by Patrick Appel
This will be my last post. Many thanks to Conor Clarke, Conor Friedersdorf, Robert Wright, and my always excellent co-under-blogger Chris Bodenner. Andrew gets back later today. I'll leave you with a few final thoughts on religion blogging generally. Matt Steinglass sums up the Dish's week-long atheism debate:
There really isn’t anything at all interesting to say anymore about atheism vs. religion, and hasn’t been since at least the 1950s, if not the 1850s.
This is true in a narrow sense: we're walking over very well trod ground. For instance, this 1908 article by naturalist John Burroughs on divinity in nature and believers accepting evolution is as good or better than anything you will come across today. Debates tend to be most fruitful when they are new and all the intellectual powers of society are focused on them. A reader partially echos Steinglass:
As a Ph.D. candidate in religious studies, I'm constantly amazed that folks get away with rehashing ideas about, for example, the origins of religion (often conflated with 'belief,' a singularly post-Enlightenment notion that leaves ritual out, except as some expression of pre-existing belief) who don't know that those concepts have been discredited by serious scholars. Likewise both non-theists and 'believers' debate the merits of religion, without knowing about any but those they've experienced personally, or seen something about on the History Channel or PBS documentaries. This would be like me writing a tech column in Wired because I've used both a PC and a Mac in a computer lab before, or a thesis on the mechanics of electricity because I've switched on a light thousands of times in my life, and been illuminated more than I've been shocked, or vice versa.
Religion is one of the only subjects on which one can become an 'expert' simply by having some exposure to the phenomena. The relationship between faith and practice, belief and ritual, moral/ethical norms and politics--all of these issues tend to be discussed as if no research has gone into exploring them, or only from the standpoint of implicit or expressed theology (what people should do, empirically unverifiable accounts of what 'God' does) rather than history (what people actually have done, for centuries). Please make an effort to highlight work in the field of religious studies, and the anthropology, history, and sociology of religion. Or at least know that the subjects dealt with here have left long paper trails, and it occasionally would be fruitful to spend time following them.
This is a common criticism whenever the Dish discusses religion, and though we are always happy to highlight work in religious studies and related fields whenever we run across it, this critique misunderstands the purpose of these conversations, as does Steinglass. Andrew once discussed religion blogging on the Dish as the intellectual cousin of the 3 am college dormitory debate over God. These topics have been argued into the ground for hundreds of years. If you are well schooled in theology, nothing that has been said this week will strike you as particularly new or ingenious. But that ignores that most individuals haven't had the privilege or time to seriously study theology and that each generation needs to rehash these debates in order to come to personal understandings about belief. Theology is central to many individuals' identities in a way electrical engineering is not. I didn't expect this week's discussion to resolve the question of God, but I hope that it allowed readers from all sides of the debate see those they disagree with more clearly. The reader e-mails demonstrate belief and non-belief as it is lived, rather than studied. And, judging by the reader response, many people have been found the conversation helpful in some small way. There are frighteningly few public places where normal people can engage in this sort of theological arm wrestling. Several readers have asked for all the posts to be compiled in one place. Here they are, in mostly chronological order: