Faith and Leadership in a Fragmented World – Can Atheists embrace Religious Pluralism?

Share this!
  • Print
  • Digg
  • del.icio.us
  • Facebook
  • LinkedIn
  • Reddit
  • RSS
  • Twitter

Posted on January 16th, 2011 | Filed under Challenges, Featured, Interfaith, Intra-Faith, Leadership, Philosophy, Theology
Tagged with , , , ,


"I have come here tonight as an American who, like all Americans, kneels to pray with you today, and will stand by you tomorrow...Scripture tells us that there is evil in the world, and that terrible things happen for reasons that defy human understanding. In the words of Job, 'when I looked for light, then came darkness.'"

So said President Obama in his address to the nation in Tucson, Arizona, where he memorialized the victims of the Tucson shooting and prayed for the health of those who were wounded. Obama was exercising his capacity for leadership at a time of extraordinary uncertainty, when the USA is wracked with debate about the reasons for those terrible events, and he drew heavily upon the reservoir of his Christian faith to do so. Repeatedly quoting scripture, enjoining Americans to kneel and pray, and movingly speaking of the heaven to which he believes Christina Taylor Green has gone, jumping in puddles. This is truly faith and leadership in a fragmented world.

"Faith and Leadership in a Fragmented World" - this is also the gripping headline for an intensive "immersion workshop" I will begin tomorrow at Harvard, aiming to explore the relationship between faith and leadership, and how religious traditions can serve as a support for those seeking to lead others through uncertainty, just as Obama did on Wednesday. In anticipation of the workshop I find myself both excited and apprehensive. Excited because the professors on the program are distinguished in their fields and well-regarded teachers. Apprehensive, because as a person without faith, I am unsure as to my role in such a space.

Certainly I have a broad interest in the themes of the course: I hope to become a leader in my community and I am deeply concerned with the role of faith in people's lives. At the same time I see very little space for the nonreligious in the readings we have been tasked with prior to the first day. Although many religious views are represented and discussed, Humanism and atheism are either absent from consideration or, worse, mildly disparaged.

I feel a similar ambivalence regarding the religious elements of Obama's beautiful speech. I am drawn-in by the poetry of his scriptural references, and I am powerfully moved by the image of a celestial Christina jumping in heavenly puddles. I can see that Obama's faith provides him with both courage and hope - essential qualities in a leader facing dark times - and I am challenged by the thought that much atheist writing provides neither. Yet I recognize, too, that I cannot join the ranks of Americans bending knee to pray while remaining true to my beliefs, to myself. I must express my shock and sadness in another way. I'm standing outside the church, my face pressed against the stained-glass windows, longing for solidarity with those inside, but unable to cross the threshold.

Is it possible to build a "church" which could hold atheists as well as the religious, despite their differences? Can we find a way of talking and living which honors the substantial disagreements between people of faith and naturalists, or are we Humanists doomed to forever languish outside in the cold, excluded or excluding on the other side of the "faith gap"? Chris Stedman has written eloquently on this topic on numerous occasions, and he is even involved with a new program from the Foundation Beyond Belief which aims to challenge the "faith gap". Frequently, the answer seems to hinge on some idea of "pluralism". Stedman writes, for example, that " without religious tolerance and pluralism, I wouldn't be free to call myself an atheist without fear of retribution", and calls on atheists to jump into interfaith discussion. He would surely approve of my presence at the Faith and Leadership workshop.

But one of the readings for that workshop has led me to question whether atheists can truly embrace religious pluralism. Diana Eck, head of the Pluralism Project, lays out her definition of "pluralism" in chapter 7 of her book Encountering God. She distinguishes between three approaches one can take toward religions you don't belong to - three "theological viewpoints": you can be an "exclusivist",  who "affirms identity in a complex world of plurality by a return to the firm foundations of his or her own tradition", rejecting the claims of other religions simply as false; you can be an "inclusivist", who believes that all religions are pathways toward God - but the God that the inclusivist believes in, such that other religions are essentially lesser (though valuable) "versions" of your own; or you can be a "pluralist".

A pluralist, Eck writes (drawing on the work of British Philosopher John Hick), has undergone a "Copernican revolution" in their thinking about God. Unlike the inclusivist, who sees their religion (a planet in the metaphor) as the center of the universe, with the concepts of other religions (other planets) and God (the sun) revolving around their religious ideas, the pluralist puts the sun (God) at the center of their religious universe. Other religious traditions become other "planets" orbiting that sun, engaged in the same fundamental activity (seeking God) through different trajectories and paths. Just as no planet is "better" than another, no religion, under this conception, has a monopoly on religious understanding.

It is a powerful metaphor, and it is easy to see its appeal in interfaith circles. Eck claims that there are "even avowedly humanistic pluralists".  It strikes me, however, and despite Eck's position, that there is no room for the atheist in this solar system. To extend the metaphor, the atheist claims that the sun does not actually exist, and that the planets are circling endlessly to no avail. Worse, the "sun" might even be a black hole, sucking religious adherents into a destructive and unproductive void. In Eck's terms, many prominent atheists are much more like "exclusivists", who reject the accuracy of the tenets of religious faith and who see little value in traditional theology whatever its religious flavor. Even "inclusivist" atheists, who might wish to see religion as a natural psychological urge towards sense-making, are in an entirely different position to religious "inclusivists", who at least think there is a "sun" that shines its light, even if dimly, on religions not their own. And disturbingly, despite quibbles over terminology, I think the metaphor Eck mobilizes is fundamentally correct when it excludes atheists in this way. I don't see belief in God as "another way of understanding the world", or as "a different route to truth". I see it as wrong. Mistaken. Unsupported.

This realization - that despite the positive connotations of the word I cannot consider myself a true religious pluralist (at least in Eck's terms) - has troubled me. I strive for respect in my work and writing, and I want to make it clear the majority of those attending the workshop next week that I respect and value them as people. But Eck's description has led me to the understanding that I cannot honestly say that I respect their faith. There truly is a gap between my worldview and a religious one, and despite the best efforts of Stedman and the Foundation Beyond Belief, I see no authentic way to bridge it. However much I respect an individual and work beside them, I cannot put the Sun of God in the center of my intellectual solar system. However grave the situation, however powerful the incitement, I cannot bend my knee to nothing. I am stuck outside the church, face pressed against the glass.

And it's getting cold.

Share this!
  • Print
  • Digg
  • del.icio.us
  • Facebook
  • LinkedIn
  • Reddit
  • RSS
  • Twitter

71 Responses to “Faith and Leadership in a Fragmented World – Can Atheists embrace Religious Pluralism?”

  1. Simon says:

    Powerfully written, James!

    Thanks for your distillation of Eck’s ideas. Obviously, I’m too lazy to hunt out her original writing, but I’m not very taken with her Solar System metaphor in the first place, even before one gets to the question of how to fit humanism/atheism into it. It all sounds too neat, as if it were possible to arrange different religions (/worldviews or whatever we want to call them) in discrete and geometrically coherent relationships to one another. The world of faith and ideas is far messier than that, and Newtonian physics is ill-equipped to address the ambiguity and cross-fertilisation of motifs, ritual and culture.

    If one wanted to represent the different religions in a physical model, perhaps one at the sub-atomic level would be more apt: various electrons orbit the nucleus, but the closer one looks, the fuzzier it all gets. Some particles blip in and out of existence in an unpredictable way, and even the observation of certain particles can affect their position or velocity (unless you can source a Heisenberg compensator from somewhere…).

    Whichever model one takes, the object at the centre need not be unambiguously defined as ‘God’. One could agree that the Sun/nucleus is ‘concern with the ultimate nature of things’. After all, Tillich insists that atheism is a very religious enquiry into ‘questions of ultimate concern’. Can an atheist take Tillich’s words as an invitation to come in from the churchyard?

    • James Croft says:

      Thanks Simon – I really haven’t engaged much with Tillich yet. I find his writing extremely challenging. Perhaps another try is in order after your thoughts!

    • Isabel says:

      Simon, that’s a marvelous metaphor. Is it original? I’m certainly going to use it, and wheover deserves the attribution should get it.

  2. Jim Farmelant says:

    Gandhi for many years proclaimed as his guiding principle the aphorism “God is Truth.” In his last years, partially as a result of his contacts with the Indian atheist Gora, Gandho changed this to the aphorism “Truth is God.” Gandhi had long been committed to a form of religious pluralism in which Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, and Jews would be able to maintain mutual respect for each other and for their respective religious traditions. This religious pluralism pointedly excluded atheists. However, in large degree because of his contacts with Gora, Gandho eventually opted for an even broader religious pluralism which would make room for atheists like Gora. If Eck were to replace God with truth as the “sun” around which her relgious pluralists orbit, then there would also be room for atheists, so it would seem to me.

  3. Mark David Dietz says:

    Beautifully said, James. One of the best pieces I have seen from your pen. When you write well and carefully, you are an exceptionally fine writer.

    I think part of the problem you face has to do with the difference between a naturalistic view and a rationalistic (or idealistic) view. Eck has given us an idealistic image for understanding plurality. To Dewey, or anyone steeped in Deweyan naturalism, the interpretation of this image as pluralism would have to be rejected. The solar system she describes has in it (through the hierarchy of the sun and planets) more than a hint of a movement toward a final cause, the sun; the underlying philosophy is ultimately Neo-Platonic, or idealistic.

    Pluralism in a naturalistic sense means something quite different. Dewey gave three criteria for determining if something was truly pluralistic. 1) It “allows for the possibility of real change;” 2) it “allows for the possibility of real variety;” and 3) it allows the “possibility of freedom, as a self-initiating and moving power.” Now if we look at Eck’s model, none of these seem to be working for us. The model seems relatively unchanging, each planet revolving in its assigned orbit, until…? It does not allow for real variety (how, for example, would you account for Buddhism, let alone atheism?). And where in this model do we find the possibility for freedom of movement? A beautiful model, yes; naturalistic, no.

    You and I have discussed exclusivity before. And I think you are quite right that most atheists believe that the only option they have is exclusivity. I told you then, and will tell you now, I don’t agree with that. Inclusivity is also not likely, although I think it may be a remote possibility. So the atheist must find a pluralistic position or have no choice but to continue in the exclusivity of isolation.

    How then to do that? Let me propose taking Dewey’s model and applying it to Chris’s activities – and note we turn, at this point, as pragmatists, to the active world, not Eck’s world of ideality. The first thing we have to note, right away, is Chris is calling for real change. Think about that for a second. He is asking his peers to think differently than they have in the past. He has “self-initiated” that very movement that Dewey says is necessary to pluralism. And he calls for a tolerance toward “real variety.” He does not look for that real change, the real variety, or his own self-initiated movement by turning to remote ideals. Instead he does so in the only place a naturalist can find plurality – the real, active world. (Chris, I do hope I am portraying you with some reasonable similitude.)

    I think the problem that many atheists face today is that they came to atheism through a naturalistic argument, but then felt some loss – a very real loss. The world of ideality seemed closed off to them and like you they were left pressing their faces against the stained glass windows (a beautiful metaphor, by the way). I have a feeling that the ultimate resolution of this problem demands the adoption of a truly dynamic pluralism. Exclusivity is out – that is the way of the old world – the way we thought before the Copernican Revolution. Inclusivity is not a permanent residence, because ultimately it denies real variety and points us back toward a monotonic view.

    The only real solution lies in pluralism, but it will mean some large changes in how atheists think about themselves. Do they have enough “faith” (and I won’t apologize for using that word – it is the regressive atheists who are afraid of it) – and let me make this personal, do you have enough faith in your atheism to set aside your disbelief from time to time and take a knee with President Obama? I think that only when you can do that will you finally be true to a naturalistic notion of atheism, one that abides in real change, real variety and, most importantly, self-initiated movement.

    Until then, I think you will continue to feel as if you are standing out in the cold.

    • Isabel says:

      Mark, I have to get rich, fly East, and get you & James loaded every evening for a week, while taking extensive notes.

      We might retire on the proceeds from the resulting books. I’ll make one digestible enough for most of the masses, and we’ll do a couple texts for fun.

      I rather like that idea. Huh. I’ll start reading up on terminology and refreshing my formal logic, and you two continue to practice this elegant art of intelligent disputation.

      • Mark David Dietz says:

        But Isabel, I live in Texas. However, if you get rich fly me up to Harvard with you. Thanks for the kind comments.

    • steph says:

      That was the part of Obama’s speech I found most shocking Mark – “…like all Americans, kneels to pray with you”. ‘Like all Americans’? How dare he? How patronising and presumptuous, ignoring all non believers in America. I’m sure that America is the only western country where the leader would saturate a speech with religious imagery like that. Compare the PMs’ speeches recently after the floods in Brisbane, and the Christchurch earthquake followed by the mine disaster in NZ. I can accept and even find some parts of Obama’s speech appealing for their poetic and lyrical value, but I found Obama’s condescending assumption that all Americans kneel, offensive. He’s the leader of a multi faith nation, not the leader of a church. And why should any non believing American submit to the religious practice of his belief? Wouldn’t that be patronising believers? Wouldn’t it be a superficial act of non believers? I’ve participated in different practises with people of different religious faiths from time to time, because I chose to learn about the experience, not because I wanted to believe what they believed. But I wouldn’t expect the experience to be thrown upon me and assumed, in this time of grief.

      I also think it extremely inappropriate to suggest that if you have enough faith in your own belief, which in this case is non belief, you can put it aside and kneel. No Mark, not on this occasion and probably especially not on this occasion. In fact I think it would be dishonest. I am perfectly happy for other people to express their grief and find comfort in their different (mistaken) ways, but my grief is my own and I express it MY way!!

      I am a pluralist but certainly not on Eck’s unhelpful terms, nor yours, but perhaps is best expressed here on the thread, by Dale McGowan. I agreed with every word he wrote.

      • James Croft says:

        Steph! I’m surprised by the strength of this response. It’s fantastic, in a way, that you have written this because it helps me understand you so much better. My feeling, as I wrote below (I think – formatting is a bit crazy here!), is that sometimes – SOMETIMES – I am willing to compromise. I actually hesitated posting this article because I wondered whether it was appropriate to bring up what seems like such a small issue in the face of such a grave atrocity. I’m still wrestling with this…

        • steph says:

          BTW I read ‘church’ as a metaphor for ‘community’ but the political aspect you intended makes it even more poignant…

          I’m glad you posted it James – it helps me understand you alot better too. FWIW I don’t think this issue is small in view of the tragedy but I suppose it’s not really for me to say…

          The reason I am a pluralist I think is because I have experienced living in cooperative moderate multi faith communities. The limit to my pluralist ‘accommodation’ view, is naturally fundamentalism, which does need to be confronted with debate (I don’t know – despair!!), but that hasn’t been an issue so far, until now with my sights on America in particular. Fundamentalism cannot co-exist with progressive multi faith communities.

          I’ve wondered if the reason smaller societies work, is because they are sometimes pretty much multi faith from inception so nobody can take the high road and nobody can feel oppressed. But the fact it can work, (and Islam is a good example of moderate believers practising their religion in a western mixed community, in my experience), suggests that it could eventually work elsewhere, with co-operative effort.

          • Mark David Dietz says:

            Stephanie,

            I am not at all surprised that you would not approve of my comments. You come at your beliefs through quite a different process than I have. Nor have I any desire that others see the world as I do, except as their own free will might lead them to such a point of view.

            I knew from the Facebook thread that James had posted before writing this essay that he had some concern for how religious pluralism might appear in from a naturalistic perspective. I used that as the basis of my response to him. The question that you object to is one that I knew was provocative, but that is a natural question for me. But then, as you know, I rather staunchly refuse to be called an atheist, a theist, or an agnostic — that is how I express my honesty, and I am well aware that is a personal choice.

            That you are willing to engage in religious practices for the sake of the experience (as have I — I love taking communion) suggests that we are not really that far apart in our beliefs. I can also appreciate your frustration in this particular case. Perhaps it is a matter of degree and of how we each interpret honesty and social cohesion — and I will most certainly not take an absolute stand on either of those — just as I suspect you would not either. Your interpretation seems fair and honest to me, and I have no trouble at all accepting it (and, as James has pointed out the passion that goes with it).

            Oh, and I agree with Dale, too. Although I would seek some way to soften (without essentially contradicting) his phrase: “I don’t bend my knee, grant intellectual validity where there is none, or refrain from challenging the toxic consequences of some beliefs.” But that is just me and how I choose to respond to the world around me.

            With the greatest personal respect (I’m not allowed to use “friend” because apparently that is passive-agressive), Mark

          • steph says:

            I’m surprised anyone would assume that someone else would agree uncritically with everything they say. I didn’t assume you that you should know that I am a staunch defender of the separation of church and state and that I am appalled at the religiously saturated political system in America and the devastating consequences of it. And in a mixed society, in a time of tragedy and grief when a community seeks solace in community, so to speak, people are emotionally fragile and need to express grief naturally. Nobody should feel ostracised or be expected to take part in things that aren’t natural to them. I’ve seen a whole nation unified through grief, be able to express their grief together as humans, without having to perform rituals which are instinctive to only part of the nation.

            Perhaps your last remark was unnecessary?

          • steph says:

            oh damn SORRY Mark – I misread your comment and leapt to defence!! I missed ‘not at all’ … growl to me. As far as self identifications go I don’t really care. I keep changing them anyway. I’m a non believing no-theist pluralist humanist politically Green pacifist swimmer :)

    • James Croft says:

      Jim – I’d put “truth” (or at least “understanding” – quibble due to my analytical pragmatist training ;) ) in the center of my solar system any day. But I wonder if religious individuals would feel the same way. If they object, aren’t I then not being pluralist anymore, in Eck’s model?

      Mark – You ask “do you have enough faith in your atheism to set aside your disbelief from time to time and take a knee with President Obama?”

      I find your question extremely powerful, actually, although I understand many would balk at the phrasing. I think that answer is “Yes”. Sometimes, if you’ll excuse the vulgarity, I think it’s worth saying “fuck it”, swallowing your pride, and engaging in something that you aren’t fully comfortable with in order to demonstrate solidarity in a time of need. The question I’m left with, I suppose, is when would this shift from being a compassionate compromise to an inauthentic response? If I am repeatedly put in this position, I think I’d have reasonable cause for concern.

      • Mark David Dietz says:

        James,

        You cannot imagine how pleased I am that you have responded to that very provacative question I asked in such a positive and thoughtful way. As I told, Steph, above, I knew it was provocative. And I knew it would not please some people. But I do think it is the naturalist’s honest question, just as your follow on questions are essential to a naturalistic response in that they force on the act the need for moderation, and the avoidance of adopting an absolute and unconditional pattern of behavior.

        Yours, Mark

    • Mark David Dietz says:

      My friends tell me I worry too much — which is true. But two things in my comment above have me a little worried.

      Several of the other commentators on this page have interpreted the situation of President Obama asking others to pray with him, as a question of separation of church and state. I saw that element in the situation, but it seemed to me that James had decided not to deal with the situation from that point of view. Rather he chose to carry it in to the level of his own response as a non-believer. For that reason I did not, in my own commentary, address any issues of church and state.

      However, I raised again, in an unfortunately very provocative way, the question of whether James would “bend his knee” with President Obama. Perhaps that put the question of separation of church and sate back into play. If so, I failed to realize it. My focus remained on the response of a non-believer to a request from, if I may be allowed to turn to the abstract here, “a respected community leader.”

      My question has been characterized as “inappropriate” and I have spent a long time mulling over that term and asking myself whether it was or not. James responded to it in a positive way but added the caveat that “many would balk at the phrasing.” The phrasing included the use of the word “faith” and my rather heavy-handed reason for using that phrase. For which please allow me a mea culpa.

      But even if we could set aside the issue of “separation of church and state” which I have no doubt is present in the situation, and my heavy-handed use of the word “faith,” is the question itself somehow inappropriate. I have certainly been among those who have felt that many of the provocations directed at believers have been inappropriate — are they any different from my provocation here?

      Provocation is a type of rhetorical language; it means to persuade, but as often as not tends to solidify the walls of difference. Something in me does tend toward the provocative, but usually when my respondent bites back, I tend to want to delete all my posts, run back inside my hole, and fall into a black funk. You can see evidence of my trying to do the same lower down on this page.

      I think the struggle I am having is whether or not these provocations are good for others or just the blaring trumpets of a selfish ego. I have been reading Walter Pater lately and a little phrase has been running through my head: Can I ever write as softly as Pater and still be heard?

      Thank you for letting me get that off my chest,
      Mark

  4. Interesting, James.

    You could always just stop pressing your face against the glass.

    Seriously. There are other sources of community and solidarity, after all. I never press my face against the glass, because that particular source of community and solidarity really really doesn’t appeal to me. It hasn’t since childhood. I hate bending the knee to nothing, and I hate bending it to other people’s fantasy of something.

    It’s not cold outside the church. Really.

    (And frankly, I think Stedman is doing more to help demonize atheists than he is to build bridges.)

    • James Croft says:

      Thank you for your response Ophelia!

      I think I should clarify here that I used the metaphor of the church to mean something akin to the American political scene, from which the nonreligious, as you know, are currently ruthlessly excluded. I do not seek community within churches – as you suggest, I find it warmer in the embrace of my Humanist friends and colleagues.

  5. I posted that before seeing what Mr Dietz wrote.

    I don’t think we have to take a knee with Mr Obama. I’m pretty sure I neither have to nor want to.

    The notion of a celestial Christina jumping in heavenly puddles is moving…until you think about it. Jumping puddles where, with whom, to what end? Real children like jumping in puddles as part of a full life, with parents to go home to and a future waiting. Christina had plans for her life. She didn’t just want to jump in puddles, she also wanted to meet Gabrielle Giffords. Loughner took all that away from her, and that’s a fact. If it helps her parents to think of her as playing happily somewhere, I hope they can do so, but let’s not pretend that’s a genuinely convincing picture.

    I don’t know what Mr Dietz means by “real change, real variety and, most importantly, self-initiated movement,” but I fail to see why it depends on bending the knee with Obama.

    • Mark David Dietz says:

      Ophelia, the phrase you are asking about is not mine; it’s John Dewey’s. Dewey defines pluralism as “real change, real variety and, most importantly, self-initiated movement,” although the “most importantly” is mine and contextual to the argument above.

      Frankly, I should hate to see you ever bend a knee to anyone or anything. You would not be you if you did. You are an old school atheist, uninterested in “change” (quite conservative in that respect). You want a very monotonic definition of atheism, so we can eliminate any possibility that you value “variety” relative to atheism. And you become extremely upset when anyone in your tribe seeks to express new, “self-initiated” thoughts.

      No, Dewey, is not for you. Nor is the bended knee, because your brand of idealism would never allow it. Nor is change, nor variety, nor freedom of thought.

      You can argue with me on this all you want; it won’t change things. Your uncivil and unthoughtful comments on Chris tell us more about you than all your attempts to rationalize your conservative position.

      James’s struggle is what makes him human. Your attempts to squash that struggle are what make you human. What atheists must ask themselves is what sort of human do they want to be.

      Your friend, Mark

      • You don’t know what I want, and it’s ridiculous for you to style yourself my “friend.”

      • Furthermore…you know what? That’s a really startlingly disgusting thing to say – that accusation that I’m trying to “squash James’s struggle.” That’s a truly willful misreading – I did no such thing. I addressed his struggle sympathetically, pointing out that it was *not necessary*. He’s torn about something that he needn’t be torn about.

        You have a nasty mouth on you.

        • Mark David Dietz says:

          Ophelia, you have made yourself into a public pundit. At what point do you realize that that means you are going to recieve reasonable criticism. I don’t see how my statements about you are in any way worse than what you have said about Chris or James. Now, do you think it might be better to reply to me in the role of a public figure who needs to manage more carefully the language she uses? I have been quite careful with mine. The least I expect is for you to rise to the same standard. If you cannot call me “friend,” then you are not working at the level of civility that this mode of rhetoric you are engaged in calls for. And those who wish to engage in civil rheotric would then have the right to dismiss you entirely — and that would be a terrible waste, because you do have important things to say.

          Your friend, Mark

          • That’s absurd, Mr Dietz. You don’t sign “your friend” on your other comments – only on mine. Yet obviously you are anything but friendly toward me. Signing yourself “your friend” is nothing to do with civility, it’s sheer passive-aggression.

        • James Croft says:

          I didn’t read Ophelia as attempting to quash my struggle, in case that means anything. I appreciated the alternative point of view.

          • Mark David Dietz says:

            I will accept that and offer Ophelia my apologies for having misread her intentions.

          • Mark David Dietz says:

            I can’t seem to find how to delete my postings as you can do on Facebook. I was rereading my responses to Ophelia and came to the conlusion that they were, in fact, terribly arrogant and unfair. If I cannot delete them, can I at least ask that readers would consider them as withdrawn?

            Thanks, Mark

  6. I think that Mark’s reply is very thoughtful. In light of his appeal to pragmatism, let me ask a question: what are the ethics of dealing with someone whom one respects as a person, but whose faith one does not and cannot respect? Does the claim of a chosen personal respect ever outweigh the claim of a necessary disrespect? Given that many people feel their faith to be personal–as your concluding image suggests you feel your humanism/atheism to be–how ought one to manage the (I would suggest frequent) occasions when respect and disrespect collide? I recognize that you may just be beginning to grapple with questions such as these, but I’m curious to know what you think.

    • Mark David Dietz says:

      Jason and Ben,

      I will do the best I can. You are right, Jason, that, at least relative to atheism, this is something I am still exploring, but, to be honest, the ethics of Deweyan pragmatism have always given me more than a little to struggle with. Dewey’s ethics are largely casuistic – that is to say that they tend to treat every situation as a case unto itself and depend strongly upon our individual capacity for critical judgment. Dewey also has a tendency to turn his back too readily on our cultural and intellectual inheritance. I have proposed something I call awkward pragmatism – using the word awkward in its etymological sense of “backward turning,” but also in its colloquial sense of messiness. I have no real desire to achieve a pure and perfect system that always gives the “right” answer, is always absolute in any sense (even in terms of belief or disbelief in god – one of the reasons I refuse to call myself either an atheist or a theist), and allows for a messy and very natural humanness. Rationality to my mind is never without affect – it always contains an emotional element – without which it would not be human. Emotions fit Dewey’s pluralism: they change, they have variety and they are self-initiated movement – they also run the gamut from soap opera extremes to the merest of background emotions: care, discomfort, boredom, etc. (There is an element of Hume underlying this – Hume saw emotions as the necessary element for mental movement; reason is unmoving – it follows emotion; it does not precede it.)

      Let us begin by looking at Deweyan naturalism. Deweyan ethics require a sort of reconstruction of thought in order to respond to any ethical situation. The advantages to such an approach are rather consistent with the rules Dewey has given for pluralism: the approach allows for real change, real variety and self-initiated movement. The disadvantages, however, are rather significant. Our ethical and moral world ends up feeling totally untethered. Rules can be bad and oppressive, but they also allowed for a sense of stability.

      Without being too reductive, I think finding a way to balance these two contrary conditions (reconstruction and stability) is essential to any future naturalistic ethics. Alain Locke used a term which has fascinated for some time now: local universals. Local universals are local in two respects: 1) they need not be seen as applicable beyond their immediate use or even their immediate source, although that source is not individual but social, so that to be a local universal, it must be more than what an individual thinks is right, it must have some real communal value; 2) local universals are local in time, meaning that over time they may and should be challenged. Now such local universals have the danger of transforming over time into concrete dogma. But if used with care, if regularly challenged they can form a means by which a community makes ethical decisions without having to perform radical acts of reconstruction every time a slightly ethical or moral question arises.

      Now I don’t think that this means doing away with human-wide or global universals; my inclination is to say that there are qualities true to all humans, but that these qualities seldom take the form of behavioral rules. They are true qualities, relatively unchanging and we may reason from them — that is to say they may be used axiomatically, but not prescriptively. (And I am well aware that both local and global universals as I have presented them here really need a much deeper argument than I can provide at this point.)

      Now to your specific questions: let us see where we are in forming our universals. Can one respect the person, while disrespecting the religion, and how does one handle that? This is Jason’s question. To this Ben adds “their actions” thus distinguishing act from actor and citing, quite appropriately, I think, St. Augustine. Ben also adds something that is more difficult to deal with. “Delusions” actually requires a sense of the intentionality behind the act, if not our desire to rid another of these delusions is mere hubris. If it is hubris, then the question deflects back to the atheist and has nothing to do with the acts of the religious individual. Intentionality is a difficult subject, and I don’t really have the space to deal with it here, but I wrote a book on the subject (selfish plug) entitled An Awkward Echo and available through Amazon.

      As complex as these questions are, we cannot deal with all of the relevant universals and so I will simply look for a few local universals that might have some relevance and discuss thsoe. The first has already been stated by both Jason and Ben. Treat the act (or belief) and the actor as separate phenomena. Now, I want to be clear on the nature of this statement. When we say it is a local universal, we are saying that it is not rationally derived. No direct path of reason can get us to this statement. Instead it is an archai (origin or axiom), and because it is “local” it is something more than a proposition, but less than an unshakable, monolithic, cast in stone universal rule. If our culture feels comfortable reasoning from it, we can use it as a base for our ethical reasoning, but at some point, as Ben suggests, we may feel it is less than adequate. We may say, “but the actor is, nonetheless, linked to the act even if only in the moment the act is performed or the belief thought.” Our extreme of this would be something along the lines of Yeats’ powerful words in his poem “The Second Coming:” “we cannot tell the dancer from the dance.” Many people, not only today, but over the years, have found it easier to dissolve the distinction, partly because it is difficult and unnatural (most ethics are artificial in the sense of restraining human nature – but if they simply restated our natural inclinations what would be the need for ethics). Alternatively we may respect the local universal and say rather that under certain conditions we cannot separate our respect for the actor from our respect (or lack of respect) for the action.

      This latter distinction is no doubt the very heart of your concerns, Jason and Ben. How do we do this? It is easy enough when the statements are at absolute poles of opposition: separate the act and the actor, don’t separate the act and the actor. But to find a middle ground is much more difficult? (The center is where all real intellectual challenges are located; the extremes are easy.) For example, might we say that if the action is murder, then we might be loathe to separate the act and the actor. But then we might add, but if the murder was accidental or unintentional… Now we all know this sequence of thought, so I won’t take it any further. We can see here how we have layered archai upon archai, using both reason and our imaginative/emotional faculties.

      Let’s look now at the religious questions before us. We might say, for example, that “we must respect all religions.” Again, an arcahi derived from our emotions and imagination, not our reason (although a rational argument can and often does follow and I would urge you to set aside any notion you have that somehow emotion and imagination are less than reason; in Deweyan naturalism the three elements have equal value – reason is NOT superior.) Alternatively, we can say, “we should not respect any religions.” The same holds here: this is a statement that cannot be rationally derived. I want to emphasize that because I often here this phrase treated as if it were a rational statement. It is not. It is a statement of belief, emotional and imaginative, from which we can derive an ethical response to the world we live in.

      Fortunately, Dewey gave us test for these archai, these local universals upon which we will reason. He said that for him democracy and naturalistic thinking (he often seemed to regard the two as the same) are always pluralistic. If we accept this as itself a kind of local universal from which we may reason about other local universals, we have established criteria that allow us to evaluate these archai and determine if they are reasonable for use in ethical reasoning within a pluralistic society. In other words, do our local universals allow for change, have variety and enable self-initiated thought? Well, both of the extreme statements above (respect all religions, respect no religions) suffer a little when put to this test. In particular they seem to allow little room for self-initiated thought. Thus we really would want something in the middle, something that says, yes, I will respect some religions, but not others and I will use some criteria to help me decide which to respect and which not to respect.

      Now I know at this point this is just a shell of ideas, a few off-hand methodologies, but I would rather not try to give specifics, because I think that should be something that comes together over time out of a community, not an individual. But as complex as this is, we are used to doing this. Note how we attach conditions to our views on murderers. And so that no one comes up with the cynical comment “then you suggest we just treat the religious as murderers” (a cheap shot, so I’m glad I got it in before someone else did), let’s look at something more positive like charitable giving. We may say that for charitable giving, we will associate with the actor a value of goodness. But then we say, but maybe not all such acts. If the charitable act has associated with it a quid pro quo that is sizable and secret, then we see not goodness, but underhandedness. What if the charitable giver has the selfish thought, “I want to be seen as good, so I will give to charity.” Here we must ask ourselves if we wish to stay with a naturalistic view, or move to the idealism (without recourse to nature, change, variety, or movement) of a cynical world view (and I truly do not see how cynicism can ever be aligned with naturalism, certainly not Deweyan naturalism). If we wish to be a naturalist, we shrug our shoulders and simply say the charitable giver may be a little selfish, but that is only human, and we value humanity.

      Not sure if I’ve helped or even moved the question forward. As you say Jason, I’m still trying to figure this out for myself.

      For those interested here are a couple of references:

      Dewey on pluralism: Dewey, John. (1902) Contributions to Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology. In James Mark Baldwin (Ed.), Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology, Vol. 2, ed. New York: Macmillan Co. In The Collected Works of John Dewey, 1892-1953. The Electronic Edition.

      Alain Locke on local universals: Locke, Alain and Leonard Harris (ed.) (1989) The Philosophy of Alain Locke: Harlem Renaissance and Beyond (Philadelphia: Temple University Press) (Locke was the first African American Rhodes Scholar and the intellectual/aesthetic theorist behind the Harlem Renaissance.)

      • Mark,

        I’m humbled by the length and thoughtfulness of this response. I asked the questions more because they seemed relevant to the post than because I’ve really thought through any kind of coherent answer to them, but you’ve certainly given me something to work with.

        I especially appreciate the emphasis on the valid parts played by emotion and imagination. Have you read Herbert of Cherbury’s _De Veritate_? (Look for the 1937 English translation by Meyrick Carre.) He treats discursive reason as the least reliable human faculty for perceiving truth–and this from the man often (although mistakenly) called the “Father of English Deism.” I don’t necessarily find his philosophy persuasive, but it’s very interesting indeed.

        The idea of “local universals” is interesting, and I think that there might even be Christian analogues to the idea in early Congregationalist writings (among which I’d include, somewhat problematically, Milton’s _Areopagitica_). I might have more to say on this in a future post, if I can ever get around to writing it. In fact, writing such a post would require me to navigate my own ethical questions vis-a-vis expressing my dissatisfaction with a vein of Christian thinking that I genuinely respect. Oughtta be fun…

        Jason

        • Jason,

          I’m a little embarassed at how long my last comment was, so I will try to keep this one short. I did not recognize Herbert of Cherbury until I saw the Isaac Oliver miniature in his Wikipedia article. I am quite familiar with that image, but alas not with Herberrt’s writings.

          I should have added a third reference above, Ernesto Grassi, Rheotric as Philosophy, which I am currently reading. The argument for archai I take from him, but as I have not finished reading the book I chose not to inlcude it in the list — a mistake on my part.

          Grassi gives primacy to rhetorical language over scientific or rational language, because the archai, or ingenium, or axiom (a product of emotion and imagination) must precede rational thought. Hume made much the same point, but emphasized emotion also as the only means by which thought may be brought into motion. Grassi also points rhetorical langauge back toward religious language.

          I’m increasingly disinclined to see rhetorical and scientific language as two separates kinds of language, but rather as two extremes against which we measure all language. Nothing that can be expressed (as opposed to being thought) can ever be entirely without reason, or entirely without emotion and imagination. And most likely the same is true of our internal thoughts except perhaps for those thoughts that may range deep in our unconscious in something of a pre-literate state (pre-literate, as in before langauge, not before reading).

          I fear that much of what passes for naturalism (which seems to me more of a populist and ill-thought out version of anlaytical positivism than a true naturalism) may have led modern atheism astray by suggesting that scientific thought must be absent of emotion and imagination.

          And that’s all the more I will say right now so that I don’t end up with another long-winded comment. Thanks for your thoughts. I look forward to more dialog and hope soon to read that future post you are contemplating.

          Mark

  7. I’m curious as well as Jason from the essay and comments about the limits or boundaries of loving or respecting a person vs. their views or even actions. The Christian tradition has a long history of reflection on the matter, going back to (Augustine’s?) “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” Richard Dawkins at Duke last year quoted another atheist who said that he had too much “respect” for people to allow them to remain in their ridiculous religious “delusions.” Joel Richardson, author of The Islamic Antichrist, as well as Wafa Sultan and others say the love Muslims, and they speak against Islam because of that love. Comments?

    Also, James, how is your approach to religious people as people different from how “conservative” Christians discuss loving homosexuals, but disagreeing with homosexuality? I’m guessing you might say “there’s no evidence for their views…” but really tey surely think there is evidence for their views, and could argue the other side is not objective in rejecting the evidence they present. To hone the conversation even further, shall we say we can’t just point to unpleasant behavior of those who claimed to love the sinner and hate the sin. Let’s engage the principle at its best.

    Stirring the pot,

    Ben

    • James Croft says:

      Hi Ben, Jason. Thanks for the comments! I’ll respond to Ben’s formulation of the questions and see if it’s satisfactory.

      Ben, you say:

      “I’m curious as well as Jason from the essay and comments about the limits or boundaries of loving or respecting a person vs. their views or even actions. The Christian tradition has a long history of reflection on the matter, going back to (Augustine’s?) “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” Richard Dawkins at Duke last year quoted another atheist who said that he had too much “respect” for people to allow them to remain in their ridiculous religious “delusions.” Joel Richardson, author of The Islamic Antichrist, as well as Wafa Sultan and others say the love Muslims, and they speak against Islam because of that love. Comments?”

      This is challenging because there is a whole array of interrelated issues here. I think the way I’d express my position on this is to say that I try to respect people’s identity, including their religious identity, while perhaps disagreeing with their views. Obviously the distinction between aspects of identity and “views” is hard to draw.

      I would also say that, like Dawkins seems to suggest, part of respect for someone is being true to yourself in debate and discussion. Therefore it would be disrespectful for me to refrain from voicing my true opinion if asked – I would be pandering to someone else in order to spare their feelings, which seems to suggest I don’t respect their capability to receive reasoned criticism.

      You then ask:

      “how is your approach to religious people as people different from how “conservative” Christians discuss loving homosexuals, but disagreeing with homosexuality? I’m guessing you might say “there’s no evidence for their views…” but really they surely think there is evidence for their views, and could argue the other side is not objective in rejecting the evidence they present. To hone the conversation even further, shall we say we can’t just point to unpleasant behavior of those who claimed to love the sinner and hate the sin. Let’s engage the principle at its best.”

      Two points on this (and here you really strike a nerve). First, I don’t think it a cogent defense of a practice or position to say merely that the individuals who hold/practice something “think there is evidence for their views”. Whether there is evidence or not is subject to reasoned debate, and while we might not arrive at a fact of the matter we could at least end up with more and less plausible competing positions, which would enable us to make a decision between them.

      Second, there is a very BIG problem with saying that you “love the sinner but hate the sin” in THIS case, which is that having gay sex is a large part of the identity of many homosexual people. For some, like me, actually engaging in same sex intercourse was a crucial step on my accepting my own homosexuality. So here there isn’t a sharp distinction between the “sin” and the “sinner”. Furthermore, of course, one can choose, at least in principle, to change one’s religion or denomination. One cannot choose one’s sexual orientation (believe me – I tried for 10 years).

      • Thanks for this reply and for tolerating the nerve touching, James, and also for the post (I don’t think I thanked you before).

        Briefly, what you experience as unchangeable sexual orientation, some religious believers (or atheists and others) may feel similarly about their faith, that they are compelled by evidence, emotion, or intuition, etc. and cannot possibly be any different than they are.

        At the same time, other believers and atheists may be more maleable in their views and identities, and other people may also experience their sexual orientation as more fluid or alterable.

        Cheers,

        Ben

        • James Croft says:

          Ben, you say:

          “what you experience as unchangeable sexual orientation, some religious believers (or atheists and others) may feel similarly about their faith, that they are compelled by evidence, emotion, or intuition, etc. and cannot possibly be any different than they are.”

          I wasn’t quite making the claim that I experience my sexuality as unchangeable. I was rather making the stronger claim that it seems to be unchangeable regardless of what we would like to be the case.

          Strenuous efforts have been made to change people’s sexuality, and there is no evidence whatsoever of widespread, repeatable success. On the other hand, people change their religious beliefs all the time, in all conceivable directions. There is a significant difference between a position held by virtue of evidence and reason (which by definition must be changeable if new evidence arises) and an identity characteristic that is part of our biopsychological makeup. I don’t think it wise or justified to elide the distinction.

          This may sound terrible to say, but I think you give too much weight to how people experience things. Sometimes our experience misleads us.

          • Ben DeVan says:

            Thanks for this, James, and thank you for engaging me on such a sensitive issue that I’m sure you’ve spent a lot more time reflecting on than I have. Nevertheless, A few further points:

            1) You point out that I may put too much emphasis on experience and experience can mislead us. Perhaps. But do you see how this observation also calls into question your “Even stronger” statement that sexuality / orientation is (and I infer and extend rather than quoting you directly here) is always and utterly unchangeable for everyone?

            You may experience your orientation as utterly set in stone, and again some religious people believe they could never believe or be any differently than a Muslim, Christian, etc. I personally think “religious” belief and identification can and do change — and empirically do so — but still SOME people experience being a Muslim, Christian, etc. as being an unchangeable core identity, even if the details or specifics of how they live or believe as Muslims or Christians changes.

            2) I know this raises a host of emotionally charged issues regarding gay / ex gay / ex ex gay debates and “culture wars” etc., and I also know the APA is for now, in lockstep with your position on this, even to the point of (admittedly going on hearsay here) apparently zealously expelling dissenters.

            If this is true, it makes me nervous because it infringes on people’s freedom to seek counsel about their orientation, and even seek to redirect or change it. I’m not arguing such “change” is easy, I am not arguing that people can have reasons for saying that attempting such change as undesirable and rejecting such change for themselves. I AM arguing that in the end, people should be free to seek change / conversion therapy if they desire it, and consenting counselors should not be punished for assisting them in that journey. I equally believe believe people should be free NOT to pursue or such therapy (or “therapy” depending on perspective).

            As a first year M.A. in counseling student, I did a paper which found studies that indicated some success in “orientation” change for some people. I’ve seen more recent studies, but for now will just share with you those from my paper. I too know of no widespread successful method of orientation change (especially for unwilling participants, but of course this is an issue in all therapy), but to say that orientation change or desire or shifting is utterly and totally impossible for all people is: a) a “gaps” argument, that just because there is no widely acclaimed approach, or that many approaches are problematic or even dangerous, indicates there never was, is, or will be a useful and ethical conversion therapy. b) does not square with the studies below.

            I suspect you can find weaknesses in these studies, since they are surely not inerrant, just as you critiqued Josh Stanton’s studies on circumcision. Yet the testimony and data they retain may have some validity, even if it is not flawless. We cannot simply attack studies searching for flaws simply because we disagree or they prove inconvenient for our opinions. I’m not saying you necessarily do this, but I think it is a perennial temptation. Though these are somewhat dated, here are several of the studies I cited indicating varied levels of reported success for SOME people in change of sexual orientation / desire. And these do not include historic material by psychologists such as Anna Freud and atheist Albert Ellis, the supposedly 1,000+ Ph.D. / Psy.D. / M.S. member NARTH (who I’m sure you have critiques of, and I welcome them), etc.:

            Canton-Dutari, A. (1976). Combined intervention for controlling unwanted homosexual behavior: An extended follow-up. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 5, 323-325.

            Pattison, E.M., & Pattison, M.J. (1980). “Ex-gays”: Religiously mediated change in homosexuals. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 137, 1553-1562.

            Schaeffaer, K.W., Nottebaum, L., Smith, P., Dech, K., & Krawczyck, J. (1999). Religiously-motivated sexual orientation change: A follow-up study. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 27, 329-337.

            Schwartz and Masters (1984). The Masters and Johnson treatment program for dissatisfied homosexual men. American Journal of Psychiatry, 141, 173-181.

            Throckmorton, W. (1998). Efforts to modify sexual orientation: A review of outcome literature and ethical issues. Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 4, 283-304.

            Yarhouse, M. (1998a). When clients seek treatment for same-sex attraction: Ethical issues in the “right to choose” debate. Psychotherapy, 2, 248-259.

          • steph says:

            I agree with everything James has said but I wonder if the contrast isn’t even greater. I’m not aware that any of those strenuous (I think inhuman) attempts to change people’s sexuality (normally initiated through pressure or guilt, but never but personal uninfluenced decision) have honestly been successful whereas I am aware of the shocking and sometimes fatal consequences of those attempts. Yet people drift away or into faith all the time, persuaded by perceived evidence and rational arguments without dramatic effects, other than a pronounced resentment sometimes of a former faith. What we believe evolves over time as a process of thinking and learning but our sexuality is much deeper than that, identifying our humanity, our biopsychological make up. Our sexuality is mind and body. I wonder how these councillors would treat an individual who decided they wanted to change their heterosexuality to a homo sexuality. It’s as unnatural as that.

          • James Croft says:

            Wow, Ben – we’ve reached the limit of indentations for replies! Perhaps this indicates that there should be a fuller discussion of these questions elsewhere! But let me try to respond to your questions briefly.

            “1) You point out that I may put too much emphasis on experience and experience can mislead us. Perhaps. But do you see how this observation also calls into question your “Even stronger” statement that sexuality / orientation is (and I infer and extend rather than quoting you directly here) is always and utterly unchangeable for everyone?”

            As you accept, you here extend my statement. I did not make the claim you put into my mouth and will not therefore defend it. Rather, I said, as you accept later in your post, that there is no reliable evidence of widespread success of any technique to change sexual orientation.

            “You may experience your orientation as utterly set in stone, and again some religious people believe they could never believe or be any differently than a Muslim, Christian, etc. I personally think “religious” belief and identification can and do change — and empirically do so — but still SOME people experience being a Muslim, Christian, etc. as being an unchangeable core identity, even if the details or specifics of how they live or believe as Muslims or Christians changes.”

            I think I can grant this and it doesn’t weaken my argument.

            “2) I know this raises a host of emotionally charged issues regarding gay / ex gay / ex ex gay debates and “culture wars” etc., and I also know the APA is for now, in lockstep with your position on this, even to the point of (admittedly going on hearsay here) apparently zealously expelling dissenters.

            If this is true, it makes me nervous because it infringes on people’s freedom to seek counsel about their orientation, and even seek to redirect or change it. I’m not arguing such “change” is easy, I am not arguing that people can have reasons for saying that attempting such change as undesirable and rejecting such change for themselves. I AM arguing that in the end, people should be free to seek change / conversion therapy if they desire it, and consenting counselors should not be punished for assisting them in that journey. I equally believe believe people should be free NOT to pursue or such therapy (or “therapy” depending on perspective).”

            This is a very interesting issue. In principle, although it may put me at odds with some in the gay community, I do not think that people should be prevented from seeking to change their orientation in whatever direction should they honestly decide, without duress, that they would like to do so.

            BUT:

            That does NOT absolve the practitioners offering “treatment” from their responsibility to ensure they have a working “product”. It is NOT acceptable for a therapist to offer any treatment that they don’t have good reason to believe will be effective. That, to me, rules out all current versions of gay-conversion therapy. No respected professional organization, to my knowledge, supports any form of conversion therapy whatsoever as a therapy with demonstrated effectiveness, and many caution against the harm such therapies can cause.

            “As a first year M.A. in counseling student, I did a paper which found studies that indicated some success in “orientation” change for some people. I’ve seen more recent studies, but for now will just share with you those from my paper. I too know of no widespread successful method of orientation change (especially for unwilling participants, but of course this is an issue in all therapy), but to say that orientation change or desire or shifting is utterly and totally impossible for all people is: a) a “gaps” argument, that just because there is no widely acclaimed approach, or that many approaches are problematic or even dangerous, indicates there never was, is, or will be a useful and ethical conversion therapy. b) does not square with the studies below.

            I suspect you can find weaknesses in these studies, since they are surely not inerrant, just as you critiqued Josh Stanton’s studies on circumcision. Yet the testimony and data they retain may have some validity, even if it is not flawless. We cannot simply attack studies searching for flaws simply because we disagree or they prove inconvenient for our opinions. I’m not saying you necessarily do this, but I think it is a perennial temptation. Though these are somewhat dated, here are several of the studies I cited indicating varied levels of reported success for SOME people in change of sexual orientation / desire. And these do not include historic material by psychologists such as Anna Freud and atheist Albert Ellis, the supposedly 1,000+ Ph.D. / Psy.D. / M.S. member NARTH (who I’m sure you have critiques of, and I welcome them), etc.:”

            I will look at these studies and get back to you. A general point, which I see as crucial, though: you say “We cannot simply attack studies searching for flaws simply because we disagree or they prove inconvenient for our opinions. ” I entirely agree.

            At the same time, it is unwise to think that any valuable data at all will come out of shoddily-designed studies. As the great Richard Feynman said, “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”

            We have to design our experiments extremely carefully to get anything of value out of them at all. Even the most well-designed experiments frequently admit of several interpretations. Therefore, I think poorly designed experiments are unlikely to yield anything of value at all.

            As for NARTH, predictably I find them an extremely suspect organization. Their highest leadership has repeatedly stated in public that they are religiously motivated, and so you can see how their science might be suspect. And I cannot help pointing out that George Alan Rekers was recently an advisor…

            I point out again that I never said that there is absolutely no evidence of success and never could be. I won’t defend a position I do not hold.

      • Thanks for the response, James. You say:

        “I would also say that, like Dawkins seems to suggest, part of respect for someone is being true to yourself in debate and discussion. Therefore it would be disrespectful for me to refrain from voicing my true opinion if asked – I would be pandering to someone else in order to spare their feelings, which seems to suggest I don’t respect their capability to receive reasoned criticism.”

        I agree with the substance of this, but I would submit that the real ethical challenges lie in the “how,” not the “what” of this statement. That is, how do you speak in a way that is at once true to yourself AND communicates to your interlocutor that you “respect their capability to receive reasoned criticism”? I don’t really think that you can take for granted that other people presume your good opinion of them, if for no other reason than that the rhetorical climate in this country has trained all of us to be very adept at finding attacks against our own partisan positions in the most innocent and well-intentioned of statements. (The obvious digs at our beliefs are no-brainers.)

        Jason

  8. Isabel says:

    ‘I don’t see belief in God as “another way of understanding the world”, or as “a different route to truth”. I see it as wrong. Mistaken. Unsupported.’

    Define “God.” Seriously. Describe what you mean when you use that word. Why do I ask? (Besides my usual trope about loaded, but undefined, terminology and the slop that it leads to.)

    Firstly, it shuts me out com-PLETE-ly. My notion of god is almost entirely based on science — admittedly, on English translations of quantum physics, but it’s certainly “hard” science in the sense of being very difficult to master.

    Wryness aside, and secondly, it perpetuates the HIGHLY problematic notion of “god” as a separate, discrete, authoritative entity. To some of us, that’s blasphemy.

    Wit aside, I agree completely that those who share a defined, predigested religious or spiritual faith — especially one with a strong artistic & liturgical tradition — definitely have access to a type of ecstatic communion that is _much_ harder to find in other ways.

    As for the appallingly self-righteous trope that religion is for “weak” characters, please, anyone who thinks so needs to spend a few days inside the skulls of some of the people I most admire. Their toughness, resilience, and brilliance in the face of the unbearable — let alone unprintable — is staggering. (I’d say it’s superhuman, but I dare not dehumanize them even in the good way.) If faith is part of that, no way am I going to tell them that having that faith makes them one bit weaker, because that would make me so full of crap my eyes would shift from blue/grey to green through hazel and go all the way to brown. I don’t want my eyes to go brown.

    This is a beautiful and moving essay. I think you can do better than Eck. I look forward to seeing _you_ set the terminology and reframe the ideas from your own distinctive combination of decency, brilliance, knowledge, integrity, and humanity. And the stained glass windows will melt open and embrace you, because they will actually be yours. I’m certain of it. It’s only a matter of work — and time.

    • James Croft says:

      Hi Isabel! You challenge me with something that Brad Bannon, another contributor here, has also challenged me on.

      Let me say that there are ways of defining “God” which I would not find objectionable – many actually arose in the first day of the seminar. The challenge for me is that I truly do not believe most people share the highly complex, mainly metaphorical version of belief that I think you are alluding to. I choose generally to use the term in its common usage, but I should keep in mind that it excludes some who would use it in an Einsteinian way.

  9. Isabel’s comment brings up the question I had after your first post, James: why does the God-question even matter to your identity? Is it simply the enormous cultural force exerted by belief? If so, then let your own belief–humanism–do for you what Isabel describes: help you become tough, resilient, and brilliant in the face of the unbearable. I’ve thought ever since that first post that the common ground between your belief and mine lies in appreciating the humanity of people who inhabit these qualities–a humanity that Isabel seems very intent on preserving in her comment, by the way.

    • James Croft says:

      Jason, I really want to reply to this and to your very first comment with a proper post. The only problem is I’m wracked as to whether SoF is the right space for it. I don’t really want to be seen as proselytizing, and yet I haven’t been able to write the post in any way which I think won’t be potentially hurtful…

  10. Dale McGowan says:

    Terrific post, James. I’ve always found the “many paths to truth” line irritating as well. Like you, I consider theism to be quite simply false at its core. And yet I’m a pluralist.

    One of the best phrasings of the pluralist question is this: Are you willing to co-exist with people you consider completely mistaken in their views? I don’t bend my knee, grant intellectual validity where there is none, or refrain from challenging the toxic consequences of some beliefs. But I do find that I share many goals and values with my progressive religious friends. And since we’re both going to be around for a long time, I find it better to build on that than to lump them with the fundamentalists and go it alone.

    • steph says:

      Absolutely!! Dale, I agree with every word you wrote.

    • James Croft says:

      I agree with Dale too.

      • steph says:

        I hope I get around to reading Eck one day, because from your helpful insight into her view, I don’t agree with her at all. It’s not a universal definition, it’s exclusive and it isn’t helpful at all. And when you consider the fact that all humans are born ‘agnostic’, it isn’t a realistic definition at all, either.

  11. […] James Croft is struggling. Obama was exercising his capacity for leadership at a time of extraordinary uncertainty, when the […]

  12. May says:

    I think this line of thought is overly preoccupied with acceptance of others’ beliefs. I think the truth is that if it weren’t for the actions associated with those beliefs, we would all have a much easier time identifying as pluralists, by your definition.

  13. Very thoughtful essay, Chris. I too am troubled at how religious folks, even thoughtful religious folks, seek to push Atheists out of the faith conversation altogether. And don’t get too lonely outside the faith tent, when Humanism’s got a house.

  14. Jon Dreyer says:

    A Copernican revolution is a good one, but maybe you’ve got the wrong sun. Let’s put humanity in the center. Most religious people would never do this intentionally, but if you hear the apologists you’d think they might. All but the most extreme religionists trumpet the humanistic parts of their religions as evidence that religion is a force for good, so they are really most of the way there. We just have to get them to admit it.

    • James Croft says:

      I’d LOVE to put humanity in the center, and I wonder if that is what I really feel when it comes to pluralism. I’m just not sure I could get many people of faith to go with me on that…

      • steph says:

        why not? Most of my religious friends self identify as ‘humanist’. Dwight Jones said something like ‘underneath or layer of belief [or unbelief] we’re all humanists’ – in the core sort of thing. I think we can learn to acknowledge (except the fundamentalist won’t) and share our humanist underlay as our common value … (ok maybe idealistic, but it happens, and I think it’s true)

        • Mark David Dietz says:

          Probably too many philosophical problems here. If humanity is in the center, then we must ask if this would mean deifying humanity? Maybe, maybe not? What about the rest of nature, and those who follow Deism (today they are called ecologists)? They would certainly be uncomfortable with humanity in the center. Most modern religions in their more abstract and sophisticated states do begin to ask about the similiudes between man and god, but putting humanity in the center for the great majority would be open heresy. Finally, to put humanity in the center is not quite the same as asking folks to behave in a more humane way — which is what I take the suggestion to mean.

          Sorry, I know that is a bit curmudgeonly, but as a humanist, I would be very uncomfortable with humanity in the center if only because I would wonder at the extreme hubris that it would suggest.

          Mark

  15. Honna Eichler says:

    Disclaimer: I didn’t all of the comments.

    James – I very much appreciated your post for several different reasons. Not only did you provide an excellent critique of Eck’s definition of religious pluralism, but I think your points about bridging the faith gap were helpful to me in understanding this disconnect. Further, I commend your involvement with the workshop you noted. I am sure your presence is needed.

    Re your comments on Eck. Her model of pluralism clearly isn’t inclusive of atheism or humanism – I would go so far as to argue that it isn’t helpful as a universal definition.

    At the last Parliament of World Religions, atheists, pagans and humanists were included in the conversation – there were subsections in the program for each group. In fact, the Program Director was a a pagan (she also formally worked with Eck as a co-director of the Pluralism Project.) I am not sure if that model is the beginning of the sort of inclusion you are looking for, but I am curious as to what inclusion, for you, would look like.

    • James Croft says:

      This is a challenging question, Honna. Today at the first session of the seminar we discussed group norms, and I mentioned my desire to find language that was inclusive of people who consider themselves not to be people of faith. One of the professors responded immediately that “atheism is a faith”. I had a very pointed exchange with him about how I reject that label for myself, and feel I should be able to self-define as a person of faith or not as I so choose (within reasonable boundaries of word-use), and that I’d prefer we find truly inclusive language.

      Another professor then suggested that this was an unreasonable expectation, and that I should try to “translate” language of “faith” into words more suitable for me. I’m still wondering what tho think about this.

      • Isabel says:

        “I’d prefer we find truly inclusive language.”

        I’m truly horrified that this group was trying to write you out of the conversation. That’s a stellar example of the intellectual dishonesty that accompanies sloppy definitions. No. No, no, no. Not allowed.

        I hope, with all my heart & mind, that you stuck to your point and got backup.

        • steph says:

          in a sense, maybe we all just have ‘worldviews’? ‘Life perspectives’? … ‘opinions’? A ‘philo of sophia’… ?

  16. […] that struggle that James Croft was having (and perhaps still is). I feel a similar ambivalence regarding the religious elements of […]

  17. James Croft says:

    I’m astonished and delighted by the amount of discussion this post has caused – thanks to everyone who has contributed here. I’ll respond to as many as I can!

    • It’s an interesting post, James! It speaks to me, as the saying goes.

      It’s not unconnected to the “I have a dream” speech, or for that matter to the “I have seen the mountaintop” speech. I like certain kinds of Biblical rhetoric and metaphor. I find it stirring. And yet…I also find it problematic. I find it easier to appreciate King’s than I do to appreciate Obama’s, for the obvious reason – Obama’s is Now.

      And in fact there was considerable tension around the churchiness of the Civil Rights movement at the time; that’s one reason SNCC was founded.

      • James Croft says:

        Yes, absolutely – I’m writing a post about MLK and his faith right now, actually. I find it both stirring and problematic, and I find it hard to articulate how it is problematic in a way people don’t find deeply offensive. I ran into this problem on Thursday! You may be interested in the following post by Sikivu Hutchinson which questions the role of religion in the Civil Rights Movement:

        http://goo.gl/sUks

        • That’s a great piece.

          It’s infuriating/despair-inducing that a “group of prominent black preachers” censured Douglass for refusing to thank God for their liberation – what did they think God had been up to for the previous three centuries?! Why would they thank “God” for liberating them when “God” had been perfectly happy to leave their parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and so on in chains? It’s so self-centered as well as obscurantist to think God must be benevolent because after all, I’M all right.

          • Ben DeVan says:

            Hi Ophelia, do you mind sharing the Douglass reference? By the way, Douglas was definitely a devoted Christian, and officially a Methodist. Of course, this doesn’t mean he was afraid to pull no punches when he disagreed or called people on their hypocrisy.

            your citation of several hundred years is also interesting, in that it is but one of many correspondences with the story of the Exodus, where the Israelites are under Egyptian rule for 430 years (not necessarily slavery the whole time, however).

          • James Croft says:

            Hi Ben,

            Ophelia was responding to this article, which includes references to books in the text:

            http://goo.gl/sUks

            There Hutchinson quotes Douglass as follows:

            “Speaking at an 1870 Anti-Slavery Society convention, the abolitionist and human rights activist Frederick Douglass said, “I bow to no priests either of faith or of unfaith. I claim as against all sorts of people, simply perfect freedom of thought.””

            This was part of a trend in his later life toward freethinking and skepticism of religion.

  18. Pensive as usual, James! This is in reply to your comment above, since we can’t seem to reply directly to each other anymore. I look forward to your thoughts on the studies.

    Three more replies (then I’m probably out of steam for awhile):

    1) Here was what I intended to respond to, and I apologize that I misunderstood: I wasn’t quite making the claim that I experience my sexuality as unchangeable. I was rather making the stronger claim that it seems to be unchangeable regardless of what we would like to be the case.

    2) I’d also like to slightly amend what I said about not knowing a widespread successful method for conversion therapy, etc. I stand by this statement, but would add that the studies I cited do seem to indicate some success, though they are not widespread at this point. Perhaps this also speaks to your important point about counselors and the “products” (not intended as scare quotes, just quoting) they offer.

    3) If some of the counselors are religiously motivated, I don’t see this as being a problem as long as they don’t treat the data dishonestly or fudge it. Same for atheists or people of most any worldview. Integrity as a researcher is what counts most, right?

    Cheers,

    Ben

    • Oops, the “I wasn’t quite making the claim that I experience my sexuality as unchangeable. I was rather making the stronger claim that it seems to be unchangeable regardless of what we would like to be the case.” I meant to attribute to you in my post above!

      That might cause some confusion among my friends and family!

  19. […] real skepticism regarding the place of Humanists in interfaith endeavors, for example (see here and here), and I think his use of the strange neologism “rejectionist atheist” is […]

  20. […] & Leadership in a Fragmented World seminar (I’ve written about this experience before, here and here). This was a week-long event, also at Harvard, again explicitly under the […]

Leave a Reply

  1. Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.

James is a teacher, researcher, actor, singer and a proud, gay Humanist. He teaches and studies toward his Doctorate in Human Development at Harvard University, where he works closely with the Humanist Chaplaincy.


Subscribe to this author