Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Letters to Newsweek about American Spirituality

Newsweek's recent issue on spirituality in America received a lot of reader mail - so much so that the current print issue devotes an entire page to letters in response to the cover story. Reading them provides further insight into the intellectual climate in which we are called to bear witness to the gospel. If we're committed to that cause, it's imperative that we understand how our peers are thinking and how to respond. Here are some excerpts from the letters and some of my reactions.

One reader from New York wrote:

While reading the articles, I kept thinking that because there are so many diverse religious beliefs, it isn't possible for there to be one "true" religion. There cannot be one right way to worship or one correct set of beliefs. Therefore, the only false belief is one that denies other people the freedom to worship as they wish. There should be a place in society even for those who believe there is no Almighty.
There are a number of problems with this kind of reasoning. First, it simply doesn't logically follow from the fact that people disagree about the answer to a problem that no answer exists or, if one does, that it's impossible for anyone to know it. Take all the debate that's surrounding the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, for example. The airwaves and newspapers are filled with divergent accounts of who and what are to blame for the countless victims of the storm not receiving aid sooner than they did. But it would be mistaken to conclude on the basis of divergent beliefs about the matter that none can be correct. 

Yet another flaw in this position is that it is self-refuting. Since the writer of the letter says that the only false belief is one that denies other people the freedom to worship as they wish, then he must be claiming that all other religious beliefs are true. Not only does this pose the problem of how contradictory beliefs can all be true, it's also disingenuous because this position necessarily leads to the conclusion that some religious beliefs, even those that do not deprive others of the freedom to worship as they choose, are also false. Here's what I mean. The writer of the letter says that there is no one true religion. That means that any religion that claims to be the one true religion, such as Christianity, is by definition false. But this is a blatant contradiction of the assertion that all religious beliefs are true.

Further, it seems that this Newsweek reader may be confusing rights and reasons. Have you ever noticed that when people are asked to give their reasons for believing something that they often assert their right to believe what they want? If the writer of the letter means that people should not be coerced to worship contrary to their convictions, I'm in full agreement. However, if he, like so many, believes that calling another's religious belief false is somehow denying him of the right to worship as he so chooses, I couldn't disagree more (see my previous post, "Forcing My Religion?").

On the flip-side of the reader who contends that all religious beliefs are true, is the reader who wrote the following in response to a Newsweek writer's claim that "In America even atheists are spiritualists, searching for meaning in parapsychology and near-death experiences":

As a longtime atheist, I can tell you that I am not searching for meaning of any kind and do not suffer the "existential anguish" he refers to earlier in that article. To me the whole concept of faith in some deity is, in a word, preposterous. I choose to stay firmly connected to reality, as established by the scientific method of inquiry. I accept both the beauty and the ugliness on our little planet as the result of millions of years of evolution and don't need a "relationship" with a concocted god to make my existence and the prospect of eventual death palatable.
One couldn't ask for a better illustration of the fact-value divide Nancy Pearcey describes in Total Truth than this. Faith has nothing to do with claims to knowledge or truth according to this perspective. Instead, it deals with the non-cognitive, non-rational realm of personally-preferred values. "Reality," on the other hand, can only be known by means of science. But this assertion rests on the conviction that the natural world is all that exists, a claim that is a philosophical starting point and not a scientific conclusion. Note too that this atheist speaks of the "beauty and ugliness on our little planet" as though beauty and ugliness have objective existence. But this is incoherent with his view since reality is established only by means of the scientific method. Beauty and ugliness are values which, according to his scheme of things, are relegated to the upper story of faith - the realm of the "preposterous."

Following Francis Schaeffer, Pearcey reminds us that humanity's lostness is metaphysical as well as moral:

The tragedy of the two-story split is that the things that matter most in life -- like dignity, freedom, personal identity, and ultimate purpose [and I would add "beauty"] -- have been cast into the upper story, with no grounding in accepted definitions of knowledge. We must never treat the divided concept of truth as merely academic; it produces an inner division between what people think they know (that we are merely machines in a deterministic universe) and what they desperately want to believe.
This can be a soul-wrenching dilemma, and it is illustrated dramatically in the life of the well-loved writer C. S. Lewis. As a young man, Lewis abandoned his childhood faith in favor of atheism and materialism. Yet the bracing new philosophies that tantalized his intellect left his imagination hungry. As he wrote later, "Nearly all that I loved [poetry, beauty, mythology] I believed to be imaginary; nearly all that I believed to be real I thought grim and meaningless" (119-120).
The last letter I'll comment on is from someone who was annoyed that Newsweek did not make any reference to 12-step programs in their examination of American spirituality. She wrote in part:
The key aspect that makes 12-step programs the only spiritual way that works for me is the third step: make a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God, as we understand God. Those last four words are what did it for me -- finally, a form of spirituality where no one else was telling me what my God should look or be like!
For some reason, "American Idol" comes to mind.

No comments: