Home > Uncategorized > Neo-naturalism, undergraduate atheists, and the transcendant God

Neo-naturalism, undergraduate atheists, and the transcendant God

An interesting book review of Saving God, by Mark Johnson, and The Atheist’s Spirituality, by André Comte-Sponville. Both writers want to move beyond the Dawkins-Hitchens rantings (“undergraduate atheists,” Johnson calls them) to weld naturalism with the transcendent values centuries of religion have inculcated. Their conception of God is, at most, God-as-process, as the transcendent awe of natural processes. We should revere this “divinity” while honoring the values and morals (like faith, hope charity) that religions have developed over the ages, all without feeling the need to imagine a God of substance.

John Cottingham, the reviewer, is right to point out that these writers are over-reaching, wanting to have it all without willing to acknowledge that these religious values come at the price of belief–of some kind or another.

For all their obvious sincerity and their impressive philosophical gifts, these neo-naturalists end up, so it seems to me, betraying the legacy of spirituality to which they are, on their own commendably honest admission, so deeply indebted. Both writers mention, en passant, that they were brought up as Catholics. But, like many academics and intellectuals, I suspect they have given insufficient credit to the pervasive subliminal effects of the culture to which they were exposed, day by day and week by week, as they grew up. To be sure, there was much about that culture, especially in its more rigid and fossilised forms, that was no doubt oppressive, if not worse. But the sense, powerfully articulated in both writers, of the sacred, of the mystery and wonder of existence, of the power and resonance of the moral ideals that call us to transcend ourselves, of the supreme value of love and self-sacrifice — how much of this is really independent of the liturgical and scriptural and sacramental culture which nurtured them? And how much of it can be retained once that culture has been dismantled?

Nuturing religious values outside of religion is so difficult because the words become so hollow. Hope, faith, and even some forms of love assume some sort of supernatural transcendance (hope in what, one might ask). To be intellectually honest, you would have to either develop a system of ethics without recourse to the supernatural or take religion as a whole, swallowing the warts with the transcendent values (by the way, that was about the fifth time I mis-spelled “transcendent” this post. Ends with an “E!” An “E!”)

PS: I was responding to the review here. I just looked at “Saving God” on Google Books and it appears to be a bit different than Cottingham has described. Perhaps worth checking out.

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