Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Theological Conflict (Book Review)

Originally posted on July 2, 2014

Reviewing Alvin Plantinga’s new book, Where the Conflict Really Lies (Oxford University Press, 2011), I find the author takes on a straw man, i.e. orthodox belief versus pure atheism. Regarding orthodox belief, merely affirming the “personhood” of God (whatever that means) versus a position that denies many of the underlying assumptions in the traditionalist religious position, leaves out many intermediate steps, assumptions, each one of which are arguable.

Saying this in no way obliges me to consider even a faint likelihood of any of the following rather implausible leaps of faith:
1. That God has desires for humans that may go contrary to their natural inclinations, other than the natural turbulence accompanying the evolution of consciousness.
2. That God would reveal “Himself” and offer directives one time in the history of humanity and to a rather tiny and obscure tribe about 1300 BCE. These directives, embedded in a culture-history of this tiny tribe, then apply to all of humanity.
3. That the story has not been profoundly distorted and distorted again as befits the needs of the ruling classes.
4. That a new story was mythically “pasted on” to the traditional story and that we are to believe this—even though there are a great number of interpretations about what the old and new story means, its implications, practices, etc.

So even though his general philosophical argument challenges mere materialism, his hint that we should rationally collapse into traditional theology is deeply implausible. Professor Plantinga generates a rather overarching category called “theistic religion” that he offers as a counter to science. Now, as I said, I sort of agree with him, but for reasons that he might not like. Theism is a very broad category, and that this must involve that particular approach that is Christianity—as differentiated from any number of Eastern and other spiritualities—is in my mind not at all demonstrated. For example, Prof. P’s attribution of “personhood” to the Becoming Everything that mystics call God is supremely arrogant and anthropomorphic—especially in light of the fantastic expansion of the scope of the cosmos in the last century! That even then his image of theism becomes the Biblical, revelatory religion of a very small number (relatively speaking) of people in the Middle East—i.e., Christian belief—seems not to seem odd to him, which I think is odd, considering his otherwise rational argument. I find it symptomatic of the arrogant way that dominant religions co-opt other spiritualities without feeling any need to argue for this action.

I tend to agree with much of his argument, and my myth, my bias, is that the cosmos is one dimension of an awakening God, a presence that we sense within the depths of our psyche. Nor do I object to the author’s saying that after due consideration, he find his own belief system satisfies him. I am reluctant to challenge the effective truth of any mythic system if a person says it’s true for him or her. But that’s a far cry from the oddly 20th century, modern, pre-post-modern tendency to assume that what seems true for one must then be true for everyone. That denies the depth psychological reality that something can seem true for one and not be true for another.

In summary, Professor Plantinga places theists and atheists in opposition, assumes them to be mutually exclusive, but my criticism is that this whole argument is arguing against a “straw man,” because there is for me a farm more compelling third general category within which transpersonal psychologies and various syntheses thrive. I confess to being in this category, so find the title “Where the Conflict Really Lies” to be profoundly misleading. The conflict for me lies rather in the claims of traditionalist and more particularly Christian religion. There is no conflict, as I see it, in the realm of a more integrative spirituality that does not feel beholden to any pseudo-historical human myth.

For Professor P., he makes common cause with theists of many stripes, overlooking evident differences; his position seems to face a common element that all traditionalists find deeply immoral in atheism. Many other theists caricaturize atheists as represented by the type of State Atheism as practiced by the Soviet and Chinese Communists, and point to the terrible things done in that current of human political behavior. Meanwhile, theists overlook the terrible things, or ask for allowances to be made, for the corruptions of others who claim to be “religiously devout.”

This pointing to the worst of the “other side” and ignoring one’s own sins—spoken to by Jesus’ saying of the “beam” in one’s own eye—is a common dynamic of projection found not only in inter-religious conflict, but all types of human conflict—international, national, class, even neighborhood and sports contests! We’re good—don’t look at those of us who aren’t—they don’t count. They’re bad—ignore the few who may be “some of my best friends.”

Anyway, thanks are due Prof. P. for reminding us that there are issues here. The rhetoric is such that few people will bother following his argument closely. What works for various people is influenced largely by social support. Few people really think out their theology. Most atheists are not terribly philosophical, and react to what they notice as the theistic claims and the way these do little—it seems—to protect true believers from the worst forms of human corruption and vice. They—atheists—often see most thoughtful fellow atheists as several cuts above the perceived immorality and hypocrisy of those who claim to be theists.

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