Monday, November 23, 2009

The Shadow Line: Introducing Secular Ideology

“There are invisible ways of conveyance by which some great thing doth touch our souls, and by which we tend to it. Do you not feel yourself drawn by the expectation and desire of some Great Thing?” –Thomas Traherne

“…All my moral and intellectual being is penetrated by an invincible conviction that whatever falls under the dominion of our senses must be in nature and, however exceptional, cannot differ in its essence from all the other effects of the visible and tangible world of which we are a self-conscious part.” –Joseph Conrad


As a practice, religious skepticism and criticism is perfectly okay. In fact, like Thomas Jefferson, I too find it necessary if freedom of speech and the freedom of religion are to thrive. Religious intolerance, along with racial, social, cultural, and sexual intolerance, on the other hand, is not okay. I do not feel, nor would I ever feel, that all religions should be equally tolerated just as all labels of wine should not be equally tolerated.

Everybody knows that there are always good bottles and bad bottles of wine out there, and to try and preemptively neutralize, reconcile, or make the worst ones good via the charade of make-believing them to be pleasant like the others is inexcusable behavior. Let alone saying that we should respect a bad bottle whenever we should encounter it and just grit our teeth and stomach it, just gulp it down, ignoring its bitterness knowing it is a terrible thing, lest we be afraid to disturb the sensitivities of the institution of wine lovers. Thus we are left with only one option and just smile and endure something we know to be dreadful and poisonous in undue silence. However courteous it may seem, it’s in fact simply bending over backwards. To think one can go on selling such bad medicine without justification and without comment, while knowing its ill effects is irresponsible.

If the wine has gone rotten or has been contaminated by an internal element, such as being spoiled by contact with the cork, then a reasonable wine tester will not hesitate to say as much. To shelter all wine from criticism would mean there could never be a genuinely good wine worth emulating and reproducing or aspiring to since we’d be forced to accept the bad equally alongside the good without comment. For years people of all walks of life have been forced to gulp down the bad along with the good of religion, and nobody has been allowed to scrutinize this practice of make-believing it all to be wonderful simply because it is religion and thereby should be esteemed no matter the cost. Enough is enough, and I feel it’s more than necessary to admit that there is a large majority of the populace that can no longer stomach religion or religious belief, we have had our fill, we’re sick of it. What’s more we’re sick of being force fed it nonstop. And if you ask me, this is part of the reason why secularism is the world’s fastest growing ideological movement.

What follows then is an examination of why I think human secularism is superior to religious belief and why religion, although still prevalent, no longer offers us the sort of answers we need to live a happy and good life, and furthermore, is not the best explanation for the natural world we do live in.

Addressing the Sacred “Immaterial” and On Materialism

The materialist argument versus the theory that there is more to life than what meets the eye has been at the forefront of the modern secular and religious debate. Religious critics often attack modern atheism, and so too the secular world, as being overtly materialistic. Many theologians and faith dealers have offered up the idea that the secular argument doesn’t offer anything more than empty or misguided beliefs, that it’s all the same old hollowed out rant, that the secular mind is brushing aside the great unseen wonders or possibilities of the universe, and because of our innate desire to uphold a materialistic world view we cannot possibly comprehend something as complex as the supernatural, the spiritual, or the unseen. But I would suggest that the religious are incorrectly imputing values into a natural universe which exhibits no values in its own operation or design. This mistake says to me that most theists are mistaken about the natural workings of the universe when they posit a God hypothesis in lieu of the relevant empirical data. The historian and humanist philosopher Richard Carrier, author of Sense of Goodness Without God, has stated as much, observing:

Given the lack of any clear evidence for God, and the fact that (apart from what humans do) everything we’ve seen has been caused by immutable natural elements and forces, we should sooner infer that immutable natural elements and forces are behind it all… A Christian might still balk and ask, “Well, what other universe could God have made?” The answer is easy: the very universe early Christians like Paul actually believed they lived in… A universe governed by God’s law, not a thoroughly amoral physics.

Atheists may or may not be strict materialists, but even if we were strict materialists, on average this doesn’t mean we would be indifferent to the immaterial substance of love, beauty, justice, joy, freedom and liberty, and even the transcendental elements of spiritual experience. And no amount of unjustifiable moralizing will convince us that materialism is wholly sinful or that materialists are somehow bad people. The stereotype I find is a stubborn one, because it follows that since atheists look at the world through irreligious eyes nonbelievers are prone to skepticism. The common opinion among the faithful is that we hardened atheists have inferior imaginations, and are deficient and embittered because we have either rejected or turned away from the great spiritual grace of God, and because our logic is cold and methodical, unfeeling, and anchored to reality we are somehow lacking, deficient, or void of any moral value. However, this notion is entirely a false one. Our trusted Philosopher of many insights Dan Dennett, reflects:

I have come to accept that this alignment of moral goodness with “spirituality” and moral evil with “materialism” is just a frustrating fact of life, so deeply rooted in our contemporary conceptual scheme that it amounts to a prevailing wind against which materialistic science has to strain. We materialists are the bad guys, and those who believe in anything supernatural, however goofy and gullible the particular belief, have at least this much going for them: they’re “on the side of the angels.”

Recently, when I heard the American Rabbi David Wolpe, author of Why Faith Matters, speak out against materialism I noticed that he had bought into the stereotype which Dennett has so eloquently pointed out. Unlike Dennett however, I not only find such a stereotype merely frustrating but dreadfully improper also—and I have less patience for those who shamelessly advertise the stereotype regardless of whether or not it is true. Sure, there is always a bit of truth behind every stereotype, but the very nature of stereotypes is that they can be entirely misleading.

One may suggest that materialistic things all benefit us in the natural world and so we may esteem them according to their proportionate value and positive effect on our lives. PZ Myers, a biologist at the University of Minnesota has said as much, relaying:

The “New Atheist” approach is firmly grounded in methodological naturalism; it’s an extremely pragmatic operational approach to epistemology that leads us to reject religious claims. None of us make an absolute declaration of the impossibility of the existence of a deity, either… One strand of this view is simple empiricism. Science and reason give us antibiotics, microwave ovens, sanitation, lasers, and rocketships to the moon. What has religion done for us lately? We have become accustomed to objective measures of success, where we can explicitly see that a particular strategy for decision-making and the generation of knowledge has concrete results. I'm sorry, but faith seems to produce mainly wrong answers, and in comparison, it flops badly.

Have those who think like rabbi Wolpe stopped to consider that this, perhaps, might be why we value anything in our lives at all? Precisely because they do matter to us in the natural sense? To better illustrate the weakness of the anti-materialist argument I may choose to ask the question: how is it that I love my wife if I am merely a cold blooded materialist? How could I possibly admire her intellect and her charm, respect her opinion, how could I put values on her kindness or her patience of understanding? According to Wolpe’s logic, if I were a materialistic thinking atheist then shouldn’t I only be preoccupied with my wife’s stunning looks and hot rockin’ body and my biological urge to mate with her? I would have to forfeit any genuine love and appreciation for her intrinsic worth by callously caring only about her physical features by such superficial stipulations.

But then this would beg the question, why does the rabbi love his wife? Does he not love her beauty, her mind, and her carrying nature? Of course he does, he would be insensitive not to. This, however, is admitting that he values his wife for materialistic reasons. We can say with confidence that he admires her physical beauty which is only skin deep either aesthetically, or else by an attraction to her aura, a consequence of his biological signaling corresponding to her pheromones. Her beautiful mind is merely the brain organ performing its function (psyche), and her nurturing kindness and love (eros), another biological motherly attribute, certainly benefits the rabbi and his family in the real world and can be appreciated for all of its subtleties. But by this realization, is rabbi Wolpe ready to admit that he too is an ardent materialist? If not, then it is certainly unfair to peg all atheists to the stereotype that they are all unyielding materialists with the connotation that it is somehow negative. In his article, Professor Myers goes on to add a quick defense by addressing this common complaint, asserting:

Now, now, I can hear the defenders of religion begin to grumble, there's more to life than merely material products like microwave ovens—there's contentment and contemplation and a sort of subjective psychology of ritual and community and all that sort of thing. Sure. Fine. Then stick to it, and stop pretending that religion ought to be a determinant of public policy, that it can inform us about the nature of our existence, or that it provides a good guide to public morality.

Myers, like many rational nonbelievers, is growing tired of being mislabeled, undervalued, and treated according to a superficial stereotype which has no authentic basis in reality. Materialism isn’t a deficiency, materialism doesn’t denote a lack of moral character, and materialists aren’t unfeeling, insensitive, bitter atheists who have nothing better to do than rail against religion. Materialism, or the consideration of material things, is just a consequence which arises from living in a natural material world. The causes and effects of which tether us to a tangible, temporal world rather than a strictly spiritual, corporeal one. Even those who believe we have a spirit or a soul can surely agree to the fact that this is only one part of who we are. Indeed, we are affected more by what is actually there, by what is seen, than by what is unseen. This is why when someone yells “Duck!” we best get down. We don’t stand around assuming our ‘spiritual’ selves will remain perfectly unmarred by whatever material danger is headed our way. Material things matter because we must interact with them all the time—continuously.

Whereas the natural world and material things matter, precisely because we are hitherto bound to the cause and effects of a physical world, the same cannot be said of spiritual matters. Devoting oneself entirely to a spiritual ideal is unwise. Nobody prays or meditates all the time twenty-four seven, eventually a person must eat, and then it comes down to survival and the concern over where your next meal is coming from. Even Buddhist and Zen monks must come down off their mountain now and again and eat as not to totally wither away into non-existence. Clearly, spiritual things are ethereal and may or may not profoundly affect a person. Certainly the more inscrutable something is the harder it is to discern as a genuine spiritual experience or whether something else is at work. But the real physical world cannot be ignored. Atheists, in my experience, just take more time to understand it better, that’s all.

And this is where science comes in, because it is necessary for revealing the truths of nature, and because it provides us with answers proportionate to the questions asked with the right amount of reciprocity. Religious questions, on the other hand, are often vaguely stated, open ended, reveal little to nothing that wasn’t already obvious, and is left up to the individual’s personal or subjective interpretation of events, causing great discrepancy in belief about things, without ever really offering any plausible answers in return. Those prone to religious thoughts will settle for any old superstitious supposition as well as poorly derived faith based conclusions, but the lingering question remains, what if there is a real physical scientific explanation for a religious question?

What if science is truly able to provide deeper insights and give trustworthy answers for our biggest and most pressing questions? What good is the supposition if we have real empirical evidence for why something is the way it is or functions the way it does? What if science could answer virtually beyond a reason of a doubt why we exist at all by informing that the big bang singularity happened as described by modern Physicists and that the universe instantly came into being and continued to steadily expand and cool over the course of 13.7 billion years and not the supposed six or seven days as incorrectly stated by an old religious book? What if our medical knowledge improved so vastly that witchdoctors, shamans, and faith healers vital to religious institutions were put out of a profession almost entirely by the tested benefits of modern medicine? What if we had molecular, biological, and genetic evidence which showed our common ancestry and allowed us to glimpse natural selection at work by means of highly detailed and evidence backed timeline? What if this timeline for gradual and incremental evolution was supported by the earth’s geography, paleontology, and the speciation of all of earth’s living things? Shouldn’t these rigorously tested and tried theories suffice? Why bring up out-of-date wild theories about supernatural cosmic creator beings to explain things we already have abundant evidence for?

Why then do so many religious believers continue to insist their one theory, with no real evidence to back it up, solves every problem and proves everything while harping the whole time that the scientific claims backed by genuine evidence which readily explain how things literally are somehow are insufficient compared to their lack of anything? Shrugging off the reality of the situation simply because you like the sound of some neo-orthodox religious philosophical premise, which has little to no weight when measure against the scientific facts, is simply imprudent, irrational, and presumptuous. But I guess that’s what taking it all on faith means.

As for me personally, I feel it would be more prudent to exhaust all other options before simply jumping to the conclusions that something was a supernatural, paranormal, mystical, or a spiritual experience. For example, if someone is prone to having waking dreams, and they feel it is a spiritual experience, but are later rushed to the hospital where they are diagnosed with a rare form of epilepsy, perhaps Temporal Lobe Personality disorder, which explains away their waking dreams, then can they seriously claim that their visions were entirely a spiritual experience? Can they invoke the supernatural when there is clear cut evidence which suggest that their visions were nothing more than the natural consequences of the misfiring of neurons and mixed brain signals which caused the illusion of a spiritual sensation? They wouldn’t be very rational if they did. We can’t just deny the material because we like the idea that there is something more to our existence. Humbling ourselves in the face of the evidence, we come to realize that the material is something we must live with, it’s a fact of life, whether we like it or not.

More than just a Feeling?

In numerous debates (which can be found online and in his book) the rabbi David Wolpe has categorically stated that the “New Atheism” only offers a materialistic based argument against the notion of God, and fails to properly address the immaterial concerns of the spiritually needy. First of all, like most believers the rabbi has misunderstood the nature of atheism, and second, he’s right in assuming the secular life has nothing to offer in the realm of spiritual contentment for the spiritually needy who wishes for God to be real; even if only as an affirmation for their dire need for consolation.

Atheists can still be enthralled by the numinous, mysterious, and have unexplainable, even profoundly moving, experiences. But to date, the concept of a consoling all loving personal God is something I believe nobody, and I mean nobody, has offered convincing evidence for. Extraordinary claims must be met with extraordinary evidence, after all. And the claims which are made without evidence can just as easily be dismissed without evidence. The common rebuttal is, however, that faith is not something which can be objectified, that the religious spiritual experience remains mysterious and cannot be explained in simply natural terms, that it is somehow beyond our understanding. But what does this mean exactly? What is there to prove beyond a reason of a doubt that God’s existence is real or that beyond the commonalities between the shared human experiences there is anything more than just a shared feeling? Expert historian of ancient myth Richard Carrier discusses the peculiarities of such experiences in his article “Why I am Not a Christian,” when he mentions, “These always turn out to be subjective experiences “in their minds,” and they are rarely consistent with each other. Rather, we find a plethora of contradictory experiences which seem more attenuated to cultural and personal expectations than to anything universally true.” Carrier goes on to add, “So “feeling” that God exists fails to meet even a minimal standard of evidence, much less an extraordinary standard. The same goes even for more profound religious experiences…”

Yet in every branch of spiritual belief all over the world we can see that the experience itself is a material consequence of living in the real world. Whether it is out of body experiences, having premonitions, having waking visions, going into trances, being spiritually stimulated, hearing voices or speaking in tongues, etc., so many people experience it and are affected by it, but to posit the supernatural and conclude that it all comes from a higher power is to jump to conclusions without first exhausting all of the other possibilities. It is unscientific, and more precisely, can lead people to make preemptive decisions based on incomplete, inaccurate, or even incorrect data.

This spiritual feeling is something we can objectively assess, and predictably it has less to do with the supernatural than the natural everyday occurrences, causes and effects, explainable by scientific analysis. This is where so many religious people make the mistake; they feel that their spiritual experiences are out of the realm of the natural observation or explanation. But then what stimuli are they reacting to when they talk about their spiritual experiences if not those working on their perceptions caused by natural effects? Ikka Pyysieainen has stated in her book How Religion Works, that:

A mystery is a mystery. If, on the other hand, we consider that it is important to study how people communicate about the idea of something being a mystery, there is no a priori reason why this should be beyond the reach of scientific method.

The mysterious remains mysterious for the reason that the religious don’t take the time to investigate it! They would rather chalk it up to faith, fate, or leave it up to the scientists to explain. Only the religious love nothing more than to complain whenever the scientists are being too methodical, after all, pointing out that our spiritual experience may be a natural physiological reaction to the material world around us, and is in fact not spiritual. Such a conclusion sort of takes the fun out of the magical and mystical elements of entertaining supernatural beliefs.

On the Nature of Spiritual Experiences

Many people are highly sensitive and in tune to others and the world around them. There is nothing wrong with being a spiritual person. Even so, religious believers tend to take the spiritual, or paranormal qualities, of an unexplainable occurrence to mean that they have been witness to, and experienced, the supernatural. They have simply mistaken a physiological reaction for evidence of God. By this estimation, they feel right in saying that they have felt a divine presence, have been talking to God, or have seen God working wonders in their lives. They think that they have seen certain signs such as Jesus face on a toasted cheese sandwich and he told them to quit smoking, or they saw signs of the Holy Trinity in an icicle, perhaps a frozen waterfall, and at just the right moment when the cloud cover parted and halos of light came streaming down upon them they felt a deep sensation of awe, and other such signs. And for them these inexplicable experiences are proof that such a supernatural Supreme Being really exists. What’s more is that they feel compelled to keep believing in this way because so many of their family members and friends within the community feel exactly the same way. This makes the opinion that God is real, especially in highly religious communities, not only a common one but a popular one too. After all, there’s nothing easier than following the crowd—it is always harder to go against the tide of popular opinion and swim upstream.

Those who brave the harsh waters and dare to stand apart have offered the pertinent question to the religious: Couldn’t all those “spiritual” signs merely have been coincidence? Perhaps a string of coincidences? Consequently, we must ask if entertaining belief in the supernatural in one way or another impedes our capacity for rationale thought. Does it in anyway diminish the quality of our reasoning skills or pollute our minds with precarious nonsense? Does it compel us to act in a harmful or irresponsible manner? If so, maybe pushing back against the crowd is the proper thing to do; lest we all topple over the edge of unreason like a bunch of hysterical lemmings.

To hinge a belief on a supernatural event, or a supernatural thing, such as a ghost, a poltergeist, Dracula, demons and angels, the Devil, or even a personal God on the basis that your neighbor or even your entire Church community believes in it too, is foolhardy. As an atheist, I do not lack a belief in God simply because there are other nonbelievers to share my atheism with—but it seems to me that there are religious people in every faith who will feel justified in believing in almost anything as long as they are not alone in it. If you believe in the Eucharist, for example, such a conviction is not valid proof that the experience is anything more than a shared, albeit parochial, experience.

The supernaturally shared belief in the Eucharist, the belief that when consuming a communion wafer and thimble of wine, that it all actually transubstantiates into the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ, is a perfectly good example of a shared parochial experience common in the framework of religious belief. No matter how much it is believed in it still lacks the merit of proof to substantiate transubstantiation. In other words, no matter how many people may enjoy the custom, no matter how badly they desire it to be real, or how deeply they feel that deep down there lies a transcendental experience which unites them as Christians, the fact of the matter is it is little more than a ritual of deeply ingrained Christian symbolism—much like purifying symbolism of baptism, or spiritual cleansing of the forgiveness of sin, and of being filled with the gift of the Holy Spirit. These events are not and have not ever been proven to be anything more than symbolic rituals of orthodox tradition rooted deep within Christian heritage.

Limbo, I might add, was another questionable and controversial Christian conviction until the Pope came out and admitted that Limbo was a false theological consideration, a religious concoction, that is to say totally untrue. One might wonder, that with such an honest streak in the papacy, what other dangerously faith shattering revelations await us? Next we’ll learn that the Eucharist is also false, but would that change the minds of believers? Probably not. Limbo, the cruel joke that it was, was certainly shrugged off. Provincial beliefs in controversial supernatural events, like the Eucharist, play almost no substantial role in maintaining the Christian faith. It’s simply a Catholic thing, a denominational quirk, an ornament decorating the faith to make it more fascinating or attractive, something used to identify one form of Christian belief and distinguish it from the next. Similarly, the belief in the resurrection of Christ is a Christian thing—but without it the ramifications are minute and uninteresting. To be fair, every faith has its own awkward rituals, peculiar customs, and disreputable beliefs. Some beliefs are stranger than others, but religion if anything is certainly not lacking in incredible convictions comprised of mystical and mystifying beliefs.

Although, any person of sound reason will see that no matter how romantic the notion behind certain metaphysical claims are they are not adequate enough in themselves for revealing real tangible truths about the real world or real world experiences we may have, and cannot possibly be support for doctrinal beliefs. The Eucharist, if it were true according to the definition given by the Roman Catholic Church, would be little more than a perverse exercise in cannibalism (Holy sanctioned cannibalism at that). Beliefs like these no matter how ancient or mysterious, if not downright questionable, without the crucial evidence for support are highly unbelievable.

To propose that the supernatural is real and that you swear angels are watching over your babies, or find that the feeling of spiritual revelry during prayer along with singing hymns during Church worship is a communicative relay between your brain neurons and the mind of God, or else believe in life after death, or think that the mass hysteria traumata experienced by fatigued and anxiety prone groups of oppressed young women is demonic, if you believe in the power of intercessory prayer, in the ability to do faith healings, that atheists and your dead goldfish all go to hell, that all of these things and more are the effects of an unseen supernatural realm, if you seriously believe in what your faith purports to be true about the nature of miracles and of God then you have some major convincing ahead of you. It’s quite simple really, if your beliefs are not consistent with the established bulwark of human knowledge, then they probably are not defensible. In that case, other people are not warranted in believing what you say about them, and furthermore you have no reason to expect anyone to believe you.

Sacred-Cow Tipping

I am fully able to concede that there are things that we may not understand about the human mind and how we perceive our experiences, even after reading books like Denett’s Consciousness Explained and The Crucible of Consciousness by Zoltan Torey and Dennett, The Epistemology of Belief by Hamid Vahid, and The Physiology of Truth by Jean-Pierre Changeux, I still have questions. But this alone, not knowing something, does not allow for the logic leaps which suddenly conjure up omnipresent omniscient deities and all powerful minds. To go from I had a profound and life altering experience to suddenly claiming that God is behind the causes of any particular set of special events in your life is to overlook part of the process in which the religious convictions have infiltrated a person’s reasoning.

Assuming God is the cause of all things is an even larger assumption, and requires that much more explanation. Not to offer any, meanwhile settling for the nice sounding idea that God did it all when all other information is lacking, is often called the argument from ignorance or the God of the Gaps argument since it follows that anything which cannot be currently explained via natural science must therefore be explained by the cause and effects of supernatural intervention. But this argument is flawed from the start, since it assumes (without proof) that the supernatural agency it speaks of it an actuality (instead of probability), and rather than finding fault in all the failed probabilities which are later solvable by science, it refuses to admit defeat. Those who employ the God of the Gaps argument, or the argument from ignorance, I find are indeed ignorant as they have not read the material which adequately discusses their concerns—and in most cases answers them just fine.

As a consequence of their constant meddling, religious skeptics have the bad habit of proving there is nothing supernatural about any of it, to the contrary (not to mention immense dissatisfaction) of what the religious purport to be the god’s honest truth. Victor J. Stegner has been debunking failed supernatural hypothesis for years, and in his recent book aptly entitled The New Atheism does a wonderful job at lifting the veil off of the failed arguments for God offered by religious proponents of faith, while showing that most religious arguments ignore the weight of the empirical evidence against God’s actual existence and instead attempt to demean new atheists via ad hominem attacks instead of dealing with their heavy hitting theories directly. Michael Martin and Ricki Monnier’s two anthologies, The Improbability of God as well as The Impossibility of God, have further demonstrated the philosophical, mathematical, and practical reasons for why supernatural faith based assumptions just do not pass muster.

While some theists might find such irreligious behavior downright disconcerting, perhaps even insulting, certainly embarrassing, I would venture a guess that their often overexcited reaction to the philosophical inquiries made by new atheists is mostly because they feel the burden of being met head on by reason, and become frustrated at their own lack of support for their key arguments, even as their opponents evidences is piling high (perhaps one reason atheists feel the urge to come out and say God doesn’t exist is because they have the proper evidence and ammunition to adequately do so—something which was lacking in the brief historical past with regards to the God argument). This amassing evidence which supports the atheist theory of naturalism gives most atheists a deep satisfaction in disillusioning believers with their sacred-cow tipping antics.

Be that as it may, anyone who treads into the dangerous territory of religious criticism must realize, to ask about the nature of God and religion is to directly challenge faith, and as we all know this is a sacred cow on the path to understanding which many people have vehemently steered away from. Do not disturb the sacred slumbering cows, they surreptitiously chant; for they are holy, we must not go there. But when nobody is looking in come those pesky cow tipping atheists who ruin everything by revealing that cows—sacred or not—are just as susceptible to the laws of gravity in the real world just like everything else. Holy cows turn out to be plain old beasts of burden.

Mysterious Insights

At this point of inquiry is where talk of the Holy Spirit and the feebleness of the human mind to grasp anything transcendental come into play—a sort of side step attempt by the religious adherent to offset the secular argument by offering that we are all equally ignorant when it comes to the unseen and so, by default, cannot fully comprehend things as unfathomable as God, the Holy Spirit, or anything as sacred as religious faith. But even this tactic, I feel, is talking down to an intelligent person who would suggest that the religious position is just that—claiming to know the immeasurable nature of their belief while arguing that it is impossible for anyone else to do the same. Dan Dennett frames it another way:

So what we may say to those who insist that only those who believe, only those with a deep appreciation of the sacred are to be entrusted with the investigation of religious phenomena, is that they are simply wrong, about both facts and principles. They are mistaken about the imaginative and investigative powers of those they would exclude, and they are wrong to suppose that it might be justifiable on any grounds to limit the investigation to those who are religious.

Nothing is beyond reproach, and before taking it all on faith we might do some further investigation first. We should at the very least not buy into everything religion proposes hook line and sinker without first exhausting every available resource to study and examine the phenomenon in depth, critically scrutinize the evidence, and discover scientifically if the shared events behind the religious experience are anything more than the sort of euphoric sensation one typically experiences at a rock concert or while taking mind altering drugs or something else. It could be the Holy Spirit moving you, but not likely. Yet it is this insular feeling that so many religious believers cite as a confirmation for their faith also extends to their argument as proof that God is real too.

However, unable to resist the urge to tip some sacred-cows, I feel I must cite that having a good time or otherwise typically being ‘high on life’ and being emotionally sensitive is not proof in itself that you have experienced something “spiritual” or that God is real. According to such weak and flimsy proof, God isn’t likely to be any more real than the tooth fairy, Big Foot, or the illusive wilder beast Jackalope. To receive a feeling and to have an emotional response related to it is not evidence that what you experienced was in actuality exactly how it occurred.

Numerous people have claimed to have seen Jackalopes gallivanting across the plains, while hundreds (if not more) of stunned hikers have had the shared experience of glimpsing Big Foot trekking through the forest catching a peek of him right before he dashes out of sight behind a thicket of pine trees. After each event, stunned hikers all have a particular certainty that these things are real, but I wouldn’t take their word for it. Without the proof such claims are chiefly invalid. There are better explanations which must be counted out before you can make the leap of faith it requires to believe in mythical furry forest monsters. Perhaps what you thought were rabbit antlers was in fact a Shope papilloma virus infected bunny, and maybe what you saw dash so speedily behind the pines was just a grizzly bear. The same can be said for those who suppose God is real based on experience alone and no other evidence—perhaps your imagination is getting the best of you. Is there really no other explanation? Or are you merely settling for the explanation you like the best? The question which we need to ask is: is the unseen really that indefinable or is such an excuse merely a smokescreen to cover up the inadequacies regarding sacred hogwash?

Thus to criticize religion or faith in any capacity, then, is to criticize a believer’s personal convictions. Whether they believe it all or not is beside the point, they desperately wish for the stories of a savior to be true for the comfort it provides, and it makes their convictions all the more adamant. It compels them to exalt simple ideals and raise them to an untouchable or “sacred” status, and so, to diminish such beliefs by attacking the very foundations of these beliefs with cold logic and indifferent scrutiny feels, to them, like a personal attack on their tradition, values, and the very religious identity they have forged for themselves. Such an assault typically leaves Christians in a vitriolic frenzy in which they feel entirely justified in assaulting anyone back who dares scrutinize their sacred beliefs—regardless of how well put or exacted the criticism is. They just don’t want to hear it, so they try to drown out the aspersions by over-exaggerating the minutest offence, or making up offenses where there was nothing more than simple inquiry. What they have not paused to consider, though, is that minus their religious dogmas, there are equally good beliefs to be had which do not endanger their values, traditions, or compromise their views about the world.

New Atheism

Countless believers and even a large majority of nonbelievers don’t exactly understand what atheism is or what it necessarily means conceptually. Even atheists themselves have been known to get it wrong sometimes. The atheist philosopher Julian Baggini has stated about new atheism, “In short, the new atheism gets atheism wrong, gets religion wrong, and is counterproductive.” However, I feel Baggini’s comments are not entirely accurate. Although he is entitled to criticize the technique and methods of new atheists in how they go about debunking religion and supernatural superstition, I strongly disagree with his comment that new atheists have missed the point about atheism or religion. Atheism simply refers to the lack of belief in the supernatural and personal Gods, but as for the atheist herself and whatever else she may believe, there is an unlimited variety of peoples and thought. Baggini makes the common mistake of attempting to define atheism as a single philosophical system rather than what it is, a cogent position derived from a diverse assortment of philosophies, or as I identify them, influential appreciations.

Baggini’s criticism of new atheism is that he believes reason is a tool which all rational minds are capable, and asks if all believers are under a “spell” or “delusion” how can intelligent and rational people still believe in God? Baggini cites this as a flaw of new atheism, which hasn’t explained to satisfaction how it holds that religious believers are irrational and so cannot reason on the intellectual level as supposedly new atheists do. Baggini feels this position that reason is only on the side of atheist intellectuals is damaging to the atheist movement by being divisive and taking an elitist stance. But Baggini neglects to understand two important qualities of religion: first that it indoctrinates you early on, most likely as children before their minds are matured enough to reason out the difficulties of adult concepts, and traditionally has used pure pressure and fear tactics to maintain a semblance of faith, and second, religious beliefs may have at one time been based off of reason, i.e. for a religious person in the past a reasonable explanations for why there is thunder would be that God was angry, but now with the advent of modern scientific understanding we know that such an explanation is unreasonable. The fact that the religious take the part of the credulous by refusing to correct such errors of erroneous beliefs handed down to them through their fables and religious myths, doesn’t make them more rational, it makes them less. So Baggini, an outspoken atheist himself, is mistaken about new atheists misconstruing religion and misunderstanding atheist principles, in fact, new atheism is better equipped than any secular ideology before it to adequately address these issues.

The biggest difficulty is that atheism is not a belief system in the standard sense of something being predicated on absolute ideals. Rather it’s merely a cognitive position of rational understanding. Such a rational understanding stems from the atheists level of objectivity and is a natural consequence of their inquisitive, curious nature of the natural world around them. This doesn’t necessarily close the atheist off from accepting the unknown or the mysterious and unexplainable. Nor does it denote having an innate repulsion towards such. But unlike the religious, the atheist is willing to change her mind when she has considered all the evidence and the only rational explanation leads to the disbelief in specific religious claims. The religious person may use reason in the same way to get to the same point of inquiry, but when they find that the only rational explanation is disproof for their religious beliefs, they opt to suspend their disbelief contrary to what the evidence shows with further denial. This is not being objective, as many new atheists have effortlessly pointed out, and so to argue for faith and the belief in God from a standpoint of credulity only after it has all been virtually invalidated is not exactly rational, at the very least it is unreasonable.

Yet this is where the biggest distinction between new atheism and religious theology lies with regards to ignorance and the lack of understanding. Atheists are proud to humbly admit they are ignorant about something without having to fall back on highly implausible supernatural assumptions for which there is no support, whereas the religious pretend to know everything about everything because if they do not have the knowledge to explain something they happily plug in supernatural suppositions without attempting to test their theories or wait for the proper evidence. But is this religious position at all a rational one to take? I would argue no, it’s not. Is the atheist position rational? Yes, it is. Why? Because it is this innate curiosity which is the backbone to all rational inquiry, even to science itself! In his book The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins reassures us by adding, “Admissions of ignorance and temporary mystification are vital to good science.” Indeed, not knowing is what spurs science forward and keeps us asking questions.

This is where I believe aforementioned rabbi Wolpe and those who think like him get hung up. As proponents of faith, they are under the impression that the atheist position is that the world is essentially material and that something intangible to the atheist, like the concept of God, is merely a fading illusion because there is no way of proving its physical existence—one of the many vicissitudes of the materialist, and to an extent, naturalist positions.

In the rabbi’s rant against new atheism (which is a misnomer since “new” atheism is nearly identical to “old” atheism accept for it being more recently fashionable with better supported arguments) Wolpe quotes Emerson, as many transcendentalists are wont to do. Quoting the line in Emerson’s Nature essay which states, “The things that are seen, are temporal; the things that are unseen, are eternal,” the rabbi claims that what Emerson called the first and the last lesson which religion can offer us suggests that an acknowledgement in transcendental things unseen directly equates to the faith in the eternal, and for the rabbi the eternal means God.

Notice how such a claim doesn’t necessarily explain anything for us curious non-believing rabble-rousers. It’s an affirmation of belief in God but not a proof for God. Moreover it is a statement about what isn’t seen will, perhaps, remain forever unseen, and by this Emersonian definition, I might add, may be entirely non-existent since it depends entirely upon our faith that the eternally unseen can really exist—even without our knowing about it. But the very definition of eternal means for all time, and if something exists unseen for all eternity, what’s the purpose of believing in it? It might as well not exist at all if it will never make itself known to us.

But this is not the sort of God most people like to believe in. So the argument that God exists outside of reality and is transcendental is problematic at best. Thus, rationalists claim that science should be able to detect a God which plays a vital part in maintaining the universe or else directly having an involvement in it and in people’s lives. Yet this sort of God is not detected by science, and so, such a being or entity can be thoroughly refuted, as Victor Stenger showed in his book God: The Failed Hypothesis.

Wolpe offers, that at the heart of the matter, is a mystery so great that the human mind can’t fully comprehend it, something that is not tenable, and at the center of this argument lies the idea of a spiritual and personal God. Precisely speaking, God continues to be something unseen which for the religious person equates to eternalness, and this would definitely fit the modus operandi of one prone to faith based religiosity, but for the rationalist something forever unseen equates to non-existence. All the same, going from not seeing or understanding something that is mysterious to having all of a sudden an eternal mind of an omniscient, omnipresent, all powerful, and all loving deity is an illogical leap of faith.

Are Reason and Faith at Odds with One Another?

Many religious thinkers perceive disagreement as a denunciation of their beliefs. Consequently believers may feel their position is accosted by those holding opposing beliefs and the atheist’s unwillingness to accept such metaphysical notions without the necessary evidence gives some believers reason enough to cite this level headedness as the reason for where much of the mockery and scorn for religion comes from.
Renowned theologian William Lane Craig has stated irreligious attitudes such as atheism arise from the rejection of Christ’s love and that has denied the Holy Spirit. In his book Reasonable Faith, Craig states that, “The Bible says all men are without excuse. Even those who are given no good reason to believe and many persuasive reasons to disbelieve have no excuse, because the ultimate reason they do not believe is that they have deliberately rejected God’s Holy Spirit.” Yet Craig’s assessment is wildly stupid. First of all, I could very well counter by asserting, “Reason says all men are without excuse. Even those who are given no good reason to believe and many persuasive reasons to disbelieve have no excuse, indeed the ultimate reason they do not believe is that they have no good reason to.”

Secondly, Craig’s hypothesis lies not on any empirically tested theory supported by evidence, but on his religious conviction that the Holy Spirit is real, and that those without it are biased against those with it. On both accounts Craig’s claims are unsupported, and wholly incorrect. How can I be sure? Because I know many kind hearted atheists and nonbelievers who would never stoop so low as to call someone with an imaginary friend without an excuse for such as being disillusioned. In fact, they would take the time to better understand the person in seeking to help them instead of writing them off completely. And second, because if the Holy Spirit, or God for that matter, was at all tangibly real then theologians like Craig would not have to write so many tomes of apologetics explaining why the most zealous believers haven’t found any shred of evidence to prove it and instead unjustly shifting the burden of proof on those who, as I have pointed out, have no good reason to believe. Other theologians simply offer new atheism is simply a regurgitation of the classic arguments of atheism and dismiss it without ever considering what it has to say.

Basically, the common accusation by the devout person of faith is that the skeptics are not in tune with the supernatural forces and information which Christians like Craig apparently have direct access to, and so not taking faith based beliefs seriously enough makes some feel that such a lack of consideration denotes certain amount of rudeness coming from those irreligious nonbelievers who shrug it off or laugh it off. And that may be true to an extent, but even if we view all religion as one big joke this still wouldn’t explain where the real scorn and resentment of religion comes from and the urge to oppose it—and this is where religious apologists have failed in understanding the substance of new atheism.

The absence of the Holy Spirit notwithstanding, there must be some reasonable explanation, one based in reality, which offers why there are those who passionately despise religion and vehemently reject the idea of God. Many reasons we will discuss and soon get to. In the meantime, surely we are free to complain that the religious aren’t being realistic enough when they invoke the supernatural, but then that’s their prerogative, as it is ours to call them on it.

Is the Idea of an Immaterial God Tenable?

In a letter to Peter Wilhelm Lund, the eminent philosopher and father of existentialism, Kierkegaard once stated, “The thing is to find a truth which is true for me, to find the idea for which I can live and die.” Many people of faith approach a personal relationship with God in such a way—whether or not it is tenable.

Modern theologians, however, go one step further by claiming that what is true for them must also be true for everyone. This is a statement of great hubris, yet it has not stopped theologians from making it (just as William Lane Craig has presupposed that God and the Holy Spirit are obvious truths and that to deny them is signs of deficiency). But when pressed to offer convincing evidence or present testable proofs the majority of theologians make the claim that God is beyond all knowing, that he is immaterial, transcendent, and can’t be found by any traditional observation or application of science. In other words, God is hidden from us unless—and only if—we have some other means of detecting him. For those like Craig, this equates to the Holy Spirit and a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

Although, I personally find it strange the theist should admittedly concede that God is incomprehensible, but then turnaround and irreverently blame atheists for validating their statement. The ever trustworthy Dan Dennett suggests a probable explanation for such irrationality and constant confusion, by offering:
For a thousand years, roughly, we’ve entertained a throng of variously deanthropomorphized, intellectual concepts of God, all more or less peacefully coexisting in the minds of “believers.” Sine everybody calls his or her version “God,” there is something “we can all agree about”—we all believe in God, we’re not atheist!

Dennett goes on to add that this form of reasoning is insufficient, that if held up to scrutiny it doesn’t pan out that well. To flesh out his point he further illustrates:

If Lucy believes that Rock (Hudson) is to die for, and Desi believes that Rock (music) is to die for, they really don’t agree on anything, do they? The problem is not new. Back in the eighteenth century, Hume had already decided that “our idea of a deity” had shifted so much that the gods of antiquity simply didn’t count.

Many champions of faith get lost in their own meandering reasoning for similar reasons, but if anything stands out from this example of critiquing the atheists firm affinity for reasonable explanations based in reality is that the theists cannot be aided by the same support in realism, and must concede the argument, admitting what they already knows all too well. They are being unrealistic by assuming the argument for God is somehow enhanced by the detachment of the deity from reality. Apart from the natural world, and any realism for that matter, the faithful flatly insist God exists beyond our comprehension and understanding—he exists outside of the box. Such a position is made clear when men of faith like the previously mentioned rabbi Wolpe state, “God is the intangible creator of the universe…” Intangible being the key word here. 

In his book Why Faith Matters the rabbi extends this same ambiguity to all religious beliefs, by adding, “All religions have a conviction in the rightness of their own tales and interpretations. Sensible though my faith may be to me, or yours to you, ultimately it is unprovable. The same is true on a larger scale of the enterprise of “proving” the existence of God.”

Dennett puts it forward that, “The belief that belief in God is so important that it must not be subjected to the risks of disconfirmation or serious criticism has led the devout to “save” their beliefs by making them incomprehensible even to themselves.” By setting God apart from reality, and putting him outside the frame of all which exists, it makes the entire idea of God that much more perplexing, incomprehensible, and impossible to (dis)prove, thus “The result is that even the professors don’t really know what they are professing. This makes the goal of either proving or disproving God’s existence a quixotic quest—but also for that very reason not very important.”

What does this all mean? It means that people will continue remaining credulous unless they are confronted by the brute force of atheistic reason, and this is why new atheism is succeeding, and is vitally important in sustaining humanist philosophies. New atheism directly counters the moves of failed religious and theological arguments and puts up road blocks at every turn while at the same time doing some heavy consciousness raising. Religion can continue dodging the hurdles thrown up by new atheism instead of tackling them directly all it wants, but eventually the religious will run out of road—that is to say, run out of plausible arguments. It is for these reasons why new atheism is necessary in advancing secular humanism.

Advocatus Atheist

Advocatus Atheist