Many Paths, No God
When confronted with the messier details of specific religious doctrines, many believers who themselves are religiously inclined but who don’t agree with the standard orthodoxies will adopt a very general concept of God that they think transcends all these petty disagreements. The Baptists, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and Hindus all have different variants on a basic idea that make them appear to be fundamentally different, the line goes, but when we view them all from a sufficient distance we can see that really they are all worshipping or believing in essentially the same thing. They all subscribe to the general notion of a higher power--a guiding force—and their religions all do more or less the same thing for them.
A recent Pew Charitable Trust survey seems to confirm that this form of watered down theism is by far the most common in the U.S. Consider:
“A strong majority of those who are affiliated with a religion, including majorities of nearly every religious tradition, do not believe their religion is the only way to salvation. . . . More than two-thirds of adults affiliated with a religious tradition agree that there is more than one true way to interpret the teachings of their faith, a pattern that occurs in nearly all traditions.”
As a result, these post-doctrinal believers find both the squabbles between sects and the serious literality of atheists’ attacks on religion to be largely missing the point. People will do bad things, and people will do bad things in the name of religion, but that’s not the fault of religiousness. The impulse to divide, become orthodox, fight against contrary views, and to exclude those who don’t think like you are human faults. But believing in God and the positive influences that belief can have should be encouraged. Specific religious doctrines shouldn’t be taken too seriously, but there’s nothing objectionable about belief. Our notion of God should be sufficiently general to transcend the problems that inevitably come out when people take religious doctrine too seriously. All of these people are on many different paths to the same God. Against the backdrop of this general celebratory spirit about religiousness and positive feelings about people’s relationships with a “higher power,” strident atheists come across as stingy and cranky.
But we have to ask just what is being bought by this liberality about other paths to God? At first glance it appears that this open minded approach to other faiths can solve a lot of problems. But there are a lot of questions that it raises. Where does this liberality end? Is if confined to Christians, Protestants? Can Hindus get into heaven too? What about Muslims? Zoroastrians? Judging from other polls about how much Americans revile atheists, we will assume that they won’t allow atheists too. The point is that there will be lines to draw, and in the end these lines will be sectarian or doctrinal. And now we are back to the same problem. The believer has arrived at the conclusion that there is a God and that God has certain features in virtue of which he rewards or blesses some and punishes or rejects others. So the looming questions will be, what are our grounds for thinking that such a being exists, and that he has these properties and not some others? Why is this account of God correct in their minds rather than some other account? These believers are often respond to criticisms of religion with comments like, “Well, that’s not real Christianity,” or “The real Islam isn’t like that.”
But making a distinction between what real Christianity (whatever that means) is and is not, requires making some hard calls about what’s true and what’s false, or what God is and what God isn’t, and what is a correct view of God and what isn’t. There just isn’t any getting making some firm decisions, and firm decisions require evidence, reasons, arguments, and justification.
What the Many Paths, One God mentality stinks of is intellectual laziness. It’s an inability or reluctance to actually ponder through the implications of one’s actions on Sunday morning, one’s words, one’s behaviors and appreciate their meaning. We’ve seen the distinction between narrow and wide atheist described here. Whatever the Many Paths believers means by God, then let’s get that out on the table and see what it is. Then let’s see what the reasons are for thinking that anything like that might exist. If they don’t hold up to the light of scrutiny, then it needs to go on the scrap heap of bad ideas too, and that’s just one more conception of God to jetison, justifying a wider atheism than we had before.
It’s a myth to think that adopting what appears to be some kind of generic theism will help you escape the insurmountable difficulties associated with the God concept.
So our new mott should be: Many Paths. . . No God.
Tuesday, August 5, 2008
Many Paths, No God