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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