DMIN 548 Spiritual Leadership in Christian Community / Jason Clark
#dminlgp #boghossian #plantinga
#bauerlein #mcgrath #barbour #casper #henderson #mclaren
I don’t have illusions. I’m one of those people who see through to nothing.
— Flannery O’Connor’s character, Joy/Hulga, in Good Country People
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Peter Boghossian is certain … which is one-third of the way toward delusional thinking.
But I digress.
Boghossian is brilliant, passionate and, like a good preacher, knows how to work a crowd. In his controversial public lecture at Portland State University this past year, provocatively titled Jesus, The Easter Bunny and Other Delusions: Just Say ‘No!’ this philosophy professor took aim at all faiths, every faith and, in the end, at faith itself. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Mormons, Hindus, Christian Scientists, pagans and Buddhists (in a related talk the good doctor included by name —or better—by title, the Dalai Lama); no faith tradition is exempt from his contempt.
When I say contempt, here’s what I mean:
As long as people remain silent, this juggernaut will continue. There has to come a point in the discourse when we just don’t allow certain claims to be made. I think maybe part of the solution to making these cultural changes is to treat faith-based claims like racist claims. To stigmatize those claims. “That’s not cool, we don’t let that into the discussion.” It’s not about a right to believe—believe whatever you want. It’s about the truth or falsity of a belief and about a process that will lead you to the truth or not. Clutch your Bible? Sit at the children’s table.
In his talk, Boghossian notes that professional psychology’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders grants religious exemptions to delusions; Boghossian has a student who is “… working to remove the religious exemption from the DSM,” and he is “helping her to do so.” Why? “ … because a belief is shared doesn’t mean it’s any less delusional.”
The Children’s Table
Dr. Boghossian took a seat at the children’s table recently, to enjoy a conversation with my apparently delusional doctoral cohort in Leadership and Global Perspectives at George Fox University. While their realms of influence are all over the map, both “secular” and “sacred,” all of my fellows (male and female alike) are people of faith attending a faith-based university, enrolled in a program meant to integrate our faith and work in an increasingly interconnected world.
And you know what? Immediately, I liked this guy.
Peter Boghossian is surely forthright and (I think) needlessly antagonistic in his public presentations, but in private discourse he is also gracious and thoughtful, with a quick wit and a sincere interest in his conversation partners. He was thankful for the opportunity to join us—as we were thankful for the opportunity to engage a real, live … drumroll please … atheist. He quickly found his way in an online chatroom that can be terribly disorienting. Questions and comments can seem to come from every direction, with all kinds of exchanges on the side—indeed, it is not at all unlike the children’s table as I remember it from those holidays long ago.
Much of the hour we spent in conversation included defining terms that can mean different things to different people. In Peter’s talk, he identifies three aspects of delusional thinking: certainty, incorrigibility and implausibility. Notably, when several of us clarified that our faith wasn’t quite “airtight”—or “incorrigible,” to use his word—the good doctor helpfully noted that Christians then sometimes use the term “faith” to describe what he thinks of as “hope,” a point that seems consistent with the author of Hebrews’ declaration that “… faith is the assurance of things hoped for ….”
This is also consistent with what Christian author Jim Henderson says in the book he co-wrote with Matt Casper, a “kinder, gentler” atheist, Jim and Casper Go To Church:
For Christians, it is wrapped up in hope and faith and, well … a divine hunch. And yet I’m often tempted to act as if I know, when in fact I trust, and that is all that I really know for sure…. I am very comfortable asserting my faith and my hope and my confidence that Jesus is God, but I will not say that I know he is God in the way I say I know there is gravity.
Casper—the atheist, not the friendly ghost—who was a guest in our chatroom the week after Dr. Boghossian, adds:
Stop treating faith as a fact. Call it a hope. Call it confidence, not certainty….
This is good counsel. It keeps the lines of communication open with others and keeps us humble as we approach our relationship with God and the ultimate mysteries of life. Contrast this approach with the Fundamentalist bumper-sticker mentality: “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.”
It also ends the conversation.
Not only is God not “dead,” as the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche prematurely proclaimed; he never seems to have been more alive.
— Alister E. McGrath and Joanna Collicutt McGrath, The Dawkins delusion
In our conversation with Peter Boghossian, I pointed out that the way he dismisses people of faith and the way he carefully controls the flow of his presentation seems to play into the current incivility that marks public discourse. Certainly this is true in the media. Fox News, for example, slants decidedly and intentionally to the political right; its audience largely does the same, merely reinforcing their current values, beliefs and worldview. MSNBC provides the same insanity for those who bear left. It is increasingly difficult to find a real conversation being conducted with fairness and civility at the “adult table,” to build on Boghossian’s metaphor.
In Peter’s talk, Jesus, The Easter Bunny and Other Delusions, Boghossian controls the presentation so rigorously that one might reasonably contend he is jousting with nothing but a proverbial straw man. Maybe it is a “straw God” in this circumstance.
Take, for example, what Boghossian says about prayer. He disparages prayer and those who pray by citing the findings of a 2006 Harvard study known as STEP (“Study of the Therapeutic Effects of intercessory Prayer”). The study was a carefully crafted examination of intercessory prayer in very specific circumstances involving heart surgery patients:
1,802 participants were divided into three groups of about 600 each, with a mean age of 64 years. One group received no prayers. A second group received prayers after being told that they may or may not be prayed for. Members of the third group were informed that others would pray for them for 14 days starting on the night before their surgery.
In the study, there was no discernible benefit from the intercessory prayer. And for Peter Boghossian, that is the Big News and the End of Story.
But not so fast, Peter.
Harvard’s own press release announcing the results also included several caveats and doubts about its validity in the minds of the research team:
“Our study was never intended to address the existence of God or the presence or absence of intelligent design in the universe. The study did not endeavor, either, to compare the efficacy of one prayer form over another or to assess participants’ understanding of the nature and purpose of prayer. Finally, it was not our objective to discover whether prayers from one religious group work better than prayers from another,” said co-author Father Dean Marek, Director, Chaplain Services, Mayo Clinic….
“One caveat is that with so many individuals receiving prayer from friends and family, as well as personal prayer, it may be impossible to disentangle the effects of study prayer from background prayer,” said co-author Manoj Jain, Baptist Memorial Hospital, Memphis, Tennessee….
“Each study builds on others, and STEP advanced the design beyond what had been previously done,” said Dusek (Jeffery A. Dusek PhD, co-author). “The findings, however, could well be due to the study limitations.”
Dusek goes on to describe at least one of those significant limitations:
“We found increased amounts of adrenalin, a sign of stress, in the blood of patients who knew strangers were praying for them…. It’s possible that we inadvertently raised the stress levels of these people.”
What’s more, a much larger analysis encompassing 17 individual studies was done a year later by Arizona State University’s College of Human Services:
“There have been a number of studies on intercessory prayer, or prayer offered for the benefit of another person,” said (David R. Hodge, an assistant professor of social work), a leading expert on spirituality and religion. “Some have found positive results for prayer. Others have found no effect. Conducting a meta-analysis takes into account the entire body of empirical research on intercessory prayer. Using this procedure, we find that prayer offered on behalf of another yields positive results.”
Now, Hodge also notes that prayer is not so thoroughly and predictably effective that it qualifies as an “empirically validated intervention,” but something scientifically and statistically significant is going on with prayer. In short, Boghossian’s use of the single Harvard study is less than fair.
The Elephant in the Room: Quantum Physics
Another example of both careful control coupled with incivility has not to do with Dr. Boghossian’s reference to the Easter Bunny in his talk, but to a much larger mythical beast—the elephant in the room.
Quantum physics changes everything we thought we knew about how the universe works—and other than a hard-to-understand spat between Boghossian and a proponent of quantum physics who was in the audience, it was barely mentioned beyond Peter’s half-hearted note that “we are searching for a unifying principle” (between relativity and quantum mechanics). While Newtonian science was essentially reductionistic (and at the end of the day, Darwin built on Newton’s work), recent scientific advances in quantum theory make our well-ordered, thoroughly-understood universe look like a freak show of chaos, chance and general—I hesitate to use the word since it’s another of the three signs of delusional thinking—implausibility.
Witness Ian Barbour, distinguished scholar and 1999 winner of the Templeton Prize:
… an indeterminacy in nature itself seems to be present at the quantum level. In quantum theory, predictions of individual events among atoms and subatomic particles give only probabilities and not exact values. A particular radioactive atom might decay in the next second or a thousand years from now, and the theory does not tell us which will occur. Some physicists think that this unpredictability is attributable to the limitations of current theory; they hope that a future theory will disclose hidden variables that will allow exact calculations. But most physicists hold that indeterminacy is a property of the atomic world itself. Electrons and subatomic particles apparently do not have a precise location in space and time; they are spread-out waves representing a range of possibilities until they are observed.
Dear reader, you might well ask if this is as wacky as it sounds. It is. Or at least Alvin Plantinga, author of Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion and Naturalism, surely thinks so:
(Quantum Mechanics) permits the equestrian statue of Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Virginia, to leap from its pedestal and gallop off into the distance, waving its hat and bellowing the rebel yell.
Both Barbour and Plantinga, representing many other distinguished and well-respected scholars from several fields in the sciences, offer multiple and compelling accounts of how God might operate within our space and time at a quantum level without violating physical laws.
I wonder if Plantinga’s vision of Robert E. Lee’s rebel yell might have Dr. Boghossian falling to his knees, eyes to the heavens?
Checkers on the Chess Board
At the end of the day, Dr. Boghossian, a brilliant man by all accounts—including my own account—is using the wrong metaphor. With his radical insistence that faith of any kind in any god is delusional doesn’t make him the adult at the children’s table. Rather, it’s as though he’s trying to play chess with checkers.
He refuses to use all the tools at his disposal—even all the science at his disposal—preferring instead to rail at what he refuses to see.
Alvin Plantinga (again) points out the folly of the naturalist’s insistence upon human reason. My colleague, Anderson Campbell, offers an exceptional précis of Plantinga’s long argument:
Plantinga asserts that one cannot reason one’s way to a scenario of unguided natural selection resulting in the development of trustworthy reasoning skills. The probability is just too low. So the naturalist is caught in a bit of a pickle. On the one hand, he claims that all that can be known about our existence comes through rational reasoning. But on the other hand, that same reasoning leads to the conclusion that the ability to reason could not have come about through the process of unguided natural selection. That, in turn, forces a move by which the naturalist must conclude that if his processes of cognitive reasoning have led to such an fundamental, untrustworthy conclusion, the process itself must be untrustworthy and all conclusions based on that process are subject to being jettisoned.
Meanwhile, the McGraths offer a compelling example of an “honest atheist”—a little less certain of himself than my recent acquaintance from Portland State University (Boghossian)—in the person of Harvard’s late Stephen Jay Gould:
Though an atheist, Gould was absolutely clear that the natural sciences—including evolutionary theory—were consistent with both atheism and conventional religious belief. Unless half his scientific colleagues were total fools—a presumption that Gould rightly dismissed as nonsense, whichever half it is applied to—there could be no other responsible way of making sense of the varied responses to reality on the part of the intelligent, informed people that he knew.
Wrong Game at the Wrong Time
Peter Boghossian’s militant and short-sighted atheism not only represents an attempt to play chess with checkers, but it comes at the wrong moment in history. Like the photo above, I fear the good doctor, after the sensationalism of his tactics wanes and he grows weary of preaching the same message to the faithful (uh, faithless?), will find that he is selling sno-cones in a snowstorm.
I have been re-reading, for the first time in many years, Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christian. Now, a decade or more after that first time around, the book makes much more sense and McLaren’s prescience is utterly clear. McLaren takes pains in the book to describe the tension he felt, living in an era between the modern era and whatever we might call the era that is becoming. (Even as McLaren wrote, he noted that postmodern fit in one sense, though it also represents a particular school of philosophical thought that makes the term too restrictive.) Early on, McLaren identifies ten descriptors of modernism:
- Modernity was an era of conquest and control.
- It was the age of the machine.
- It was an age of analysis.
- It was the age of secular science.
- It was an age aspiring to absolute objectivity, which, we believed, would yield absolute certainty and knowledge.
- It was a critical age.
- It was the age of the modern nation-state and organization.
- It was the age of individualism.
- It was the age of Protestantism and institutional religion.
- It was the age of consumerism, an age when people often quoted the maxim “Money can’t buy happiness” but seldom acted as if they believed it.
In the postmodern world, we become postconquest, postmechanistic, postanalytical, post-secular, postobjective, postcritical, postorganizational, postindividualistic, post-Protestant, and postconsumerist.
Many authors (including the aforementioned Alister McGrath) have described a period of “re-enchantment,” as we move beyond the reductionist notions of “modern, Newtonian-era” science to embrace the universe as it is, a totality larger than the sum of its parts, remarkably more mysterious, darker and more beautiful even as we come to ever broader, deeper understandings.
There is a “Reenchantment Resistance Movement” that might be summed up in one word: fundamentalism. Here in this liminal age, on the cusp of what has been and what will become, the last vestiges of modernism are strong, entrenched and on the attack.
It should be no surprise that “fundamentalism” was first ascribed to a Christian movement. Near the turn of the last century, a group of Princeton University scholars published an occasional magazine that promoted the “fundamentals” of the faith. Unlike the fundamentalists of today, these pioneers embraced science and even, in many cases, adopted the basic tenets of evolution.
Frankly then, it dishonors their memory to understand how the term “fundamentalist” has come to be used in the popular vernacular. Today, it extends beyond fringe Christian groups (think of Westboro Baptist Church, the infamous “godhatesfags” group, for example) to other (mostly) religious groups. There are fundamentalist Jewish groups and fundamentalist Muslim groups. And, I would contend, there are “fundamental(athe)ists,” too. Peter Boghossian stands squarely in the shadow of the late Richard Dawkins:
Science and religion are locked into a battle to the death. Only one can emerge victorious—and it must be science. The Dawkinsian view of reality is a mirror image of that found in some of the more exotic sections of American fundamentalism. The late Henry Morris, a noted creationist, saw the world as absolutely polarized into two factions. The saints were the religious faithful (which Morris defined in his own rather exclusive way). The evil empire consisted of atheist scientists. Morris offered an apocalyptic vision of this battle, seeing it as being cosmic in its significance. It was all about truth versus falsehood, good versus evil. And in the end, truth and good would triumph! Dawkins simply replicates this fundamentalist scenario, while inverting its frame of reference.
In every case, these groups are clinging to the old ways of seeing things, moldy ways of doing things. Consistently, they reach out and attack new ways of thinking, the possibilities of integrating formerly segregated disciplines. They see the world in its sterile, component parts, truly missing the forest for the trees.
I would wish for nothing more than the good Dr. Peter Boghossian to join the twenty-first century, to put away his checkers and to join the adults at the table playing chess. You don’t have to become a “believer.” Just stop being a “basher.”
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 Mark Bauerlein citing Flannery O’Connor in “My Failed Atheism,” First Things: A Journal of Religion, Culture, and Public Life, New York, May 12, 2012.
 Hebrews 11:1, English Standard Version.
 Jim Henderson and Matt Casper, Jim & Casper go to church : frank conversation about faith, churches, and well-meaning Christians (Carol Stream, Ill.: Barna Books, 2007), 110, 166.
 Alister E. McGrath and Joanna Collicutt McGrath, The Dawkins delusion? : atheist fundamentalism and the denial of the divine (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Books, 2007), loc 29.