on harmless deism
As mentioned in a recent post, I have qualms about focusing too much on the religion issue to the neglect of so much else, being one with a perverse antipathy to specialisation in any case, but since I do love a bit of an argument, and since I've kind of committed myself, I''ll have a look at an apparently innocuous, even 'kindly' liberal religious belief - here in the form of the professed beliefs of a writer, one John Hewitt. In order to make my exploration easier to follow, I've pasted the beliefs here rather than linking to them. The only change I've made is to enumerate the beliefs for ease of reference. The numbers don't represent any order of importance.
Now, I've been challenged to find anything objectionable about Hewitt's beliefs. My first response is to say that I find them philosophically objectionable, in the sense that I find Kant's more or less arbitrary positing of a noumenal world outside the realm of the perceived physical world objectionable. That's to say, it just seems too obviously a construction, one that cannot by its nature be provable, and it serves no useful explanatory purpose. It offends against Okham's razor [do not multiply concepts beyond necessity], and just adds more air to windy metaphysical speculation. Kant's move, designed apparently to answer Hume's famous problem of induction,
- 1. I believe that God is infinitely wise and intelligent.
- 2. I believe that because God is infinitely wise and intelligent, God knows that even if God wrote down for us exactly what we should and should not believe or do, we would misinterpret it.
- 3. I believe that because God knows this, God has never written a single word of guidance for us.
- 4. I believe that humans, inspired by the presence of God, have written many words about God. Sometimes those words are wise and sometimes they are not, but those words are interpretations of God by humans and not the word of God.
- 5. I believe that God is very interested in us, but that we are not God’s sole concern. The Earth and mankind are a tiny part of a much larger creation with goals that the human race will probably never fully understand.
- 6. I believe that God occasionally steps in to guide or help the human race, or even individuals, but that God does so quietly and it is impossible to know for sure whether something was God’s work or our own work or blind chance.
- 7. I believe that because it is always possible that God did step in and help out in any given situation, it is all right to be grateful when you think God has helped you or others.
- 8. I believe that overall, God prefers that we fix our own problems.
- 9. I believe that the universe, while a creation of God, was built to follow rules of science.
- 10. I believe that because God’s creation of the universe followed the rules of science, the scientific explanation of the creation of the universe does not in any way require a discussion of God’s role, which we cannot fully understand anyway.
- 11. I believe that when science and our interpretation of God are at odds, science is generally right and our interpretation of God is generally wrong.
- 12. I believe that religion, like most intoxicating things, is fine when used in moderation but dangerous when used in excess.
has aptly been called a version of the 'worst argument in the world', the invention of an unknowable world to somehow explain our limitation to the world we can only know. The obvious rejoinder is that Kant doesn't know anything of this noumenal world, including whether it exists or not. Bad though the argument is, it's really the only argument believers have left.
Hewitt's beliefs are another version of this worst of all arguments, a sort of personalised version of Kant's noumena [which, incidentally, comes from the Latin numena, meaning spirits]. We humans, trapped in the phenomenal world, can never really 'get at' God. Everything written about God [Hewitt cleverly avoids giving his deity a gender] is more or less wrong, a misinterpretation, or at best a mere interpretation, which gropes well short of the Reality [beliefs 2, 5 and 10]. This of course invokes God's mystery, the eternal escape clause. For example, quite apart from the long list of God's misdeeds related in the Bible, the cruelty and wastefulness of the evolutionary process might suggest a capricious or even an incompetent God, but no no, belief 5 more or less covers that, the fault is in our understanding, never in God.
Is Hewitt a Christian? Presumably not. In belief 4 he dismisses the claims of all the world's 'sacred texts' to be the word of God. This releases him from all traditional, text-based beliefs about God and our relationship to God. His God is apparently ahistorical, but surely only apparently, for Hewitt hasn't derived his belief from nothing. For example, the fact that he believes in one God rather than many reveals modern theological influences. It's fashionable to believe that monotheism is an advance on polytheism, though I've heard no convincing argument to this effect. The ancient Greeks, Romans and Egyptians were hardly unsophisticated. In fact, I would argue that Hewitt manages to keep his God as ahistorical, as generalised as possible by avoiding some of the tough questions. He makes no mention of the soul - does it exist, do only humans have one? Nor does he say anything about the afterlife. Does he believe in it? If not, what can he make of a God that creates all these creatures with a finite span of life between infinitudes of nothingness? It's a mystery.
There are other questions to be looked at here. Can a personal god be reconciled with the theory of evolution? Can we really rip gods from their historical context and expect them to have a living reality to most people, who like their gods anthropomorphised and nearby? Isn't there a problem with the remoteness and reduced space allowed for God by the advancement of science? I might look further at these questions later, or I might not.