Saturday, November 28, 2009

Columnist Kristoff equates peace with liberal theology

In his recent column "The Religious Wars" (NY Times, November 26), Nicholas D Kristoff promotes as "more thoughtful" books written by Robert Wright and Karen Armstrong that advocate for liberal theism and religious belief. He expresses hopes that these books mark "an armistice in the religious wars, a move away from both religious intolerance and irreligious intolerance". However, the arguments for theism and religion made by Robert Wright and Karen Armstrong are actually less thoughtful than the competing arguments by the New Atheists. Furthermore, it is counterproductive to assert that such dubious beliefs are necessary for peace and tolerance.

For example, Mr. Wright's argument that "to the extent that 'god' grows, that is evidence - of higher purpose" is unconvincing. What goes on in peoples' heads regarding their definitions of gods, and the ways those definitions have changed over history, are no evidence for anything outside of people's heads other than maybe the influences on them of their contemporary experiences. His entire book, starting with the title, is built on conflating a fictional god with non-fictional concepts of god. He writes about the latter while referring to the former as if merely imagining something's existence suffices to confirm its existence. Ms. Armstrong makes this same fundamental error, arguing as if merely imagining concepts of god, and we all agree that such concepts really do exist in people's heads, evidences a non-fictional god's "ineffable presence". She skirts around the simpler and more obvious explanation for the only evidences of substance favoring her ill-defined god's presence being placebo effects: There is no god for us to understand.

If Mr. Kristoff is serious about wanting to promote more harmony between theists and atheists then he would do much better to refrain from calling our disagreements a "war" and mischaracterizing atheists as exhibiting "intolerance", being "combative", and being more "extreme" than liberal theists (or pantheists, agnostics, faitheists, or whatever they consider themselves to be), such as Wright and Armstrong, simply because those atheists sincerely and publicly disagree with liberal theists about the existence of a "higher purpose" and/or an "ineffable presence" deity. Atheists as a group are only guilty of expressing their conscience regarding the direction of the overall weight of the evidence on these questions. Liberal theists surely have beliefs that are on one end of the spectrum on other questions without self-labeling themselves to be "at the extremes". Liberal theists surely publicly disagree with other people over other questions without self-labeling themselves as intolerant and combative. Is it too much to ask of Mr. Kristoff not to label others as he wouldn't label himself?

Disbelief in all gods (of the "god did it" varieties, not the concepts of gods) is no more responsible for conflict than disbelief in Greek gods or than disbelief in other likely fictions, including Kristoff's own favored "more beneficent and universal deity". Its more modest, and more reasonable, to follow the evidence (verifiable, empirical, reproducible, evidence) wherever it takes us, instead of insisting on staying forever with a particular conclusion. Utilizing an evidence based approach makes it both easier to reach agreement and easier to disagree without mislabeling such disagreement as war and mislabeling as intolerant and combative the people with whom we disagree.

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