12 September 2009

Anti-Atheism Ad in UU World That Criticizes Bishop Spong

Goodwolve on her Moxielife blog mentioned the recent Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) ad complaints directed at the UU World staff for their decision to run their ad (you can see a PDF copy of the ad here).

In her blog article, she briefly mentioned an ad on page 13 for John Gibson's book In Defense of Religion. According to the ad copy, Gibson's book:
... makes a new case for religion at its best. It attacks head-on and in detail recent anti-religion books by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett, as well as the anti-faith theology of Bishop John Shelby Spong.
I'm pretty sure from reading two of the three "anti-religion" authors described above that they do have objections with religion as it is practiced by most persons. They may disagree with the Gibson's words but they wouldn't be too upset with the "anti-religion" label being applied to them by Gibson.

However, I'm surprised to see Bishop Spong labeled as an "anti-faith" theologian.

He's a very provocative theologian and many who are more traditional in their theology don't agree with his works. And I'm pretty sure that Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett, et al would find his theology a pointless exercise.

However, I have personally found the liberal theological writings of Spong and others such as Crossan, Funk, Pagels, and Borg to give me better understanding of the faith tradition I was raised in, allow me to make peace with it, and to keep those parts of it that I find useful as a Unitarian Universalist who is a humanist and atheist today. Part of my journey can be found in a sermon I presented in 1997. And surprisingly enough, I tested as a "Bishop Spong Christian" in Beliefnet's "What Kind of Christian Are You?" quiz.

Spong's "12 Theses" or a "Call for a New Reformation" would make for an interesting starting point for a deeper Unitarian Universalist theological conversation grounded in our history from the Protestant Reformation:
1. Theism, as a way of defining God, is dead. So most theological God-talk is today meaningless. A new way to speak of God must be found.

2. Since God can no longer be conceived in theistic terms, it becomes nonsensical to seek to understand Jesus as the incarnation of the theistic deity. So the Christology of the ages is bankrupt.

3. The biblical story of the perfect and finished creation from which human beings fell into sin is pre-Darwinian mythology and post-Darwinian nonsense.

4. The virgin birth, understood as literal biology, makes Christ's divinity, as traditionally understood, impossible.

5. The miracle stories of the New Testament can no longer be interpreted in a post-Newtonian world as supernatural events performed by an incarnate deity.

6. The view of the cross as the sacrifice for the sins of the world is a barbarian idea based on primitive concepts of God and must be dismissed.

7. Resurrection is an action of God. Jesus was raised into the meaning of God. It therefore cannot be a physical resuscitation occurring inside human history.

8. The story of the Ascension assumed a three-tiered universe and is therefore not capable of being translated into the concepts of a post-Copernican space age.

9. There is no external, objective, revealed standard writ in scripture or on tablets of stone that will govern our ethical behavior for all time.

10. Prayer cannot be a request made to a theistic deity to act in human history in a particular way.

11. The hope for life after death must be separated forever from the behavior control mentality of reward and punishment. The Church must abandon, therefore, its reliance on guilt as a motivator of behavior.

12. All human beings bear God's image and must be respected for what each person is. Therefore, no external description of one's being, whether based on race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, can properly be used as the basis for either rejection or discrimination.
None of these statements are "we all agree, let's sit around the campfire and sing 'Kum-bah-yah' statements." It looks like Spong framed his statements to be intentionally provocative and to provoke discussion within Christianity.

I'm thinking it would be very interesting to use Spong's theses for a values-voting continuum activity in an adult religious education setting. With the theological diversity in found in Unitarian Universalist congregations, it would be an interesting discussion to have.

Of course, it's interesting that an ad perceived as "attacking religion" generates multiple complaints to the UU World staff while an ad promoting a book that attacks the ideas of non-theist philosophers and a leading liberal Christian theologian's work goes unnoticed by our readership (see here and here for links to criticisms of the FFRF ad).

Although we Unitarian Universalists are officially non-creedal and covenental (although the idea of what "covenant" actually means isn't the same for all of us), does the acceptance of the ad for Gibson's book in UU World imply that some non-theist theological and philosophical ideas are being pushed out the door in current-day Unitarian Universalism?


Robin Edgar said...

You mean the *revolving* door of The Church Of The Revolving Door Steve? Doesn't the UU World magazine's acceptance of the ad from the Freedom *From* Religion Foundation's as soliciting donations from U*Us for it's "Freethought" Bus Sign ads more than balance out that ad which suggests that Bishop Spong is anti-faith? AFAIAC *some* non-theist theological and philosophical ideas *should* be being pushed out the door in current-day Unitarian Universalism. They should have been pushed out decades ago AFAIAC. I refer specifically to the anti-theistic and/or anti-religious "theological" and philosophical ideas that the "fundamentalist atheist" subset of Humanist U*Us have rammed down the throats of U*U Theists for decades now. If they are on the way out, and I am not convinced that they are yet, all I can day is good-bye and good riddance. . .

Dare I bid you Adieu?

Or make use of the oft used and abused military salutation Adios My Friend? :-)

Robin Edgar

Jess said...

As I said over at Moxie's, the difference between the ads is that the FFRF ad attacks people while the Re-Thinking Religion ad is for a book that rebuts ideas.

Steve Caldwell said...

Robin -- how does one "push theological ideas" out of Unitarian Universalism if we are a non-creedal religion?

I don't agree with your theological solution, but there's a practical aspect to this question.

Do we abandon our current non-creedal stance?

Do we engage in an implicit creedalism enforced through informal means (e.g. peer pressure and other things that make certain theological views feel unwelcome)?

Joel Monka said...

Can you honestly see no difference between the way the ads are worded?

Steve Caldwell said...

Jess -- given that many people consider religious ideas to be different from other ideas, criticism of religious ideas appears to be "harsh," "rude," or "attacking" only because of the privileged status that religious ideology has enjoyed without question until recently.

As one of my favorite bloggers (Greta Christina) has said in the past, people are so used to whispering around religion that an everyday voice sounds like a shout.

I think a discussion on how religious ideas are treated more gently than other ideas is something that we should talk about.

If we don't have this discussion, we will find that whole avenues of religious and philosophical discussion are off-limits because someone will play the "hurt feelings" card to cut off the discussion.

The Mark Twain quote in the ad is very close an idea expressed in the Bible (Hebrews 11:1):

"Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see."

Steve Caldwell said...

Joel -- the two ads are different in tone. I do see that difference.

However, I don't see either ad ad a personal attack on any person but rather a criticism of different opinions about theology.

From my perspective as a reader of both ads, I can see that criticism of a religious idea isn't the same as criticizing the person who may hold that idea.

As with everything in life, "your mileage may vary."

Robin Edgar said...

:Robin -- how does one "push theological ideas" out of Unitarian Universalism if we are a non-creedal religion?

Obviously I was using *some* poetic license there Steve, especially in that the "theological" ideas that I was referring to are the intolerant anti-theistic and/or anti-religious "theology" of the "fundamentalist atheist" subset of U*U Humanists. I am simply saying that there should be no place in Unitarian*Universalism for anti-religious intolerance and bigotry, or indeed any other kind of intolerance and bigotry. U*Us would not stand for fundamentalist Muslims or White Supremacists in their churches to say nothing of their pulpits so why is it that "fundamentalist atheists" can preach Sunday sermons dogmatically asserting that God is a non-existent being and belief in God "seems primitive"? Why is it that it is "within the appropriate guidelines of ministerial leadership" for intolerant and abusive anti-religious bigots to label people's monotheistic religious beliefs as nothing but "silliness and fantasy? Why is it "within the appropriate guidelines of ministerial leadersdhip" for an intolerant and abusive "fundamentalist atheist" U*U "pastoral specialist" to rudely interrupt me when I am trying to describe a revelatory religious experience and contemptuously sneer, "You mean your psychotic experience"?

:Do we abandon our current non-creedal stance?

You mean abandon the stance that *pretends* that Unitarian*Universalism is non-creedal Steve? Sorry for doing a Drennan on you. :-) The fact is however that the Seven Principles fit the dictionary definition of a creed and plenty of U*Us, and even some official UUA produced publications present them in a way that is creedal in everything but name.

:Do we engage in an implicit creedalism enforced through informal means (e.g. peer pressure and other things that make certain theological views feel unwelcome)?

U*Us are already there AFAIAC. God knows that the implicit creedalism (or what they themselves referred to as the unwritten orthodoxies. . .) of the "fundamentalist atheist" Humanists at the Unitarian Church of Montreal were enforce through informal means (e.g. peer pressure *my* theological views feel far from welcome) and indeed formal means such as threatening make with expulsion for complaining about the "informal" peer pressure such as labeling Creation Day as a cult. . . More broadly U*Us already do what you are suggesting with respect to the Seven Principles and other claimed ideals of U*Uism.

Jess said...

Steve, religious ideology has NEVER been without question in some form or another. The issue of privilege just doesn't stand here, and no amount of wishing can make it so.

Anonymous said...

What I was trying to say was that the second ad wasn't causing any ire. I ascertain as a marketing person it is because it is in black and white in the middle of the publication. If it had been in color on the inside cover there would have been more attention. Seriously - most of you never even noticed the second ad.

And the first ad is about separation of church and state - and the OPINIONS of famous people about faith/religion. Just their opinion - which I thought was acceptable in the UUA.

Robin Edgar said...

Oh it's more than acceptable alright Jacqueline. In fact it is officially "within the appropriate guidelines of ministerial leadership" for anti-religious "fundamentalist atheist" Humanist U*U ministers to mock and ridicule a congregant's monotheistic religious beliefs as being nothing but "silliness and fantasy", to contemptuously dismiss a congregant's claimed religious experience as "your psychotic experience", and even express the opinion that an inter-religious event that a congregant successfully organized is a "cult". . . All of this is perfectly *acceptable* at least as long as you are a U*U minister.