Arguing about God is an age-old American tradition

(Kevork Djansezian/GETTY) In the first half of philosopher A.C. Grayling’s latest book “The God Argument,” he debunks the teleological, ontological … Continued


(Kevork Djansezian/GETTY)

In the first half of philosopher A.C. Grayling’s latest book The God Argument,” he debunks the teleological, ontological and cosmological arguments employed throughout Christendom for the literal existence of God.

Those looking for a succinct analysis of these centuries old debates will appreciate Grayling’s insights, though as journalist Nathan Schneider aptly observes in God in Proof,” proofs about God can be a very preachy genre. While Grayling is interested primarily in whether the proofs are correct or not, Schneider explores them as cultural artifacts, with value regardless of how one evaluates their truth value. Hence, one can glean insights in perusing both works in order to gain a deeper understanding of this never ending debate.

While both Grayling and Schneider trace how gods have served as a means of controlling society since the dawn of civilization, this 21st-century mantra for the U.S. of A. to become a Christian nation has been uttered in various incantations starting with the 17th-century debates between Massachusetts Governor John Winthrop and Roger Williams, founder of the state of Rhode Island. At the root of their disagreement was Winthrop’s anointing of the Massachusetts Bay Colony as a beacon of light and a Christian “City on the Hill” blessed by God while Williams argued for liberty of conscience, the right of all to practice their beliefs free from interference from the crown.

Rob Boston, Senior Policy Analyst for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State notes:

During an interview with comic Paul Provenza, co-founder of Set List and director of The Aristocrats, he offered this succinct analysis of the atheist v Christian faith fights.

Grayling concurs with Williams and Provenza in their collective call for greater secularism by asking religion to keep itself in the private sphere, and not to obtrude into matters of general concern. Lest those feel Grayling proposes humanity operate in a moral vacuum, he then moves into an exploration of humanism, which he sees as a rational approach to addressing Socrates’ great question, “What kind of person should I be and how am I to live?”

In his book “Faitheist” Chris Stedman, Assistant Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University, expounds on the need in our pluralistic global culture to bring atheists into the conversation.

A petition circulating in response to the exclusion of non-theists from an interfaith service held in Boston and attended by President Obama points to a growing desire to include all in gatherings designed to bring communities together following a tragedy. The more I connect with spiritual atheists and agnostics, as well as the occasional religious community or individual, I realize that while we all think for ourselves, we often speak a similar language at our core that connects us together in our shared humanity. To quote comedian, actor, marathon runner and aspiring mayor of London, Eddie Izzard, “I believe the melting pot is the thing that can save the world.”

Becky Garrison is a religion writer and author, most recently, of
Roger Williams’ Little Book of Virtues?

  • XVIIHailSkins

    Actually, seeing as something like 80% of us believe in the supernatural, and since we remain the only industrialized nation that still argues about evolution, I would say that being obstinately certain about God is the only age-old American tradition worth noting. This country isn’t exactly a hotspot of dialectics concerning religion, nor is it a hotspot of intelligence in general (and it doesn’t take a genius to notice that one follows the other).

    On an unrelated note, how did this puff piece make it onto the website? What exactly was the purpose of this article? To point out to anyone who was unaware that people are currently arguing about the existence of a God?

  • An-Toan

    Theism and atheism are illusions of thought. What is sacred about life is much bigger than what anyone can imagine by way of rationalism.

  • heveymana

    Agreed. People tend to need closure so the search for answers becomes an end instead of a means. The number of people who know the absolute truth is still zero.

  • 3vandrum

    “Arguing about God is an age -old American tradition”
    Americans should move away from arguing about God and start moving to 21st century.But this topic won’t go away easily in a country where more than 50% of people believe that planet earth was created 6000 years ago. This is not due to lack of scientific education but inspite of that. This is a useless deabte not worth wasting our time. Instead of wasting energy on this topic, try to alleviate human suffering, that is more important like Buddha said.
    Opinion polls in Europe showed in 2010 that 49% of EU citizens did not believe in god. Many countries have been experiencing falling church attendance and membership in recent years. why this is the case in Europe,I have no explanation.
    “So often when we talk about morality and ethics in the United States, we speak of religion in the same breath”- This is nonsense, morality has nothing to do with religion. Morality and ethics can survive witout any religion.

  • 3vandrum

    @An-Toan,
    Thanks for the Wikipedia reference. No one can give a better response than Buddha to these eternal questions. No one can beat Buddha, the philosopher and psychologist.

  • leibowde84

    50% of people believe that the earth was created 6000 years ago?! Where are you getting that from? Most Christians, Jews, Muslims, etc. don’t even believe this. So where is your statistic coming from?

  • TerraN

    I agree with Becky Garrison’s contention: “Arguing about God is an Age-old American Tradition.” The debate in the public square should be robust yet respectful. That is why I am bringing up an old article “The Other Believers: Shirley Woodard, a Black Nichiren Shoshu Buddhist” (10/05/2012) in Erin Williams excellent series about non-traditional religious paths followed by African Americans.

    I share some similarities with Ms. Woodard. We are both African American Southerners who were raised as Baptists and I have studied Buddhism, too. However, my take on Baptism, especially the Black Baptist Church, is very different from Ms. Woodard’s. It seems that she holds a lot of negative feelings which I picked up from some quotes in the article. For example she states, “Every other person in my family is a Baptist, so basically I still had that concept of praying, and it’s going to drop from the sky, or something like that.” She then continues, “I don’t believe in a God outside myself, like the Baptists…. You don’t have to worry about somebody outside of yourself as a god making decisions for you.” I don’t agree with this interpretation of African American Baptism.

    Yes, undoubtedly there are some Baptists who hold the same fundamentalist perspective that Ms. Woodard has shared. But there is a wide spectrum of beliefs within African American Baptism. Some Baptists have beliefs about God and life that are surprisingly like Buddhism’s concept of Dharma. Most of the African Americans Baptists who are my friends and family members fall somewhere in between: even though they might articulate notions of an all-powerful external God, based upon my closer observations, at the core of their hearts they have a very broad and engaged view of the workings of life. I believe that it is from this perspective that the liberating theology of Dr. King springs.

    I contend that all Southern African Americans should express a deep sense of gratitude for the Black Baptist Church.

  • TerraN

    I am raising here the journey of Dr. King’s theology as a case in point. I believe there was a strong current of Buddhism within Dr. King and I believe that fundamentally the same is true of much of the African American Baptist Church. Dr. King thrived in the soil of the church because it is a mother-church, all-embracing and able to bend and grow.

    Dr. King embraced a historical and critical interpretation of Christianity rather than a fundamentalist perspective. Unfortunately we now live in an age where fundamentalists use literal interpretations of the Bible, the Koran, and other religious texts to support bigotry and hate. In contrast he used religious text to deepen scholarship, broaden perspectives, and unify with people of all faiths. His faith was very inner-directed rather than outer-imposed so he had the ability to be open to all ideas.

    For example, he was strongly influenced by the soft approach of Unitarianism and he often quoted the saying that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice” which was first expressed by the Unitarian minister and social reformer Theodore Parker. His concordance with the Unitarian perspective was quite instinctive.

    I wish I could pose these questions to Ms. Woodard: Did you know that Dr. King disavowed himself from the doctrine of the bodily resurrection of Jesus in Sunday school when he was but 13? Did you know that he and Coretta attended Unitarian Churches while they were living in Boston as he studied for his doctorate at Harvard? Coretta told theologian Rosemary Bray McNatt that King even expressed interest in being a Unitarian minister but felt that this would not be the right stage for dealing with the social issues that African Americans faced. Did you know that scholars pursuing his writings found that he didn’t believe in a literal heaven or hell, denied the literal divinity of Jesus, and saw the Bible as myth?

    I believe he set a very high bar for those of us who are developing our r

  • patriot1

    Morality and ethics have nothing to do with religion? The laws of our country have been based on the Judeo-Christians principles. Where have you been? We can see that when less people believe in God and don’t attend church, our moral fiber is weakened. Granted there are people that attend church that don’t have morals or ethics. Additionally just because a % of people don’t believe in God, doesn’t mean He doesn’t exist. Man, in general, has a tendency to screw up this beautiful planet that the Good Lord has given us. He has made us stewards on earth, to care for it , but we are letting Him down.

  • ThomasBaum

    By “know”, do you mean a know-it-all or someone who has met “the absolute truth”, so to speak?

  • persiflage

    Arguing about God goes on endlessly because it’s a human construct pertaining to a supernatural being with vaguely human to super-human characteristics and alleged limitless powers. The imagination is the gateway to an amazing universe.

    How could a deity be modeled after anything other than a glorified human? We may as well be speculating on extra-terrestrial beings……also outside the realm of our experience.

  • Counterww

    And there it is. We will never agree as the elitist attitude of the atheist will preclude a sane conversation. We “created” God. What nonsense.

  • Counterww

    I believe in evolution. I don’t believe that macro evolution is a fact. It is a educated guess.

  • Catken1

    Got any rational evidence for the external existence of God in response, or are you just going to huff “what nonsense!” without any actual explanation of WHY it’s nonsense?
    Oh, those nasty elitists! Actually expecting you to provide BACKUP for your assertions, rather than accepting everything you say with blind faith!

  • Catken1

    “We can see that when less people believe in God and don’t attend church, our moral fiber is weakened.”

    How so? Because we no longer lynch uppity black people as good churchgoing folk used to do, or treat gay people as evil abominations rather than decent human beings who want to live their lives and form loving families, or throw out a girl to die on the streets if she gets pregnant before marriage (even from rape)?
    This nation was founded on principles including religious freedom and liberty and justice for ALL, not only Christians and Jews.
    And claiming that your religion is the main source of morality is not only arrogant and thoughtless, but also easily disprovable. In every case where Christians have run a government as a deliberately Christian government (no, not “Judeo-Christian,” because once Christians take charge, Jews tend to be thrown to the pogroms), oppression, cruelty, and persecution of “others” – including other Christians deemed “heretical” – has been the result. Every time. Our Founding Fathers knew this, which is why they gave us a government that was not beholden to or appropriated by any religion, and allowed citizens to choose their own religious beliefs as they, not you and not government, saw fit.

  • persiflage

    ‘We “created” God. What nonsense….’

    And yet, everything about theism points directly to that inescapable conclusion. Theism creates a vast misapprehension of where humans fit into the scheme of things on a cosmic scale . The truth is, we have no idea where or how humans fit in, other than what we conjure up in our very fertile imaginations.

    We don’t have the comparative knowledge base to even begin theorizing, other than to speculate that life here most probably means life elsewhere – with 200 billion stars just in our own relatively average galaxy (neighboring galaxy Andromeda is somewhat larger).

  • persiflage

    ‘The laws of our country have been based on the Judeo-Christians principles. Where have you been?’

    We see this completely false assertion pretty frequently, but factually speaking, the Founders were taken equally with the democracies of early Greece and Rome and the secular thinking of the Enlightenment – where church and state are completely separate.

    The age of Voltaire is exactly when the Catholic Church and enabler Royalist aristorcracies lost their joint age-old dominance on government in Western Europe.

  • ThomasBaum

    A lot of people seem to put words in your mouth and that is fine but why are you trying to put words in my mouth?

  • ThomasBaum

    persiflage

    You wrote, “Arguing about God goes on endlessly because it’s a human construct pertaining to a supernatural being with vaguely human to super-human characteristics and alleged limitless powers.”

    I agree that this goes on and not only that but there are many that actually know God’s Name and yet seem to know nothing else about God and their “conception” of God is just what you said, ” a supernatural being with vaguely human to super-human characteristics and alleged limitless powers”.

    You then wrote, “How could a deity be modeled after anything other than a glorified human?”.

    The only way that I can possibly think of is if one had some sort of personal revelation from God since I believe that God is beyond what we can conceive of.

    I can’t conceive of a Being being Love but that is what God Is, whereas Love is not an attribute of God but is God’s Very Being.

  • ThomasBaum

    persiflage

    You wrote, “The truth is, we have no idea where or how humans fit in, other than what we conjure up in our very fertile imaginations.”

    Using “our very fertile imaginations” and only that can get us to come up with many ideas including the one that we became so “smart” basically by accident and have been able to figure out that ultimately all is pointless.

    Of course this is not the only thing that we have come up with using “our very fertile imaginations”, it is just one of many.

  • SODDI

    It is nonsense because you can’t prove your assertions.

    Prove or shut up about your “beliefs” forever.

  • ThomasBaum

    SODDI

    Does someone speaking or writing something that you disagree with really bother you that much?

    You should stay clear of the USA, at least for now anyway, because in that country people are legally free to think for themself and have whatever beliefs they want as long as they don’t force themself on another as you seem to want to do by your choice of words.

  • SODDI

    Slavery and the racism it was based on was definitely based on Judaeo-Christian principles. Because when the white christian men who wrote the Declaration of Independence wrote “…all men are created equal..” they didn’t mean the Africans they imported as slaves.

    The genocidal near-extermination of the American Indian population and the fanatic religious racism it was based on was decidedly based on Judaeo-Christian principles. Because when the white men who wrote the Declaration of Independence wrote “…all men are created equal..” they didn’t mean the the people who were here in the Americas first.

    The supression of women and their treatment as chattel was based on was definitely based on Judaeo-Christian principles. Because when the white men who wrote the Declaration of Independence wrote “…all men are created equal..” they didn’t mean women.

    Rabid anti-intellectualism is still a Judaeo-Christian principle.

    The major civil rights cases of the 20th Century and now the 21st are exact repudiations of those Judaeo-Christian principles. It is a heroic struggle.

  • steveAgnewToo

    Why can’t we discuss our common need for meaning without the baggage of a metaphorical divinity? Atheists, agnotics, nontheists, areligious, and religious can all agree that we all need purpose to survive. How exactly we get that purpose can vary widely, but without a purpose we fade away into eternity. I have heard atheists and others state that they do not believe in a purpose, and yet they wake up every morning with something in mind that allows them to survive the day. Discussing purpose can provide young minds with a desirable future beyond any particular metaphor. Us old fogies will, of course, continue to argue…

  • Catken1

    Natural selection is not an “accident” – it is a natural physical process with causes and effects. Our intelligence is not a random factor – it helped our ancestors survive and leave more offspring.

  • ThomasBaum

    Catken1

    You wrote, “Natural selection is not an “accident” – it is a natural physical process with causes and effects.”

    And it just happened naturally, it seems that many think/believe/theorize that just a fluke one way or the other and things would have been totally different as far as life on this planet, isn’t that the hypothesis concerning what life may be on other places?

    You then wrote, “Our intelligence is not a random factor – it helped our ancestors survive and leave more offspring.”

    What do you mean it wasn’t random, are you saying that it was predetermined?

    As far as that “it helped our ancestors survive and leave more offspring”, instinct with much less intellectual ability could have helped our ancestors with mere survival, it seems that our intellectual capabilities combined with our seemingly natural inclination to be rather unnice to our fellow humans may eventually bring about our own demise.

  • vijayk

    Jesus Christ died for the sin of ALL, not just for those who believe in Him. If a person chooses not to believe that it is their free will. There is not much room for argument there. Much the same as if a person were to receive a notification in the mail regarding a valuable gift that was waiting at the Post Office. If that person does not go to the Post Office to claim the package how will that person ever know if it was really there or not? If that person claims it’s not really there, or I didn’t order anything, or it must be some kind of trick etc…has no bearing on whether or not the package is real or not, it only has bearing on the person who has to make the decision. I can’t understand how that is worthy of argument either. What i do see is that the “Christians” role is much like that of the mail carrier who delivers the notice yet we some how over the years have adopted the role of the “Giver” which is what I believe does create arguments when someone rejects “my” gift.

  • ThomasBaum

    We have a tendency to underestimate God and God’s Plan of Salvation for ALL, if Jesus died for ALL than He died for ALL, it is that simple.

    We don’t need to know all of the details of God’s Total Victory and satan’s total defeat, God knows.

    See you ALL in the Kingdom.

  • vijayk

    CAN’T ARGUE WITH THAT

  • counterww1

    Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen.

    The atheists here are immature. Not all truth can be empirically proven.

  • SODDI

    There’s really no argument. Absent any proof of any kind of gods, or even the supernatural plane that they are supposed to inhabit, the argument defaults to the atheist position every time. All the believers can summon up is some circularly-reasoned, self-referential yammer disguised as discourse.

    Simply PROVE your deities exist – prove it verifiably and repeatably. Failing that, I can get all the “one true religion” I need out of the pages of a Thor comic book.

  • An-Toan

    What is “absolute truth”? Direct perception of God? If so, I’d imagine that’s a function of being rather than of thought.

  • patriot1

    We see EVIDENCE all around us that there is a God. The differerent factors on this planet, such as oxygen, gravity, water, food, etc.,make this planet habitable. Additionally, man’s body is equipped to exist, function, think, have vision , communicate,etc. because of our complex human makeup was created by someone far more intelligent than us. Man could not have thought about most of these things. We also have emotions, ie. love, hate, etc. We still can’t send astronauts to Mars or beyond. I’ve given you my reasons, now prove there isn’t a God or Creator. Also explain to me how we came into existence, if we were not created by a greater being.

  • patriot1

    What do polls mean? If I took a poll of teenagers and asked who they liked better: Justin Bieber or Frank Sinatra. Chances are Bieber would get close to 100%. If I asked senior citizen the same question, the opposite would be true. If the majority don’t believe God exists, that means nothing. God will not go away because the majority does not believe in Him. We shall know the truth someday.

  • persiflage

    ‘Also explain to me how we came into existence, if we were not created by a greater being.’

    This has been the classic explanation since theism first arose. The supreme deity idea is nothing more than an extrapolation of how we view the human ability to ‘create’ and make things happen – pure anthropomorphism. Non-theistic religions have always viewed things very differently, and science completely ignores the God hypothesis as an explanation for anything.

    The subjective concept of God provides considerable emotional comfort to those who believe they’ve arrived at a grand and obvious explanation for our origins, forgetting that they’ve been indoctrinated in this belief system from an early age – in a culture infused with these same beliefs. Different life circumstances would yield different results. Final explanations for our existence are pre-mature.

  • patriot1

    You said a lot, but did not come up with an answer. Additionally, there are many scientists that believe in a Creator. Unless your are a watchmaker, you can’t make, design, or put together a watch. Our world and human body are so complex than a watch. “Someone” far more intelligent than man created the universe and life. Additionally, science has basically limited knowledge regarding the brain, and yet, you and others make a leap of faith there is no God

    Final explanations for our existence are pre-mature.

    Does that mean you leave the dorr open that there is a God?.

  • patriot1

    should be–door—

  • vijayk

    every breath we take and every beat of our heart is proof there is God. It was not our decision to start either one yet we are here.

  • OutofmanyONE

    Religion is a liberty that a American can pratice or not practice but is not part of our government. Members of government should keep their religion out of our government at all times. Only the close minded want religion in our government just so that it’s their type of religion only.

  • ThomasBaum

    An-Toan

    You wrote, “What is “absolute truth”? Direct perception of God? If so, I’d imagine that’s a function of being rather than of thought.”

    I would say that it is an action done by God and I would imagine that anyone who receives this “direct perception” receives it in a very personal way.

    In other words, one can receive this “direct perception” but it is God Who initiates.

  • ThomasBaum

    steveAgnewToo

    You asked, “Why can’t we discuss our common need for meaning without the baggage of a metaphorical divinity?”

    Shouldn’t everyone be able to think/believe what they want?

    Why should everyone have to believe what you believe?

  • Catken1

    If this planet hadn’t been habitable, Patriot, we wouldn’t be here to say, “Oh, look! The planet we inhabit is habitable! It’s a miracle!” (And there are any number of uninhabitable planets in the universe, very likely…)
    As for human adaptations, natural selection and evolution can explain them perfectly well without recourse to intelligent Creators. (One would have to ask an intelligent Creator why on earth the male prostate is so badly designed, among other things…)
    Nor do you provide evidence that any such creator would be YOUR creator rather than, say, Odin or the All-Mother.

  • ThomasBaum

    Even if everyone believed that God Is would not mean that God Is.

    It sad to say but true, that many people that believe in God and actually know God’s Name don’t seem to know anything else about God.

    As I have said before, it is a good thing that Jesus rose from the dead because if He didn’t He would be rolling over in His grave hearing some of the garbage being spewed out in His Name.

  • ThomasBaum

    When religion and government become one, both are destroyed.

    Jesus forced Himself on no one and He never, ever gave anyone the impression that He wanted anyone to set up a theocracy in His Name.

  • patriot1

    To Catken: Simple question. How were the universe and man created from nothing?

  • patriot1

    To Catken: I reread your statement above. In posing my question above, I am leaving anyone’s personal god out of it, to make the question pure and simple. Discussing Jesus or Allah is another matter.

  • patriot1

    Sometimes it is hard to separate faith and politics, when they believe in the same moral issues or disagree with each other.

  • ThomasBaum

    No one has to seperate their faith from their politics and shouldn’t have too but politics is something that is imposed from the outside and faith is something that should come from the inside.

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