CLARIFYNG "SOFT THEISM"
I often get the feeling that atheists are wary of me. That they might be thinking, "OK, he seems pretty reasonable, but what kind of religious nonsense does he actually believe in that he's not telling us?"
I honestly don't think I believe in anything that is dysfunctional or superstitious. As I say in my article, I reject the negative baggage of traditional religion. I reject traditional religion. I just have a belief in the probability of a non-intervening, unverifiable, general, God.
To clarify my position of "Soft Theism" let me answer some questions that atheists might have.
Do you pray?
Rarely. I think petitioning God is a waste of time. If God is omniscient, He already knows what you want, and beseeching Him for something is not going to make Him pay more attention, or grant your desire. I don't believe in petitionary prayer. In fact, the two times in my life when I was desperate and prayed to God from the depths of my soul, from a place of utmost sincerity, for some sign, for some measure of help, some solution to the problem, He responded quite clearly, by saying… nothing. No sign of any sort. No help. I concluded, that if God exists, He never gives us any definitive evidence of His existence or care.
If your God is so non-intervening, then what good is He?
Great question, once asked of me by atheist Dan Barker. Well, He's good at least as some kind of ultimate explanation for life. In practical terms, one might say He is kind of a pointless, useless God. But I choose to interpret four aspects of reality as some soft evidence for God's care for us: 1. Our species is largely thriving on the planet. 2. Our bodies tend to heal. 3. Life is intelligible, navigable, rather than a total crapshoot. 4. There are many good, deeply joyful experiences in life. Granted, one can also interpret these factors as not pointing to a God, but I don't see that my interpretation is unreasonable.
Furthermore, I don't think God leaves us entirely on our own. There is a way in which I think He does intervene, quite pervasively: I interpret Reason, and Compassion, as God's two great voices. Whatever reason dictates, that is what we should do. Whatever compassion dictates, that is what we should do. Those two active concepts are quite abstract, yet they permeate our lives and arbitrate our decisions. I choose to interpret them as God "speaking" to us. The good atheist lives by these two concepts as well, but just doesn't attribute them to God.
How do you worship your God?
Behaving well. Being kind. Making people happier. Making life better. That's it. I think that's what God wants of us. The traditional concept of worshipping God by praising Him, groveling to Him, and above all believing in Him, is horribly misguided. I think it's profoundly immature to think that the ultimate power in the universe is some anthropomorphic egotist. If God exists, He's got to be better than that! If God exists, I have no doubt whatsoever that He accepts the good atheist.
What kind of sick monster God would create an animal kingdom where animals have to kill and eat their fellow creatures?
I know. It doesn't make sense, if God is supposed to be the essence of love. If anything, the cruel animal kingdom points to an evil God. I suppose I both love and hate God at the same time. I see a beautiful tree and I feel that that is evidence of God and His benevolence. And as soon as I finish that thought, Bertrand Russell's words come to mind, that he fails to see the beauty of a tapeworm. As I say, I think atheism is a valid position.
Are you a dualist?
Yes, I am. Not a dualist in the way New Agers or traditional religionists are, in thinking that magical forces, or God's specific intentions, are constantly affecting our lives. Or that there is some magical spirit world in operation frequently breaching the laws of nature. But, yes, in the sense that, in addition to the physical world, reality has a spiritual aspect to it that is very real.
Is love real? Is curiosity real? Or logic, or mathematical concepts, or honesty, or honor, or free will? All these admittedly fuzzy, and abstract and immaterial things, I think do exist.
I think of this example: A good friend is killed by a giant boulder. Which is the greater reality, the boulder or your friendship? Surely, the boulder is a greater reality; it killed your friend. Surely your friendship is a greater reality; the boulder is just an inanimate object. How do I reconcile these two powerful realities? By perceiving the world dualistically. I see life as a constant interplay between both these realities, the physical and the spiritual.
If a person thinks praying will protect him in a dangerous situation, I think that person is living in a delusional spiritual world. But if a person thinks his love for his spouse and children is a great reality, or believes in the honesty of a good friend, or is deeply moved by piece of music, or makes a decision to work hard at a goal, then that person is living in a valid spiritual world. The world of deep emotions, the world of intention and purpose. I think these experiences resist scientific verification, but they are real, and absolutely critical to our definition and identity as human beings.
I don't think the philosophy of monism or scientific reductionism can account for intention. If you examine the molecules of the ink and paper of a menu, you can't really understand a menu, unless you are aware of its intention or purpose.
Awareness, or consciousness, though always an emergent property of a physical brain, is nonetheless not just an extension of that array of molecules, but something quite different. Awareness of the material universe is not just another part of that universe.1 It's a different kind of reality.
What do you think of Dawkins?
Ironically, despite being a theist, I really like Dawkins. I agree with him that belief systems that encourage submission instead of curiosity and rational thought are a danger, often a lethal danger, to society. That kind of "faith" is NOT a virtue. And if he sometimes overstates the case, it doesn't bother me at all, because it needs to be said.
What do you think of Jesus?
Ironically, despite being a theist, I do not think well of him. I think he was a misguided religious extremist. He taught some good things, but also taught some terrible things, such as, that belief is more important than behavior, that prayers will be granted, that the barbaric Old Testament God is the real God, that the world would end in his lifetime, and worst of all, that unbelievers will suffer in Hell for eternity. You cannot present yourself as the all-compassionate one and then threaten people with Hell if you they don't agree with your dubious theology.
Why did you feel compelled to write your "In Defense of Soft Theism" essay?
Not to proselytize people to my position, except maybe at the very lowest level of proselytizing: I like to express my opinions and if somebody agrees with something I said, that's nice. The real reason I wrote this was to counter militant atheism among the skeptic community. I think it's unnecessarily exclusionary and counter-productive. (I'm speaking here of militant atheism against soft theists, not Dawkins's militant atheism against traditional religions, which I think is well justified.)
Do you think liberal Christianity is a legitimate worldview?
I think liberal Christianity doesn't cause the harm conservative Christianity does––liberal Christians are quite accepting and understanding of other religions, and atheists, and gays. I find they are generally a force for good.
But, I think liberal Christianity is not an intellectually honest assessment of the Bible and Jesus. It's cafeteria Christianity. It's Christianity lite. Liberal Christians simply ignore many of Jesus' core teachings, such as Hell, and the prohibition of remarriage. I know it would offend them, but in my opinion, they are not real Christians; they are cultural Christians; they are actually general theists who like some of Jesus' teachings.2
And, I think there is some validity to Dawkins's perspective, that even liberal branches of religion are detrimental to society, because they propagate the same overall belief systems that gives rise to the more extreme branches.
So you believe in an afterlife. How do you envision that afterlife?
I believe in the probability of an afterlife. But an afterlife with the same restrictions as the reality we currently experience, does not make sense to me. You would run into all kinds of logical contradictions and problems. For example, will a widow be hanging out with her first spouse or the second one? Will a person with a 59 rating be excluded yet a person with a 60 rating included? What happens to babies, or severely retarded humans, or smart animals, or people who would have turned their lives around if they weren't killed in an accident? Etc., etc.
The only kind of afterlife that makes sense to me is one beyond our imaginations, one where we are no longer restricted by the limitations of current existence. I would characterize my concept of an afterlife only by the general term––"ultimate justice"––where everybody gets whatever they deserve, however that plays out, who knows how.
To the atheist, of course, this is wishful thinking. But to me, a theist, it makes more sense than the absurdity of life with no ultimate meaning.
You identify with the positions of Steve Allen and Martin Gardner?
Yes, but with some key differences.
I note that Allen despite his criticism of the Bible4, still had a high regard for Jesus as a sage and a decent man. But I agree with Bertrand Russell that no man who teaches the concept of Hell, can be a decent man. As I said, I think Jesus was a religious extremist. I grant him remarkable courage in going to his death willingly, but I think his theology is primitive, and he constantly overstated for the sake of impact at the expense of accuracy.
I note that Gardner did spend time praying, which I don't. And, that his decision to be a theist, given that God can neither be proved nor disproved, is based on emotion. Myself, though I can't deny I emotionally prefer that God exist, I claim my decision is really based on reason (the arguments I made in my article).
Or at least I came to my decision based on reason and intuition rather than reason and emotion. It's less a wishful thinking thing for me, than an intuitive one––my intuition tells me life has to have ultimate meaning. It's just too weird for me to think life is just here, meaningless.
But you DO give atheism credibility?
Yes. Even though atheism doesn't resonate for me personally, I recognize that atheists might be right. That nature is all there is. That we should engage in making the best of the life we have. I see five major "spiritual" directions a person can take: 1. Traditional religion, which I regard as provably false. 2. Liberal religion, which I regard as intellectually dishonest. 3. New Age, which I regard as baloney. 4. Atheism, which I regard as legitimate. 5. Soft Theism, which I regard as legitimate. And which makes the best sense to my particular psyche.
Put it this way: Given that most people in the world believe in God, and will continue to do so, if all these religious people jettisoned traditional religion and adopted the soft theism position, wouldn't that be a major improvement? It's not all the way to atheism, but much closer to it.
So that's my opinion. I hope I haven't come across as someone with intellectual pretensions, which I probably will, to BOTH sides. (I've now been called "shallow" by both theists and atheists. Hah.) But I think these ideas are very important, and I've tried to assess them through the lens of common sense, with a healthy dose of agnosticism.
1. Kreeft, Peter & Tacelli, Ronald. 1994. Handbook of Christian Apologetics. Illinois: InterVarsity Press, p 107. Although I strongly disagree with the Christian worldview of the book, I thought theirs was an excellent insight here: "No matter how many atoms you line up, or how complicated their lineup, you cannot get a wholly different thing––thought, consciousness, reason, self-awareness––from mere bits of matter. Awareness of the material universe is not one more part of that universe."
2. See my essay "Why I Am Not a Liberal Christian" for a full treatment.
3. Harris, Jeremie. 2014. "Soul Searching: When Did We Become So Special? An Evolutionary Problem for Theists" Skeptic, vol. 19, no. 2, pp 36-38. Harris makes a solid argument against traditional theistic belief, which draws a hard line between humans and animals. I think we can no more establish the structure of an afterlife than we can determine at what point an alleged "soul" first appeared in evolution. But to me that does not mean that therefore a soul and an afterlife don't exist.
4. Allen, Steve. 1990. Steve Allen on the Bible, Religion, & Morality. Amherst: Prometheus Press, Introduction, p xxix: "As I have observed elsewhere, both the existence and nonexistence of God seem in some respects preposterous." Allen was the first host of The Tonight Show. I note that Martin Gardner wrote the foreword to this excellent, insightful book, and that Allen, a theist, was an active skeptic against pseudoscience.
For the life of me I couldn't find the exact quote I was looking for, from Allen, which is, as I remember it, "Believing in God is absurd. But not believing in God is even more absurd." I think that's a very good assessment.