I’ve been commenting on Baggini’s on-line series, Heathen’s Progress. One of his goals is to find common ground between atheists and non-supernatural theists, people who worship a god but do not think this deity is an invisible, miracle-working, thinking-and-feeling super-person. On November 21 he presented four articles of 21st-century faith which he hopes will be agreed upon by many atheists and progressive theists. This proposal is related to my idea of a theological Plan B, a theological position we are confident would be true even if it turns out that we are seriously mistaken about deity.
Here’s a possible theistic Plan B: “Even if there is no god, by living in accord with spiritual principles I am finding beauty and goodness in this Earthly life.” Similarly, an atheist might say, “Even if I find myself in a supernatural realm after I die, my secular humanist path has helped me savor life and act in ways that make this world a better place. And I’m not worried that God will smite me for having the ‘wrong’ theology. ” (For more about Plan B, see Bridging the God Gap, pp. 165-68.)
Here is an abridged version of Julian’s four principles, with my responses.
“1. To be religious is primarily to assent to a set of values, and/or practise a way of life, and/or belong to a community that shares these values and/or practices.”
Response: Right! It is absolutely crucial to move from belief-centered to value-centered philosophies. Beliefs about ultimate reality will be debated for centuries, but people of many different faiths and philosophies can agree upon core values.
“2. Religious belief does not, and should not, require the belief that any supernatural events have occurred here on Earth, including miracles …”
Response: There is a difference between not requiring assent to miracles and rejecting the possibility of miracles. I think it is unlikely that miracles occur, but I do not reject their possibility. I suspect Julian wants to completely rule them out.
“3. Religions are not crypto- or proto-sciences. They should make no claims about the physical nature, origin or structure of the natural universe.”
Response: If someone makes such claims, based upon, e.g., mystical experiences, I see no problem as long as these claims are testable in a publically verifiable manner. They seldom are.
“4. Religious texts are the creation of the human intellect and imagination. None need be taken as expressing the thoughts of a divine or supernatural mind that exists independently of humanity.”
Response: It’s hard for me to object to this principle. I think divine inspiration of sacred books is unlikely, and every sacred book I have read absolutely oozes with obvious signs of human flaws and foibles. But many intelligent, well-educated, and sincere individuals believe that some texts are divinely inspired. If I were smarter, more knowledgeable, and/or more sincere than any of these folks, I might dismiss their opinions. But I’m not, and I don’t.
In short, I appreciate Julian’s attempt to find common ground, but I would frame these articles of faith more broadly. I think he wants to include only those who categorically reject all supernaturalistic or non-physicalist orientations. That’s a legitimate approach, but few who consider themselves religious will sign up.
A lot more would come on board if he welcomed those who are open to both physical and trans-physical interpretations of reality: “I think there’s a God, but I realize this may just be a human projection” and “I don’t believe in God, but it’s conceivable that we will eventually discover something at least vaguely godlike that now escapes the reach of science.”
For Baggini’s full statement, see: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2011/nov/21/articles-of-21st-century-faith
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1. It seems to me that a religious group should be more than just values and practices. There needs to be something about needing sustenance from an experience of the transcendent (not necessarily supernatural), ie something that takes you beyond the behaviours and shared values and enables you to sustain a life of giving to others. “All of man’s troubles stem from his inability to sit quietly in a room alone” (Pascal). It may involve simply meditating on those values and reminding yourself why you hold them, or celebrating with each other the achievements of the group’s activities. Do there have to be some rituals or traditions involved? Again, these need not be worship directed at a God, but something that takes the group beyond itself in some way, connecting it with either other groups around the world or in history, or with some sense of the values being real. Otherwise such a group could just be a political party, social action group or therapeutic support group.
2. I might describe something as a miracle even if it had a physical explanation, if it happened to be subjectively perfectly timed or perfectly appropriate. But I would not want to attribute this to God, if he existed, in any case.
3. Yes, creative solutions to problems have sometimes been found in dreams or in a flash of inspiration. These might be described as mystical if the person had that religious-cultural background, and there is no reason why they shouldn’t involve scientific problems about the universe. But as you say, they would then need to be verified.
4. There is no reason why the religious books shouldn’t contain grains of truth about the nature of reality in the way that other forms of literature. And if there is some kind of trans-physical being, it is conceivable that such a being could inspire works of art including religious books. People who are educated, intelligent and thoughtful are still subject to cognitive biases and very much a product of their cultural and sociological environment. We can justify so much if we have an emotional commitment to something, just like romantic commitments or buying a house.
“I think there’s a God, but I realize this may just be a human projection” and “I don’t believe in God, but it’s conceivable that we will eventually discover something at least vaguely godlike that now escapes the reach of science.” Yes, I agree with these kind of statements and wish that there were religious groups for people to explore these ideas without pressure.
Thanks again for posting more “outside the box” ideas. You said you “wish that there were religious groups for people to explore these ideas without pressure.” Without tooting our horn too loudly, let me mention that Unitarian Universalist congregations can be a good place for such open exploration. Nearly a hundred years ago some Unitarian and Universalist churches began accepting (and later welcoming) atheists and agnostics. (We had welcomed non-Christian theists a few decades before that.) By the time these two denominations merged in 1961, we affirmed all humanitarian worldviews.
Such openness is easier to proclaim than to accomplish in practice, and even today some UUs feel uncomfortable expressing their theological opinions. For instance, someone who is a very traditional Christian theist might feel unwelcome in some of our groups. But over time we are “evolving” greater and greater tolerance.
One happy result is that a Unitarian Universalist can significantly change beliefs and say so out loud. Many of their fellow members will regard this as a sign of growth and aliveness rather than as an apostasy.