The God of Shadow and Vapor

In April, I wrote a piece chastising Madeline Bunting for her willful invocation of the Courtier's Reply, in which she attacks atheists for criticizing the beliefs actually held and practiced by billions of people, rather than the beliefs of a tiny minority of theologians and pundits like herself.

But let it not be said that we shy from a challenge. In this post, I'll take up the issue of religion as it is held by Bunting and others of like mind.

Here's how she defines her own beliefs:

Apophatic is a word no longer even in my dictionary, but it's a major tradition of Christian thought, and central to the thinking of St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas: it is the idea that God is ineffable and beyond powers of description. S/he can be experienced by religious practice, but as Armstrong puts it: "In the past, people knew we could say nothing about God. Certain forms of knowledge only come with practice." It makes the boundary between belief in God and agnosticism much more porous than commonly assumed.

...But the modern distortion was to make God into a proposition in which you either did or did not believe. He was turned into an old man in the sky with a long white beard or promoted as a cuddly friend named Jesus. Arguing about the existence of such human creations is akin to the medieval pastime of calculating how many angels could fit on the head of a pin.

Bunting quotes Karen Armstrong, author of A History of God, who holds similar views:

The reality that we call God, Brahman, Nirvana or the sacred is transcendent. That is, it goes beyond our mundane experience.... The Greek Orthodox believed that every statement about the divine should have two qualities. It should be paradoxical, reminding us that the idea of God cannot fit neatly into a human system of thought; and it should be apophatic - it should reduce us to silence, in the same way as a great poem or piece of music.

As I wrote in "One More Burning Bush", the record shows that, throughout recorded history, the gods have been shrinking. They started out as very tangible beings, present in the world, continually performing miracles. But with time and the advance of knowledge, every substantive, testable claim about them has been gradually chipped away, until we arrive at a god whose existence is indistinguishable from his nonexistence. The logical conclusion of this process is this, what's called apophatic theology: a god whose believers make no positive claims about him at all.

I have to admit, I've never had much affection for incoherentist arguments for atheism. The notion of "God" as believed in by most Western religions is perfectly comprehensible to me. I may differ with theists about whether there is anything in the real world that matches their description, but I can understand what it would mean for such a being to exist. But with believers in apophatic theology, this criticism has more merit. Their belief does not seem to have any content, indeed does not seem to be a belief about anything at all. It's the philosophical equivalent of the empty set. Can these people even explain what it would mean for their belief to be true, versus for it to be false?

This is a god of shadow and vapor. Advance towards it, and like a shadow, it disappears; try to grasp it, and all you grasp is insubstantial mist. While all gods share the distinction of not existing in the real world, this god seems to have the unique quality of not existing even in its own believers' minds. If they don't hold any positive beliefs about God, then what exactly is it that they believe?

Armstrong again:

....In the modern West, we have lost sight of this apophatic vision, and imagine that our statements about God and the ultimate are accurate expressions of this transcendence, whereas in reality, they must point beyond the limitations of our human minds.

The problem I've always had with statements like this is that our human minds, limited though they may be, are the only tools we have. If there is something that truly cannot be comprehended by the human mind, then it is pointless to talk about it or believe in it. The phrase "statements that point beyond the limitations of the mind" is just a string of words without meaning. By definition, any such statement would be indistinguishable from nonsense and gibberish. (Bunting's claim that "certain forms of knowledge only come with practice" sounds clever, but anyone who thinks about it for a few seconds will see that it's nonsensical: If we know nothing about God, how can we know what practices are appropriate?)

The only real difference between Bunting, Armstrong and other apophatic theists on one hand, and atheists on the other, is that they feel compelled to slap the label "God" on something, even if that something is a philosophical abstraction with no content. And that's fine if that's what they want, I really couldn't care less - until they start insisting, inexplicably, that belief in this nullity is a prerequisite for virtue; or worse, that this is what all theists really believe. Both of these claims are transparently false, and when they try to defend them, the apophatic apologists look just as disconnected from reality as the deity they claim to believe in.

June 26, 2009, 6:39 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink25 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

Mystery Does Not Equal God

By Sarah Braasch

When I was about seven years old I almost died. It wasn't the only time I almost died, but it was one of my most colorful near death experiences. I had acquired some sort of flu bug or food poisoning or I don't know what, but my mother, in her either infinite ignorance or indifference, failed to procure anything in the way of medical attention for her ailing child. In all fairness, at first, I attempted to minimize my illness in order to be able to participate in a planned trip to a local amusement park.

I know it sounds silly to say that I almost died from a flu bug in the US during the later part of the 20th century, and, yet, my story is true. I hadn't eaten anything solid for about two weeks, and I couldn't remember the last time I'd been able to hold down water. It seemed like I was either vomiting or dry heaving non-stop. I was parched and too weak to lift my head off of my pillow. I hadn't realized it at the time, but my mother later told me that I looked like a little concentration camp survivor, I had lost so much weight.

I remember that there was an old black and white movie on the tiny television on the dresser at the foot of the bed. I remember that the movie took place in a faux harem in a faux Middle Eastern palace in a faux Arabia. I think Gregory Peck may have been involved.

I wasn't scared. I just remember how I wanted nothing more than for the overwhelming waves of pain and nausea rolling through my body to stop. I couldn't sleep. I couldn't eat. I couldn't drink. I couldn't move. All I could think about was the pain. I didn't have the strength to dry heave anymore, but I kept dry heaving while lying on my back. I didn't even have the strength to turn onto my side or even turn my head. My body was convulsing involuntarily. Then, the convulsions started to fade. My body no longer possessed the ability to exercise its involuntary impulses. The ripples in my stomach waned. Everything slowed down. My heartbeat. My breathing. I felt nothing so much as relief. I just didn't want to feel anything anymore. I lost the will to live.

It was so strange how everything came into such clear focus at that moment. I remember the bizarre brown and gold patterned wallpaper. I remember these tiny clip on cabbage patch dolls I had purchased at the local five and dime. I remember the huge yellow plastic bowl I had been throwing up in, when I still had something inside of me to vomit. I remember the bedroom furniture and the way the bedspread draped over my legs and feet. I remember the light in the room.

I was completely still. My little legs began to rise. Actually, my entire body began to rise, but flat as a board, as if someone was lifting me by the feet, but my head was secured to my pillow. I watched this with great curiosity. I realized that my legs remained swathed in my nightgown, even as my legs were lifted higher and higher, until my feet were directly overhead. Then I watched as my body swung back down, in the same manner, towards the bed. As I watched my legs and feet return to the bed, I discovered that my body was also still on the bed, covered in the bedspread, completely still. This occurred multiple times. My head never left my pillow. I didn't feel fear, only intrigue, and, even, amusement.

At that time, death was not particularly terrifying. I had no fear of hell, not because I thought I was without sin, but because I didn't think hell existed. I was a little Jehovah's Witness girl, and Jehovah's Witnesses do not believe in hell. But, I was confused. It seemed to me as if a version of me, a spirit, a soul had left or was trying to leave my physical body. But, I had been taught that I was a living human soul, but that I didn't have a soul, which survived the death of my physical self.

My feet were directly overhead again. It felt final. It felt like I was being asked to make a choice, like I was on the edge of a precipice, about to jump. It felt like my feet were being tugged on, but something inside of me was resisting. My head remained securely on my pillow, as if it were attached. Not exactly terror, because I wasn't afraid, but determination, and, maybe, panic washed over me, almost instantaneously. Then, I chose. I wasn't ready. But, I wasn't sure how to get back inside myself. I didn't know what to do. I wasn't sure I had the strength to do anything.

With everything and anything I had left inside of myself to give, I screamed for my mother. It came out as a barely audible, raspy plea. I tried again. Louder. Again. Then, she was beside me, looking down at me.

"What is it?" she asked, seemingly unable to see that which I could see.

"Mommy, why are my feet up there?" I asked.

"What are you talking about?"

"My feet are up there, in the sky."

"No they aren't. They're right here." My mother sat on the bed, placing her hands on my lifeless limbs under the bed covers. It was the strangest sensation. It was like I fell back into myself. My mother looked terrified. She called the doctor.

I guess it would be pretty easy to chalk up the entire experience to an illness induced hallucination, but I've never forgotten it, and I've never stopped feeling as if there was something more to it than just dehydration or religious fervor induced psychosis. It was hardly my only mystical experience as a child, or even as an adult.

I've had tons of mystical and spiritual (i.e. allegedly nonmaterial, supernatural) experiences. I was able to conjure up transcendental experiences at will as a child, which could probably best be described as astral projection, although I wouldn't have understood that term at the time, of course. But, somehow, I knew that I had separated from my ostensible physical self. All I had to do was contemplate the unfathomable idea that nothing would have ever existed if Jehovah God hadn't chosen to create everything, including existence itself. I would float around in outer space, amongst the planets and stars. It was the strangest feeling. It made me feel high, even after I'd returned to my body. I became addicted to it, and it became more and more difficult for me as I got older. I would spend hours alone in my room trying to recreate the sensation. As I grew older, it also got scarier. I had been raised to believe that anything even remotely attributable to spiritism and the occult was the product of demonic influence. I became obsessed with the notion that I was inviting demons into my life.

I've seen what would commonly be referred to as ghosts, demons, and angels, not to mention the future. I practically have a mystical experience once a day. None of these experiences, past or present, compel me to believe in God, certainly not the God as typically conceived by any of the major mainstream religions. There are lots of things in the world, which I neither understand nor can explain, starting with my personal existence. This doesn't presume a divine source. This doesn't even presume a supernatural or metaphysical cause.

The very act of employing the term supernatural is rather arrogant when we understand so little of our natural world. How do we know that these mystical experiences aren't the result of interacting with alternate dimensions or alternate universes or alternate versions of ourselves? As our perception of reality approaches our wildest science fiction fantasies, we realize just how disappointing, prosaic, and mundane the world's religions' gods are, seemingly endlessly fascinated and preoccupied by the quotidian sexual exploits of my next door neighbor.

With the ever exponentially telescoping expansion of knowledge, especially scientific knowledge, I believe that we are moving closer and closer to answering those most difficult ontological and teleological existential questions. We will know the nature of God, and we will discover that God is nature. General relativity, special relativity, quantum mechanics, string theory, M theory, supersymmetry, the multiverse. We just keep getting closer and closer.

I am not troubled at the thought of losing life's zest and purpose once the mystery is gone. First of all, that point is far, far away, still, despite our amazing progress. Second, just imagine the possibilities. The infinite universes to explore, the infinite selves with whom to acquaint oneself. Ultimately, we will harness our ability to shape our myriad existences and universes. Time and materiality will be of little consequence. We will become gods with the ability to determine our own destinies, our own realities. And I, for one, unlike Jehovah, Yahweh, Jesus, and Allah, will not be much bothered with the sexual goings-on of my neighbors.

June 4, 2009, 6:47 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink64 comments

Thoughtful Iconoclasts: A Response to Madeleine Bunting

I last mentioned Guardian columnist and Templeton Foundation fellow Madeleine Bunting in 2007, in "On Being Uncontroversial". She's recently written another column attacking atheism, alleging that the New Atheists are drowning out, in her words, "real debates" about religion and faith.

Personally, I don't see the basis of her complaint. I think we've been provoking some very good debates - about the proper role of religion in society, how much influence it should have, whether and to what extent its claims deserve respect, how to judge between the various religions' competing truth claims, and so on. This is a welcome change of pace, I would think, from the dreary repetitions of orthodoxy and the polite, embarrassed silence that's so often prevailed in public conversations about religion. But none of these are the kind of "real debates" Bunting is talking about.

What many argue is that the New Atheist debate has ended up down an intellectual dead end; there are only so many times you can argue that religion is a load of baloney.

In one sense, this is true; there are only so many ways to say "there is no evidence for God". But what Bunting appears to be arguing is that we've said all we have to say and should therefore stop talking. Needless to say, that isn't going to happen. As she is surely aware, religious faith is still causing evils in the world today: oppressing and persecuting women and homosexuals, providing the ideological underpinnings for terroristic violence and theocratic rule, and motivating attacks on toleration, science, and separation of church and state. Under these circumstances, it would be morally wrong for atheists not to speak out, and we intend to continue doing so until our message sinks in and the world turns toward enlightenment.

And if Bunting's critique is that atheists have run out of interesting things to say, that same critique applies with redoubled force to her own religion. Faiths like Roman Catholicism have spent millennia preaching from one book, endlessly rehashing the same tedious stories. Does this mean Christianity has hit an intellectual dead end? If not, then how much wronger is this claim in regards to atheism, which is not limited to one holy text or tradition but has the whole wide universe from which to draw its stories and moral lessons?

Just this week, AN Wilson announces in a thoughtful cover article for the New Statesman that he has apostated, abandoning his fellow atheists.

If I'm not mistaken, that would be the same A.N. Wilson who said that Darwin's Descent of Man is "an offence to the intelligence" and added that "the jury is out" about whether evolutionary theory is true. Whether he ever was an atheist or not, this shameful and disgraceful ignorance gives us good reason to doubt his credibility in other areas, and to suspect that his statements about his past position are driven by apologetic necessity. Bunting might as well quote Lee Strobel saying he only became an atheist because he wanted to do whatever he chose and live free of morality and accountability.

In the Third Way, a Christian magazine, the poet Andrew Motion reflects wistfully, "I don't believe in God - though I wish I did, and I can't stop thinking about it so who knows what might happen one day?"

Bunting here provides further evidence for the thesis which I advanced in "Respectable Infidels": that the only atheists considered "respectable" by apologists are those who concede the superiority of religion and wish they were believers. An atheist who is proud to be so, and who speaks their mind honestly and frankly, will always be judged as disrespectful by theists whose only goal is to silence us.

Anyway, what exactly does Bunting think the New Atheists are doing wrong? We get a glimpse at her answer, what she calls the "key mistake", and it's truly bizarre:

Belief came to be understood in western Christianity as a proposition at which you arrive intellectually, but Armstrong argues that this has been a profound misunderstanding that, in recent decades, has also infected other faiths. What "belief" used to mean, and still does in some traditions, is the idea of "love", "commitment", "loyalty": saying you believe in Jesus or God or Allah is a statement of commitment. Faith is not supposed to be about signing up to a set of propositions but practising a set of principles.

...the modern distortion was to make God into a proposition in which you either did or did not believe.

With this passage, Bunting places herself firmly in the rarefied, academic fantasyland inhabited by so many of her fellow theologians. She alleges that it's crude and simple-minded to say that you have certain knowledge of what God is like, what he commands, and what we should do to fulfill our duty to him. In its place, she promotes an "apophatic" theology which claims that God so far surpasses our understanding that we can say nothing definite about him at all.

If that's the tack she wants to take, fine. But the glaringly obvious rejoinder which she steadfastly refuses to mention is that this position is a minority report. There are billions of theists worldwide who do exactly what she decries, bluntly proclaiming their certainty in an anthropomorphic god whose wishes are known to all. They use this belief as a justification to tyrannize others, and they are loud, well-organized, and belligerent. That is the kind of faith that the New Atheists have risen against; that is the kind we oppose so vehemently because of the ongoing danger it presents to the liberty and well-being of humankind. Bunting's apophatic faith, which has been been so carefully excised of substance, is a tiny minority opinion and always has been.

This piece is a perfect example of the Courtier's Reply: religious apologists who decry atheists for not attacking the vague and allegedly more sophisticated creeds held by a handful of theologians, refusing to understand that we are responding to religious faith as it is actually held and practiced by the overwhelming majority of religious people today. Yet somehow, it's always the atheists who get blamed for attacking this crude and over-literal faith - never the believers who actually hold it and put it into practice.

Bunting demonstrates her failure to grasp this with her closing argument:

So the media has been promoting the wrong argument, while the bigger question of how, in a post-religious society, people find the myths they need to sustain meaning, purpose and goodness in their lives go unexplored.... By junking the Christian myths, the danger is that the replacements are "cruder, less tested, less instructive".

First of all, many atheists have devoted significant effort to explaining where we find meaning, purpose and goodness in a life free of superstition. Richard Dawkins wrote an entire book about it, for truth's sake: it was called Unweaving the Rainbow. If Bunting doesn't know this, maybe it's because she's so consumed with her own stereotypes of those awful New Atheists that she hasn't made the effort to find out what we really think. The debate she wants has been happening all along - she just hasn't been paying attention.

It's true that any replacement for religion will be "less tested". But that statement implies that religion has been tested and has passed. Much the contrary, we atheists believe that religion has been tested and has failed. The reality is that we atheists are not thoughtless iconoclasts, tearing down the altars of religion without thought for the consequences. We've made the decision to attack religions precisely because we've concluded that the hate, intolerance and division they cause is too high a price to pay for whatever comfort they offer. We believe that we can find sources of meaning and goodness that work just as well, without all the baggage that religion brings.

April 13, 2009, 9:56 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink23 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


Inspired by a good post on Spanish Inquisitor, as well as a similarly good post by Greta Christina (the atheistic stars have aligned!), I had some thoughts about the role of mysticism in religion, especially as it relates to sex.

Freethinkers should be working to disseminate accurate information about sex, of course - information on how to choose a sexual partner, how to use birth control effectively, how to get an abortion if need be, how to be respectful and responsible toward one's partners, and how to recognize and fend off those who aren't. The evidence amply supports the proposition that comprehensive sex education is far more effective than other methods at reducing STD transmissions, unwanted pregnancies, divorce, spousal abuse and unhappiness in general.

But more fundamentally, we need to confront the belief system that lies at the heart of these and many other sexual ills. Rather than just disseminating facts, we need to change attitudes - specifically, the attitude that sex is a dangerous, mysterious thing that should be kept a secret and not talked about. This is an ignorant and fearful mysticism, and it needs to be dispelled.

Sex is a basic biological function that is part of every human life. Why should we treat it any differently than eating or sleeping? There is no rational reason to view it as any different, fundamentally, than any other area of human behavior. Yet a reasonless mysticism still holds sway in this area far too often - one which proclaims that these are forbidden areas, that mere knowledge of sexual information is somehow intrinsically harmful. We can see this in religious conservatives' outraged reaction to schools and library books that teach accurate information about sex; TV and movie censors that treat sex as automatically indecent; in lawmakers who criminalize businesses that sell items used for sexual pleasure by consenting adults; and in absurdly punitive and cruel laws that stigmatize consensual sexual contact by legal minors, in some cases forcing them to register as sex offenders for life and otherwise treating them the same way as genuine predators.

The crusaders in this anti-sex lynch mob are right in only one way: When we treat sex as dangerous and destructive, we make it dangerous and destructive. A New York Times article about the dangers posed to children by online pornography makes this point clear with two contrasting examples:

One woman, for example, told me that she became hysterical when her eight-year-old stumbled onto a pornographic photo. She told me that she literally dove for the computer, crashing over a chair, yanking out the power cord and then rushing her daughter outside.


I walked over, saw what was going on, and closed the window. "Yeah, I know," I told him. "Some people like pictures of naked people. The Internet is full of all kinds of things." And life went on.

Can there be any doubt that, if any harm is done to the child in the first example, it will be done by her mother's hysterical overreaction, rather than by the photo itself? As the article notes, these pictures have no inherent emotional significance for young children. If the parent doesn't react abnormally, a child likely will not even think twice about it. On the other hand, that woman's daughter, by seeing her mother act as if the computer had suddenly turned into toxic waste, has been sent a powerful message that there is something forbidden and dangerous about such images. That message, rather than one of calm and maturity, is the one that's likely to lead to psychological problems and an unhealthy view of sexuality down the line.

In many areas, but especially in sex, this irrational attitude of fearmongering and enforced ignorance has infected society's discourse. Atheists and freethinkers, whose minds are not blinded by dogma, can act as the antidote. We need to de-mystify subjects like sex - that is to say, we need to take the mysticism out of them and treat them with the maturity and reason they deserve.

March 18, 2008, 8:00 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink0 comments

Further Thoughts on John Haught

Since the comment thread for my post "On Amateur Atheism" has sparked a lively debate, I looked around on the internet earlier today for some further explanation of John Haught's views. I found them in this Salon interview, and I'd like to offer some further comments on the theology outlined therein.

One of Haught's major points regarding modern atheists that they rely too much on scientific inquiry to learn about the world:

Therefore, since there's no scientific evidence for the divine, we should not believe in God. But that statement itself -- that evidence is necessary -- holds a further hidden premise that all evidence worth examining has to be scientific evidence. And beneath that assumption, there's the deeper worldview -- it's a kind of dogma -- that science is the only reliable way to truth.

The problem with this paragraph is that Haught, like the many other theologians who deny that science is the only way of knowing truth, inevitably never explains what alternative he has in mind. If you have knowledge that you did not come by scientifically, how did you come by it? What is your method for discriminating true statements from false ones? We never get an answer to this. I'm confident that it's because their actual method, if it were stated explicitly, is so transparently silly that even its backers would have to recognize the absurdity of it: they simply assume that their own personal convictions are a totally reliable guide to external reality, and cling to the faith that the particular religious beliefs they were taught, and not the millions of different religious beliefs, are the one true way.

Like many theologians, Haught wants to have it both ways with regard to science. Despite his lengthy complaints in the article about "scientism" - he says that atheists like Steven Weinberg illicitly assume that "that science itself has the capacity and the power to comment on things like [God]" - he does not hesitate to draw the opposite lesson when he thinks it's warranted.

We have to distinguish between science as a method and what science produces in the way of discovery. As a method, science does not ask questions of purpose. But it's something different to look at the cumulative results of scientific thought and technology. From a theological point of view, that's a part of the world that we have to integrate into our religious visions. That set of discoveries is not at all suggestive of a purposeless universe. Just the opposite.

The hypocritical message of this statement is that Haught is permitted to make claims about the implications of "the cumulative results of scientific thought and technology", but atheists are not. When a theist says that science suggests the universe is continually growing toward greater complexity and this suggests a divine purpose, he's fine with that. But when atheists say that the rampant evil and diaster in nature suggests that the universe was not made with us in mind, suddenly Haught is indignant about this "abuse" of scientific reasoning to discuss areas it has no right to talk about. The double standard he's using is very obvious when you look for it.

So what is the proper place of Haught's god, if it can't be discovered through science? Apparently, according to Haught, the proper answer is to assume that God is found only in the realm of "higher" reasons - that is, what Aristotle would call final causes, rather than material causes. Science can provide explanations of how physical phenomena unfold, but according to Haught, God resides at the level of why those things happen. A corollary of this is that God does not intervene in history. As Haught puts it:

Careless Christian thinkers wanted to make a place for God within the physical system that Newton and others had elaborated. That, in effect, demoted the deity as being just one link in a chain of causes that brought the transcendent into the realm of complete secular immanence. The atheists quite rightly said this God is unnecessary.

...What intelligent design tries to do -- and the great theologians have always resisted this idea -- is to place the divine, the Creator, within the continuum of natural causes. And this amounts to an extreme demotion of the transcendence of God, by making God just one cause in a series of natural causes.

But now Haught has a large problem: Christianity absolutely does require an interventionist god. Even if one dismisses the Old Testament narratives as allegory, even if one believes that God does not provide miraculous answers to prayer, Christianity is still built on a fundamental, keystone claim - the resurrection of Jesus - which implies that, on at least one occasion, God intervened in the world to change the course of events in a way that natural law would not permit.

Haught strains mightily to get around this problem. Here is his solution, which I'll quote in full so I'm not accused of misrepresenting him:

But if you ask me whether a scientific experiment could verify the Resurrection, I would say such an event is entirely too important to be subjected to a method which is devoid of all religious meaning.

So if a camera was at the Resurrection, it would have recorded nothing?

If you had a camera in the upper room when the disciples came together after the death and Resurrection of Jesus, we would not see it.

...We trivialize the whole meaning of the Resurrection when we start asking, Is it scientifically verifiable?

In the end, it's not at all clear what this theological contortion actually means. It's a simple question of fact: Did Jesus physically rise from the dead or did he not? Did his body resume functioning? Did he get up and walk out of the tomb? Did his disciples see him in the flesh, handle him, and watch him eat and drink? These are all yes-or-no questions!

This is where Haught's contorted theology is stretched to the breaking point. Even if we grant his argument that science cannot speak to teleological claims, science most certainly can examine empirical claims, and the resurrection of Jesus absolutely is an empirical claim. Clearly, what he's trying to do is to somehow remove this empirical claim from the realm of science and place it safely within the realm of faith, where it can't be examined or disproved. The only way he can do that is by asserting that the very occurrence of the event is somehow just a matter of faith.

It's not at all clear what he means by this. If we'd had a video camera in the upper room, would it have recorded the disciples interacting with an invisible, inaudible person? Or would it have found the room itself empty, as though the disciples resided in some parallel universe where their existence was only accessible to those who believe? More importantly, if we'd trained the video camera on the dead body of Jesus, would that body have winked out of existence at some point (as it entered the "realm of faith"), or would we have seen the body remain dead, as if a totally different set of events happened for those who chose not to believe versus for those who did?

Whatever the answers to these questions, it seems Haught's god is so far removed from the real world that it is, literally, indistinguishable from a god that does not exist. Haught is adamant that science cannot detect God, and yet, all that science is is a way of examining claims about the physical world to determine which ones are verifiably true or false. If science cannot speak to Haught's god, then that means that Haught's god has no influence or effect on the physical world in any way whatsoever. By his own definition, then, Haught's god and Haught's theology are literally irrelevant. We should treat them as such.

March 2, 2008, 2:16 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink59 comments

Book Review: The End of Faith/Letter to a Christian Nation

The End of Faith

Summary: An incendiary polemic against unjustified belief. Many strong points, strongly made - but what on earth is that endorsement of psychic powers doing in there?

With the 2004 publication of his book The End of Faith, Sam Harris has probably become one of the best-known and most influential atheists in public discourse today. In this review, I will briefly summarize this book and then offer some remarks.

Chapter 1, "Reason in Exile," talks about the pervasiveness of faith in our world and the way in which it has been considered above criticism, which Harris shows to be a suicidally irrational decision. A great number of terrible wars, atrocities and dictatorial societies have come about because of faith - not in spite of faith, but because of it - and our peril is now worse than it has ever been, as adherents to a medieval, death-welcoming theology do now possess or may soon possess planet-destroying weapons. There is plenty of blame to go around for this situation, and Harris distributes it fairly: not just the fundamentalists on all sides who consider obedience to dogma more important than life, but also the religious liberals and moderates who, while not participating in religious atrocities, nevertheless make them possible by insisting that people's faith is a private choice that should not be criticized. (This is a novel and important argument for atheists to make, and I believe credit goes to Harris for first proposing it.) He argues to the contrary that faith must end if humanity is to survive.

The second chapter concerns what a belief is, how beliefs are formed, and how they should be justified. Harris' background in neuroscience shows as he discusses the biological basis of belief, then defines faith and shows how it differs from mere belief in specifically being an unjustified belief about the world. He discusses why faith appeals to people, but also how it is dangerous and maladaptive in insulating incorrect beliefs from investigation and encouraging people to make decisions on a bad basis, such as the claims of a religious authority.

Chapter 3 concerns the Inquisition and the Holocaust, two of the most infamous eras of the Western world. Harris goes into gruesome detail regarding the torture techniques and other evils that were invented during these periods, and how both arose directly from religious belief. The Holocaust, for example, had its roots in centuries of medieval Christian anti-Semitism, including accusing Jews of ludicrous crimes such as "host-nailing", supposedly stealing consecrated communion wafers and driving nails through them to crucify Jesus again, and the "blood libel" that Jews kidnapped Christian children and drained their blood for use in religious ceremonies. The latter accusation is still made regularly in the Muslim world.

Chapter 4, "The Problem with Islam", could fairly be called the centerpiece of the book. Harris argues forcefully that Islam is an intrinsically violent and despotic religion, and that Muslims will become more radical and dangerous to the precise degree in which they believe in it and take its claims seriously. He asserts that the West is "at war with Islam", whose scriptures plainly teach the desirability of martyrdom and the moral imperative for Islam to conquer the world. He cites a disturbing study that found that a majority or plurality of Muslims in numerous countries regard suicide terrorism that specifically targets civilians as justifiable, whereas America and other Western nations, though they have committed many outrages upon people in other countries, do not specifically intend to harm or kill the innocent and punish those who do, whereas most Muslim countries celebrate such an outcome.

Chapter 5, "West of Eden", shows that the influence of Christianity in the modern world is not benign either. In particular, Harris points to the worldview of the Christian religious right which hopes fervently for Armageddon - in other words, the destruction of the world - and not just welcomes but actively encourages such an outcome. He discusses Christianity-inspired laws that criminalize and harshly punish harmless private behavior because that behavior produces pleasure of a sort that Christianity has always considered sinful to experience. Finally, he discusses stem-cell research and how irrational religious opposition to it is prolonging the suffering of millions.

Chapter 6 concerns the nature and basis of morality. Harris' views are very much in line with my own. Contrary to the stereotype of atheist as moral relativist, he asserts as I do that there are objectively correct and objectively incorrect moral values, and that these can be discovered by investigation of the world and our relationship to each other. Some readers may dispute two of his more controversial points, the immorality of pacifism and the moral equivalence of torture and wartime collateral damage, but his arguments are serious and deserve serious consideration.

The final chapter discusses "experiments in consciousness". This is the part of the book many atheist readers may find the strangest. There is no doubt that Harris is an atheist, but he is strongly influenced by thinking from Eastern traditions (as he says himself). He recommends meditation as a way to develop one's consciousness and become awakened to the artificiality of the sense of self and the falsehood that there is a distinction between the perceiver and the object perceived. Although Harris does not make any supernatural claims for the efficacy of meditation, his endorsement of mysticism (he uses the word himself) left me wary, despite his insistence that what he means by this is a rational project of improving mindfulness through concentration.

Harris' flirtations with mysticism will be one of the two most likely points of major contention in this book. The other is his often incendiary tone, especially when it comes to Islam. Harris takes no prisoners when it comes to the irrationality of faith. This is not necessarily a bad thing: there are many pithy phrases scattered through the book that made me laugh (I liked it when he calls religious beliefs "uncontaminated by evidence" and "a desperate marriage of hope and ignorance"). There are also some genuinely insightful passages, such as when he observed that religious moderation has sprung from better understanding of the world and not better understanding of the texts that inspired that belief, summing it up with the phrase: "The doors leading out of scriptural literalism do not open from the inside." He also makes the insightful point that an unfalsifiable belief is not actually a belief about the world at all, since it is unrelated to any real or hypothetical way the world might possibly be.

Regarding Islam, I do not think Harris is on a "lunatic right-wing anti-Islamic jihad", as he has been accused of (source). His criticisms of Islam are harsh, but then again, the acts being committed around the world in the name of Islam are truly and unconscionably evil, and he is absolutely right to call attention to that and to condemn it in the strongest possible terms. He is similarly right to point out that many other oppressed and disenfranchised groups have not given rise to persistent terrorism, and that many Islamic terrorists (including the 9/11 hijackers) were actually comfortable and well-educated. Their actions indisputably came from their beliefs, not from their economic circumstances.

That said, I do think several of his arguments overplay the situation. For example, he presents the hypothetical case of a suicide bomber on a crowded bus and claims that it is "trivially easy" to guess that person's religion - and then goes in (in an endnote) to admit that the Hindu Tamil Tigers have actually carried out more suicide bombings than any other group! Although he takes pains to address this fact, the truth remains that it seriously undercuts the entire point of his example, and he would have been better off modifying the argument or eliminating it entirely.

I also do not think that the conflict between Islam and the West is as absolute or as inexorable as Harris portrays it. Christianity, after all, has many of the same teachings about waging war on nonbelievers and the paradise promised to faithful martyrs, and yet whatever harms it does cause, it has not given rise to terrorism the way Islam has. The reason for this is that the Christian world passed through a period of Enlightenment that established memes of reason, democracy and human rights to counter excessive dogmatism. Clearly, what we need is to provoke a similar renaissance in the Muslim world. Granted, this may be a more difficult task considering the self-protecting memes that have seemingly gained a firm foothold among Islam, but I think for the most part it has not even been tried yet. We cannot gauge the possibility of such a project until we have made a sustained effort.

There is one other suggestion I must make, which is that this book could have stood some more editing. My copy has about 230 pages of text and about 130 pages of endnotes, containing not just citations, but long, discursive arguments on matters tangentially related to the main text. This digressive material is better in the endnotes than in the body, but it was still annoying to have to keep flipping back and forth, and I think it would have been even better to eliminate much of it entirely, as most of it does not substantially add to the strength of the argument.

I do have another, more serious objection. Although Harris' mysticism strikes me as odd, he takes pains to state that by using this word he means the development of a calm and mindful state through practice, nothing supernatural. That is fine with me. However, I must register a complaint about this sentence from chapter 1:

"There also seems to be a body of data attesting to the reality of psychic phenomena, much of which has been ignored by mainstream science."

The citation is to books by Dean Radin and Rupert Sheldrake, two notorious pseudoscientists, and even approvingly cites some books that claim to prove the reality of reincarnation! This is a distressing foray into unreason in an otherwise good book. I still recommend The End of Faith, but I hope Harris will take his own advice on the primacy of reason and come to his senses in this matter, and I would advise readers to take him with just a pinch of salt in the meantime.

Letter to a Christian Nation

Summary: Now that's how you do it. A compact, concise distillation of the atheist position that loses none of its rhetorical force or persuasive value.

Written as a reply to the flood of religious feedback he received after publishing The End of Faith, Sam Harris' Letter to a Christian Nation is a point-by-point response to his critics. As the title suggests, it is addressed primarily to American Christians (the book is written in the second person), and presents the reasons why Harris and many other atheists consider religious beliefs not just false but dangerous, and why atheism is a moral imperative in the face of the religious chaos and hatred that is dividing our world. Topics covered include the immorality of verses in the Bible, the harm caused by imposition of fundamentalist beliefs, the failure of religion to cause good social effects, and how religious moderates are unwittingly providing fertile ground for violence by promoting the idea that faith is a respectable method of decision-making that should not be criticized.

This is well-traveled ground, and Harris does not add anything that a knowledgeable atheist will not be aware of. However, there are millions of religious people to whom this material will be brand-new. And Harris' presentation is just right: concise, eloquent, forceful, passionate, citing evidence where appropriate without cluttering the flow of the text, omitting extraneous detail without diminishing the force of his arguments in the slightest. His criticisms are strong but fair, and I think less inflammatory than they are in The End of Faith. The mysticism that sullied the former text is also not present here, and his argument is thoroughly grounded in reason and in real-world concerns.

One of the most notable aspects of Letter to a Christian Nation is its brevity. It is almost more of a pamphlet than a book. My copy is about ninety pages of large type in a small book, and could easily be read in an hour. This is not a criticism, however. On the contrary, I think it is an excellent idea, because this book is short enough that a religious person might realistically read the whole thing if it was given to them. Many of my reviews have praised the excellent argumentation put forth by atheist authors while lamenting that the religious people who most need to hear it will probably never read it, but with this book I think there is a plausible chance that that will actually happen. I have said that there are very few books I would wholeheartedly recommend as a believer's introduction to atheism, but this book is one of the rare few that I think is suitable for that important purpose, and that should be viewed as high praise indeed.

October 25, 2006, 6:50 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink18 comments

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