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Atheists, Theists (and Others?)

January 18, 2013

Does belief in God matter? To individuals, in practical or important emotional ways? To society? I think “yes” to both, but often not in the ways we think it does.

Is it required to save us from hell? I see no reason to think that, even as a long-time serious student of the Bible.

Major religious groups

Major religious groups (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But stating one believes in God doesn’t say much…. What kind of God do you believe in? (Or disbelieve in?… Some atheists and agnostics are mostly reacting against popular descriptions of God, not thinking much about another kind of God who might indeed exist.)

Now, given I am fully convinced that religion matters a lot in several ways and that one’s conception of God is core to one’s religion and one’s view of life (Christian or other), I discuss ideas about who God is on other blogs as well as this one.  The other day, someone posted a comment which was mostly a lengthy quote from Sam Harris.  There was no reference to where it came from, for me to give proper attribution, but I imagine it was from an online article of his.

If you are not familiar, he is a popular author of several books critical of religion in general and defending atheism… one of a small group of authors with similar focus, often called the “New Atheists”.  Numerous articles of his are easy to find on the Internet.  I have read both a couple of his books and some of his articles.  I’m including below some remarks I made about the quote another commenter had posted.  I mention here my familiarity with Harris’ work for important context beyond the specifics of that particular quote.  The specifics aren’t needed to understand my response.

However, the context does need a little explanation: In the 2nd paragraph, I refer to a different comment, one reacting to the Harris quote, in which the author cites high (mostly in the 70s) percentages of people who declare a religious affiliation in countries Harris calls “the least religious societies” (mostly from Western Europe).   The percentages are almost as high as ones we see cited from surveys in the United States.  Now, the US is unquestionably a much more actively, vociferously religious country than any of the others under discussion, though survey percentages alone might suggest otherwise. I address this briefly.  Now, to the beginning of my remarks which get back to the kind of God we may believe in and difficulties in communicating about that:

I don’t agree with where Harris’ reasoning takes him — to atheism (but I do appreciate his data and analytic processes most of the way). I’m a complicated animal as a “panentheist”. Whether it is this “3rd option” or one called something else, my several decades of study of Christianity, its foundations and theology, other religions, human development and sociology, etc., tells me neither traditional theism nor atheism is up to explaining root issues, including the mechanisms that appear to drive evolution and provide for some amount of social cohesion, etc.

Harris has some valid points about the down-side of religion, and he does seem to single out the less sophisticated “literalist” type as involving much of that. As to citing the % of people in numerous countries he refers to as “the least religious societies”, I think his statement holds, while the stats cited by NHMtnClimber are also probably correct and valid (I’ll trust the author). Beneath those surface numbers, however, I don’t think there is much doubt that Lutheran or other church membership means something much less religiously involved or biblically literalist and morally “conservative” in, say Scandinavia or Germany, than it does in the U.S.  If you do doubt this, do a little checking.

By the way, for anyone interested in something “between” traditional Christian theology and total disbelief, the “panentheism” I cited is the understanding of and way of explaining God the best some of us think anyone can, to this point. The broader system in which it sits is often called Process Theology. (Wikipedia has a good summary.)

If you are not an atheist, what kind of God do you believe in? Do you find it tough, like I and many other studious people do, to find a short and simple way to identify or label what your belief about God is? (I can say I’m a panentheist and that will mean something to maybe one-tenth of one percent of the population; most of the rest will only be able to say, “Huh?”)

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