The Post-Enlightenment Faith

Three articles that hit a similar note. From our neighbor Peter Enns, as a response to the challenges of being Christian in the modern world:

I don’t think the life of Christian faith is fundamentally “rational,” by which I mean it cannot be captured fully by our rational faculties. I have long felt that a God who can be comfortably captured in our minds is no God at all. I see our sense of what is rational as often more the problem than the solution. I am not for one minute saying “reason doesn’t matter.” I am using reason as I write this. I read and write books. I mean only that the life of the mind has its place as an aspect of the life of faith, not its dominant component.

In other words, I belief that faith in a true God is necessarily trans-rational (not anti-rational) and mystical. I try to remember that as I work through intellectual challenges–and I mean “work through,” not avoid.

From Religion in American History, Michael Altman considers Tanya Luhrmann’s book on evangelical Christians at prayer, When God Talks Back. He quotes from her interview with Terry Gross:

To be clear, I am not arguing that belief is not important to Christians. It is obviously important. But secular Americans often think that the most important thing to understand about religion is why people believe in God, because we think that belief precedes action and explains choice. That’s part of our folk model of the mind: that belief comes first.

And that was not really what I saw after my years spending time in evangelical churches. I saw that people went to church to experience joy and to learn how to have more of it. These days I find that it is more helpful to think about faith as the questions people choose to focus on, rather than the propositions observers think they must hold.

If you can sidestep the problem of belief — and the related politics, which can be so distracting — it is easier to see that the evangelical view of the world is full of joy. God is good. The world is good. Things will be good, even if they don’t seem good now. That’s what draws people to church. It is understandably hard for secular observers to sidestep the problem of belief. But it is worth appreciating that in belief is the reach for joy, and the reason many people go to church in the first place.

Meanwhile, out neighbor Kevin Miller at Hellbound, muses a bit on the meaning of the word fundamentalist. He hits on way of looking at the issue of atheist fundamentalism and goes all post-modern on us:

However, I think fundamentalist atheism differs from other forms of fundamentalism in one key regard: rather than a reaction against modernity, it seems to be more of a reaction against post-modernity–the idea that there could be more than one plausible explanation for reality, and that perhaps even our perception of reality is itself a social construction, always in need of revision. (Of course, many Christians resist this idea as well.)

People like Dawkins talk about moving people toward an evidence-based view of the world. But what qualifies as evidence? That determination can only be made by referencing your worldview. For example, a Christian may accept a personal revelation gained through prayer as evidence of God’s existence. Someone of Dawkins’ ilk will dismiss such “evidence” as nothing more than a psychological projection. Same phenomena, different explanation, because according to each worldview, certain lines of inquiry or explanation are necessarily excluded.

I’ve tried mixing and matching these article in different ways, and none seem any better than any other. I put them forward as large blocks of text. I hope the connection is obvious.

My first reaction is to chortle. Since antiquity one of the major Christian goals is to make Christianity “rational,” whether that meant bringing into accord with greek philosophy or with evidence and reason. It’s amusing to see so many Christians say, “Well, that didn’t work …”

While I think there is a shrewd recognition of exactly how human belief is actually formed in Luhrmann’s thesis, I’m a bit skeptical as to how far it goes. Despite people like Miller and Enns, I’ve never heard an argument between Christians that ends, “If that’s your inner witness then we’ll just have to agree to disagree.”

Christians argue amongst themselves about the nature of God, which is supposedly trans-rational. They use evidence from scripture and reason from established theological principles. They are happy to use rational arguments to convince people, including atheists and each other. This claim that the nature and existence of God is somehow walled off because it is beyond reason looks like a strategic retreat to subjectivity rather than a principled stand for post-modernism.

  • ctcss

    “This claim that the nature and existence of God is somehow walled off because it is beyond reason looks like a strategic retreat to subjectivity rather than a principled stand for post-modernism.”

    I think that the term “trans-rational” may be misleading. But I think I get the concept. In essence, it is not that Christianity is not rational, it is that it is reason (rationality) based on something other than matter. Evidence can exist, but not necessarily undeniable material evidence that somehow says “God exists. Here are the (metaphorical) footprints or artifacts that prove it.”

    I believe in God and I believe I have evidence for God’s existence that speaks to me. But what I regard as evidence may not (and has not) convinced people who don’t believe in God. That’s hardly news, nor is it a big deal. People usually only have an interest in subject areas which intrigue them, or that answer some questions that they may have. Because a number of my questions have been answered through my experience and “evidence”, I desire to explore the subject area of God further. Those that don’t have my experiences, or that dismiss my “evidence”, continue pursuing their pathway and following that which interests them.

    Dawkins, for example, is not going to find evidence for God by looking at matter. He would have to look elsewhere, at least IMO. But if he has no interest in taking the time to thoughtfully explore that subject area (and I don’t think he really has), he is certainly not going to encounter God in his current mental frame of reference. He and I are looking in completely different areas, and thus our experiences are also going to be completely different as well.

    So I don’t think that subject area of God is walled off from reason. But it is not something found within matter or in matter-based reasoning. That’s just the way it is.

    Once again, no big deal. We each pursue and investigate areas that intrigue us.

    • Pofarmer

      “I believe in God and I believe I have evidence for God’s existence that
      speaks to me. But what I regard as evidence may not (and has not)
      convinced people who don’t believe in God.”

      Any examples?

      • ctcss


        After you had asked for examples, JohnMWhite and I had shared something of our personal experiences with one another. (It’s a little further down past this area of the thread.) I don’t think he has responded yet, but since these boards get busy, you may have given up on receiving any response from me on this particular thread. Since you are an agnostic and a father who is puzzling over whether there is any reason for a person to consider believing in God, you may find what I related about my family’s choices regarding this subject to be of some interest (or not.) At the very least, I hope I don’t come across as someone who is unreasonable or unreasoning. All the best.

    • JohnMWhite

      So I don’t think that subject area of God is walled off from reason. But it is not something found within matter or in matter-based reasoning. That’s just the way it is.

      That’s pretty much the definition of anti-reason. You can’t claim something is reason based on non-rational stuff that cannot be measured or known of by any material mind. That’s not reason any more, it’s just arbitrarily changing the definition of reason so you can fit Christian belief inside of it.

      Like Pofarmer, I’d be interested in what evidence you have come across for god’s existence. We’re not looking for concrete, undeniable proof, but it is worth holding up any evidence to be examined critically. Also, I’d like to point out that lots of people, including many frequent posters here, have had experiences and evidence that caused them to believe, until counter-evidence made it impossible to believe any more. It’s not as if these people were not interested in pursuing the subject of god.

    • Anonomouse Fred

      “Dawkins, for example, is not going to find evidence for God by looking at matter. He would have to look elsewhere, at least IMO.”

      I LOL’d. Dawkins already addressed this concern in his book.
      If you can’t find evidence for god in the real world, what does that tell you?

      • JohnMWhite

        It’s a convenient get out, and often comes across as putting the blame on the skeptic for not being open-minded enough to look for evidence in places where you can’t actually look and can only feel. Those who use this device seem to mean it in earnest, though, which again brings me to the question of what do they say to people who thought that way before and then realised “oh wait, that makes no sense”.

    • PsiCop

      Re: “But if he has no interest in taking the time to thoughtfully explore that subject area (and I don’t think he really has), he is certainly not going to encounter God in his current mental frame of reference.”

      That’s a pretty big assumption for you to make. How can you know for sure that Dawkins “has no interest in taking the time to thoughtfully explore that subject area”? Do you have any evidence of this? Are you deciding that must be the case, solely because you and he have arrived at different conclusions?

      I love how theists feel free to attack the sincerity and methods of non-believers purely because they’ve looked at the same evidence (or more accurately, lack of it) but reached different conclusions based on it. It’s one thing to disagree with them, but to call non-believers liars or ignoramuses (which is what you just did) is just not appropriate.

      The truth about most atheists and non-believers … Dawkins included … is that nearly all of them have thought long and hard about religion. You probably won’t accept it, but the truth is that, on average, non-believers know more about religion than believers do.

      Far from being what they are because they stubbornly refuse to look for your God, the truth is that most non-believers have arrived at that position because they have looked for your God but have found the evidence either not compelling, or non-existent.

      You don’t have to like non-believers, including Dawkins, but that doesn’t grant you license to slander them.

      • ctcss

        Just to be clear, I respect Dawkins as a scientist. He even strikes me as being a decent person to know. However, I am not very impressed with him when he makes broad statements about religion. As a scientist, he should realize that the subject of religion is extremely varied, and broad, general statements about religion are very likely to be incorrect. And it was because of his overly broad characterization that I was simply pointing out that he doesn’t seem to have a personal interest in trying to determine anything further about the question of God.

        The evidence? I’d have to try to research it (and I don’t have the time), but I believe the gist of it is that when confronted by believers who objected to his mis-characterization of their particular faith constructs (because he used a broad brush to label everyone as believing a certain way), he said something to the effect of “Well, most believers don’t believe the way you believe. And they would probably consider your different take on belief as being completely wrong.” Which I took as an indication of Dawkins being not at all interested in exploring more about those believers’ less troublesome style of belief, or about the nature of the concept of God they believed in, or their experiences when following their particular beliefs. He was simply making a political statement (group vs group) rather than a truth statement (is approach A or B more helpful, or more likely to be true?)

        Thus my conclusion that he really doesn’t have an interest in looking further. He seemed to lack any curiosity about what was being presented to him. His response struck me as being dismissive rather than interested. So my statement about him wasn’t meant as slander, nor was I doubting his (or any other non-believers) intelligence.

        • JohnMWhite

          Where is your paraphrase from, do you recall? Dawkins’ God Delusion delved into in depth with lots of particulars, and he has written numerous articles and given countless interviews since. It seems a bit unfair to use one half-remembered response in an interview to conclude that he had no interest in thoughtfully exploring the question of the existence of god.

          I disagree that he’s simply making political statements when he points out the reality of how religious belief is largely arrived at and practiced. This is like arguing he knows nothing about parakeets because he says they don’t come in black and then you find a mutant one.

          • ctcss

            Quite frankly, I’m not sure. It may have been in TGD. But I have also read other bits by him, as well as some transcripts of his talks. And I’m not trying to be unfair to him. For a large number of religious believers, I think he does give an accurate picture. But a large number is not all. And often, the ones he is characterizing are the fundamentalists who often pose a political threat. And that’s why I was pointing out that I think he is aiming (or at least TGD is aiming) for a political goal. Nothing wrong with that. But a political goal is not the same as a truth goal. I just get the feeling he really isn’t interested in expending more effort (at least at this time) trying to disprove his own disbelief. And it is not because he isn’t intelligent, or isn’t worthy, or hates God. I just think he feels he has covered the field enough that he doesn’t feel the need to look further. That’s his call to make. But as a believer, I feel that he is wrong for doing so. (And no, it’s not because of hell-fire. That’s not part of my belief either.)

            If just one believing person out there has it right (or at least has it better), then the search isn’t over IMO. The largest or noisiest groups are not not necessarily the ones with the correct answers. And if he is satisfied with simply finding the largest or the noisiest groups, I think he is, as I said, looking at it from a political perspective, not a truth perspective.

            • JohnMWhite

              If it was in The God Delusion then ask for your money back because you must have somehow not received the rest of the book. You are definitely being unfair to him. No, a large number is not all, but he never said it was. As Yoav pointed out above, there’s no point engaging the nitty-gritty of every single religious person’s peculiar mode of belief if the fundamental question of the existence of a creator god can only be answered, at best, with resounding silence. You shouldn’t have to turn over every rock in the universe to find the guy who made them all.

              If just one believer out there has it right, they are very good at guessing. There is no evidence for the existence of any flavour of god that we would use the term for. For the most part the concept itself is logically incoherent. It’s like saying “maybe there’s a smile without a face out there in the universe, somewhere, and until you prove otherwise I will judge you as some political hack who isn’t even interested in looking”.

            • ctcss

              I’m sorry if I offended you (or Dawkins). And I never said I thought he was a political hack. Far from it. I was simply pointing out the TGD seems to have the goal of making non-believers feel some pride about themselves (nothing at all wrong with that), and giving believers who are on the fence some more to think about whether what they believe and why they believe it, is true. (Nothing wrong with that either.)

              But that is largely a political goal. It is about groups. Dawkins has some thoughts about religion, he personally rejects it, and he is helping other people who are like him (in thought) and near him (in thought) come together because it will be easier as a cohesive group to combat the political problems associated with some religious groups (once again, a group thing) who are intent on putting forth a political goal of their own. (To me it is a sad thing that religious groups, of whatever stripe, feel the need to involve themselves with worldly power and goals. Religion, at least as I understand it, is about exploring and learning more about one’s relationship with God. Worldliness has nothing at all to do with that.)

              I doubt very seriously that Dawkins would have written TGD if all religious people of whatever stripe simply quietly practiced their faith and did their best not to intrude in their neighbors’ lives. Why should anyone care what another person thinks?

        • Yoav

          he said something to the effect of “Well, most believers don’t believe
          the way you believe. And they would probably consider your different
          take on belief as being completely wrong.”

          The point in this is that different religions, or even sects within the same religion, make mutually exclusive claims therefore why should anyone accept your unsupported claims and reject the equally unsupported claims of someone else.

          Which I took as an indication of Dawkins being not at all interested in
          exploring more about those believers’ less troublesome style of belief,
          or about the nature of the concept of God they believed in, or their
          experiences when following their particular beliefs.

          Until you can produce evidence you actually own a unicorn discussing the color of it’s tail is a waste of time.

          • ctcss

            “The point in this is that different religions, or even sects within the same religion, make mutually exclusive claims therefore why should anyone accept your unsupported claims and reject the equally unsupported claims of someone else.”

            It’s not abut Dawkins accepting unsupported claims about God, or deciding which version of which religion is true. It is, however, about acknowledging that there is more than one view out there. Thus, Dawkins should at least acknowledge that which is different when he is informed of it (and appreciate it’s more helpful stance even if he continues to disbelieve in God), rather than simply saying (in effect), “I don’t care about what you may believe because your view is obviously in the minority and I am focused on this other group which is much larger.”

            If my vague memory of what he said is accurate, that was what he seemed to be doing.

            • Yoav

              I obviously can’t speak for Dawkins but I, and any atheist I ever met, are fully aware that there are thousands of versions of just the Jesus type god and many more once you add all the other ones. However from my point of view as someone who doesn’t believe in any of them until you can actually produce any evidence that a god type of entity actually exist then discussing issue such as does god approve of bacon cheeseburgers or not, did he rape Mary so she can give birth to himself or did he send the angel Jibril to dictate the Qur’an to Mohammed or possibly the angel Moroni to give Joseph Smith the golden plates or any other details as to what this god is like are about as meaningful as asking what size shoes does Tinkerbell wear.

        • PsiCop

          Re: “However, I am not very impressed with him when he makes broad statements about religion.”

          I get that, however, you’re “not being very impressed with him” doesn’t entitle you to say things about him that you have no way to know for sure.

          Re: “Thus my conclusion that he really doesn’t have an interest in looking further.”

          In other words, you reached a conclusion not stated directly by anyone (least of all Dawkins) and decided he had no interest in knowing anything about your personal God.

          Again, you have no way to know if this is true or not. You forget that, as an educated man living in the occidental world, he most certainly has heard a great deal about the Christian God most of his life. That he’s reached different conclusions about Him, than you have, seems to be your main sticking point here. You’ve taken one thing you’ve heard him say or write, and are using it as a rationale to dismiss everything about him. (More on that dismissiveness in a moment.)

          As for Dawkins’s point about various believers not agreeing with one another, you’re getting angry that he said it it without taking into consideration the logic behind it. You personally may believe in a particular God, but there are others in the world who believe in their own particular God(s) that are not the same as yours. How do you know you are right about your God and they’re wrong about theirs? And how is any objective observer supposed to be able to tell if either one of you has any idea what you’re even talking about?

          You can call this observation “dismissive,” and I suppose it might be (although I doubt it) … but aren’t you, yourself, being “dismissive” by dismissing its seriousness? Aren’t you, yourself, just as guilty of “dismissing” Dawkins, as you think he is, of you?

          I’m betting you won’t see it that way and will remain incensed at the insolence of this Dawkins fellow who dares not believe what you demand he believe and who also dares openly state his non-belief.

    • JohnMWhite

      So, about that evidence…?

    • JohnMWhite

      For some reason disqus isn’t letting me reply to your reply, so here’s what I tried to say:

      Thanks for getting back to me.

      Reasoning is reasoning. Just because a premise doesn’t strike everyone as being equally acceptable doesn’t mean that those who accept the premise are not using reasoning to arrive at a conclusion.

      That’s not quite what I meant. I’m not saying that the premise isn’t acceptable to me therefore it’s irrational. I suppose I tie rationality to materialism in a way, because I don’t see how non-material concepts that we cannot observe or measure in any way can be considered rationally. Basically, my point was that you can’t really argue it is rational to believe angels walk the right way up in heaven because we know nothing of angels, of heaven, of whether gravity or physical forms are in the hereafter or if any of them exist in the first place. Rationalism kind of has to go out the window if you start considering magic. Reasoning is reasoning, but it’s not reason if there’s no reason to it.

      OK, this intrigues me a little. I am curious as to what experiences and evidence other people have had that were not only refuted, but which made them abandon their religious belief. Other than casting doubt on their various experiences, I am wondering about the use of the term “impossible”.

      I’m glad you’re interested, a lot of theists tend to just dismiss anybody who changed their mind as not having been a ‘true believer’ in the first place. A quick example from myself: I was raised Catholic, went to Mass every Sunday and said all the right prayers and believed all the right things. And I really, truly believed them, because I felt inside that they were true. In church I sensed a presence and felt, as the priest droned on and the candles flickered, as though I were wrapped in a blanket made from the holy spirit. I had almost died from a medical issue as a child and recalled a near death experience, further solidifying my faith. I also believed prayer worked, and that as long as I was a good boy god would look after me and make sure things worked out ok.

      I prayed for good grades at school, and I got them. I got to university and I took a philosophy class and was introduced to intriguing concepts like the old standby of “if god is all-powerful, can he make a rock so heavy he cannot lift it?” There was Pascal’s wager, the Euthyphro dilemma, and other concepts that dented the logical viability of the Abrahamic god. Near death experiences and the afterlife were a topic of conversation, and I was willing to accept that a possible explanation was brain chemistry: they had evidence, after all. Meeting people from different faiths from all over the world and having some compassion for women and gays meant I was finding myself increasingly at odds with a being I was told wanted to punish them all. By extension, I had long been told he wanted to punish me too, for hanging out with the wrong crowd or for playing the wrong games or for being simply a normal teenage boy. Or for not being a normal teenage boy. The god I was made more aware of as I grew became increasingly erratic as adults found things more and more important than ‘god loves his children’.

      Eventually the spell was simply broken. I was at Mass and, at the behest of a friend (herself still Catholic, ironically), actually listened to the Apostle’s Creed. That mantra that we said every Sunday was full of things I no longer actually agreed with. I couldn’t say it anymore. I couldn’t believe I was eating a human body anymore. I no longer felt that blanket around me, and I actually felt a huge weight off my shoulders as I stopped living in fear that being nice to the wrong person or liking the wrong thing would make a bigger, stronger bully angry with me and cause me misfortune. I began to acknowledge my own accomplishments on their own terms; I was actually kind of smart and graduated college because I worked hard, not because I prayed hard and god did it for me.

      So much for this being quick, I guess, but to summarise I was a devout believer who had real experiential evidence to ground my faith in god, until I came across stuff that made me question the evidence and the assumptions I had made.

      • ctcss

        “I suppose I tie rationality to materialism in a way, because I don’t see how non-material concepts that we cannot observe or measure in any way can be considered rationally.”

        Right away, we would seem to be approaching this whole subject from very different standpoints. You are a materialist. I am not. We thus may find ourselves sharing very little in common regarding the concepts concerning God. As I understand these things, God is not material (God, at least as I understand the subject, is not made of matter), nor is God’s kingdom (because it would have to reflect God’s nature). And it’s not a question of discussing magic, it’s simply a question of discussing concepts. God is Spirit, which is to say, that which relates to God and God’s nature has nothing to do with matter, energy, time, or space. God is not bound to them, nor formed by them, nor constrained by them. And our relationship with God, at least as I understand it, is an eternal one. Thus, one’s relationship starts long before one seems to be conceived or born, and continues on long after one seems to die and one’s body disintegrates. In essence, matter really has nothing to do with, or anything to say about, God’s man at all. (Man was created to reflect God’s nature.)

        Such things are concepts, not magic. And concepts fit very nicely within the realm of reason.

        “I’m glad you’re interested, a lot of theists tend to just dismiss anybody who changed their mind as not having been a ‘true believer’ in the first place.”

        People change their minds all the time. They change religions, they drop religions, they switch political parties, go from carnivore to vegan, country to rock and roll, etc. Big deal. That’s part of living.You went from Catholic to atheist. Leah Libresco went from atheist to Catholic. Are either of you less intelligent or less moral or less worthy of respect or of friendship because of it? Are either of you less loved by God because of it? (As I understand these things, you are both completely and eternally loved by God.) Am I, a non-mainstream protestant Christian, who was never taught to regard Jesus as God, or that there is a hell, or belief in eternal punishment, or a devil, any less loved by God? Are Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, non-believers, etc. any less loved by God? C’mon! Is God tribal and humanly petty, or is God universal, unconditional, and eternal Love? (People really need to make up their minds about this one!)

        Thanks for your quick history As you can tell, our theological underpinnings are somewhat different. You appear to be stating that you believed in a concept of God who is harsh, vengeful, unforgiving, and cruel. (Is that actually the official Catholic take on God?) In contrast, the concept of God I was taught was entirely loving and entirely good. Matter seems to be have been a part of, or formed a a sort of underpinning of, your theological beliefs. Matter plays no role at all in my theological beliefs. (God is not material at all, so the theology focuses not on matter, but on Spirit and on that which is spiritual.) All of your “sinners” appear to have been considered as being doomed. As I was taught it, sinners simply need to freely come to their own conclusion that they need to reform, and then act on that conclusion. (I was taught conditional universal salvation. It’s conditional because God has standards that must be met. But it’s effectively unconditional because God will not let anyone fail, ever. No one is ever left behind or abandoned or destroyed. A God of love would never do that.)

        The point being, the “problems” you had with your religious beliefs are not necessarily universal religious beliefs. Jews, for instance, think that the righteous of all nations will have a place in the afterlife. They also have a very limited window of “punishment” which only seems to allow for something around a year of penance after one passes on. As I read your summary, I kept wondering where all of the bad religious stuff you seemed to be seeing more and more of was coming from? Was the Catholic God you worshiped really that bad right from the get-go, or did other God concepts sneak in there and add fuel to the fire of your doubts and discouragement? Your description makes it sound like your previously warm and friendly view of God was poisoned, little by little, by outside concepts that actually weren’t about God, but were ideas that subtly began to replace your kinder concept of God with something much worse.

        I also wondered why I didn’t see anything in your summary about asking deeper, heartfelt questions of your religious instructors when you had fears, doubts, and burdens that came about because of your secular studies or investigations. (I’m guessing you probably did something along these lines, but you didn’t mention anything about what came of such questions and searchings.) As someone who has had (and still does have) doubts and discouragement from time to time, I can appreciate feeling trapped by circumstances and troubling ideas. However, I know I have always appreciated having someone more experienced in my religion who helped me get back on my feet. And I also know that what has under-girded my own faith is also still there in my thought, and that the discouraging thoughts I sometimes stare at (figuratively speaking), need to be set aside so I can give, at the very least, equal time to consider and appreciate the encouraging thoughts that are also there.

        This not uncommon problem of having one’s faith in God undercut sort of reminds me of Othello, where the title character has a wonderful wife who adores him, but his view of his wife changes as he starts listening to lies about her and he eventually ends up murdering her because of those lies. The point being, her nature and her feelings about him hadn’t changed at all. But the falsehoods about her changed Othello’s view of her, so he ends up losing her. So, at least for me, it’s vital that I not accept what I consider to be false notions about God but, instead, to remember the reasons why I decided to follow God in the first place.

        OK, I was hoping to have a few more people chime in with their own experiences as to why they found it “impossible” for them to believe in God anymore. But since you were kind enough to share, I’ll share something in return from my family’s history. The following is a post I made on BeliefNet some time ago when a non-believer there was explaining why she felt that all religious faith was ultimately blind faith, and that there was no way to determine the validity of it’s claims, thus her sincere reason for not finding any way to trust those claims. The following, somewhat lengthy post, was my direct response to her post. It was not intended (then or now) as a proof of God’s existence, but it was intended to demonstrate how my family approached the question of trust regarding our belief in God.


        This is obviously a very honest, heartfelt answer you are giving and brings up some hard questions. However, your questions are obviously not ones I am personally troubled by, otherwise we would find ourselves on the same page in this matter. Whatever your own personal experiences or thought may have been, (and which also led you to conclude that theological premises and validity are a no-go), they certainly didn’t correspond to what I grew up with and experienced. And I would definitely have to take exception to your assertion that it is impossible to determine anything useful or solid regarding theological premises. (And please note, if you are asking for a guarantee of absolute proof, you won’t get it, but that’s because such a guarantee is impossible to obtain for any area of human existence. Humans have no “outside” platform with which to gain an objective view of their own “reality”. Thus we do the best we can from within the human mental framework as we try to discern safe and useful answers with which to help determine our pathway forward.)

        Perhaps I can illustrate something of what I mean by my own family’s experience. My religious upbringing included the concept of answered prayer. In my family’s case, when one is using prayer (and only prayer) to handle an illness or health situation, there would seem to be less likelihood of wondering what specifically has brought about a positive outcome. (Yes, skeptical people will often suggest other reasons for the outcome to have occurred, but if such things happen often enough, those multiple occurrences over time will definitely make an impact on one’s outlook on such things. In other words, experience really does matter, thus the reason for my family’s continued use of this approach.)

        But interestingly, my dad did not grow up with the belief of relying on answered prayer to handle health problems. His family used regular medical help like most everyone else does. But when he married my mom, he encountered a different set of experiences than those he grew up with. Before I was born, my parents were stuck in a bad snowstorm in NY at my dad’s family’s house and couldn’t get out. Somehow while there, he found that he had a case of blood poisoning in one arm (there was visible evidence on his arm of the condition spreading and getting worse, along with a bad fever) and there was no way to get him to a doctor to handle the situation. However, my mom called a friend for help with prayer about the situation and the problem quickly stopped. My dad was obviously grateful for the help.

        And although, as a child, I knew that my dad had differing life outlooks from my mom (he rarely went to church with us during my upbringing and never joined, he also smoked for a number of years, and even drank socially a little outside of the home), for some reason I don’t think I ever wondered how it was that we, as his children, had been allowed to be raised relying on prayer for help. However, I did know that a decision had been made at one point early in their marriage and I am guessing this experience up in NY had helped point the way.

        Basically, my dad’s reaction to that experience (as an adult, not as an impressionable child), was to accept this new possibility in his life, and he apparently made several decisions. First, he allowed my mom to have first crack at solving their children’s needs through prayer. However, he also insisted that the option for medical treatment be kept open for the children if prayer wasn’t working. (We kids definitely had heard about this requirement of his when we were growing up. My dad very much wanted us to be safe. However, as far as I know, we never had a need to use this fallback position because prayer always seemed to work for us in serious situations. In addition, we also followed state medical requirements when there was no provision for a legal exemption from them. We also very much wanted to be law abiding.) For his part, my dad also continued to choose to rely on prayer for his own needs because he found it to be practical and effective. (My dad was definitely very independently minded about such things and would only do them if he agreed with them, not because he was forced to.)

        So, as far as I am concerned, I think my dad’s choices for his children (as well as for himself) showed that he was thinking both independently and practically about the matter. His childhood religious and medical upbringing did not force a particular conclusion, nor was my mom’s outlook on these things holding total sway over the family. He made up his own mind about the situation, and thus was thinking as an individual, not as a blindly obedient follower of any group (hers or his).

        The point I am trying to illustrate here is that, despite the fact that my dad had decided to rely on something quite non-material and outside the realm of what would be termed “the natural”, he was still able to justify his decision based on the results he encountered. His decision (both for himself and for his children) was based on a reasoned faith (resulting from his experiences.) In essence, he very much felt that the theological premises he was relying on had been proven to be effective, thus they were certainly “valid” enough to trust his family’s well being with. (And knowing my dad, I don’t think he would have ever been comfortable relying on blind faith about anything.)

        So there we have a thoughtfully-arrived-at decision made over 60 years ago in my family (and obviously one that had to continue showing itself to be useful and practical over all that time, otherwise my dad would have chosen a safer course whenever it presented itself.) But in no instance was it ever engaged in from a blind faith approach. And from my own perspective as I have thought about it over the years, I very much see the nature of it as being in correspondence with the kind of theological concepts expressed by Jesus’ teachings and works. Thus, I personally do think there is a way for such things to be verified, at least to whatever degree one can determine the “validity” of such things from within (as opposed to having a conveniently placed viewing platform from the outside of human experience.)

        Does that help explain why I look at things the way I do? (And do you honestly think that I and my family have been less-than-wise in doing so, or do you think it was a reasonable path for me and my family to have taken over all those years given our experiences and circumstances?)


        We had a few more back and forth posts, but that one should give the sense I was trying to convey to her. My personal history of continuing to rely on prayer some 60 years later began because my dad gave thoughtful consideration to something he hadn’t ever given serious thought to before. It doesn’t offer absolute proof of anything. But all those years of our family’s relying on (what we believed to be) God in all sorts of situations certainly make it hard for me, at this juncture, to abandon my belief in God for non-belief.

  • David_Evans

    Evangelicals as the Joy Division. I like it. However…

    “God is good. The world is good.”

    What’s missing there? Perhaps a recognition that people are good, even people who don’t share one’s faith. It seems to me that evangelicals spend a lot of their time denying those other people any kind of joy that they themselves disapprove of.

    • JohnMWhite

      Also missing is that the world is often very not good, and by our own and even his own standard, god often is not good either. Often it appears that the religious refuse to acknowledge there are not-good things about the world and that very not-good things happen for no good reason. At best, they might blame Satan. This tends to be a less than helpful motivator to prevent bad things from happening in any practical way.

  • evodevo

    Christianity has suffered from an inferiority complex for 2000 years. One of the main reasons for all those verses in Paul and the Synoptics about being fools for Jeezus was the derision heaped on Christianity by the intellectual Greco-Roman community of the time. It was a religion that appealed mainly to the uneducated, the ill and the desperately poor; to slaves, women and the emotionally distraught. Not that there weren’t smart people associated with it, especially in the hierarchy, but the run of the mill congregant usually fell in the above groups. They’ve been trying to recapture ground ever since.

  • kessy_athena

    What I’m taking away from those passages is the observation that humans are fundamentally not rational beings. That is to say that the way our minds work at its most basic level isn’t really rational in the intellectual sense of the word. Rationality is something that we can do, but it’s not something that underlies everything we do do. Therefore, it shouldn’t be surprising that some human experiences and behaviors aren’t really very amenable to rational analysis.

    I would define rationality as the process of applying logic to evidence. It’s important to keep in mind that those are separate things. And in order for something to be good evidence, it needs to be something that can be experienced repeatedly, by multiple people, in a consistent way. An awful lot of what we experience does not meet those criteria. For example, something can be very ephemeral, or experiencable only by a single person. Strict rationality often just doesn’t work very well on those sorts of things, but they are still just as much a part of our experience of the world and just as valid as more concrete experiences.

    It also shouldn’t be surprising that we often mix rational and non-rational modes of thinking. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. For example. consider a person who wakes up in the middle of the night and hears strange sounds coming from somewhere else in the house. That person is going to get a shot of adrenaline and have a fight or flight response. That’s not rational – it’s instinctive. The conscious mind will then start to kick in and try to reason out what’s going on – is that a burglar or the cat knocking something over?

    I think of rationality as one tool we have to deal with the world. It’s a very powerful tool, but it has its limitations, and is not our only tool. I think that it’s a mistake to focus only on one single tool or disparage other tools. You know what they say about what happens if you only have a hammer… And it’s also important to remember that you aren’t restricted to only using one tool at a time. Your subconscious isn’t really rational. (Although it does have its own logic.) But it’s what does most of the raw data processing; the conscious mind only gets an executive summary. which means that your subconscious always has access to more information then your conscious mind, so when your subconscious starts trying to tell you something in the form of a gut feeling or an intuition or something like that, you should pay attention to it. Although of course you shouldn’t take it on faith as being 100% accurate.

    We all create a mental model of the world and how it works, but as useful as that is, it is just a model. That’s something that’s easy to forget. Models are always imperfect, and also are always built on assumptions. It’s an assumption that there’s such a thing as objective reality. It’s an assumption that the real world is always self consistent. It’s an assumption that what we experience when our long-term memory is fully booted up is real while what we experience while it’s in sleep mode are just dreams. It’s an assumption that what our senses tell us is a reasonably accurate representation of the world around us. And so on and so on. The thing is that while you have to make assumptions, there’s a certain degree of arbitrariness to what exactly those assumptions are. It’s entirely reasonable that different people will have somewhat different assumptions, and that this will produce some radically different approaches and conclusions about the world. It’s also possible to make radically different assumptions from the most common ones that are still consistent with experience.

    Incidentally, one of the assumptions I listed earlier is demonstrably false. What our senses tell us often is not a good representation of the world around us at all. National Geographic has an interesting series on just how perception actually works called Brain Games, I highly recommend it.

    • PsiCop

      Re: “What I’m taking away from those passages is the observation that humans are fundamentally not rational beings.”

      That does seem to be true. Nevertheless, there’s no reason we can’t try to be as rational as we can, as often as possible. To give up and say, “Oh well, that ‘rationality’ idea was a nice one, but it’s too hard for us, so let’s not bother with it any more” is just silly.

      • kessy_athena

        I agree, and I didn’t mean to imply that we should give up on rationality at all. All I’m really saying is that rationality is one of those things where we can strive for perfection, but we have to recognize that we’ll never achieve it. And that sometimes things from the non-rational parts of our minds can have value, too.

        • PsiCop

          Re: “I agree, and I didn’t mean to imply that we should give up on rationality at all.”

          Sorry, I didn’t think you were saying that … just remarking (based on your précis) that Miller clearly is. In fact, what he’s saying is worse even than just that; he’s saying that rationality is SO terribly hard that we MUST actively reject rationality in all its forms, and get as far away from it as possible.

          How awful it must be, for Miller and his theist ilk, to have to endure the horrific burden of being faced with those rational non-believer types. Why, they must be SILENCED! How DARE these insidious, insolent creatures dare tell anyone to be rational about anything! Why, it can’t be allowed!!


          Sorry about that, I’ll get out of the way now … !

    • Jp

      Correct me if I’m wrong, but the bottom line of your argument appears to be that since 1.) our subconscious minds are not rational and 2.) we all experience thing that can’t be regarded as evidence in the traditional sense, it’s entirely reasonable that different people will have somewhat different assumptions about the world. Therefore, as it is implied, people who choose to interpret/model the world through the lens of some ‘transrational faith’ are not to be criticized.

      I’d point out a few problems with this idea. First, you seem to have a unorthodox definition of subconscious mind. The subconscious mind is simply those parts of it that aren’t in active focus. At any given moment, the vast majority of information (here being knowledge and prior experience) contained within our brain is subconscious, and we access only small portions of it at a time (i.e. recalling names, directions, images, etc.). The idea that our subconscious somehow has access to a whole bunch of information that our conscious mind can’t access just doesn’t follow, since the conscious mind is just bringing into focus information from the subscious mind.

      Next, I find your claim that our unique, individual experiences ‘just as valid’ as concrete experiences to be non-sensical. Just as valid in what way? Valid in the sense that they are real? I’ll agree with that. Abstractions could reasonable be said to be as real as the concrete entities that give rise to them. But are they accurate and useful? That’s a different matter. A model may well be said to be real, even if it has no material substance. But that model is predicting things that are material, and it can therefore be evaluated as either good or bad based on how well the predictions of the model line up with our observations. So maybe someone’s ephemeral, talk with god-type moment was a real experience for them. The feelings they had were undoubtedly real. But did they actually talk to some supernatural entity? We have other explanations (like hallucinations) that seem much more likely and fit with the reality observed by the rest of us.

      Finally, the ‘it’s just a model’ thing. A model is an explanation, based on information, that makes predictions, and your criticisms of models are apt. Yes, they are always imperfect, because they represent a simplified/incomplete view of extremely complex, ‘noisy’ phenomena. Yes, they are built upon assumptions, in that they are built upon other models that may or may not be any good. But you seem eager to overplay these criticisms to allow for the use of very bad (that is, inaccurate and not useful) models while simultaneously disregarding the benefits of better ones. For example, you state that the existence of objective reality is an assumption. I’d challenge you to view it as a model. As a model, it explains our common experiences by positing that we all exist, in so far as anything exists, in the same objective reality that any of us can observe, regardless of individual experience. Is there good
      evidence that contradicts this model? Do the predictions of a subjective model (that we should have little, if any, common experience) better explain the world around us?

      • kessy_athena

        Sometimes I wonder why we humans have such a tendency to jump to the extremes of a spectrum. I was arguing that a model that is based on different assumptions is not automatically invalid, which is a long way from saying that those models shouldn’t be criticized. That’s silly – *all* ideas are open to criticism.

        I don’t have a background in psychology, so I may well be using the term “subconscious” incorrectly. Perhaps “unconscious mind” is the term I was looking for? I’m not sure of the nuances of the distinction. In any case, there are certainly plenty of mental processes that are not a part of the conscious mind. For example, consider how vision works. The average human eye has about 120 million rods and 6 – 7 million cones, and captures 28 images per second. That’s an immense amount of raw data, far more then the conscious mind could possibly deal with. And yet we not only process that data, but correct for things like our blind spot and the fact that the retina is a curved surface without even thinking about it. The images our conscious minds get represent only a fraction of that data, and there can be surprisingly large gaps in it, such as the invisible gorilla.

        I think I’ll use the term “unverifiable” to describe experiences that would not make good evidence for reasons such as being ephemeral, unrepeatable, only observable by a single person, etc. I’m not talking about abstract ideas here, I’m talking about things that happen, that people experience, that just may be strange or rare or hard to replicate. If you see some very strange looking object in the sky, that is a real experience. That doesn’t mean it was an alien spaceship, or that it was even necessarily a solid object in the sky. The experience was real, but the interpretation (two different things!) is equivocal. But just because you don’t have a satisfactory interpretation doesn’t mean you should ignore it or treat it as an illusion. If that strange object in the sky turns out to be a solid whatever, it presents a safety hazard for air traffic.

        Whether a model is accurate or useful depends very much on what you’re trying to use it for. Contemplating the meaning of life is very different from calculating the trajectory of a rocket, and has different criteria for usefulness. And it’s often a good idea to keep contradictory models for use in different circumstances, such as quantum and classical mechanics. A particular model may be very bad in one application and very good in another.

        Also keep in mind that the usefulness of a model is a different issue from the question of whether or not it reflects what objective reality is “really” like. And when I pointed out that it’s an assumption that there’s even such a thing as objective reality, I was referring to solipsism. There’s no guarantee that anything (including other people) outside your own mind is objectively real and not just a mental projection. Subjective reality is the only reality we can ever experience. Now it’s certainly true that solipsism isn’t really a terribly useful idea. But setting it aside because it’s not useful is not the same thing as completely rejecting it because it’s wrong.

        • Jp

          Points well taken. I recall seeing the gorilla video once before, and, like most people, I totally missed it. It says a lot about the unreliability of our senses and our tendency to unwittingly delude ourselves into creating false memories in order to fit some desired narrative (so much for eye witness testimony).

          However, the phrase ‘unconscious mind’ calls to mind a sort of Freudian psychoanalysis angle, which, to my knowledge, is no longer accepted by most psychologists and is widely regarded as pseudoscience. At least some have dropped the word in favor of terms like ‘automatic’ to describe cognitive processes that occur beyond our conscious awareness. Or, at least, that’s what wikipedia says – I’m no psychologist myself ; )

  • PsiCop

    Quoted: “But what qualifies as evidence? That determination can only be made by referencing your worldview. For example, a Christian may accept a personal revelation gained through prayer as evidence of God’s existence.”

    This is a straw man. It’s not really hard to qualify or define “evidence.” It should be objective and verifiable. That is, it must be something anyone can test for themselves and confirm. It should have veracity, without regard to who’s looking at it.

    In the case of a “personal revelation,” such a thing is always subjective in nature. It’s possible that multiple people might experience the same or similar “personal revelations,” but it’s also quite possible (and even quite likely, given how religions like Christianity are fractured into so many sects) that different people get very different “personal revelations.” One person’s “revelation” is another person’s “delusion.” In the aggregate, they have no veracity and cannot logically be thought of as “evidence” of anything.

    To throw up one’s hands, as Miller does, at having to figure out what “evidence” is, and deciding that everyone’s “evidence” must constitute “evidence” merely because s/he says it’s “evidence,” is laughable, asinine, and even cowardly. Yes, I understand folks like Miller are unwilling to tell their fellow theists, “Yes, I know you think you’ve had a ‘revelation’ and are convinced of its veracity, but the rest of us haven’t had it, and we haven’t verified it, so we can’t just take your word for it … sorry.” I really do get that things like that are not comfortable. But too bad. He and the rest need to do it. It’s not wrong to challenge anyone (whether theist, or otherwise) as to what “evidence” they’ve based their ideas on, then test them.

    No wonder Miller has to resort to throwing around non sequiturs like “atheist fundamentalism.” Yes, I get that he doesn’t like Dawkins. I get that he and his co-religionists do not accept that atheists and other non-believers should be allowed to discuss or even mention their non-belief. They MUST, in the view of theists, be UNSEEN and SILENT. Theists view vocal non-believers as insolent and diabolical, and hurl around absurd accusations of “fundamentalism” at them. That’s a juvenile attitude, and it needs to stop already.

    • JohnMWhite


      Really, a lot of this attitude seems to come from fear and a sense of special privilege. For atheists to simply express “there doesn’t seem to be any evidence for god as far as we can see” is frightening and taken as an assault; for theists to say “I have evidence for god, somewhere inside my own head” is completely acceptable. The latter cannot withstand the former. Theists, by and large, simply get upset at being told they don’t even know what counts as evidence by people who to their mind ought not to let their existence be known. I wonder if this comes from the fact that having a personal revelation in your head seems a lot less sensible as evidence the more you meet people who don’t talk to an invisible entity.