Wednesday, 20 February 2008

Atheist view of Oser's religious stages theory

Fritz Oser
Two weeks ago I had an interesting dispute with my daughter who has a scientific degree in therapeutic pedagogy. She said that my atheism be also a religious belief, and she even assigned this belief to stage three in a theory of her professor, Fritz Oser at the University of Fribourg (now retired). He is a doctor multi honoris causa, and his theory on the religious stages is seen as his magnum opus.

Of course I rejected the idea of viewing atheism as a religious stage. Religion is not a universal mode of thinking. Religion is a very old and I would say primitive form of philosophy. There are also non-religious philosophies. Atheism is not a very useful term because it implies only a non-belief in God or gods which leaves a huge number of possible philosophies or thinking modes. Atheists can be rational scientists as well as magic-prone believers in spiritual woo-woo. Atheists even can be adepts of a religion, for instance Buddhism.

My daughter claimed that Oser's religious stages theory is based on empirical studies. Okay, the dispute ended at this point because I didn't know the theory nor the studies. Needless to say that I googled the professor and his theories. Here is what I have found. He has published his findings and theories together with Paul Gmünder who obviously lent his first name to a dilemma that has been used in research.

The Paul Dilemma

Oser and his co-workers presented the following story to kids and young people of various ages: "Paul is in a plane that is about to crash. He vows to God that he will devote his whole life to humanitarian work in Africa should he survive. He survives and is offered a well-paid job in a leading hospital. Should he go for a brilliant career or to Africa?"

Here is my answer. Paul should be aware that he is victim of a post hoc fallacy. He may think that his vow is the reason he has survived. But both incidents have nothing to do with each other. They are not correlated. If he gains insight in the psychological mechanism triggered by panic and fear of death, he may come to the conclusion that his vow is nothing that should be relevant for his life. If he is strongly religious, the situation may be different for him. Not for me, but for him. So I would give him the advice to take a decision he can live with, for the rest of his life.

Answers and stages

And now let's turn to typical answers given by the subjects in Oser's study. It is quite telling how Oser categorizes them, showing that his thinking is based on theism which I consider a weakness in an otherwise very interesting theory.
  • "Paul must keep his promise, otherwise God will make him sick." This is a typical answer of 5 to 7 year old children. Stage 1.

  • "God has helped Paul, so now it is up to Paul to help God." This is a typical answer of 11 to 13 year old children. Stage 2.

  • "It is up to Paul to decide what is best for him, this has nothing to do with God." This also includes "there is no God" (atheism) and is typical for adolescents and young adults. Stage 3. See my answer above.

  • "God wants Paul to decide on his own free will, according to his best knowledge and belief." This is an answer from a "mature adult religiosity", according to Oser. The two views that have separated in stage 3, God and reality, converge to a grand unified view of ultimate things and reality. Stage 4.

  • There have been no answers that could be classified as stage 5. This stage, according to Oser and Gmünder, is a universal perspective: Persons at this stage accept that there is no universal truth, and that religion X can be as true to person A as religion Y is true to person B. They both are true in a higher sense, just as light can be seen as waves or particles which both can explain the outcome of experiments. For some experiments, waves are better, and others can better be explained with particles. I am not sure whether this example is Oser's but I have found it in a dissertation on his theory.
Critical appraisal

Stage 3 is the crucial point in Oser's theory. At this stage, persons become aware of the fact that religion cannot explain the complex reality of the world. In fact, religion seems to have not the slightest influence on what happens. For those still believing in God, a split between the real and the religious world occurs. Atheism is often, but not necessarily, a consequence.

Oser has been criticized by theologians for his wide concept of religion, he even seems to view atheism as a special form of religious belief. I must support the theologians for once, definitely rejecting the religious label of atheism.

This and other serious weaknesses of the stage model could have been avoided just by giving it a different name. Why not philosophical stages? Or stages of moral decisions? Or stages of ethical thought?

Oser seems to dismiss the further development of the atheist side after the split of stage 3. They are thought to stay there forever whereas only the "religious" people manage to proceed to higher stages. This is a serious pro-theism bias.

A stage model of atheism?

This said, I cannot help being fascinated by the stage model as such. I have the impression that some kind of stages can be identified in atheism, too. I even would agree that the first two could be the same primitive (or fundamentalistic) stages as in the Oser model - theism as a precursor of atheism. The third stage, deconversion from faith, is characterized by a distinctive split. Atheists of third stage will often dispute theists and accuse the negative aspects of religions. Atheists of fourth stage will be less angry and more trying to make sense of their lives, the non-religious way. In my model, I would classify myself here.

Is there a fifth stage? Possibly it may be one that looks for common traits of good living in any philosophy or religion, as long as the view is guided by principles of humanity. But I have rather the impression that Oser's fifth stage is just an artifact of the fixation on religiosity - he never has observed it in his surveys. But the inter-religious question of truth has nothing in common with the question of truth in science vs. religion.

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