Thursday, 23 July 2009

Back to Bishop Spong

With other things going on, I've been neglecting my series on Bishop Spong and his book, A New Christianity for a New World. Time to get back to it. Here is the next chapter.

In the next chapter of his book, Spong looks at the death of theism. Defining a theistic God as “a being, supernatural in power, dwelling outside this world and invading the world periodically to accomplish the divine will”, he deals with the decline of belief in such a God, for which he sees both rational and emotional evidence.

The rational evidence is dealt with in a couple of pages, that our understanding of the world is so much greater than it was in past times that many things we used to believe were God’s work – disease as signs of God’s displeasure, or the weather as something controlled by God. We now know that these are natural processes unrelated to sin, and we realise that antibiotics work just as well on sinners as on saints!

He goes on at much greater length about what he calls the emotional data, by which he means signs of psychological dysfunction in the world. He takes a brisk canter through various of the evils of the world – addiction to caffeine, alcohol and tranquillizers, school shootings, terrorism, the Holocaust and ethnic cleansing, in each case seeing in them an emotional and hysterical reaction to the loss of our theistic safety-blanket.

I’ve read too much history and too many of Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science columns to be convinced by this. It sounds too much as if Spong has decided on his theory and is looking to find ways of making the facts fit it. Take one small example. According to Spong “Recent studies reveal that thirteen percent of the people in the United States are admitted alcoholics – a number that, if true, staggers the imagination since, undoubtedly many more people have alcohol problems than admit to them.” My antennae immediately twitch at that. What recent studies? What were the criteria for placing people in the category “admitted alcoholics”? Who conducted the studies? What was their methodology? Although Spong includes quite a few endnotes in his book, none of them reference this specific figure, so I have no way of knowing whether he has correctly interpreted the data, was exaggerating, or (more likely) was taken in by an exaggeration in a news report.

For each of the points that he regards as being evidence for his idea that loss of belief in a theistic God is causing uncertainty manifesting itself in various kinds of psychological disturbance, I can think of at least two or three other probably greater contributing factors. That’s not to say that Spong is necessarily wrong in seeing a significant connection between all these things and the decline of theistic belief, though I think it his ideas are somewhat implausible. But it would take quite a lot of detailed study to find out, research that has not been undertaken. For instance, widespread dependence on prescription tranquillisers is to a certain extent a specifically American problem, to which the direct marketing of prescription drugs to consumers (banned in the UK and much of Europe) and the medicalisation of many conditions previously regarded as being within the range of normal experience have both made large contributions. That doesn’t make the situation any healthier, but an incorrect diagnosis of the cause can lead to inappropriate actions in pursuit of a cure.

To a certain extent, this doesn’t matter. Spong has diagnosed the decline and fall of theism, and in my view that diagnosis is reliably correct on the rational evidence alone. The problem is that the symptoms of the loss of theism are linked to his next chapter on the rise of theism. More on that another time.

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