XFiles Friday: Stacking the deck (again)

As we continue our look at I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, authors Geisler and Turek continue setting the stage for their apologetic. They claim to hold all the winning cards, and you’d think they’d be eager to show their hand, but here we are on our sixth XFiles post, and up to page 22 in the book, and they’re still fiddling around trying to stack the deck in their own favor.

Most of the worlds major religions fall into one of these three religious world-views: theism, pantheism, and atheism.

A theist is someone who believes in a personal God who created the universe but is not part of the universe… Major theistic religions are Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.

By contrast, a pantheist is someone who believes in an impersonal God that literally is the universe… Major pantheistic religions are of the Eastern variety such as Hinduism, some forms of Buddhism, and many forms of the “New Age.”

An atheist, of course, is someone who does not believe in any type of God.

Not just oversimplification, but a particularly contrived oversimplification designed to dismiss Hinduism and Buddhism as mere New Age pantheism, leaving a black-or-white choice between atheism (no god) versus the 3 religions that all affirm the God of Abraham. Compare Geisler and Turek’s “box top” summary of theology with, say, the Wikipedia definition of Hinduism:

Hinduism is a diverse system of thought with beliefs spanning monotheism, polytheism,[14] panentheism, pantheism, monism and atheism. It is sometimes referred to as henotheistic (devotion to a single “God” while accepting the existence of other gods), but any such term is an oversimplification of the complexities and variations of belief.[15]

(Yes I know, but Wikipedia is handy and the definition above is sufficiently accurate for our purposes here.)

How about that? Geisler and Turek didn’t even mention monotheism, polytheism, panentheism, monism or henotheism. We wouldn’t want to complicate things by paying too much attention to how religion actually manifests itself in the real world, right? Geisler and Turek have a very particular goal in mind, and for their purposes, that goal is easier to attain if they set up a simple, straw-man version of World Religion that will tip over easily when hit with the right arguments.

One religious worldview that the authors carefully avoided mentioning is animism, the belief that invisible, intelligent spirits are behind the complex and unpredictable phenomena of nature. Animism is the most widespread and instinctive of popular superstitions because, as social creatures, we have a whole set of intuitions designed to recognize motives and attitudes in the complex and unpredictable actions of other people. Faced with natural forces that are equally hard to understand and predict, it’s only natural that we’d personify these forces so that we could bring our social instincts to bear.

“Yes, but that’s just primitive superstition,” you say. “Nobody believes that today.” Really? When was the last time you said (or heard someone say), “Sorry I’m late, but my car didn’t want to start,” or “This stupid computer hates me,” or “If the weather decides to cooperate, we can rehearse outdoors,” or some such?

In any case, if you’re going to offer a simplified view of World Religion, the place to start is animism. From simple, superstitious belief in “spirits” causing natural phenomena, it’s a short and easy step to the idea that some spirits are more powerful and important than others. The more important spirits get a new name to designate their superior status, and thus the “gods” (and polytheism) are born. From polytheism, and the idea that some spirits are more powerful and important than others, it is another short step to the idea that the chief god is as superior to the other gods as the gods are to the lesser spirits. Hence monotheism.

Meanwhile, animism has other children as well. Take the belief that invisible spirits are controlling real-world events, and combine that with various forms of belief in life after death, and you have the roots of ancestor worship, spiritism, and necromancy. Or combine the theistic descendants of animism with the “evil spirits” aspect of animism to come up with voodoo, dualism, and various beliefs regarding demons and/or Satan. Or combine animism with a generalized pantheism and come up with Wicca, druidism, and Native American spiritism.

Understanding animism gives us a great way to organize and understand the various types of religious systems that have arisen from the primitive roots of belief, but Geisler and Turek aren’t really interested in exploring that aspect of theology. They know where they are, and they know where they want to go, and a reality-based study of comparative religion just isn’t going to help them get to the conclusion they want to reach.

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