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Tyler Cowen on "Why I Don't Believe in God" and Ross Douthat on "Should Tyler Cowen Believe in God?"

Tyler Cowen

Ross Douthat, the 37 year old Catholic New York Timesʼ wunderkind op ed columnist is on a quest to save intellectual conservatism, and tried to lead prof. Tyler Cowen at George Mason University toward the Christian fold or at least back toward classical theism, because Tyler recently wrote, Why I Donʼt Believe in God.

In response, Ross wrote, Should Tyler Cowen Believe in God?

In so far as famous letter exchanges go (like More-Tyndale, or Burgh-Spinoza) their exchange was light and light-hearted, but if I may interject:

Dear Ross Douthat, Your argument in favor of “anthropomorphism on the surface” seems less than likely to lead Tyler to join the religious fold if only because there are some horrendous anthropomorphically depicted “acts of God” in the Bible. No doubt one can imagine God as something other than a physical man sitting on a physical throne above a solid firmament as in the book of Ezekiel, but to imagine God as drowning human children, pregnant women and animals in a worldwide flood, or imagining God commanding that his followers bloody their swords murdering entire cities and then threatening to wipe his own people off the face of the earth if they donʼt do just that (see Deuteronomy), or imagining angels tossing people against their will into a lake of fire whose smoke rises forever, or God inviting people to a party only to lock them out forever if they arrive late, or God commanding that his enemies be brought before him and be slaughtered before his eyes, or God commanding that the servant who didn't do his master's will should be beaten with many stripes (the latter four examples are from the New Testament, not the Old one), that's the more central problem with a god whose actions appear bloody human in the sense of their vengefulness, jealousy, impatience, anger. For far more extensive reasons why the “anthropomorphism” is not merely “on the surface,” please see see Dr. Jako Gerickeʼs Can God exist if Yahweh doesnʼt?, and Prof. Hector Avalosʼs The Bad Jesus, Love, and the Parochialism of New Testament Ethics.

You invite Tyler to “give religious commitment a slightly longer look.” But there are plenty who gave Christian religious commitment a very long look and left the fold after spending years or decades in the pulpit or monastery, or in Christian radio broadcasting, or Christian politics, or Christian apologetics, or as Old or New Testament scholars. Not to mention cases in which the children of Christian clergy, or children of writers for Christianity Today, or children of Christian apologists raised to early adulthood immersed in Christian family and faith, grew more moderate/liberal than their parents or even left the fold. In short, questions regarding religious beliefs, “special revelation,” as well as the question of how and why beliefs change, appear to be endless. See this sampling of about 300 first hand published testimonies, most of them recent, of ministers and others who gave their Christian religious commitments a long look before entertaining greater doubts and/or leaving the fold, click here. There is also an online piece that replies to the claim some apologists make that the Christian religious experience is “unique.”

Nor need one become an atheist who claims that everyoneʼs religious experiences are false in order to ask, How can God (or whatever is out there) expect us to know what to make of the diversity of religious beliefs and miracle stories? We are presented with a mixed bag of evidence.

As for the credit you give Christianity for the worldʼs ethical advancement, C. S. Lewis admitted: “I think we must fully face the fact that when Christianity does not make a man very much better, it makes him very much worse… Conversion may make of one who was, if no better, no worse than an animal, something like a devil.” Lewis also admitted that there exists a wealth of practical moral wisdom that has provided moral inspiration for thousands of years that he called “the Tao.” So why not seek the best in every book and every person? In other words, does “Jesus” have to get “all the glory?” Schools need not teach classes in religion in order to teach classes in ethics featuring the world's practical moral wisdom from religious and non-religious sources, both ancient and modern, & our children might be better off. But some might cavil at the thought of having their children taught “heathen ethics” in school, or having Jesus's sayings mentioned in the same breath with “mere moral teachers.” So perhaps it is the religious element that has left schools bereft of vital universal ethical teaching, the same folks who wish everyone else to focus on “the words of God” in one “holy book” alone. Theirs.

You claim that “religiously-infused societies produce better art and architecture.” But such a claim is nebulous if you are claiming something as vague as “religious-infused societies,” which includes everything from ancient ziggurats and Aztec pyramids to Gothic cathedrals; and Egyptian, Greek, Roman temples and statuary to Renaissance artists and Dutch realists—many of whom didnʼt seem particularly religious but who were paid by the religious (look at the case of Leonardo da Vinci). Today, the most collaborative form of art on the planet, and the most visually and aurally arresting, is the art of film-making that envelopes an audience and tugs at their minds and hearts even when the audience's religious beliefs are diverse or completely lacking. People no longer rely primarily on Bible stories to explain the world, or move them. Children no longer are allowed to only play with a Noahʼs Ark toy on Sundays as was the practice in Americaʼs past. The imagination of human beings is now combining and recombining stories and themes from all the worldʼs stories, in a sense, evolving new ones just as evolution did to the genes of all the species on this planet. See The Cultural Divide Between the Ancient Near East and the Wealth of Modern Knowledge/Information — Where Do We Get Our Answers From Today? What Expands Our Minds the Most Today?

You admit the “conformity problem” is universal, and remains a problem even in the world of the only religion that you claim to be the most supernaturally inspired and true of all religions, Christianity. But why should such a conformity problem be so visible if it is indeed true that Christians possess the worldʼs only divinely inspired book to guide them, and have the Holy Spirit to lead them into truth, and have new hearts to guide them, and have the prayer of Jesus himself for unity per the fourth Gospel? If one is a Christian isnʼt one claiming that no other group on earth has as many of the above mentioned supernatural blessings? But compare such a claim with the all too human history of Christianity, a history of schisms too numerous to mention over nearly any topic (not to mention the rise of alternate tight-knit socially cohesive mass movements in religion that make being a Christian all that much tougher, alternate religions that God apparently could have stopped from ever arising in the first place, such as Islam whose numbers nearly equal and might soon exceed the number of Christians worldwide). If God truly was concerned with unity and had provided a clear holy text, and provided the Holy Spiritʼs guidance, and new hearts, how did all of those schisms happen, why wouldnʼt God have intervened via prayer, dreams, visions, new miracle-performing prophets speaking his words, to at least stop so many of the great Christian schisms from occurring? At the very least one must conclude there appears to be little evidence of supernatural input when it comes to the way Christianities continued to branch off like a Darwinian tree of life, some branches going extinct, others flourishing over time, and rival trees of religion evolving alongside.

Lastly, might I share this piece on why Christianity raises as many intellectual and historical questions as it claims to answer, if not more

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