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Not re-inventing the sacred

For topics that are more about faith, religion and religious organisations than anything else.
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Ted Harvey
Posts: 172
Joined: September 10th, 2007, 4:41 pm

Not re-inventing the sacred

#1 Post by Ted Harvey » April 28th, 2008, 10:48 am

By Stuart A. Kauffman

A really thought-provoking and detailed article about what God could be - but fatally flawed by a lack of consistancy and an anti-secular bias. ... index.html

Kauffman starts out by modestly stating that he’s out to ‘reinvent the sacred’ so that God is seen as the very creativity of the Universe. I cannot see that he’s on about much more than a romantic ‘New Age’ view of God wherein the only difference is that God didn’t actually create the Earth and everything we know in six days. Kauffman’s paper is mostly a lengthy and contived attack on reductionism in science.

My main problems with what he writes is what comes across as an anti-secular, and specifiacally anti-humanist, bias despite pretences to objectivity:
About a billion of us are secular but bereft of our spirituality and reduced to being materialist consumers in a secular society. If we the secular hold to anything it is to “humanism.” But humanism, in a narrow sense, is too thin to nourish us as human agents in the vast universe we partially cocreate.
A third injury is that agnostic and atheist “secular humanists” have been quietly taught that spirituality is foolish or, at best, questionable. Some secular humanists are spiritual but most are not. We are thus cut off from a deep aspect of our humanity. Humans have led intricate and meaningful spiritual lives for thousands of years, and many secular humanists are bereft of it. Reinventing the sacred as our response to the emergent creativity in the universe can open secular humanists to the legitimacy of their own spirituality.
Nice of him to grant the possibility of humanists having a ‘legitimacy of their own spirituality’.

Nevertheless, his bias is repeatedly betrayed by his syntax, where for example he feels the need to ring-fence humanism and secular humanists in quotes, as above, and:
Today the schism between faith and reason finds voice in the sometimes vehement disagreements between Christian or Islamic fundamentalists, who believe in a transcendent Creator God, and agnostic and atheist “secular humanists” who do not believe in a transcendent God.

But as often happens with would-be ‘great’ men, he often gets the very basic things wrong in hurrying along to present his great thoughts. For example, where he contradicts himself by saying that we cannot predict the future before he asserts that something will never be possible:
My claim is not simply that we lack sufficient knowledge or wisdom to predict the future evolution of the biosphere, economy, or human culture. It is that these things are inherently beyond prediction. Not even the most powerful computer imaginable can make a compact description in advance of the regularities of these processes.
Here he confuses the ‘pathway to truth’ with what ‘are true’:

Science is not, as Galileo claimed, the only pathway to truth. History, the situated richness of the humanities, and the law are true as well.

That is once of several times when he takes a swipe at Galileo, mostly in the context of accusations that ‘science has driven a wedge between faith and reason’. Ironic that, when one considers that Galileo was one of the most notable victims of the unreason of faith. I have read over the past almost two decades in the wake of the ‘new crusades’ to Iraq, of many Christians who aver that because Christianity underwent its reason-based Enlightenment in the West, it is superior to Islam. The argument goes that what poor old-fashioned Islam needs is a process of Enlightenment and reason – but here we have Kauffman asserting that there is a wedge between faith and reason in the West… so which is it?

I really do wish that Kauffman had dumped much of the anti-secular and romantic New Age wooly thinking and stuck with his two most incisive observations:
I hold that it is we who have invented God.

A Creator God is not needed for the origin of life.
Around those two observations he does lay out some interesting thinking, but so much more has not been worked out. In the end it amounts to another eminent writer clutching onto the comfort blanket of religion and unwilling to address what we can try to understand through rationality and reason about our place as a species in the universe

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Emma Woolgatherer
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Joined: February 27th, 2008, 12:17 pm

Re: Not re-inventing the sacred

#2 Post by Emma Woolgatherer » April 28th, 2008, 12:23 pm

Yes, it is a thought-provoking article, Ted. I particularly like the bits about emergence and human inventiveness, and I'm inclined to agree with Kaufmann that "in the industrialized world all of us are largely reduced to consumers", even though that might be overstating it slightly. I do rather think that's all of us, though, and not just the ones without religion. His characterisation of secular humanism does seem rather unfair. I'm not sure that it's an anti-secular bias exactly, because he seems to be classifying himself as a secular humanist, but he does create something of a straw man. At the same time, if he genuinely thinks that humanists are losing out on something, detached from the sacred, "cut off from a deep aspect of our humanity", bereft of the chance to live "intricate and meaningful spiritual lives", then I don't think he's helping us. I still don't really understand what spirituality is, and it would have been useful if he'd defined it.

What particularly annoys me is that Kauffman constantly places reason in opposition to faith or to spirituality or the "sacred", but never in opposition to emotion. Reason tells us that reason is not enough, he says, and I agree with him. But apart from a brief mention of "a couple in love on the banks of the Seine", and a vague reference to "our other human sensibilities", he doesn't talk about human emotions. Well, he does acknowledge that "Secular humanists believe in fairness and the love of family and friends", but that hardly covers it. What about delight or amusement or excitement or curiosity or compassion or wonder? He gets closest to it here:
Stuart Kauffman wrote:Is it, then, more amazing to think that an Abrahamic transcendent, omnipotent, omniscient God created everything around us, all that we participate in, in six days, or that it all arose with no transcendent Creator God, all on its own? I believe the latter is so stunning, so overwhelming, so worthy of awe, gratitude, and respect, that it is God enough for many of us. God, a fully natural God, is the very creativity in the universe. It is this view that I hope can be shared across all our religious traditions, embracing those like myself, who do not believe in a Creator God, as well as those who do. This view of God can be a shared religious and spiritual space for us all.
I was with him completely, up to the word "respect". But it seems to me that he's using "God" as a kind of weasel word. And if he thinks that it's a way of creating some kind of unity between those who believe in a Creator God and those who don't, I think he's got another think coming.
Kauffman wrote:If half of us believe in a supernatural God, science will not disprove that belief ... We can invent a global ethic, in a shared space, safe to all of us, with one view of God as the natural creativity in the universe.
How would that work, then? By stealth? Does he think that if we go along with the religious language, but use it to mean something entirely different, the people who believe in a supernatural God won't notice, and eventually the new, natural view of God will have sneaked into the consciousnesses of everyone in the entire world? Well, pah, maybe it's worth a try. But if he was hoping to persuade secular humanists to go along with it, I don't think he's tried hard enough to get us on side.


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