The Middle Ground between staunch theism and atheism
I keep reading these things that try to define a space between “staunch” theism and “staunch” atheism. Typically, the person who is doing this is going to be some sort of agnostic who thinks that his agnosticism is mutually exclusive to both theism and atheism…but there are many variations on this theme — religious agnostics, atheists who want to reconcile with liberal/moderate religious folks, and even liberal/moderate religious folks themselves.
This post is my thoughts about that last group — just a response to some things I’ve seen from an article I’ve read.
In the July 2009 edition of Sunstone, Boyd Peterson wrote an article Soulcraft 101: Faith, Doubt, and the Process of Education. Apart from sounding a great name for a video game, Soulcraft attempts to harmonize “doubt” (which, honestly, I don’t even know what Peterson means when he uses that term) with faith. The following passage from early on sets up the dichotomy that is so often heard in the church — a dichotomy that Peterson wishes to dismantle:
“Either everything taught about the Church is true, or none of it is; either Joseph Smith was a flawless prophet, or he was a fraud; either the Book of Mormon is historically true, or it isn’t. Such extremes and ultimatums may set these students up for a fall. When they encounter, as they surely will, problems in our history, theology, or scripture, the message they have been given since birth tells them to reject the whole thing. They feel they must either deny the problems or renounce the Church, retain a naïve faith or adopt a sophisticated agnosticism. This simple, either/or view of faith seems not only unproductive but detrimental to true, abiding faith. It confuses the interplay that doubt and faith have in the development of the soul.
“Deny the problems” or “renounce the Church” — ok, I can see how this is a false dichotomy.
“Retain a naive faith” or “adopt a sophisticated agnosticism.” — OK, I can also see how this is a false dichotomy, but particularly because it seems so weird.
Like, I don’t even know what Peterson is trying to avoid here. I can maybe get if he’s trying to avoid “a naive faith” and a “sophisticated agnosticism” (although it would seem to me that a sophisticated agnosticism would be a pretty good place to be)…but later on, he talks about the results of informal surveying of many of his students, and says:
…I am impressed that these students see that the position of denying the existence of God requires just as much faith as accepting His existence. As one student writes:
…My return to church was partly because of a feeling that staunch atheism was just as arrogant and problematic as staunch theism.
Another student writes:
I have serious issues with the term “closed-minded” and take particular offense when individuals use it in conjunction with Mormon or religious people in general…I could quite easily flip that around and ask someone, “Do you believe in God?” If they say, “No,” I could just as easily say, “Well, that’s closed-minded.”
I…don’t even. Like on the point of open-mindedness or closed-mindedness, I just want to toss in a Qualia Soup video on open-mindedness
As for this overall trope of denying the existence of God requiring as much faith as accepting his existence…I just want to toss another Qualia Soup video on lack of beliefs in gods.
Hmm, it’s been a while since I’ve watched Qualia Soup…this post might be basically over because he really covers a lot of the same stuff I would.
Still, I guess that there is something to these comments. Apparently, there are definitely several things that many atheists do or say that understandably could be really unappealing. That get people to calling them “staunch” or “strident” or “vocal” or “fundamentalist” or whatever the negative term is. But 1) I don’t see these things as being intrinsic to atheism (so is it OK if someone is an atheist, but not a staunch one? I don’t think that Peterson allows for the possibility) and 2) when I try to describe what a person who has moved away from these sorts of unappealing traits would look like, I move to something that looks pretty much like “a sophisticated agnosticism” (but, like QualiaSoup discusses, I don’t think that atheism and agnosticism are mutually exclusive.) This apparently isn’t good enough for Peterson, though.
Peterson forges forward with a discussion of how doubt can be constructive when not being all-consuming. He actually quotes a lot from Terryl Givens (the parts that Peterson quotes are actually some of the things I responded to in my post on Givens’ Letter to a Doubter). He points out that “doubt is not a moral weakness; it does not inexorably lead to agnosticism or atheism.”
Here, I wonder how he defines agnosticism.
I would wonder how he defines atheism, but later in the article, he writes:
The response to doubts is not less thinking, but more thinking. Just as one can be arrogantly certain about believing in God, one can be arrogantly certain about believing in no God.
It would be one thing if he were just taking aim at strong atheism and that were it…but the fact that he’s not really open to agnosticism as an answer either is just really confusing. What about people who just plain don’t believe? Or people who believe either way, but aren’t certain?
Again, I wonder how he defines agnosticism.
Peterson writes that his own bouts of depression (with its attendant silence to prayers) have caused him to wonder if God even exists. On the one hand, I want more people to discuss the role that neurology and brain states play on one’s beliefs and perceptions. I do want people to recognize that some people might not believe — and there’s not really anything they can do consciously about that.
…but I don’t want people to pathologize this. I don’t want people to say, “well, if you don’t believe God exists and can’t make yourself believe that, then there must be something wrong with your brain.” I want people to recognize that inspite of conditions like depression, there is natural variation here.
In the end, I don’t even know how he defines faith, theism, or even belief, however. I don’t see what his doubt-supported, yet non-agnostic faith looks like.
Through the end of the article, Peterson describes the process in the Hopi culture where as part of maturation, children are taught to revere a symbol (kachina dancers) as being the referent (the gods). As they grow and mature, the children eventually reach a rite of passage where they are disavowed of this belief — they come face to face with the kachina dancers that have terrified and enchanted them…but this time, the dancers wear no masks. The new adults realize that the beings they thought to be gods were actually members of their own community.
…somehow, coming face to face with this deconstruction is supposed to pave the way for a deeper belief. As Peterson says, “The simple, one-dimensional world view of youth is forever gone, and the initiate is either confronted with a rejection of the Hopi ways or else finds a deeper meaning within the symbol.”
Even though Peterson allows that one possible reaction might be “rejection,” he doesn’t seem to explain why this isn’t or shouldn’t be considered the most likely option, how the “deeper meaning” is found, what that deeper meaning actually is, or how it can still really be called faith. Peterson dares to make a comparison to Santa Claus — as if learning that Santa isn’t real actually does anything constructive for children’s view of faith. Furthermore, he speaks of the possibility of the secular university situation to provide a similar grounds for incubating naive believers into more nuanced one.
But even as Peterson talks about the possibilities of a bigger God, I still don’t feel he has ever described what such a God is like.