Debate: Joe Carter’s Opening Argument (Updated with my reply)
First Things editor Joe Carter has kicked off our debate on atheism, Christianity, and the state with the following piece, to which I will respond paragraph by paragraph in this space later this evening:
I’ve inserted my responses to each paragraph below. Later, I will write a separate post in which I’ll make my opening argument.
All political problems, contends political philosopher Glenn Tinder, are rooted in estrangement—the various kinds of disunity among human beings. Without estrangement there would be no need for either politics or the State.
That will do.
The primary political questions are therefore questions about estrangement: Are human beings estranged in essence? Can estrangement be overcome through reason? Do we need religious faith to overcome estrangement?
I’m still on board.
Such questions, however, are not considered in isolation but are filtered through a set of beliefs about the nature of man and reality that are (presumably) internally coherent and consistent. Since such webs of beliefs determine how we approach and answer such questions our first task must be to judge the relative merits of such worldviews. For the purposes of this debate, we’ve limited the range of competing philosophies to two: Atheism and Christianity. My contention is that Christianity provides the framework for answering these concerns in a way that is superior to atheism. Mr. Brown, I suspect, believes just the opposite.
I don’t think that atheism provides a framework for answering any of those questions, not even that of whether religious faith is needed to overcome estrangement. Atheism could be true yet a religious faith could theoretically be the only method by which to overcome estrangement despite being false. I do not think this is actually the case, of course, but I don’t think atheism fulfills as many functions as Mr. Carter believes it to. Atheism is not designed to be any sort of framework, not being a system. Meanwhile, I agree that Christianity can answer any number of questions and perhaps even in a way that would provide useful or comforting in various circumstances, but I also believe that Christianity cannot answer any of these questions in any valid way to the extent that it references a set of theological beliefs which I believe, and hope to demonstrate, to be based on a transparently ridiculous foundation which is revealed as such to the extent that one examines the early history of Christianity and the methodology by which its various assertions have been cobbled together.
(We are fully aware that these are not the only options worthy of consideration and debate. But for the narrow purposes of our discussion, these will be treated as the only possible choices to resolve the questions under consideration.)
Let me start by presenting a key claim of my argument: The relation of both atheism and Christianity is dependent on a fundamental religious belief. In fact, each of the assumptions, claims, and questions we will make and examine in this debate are derived from our core religious beliefs.
This sounds rather controversial, I realize, but will seem less after we consider the question: What exactly is a religious belief?
I suspect that it will instead be rendered even more controversial after any such question is answered in such a way as to incorporate atheism into the list of religious beliefs insomuch as that this term, like any term, may be defined by anyone in such a way as to include anything ones likes if one is determined to dilute the nature of some concept in order to capture other concepts within its sphere.
Even though we are only considering two particular worldviews—atheism and Christian theism—it’s useful to define the term in such a way that it is neither too broad nor too narrow. We must therefore list all of the features that are true of allreligious beliefs and true only of religious beliefs. While this may appear to be an obvious point, we are often surprised to find what has been pruned when a definition is stripped to its essential components. Imagine, for instance, trying to define the concept of tree in a way that is limited to what is true for all trees but only true of trees. Paring the explanation down in such a manner would not only be difficult but would leave us with a curious, and likely unsatisfying, definition.
What is true of trees will be equally so for religious beliefs. After we cut away the foliage and underbrush that are features of specific religious beliefs we are likely to be unimpressed by the bare, slender reed that remains. We should also expect to find that a minimally precise definition will have exposed the fact that some beliefs that we might have considered to be religious really are not, while finding that others are actually more religious than we might have imagined. Nevertheless, while we might be surprised, unsatisfied, or unimpressed, the important point is that we have defined the term correctly
Let us begin by examining to features that are commonly (though mistakenly) believed to be essential to religious beliefs:
Religious beliefs require a belief in God or gods — One of the most common misconceptions about religious belief is that it requires a belief in God or a supreme being. But such a feature would be too narrow because it would exclude polytheistic religions that do not recognize a supreme being. In fact, we cannot include the concept of god or gods at all since some religions (e.g., Brahmin Hinduism, Theravada Buddhism) are literally atheistic.
Religious beliefs are beliefs that induce worship or worship-related activities — This feature is also defeated by the counterexamples of Brahmin Hinduism and Theravada Buddhism, neither of which practices worship. The same is true for the religious beliefs of some ancient Greeks such as Aristotle and later the Epicureans who thought the gods neither knew about nor cared about humans. They certainly felt no obligation to worship such apathetic beings.
Having excluded gods and worship from our definition, we are left with very few features that all religious beliefs could possibly share in common. As philosopher Roy Clouser asks, “What common element can be found in the biblical idea of God in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, in the Hindu idea of Brahman-Atman, in the idea of Dharmakaya in Mahayana Buddhism, and the idea of the Tao in Taoism?” The answer, he argues, is that every religious tradition considers something or other asdivine and that all of them have a common denominator in the status of the divinity itself.
While many religions disagree on what is divine, they all agree on what it means to be divine. The divine is simply whatever is unconditionally, nondependently real; whatever is just there. By contrast, everything nondivine ultimately depends for existence (at least in part) on whatever is divine. This idea of nondependence or its equivalent is the shared feature in all religious beliefs.
I’ll leave definition of “divine” to the various religions as I do not ascribe to the concept of anything being “divine” insomuch as that this not a term that I have ever seen fit to apply to anything I have encountered or otherwise have determined to exist.
Clouser uses this common element to formulate a precise definition: A belief is a religious belief provided that it is (1) a belief in something as divine or (2) a belief about how to stand in proper relation to the divine, where (3) something is believed to be divine provided it is held to be unconditionally nondependent.
The conclusion we can draw from this definition is that everyone holds, consciously or unconsciously, a religious belief. For many of us, this will be as obvious as finding that our entire lives we’ve been speaking in prose. Many atheists, though, will have a reaction similar to those who argue that while everyone else may speak with an accent, they themselves do not.
I am confused by this. It seems that the definition you are using of a religious belief is one involving a belief in the divine and possibly one’s proper relation to the divine, and then you say that under such a definition everyone has a religious belief. I do not believe in the divine much less do I ascribe to any particular manner of relating to any such thing, which I would think would prevent me from being described as holding any religious belief under such a definition.
Although it may be true that not everyone has a religion (a system of religious beliefs, practices, and rituals), it would be rather absurd to believe that there is anyone who does not have a religious belief so defined. (Even those who have reservations with the terms “divine” and “religious belief” should be able to agree with the underlying concepts).
I certainly agree that such concepts exist but I don’t see how the holding of them by others prompts me into the category of those who hold religious beliefs.
The core religious belief of Christianity is theism—a belief in the Being whose essence is existence. For Christians that which is held to be unconditionally nondependent is God. (God has other characteristics that are relevant to this discussion, but for now we need only to point out that he is absolutely metaphysically ultimate.)
The core religious belief of atheism is . . . well, that’s unclear. Atheism is not itself a distinguishable religious belief but rather a claim of denial that the Christian God (or any other gods) actually exists. Atheism states clearly that it believes that the Christian God (from now on, let’s just assume that is the God we are talking about) is not absolutely metaphysically ultimate. But what does it consider to be “divine”, that is, what does atheism consider to be unconditionally nondependent?
Obviously, atheists believe that something is divine because to claim that “nothing has non-dependent reality” would be incoherent.
I don’t know what is meant here by “non-dependent,” a term with which I’m unfamiliar.
The problem is that they could differ about what that the unconditionally nondependent thing is. Theravada Buddhists might say it is Nothingness, while many Western atheists would likely claim that it is the physical universe (or multiverse).
Because the atheist’s choice of what is absolutely metaphysically ultimate has profound consequences for determining how it compares to Christianity, I will give Mr. Brown a chance to clarify which unconditionally nondependent entity he believes exist. Not all atheists will agree with his selection, I’m sure. But I think he should be given some latitude to choose for himself since he will need to defend how it affects the questions we will explore concerning atheism’s relation to the State.
Although I haven’t covered as much ground as I would prefer, I’ve already rambled on for far too long. I think it is best to stop here and allow Mr. Brown to clarify what he considers to be unconditionally nondependent and how man relates to such an entity.
Again, I would need to know a bit more about the concept of non-dependence to give this the answer it requires. At any rate, I will post my own opening argument tomorrow.