Yesterday I caught Alistair McGrath on Big Ideas. In his attack on Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, he over emphasized minor arguments (religion as fairy tale, religion as memetic virus), and completely avoided Dawkins' strongest argument; the teapot argument of Bertrand Russell. This argument rests on the burden of proof: any ontological claim, any claim for the existence of a thing, requires evidence to establish that claim as worthy of consideration. Unicorns, fairies, or the invisible teapot could exist somewhere--one simply cannot disprove with absolute certainty the existence of anything. Yet we take it as a given that these things do not exist. In the absence of evidence, the claim is considered false by default. The burden of proof rests upon theists, not upon atheists. Theists must deliver proof, or stop making ontological claims.
But McGrath did have a big idea, though he didn't recognize it as such. It was less something he argued, and more something he stepped in, and which is still stuck to his shoe. This was the idea of transcendentalization, the elevation of a certain ideas, principles, or dogmas to a higher plane where they are immune from challenge or criticism. He was attempting to use this as ammunition against secular ideas, but this idea has the strongest relevance when applied to religion itself. He had given the game away, and did not seem to realize it.
Transcendentalization is something which demagogues and ideologues do with monotonous regularity; they cling to a fixed idea, even a buzz word, and use it as the standard by which all else must be judged, but which itself must never be questioned. A personal prejudice is exalted to supernatural heights, pinned upon the stars, beyond the reach of all naysayers. It becomes a sacred object. This is not unique to religion; political ideologies in the twentieth century used this to great effect, and you can still see the trick done on a daily basis by lowbrow political pundits. Do this in science, though, and you can expect to be mauled savagely. Sigmund Freud escaped evisceration for so long only because he existed in a vacuum. A viable scientific alternative, cognitive psychology, had to wait for the invention of computer science. But in religion, there is another word for transcendentalization: idolatry.
Idolatry is usually misconstrued as the worship of physical objects or images. But an image can be made of words, of ideas. An idol can be the book that carries those words, or the person who spoke them. The subject of those words is always the same: some transcendent Idea or Being which is beyond question and demands unconditional acceptance and obedience. To the extent that you attempt to describe such a being--even attempt to talk about it at all--you are engaging in idolatry. And yet, the essential aim of most theology, and of theism is general, is to describe the character and attributes of that Being, to create an image of it as an object of worship for believers.
Here again is the distinction between cataphatic and apophatic theology. Cataphatic theology attempts to describe what God is. Apophatic theology insists that you cannot describe God at all, only describe what God is not. One can only refer to subjective experience, which do not necessarily pertain to any ontological reality--and even the nature of these experiences cannot properly be described by any means of communication. Expressions of apophatic theology are often cryptic (Wittgenstein's "Whereof one cannot speak, one must remain silent"), or simple statements of humility and ignorance (Socrates' "All I know is that I know nothing.") Expressions of the ineffable experience often seem trite and even obvious, conveying something of the character of the experience but none of its power, or are poetic and powerful but indecipherable to those who have not had such an experience.
This represents a line drawn between two types of religion. One talks about experiences and practices, but makes no ontological claims. Indeed, they would maintain further that ontological claims are serious obstacles on the path of transformation: "idols of the mind" that must be "killed".Adherents may pray and receive answers, but they make no claims regarding the source of those answers; they may come from another source, or simply from a deeper reserve of wisdom within oneself. But where those answers come from doesn't matter. All that matters is the benefit of the experience. These people can never be in conflict with any scientific fact or principle, because they do not make claims about the world at all, only about their experiences and attitudes towards the world. In fact, they are not 'believers' at all, but practitioners. Stephen Jay Gould's claim that science and religion are non-overlapping magisteria is based upon the mistaken notion that this is the only type of religion. There is still the question of how common this is amongst those who claim to be religious, but if all religious adherents were of this category, no dispute between science and religion would ever arise.
The other type of religion dispenses articles of dogma, hard and fast rules founded upon ontological claims concerning the nature of God and his actions within the world. The language employed is descriptive; these are claims of fact, rather than descriptions of experience. These claims bring them almost entirely within the reach of science, and so they find themselves bearing the burden of proof regarding their claims, which remain unsubstantiated and against which mountains of evidence continue to accumulate. Finding themselves at odds with what is known to be true about the world, these believers have taken it upon themselves to undermine science itself. Having found themselves to be wrong, they would prefer to abolish the truth rather and humble themselves and accept it. Built upon received wisdom rather than personal experience, it even seeks to commandeer spiritual experiences to its own ends, and stifles creativity, which would lead its followers to different opinions than those handed down.
It should be immediately obvious that this second type of religion is profoundly degenerate; steeped in idolatry, at war with the truth, inimical to creativity (the one trait in which we could be considered to be made in God's image), and even unfriendly towards genuine religious experiences. And yet, this is the very form of religion which is the primary target of secularists, atheists, and rationalists. Sam Harris has even gone to great lengths to distinguish between spiritual practices and dogmatic religion. It turns out that the very thing that atheists despise is also the ancient enemy of the prophets; the elevation of a belief to the status of unquestionable authority, to which even the truth must be sacrificed. For if theism is the belief that God exists and interacts with the universe, it inevitably leads to, and indeed requires, a description of that interaction and therefore of the God itself. Theism makes an ontological claim with real world consequences, which it must justify, and any attempt towards such a justification inevitably leads to some form of idolatry. The only escape from this practice is to be, in some sense, an atheist.
Deism, by contrast, holds that there is or was some form of deity, but that it does not interact with the world. This requires no attempt to describe God--and in fact, strongly discourages it, since any such being would lay beyond the categories of thought. But since it removes God from the world and denies the primary claim of theism, it is largely indistiguishable from atheism, and deists have always sided with atheists against dogmatists (and have always been regarded as atheists by believers.)
It might seem to be a stretch to claim that the Judeo-Christian tradition, if properly followed, will eventually lead you to a position of atheism (or one so close to it to be virtually identical.) Christianity has, after all, a major stumbling block--the idolatry of Jesus himself (most likely the primary reason that the Jews rejected Christianity.) Islam is another matter altogether--the entire faith is a cult of personality. And yet, consider the Ten Commandments, which some American judges now seem to be so fond of displaying on public property. They may display it, but I don't think they have any idea of where they really lead. The first three are different formulations of the ban on idolatry.
When the Romans first gained entry into the Holy of Holies in Jerusalem and found it empty, they assumed that the Jews were atheists. What does it mean to worship no other Gods, when you are not even allowed to depict or describe the one God that you do worship? It means that the throne of God is empty, and for all intents and purposes, it must remain so. The second commandment reinforces this in a ban against worshipping graven images--but as we've already seen, an image can be depicted in words as well as in stone or gold. The third, against using the name of God, revolves around an old principle of magic: to know the name of a thing is to understand it and even to be able to command it. Politicians and ministers--and the very judges who want to hang old tablets in their court houses--routinely violate this commandment by invoking God's name to justify their own pronouncements and policies. So: you can't describe God, you can't imagine or depict him in any way, and you can't even name him. What's left? You have to plead ignorance and let it go at that. As Socrates said, "All I know is that I know nothing." And Socrates was condemned to death on the charge of atheism.
The history of Christianity can be seen as a long series of emetic responses to this internal toxin. Unfortunately, idolatry is too well suited to the purposes of authoritarian hierarchies for Christian churches to resist it for long. Idolatry is the very essence of any cult, and cults are notorious cash and status cows for anyone ruthless enough to exploit them. Even those with the best intentions will find themselves pulled off course by slow and minor degrees as they accomodate themselves to this convenience. Reform can only come from outside; those who attempt to reform these institution from inside will soon find themselves thrown out anyway.
Our moderate religions in the West are the product of secular states, states which reigned in the worst excesses of religious power and insisted that the various sects and faiths live together in an orderly manner. In an attempt to throw off the yoke of secularism, some extreme Christian sects in America have transformed themselves into a broad based political movement. This has achieved some success, but at a devastating cost to the faith itself. The result is a religion of sound-bite dogmas but with no soul. America exports this style of religion as an imperial project ventured upon by some of its citizens, just as Saudi Arabia exports an equally soulless and dogmatic form of Islam for the same purpose. Both fall on the ground like salt, and little grows in their wake.
If either of these religions are to be saved, their salvation will have to come from outside; the sclerotic effect of these movements is too advanced for these religions to innovate from within, as even many moderate churches and mosques have been infiltrated and hollowed out (and many ex-Muslims claim that moderate Islam is a contradiction in terms in any case.) This outside help will come from rational practitioners and atheists, who will have to cut off these tumors. But it may be that the original tree is dead and must be abandoned. In that case, seedlings may survive, but they will look nothing like the diseased forms that these religions now take.