A Place to Stand

I have been a member of North Carolina Yearly Meeting conservative for over twenty years. I am currently the clerk of our small Monthly Meeting. I am a recorded elder and presently serve as the Recording Clerk of our Yearly Meeting's Ministers, Elders and Overseers. My name has been put forward to be the next clerk of North Carolina Yearly Meeting Conservative. By trade I am a philosophy professor.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The Visit of Mr. Smooth

The theme of my blog is that liberal Christian Quakers need not be embarassed to talk about what they believe because it is perfectly reasonable. Unlike evangelical Christians who find themselves in conflict with biological science and serious Biblical scholarship, a liberal Christian worldview fits all the findings of modern research without a hitch. Many people don't believe this. They think that science not only proves that Noah didn't ride out a world-wide flood in a home-made boat crowded with moose, mice and kangaroos, it also proves that there is no God and no soul. It proves that everything is made of matter and that the spiritual is just a figure of speech.

On the contrary I say that God is real and offers us constant guidance and advice, which followed lead us step by step into the kingdom of heaven. Why do so many well-educated people think that new evidence makes this wildly implausible? It is because so many of our society's intellectuals have adopted naturalism as their personal philosophy. Everyone who goes to a good university is exposed to this viewpoint, which is typically presented as if it were as scientifically solid as evolution or the theory of relativity. In philosophy classes they will also be exposed to some of the arguments for naturalism and, despite the fact that it was only in Philosophy 101, come away with the impression that these arguments are perfectly solid.

I've personally been obsessed with philosophy for forty years and have made my living teaching it for about thirty of those. I say this not to "pull rank" and suggest that my readers take my philosophical opinions on authority. What I suggest is that you not let any philosophers "pull rank" on you. To this end I tell the story of the Visit of Mr. Smooth.

Mr. Smooth is one of the few public philosophers who you will see on PBS once in a while and whose books you might find while browsing in Barnes and Noble. He is not a "pop" philosopher however, he holds the rank of full professor at a very prestigious university and is the author of many serious philosophical works. He visited our campus a few years back to talk about his most recent book defending naturalism. At the conclusion of his talk, one of my colleagues (how I wish it had been me!) asked him about some material that appeared in the appendix. "The argument there is quite curious," my colleague exclaimed, "it appears to be an admission that a crucial premise of the argument of your book is based on the assumption of XXX. Is that true, or am I misunderstanding you?" "Indeed, it is true," Mr. Smooth explained. "My argument does entirely depend on the assumption of XXX. The reason I put that in the appendix is that I know that almost no philosophers these days think that XXX is true. They are aware of the objections to XXX and think it completely untenable. That is why I stuck it in the appendix. If I had put this in the body of my book then people would not have taken my book seriously."

In my forty years of doing philosophy I have found that all the arguments for naturalism are similarly tissue and straw. They get by in my field because at present the discipline is overwhelmingly full of naturalists who view each other's arguments with a certain amount of professional jealousy but from the standpoint of basic sympathy.

Don't take my word for it that naturalism is supported by smoke and mirrors, but don't take the naturalists word for it either. Before deciding to believe that science has proven that God could not possibly exist take a good, hard, critical look at the arguments.


Blogger Askinstoo said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

4:00 PM  
Blogger Lorcan said...

Oh dear fFriend:

I don't think thee is pulling rank. I have a Juris Doctorate, and have a few fields of rare expertise, on which I sometimes pontificate in law schools or court rooms, and even in the most rarefied of my expertise, I am amazed at all I can learn from time to time, from the other six individuals in my field of study, or humanity itself!

My view on naturalism and a God who leads is that they are not concepts which are in conflict. I do not believe strongly in supernatural things, as I believe we often assign supernaturalism to that which we cannot understand from our perspective, I think the world follows naturel law, or God's law as you might put it. I do not believe that God tends to bend the rules, or even could, as it is the balance of the universe that is God, and if the rules were meant to be bent, they bend in a manner in conformity with the rules. The universe is not random.

Often we seek to make God understandable in our own terms, and create boundaries on faith by our need for a God we can quote, describe, name and in that way own.

But, this is not to say I do not deny people their miracles. I once met one of the great granddaughters of Goyaalé ( or Goyathlay "Geronimo"). I was working in the legal department of a small tribe I later came to have the honor of being asked to judge in their tribal court. So, I had more dark hair then, now it is mostly gray, and in conformity to the wishes of the tribe, my hair was in double braids and I was wearing a ribbon shirt. I had been asked by the tribal government to dress appropriately "You'd put on a suit if you went to Federal Court wouldn't you?" So ... she might have taken me for Native. She saw my law books and said, "You are studying law! You are going to BE something!" "Grandmother," I said, " I never heard of a lawyer holding the sun back for an hour!" She beamed and said, "I see you know who my great grandfather was!?" I nodded, she had been pointed out to me before. "A law degree is only the good house keeping seal of conformity, " I told her. "So you believe Goyaalé stopped the sun in the sky?" I did and I told her. But, not in the natural sense or the natural world, but his faith made it possible to act with God and do what needed to be done, which could not seem to be possible.

I certainly don't put the miracles of my tribe on a par above those of other tribes.

4:54 PM  
Blogger quakerboy said...

Amen Richard! We liberal Christian Friends have a duty to show that evangelical/fundamentalist Christianists are not the only followers of Jesus.

One problem we liberal Christians face is that we become to "heady". We divorce piety from our form of Christianity. Perhaps Quakers do a better job than most progressive Christians in that we have traditionally not seen the Bible as the final voice of Truth. For me, and perhaps most Friends, Truth can and must be experienced.

I have attended many liberal Christian churches and most times come away feeling cold. The words they say are what I believe, but there seems to be no Power behind the words.

Quakers fall on the mystical side of Christianity (i.e, Thomas Kelley, Rufus Jones). That is good. And may we always be able to touch the heart as well as celebrate the mind.

Love and Peace,

7:02 AM  
Blogger RichardM said...


"Naturalism" has a special meaning in philosophy. It names the position that used to be called "materialism." I know philosophers don't own the word and there's nothing wrong with how you used it but I was using it in this technical sense. I too think there is room for God to act in the world without violating natural law. You might want to take a look at my post "Subtle is the Lord." I agree that sometimes we see the supernatural at work when it's just some natural phenomenon we don't understand. but I also believe that we sometimes dismiss an event that really is an act of God by saying it is "only a coincidence." There are coincidences which are no accidents.


A lot of liberal Christians are intellectuals like me. And intellectuals have a hard time realizing that being smart isn't the same thing as being spiritual. I think many intellectuals secretly believe that heaven is an Ivy League School and they have gotten early admission! I can joke about this because it's taken me so many years to fully see this weakness in myself and start to get over it. Maybe there should be a parable about how hard it is for the intellectual to pass through the eye of a needle. Same thing really. Wealth is a spiritual obstacle because it fosters human pride. Intelligence and education can also foster a proud attitude.

9:32 AM  
Blogger James Riemermann said...

Richard, I hope you are comfortable with hearing disagreement here. If I cross any line, please let me know, and I will respect your wishes.

I must point out that, in fact, philosophical naturalism does not presume to prove "that there is no God and no soul." Further, very few atheists claim that such can be proved. You seem to assume a fundamental contradiction between the positions of atheism and agnosticism which, in fact, does not exist. Most atheists are also agnostics; the first is a matter of belief, the second a matter of knowledge.

Naturalism holds that all phenomena are natural. If God exists, God is a natural phenomenon. If the soul exists, if spirit exists, they are natural phenomena. There is no separate realm of reality, there is only reality, a great deal of which we do not understand.

In this philosophical context you conclude that "God is real and offers us constant guidance and advice." I agree that philosophy cannot disprove it; do you mean to say that philosophy can prove it? If so, how?

Perhaps you go back to the traditional proofs: ontological, by design, etc. Personally, I find them something short of conclusive.

11:59 AM  
Blogger Lorcan said...

My understanding of the term naturalism in Philosophy is like that of James Riemermann, other than I would not say if God exists, as I feel God is the sum total of existence, and the order and form IS God. Now, a separate God spirit, who, like the Yaweh of the pentituke, well, I am not convinced of that...
Thine in the light,

1:33 PM  
Blogger Zach A said...

I'm guessing Mr. Smooth is also famous for his contributions (seminal then, though now widely abandoned in favor of others) to animal rights philosophy...?

9:20 PM  
Blogger RichardM said...


Nope, you've got the wrong Smoothie.


I welcome comments of a critical nature. But what you are pointing out as "fact" ain't so. The people who identify themselves as naturalists are not by and large merely agnostic, they claim that they are justified in believing that there is no God. They are sometimes circumspect about this in print. though often they are plain about it, and they are quite direct about denying the existence of God in conversation. No, I can say that there is abundant evidence that philosophical naturalists deny the existence of God and think that their disbelief is justified.

I think they are wrong and that their attempts to justify their disbelief are poor arguments. This doesn't mean that I think that there are strong philosophical arguments to prove that God does exist. My view is one held by many these days in philosophy of religion that the best one can do is to make the case that belief in God is reasonable. It is too much to try to show that God must exist.

I am fond of the thesis of the Hidden God. God places us in a position where the evidence points indecisively. The extent of apparantly senseless pain in the world makes the existence of God seem less likely. Other evidence points in favor of God's existence. Overall, the evidence leaves us in a state of suspense. It is part of the human condition to live without certainty--to see as in glass darkly.

9:15 AM  
Blogger James Riemermann said...


You have misunderstood me. What I am pointing out as fact, is that philosophical naturalism is not equivalent to disbelief in God or the soul. It is the philosophical position that everything that exists is natural. Not the same thing.

I think you are still confusing belief with knowledge, with certainty. Everything I believe, I think I am justified in believing. That is the nature of belief. One cannot believe something to be true, and simultaneously believe that one is unjustified in that belief.

It is not the same thing for me to think that my disbelief is justified, as to claim that my disbelief is proven and therefore knowledge. I claim the former, but not the latter.

9:54 AM  
Blogger RichardM said...


I really think I do know what the philosophical position called naturalism is. You may very well have some other position in mind but it is not what the discipline of philosophy means.

Also I use the word "belief" as philosophers do which is also different from the way you use it. I think that the standard philosophical meaning of belief is the better one to use in philosophical contexts. Philosophers think that knowledge is a kind of belief. All knowledge is belief but not all belief is knowledge. Beliefs must be true and sufficiently justified in order to count as knowledge. (There is debate over whether additional conditions must be added to turn belief into knowledge.) Also some points about justification should be considered. Justification comes in degrees. It isn't a matter of beliefs being justified or unjustified. The degree of justification required for knowledge is high and philosophers will argue amongst themselves about how high to set the bar. Further, there is a difference between a beliefs being justified and what a person holding the belief would say in their effort to justify the belief. To pursue these questions in any kind of depth would require attention to all these distinctions. I'm trying not to let my blog become a series of philosophy lectures and so am trying to be clear without getting too technical. But what lies behind everything I write are the clear technical distinctions that philosophers make when they talk about these issues. So I have to be honest and point out that I really am not in the least bit confused when I write about these matters. It would be false modesty for me to pretend otherwise.

6:36 AM  
Blogger Eric said...

Richard and James,

Reading your comments, it seems to me that Richard is talking about positions which many naturalist philosophers (the people) hold, and James is talking about the abstract definition of naturalism as a position. It sounds to me, Richard, as if you are ascribing to naturalism other beliefs which also happen to be held (perhaps consequently, perhaps not) by philosophers who call themselves naturalists, which would be different (at least in this case, right?) from a definition of naturalism itself.

Just because many naturalist philosophers hold a particular position which they think follows from a naturalist premise, that is different from saying that naturalism as a premise incorporates those beliefs. (Besides, if you assert that naturalism inherently assumes atheism, any argument from naturalism about the existence of God would beg the question, no?)

Specifially, Richard, I think it would benefit all of us if you offered at least broad definitions of philosophically technical terms and positions which you are using. Personally I would be happy to read a series of philosophical lectures, but I'll concede I'm probably in the minority there.

8:22 AM  
Blogger RichardM said...


Philosophers who believed that nothing existed that wasn't material used to call themselves "materialists." Now, they are more likely to call themselves "naturalists." They would say that only what is natural exists, but clarify what they mean by natural by saying that it excludes the supernatural and identify God and the soul as paradigm examples of the supernatural. None of this confusion would arise if they would be content to stick to the older term, but they are not and I believe in letting anybody call themselves whatever they want. So my point was that Mr. Smooth is a naturalist, that is, that he believes that nothing exists except material objects. The definition of naturalism that people (in philosophy) who call themselves naturalists accept is designed to include atheism. They wouldn't accept any definition that didn't.

Let me repeat that philosophers don't own the word and that other people are free to use the word in different senses. But I was trying to use the word as Mr. Smooth would.

10:52 AM  
Blogger Eric said...


I hear you holding tightly to the idea that naturalism is wholly defined by the beliefs of practicing philosophers who call themselves naturalists, and that all naturalists assert the non-existence of God.

Do you assert that there is no distinction between the philosophical perspective of naturalism ("all phenomena are natural") and beliefs that certain philosophers hold about the world ("therefore God cannot exist")? A philosophical position does not have intention or purpose, those must be reserved for the people who argue from that position, no?

If I find a philosopher who calls himself a naturalist and yet concedes the possible existence of God (a term yet undefined here), would you deny that he is a naturalist, or argue against his reasoning? It strikes me that you are simply assuming definitions of "God" and "the soul" which would entail rejection by naturalism, yet there seems to be plenty of flexibility in defining such terms.

Forgive me if I've missed something, but besides your assertion that naturalist philosophers are materialists in disguise, I haven't seen you offer any alternative to the definition which James put forth (that naturalism is the position that all phenomena occur from natural causes). If you would assert that naturalism is defined differently (and I am talking about philosophical usage), please state an alternate definition. Equating it with materialism seems to me to undermine your own insistance that you are using such terms as they are technically defined in philosophy.

4:11 PM  
Blogger Chris M. said...

I've left a comment on Contemplative Scholar's blog about J.C. Polkinghorne and would be interested in your opinion of his approach, if you have one. You could respond on your blog or hers...


-- Chris M.

10:58 PM  
Blogger RichardM said...


I'm not too keen on Polkinghorne's anthropic principle but I'm so busy right now that a longer answer will have to wait. If I don't post a more detailed response on CS's blog within a week give me a nudge to remind me.

8:59 AM  
Blogger Chris M. said...

Thanks, Richard. I read your post here and at CS's blog.

I didn't read the whole book, only a chapter speculating on how God might be active in the world in accord with what we know of physical law. Interesting, and ultimately speculative.

8:23 PM  
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