Ongoing blogalog

Ongoing blogalog May 7, 2012

Here is John Henry’s opening.

Here is my response.

Here is John Henry’s most recent.


No need to apologize or explain. There’s nothing wrong with sharing an honest opinion with someone – or even advancing that opinion publicly. (What one might call “proselytizing.”) I agree with Penn Jillette that not disagreeing with someone whose beliefs you see as hurtful is, ultimately, less kind than keeping your mouth shut or sugarcoating your disagreements to the point of meaninglessness. You told me that I can do better than to be a Christian, and I realize that it was kindly meant, and appreciate your saying so. I also recognize the distinction between condemning a person’s beliefs or actions and hating or looking down on that person. (What one might call loving the sinner and hating the sin – a phenomenon every parent is familiar with.) I think we’re off to a pretty good start simply because we see eye-to-eye on those things already. 

I’d also like to address something that you’ve brought up a number of times: burden of proof. Stating that the burden of proof is on me because I believe in God and you don’t is a little hard to swallow. In any honest conversation, the burden of proof is on the person attempting to convince the other, and in a two-way conversation like this, the burden of supporting our assertions is on both of us. If your goal is to convince me to become an atheist, probably the worst argument you can use is “Atheism is true unless you can prove it wrong.” Certainly you will continue to believe it is true unless you can be given a good reason to think otherwise, but that isn’t an argument, and it won’t get you very far if your goal is to convince me (or any other theist.)

I’ve decided to avoid “fisking” your response, and stick with a more traditional letter format because I think it makes our discussion more like an actual conversation, and because I’m trying to avoid getting lost in petty digressions. (Well, okay, in that respect it makes our blogalog very unlike many actual conversations I’ve had.) As strong as your and my feelings about the crusades or Stalin’s purges may be, they’re entire topics in their own right, and we won’t have a fruitful conversation about theism if we keep chasing things like that down their own individual rabbit holes.

When I asked you to define God, it was as a prelude to another question about God. It seemed helpful to me to know where you are coming from so that I could respond to what you really mean, rather than just what I assume you mean. Part of that, in a discussion about God, is knowing what you mean when you use the word “God.” That way we don’t wind up arguing about the existence of a horned mammal when one of us is talking about unicorns and the other about rhinoceroses.

But since you asked that I be the one to define God, I will start by defining God as the first cause of the universe (or multiverse, if you’re one of those string-theory folks.) We can decide whether we disagree as to whether such a thing exists, and perhaps move on from there.

I wrote earlier that existence does not make sense to me without God – without a first cause. In other words, a godless universe (a universe without a cause) is literally inconceivable. Every phenomenon in the universe, as we know it, is contingent – it owes its existence to something else. Logically then, I am faced with two options: infinite regress or a first cause. Either everything owes its existence to something else that owes its existence to some other such thing, or there was a starting point for it all – some noncontingent phenomenon, or first cause.

My suspicion is that you are not a believer in infinite regress; most atheists I know believe that the universe had a starting point. But I could be wrong about you; some atheists describe a hypothetical cosmological undulation that regresses infinitely. As far as I can tell, there are three possible directions for this particular part of the conversation:

1. We can agree that the universe had a first cause, and move on to disagreeing about the characteristics of that first cause (intelligence, benevolence, its personal nature, the incarnation in history, etc.)

2. We can disagree about the source of existence, and debate infinite regress.

3. You can tell me why I am wrong that the only two possibilities are infinite regress and a first cause, and explain a third possibility I had not considered.

I don’t believe in infinite regress. Consequently, as far as I can tell, a godless universe is a universe without a first cause, and thus a nonexistent universe. The phrase “godless universe” is as meaningful to me as the phrase “four-sided triangle.”

However, as I said previously, I was not convinced by logic and evidence, but by personal experience. Reasoning along these lines helped me accept theism intellectually in my teens, but religion (and Christianity in particular) is not very meaningful without a personal experience of God, and that’s what makes the difference between a Christian and a Deist.

Now, when I spoke about sensing God’s presence, I wasn’t referring to a feeling of euphoria; I’ve had euphoric feelings outside the context of communion with God. What I was referring to was a pervasive sense that someone was there with me, every moment of my life. I’m sure you’ve thought you were by yourself in a room and suddenly sensed that someone else was there. Sitting by yourself on a bench feels different from sitting next to someone on a bench. That’s the feeling I’m referring to. Call it intuition, or a subconscious response to clues you weren’t aware of noticing – the feeling of not-being-alone is a very distinct feeling. I have never in my life felt truly alone, and that is probably the biggest reason I am not an atheist, as I was raised to be.

I spent a large part of my early life trying to tell myself that I was imagining this experience, that it was a delusion, that it wasn’t real. This was very uncomfortable, sometimes to the point of anguish. I was certain that most of the people around me would lose respect for me, and subject me to a good deal of mockery, if I were to treat this experience as if it were real. (I’ve confirmed this, and consequently I really do feel for the closeted atheists you wrote about in a previous post – people can be hurtful, sometimes even when they’re trying not to be.) And I tried, constantly, to tell myself what you are, in essence, though in gentler words, telling me now: that I was delusional, and that I should ignore my delusions.

You say that this is a better explanation for my experience than that God really is present. I disagree. It is a better explanation given the assumption that philosophical materialism is true, which is not quite the same thing. I would say, rather, that delusion is the way materialists explain away supernatural phenomena.

These explanations seem inadequate to me in part because I am not, so far as I can tell, prone to any other kinds of delusions. If I am delusional, it is a very specific kind of delusion. But my main objection is that discounting my experiences as delusions requires me to discount my sense impressions of reality, which I’m generally disinclined to do without very good reason. I’m all for skepticism, but it is not (and should not be) the default approach to all experiences. (That would mean virtual paralysis.) As you pointed out, human intuition works most of the time.

Sure, I could ponder the question of whether all other people were merely sophisticated robots, designed for my benefit, and programmed to act as if they were real people with real thoughts and feelings; certainly the world I live in is exactly what I would expect to see, were that the case. But it seems a simpler and more natural explanation that they are real people, more or less like me. By the same token, it makes sense to me to treat my experiences of communion with God as what they seem to be.

Your picture of the shadowed chessboard is a great illustration of what we’re talking about. On one level, the pixels on my computer screen in both areas are displaying light at the exact same frequency. However, the illustration is a representation of a more fundamental and solid reality: that of a chessboard with a figure on it casting a shadow. Despite the fact that the pixels in this illustration glow with the same colors, our minds see past that, and perceive the reality behind the illustration: that the chessboard being illustrated has squares in alternating colors, some of which are shadowed by an object blocking the primary source of light. You say that my mind is fooled into seeing two sets of the same color as being different; I say my mind has correctly assessed the objects being represented, and that the two squares being illustrated are actually of different colors – this illustration’s limitations notwithstanding. Fixating on the pixels in the illustration, rather than on the reality of the objects being represented, would make it impossible for me to understand the actual objects or to play a game of chess online.

Your second objection was to my statement that God wants you to know him. The substance of your objection (and please correct me if I am misrepresenting your argument somehow) is that an all-knowing and all-powerful God could eliminate all confusion about his existence and nature at any time he wished, and would do so if he actually wanted us to get to know him.

This is a variation of the problem-of-evil argument, and my response to either would be more or less the same. First, as you pointed out, God’s intellect is superior to mine. Have you ever changed your mind about the wisdom of a course of action after learning new information? Given that, it certainly makes sense that what might seem a wise course of action to you, given the limited set of information and limited perspective you have, would seem like folly if you were omniscient. It is not just possible, but likely that an omniscient God‘s ideas about how best to establish relationships with us would differ from our own.

Despite my own limited knowledge and understanding, I have some thoughts as to why he communicates with us in the ways he does. First, he wants us to love one another, and to do that, we must interact with one another. That’s why we see God sending Jonah with a message to the Ninevites, rather than just shouting down at them directly. It’s not that he created the Ninevites with broken brains that were unable to hear him – it’s that by sending Jonah to them with a message, he accomplished several good things at once – not just the transformation of the Ninevites, but an opportunity for Jonah to make a transformation as well, to become more humble and loving. By making one man a prophet and the other a heathen, he forces the two to interact with one another. That’s where the rubber meets the road – where meaningful love grows. If God wants us to have real opportunities to grow in love for one another, he needs to make space for that to happen.

Also, one of the best ways to make something meaningful is to make it a mystery. Something you work for (or at least suffer for) has more value than something that is given to you as a matter of course. Mystery stories lose most of their impact if they start with “The butler did it.” Jokes are not funny if the punchline comes at the beginning, rather than at the end. The best marriage is one in which you fall deeper in love and get to know your spouse better with every passing day. It’s why Adam and Eve could take their relationship with God for granted, and threw it away in exchange for a pendejada, while Cyprian of Carthage knew a life without God, and after finding him accepted beheading rather than deny him. It’s why Archimedes ran around naked yelling “Eureka!” and most students in chemistry classes are bored.

The central question of faith is a personal relationship. It’s not about believing that God exists (there’s nothing especially noble about holding an honest opinion one way or the other) any more than saying that you have faith in your friend means you believe your friend exists. Having faith in someone means trusting them. That’s as true about God as it is about your friend, and in both cases it boils down to a personal relationship, founded on equal parts evidence and a choice to trust.

I appreciate the fact that you need to believe someone exists before you will even think of talking to him, let alone trusting him. Of course you couldn’t do otherwise, and no reasonable person would expect you to. The best a Christian can do, for an atheist like you, is offer you an invitation – to say, in essence, that there is some reason to believe that there is an uncaused cause that created the universe. That his own experience, and that of billions of other people, is that this entity can be known personally, and has told us that he loves and wants to know you too. That he invites you to knock at his door – to kneel down in private and talk to him honestly for a bit – and see what happens. That although he’s not yours to command, and he probably won’t be giving you a personal miracle under carefully controlled laboratory conditions on demand, he has promised that if you ask for the Holy Spirit, you will receive it.

Finally, I never said that God is a precondition for free will. God is, I believe, a precondition for existence, and existence is a precondition for free will. But that wasn’t what I was getting at. What I said was that faith and free will could not coexist without the moment of choice I spoke of. A person with no free will can be made to trust in God, but if he is to have free will, there must be room for a choice to be made. A simple, easy, irrefutable, universal proof that God is good and all-powerful would kind of make trusting him irrelevant, wouldn’t it?

I’ve tried to answer your email in full without getting too sidetracked, which means that I may have misunderstood you or completely overlooked something important in the process. If I have, I beg your pardon and your patience in pointing out to me where I’ve gone wrong.



John Henry

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