Ross commented on Noah Feldman’s article on Mormonism recently, which reminded me that I had also wanted to respond to one part of it and arguments like the following:

Still, even among those who respect Mormons personally, it is still common to hear Mormonism’s tenets dismissed as ridiculous. This attitude is logically indefensible insofar as Mormonism is being compared with other world religions. There is nothing inherently less plausible about God’s revealing himself to an upstate New York farmer in the early years of the Republic than to the pharaoh’s changeling grandson in ancient Egypt.

Put that way, Feldman might have a point, except that the claim of new revelation is actually the least “ridiculous” part of the story.  It is, and always has been, the content of that revelation that has drawn the most criticism, and so for the most part the majority dutifully ignores or downplays how the content of this or that religion is theologically untenable.  To do otherwise would begin us down the road to taking one set of theological claims more seriously than another, which might even (gasp!) lead us to assign different significance and measures of truth to different sets of claims.  The problem with this argument is that, for the sake of promoting toleration for minority religions, it essentially grants that every religion is just as inherently plausible as any other, which not only makes discussion of doctrine pointless, but actually impedes the possibility of religious dialogue and persuasion.  Granting this equality of religions paves the way for exactly the kind of arational sectarianism that skeptics believe is unavoidable with religion in public life.    

There is this very strange attitude about religion out there, and it is held by more than a few observant Christians as well as secular skeptics, that says that no revelation is more plausible than any other, which implies that revelation is entirely outside the realm of rational discouse and demonstration.  This is essentially fideism or a kind of neo-Barlaamism, which holds that believers should hold to their traditional faiths primarily because they are ancient–there is nothing that we can actually say rationally about a doctrine of God.  One of the reasons why this bizarre idea can gain such currency is the lack of respect people have for theology and dogma.  In our culture, if you want to dismiss someone’s position, you say that he is being dogmatic, and if you want to discredit an argument you refer to his worldview as a “theology,” preferably preceded by adjectives such as arcane. 

Such is the depth of our divorce from Christian intellectual tradition that many people do not recognise the substantive difference between an elaborately reasoned theological view and the ramblings of a science-fiction author.  Simply put, we lack discernment.  Militant atheists are at least consistent in the implications of holding such a disparaging view of revelation–for them, it is all made-up and undeserving of any respect.  Out of some misplaced sense of solidarity with other religious people against the Christopher Hitchenses and Dawkinses of the world, Christians seem to feel obliged to make general defenses of generic theism or the even more amorphous category of Religion, and woe betide the bishop who attempts, as Pope Benedict did, to illustrate the implications of radically different doctrines of God.  This then forces these Christians to argue that all these things are purely a matter of faith, where faith is defined not only as something inspired and the result of God’s grace (which it is), but also as something arational, rather than understanding that it is faith rightly understood that is the highest form of rationality.  Having conceded the high ground and having bought into a functionally extreme apophaticism, the Christian finds himself at a loss to make any argument from revelation, because he has already effectively granted that speaking kataphatically is impossible.  Trying to include everyone in a big tent of ecumenical anti-secularism eventually leads to being unable to say something about God and maintain that it is actually true, when there is nothing more fundamental to preaching and evangelising than speaking the truth about God in prayer and homilies. 

This brings me, oddly enough, to the question of evolution.  Fideistic understandings of religion and materialistic philosophies that seek to exploit evolutionary biology to their advantage enjoy a symbiotic relationship, since they both thrive on promoting mutual antagonism between reason and faith.  Tell the Christian that he must either endorse evolutionary theory or accept the Bible, and he will typically take the Bible, especially if he is not grounded in an authoritative teaching tradition that tells him that this choice is a false one.  Tell the average educated secular person that revealed religion is incompatible with scientific theory, and he may very well conclude that those who continue to adhere to revealed religion must be either ignorant, insane or up to no good.  Huckabee is someone who falls into the former category, of course, and declares himself agnostic on ”how” God works in creation, which is actually a far more honest view–and one that a majority of Americans would share–than affirming evolutionary theory because you know that it is socially unacceptable in certain circles to admit that you don’t understand or accept the theory.  As Rod has said before, evolution serves as a “cultural marker,” and it is deployed as a litmus test to see whether you belong to a certain kind of educated elite.  Ironically, the cultural bias against dogmatism and theology in religion has come around and struck science by making it permissible, even admirable, to doubt statements made with certainty.  Were it not for the tendency of many religious and secular Americans to oppose reason and faith, there would be no difficulty in affirming the truth of revelation and recognising the reasonable, albeit always provisional, nature of scientific inquiry.  Obviously, approaches to faith that prize doubt and uncertainty simply reinforce the tendency towards extreme apophaticism and fideism that make it impossible for believers and non-believers  to speak intelligibly to one another (to the extent that people working in two significantly different traditions can speak to one another).