The Spiritual Life of An Atheist

November 9, 2010

Spiritual Life of an Atheist: A Response to Marilynne Robinson’s Absence of Mind

In her new book, “Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self,” Ms. Robinson expresses more of a critique than an affirmative viewpoint,  although at moments she does hint at several viewpoints she appears to hold: there is a God as understood by at least her Christian tradition; “quantum mind” exists; and human “exceptionalism” invites divine explanation.  Rather than posit–and do the hard work of having to defend–these theses, she merely suggests their truth through her critique of “positivism,” or “reductionist (in the negative sense) materialism,” as exemplified by certain neo-Darwinists, socio-biologists, and evolutionary psychologists.  I have also read widely among these thinkers.  My shelves are lined with books by Dawkins, Dennett, Pinker, and Damasio, several of the main targets of her criticisms.  A warning: if yours are not, you may find Ms. Robinson’s book difficult to follow, since it is substantially more about what’s wrong with what they think than what it is exactly she thinks.

In critiquing these science “popularizers,” Ms. Robinson justly states: “[I]t is surely incumbent upon writers who undertake to shape opinion to resist the temptation to popularize in the negative sense of that word.  Vast and contentious literatures lie behind psychology, anthropology, and sociology.  But the popularizers in these fields now are highly regarded figures whom a nonspecialist might reasonably trust to deal competently with the great subjects their books take on, which include human nature and consciousness, and, with striking frequency, religion.”  Having read many of the authors Ms. Robinson targets, I agree that a frequent weakness in their writing is a too certain (almost ideological) presentation of their preferred explanations as established fact and a failure to recognize the continued debate in their fields about the points they prefer to treat as answered.  When reading these authors, one must be careful not to take their word as “gospel,” although that is decidedly (somewhat ironically) how they tend to present it.  But painting them with the same broad brush is a mistake. For example, Dennett, a neo-Darwinist philosopher, critiques the same socio-biologist Ms. Robinson does, E.O. Wilson.

Ms. Robinson repeatedly bemoans the preclusion of “metaphysical” thought by the modern scientific (which she seems to define as post-Newton) approach.  At the very end of Chapter 2, “The Strange History of Altruism,” she states: “Our conception of the significance of humankind in and for the universe has shrunk to the point that the very idea we ever imagined we might be significant on this scale now seems preposterous.”  Quite true.  But Ms. Robinson’s point seems to be that this fact should not be–that although Copernicus demonstrated over 400 years ago that we are not even the physical focus of our solar system, we should posit ourselves to remain at the teleological center of our vast 13.7 billion-year-old universe. Given the whiffs of “quantum mind,” Ms. Robinson exudes, I would not be surprised if Ms. Robinson is a fan of “biocentrism,” which is more properly denominated “anthropocentrism,” since other complex biological forms such as our beloved best friends, the dog, are not sufficiently cognitively exceptional to justify the universe’s existence by biocentrism’s way of thinking.

Ms. Robinson deigns to grant some “merits in certain circumstances” to positivism’s “exclu[sion] from the model of reality whatever science is (or was) not competent to verify or falsify.”  But she fails to identify which circumstances this positivist exclusion is appropriate for and which not.  I will venture my own opinion–all circumstances external to one’s own most personal sense of one’s self. 

Science is attempting to define that which is situated outside our most personal subjectivity.  In this endeavor, science has even breached the bounds of “the mind,” laying claim to the verifiability of our own self-narratives.  Although Ms. Robinson does not directly address this breach, she clearly disdains it in her dismissal of the neurological explanation of the case of Phineas Gage–the fellow who took a railroad tie through the front of his head in the 1800s and lived to tell about it.  Ms. Robinson suggests that the reported dramatic change in Mr. Gage’s attitude toward the world was due to the ongoing psychological trauma caused by his extensive injury, not the massive physical injury to his brain itself.  And maybe it was.  It is true that the medical technology did not exist in Mr. Gage’s time to properly diagnose his condition.  But Ms. Robinson also cannot disprove that a brain scan today may have indicated massive damage to the part of his brain responsible for control of emotion.  Further evidence of the fundamentally biological nature of Mr. Gage’s new behavioral and attitudinal challenges may have been provided by the failure of modern therapeutic techniques, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, to improve Mr. Gage’s functioning in any measure. 

It would be lovely to think, as Ms. Robinson seems to, that the mind has executive control over its own matter, but it does not–and the evidence for devastatingly physical causes for many cognitive and emotional impairments (Alzheimer’s is just one example) is irrefutable.  So, for example, while a person with Alzheimer’s may attribute their mental decline to any number of causes, a brain scan will reveal its true, and at this time untreatable and intractable, source.

Ms. Robinson spends the entire Chapter 3 on “The Freudian Self,” which is of at best purely historical interest as Freudian theories of human psychology and culture are largely discredited. And I think Ms. Robinson is being generous when she states that Freud rightly claimed the mantle of “scientist” for himself by the prevailing standards of his day.  Neither Freud nor Jung was very “scientific” in their methods–using themselves and their limited client populations as foundations for grand universal theories about human nature.  Ms. Robinson’s interest in Freud is most likely literally academic, as virtually no one outside the academy pays Freud any attention anymore.  So, unless you have some particular interest in understanding Freud in a briefly sketched historical context, skip Chapter 3 altogether.

Last, Ms. Robinson claims for “the religious” an experience that even an avowed atheist like myself has deeply felt: “For the religious, the sense of the soul may have as a final redoubt, not as argument but as experience, that haunting I who wakes us in the night wondering where time has gone, the I we waken to, sharply aware that we have been unfaithful to ourselves, that a life lived otherwise would have acknowledged a yearning more our own than any of the daylit motives whose behests we answer to so diligently.”  The poetic beauty of Ms. Robinson’s expression of individual yearning cannot be denied and should not be devalued, despite her inexplicable attribution to it of “religious” significance, as if atheist materialists such as myself are not haunted by such yearnings to live more authentically than our daily imperatives allow.

To state that I am an atheist materialist does not mean that I eschew all sense of the “spiritual.”  As I have explained in my blog, awe and aspiration are not the exclusive property of believers.  In response to Ms. Robinson, to that list it appears I should add “longing” as well.

You can watch Ms. Robinson discuss her book with Jon Stewart at http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/thu-july-8-2010/marilynne-robinson.

copyright 2010 S. Anne Johnson

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9 Comments »

  1. Thank you for the insightful analysis. Amen on your point of co-opting experiences we all have as being “religious”.

    Comment by Brad Garrison — November 10, 2010 @ 1:45 pm | Reply

  2. I just stumbled upon this, so apologies for commenting two years after the fact. I am a big fan of Marilynne Robinson’s novels and recently watched her Terry Lectures at Yale, which the book you reviewed was based on. I think, first of all, that your conclusion mischaracterizes what she was saying. She did not mean that only religious people can have the sort of experience she described. She means that that experience IS religion. Those questions of why we are here and what we should do now that we are here form the basis of pretty much every religious tradition. They are questions that science is completely unequipped to answer, because they are essentially normative rather than descriptive.. Like many of the new atheists, you get the cause and effect backwards. Religion, to the extent that we can isolate it from other interconnected institutions, is an attempt by human beings to grapple with real questions about the source, meaning, and purpose of life.

    Second, there is a basic problem with your take on positivism. You say that it should be applied in “all circumstances external to one’s own most personal sense of one’s self.” The problem is that people communicate with each other. Our personal sense of self is deeply influenced by the culture around us, including its religious, philosophical, and artistic traditions. Directly or indirectly, we tell each other about our own most personal senses of self, as well as our senses of our communities and of the world as a whole. Oftentimes, we do this by telling stories, and those stories form the basis of our culture. As Robinson says, the conscious human mind engages outwardly and imaginatively with the world around it, and the results are the cultural institutions we all know well: art, philosophy, politics, formal education, religion, the family unit, work, and even language. These institutions are vastly different depending on where you are and the particular minds you are dealing with. Positivists minimize the importance of consciousness, or even dismiss it as an illusion. Of course, since science itself (or at least humans’ understanding of it) is a product of the conscious mind, positivism can easily result in the tail wagging the dog. Robinson’s overall point, I think, is that the conscious mind should be the starting point when trying to understand anything humans have done beyond our basic biological needs.

    Comment by Aaron — May 2, 2013 @ 5:00 pm | Reply

    • Thank you for your comment, Aaron. I think existential questions are more properly considered philosophical than religious. And existential states of mind are not all religious in nature. I also think existential questions are best approached from a base of empirical knowledge, not belief or faith. Human consciousness is limited and often a faulty perceiver of reality. Our understanding of all phenomena (internal and external) needs to be questioned and tested. I agree that science in itself cannot answer philosophical questions–but it provides the questioned and tested understanding of reality necessary for an authentic philosophical inquiry. To the extent religion does not start with facts about existence, it starts off on the completely wrong foot for understanding the human place in existence. From my perspective, human culture in itself is not to be exalted. It varies over time and place. And some cultures produce better outcomes than others. I’m not a “new atheist”. I’ve been an atheist since I was 11 years old. There was no movement back then. Religious belief simply does not match up with reality. But some of the generous and loving acts it inspires are beautiful to behold. I think the challenge for atheists is to demonstrate that such inspired acts are possible without religious belief.

      Comment by SAJohnson — May 11, 2013 @ 10:42 am | Reply

      • I did not mean to imply that you are a new atheist. But just to clarify, the new atheists are those who approach the issues of God/religion/theism from a scientific perspective, while the “old” atheists of the 19th Century approached them from a more philosophical perspective. I have a lot more respect for the latter, because they at least confronted religion as it actually is. Using science to disprove religion is a complete non-sequitor, like using architecture to disprove communism. I have read a few of the takedowns (Eagleton, Hedges, etc.) of new atheism, and I found Robinson’s arguments to be both the most rigorous and the ones that came closest to the heart of the matter. She correctly points out that those who pit science against religion almost always seem to know very little about both science and religion. They accept the most literal, reductionist, and childish interpretations of religion, and proceed to knock down those strawmen. And they practice what Robinson calls parascience, where science is divorced from its context and from its ever-changing nature, and exalted in a way that resembles religious fundamentalism.

        I agree that not all existential questions are religious in nature, but I do think religion is rooted in those questions and their proposed answers. So are art and philosophy. The unreliability of human consciousness cuts both ways. Science is an attempt by conscious humans to describe the literal, mechanical workings of the universe. Just like art or religion, it is filtered through human minds and therefore subject to all kinds of implicit and explicit biases. Scientists cannot objectively analyze humanity, any more than an individual can objectively analyze himself. Scientific inquiry does not happen in a vacuum, and scientific assumptions have always been profoundly shaped by the political, social, and economic trends of the times. We will never know, for example, just how much science has been shaped by Western religious traditions, with their emphasis on free will and free inquiry. There are all kinds of secular ideas and assumptions that originated within religious thought. Even more importantly, every thought we have has to be filtered through our language capabilities in order to be expressed to others, and a great deal of meaning is always lost in that process. Like music, religion expresses ideas and emotions that cannot be fully articulated in words. God is not a creature but an experience, and like most profound experiences, is almost impossible to explain with language.

        There is a large realm of inquiry that relies neither on empirical facts nor blind faith. To me, this is where most of the interesting stuff in life takes place. It is where abstract reasoning comes in. Just because there is no absolute right or wrong answer doesn’t mean that some answers aren’t more right or wrong than others. And as Eagleton argues, while reason is a necessity, it does not take us all the way to where we need to go. One of the conceits of art and religion is that, to put it bluntly, sometimes the best way to get at the truth of something is by making stuff up, or by making a leap of faith. Facts and truth are not the same thing, nor are descriptions and explanations. Religion and art do not, I agree, “match up” with reality in a literal sense. They don’t try to provide literal descriptions of physical reality. Instead, they try to get at what is going on beneath the surface of that reality, and what it all means. Science is the text, while religion is the subtext. Even if we somehow knew every possible literal fact about the universe, we would not be much closer to understanding how to live in this world. This is the is/ought, or descriptive/normative, distinction.

        Religion deals with theological “realities” like power, beauty, love, joy, despair, envy, alienation, and self-dispossession. God is real in the same sense that those concepts are real. Our struggles to understand and deal with those phenomena have remained remarkably constant, even as science and technology have profoundly transformed our daily lives in other ways. People find creative, imaginative ways to express our understanding of these realities. The Western religions use the concept of “God” (meaning “I am”) as a stand-in for the mystery of human consciousness. Just the fact that the universe seems to be intelligible to us at all is enough to inspire and express a sense of awe. Again, God is the effect, not the cause.

        I don’t accept the distinction between the spiritual and the material. Religion is not about finding out what’s “out there,” but rather about seeing clearly what is right in front of us. It has always been interconnected with other activities, such as the family, community, food production, politics, art, work, etc. Modern attempts to isolate and compartmentalize these institutions are not sustainable, and are often disastrous. I don’t think culture should be either exalted or vilified. Our ideas about what is right or wrong, good or bad, come from our culture. And I’m not sure what you mean by good outcomes. Some people (especially scientists) think that Western secular, liberal culture is quickly destroying the earth’s environment and therefore the human race. It is ostensibly doing so through utilization of scientific and technological “advances.” If that is the case, then this outcome would seem to indicate some pretty major cultural flaws.

        Comment by Aaron — May 15, 2013 @ 1:40 pm

      • I don’t think “religious” and “spiritual” are synonyms. And a much of what you discuss as “religious,” I would characterize as “spiritual”. I think I grasp your statement of “God as experience.” I have experienced moments of mindfulness, grace, profound inspiration, which I believe are very similar to what a religious person might describe as feeling God’s presence. I think people use the word “God” to signify a lot of different, sometimes contradictory, beliefs. I don’t find “God” a useful concept. All sound and fury, signifying nothing to my ears.

        I don’t understand at all why “power, beauty, love, joy, despair, envy, alienation, and self-dispossession” are “theological” realities. They all exist quite independent of theology; some even outside human experience, i.e., in the lives of other animals.

        I get that religion is quite a lot to you. But it is nothing to me other than a social/cultural/historical phenomenon. And yet I still have profound spiritual states of being. This is my point–Robinson makes too much of religion. All states of mind, except belief in God, are open to religious and non-religious people alike. When I realized I didn’t believe in God (I don’t say “stopped believing” because I don’t think I ever did believe), I didn’t lose my capacity for generosity, compassion, sense of wonder or beauty, love of music and nature, curiosity. Religion is necessary for none of these things.

        I don’t need religion, but I do need science, in particular medical science. And I do enjoy knowing, as best we can, facts about our universe, the evolution of life on our planet, and the history of our own species’ course. Science also does tell us a lot about animal, including human, consciousness. As for a sense of the “mysterious,” I do think science debunks that.

        Science and the technologies it produces are tools. We have used them to trash our planet, and we probably must use them to save any semblance of our eco-system as we know it.

        The New Atheists do spend a lot of their breath arguing against God. This I do not do. God is simply irrelevant to me.

        Comment by SAJohnson — May 15, 2013 @ 4:03 pm

  3. It seems like the hang-up is over the word “God.” Belief or non-belief in God should be the end point, not the starting point, in any discussion or self-inquiry about religion. In order to decide that you did not believe in God, you must have had some concept of God to reject. Whether a person believes in God will always turn on what they think God is. I know that when I was 11 years old, my conception of God was absurdly literal and cartoonish. The phrase “I believe in God” is very different from “I believe God exists.” The former is performative, while the latter is propositional. Atheists and fundamentalists tend to conflate the two. If God is a man with a beard who lives in the sky and passes judgment on people, then I too am an atheist. As I said before, I don’t think language comes anywhere close to fully explaining religion. Robinson talks a lot about the importance of reading primary texts (preferably in their original language) in order to understand the authors’ points. As someone who is bilingual, I know that learning a second language profoundly changed and informed my views on religion (and everything else). I also dislike the word “religion,” because I think it comes from a flawed Enlightenment idea that people’s beliefs can be isolated from their everyday actions, and that we can create some sort of scientific taxonomy of their beliefs. Religious experiences and practices vary enormously throughout the world and throughout history. The only definition of religion I can come up with that would encompass all of them would be something like: “The things human beings do.” But I will stick with the word religion just because I can’t come up with anything better. As it is, I have been both an atheist and an agnostic for long periods of my life. By most definitions (although not my own), I am probably an atheist now. Organized religion is something I can take or leave, depending on the day. Almost everything I wrote about religion I could just as easily write about literature, cinema, or music, all of which are much more important to me than religion. My issue with the new atheists is that they promote a hateful, destructive political ideology, masquerading as objective science. I admire Robinson for taking them on and trying to change the terms of the debate.

    I don’t think the phenomena I listed are all exclusively theological, but you could fill many libraries with all the theological texts that have been written about them. Some of them originated as religious or theological concepts and were later co-opted by secular culture. That is certainly true of grace, which you mention. It is also true of music and other art forms. The concept of “secular art” is a relatively recent construct. I appreciate your acknowledgment that science and technology are just tools, to be used for good or bad. That’s something I wish more scientists (and new atheists) would accept. Science helps us further the goals and values that we already have, so the question remains what those goals and values should be. Religion is an attempt to answer that question. One of Robinson’s main points was that parascience holds up science as something more than a tool. By the way, if science has debunked everything that was mysterious, that must mean every scientist has retired, since there’s nothing else to look into. Robinson acknowledged that she has enormous respect for the “old” atheists, who were usually well-versed in philosophy and theology, so that they actually knew what it was they were rejecting. Part of the problem is that most religions first developed in the context of small, agrarian communities. They imaginatively expressed those communities’ feelings about what gave them life and how everything they did was interconnected. Ideas that were self-evident to them (and still are in some parts of the world) might make little sense in modern, industrial society. This is especially true in a political/economic culture that tends to privatize everything, so that communal concepts practically don’t exist.

    I personally don’t like to separate people into religious and non-religious. I actually think you make way too much of this distinction. It’s a very Western, liberal tendency to put so much emphasis on the individual rather than the community, as if we rationally select our beliefs from a grab-bag of choices. In reality, we have very little control over how much influence religion has on us. And everyone believes in something. Many of the atheists I know have an almost fundamentalist devotion to science, liberal democracy, free-market economics, and the idea of human progress. Humans are not robots. We all have our own underlying ideology and assumptions, even if we are unaware of them. Saying that God/religion signifies nothing, or is irrelevant to you, is like saying that politics is irrelevant, or advertising is irrelevant. Even if you don’t take an interest in them, they will take an interest in you. I know people who call themselves Christians and violate every tenet of the Bible. And as you mention, there are plenty of self-proclaimed atheists who live lives that are consistent with Christian teachings. Religion is not something we need or don’t need. It is just there, and will be for as long as human beings remain self-aware. It will be there even if we pretend it isn’t. Incidentally, Marilynne Robinson’s amazing novels are some of the best modern examples of the remarkable achievements of Christian culture and thinking. And yes, religion is a social/cultural/historical phenomenon. So is everything else that human beings do.

    I have never had much use for the concept of spirituality. It seems like a watered-down, New Agey, individualistic, and de-politicized version of religion. It’s a way for people to embrace all the “easy” stuff about religion but none of the hard stuff. People want to go about their daily lives in conformity with whatever the secular political and social norms of the day are, but then also have a “spiritual” side to their lives, which they can practice behind closed doors when they get home at night. It is a phenomenon peculiar to neoliberal politics and economics, and implicitly reinforces those institutions. Religion, on the other hand, tends to stress integration of beliefs and actions, and, at least in the case of Christianity, can require enormous self-sacrifice (including in opposition to oppressive political arrangements). Religion devotion, like life itself, is almost unbearably difficult. It’s not about walking in a field under a blue sky, listening to birds singing. It’s about being willing to completely give yourself away, in the name of love and justice. Herbert McCabe famously said that the central tenet of Christianity is this: “If you don’t love, you’re dead, and if you do love, they’ll kill you.” I don’t know about you, but I was not capable of understanding that statement when I was 11 years old. The basic symbol of Christianity is a political criminal tortured to death by the state and hanging from a cross. A person will either accept that image as revealing a fundamental truth of human history, or they won’t, but there’s absolutely no way to tests its truth scientifically.

    I came back to Christianity in recent years not because of some sort of religious or spiritual experience, but because I realized that my values are remarkably consistent with Christian teachings, and that that is probably not a coincidence. My thinking on this was largely shaped by books and music that are ostensibly secular. I grew up in a largely Christian society, and it would be naive to pretend like that doesn’t impact everything I think, say, and do. I am a Christian in the same sense that I am an American, or a member of my family. I wholeheartedly agree with this Wendell Berry quote: “…there are an enormous number of people—and I am one of them—whose native religion, for better or worse, is Christianity. We were born to it; we began to learn about it before we became conscious; it is, whatever we think of it, an intimate belonging of our being; it informs our consciousness, our language, and our dreams. We can turn away from it or against it, but that will only bind us tightly to a reduced version of it. A better possibility is that this, out native religion, should survive and renew itself so that it may become as largely and truly instructive as we need it to be. On such a survival and renewal of the Christian religion may depend the survival of the Creation that is its subject.”

    Comment by Aaron — May 17, 2013 @ 2:09 pm | Reply

    • Aaron, I appreciate your respectful engagement, but we may simply have to agree to disagree at some point.

      I do not believe God exists. I do not believe there is any intentional, purposive, or teleological force underlying existence. I do not believe human beings have some special metaphysical place in existence.

      Religion would encompass all human experience if it were as broad as “The things human beings do.” Today, very little of what human beings do relates to religion.

      It is true that pre-Enlightenment most concepts and human cultural expression were understood in religious terms. That does not make the underlying human experience “religious.” It just means that humans previously filtered their experiences through a “religious” lens. Post-Enlightenment,we have been able to dispense with this lens and see existence more clearly as it is.

      Religion is an attempt to answer what humans should aspire to. It is not the only attempt. Secular philosophy, art, music, and literature also attempt this. Religion is not necessary, or even any longer helpful in my book, for this inquiry.

      Science has not answered all factual questions about existence, but it has dispelled “magic” and “mystery.”

      I don’t know that “everyone believes in something.” But even if, the nature of the something and the belief matter a great deal.

      A non-existent God cannot take an interest in me.

      Religious things we don’t need include: creationism/intelligent design, prayer as medical treatment, jihad, unreasoning moral condemnation.

      A “spiritual” practice left behind closed doors and not integrated into one’s actions is a pretty impoverished spiritual practice.

      Christ is a compelling mythical figure, no doubt. (One among many.) Historical verification of what really happened in a fundamentally pre-literate period is difficult. Science has demonstrated that no “God” as depicted in the Bible exists. That’s not how the Earth, never mind the Universe, was created; that’s no how humans and animals came to be; people can’t walk on water or rise from a state of actual death, etc., etc.

      I am definitely not a Christian, although I am most decidedly an American and a member of my family. In no way do I believe the survival of our species and the ecosystem that sustains us depend on the survival and renewal of Christianity or any other religion. I think it depends on people just reading the daily paper and realizing we are destroying the environment we are adapted to.

      Comment by SAJohnson — May 17, 2013 @ 6:09 pm | Reply

      • It’s fine if we agree to disagree. I originally just wanted to defend one of my favorite authors from what I feel was a specious criticism. It is your blog, so if you want to keep going I am happy to. Otherwise this will be my last response. I do respect your perspective, particularly your resistance to anthropocentrism and seeming advocacy of animal rights. I see now, based on your responses, that you are basically a positivist. This surprises me, because I thought positivism had been debunked over a century ago. Your level of certainty makes me uneasy. I am not that certain about ANYTHING, let alone about the fundamental questions of existence. I could never be so dismissive toward something that has informed and touched billions of people, throughout history. Instead, I try to understand it.

        I am also surprised that someone who publishes a blog about atheism and spirituality is not more interested in and engaged with theology. I am disappointed that you fall into the literalistic trap of trying to disprove religion with science. Science cannot prove or disprove a normative, abstract idea. That is a dead end, and there is a much stronger case against God/religion to be made, but I won’t dwell on it anymore. Some of your arguments could be easily shot down by a first-year theology student (atheist or believer). It is insane to interpret literally a book of liturgy that was written thousands of years ago and translated countless times. But believing in the implications of the stories in the book is a whole different matter.

        There are, believe it or not, many atheists who are harshly critical of the Dawkins/Harris/Dennett brand of atheism. Just as there are many Christians who fight against Christian fundamentalism. I don’t know anyone besides some really scary fundamentalists who interprets the Bible as literally as you seem to. The image of God that you propose and reject (which Eagleton jokingly calls the “Yeti theory of God”) is one that mainstream Christian theologians and biblical scholars have rejected for centuries. It would be heresy for a Christian to believe in that God. I doubt reading theology, biblical criticism, or religious philosophy would change your mind about anything, but I do think it would inform and improve your blog. At the very least, I would recommend William James’ works on pragmatism and radical empiricism, because he says much of what I am trying to say (and Robinson says), only more clearly and articulately.

        I can’t believe I even have to say this: The stories in the Bible are metaphors. They are mythologized versions of things that really happened, and some things that didn’t (science, particularly archaeology, has helped us distinguish between the two). They hold up a mirror to the culture that created them and the cultures that have been influenced by them. That’s what all art does. Liturgy is not history. I don’t know what it means for a metaphor to exist or not exist. The Bible is one of countless books that have changed my life and shaped the way I think. Do you refuse to read Shakespeare because Hamlet never really existed?

        I have found that Christian theology provides a useful lens through which to look at the world. Particularly when it comes to understanding and resisting power, which is sort of my life’s mission. I would have had no way of knowing that had I not, with an open mind, started reading theology and conversing with people who are well-versed in it. There are countless ideas/doctrines/propositions that I have only encountered in Christian theology, or that originated in that realm, and that I find unbelievably profound, informative, and, most importantly, true. I also admire the specific type of curiosity and humility that tends to permeate theological works.

        Your interpretation of the Enlightenment is both ethnocentric and ahistorical. Ideas don’t just come out of nowhere. They build on ideas that came before. When we dispense with one lens we replace it with another. The worldview of many Western, post-Enlightenment thinkers has largely been filtered through a liberal humanist lens, which is objectively no more “real” than Christianity (a type of tragic humanism). Apparently, the lens of positivism is back in vogue as well. I say, the more lenses the better. If we could somehow look through every possible lens, we would arrive at something close to the truth.

        My point was that “religion” cannot be isolated from the things religious people and cultures do. Their political structures, their artistic achievements, their advances in science, technology, and medicine, etc. An honest critique of religion (and there are many) would incorporate all of this.

        While my definition of religion is probably too broad, yours is WAY too narrow. It would encompass, at most, the fundamentalist sects of the Western religions.

        Why the universe exists and why we are here will always be a mystery. Science has not dispelled that mystery, nor has it ever tried to.

        Those “religious things we don’t need” are better understood as political things we don’t need. People often hide behind religion (or atheism) in order to promote their political ideology.

        One of a million examples of how religion influences all of us: According to intellectual historians, the Western religions were instrumental in introducing the concept of free will to the world. It eventually led to Enlightenment concepts of political freedom, individual liberty, God-given rights, etc. Those principles formed the basis of our Declaration of Independence and Constitution. You and I, as Americans, probably now take those principles for granted, and they have been disseminated around the world. They have also helped pave the way for free scientific inquiry. Our concept of the individual, and therefore of self, has been shaped in part by Western religious thought. Ideas are complicated, non-linear things.

        Travel to Israel, then Saudi Arabia, then Madagascar, then Thailand, then Mexico, then back to the US, and try to say with a straight face that religion has very little influence on the things people do. If the Pilgrims who landed in Plymouth 400 years ago had been, say, Hindus rather than Calvinists, is there any doubt that our country would be unrecognizably different today?

        I didn’t choose my country, my family, or my religious tradition. If I had been born into a different family, a different country, or a different religion, I know I would be a completely different person now. If I wanted to, I could spend the rest of my life trying to remove the vestiges of all three from who I am, but I would fail miserably. I think it’s a cop-out to reject religion but embrace the values that underpin it. Atheists like Nietzsche understood this, and so rejected the values as well.

        The proposition that the earth will be saved by people reading the newspaper is one of the most magical, irrational ideas I’ve ever heard. Facts alone can inspire a whole array of responses, both good and bad, depending on the system of morality they occur under. Christianity has a great deal to say about humans’ humble place in Creation and the sinfulness of destroying that Creation. From an atheist’s perspective, why should I care if I am destroying the environment? If it is in my interest to do so, and I am going to die long before I see any negative consequences, why would I stop? At best, I should be indifferent, no? Along those same lines, why does anything I do matter?

        Atheists have a weird obsession with the miracles in the Bible, much moreso than Christians do. There is nothing that happens in the Bible that is more miraculous to me than things I see every day with my own eyes. “The miracle is not to walk on water but on the earth.” -Thich Nhat Hanh

        Comment by Aaron — May 19, 2013 @ 2:03 pm

      • Obviously I don’t interpret the Bible literally. There are millions of Christian fundamentalists in this country who interpret the Bible quite literally, including teaching their children Genesis as “science” and attempting to force that teaching into public schools. This is not an exaggeration. Fundamentalist religion is religion and its harm is expressed both personally and politically. Dismissing the problems presented by religious fundamentalism as “political” not “religious” is a dodge.

        Yes, not all religious belief is fundamentalist. The Catholic Church, even with its many strange and disturbing doctrines, has physicists within its clergy. And liberal Christian theology has to some significant extent accommodated scientific knowledge. Most scientists are however atheists.

        Science is working on answering the important existential questions–how the Universe and life on our planet came into existence. “Why the Universe exists and why we are here will always be a mystery.” Indeed. Because they are meaningless questions that assume some intention or purpose behind existence. Most of existence doesn’t have intent. Quarks and electrons and dark energy, elements and molecules, black holes and stars and rocks and rivers. None of these things have intent. We and our fellow animals have intent. We make a categorical mistake when we assume this intent exists more broadly, underlying everything. No intent behind the Big Bang, no why. No intent behind the emergence of RNA, no why. Just how.

        I abide by compassion, generosity, integrity, ecological sustainability, peace and security. Religion has no monopoly on these values. I have not “copped out” by embracing these values at the same time I reject all religions. These values are self-evidently beneficial to human well-being and have been arrived at and embraced by secular philosophy. Also, don’t be condescending. I have traveled the world, and outside of countries run by religious fundamentalists, it is quite possible to live a rich, completely irreligious life globally. Except for clergy, most of what we do in life–keep a roof over our heads, food in our mouths, have fun–has no relationship to religion. The marketplace is secular.

        As long as you keep your belief out of my personal life, schools and government and don’t physically harm someone (including your own children), I don’t care what you believe.

        Comment by SAJohnson — May 19, 2013 @ 4:29 pm


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