Tag Archives: Religion

The religion of Naturalism

Every worldview necessarily has presuppositions that can only be accepted by presuppositions canonical to that worldview. Jenny believes God exists because she believes the authority of Scripture and testimony of others; she believes those witnesses are trustworthy because they exalt the name of God. George believes god does not exist because he believes certain philosophers’ words on the matter; he believes those philosophers because they don’t posit anything as ridiculous as a god. These are facile examples but I really think all reasoning and argument is ultimately circular.

Naturalism itself is a kind of religion. It has…

A myth of origin: evolutionary, non-Big-Bang theory science

A definition of the human “problem”: insufficient knowledge, superstition, ignorance

A salvific event: the Enlightenment

A church: the secular academy

Prophets: the philosophes, e.g. Voltaire; other philosophers; Darwin and other scientists

A means of redemption: rejection of theism, superstition, and ignorance

A trajectory: death after life but hopefully progress and prosperity for future generations

As a skeptic, I cannot even accept a system like Naturalism except as another form of religion.

And unfortunately, skepticism has its own problematic presupposition: that nothing can be known for certain, which is self-defeating, because if nothing can be known for certain, then we can’t know for certain that nothing can be known for certain and thus that presupposition is nonsense.

What I must accept is that life is mystery. In fact, no one knows very much. And little to nothing for certain. So I’m no less able to know what the hell is going on than anyone else. And that’s OK. At least, I need to try to be okay with that ambiguity.


“You are who you hang with”. Must I be?

It would be worthwhile to explore the effect community is having on my beliefs even while it is happening.

I mean this:

I came in as a conservative, inerrantist-leaning believer. Then I found Christian pluralism and the silence of God in my life too hard to reconcile with my presuppositions. So I dropped belief and became a skeptic and agnostic.

Skepticism provides no m.o. so I have defaulted to certain patterns. To name them, I would say I am operating under pragmatism, self-interest, and Christian-informed ethics.

My skepticism allows me both to question the point of divinity school in general if there is no god, but also opens me to the idea that, if there is a right way of believing and practicing, Duke — with its mainstream, sola scriptura sed non nuda scriptura (idea I take from Daniel Treier, that Christians best use Scripture as the only divine authority but not divorced from tradition) approach to scripture and tradition, historical-criticism-informed biblical interpretation, and narrative based ethics — might have it. (I should probably drop the idea there is one right way of doing anything…)

If I do not come into contact with communities I can trust and identify with that hold different belief systems, I will probably eventually accept some version of Ducal Christianity. It would be the only option I have; there is nothing else before me.

In fact, I’m calling it now — I am going to become a Christian believer again. Considering my background and environment, the community of friends I most identify with here, I just see it so plainly before me. And that excites me; I’m happy about it: frankly, agnosticism/skepticism, while eradicating much of my guilt, have a metaphysical emptiness resulting in an existential sadness.

But I’m not at that point yet, and I also find this fated “return to the fold” sad, a failure on my part to push the skeptical envelope.

What could I do to avoid merely “becoming who I hang with” (to paraphrase dear old Mum)?

1) Drop out (problems here — I need a job, I want to teach something in university someday, Mum and Dad would not be happy).

2) Study somewhere else for a semester (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDS), for example – I could be comfortable in that environment if simultaneously frustrated with the foreshortened scholastic inquiry. However, now that I’m in Durham I don’t want to move).

3) Temporarily associate with a church or religion quite foreign to me (I don’t want to do this).

Questions: What other options do I have? Should I reconsider any of the above three?

How can we avoid being conditioned by the ones we most trust into the beliefs we have and hold?

If we can’t, how can we really believe Christianity is truth?

If people’s beliefs are determined by those they most closely associate with and if Christianity is truth, how can people growing up in non-Christian societies be faulted by God, a long-held soteriological position?


Fear is part of life. It is an emotion we all know. We fear a hundred disparate things. Fear is a currency; we use it to manipulate others. Our politics -and arguably our media and economy – are driven chiefly by fear. And despite its ubiquity, fear is still a horror: it causes us to sweat and panic during the day and lie awake and curse our existence at night.

Fear is part of Christianity. Christianity needs fear.

Israel trusted the Pharisees to teach them how to please God and avoid Gehenna. (I am weak on first-century Jewish theology; please correct me if you can.) So the Pharisees claimed to have authority to declare who was righteous and worthy and who was not. They were metaphysical brokers who dealt in eternal life and death. In a culture where the layman had little to no access to the agreed-upon revelation of God, the layman had to rely on his religious instructors, like the Pharisees, and do everything he could to please them: he had no other alternative.

In Matthew 23 Jesus lambasts the Pharisees for their abuse of power. I think his most damning denouncements are “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces” and “You travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves”. Jesus sees the problem: the Pharisees are playing god and making people miserable with their demands. Jesus seems to want to free people from this oppression (23.2-12) but likewise relies on the fear of hell to “make a proselyte”. In Matthew 10.28 he instructs his disciples not to fear, describing God’s love, but adds that rather than fearing those who can kill only the body they fear him – presumably God – who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

I argue that Christianity needs this metaphysical fear, the concept of hell, to persist. If there is no hell, no damnation for the general populace, there is no reason to turn to religion; likewise, there is no reason to evangelize: no one needs to “be saved” from ultimate torment. Christianity is not unique in needing fear for its purposes but neither is it exonerated for this, especially since many of its adherents mistakenly believe fear is absent from their message of creation, fall and redemption. Consciously or not, Christians blithely damn the world to hell unless it follows their particular instructions (varying from group to group).

I do not claim the presence of fear in Christianity operates to obfuscate its falsehood; I claim it makes people miserable and impedes open inquiry to Christianity’s claims. If I doubt, if I do not believe, can I ever know God and be saved? Or must I believe first and try to understand later (fides quarens intellectum)? Best to not doubt, to not ask questions, to not push God’s buttons and ensure the salvation of my soul.

Questions: A) Can fear be avoided: is the structure of the universe such that fear will be a partial motivation in every decision (e.g. fearing poverty, I go to work)? B) I am getting at the interplay of ethos and logos in argumentation in this post (a theme considered in “Miracle?”). Is it possible to divorce the emotional response of fear from the proposition of hell in Christian dialogue? What alternatives do people have – Christians or not – to using fear in argumentation (i.e. manipulation by fear)? C) Do I miss the point – does Jesus’ message somehow transcend and avoid using fear?

Intellectual Arrogance

Another problem I have been musing about is people’s intellectual arrogance.

Both Christians and atheists, and even I as an agnostic, feel they hold some special knowledge over other groups. For example, Christopher Hitchens writes in ch. 5 of god is Not Great “Religion comes from the period of human prehistory where nobody had the smallest idea what was going on”. While many would sympathize with him and this notion, the arrogance seems painfully obvious to me. He is claiming that, as opposed to before, we actually understand our world now: the age of reason with its empiricism and naturalism has ushered in that long awaited special gnosis (knowledge) to reveal truth and falsehood. I don’t think empiricism is fundamentally flawed, but have not advances in physics revolutionized our understanding of things even in the past 100 years? And more than once, if I am right — relativity, than quark and string theories? I know so little of physics, but I know enough to appreciate that there will always be new evidence, new ways of interpreting and understanding what we observe. To think we “get it” now, or at any age in any culture, is hubris.

One need not look far for the same sentiments, about having that special knowledge, among Christians. That Christians “get it”, have the truth about reality, is a basic presupposition on which all the my faith communities of my life have operated. Were it not so, where would the compulsion to evangelize come from?

Why is this intellectual arrogance problematic? It keeps us from listening to one another. This happens to me frequently, in many topics. I think I really know what I’m talking about and thus don’t care to really listen to what the other person has to say. This belief ends up hurting me and my conversation partner because instead of speaking to them I end up speaking past them. I imagine we all have experienced or done this, certainly with strangers (emphasis on strange, right?) but even with friends and family members. Instead of being open to and receiving new insights, we preclude even their existence.

There are other problems with intellectual arrogance. I would love to hear what you think they are. In closing I would add an exhortation given by my undergrad philosophy teacher: that we strive for intellectual humility. He thought that Jesus himself possessed and demonstrated this virtue. I think whether I am religious or not I would benefit from it.

Questions: A) Do our basic beliefs (truth comes from revelation/truth comes from empirical measurements/truth might come from both) necessarily make dialogue futile? B) If not, how do people making truth claims (there is a/no god) also truly hear and engage observations, interpretations and arguments from another group, without prejudice? C) Discussing faith, how far can one concede arguments to an opponent and still maintain her basic positions?

Greetings/The Church

Hi! As stated, I’m using this blog to help me refine my thoughts on faith and life as a skeptic in seminary. Comments are encouraged – in fact, I believe hearing the thoughts of others is the only way I will grow and learn to think better.

I don’t mean to bash religion or religious belief in this blog. I grew up in the Church and many of my closest friends and role models call themselves Christians (generally Protestants). Furthermore, I would like to call myself a Christian again; only, I want to do so for the right reasons.

These things said, I thought I would kick off the blog with a critique of the Church. This is it:

I see now that the Church is what the Pharisees were in Jesus’ day: merely a purported broker of power over life and death. It uses fear – the fear of eternal torment – to make converts and it uses fear to keep them. It exists as a means to wield power over others, dissidents or the disenfranchised, and its chief activity is judging others. It’s little more than a giant party of whistle-blowers, but it’s worse. It is ridden with hypocrisy: its sexual repression has led to sexual obsessions and the widespread pursuit of non-consensual and perverted sex, with adults and minors. And it breeds hate and death. It is guilty of killings and hatred and terror just like the other religious groups of the world.

Surely the Church does good things as well, and Christians are aware of its problems. Augustine said though the Church was his mother it was also a whore (paraphrase). It could be said Jesus came to denounce many of these practices and his words continue to denounce them. If it is true that the “founder” of Christianity preached against these problems and Christians own up to them, “whenceforth cometh evil”?

Few would deny that people are flawed, but I wonder if the problems are rooted in the religion itself: deep-seated desires for judgment and distinction from “others”, desires for control. Freud might have categorized these desires with the desire for immortality when he posited that religion served as a transcendent “wish-fulfillment”.

My questions: A) Since the Church commits as much evil as it does, are its claims about God valid? B) Other than the fundamental flaws mentioned immediately above, what viable alternatives can explain the evils of the Church? C) What alternatives do humans have for pursuing moral lives outside of Christian teaching (or outside of other appeals to divinely-authoritative commands)?

Thanks for reading. Please speak to my questions (and blog in general)!