Religious Atheism and Process Theology
An Inter-Religious Dialogue
By Trent Fowler and Jay McDaniel
Religious Atheism (Trent Fowler)
Let me introduce myself to JJB readers across the globe. My name is Trent Fowler, and I am a graduating senior and a psychology major at Hendrix College. I have a long-standing interest in some of the more sophisticated arguments for the existence of God or deities, none of which I find persuasive. I am also interested in secular Buddhism, and in particular the possibility of using techniques from the contemplative traditions to understand first-person subjectivity and improve the human condition. I am also interested in the more esoteric religions to which I had little prior exposure, such as Neopaganism;. This includes elements of mysticism and spirituality which, while not reducible to "religion" in a doctrinal, dogmatic, or institutional sense, are still closely intertwined with it.
Along with my friends I have read some articles on JJB and am coming to understand the philosophy of Whitehead. Like Whitehead I am quite interested in the natural sciences, especially mind-brain relations and evolutionary biology. Along with Whitehead I believe that human experience, as lived from a first-person perspective, is the point of departure for all considerations of "mind.”
In this article I would love to talk more about science, because I find it inherently interesting. Nevertheless, here I want to talk instead about religion, because I know that many Whiteheadians are quite interested in it. I am, too. As just explained, I am especially interested in Buddhism and in the way that various forms of meditation might provide an empirical counterpart to the kinds of insights developed in neuroscience. It interests me that Whitehead’s philosophy resonates with Buddhist points of view even as it lends itself to Christian (and theistic) interpretations. Let me say a word about my own religious journey and current perspective.
I might best be described as a post-Christian. By this I mean that I once believed in (what I understood to be) the God of Christian faith but that I now no longer believe in this God. Over the years I found this belief implausible and morally repugnant. The God in whom we atheists do not believe is well-described by Jay McDaniel in the next section. I see from what he says that process theists do not believe in this God, either. Be that as it may, given the reality of my unbelief, I find atheism a more plausible and honest way to live than theism.
The transition to atheism was not an easy one for me but it was an honest one. It was difficult to discard the faith of family members and upbringing, but I feel liberated from self-deception and liberated for ongoing inquiry. I see atheism as a positive way of living, filled with vitality and honesty, and open to wisdom wherever found.
The Problem of Atheistic Fundamentalism
However, I am sometimes troubled by what might be called atheistic fundamentalism, just as I was troubled by Christian fundamentalism. Recently I discovered a kind of atheism which seems more hopeful. It is called religious atheism and it is different from the reactive atheism. Reactive atheism spends most of its energy rejecting and sometimes ridiculing belief in deities. Often reactive atheism is very evangelical. It is a kind of fundamentalism. Many of you have likely met or heard of reactive atheists of this sort.
Religious atheism is more humble. It does not seek to foist its atheism upon the world, but rather is much more interested in civil discussion than in ridicule and snide remarks about people who believe in God.
Many religious atheists exhibit a non-theistic spirituality not unlike that of Buddhism. They find spiritual meaning in enjoying a sense of connectedness with the rest of creation, in appreciating the beauty and complexity of the world, and in appreciating the simple pleasures of family and friendship. They also have a moral side. They, like Jesus, are interested in helping the poor and powerless of the world. They are, as it were, “spiritual but not religious.”
Religius atheists may or may not be affiliated with a particular religious tradition. They may or may not go to church, attend a synagogue, or be part of a mosque. Indeed, and perhaps surprisingly, some religious atheists might even lean in a more theistic or Abrahamic direction. They could find wisdom in the traditions of bhakti Hinduism and, for that matter, Pure Land Buddhism with its sensitivity to the compassion of Amida Buddha, the celestial bodhisattva in whom many Buddhist believe.
In short, these religious atheists would be recognizing the circumstance-specific value of gods and goddesses – perhaps even God – as metaphors which help a person explore emotions and states of consciousness that may be difficult or impossible to access otherwise.
I say circumstance-specific because, as is obvious to most of us, in some circumstances belief in God is indeed dangerous. People harm others in the name of God and harm themselves, too. But in other circumstances, though, belief in God can be helpful and life-enhancing. It may even be truthful – albeit metaphorically truthful. Religious atheism is interested in metaphoric truth.
But let me be clear. Religious atheism is atheistic. It rejects the idea that, behind the metaphors, there exists a supernatural reality (or set of realities) who have agency and consciousness of its (or their) own. Perhaps this is where we atheists differ from process theologians.
That is why I am writing this article with Jay McDaniel, the editor of JJB. He is a Christian influenced by Buddhism. He finds the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead a bridge between the two religions and he thinks his philosophy provides a plausible case for belief in God -- more plausible than atheism's rejection of such belief. He calls it panentheism. I have encouraged him to respond below and, along the way, explain panentheism to me and other atheist friends.
When I was a Christian, nobody ever told me about panentheism. It is disturbing that so many Christians are wedded to only one way of understanding God, despite the wide variety of options even within the Christian faith. I find it imaginable that Christianity might one day become a hospitable habitat not only for panentheists, but also for religious atheists, too. As I write this I find myself atheistic with respect to traditional theism, but agnostic with respect to panentheism. It is worth hearing about.
Process Theology (Jay McDaniel)
Trent, as a Christian influenced by Buddhism, I welcome our dialogue. First let me say that I am grateful for your openness to different kinds of truth, including metaphoric truth. For my part I often find more truth in metaphors and in poetry than in the more prosaic and literal minded writings of philosophy and theology.
This is why we speak of JJB as explorations in poetics. In the JJB community we define poetics as “seeking wisdom for daily life.” Often metaphors and stories, along with music and other forms of art, are the wisest of teachers when it comes to wisdom-seeking. Your own story – your honesty of spirit -- is as impressive to me as the claims you make. I find truth in your honesty even as I disagree with some of your conclusions.
I suspect that, like you, I am ultimately more interested in existential truth than metaphorical truth. Your own interest in the first-person perspective suggests this to me. As you know, a first-person perspective incudes what we think with your minds but also what we feel with our hearts, and how we interact with others. In China they speak of the mind as the heart-mind, because it includes feeling and thinking. This is a Whiteheadian idea, too, that feeling is a form of thinking and thinking is a form of thinking. Even logic is a form of feeling. It is feeling the presence of ideas with an interest in their not contradicting one another.
You ask why I am a Christian influenced by Buddhism. Part of it lies in the truthfulness of these two perspectives. I think this truthfulness lies, not so much in the ideas they espouse -- some of which seem accurate to me and some of which do not -- but in the ways of living in the world that they sometimes nurture. I am drawn to the emphasis within Christianity on forgiveness and loving your enemies and to the emphasis within Buddhism on being fully present in each present moment. If there is truth in these kinds of activities, the truth is not propositional or even metaphoric. Existential truth is not metaphoric but rather as adverbial. It is how a person lives, day by day and moment by moment. This, too, is a Christian and Buddhist idea. Jesus wasn’t very concerned with doctrines, but he was concerned with the how of people’s lives, as lived from the inside. The Buddha was concerned with right understanding, but even more deeply in right awareness.
The Cosmological Side of Love
With this in mind let’s turn to the question of God. I best proceed by saying that, if God exists, then God is always more than anyone’s concept of God. For me as a Christian this is not because God is so far away but rather because God is closer to us than our breathing and gentler with us than are we to ourselves. I think we live and move and have our being within the context of a womb-like Love even if we don’t believe in it. Atheists can be with God, too. And certainly a God of love is with them.
As an atheist you probably don’t believe this. I think that God is Love and that this Love is a receptacle -- a Life -- in which all things unfold. Perhaps you think that the receptacle in which the universe unfolds is a vacuum, or at least deeply impersonal? Or perhaps you think that there is no receptacle at all, and that the universe unfolds of its own accord, without any wider context?
In any case, let me assume that you and I both believe in compassion or love; and let me ask you, just for the moment, to undertake a thought experiment. Let me ask you to imagine that, in moments when we truly care for others and sense the inter-being of things, we are in touch with something everlasting. We are in touch with what might be called the cosmological side of love. I know this is a stretch, but give it a try.
If you can make the assumption, then we both reject the idea that the more cosmic side of this love is properly pictured as an omnipotent male deity residing three miles off the planet. If rejecting this image is what it means to be an atheist, then I am an atheist, too. This raises the question: What is atheism?
What is Atheism?
Most atheists whom I meet are rejecting the validity of very specific idea: that the universe has been created out of nothing by an omnipotent being who can interrupt the laws of physics and chemistry at will, but often chooses not to do so; whose power is absolute, and in no way dependent -- ultimately -- on cooperation from entities in the universe. God could, if "he" wished, have all the power. "He" limits himself. I italicize the “he” because I believe that this way of thinking about God and the sociality of patriarchy are often connected. We process pan-en-theists are not comfortable with exclusively male imagery.
Atheists are not simply rejecting the existence of this deity on rational grounds, but also emotional and ethical grounds. So often, say the atheists, the idea of a male deity residing three miles off the planet functions in people's lives as a way of foreclosing honest questions, of distracting people from important worldly concerns, of validating questionable political agendas, of inducing excessive and unnecessary guilt, of rejecting the pleasures of the flesh, and sanctifying unjust social relations. These functions are not built into the idea itself, but they often accompany the idea, as it lives in the hearts of believers. The world would be a better place, say the atheists, if people would disarm themselves of this idea and learn to live wisely and compassionately, thoughtfully and honestly, without the added belief of an omnipotent deity of this sort.
God without Supernaturalism
Process theologians also reject this way of thinking of deity. We believe in God but not this kind of God. Our view is that we live in a creative and evolving galaxy, which is one among billions of galaxies; and that this universe is small but included in a larger and evolving receptacle, without edges, whose ultimate unity is a feeling mind: a heart-mind to use Chinese terms. The universe is to God, so we propose, as an evolving embryo is to the womb in which it unfolds, or the brain is to the mind, or a body is to the self whom the body belongs.
One unique feature of our perspective is that we do not think of this mind as supernatural. Of course much depends on what nature means, and process theologians, following Whitehead, have a rather Asian way of understanding nature. Nature is filled with myriad forms of life and energy, some of which are now recognized by the natural sciences and some of which are not yet recognized. But these forms of life and energy form a coherent whole which the Chinese call The Ten Thousand Things. In process theology God is the living unity of the Ten Thousand Things: an everlasting concrescence, with consciousness and moral intention, who is both immanent with creation in a continuous way, albeit never in a coercive way, and who is simultaneously affected by all that happens.
Yes to God, No to Omnipotence
Process theologians reject creation out of nothing, and in so doing they reject the idea that God is an omnipotent reality. They also reject the idea that God knows the future in advance. This view was developed by process thinkers on philosophical grounds, not religious grounds, but it corresponds to the view, advocated by more biblical based evangelicals, that the Bible, too, speaks of an open future for God.
Consider what you and I will do tomorrow. For those of us in the process tradition, the exact details of tomorrow have not yet been determined not even by God, which means that God knows that is possible and perhaps probable, but not what is actualized until it becomes actual. New events are added to God’s awareness as they occur, not before they occur; and their occurrence will partly depend on decisions we make. This means that God is not omniscient in the classical sense and that, for process thinkers, God is not omnipotent either.
Here "omnipotence" refers to the view that God has, or could have, unilateral power capable of fully controlling or manipulating events in the universe. We believe, to the contrary, that there has always been a creative chaos of actual entities, along with God who is likewise such an entity, and that God has never had, nor could have, "all the power." God is all-loving, but not all-powerful in the sense just identified. This does not mean that God lacks continued influence in the world. God is omni-influential, but never in a coercive way.
A Universe without Beginning
The process perspective entails the view that the evolving universe contains indeterminacy within itself, and hence that matter-energy itself is creative, and always has been into a beginingless past. Thus the physical universe -- itself a multi-verse --unfolds as an ongoing dialogue between God and the universe, with each immanent within, and yet also transcending, each other.
This has important implications for understanding divine power and the relation between God and evil. In JJB the article by John Cobb -- God and the Sendai Earthquake (GO) -- offers a brief introduction to this way of thinking about natural disasters. This perspective also offers a rich way of thinking about the relation between God and evolution. Finally and importantly, this way of thinking is available and quite meaningful to people outside the fold of Christianity. See the article by Rabbi Bradley Artest for a Jewish appreciation of the God who becomes (GO).
Often this view is called panentheism, which means everything-within-God. This is different from saying that God is "in" everything, though process theologians affirm that, too. To say that everything is "in" God is to say that everything affects God. What happens in the world happens to God. God responds with agency and intention, continuously, in a "luring" but not coercive way, responsive to each new situation. God is omni-adaptive. In my own experience, very few atheists have seriously considered panentheism as an option. They are more interested in rejecting monarchical views than considering alternative views. They fall into a flat atheism which is primarily reactive rather than progressive. As a process theologian, I am interested in the possibility of a progressive atheism which is, in its own way, religious. Perhaps the religious atheism of which you speak offers that promise.