A Dialogue with Quixote, Part VII

Hello Quixote,

Considering your last letter to me was some time ago, I apologize for the lateness of my reply. To tell the truth, this was the hardest one for me to write. It's not that I couldn't think of anything to say. Much the opposite: If I had said everything I wanted to say, this post would have been too long! Cutting it down to a reasonable length was more of a struggle than writing it. I've endeavored to edit in a way that does justice to your points and to mine.

I also want to say at the outset that this will be my last reply. I've enjoyed our conversation these past few months; I think we've both had ample opportunity to speak our minds and I'm glad for that. If you'd like to offer some final thoughts in reply to this letter, you're welcome to do so.

While you good folk may connect these observances, and they are real world observances, with logical arguments or rationale for unbelief, most do not. In ministry, we engage believers and unbelievers continuously, and it's a rare bird that cites any of the philosophic staples in my first paragraph, or others like them. The ones who do generally do not exhibit even a serviceable grasp of the attendant issues. This is my overwhelming and consistent experience firsthand.

That may be one of those points where we'll have to differ. In my experience, most atheists, even if they aren't experts in theology, come to atheism because they've decided that something about religious belief doesn't rationally add up. This may, of course, be self-selection bias - it's likely that most of the people who visit Daylight Atheism come here because they like to give thought to these issues.

However, I maintain that since there isn't (yet!) a thriving, real-world atheist community in the same way that there are religious communities, very few people are going to become atheists just because it's the default option in their peer group. Most people who become atheists do so as the result of a conscious decision on their part and an intentional effort to seek out the advocates of that philosophy. Granted, if we're as successful as I'd hope, that may change in a few generations. Greta Christina wrote a very thoughtful post about this (link), about how every social movement needs must start with the most independently-minded, committed people, and how that inevitably diminishes as its goals are accomplished and it becomes a more widely accepted position.

An insulating factor actively laboring against this realization is immersion. I define immersion as a progressive group dynamic which isolates and subsequently reinforces cognitive structures, mores, and peculiar linguistics — and a host of other things — among individuals sharing (un)beliefs and community. We're all guilty of it, and I can't speak for y'all, but one thing accomplished by this dialogue is the weakening of this exclusive immersive web by the coupling of new strands to existing ones.

I couldn't agree more! Why do you think I wanted to do this in the first place?

Lastly, I might also ask you a related question: to what degree is your atheism dependent upon your birth in a western culture steeped in secularism? Would that influence your estimation of the reasonableness of your atheism? I'd also like to hear to what degree you believe your birth into a Judeo-Christian culture has imported tenets from those religions into your atheism, whether consciously or subconsciously.

I don't accept that Western culture, particularly American culture, is steeped in secularism. On the contrary, I'd say that being an atheist where I live requires swimming upstream against an overwhelming tide of public opinion: opinion treating belief in God not just as the expected, but the only moral position. Look at the money in your wallet if you don't think that's true. There may be some places where your remark about our secularism-steeped culture has a degree of truth. But in vast swathes of this country, nonbelief in public life, or even in private life, is all but impossible unless carefully concealed.

I'll grant that living in this culture does make atheism possible - in the sense that, as god-saturated as our society is, we've still managed to carve out some breathing room between religion and government, creating a small space where nonbelief can exist. In many cultures of the past and the present, even that wouldn't have existed, and outspoken atheism would not be an option at all. In those cultures I'd have been imprisoned or worse for saying the kind of things I say nearly every day on this blog.

As for importing Judeo-Christian tenets into my atheism - I don't know, which tenets do you have in mind? There are many moral principles, like the Golden Rule, that find expression in every culture. In our culture, which is heavily influenced by Christian thinking, these universals naturally find expression in a Christian context. In that sense, I'll concede that my worldview has been influenced by these beliefs; it would be virtually impossible for anyone who grew up in 20th-century America to say otherwise. On the other hand, the Bible and historic Christianity have promoted many principles that are antithetical to my worldview, and many social reform movements to whose ideals I subscribe - separation of church and state, women's equality, secular public schools, birth control, GLBT rights - were and often still are viciously attacked for being anti-Christian.

I've never lived a moment without out it that I can recall. There's definitely times when it's stronger, though. After absorbing so much heat for this admission, I'm figuring I should just go ahead and claim it as an evidence for God — I've got nothing to lose! I'd enjoy hearing of your comparable experience...

Well, now you've asked me a hard question! Trying to do justice to experiences like this is like trying to describe the experience of listening to a symphony. But I'll give it my best shot.

This kind of experience tends to come upon me suddenly at my happiest moments, though it sometimes wells up for no apparent reason. (Maybe it's from a little trickle of current in my temporal lobes.) The most salient aspect is a sense of heightened awareness - a feeling that all the world has suddenly become much richer in detail, that everything has become immeasurably more significant. Always accompanying this is a sense of great affection, of love for all the beauty of the world and my fellow living things. And lastly, there's a feeling I can only describe as oceanic: like the boundaries of my self dissolving, being opened up to all the unimaginable vastness of the world, and experiencing it as a source of bliss. In those few perfect moments, it feels as if the world is full of magic, and I've only briefly gained the ability to see it.

I won't say that this state, this awareness, is present in my life every waking moment. But when it does emerge, it's like the sun breaking through clouds, and I wonder how anyone ever does without it.

When I read your commentary and essays, I sense that you consider some things to be right, and others wrong, in a manner that equates them with objective moral values — in a manner that you would consider them right and wrong if you and every other human had never existed; simply put: more than only the natural functioning of a human cortex, a deliverance of human reason, or an emergent consciousness. I'm not convinced yet that your and your commentator's actions match your beliefs. Where is my misstep here?

I do consider that some things are objectively right and others are objectively wrong. However, I do not consider that this is mutually exclusive with the natural functioning of the cortex. I think these explanations are complementary: the existence of conscious, reasoning beings brings right and wrong into the world, just as it brings in a whole host of other abstract concepts - democracy, for example, or money, or science, or music. It wouldn't make sense to say that those things aren't "real", that they're just tricks of the cerebral cortex. We make them real by participating in them.

How can you prove that the only reason God would permit evil to occur is to bring about some other end?

Truthfully, I think that's the only defense a Christian could possibly offer, even as unsatisfactory as it is (a point you seem to agree with, if I read you correctly). For if God did not create evil as a means to some other end, there's only one other logically possible option: that God created evil as an end in itself. In other words, he created evil for its own sake. That's the definition of what an evil being is, and that creates an irreconcilable contradiction with the core tenet of Christianity that God is good.

If a genuine free will exists, not every possible world is feasible for God to create, and the one we know may just be the possible world feasible for God to create that contains the most good with the least amount of evil given the counterfactuals of creaturely free action. As I think I'm on the side of reason here, I'll endure the Panglossian taunts happily.

I really doubt that very strongly. When you look out at this world, you can't think of any way it could be improved? We wouldn't stand to gain by making human beings more empathetic, less prone to resort to violence to settle their disagreements? We couldn't gain by making free agents who are more inclined to take the long view, less inclined to value immediate short-term gain? By making people who are more courageous and morally steadfast, less willing to compromise their principles for material benefit?

These are all contingent parameters of human behavior that could hypothetically be altered; a creator could twiddle those knobs without depriving us of free will. If you really think this world is unimprovable, that's your right. All I can say, though, is that if God turned things over to me, it wouldn't take long to draw up a list of fixes.

Put yourself in my shoes for a moment: if you were convinced there existed an all-wise, all-good, all-powerful being, wouldn't you trust in Him with regard to evil?

If I was convinced of the exact statement you gave, yes, I'd pretty much have to. However, that's because your conclusion is contained in your premise: if there existed an all-wise, all-good, all-powerful being, it follows as a matter of logic that there can be no unnecessary evil in the world. But that's putting the cart before the horse. I see no rational way to draw such an inference, given the fact that unnecessary evil manifestly does exist. How anyone could look at this world and infer that supreme moral goodness intended it all to be this way, that's a conclusion I simply can't see any way to justify.

As I've said before, to infer moral goodness, one has to have at least some understanding of the actor's motives. But you say we should treat God's plan as a mystery, that we can't know he doesn't have good reasons of his own and therefore should trust him. Again, this is putting the cart before the horse. If God's motives are unknown to us, to be consistent, you'd have to say that his moral status, good or bad, is also an unknown quantity. Believing that God is absolutely good and that he has a motive for all the evil he causes is an argument that goes straight from premise to conclusion without any intervening steps.

August 30, 2009, 3:11 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink12 comments

Poetry Sunday: Tor House

This month's Poetry Sunday features another poem by Robinson Jeffers, an American poet of the early twentieth century. Born 1887 in Pennsylvania, Jeffers was the son of a Presbyterian minister who taught his son Latin and Greek. Nevertheless, Jeffers did not follow in his father's footsteps. Rather than theology, he became enthralled at a young age with the natural world, and became an avid outdoorsman and follower of scientific discoveries in biology, astronomy, and other areas.

Jeffers found his voice as a poet in the first decade of the twentieth century when he moved to Carmel, on the California coast. He would live there for the rest of his life with his wife, Una, in a granite home called Tor House which he built himself. Jeffers found in the wildness and isolation of the coast, combined with his scientific background, a potent inspiration for poetry. Most of his poems are about the stark and awe-inspiring glories of nature - the "astonishing beauty of things", as he called it. Jeffers also wrote much about human civilization, which he viewed, Thoreau-like, as decadent and corrupted, compared to the clean, fierce freshness of the wilderness. (The fact that he lived through two world wars seems to have given him a certain cynicism about the destructive tendencies of civilization.) His poetry is well-known in the modern environmental movement. His published works include Californians (1916), The Women at Point Sur (1927), Be Angry at the Sun (1941) and The Beginning and the End and Other Poems (1963).

Jeffers' religious views were pantheistic. Rather than the anthropomorphic, miracle-working god of Christianity, he believed in a god that exists as the sum total of all natural forces - "the wild God of the world", he wrote in his poem "Hurt Hawks". In "Roan Stallion", he mused, "Not in a man's shape / He approves the praise, he that walks lightning-naked on the Pacific, that laces the suns with planets, / The heart of the atom with electrons". Jeffers' deity was "no God of love", "no anthropoid God making commandments", but rather "the God who does not care and will never cease". Like nature itself, he shows no mercy and grants no afterlife, and is often violent and savage, but nevertheless spins out astonishing and luminous beauty to fill the world. (Read more here and here about Jeffers' pantheist views.)

In today's poem, Jeffers writes of his own home, Tor House, and contemplates whether the work of his hands will survive the passage of time. Nature, in its eternal renewal, will survive; and the cosmos will remain - and I'm in awe of his description of the constellation Orion, spanning a nearby valley like a lamplit bridge - but Jeffers predicts that humanity, and our works, will eventually sink like ghosts into the depths of the earth.

Tor House

If you should look for this place after a handful of lifetimes:
Perhaps of my planted forest a few
May stand yet, dark-leaved Australians or the coast cypress, haggard
With storm-drift; but fire and the axe are devils.
Look for foundations of sea-worn granite, my fingers had the art
To make stone love stone, you will find some remnant.
But if you should look in your idleness after ten thousand years:
It is the granite knoll on the granite
And lava tongue in the midst of the bay, by the mouth of the Carmel
River-valley, these four will remain
In the change of names. You will know it by the wild sea-fragrance of wind
Though the ocean may have climbed or retired a little;
You will know it by the valley inland that our sun and our moon were born from
Before the poles changed; and Orion in December
Evenings was strung in the throat of the valley like a lamp-lighted bridge.
Come in the morning you will see white gulls
Weaving a dance over blue water, the wane of the moon
Their dance-companion, a ghost walking
By daylight, but wider and whiter than any bird in the world.
My ghost you needn't look for; it is probably
Here, but a dark one, deep in the granite, not dancing on wind
With the mad wings and the day moon.

Other posts in this series:

July 19, 2009, 4:44 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink2 comments

Moving Beyond Awe

The nineteenth-century German theologian Rudolf Otto, in his book The Idea of the Holy, popularized the term "numinous", an adjective describing the sense of mystery and wonder that purportedly stems from the presence of a deity. According to Otto, the sense of the numinous had two main characteristics: the mysterium tremendum, the sense of fear and trembling that comes from the presence of that which is wholly other, and the mysterium fascinas, the sense of fascination and curiosity that such an experience evokes.

Otto's theology concisely sums up the categories of religious experience. But the problem with his conception of the numinous is that it lacks one very important quality - understanding.

For Otto, as for many theists, the numinous is not something we should seek to comprehend. We should cower in its presence, or chase after it, or both, but there is no mention of penetrating the mystery, learning what it truly is and how it works. There is no mention made of pulling back the curtain of our ignorance, nor of plumbing the depths of the strange and unknown until it becomes known and familiar.

This idea may seem sacrilegious to theists, but I answer that it's what humanity has been doing throughout its history: piercing the mysteries that surround us, drawing them back one by one, and learning ever more about who we are and what our place in the world is. We are great solvers of mysteries; we have never been content to live in ignorance.

After all, to primitive people, the world was a strange and terrifying place ruled by forces they could not comprehend. To them, everything they encountered was a mysterium tremendum et fascinans: thunderstorms and lightning, sunrise and sunset, the cycle of the seasons, the fall of the rains and the coming of prey, the growth of crops and the bearing of children. Every one of these things, and many more besides, was once a religious mystery before which we worshipped in terror and awe.

But through science and reason, we have pierced the veil of these mysteries. We have learned that natural forces, which once must have seemed like mighty and capricious gods, were in reality grand clockworks, controlled by the predictable unfolding of the mathematical laws that govern the cosmos.

Thunder and lightning are not the spears of the gods, before which we cower in terror; they arise from the buildup of electric potential between cloud and ground, and the shock wave caused by the rapid superheating of air when that potential is discharged. The seasons come from the earth's axial tilt as it orbits the sun. Fertility is no longer a compelling mystery, but a section of the evolutionary trajectory of life as it perpetuates itself. These mysteries and many more we have solved, setting aside primitive superstitions of ritual and sacrifice, and learning through reason how to use the laws of nature for our benefit.

What, then, of the numinous? Is every religious experience doomed to fade as our understanding grows?

I think not. Or, rather, I think the religious experiences of our childhood, born of superstition and fear, will die - but when understanding comes, they can be reborn in a stronger and purer form. Far from science robbing the world of awe and wonder, I think it's only science that makes true awe and wonder possible at all.

I remember standing in the rain of El Yunque, touching the leaf of a plant and contemplating our kinship, our both belonging to that unbroken tree of evolutionary history that unites all life on Earth. My sense of the transcendent was not undermined, but deepened and magnified by that knowledge, the insight into the vastnesses of time and space and the twisting paths of contingency that led to we two living things side by side in the rainfall. I look at my hands with the knowledge that they are shaped from the dust of exploded stars, and that looking up at the night sky, I am looking at the place of my origin. Many more examples like this could be given, proving that true understanding does not diminish awe, but enhances it immeasurably.

The religious experience is, at best, a stunted variety of this feeling. Awe without understanding, or at least the desire for understanding, degenerates into mysticism: viewing a mystery not as a challenge to be solved, but something to be worshipped for its own sake. Mysticism states that ignorance is a desirable condition, a state we should glory in. This attitude only keeps us frightened and ignorant, and worst of all, robs us of the deeper and more genuine awe that comes with comprehension. I say, let us explore. There may be problems too high or too deep for us, mysteries we cannot penetrate - but so far, we haven't found any, and if there are any, they will not need to be protected from our investigations.

June 24, 2009, 6:55 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink17 comments

Epicurus' World

The story goes that the renowned physicist Richard Feynman was once asked to summarize the most important finding of modern science in a single sentence. Feynman replied, "The universe is made of atoms."

Although there are many other scientific discoveries that are arguably of equal importance, Feynman's choice makes a lot of sense. The discovery of atoms is so familiar to us that it's easy to overlook its breathtaking significance. We know, at the smallest scale where it still makes sense to talk about distinct objects, what are the fundamental building blocks that matter is made of, and we have described their interactions with astounding precision. Our understanding of everything from why the stars shine, to how DNA replicates, to why a table is solid, relies on our knowledge of the way atoms behave.

Atomic theory is now so well-established, and so widely accepted, that it's easy to forget how controversial a notion it originally was. In fact, atomism was once synonymous with atheism, and it was the bête noire of Western religion not just for centuries, but for millennia.

It was in the fifth century BCE that the Greek philosophers Leucippus and Democritus first proposed the idea that matter was composed of indivisible particles called atoms. But these ideas came to their fullest flowering in the mind of their successor, Epicurus, who lived around 300 BCE. In Epicurean philosophy, the world was ultimately comprised of atoms and the void. All that exists and all that occurs - from flowing water to burning fire to human thought - is due to the movement and collision of atoms and the endless, ever-changing array of patterns they arrange themselves in. The ruling principles of the Epicurean cosmos are natural law and random chance, not purpose or plan, and we who live in it and are part of it can find happiness by learning to accept whatever happens with virtue and tranquility. Epicurus did believe that the gods existed - he saw this as the only way to explain the widespread dreams and visions of them - but in his philosophy, they were not supernatural spirits but material beings composed of atoms, just like humans. More importantly, they did not take any interest in human affairs; they were more like images than actual persons.

In scientific terms, it's impressive how much Democritus and Epicurus got right. They correctly anticipated the very discovery that Richard Feynman called the most important element of modern science. Epicurus even believed that atoms sometimes exhibited "random swerves", a startling point of agreement with modern quantum mechanics. If he had claimed that a god told him all this, it would have been by far the most impressive example of theism anticipating later scientific discovery, and genuinely difficult for an atheist to explain.

Yet to the theologians and churchmen who came after him, Epicurus' ideas were the depths of heresy. His materialist notion of the cosmos - no creator deity, no life after death, everything that exists made of patterns of atoms - was anathema to the monotheist conception of an orderly cosmos arranged and guided by God. For centuries, being accused of "Epicureanism" was a very serious charge indeed. For example, the Jewish writings known as the Mishnah, in 200 CE, had this to say:

And these are the people who do not merit the world to come: The ones who say that there is no resurrection from the dead, and those who deny the Torah is from the heavens, and Epicureans.

Indeed, the Jewish word for "heretic" - apikoros - appears to be a Hebrew transliteration of "Epicurean". The Hebrew benediction known as the Amidah, which is recited three times daily by observant Jews, contains a prayer which asks that "may all the apikorsim be destroyed in an instant" (source).

As Christianity became ascendant, it treated Epicureans no less kindly. Acts 17:16-18 records how the first Christians viewed them:

"Now while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was stirred in him, when he saw the city wholly given to idolatry. Therefore disputed he in the synagogue with the Jews, and with the devout persons, and in the market daily with them that met with him. Then certain philosophers of the Epicureans, and of the Stoicks, encountered him. And some said, What will this babbler say? other some, He seemeth to be a setter forth of strange gods."

Early Christian apologists such as Tertullian, Jerome and Augustine reviled Epicurus, calling him a "pig" and an advocate of "depravity and gluttony", and his philosophy a "frigid conceit" (source; see also).

Throughout the Middle Ages, as Christianity gained secular power, the ridicule and persecution grew worse. The Byzantine emperor Justinian I, who actively suppressed non-Christian faiths, closed down the philosophy schools of Athens, including the Epicurean Garden, which had survived for eight hundred years. The twelfth-century philosopher Nicholas of Autrecourt, who taught an atomist doctrine similar to Epicurus', was condemned and forced to recant and burn his writings. In the Divine Comedy, Dante depicts Epicurus and all his followers "who with the body make the spirit die" as imprisoned in flaming tombs for all eternity. As late as the 1600s, Epicurean theories were reviled, as one pamphleteer wrote: "Let that beastly Epicure's mouth be now sealed up in dumb silence."

Yet Epicurus, that sly old Greek, had the last laugh. The church persecuted his followers and sought to stamp out his teachings, but not only did Epicureanism survive, it was vindicated. The universe is made of atoms after all. Natural phenomena like weather, the growth of crystals, even the currents of human motion and thought can be traced back to patterns of atoms and their ceaseless ebb and flow. As in many other areas, this is one where religion arrogantly thought to wade in before science had had its say, and was forced to retreat. We do not live in the medieval church's world, where our bodies are just so much fleshly dust powered by immaterial currents of spirit, and the heavenly bodies move in spheres of celestial ether. We live in a grand cosmic clockwork of atoms and molecules, a vast mesh whose unfolding is determined by random chance and the immutable laws of cause and effect. We live in Epicurus' world.

May 29, 2009, 6:50 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink29 comments

The Age of Wonder

If you search the internet, it's not hard to find New Agers and others who think that the dawning of the age of reason was a mistake. They envision a more "holistic" approach, one that properly pays heed to the mystery and complexity of existence, and castigate science for being cold, unfeeling, heartless in its probing, reductionist scrutiny of the natural world. For example:

The reason things are advancing so slowly... is that science has neglected the (spiritual) indications necessary for its efficient performance - "with all your heart and all your soul...." -- indications that govern higher creativity and exist for the specific purpose of breaking the cosmic bank. The upshot is that science has become excessively expensive, bureaucratic and materialistic. The integration we need, external and internal, requires an incomparably more intense confrontation between the spirit of the researcher and the natural phenomena he is contemplating than what is currently practiced by even the most zealous of researchers.

And yet, the age of reason is also an age of wonder. The devotees of superstition and pseudoscience do not know what they are missing. In grasping after fool's gold, they have missed the true vein. The universe is a grander, more majestic and more beautiful place than any human being has ever imagined, or can imagine. The unsubstantiated and anthrocentric claims and inventions of people can never compare to the wonder and mystery held by reality as it truly is, and now that we truly have begun to understand how the cosmos works, we are at last getting a glimpse of that awe and wonder.

Consider what we witness when we peer into the cosmos with our telescopic eyes. We see light born billions of years ago in the crucible of dying stars, shining out across the cosmos and becoming ever more diffused, until at last our telescopes captured the lonely few photons that arrive bearing news of stupendous, ancient catastrophes. We see colliding galaxies, matter swirling into the abyss of black holes, and stars exploding with titanic force, sending out jets of energy visible across the known universe.

Our astronomy bears witness to births as well as deaths. We sift invisible light and see the ripples in the faint microwave glow that bathes all of space, distant echoes of the incomprehensible cauldron of heat and density in which the universe itself was born. We see dense nebulae where new stars are being born, burning away the dusty cradles of their formation like sunrise through fog. We see young planets circling their parent stars, their gravity cutting clear swaths through the veils of gas surrounding them. Most of the planets we have detected are hot Jupiters, but perhaps in some of these systems lurk embryonic Earths, awaiting their chance to cool and condense and one day become cradles of life of their own.

Turning closer to home, our emissaries have explored the solar system and brought back news of the other shores that await us. We have seen the shadows of the setting Sun creep across the mountains of the satellites of Jupiter, and we have seen the Earth rise in the night sky from the surface of the Moon. We have traveled the surface of Mars with our robot rovers, and sent landers parachuting down to the methane seas of Titan. Our age, for the first time ever in our planet's history, has sent ambassadors voyaging so far beyond our own shores that they could look back and see the Earth itself, our one and only home, as a pale blue point of light drifting in infinite dark.

Closer still, we have turned our gaze back upon ourselves, exploring our world in all its complexity. We have learned of the web of evolutionary kinship that connects all life on Earth. Everything - from human beings to redwood trees, from the lowliest cyanobacterium to the fluorescent tube worms on the ocean bottom - is a branch of the same family tree, every living creature a cousin, however distant, to every other.

We have delved down to the molecular roots of life itself, glimpsing the intricate choreography that turns inanimate molecules into living, growing cells, and the equally intricate assemblage that builds living cells into living beings. We have begun an effort to survey the tree of life, discerning the family relationships among countless species living and dead, and mapping the vast, frozen structure branching multidimensionally through those sections of design space that evolution has so far explored.

Traveling down into Earth's history, we have learned to read the record of the rocks and the chronicles they tell. We have retraced the multimillion-year drifting of the continents and learned of the planetary convulsions that wiped out whole branches of the tree of life and ushered in new ones in their place. We have glimpsed primordial eras long before humanity and envisioned the strange landscapes that once existed where we now place our feet.

All these findings far exceed the most fantastic imaginings of ancient mythology or modern pseudoscience, not least because they are true. In what other age of human history has anyone been able to look on a shooting star or a volcano and know what it really is? In what other age have we known the true age of the planet or understood the power source of the sun? These wonders and countless others, most of which are familiar and mundane to us, would have made people of past ages gasp in awe.

Out of the entire span of human history, these breathtaking discoveries have been made only in the last few hundred years, when we began to think and explore rationally. It was not crystals or prayer or Tarot cards that brought us these things. It was not superstition that was responsible, nor mysticism, nor credulous acceptance of extraordinary and unverified claims. It is the scientific method – institutionalized skepticism, rigorously and comprehensively applied – that has given rise to these wonders of understanding and accomplishment. As long as we human beings were willing to blindly accept the claims of others, to be meek and easily led, to believe without questioning, we remained frightened, brutish, short-lived and ignorant. There are some today who would gladly have us return to that state. Worse, there are some whose methods would inadvertently lead us back to that state, even as they hypocritically seek to take credit for the fruits and innovations of science while rejecting its rules.

But as for me, I remain a skeptic. I am proud to call myself a rationalist. And I will always fight against the proponents of darkness and unreason, because I believe that humanity has barely begun to tap its potential, and that if we continue the path of science, we may some day create wonders we currently lack the ability even to dream of.

November 30, 2008, 11:11 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink97 comments

On Atheist Janitors: Followup

Around this time last year, I wrote a post titled "On Atheist Janitors", addressing an e-mail from reader Serban Tanasa that asked whether atheism has something to offer to people on the lower rungs of the economic ladder. The other day he wrote back to me with a follow-up post addressing some of the issues first discussed here, and I wanted to offer some further thoughts.

Atheist forces and their agnostic coalition members have launched devastating artillery barrages against the veracity of the Holy Books. But Abrahamic Religion is not mostly, or even primarily, about the Books. The truth is, religion is a Life. It provides a social network. The conditions for membership can be harsh, but are simple enough that even the dullest can understand them, if not fully live up to the ideological ideals. In some cases, membership provides a sense of community, a sort of family away from home. It can also be a help network. Most importantly, going through the motions provides one with the sense of self-worth and accomplishment, supposedly achieved by getting closer to God.

These are all good points, and I agree. Atheists should keep this in mind: The tenets of religion are not irrelevant, but for most individual believers, they're beside the point. The majority of pew-fillers, I would venture, are there not because of a philosophical or rational preference for the tenets of that particular faith over all competitors; they are there because that church and that religion are the locus of community in their life. They provide a sense of place, of purpose, and of belonging - basic things that all human beings seek. This is a truth that we atheists need to keep in mind if we try to persuade people to step out of the fold. It doesn't make our efforts futile, but it does mean that we're struggling uphill. I agree that we need to offer something more than logic, however eloquent and persuasive that logic may be.

So far, Atheism has offered Truth (well, Doubt). This Devil's Sourdough is a little too bitter for many people (even though most would get used to it if they had to).

I have to say that I just love the phrase "Devil's Sourdough".

Most of us live in capitalist democracies. With the partial collapse of traditional values, materialism has prevailed. In an age of mass democracy and juridical equality, wealth and conspicuous consumption have emerged as the only ways to distinguish oneself from the crowds. What can Atheism offer to the hordes of disenchanted losers, who slowly realize that they'll never make it to the top, or even to the middle of the pack? How can Atheism provide spiritual succor? The joys and awe of science? It takes a curious mind, and even then, it takes patience and skill to be a scientist. Most people have neither.

I agree that most people don't have the traits that would incline them toward life as a professional scientist, but that's a very different matter from saying that ordinary people don't have the ability to appreciate the glories of science at all. That's like saying you can't appreciate poetry unless you're a professional poet. Not everyone can participate in the creative process, it's true, but I do maintain that anyone who wishes can appreciate the fruits of that process.

I think that most people do have the intellectual curiosity needed to learn, not necessarily all the technical details, but the broad strokes of what a scientific theory is about. And I do think that most people, given the proper encouragement, can find awe and mystery in that. I don't consider those emotions to have any correlation to one's level of economic prosperity.

More to the point, I don't think that people who'll "never make it to the top" are "disenchanted losers". That comment implies that the real goal of life is material success, and that understanding the wonders of the cosmos is just a consolation prize given to those who miss out. On the contrary, I think it's the endless pursuit of the mirage of wealth and fame that renders life flat and unsatisfying. True happiness comes not from accumulating possessions, but from more meaningful and spiritual pursuits.

If you think about it, religion is in the same business-branch as computer games: providing users with an alternate reality where they get to be significant, one that users are willing to pay money to be allowed access to. There is no reason why this should not be doable in a far less haphazard manner. Identify the temporal lobe brain centers that endow objects with deep meaning, find a way to predictably generate tunable stimulation patterns, and you blow religion out of the water. You can get people to stack piles of manure and feel that they're experiencing an epiphany with each shovelful.

This idea is disturbing to me, and I think it's missing the point. Our goal shouldn't be to develop brain stimulation so that people can be zoned out and blissful despite leading miserable lives. Our goal should be to restructure the world so that more people can lead the kind of lives that are genuinely fulfilling and blissful.

Studies have borne this out, showing that religious influence wanes as societies become more prosperous and more secure. People who lead good lives in this world don't need to cling to the hope of another.

In terms of community support, we have to get organized. When we can get people to go to 'church' (for lack of a better word) every Sunday, without the promise of eternal life to drag them out of bed, we will know we have succeeded.

This is one point where I do agree. I've written on multiple occasions about building the secular community, and my sketch of a post-theistic world has humanist organizations that serve as focal points of meaning and fellowship. These things are intrinsic aspects of human psychology, not the property of religion. Creating them is an ambitious effort and one that will take a lot of work, but it can be done, and there is no shortcut. To dislodge religion and end its monopoly, we must be prepared to offer people a meaningful atheist alternative.

October 14, 2008, 10:00 pm • Posted in: The GardenPermalink21 comments

Book Review: The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality

(Editor's Note: The following review was solicited and is written in accordance with this site's policy for such reviews.)

Summary: A quiet, thoughtful, non-polemical book. At times Comte-Sponville comes close to conceding more than he should, but his positive evocation of atheism is a much-needed effort and may be appealing to theists grappling with the first stirrings of deconversion.

Andre Comte-Sponville's The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality is a unique book. Though written by an unabashed atheist, it shows considerable sympathy for religion. It also expresses a view of spirituality that I suspect many atheists will find strange, though I personally see much to recommend in it. Comte-Sponville describes himself as a "Christian atheist", which sounds paradoxical but which he explains is meant as a parallel to "atheistic Jew". Like secular Jews, he sees himself as coming from a particular religious heritage, one in which he no longer believes but which nevertheless shapes his cultural associations and his outlook on life.

The book has three sections, of which the first is titled "Can We Do Without Religion?" In both the individual and the societal case, the author asserts, the answer is an obvious yes. What we cannot do without, he explains, are communion and fidelity: in order, our sense of connection to others and our moral obligations toward them, and our sense of connection with the past and our respect for the traditions and institutions that have come down to us. I appreciated that he goes to great lengths to explain why an atheist can be a moral person, and that in fact there is no reason why an atheist would not be.

The second section, "Does God Exist?", considers and refutes several classical arguments for the existence of God, and provides several reasons to believe the opposite. Though Comte-Sponville doesn't go for the jugular, he presents these arguments fairly and competently. He says that these arguments "by no means constitute a proof of God's nonexistence" (p.131), but that he personally finds them convincing, and insists "on the right to express them publicly and submit them to others for discussion, as is only natural" (p.132).

The final section, "Can There Be An Atheist Spirituality?" will probably be the most controversial among atheists. Comte-Sponville argues that the answer to the title question is yes, there can be a genuine spirituality without belief in God. He describes the characteristics of mystical, transcendent experience - the sense of oceanic bliss, of interconnection with the universe, and a sense of serenity and acceptance in which nothing is lacking or refused - and says that there is nothing necessarily supernatural about any of them, and that atheists, including himself, can and do have these experiences. "All religions involve spirituality... but all forms of spirituality are not religious" (p.136).

There were a few things I didn't like about this book. One is that Comte-Sponville, at times, gives religion too much credit. For instance, he says that "there are more saintly people among believers than among atheists" (p.22), and that he wishes God did exist (p.124). In most cases, he goes on to qualify these statements with fuller explanations (for instance, he says the fact that God fulfills so many human longings is good reason to be skeptical, not to believe), but the fact remains that these passages are likely to be quoted by religious apologists as "evidence" that even atheists endorse some of their claims. It would have been better if he had worded these passages in ways not as susceptible to misinterpretation.

That said, I did like this book's defense of atheist spirituality. I've said myself that atheism is compatible with a genuine sense of spirituality, one that recognizes the awe and wonder of life and the mystery of existence without the baggage of supernaturalism. Like Comte-Sponville, I believe that transcendent moments of joy are not the property of religion, but the common trust of humanity.

The other good thing about this book was its approachable, open tone. Comte-Sponville defends atheism firmly, but gently. At times, as I said, I found him almost too conciliatory; but I think a believer would find this book very non-threatening, and might be led to read it and gain a better understanding of the atheist viewpoint. For stirring a rousing sense of atheist pride, or issuing a call to arms against the dangers of fundamentalism, this isn't the book you want. But for believers feeling the first stirrings of deconversion and seeking a gentle introduction to atheism, or for new atheists who want to know if atheism can provide the positive things they're used to getting from religion, it just may be the right book for the job.

October 6, 2008, 11:28 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink22 comments

This World Is My Home

A famous Christian gospel hymn titled "This World Is Not My Home" sums up how religious views of an afterlife shape believers' views of this life:

This world is not my home,
    I'm just a passing through,
My treasures are laid up
    somewhere beyond the blue;
The angels beckon me
    from heaven's open door,
And I can't feel at home
    in this world anymore.

For millions of people, this verse is more than a metaphor. Huge numbers of religious people sincerely and fervently believe that this life is just a proving ground, a temporary way station on the road to a far more important destination. And when a person truly believes that, their actions cannot help but follow suit - treating this life as if it was unimportant, feeling detached and disconnected from this world, and missing out on all the richness and wonder it has to offer.

For instance, C.S. Lewis espouses this view in The Problem of Pain. In it, he writes of how God deliberately withholds lasting happiness from his followers, granting them at most brief and occasional flashes of merriment, so that they do not become too fixated on this world:

The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world...

I've written elsewhere about the most pernicious manifestation of this belief, namely theists who eagerly anticipate the apocalypse. But even in more mundane ways, this belief drains the brightness and color from life. Believing that this world is just an imperfect reflection of what is to come inevitably engenders the desire to get it over with, to get on to the real thing. And those who perpetually look forward to another life, those who think of themselves as "just passing through," are far less likely to seek or value happiness for themselves here and now.

This world is our home. Our species evolved here; we grew up here. We are all inextricably part of the fabric of nature. This life is the only one we know for certain that we have, and those who reject or downplay it are throwing away a certainty for a mere possibility. This world has more than enough intricacy and beauty to fill our lives with richness and meaning. Why dismiss it all for the mere unfounded hope of something even better?

Kendall Hobbs writes in "Why I Am No Longer a Christian":

But, much to my surprise, I have found life, the universe, everything to be much more wondrous and beautiful without God. When I was a Christian, I considered this world to be just a sign of the next world, the really real world. The beauty of this world was merely a reflection of some other world. The beauty I experienced in this world was derivative. Now, however, I see that this is the real world, this is the source of all the beauty, as well as all the misery, the joy and the sorrow, the fulfillment and the frustration. It is not derivative. It is all here. That allows me to appreciate this world in ways I could not as a Christian.

Brenda Peterson sums it up in an editorial from 2005, "I'll gladly stay behind":

My neighbor looked at me, startled, then fell very quiet as we watched a harlequin float past, his bright beak dripping a tiny fish. Happy, so happy in this moment. The Great Blue cawed hoarsely and stood on one leg in a fishing meditation. Wave after bright wave lapped our beach and the spring sunshine warmed our open faces.

I put my arm around my neighbor, the driftwood creaking slightly under our weight.

"Listen," I said softly, "I want to be left behind."

Left Behind to figure out a way to fit more humbly into this abiding Earth, this living and breathing planet we happily call home, we call holy.

Slowly my neighbor took my hand and we sat in silence, listening to waves more ancient than our young, hasty species, more forgiving than our religions, more enduring. Rapture.

September 2, 2008, 8:51 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink9 comments


Last month, while I was on vacation in Puerto Rico, I had a chance to visit the great radio observatory at Arecibo. That was one of the highlights of my trip, but there was another.

Puerto Rico has the only tropical rainforest in the United States national park system. On the northeast coast of the islands, at the foot of the Luquillo Mountains, is the 28,000-acre preserve of El Yunque National Forest. Set aside in 1876 by the Spanish king Alfonso XII, El Yunque is one of the oldest nature reserves in the Western Hemisphere.

There wasn't the chance to do much hiking, but even the paved roads in the park cut through deep jungle. The walkway leading into El Portal, the visitors' center, was elevated to treetop height, so visitors on their way in were at eye level with the canopy of the rainforest. The sunlight streaming down through the trees gave a gloriously beautiful cast to it all:

A view from the walkway into the treetops:

I did my best, but I doubt any camera could capture the most overwhelming impression of the forest: the sheer sense of rich, exuberant life, unbounded in its creativity. Every ecological niche was filled by an exultant diversity of species, living side by side in a dense, thriving tangle abounding with interaction and competition. Everywhere you looked, there were whole ecological communities in miniature - in the steaming light of the trees' high branches, in the cool, mossy damp at their feet, in the crumbling remnants of fallen logs - like a fractal web of life, revealing more scales of complexity the deeper your search goes. In all of Earth's multibillion-year history, the tropical rainforest is likely the richest and most diverse ecosystem that has ever existed. Standing beneath the tall trees' cathedral light, it wasn't at all difficult to believe that.

Of course, not all the rainforest's countless interactions are harmonious. Despite the environment's richness - or more accurately, because of its richness - life in El Yunque is a constant struggle, a silent battle being waged on every scale of space and time. Individuals of different species, and of the same species, are always fiercely thrusting each other aside, striving for space, for light, for nutrients, for water. In the midday silence of the forest, it almost seemed possible to hear natural selection: a quiet, relentless ratcheting pressure on every side, like the grinding of interlocking gears. In the cauldron of the forest, gene frequencies are shifting, mutations arising, and new innovations being born in the great evolutionary chess game of move and countermove. Sadly, it's a conflict that many of the native species are losing: some of the most common plant species to be seen in El Yunque, including bamboo and palm trees, are alien interlopers, introduced either deliberately or accidentally and now thriving at the expense of the natives.

There was one feature of my trip there that I treasure above all others. While we were at the visitors' center, the thing that I had been hoping for happened: it started to rain. (Admittedly, not a rare event in a place that gets 240 inches of rain each year.) The visitors' center was like a long passageway with a high, vaulted ceiling: open to the air, but with a roof, so there was no need to get rained on. However, I wanted to be rained on.

I stood on an outlook overseeing the endless green of the forest and the shimmering blue of the ocean in the distance beyond, and let the rain come. It was a gentle shower, not a hammering deluge: the kind of rainfall that comes on sunny spring days and soon passes by, leaving the world washed in glistening brightness. In the humid, earthy heat of the forest, it was welcoming, warm like lifeblood. As the rain fell on me, I reached out and brushed the broad, dripping leaf of a tree growing within reach of the balcony, and thought of the unbroken chain of generations that united us both with our long-gone common ancestor.

It wasn't long before the rain cleared and the sun returned. But the memory of that shower is still with me; even now, I know, I carry some of those molecules of water in my skin. And as far as I'm concerned, the priests in their dusty churches can keep their silly, self-important dabblings and splashings. Let them persist in their delusion that muttering archaic words over a basin of water makes it specially holy. I've stood beneath the sweet sacred rain of El Yunque, and I think it was a finer baptism than any that human beings have yet invented.

And yet, I think I understand those believers a little better now. I think what I felt was the origin of the religious doctrine of immanence, the belief that God's spirit imbues the things of the natural world. But I think the theologians who invented this concept have misconstrued its origin. Before an awe-inspiring natural landscape, we imagine that we feel a vast love surrounding us - and, in fact, we do. But it's not God's love surrounding us from outside, as many religious believers would have it. What it is, instead, is our own love for the world, projected outward. It's the rapture of being alive, of realizing our true depth of interconnection and solidarity with all living beings, that priests and churches try to recapture with ritual and ceremony. But their efforts are, at best, a pale shadow of the real thing.

If more people knew what this feeling really is and what really causes it, we might be able to foster a true sense of human spirituality: one that captures what is best in the religious impulse, without tying it to the barren earth of ancient myth and superstition. My brief time beneath the living green of El Yunque persuades me that it is possible. I only wonder if enough people can be brought to the same realization while there are still places like this left.

November 28, 2007, 8:36 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink13 comments

Fragile Trappings

I stepped out of my house today on a chilly fall afternoon. After an unseasonably late warm spell, as if summer had lingered this year past its appointed time, autumn had arrived at last. The feel of the season was in the air: the misty cool, the forests defiantly ablaze with fiery color, the smell of fallen leaves, wet black and rusty gold, in the grass. There was a sense of hunkering down, of quiet activity in the stillness, as nature prepares for the coming winter foreshadowed in the bare gray branches of the trees.

In autumn, the mind turns naturally to impermanence. I've written about death from an atheist perspective before, but that was several years ago, and this seemed like an appropriate season to revisit the topic.

We must face the facts: our lives, in the grand scheme of things, are short. Like the leaves falling from the tree, we bloom, flourish, and inevitably wither. Vast expanses of time preceded each of us, and equally vast expanses of time will follow us. We were not there, will not be there, to know what happens; we will never meet the people who inhabit those times, as they will never meet us. Our existence is, as Robert Ingersoll said, like a narrow vale between two cold and barren peaks.

And yet, in that narrow valley in between, there is a wondrous thing: a creature who exists, who lives, and who is conscious of that life and that existence. We reflect on the fact of our being and know ourselves for who and what we are. That by itself is a miracle so great that it outshines all the lesser miracles invented by human beings ever since.

Our lives are hedged about with mysteries, many of which are so vast we completely overlook them most of the time. What is the ultimate cause of our existence? Why is there anything at all, rather than nothing? Why do we have the natures we do, and not another? How does the ephemeral crackling of neural activity give rise to a self-aware mind with a sense of what things are like? These are all deep and profound mysteries, and we should not trivialize them. Our species is still young, and we know, at most, a tiny fraction of all there is to know. There are whole lands of knowledge we have barely glimpsed in the distance. Given the limitations we are still under, it would be more than wise to keep an attitude of humility when facing all that we don't yet know.

But our limitation cuts both ways. Religious people often invoke the admittedly imperfect state of human knowledge as reason to believe in God, but the fact remains that their knowledge is just as imperfect and their vision just as limited as anyone else's. Why, then, should we trust them when they claim to have penetrated to the fundamental truths of our existence? What makes them so confident that they have already solved the deepest questions about who we are and why we are here? For, whether they admit it or not, that is precisely what they are claiming.

Apologists through the ages have extolled the beauty of religious myths and origin stories. And I suppose if one views them as imaginative collections of imagery, like poetry or folk tales, there is a kind of antique charm about them. But as actual, honest-to-goodness answers for the most profound mysteries of our existence, I find that they fall far short. When measured against the unimaginable expanses of space and time, against the staggering glories of the cosmos as we so far comprehend it, the stories of religion are so trite, so superficial, so small. Their childlike arrogance in imagining that we are the very center of creation is a dead giveaway to their origins in human imagination and ignorance.

In the face of our imperfect knowledge, what we need is humility and a candid admission of our ignorance. We do not need anyone pretending they know all the answers and dignifying that pretending with the name of "faith". The mysteries we confront are far deeper than that, far too profound to admit of such shallow, simplistic, easily disproven answers. In truth, they are not answers at all; they are baubles, little diversions, stories invented for the comfort of children.

Even more absurd, in my view, is the oft-heard claim that only religion can hope to offer answers to these mysteries - that once we stand on that horizon, we must forsake reason and turn to faith. Richard Dawkins relates an example of this belief, and its refutation, in his book A Devil's Chaplain:

"I once asked a distinguished astronomer, a fellow of my college, to explain the Big Bang to me. He did so to the best of his (and my) ability, and I then asked what it was about the fundamental laws of physics that made the spontaneous origin of space and time possible. 'Ah,' he smiled, 'Now we move beyond the realm of science. This is where I have to hand over to our good friend the Chaplain.' But why the Chaplain? Why not the gardener or the chef?" (p.149)

The fundamental questions of our existence stand before us, like a doorway to a vast and unknown realm. But that doorway is the common property of all humankind. We all have the right to look up at it in awe, to run our hands over its massive stones searching for keyholes. There is no clergyman serving as a gatekeeper, no velvet rope before the door limiting access to supplicants who come in the name of faith. If anything, it is only the application of reason that has levered it open even the tiny crack it has so far been opened up.

An even better analogy, to my mind, is this: It's as if the self-appointed spokesmen of religion have hung tattered fragments of brocade on these great gates and then proclaimed that they own the things themselves. Not so! We, atheists, see that sham for what it is. We see through your fragile trappings, and we know that you are not the sole possessors of these gates. We know that you are just as ignorant of what lies beyond them as any of us. And while we may not know what the answers are, that doesn't mean we can't see what the answers aren't.

Even the few, halting steps we have taken under the guidance of reason have revealed to us a wealth of knowledge and wonder, a world such as we never dreamed of in all our long childhood. What we have now are at best a few grains of the truth, a few sparks struck from its unseen surface. Yet they show us the way to go on, and give us confidence that the true answers, whatever they turn out to be, will be stranger, more awe-inspiring, and more wondrous and beautiful than anything we could have ever imagined. That great door may only be open the slightest hairline crack, but there is light streaming through that crack, and faint music coming from beyond.

And so I say, brush aside those fragile trappings. Pay no mind to the people who insist we already know everything, that the deepest answers have already been revealed. Ignore the flimsy and tattered scripts they offer. Those things are thin gruel for the hungry, when solid food is available.

Instead, join us in joyous acceptance of our humility, and exult in the awed recognition of how much there is still left to learn. And then, if the desire moves you, take up the tools we have and use them to strike a few more sparks from that surface. Merely to be able to attempt this is a noble privilege. But greater still will be the day when that door finally opens - whether it be in our lifetime or a million lifetimes from now - and when that day comes, all who step through will know that your work, no less than anyone else's, brought us to that glorious threshold.

October 29, 2007, 7:31 pm • Posted in: The GardenPermalink27 comments

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