Albert Mohler Whacks My USA Today Spirituality Column

By Chris Mooney | September 13, 2010 11:08 am

See here. No sooner had I predicted that while New Atheists may agree with my column, “it might rile conservative Christians considerably,” the head of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary proves me right. Mohler’s words:

In its own way, Mooney’s column serves to illustrate the vacuity that marks modern spirituality. There is nothing to it — no beliefs, no God, no morality, no doctrine, no discipleship.

Spirituality in this sense is what is left when Christianity disappears and dissipates. It is the perfect religious mode for the postmodern mind. It requires nothing and promises nothing, but it serves as a substitute for authentic beliefs…..

There was no space to explain this in the column, but that’s not true. I believe a science based spirituality can have very great depth, and can lead to very important motivations and inspirations…but that’s a far longer story.

Mohler continues:

The real question posed by Mooney’s USA Today column is whether Christians possess the discernment to recognize this postmodern mode of spirituality for what it is — unbelief wearing the language of a bland faith.

Chris Mooney might be on to something here. The American public just might be confused enough to fall for this spirituality ploy. Will Christians do the same?

Some are already doing it — which is what I’m sure the Rev. Mohler is concerned about. That’s the power of spirituality. Religious or otherwise, it gets you outside the structure of an established church, and lets you decide what matters, and what has meaning.

For some traditional religious leaders, I’m sure that’s a very scary prospect. For scientists, it’s the opposite. It meshes perfectly with their individuality.


Comments (12)

  1. Any paradigm that threatens religionists’ claim on our hearts, souls or minds will be seen as a threat by those that benefit from the hegemony. Chris, your USA Today article illustrates the “spiritual divide.” That is, those who hold existence as sacred for its own sake and are spiritual in the modern sense and those who need religious doctrine to bolster their sense of spirituality.

  2. Jon

    It’s interesting that the religious fundamentalists and new atheists often have the same kind of reaction to the concept of “spiritual“… while moderate theologians and social scientists of religion try to understand* it:

    *Or “Verstehen”, to use the term of the German philosophers that make Daniel Dennett frown…

  3. Jon

    Sometimes I think Dennett, et al are trying to outsource their *academic* arguments to extra-academic audiences that are motivated by very different passions than them, and are ill-equipped to evaluate Dennett’s views versus the alternatives.

  4. Jack McNally

    One of the things I find fascinating is the use of embodied metaphor. Especially in Religion. Especially in arguments by orthodox religions against any changes in the understanding of that religion. The links between truth and tastebuds is fascinating. Bland Faith. A believer in a religion which is anti body must use a body metaphor to defend his religion. Makes one question the value of anti-science religion. Also makes one call into question groups who attack science based spirituality. Yet, how do we create a non-vapid science based spirituality.

    For me, one of the most incredible things is to look at Devil’s Tower. How many millions of years did it take for that Tower to emerge from the ground. Truly the work of the Divine (which is that which is antithetical to the human. that which you do not understand. Just like the incredibly long time scales of evolution.)

  5. Anthony McCarthy

    Looks like Baptist freedom of conscience is extinct at Southern Baptist.

    I figure if people are acting well that’s enough, certainly better than professing beliefs and also acting badly. I think the focus on beliefs isn’t concrete enough and leads to fighting on imaginary rifts.

    There is no such real thing as “religion”, such that any blanket statement made about it will be true or close to accurate. I doubt that there is any such real thing as “spirituality”. We’re talking about some of the most indeterminate, changing feelings and ideas that people have.

  6. Brian Too

    That’s something I notice about religious people. Their religion plays such a large role in their lives, they believe that it’s absence would create a metaphysical hole in the individual. Also, the religious tend to hew to the idea that all morality stems from religion. They really seem quite incapable of understanding that morality also exists without faith.

    I’m trying to steer clear of value judgements here. Mostly I think these characteristics are a matter of being insufficiently interested, or empathetic enough, to understand an alternate life. These viewpoints are also not religously based and can be found in all sorts of individuals.

  7. Eric

    There are plenty of religious people (some Baptist, some not; some leaders, some not) who do have the hidden agendas implied above. I really don’t think Mohler’s one of them. He really believes people will go to hell & he doesn’t want that. It’s not always about money & power. Science-based spirituality (if practiced honestly) has much that established religion has lost in many quarters (a sense of wonder, for example) but let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water. Spirituality and belief in a personal God can only take on real power when they are united together. That’s powerful: scary, dangerous and threatening to those who are really just in it for money or power or for those just looking for a comforting sop for their consciences or for their fears in the night.

    Don’t be afraid. If you truly seek God, you will find Him.

  8. Why would you not think that someone who is claims to be a Christian would not view the absence of religions as a metaphysical hole? Those who claim to be Christians (in the orthodox) are making a claim that Jesus of Nazareth was God in the flesh and the embodiment of truth. Thus denying such, by definition, would leave a metaphysical hole. Reality to the Christian is wrapped up in Christ.

  9. Brian Jolley

    I remember how I felt when I was an atheist, but think about what you would do if the Bible was indeed true, as many (including myself) believe. Would it not be cruel to respond in any other way than Dr. Mohler and those with similar beliefs respond? In addition, if you do not believe in a personal God, then on what basis do decide anything is moral or not? A worldview needs to be coherent and correspondent. The Biblical evangelical worldview makes the most sense and best matches reality, in my strong opinion. But remember, without love we have nothing.

  10. Linda Rosa

    Atheists need to realize that religious people own the words “spiritual” and “spirituality” as they derive from the word “spirit,” as in “soul.” And the ideal of soul is a totally a paranormal concept.

    For an atheist to describe himself as “spiritual” is like a atheist referring to a picnic lunch of french bread and chianti as “communion.”

    What we atheists are try to communicate is that we can be deeply moved emotionally by experience and the cosmos. Unfortunately, in our culture today, the word “emotion” doesn’t have the high-level ring to it that “spirituality” does.

    But darn it, guys, let’s back off on the word “spiritual,” and go with “emotional.” We are learning more and more about the emotional life of animals who are relatives, distant and not-so distant, in the evolutionary march of life. “Emotion” connects us with other life forms and is more accurate. Let’s be proud to acknowledge our emotions, lament our faulty memories, celebrate our capacity for rationality — and all the other things that make us human animals.


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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