Sunday, December 4, 2011

David Marshall: "Did God Evolve?"

For my write-up today on David Marshall’s The Truth Behind the New Atheism, I’ll blog about Chapter 5: “Did God Evolve?” I’ll use as my starting point Marshall’s summary on page 92:

“So the attempt to explain God away through social science backfires. No idea about man written before 1859 has value? How absurd. [Daniel] Dennett climbs the highest peak of social science and victoriously raises the Darwinian flag, trying valiantly to ignore a herd of theologians sipping lattes in glacial caverns on the summit. He echoes Jesus and the prophets by warning against idols, vain repetition, and predatory religious teachers. He reinvents a crude devil. In an effort to destroy the idea of God, he calls ideas irrational forces, forgetting that evolution is an idea, too. He argues that the inconsistency of religion proves it false. Then he quotes researchers who found the Christian God at all stations of the compass.”

Essentially, Marshall is critiquing Daniel Dennett’s (and Richard Dawkins’) social-scientific evaluation of religion, which posits a scenario in which religion arose through naturalistic (rather than supernaturalistic) means. One thing that Marshall criticizes is an evolutionary model for the development of religion, which affirms that religion has gone through animistic, polytheistic, and monotheistic stages. Against this, Marshall refers to sociologist Emile Durkheim’s observation that Australian tribes worshiped the supreme God, and he also discusses what he considers to be the worship of a supreme being within Chinese culture. Marshall states on page 89:

“Tribes separated by long distances worshipped the Supreme God by names that showed no linguistic connection…If inconsistency shows all religions are false, what should we think when scattered tribes agree in so much detail about God? Shouldn’t that make us suspect that one religious idea is true? Or does the argument work only when it favors atheism?”

Marshall’s argument can probably be critiqued from a naturalistic, an atheistic, or a social-scientific perspective, but I won’t go into detail on that. I, like Marshall, am open to the existence of the supernatural, and I say “Why not?” to Marshall’s suggestion that religion developed in response to genuine experiences of the supernatural, for people today claim to experience the supernatural. I just wonder why experiences of the supernatural and a common belief in a supreme being across many cultures prove the truth of evangelical Christianity. In my opinion, they don't. If a number of religions believe something, why does that prove the truth of one of the religions that shares that belief? Moreover, while I agree with Marshall that we should definitely consider pre-1859 wisdom and its observations, experiences, and evaluations of life, I take issue with his statement that Dennett is only repeating what theologians before him have said. If the implication of this is that Dennett and Dawkins should be humble rather than dismissing old wisdom, then I’m with Marshall on this. But if his implication is that people should simply accept the Bible as inerrant because it gets some things right, then I have problems with that, for even non-Christian cultures have had valid insights.

I ordered Marshall’s True Son of Heaven: How Jesus Fulfills the Chinese Culture, but I am not sure how I will evaluate it, since I do not know much about Chinese religion (though I have taken some classes on East Asian religions). But I think that one review of the book on Amazon is important to keep in mind:

“This is the kind of wholesale distortion of reality to force it into a religious agenda. The writer one-sidedly presented the popular understanding of the concept ‘God’ among Chinese, while failing to mention the Confucian loath to things that are unverifiable and things inciting exclusive cultic worship of one god. The concept of Heaven or God in Chinese intellectual history had always connotated the totalistic relationship of the universe, the partaking of moral principles by human, rather than the Christian concept of a personal, monotheistic deity. Clearly what Marshall was interested in doing is not to appreciate and learn about the subtlety of Chinese spirituality, but to sell his narrow religious view through a medium which he had very little knowledge about.”

Who is right, I do not know. But I think that it’s important to keep in mind that what we think someone is saying may not be what that person means. That’s why I take issue with Marshall’s claim that all of these cultures are worshiping “the Christian God”. Maybe their conception of the divine overlaps and differs from the Christian view(s).

There was more to this chapter than I described, but the above was my reaction, both positive and negative.

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