Stephen Law's Critique of Karen Armstrong

#1
I'm sure some of you know Stephen Law. He was on Skeptiko some time ago discussing his book Believing Bullshit.

In Believing Bullshit, Law is very critical of the argumentative strategies used by supposedly sophisticated religious thinkers like Karen Armstrong, Denys Turner and Alistrair Mcgrath.

He shows for example that Karen Armstrong in 'The Case For God' is extremely slippery, evasive and inconsistent. When confronted with the problem of evil and suffering in the world, she will immediately say that God is mysterious, ineffable, beyond our comprehension, beyond good and evil, etc., and yet at other times she will state quite clearly that the God she believes in is loving, just, kind, peaceful, and worthy of praise and worship.

Like many other religious thinkers, she changes her definition of God depending on the situation. Sometimes she claims to believe in the perfectly good God of classical theism, but at other times, and especially when she's in trouble, she says that the God she believes in is ineffable, unknowable, and indescribable in human language.

Even worse than that is when religious thinkers use the very sneaky tactic of saying that God is good, but that the word 'good', when applied to God, means something different from the word 'good' as it's used in everyday life!

It seems to me the only thing an honest theist can really do here is to move to a position like that of Whitehead, where properties like all-powerful, all-knowing and all-loving are redefined, but of course this raises the question whether this is still theism at all.

Here's a passage from David Ray Griffin's book Whitehead's Radically Different Postmodern Philosophy:

God's power is not coercive but persuasive, which means that God cannot unilaterally determine what happens in the world. Besides the fact that this idea of divine power means that the idea of God's goodness and love for the world is not undermined by the problem of evil, it also means that belief in God is no basis for complacency. We cannot simply ignore the ecological crisis on the basis of the assumption that if things get bad enough, God will intervene to save us from our foolish ways.

I'm no expert on Whitehead or Griffin, but this does seem like a fairly promising approach.
 
#2
It seems to me the only thing an honest theist can really do here is to move to a position like that of Whitehead, where properties like all-powerful, all-knowing and all-loving are redefined, but of course this raises the question whether this is still theism at all.
Theism is simply the belief in at least one deity. There's nothing that suggests that a theist must believe in an omni-3 type of deity.

The fact that there may exist, or have existed, a being capable of creating a universe does not entail that that being must necessarily be omni-anything.

The tent of "theism" is vast.

That said, not believing in an omni-3 deity might disqualify someone from being a member of a particular religion. But religions are a subset of theism - there is plenty of room for conceiving deities outside of religion.
 
#3
Theism is simply the belief in at least one deity. There's nothing that suggests that a theist must believe in an omni-3 type of deity.

The fact that there may exist, or have existed, a being capable of creating a universe does not entail that that being must necessarily be omni-anything.

The tent of "theism" is vast.

That said, not believing in an omni-3 deity might disqualify someone from being a member of a particular religion. But religions are a subset of theism - there is plenty of room for conceiving deities outside of religion.
So in that case the Matrix and universe as computer simulation theories would count as theism, not to mention the ideas that Hume talked about like a team of designers, an infant creator and an incompetent designer. That doesn't seem right.

The Collins Dictionary on my computer gives the following definition for God: a supernatural being, who is worshipped as the controller of some part of the universe or some aspect of life in the world or is the personification of some force.

Forget about the word 'supernatural' because nobody has ever been able to
define that. I think the word 'worship' is key, though. Theists tend to think that in order for the creator and sustainer of the world to be deserving of worship He must be the omni God. They would say, I'm sure, that what Whitehead is talking about is not God, precisely because his power is only persuasive, and that such a being is not deserving of worship.
 
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#4
Here's a passage from David Ray Griffin's book Whitehead's Radically Different Postmodern Philosophy:

God's power is not coercive but persuasive, which means that God cannot unilaterally determine what happens in the world. Besides the fact that this idea of divine power means that the idea of God's goodness and love for the world is not undermined by the problem of evil, it also means that belief in God is no basis for complacency. We cannot simply ignore the ecological crisis on the basis of the assumption that if things get bad enough, God will intervene to save us from our foolish ways.
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??? I don't see how that's any different from any other approach. It's an attempt to use God (or if you prefer - the concept of God) for one's own ends. "Ecological crisis" lol. Aside from there being no such thing it's the same approach used by those who claim " We cannot simply ignore the evildoers (aka those who don't see things the way we do) on the basis of the assumption that if things get bad enough, God will intervene to save us from our foolish ways. "
 
#5
??? I don't see how that's any different from any other approach. It's an attempt to use God (or if you prefer - the concept of God) for one's own ends. "Ecological crisis" lol. Aside from there being no such thing it's the same approach used by those who claim " We cannot simply ignore the evildoers (aka those who don't see things the way we do) on the basis of the assumption that if things get bad enough, God will intervene to save us from our foolish ways. "
Whether you agree with Griffin about global warming or 9/11 or whatever is not really the point at issue.

Griffin the theologian is saying theists need to follow Whitehead in redefining 'all-powerful'. Traditional theists like Plantinga and Swinburne will argue that God is all-powerful in that He can do anything except logically impossible things like creating square circles and evil actions that go against his perfectly good nature. Griffin, following Whitehead, thinks that with this kind of God in control of things it doesn't make any sense that there should be so much pain and suffering, and so we need to think of God's influence as persuasive rather than coercive.

I think it's a nice move.

The question remains, though, is Whitehead's God deserving of worship? He can't just snap his fingers and solve all your problems and cure your cancer or whatever. He's limited in what he can do. For many theists, this means he is not God.
 
#6
Whether you agree with Griffin about global warming or 9/11 or whatever is not really the point at issue.
And I think I didn't make my point clearly. That point is that this is all based in using God for one's own aims. If God is all-powerful then of course it weakens the "we humans need to blah, blah" argument. So whether it be environment. heretics, etc, people put limits on God's power as a way to validate their own desired actions. Sometimes the limit is "soft" one - a "God is all-powerful but doesn't interfere in human affairs" perspective.
 
#7
God's power is not coercive but persuasive, which means that God cannot unilaterally determine what happens in the world. Besides the fact that this idea of divine power means that the idea of God's goodness and love for the world is not undermined by the problem of evil, it also means that belief in God is no basis for complacency. We cannot simply ignore the ecological crisis on the basis of the assumption that if things get bad enough, God will intervene to save us from our foolish ways.
I think this passage is being misinterpreted.

It's an attempt to use God (or if you prefer - the concept of God) for one's own ends.
The question remains, though, is Whitehead's God deserving of worship? He can't just snap his fingers and solve all your problems and cure your cancer or whatever. He's limited in what he can do. For many theists, this means he is not God.
I would imagine that such a "God" would allow for something called, free will. It seems both theists and reductive materialists want to deny the existence of free will. The better question then would be, should a deity intervene in the causes of man?
Edit: I am not saying either of you are either of these, it's a generalized statement.

I suppose could such a deity intervene is a valid enough question, though. If such a deity could intervene, would not the issue of free will combined with its omnipotence cause this deity to NOT intervene since it may very well not be in either its best interest or that person(s) best interest. Evil, or what we see as evil, has its place here. I think I understand it's purpose, but have also been accused of seeing it as "God works in mysterious ways" which isn't at all true. I don't think it's much of a mystery at all. But it does require that you leave this plane and put your mind into the realm of timelessness and infinite possibilities. From a certain perspective, I can see not only that evil has a purpose, but everything we do here, individually and collectively, has a purpose. We live in a reality where the majority perception is that everything is black or white, either/or, and we all must fit in this camp or that one. When in truth, it's all just infinite shades of gray. Humanity in general likes to think of things as absolute evil and absolute good. I don't think anything really works this way. So, I would imagine this deity could intervene, but has no desire to do so. It would go against the entire purpose of even being here. But, of course I could be incredibly wrong.

These ideas also do not allow for the idea that God and man are one and the same. The whole "interconnected" stuff we hear over and over again from ND and ST experiencers. If we are God, then why would this God interfere with its own purposeful experience?

Also of note here, though, is this assumption that a deity must be "worshiped". What if "God" doesn't want to be worshiped? Again, if we are "God" would we not then be worshipping ourselves?
 
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#8
Sometimes the limit is "soft" one - a "God is all-powerful but doesn't interfere in human affairs" perspective.
Limits? Hmmm...I don't see it that way. I guess I'm not fully understanding your perspective here. So, are you arguing for the idea that "God" does intervene? That it does whatever it wants to do, human will be damned? And really, since the acceptance of a deity general includes the acceptance of the human soul, or eternal consciousness if you prefer, then it's God exerting his will on all of consciousness, and we are merely pawns? I'm sure I'm off here, so what exactly is your stance in this regard?
 
#9
And I think I didn't make my point clearly. That point is that this is all based in using God for one's own aims. If God is all-powerful then of course it weakens the "we humans need to blah, blah" argument. So whether it be environment. heretics, etc, people put limits on God's power as a way to validate their own desired actions. Sometimes the limit is "soft" one - a "God is all-powerful but doesn't interfere in human affairs" perspective.
I think what Griffin and Whitehead are objecting to is the kind of lazy and complacent comment you sometimes here from theists to the effect that we already live in the best of all possible worlds and God is already in control of everything and so there's no point in trying to struggle for a better world.

They also think, and I agree, that it's just not plausible that the traditional omni God exists given the amount of evil and suffering in the world.
 
#10
I think this passage is being misinterpreted.




I would imagine that such a "God" would allow for something called, free will. It seems both theists and reductive materialists want to deny the existence of free will. The better question then would be, should a deity intervene in the causes of man?
Edit: I am not saying either of you are either of these, it's a generalized statement.

I suppose could such a deity intervene is a valid enough question, though. If such a deity could intervene, would not the issue of free will combined with its omnipotence cause this deity to NOT intervene since it may very well not be in either its best interest or that person(s) best interest. Evil, or what we see as evil, has its place here. I think I understand it's purpose, but have also been accused of seeing it as "God works in mysterious ways" which isn't at all true. I don't think it's much of a mystery at all. But it does require that you leave this plane and put your mind into the realm of timelessness and infinite possibilities. From a certain perspective, I can see not only that evil has a purpose, but everything we do here, individually and collectively, has a purpose. We live in a reality where the majority perception is that everything is black or white, either/or, and we all must fit in this camp or that one. When in truth, it's all just infinite shades of gray. Humanity in general likes to think of things as absolute evil and absolute good. I don't think anything really works this way. So, I would imagine this deity could intervene, but has no desire to do so. It would go against the entire purpose of even being here. But, of course I could be incredibly wrong.

These ideas also do not allow for the idea that God and man are one and the same. The whole "interconnected" stuff we hear over and over again from ND and ST experiencers. If we are God, then why would this God interfere with its own purposeful experience?

Also of note here, though, is this assumption that a deity must be "worshiped". What if "God" doesn't want to be worshiped? Again, if we are "God" would we not then be worshipping ourselves?
Both Griffin and Whitehead DO believe in human free will, and so their attempt to redefine God has nothing to do with that.

Even if human beings do have libertarian free will, the free will defence is still unsatisfying. We're meant to believe that, when a young child gets kidnapped, tortured and killed over a period of weeks, the traditional omni God just stands back and does nothing because human free will must be respected under all circumstances. This strikes many people, me included, as absurd. We interfere with the free will of evil doers all the time, and rightly so, and so should God.

I agree with you about the shades of gray thing. Much of human life is like that. That still doesn't get the omni God off the hook for not intervening in the Holocaust etc though.

I agree with your points about worship. It seems crazy to me that an omni God would want to be worshiped by us. The reason I brought it up was that traditional theists tend to think that worship is very important, and they think that only the omni God is deserving of it.

Incidentally, I think worship has something to do with why people like Karen Armstrong shift between and all-powerful, all-loving God and a mysterious unknowable God who's beyond good and evil. In church they want to worship God as loving, just kind, etc.,but when they're arguing with atheists about the problem of evil they need their mysterious God. Law is calling them out on this and saying they don't have ONE consistent concept of God. What I'm suggesting is that maybe Griffin and Whitehead do have ONE consistent concept of God that can be used in all contexts. The only problem is that many traditional theists won't accept this as God.
 
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