At Some Point God Stops Making Sense

At Some Point God Stops Making Sense August 7, 2015

Enns sooner or later God stops making sense quote

Pete Enns’ blog has moved. Above, and below, is a sample from a new post on his blog in its new location:

At the end of the day the human thought process can only get you so far when it comes to God.

At some point, for most of us, as it was for some biblical writers, God stops making sense.

The question then is whether the non-sense leads to disbelief in God or becomes an invitation to seek God differently–even through confrontation and debate, as these biblical books model for us.

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  • jekylldoc

    I have a version of God that fits in a box, which I use to explain to atheists (ironically, the ones who know who Talking Heads refers to). And then there is God, who keeps letting me out of boxes, over and over.

    • ccws

      What box?

      • jekylldoc

        Essentially, process philosophy. God is IN time, not outside of it – God is a multifaceted force that is creating, but not necessarily The Creator of all that is. I could go on, but that is all description, pretending to be able to describe and define God. In fact God is encountered, not understood.

        God is not a concept to be turned over in the mind – if God is not encountered, then one quite literally does not have any idea what is being talked about. This is not an attempt to describe a reliable natural phenomenon, it is an effort to relate the nature of ineffable experience.

        • Nick G

          This looks like a “liberal” form of presuppositionalism: ruling out anything a non-believer says in advance. As an atheist, I find it quite as unconvincing and indeed illegitimate as the conservative version: it just looks like you’ve constructed for yourself a form of what Popper calls “reinforced dogmatism”, as found in Freudians, (some) Marxists, etc. How would you respond to that?

          • jekylldoc

            Nick –
            I don’t really think non-believers are interested in my questions. I am not ruling anything out, but neither am I debating with anyone or trying to convince anyone.
            When atheists (or evangelicals, for that matter) really want to know where I am coming from, my first paragraph above is the “descriptive” explanation of something they can conceptualise that does actually help them understand my thinking.

            The second paragraph is what I think the truth is – believer or non-believer, if you are talking “about” God, with some idea that the content is some objective entity, you are not talking about the true God. Apophatic theology, existentialist version.

          • Nick G

            I don’t really think non-believers are interested in my questions.

            Rather a sweeping and exclusionary generalisation, don’t you think?

            If you’re really talking about an “ineffable experience”, not an objective entity:
            1) That certainly does not seem to be what the vast majority of religious believers are talking about, and have been talking about throughout history (of course there have always been mystics, but as far as one can judge from their words, those within Abrahamic traditions at least seem to have believed they were encountering an objective entity).
            2) If it’s “ineffable” (incapable of being expressed or described in words), how do you know that anyone else has ever had a remotely similar experience to you? How do you even know what experience(s) you have had? Can these ineffable experiences be expressed in some non-verbal form, e.g. music, images, dance?
            3) In the light of (1) and (2), why do you refer to this/these ineffable experience(s) as “God”?
            4) If you don’t believe in God as an objective entity, then your first paragraph is badly misleading about what you believe. How can something so misleading help others understand your thought? As an atheist, I’m already acquainted with non-realist versions of Christianty, and I’m far from alone in that. I’m also acquainted (partly through personal experience, partly through reading) with at least some of the types of experience usually referred to as “mystical”.

          • jekylldoc

            Nick –

            All good questions. Thanks for your interest.

            Am I being exclusionary, or dismissive, in concluding that most atheists are not interested in my questions? I don’t really think so. I have had long exchanges with a few who were genuinely interested, and these were very helpful to both sides. It soon becomes apparent to them that I am not interested in converting them, persuading them, telling them how they should think or live, or proving my view to be right with any implication that theirs is wrong. As we each made an effort to see the other’s point of view, we were both able to see life better on some aspects.

            By contrast, the vast majority of atheists with whom I have had discussion are either uninterested once they realize I am not advocating for supernatural explanations of things, or get even more hostile than they start, based on some sense that I am unfairly changing the terms of some grand debate they see themselves to be in.

            (I saw a good “bumper sticker” exchange once – the atheists proposed that Christians should sport a sticker saying “I am a Christian, sorry about you” and the Christians responded that atheists should sport a sticker declaring “I am an atheist – debate me.”)

            Needless to say, my lack of interest in winning a debate on the subject leaves only a few interested in what I do care about. Most move on to someone they feel they can trounce. Fine. I generally think fundies should be more broadly exposed to points of view which do not fall within their accustomed parameters.

            Is the mystical core of religion what believers have been talking about? That is not an easy question, in my view. It is a bit like asking whether those who believe majorities should rule over minorities are talking about democracy. There are shades of perspective in what democracy means, and they have a lot in common even though they are diametrically opposed on some issues.

            I think the biblical religion began with encounter, and that aspect was preserved at its center both by covenant theology and by prophetic practice. On the other hand, lots of cultic and priestly jibber-jabber got injected as well. Incompatible ideas were added from Phoenician, Mesopotamian, Persian and Greek sources. Despite a spiritually based reform effort by Christianity (or at least that is my view of it) the official theology seems to have drifted even more toward control by elites to manipulate the plebes. The worldview in the Middle Ages tended to oppose encounter, deliberately putting the “means of grace” in the hands of the church, for example. Modernity did not do much for it, either.

            You say the Abrahamic religions seemed to believe they were encountering an objective reality, and so they did, but the more specific they got about trying to say what that reality was, the sillier their texts became. There is a long tradition of apophatic theology, in essence saying, “You think you know what you have encountered? Well, you don’t. Now take off your shoes.” And a long tradition of inconsistency about the imagery.

            Yet what I think of as the ineffable experiences of encounter in Christianity are common as dirt. They are hard to get away from.

            Confessing sin, seeking repentance, experiencing the joy of someone else’s success, realizing that people can be truly cared about by others, seeing light come to human affairs, these are ordinary marvels in which we live, and move, and have our being. They are not the exclusive domain of my religion or of religion even in the broadest sense. But then, very few stories of encounter with God in the bible feature any consultation of holy institutions to form the connection. It just happens.

            How do I know others have had similar experiences? Or that my experience is genuinely one of the holy? Well, I don’t. I believe it, which is to say, I put my trust in a certain interpretation of things, but this is not belief in the sense of reaching conclusions as a way of explaining evidence. Think what it means to say that my common-as-dirt effort to live a better life is an encounter with the holy. On one level that is no more than obvious, and on a different level it is an important assertion about what the holy means and how it is encountered.

            I object to religious education along the lines of the current UK system, because comparing religions by listing “Muslims believe X and Hindus believe Y” obscures this inward dimension that is actually much the same in all the great faith traditions. The varying beliefs are like the carvings around different doorways – if you don’t realize that all the doors go to the same room, it is because you never used the door for what it really is.

            Why refer to this as being about God? Well, “consciousness” doesn’t do it for me, and there is a long tradition of wisdom about “God” as well as a common reality that even mentally impaired people have encountered. I certainly see no reason to avoid the term “God” just because Creationists use it.

            Is the “God is process” interpretation badly misleading about what I believe? I don’t really think so. Like Buckminster Fuller’s “God is a verb, not a noun” it gets a good start going toward recognizing the limitations of traditional language and conceptualization. And it isn’t really inconsistent with the truth, except at the deep, deep level of the difference between subjective experience and objective description. I don’t think starting at that rather abstract point helps people get to a point at which they are ready to ask the right questions. Better to start with “take off your shoes.”

          • Nick G

            Thanks for this detailed response. I’m not convinced there is “this inward dimension that is actually much the same in all the great faith traditions” – unless you count misogyny* (which I’m sure is not what you meant!). Certainly, most of the followers of Christianity and Islam** explicitly deny that other religions have a common core with their own. I think, to be honest, that you’re projecting aspects of your own culturally-specific beliefs onto cultures that are so different from our own that it’s extremely difficult to accept that they actually think/thought and believe(d) as their words indicate they do or did.

            And it isn’t really inconsistent with the truth, except at the deep, deep level of the difference between subjective experience and objective description.

            I don’t think this is a “deep, deep level” at all. Distinguishing between things that have a reality beyond our experiences, and things which don’t, is elementary, necessary for day-to-day life, and usually grasped at least in principle by around the age of 4 or 5. Of course it’s common to be wrong about which category something belongs to; but I still think it’s misleading to present your beliefs by talking of something as objective when you don’t actually think it is.

            Better to start with “take off your shoes.”

            Well maybe not, since I don’t know what you mean by this. I do sometimes ask visitors to my home (more politely) to remove their shoes, to avoid getting mud or more unpleasant substances on the carpet!

            *I know that some religions (e.g. Sikhism, Bahai) have a theoretical commitment to gender equality: in practice, they remain male-dominated. Possibly some variants of modern paganism are not – but then, they are inventions of the last century.

            **Islam acknowledges that Judaism and Christianity – and IIRC Zoroastrianism – share some common ground with it.

          • jekylldoc

            Hi Nick,

            Good to hear from you. On the inward dimension, let me explain further and we may or may not have common ground. In virtually all religions, possibly including the various versions of animism, one is expected to do certain things because of a certain relation to that which is transcendent, or in ordinary terms, holy. It would be very difficult to spell out the mapping from that statement onto Taoism or Zen, but if you ask, I will give it a try.

            My view of the matter is that the essence of the religion is in the inner process of bringing oneself to follow these prescriptions. Pure rote doesn’t count, but as soon as the person believes they are responding to the holy, certain brain processes are going to happen (I don’t know the details, but I vaguely recall that serotonin and oxytocin feature heavily.).

            These brain processes are very similar in all of us, despite having vary different components of contemplation, self-denial (or, sometimes, self-glorification), ecstasy and comfort. Of course it matters whether one is bowing before one’s ancestors, symbolised by one’s much-resented father, or chanting for the mental concentration to earn a BMW, or serving at a soup kitchen, or twirling around until oxygen deprivation induces hallucinations. But it matters much less than the “system of beliefs” version of religion makes it out to.

            All of the discussions of “beliefs” simply obscure this crucial commonality. Beliefs are just doors (or maybe ornamentation on the doors, as I first put it) to patterned responses to the holy. If you don’t go through the door, the true nature of the belief remains invisible. You have to perceive, and respond to, the holy, or your belief is a paper dragon.

            As for the deep difference between experience and an objective thing experienced, it is real, but subtle. To find it, you have to go through life with an important misconception and then learn that you had it wrong, or in some other way to experience it. Otherwise you always think you are thinking about the thing in itself, and never realize you were only thinking about your mental version of it.

            You say that it is easy to tell the difference, and that it is misleading to talk about something as objective when in fact I consider it subjective. This makes me suspect you haven’t considered subjectivity much.

            Popper introduced a “three worlds” interpretation in which World Three “objects” are things which are products of thought, which he curiously termed “objective knowledge”. (The idea was to contrast it with World 2 of mental states, such as “seeing purple”.) Is calculus objective? Non-Euclidean geometry? The square root of negative one? How about democracy? Or justice? Or beauty? If you think the distinction between things that are beyond our mere experience of them are distinguishable from those which do not, at an elementary level, I think you have spent too much time trying to reduce the matter to an elementary level.

            Can you propose a falsifiable version of karma which would show whether it is all in our heads or objectively exists? How about a test for the objective reality of the value of money? We could take an elementary issue: are placebo effects “real” or “imaginary”?

            I hope you can begin to see how a process within society might be 100 percent subjective and yet much better understood in some kinds of objective representations than in others. Try that formulation on the placebo effect.

          • Nick G

            Thanks again for your response.

            My view of the matter is that the essence of the religion

            My view is that most things don’t have essences 😉 Specifically, that there is no one feature common to all religions, or that distinguishes religious believers from unbelievers. Rather, religions have a “family resemblance”, in Wittgenstein’s term. (I’m not convinced by much of what Wittgenstein says, but that’s a useful phrase.)

            as soon as the person believes they are responding to the holy, certain brain processes are going to happen (I don’t know the details, but I vaguely recall that serotonin and oxytocin feature heavily.).These
            brain processes are very similar in all of us, despite having vary different components of contemplation, self-denial (or, sometimes, self-glorification), ecstasy and comfort.

            That’s an empirical claim, which requires serious support, not just “I vaguely recall…”. Who has done the peer-reviewed research showing that certain brain processes occur in religious contexts (and nowhere else), and where is it reported?

            Beliefs are just doors (or maybe ornamentation on the doors, as I first put it) to patterned responses to the holy.

            That clearly is not the view held by a vast number of religious believers. What makes you right and them wrong?

            You say that it is easy to tell the difference…

            No, I don’t. I said that grasping that there is a difference is elementary, but that it is easy to be wrong in specific cases. Even before our ancestors were human, they must have distinguished between a real predator, and one you thought you saw or heard, but which turned out to be imaginary.

            , and that it is misleading to talk about something as objective when in fact I consider it subjective. This makes me suspect you haven’t considered subjectivity much.

            Well, maybe that’s because you misinterpreted what I said (see above). Of course having been through a B.A. in developmental psychology (with courses on culture and society, humanistic psychology – my dissertation was on the phenomenology of psychedelic drug use, philosophy of mind and of religion), graduate courses in philosophy of mind and epistemology, a D. Phil. in cognitive sciences, and a career in modelling both individual cognitive processes and social interactions doesn’t prove I have given subjectivity much thought, but isn’t it possible that I have done so and still disagree with you? (I do apologise for qualification-dropping, but they do seem somewhat relevant to the specific charge you made.)

            I’ve read most of Popper, including Objective Knowledge, but I’m not sure he’s relevant here. A sufficient (but perhaps not necessary, see below) condition of something being “objective” is that there are things that can be said about it that are true (or false) regardless of anyone’s opinion. In that sense, calculus, non-Euclidean geometry and the square root of minus 1 are certainly objective. “Democracy”, like most natural-language terms, is not so clearly defined, but it seems fairly clear that it meets my criterion, in that “Nazi Germany was a democracy” is quite clearly false. As for justice and beauty, I don’t view them as fitting neatly into either category, because while there are no objective facts about them, nor are they merely matters of taste: judgements about them can be rationally criticised and defended. But the fact that a dichotomy is not exhaustive, or that there are intermediate cases, does not mean there are no clear ones.

            If you think the distinction between things that are beyond our mere experience of them are distinguishable from those which do not, at an elementary level, I think you have spent too much time trying to reduce the matter to an elementary level.

            This sentence is ungrammatical and as far as I’m concerned, unintelligible. Can you restate it?

            Can you propose a falsifiable version of karma which would show whether it is all in our heads or objectively exists?

            Like many religious terms, karma appears designed to be unfalsifiable. If we look at what happens within individual lives, then quite clearly virtue often goes unrewarded and wickedness unpunished, so it’s false. It requires the notion of reincarnation (for which there is no evidence) to avoid falsification – and this often has appalling effects, as, for example, congenital disability may be blamed on bad actions in a former life.

            How about a test for the objective reality of the value of money?

            The value of money depends on social institutions, in particular shared beliefs, but the (non)existence of those institutions at a particular place and time is a matter of objective fact.

            are placebo effects “real” or “imaginary”?

            Real of course – and not just that, but measureable and experimentally manipulable. I think (in this and the case of money) you are failing to distinguish subjective beliefs themselves from objective facts about those subjective beliefs. I hope you can begin to do so (to adopt your own condescending turn of phrase). Finally, I don’t see how anything you have said makes it any less misleading to present yourself as believing in the objective existence of a deity, when in fact, you don’t.

          • jekylldoc

            nick,
            ng: “graduate courses in philosophy of mind and epistemology, a D. Phil. in cognitive sciences, and a career in modelling both individual cognitive processes and social interactions”

            Well, it is a distinct pleasure to encounter someone who actually has thought carefully about these ideas, and is qualified to assess my views. I am not entirely encouraged so far about your willingness to listen, but that is okay. At least you are willing to ask for clarification, which gives me a chance to explain.

            ng: “there is no one feature common to all religions,””Rather, religions have a “family resemblance”, in Wittgenstein’s term.”

            I agree. I think that is what I was saying. Sorry if the term “essence” pushes the wrong buttons.

            ng: “That’s an empirical claim, which requires serious support, not just “I vaguely recall…”. Who has done the peer-reviewed research showing thatcertain brain processes occur in religious contexts (and nowhere else),and where is it reported?”

            Umm, “requires” is a strong term. I am posting on Patheos. If I was invited to present my views at an academic seminar, I would of course take such requirements seriously. By the way, I never said it only happens in religious contexts, and I don’t believe that. Rather I think when it happens, the context has become religious.

            The point I was trying to provide specifics for, to illustrate, is that I believe the religious experience, which is the experience of God, involves encounter and response, not assessment of propositions and assent to them. Going back to my explanation which launched that point, I think that people who consider “God” to describe an entity, or the universe, or some “thing” one can theorize about, are simply asking the wrong question.

            The right question is “what kind of encounter is an encounter with God?” and the answer is essentially subjective. If a person of sound mind believes they have had an encounter with God, however that is conceived of, then they have. They cannot encounter the holy without having been changed in the way the holy does.

            It doesn’t work on some people – just as placebos don’t. They can have an encounter that they believe at the time to be with the holy, and discount it afterward. Kinda sad, but that’s modernity for you.

            You may think I am admitting all kinds of foul cases in which people mistake snake-handling or glossallalia or even human sacrifice with encounter with the actual, true God, but my belief is that those kinds of experiences, because they participate in the “encounter with the holy” should be accepted as part of “religion” or “God.” That does not mean I have no interest in which kinds of encounter are more comprehensive or participate most truly in the “family” which the resemblance comes from.

            I think it is very important and valuable to distinguish better from worse encounters, and sometimes just talking about “the wrong god” is the most sensible way, if not the most accurate way, to do that. Much of what I meant by “my questions” which I think atheists and agnostics lack interest in, comes in that category.

            ng: “it is misleading to talk about something as objective when in fact I consider it subjective.”

            ng: “As for justice and beauty, I don’t view them as fitting neatly into
            either category, because while there are no objective facts about them, nor are they merely matters of taste: judgements about them can be rationally criticised and defended.”

            So if someone talks about justice as if it exists somewhere, and has certain characteristics, you refuse to discuss any substance until the subjective/objective thing is clear? Even though you don’t think it fits in either category?

            I think “God is a process in human interaction” is close, and helpfully different from many traditional formulations, and gets more across than saying, “hold on there, what makes you so sure God, if God existed, would be an actual force as opposed to a subjective experience that changes people? You seem to think a placebo is a little sugar pill, when in fact we know that those have no effect.”

            ng: “the fact that a dichotomy is not exhaustive, or that there are intermediate cases, does not mean there are no clear ones.”

            Right, but it does mean there are unclear ones. About which most people may have strong assumptions that are wrong.

            My ungrammatical quote: “If you think the distinction between things that are beyond our mere experience of them are distinguishable from those which do not, at an elementary level, I think you have spent too much time trying to reduce the matter to an elementary level.” Should read: “I think you have spent too much time trying to reduce to elementary the process of distinguishing the thing in itself from our experience of it, if you think the distinction is [always] elementary.” With my apologies.

            I agree that the concept (as opposed to its implementation) is elementary, and most examples are clear, but the fact that it is not elementary in many important cases is shown by people’s misremembering their own experience of a crime scene, by shifting use of terms like democracy and justice depending on rhetorical objectives rather than clearly defined concepts, and by the occasionally heard “I thought it was love, but I was wrong.” Sometimes people are experiencing something mainly built of conceptual categories interacting in their brain, but they perceive it as experiencing something specific.

            ng: “The value of money depends on social institutions, in particular shared beliefs, but the (non)existence of those institutions at a particular place and time is a matter of objective fact.”

            So the value of money is objective as long as it doesn’t exist. I am impressed by that one. Large scale, simultaneous changes in many people’s beliefs, as happened several times last week in connection with the stock markets of the world, are bread and butter for economists like me. Why would I think subjective and objective are clearly implementable categories? There are people who believe paper money, or account money, has no value, and go on using it but try to turn as much into real estate or gold as possible. There are other people who believe that the social convention is real, and money actually has value. The question needs to be replaced by a more sensible question.

          • Nick G

            “Rather, religions have a “family resemblance”, in Wittgenstein’s term.”I agree. I think that is what I was saying.

            Not really: Wittgenstein’s point was that there doesn’t have to be any feature common to all examples of a category (IIRC he used “games” as an example). You are insisting that there is such a feature – irrespective of whether most religious believers would agree with you – that “ineffable experience” you “eff” so much about 😉

            By the way, I never said it only happens in religious contexts, and I don’t believe that. Rather I think when it happens, the context has become religious.

            So you are saying that by definition “it” only happens in religious contexts, because as soon as it happens… Incidentally, the “it” I referred to was the “particular brain processes” of which you claimed:

            as soon as the person believes they are responding to the holy, certain brain processes are going to happen (I don’t know the details, but I vaguely recall that serotonin and oxytocin feature heavily.).

            You don’t seem able to produce any actual evidence for these “brain processes” common to all occurrences of “the religious experience”…

            is that I believe the religious experience, which is the experience of God, involves encounter and response

            … and in fact ou haven’t established that there is such a thing as the religious experience. I’d say the experience of “speaking in tongues” is rather different from that of Zen meditation, for example.

            If a person of sound mind believes they have had an encounter with God, however that is conceived of, then they have. They cannot encounter the holy without having been changed in the way the holy does.

            It doesn’t work on some people – just as placebos don’t. They can have an encounter that they believe at the time to be with the holy, and discount it afterward.

            There are so many questions being begged here, I’m having trouble counting them! What counts as being “of sound mind”? I guess you’ve added this to exclude the likes of Peter Sutcliffe, who apparently thought God was telling him to murder women, but it’s very simplistic to think that people can be neatly divided into those who are and are not “of sound mind”. Temporal lobe epilepsy seems to be correlated with religiosity and experiences which those with the condition interpret as religious. Sound mind or not? Some people hear voices no-one else hears, but nonetheless function well enough in society. Sound mind or not? Some people have what they consider religious experiences under the influence of certain drugs. Sound mind or not? What if they’ve had what they consider to be a profound religious experience, but belong to a non-theistic tradition and so don’t regard it as an “encounter with God”? If they “cannot encounter the holy without having been changed in the way the holy does”, then are you not setting up an objective criterion for whether their experience was really “an ecounter with the holy”, viz, that they have to be changed in the right way? And that they must not “discount it afterward”.

            So if someone talks about justice as if it exists somewhere, and has certain characteristics, you refuse to discuss any substance until the subjective/objective thing is clear?

            Of course not. Where did you get this from?

            Right, but it does mean there are unclear ones.

            But whether there is an actual deity, independent of the subjective experiences of believers, is not one of them.

            the fact that it is not elementary in many important cases is shown by people’s misremembering their own experience of a crime scene

            And nor is that: they couldn’t “misremember” without there being objective facts about the crime scene (or about what they subjectively experienced at the time, if that is what you intended to refer to).

            So the value of money is objective as long as it doesn’t exist.

            My fault: I should have said “existence or nonexistence” rather than (non)existence, but I thought the latter would be clear enough. Surely as an economist you are aware that there are and have been societies in which there is no money? And times when the value of money has become nonexistent, so people have resorted to barter? Whether a certain form of money has value at a particular time and place is an objective fact: if it does, you can buy stuff with it if you have enough; if it doesn’t, you can’t.

            There are people who believe paper money, or account money, has no value

            Then they are quite clearly wrong, since by your own account, they are able to use it to acquire things they want. So that seems a fairly clear distinction between subjective belief and objective fact – despite the latter being dependent on the current societal distribution of subjective beliefs.

          • jekylldoc

            Hi Nick, a pleasure as always.

            “Then they are quite clearly wrong,” Well, not exactly. I should have said they think it has no “real” value – they consider it a placebo, or a case akin to mass hypnosis. There is an effect there, they can take advantage of the effect to some extent, but the effect is entirely due to belief in a fiction. I know someone whose Ph.D. thesis reached the conclusion that “money has value because people value it”, that is, it might as well be a fiction.

            Furthermore, the value is not objective in any case – there are degrees of acceptability of means of payment. At times, most retailers in Moscow would not accept rubles but insisted on dollars – other economies have “dollarized”, the first being Israel’s. Until recently, MacDonald’s would not accept credit cards, yet people understand credit cards to be a means of payment. Try using a currency internationally, even dollars, and you will run up against these limits of acceptability quickly.

            jd:”you refuse to discuss any substance until the subjective/objective thing is clear?”
            ng:”Of course not. Where did you get this from?”

            You seemed to think I behave unethically if I allow people to think that I believe the social process, which has objective reality, is really God when in fact I think that “God” refers to a type of experience whose nature is inherently subjective (which is part, perhaps the heart, of the social process). I have maintained that this is focusing on a minor aspect – subjectivity / objectivity – which does not need to be clarified before discussing religion and its referents, and used the example of “justice” to suggest to you that you are actually following the same priorities yourself.

            I think you consider this important because you feel I am trying to uphold traditional ideas of God without admitting that I view the matter differently. But that is really not what God as process conveys. Most atheists end up, after I explain, saying “but why call it God?” because they consider it illegitimate to use the term in anything except a Bronze Age sense. Of course they would know better than to impose the same terminological straitjacket on “solid” or “parallel” or any number of terms we have updated our understanding of.

            “But whether there is an actual deity, independent of the subjective experiences of believers, is not one of them. [issues about which the subjectivity or objectivity is unclear].”

            I strongly disagree. Under some definitions of deity, its objective existence would be an investigable question. But the experiences that are most valid and reliable point to potential sources of the experience which could either be objective or completely subjective.

            I fear I must continue this tomorrow.

          • Nick G

            Furthermore, the value is not objective in any case

            Again, you are failing to distinguish between subjective beliefs (or in this case, valuations), and objective facts about such beliefs/valuations.

            You seemed to think I behave unethically if I allow people to think that I believe the social process, which has objective reality, is really God when in fact I think that “God” refers to a type of experience whose
            nature is inherently subjective (which is part, perhaps the heart, of the social process). I have maintained that this is focusing on a minor aspect – subjectivity / objectivity – which does not need to be clarified before discussing religion and its referents, and used the example of “justice” to suggest to you that you follow the same
            priorities yourself.

            The parallel would be valid if I presented myself as a believer in objective morality. I don’t. Unless I have misunderstood, you do present yourself as a believer in an objective deity (although not the one of traditional Abrahamic theology) to those benighted “atheists and evangelicals”. I don’t think I would consider it unethical to do so; the word I used was “misleading”, and I still don’t see the point of it. I think if you said something like: “I use the word “God” to refer to a particular kind of profound experience that I believe is common to all religions”, both atheists and evangelicals would understand you perfectly well.

            Most atheists end up, after I explain, saying “but why call it God?” because they consider it illegitimate to use the term in anything except a Bronze Age sense.

            I don’t think that’s a fair characterization: most atheists you will encounter are likely to know that different believers mean very different things when they talk of “God” – indeed, it’s common among atheists to point this out in a rather mocking fashion. But the overwhelming majority of believers do believe in an objective deity – an agent of some kind – so it is unsurprising if the response when they discover that you don’t is as you describe. (Incidentally, since I often correct atheists when they refer to the God of the OT as “bronze age”, I’ll do it to you too: he’s very much an iron age figure!)

            But the experiences that are most valid and reliable point to potential sources of the experience which could either be objective or completely subjective.

            That, even if true (which I would dispute – I think both the vast differences among religious experiences, and the apparent causal closure of the material world, indicate that the sources are indeed subjective*) is not the point: either a supernatural agent is responsible for such experiences, or not – that is a question of objective fact.

            *Of course there could be an objective agent which chooses to produce very different reliigous experiences in different people, or is unable to do otherwise – but that’s pure ad hocery.

          • jekylldoc

            Nick –

            When I refer to God as a process occurring among people, I don’t rule out a role for the supernatural. I see no point in doing so except within the religious context of seeking to understand which types of encounter are more truly encounters with the holy.

            But when I say there may be an objective source of the experiences which give us the best empirical take on what is going on with such encounters, I mean that this source seems to be a “World Three” type of phenomenon. That is, just as pieces of paper with numbers and entries in a ledger have “objective” reality as valuable because people regard them as so having, in the same way “the holy” has social referents which in a real sense create the experience of the holy.

            Humanity, in groping toward some understanding of the meaning of all these, repeatedly moves in the direction of understanding the holy in an empathetic way which shatters perceived boundaries between self and others. I think that, as with “justice” this happens because there is a kind of truth which we can learn to distinguish, about what is really holy. But if we make the mistake of beginning with a posited entity with particular attributes and particular past actions, we are likely never to have a very real sense of that truth.

            Rather we must learn to begin with encounter, so that we are talking about the authentic phenomenology of the matter.

            You may consider it surprising that I am not discouraged by the average believer conceptualising God as an intelligence or entity. They are not engaged in the process of finding the real truth, they are living their lives. Like the people in “When God Talks Back,” their lives are much richer for going with their internal validating process. It is for the leadership to be able to take a more elevated, and intellectually productive, view.

          • Nick G

            in the same way “the holy” has social referents which in a real sense create the experience of the holy.

            I don’t think you’ve come anywhere near establishing that there is a transcultural concept of “the holy”.

            Like the people in “When God Talks Back,” their lives are much richer for going with their internal validating process. It is for the leadership to be able to take a more elevated, and intellectually productive, view.

            What a remarkably elitist view! Let the ignorant masses remain ignorant but happy, while we intellectually superior types concern ourselves with the real truth. And as I understand from the reviews I’ve read, the people Luhrman chiefly studied in that book were American evangelical Christians, whose social views and leadership are both for the most part thoroughly repulsive and indeed, dangerous. More generally, religion generally does not seem to be moving in the direction of grerater empathy, but rather of greater intolerance – a phenomenon found across much of the world, and across Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. It was (I’m probably repeating myself here) precisely as religion’s cultural hold weakened that concepts such as democracy, opposition to slavery and gender equality gained purchase. We find the majority of religious leaders in the forefront of the battle against LGBT rights, and many opposing women’s bodily autonomy and (especially in the USA) supporting the limitless greed of the rich and denying realities such as biological evolution and anthropogenic climate change.

          • jekylldoc

            My reply seems to have gotten lost in the ether. Sorry.

            First, I willingly own the elitism. Some people have a better understanding of musical composition or of mathematics than others – they should be the ones that teachers and coaches are chosen from. People who understand both the inward side of religion and its relation to society should be the ones the others trust for guidance.

            Second, I don’t think there is a transcultural understanding of the holy, or at least not across all cultures. The sacred comes closer to what covers the most cultures, but there is also a family resemblance with “the other side” or “the hidden world” found in many cultures who do not automatically identify that with clarifying what is sacred. My point would be that in most of them there is some special significance about the sacred (or its rough approximations, as in the horrible Eleusinian Mysteries) which comes to communicate to us about community values: one must not slay a kinsman, one must treat guests with respect and honor, a thief deserves to die, etc. etc.

            A person whose hand was stayed by remembering the injunction against kinslaying has encountered the holy. A person who looks down from a mountain onto a sea of clouds and realises that perspectives can be so dramatically different that everything they thought they knew about truth should be questioned has also had an encounter with the holy.

            I disagree about whether religions are moving in the direction of intolerance, ISIS notwithstanding. One would think that honor killings and FGM were invented last decade. A couple of things have changed: the degree of explicitness about rejecting modernity has increased among groups who respond that way, and the technology for forming coordinated groups among the minority of extremists has improved.

            In fact on the contrary I have witnessed one religious group after another explicitly endorse gay marriage and gay clergy, something that people with little understanding of religion claimed was impossible as recently as 10 years ago. Religion changes slowly, yes. It does not give sole weight to the arguments of reason. But the change is more often toward tolerance than away from it.

            I also disagree with your suggestion that the Enlightenment was due to weakening power for religion. Arcseconds did a better job than I will, but as an economist I would point out that the British, American and French Revolutions were against aristocratic privilege, not against religious influence except tangentially in France, and that the growth of influence of skills and the common people had much more to do with this process than the daring to draw iconoclastic conclusions.

          • Nick G

            People who understand both the inward side of religion and its relation to society should be the ones the others trust for guidance.

            That begs the question: with regard to mathematics, expertise is pretty much objectively assessable. That’s also true of musical composition, at least within particular genres. It’s not at all clear it is true for religion; and if its relation to society is primarily a harmful one, as I would argue, then those who should be looked to for guidance are those who reject religion.

            I disagree about whether religions are moving in the direction of intolerance, ISIS notwithstanding.

            Intolerant forms of Islam reach far beyond ISIS. It is the most intolerant forms of Christianity that are doing best in the USA, in Russia, in Latin America, in much of Africa, even in China and much of Europe. The most intolerant forms of Judaism are flourishing in Israel. A party closely associated with intolerant Hinduism governs India. Buddhists have launched systematic attacks on the followers of other religions in Sri Lanka and Myanmar. At the same time, there is considerable growth of non-religious subpopulations. It is the more tolerant, liberal or progressive forms of religion that are in real trouble. For the USA, see here. For Europe – less directly relevant but still germane – see here.

            In fact on the contrary I have witnessed one religious group after another explicitly endorse gay marriage and gay clergy

            Religious leaders are being dragged along by the changes in wider society, and are still in the forefront of misogynist, homophobic and transphobic bigotry.

            I would point out that the British, American and French Revolutions were against aristocratic privilege, not against religious influence except
            tangentially in France

            Anti-clericalism was far from tangential in the French revolution, which was as much against clerical as aristocratic privilege – the “third estate” was defined in opposition to the first – the nobility, and the second – the clerisy. The leaders of the American revolution made a point of excluding religion from government. Causal connections and interactions are certainly complex, and the rise in literacy is undoubtedly of great importance, but the plain fact is that the extent to which religion and religious leaders dominate life in European and European-derived cultures has declined enormously over the past three centuries – and that is the same period over which ideas of democracy, individual liberty, gender equality and so forth have gained traction.

          • jekylldoc

            You say those who should be looked to for guidance are those who reject religion. I disagree, of course. While those people primarily rely on confrontation and triumphalism, I suspect they are as likely to alienate as to guide those who have found what they are seeking in religion.

            You say the most intolerant forms of religion are doing best, in blatant contradiction to the movement toward tolerance which I described. Believe me it is not some fluke of a declining part of Christianity finally surrendering. What has been happening is a widespread humanisation of the issue of gay rights, turning it from an abstract matter of doctrine to a direct decision about people already known and loved. This is not only happening in liberal Protestant churches – many conservative churches have changed their perspective even if they have not yet changed their official stands by much.

            You are quite misled about the significance of Modi’s win and the persecution in Myanmar, where other groups were attacked before the Rohingya.

            France’s anti-clericalism is debatable – it looks to me like their defence of the ancien regime was the main reason the Republic opposed them so vigorously.

          • Nick G

            Believe me it is not some fluke of a declining part of Christianity finally surrendering. What has been happening is a widespread humanisation of the issue of gay rights, turning it from an abstract matter of doctrine to a direct decision about people already known and
            loved.

            I’d agree that the latter is central, but that has happened because LGBT people have had the courage to declare themselves over the last few decades in the face of almost universal religious condemnation. The churches have almost universally opposed every step in the legal changes that have led from criminal prosecution and draconian punishments to (in a small but growing number of countries) something near legal equality. And exactly the opposite is happening in Russia, and in much of Africa, where religiously-motivated persecution of LGBT people is intensifying.

            You are quite misled about the significance of Modi’s win and the persecution in Myanmar, where other groups were attacked before the Rohingya.

            How? Certainly there are other factors involved in both cases, but religious intolerance is important in both cases.

            France’s anti-clericalism is debatable

            The Catholic Church certainly didn’t think so, and long remained closely aligned with the reactionary right in France (and in many other countries).

            it looks to me like their defence of the ancien regime was the main reason the Republic opposed them so vigorously.

            It was certainly a major factor – but this itself undermines your case for the “tangential” nature of anti-clericalism in the French revolution: the Church was a central pillar of the ancien régime. And many of the philosophes who inspired the actual revolutionaries (Voltaire, Diderot, D’Holbach…) were vehemently anti-clerical and anti-religious.

          • jekylldoc

            “that has happened because LGBT people have had the courage to declare themselves over the last few decades in the face of almost universal religious condemnation.”

            I completely agree. I watched the process in four different churches, (none of which, by the way, had more than a few members who condemned anyone) and the courage they showed was humbling and inspiring.

            My point was simply that things are moving in the right direction. It is one thing for you to see religion as the enemy because religious people drag their feet and can behave pretty hatefully in the process. It is another to make out something that isn’t there because you are so disgusted with them.

            “Certainly there are other factors involved in both cases, but religious intolerance is important in both cases.”

            The BJP has been a force for aggressive Hinduism from the beginning, and this has certainly included dramatic intolerance. However, Modi’s record is really not bad on the subject of equal treatment for Muslims, and his election was primarily based on economic policy issues and the perception that he keeps corruption under control due partly to his own upright personal approach.

            I personally wish he would do more to disperse the anti-Muslim elements in his party. He also is much too willing to use dog-whistle rhetoric against the policies aimed at limiting discrimination against Dalits. On the other hand, he has not tried to roll back the Congress setasides for the low castes, nor did he run on that issue like the previous BJP win. It appears he would be satisfied to see the corruption taken out of the administration of the programs.

            The treatment of the Rohingyas is somewhat of a mystery to me, but other groups, who are Buddhist, have been singled out for discrimination and mistreatment before. The regime in power seems to care nothing for religion, but to have an ethnic base and hostility to other ethnicities.

            “this itself undermines your case for the “tangential” nature of
            anti-clericalism in the French revolution: the Church was a central
            pillar of the ancien régime.”

            Maybe I should have said “secondary” rather than “tangential”. I agree that the church was deeply involved in the traditions and practices of aristocracy, and supported the nobility in a shameless abuse of their educational and moral authority.

            The point I was trying to make in claiming the anti-clericalism was “debatable” was that its nature was debatable – it was not Christianity per se to which the revolutionaries really objected, but the greedy and reactionary monstrosity it had become in that time and place. They were more than aware that the church was capable of being a more moderate force, as it was in Scandinavia, Netherlands and Britain, for example. To the extent that priests supported the common people they were not only tolerated but appreciated.

          • Nick G

            While those people primarily rely on confrontation and triumphalism, I suspect they are as likely to alienate as to guide those who have found
            what they are seeking in religion.

            That’s a reasonable point, and if people are going to be religious, I’d much rather they gravitated to the more tolerant and progressive varieties; but by the same token, believers are more likely to be influenced by those closer to them in belief – which would rule you out almost as much as me 😉

          • jekylldoc

            “believers are more likely to be influenced by those closer to them in
            belief – which would rule you out almost as much as me ;-)”

            I can’t say I have persuaded many evangelicals either to be reasonable about the authority of scripture or to re-think homosexuality. I have seen personal contact change the “cultural homophobia” of evangelicals. I am willing to have faith that my approach, which does not insult people of faith or take it as a given that they must be shown to be wrong, is likely to have more influence than what I have seen of skepticism.

            There is some excellent research being done on people’s willingness to change their minds. Using vaccination as the issue, for example, it was shown that people were much more influenced by the facts when they were given positive self-esteem messages than when criticised and made defensive (even on an unrelated basis).

            Since the factual issue of homosexuality not being a choice (most of the time) is the key mind-changer, I think skeptics would do well not to try to change a whole religious worldview but just, with ordinary human sympathy, reiterate those facts.

          • Nick G

            The research you mention (unless it’s some I haven’t heard of) is necessarily limited, because it is laboratory-based and concerns immediate responses. I think different approaches may work for different people and in different circumstances. Specifically, I’ve seen a lot of anecdotal accounts (I think all from from ex-Christians) that confrontational approaches do sometimes work – they plant the seed of doubt, the person confronted is sufficiently bothered to spend time looking for refutations to the challenge – and finds that there are no adequate ones.

            Since the factual issue of homosexuality not being a choice (most of the time) is the key mind-changer

            Rationally, it shouldn’t be. Pedophilia is not a choice either, but we don’t therefore excuse child sexual abuse. Unless the homophobe comes to realise that fully informed consent* is the key to decent sexual ethics, and that if that’s present, it’s simply none of their business what other people choose to do sexually, you have at most a fragile, partial, and easily reversible change. Such a position makes it easy to condemn active bisexuals, and those who declare that their preference for same-sex partners is a choice, and is also vulnerable to further research findings, e.g. discovery of ways to alter sexual orientation.

            *Which requires that there not be too great a power differential between participants.

          • jekylldoc

            nick –

            I think you would have trouble convincing the average person that there is no such thing as wrong sexual behavior, even if they have no religious reason for rejecting that view. Most of us feel that “cheating on your partner” is cheating, for example. Furthermore, some sexual behavior that should be none of our business becomes some of our business, by leading to dependent children or abortions, the spread of STDs, and a number of less serious or less demonstrable problems.

            Informed consent is an important criterion. I don’t think it is the only one that matters. It is essentially the difference between accepting homosexual behavior and forbidding pedophilia, yes, but for those of us who understand that sexual behavior can be wrong on other grounds, it takes a little more work to understand why homosexuality is fulfilling for many with no choice about that, rather than simply being willful violation of community standards.

            “I’ve seen a lot of anecdotal accounts (I think all from from
            ex-Christians) that confrontational approaches do sometimes work – they
            plant the seed of doubt,”

            Yes, that certainly happens. I have some trouble with a cost-benefit calculation, which I think is implied, that 10 fundamentalists who harden their position because of confrontation is less important than one who eventually rejects fundamentalism because of that same confrontation. This is so all-or-nothing, taking religion as the only issue that matters rather than paying attention to the gradations of humanism within that category, that it is no wonder so many do harden their position – they sense that they are being written off as completely in error if their religion means anything to them.

            Certainly one can initiate a thought process with a nuanced, sympathetic discussion, and (perhaps because I hang around with different people) I have met many more former fundamentalists who took that path to change than who relate that they changed because they could not find arguments to refute confrontational skeptics.

          • Nick G

            Cheating on your partner is wrong because it involves breaking a promise, not because of the sex itself: breaking any other promise of comparable importance to the promisee would be just as bad. Some couples have open relationships, and if these are freely agreed and any third parties also know the score, that’s not wrong. As for your other examples, yes, like many other behaviours, sexual ones can affect society as a whole, but my view is that the general adoption of a “none of my business” approach with regard to sex with informed consent ,would be an enormous improvement. Comprehensive, non-moralistic sex education would do far more to prevent unwanted pregnancies and the spread of STIs than the prodnosing approach – its efficacy is shown by considerable empirical evidence.

            I have some trouble with a cost-benefit calculation, which I think is
            implied, that 10 fundamentalists who harden their position because of
            confrontation is less important than one who eventually rejects
            fundamentalism because of that same confrontation.

            We don’t know what the ratio is, and it would be highly context-dependent. What I see in the USA particularly is that failure to confront fundamentalism has led to its proponents gaining influence, and adopting ever more extreme positions: look how people who would have been dismissed as extremist cranks only a decade ago now dominate discourse in the Republican Party. Nor do I come anywhere near the position that only religion matters, and I don’t think I’ve said anything that implies that. I know I have said that I work regularly with politically progressive believers.

          • jekylldoc

            nick,
            “Cheating on your partner is wrong because it involves breaking a promise, not because of the sex itself:”

            Agreed. However, I have had discussions with some who think this an absolute truth, and thus refuse to accept a partner believing that the couple having an open marriage is wrong. I don’t think think either has exactly the right perspective, there.

            “Comprehensive, non-moralistic sex education would do far more to prevent
            unwanted pregnancies and the spread of STIs than the prodnosing
            approach”

            Prodnosing? Must be a British expression.
            There is a sad case in America in which Colorado’s successful approach using long-term IUD’s and neutral education has lowered rates of teen pregnancies, abortions and STDs. And yet the state is unlikely to pick up funding from its previously private basis, because it does not promote abstinence as policy.

            “What I see in the USA particularly is that failure to confront fundamentalism has led to its proponents gaining influence, and adopting ever more extreme positions”

            Actually, fundamentalism in the public sphere has been opposed by mainline Protestant churches for a long time now, including on prayer in schools. The list of plaintiffs calling for an overturning of teaching Creationism or ID in cases like Kitzmiller has included numerous church organizations, and they have contributed substantial resources, not just moral support.

            Progressive churches have not been shy about introducing Christian alternatives to fundamentalist perspectives – Bishop Spong is merely the most visible example.

            It looks to a lot of us Americans like the lack of respect felt by evangelical Christians contributes heavily to their insularity, which has bred some of their aggressive political mobilization.

            “Nor do I come anywhere near the position that only religion matters, and I don’t think I’ve said anything that implies that.”

            I understand that you mainly care about political humanism and mutual respect. I was trying to capture the “all or nothing” sense about religious views which I thought I saw in your rhetorical construction and which I have run into in numerous exchanges in the past with assertive atheists. If that is not what you meant by “they should be guided by those who don’t believe” then I am happy to hear your nuanced version.

          • jekylldoc

            nick –
            “You are insisting that there is such a feature – irrespective of whether most religious believers would agree with you -”
            I seem to have gone back and forth on that degree of commonality, I suppose because the real point in my mind is that what they have in common is inward, and therefore obscured by a comparative approach in terms of beliefs.
            I said that it would be difficult to set out in what way a Taoist or a Zen monk is responding to the holy, and yet I think the family resemblance is strong enough that their practice will have many of the same internal effects.
            “You don’t seem able to produce any actual evidence for these “brain processes” ”
            I am aware of studies of brains during meditation, yoga states, and prayer. I vaguely recall that there was a study of brain processes during the singing of religious music, which is certainly a time when many report being moved or experiencing something out of the ordinary. I think there were a few which found similar brain activation spots in views of grandeur of nature as in meditation. Sorry for the sloppiness.
            You might be interested in Tanya Luhrman’s “When God Talks Back” She is a highly qualified anthropologist who has studied modern witches, psychiatrists, schizophrenics and people who hear voices. The group she studied for that book included some people who, after intense encounters or intense seeking, learned to tune into people around them and signals about those people in a “hyper-empathetic” way. They attribute the signals to supernatural intervention, yet are quite clear that they are experiences in their own mind. An obvious explanation is that they occur in the subconscious.
            I think that example illustrates my perspective in fairly dramatic fashion. The fact that the person attributes the event to the supernatural has causative influence – even if they are completely wrong. They perceive themselves to be doing something in response to the holy, and if they focused on deconstructing it, the phenomenon would go away.
            These people are quite explicitly concerned about the possibility that psychological delusions are responsible. They check themselves against external reference frameworks – are they glorifying themselves, are the signals telling them to do something that Jesus would want them to do, etc.
            You and I might meet their stories with some trepidation, fearing that we are hearing from schizophrenic loonies like Peter Sutcliffe, who may go and kill someone in response to inner voices. Of course, the mad things that have been done in response to the apparent dictates of logic and reason do not cause us to doubt logic and reason, because we trust it on an internal basis. The subjects studied by Luhrman have a similar internal basis for trust.

            “If they “cannot encounter the holy without having been changed in the way the holy does”, then are you not setting up an objective
            criterion for whether their experience was really “an ecounter with the holy”, viz, that they have to be changed in the right way?”

            I think the question of which types of encounter are more truly or more deeply encounters with the holy is a question about which objective research is not going to get us very far. In this realm, people’s perception and interpretation has a dramatic effect on what results come out of the encounter, just as perception affects the placebo effect significantly. So far, humanity’s learning on the subject has proceeded mainly by the guidance of those who have a well-developed internal process leading those who want to cultivate one. The searcher recognizes the path in someone else.

            Obviously this has sometimes gone horribly wrong, as charismatic leadership seems able to induce some followers to experience the validating internal states while deliberately avoiding the checks that help to move people toward others rather than into themselves.

            That is perhaps a field in which science can make a difference, by teasing out which checks work together with the validating internal states and which deceptions seem prone to going off the rails. But it is definitely an area for religion to study, since we religious people are in the middle of the issue. Dorothee Solle did a few things in that direction, moving from highly skeptical feminist theology to a willingness to embrace mysticism with skeptical eyes wide open.

            “how do you define “sound mind””

            That was a qualifier thrown in for my convenience, Evidently the attractiveness of believing one is responding to the holy participates in some of the pathologies that cause people to do horrible things, including demanding self-abasement by vulerable young people, and selling elaborate fantasies to gullible flocks. If it has been captured by pure psychosis, then no, it is a simulation with no actual validity.

            I would make the empirical prediction that the hypothetical checks I was suggesting for these processes would be of zero utility to the psychotic, but I may be wrong in view of success some people have had getting schizophrenics to “make friends” with the friendly voices in their heads and resist the harsh voices.

          • Nick G

            Of course, the mad things that have been done in response to the
            apparent dictates of logic and reason do not cause us to doubt logic and
            reason, because we trust it on an internal basis.

            No, we don’t. If we are real rather than pseudo-sceptics, we know that the easiest person to fool is yourself. That is why what I would call the “rational project” (roughly, science and science-like approaches in other areas) depends so strongly on external checks – both from other investigators and from the evidence; and on institutions developed over time, and requiring constant “maintenance” to avoid their capture by special interests.

          • jekylldoc

            Nick, you are right that we build in external checks for empirical work, and that it is important partly because people fool themselves ( cold fusion, anyone?). But I think you have not considered the issue of internal validation for logic and reason as a process. Most of us find repeated experiences with logic to validate the mental process strongly.

            It is not that we think any exercise of reason will automatically give a correct result. In fact just the opposite: it is when we are told we made a mistake and, going back over the process, find an error of reason that gave rise to the mistaken result, that we are most strongly led to consider reason reliable. People make mistakes, but reason does not, if you see what I am saying.

            If you read some of the pathetic stuff put out by Creationists and climate denialism, you will quickly realize that they have failed to develop this actual internal validation process. They have no sense of how to detect the likelihood of error, or how to put errors in context. The gestalt of how reason and evidence works is foreign to them, and thus they are able to “reason” from isolated and distorted examples to the “conclusion” they wanted to reach.

          • Nick G

            That’s a good point, but it’s not a necessary truth that we are able to develop useful “internal validation processes”; and the evidence that we can is external: the long record of progress in the “rational project”. Similarly, the claim that there are useful religious internal validation processes, requires external evidence – as I think you agree. I remain to be convinced that such evidence exists.

          • jekylldoc

            Nick –
            You say the claim that there are useful religious internal validation processes requires external evidence, yet millions don’t seem to require that at all. The reliability is much lower than with reason, but the internal rewards are rather high. Religion certainly does not aim for progress, nor for the essentially progressive process of gathering knowledge. It is more like drumming – it aims for itself.

            My suggestion was just that you consider that such processes exist. They explain a lot.

          • Nick G

            The group she studied for that book included some people who, after
            intense encounters or intense seeking, learned to tune into people
            around them and signals about those people in a “hyper-empathetic” way.

            Thanks for the recommendation. I’m afraid I can’t promise to read it anytime in the next few years, given all the books on my reading list! (I could read a shorter presentation of the work if there is one.) Is there evidence that these people are actually capable of “hyper-empathy”, rather than just thinking they are? If so, what kind of evidence?

          • jekylldoc

            Nick,

            The evidence of hyper-empathy includes times of recognising some issue the other person is dealing with, such as a decision about a life change or a stressful on-going problem. In the anecdotal reporting, these recognitions are uncannily accurate ( “I got a picture of a baby, and it turns out she was struggling with whether to have one,” etc.)

            I have not yet finished the book, so I don’t know how much Luhrman investigates Michael Shermer type questions like, “how often did you get a picture in your mind and it turned out to be totally off base” ?

            For me the important part is that communication from God is perceived to be about the needs of people around them. This is not, “I prayed for a parking spot and one opened up” type of foolery.

          • Nick G

            But if the “communication from God” is in fact wrong about what those around them need, it’s not likely to be helpful, so the question as to whether this “hyper-empathy” is real remains crucial – and I, as you might expect, remain sceptical in the absence of good evidence.

          • jekylldoc

            Well, skepticism has an important place in the grand scheme of things. I have no problem with your skeptical reaction. I think you might take seriously the possibility that the subconscious is capable of making intuitive leaps on a better-than-random basis, but that is for you to consider, not an issue I want to influence people about.

          • Nick G

            It might also do worse than random. Considering the messages “God” seems to give the majority of evangelical Christians, I think that possibility is also worth taking seriously.

          • jekylldoc

            Indeed, and thus the question of how to exercise checks on our understanding of the holy is a vital one. It is also one that skeptics have proved remarkably unpersuasive at.

            If I may be so bold, I suspect that is because they have simply no understanding of the internal validating processes of religion, having rejected (unnecessarily, IMO) any experience they have had of responding to the holy. Believers can, and do, speak persuasively to other believers about judgemental and condemning beliefs. We get where each other are coming from.

          • Nick G

            If I may be so bold, I suspect that is because they have simply no
            understanding of the internal validating processes of religion

            Or perhaps because they look at the actual record of religion as a social force. Not, of course, a uniformly bad one – I work regularly alongside progressive religious believers in various activist contexts – but currently, I judge, overwhelmingly negative, and in particular, authoritarian, misogynist and homophobic.
            Edited to add: It’s surely, as I think you imply, the responsiblity of progressive religious believers to combat such tendencies in religion (and I’m inclined to think those with a belief in an objective supernatural reality might have more success than those without); and of course the same applies within “movement atheism” – I don’t know if you are aware of the “deep rifts” within the latter (with some of the most prominent figures, such as Dawkins, Harris and Shermer on the wrong side), but I actually spend more time online arguing with right-wing andor misogynist atheists than with believers.

          • jekylldoc

            Nick –

            We may not do everything we can, but we do work at it. I absolutely loved the UCC lawsuit in North Carolina (now moot) pointing out that the N.C. law against performing same-sex marriage was restricting the UCC freedom of religion.

            “in particular, authoritarian, misogynist and homophobic.”

            I have some ideas about the psychological basis of the authoritarianism. And I believe that it (authoritarianism) is responsible for the approach to scripture that has caused them to push back for misogynist and homophobic views.

            If I am right, we will find that such views gradually subside. There are still some wacko versions of “family values” out there, like Quiverfull, but by and large evangelicals maintain the formal belief in submission of women while incorporating specific practices and perspectives from the wider culture (Michelle Bachman? Sarah Palin? Could these have been candidates in 1970? I think not)

            “the same applies within “movement atheism” – I don’t know if you are aware of the “deep rifts” within the latter (with some of the most
            prominent figures, such as Dawkins, Harris and Shermer on the wrong side), but I actually spend more time online arguing with right-wing andor misogynist atheists”

            Well, I would never have thought of Dawkins, Harris or Shermer as misogynist, though perhaps leaning a bit libertarian. I am certainly interested in your take on differences within “movement atheism”. I actually kind of like those guys, though I have some objection to specifics for all of them and a general dim view of the deliberately insulting and antagonistic approach taken by Dawkins and Harris.

          • Nick G

            Try googling “Shermer rapist”, or “Dawkins Muslima” or “Sam Harris estrogen vibe”. Any of those, particularly the first two, will land you in the middle of the “deep rifts”.

          • jekylldoc

            Huh. The Dawkins story doesn’t really surprise me – foot in mouth seems to be a specialty. The Shermer story did.

          • arcseconds

            Check out Harris’s debate with the security expert Bruce Schneier:

            http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/to-profile-or-not-to-profile

            It’s an interesting debate, and I think it fairly clearly shows some subtle undercurrents of racism and authoritarianism at work within Harris. He wants to profile brown people to keep us safe from the scawy muslims, to put it bluntly.

            Whereas Schneier pleasantly surprised me! He not only pwns the debate about security, he also comes across as a thoughtful and magnanimous individual.

          • jekylldoc

            arcseconds,
            I got a quarter of the way through before giving up. It is astonishing to me that Sam Harris would publish his rather dismal performance. It was eerily reminiscent of Donald Trump or Ann Coulter in that Harris seemed very interested in making his rhetorical points, but not very interested in the details of what Schneier has to say.

            His rhetorical point, of course, is that Muslims are vewy scawy, as you say. We know that is what Harris wants us to respond to, and yes, I think he makes the point reasonably effectively that some Muslim doctrines make that particular religion dangerous to others. What he has a little trouble doing, on that subject, is thinking about which particular kinds of threats create such an extreme response. Because how hard you have to push against Muslims to get a communitarian, violent response is not all that much less than how hard for Hindus, Christians (remember Bosnia and Ireland), Koreans, Tutsis, Zulus, Lakota Sioux or Alabamans.

            I may not have gotten to the authoritarian undercurrents, but his policy prescription seemed to me very similar to the reasons why white people who forgot their ID or who changed something on their form are much more likely to be waved through on trust (everywhere in America, not jairports in particular) than black people are.

          • arcseconds

            I think it’s extremely difficult to assess the scorecard of religion on a utilitarian basis. Sure, if one looks at the news reports, one sees endless examples of terrible things being done in the name of religion. But what’s missing from the news reports is the massive amount of non-newsworthy good that comes out of religion. There are untold millions of people who do charitable work from religious sensibilities, are better integrated with their community through religion, or even just enjoy religious practice.

            One can even point to positive political progress that has happened in large part because of religion. Abolitionists were frequently motivated at least in part by religion, for example, and setting up social safety nets has often been prompted by religious motivation, too. In the Netherlands, at least, this was organised initially on explicitly religious grounds. It’s a bit of a silly way of organising it, and they moved away from it, but it is a vivid demonstration of the strong links between religion and social democracy as the latter was coming into being.

            Then there are things like the music of Bach, enjoyed immensely by millions of non-Christians, which we simply wouldn’t possess if it weren’t for Christianity.

            Of course trying to weigh up how many oppressed women the B minor mass is worth is a preposterous exercise, and religion isn’t separable from society, and the counterfactual is impossible to make out, so ultimately I think the statement is far too problematic to be worth uttering. To the extent it’s getting at something that’s correct it can be expressed in more useful ways.

            An instructive analogy might be marriage. A hundred years ago or so it might have been reasonable to say “marriage is a dreadful institution which does more harm than good: it’s authoritarian, misogynist, homophobic”. And of course historically it was even worse. But it was still the case that many women loved their husbands, liked being married to them, and enjoyed their wedding day immensely. I’m sure many of them would have disagreed completely with the ‘marriage is a dreadful institution’ line.

            It was never going to be possible to do away with marriage – instead we modified it so hopefully we’ve on the whole gotten rid of the worst aspects of it, and have retained the best aspects of it.

            Of course it still isn’t some utopic institution where everything is unicorns and rainbows in all instances forever, but what do we expect from a human institution?

            So it seems to me the correct thing to say is not that “religion does more harm than good” which is difficult to prove, theoretically problematic, and will be vehemently disagreed with by people you’re trying to help. It’s more likely to start a fight than a useful discussion.

            But rather ‘religion promotes both good things and bad things. At the moment there’s quite a lot of obvious bad stuff that’s being promoted. How do we do away with that?’. That’s a statement that’s obviously true to anyone with the least bit of understanding and human sympathy, and you’ll immediately find a whole lot of allies among the religious, rather than opponents.

          • arcseconds

            You have some intriguing ideas about God and our relationship to the divine. But I’d like to go back to your statement that the relationship you’re picking out is the essence of religion, partly because I don’t have much to say about what you’re saying about the holy as yet.

            Like Nick, I’m suspicious of essences. When we’ve got a conceptual term, we’re inclined to suppose that there must be one property, or a specific list of properties, that make things fall under that term. And to understand the concept is to know what these properties are.

            But lots of things aren’t like this. Wittgenstein’s example is games: there aren’t (according to him, at least) properties that all games have in common: not all have rules, not all are played for fun (and there are other things that are done for fun that aren’t games) etc.

            In the West (at least), we’re hung up on belief as the essence of religion. To be Christian is to believe in a bunch of stuff, including God and Jesus saving us on the cross. But this doesn’t work out too well as although most Christians might say “I believe in God” what they mean by that varies greatly, so it’s pretty clear there isn’t, in fact, a belief that all Christians have in common.

            By saying “the essence of the religion is in the inner process of bringing oneself to follow these prescriptions” you appear to be suggesting that all religions have this feature, and that if one is engaged in practices that would normally be called religious but aren’t trying to do this, then you’re not really religious or aren’t doing it properly, or something.

            Is this correct?

            While I’m not all that keen on giving an essential definition of religion, if I had to pick out one thing it would be practice. So we might say that the essence of being Christian is to participate in the eucharist, read the Bible (or listen to bits of it being read to one, at least) and go to church. This is already a lot more successful than belief, as it captures more commonality across cultures and time than belief does.

            Also we can note that (as far as I know) all religions provide rituals for important life occurrences, such as birth, marriage and death.

            How does your essence of pursuing a certain kind of relationship with holiness fare against my essence of practice, do you think?

          • jekylldoc

            Arcseconds,
            The point I was trying to make is that “comparative belief systems” obscures what it really means to BE a Muslim, or to BE a Christian, or a Buddhist. As such it distorts all of them. Your explanation in terms of practice captures a similar point (Karen Armstrong agrees with you). But even comparative practice obscures what is critical, in my view.

            Consider sports. You can do a lot with description, in sports. You can make it possible for a spectator to understand what is happening. But that doesn’t tell a person what they need to know to determine whether they would prefer football or tennis or swimming or None. You have to do the thing, to know that.

            Religion is even more like that. It is simply not a spectator sport. There is no understanding it from outside.

            My statement that what is obscured is something they have in common is a side issue for me, though after going over it a bit with Nick I am finding it surprisingly solid.

          • arcseconds

            There are people, and I’ve met some, whose main reason for identifying as Christian and going to church is to participate in a particular tradition and engage in a certain kind of ritual practice. No doubt they also like seeing the same friendly faces every week (or twice a year). They don’t seem all that interested in pursuing the kind of experiences that you’re talking about, or at any rate, they’re not at all interested in guiding their lives by them.

            Or take a funeral rite: the main purpose is to mark the passing of one’s loved one and ritually say goodbye to them, and perhaps to give voice to the hope that this is not forever. If someone started asking me if it was a successful funeral and I said “yes, the sermon was good, the reminiscences were touching, there were no embarrassments or hitches…” and they said “yesyesyes but did you have any numinous experiences? Did anyone have them?” I would think they were mad, and didn’t understand what a funeral was about.

            By picking out a particular class of experience and say “this is what religion is really about”, don’t you miss rather a lot?

            As far as sports go, it might be that they can’t be understood from the outside. But I also think that it’s pretty clear that from the inside there are lots of things going on which are different for different people. If someone were to say “sport is all about self-mastery”, then well, sure, it is about that for many people. But for other people it’s about having a good time with their mates, and for others it’s really all about winning. Other people play to earn a buck. For others, of course, it is about having the same experiences that you’re picking out for religion.

            If someone were to pick out self-mastery as being the thing that sport is really all about, then they have misunderstood it by fixating on only one part of the phenomenon.

          • jekylldoc

            Arcseconds ,

            I see your point about much of religion being casual, and people often ignoring the inward side. Yet, I think if you asked those people what kind of Christian they are, very few would start in on doctrinal fine points. Probably they would say something like, “an occasional one” or “a cultural Christian.” Even people out on the fringes like that are aware that there is meaning to be had, but in their mind it is not for them. Their definition of the faith is unlikely to be, “where I meet my mates for coffee and a chat.”

            I did not suggest that only numinous experiences are examples of encounters with the holy. In fact much of it is mundane and shallow. ” I go to confession”. “Why?” ” Because it is good for my soul and I can take Holy Communion.” That may not be the best religion, but it is validated internally.

          • arcseconds

            Well, I made a throwaway parenthetical remark about minimal observances, but casualness was not entirely what I had in mind. Someone who is there for tradition and community might be very serious about their religion: they might turn up, er, religiously, know the history in depth, fold the altar cloth, sing in the choir, make the tea, etc. And they might not be an amateur, either: they could have a postgraduate degree where they studied the history of the eucharist, or the Episcopalian church in North America, or something. They could even be the minister.

            But it now seems to me that it would be consistent with what you have already said to say that feeling integrated with the community through time and space is also an encounter with the holy (but you don’t seem to think ‘where I meet my mates for coffee and a chat’ counts?) and I’d have to say I’m now quite confused, because holy encounters are starting to look like they can be anything you want them to be.

            Initially, it seemed to me that you were picking out a certain field of experiences that are at least somewhat familiar as religious experiences: there’s the full-on ecstatic/numinous experiences that are often what is referred to as ‘religious experiences’ (as in ‘I had a religious experience’), and also maybe the peace that comes from prayer or meditation or performing a familiar ritual, and perhaps being in tune with others in a particular way. You explicitly referred to confessing sins, too. I thought I detected a reluctance to give a clear definition or a definitive list, which is fine. And you also made it clear that if these things happen in a non-religious context it’s still an encounter with the holy.

            I’m not at all sure that the experiences I’ve just mentioned are really that similar to one another. But they are at least distinctively religious in some sense. And I suppose there’s some kind of sense of being taken out of oneself and being part of something greater that might be pointed to, so I was prepared to run with this.

            But with your recent addition of “confession is good for my soul, and I get to go to holy communion”, and someone who’s hand is stayed by an injunction against kinslaying, and someone who gets some kind of perspective by the view from the mountain top, I am struggling much more to see any commonality here.

            What is the difference between “confession is good for my soul, and i get to go to holy communion” and “vegetables are good for my health, and I get to eat dessert”? If I recall my mother’s injunctions about putting towels on the bed and my hand is stayed from discarding my towel carelessly, is that an encounter with the holy?

            I would be prepared to defend the notion that there is no essential difference between ritual purity in a religious context and household cleanliness, but if motherly injunctions about towels seems a bit too trivial, how about things like “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all”? If that shuts my trap when I was about to utter something mean-spirited, is that any different from having it shut by “Love thy neighbour”?

            And if recalling instruction from one’s parents is an encounter with the holy, then what about recalling instructions from the course one did last week? And if that, then what isn’t an encounter with the holy?

            (As an autobiographical aside, I don’t actually recall my mother ever saying anything about towels on beds. I think she was reasonably successful in getting us to keep the towels in the bathroom. But I do recall someone else mentioning in an essay that they hear their mother in their head every time they were about to throw the towel on the bed. So now I’ve got someone else’s mother in my head, nagging me about towels… is idiosyncratic stuff that stuck with me from reading essays an encounter with the holy?)

          • jekylldoc

            arcseconds,

            I must say I am not sure I have considered the matter enough to give you satisfactory answers to your good questions, but I will be glad to tell you what I think.

            I don’t really understand ritual purity. Haidt tells of going to India and learning to appreciate ritual purity as an aspect of moral feeling. I am reporting this second-hand, but I gather that this is something like, “if I keep to the rules of hand-washing, God is more pleased with our community.” If what he says is true, then I would expect many of the same brain processes would follow ritual hand-washing as follow taking communion.

            While it is possible that the same is true for my mother’s admonition about towels on the bed/floor, I rather doubt it. I don’t think the mere conjunction of having been told a rule is important with submitting oneself to the rule is sufficient to draw one into encounter with the holy.

            You asked “What is the difference between “confession is good for my soul, and i
            get to go to holy communion” and “vegetables are good for my health, and
            I get to eat dessert”?”

            And of course there are some obvious differences, and I think they should be taken seriously. Vegetables are an instrumental item – they are not significant in themselves but are understood to be good for physical health. Confession, I am suggesting, participates in a sense of being for a transcendant purpose – a purpose which is more important than other goals, and which puts other goals in a framework of meaning. It may be that the same thing happens for some vegetarians, I don’t know – they understand themselves to be doing that which gives life meaning? Maybe.

            Religion seems to have come about as a combination of 1) observance for community values, 2) tapping into “unseen” (i.e. mysterious) sources of power, and 3) receiving internal evidence that one has done something of transcendant importance. I began with the assertion that the third is obscured by comparing religions based on belief systems, and am moving in the direction of thinking the third is actually the essential one.

            Your questions raise the issue for me of whether the first two are needed for the third to operate. Based on introspection and a sense of how religion works for others, I would guess no – that a sense of transcendance comes as much from internal constructions, an almost Kantian categorization that recognizes matters such as birth, death and morality to be of greater importance than improved health or greater savings. So we learn to put structure on that, and community observances follow from encounter with the holy, more than vice-versa.

            You tell about people who savor participation in traditions, as one might prefer music of the Renaissance over 19th C. Romanticism. I apologize for interpreting this as “casual”. It may be that those people view themselves as doing something because it is meaningful, and in that case it probably is actually religious. But I suspect that the links that make it so are completely different from the ones which made the particular actions meaningful in the first place.

            Liberal religion is not like that. Even though we reinterpret nearly everything in the religious tradition (even while believing that in most cases we are restoring the original insight) we do so as an exercise in finding the essential meaning, not treating the tradition as definitional to meaning. So if the doctrine of Purgatory or of Original SIn no longer can speak to us, we simply drop them.

            So to answer what I take to be your questions, maintaining ritual practices does not maintain the religion if these are understood to be “empty.”

  • ObscurelyAgnostic

    I’m reminded of William Stringfellow’s distinction between religion and the Gospel — religion is the (perpetual?) human search for God, but the Gospel proclaims God has found us!

  • So, James, speaking of Pete’s new blog site:

    It’s very clean, the comments aren’t limited to a narrow field, but are spread evenly across the screen, and (most importantly!) no ads!

    What do you think? A good model for a new “Exploring our Matrix” site?

    • louismoreaugottschalk

      yuh! Using disqus is a mess on my android tablet!

      • Well, on that point, even though Enns has left Patheos, his new site is still connected to disqus.

    • Perhaps. I have found the additional income provided through blogging at Patheos makes a meaningful difference in my life and that of my family. But then I try writing this comment to you, and the site makes the browser crash, and the idea of moving starts to look tempting. But Patheos is trying to figure out how to be a quality site while also being profitable, and so I am willing to cut them a little slack as they experiment in these relatively uncharted waters.

      • That’s good. I could abide the ads, with a little less crashing.

      • seen too much here

        hmmm, no need to wonder then why the site is often purposely provocative. traffic a little low, hey, let’s talk about gay marriage!

  • louismoreaugottschalk

    Yes!

  • Nick G

    At some point, for most of us, as it was for some biblical writers political journalists, GodDonald Trump stops making sense.

    The question then is whether the non-sense leads to disbelief in GodTrump or becomes an invitation to seek GodTrump differently–even through confrontation
    and debate, as these biblical booksjournalists model for us.

    Makes just as much sense as the original.

    • ccws

      Donald Trump never has made sense.

      • Nick G

        Exactly.

  • jekylldoc

    Having gone far afield with the discussion, I would like to return to the original proposition. I think it is important that we realize that God is not interested in becoming one more technology in our toolbox, or one more ride in the amusement park.

    An encounter with God is unlikely to be genuine if we are busy slotting the matter into theoretical mechanisms. The prophetic pronouncement, “Come, let us reason together” is not followed by philosophical arguments, but by “though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be made white as snow.”

    This is not just logic chopping, but critical. When we begin with reason as a requirement, we end with values and goals as a given, about which nothing useful can be said. Since one cannot get from an “is” proposition to an “ought” proposition by reason, our values formation is pushed off into obscure realms of childhood relationships and genetic selection.

    The question of which values are really important is God’s question, and we cannot pretend to solve it like an algebra problem in some empirical framework that takes “making sense” as an absolute. Rather, we have to accept that the question is, itself, the question that really matters, and thus we encounter God.

    • Nick G

      God is not interested in anything, because there is no god, if that word is used in anything like its usual sense; and I don’t see what sense it could possibly make if used in the way you want to use it, as it then does not designate any sort of being, let alone one capable of being interested (or not) in anything.

      I agree one cannot get from “is” to “ought”. We start from values our evolutionary, cultural and personal history have produced in us, but we can consider those values critically and decide they should be changed. We have to decide, individually and collectively, what values we consider important, and reason is a vital part of that: reason about the consistency or otherwise of different values, about how far they depend upon particular facts or alleged facts, and about the consequences of adopting specific values.

      Anyhow, thanks for the discussion, to which this will probably be my last contribution, as I’m off to a conference and visit to friends tomorrow. I certainly understand your views somewhat better than I did, but most of your comment above still seems to me to be simply nonsensical.

      • jekylldoc

        No worries. I am glad you read it, but it was not particularly addressed to you.

        You say we can consider our starting values critically, and use reason to evaluate likely consequences, consistency, etc., and I hope everyone does. But in the end we are answering the question of which values are most important from our inner selves. It does not make sense to impose “making sense” on that process as an absolute.

        It has been a pleasure, and I hope your conference and visit go very well.