Since writing this article, Matt Dillahunty has released his reflections on the discussion. I’ve revisited the dialogue here in light of his comments.
I recently listened to the Matt Dillahunty and Jordan Peterson’s Pangburn Philosophy sponsored discussion and was extremely disappointed by it. The discussion represented something that has become commonplace in the secular movement when prominent thinkers attempt to discuss religion: there is a full stop at the question of the existence of God. This is unbelievably stifling and, frankly, uninteresting for (at least a few) reasons I will outline below. After a brief interchange with Dillahunty himself about this, I am still rather unsatisfied by his responses to my questions. He welcomed an email from me, and I will update you all when I hear his response.
As a precursor for my exposition below, I just want to give a brief description of my history with religion and religious people, specifically Christianity and Christians, to show that my ideas are not, indeed, foreign either to the study of this religion or these religious people themselves. Dillahunty had charged that I sounded like a person who has never talked with a fundamentalist or Evangelical Christian. In fact the truth is the opposite: these are the people I have known my whole life, and many friends of mine still live within both traditions. I grew up in a small town of 2,000 people in northwestern Indiana: a rural, mostly farmland community where 90% of the population was conservative, Christian, and Republican. I still attend a church there sometimes, although I live near Indianapolis now, and consider myself a secular humanist. I also attended a small, private Christian University (Anderson University in Indiana) to study philosophy and theology (although they cut their philosophy program my fourth year there and I dropped out). I attend seminary courses at the Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis in my free time and anticipate enrolling in their MTS program in the coming months. I like to, as Christopher Hitchens used to say, keep two sets of books. Though I’m a secular humanist, I am fascinated by belief in God and have a deep desire to understand it.
This is where the recent discussion comes in. It seems like the secular humanist movement really needs to get beyond the question of whether God exists, mainly because this question assumes it understands what religious people mean when they talk about the “existence” of God. I just want to briefly suggest here how difficult it is to understand what is meant by the “existence of God,” or the meaning of faith by referring to the ideas of a few prominent theologians.
The theologian Rudolf Bultmann wrote on the difference between talking about God and talking from the existential reality of God, effectively claiming that the person of faith can never talk about God (positing God as an object outside herself to be comprehended), but that for religious people God is something like the “Wholly Other” that exceeds all language and thought. Consequently, for him faith means “the abandonment of man’s own security and the readiness to find security only in the unseen beyond, in God.” This is a far cry away from the notion that religious people have some kind of rational grounding for believing in God, or that the average religious person strives to do so. The language Bultmann uses suggests an entirely different grammar from the logic of rationality.
Similarly, Paul Tillich defines faith as “ultimate concern.” As JBH commentates, “While faith may certainly involve rationality and emotion, for Tillich it transcends them both without destroying either, thereby overcoming the gap between subjectivity and objectivity.” Continuing, for Tillich, “God functions as the most fundamental symbol for ultimate concern. Regardless of whether one accepts or rejects ‘God,’ the symbol of God is always affirmed insofar God is a type of shorthand for what concerns humanity ultimately.” Here again, we find a robust definition of faith and belief which goes beyond the understanding that belief is merely the acceptance of a proposition without evidence. It is an open question, given Tillich’s understanding, whether faith can be obtained through reason, or whether faith itself provides a logic of its own for interpreting the world and its events.
Indeed, Friedrich Schleiermacher, the father of modern liberal theology, writes in his book to “Religion’s Cultured Despisers” that faith is different from physics, ethics, and art. This Christian thinker understands religious doctrines and dogmas as contemplations of a feeling of ultimate dependence on the universe. Schleiermacher recognizes that this exposition of religious language, as an expression of a certain feeling, puts it in a distinct discourse: “Religion, however loudly it may demand back all those well abused conceptions, leaves your physics untouched, and please God, also your psychology.” He goes on, in this light, to describe the uses of religious terms. A “miracle” is “simply the religious name for an event.” A “revelation” is every “original and new communication of the Universe to man.” I take this to mean that when language gives perspective to life, then it is revelatory language. He also makes a distinction between true belief and false belief: “Not every person has religion who believes in a sacred writing, but only the man who has a lively and immediate understanding of it, and who, therefore, so far as he himself is concerned, could most easily do without it.” Although Schleiermacher calls “God” and “immortality” ideas as opposed to feelings, he points to “God” as a unifying concept “in whom alone the particular thing is one and all.” “Is not God the highest, the only unity?” “And if you see the world as a Whole, a Universe, can you do it otherwise than in God?” With this kind of talk, we secular humanists are certainly standing on a strange continent. Yet we should not turn around, now, and give over thinking to cliches about what “God” or “faith” or “religion” must mean, but we should explore the jungles of religious thought in hopes to find what is worthwhile and intelligible, for in either case we learn about the common humanity that connects us all, whether secular or religious.
With a few questions, let’s further free our minds from the prejudices derived from overly simplistic understandings of religious belief and think for a second about what it would mean for religious people to understand God as a being like other beings. It would mean that fundamentalists themselves would say that we can get closer to God depending on where we stand on the earth, that we could see God if we had better qualities of perception, that we could hear God if our auditory system was more powerful. But this isn’t what even fundamentalists claim. They’ll say God is everywhere. And we have to take that seriously. God isn’t a being like other beings (see the debates surrounding the analogia entis).
You might ask why listen to the major thinkers of theology when we can ask everyday believers what their belief means. This is an important question and bears more attention than it has received. This is a question the philosopher of religion D. Z. Phillips took up in The Concept of Prayer. Just because someone knows how to paint, it doesn’t follow that they have anything to say about art theory. Just because a religious person prays, it doesn’t follow that they have some kind of robust understanding of prayer or can articulate it with symbols other than those passed onto them. Daniel Dennett makes this wonderful distinction between having competence in a game and comprehending the game (many pragmatist philosophers of language do as well, such as Robert Brandom in Making It Explicit). I can be competent at playing guitar, for instance, but it doesn’t follow that I comprehend what I’m doing when I play guitar: that I know what the chord names are or I know how to place musical symbols on a scale and write a song with notation. In the same way, not all religious people comprehend the meaning of their beliefs, although they are competent actors within the rituals and systems of discourse in their communities. So a discussion with the actors who are competent religious actors and comprehend religion’s history is paramount for understanding it. This, I think, is the import of Peterson’s point that Sam Harris doesn’t reference Eliade (virtually the founder of religious studies) once in his works.
Another point that D. Z. Phillips made over and over in his career is that distinct discourses (or “language games”) can infect each other, and this infection can either undermine discourses or revolutionize them. The undermining process occurs when the logic of one discourse (say science) is used to interpret the surface grammar of another discourse (say religion), so that even religious believers begin to use scientific logic to think about their beliefs, despite this logic being foreign to their beliefs. So the problem with being a competent actor who does not also comprehend the discourse she participates in is that she is susceptible to this undermining. It creates cognitive dissonance. I think this happens a lot to religious people. And examples of this undermining can be seen when faith is reduced to the shallow understanding of belief (the acceptance of propositions without evidence), when God is reduced to a being (existing somewhere), and religious practices are reduced to their social benefits.
The secular humanist movement would be better off, especially in its relation to religious people and its understanding of religion and religious belief, if it sidestepped the question of the existence of God and asked what it means to say that God exists and what it means to believe or have faith in God. It seems to me that this change of emphasis must be granted purely out of the principles of charity and skepticism; the principle of charity because to arrive at a position about religion and religious belief, we have to engage with the best religious thinkers who do ask these questions; and from the principles of skepticism because we have to be skeptical of our own assumptions and ideas about what religion and religious belief are.
As we have seen, the father of modern liberal theology Friedrich Schleiermacher wrote on the relation between religion and the sciences and arts. And I think his answers still have pertinence today. Is faith a feeling of ultimate dependence? Is “miracle” the religious word for any event, and the more religious you are the more miracles you see? Do religious beliefs, in fact, have nothing to do with ethics and physics, as he claims? These are open questions, I think, and can’t be answered just by taking a small sample size, as Dillahunty seems to do, of a small movement, of a relatively new branch of Christianity at its word (fundamentalist Southern Baptists, for instance). A certain sect’s view of theology isn’t necessarily the majority Christian view, nor is it the most traditionally representative. For instance, the Americas only house about a third of the world’s Christians, and at least half of the world’s Christians are Catholic. Why not engage with the thoughts of someone like the Catholic thinkers Karl Rahner or Thomas Aquinas?
As the theologian Paul Tillich defined faith as “ultimate concern,” a disposition toward reality as a whole shaped by an ultimate concern (for instance, maybe that being is good despite suffering), and another important theologian said that beliefs are the “thoughts of faith,” we can begin to see how the question of “what do you believe” is a little misleading and unhelpful for us who want to understand religion. The beliefs of religious people seem to be expressions of a disposition toward life as a whole, and aren’t themselves what is worthy of worship (the Reformers for instance distinguished between the letter of the Bible and the Spirit of the Word). Let’s therefore draw a distinction between faith and belief. Belief is an expression of faith and does not ground it. Our questions should be directed toward the lived reality and experiences indicative of faith rather than the propositions of belief. Wittgenstein once said that the concept “God” is something like the concept “object,” in that it is a basic concept for a way of conceiving the basic things in reality. I think it would be fascinating to explore the ways in which the word “God” is similar to that of “object,” for in answering that we might actually articulate an authentic abstraction of religious belief and, perhaps, distill the meaning of faith.
Why fixate on the question of the existence of God when even in theological circles it is a cliche that people do not come to faith through rational argument and, in philosophical theology, there is a distinction made between the God of the philosophers (something like the first mover, the idea greater than that which can be conceived, etc.) and the God of religion (who is worthy of worship, the God of love and hope and freedom, etc.)? Why argue against a God not worth believing in, even by religious standards (and quite likely nobody believes in), and not try to articulate the God who religious people put their faith in? It seems like the major thinkers in the secular humanist movement have done next to no homework on the variety of religious experiences and the different conceptions of religious belief and ritual (as these have been explored extensively in religious studies), and the secular humanist movement suffers for it. If indeed it is possible that the grammar of religious language differs from the logic of rationality, it seems absurd to dismiss it out of hand as not worthy of discussion or serious thought. It seems we have a long way to go before we can actually mount a criticism of religion, because we have yet to understand it. And I’m not advocating here for a distinction between the facts of religion and the values of religion, for us to see the social or psychological benefits or ill effects of religious belief, but an investigation into the phenomenology of religious experiences, and the kinds of experiences and the kinds of thinking that religious belief expresses.
I hope this makes some sense and that I have presented my question sufficiently enough (though of course not comprehensively) so that where I’m coming from might be at least basically understood. Is my concern here unfounded? Does the secular humanist movement have no more work to do in the realm of understanding religion, and the only work before it is to deny and refute it at every turn? Might there be a possibility for building bridges, to recognize the possibility that our common humanity might allow for different dispositions toward the world, and that understanding these differences might allow us all to work together better?
 Some Wittgensteinians draw a distinction between “surface” and “depth” grammar. The surface grammar is the way the grammar of a statement appears to a person. So the surface grammar of “God is in heaven” appears for many nonreligious people as the same as the depth grammar of “Mom is in the kitchen.” Depth grammar is the intended logic that underlies a statement and motivates inferences and conclusions from that statement. So the depth grammar of “Mom is in the kitchen” could be something like “Dinner will be ready soon” or “Mom is not in the living room, basement, upstairs, etc.” The question I am raising here is something like: The surface grammar of the statement “God is in heaven” misleads us to think religious people are making an empirical claim when the depth grammar might mean something like “Come what may, existence is good.”
“The strange thing about Dillahunty’s reflections is that he’s actually much closer to Peterson than would have appeared in Pangburn’s video. As I have written, Peterson thinks religion has evolved by Darwinian mechanisms, religious myths provide for us the grammar of stories, and, because they rely on competence hierarchies, these stories set the background evolutionary setting to which we’ve adapted as a species, and the conceptual grounds from which our concepts of the individual derived. There is nothing supernaturalist about this position and, in fact, it’s a denial of special revelation, miracles, and divine inspiration altogether, at least, if these concepts are employed at all, they’re stripped of their traditional content.”
“I think the secular humanist movement would be better off, especially in its relation to religious people and its understanding of religion and religious belief, if it sidestepped the question of the existence of God and asked what it means to say that God exists and what it means to believe or have faith in God. It seems to me that this change of emphasis must be granted purely out of the principles of charity and skepticism; the principle of charity because to arrive at a position about religion and religious belief, we have to engage with the best religious thinkers who do ask these questions; and from the principles of skepticism because we have to be skeptical of our own assumptions and ideas about what religion and religious belief are.”
“As social media continues to shape our discourses by selecting for epigrams over nuanced discussion, Bradbury asks us if we will become like Mildred, whose words are like those “heard once in a nursery at a friend’s house, a two-year-old child building word patterns, talking jargon, making pretty sounds in the air,” or whether we will become like the talking, depthless faces of anchors operating distraction machines like Fox News or CNN: “the gibbering pack of tree apes that said nothing, nothing, nothing and said it loud, loud, loud.” May we find the words that wrestle and struggle with the challenges of life, without strangling or flattening them, and, consequently, diminishing the possibility for genuine human flourishing.”
“As a thinker, he sits firmly within the philosophical traditions spurred by Nietzsche, William James, and Jung. And as an influence, he’s a cultural force that we will not soon forget. Why tell the truth in our age of group-think and Twitter epigrams? Well, it’s our only hope for survival, and the only way for the hero, who speaks a freeing word that organizes chaos into novel order, to emerge.”
The difference between Dennett and Harris is not only in the frameworks from which they analyze the problem of free will, but in the consequences that follow from their methods of analysis. To accept both projects as legitimate, which I think we should, would mean that we should work both to be linguistic innovators and also social revolutionaries. We should be attentive to the ways in which language shapes thought but also be open to using the tools of science to move beyond mere argumentation and hermeneutical innovation to improve society.