The “New” Atheists and what is supposedly so “wrong” with them…..

329_patience-with-god1What is so “wrong” with them? I’ve read a number of critiques, rants, diatribes and screes, mostly from the religious or spiritual, often from the fundamentalist who are their primary focus. Here is what is wrong with them.

They aren’t as formidable as the “Old” Atheists

You wouldn’t think this would be a basis for criticism. One might actually rejoice that their opponents were not a formidable as they used to be. They aren’t like Hume, Russel, and Spinoza. I’ve also seen Nietzsche mentioned. Those were the days when men were men and atheists were intellectual powerhouses, deep thinkers, quietly influential, if anyone read what they wrote at all at the time. The new atheist are brash Johnny-come-late-lys” without the intellectual acumen or the moderation of their predecessors.

It’s ridiculous to discount the criticisms of the New Atheist by saying Dennett is not a Russell or Nietzsche, Dawkins is no Darwin and Sam Harris is no Spinoza. I mean, who is? Perhaps they are not as original thinkers as these others. Perhaps their intellectual prowess is not up to these giants. They would probably agree. That does not mean their popularization of arguments against theism are to be discounted.

They are just as fundamentalist as the religious fundamentalists

Apparently it is not okay for atheists to be definite about what they think. All levels of certainty are equated to fundamentalism. Humble uncertainty in the face of the vast and unknowable universe especially where the “Big Questions” are concerned is more the fashion. Of course, the “Old” atheist were pretty definite. Just read Russell. Peruse Twain, dip into Nietzsche. Read some of the more common speeches and writings of Robert Ingersoll. None of these men were shy about what they thought. None of them failed to advocate for the truth of what they said and wrote.

This seems to be throwing the baby out with the bath water. Just because the certainty espoused by the religious is noxious, doesn’t mean all certainty is equally to be avoided especially certainty about what is wrong. I can be open to the actual age of the universe while being certain it was not created in six days. If you read the New Atheist carefully you’ll see this sort of agnosticism.

They are just as evangelical as the fundamentalist evangelicals

It’s also not okay to actively seek to communicate what you think especially to the populace in general. While the “old” atheists wrote books, those books were not broadly consumed and are only being more recently appreciated. They didn’t have a very wide circulation and their target audience was not necessarily the “man in the street”, so to speak. The New Atheist are active, outspoken proponents of what they thing and active critics of fundamentalist religion. Of course fundamentalist religion as been doing this as a matter of creed for centuries.

In the realm of ideas communication is the key. Ideas that are not communicated die and have no impact. It’s not the evangelicalism of fundamentalism that is the problem. It is the content of what they are communicating. To borrow a phrase from Sam Harris, “it is the mother load of bad ideas”. What else is one to do when face with bad ideas but to counter them with good ideas; at least what you consider as good ideas.

Actually Schaeffer, while being critical, nonetheless hit the nail on the head.

“Most New Atheists are no more anti-religious than the atheists such as Russell who denounced faith as “regretful hankering after the past,”–they’re just louder. And for all their in-your-face “attitude,” the New Atheists are positively polite compared to the religious fundamentalists. Incidentally, if some of the earlier atheists (what I guess we should call the Old, Old Atheists), such as Baruch Spinoza and David Hume, were more polite than today’s New Atheists they had good reason to be: fear of bigoted religious believers ready to kill people who challenged their ideas.” – “Patience with God” Frank Schaeffer

Nonetheless Schaeffer goes on to criticize them in the ways I’ve outlined. He also echos the tired and clearly wrong headed criticism that atheism has been the cause of more killing and torture than religion in all it’s varieties naming Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, Castro and “scientists”. If what he means is that fundamentalism of all sorts, dogmatism of all varieties can also motivate bloodshed. He is absolutely right. If he is laying this bloodshed specifically at the door of atheism or even secularism or humanism, he is, once again, very wrong headed.

Was Hitler and atheist? No, he was not.

“Besides that, I believe one thing: there is a Lord God! And this Lord God creates the peoples.”  [1]    ~Adolf Hitler

 “We were convinced that the people need and require this faith. We have therefore undertaken the fight against the atheistic movement, and that not merely with a few theoretical declarations; we have stamped it out” [2]   ~Adolf Hitler

Was Castro an atheist?

“According to Washington Post, former President of Cuba Fidel Castro‘s letters from prison suggest that he “was a man of unusual spiritual depth – and a fervent believer in God.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fidel_Castro%27s_religious_beliefs

Stalin was the only confirmed Atheist. Pol Pot was probably Buddhist. The issue is whether it was their religious views or lack thereof that motivated the bloodshed. In none of these cases was atheism in particular the motivation for their reigns of terror. Dogmatism of one sort of another was certainly behind all of these heinous regimes. Rational atheism and humanism was not.

https://michaelsherlockauthor.wordpress.com/2014/10/21/the-atheist-atrocities-fallacy-hitler-stalin-pol-pot-in-memory-of-christopher-hitchens/

Where Hitler and Castro, “true Christians”? Did they act in a way consistent with the supposed “love” of God fundamentalist Christians are so fond of espousing (a love that will send you to hell, BTW)? This is a species of the “True Scotsman” fallacy where every negative characteristic of which one is accused is laid at the door of “not being a true whatever”.  The defense of atheism is different. Those like Hitler and Castro did not even espouse atheism. Those like Stalin and Pol Pot didn’t declare atheism to be the motivation behind what they did. They did not claim they were advancing the cause of atheism or non-theism by doing what they did. Perhaps they saw religion or theism as an obstacle to their goals, and so were anti-theist, but atheism and reason were not the stated driving force behind their reigns of terror.

It’s all such a mystery…….

329_patience-with-god1Those who defend religion are fond of “mystery”. Once they have abandoned the plebeian confines of fundamentalist literalism and the slavish enthrallment to “the book”, the core of the religious enterprise becomes mystery. It becomes the raison d’etra of the entire religious enterprise and represents the best, the deepest, the most genuine religious sentiment. In fact, it becomes what compels them to be religious in spite of themselves, in spite of their reason, and in spite of the “knowing better”. They are flummoxed by mystery and they lie bewildered and speechless in the face of it and moved to devotion.

Science on the other hand is the supreme buzz kill it seems. When intoxicated and high on mystery, science comes along and tries to explain everything. Wonder is not enough. Awe is insufficient. Being humbly, staggeringly stunned at the immensity and complexity of the universe is apparently inadequate to escape the charge of hubris leveled at those who reject “mystery” as the foundation of the universe and as the unassailable and purist motive for the religious sentiment they eschew.

In this sense Mystery does not represent the unknown, science certainly bows to what is unknown. Mystery is about the “unknowable”. It reserves some aspects of reality to a special class of the real which cannot ever be known. It isn’t just that it can’t be known by reason and empirical investigation and evidential proof. It cannot be known at all! It is beyond the pale of words, or concepts of thoughts and even perhaps intuition. It can only be hinted at, fleetingly glimpsed on the periphery of ones consciousness and felt rather than known or even conceived. As a result, it cannot be in the proper magisterium of science or what we normally know and how we know it.

This is the Wizard of Oz Syndrome. People want there to be a Wizard! When Toto sniffs out the Wizard and Dorothy draws back the curtain, everyone goes “awwwwww, that’s disappointing, we thought it was REAL magic”. The “Wizard”, gives the Scarecrow a diploma, the Lion a medal and the Tin Man a heart shaped watch and says, “you know, you had it in you all the time, you didn’t need a Wizard or magic”. Dorothy could have gone home at any time, all she needed was to want to, “There’s no place like home”, rather than running away. What you need for transformation is in yourself or in you in relation to others. In fact, they had already changed as the result of their journey together. Then again, that’s humanism and not the new theism.

We still want the mystery. So, anything that isn’t explained or currently explainable becomes, “mystery”, unknown and unknowable….until it is, known that is. The current candidate is “consciousness”. Because the relationship between the physical and the mental and how the latter arises from the former is the “hard” problem, it has become the intractable problem, the unsolvable problem, the ultimate mystery and the ground of all honest religion. The presence or rather the sense of “what is is like to be me” to experience Beauty, Truth and Goodness, to have the sense of all those ineffable feelings, means that must be a God. Frank Schaeffer in his book “Patience with God”, calls it “Hopeful Uncertainty”. Not knowing and essentially refusing to consider it knowable, is the new Faith.

Distilling this mystery, even in imagination, to something that could be known and explained is like drawing back the curtain. Faith becomes the virtue of humbling accepting that I just cannot know and will not know and must bow before Uncertainty. He accuses the “New Atheists” of being just as fundamentalist as the Christian Fundamentalist from whom he has fled. However, fleeing from that malformed and crippled religion he cannot simply accept naturalism in spite of what his reason tells him and falls back into a sort of faith, which he assure himself is virtuous, desirable, and appropriately humble, in bowing to “not knowing” and worshiping the “unknowable” and “ineffable”.

As seemingly profound and sophisticated as it seems, it’s really little different from fundamentalism. Yes, it does back down from the absolute certainty of dogmatism, but it still proffers another source of knowledge, one that is essentially subjective and personal and thus untouchable and non-falsifiable. It is a knowledge which is called “not knowledge”, which is placed outside the realm of reason and conception and can thus be delightfully and comfortingly vague, unchallengable and unexplained. It brooks no pesky and troubling questions. Any objections are dismissed with a wave of the hand and a pious nod to it’s deep and profound unknowable-ness; the true God that cannot be named or understood but only vaguely pointed at. In it’s vagueness, ironically, it is offered as a certainty, just not a clear, concise and precise certainly. Just meditate as long as I have, and you’ll know! Just relax you demand for answers and you too will know what I know.

The result is that you can make statements or pronouncements about some of the most significant questions human being have ruminated over for centuries, probably millennium, assert they are true yet, frame them in the vaguest of terms with no attempt to mount an even plausible argument or the merest whiff of evidence. When challenged they can fall back on assertions that they are not interested in proselytizing or convincing anyone, that if you only follow a similar line of thought, perform the same practice or adopt the most appropriate mindset, you too will see the truth. You can assert the truth without asserting, state it without stating it or explaining it and believe it in spite of just about all reason to the contrary. You can, in short, continue to believe in The Wizard and his magic and hope for your brains or heart or courage or home even though it is all on you. You can believe the world is warm and snugly place when it clearly is not. You can hope someone is looking out for you when the universe really doesn’t care and will kill you at a moments notice. You can adopt a fantasy or choose to struggle to live with things as they are.

It’s all still just smoke and mirrors.

Patrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint – part deux

Nadia Bolz-Weber

Nadia Bolz-Weber

I’m sure Rev. Bolz-Weber would be the first to say her book is not meant to be a theology textbook, definitely not a Systematic Theology treatment. I expect she would also be quick to say it does not necessarily reflect or even represent Progressive Christianity. It is her personal faith. Yet, it is about her “faith” and she makes statements of “faith” which represent what she believes to be true about God and Jesus and people and the dynamic of living and believing. She does so as a Pastor with a seminary education and as a “spiritual leader”. She has taken up the position to minister to people with regard to their relationship to God and Jesus, however, she might view it. As confused as she might feel she is about such things and as mysterious as she may think they are, she has set out to speak with some “authority” about them or perhaps some knowledge.

Despite the contention often voiced that God is bigger than our conceptions, that God is ultimately a mystery, that God cannot be contained in propositions, and that faith is not the same as statements of scientific fact or other forms of knowledge, it’s hard to ignore what appear to be “propositions” about Jesus and God. These are made as statements of what is true. They are also made against the backdrop of being raised in the very conservative and fundamentalist Church of Christ. She often interacts with what she was taught and other expressions of the same sort of beliefs to contract them with what she now believes and preaches.

In the book there are recurring ideas and themes. There is the theme, “Where is God in suffering” in which she also touches on the cross and incarnation. There is what she finds as the compelling dynamic of “death and resurrection” by which God makes people whole, over and over and the overarching theme of grace, or perhaps Grace, with a big “G” which she considers the hallmark of Lutheranism and of her perspective on God, Jesus and Christianity. These are the things she seeks to represent in her life, preaching and her ministry to people. This latter touches on the resurrection of Jesus after his death on the cross.

Perhaps she would distance all of this from “theology” or things like “Christology” and “Anthropology” and all the other classic subsets of Theology proper, but nonetheless, that what her statements represent, soft and tentative as they may be in their presentation. No matter how personal they might be. What’s more, she supports these from the Bible. She acknowledges that there are a lot of awful parts of the Bible, parts she heard in the Church of Christ, but also some really “awesome” parts. She acknowledges that it is foolish to believe the Bible was “written by God”, but yet, being written by people, it is still, in some way, revelatory of true knowledge about the divine.

She states she never ceased to believe in God during her sojourn outside the Church. She simply turned her back on what she had been taught for the most part. She seems to have embraced some of it, added to it as with the “goddess” and female side of God, modified it and then brought it back into the realm of the Church and Lutheranism and the Bible, reframed it, recast it and baptized it. She states she never did become an atheist and in response to a conversation while interning as a Hospital Chaplain tells one woman who identifies as an atheist, she could “never pull that off”.

So, I will look at statements she makes about these sort of “theology” type things and see what I can make of them and ask my own questions. My primary question is, “How exactly does that work”? “Can you be a bit more specific, flesh it out a little”?

As I’ve said, it is an engaging, if not for me rather frustrating at time, read. I believe the most troubling and perhaps most telling aspect of her view and perhaps most determinitive of her answer to my “Why”? questions is her “anthropology” or view of “people”. Here is a quote on trying to be Unitarian.

“In the end, as much as I desperately wanted to be Unitarian, I couldn’t, because what I needed was a specific divine source of reconciliation and wholeness, a source that is connected to me in love, bue does not come from inside of me”.

Earlier in the passage she states:

“Unitarians are such smart, good people. They seem so hopeful. They vote Democrat and recycle and love women and they let you believe anything you want to, and I wanted to be one of them badly. But I couldn’t pull it off. Four years of sobriety hadn’t come to me as the result of hopefulness and positive thinking. It wzs grace. Unitarians just don’t talk much about our need for God’s grace. They have a higher opinion of human beings than I have ever felt comfortable claiming, as someone who both reads the paper and knows the condition of my own heart”. …. “I couldn’t be comforted by my own divinity or awesomeness, although I’d love it if I could”.

She sees herself and others as broken or at least not whole, and in desperate need of something entirely outside of themselves and of divine, essentially supernatural, origin to just get by. The need does not seem to admit of much progress. It seems to be a cycle of a few steps forward and some lessor number of steps backward. It is something that requires a cycle of dying and being raised again over and over entirely from something outside yourself by a power you cannot in any way lay claim to. This is a desperate anthropology and not really that different from the traditional Christian view of people.

Is Progressive Christianity the answer? A (sort of) review of Pastrix by Nadia Bolz-Weber

Nadia Bolz-Weber

Nadia Bolz-Weber

“Pastrix The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint” by Nadia Bolz-Weber

I follow rabbit trails.

Anyone who knows me knows this. I’ll start describing something I am thinking about, some idea I had, something I ran across and those who do not know me with get this “What the Fuck” look on their faces. Those who do know me will simply smile and ask, “How did you end up there”? What follows is a description of a rather torturous trail from one apparently non-sequester to another until the map from A to ZZ has been drawn. Usually it makes some sense.

So it was with this particular “find”. It began with discussions with a young Christian woman who is wrestling with the Church, with what she believes, with what the Bible appears to say and who she knows herself to be. There is the conflict between the “better angels of her nature” as she has come to know them and the devils of her upbringing. Only in this case the devils are in the Church and the angels are outside of it. In an attempt to seek out something which she might be able to embrace, something that would allow her to exorcise the devils but keep the angels as angles, as expressions of her beliefs and faith, I set out to explore Progressive Christianity. I find that it is perhaps different from Liberal Christianity and certainly “hell and gone” from Fundamentalist Christianity, the sort in which she was raised, benign as it was. I thought perhaps she, the young woman, might be able to find a home there in that community of beliefs and experience. The truth is there are aspects of Christianity or perhaps just theism which are important to her, but so much chaff which is unpalatable and rightly so.

That search took me to Patheos and it’s “Progressive Christian” Channel and that introduced me to Reverend Nadia Bolz-Weber, pastor of House of All Saints and Sinners in Denver Colorado, a mission work of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Reading her blog a bit, listening to a snippet of a sermon, seeing pictures of her in various venues speaking lead me to her “best selling” books, one of which is “Pastrix”. Perhaps, I thought, this will explain how one can embrace Christianity, yet retain a scholarly, educated view of the Bible and Christian theology. Perhaps, this auto-biography of a sort, her “conversion” story as it were, would describe what that might be like. So, I bought the digital copy of the book, started to read buy was stuck on the second page…..of the introduction.

“Suddenly, in that moment, all I could think was: What the hell am I doing? Seminary? Seriously? With a universe this vast and unknowable, what are the odds that this story of Jesus is true? Come on, Nadia. It’s a fucking fairy tale.

And in the very next moment I thought this: Except that throughout my life, I’ve experienced it to be true.

Even when my mind protests, I still can’t deny my experiences.”

I would have ended the first sentence with an exclamation point; full stop; end of story! In fact, I did, although for me it was after seminary and after sixteen years in the ministry of a conservative Presbyterian Church. It was after another six years of wondering if I was throwing the baby out with the bath water. As I’ve been fond of saying, I finally realized, there was no baby. I could safely throw out the dirty, tepid water, clean out the bath, and use it for something else.

Here is the crux of the matter. Why Christianity? I can understand having some belief in some “higher power”, some deity, some sense of the divine, but why nestle that within the bosom of Christianity? If Christianity is an “expression” of the divine and that is found in many religions, why not simply cut to the chase, drop the window dressing and go for the unvarnished, raw truth?

What is it about the Bible that appeals to you? After all, while it will have to be and is construed differently (the Bible that is), you can’t have Christianity without the Bible. Even if you are going to go with experience and allow it to trump your intellect, your reason, why frame that experience in terms of Christianity? After all, without the Bible, you wouldn’t know about Jesus. Without the Bible, you wouldn’t know what sort of “god” he talked about, or what ethics he espoused or what experiences he had. Yet, you have to radically rewrite so much of the Bible, even, yes, the New Testament to make even Jesus palatable. At the very least you have to come up with some other “hermeneutics”. I’ve contemplated going through a harmony of the Gospels to paint a picture of the “other” Jesus, the one whose not so likable or loving or patient or kind.

Further, the measure of truth here is “experience”. How can I deny my experience? When it comes to determining what is truth, I have to listen to my experience, not to reason, or intellect! This, I believe, is the cry of those who wish to believe something in spite of evidence or reasons to the contrary. Make no mistake. What Ms. Bolz-Weber says here is a truth claim about the real world. It is not only about HER real world, but about YOUR real world as well. What she has experienced, you too can experience.

It’s not that experience, some kind of experience, cannot be a measure of what is true. I might say, “My experience is that I can change the oil in my car every 8000 miles rather than every 5000 miles as the owner’s manuals says I should”. However, this is still an evidence based claim about the real world. It is based on my observation of the evidence for no difference in wear or longevity between changing my oil at 8000 miles rather than 5000 miles. Even in this case however, it would be good to check my experience. It would be good to ask questions like, is this because I only buy a certain model car or use a certain type of oil,  or drive a certain way, or perhaps have been extraordinarily lucky in the cars I have bought. In this case my own experience is not the sole basis on which to based a truth claim about the real world.

On the other hand, if I am falling asleep at night and see little people standing on my bed, I might rightly question whether they are really there. I might rightly note that people are usually not that small, that they usually weight something so there would be other indications other than visual if they were real. I might note that seeing little people is not a common experience for me or other people. I might rightly conclude this is a case of Lilliputian Hallucinations and not a reason to start believing in fairies or leprechauns in the face of evidence and reasons to the contrary. Some people would make that leap. It’ just that other spiritual claims of “experiencing God” don’t seem so fantastical though they should.

One key difference is that the latter experience is a personal experience, that is a subjective experience upon which it is questionable to base a claim to objective reality or truth. It is not an experience others can share. That is, they cannot validate or verify my personal experience. They may have similar personal experiences and assume theirs and mine are the same, but they cannot verify my particular experience.

This latter sort of argument from experience, it seems to me, is the sort of claim from experience being made here in her book, right at the outset, and in many claims to spiritual truth. It is a claim to objective truth based on subjective personal experience in the face of evidence and reasons to the contrary. It’s not just in absence of evidence and reason, but, as she says her, contrary to them. I suppose this is, she would say, what faith is about. Then again, many people exercise this sort of faith in all other sorts of religions and other matters of belief. This too is not unique to Christianity yet the claims in which these diverse people have faith are so different as to be totally incompatible.

I’ll continue to read and perhaps to write here. I was hoping for something better. Perhaps I’ll find it. I should add, I’ve now read part of the book and it’s well done. She writes well and is funny. Good for her!

More Fear Mongering from the Faith Lobby

godless atheistsThis little video tidbit has caused quite a stir prompting American Atheists to call for an apology, not from the professor at Harvard Business School who made the video, but from the Chancellor of Troy University who disseminated it as a Christmas message.

This is from the WEB site of the Richard Dawkin’s Foundation.

“What started as a holiday message to students and faculty from Troy University Chancellor Dr. Jack Hawkins Jr., has now turned into a religious debate and the American Atheists demanding a public apology from the school’s leader.

On Dec. 30, Hawkins sent a message out to students and faculty containing a video that he said “speaks to America’s greatness and its vulnerability.

The video, which has nearly a half million views on the video sharing website YouTube, is of Harvard Business School professor Clay Christensen recalling a conversation with a Marxist from China who was completing a fellowship at Harvard.

Christensen said the economist told him before leaving that he had no idea how critical religion was to the functioning of democracy.”

Here is the video in question.

I’m not sure what this has to do with “Religious Freedom”, what I do know is that it is more, albeit mildly presented, “Fear Mongering”. Christians and the religious in general frequently engage in this tactic as a means of Apologetics. Without God, they say, the world will go to hell in a hand basket. Compassion, kindness, love, fellow-feeling, charity and all those other wonderful attribute of which only Christianity is the fountainhead will dry up and disappear if you don’t allow Christianity free reign throughout all aspects and institutions in society. Your children will inherit a world full of greed, strife, hatred, misogyny, genocide, punitive justice, intolerance and all manner of other ills. It will be a living hell and you will only have your own godless self to blame. So, goes the argument.

Of course, Christianity HAS had free reign throughout all aspects of society and it’s institution in almost all the countries of Europe for oh, close to 2000 years and nearly 200 in the US. We all know how well that went. It is only been relatively recently that secularism has been gaining ground. Just look at the absolutely hellacious conditions in countries like Norway and Sweden for example and see where rampant secularism and atheism will get you. I believe they are regularly rated among the happiest most beneficent societies in the world….SO THERE!

Christians further argue that the world is getting worse and worse as it gets more and more secular, just look around you, just read some of Stephen Pinker’s book, “The Angles of Our Better Nature” if you want to see how horrible the world has become at the hands of the Enlightenment, Science and growing Secularism.

“Abstract:
We’ve all had the experience of reading about a bloody war or shocking crime and asking, “What is the world coming to?” But we seldom ask, “How bad was the world in the past?” In this startling new book, the bestselling cognitive scientist Steven Pinker shows that the world of the past was much worse. With the help of more than a hundred graphs and maps, Pinker presents some astonishing numbers. Tribal warfare was nine times as deadly as war and genocide in the 20th century. The murder rate of Medieval Europe was more than thirty times what it is today. Slavery, sadistic punishments, and frivolous executions were unexceptionable features of life for millennia, then suddenly were targeted for abolition. Wars between developed countries have vanished, and even in the developing world, wars kill a fraction of the people they did a few decades ago. Rape, battering, hate crimes, deadly riots, child abuse, cruelty to animals—all substantially down.
How could this have happened, if human nature has not changed? What led people to stop sacrificing children, stabbing each other at the dinner table, or burning cats and disemboweling criminals as forms of popular entertainment? The key to explaining the decline of violence, Pinker argues, is to understand the inner demons that incline us toward violence (such as revenge, sadism, and tribalism) and the better angels that steer us away. Thanks to the spread of government, literacy, trade, and cosmopolitanism, we increasingly control our impulses, empathize with others, bargain rather than plunder, debunk toxic ideologies, and deploy our powers of reason to reduce the temptations of violence.
With the panache and intellectual zeal that have made his earlier books international bestsellers and literary classics, Pinker will force you to rethink your deepest beliefs about progress, modernity, and human nature. This gripping book is sure to be among the most debated of the century so far.”

http://stevenpinker.com/publications/better-angels-our-nature

The argument in the video and from many a pulpit is clear, as the church disappears from society, Professor Christiansen worries, who will teach our Children morality? Who will teach them the good moral character that would lead them to voluntarily obey the laws of society. “You cannot hire enough police”, he says, to insure a safe, law-abiding society, if there is no religion (that is, Christianity). Immorality and lawlessness will abound, society will crumble and we will return to the barbarism of, well, perhaps the Old Testament?

Notice, however, what the Chinese Marxist actually says. The reason democracy works is because “Most people, most of the time voluntarily choose to obey the law”. He attributes that to religion, to Christianity. Further he contrasts this to the government enforcing that obedience by say, the threat of punishment or constant surveillance. How is any to people voluntarily obeying the law because they fear being punished by say, perhaps, God? Professor Christiansen contends that Society can’t do what God can, follow through with the threat of punishment. How then is that voluntary? Professor Christiansen describes this as though the Marxist friend is marveling at the wonders of democracy and religion. Perhaps he was actually aghast that democracy was so dependent of the delusion of religion, particularly Christianity.

Notice the way this message is conveyed. Notice the subtle black and white pictures that spin by, of surveillance cameras, police and criminals being lead away. You see, IT’S ALREADY BEGUN!!! What’s more he indirectly throws in the “Red Commie Threat” here too. Although he doesn’t explicitly state it he is argueing that Democracy will be shattered and we will all be under enthralled to Atheist Marxism (like that under which his Marxist friend lives). His friend is a foil for all that is to be feared and which he believes is doomed to fail.

Failing to have a rational argument, a reasoned argument, to believe the dogma of Christianity, they appeal to unreasoned and unsupported fear! They accuse all who do not believe in God and indeed all who are of another religion, of being immoral, unprincipled and unwilling, without the “big stick” of judgment and hell, to live in community and society simply for the benefit of themselves and those around them, simply because it is right, full stop! You should fear the expression of your desperately wicked human nature they say, and fear where it will lead! That is the message. You are despicable, immoral and unprincipled without Christianity. If not you, then everyone else, fear them!

On morality without God, here is a wonderful conversation between Dr. Shelly Kagan of Yale and Dr. Willisam Lane Craig.

Who cares about what is true?

One of my recurring themes is the lack of concern about what is true. It doesn’t take long, trawling Facebook for example, to see how true this is. Graphic after graphic make truth claims or tell stories, which, with very little effort, can be determined to be false or at the very least misleading. Yet, if the comments are any indication, few if any of those commenting have taken the time or effort, minimal though it is, to check to see if what was posted it true before piling on with kudos, pats on the back and cheers of assent.

Equally frequent, and predictable, are the reactions to anyone who DOES take the time to question the veracity of the aphorism or story or to post a link or two showing it’s false. Some people deride the debunking by advancing some conspiracy theory regarding suppression of the “truth”, or question the dark and hidden forces that run snopes.com for example and promote the hidden agenda of misinformation of which snopes.com, and most other “hoax” sites, are apparently guilty. More often though, the response is something like, “who cares, I like it”, or “well it COULD be true”, or “who cares, it makes be feel good and is inspirational”. I despair!!

However, inspirational a story may be, if it didn’t happen, then no one did or said or acted in that inspiring and uplifting way. The serendipitous event didn’t actually occur, the incredible irony or confluence of events never actually conspired together. It matters whether it is true or not, at least so it seems to me, but apparently this is just not the case for a vast number of people.They blithely make truth claims and pass on what they have heard or read with little or no regard for whether it is true and make little. They make little or no attempt to determine the facts and reign in their speculation.

Does is not matter what it true? Are people so enthralled by what they want to be true as to not care what IS true? What’s more this carelessness about what is true masquerades as a concern for Truth especially when it involves the BIG questions. In some way I’ve yet to understand, the criteria for “what is true” is even more relaxed when it comes to the BIG questions then it is for the small ones.

Here is a shining example posted to Facebook with approval by Brad Warner.

“I believe that life passes through us, rather than the reverse. We spend our lives becoming what is disposed of in an instant: a match struck over the Atlantic on a dark night. Life is eternal, we aren’t. But that bit of us that is of Life will never perish. It animates whatever comes next. I suspect that when we die, we each receive a print-out of the life we have just finished; and that this in some way determines where our Energies go next. I wonder how Hitler felt when he opened his envelope. It is fairly unlikely that the personality, the memory or the consciousness, survive death; given how much time we spend building and inhabiting them; this is pretty tragic. Although, given the length of eternity, maybe not. The universe (as a fabric of space and time) is probably onion-shaped. There is no more an end or a beginning to it than there is to the horizon, which plays its own part in the myth of the straight line. But we are, as yet, finite creatures, and infinity is as remote from us as Richard Gere is from Cleopatra.” – Robyn Hitchcock

I didn’t know who Robyn Hitchcock was, so I went to Wikipedia.

“Robyn Rowan Hitchcock (born 3 March 1953) is an English singer-songwriter and guitarist. While primarily a vocalist and guitarist, he also plays harmonica, piano and bass guitar.”

That’s basically it although he does seem to also be an artist and cartoonist.

“Hitchcock was born in London, England, son of novelist. He was educated at Winchester College. He writes short stories, paints (often in a whimsical style) and draws in the cartoon-strip mode. Hitchcock’s album covers often make use of his paintings or drawings, and the liner notes sometimes include a short story. His live concerts usually include story-telling, in the form of imaginative and surreal ad-libbed monologues in his lyrical style.”

So, he seems to be imaginative and I suppose one might conclude, thoughtful and reflective about the big question in life. Obviously someone doesn’t have to have a formal education to be intelligent, thoughtful and to give a considered opinion on all sorts of matters.However, to conclude that simply because he is a musician, an artist and creative, he is in some way qualified to make truth claims about BIG questions, I think, is a mistake. Yet, people make that mistake over and over and over.

For some reason because Deepak Chopra has a medical degree he is a “scientist” and must know about Quantum Physics would be another case in point. Just because a minister has a M.Div. degree and has learned theology doesn’t mean she is an expert in Philosophy of MInd would be another example. More close to home, just because Johnny Depp is edgy and quirky and creative and has oodles of money, doesn’t make him an expert on anything in particular or make his pronouncement about anything other than perhaps acting or music significant.

As for Robyn Hitchcock, he makes some significant claims about what is true in this quoted comment. Let’s tease these out.

1. Life passes through us rather than us through life and what we become is disposed of in an instant.

2. On the other hand, though “we” are not eternal, “Life” with a big “L” is and that part of us (whatever that means) IS eternal and somehow is responsible, “animates” what comes next, presumably for the part of us that isn’t really us but yet is us, because is was part of us.

3. Here we get very specific. We, the we that was disposed of, that is not eternal gets a printout of the life we just left, whatever the we is that is still around, at least for the printout and reading part, so must survive after death in some form like that before death at least for a while until the bit that is “Life” or “Energy”, but with capital letters goes on to something else. Yet is it unlikely that the memory and consciousness survive death, so who is reading the printout and how could someone like Hitler care what was in it?

4. If what we were is not eternal, is disposed of, if memory and consciousness don’t survive death what is the “Life” and “Energy” that somehow continue and more one and determine what will happen next? What exactly is it that “happens next”?

5. It’s tragic that memory and consciousness don’t survive death given the actually very brief amount of time we spend “building and inhabiting them”. but then in light of eternity, maybe not. Maybe not what? What does this have to do with eternity and what is the we that “builds and inhabits” memory and consciousness? Is it some homunculous outside of memory and consciousness? Is it the Life and Energy which are really not us, but I guess are us?

6. The universe, the fabric of space and time, is onion shaped and, I presume layered and round and endless and continuous and not linear.

7. We are finite creatures even though part of what we are continues and goes on to what is next, which he never defines.

This is just one example of hopeless pseudo profound drivel that people spout when they address the BIG questions. notice that while he begins with “I believe” which apparently allows him to say virtually ANYTHING without any evidence, argumentation or even an attempt at clarity, he is still making truth claims. In fact any attempt at eliciting any clarity will be met with two gambits.

The first is the “finger pointing at the moon” gambit. Since all of this is so profound and is beyond the realm of reason or discursive thought, clarity is just not possible. Somehow this lack or clarity is considered an further indication of it’s profundity. The second is the shrug and smug gambit. Since he’s not trying to convince anyone and it’s just what he believes, he can make whatever truth claims he likes without any support at all and still smugly smile knowingly implying “one day you just might understand”. In the meantime he’ll continue to spout this sort of drivel as if he is saying something about reality that even attempts to make any sense at all. Like the first gambit, this gambit is also seen as an indication of profound understanding and truth since there is no attempt to convince. “Just go find out for yourself, then you’ll know like I do”.

Small Epiphanes

Image Leaving the Church and more broadly, Christianity, has been a path paved with epiphanies. Realizations would dawn suddenly but  just like the light of day they had grown gradually from dawn to sunrise, from the first defused glow of light gradually increasing until there is a blaze of realization. I would finally see clearly with articulated thought that which had lain below it’s horizon only moments before. After the first blaze of blinding recognition, full daylight would illuminate the landscape of my thinking and that clarity of vision would become the new day.

Such was the case recently when I realized the decree to which I had ceded all the BIG and IMPORTANT questions and questing to religion. There was an un-articulated belief only religion whether traditional, ancient, new age or of other ethnic origin, was the only sort of inquiry that could delve into the depths of life’s most tenaciously held secrets and the deepest desires of the human heart and mind. I had consigned the most significant truths to the a realm beyond evidence and rational argument, essentially to “faith” and subjective personal experience.

It is really a matter of epistemology. How do we know what we know, and can we be comfortable with what we don’t know and perhaps never will be able to know? Can we be comfortable and secure knowing what it is possible to know and declining to force certainty where it is not? Can we live with a partial understanding which, admittedly, may change? In it’s absence do we, like Esau, trade our rational heritage for a mess of pottage just to fill out bellies and quell the haunting hunger of uncertainty.

Every religion of which I am aware relies on “revelation”. If you have been raised in the west in the bosom of Christianity, that revelation takes the form of a book which in turn is the record of the personal revelation given to individuals or groups. That revelation was then supposed written down having been passed from mouth to ear until someone recorded it. So, even in those religions who revelation is enshrined in print, personal revelation based in subjective personal experience is at their heart. Furthermore, even in when the predominant revelation is in print, there is still a significant role for revelation of a more personal, immediate and subjective nature.

For example, there are Pentecostals and other groups that believe God continues to reveal truth to them directly though dreams, visions ad prophecy along with the gift of tongues and “interpretation”. Even among those who eschew these gifts and graces as belonging to the infancy of the Church, there is a recognition of the need for the interpretation and application of texts to the immediate and personal situation and circumstances of the individual and the Church, an interpretation that is supposedly the supernatural, though rather mundane, work of the Holy Spirit. It is believed and taught that without the enlivening power of the Holy Spirit, the text cannot be properly interpreted and applied. Unless one has been “born again”, they are to a great degree blind to the true meaning and interpretation of Scripture. While they are very clear this is not “inspiration” of the same character as that which gave rise to Scripture, it is, nonetheless, a form of revelation. In the evangelical groups of which I was a member in college it was common to say “God showed me” or “God taught me”, when referring to some realization about a Biblical text especially as it applied to someone personal situation. Also, within the Christian tradition there are the mystics who share the epistemology of all forms of mysticism.

In all of these cases, “knowledge of the truth” is ultimately outside the reach of reason, observation and evidence. It lies in a distant land accessible only by personal immediate experience of varying degrees. In this regard Christianity is not alone. This was one of my first epiphanies. Take any religion in the world including those which are often advertised as immune to this sort of bifurcation of truth like Buddhism, especially Zen, and you will they are all the same. To a greater or lesser extent, when it comes to the core truths, knowledge of the truth is a matter of revelation. Simply because such revelation of truth may be open or more open to any individual does not change the fact that it is still a matter of an epistemology of immediate personal, subjective experience.

Buddhism and Daoism are often described as “philosophy” rather than religion. They are described as non-dogmatic with truth being a matter of observation and experience, or experimentation through the methods of the particular practice. This quote from the Kalama Sutta is proudly displayed.

““Now, Kalamas, don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.’ When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness’ — then you should enter & remain in them.”

Brad Warner puts it this way in his book, “Hardcore Zen: punk rock, monster movies & the truth about reality”. This is taken from the back cover of the book.

“QUESTION AUTHORITY. QUESTION SOCIETY. QUESTION REALITY. QUESTION YOURSELF.

Question your conclusions, your judgement, your answers. Question this. If you question everything throughly enough, the truth will eventually hit you upside the head and you will know..But here’s a warning: it won’t be what you imagined. It won’t even be close.”

Sadly, as you read Warner’s books, especially his most recent, “There Is No God and He Is Always with You: A Search for God in Odd Places”, he pulls up short when it comes to his core assertions about reality. Much of what he relates in his books is biographical and includes a great deal of personal experience, some described, some only hinted. However, it is from these personal, subjective and immediate experiences, experiences conveying knowledge which is not, indeed cannot be, mediated by reason and discursive thought, knowledge which, in fact, cannot be adequately conveyed in words or descriptions but must simply be experienced, that he derives his “truth about reality”, a source and truth he ultimately refuses to question.

“You may want to ask me how I can know that experience [the experience on the Flower Bridge] was real and not a hallucination. You may want to challenge me to prove how what I’m saying here about this experience is different from some guy saying how when he was gonr again God told him to hate fags. I understand that. But I’m not really interested in pursuing those kinds of questions. I don’t want to prove to anyone that my experience was real. It’s not necessary or even possible. It won’t make what happened any less real if you disbelieve or any more real if you believe it.” [page 59]

In the course of his book he also becomes quite dogmatic about this truth. He recognizes for him to say something is true must necessarily mean something else is false, that’s just the way it is. Throughout the book he repeatedly takes many and varied people and beliefs to task for being wrong, and at times rather obviously so, based on his own personal, subjective experience. Experience which he refuses to questioned and, when criticized, he retreats to the Zen aphorism that his words and descriptions are only a “finger pointing at the moon” and not the moon itself, so, of course, they are not entirely defensible. When I raised this question in response to a post on his Facebook page, he told me to “go sit for five or six years and then you’ll know”, something to that effect. This is not different than the Christian believer, who when pressed regarding the paradoxical or non-scenically nature of their belief, fall back on the assertion, “I just know”. Further, if you accept Jesus, you can know too! Obviously accepting Jesus is not the same as having a sitting meditation practice, but the result is the same, personal subjective certainty of the truth.

Compare Warner’s approach to the question “Can We Communicate With The Dead”. Based on a personal experience which might easily be explained in terms of the operations of our brain. However, apparently “our consciousness” never dies and so we can encounter dead people. All of this he concludes based on a subjective personal experience, the truth of which he relates with great gravity and conviction. Yet, in his above referenced book, Warner blithely dismisses the experiences, probably equally compelling, of those like Eben Alexander and Colton Burpo who recount how they visited heaven or some afterlife dimension from which they draw equally sweeping cosmic conclusions about reality.

I use Warner only as an example of how even the most epistemology punk can still fall into the morass of subjectivism and dogmatism, and poor epistemology, in an effort to assert the truth of things which cannot be proven and to erase uncertainty around the BIG questions. Question Everything apparently doesn’t mean EVERYTHING! Warner relies on revelation no less than the Christians he criticizes.Warner castigates atheists as well, ironically, for fearing the unknown and trying to erase uncertainty, in this case, uncertainty generated by the truth of religious experiences like his own. Speaking in the context of Sam Harris and the New Atheist “movement”, Warner carps below.

“Many in the atheist camp want to deal with their fear of the unknown and the unknowable by believing in what others have said about them in more recent books. If they believe that all spiritual experience is based on hallucinations or imbalanced brain chemistry, then they have nailed it and it is no longer unknown and, therefore, no longer scary.” [page 119]

So, whether you are talking about rather traditional conservative Christianity, Christian mysticism, Buddhism or Daoism, they each rely on a form of revelation of a mystical sort. Mysticism of this stripe, holds that the only means of coming to a knowledge of the “truth” with a big “T”, is by immediate experience which is always personal and subjective experience. It is a personal and subjective experience which cannot be apprehended by anyone else simply because it is subjective and personal. It cannot be observed or measured or validated in any way other than through you own personal, subjective experience. It cannot even be adequately described or conveyed by words or reason. It is entirely and completely outside that realm of operation. However, it is the ONLY way “truth” with a big “T”, can be pursued and known AND it is a reliable way by which it is to be known.

As a result, mystics like Warner take their own personal, subjective experience and draw great sweeping cosmic conclusions. They believe what they experience maps onto and is a reliable guide to reality. So reliable a guide that it countermands observations, experimentation, reason and evidence. They draw conclusions which themselves open an Pandora’s box of other assertions and conclusions which must also be true and are equality fantastic. William of Ockham is spinning in his grave!

Back to my Epiphany! For years, even in the blooming of skepticism, I had taken ideas like Warner’s and other of the religious for granted without question. Science was for the physical world, but there were elements of reality which did not appertain to the method of science. These, these most important questions could only be apprehended through the methods of religion and the more ancient the better. That was an adjunct of the larger idea, that it was a matter of fact that ancient wisdom trumped modern thought every time. Why believe Nietzsche when you have Lao Tzu. Why listen to Bertand Russell when you have Jesus. Certainly THEY must have more and better things to same than anyone modern.