesthetics, law, politics and of course psychology among others, but it cannot be reduced to just one these as an explanation of its essence. In fact, Christianity flips this position on its head, making us created in God’s image, not God in ours.
This brings us to the fundamental difference in our views of humanity. Underlying our question is the presupposition that humanity is a measure unto itself, not open to, or in need of outside criticism or help, masters of our fate, captains of our ship. We determine the standard to which we must strive or to which we may fall, or more likely just settle. This seems to me an overly optimistic view of the human situation, and one that lacks the roots of a tradition offered by a religious context to provide it with direction. For the Christian we can never be our own measure, but will always lack the perspective from outside-of ourselves, our species, creation and time-to be masters of our fate.
The great German thinker Fredrick Nietzsche famously declared God dead over 100 years ago, and quickly recognized that with the of the death of God came the death of human, declaring that ‘Man must be overcome, what have you done to overcome him?’ This led him to courageously call for the ‘over-man,’ but he was never able to go beyond a thumbnail sketch of what the new image of the over-man would be. The death of the idea of God did not lead to a new or mature image of the human but instead to the loss of a convincing human image that it seems to me we have yet to create apart from religion.
For the theist then, God is the question that stands outside of humanity, calling it into question, calling it to account, and calling it to the future. Humanity is neither evolving nor maturing to an ideal version of ourselves. We may be God’s image but God is not ours, and when God is reduced to such, whether by a psychological analysis of the role of God as an idealized father, or a projection of our idealized self, we are left with an idol, but not the fullness of God. As such God represents an infinite excess in relation to the human, always beyond our ideals and strivings. God is always out in front of us, calling into question the human project, with its highs and lows, successes and failures, and offering the opportunity for redemption.
Likewise, Christians chooses to express our understanding of our humanness and our role in the world in an organic constellation of symbols such as creation, the fall, sin, faith, redemption, suffering, grace, judgement, exile, love, justice and hope, amongst others. We do not claim to own these symbols, or even to have created them, recognizing that we share these with most or all religions and a great many people for whom religion holds no power. They retain their power to stimulate humanity because they also partake of an excess, beyond any tidy definitions.
Physics has posited the concept of a unifying theory that would unite the disparate laws that we understand to govern our universe. For the Christian the idea of God is the unifying theory that brings together the constellation of symbols that so many, Christian or not, religious or not, value. It is also the idea of God that questions our attempts to limit and control these symbols, calls us to ever deeper realizations of them, while opening the door of redemption for our failures to achieve even our own diluted versions.
It is important to note that what I have been talking about here is not the question of the existence of God, but rather the validity of the idea of God in our time. That is, after all, a whole other kind of question and one that I believe can only be answered, either affirmatively or negatively, by faith.
Certainly, the question with which we began is legitimate. But, from the view of a theist it expresses a number of presuppositions that we cannot not share with the atheist, and accordingly we will be led to very different conclusion than the rhetorical no it seems to carry, and, not surprisingly, declare a resounding ‘Yes, we most definitely do!’
What a mouthful! And a wonderful foundation upon which we can disagree.
Of course God is a projection of ourselves. And a dangerous one at that. God is the basis upon which we can easily remove responsibility for our own actions – “God made me a sinner, therefore I sin.” It is time for humanity to stand up and declare that we are who we are because of our own choices. Any examination of behaviour theory will show that only when we can accept that we choose to do things for ourselves and not for others can we move on and begin to change. When we constantly strive for the bar set by the other (in this case God) we constantly fail. Failure breeds a sense of dejection, of incompleteness, and a hopelessness that is incredibly dangerous as it breeds an unwillingness to try. In this vein I posit that failings as a species are more resultant from belief in a higher power than from ignoring one. It is time for humanity to stand on our own two feet. To accept that the spiritual is a valuable intellectual exercise that can spur humanity to dizzying heights, and we are being held back by belief in a deity that offers both carrot and stick. For too long God has been a crutch upon which we lean. Let us throw off the shackles of moral tyranny imposed by religion and come to understand that we have within us the power to choose a moral code without the threat of damnation.
To be continued…
If you are interested in participating in future theist & the atheist entries, please contact Spectator Tribune at firstname.lastname@example.org
Brett Geisel is Winnipeg writer, father and, perhaps, atheist zealot (we’re not sure yet).
Gary Conway is a Winnipeg-based writer, theologian, and a fun guy to share a pint with.