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What do Unbelievers believe?

What Do Unbelievers Believe?

We get atheism wrong if we see it simply as a detached, philosophical (dis)belief in God, argues Nick Spencer. 06/06/2019

My colleagues Elizabeth Oldfield and Lizzie Stanley had to go to Rome last week. It’s tough working for Theos sometimes. 

I tease. It was work, and rather interesting work at that. They were recording a Sacred podcast from a major conference, hosted at the Pontifical Gregorian University and part of the Understanding Unbelief programme, in which interim findings about “unbelief” in Brazil, China, Denmark, Japan, the UK, and US were presented.

Here is a stereotype about unbelievers. They don’t believe in stuff. It’s a stereotype that is popular among some believers and unbelievers alike. The former, in a move of what is essentially self–protection, like to think that being an unbeliever entails abandoning belief in moral absolutes, or in human purpose or dignity. The latter, in a move that is no less self–serving, like to think that unbelievers are rational, materialist, naturalistic, and completely immune to the childish absurdities of “belief”. 

The reality is very far from these poles, as the Understanding Unbelief research shows. Two issues stood out for me. 

The first relates to what atheists believe. As one would expect, atheists are rather less likely to believe in the supernatural than agnostics or believers. But less likely does not mean unlikely. When presented with a list of such phenomena – life after death, reincarnation, astrology, objects or people with mystical powers, supernatural beings, underlying forces of good or evil, a universal spirit of life form, or karma – somewhere between 10% and 40% of the people in each country said they either “strongly” or “somewhat agreed” in their existence. Indeed, only a minority of atheists were “naturalists” in the sense of rejecting all such supernatural phenomena. The answer to the question of what atheists believe turns out to be quite a lot after all. 

The second issue relates to how they believe. Here the answer is, not as strongly as you might think. As the project’s interim report puts it “being an atheist does not necessarily entail a high level of confidence or certainty in one’s views.” In all six of the countries studied, “atheists express overall levels of confidence in their beliefs about God’s existence [that is] either notably lower than…or broadly comparable to the general population’s.” In other words, atheists are not usually much more confident in their (non)beliefs than the rest of us are in ours. 

I think these findings are interesting, encouraging and, in two particular ways, familiar. 

Several years ago, Theos conducted a much smaller and more local survey into what UK unbelievers believed, which we published as Post–religious Britain?: The faith of the faithless. This reported that:  

  • Around a third of people who belong to no–religion, over a quarter of “Nevers” (i.e. those who answered “never” in response to the question “How often do you participate in a religious service as a worshipper?”) and 15% of atheists said that they believe in life after death; 
  • One in five “Nevers” (21%) said they believe in angels as did 7% of atheists;  
  • More than two in five “Nevers” (44%) believe in a human soul, as do almost a quarter (23%) of atheists;  
  • A quarter (24%) of the non–religious believe in heaven and 15% in hell; and 
  • A fifth (20%) of non–religious people believe in the supernatural powers of deceased ancestors, compared to 23% of the total sample. 

More generally, the proportion of people who are consistently “naturalistic” – meaning that they don’t believe in God, never attend a place of worship, call themselves non–religious, and don’t believe life after death, the soul, angels, etc. – was very low, at 9%. 

There are lots of ways one might read this. No matter what some atheist polemicists say, thoroughgoing atheistic naturalism is extremely rare, and not even the default position among atheists themselves. Even among those who reject God, there linger persistent beliefs about the supernatural or numinous; the sense there is more in heaven and earth than we dream of in our naturalist philosophies nags away. Atheism is much more variegated and interesting, and atheists are a lot less dogmatic, self–assured or certain, than some public advocates might lead us to believe.  

All of this is true, but there is one other reading which interests me and leads back to my second reason for a sense of familiarity. 

The matching of atheistic certainty (or lack thereof) about God with the general population’s un/certainty says something more than “atheists aren’t as dogmatic as you imagine”. Take this sentence about unbelief in the US from the Understanding Unbelief report:  

“the comparatively high level of confidence exhibited by America’s atheists matches more–or–less exactly the high ‘religious confidence’ of Americans–in–general.”  

Or, with slightly more interpretative boldness, the atheists (and atheism) of a nation take their cue (and possibly also their hue) from the believers in it. 

This is perilously close to the argument that ran central to my history of atheism, namely that we get atheism wrong if we see it simply as a detached, philosophical (dis)belief in God. Today, as in history, atheism is embedded in the lives (and politics) of the wider culture. A generous, thoughtful, self–reflective culture of belief will generate a similar culture of atheism; an aggressive, self–righteous and exclusionary one will do the opposite.  

The parallel is not perfect – Chinese and Brazilian atheists are somewhat less sure about their beliefs than the general population in those countries – and other factors naturally come in to play. Nevertheless, the arguments in the Understanding Unbelief study, our Post–religious Britain? report, and my Atheists: The Origin of the Species, seem to cohere on this issue of the socially– and politically– mediated nature of unbelief, as they do on the wider point that whatever else it might be, the discussion between what believers and unbelievers believe is emphatically not an issue, simply, of us vs. them. 


Understanding Unbelief, which was exhibited at the Vatican, interviewed people who were atheist and agnostic (Photographer: Aubrey Wade)

Nick Spencer

Nick Spencer

Nick is Senior Fellow at Theos. He is the author of a number of books and reports, most recently The Political Samaritan: how power hijacked a parable (Bloomsbury, 2017), The Evolution of the West (SPCK, 2016) and Atheists: The Origin of the Species (Bloomsbury, 2014). Outside of Theos, Nick is Visiting Research Fellow at the Faiths and Civil Society Unit, Goldsmiths, University of London and a Fellow of the International Society for Science and Religion

Theos

Theos conducts research, publishes reports, and holds debates, seminars and lectures on the relationship between religion, politics and society in the contemporary world. We are a Christian think tank based in the UK. We are part of The British and Foreign Bible Society, charity number 232759.

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APCV recommended voting guide for the 2019 Federal election.

A Progressive Christian Voice Agenda for the 2019 Federal Election.
Introduction
A Progressive Christian Voice Australia (APCVA) promotes public awareness of the politically progressive dimensions of Christian opinion. The APCVA agenda for the 2019 Federal Election is based on consultation with members and on the issues that have directly concerned those members over the last 3 years. Underlying the agenda is our understanding that God identifies in a special way with those who are excluded or oppressed in our society.
APCVA supports

  1. An inclusive society in which everyone is valued and treated with respect and in which no one is excluded because of race, colour, creed, age, sexuality or differing ability. a. The commencement of a well funded and supported Royal Commission into the abuse of people with a disability b. The banning of gay conversion therapy c. The ending of gender inequality with regard to salary for equal work, positions on boards and as elected representatives
  2. A just and fair society in which no one lives in poverty. a. An increase in the Newstart Allowance, Austudy, Youth Allowance for students and Abstudy to 100% of the Aged Pension b. Doubling of the rate of Commonwealth Rent Assistance c. Addressing the issues of inequity and a lack of transparency in the Australian superannuation system that currently favours the well off with overly generous tax concessions. d. Reducing substantially negative gearing on established properties e. Reforming the tax system to be fairer and simpler as per the recommendations of Richard Denniss of the The Australia Institute Go to: Video f. Increasing substantially funding for education across all sectors
  3. A profound respect for the earth. a. The halting of the Adani coal mine b. A renewed commitment to reducing carbon emissions c. A realistic timeline for the phasing out of our reliance on coal and the encouragement of sustainable energy sources d. A substantial reduction in the amount of waste produced by Australia e. A renewed commitment to an ecologically sustainable Murray Darling agreement
  4. A welcoming approach to refugees and asylum seekers. a. An increase in the intake of refugees under the humanitarian criteria b. Discussions with Indonesia and other countries in our region as to how we can help them with asylum seekers and refugees in their countries and discourage people smugglers c. Granting asylum seekers the same opportunities as refugees while they are awaiting their refugee status to be determined, for example, consistent access to income support, medical services, education and the right to work d. An increase in funding for agencies that are assisting refugees and asylum seekers e. The closing of the Manus Island, Nauru and Christmas Island detention centres with the result that all asylum seekers, no matter how they arrived, will be assessed on the mainland of Australia f. The cessation of mandatory detention of asylum seekers
  5. A peaceful society that serves the world as a peacemaker. a. Ceasing all government support for the arms export industry, especially sending arms to the middle east b. Demilitarising our approach to international migration and the world refugee crisis. c. Increasing our foreign aid to 1% of GDP
  6. A society that learns from, respects and includes Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. a. Committing to the Uluru Statement from the Heart which includes “that a referendum be held to provide in the Australian Constitution for a body that gives Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples a Voice to the Commonwealth Parliament” b. A nation-wide reform of the law enforcement system that currently produces such a disproportionate number of Indigenous incarcerations c. A national recognition of “the fallen” as regards Indigenous people who died defending their homelands – i.e. this continent and its islands
    For comment on APCVA’s election agenda please contact the Rev Peter Catt at advocate@progressivechristians.org.au

Authorised Ray Barraclough, 25 Buderim Street, Currimundi, Qld, 4551.

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Westar Institute: searching for the truth fearlessly

Westar Institute — home of the Jesus Seminar — is dedicated to fostering and communicating the results of cutting-edge scholarship on the history and evolution of the Christian tradition, thereby raising the level of public discourse about questions that matter in society and culture.

What is Westar? What does it stand for? Its new video gives an overview of the history, scholarship, and future of Westar.

Go to: Westar Institute

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More clericalism or a new doctrinal and organisation paradigm for the church

Is new life ahead in the (Catholic) church? An article by Sr. Ilia Delio

[Ilia Delio, a member of the Franciscan Sisters of Washington, D.C., is the Josephine C. Connelly Endowed Chair in Theology at Villanova University. She is the author of 16 books, including Making All Things New: Catholicity, Cosmology and Consciousness (Orbis Books 2015), and the general editor of the series Catholicity in an Evolving Universe.]

September 6, 2018

The recent disclosure of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church and the extent of depravity reported in the news are symptomatic of a church in crisis. It is no longer acceptable for the pope simply to issue a public apology nor is it sufficient for any group merely to reflect on what has happened by issuing position statements.

The church has a deep structural problem that is entirely bound to ancient metaphysical and philosophical principles, not to mention imperial politics, that at this point requires either a radical decision towards a new ecclesial structure or the acceptance of the possibility of a major schism.

The rock-solid church has crushed human souls and twisted authority into deceit. The male-dominated Christ center no longer holds and there is simply no solution or comforting words that can placate the extensive damage to fragile human lives that has taken place over the past decades. The evidence of abuse brought to light in the Catholic Church is simply unfathomable.

There is something profoundly intransigent about the structure of the church. It is not church structures that have caused the abuse, but they have masked predators hiding as priests in a closed caste system of clerical elitism.

The resurgence of abuse points to something deeply amiss, if not embedded, in church culture. “Culture” is a complex term that encompasses the set of operative meanings and values. Church culture is based on operative principles of hierarchy, patriarchy, careerism and the notorious notion of priestly consecration as becoming “ontologically changed.”

The hierarchical pecking order from priest to pope has entailed obeisance in the quest for a higher position on the ladder of ecclesiastical success. Clericalism is a type of corporate ladder climbing and no different from the quest for power in the world of major corporations. Corporate power, like ecclesial power, is marked by the dominant male, akin to the evolutionary hunter who is “red in tooth and claw;” the priest-hunter can be cunningly deceptive at achieving his desired goal.

How did we get here? If the church is founded on the Good News of Jesus Christ, how did it become so radically disconnected from the itinerant preacher from Nazareth?

Read the full article here: Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus

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Conservatives frustrate the transition away from clericalism

Address to the Concerned Catholics of Canberra and Goulburn Forum

Most Reverend Vincent Long Van Nguyen OFM Conv DD STL, Bishop of Parramatta

28 September 2018

 

 

 

 

 

 

“The Role of the Faithful in a post-Royal Commission Church in Australia”

Dear friends,

I would like to pay my respect and acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which this meeting takes place, and also pay respect to Elders both past and present.

Thank you for the invitation to speak at this forum and to have the opportunity to listen to the voices of the Concerned Catholics of Canberra and Goulburn in the spirit of genuine synodality.

The events in these last few weeks, including the sensational accusations against Pope Francis himself by the former nuncio to the U.S. has caused great turmoil in the Church. The sexual abuse crisis is inundating the whole Church like a tsunami and it has the potential to cause long-term damage, chaos and even schism. (Mind you, there is already a silent schism in that the majority of Australian Catholics have simply walked away from the practice of the faith.)

It is the biggest crisis since the Reformation and it exposes the ideological conflict that runs deeply through the length and breadth of the universal Church.

The anti-Pope Francis forces who have accelerated their frontal attacks against him in a coordinated and virulent manner. The gloves are clearly off and they have seized this moment of turmoil as an opportunity to undermine his papacy and derail his reform agenda. How time has changed in the Catholic Church!

Find the complete article at: Catholic Outlook

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Converging of Science, Philosophy and Religion

Thanks Geoff Taylor for this piece. More available at Catholica Forum.

This is in a topic conversation from Warren, replying to Tony Equale in the US.

“….Lothar Schafer who is an emeritus professor of quantum chemistry has written a book Infinite Potential—What Quantum Physics Reveals About How We Should Live in which he says “The phenomena of quantum physics force us to believe that the basis of the visible world doesn‘t rest on some material foundation but on a realm of nonmaterial forms that have the properties of waves as though our world were afloat on an invisible ocean.” (p.33)
“When material particles dissolve in fields of mathematical forms and patterns of numbers- when they become such patterns and forms they transcend the domain of matter.—the basis of reality is a domain of transmaterial forms , images or elementary thoughts.” (p.238)
It seems that what happens is that “When electrons and atoms and molecules are left alone they become waves. (p.42)— When an elementary particle enters a wave state it abandons all matter.—When they become waves elementary particles become numerical patterns, mathematical forms or numbers.” (p.44)
“As a wave the material particle has no actual position in space but many potential positions. Thus the wave states into which microphysical objects dissolve are potentiality states. When a material particle enters the realm of potentiality it leaves the empirical world.—we can conclude that the visible reality emanates out of a realm of potentiality that is underlying all things.”—
“It is in this way we are led to the view that physical reality appears to us in two domains : the realm of the actuality of localised material things and the realm of potentiality of the nonmaterial forms that are spread out in space. These forms are real even though they are invisible because they have the potential to manifest themselves into the empirical world and act in it.” (p.46) But then Plato said all that in the fourth century BCE!
“The emergence of wavelike properties in the behaviour of elementary particles forces us to accept some amazing conclusions regarding the nature of physical reality. There is a realm of the universe that has the nature of potentiality—a realm that isn’t made up of visible, material and energetic things but of invisible mathematical forms : patterns of information or images.” (p.49)
Quantum chemists say that these empty states should be called virtual states and “Virtual states are real but since they are empty they are nonempirical. You can think of them as mathematical forms, wave functions or probability patterns.—They are truly existing potentiality.” (p.253)
“These forms are real even though they are invisible because they have the potential to manifest themselves into the empirical world and act in it.” (p.46) They do not actually exist in the empirical world but even so they can act on the empirical world.

So Schafer can say “I think that the quantum phenomena have led us to the point where we don’t have a choice anymore. There is no denying that a transcendent part of reality exists.” (p.187)
Schafer concludes that “In this regard science is facing an unavoidable paradox: Even though it must avoid in its descriptions of the world any reference to a transcendent realm of reality, scientific explorations of the world nevertheless force us to accept that such a transcendent realm exists.” (p.267)
Of course it is most extraordinary that Pythagoras as one of the Greek founders of Western philosophy in the sixth century BCE claimed to have found irrefutable arguments for the thesis that all things are numbers and Plato in the fourth century BCE taught his students that atoms were mathematical forms. (p.5). It is no wonder that scientists just love mathematics.
Also fascinating is that the followers of Pythagoras were a religious sect and their theory of numbers was connected with their spiritual teachings. So Schafer claims that “The fact is that the way in which it describes the world (in quantum numbers) quantum physics has taken science right into the middle of historic traditions of spirituality.” (p.21)
Fascinating that we are headed for virtual reality and its capturing of forms in numbers with the video game paradigm! But even more fascinating is that what Schafer is saying as a result of what quantum science has revealed is no longer metaphysics but phenomenology. Teilhard de Chardin predicted it would happen when he said “Like the meridians as they approach the poles, science, philosophy and religion are bound to converge as they draw nearer the whole.” (p.29)”