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Repost of a Christian-Atheist Dialogue

Repost of a Christian-Atheist Dialogue December 19, 2007

What follows is a lengthy discussion I had with an atheist earlier this year on my old blog. I thought it might be of interest to regular readers and to new visitors from Pharyngula and elsewhere around the blogosphere where I have been involved in conversations.

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Andrew Krause was kind enough to send me an e-mail with comments that were too long for the ‘comments’ function on the web page. I am reproducing his e-mail below, with his permission:

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James McGrath:

I checked out your website and while I saw much intelligent commentary across several of your blogs and references, I did not find one mention of the “narrow way” there. Nor did I find one particularly cohesive argument that I might have inferred to be the “narrow way”. I must have missed it or it isn’t there, so please elaborate.

Nevertheless, I find much to agree with in your blogs. If you read mine, then you saw that I acknowledge the divisiveness of Dawkins. Here are just two quotes:

The fact that you may think Dawkins is an overly strident, intolerant, arrogant, know-it-all does not make your argument correct or his more likely to be wrong even if he is all those things. … It might amuse you to know that Dawkins is so perceived by many atheists as well. I used to be among them to some degree. After all, I grew up being told I was going to hell and I didn’t want to fight that intolerance with intolerance of my own.

I cannot fully disagree with those who say Dawkins turns off many people who we might hope can be rationally awakened. He does. But there are many who would not wake up from a more moderate voice. There is a place for Dawkins. By analogy, he is the pit-bull Malcolm X in contrast to the moderate Martin Luther King. I would argue that both types have their place and necessity in hastening a better world – a world where many fanatical irrational groups will eventually be able to acquire WMDs. Otherwise, I don’t think our civilization will survive this century.

On balance, I think that Dawkins aids the cause of reason more than he hurts it. But I would concede that his message is probably best suited to fence-sitters and for mobilizing those who already share his beliefs.

Think about the original promulgation of the Christian faith (and most other faiths). Its success cannot be credited just to those who espoused an inclusional, moderate, loving, turn-the-other-cheek approach. It owes its existence at least equally to saints and martyrs who would certainly be said to be far more militant, arrogant and strident than Dawkins. In fact, some were even torturers and murderers.

So I agree that Dawkins is a militant figure. And if that causes you to reach out to moderate atheists and believers to counter the dangers of faith (as Dawkins/Harris define it), while securing a future for what you believe faith in God should be about, that’s great! I remember as a boy hearing from the fence-sitters on the race issue. Many just wished blacks (like atheists today), would somehow just disappear. Many were moved to follow the path of MLK mostly because they feared the alternative and more extreme paths espoused by Malcolm X or the Black Panthers. So if you feel militant atheists mock and insult the faithful and threaten to one day marginalize your beliefs, then continue your good work to encourage reason and education to make religion and its professed “true believers” less rationally ridiculous.

You don’t like Dawkins semantics for faith, religion, and God and your attacks on him are primarily a pirouette around his semantics. I don’t believe Dawkins is as ignorant as you suggest about the other possible meanings for God and faith. However, I would hope that you would concede that his definitions probably cover >90% of the “faithful”. You are as much on the fringe in some of your positions as he is. In order to address your highly refined and moderate interpretations probably would have required doubling the size of his book and muddling his message.

I also think you need to take some of Dawkins semantics on face value and go from there. It is not fair for you or others to redefine faith, against Dawkins arguments, as anything other than believing without evidence. Dawkins’ argument (and I like Harris’ better) is not so much for science vs. faith as it is about reason vs. faith. Science is just one manifestation of reason just as religion is only one manifestation of faith. I think that Dawkins muddles this sometimes but Harris does not. To paraphrase Harris, no society has ever suffered from becoming too reasonable. But many have suffered from too much faith. I also believe that societies have suffered from too little reason and see no evidence that having insufficient faith has damaged any culture.

So in essence, as I define faith (congruent with Dawkins and Harris), it is not compatible with reason in making meaningful decisions about the universe or our lives. My challenge to you is to identify and explain those attitudes, beliefs, and actions, on both a personal and societal level, that really require faith with or without reason. And then explain how your superior way of faith cannot be achieved or matched through reason alone.

I would welcome debating you on these topics and others. I believe that you are a rational voice for good even though I disagree with many of your views and semantics.

Best regards,

Andy

The Narrow Way

April 9, 2007 12:13

Thank you Andy for your thoughtful reply to my post about Richard Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion. Let me begin my reply by commenting on the idea of the ‘narrow way’, which was itself an allusion to one of two phrases sometimes used in connection with the teaching of Jesus: On the one hand, there is reference to a ‘narrow way’ that does not simply go along with the way the majority is headed. On the other hand, there are places particularly in the Sermon on the Mount that seem to teach a ‘third way’ or an alternative to two main possible responses to oppression and powerlessness in that time, namely resolute but non-violent resistance and protest, as an alternative to either passivity or violent revolution. It was perhaps your reference to Malcolm X and Martin Luther King that brought the idea to mind, but I ought to have explained further what I meant. In essence, I was referring to finding a middle ground, not so much as an absolute position, but in recognitions that there are alternatives to the extreme viewpoints that often get the most press nowadays, and that it is possible to preserve the creative tensions between apparent opposites in a way that can be personally and even socially beneficial. Mind and heart, body and soul, classic and innovative, old and new – the idea of a ‘narrow way’ is my way of referring to an ideal of finding a way of preserving what is good in apparent opposites. I do this both out of conviction and pragmatically – it is precisely the feeling that there is a baby in the bathwater Dawkins throws out that leads many people to object to his stance.

I’ve been reading Daniel Dennett’s book Breaking the Spell and interestingly enough, he raises the question of whether the race issue was helped or harmed by being made the focus of so much attention. He doesn’t claim to know the answer, and nor do I, but I certainly see the aftereffects of polarization, and can see parallels with the Christianity-evolution situation. In the early days of Darwin’s theory, there were a great many supporters of the theory who were also people of faith and did not see any conflict. Indeed, it might be argued that it was the misuse of evolution as supposed justification for a whole range of evils (including worldviews all the way from Capitalism to Communism) that probably led many to feel that their values were under attack. And so, on the one hand, it is my concern that Dawkins and others like him will continue to give the impression that evolution is intrinsically incompatible with their faith, and that this just perpetuates people feeling justified in their scientific ignorance, which is the opposite of what Dawkins (and you and I) would see as a desirable outcome. But since I don’t know the answer to the question of when excessive militancy leads to the unfortunate and unintended consequence of perpetuating the injustice being opposed, and neither do I know the answer to the question of when seeking gradual change plays into the hands of those supporting the status quo, I will forego trying to make further use of this analogy here, since from my perspective, it is relating two or more unknowns.

As for faith and its definition, it may be true that the English word in its modern usage has connotations of believing without evidence. But it is not difficult to show that this is not the classic Christian usage. The New Testament Greek word translated by “faith” has connotations of trust, of faithfulness. There certainly have been religious believers in all ages that have been opposed to reason, and I am not interested in disputing that. But I am interested in disputing their interpretation of “faith” and of the Christian faith in particular, as well as disputing the impression such people have given and continue to give that faith and reason are fundamentally opposed.

For me, faith is about an attitude. It is an attitude that is expressed in and shared by many religious traditions, and it is one that people without any particular religious faith or worldview have also had. It is, in essence, the response of awe to existence (not only our existence), and a humble recognition that we are not ultimate (or in other words not God) and do not have a God’s eye view of the universe or of our place in it. For me, and for other believers like me, this leads to humility and an awareness of my own human limitations. It does not lead me to seek scientific information in pre-scientific texts, or to fear increases in our understanding of the natural world or of our own selves. If you ask me what is religious about this, the answer is that I interpret our place in the universe as being meaningful. I would be the first to admit that any language I may use to speak about God, ultimate reality, transcendence and the spiritual is not only intrinsically metaphorical but intrinsically inadequate. But I do not see an alternative to the use of such language in avoiding reductionism and the suggestion that life is either ultimately meaningless or that meaning is something that we each individually give to life, or perhaps give to it on the level of cultures or even species. My language of God and faith is an expression of trust and hope that life is ultimately meaningful. This does not lead me to conclude that my own individual personality and ego will survive death. But it does lead me to hope that my species may survive extinction, and that all that we create as a species will not simply be obliterated in a cosmic catastrophe that marks an ultimate end to everything our universe may ever produce. Once again, I would be the first to admit that these hopes are an interpretation of the universe and not something inherently part of the data it provides, nor something that I feel one can rationally prove or disprove. For faith, in the sense that I am using the term, to be “rational”, I require that it be in agreement with available evidence; it does not necessarily have to be a conclusion required by the evidence.

If there are levels of existence that transcend us and connect us all as part of something bigger, could we ever hope to see that, much less prove it, from our perspective? To use my favorite analogy, if we were cells in a human body, could we ever prove that there is a transcendent organism that unifies us? Could we ever find language that would adequately express what a human being is like? In short, is there anything more that we could attain than a mere hope and trust that there is transcendence, and meaning, and unity to our disperate existences beyond the horizons of our limited perspectives?

I’m not certain that I’ve addressed all your concerns – but that is what dialogue is for, so I’ll ask you to reply and ask more questions, if you’re willing. But I will conclude by summarizing that for me faith is part of my overall worldview which seeks to appreciate aspects of existence which I believe are compatible with reason but are not simply reducible to it. I think that, whatever accounts a biologist or a neuroscientist may give of the processes involved in falling in love, those are not a replacement for the experience. As I write this, I am listening to a new release on the Naxos label, Carson Cooman’s Symphonies Nos. 2 & 3. I have no doubt that there are ways of analysing this music in terms of reason, as well as in terms of the history of music, aesthetics, physics, and in other ways. My faith is my way of saying that there is more to that, that acknowledging beauty and wonder is not simply a misguided human response to aspects of our existence, but does in fact tell us something about the nature of reality itself.

Let me also add one more transcendent component of experience, namely humor, since I have just finished reading The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I remember a presentation on the philosophy of humor given soon after I began working at Butler Universityby a colleague who was soon to retire. Philosophers do not yet understand what makes something funny, nor do biologists – nor do I, my students would say! I do not think that attempts to understand the workings of humor are a threat to humor, and I am persuaded that current anti-scientific stances adopted by religious believers are the equivalent of late-night talk show hosts seeking to oppose scientific investigations into humor. But I equally feel that anyone who treated scientific advances as somehow undermining humor would also be equally misguided – indeed, laughable! 🙂 This is not because I think humor is in a special category and should be exempted from investigation, but because I think that it would be a mistake to confuse explaining humor scientifically with experiencing humor. In the same way, I support scientific investigation of the universe and all it contains, and yet find I still need the language of faith to express my conviction that there are other legitimate levels and perspectives on which to look at it.

[This discussion is between two bloggers, and thus it can also be followed at http://darwiniana.com/2006/10/23/marilynne-robinson-on-dawkins/#comment-68728]

Discussion Continues

April 10, 2007 08:43

James:

Thank you for the dialogue and another thoughtful submission. I find I’m enjoying these debates lately so much I’m not getting any productive work done. But I’m procrastinating for fun. God would approve wouldn’t He? Or is procrastination a sin?

Anyway, let me first say that I cannot significantly disagree with anything in your first two paragraphs. In fact, I’ve had the same thoughts as you expressed and decided to play just one side of things for my argument. In reality, I’m on the fence, I’ve been a moderate if occasionally noisy heathen most of my life and only lately have I been tiptoeing in the militant’s playpen. I think there is sound reasoning and historical evidence to support both your argument and mine. You may well be right and I wouldn’t bet against you here. Revolutions, like the one I wish to see, do not succeed for good unless militants meld with moderates like you (and me?) at the right time and under the right conditions. Militants are volatile and potentially dangerous catalysts. History will judge.

Now let’s move on to the semantics of “faith”. You are correct, of course, from an historical Christian perspective, on the wider meaning of faith. So the wording of my admonition to you to stick with Dawkins’ definition could certainly have been interpreted as arrogantly ignorant, as I think it did to Mr. Allen who commented on my previous blabbering too.

Where I think you both may miss the point is that I believe it was correct for Dawkins to distill his argument in faith as belief without evidence because that is at the essence of its putative opposition to reason. You have given me a cogent personal and historical Christian definition for faith I’m not sure most believers, much less most theologians and philosophers, would agree with. I am no theologian but I’m sure you would agree that we could get into a very involved argument on this subject alone. How many theologians have earned their degrees on this one topic I wonder? Of course, you shouldn’t blame Dawkins for not wishing to fall into that trap.

I think you need to accept and address Dawkins’ simplified semantic distillation in your arguments at face value and use your ancillary lemmas and definitions for faith to explain why faith, as Dawkins defines it, isn’t really at the proper center of the debate (I think Kant and Kierkegaard would agree with Dawkins on this point, despite their alignment with you). I believe you have failed to do that in your response to me. Moreover, Dawkins has clearly anticipated your response and deliberately made his semantic adjustments to prevent what I believe promotes, rather than elucidates, semantic distortions that muddle arguments common in theology. Frankly, Dawkins does address your subjective attitudinal issues on faith (e.g., awe and transcendence), but he does so in the parts of his book devoted to the scientific explanation of spiritual and mystical phenomena. Incidentally, in my opinion, Sam Harris does a much better job at this than Dawkins and I’m no Dawkins groupie, or Harris groupie for that matter. I also wish to assert, as we carry on this debate, that my ideas are my own and I do not wish to be tied to those of others anymore. I’m no apologist either.

Since I’m on my own two feet, I’ll also add my own two cents to your views on faith as beyond believing without evidence. You are essentially making claims to a type of evidence in your definition for faith which is tautologic. Moreover, you need to explain how people like me exist who do not believe in God and yet also experience awe, transcendence, and even rare amazing experiences like hypnogogic dreaming (in my case) that would certainly be explained by many religious people as religious “miracles”. Of course, I anticipate that your answer may be that was God tapping on my shoulder and I refused to listen. But since this tapping has been going on throughout the ages on people of all faiths, or lack thereof, many without the benefit of scripture or knowledge of your god, the burden is on you to prove that, especially when there are alternative plausible scientific explanations. Can you understand why I believe your registration of such feelings with God probably has more to do with the religious indoctrination (a form of brainwashing in my opinion) that you likely received in Sunday school and/or via family, cultural, and peer pressure (as I experienced too and found hard to resist)? This is more in line with historical fact and evidence and is a major reason why Dawkins is so against such indoctrination and the labeling of children as Christian, Muslim, etc. I agree with him and have seen the damaging effects of same in my own family not to mention the world.

As you can see from my other blogs, I am both a dualist and physicalist who realizes there are some puzzling gaps. But to paraphrase myself, “Science is just one manifestation of reason just as religion is only one manifestation of faith.” The fact that your subjective experiences may be outside science in some ways (which I do not yet concede) does not mean they are beyond the analysis of reason. Just because we lack a science of the subjective today does not mean we always will. I have a connectionist neuroscience background and emergent properties simulated in the lab can seem miraculous, but they aren’t since I can create them (unless you’d like to give up now and acknowledge I’m God ;-)).

I think you make some truly beautiful and elegant points on the nature of humility, aesthetics, humor, and the meaning of life. I don’t think by your prose even you are claiming those as a strong argument for God. I think your point of view here is best summed up when you say, “I have no doubt that there are ways of analyzing this music in terms of reason, as well as in terms of the history of music, aesthetics, physics, and in other ways. My faith is my way of saying that there is more to that, that acknowledging beauty and wonder is not simply a misguided human response to aspects of our existence, but does in fact tell us something about the nature of reality itself.”

If you substitute “intuition” for “faith” I couldn’t agree with you more (in fact, try that substitution throughout your blogs and see if that tells you something). Perhaps you would be surprised to learn that I, like most atheists, share your sense of wonder, awe, humility, and transcendence in our appreciation of nature and our approach to our fellow man. I certainly feel gratitude that I should be so fortunate to have been given this life even though I have no god to express it to. Understanding the essence of something, like the nature of a rainbow, does not make it less awesome to me. It’s the other way around. I believe that many scientists have even more appreciation of this transcendent feeling than non-scientists because not only do they see the beauty of nature but the intrinsic beauty and elegance in the underlying mathematics and logic as well (which, unfortunately, most laymen never experience). Yes, some scientists, even a few brilliant ones, see this as even more evidence for God. But they are in the minority, an amazing fact considering the pressures and indoctrination to believe in God in our society and where >94% of Americans believe in God..

Please do not confuse intuition with faith as many do. Although we do not fully understand intuition, it has a rational basis as the mind’s subconscious ability to rapidly recognize patterns and meaning without conscious thinking. It is often wrong but it is right far more often than chance would allow. There are many reasons for intuition to have evolved, not least of which is that when a lion leapt out at us in the jungle, we often didn’t have time to reason about it. We just had to run like hell. Likewise, most champion chess players make decisions they can’t fully explain when push comes to shove. So intuition is rather like imperfect shadow reasoning and like science, it makes testable decisions that can be refined through experience, just as morality can be tested and improved by observing it’s consequences. If our minds are at least partially hardwired for faith, as they are for language, this could also explain much of your subjective nature with or without added indoctrination. For you to fall back on intuition is based on rationality to some degree. To fall back on faith is not (as I define faith).

So I clearly don’t buy your subjective argument for faith. Moreover, I find your deductions concerning life’s meaning to be very limited and almost degrading in some ways, especially for someone who presumably understands and apparently appreciates the writings of Carl Sagan. I think that the meaning of life is limitless without God and far richer unless God’s meaning for our lives is also truly limitless (I can argue it isn’t, in fact the Bible suggests it’s highly constrained – but let’s not argue this much). In fact, the two views could be identical with or without God since we have free will (I think). This is where I depart from many freethinkers in my philosophy. One non-theistic approach to defining meaning for our lives, as you say, is simply as we define it as individuals. But I believe that’s too simplistic and misses context, dimensionality, and multiplicity. Did you see the movie A Beautiful Mind and can you recall Nash’s thought experiment in Game Theory as how to best score with the babes in the bar in competition and cooperation with his comrades? He makes the statement, that contrary to Adam Smith’s purely selfish theory, the best way to score was to do what’s best for the individual and the group. Yes, perhaps the ultimate meaning of life is to optimize our reproduction. I’m not even sure that’s true except in the narrow context of Darwinian evolution. Rather, the rich tapestry of our meaning is colored by other contexts of how we live our lives to that end with our hopes, talents, family, tribe, country, culture, and race infinitely arrayed. I love my job, my family and am part of a culture that sought for and reached the moon and that all gives my life and those around mine meaning. Should we reach the stars and conquer the galaxy, or evolve into some higher intelligence, that will add to our meaning too even after we die. Maybe man’s deriviative purpose is to convert the matter of our universe into an infinite computer that can create its own universes – like God.

My son is an artist. I think artists are more important in history today than ever before, in large part, because I am a transhumanist. I believe that what defines man is going to be the central question, danger, and opportunity if and after we get beyond our current cultural and religious struggles. We need to face these issues soon with both objective and subjective rationality. I believe that art will better enable us to understand who we are before science can catch up. I think religion will lead to ruin unless you’re content to be Amish as we face a singularity where man’s intelligence can be vastly superceded or potentially fused with intelligence beyond what anyone alive today can imagine. To such an intelligence, man today may seem to be as the ants in the garden.

If and when we get there, I suspect many of the questions you and I have will be answered, or found to be theoretically undecidable analogous to Goedel’s Theorem. Unless your claim is that God can make 2+2=5 and break logic, these would be laws that even He couldn’t break. As such, these questions would become meaningless leaving God as an unnecessary and hollow deity.

The aforementioned is actually an overkill answer to your favorite analogy, “if we were cells in a human body, could we ever prove that there is a transcendent organism that unifies us? Could we ever find language that would adequately express what a human being is like?” Let me take out the sci-fi imagination and bring it down a notch to the more practical. First, I think you should revise your argument – perhaps to make it more like Chomsky’s on dualism and language since I think he is arguing better for your position than you are. Otherwise, your analogy fails immediately since cells have absolutely no qualia or ability to think or reason and little, if any, ability to sense and communicate beyond their immediate neighborhood. So your analogy doesn’t work. If the cells could think and sense and communicate they could certainly discover their “transcendent” larger organism.

There is a good argument there for you to make, but you haven’t done so. Without taking the time to make your argument better, let me simply concede, as I did in a previous blog, that man’s mind may have inherent limitations that prevent him from attaining certain types of knowledge just as a dog will never understand Plato. However, that doesn’t mean that a more evolved and superior form of extraterrestrial or artificial intelligence couldn’t exist that could attain such knowledge. You also need to accept that by reason and logic, mathematical and physical proofs exist showing that certain types of propositions are undecidable and/or unknowable as I stated previously.

Now, if God is pure physical transcendence, apart from and above all physical processes, you might have a half-decent argument for a god, but it would be a god virtually devoid of meaning or concern to men since we could never see him or visit him in any way. But I assume that like most Christians, you believe that God interacts with our world, whether he listens to prayers, performs miracles, harvests souls from our brain, or simply created it and set it adrift. If you believe this then God is testable, at least in part, by science and reason. Just as invisible particles leave vapor trails, God’s fingerprints would be everywhere. This will be difficult for you to reconcile unless you suppose God to be a trickster who likes to wipe off all his fingerprints. Maybe those fundamentalists are right then who say he also plants phony fossils and background microwave radiation to allow Satan to tempt our minds with sinful theories like evolution and the Big Bang.

I’d like to tie up my argument with some questions on faith that have always puzzled me about a God that is supposedly good, just, and omniscient and who, among other things, is said to have sent his only son as a teacher and pathway to Him. These questions are actually excerpted and paraphrased from another blog I wrote in at RichardDawkins.net. Please use my definition for faith (believing without evidence) in framing your reply but feel free to expand upon it as your argument dictates.

Mark 10:15 (New King James Version)

Assuredly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it.

 

Luke 18:17 (New King James Version)

Assuredly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it.

Aside from Faith in God/Religion, can you tell me where faith is ever a virtue (a good) for a mature adult person? And if you can make that argument, can you tell me where it ever should trump reason (again, outside God/Religion)?

I understand how faith in authority can have evolutionary benefits, especially for children where it is apparently hard-wired. But children lack knowledge and reasoning ability. Otherwise faith as a suffix of hope seems a dangerous last resort in leading to any positive action.

I can’t find any evidence that there is any regime (leaving God/religion aside) where adult reliance on faith can be expected to produce positive consequences. But the evidence for the contrary is legion. If you agree with me, why would a just, loving, and omniscient God wish to set the precedent and example that such faith is good? What good in man is God encouraging that we must meet him by faith rather than by evidence and reason? Otherwise, I can only conclude that God wishes us to embrace ways of thinking that can only screw us up before we get to heaven, or hell.

Please explain, because I’ve never been able to understand that.

Best regards,

Andy

Delayed Reply About Procrastination

April 10, 2007 12:19

Thank you, Andy, for another thoughtful and thought-provoking reply! Perhaps it will spare us a needless argument over semantics if I cede Dawkins’ point about faith as he defines it, and make my argument that faith, from a Christian perspective, ought to be something different a separate issue, which we can leave to one side for the time being.

I am not at all surprised by the fact that atheists (or, at least, people who consider themselves atheists) have experienced transcendence, awe, and even striking psychological phenomena. When I speak about God, I am not talking about one being among others, but about existence itself, Reality with a capital ‘R’, within which we live, and move, and exist, and of which we are a part. Probably no one has ever put this better than Paul Tillich in a famous passage from his The Shaking on the Foundations:

The name of infinite and inexhaustible depth and ground of our being is God. That depth is what the word God means. And if that word has not much meaning for you, translate it, and speak of the depths of your life, of the source of your being, of your ultimate concern, of what you take seriously without any reservation. Perhaps, in order to do so, you must forget everything traditional that you have learned about God, perhaps even that word itself. For if you know that God means depth, you know much about Him. You cannot then call yourself an atheist or unbeliever. For you cannot think or say: Life has no depth! Life itself is shallow. Being itself is surface only. If you could say this in complete seriousness, you would be an atheist; but otherwise you are not.

As for the Christian language I use (metaphorically and symbolically) to point to this characteristic of reality, it certainly must have something to do with upbringing, but the same could be said about the fact that I use English to discuss this subject. The two main reasons I use Christian language are as follows. One is because I had a profound religious experience of being “born again” in a Christian context. The other is because I have not found an alternative language that I think does better justice to the reality I am trying to speak about than this.

This is not to say that other language – your own language of transcendence, and that of other religious traditions – is somehow less adequate. My point is rather that I cannot try on these other languages and the experiences they relate to and still be true to my own experience. Nonetheless, I do recognize in the mystics of other traditions (in particular Sufism, but also Buddhism, Hinduism, and Judaism, to mention the few about which I have even a superficial knowledge) that the experience of reality that they express in different metaphors is the same sort of experience. The medieval Sufi poet Mahmud Shabistari said something similar:

When “I” and “You” are absent, I’ve no idea if this is a mosque, synagogue, church, or temple

Most mystics, cognizant of the ineffable quality of their experience, have agreed. Obviously this is not your modern Islamic fundamentalism. I won’t try to suggest that fundamentalism does not have deep roots in all major religious traditions, but I still want to maintain that, historicall, it has never been the whole story.

I hope I made clear in previous posts that I do not find explanation of how something works to be in any way in conflict with an appreciation of it as a whole. My own personal religious experience was psychological – if it were not, it wouldn’t be an experience, by definition! But even if such mystical and spiritual experiences really tell us about ourselves, we are part of existence, and so the very existence of people who have such experiences seems to me to tell us something about the world. But my whole point with the multiple-levels is that explaining something on one level is not in competition with its meaningfulness in completely different sorts of ways on another level. I’m sure on this basic point we don’t disagree – it is simply the idea of emergent properties – even though we might disagree on its application to religion.

At any rate, I don’t think I am confusing intuition and faith. In a sense, faith is a form of intuition – it may involve certain beliefs about the world, but it is more fundamentally an interpretation of the world and of our place in it. If we take this point back a few thousand years, I don’t think any human being doubted that either storms and earthquakes were themselves personal forces, or that there were personal forces behind those phenomena. Religion was not about these common beliefs about the nature of reality per se, but a response to this understanding of the world. Now that we know so much more about the world, our response to such phenomena ought to be different. But a reverent response to that which lies beyond the horizon of our understanding and our control is not necessarily inappropriate in and of itself. At any rate, as science advances, our understanding of reality grows, and thus our view of God (for those of us who have one) grows as well. Moving closer to our time, when Galileo and his contemporaries debated cosmology, they were not debating the appropriateness of belief in the ultimate, nor were they debating the appropriateness of reverence and worship. They were debating philosophy (particularly the legacy of Aristotle), and they were debating science in response to new data. I have not seen evidence that there were not approaches to these matters that were both concerned with reason and deeply pious on both sides of the debate. The root problem with fundamentalism is that it tries to impose on people in the present a world view from the past. That paradigm shifts happen slowly, and that we do not too readily revise our worldviews, is not necessarily a problem. It is those who cling for dear life to an outmoded view of the world, make it part and parcel of their religion, and want to require it of others that give religion a bad name. Yet I have yet to find a Biblical author who clings stubbornly to an outmoded worldview. By New Testament times, the Ptolemaic view of the world, with the Earth as a sphere at the center and the heavens moving around it, had gained acceptance, and it is reflected in their writings. Of course, if any of them did cling to an earlier view, it would just show that they have the same human tendencies as we see today, and that is scarcely in doubt. But few have made the point as clearly and as cogently as Rudolf Bultmann that if the insight of the Biblical writings depends on accepting a pre-scientific worldview, then no one can be a Christian; on the other hand, it may be that the insights these authors expressed in and through the mythological language of their pre-scientific worldview can be reinterpreted and have meaning in our own context today, having been appropriately demythologized.

I certainly didn’t mean to degrade those who find religious language inappropriate as a way of expressing their experience of the world, including the transcendent, nor did I mean to suggest that those who declare themselves atheists necessarily lack appreciation of beauty, meaning, and the various “other levels”. Nor does any of that detract from or conflict with science. Indeed, some physicists have suggested that a theorem’s beauty is more likely to be an indication that it is correct than its coherence with observation! That, however, may be taking things too far. That intuition, however, is (I would argue) a sort of faith stance – a conviction that beauty is fundamental to the working of the universe. This faith is not necessarily wrong. I might even go so far as to suggest (with Tillich) that anyone who genuinely appreciates transcendence and meaning as genuine facets of reality are not truly atheists – unless, as Dawkins tries to argue, anyone who believes in Einstein’s God is really an atheist. But not believing in a supernatural God is not the same as not believing in God, as far as we theologians are concerned. It just means that one is a pantheist or a panentheist rather than a theist.

Just as views of gods as storms and natural phenomena, and then of gods as the causes behind the phenomena, and then the view of one big God who rolls them all into one, have all outlived some of their usefulness, eventually even the personal, human language will outlive its usefulness, if our species survives into the distant future. Because, as you point out, our descendants in the very far future may be any number of things, but one thing they won’t be is human beings in the form we are today. But those of us who are aware that our language of transcendence is intrinsically metaphorical have no objection when new metaphors replace old ones, as our understanding of the universe expands.

I am not seeking, in all of this, to argue for a classic theistic or even deistic view of God. Whether that means that God is therefore insignificant is another question. Cell may not have the ability to ponder their existence, even on the most rudimentary level, but that is part of my point – that that which transcends us is not simply a big version of us, like the view of God as a bigger, more powerful and wiser version of ourselves, with his finger ever hovering above the ‘SMITE’ button. To suggest that this larger reality of which we are a part is insignificant seems to me to be suggesting that we ourselves are insignificant, and that the emergent phenomena distinctive of human existence are insignificant. I think that a God who isn’t just a big person, and who doesn’t change the laws of physics simply because I ask him to when I’m having a bad day, can be far more impressive and worthy of respect than one who does. But here too I am using an analogy with parental experience of my own, which may or may not be appropriate. I am aware that anything I might affirm about God is bound to be inadequate and has a high probability of being wrong, and thus my quest is to understand God and the universe, which are not for me separate quests. There is more to be known than we can ever know, as Dawkins affirms at the end of his book, and this affirmation of mystery is (for both him and me) a reason to keep seeking to understand, rather than a way of cutting short discussion and investigation. As another Sufi, Abd al-Qadir, who lived in Algeria in the 19th century, put it, “The search has no end: the knowledge of God has no end. He can not be known. He can only be known by that which proceeds from Him, as effects of His names, not His ipseity”.

In response to your question about childlike faith, I am not persuaded that these ancient authors had anything like our modern psychological understanding of children and their willingness to believe, and that that is what the passages you quoted emphasized. More likely is that this was yet another teaching about the need for humility, for those who follow Jesus to take on the status of the very least in the society, rather than seeking their own honor (as they had been taught since childhood, in accordance with prevailing cultural values). As for the place of faith among the mature, let me finish this already lengthy post by quoting 1 Corinthians 13:

For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect; but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood. So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

I am not an inerrantist, and I do not think that just because Paul or any other New Testament author says this, it makes it automatically credible or applicable today. But I do think these authors had important insights, and when I call myself a Christian, I am seeking to keep those insights alive today, while also showing the willingness to revise earlier beliefs in light of new circumstances and situations that the New Testament authors themselves demonstrated.

Best wishes,

James

Continuing Conversation

April 11, 2007 08:33

Wow, James. And to think I was worried I covered too much ground in my last post for one sitting 😉 If we keep up this debate for much longer, I expect your university to grant me a degree in divinity – or at least some major course credits.

I had to read your post several times to take it all in and I’m quite disappointed yet still hold out hope. I think it might help if I give you additional context today why I’m engaging in our dialogue. I also reiterate that in my missive below I continue to use my definition of faith as belief without evidence. Although you ceded that, at least for awhile, at the beginning of your last response, you quickly backslid into obscuring this definition again and further encrusted it in associations I simply do not accept, not just on factual and rational grounds, but in the very manner in which you hope to convey meaningful information. I believe you honestly and sincerely think that the richer, more nuanced language and quotations you are using better explain your feelings and beliefs. But for me, they are obscuring them and making dialogue more difficult. You are giving words and feelings so many meanings they become almost meaningless. I have enough trouble with English; must I master your Christian language as well? My mother grew up in Holland. Every so often she’d use a Dutch word in an English sentence. This always meant there was no good corresponding word in English. But somehow, with a few well-chosen words and/or gestures, the meaning always came across.

My uncle always taught me, if you can’t build a concept from simple sentences, you don’t know what you’re talking about. If there is real and profound truth buried in your Christian prose just let me offer you this one piece of advice. Figure out how to translate and express it in common understandable language and you’ll convert the world! I realize it’s presumptive, but your education as a philosopher/theologian is showing in the worst way. The philosophers I most admire are the seekers who bravely shed their skin and can express themselves as and to the naively intelligent men they once were.

This debate with you, like no other I’ve engaged in a long time, has caused me to reflect deeply on the stance I wish to take in confronting those of faith and figuring out what I want to achieve and how to do so. I was drawn to your “narrow way” because I am struggling with the approaches that I and other “people of reason” should take to help move us to a better and more enlightened world (in our view at least) where reason reigns instead of faith. Some on my side would argue there is no room for faith at all in this dream utopia (Dawkins and Harris(?)). Others think there’s room but it must be severely discouraged (Harris?). And others like the late Stephan Jay Gould believe it is perfectly fine and has no ill effect as long as it is properly (and artificially in my view) compartmentalized. In no case do the former two types believe that faith should play ANY material role in issues of public policy and the last type would like to see faith take a back seat at least. But that seems impossible as long as major segments of the population live by faith. Certainly, right now, this aspiration looks like an impractical pipedream to me.

I used to think that reason would slowly win out and eventually reign when humanity was ready. I saw a steady progressive evolution in the Western World and even a bit in the Islamic when I was younger. I was never sure humanity was ready to dump faith and religion yet and it shouldn’t be attempted by force of course – only by persuasion and education based on reason itself. I thought this more enlightened world was still a good way off, probably to be achieved after I’m dead, but with at least a powerful foothold planted in the lifetimes of my children. And unlike the radical atheists, I believe there are potential lasting modes for peaceful accommodation with moderate faith-based viewpoints. But unquestioning blind faith has got to go. That is the root of all fanaticism.

I still believe that if our civilization survives that reason will triumph because I’m basically an optimist. I still see its progression in much of the Western World particularly Western Europe where many countries are predominantly atheist/agnostic. But we’ve had a big hiccup in America and the Islamic world with fundamentalist expansion and polarization. Normally, that wouldn’t worry me too much since there have been many such hiccups since the Enlightenment began. Unfortunately, this hiccup is very badly timed in a world where relatively small groups of religious fanatics (or the fanatics of other dogmas) will soon be able to possess WMDs. I’m not confident reason, much less our civilization, will prevail unless we find a way to catalyze a reaction towards reason soon. But what is the best approach? I’m sure that we can all agree they involve education and open-minded dialogue, but how should it be framed and executed?

I don’t have an answer yet. I’m still seeking. There probably isn’t one right approach so all I can really do is witness to my current journey and maybe share a discovery or two with traveling pals like you along the way, as we cross paths. Let me begin with Dawkins where my blogs started (on Marilynne Robinson’s critique). I’ll be honest; I haven’t completely read the God Delusion. I skimmed all of it, read a lot – maybe 40% in full, and put it down entertained but not really moved. I didn’t find any arguments in it that I hadn’t heard before or already thought of myself independently. I love Dawkins’ writing style and wit. I relish a crusader like him who will poke the religious bigots of this world in the eye unashamed without having to protect their own pet dogmas and superstitions – because he doesn’t have any. As I argued previously, I believe he has a constructive place, but I’m aware of his shortcomings in achieving my hopes. It doesn’t bother me when he calls stupid beliefs for what they are – stupid. We all should. But it seems to me that believers can too easily get the impression that Dawkins might revel in their feeling stupid about themselves too. I’ve never heard of curing someone of delusions by making them feel belittled. In that aspect, he appeals especially to the delight of the disaffected choir and that is also divisive – as you pointed out yourself. But don’t judge us too harshly James. Remember that atheists have had their panties in a bunch ever since your God called us “fools”.

But cries of “fool” are only the start of what Sam Harris would yell at our President were he to give a speech tomorrow pledging to end the minimum wage because his interpretation of ancient Greek scripture says Zeus demands it. I’d hope you’d join Harris and call for his immediate commitment to a nuthouse if impeachment won’t suffice. In reality, here is man with his finger on over 100,000 megatons of explosives who said God wanted him to be President, believes in the Rapture, and the return of Jesus in his lifetime. As Patton Oswalt comedicly said, “…This guy didn’t just want to be President, he wants to be the Last President. ” OK, maybe I don’t believe that – hmmm. But if some amazing set of coincidental calamities happened tomorrow, let’s say a few hurricanes, communications blackouts, and WMDs set off in major cities worldwide including Washington and Tel Aviv, etc., do you think this President’s faith will most likely help or hurt humanity in the days and years that followed?

For me, Sam Harris’ books were much more of a revelation. I discovered I was too moderate, having compartmentalized my acceptance of faith like Gould. I realized that liberal and moderate people of faith (I would say they are people of reason AND faith) were not just part of the solution but also part of the problem because they take matters of faith off the table of complete open discourse. And they thereby enable fundamentalists to take refuge under that shield of religio-correctness. Stuff that you would ridicule as outlandish poppycock all of a sudden becomes sacrosanct when covered in a religious veil. Some of Harris’ semantics bother me so I’m going to state my position in my own way. Except in extreme cases (like yelling fire in a crowded theatre or planning for violent overthrow), I believe faith should be tolerated. Otherwise, if toleration were to be abolished, atheists would be hypocrites for certainly we have traditionally been among the first to fry. However, toleration should not mandate respect or silence. James, I respect you as a person and some of your beliefs. But I only tolerate many of your beliefs – and many of the ones I tolerate I don’t respect. And I don’t expect you to respect my beliefs when you believe they are harmful. And you shouldn’t be afraid to say so. I’m not wishing for the day when fools are punished or their rights revoked. I just want to see them laughed or booed off the stage. I’m betting that reason will win. Otherwise I realize that atheists will be the fools forever – or worse.

I believe religious faith should be accorded no special treatment in human discourse and the fact this has not yet come to pass is largely the fault of religious liberals and moderates of your kind. If I hope to score any victory in this debate I hope to get you and others to believe this and if you already believe it I want you to promulgate it almost as much as the word of God. Otherwise, you do your faith and humanity no service in my judgment, even if God exists.

I hope for no other victory. I certainly never expected to convert anyone from their faith. My debate with you is helping me to understand and refine what I believe and can truly support as I seek the Truth. That is enough. If I move someone from faith to reason, that’s a nice bonus. I sense you are on a similar journey, just on a different road. If I had sensed you’d completed your travels and found the Truth, I never would have engaged you in discussion. I can always turn on the 700 Club.

I remain drawn to your “narrow path”. What form should education and persuasion take? As I’ve said, I see value in Dawkins and Harris and many others both atheist and religious. I’ve read and seen lots of entertaining debates between the atheist and the religious. There are lots of books you can buy that attempt to explain or argue for atheism or Christianity. It’s all been done it seems. Or has it? In my original engagement with your blog and in thinking about the “narrow way”, perhaps what’s been missing is for the opponents to have a genuine dialogue that enables them to really get into the head of the other in a manner that enables doubt, humility, and vulnerability, and ultimately, real humanity. As Harris wonderfully argues, there can be no true dialogue or successful negotiation without doubt. And I would add that humor, humility and vulnerability are great lubricants as long as they aren’t taken or exploited as a sign of weakness.

So this is why I welcomed your willingness to humanely dissect your subjective experiences and try to relay their impact and meaning to you. We could begin a study of the qualia of faith and related subjective experiences together only to discover that those qualia have multiple valid interpretations. You could be deluded by them, or I may be forced to conclude there is something supernatural there. I suspect neither of us will answer the question to the other’s satisfaction but the exercise may end up revealing what we most badly need to know – what unites us more than divides us. I think this would be a wonderful thing if we could really do this with each other. Then maybe we’d have something that would transcend our private email boxes and could move millions.

Unfortunately, your last post caused me to doubt this but I’m yet hopeful. I was originally going to dissect your post and debate the reasons as usual. I will do this if you insist but I’m exhausted now. Maybe you could take a fresh look at your post after some reflection and tell me what bothers me instead. If you think you can accommodate me in any way please let me know as well as anything I can do to better accommodate you. If we can’t make reasonable accommodations for each other to truly communicate, then I don’t think we’ve found the right partner for profound dialogue. Perhaps that’s too much to expect but it would’ve been nice to get lucky.

Best wishes,

Andy

Profound Truths in Simple Language?

April 11, 2007 14:14

Thank you, Andy, for your candid and pointed reply. As an academic, I am keenly (and yet all too often insufficiently) aware of the issue of using technical terms as a convenient shorthand in a way that, for anyone listening in on the class who had not had the term explained, would obscure meaning rather than convey it more clearly. I am keenly aware that many in the Intelligent Design movement throw in hefty-looking logic symbols to give the impression that they are saying something profound (see also today’s New York Times article about the formula for the perfect bacon sandwich). I agree completely that anything that can be said in fancy words can also be said in simple ones. Then again, it may take more words to do that, and I dread to think how long this post may become! 🙂 But perhaps I can be clear, succinct and focused – and if so, I will have accomplished something rare (at least for myself) thanks to our conversation!

I am opposed to fundamentalism and anti-rational stances in all their forms. I find Biblical (and other Scriptural) literalism troubling, as I do any sort of dogmatism. I find the practices derived from these approaches – whether the oppression of women or the justification of violence – disturbing and distasteful. I would not pretend that such practices are simply a distortion of the teachings of any given religion – often times organized religions and their adherents have engaged in shameful practices, and some of those practices end up enshrined in the writings they call Scriptures. I would, however, suggest that most religious traditions have general principles they consider foundational that can be appealed to as a basis for rejecting such oppressive and arrogant practices, attitudes and behaviors. We saw this in the debates over slavery in the U.S. Some people offered very coherent arguments about how Paul had safeguarded the institution of slavery in his letters. Others took what are clearly overarching principles, such as “Do to others what you would have them do to you” and realized that if one takes that teaching seriously, one cannot treat other human beings as property.

I would even agree with you that the world needs people like Dawkins, in at least one sense. There is always a need for people who can say, clearly and honestly, “the Emperor has no clothes on”. I certainly try to do the same thing, in at least some respects. My own standpoint is that I should be critical from within of my own tradition, because that, to my thinking, is something significantly different from criticizing others. I also feel that arguments that take seriously where people are starting from, their presuppositions and the authorities that they accept will have a greater impact. You may be right that, in addition to people within a tradition offering self-criticism, there is a need for people outside it who, having dealt with their own issues of ignorance and prejudice, can offer critiques and challenges that will also have an important effect. I certainly agreed 100% with Dawkins that we should not simply tiptoe around religion, and treat any and all ideas as acceptable simply because they are religious. In an American context, where one’s freedom of religion is amply protected, it is all the more appropriate for those who find ideas and practices offensive, even ridiculous, to raise serious questions about them, and to expect answers.

One reason why I feel it is important to declare my Christian faith at least as loudly as my criticism of Biblical literalism and inerrancy – apart from the fact that I really mean it, of course – is the fact that many people who need to have their views criticized and their false ideas and presuppositions challenged have well-honed abilities to tune out and dismiss criticisms by saying “Oh, he’s just saying that because he’s an atheist/a liberal/a Pastafarian/insert other basis for dismissing criticism here.” I’ve found that, in the classroom in particular, I can help students who have sincere faith and claim to respect the Bible to begin actually noticing the things in the Bible that show the doctrine of inerrancy to be nonsensical. Because I’ve travelled that same road, I can help them along, step by step, in understanding that (for example) the Bible does not speak with a single voice, but includes a plurality of viewpoints and perspectives. Until they can understand that the Bible does not answer all their questions, and may provide more than one answer to some of them, they will make little progress in taking responsibility for their moral judgments, rather than shifting the burden onto selected proof-texts. And of course, as someone who has travelled the same path, I find that I can accomplish more by talking about how silly I was than how silly others now appear to me.

But in the context of America’s safeguards of religious freedom, I’m not certain how else one might legally challenge fundamentalism apart from engaging in attempts at persuasion. Among the founders, there were many Baptists who argued for the separation of church and state based on their confidence that truth will out, that a powerful message needs no state support and can only be hindered if such help is offered. I may be as much a misguided optimist as you, but I genuinely believe that people’s minds can be changed. The germ theory of disease is now taken for granted, as is heliocentrism. I don’t see any way to proceed apart from simply “getting the word out”. If there were not such big money behind certain fundamentalist institutions and endeavors, they would simply be one voice among many, and we would probably both be less worried than we are. The same situation accounts for the spread of Islamic fundamentalism – Wahabism on its own was a fringe movement, but now that it is has huge oil revenues to support it, the situation is different.

I think the most important thing we agree about is the need for humility, for openness to criticism, and willingness to genuinely hear others and to learn from them (assuming they have something to say that one can learn from, of course – there are definitely views from which we might learn nothing, except perhaps to avoid future discussions with such people, but all too often we assume people and views are in that category much too quickly).

Although it is a distinction I have made before, I will say again that I think that “faith”, “religion” or whatever else we may talk about refers to two very different, almost diametically opposed things for different people. For some, it is about dogma, about what they claim to know with certainty. There, I would agree with you, the claims are usually based on flimsy evidence and weak arguments. But for others (and I wish to place myself in this category), faith is precisely about affirming that I/we do not know. We have an intuition that there is more to life, to existence, than meets the eye. We may even use the language of “knowing God” since the experience that we have had can resemble such interpersonal experiences as falling in love. But we are also honest enough to admit that if we talk to God, we are not expecting to hear a booming voice respond to us. From this perspective, it might indeed be argued that all language, all attempts to say anything about God other than that God is, is inherently idolatrous. The Biblical language warning about graven images can be applied by extension to our verbal and mental portraits of God, our attempts to define. If it were up to me, I might suggest that we all live in quiet, humble, reverent awe at this transcendant reality. But that won’t do. Those of us who have had this sort of experience want to talk about it. It has been a positive experience in our lives and we want to share it. We thus grasp at inadequate words and hope they may do some small justice to what we perceive.

You might reply that God is just an imaginary friend, and that we have made God in our image. We are inevitably guilty on both counts – who could deny that we project our ideals and our (mis)conceptions on God? Who could deny that many people chit-chat with God in a way that is strikingly similar to an imaginary friend (with appropriate worry if they tell you they are getting verbal responses)? But I humbly suggest that we are projecting onto something, onto a genuine transcendent reality that our words do not accurately describe, but may at least point to. To quote the medieval Sufi Ibn Arabi,

God is not limited to the way he appears to you by making Himself appropriate to your ability to receive him. Therefore, no other creatures are obliged to obey the God you worship, for He appears to them in other forms.Don’t hang on exclusively to any particular creed so that you disbelieve the rest, or you will disregard much that is good and miss the real truth. Allah is omnipotent and omnipresent and is not contained by any one religion, for he say in the Qur’an “wherever you turn, there is the face of Allah.”

Or to quote Rumi,

God said ‘ I appear uniquely to each of my servants. What each imagines me to be I become. Listen my servants. I am enclosed within these images. Purify your thoughts, for these are my home. Then see for yourself what is best for you – crying, laughing, fasting or praying – and do whatever will best lead you onward.

I quote Sufis so often because I have taught a class on Islam over the past few years, and have been reflecting on my own views in dialogue with these mystics. Indeed, it has been in studying their writings that I have become more convinced that there are religious divides that cut across rather than between the major religious traditions. Whether or not it corresponds precisely to the distinction I made earlier between two approaches to religion, there is definitely a distinction between dogmatic religion and experiential, although there are instances of overlap as well. But as the famous Latvian Lutheran pastor Juris Rubenis put it, it is quite common in faith traditions for someone to seek to express their experience in what they know is inadequate language, and then others come along and believe rigidly in the language. In contrast, it is those who have in fact had the experience that are most willing to change the metaphors. Not always, but often.

So what is this experience I have been talking about? Let me end by telling my own story, and see what you make of it. At age 15, I was at a stage in my life when I had begun thinking about matters of faith. I had been raised Catholic, but had drifted away from attending church with any frequency (and had a tendency to miss religious education classes in the evening because they were on at the same time as Charles in Charge). But I continued to believe in God, and clearly recall debating a friend of mine on this subject when we were both seriously drunk. Anyway, I had spent many years being something of a loner, a nerd, and can’t say I was particularly happy – indeed quite the opposite. Once I started high school, however, it had been something of a new start, and since I was also very much involved in music at this point in my life, that helped me make friends and start having something of a different experience, but it didn’t eliminate my inner sense of feeling that I hadn’t found the meaning of life yet, that something was still missing. It was at this point that I happened to tune to a college radio station during an hour when they broadcast contemporary Christian music. I was struck by the music, because although I believed in God, I didn’t find myself able to actually sing about it – it was as though these people had something real that they had experienced and yet I had not. I even tried forming a Christian band with a friend of mine, and when we asked another student, she thought it was weird because, from her perspective, we weren’t even Christians. She did, however, invite us to a concert at her church (a Pentecostal church). To make a long story short, we went, and I was very moved by it. I went to the morning service the next day (Sunday), and as so often in stories like this one, I cannot remember what the sermon was about. What I do remember is that, after the service, I called out to God in my heart and said something like “God, I don’t know what your way of living is, but mine isn’t working, so whatever your way is, I want to try it”. At that moment, a sense of peace washed over me.

It is perhaps significant that I was not responding to a particular set of dogmas, or a presentation of “four spiritual laws” or something of that sort. If that had been the context of my experience, perhaps I would not be able to separate my experience from doctrine in the way that I am. I do know that I instinctively began to speak about what had happened to me and had a different perspective because of it. The next day at work my boss was talking about how nothing matters more than money, and when I said that God is more important, he asked me when I became so religious, and I answered him honestly: “Yesterday”! But I do not think this experience proves anything about any particular set of doctrines: it doesn’t prove the tomb was empty, it doesn’t prove that seas parted, it doesn’t prove anything about history. Most of those ideas are, I presume, people trying to put a concrete face on their experience, or interpreting events in light of such experiences. I don’t feel the need to do that. If you ask me what my experience “proves”, I would say that it proves that such experiences are possible. And having experienced this as something positive and life-transforming, I want to take it completely seriously, and even to share it with others who might benefit from such an experience. I did go through a very dogmatic, fundamentalist stage, but that was because I was taught to relate to this experience and to the Bible in that way – it wasn’t something inherent in the experience itself. My discussions of theology are attempts to find appropriate language that does justice to all that we know about the world from science, reason, and other sources, and yet which allows me to describe however inadequately the experience that I’ve had, and my intuition that it doesn’t just tell me something about my own individual psyche, but about the nature of reality more generally.

This is what I’ve got to share, and I hope that I have put it in words that are clear and, if not strictly rational (in the sense that one can prove something logically through them), are at least not irrational (i.e. not asking for blind leaps of faith, not counter to what we know from science, nor trying to claim that such experiences prove more than they do).

I do think we can communicate, and I do hope we can continue to do so. If you are left after this feeling like I still haven’t understood where you are coming from or explained where I’m coming from, I hope you’ll at least take the time to tell me so! Most of all, I would value knowing what someone coming from the perspective of atheism makes of me, particularly having told the details of my story and my experience in this way. I like to think I take criticism well, and my time spent in Northern Ireland taught me to insult others and be insulted as a form of humor, so please do be brutally honest! 🙂

Best wishes,

James


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