29 January 2009

Marcus Borg on the new atheism ...

Posted by at 11:49 PM Read our previous post

Marcus Borg spoke in Phoenix earlier tonight (the 29th) at the Church of the Beatitudes on 7th Ave and Glendale. This was a very well-attended event (standing room only when the appointed time came, in fact), sponsored and promoted by the Arizona Foundation for Contemporary Theology (AzFCT). I guesstimate that there were at least five hundred people there, mostly older Church of Christ and Methodist congregants, with a smattering of various other denominations (Dr Borg started his lecture with an impromptu headcount, so I'm pretty sure of the distribution :). The place is a mid-size hall with a kind of in-the-round vibe. Tall vertical abstract stained glass serves as the centerpiece adorning the altar. The sound was good.
His talk was basically a cursory critique of what is known these days as the "new atheism," which is a phrase coined to highlight the recent contemporaneous publication of four best-selling books that all argue against traditional religion in general—and Christianity specifically. Borg only mentions three of them, though (more on that in a bit): Sam Harris' The End of Faith, Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, and Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great.
First Borg summarizes the atheist critiques of religion. The first of these is that these writers assert that religion is intellectually indefensible. Borg makes a distinction between, on the one hand, supernatural theism, which is the belief in a person-like super-powerful authority figure who's "out there" and separate from the universe, and panentheism on the other, which is a belief in god not so much "out there" but as the Tillichian "ground of being itself" which encompasses the universe and transcends it. His favorite word for this numinous quality was "isness" tonight. He used it repeatedly. This panentheistic variant of god has been around for a long time, but the "new atheists," Borg said, just dismiss this god as if it was just some new-fangled post-modern mysticism.
Borg does concede that their critique of supernatural theism is valid. In fact he confesses to having abandoned his belief in this punitive god sometime in his twenties, but he calls the atheist writers to task on their neglect of this other more-mystical definition of god.
Next, Borg talked about the notion of infallibility and inerrancy of scripture as stumbling blocks to belief. He readily agrees that when the texts are read in this way (half of the US does by his estimation) they are unbelievable. But he finds a limit in the new atheist critique because "they do not recognize any other way of seeing scripture that has emerged in biblical scholarship over the past few centuries".
The next charge from the atheists is that religion is morally reprehensible. Borg responds to this charge by conceding that religion indeed has been the source of much evil in the world. "One could make the case that religion has been the greatest legitimator of human evil and of unnecessary suffering," Borg says. But he's quick to add that to focus on the bad an not see the multiplicity of good things and good lives it has also produced in parallel is unfair: "And yet religions have also produced some of the most remarkable lives in human history." He refers to the "ambiguity of religion." There is good religion and bad religion, he says, just as there is good music and bad music. Religion goes bad usually when it allies with power, in his opinion (he cites Charles Kimball here).
Religion can also go bad when it becomes idolatrous, continues Borg, but by idolatry he does not mean a trivial concern with "graven images" or "statues." He defines idolatry as "the absolutization of anything finite." Religion becomes idolatrous when it "absolutizes its own teachings" as eternal. Religion beecomes idolatrous when it "claims to be the one true religion." Using similar logic Borg then wonders whether the new atheists' absolutization of empiricism and of science might qualify as idolatrous too. Borg suggests an antedote for idolatry: radical monotheism. I didn't quite get the drift on that one.
There was a brief question and answer period. Sure enough, one of the best questions was on that last point regarding "radical monotheism" and how that might be distinguised from mere "idolatry." I thought it a great question. My own experience tells me that the best audience questions are never quite answered in this kind of setting and this was no exception.
When it was all over I waited in line so that I could ask him my own question. I introduced myself as a longtime reader of his work and of the atheists as well. First I asked him why he didn't count Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell among the works being discussed. He answered that he simply had not read that one. Fair enough. But I asured him it was the best of the lot. Then I told him that I thought he had erected a bit of a straw man when he implied that the reason the atheists didn't engage the panentheistic model was because they saw it as some reactionary novelty. He smiled and looked me straight in the eye, and I think he genuinely appreciated where I was coming from when I told him that if they ignore that theological model, it is not for that reason at all, but instead because as soon as you engage with panentheism, you run into a semantic no man's land where words such as "isness" and "otherness" can be molded to fit any mystic notion, causing a modern empiricist sensibility to exclaim, "What the hell are they talking about??" He smiled and nodded and eventually signed the title page of the book that I had laid on the table in front of him (Jesus In Contemporary Scholarship). We talked for a while. He's a very gentle man with soft blue eyes and a quiet demeanor. I quite enjoyed our conversation. It was cool to shake the hand of a man whose writings I've long admired.



  1. I enjoyed your post, but it's not clear whether Borg was relatively unengaging because he got you point or because he didn't want to get into an involved discussion. I think your presentation of why the New Atheists don't take on panantheism was well put.

  2. So in other words, he was presenting his own atheistic religion. So many people are so blind these days...Jesus was right: "nevertheless, when the Son of Man returns will He find 'The Faith" on Earth."...right now from posts like this and seeing the so-called 'Progressive' Christinaity feed...his answer will be a complete baffle to only Those who Know Him

    1. Hi Stephen;

      Thank you for dropping by and reading this post. I'd almost forgotten about it, and Mr. Borg has passed away since I wrote it, so it was nice to remember the occasion, as I was prompted to re-read it by your comment.

      A couple of thoughts on your comment:

      1) You wrote: ["So in other words, he was presenting his own atheistic religion."]

      Actually, neither is panentheism Borg's invention, nor is it "atheistic" in the sense you imply. In fact, the blog post explicitly mentions that it is an old variant of theism. In fact, it can be traced back to ancient Greece, its more contemporary forms were formulated by Spinoza and then by more modern scholars, the most notable and influential being Paul Tillich. I highly recommend the anthology Alternative Concepts of God— "Essays on the Metaphysics of the Divine" (Edited by Andrei Buckareff and Yujin Nagasawa - 2016 Oxford University Press) to you. It is a fairly exhaustive review of the concepts and the history of this old tradition that seems to rile you up enough to call people "blind" for some reason.

      2) You quote Luke 18:8 by itself as if it in itself were some kind of refutation of Borg's position. The irony, of course, is that that particular verse is part of a pericope which immediately continues on to depict the character Jesus as speaking a parable which to my eyes seems to be directed at one such as yourself:

      (vv 9–14)
      To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable:
      "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other people--robbers, evildoers, adulterers--or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
      But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
      I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

      Though I am not really a Christian of any kind (neither "progressive" nor otherwise), this is one of my favorite parables of Jesus. I'm sure that you will probably be insulted to be told that it is addressed to you, specifically (it says explicitly that he said it to those who were "confident of their own righteousness and looking down on everyone else"). Jesus equates these people to the Pharisee and the serene humble penitent (e.g. Borg) to the tax collector.

      It astounds me that here we are, almost two thousand years since this narrative was written, and the point of the parable flies right over the head of someone who fancies himself an adherent of Jesus' teachings.

      Jesus is talking to you. You should maybe pay attention.

      If this angers you, i suggest you meditate on why that may be.

      i wish you peace


  3. I didn’t know that Borg had died. Since I live in Eugene, Oregon, he was practically a neighbor. I did get to hear him speak once, and while I wasn’t much attracted to his books, I did believe in his goodness.

    As for Stephen’s comment, I thought your response was excellent. As for my own thoughts, when I noted his smugness in his beliefs, I just thought that, well, that’s what I grew up with (in the fundamentalist Church of Christ) and what I expect from the majority of Christians who can’t support their own beliefs but are only too ready to gleefully consign everyone else to eternal hell for not believing as they do.

    I must say that the more the dominant face of Christianity becomes one with Republican politics with all its callousnesssnf cruelty, the more I despise Christianity. When I think of Catholicism, I think of a religion that claims moral authority despite its widespread buggering of children, its subsequent cover-up of that buggering, and even the disowning of thousands of those children by their families who believed the word of priests over the word of their little ones. And when I think of evangelicals, I think of their enthusiasm for war, for “enhanced interrogation,” their disinterest in the plight of the suffering in this country and elsewhere, and their willingness to vote for a profoundly unethical man if he suits their purposes. These were the very people who used to criticize Communism because it took the position that “the end justifies the means,” yet they’re only too willing to violate their own moral precepts if it will get them what they want. Whatever openness I used to have toward Christian people—if not their religion—is gone because not only are they unwilling to do anything about our nation’s problems, I’ve come to see them as BEING our nation’s foremost problem.

    1. Thank you Snowbrush.
      I empathize with your sentiments.


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