Philosophers need not be physically courageous (such as soldiers, police officers, or fire fighters), but they should be morally brave. So permit me to swallow my trepidation and make an initial offering about the much vexed “G” word – that is, “God.”
There is actually quite a great deal of very good stuff out there in the world on the subject; sadly, little of it ever rises to the surface of popular consciousness. But let’s start by considering some of the more grotesquely fatuous twaddle that is out there, so that we can end an a relatively high note.
Fatuous Twaddle #1: Atheism is a religion!
It truly beggars the imagination how anyone could actually be so obtuse as not only say such a thing, but believe it. The people spouting this nonsense will almost invariably be (a) deeply conservative, and (b) religiously fundamentalist of some flavor or other. As a consequence of (a) and (b), such people will (again, almost invariably) despise atheists with a fiery passion that scarcely knows any bounds. A person with a logical twist of mind might therefore find it ironic that these folks are despising atheists essentially on the grounds that they are (on their own account) just like themselves. However, as anyone who has read Robert Altemeyer’s important book, The Authoritarians, will recognize, logical coherence is not a strong suit amongst such people.
It would be transcendentally foolish on my part to attempt a “definition” of religion; this is far outside my “Areas of Specialization” (“AOS” – those subjects in which a scholar is qualified to publish research quality work, and teach at an upper division graduate level. See my “About Me” page for a discussion of my qualifications.) Moreover, the very idea of a “definition” is, in any but the most simplistic situations, not only pointless, it is a pure smoke-and-mirrors misdirection of thought. Nevertheless, I can proffer a rule of thumb that might suffice for our purposes here. Admitting in advance the severe limitations of the following, religion (and more on that term in a moment) involves:
I don’t want to spend a lot of time on these terms, since the characterization is itself extremely rough. But “worship” involves ceremonial praise and valorization of a “something” that is beyond one’s self; orthodoxy requires a standardized set of beliefs; community is the social unity bound together by the first two. Atheism involves none of the above.
(There are forms of humanist religions out there that do integrate the above into a religious, but non-theistic framework. But such activities are neither necessary nor sufficient for atheism, and as such bear no essential relationship to that position.)
Now, it is true that some atheists can be quite dogmatic about their position(s). (Plural, because atheism is not a single set of beliefs or unified orthodoxy.) But dogmatism and religion are not the same thing, and the conflation of the two that frequently (though, usually implicitly) occurs simply demonstrates that the people making that error really have no idea what they are talking about.
Fatuous Twaddle #2: We know all about religion!
On the flip side, certain groups of atheists – many of them well-known, public figures – seem to have a knowledge base on religion that amounts to nothing more than watching five minutes of Pat Robertson on TV, and deciding that makes them experts on all matters relating to religion, theology, and spirituality. It is probably not a coincidence that these people are often amongst the most dogmatic atheists to be found. As these folks are the one’s who are nominally “on my side” (or, I am nominally on theirs?) I find such bull-headed and willful ignorance extremely irritating.
For one thing, even if one were to go through and refute every religious idea and concept of God ever produced by humans, this would not suffice to prove that God does not exist. It would only prove that the finite number of ideas and concepts about God that humans have developed were all, in some way or other, inadequate. No small part of the problem here is that extremists on both sides of the divide – theists and atheists alike – act as though the idea of God is already a finished product, rather than a work in process. A minimal study of the development of ideas, and the roles and uses of metaphors, might certainly help here. (Plato’s Symposium and Iris Murdoch’s Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals leap to mind.)
A useful distinction to introduce is one that John Dewey made in A Common Faith, between “religion” and “the religious.” In this usage, “religion” refers to things like my three bullet-points above, while “the religious” has to do with the human experiences of spirituality. (For this latter, perhaps the best starting point, for the bookish nerds amongst us, is William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience.) Translating the very personal human experience of spirituality into actions and expressions, into what Peirce called a “community of interpreters,” is no mean feat. But the failures of past such attempts at translating the religious into religion is not necessarily an indication of the pointlessness of the effort. All that such failures really show is that if religion is to be a living human activity it must be part of living human inquiry. Neither pro- nor anti-religion dogmatists are likely to find such a conclusion amenable to their dogmas.
Furthermore, the concept of God far outruns any particular attempt to categorize it within the framework of religion. For example, consider the philosophical concept of God that Alfred North Whitehead developed in his various metaphysical works. Perhaps one should scare quote that concept as “God,” since the concept Whitehead argued for has nothing to do with any practicing religion, nor is it the sort of thing that anyone would ever imagine going to church for. Quite aside from its abstract austerity, Whitehead’s concept of God is less of a “person” than even Aristotle’s utterly unpersonal (beyond “im”personal) Unmoved Mover. (And yes, I refuse to scare quote the “G” word here.)
For Whitehead, God is the (a) rational foundation for the rational structure of the universe, as well as (b) the font of creativity therein.
And that’s it.
So, why did Whitehead call something so “spiritually thin” “God”? The answer is because he refused to use foreign words or make up new ones, and “God” is actually the best word out there for this purpose. Others have come along and packed more into Whitehead’s concept of God (most notably Charles Hartshorne and those who’ve followed him.) But these efforts, while interesting on their own account, run far beyond what Whitehead was doing, a fact which many of the folks pursuing this line of inquiry seem to have overlooked.
So how might one dispute Whitehead – JUST Whitehead – on just this point? Well, other than caviling about the use of the word/concept of “God” (which people will do with tedious earnestness), one can deny one or the other (or both) of the above points. One can deny (b) and insist that there is no font of creativity in the universe. If you take that path, then the universe is a fixed, static (“Parmenidean”) block in which all change is an illusion. Yet, if change is not real, how is the illusion of change real? (Never mind … ) Alternatively, you can deny that there is a rational foundation to the rational structure of the universe. But what logical argument can you offer for that position, since the very possibility of a logical argument requires the actuality of that rational structure, which you now wish to argue has no rational foundation (and which is therefore nothing but an irrational surd.)
Stew on that for a while.