Friday, June 20, 2014

Frank Schaeffer is Not an Atheist

This is my review of Frank Schaeffer’s new book Why I am an Atheist Who Believes in God. I gave it two stars. 1 star for his story telling and 1 for his liberal Bible study. He won’t say who his audience is. He wants to claim neutrality. But many atheists are saying he is clearly no atheist. I say this book is best for people willing to question the source of their religious feelings and want to learn more about Biblical scriptures and the traditions they say they are following. It refers to a few philosophers, but it is not a philosophy book.

My review is written in short sentences, so it (hopefully) gets read on I expand it afterward:

Positive reviews for this book are an indicator of the complete lack of understanding of philosophy in culture today. Frank asks Philosophy 101 questions and comes up with bizarre answers. He goes on a rant about not being able to define the word “significance”, then ends the chapter with “it is if I say it is.” I wouldn’t mind that so much if he didn’t rail on Dawkins and Dennett for things they haven’t said. He quotes the Bible and others, but when he speaks against atheists, he puts thoughts in their heads and tells us they are wrong. The New Atheists never said that there is no meaning, okay Frank?

I find it suspicious that he doesn’t know the basics of how science works. He says all science is circular, showing a lack of knowledge of the last 400 years that have demonstrated the premises of the scientific method to be completely workable and in a very real sense, true.  I was starting to believe he was insincere until he said, “my hunch is that things were beautiful before we were around to observe them”. Of course they were, but that says nothing about God or materialism. We evolved to be aware of beauty, to reflect on it, and to create words and art to describe it. That all this happened without a creator does not make it meaningless.

The redeeming quality of the book is his liberal Bible studies. And he admits that he is cherry picking. I admire that. He quotes someone saying Christianity should be reforming itself. I agree. But he comes up with weird stuff, like saying the Enlightenment was an “empathy time bomb” set by Jesus. In other words, after the Kings and Popes had their power taken away, after people were allowed to think for themselves without threat of torture, then he says it was Christianity’s idea to be inclusive and multi-cultural. Wrong.

Now for the details:
Frank starts his book with the story of some unlikely circumstances that resulted in him meeting a good friend. Then he reflects on that and what she and others have meant to him throughout his life. Early on he says, “My brain recognizes but can’t explain how love and beauty intersect with the prime directive of evolution: survive. Nor can I reconcile these ideas: ‘I know that the only thing that exists is this material universe, and I know that my redeemer liveth’.” A few times it seems like he is getting close to making that reconciliation, but then the chapter ends and the next starts with another story of his grandchildren. For an atheist reading this, I think they will find it frustrating. For an open-minded Christian, I think they can find some good places to start a discussion or think about these philosophical issues.

Philosophers, biologists and physicists are referenced throughout, but only in brief introductions. I’ll get to some misrepresentations of them later. First, if you haven’t heard of Frank Schaeffer, he comes from somewhat famous parents. They started something called the L’Abri Institute that created much of the foundation for fundamentalist Evangelical Christianity. Frank admits he was “personally conditioned” by that (his italics, he loves italics). He has since renounced their teachings and regrets how they have been used. He speaks lovingly of his mother, who despite preaching about the sin of homosexuality, would gladly have them for dinner and listen to their concerns.

He also tells of his own guilt over being a terrible father and how he grew into a decent grandfather. He is still married to the woman he got pregnant as a teenager despite their difficult early years when he believed what his father taught about men being the rulers of their house. He also credits his parents for teaching strict rules about being faithful. If not for that, he may have made things worse by cheating on her. He says his religiously based “irrational guilt” kept him from doing that. He doesn’t explain why he calls that “irrational”. He does talk about the philosophy of materialism and theory of evolution leading to a conclusion that multiple sex partners would be a rational choice. But he ignores that the values of good parenting and family are easily traceable via evolution, the very things he says he discovered later in life. This pattern is repeated throughout; acknowledging the value of strict religious rules and passing over the values we all have through the evolution of civil society.

Almost every time Frank refers to a philosopher or theologian, he gets it wrong. Most of his quotes are in support of his argument, and they are terrible. Most of his comments on “New Atheists” are merely characterizations and misrepresentations with no quotes to back up what he is claiming they said. He quotes from Howard Wettstein; and summarizes by saying “I believe that psychology explains away altruism and debunks love and that brain chemistry undermines my illusion of free will. I also believe that the spiritual reality hovering over, in and through me calls me to love, trust and hear the voice of my Creator”.  If we were to find the people who said those things about psychology and chemistry, we would see that they or other psychologists and chemists also said that these sciences are in their infancy and we don’t fully understand consciousness.

Frank and Howard want to claim sole proprietorship of mystery and wonder. They want to say spirituality is real and not have to explain what it is, let alone how they can claim it is real. Wonder does not belong to anyone. It is not taken away when you discover truth. Answering one question does not end all questioning. It almost always leads to more questions.

You might be wondering where the “atheist” part of this book comes in, given my quotes from Frank so far. He does say things like “religion is a neurological disorder for which faith is the only cure” and “we act as if our pet paradigm can be stretched to fit every case” and “don’t go to church if it is not helping you be a better person” and “Belief is never the point – actions are.” These are usually said in a context that denigrates metaphysical naturalism a few sentences later. He talks about actions being more important than words, but never discusses how no matter how much good someone does, if they speak against inclusiveness, tolerance and acceptance, those words are still bad and cause others to make poor choices and take bad actions.

In the middle of the book he quotes chapter and verse extensively. He sticks to the good stuff about Jesus bringing women into the conversation and speaking out against the literalist interpretations of the Old Testament. He quotes Jacques Ellul who discussed how Nietzsche and Marx questioned ideology and the power of the Christian churches. Ellul said it would be better if Christians today did that work themselves, questioning the elites of their own churches. This is the redeeming value of the book. I will simply agree with it and leave Christians to decide to do that work or not.

After quoting a large section of the Sermon on the Mount he says, “if only the rest of the gospels were consistent with this passage.” He says this with no irony. Yes, “if only”. If only any prophet or philosopher got it all right and handed us a book that gave us rules that worked perfectly in every situation in all times. What a wonderful world we would have. But that isn’t reality. It is simply wishful thinking. Choosing one of those prophets and believing that he meant to be consistent, but somehow the message got messed up and it’s our job to fix it, that’s not thinking at all.

Statements like that are where his Bible study goes south. At another point he compares a section from Luke 10 on going to hell to Luke 6 on mercy and forgiveness, asking which is Jesus. But I ask, why ask? We have had 2,000 years to figure out that one of those passages is good for society and one is not. Whether or not a particular historical figure agreed with either one does not affect my life choices. It only changes you if you are first trying to figure who in history is special then deciding to follow everything that person said. I don’t think that is a good strategy. Today, we can know who said what, who changed those words later, who translated them, who misused them and we know the effect of doing all that on world history. We can learn from all of the wisdom of the ages.

It gets worse when he gets away from the Bible and tries to discuss the meaning of life. In Chapter 14 he types “Earth’s place in the universe” into google and finds “our place within the universe is very small and insignificant”. This puts him a riff about the word significant. He asks, “less significant than what? Where’s the standard?”, “it’s subjective”, “it’s as nonsensical as Pope Paul V threatening Galileo.” He says “today’s secular science… assigns us a contradictory groveling insignificant, significance.” He then brings in environmentalism and claims this a new form of original sin, calling us culpable for destroying other life forms despite our insignificance. Then he jumps to a rant about the poor quality of modern art.

It gets weirder when he quotes Sagan’s entire Pale Blue Dot  saying Sagan “takes great pains to obliterate any sense of cosmic significance” and calling it part of the “secular theology of nothingness”. He says this theology is in conflict with itself since it sees us as “nature at her worst” yet seeks to find signs of life elsewhere. He then names Dennett, Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens claiming “Religion’s chief sin, they argue, lies in elevating humankind above the pond scum from whence we came.” No reference for any of them saying anything like that is provided. He winds down this free association with the question that led him to write this book, “if we’re nothing, why bother to convince us of our nothingness?”

The answer Frank, is found in all the places you just referred to but failed to understand. Words have meaning. We use them to communicate. Breaking them down and understanding that they are “just words” is something fun for college freshman to do in a dorm room, but you’re writing a book about meaning. You should be clarifying, not deliberately obfuscating. Sagan asked them to turn the camera back toward Earth so we could see our real place in the solar system. He’s not saying we’re nothing, he’s saying we’re something, and there is a lot more. There is much for us to know and learn and explore and it matters that we are aware of it.

He spends next the few chapters expanding on these themes, including a perfectly useless history of art criticism in the mid 20th century. He plays with definitions of other words like “natural”, saying murder is “natural” therefore a naturalist perspective says it is not wrong. He never defines spirituality but says those who believe it is an illusion “tend to demote notions of beauty along with demoting us (humans).” I realized at this point that he honestly doesn’t understand the philosophy of materialistic naturalism. He rarely uses the word “materialism” without including “meaningless” in the same sentence.

He never mentions the premises of science. He never talks about the wonder of science or how it constantly questions itself, the very essence of the title of his book, that you live with the contradiction of knowing and not knowing. He promotes the idea that Christianity should examine itself, but never acknowledges that is almost the definition of what science is. He doesn’t seem to know that the idea that everything is natural, is a premise, and if it were shown to be faulty, we would look for a different premise. The important thing to note is that in 400 years, it has repeatedly been shown to be a premise that helps us understand the stars, to build bridges and to cure cancer.

Frank’s message is no different than any sermon I’ve heard, liberal or fundamentalist. He quotes a story of a hanging in a concentration camp then says, “Either God is evil and should be punched in the mouth, or there is no God. Which is it? Perhaps there is another possibility: Jesus’ co-suffering love is the best lens through which to reconsider God, or at least to reconsider ourselves.” The only difference is Frank goes on to say the God of the Old Testament is “apparently a vindictive monster” and sometimes Jesus is “trapped in pre-Enlightenment ignorance” and that “we need to forthrightly pick and choose what we follow in the Bible.”

At this late stage in the book, he finally asks a philosophical question, what does “good” mean?

As an answer he tells the story of Mother Maria, a chain smoking, bar hopping nun who helped Jews escape Nazi’s and paid for it with her life. He says, “To me, Mother Maria’s death is an example of love embraced as a stark life-changing and essential fact as real as the carbon compounds that form the basis of life.” He follows that up with more of his questions that he can’t answer and for a second, I have hope that he has turned it all around when he says, “Our best hope is not found in correct theology, the Bible or any other book, but in the love we express through action rather than words.”

If he ended there, or if that came earlier and he expanded on that theme, this could have been a great book. But he continues, “Our best hope is that love predates creation and thus that the Creator sees us as ever young. Our hope is that when we look at God through the eyes of the loving Christ we will see who God really is. Our ultimate hope is that God will be looking back at us as we’d like to be seen.”

That’s not atheism.

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