This is in response to Simon Heywood's blog on David Boulton's book The Trouble with God
As a nontheist Quaker, I will begin by saying that while I do not agree with everything that David Boulton writes in TTwG*, I do not consider him anti-Quaker. Far from it, I consider him a respectable Friend with whom I have co-clerked a workshop and more than a few good conversations and arguments.
Though not the core of David's atheology, Simon has focused on something that even I find a bit overplayed in TTwG. David is concerned with an overconfident view of realism, i.e. that human perceptions can be trusted to refer to external realities. This view is called "naive realism" in philosophical circles. It was the view of most of the West before the scientific revolution and Descartes. Naive realism was held by both Quakers and their religious antagonists in the 1600s. For the most part, Cartesian doubt played no role in the thought of either early Quakers or their anti-Quaker opponents. Both were naive realists.
Today, most everyone knows that the human brain plays tricks on us. We learn science, logic, and critical thinking in an attempt to ward off naive realism. The Christian mystical tradition is replete with challenges to naive realism, in that it holds that God cannot be known directly by the human mind, but only by intentionally discarding the mental tools we rely on everyday.
David is making an analogous claim in his anti-realist argument. As we cannot know God through our everyday mental toolkit, and since science has questioned the very reliability of human perception beyond a pragmatic level, David is arguing that we stop with that pragmatic level. God is a fictional personification of the highest ethical ideals that have ever been conceived.
As an aside, I think a lot of great ethical ideals come from non-Christian sources. David probably does, too, but his argument focuses on the source of Quakerism, the Christian narrative. He is saying something that many nontheists find hard to accept, actually. He says we have to keep the Christian narrative, but that as postmodern nonrealists, we keep it as fictional, not literal truth, since all our apparent "truths" are fictional, even atheist truths. Simon finds this offends truth and affords license to engage in "make-believe."
Simon allows that a nontheism that was realist about truth could be Quaker, but to his mind, nonrealism - theist or nontheist - subverts Quakerism irreparably. Interestingly, Simon may be unaware of something that is more prevalent among Quakers than David's sort of nonrealism. I have met many nonrealist Quakers who regularly say things like, "everyone is entitled to their personal truth." Many of these folks probably believe in God. Their favorite story is the 5 Blind Men and the Elephant.
David Boulton is arguing a sophisticated variant of this fairly common epistemological uncertainty. We can't know for sure the real truth about anything, so just accept what we can as useful fictions, including the Christian faith.
Simon tells us that this view is counter to everything he appreciates about Quakerism. We have found the Truth with a capital 'T' and we Know it with a capital 'K.'
As I said, I think David overdoes nonrealism in TTwG, and I can say that at least a few nontheists agree with me on that. However, by the same token, I think Simon overdoes realism. He seems to have no doubts about his own experience, that it is somehow pure and untainted by his own preferences, desires, and I guess, his brain. If you allow yourself to ask the scientific question, "How do I know the world beyond me through such things as an epidermis, nerve fibers, electrical impulses, and a mass of neural tissue?" one gets a sense of the difficulty.
If this critical questioning challenges our physical perceptions, how much more does it challenge our experiential perceptions! How can we say, "I have experienced God", when all I have to experience anything is electrical impulses inside a mass of neural tissue? Simon may argue that he does not experience God through his physical senses, a common claim of theists. This is the point at which a view of human beings as bearers of nonphysical souls comes into view.
Having come to a similar place as David on the issue of nonrealism, I will argue that in fact I believe that we can be more confident in our view of truth than he allows. Although, this requires certain unprovable axioms about the methodology of science, nevertheless, scientific methodology has succeeded time and again where other methods have failed. Science has proven the roundness of the earth, the mechanisms of genetics, and many, many other things most of us accept as fact. David's skepticism about God seems to arise from a different source than most atheists, since he nowhere argues that science has "no need of that hypothesis." His skepticism is about truth in a larger sense.
Of course, even a suitably humble scientific realism offers no comfort for Simon's experiential certainty. However, it does answer one of his concerns about the source of truth for nontheists. We do not, emphatically do not, hold that truth comes from our heads. We hold that it comes through hard work and critical judgment. We try to rid ourselves, always partially unsuccessfully, but also partly successfully of our biases and prejudgments. We may never get to naked unvarnished truth, but we can get closer, and for some of us, it remains an operative ideal.
Now, is either David's nonrealist or my semi-realist viewpoint anti-Quaker? I am "absolutely confident" that David is not anti-Quaker! What "absolute confidence" means is that I would publicly stand in the way of any attempt to read David or any other nonrealist out of meeting for business. Not only that, I would defend continued engagement with David on the part of all Friends who are open to differing viewpoints.
Where Simon goes awry is when he states that David's view "acknowledges no reality beyond what the conscious, rational human mind can grasp, and what human words can achieve." Simon is accusing David of solipsism, the view that we all we experience is entirely in our heads. We could be brains in a vat connected to a computer that makes up stories using electrical impulses.
Admittedly, David's views sometimes approach this level of skepticism about realism. However, his argument is not about science or facts, but about theology, about doctrines. He is arguing that when we say "God told me war is wrong" the word "god" in that sentence does not refer to Simon's absolutely certain experience of "something beyond us... [that] authoritatively guide[s] our choices" but rather to Simon's limited cognitive understanding of that experience. An ineffable experience is just that, it can't be described. The very act of description, alters the perception of the experience. If one is going to claim a mystical high ground, then one ought to go all the way to a sheerly apophatic silence about what is being experienced.
A nontheist may have experiences that one considers authoritative and ineffable, as when I hold to the unprovable axioms of scientific method or to my rock-solid view that torture is wrong. I can't prove it using either science or theology, but I cannot deny it without going against my own deepest sense of truth. Simon wants more, he wants to claim that we can get outside of this uncertainty, and that early Friends did so.
After all, isn't the world is better off without naive realism, since we are less inclined to go to war over uncertainties than we are when we have an unshakeable confidence that God tells us to kill in God's name? Even as much as we admire early Friends, aren't we all a bit uncomfortable with their rigid certainty, their willingness to condemn Catholics and Calvinists with harsh diatribes?
I submit that far from being anti-Quaker, a measured skepticism keeps us humble, more honest, and in the end, more effective at standing for peace in a world at war.
*_The Trouble With God_