07 May 2007

Religion Without Supernatural Theism?

The retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong has written a book titled titled Why Christianity Must Change or Die.

Implict in this book title are the two possible outcomes for Christianity (and perhaps some other religions as well) in North America and Western Europe -- adapting or dying.

The death could be in a literal sense like the shrinking influence of religion in Western Europe or it could be an intellectual death where the religion still exists and has influence in the world but is unable to adapt to changing times.

I'm curious to see where our Methodist, Anglican, and other Christian neighbors will be in 50 years. Will they be moving towards a "Spong" form of Christianity or will they be moving towards an "Akinola" form of Christianity?

The criticisms of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and others may sound harsh. But many of the ideas raised in their "Atheist" books have also been raised by Spong, Crossan, and others in "Christian" books.

For example, John Dominic Crossan has suggested that we have a good empirical benchmark for the ability of God to perform miracles.

The shrines at Lourdes and Fatima have discarded crutches testifying to the miraculous healings. But there are no discarded artificial limbs testifying to miracles of regeneration. Apparently, there are some limits to God's power in the world. Here's a brief quote from Crossan's book Who Is Jesus?: Answers to Your Questions about the Historical Jesus:

I have visited Lourdes in France and Fatima in Portugal, healing shrines of the Christian Virgin Mary. I have also visited Epidaurus in Greece and Pergamum in Turkey, healing shrines of the pagan god Asklepios. the miraculous healings recorded in both places were remarkably the same. There are, for example, many crutches hanging in the grotto of Lourdes, mute witness to those who arrived lame and left whole. There are, however, no prosthetic limbs among them, not witnesses to paraplegics whose lost limbs were restored. What do I conclude?

Faith heals! That is as sure as anything we can ever know. Certain diseases for certain people under certain circumstances can be healed by faith in that very possibility -- at Epidaurus for a pagan, at Lourdes for a Christian, at Benares for a Hindu, and so on. But certain diseases only, certain people only, and certain conditions only.

Another limit to God's power in the world is the trend towards shrinking area of responsibility for God to use God's divine power.

The atheist blogger Greta Christina has pointed out that the trend has been for natural explanations to replace supernatural explanations in the world. And there are no documented cases of a natural explanation being discarded in favor of a supernatural explanation. Here's a brief quote from Greta's blog:
When you look at the history of the world, you see thousands -- tens of thousands, arguably hundreds of thousands or more -- of phenomena for which a supernatural explanation has been replaced by a natural one. Why the sun rises and sets; what thunder and lightning are; how and why illness happens and spreads; why people look like their parents; how people got to be here in the first place… all these things, and thousands more, were once explained by gods or spirits or mystical energies. And now all of them have natural, physical explanations.

Natural explanations, I should point out, with mountains of solid, carefully collected, replicable evidence to support them.

Now, how many times in the history of the world has a natural explanation of a phenomenon been supplanted by a supernatural one?

As far as I am aware, exactly zero.

Of course, people are coming up with new supernatural explanations of naturally-explained phenomena all the time. Intelligent design is the most obvious example. You can pick up any New Age magazine to find more.

But explanations with evidence? Replicable evidence? Carefully gathered, patiently tested, rigorously reviewed evidence? Internally consistent evidence? Large amounts of it, from many different sources?

Again, as far as I'm aware -- none.

Which brings me to my point: the question of likelihood.

Given this pattern -- thousands upon thousands upon thousands of natural explanations accurately supplanting supernatural ones, zero supernatural explanations accurately supplanting natural ones -- doesn't it seem that any given unexplained phenomenon is far more likely to have a natural explanation than a supernatural one?
This all leads to a few interesting questions and suggests to me that the supernatural in religion has a limited future.

But will supernatural theism remain a part of Christianity and other religions?

And what will happen to Christianity and other religion if the supernatural theism is gone?

1 comment:

Robin Edgar said...

Tell that to God Steve. . . ;-)