A religious philosopher argues that New Atheism and fundamentalism are “secretly sympathetic”; offers lame reconciliation between science and faith

December 2, 2015 • 11:00 am

UPDATE On both Phys.org and PsyPost, I’ve made a comment calling attention to the post below, and in both cases the comment has either not been accepted or has been expunged. Here’s the Phys.org comment that wasn’t accepted:

Screen Shot 2015-12-02 at 11.30.56 AM

As you see, my comment wasn’t nasty or strident, but they were obviously too hot for these cowardly sites to handle.


Liam Fraser, a Ph.D candidate in systematic theology at the Divinity School of the University of Edinburgh, and is well on the way to making his career on the backs of New Atheists. Part of his thesis, a paper called “The secret sympathy: New Atheism, Protestant fundamentalism, and evolution” has just appeared in the journal Open Theology, and it’s the usual palaver about the similarity of Christian fundamentalists and New atheists (Fraser appears to be a Christian).

Fraser’s paper has already garnered some publicity, including a mention in, of all places, Phys.org, which is a science news website (!), as well as on PsyPost, which deals with new findings in psychology. I have no idea why these websites would highlight a paper on the philosophy of religion—unless they have an implicit desire to criticize atheism.  Both sites take comments, and you can bet I’ll go there and post a link to this piece. Readers may wish to participate as well.

Fraser’s paper takes ten pages of leaden academic prose to make four simple points:

  1. New Atheists (NAs) and Fundamentalists have “secret sympathies” with each other because they tacitly agree to share a common characterization of religion.
  2. One of those characterizations is that both NAs and fundamentalists have “a literal, univocal, and perspicuous understanding of Scripture.” That’s fancy academic talk for “both see religious people as taking scripture literally”.
  3. The other is that both NAs and fundamentalists see religion as accepting “a disruptive and substitutionary conception of divine activity in nature.” That’s fancy academic talk for “both see religious people as thinking that God intervenes in the world, breaking physical law.”
  4. But liberal Christians needn’t accept this consensus of atheists and fundamentalists because there’s a Third Way: we can read scripture as if it were an allegory!

Isn’t that DEEP? This simple thesis is neither new nor correct, but it’s a sign of the times that it can not only get published, but gets highlighted on two “scientific” websites. But the paper is neither psychology nor harder science; it’s simply theology.

Here’s why Fraser’s argument is wrong:

a.  While Christian fundamentalism is indeed characterized by Biblical literalism, New Atheists don’t see all religion as being totally literalistic. Many of us have argued, as Fraser notes, that the literalist meaning may be the most honest reading of scripture, for it requires the least interpretation and the least intellectual dishonesty. After all, neither the Bible nor the Qur’an says, “This book is all allegory,” and, indeed, they read like historical narratives. If you take the Bible as allegory, as we all know, then you have to claim that some bits are to be seen as metaphor, while others, like the story of Jesus, are to be taken largely literally (virtually all liberal Christians, and surely Fraser, see Jesus and his deeds as historical). And there’s simply no guidance for how to winnow the metaphorical from the historical. There’s also the tiny problem of what you do when you decide that parts of scripture are allegorical: what is the correct reading?

Of course all NAs recognize the “sophisticated” nonliteral versions of religion, and I discuss them at length in my book Faith versus Fact. For example, I talk about the problems with theistic evolution, one of the “solutions” of liberal Christianity (see below).  But even Sophisticated Religionists™ have some literal beliefs: the divinity and resurrection of Jesus, and the idea of salvation by accepting him as Savior, are what I see as the ‘non-negotiables’ of Christianity. Few believers of any stripe have no beliefs that conflict with empirical observation and/or reason. That’s why I always say, “Some believers are literalist about everything, but nearly every believer is a literalist about something.” (That statement is trademarked, by the way.)

One last point: somehow Fraser sees the Bible as a source of truth, but not scientific truth. For example, he quotes Dan Barker saying, in his book Godless, that “I lost faith in faith. I was forced to admit that the Bible is not a reliable source of truth: it is unscientific, irrational, contra- dictory, absurd, unhistorical…” Fraser comments on that statement:

This is an uncompromising rejection, yet one which assumes that the Bible should be a source of scientific truth, a coherent whole without contradiction, providing historically precise information regarding past events. New atheists typically share the same presuppositions as fundamentalists regarding what Scripture should be, and, finding that it does not meet their assumptions, reject it as worthless.

But the only truth that is more than a subjective truth (i.e., “I had a vision of Jesus”) IS scientific truth: truth that can be verified by all rational people. The use of the word “scientific truth” instead of “truth” is meant to denigrate New Atheists.  As for “moral truth”, well, there isn’t any—at least not objective moral truths that all people can agree on. What we call “moral truths” are really behavioral prescriptions you should follow if you desire a certain (subjective) outcome. Finally, surely Fraser sees some part of scripture as “scientific truth,” like the divinity and resurrection of Jesus, or the existence of a soul or an afterlife.

b. While Christian fundamentalism is indeed characterized by God’s palpable intervention in the world, New Atheists attack the brand of religion in which God at least has some influence in the world, and that brand is ubiquitous. After all, a deistic God, or a God who does nothing, is indistinguishable from no God at all.  And even if a Deistic God makes souls or sends us to Heaven or Hell, there are in principle ways to get evidence for such claims. Of course, if you’re a Deist who claims that God either created the universe and didn’t do squat after that, with no interventions, no souls, or no Heaven, or a Sophisticated Theist™ who claims that God merely “sustains” the Universe—those are forms of God that don’t fall within the ambit of science. But neither are they gods we should take seriously, for there’s not a whit of evidence for them.

c. Fraser’s “solution” of reading scripture as a metaphor sounds good, but he offers no clue to whether we should take all scripture as metaphor—in which Christianity devolves to a fictional book like the Beowulf saga—or whether we should take parts of scripture as literal, like the story of Jesus. This tactic leads to either atheism or ambiguity.

Here’s Fraser’s solution, given in his peroration:

I therefore propose an alternative approach. Given that the belief of both groups in the incompatibility of Genesis and evolution rests on biblical and theological presuppositions whose cogency is highly questionable, those wishing to challenge the conception of the Christian faith shared by new atheists and Protestant fundamentalists should direct serious attention toward these presuppositions. This approach, which I explore in greater depth in my doctoral work, accomplishes two objectives. First, it reiterates that the Church has traditionally read Genesis in a variety of ways, of which the literal was only one. The literal, univocal, and perspicuous understanding of Scripture shared by atheists and fundamentalists can only be dated to the Reformation at the earliest, and did not attain its current form until the late seventeenth century. Second, when attention is directed toward these presuppositions, it is shown that atheist and fundamentalist readings of Scripture are more influenced by the biases they bring to the text than what the text teaches. Far from teaching the mutual exclusivity of design and evolution, passages such as Psalm 104:10-18, Job 38:39-41, John 1: 1-18 and Colossians 1: 15-20 teach the immanence of God’s activity in all natural processes, an immanence that is Christologically mediated. These texts elide any easy dualism between natural and divine activity, and engagement with them has the potential to yield Trinitarian models of creation, preservation, and concurrence that repair the faulty biblical and theological presuppositions of new atheism and protestant fundamentalism.

This is bogus.  It’s simply untrue that literalism didn’t arise until the seventeenth century. Perhaps a form of total and nonallegorical literalism arose then, but for nearly two millennia theologians took much of scripture as absolutely literal. Some theologians, who include Aquinas and Augustine, said that allegorical readings could be made as well as literal ones, but a literal interpretation always took primacy. That held for Adam and Eve, the creation, the existence of Heaven, Hell, and angels, and the divinity and resurrection of Jesus.  I both distrust and dislike scholars who say that nobody took the Bible literally until recent times, for they’re both wrong and intellectually dishonest.

As for theistic evolution, it’s unscientific in many forms, including those forms that mandate some form of creation of species, or of God-given mutations that direct species in certain preferred ways (i.e., toward H. sapiens). At any rate, I’d ask Fraser to tell us two things: a) which parts of the Bible are pure allegory and which contain historical truth (after all, he takes the Trinity as some kind of truth in the passage above); and b) what kind of theistic evolution he’s talking about. While he says this,:

The biblical and theological presuppositions of new atheists and protestant fundamentalists therefore exclude the possibility of theistic evolution, the belief that God’s creative agency is mediated in some way through variation and natural selection.

he doesn’t tell us exactly how “God’s creative agency is mediated through variation and natural selection.” Without more detail, we needn’t take this possibility seriously.

If you want to see Fraser, here is is expatiating about his Big Idea:

Fraser has a bright future in atheist-bashing. I foresee many columns in the Guardian. And his appearance, his “muscular Christianity,” and his earnestness reminds me a lot of another Scot: Eric Liddell in the movie “Chariots of Fire,” as in this clip (start at 1:20; go here if you can’t see the video below):


Fraser, L. J. 2015. The secret sympathy: New Atheism, Protestant fundamentalism, and evolution. Open Theology 1:445-454.

78 thoughts on “A religious philosopher argues that New Atheism and fundamentalism are “secretly sympathetic”; offers lame reconciliation between science and faith

  1. Once you allow nonsense through the doors of an institution of learning it spreads like bread mold.

    Then you are stuck with it and the problem of having to deal with clumsy and poorly framed irrelevant questions. I have often thought it better to shoot the student early and shortstop the nonsense. It has been my experience that like sex, once tasted it is hard to keep them on track and they will likely spend much of their academic career wool-gathering.

  2. First- I agree. Its a hack job of accomodationism. “Sure evolution happened, duh! By why can’t there also be some magic in there you New Atheist fundies!?!” However, there are some Christian thinkers making great strides towards changing the public view of what “Christianity” can mean. Even going so far as calling the New Testament “fan fiction.” There are those you would refer to as Sophisticated Theologians, that really are leaving the Bible behind. Christianity describes their preferred framework as an investigation into the arc of justice and love that we’ve seen come about over the millennia. That supreme truth might just be reverence or awe towards this peculiar pattern that an experience of goodness and love can arise in a material universe. They sense the unlikeliness of such a pattern and devote themselves to opening that love towards more and more. Anyway, I think there would be great benefit in abandoning the framework- but they are not concerned with those making great strides in spite of religion. They are trying to pull people away from the versions of religion based on fear- towards a humanism free from fantasy and judgement. All this to say- I’ve met many self-described Christians who accept no supernatural claims of the bible, don’t care if Jesus rose from the dead- but notice an empowering narrative of people growing from tribalism to shades of universalism, a pattern of moral growth (two steps forward, one step back of course) and find hope in humanity’s future if we focus on the best of ourselves throughout history, while not letting us off the hook from the worst (ie most of the OT). I’ve found allies in that sphere- those who focus all their attention on the best of our tendencies with the hope of not letting the worst of us win. Their worship is of the awe-inspiring human capacity to slowly pull themselves towards justice- and listen to the stories people told about themselves in this struggle- even though it was primitive and brutal and used pre-scientific language and characters.

    1. The “empowering narrative of people growing from tribalism to shades of universalism” doesn’t seem to wash with Christianity. Polytheism was far more universalist, since it simply incorporated other people’s Gods into an ever-expanding divine menagerie. Christianity by contrast formed a religious tribe that waged war against unbelievers, a trait continued by its derivative, Islam. Only today—when most Christians cherry-pick what they believe and the political power of the churches has been reduced or broken—can Christianity congratulate itself on being lovey-dovey.

      1. I get where you’re coming from. I think its more of an identifier as a person connected to a larger history. While its not my thing, people are really proud of being American, not because of its past but because it escaped its past. It would not have done that if people abandoned their country- but because people stuck by it and helped it be pulled towards justice. Perhaps, its a cultural marker of sorts, that doesn’t want to be forgiven of its sins, but may drive them to lead others to make up for it? I don’t know, but self-congratulation is certainly not the MO I’m hear from them.

    2. I certainly appreciate the progression of liberalization of some sects of Christianity. I would not want to discourage any Christian from discarding more of the beliefs typical of their religion. But, . . .

      “All this to say- I’ve met many self-described Christians who accept no supernatural claims of the bible, don’t care if Jesus rose from the dead-“

      Then why do they still identify as Christian? Why not simply give it up since they claim to no longer believe the things that have been widely claimed and accepted for hundreds of years to define what it means to be a Christian? Sentimental reasons? That could seem macabre depending on how accurate their knowledge of the history of Christianity is.

      “. . . – but notice an empowering narrative of people growing from tribalism to shades of universalism, a pattern of moral growth . . .

      If by that they are saying that they believe that Christianity has some how led to this progression towards “moral growth,” I think they have been misled, or possibly are misleading themselves. It seems pretty clear that there is a strong correlation between “moral growth” in a society and curtailment of Christianity’s authority and power in that society. In any example of notable progress of the general moral zeitgeist of a society that I can think of off hand the large majority of Christian clergy were not leading the way. Typically the opposite was true.

      1. The idea is not that Christianity was an institution that led to this moral growth. As we reflect on the history of Christianity the stories it told- and the progression it made was a record of how humanity moved forward. Christianity was not pushing justice forward- it was being slowly pulled forward by a larger universal and peculiar drive towards justice. The OT & NT are records of those groups being pulled forward- sometimes kicking and screaming. If we look at the story of Abraham and Isaac- it sounds terrible. But as Yahweh was one of many in the Hebrew pantheon- all of which accepted or demanded child sacrifices- the idea to say “Nevermind, don’t kill your child” was a step forward. So, while the story is framed to explain why child sacrifices were no longer necessary (God was pleased with his willingness or faith?), what is also recorded is the self-reflection of one tribe telling stories about their shift towards something better. So, we can read the OT, not as a narrative to learn from. But we learn the history of how people chose to tell their own story with myths, and throughout their blood thirsty history (being one of thousands of blood thirsty tribes) we can see a little piece written to describe how they moved a step away from that thirst and towards their understanding of goodness.

        All in all, I agree that they are sometimes blind to how the mere presence of stories written as history that show god approving of atrocity can fuel more atrocity and slow progress. But I think they view it as a reflection of what people want. Now, they use Christianity to understand the development of moral thought up to a point (again, a point those Christians and Jews were pulled to), and over the past few hundred years we look at other moral leaders and we are writing new stories. Abolition has its own stories. Suffrage has its stories. Civil Rights has its own stories. We move forward, and some like to focus on the entire trajectory to be inspired to hope for more than we can hope for if we focus on how slow progress can currently feel.

    3. How is any of this ‘Christian’ or ‘religion’? All of the things you praise ‘young people’ for doing secular folk have done over the ages. The pursuit of social justice does not require any appeal to the transcendent, nor, for that matter, any club to join.

      Calling this ‘religious’ is tacitly to admit that the institution of the Christian Church is dying a slow death. And that’s a good thing.

      Why not just come completely out of the closet?

    4. The sophisticated believers you describe — who seem to be well on their way to equating Christianity with humanism — lose in clarity what they make up in morality. “God is very, very important — but it doesn’t matter what it is or whether it exists.” That’s a muddled position which probably isn’t going to end up on the humanist side till there is a long, long struggle.

      1. I don’t think there is an equation here. They are humanists. I think the point is- they think that what people want to call god- is that pull towards justice. It is just that sense of awe, that pull towards goodness, that drive towards not letting disease and death get the last word. Something that is quite remarkable for any species to do and we get to experience it- and in a way it is a big god of the gaps, just like it always has been. I’m not in their position- but there is something to be said about acknowledging you may understand how this remarkable experience came to be in some sort of biological altruistic game theory, but its so rewarding to revel in it. It is beautiful. And people who want to revel in the beauty and the experience of pushing justice and love forward should not be so readily dismissed as an ally. They are sticking around the people who have beliefs they used to hold- and they are doing the dirty work of getting people to move past harmful magical claims while they revel in the experience with them.

        1. I’m not dismissing them as allies. I’m suggesting that playing both sides on the God issue is hard to pull off without alienating oneself from the God issue.

          Is it a useful approach? Yes, probably — for the reasons you say. But at the same time I think we also need to hammer theology on its lack of clarity and consistency. Abandoning the high ground so that the work can slowly come about through the hopeful trickling process of benign confusion is risky and unnecessary.

          Faith has a tendency to suddenly become passionate and irrational because … well, that’s the point.

        2. Oh yes, this is very familiar moderate Christian lingo. When the Lutheran church still actively discriminated against homosexuality, I was told to lie by my theological peers and mentors. I was supposed to give lip service to their hateful doctrines in their then-formulation of their Visions and Expectations document (the words ministers-to-be must agree to abide by in order to be ordained) and to “work for change from the inside.” In other words, I was advised to actively lie and patronize my parishioners.

          It was intellectually and emotionally dishonest but very much in accord with what you’ve written about staying behind to be with those who still take things literally. How very Jesus-like! And how very harmful to real social justice.

          Speaking of that, not every use of the words love and justice are loving and just in reality. In fact, the most loving and just action churches could do would be to dismantle themselves– and certainly not having their leaders lie nor brainwash their members with fuzzy concepts of morality would be a start in that direction.

          1. Well, you’re wrong. I’ve seen it happen. I’ve seen old life long Christians and pastors move away from their comfort of literalist interpretations to be more universalist and it didn’t happen because of Dawkins and Harris. Those men help a different variety of people, and they are very valuable for progress. There are multiple strategies that need to be used- and if we actually care about the people needing to have their minds changed we implement what works. Sticking to ideological guns, when demonstrable progress has been made with this approach, means one’s goals might not be aligned with those looking to make the world, as it is, closer to justice. What doesn’t work is isolating those with differing thought- that is what multiplies bad ideas.

            1. “What doesn’t work is isolating those with differing thought…”

              Moderate churches maintain power by infantilizing their members. The belief that church members will be isolated and abandoned if their leaders are honest plays on this fear of abandonment. It keeps both ministers and congregants locked in a fragile state of immoral mental dependency and delusion.

  3. Even when I was a Christian I would have thought this sounded like a load of sh*t.

    What he’s saying just doesn’t make sense, and it takes faith rather than logic to hold his position.

    All this “Secret Sympathy” stuff has a whiff of conspiracy theory about it too.

    Also, as someone who is only really starting to learn about evolution (although I’ve accepted it since childhood), I have to say that the more I learn, the more I realize that people like this guy simply don’t understand it.

    There was a time when I could reconcile what I knew of evolution with the existence of God. That is now impossible – learning will do that to you. Which is why religion wants to control access to knowledge, and what you’re allowed to learn.

    1. In my experience, the people who see no problem mixing science and faith are usually pretty indifferent about both to begin with.

      1. You could be right. I wasn’t exactly indifferent, but my identity didn’t depend on either. In fact, I was embarrassed to admit to being a Christian because the general impression of them here is judgmental, self-righteous, homophobes, none of which describes me. It’s probably unfair on them too, as that’s just the ones who make the news.

  4. The jig is up, friends. We’ve been outed and there’s no point denying our mission anymore. We seek the rise of fundamentalist religion. Wow, that feels good to get off my chest. Like telling my father I am gay. Now I can just be me. Now I can sing it to the heavens: I am a New Atheist! And I support the rise of religious fundamentalism!

    Feels so too to not be in hiding anymore.

  5. Nothing about this thesis strikes me as new or compelling. When Fraser compares the way atheists and fundamentalists “read” the bible, he ignores the essential difference that only one group is approaching it with an assumption that it is true. The idea that we should seek a reconciliation based on the bible begs the question, and, of course, ignores non-christians. People get degrees for this?

    And, systematic theology sounds like he has some sort of Babbage device for creating apologetics, which he might, since the output of theology is never greater than the input.

      1. What I wanna know, since this guy is apparently still a doctoral candidate, is whether, down the road, he actually gets a diploma for this stuff.

        1. Those with degrees in this area are just as frisky as philosophers. Since Fraser is not from the literal camp, he can rationalize away the Eden couple without raising a sweat (remember one doesn’t need to sashay through the Pleistocene when fueld by metaphor). Unicorn hunting optional.

  6. Some parts of the Bible can be read in a metaphorical way though. Lot’s wife, for example, became a “pillar of salt” because she looked back at Sodom. The meaning of this is that you becomes a very bitter person if you always look back instead of ahead. Another metaphor is Jesus walking on water. Water is a symbol for death (and sometimes purification) in the Bible. Think about the flood and baptism for example. The story of Jesus walking on water is a metaphor for Jesus’s supposed victory over death. Jesus literally tramples on death in the story.

    However, you can only do a metaphorical reading with stories. Leviticus and Deuteronomy are just law books. Unfortunately for our Christian and Jewish friends, that’s where the really nasty and horrible stuff is. In these books, there is no room for a metaphorical reading.

    What I’m trying to say is: don’t dismiss metaphorical readings of scripture out of hand.

    1. Yeah, because you can always make one up that aligns with what you already believe (as in the case of Lot’s wife, in which you’ve simply inserted a moral that surely can’t even come close to what the author of that story meant).

      Why bother to even read Scripture if the metaphors are just cherry picking the stories you like and then interpreting them in a congenial way. After all, do you really need the story of Lot’s wife to teach you not to looks back?

      By the way, Lot’s wife didn’t get bitter, she died (or got salty).

      1. The examples I just mentioned is something I read in a book by Carel ter Linden, an erudite theologian who recently lost his faith in a theistic God, mainly due to evolution. Carel and his younger brother Nico wrote several books about the metaphorical meaning of Biblical stories. I think Carel and Nico ter Linden are trustworthy theologians and their interpretations sound plausible to me.

        Ofcourse the Jews and later the Christians believed the stories about Lot and Jesus were historically true too and most still do. If someone were to read the Old and New Testaments only metaphorically, then it’s not that different from reading literature and that person can’t really say he’s religious. You’re absolutely right about that.

        The correct reading of Scripture then, in my opinion, is both the literal and allegorical reading. To make a choice between the two means either to dismiss the lesson of the story or to dismiss the metaphysics.

      2. “The meaning of this is that you becomes a very bitter person if you always look back instead of ahead. ”

        Sadly for this metaphor, salt is not bitter.

    2. A small addendum: I agree with everything PCCE has said. But a metaphorical reading of scripture can sometimes give a plausible explanation.

      1. The issue is whether it’s fair for atheists to criticize literal interpretations of scripture. And it is, because vast numbers of theists take scripture literally.

        The issue is not simply whether it’s possible to interpret scripture allegorically.

    3. Just because one *can* take any passage whatsoever as metaphor does not entail that people think they *should* – see above. To use your example, there apparently is a place in Israel that supposedly has the pillar of salt in question. (I was told this story by an Orthodox Jew, who also didn’t believe it, as it happens.)

      1. The place is the Dead Sea, and there are more than a few pillars of salt in one particular place, being the product of evaporation of the mineral-laden water over the centuries (just do a quick google search for “dead sea pillar of salt). So the story about Lot’s wife is just another origin myth inspired by an ancient traveler’s tale.

    4. I think the moral of the story of Lot’s wife is that even you’re currently on the good side of God, don’t for a second think that he’ll hesitate to kill you for the tiniest of transgressions like turning your head.

    5. “What I’m trying to say is: don’t dismiss metaphorical readings of scripture out of hand.”

      Metaphors are useless unless the author conveys in some way what the metaphors are supposed to represent.

      While some of the stories in the New Testament do provide such hints, I don’t think that any of the stories in the Old Testament do. That suggests, to me, that they are not metaphors.

  7. Folks like Fraser could gain a wee bit of credibility if they:

    a) admit they are a maverick minority of the religious without claiming they represent “true” Christianity

    b) admit their reading of the Bible is free-flowing and fluid without a fixed point.

    However, frequently, folks like Fraser are literalistic about the classical creeds, the Nicene creed, etc. and their doctrines/dogmas like the Trinity.

    (Note how he refers to “Trinitarian models of creation, preservation, and concurrence”).
    So the Bible has a lot of allegory, but the Trinity is true!

    I think Paul Tillich (20th century theologian at Union Theological Seminary) was a fairly thorough going allegorist believing that everything in the Bible was just allegory, BUT he was unwilling so say so plainly and publicly!! And therein lies much of the problem!!

    1. I was theologically trained in Paul Tillich’s lineage, as my systematic theology professor was Tillich’s student. As the traitor that I am, I rejected Tillich and his Christian existentialist thought and refused ordination.

      1. I think everything in the Bible is allegorical except the Book of Revelation. Sounds unlikely perhaps, but who could prove that I was wrong? Or, if it comes to that, right?

        1. I’m continuing to un-channel the Sophisticated Theologian here:

          Depending on how much you engaged with Revelation, you’d be on the radar as someone to potentially refer to a psychologist. That is, most are trained to view Revelation as a wacky literary genre (apocalyptic writing as a Hebraic/Hellenistic pastime like reality TV is for today’s audience) and to see people who take it as literally prophetic as potentially psychotic, if they continue to do so after being told that it is intended to be interpreted allegorically. You’d be Rorschach’d as projecting temporal lobe issues onto the text.

          And it is important to dismiss you because the defense of Revelation as allegory is critical to the theological view of the afterlife and for pastoral care of those who are old and/or dying.

          The view of the afterlife as a picture of something real is maintained as having “psychological truth.” Many would say that it doesn’t matter whether or not there actually is an afterlife, but the engagement with the thought of it has a psychological cohesion and importance that people require in order not to despair about death. In other words, a delusion is proffered and defended because people are infantilized and treated as too psychically frail to live without it.

    2. This is a good point. These theologians seem to feel they are above sect or denomination, when they are merely another voice in the wilderness.

  8. the moderate believers are the problem and why the fundies exist

    that they make out their own extreme as bad but not as bad as atheists….

    and are in complete denial as to their actual world impact: entitlement in action, eh

  9. I keep hearing this sort of claim. There’s something somewhat comforting in realizing that there’s nothing new, though.

    I think the sticking point really is the “how do you decide what is literal?” because even the most rabid of fundies does not *really* believe it all, just selective bits they think (or their clergy think) are important.

  10. Interesting. He claims that the error that NA’s make is to lump all religious folks together, to only consider the fundamentalists and ignore the fact that there are a variety of views. But as Jerry points out, many NA’s address Sophisticated Theology as well fundamentalists. And what does Fraser do? He lumps all NA’s and all of their arguments together. Isn’t that the very thing he accused NA’s of doing?

  11. How do you get such a twisted idea of “your” religion that you spend much of your time creating a conspiracy between Atheists and Fundamentalist. You have to wonder if Fraser believes in anything but allegory.

    Atheists and Fundamentalists both bring their biases when reading the bible. I’m pretty certain he is getting Atheists mixed up with Scientists throughout most of this. And sympathy must be another word for opposite because when the Atheist and the Fundamentalist reads the bible the conclusion is a long way from sympathy.

    We can only guess he comes to the same conclusion between Atheists and Muslims? He should do a long paper on this.

    1. I haven’t (yet) read the article, but based on Jerry’s synopsis I don’t think Fraser is suggesting there’s any kind of conspiracy towards the same ends. Sounds to me it’s more like this:

      Fundamentalist: Does God exist? YES! And here’s why we should believe that …

      Gnu Atheist: Does God exist? Probably NOT! And here’s why we should believe that …

      Theologically-Aware Theist: Does God exist? Let’s instead go deeper and ask other questions. We can’t and don’t approach an understanding of God in such a superficial fashion.

      See, they’re nothing like fundamentalists. They’re cagier right from the start.

      1. So his logic would seem to put Gnu Atheist closer and more in “sympathy” with Theologically-Aware Theist like himself than with the Fundamentalist.

  12. Fraser needs to commit this memory: learning only makes it worse for faith.

    There is no sympathy for an explanation of God that cannot be improved upon by unknowable. Fraser wants sympathy of metaphysics, sympathy that only the ideologically faithful can give.

  13. Sophisticated theology: “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” with an less believable protagonist and willfully impenetrable prose.

  14. Both sites that posted this did so under the rubric of “social sciences”.

    Had I been editor, I would have been more precise filing under “philosophy of science” and/or “sociology of science”. In this case, it’s clear what is being addressed, and then one can critique it as being not particularly good philosophy of science.

      1. By “more precise” I did not mean to imply their classification was half way there.

        However, there IS an old saying that anything that has the word “science” in it isn’t necessarily science. Chemistry, biology, astronomy are all science, but are “library science”, “computer science” really science? The ambiguous case here is “social science”. Some sociology is quite rigorous, but there is published sociology which has horribly flawed methodology and/or research.

        I think this material is at best “theology of science” or rather bad “philosophy of science” based in turn on a flawed reading of the history(/sociology????) of religion and science.

        1. What is often called “computer science” is actually a mixture of basic science (e.g., the theory of computation), applied science (e.g., mechanisms for file systems), technology (implementing a DBMS), and techinician-work (DBA).

  15. As DrBrydon (7) above says, “They get degrees for this?” I’m amazed that anyone would finance such apparently pointless research. Templeton?

    Atheist bashing seems to be a band wagon on which the scientifically and logically illiterate climb for lack of ability to tackle something constructive.

  16. Would you like some vinaigrette on your word-salad Mr. Fraser? I hope he enjoys his “systematic theology”- sounds like a blast!

  17. Well, I can try to un-channel a Sophisticated Theologian for us, as I was supposed to be one…

    My divinity school training started with summer immersion in Hebrew. After that, the first fall term consisted of Greek, Old Testament, and Intro to Theology. The sequence of courses was intended to give us the elementary tools for biblical interpretation, which, for the moderate Lutherans (who share Fraser’s theology), relied on understanding the original languages, the historical contexts, a knowledge of who had redacted a text, and, above all–wait for it–listening to the Holy Sp*rit. We were warned that, if we didn’t go back to Hebrew and read commentaries, we risked eisegesis–projecting our own meanings into the text. Of course, what’s implicit about this is that anyone not officially trained in biblical scholarship (at a liberal seminary) necessarily comes to the wrong interpretation of a text, as they are unaware of what is intended by reading in English alone. Though, sometimes the Holy Sp*rit graces laypeople with insight, typically because a Sophisticated minister has already fed them the intended meaning…Further, texts have a multitude of meanings, and how they are read depends on what the Holy Sp*rit wants to reveal. Conveniently, the Holy Sp*rit tends to speak through the lens of whatever theological view the Sophisticated Theologian has adopted.

    It’s not until the second year of courses that students explore how to systematize their theological view, a bunch of bull shit for picking a theme and painfully making all of scripture conform to it. This would be viewed as eisegesis were not the Holy Sp*rit guiding the view, but it is assumed that the monster overlay of seeing a continuous theme to scripture is a divinely sanctioned and validly given tool of the theological trade.

    Bottom line: remove the Holy Sp*rit and people might be forced to use what they know about language and historical context to piece together meanings. But even when you eliminate nudging from the divine, unless the everyday person learns Hebrew and Greek and reads commentaries, their interpretation would be seen as a guess based on what they know of English.

    Most Fraser types are too nice to tell their congregants that reading their bibles is dangerous. They don’t need to tell them this as most people don’t read them anyway but receive their mosaic dose of allegorically spiced, cherry-picked literalist insanity from the pulpit.

    1. Fascinating view from the inside, as it were. Thank you!

      Holy shit, but your description really reveals Christian theology as the carny scam that it is, right from the beginning at the highest levels.

  18. Far from teaching the mutual exclusivity of design and evolution, passages … teach the immanence of God’s activity in all natural processes, an immanence that is Christologically mediated. These texts elide any easy dualism between natural and divine activity, and engagement with them has the potential to yield Trinitarian models of creation, preservation, and concurrence that repair the faulty biblical and theological presuppositions …

    And such puffed-up hot-air prose elides chasms in the writer’s logic and evidence.

  19. Give us a break, Mr. Fraser. The gospel of Luke begins with the assertion that the writer had relied on the testimony of eyewitnesses to ensure the “certainty” of his version of the gospel. Similarly, the gospel of John ends with the assertion that it was written by the disciple whom Jesus loved (John?), and that his testimony is “true.” Thus, from their very inception the gospels were specifically intended to be viewed as witness-attested factual accounts of Jesus’ life, not metaphors.

  20. Towards the end of this article:

    “The biblical and theological presuppositions of new atheists and protestant fundamentalists therefore exclude the possibility of theistic evolution, the belief that God’s creative agency is mediated in some way through variation and natural selection.”

    Isn’t the above part and parcel to:

    3.) The other is that both NAs and fundamentalists see religion as accepting “a disruptive and substitutionary conception of divine activity in nature.” That’s fancy academic talk for “both see religious people as thinking that God intervenes in the world, breaking physical law.”

  21. Liberal Christians/Muslims do not follow the Bible/Q’uran and often have no idea what is in these “holy books”. End of–it’s really just that simple. Atheists read the Bible or Q’uran and are appropriately horrified, fundie believers read it and think “cool, let’s run the world like that. Chopping off hands and stoning sounds like fun!” (notice this is not the same view but rather a polar opposite one. Author is not being fair here). Liberal believers “navigate” by pretending to believe in their religion without taking it seriously. They don’t read the texts either. Which is great, but that’s also why neither atheists nor fundies consider them informed or honest.

  22. There are now only 2 comments on the phys.org website. Sometimes, when you’re new to the site and place your first comment, and you provide a link in your post, it gets automatically rejected because they think it could be spam. I wonder if that is what happened.

    There’s also a “feedback” to the editors button (which will allow you to mail to feedback@physorg.com), perhaps there is more success there?

  23. that allegory nonsense always goes down the tubes when the believers find out that it also means that they won’t get their magic present when they’re dead and they aren’t better than everyone else because they believed in a certain god because, you know, it wasn’t ever true to begin with.

  24. The biblical and theological presuppositions of new atheists and protestant fundamentalists therefore exclude the possibility of theistic evolution, the belief that God’s creative agency is mediated in some way through variation and natural selection.

    “Exclude the possibility?” These Christians seem very eager to equate “there is no good reason to hold this view” with “you’re not ALLOWED to believe this view” — as if atheists are either totalitarian dictators or logically challenged (or both.)

    Perhaps that’s what happens when an apologetic agenda which started out as a hearty “Here is why all people ought to believe in Christian Truth” has shriveled into a wimpy little “Here is how I manage my Christian beliefs.”

  25. My responses would be similar to yours Jerry, though differing in some details.

    1: Atheists focus the discussion on literalist and fundamentalist believers because those sects do things like wanting to put prayer in public school, undermine the teaching of evolution, have public tax money pay for religious functions, and so on. Liberal sects tend generally to be more secularist when it comes to government and education, so we don’t talk about them as much.

    2: Atheists recognize that both literalist and non-literalist sects are equally “legitimate.” In this respect we don’t really share a common characterization with most sects, because most sectarian religious believers believe all other sects are doing their religion wrong or doing religion wrong in general. What we don’t do is accept the liberal theologian position that liberal theology is the one ‘most right’ Christian theology.

    3. Again, as with #1, we tend to focus on interventionists. This does not mean we think all religion or ‘correct’ religion is interventionist. Religion can include both interventionist and noninterventionist theologies. We focus on interventionists because deists and noninterventionists generally have no social policy beefs with sound science and a secular government.

    4. Yes liberal theists are free to go this route. However in terms of changing popular belief and believer’s calls for putting God in school, limiting abortion rights, and so on, NO we will not wait around for believers to change their minds on their own. So more power to you, but while you’re changing those hearts we will continue to oppose theocratic policies and speak out against the theologies that produce them.

  26. Both Jerry’s & Fraser’s pieces will be going into #TIP dataset, useful expositions on what is a (somewhat) deep divide in apologetic thinking. Fraser is actually fairly current on his survey of YEC apologetics, and there’s a grain of truth to his argument that the fundamentalist branch was a reactive process that only stems from the Reformation (it seems the centuries of Catholic & Orthodox apologetics predating the Protestant blip gets skipped here, though).

    Several commentators here have noted the big snag in Fraser’s logic: is there anything in Christian doctrine that isn’t mere metaphor? Fraser reflects the picky-choosy side of religious apologetics that I dub in #TIP the Liberal one (usually, but not exclusively, reflective of more liberal political opinions) as opposed to the Conservative that YECers represent (a quite monolithic block of Kulturkampf sentiments that is as much reflected by the non-YEC ID community). It comes up in “Cuz the Bible Tells Me So” chapter in my old TIP post at http://www.tortucan.wordpress.com regarding just how inerrancy plays out in modern antievolution apologetics, and who draws which metaphorical lines in the exegetic sand.

    Fraser is comparable to a broad range of Liberal (my usage) apologists, from Bishop Spong to John Lennox to Mortimer Adler, who can flip aside all manner of texts as metaphor to keep it reconciled with modern science and observation, but still keep some chestnuts warming in their non-metaphorical faith fire, if only one pokes diligently enough.

    Atheists I think fairly refuse to play picky-choosy, and so align with the literal gang in taking the texts straight up, and letting the factual chips fall where they may. There is a natural logic to the fundamentalist who realizes that if any of the text is deemed contradictory or wrong, what solid footing remains for any of their Rock of Ages?

    The Frasers of the world are adept at heaving their Rock up on rollers, but expend very little energy because they let it roll downhill past all the findings of science and history, to land somewhere in a culvert where they can pretend there is anything left save metaphor and myth (about which they don’t really think much about, like the “truth” of the Trinity). Other religious traditions suffer from the same problem, of course, but the God of Abraham set is more noticeable in our cultural mix.

  27. I never understood why treating something as allegory means it is acceptable.

    When Nazis said Jews were germs, did it help that they did not mean Jews were literally germs , and that it was more of a metaphor?

    1. Exactly. Allegorical rape, slaughter, infanticide, and slavery are still despicably vile. I’d love to see an apologist produce an annotated Bible in which all the allegories are explained, page by page.

      Though I think it could all be boiled down to one page: don’t mess with God, he’s and evil mofo.

  28. The “sophisticated” theology spouted by apologists and the like merely acts as a plaster to cover a suppurating cancer that in the recent past has maimed and killed to preserve itself and may do so again.
    The “cozy” Jesus invented by the morally bankrupt 20th century christianity would probably not have been recognised in movements heyday as anything less than heresy.

  29. I can understand part of his argument. I think a lot of atheists think (me included) that if you are going to follow a religion then it is logical to be a fundamentalist – otherwise how do you know which parts of your holy book you should follow and which parts are safe to ignore.
    It also follows since the Bible is factually wrong in places and is full of contradictions.

    1. I don’t necessarily agree. If, as atheists, we take the bible to be written by human authors, then it makes sense to treat it as we would any other book, and try and use analytical and historical understanding of the text to determine which parts were meant by the authors to be taken as factual accounts and which parts weren’t. Aesop’s fables were set down on paper 500 years before the new testament, and who knows how long they were campfire stories before that, so its pretty clear that preliterate bronze and stone age humans could and did use allegorical tales when it suited them.

      In some cases that analysis is going to be difficult or indeterminate, and in those cases I don’t see why we should bother getting into sectarian conflicts over what the “real” meaning of the text is. Does Genesis 1 support YECism or allow for OECism? I’m not going to bother with that fight. There are plenty of biblical stories that are problematical for theists without having to invoke those indeterminate cases. The stories of God ordering slaughter of innocents and extermination of whole tribes, for instance; for those it is largely irrelevant whether they are intended to be allegorical or literal – they paint God as evil either way.

  30. The term atheist only has meaning to theists. I don’t believe in Puff the Magic Dragon either, but nobody has created a term for that yet. I just call myself normal.

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