Wednesday, February 16, 2011

'Divine Mother is the flow of at least 20 bucks.'

Twitter recently recommended that I follow this woman. Connie Huebner has been your direct pipeline to the Lord since 1999. She regularly channels Jesus and "Mother God." She also boasts of possessing an "MA in creative intelligence," which appears to be another one of those slippery notions that attempt plausibly to bridge the divide between rational thought and spiritual insight. The scroll at the top of her site features such inspirational poesy as "Divine Mother is the flow of life force" and "Divine Mother is showering gifts to you all the time, just allow and receive." See, you too can learn how to channel the Kingdom of Heaven. In order to facilitate all this, however, you're expected to channel some money to Connie Huebner of Iowa.

Huebner writes that her personal epiphany occurred when she was a 21-year-old college student:

"As I looked deeply and honestly within my self, Divine qualities were revealed. First, Divine Light appeared, then the nurturing quality of Divine Love manifested. Other Divine qualities emerged. I discovered that these Divine qualities could be called upon to improve my daily life and the lives of my family and friends.

"As I worked with the Divine qualities, I began to receive guidance and knowledge from a Divine Presence. At first, it came from Jesus. Later, Mother God made her self known to me and offered a great wealth of Divine wisdom. In time I began working with people outside my own family. The situations and challenges they presented brought forth from me a depth of Divine wisdom to guide and transform their lives..."
These days Huebner hosts live web events where people buy her Divine intercession @ around $20 a pop. (I suspect there are ongoing arrangements that cost a bit more.) Apparently there's no life situation that she can't mediate or fix outright ... which, it goes without saying, is what you'd expect from any self-respecting Divine presence. As she puts it, "Concerns in all areas can be handled–relationships, finances, career, family, health, fear, self-defeating patterns, and more." Better still, Huebner is an equal-opportunity, non-sectarian channeler: "Connie calls upon many of the names of Divine Mother and other Great Beings from all of the religious traditions. She invites archangels, gurus, and those spiritual masters who teach that all of life is one." Wow! Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Pope Benedict!

It's interesting, though. She also writes, "You are a Divine being in a physical form," which makes me wonder why I need her as an intermediary in my discussions with all those Folks Upstairs. I guess I'm just not enlightened and spiritual enough to understand how this stuff works, huh?

Well, I see there's a "free introductory Divine mother healing and guidance session" on March 16. Maybe I'll tune in and report back....

171 comments:

RevRon's Rants said...

"I guess I'm just not enlightened and spiritual enough to understand how this stuff works, huh?"

That's not it at all, Steve. You just gotta pay the lady to teach you the secret handshake. Pay her a little more, and she might even bequeath unto you the Divine Decoder Ring.

Might sound hokey, but it sure beats sitting in a convection oven in Sedona!

Kathryn Price said...

"She also boasts of possessing an 'MA in creative intelligence,' which appears to be another one of those slippery notions that attempt plausibly to bridge the divide between rational thought and spiritual insight."

Steve, I agree that this woman appears to have a direct pipeline to b.s. and your wallet if she can get it. But what about rational thought and spiritual insight? Can a person have both? What about information--for lack of a better word--that comes to us via a different route than a process of reasoning, having to do with perception, intuition, insight? I would not call it irrational, but it is non-rational in the sense that it doesn't arrive through a process of reason.

What if you are grounded in reason but you also feel that there is something more? For many years I wouldn't let myself consider anything more than what I could ascertain through a process of reason; I worried that if I let some of those "spiritual" feelings loose, I'd end up seeing the face of Jesus in my pancakes. I was agnostic for many years.

That changed--why it did is too long to tell here--and now I'm a seminary student studying to be a hospital chaplain but also involved in peace and justice work, so I'll probably do a little of both when I'm finished (and you don't go into this for the money, because there isn't any). It's not about a big Santa Claus in the sky or a set of beliefs, per se, but more about a commitment to a way of life.

In order to become a hospital chaplain I need three years of seminary and ordination from a denomination (all but a couple of denominations require ordination); I will have undergone three psychological evaluations during seminary; three internships; 1600 hours of supervised clinical education in a hospital AND whatever the denomination requires for ordination--another rigorous process, more testing, more evaluations, possibly an additional internship. I will need to be versed in the major world religions in order to comfort patients in their own traditions. I'm not objecting to the rigor of this, but I'm just sayin,' you know? Simply by being a seminary student, some people expect more of me (yikes!), and some people are more willing to trust me (also yikes!). I have seen how vulnerable people are, especially when they are ill or have had an accident. It's a damn TRUST to hold their hand in those times and listen to their story, which is about all I do, really. It makes me angry that people exploit this, and I've been there...had it happen to me.

Well, okay, I've confessed. What think ye? Are all religious people irrational? (By the way, I've completed two of the psych tests and I haven't been kicked out of seminary--so far, so good.)

Steve Salerno said...

KP, to give a too-short answer to the excellent points you make and questions you raise: I don't think that religious people are irrational people--per se. I do think that they wall off a part of their rationality in order to allow themselves to subscribe to an idea that would NEVER pass muster if they were applying the logical tests that they use in every other area of life. Because let's face it, what really is the difference between The Secret (sending vibes into an obliging Universe) and the Catholic prayer with which I grew up (sending entreaties to a supposedly compassionate God)? With the exception of the fact that more people believe in Catholicism--at least so far--there really isn't much to choose. I do have many unanswered questions about the origins of the cosmos and the plausibility of evolution, but the fact that I have questions doesn't mean that God is the answer.

Really, at its core, the Easter Bunny isn't any sillier to me than God--except that for some reason, I want and maybe need to believe in God (or a god), so that want/need overwhelms my rational defenses. At the same time, if anyone were to ask me if I think that there's a God, I'd say no. That's the difference between thinking and believing.

And if this answer doesn't make sense or hold together, therein lies the problem with faith vs. critical thinking.

Kathryn Price said...

Steve, in some cases there probably isn't a substantial difference between the vibes in The Secret and some approaches to prayer. There may be a difference between "give us this day our daily bread" and give me that luxury car for nothing, at least in degree. My objections to The Secret: The Power have to do with its insistence on presenting LOA as a scientific law, inviolable, that whips back at its practitioners if they show human emotion beyond a forced happiness to deliver oh, say, a tsunami or the Holocaust. Also, I have never read a book that performed the amazing feat of talking about love throughout its entirety while demonstrating no compassion in it for anyone outside of ME. Even your partner had better show only his/her happy version, or you will ignore him. Probably the worst aspect of the book for me was the way Byrne cited people such as Bonhoeffer, whose life and teachings I've read, a man who wrote The Cost of Discipleship, who tried to organize a resistance against Nazi Germany and was hanged for conspiring against Hitler. Bonhoeffer came from an aristocratic family. He could have just hung out in the family mansion asking the universe for more...but I digress.

I get what you're saying about the Easter Bunny and God. I read Dawkins' The God Delusion at a time when I might have agreed with him, except I disagreed with the way he painted the majority of humankind as participating in a mass delusion. For centuries people have experienced a sense of life that wasn't all about anesthetizing oneself to reality, but about feelings of awe and wonder and reverence, and they have attempted to understand those experiences in various ways.

You can point to the silliest side of those understandings, but out of them have also come some of the deepest human aspirations.

That's all I'm saying. I think one can be a rational person and a person of spiritual/religious feeling, both.

RevRon's Rants said...

I think one of the most poignant answers to the paradox of spirituality versus rationality was a line from the movie made of Carl Sagan's "Contact."

[Ellie (the agnostic) challenges Palmer (the priest) to prove the existence of God]
Palmer Joss: Did you love your father?
Ellie Arroway: What?
Palmer Joss: Your dad. Did you love him?
Ellie Arroway: Yes, very much.
Palmer Joss: Prove it.

courtesy IMDB

Steve Salerno said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steve Salerno said...

Ron, you and I have gone back and forth on this before, and it usually doesn't end well. ;) So let me just speak for myself: I think it's a bit silly for me to defend a belief (as FACT) that I can't, in any sense, prove. If I want to sit here and say "I believe there's a God," that's fine, but I must do so knowing that I'm indulging a fanciful notion that's very much at odds with the rest of my rationalist's approach to life. And the argument that my faith "helps me get through the day" or "rescued me from the depths of depression" doesn't wash, either. One could say almost the same thing of heroin, Santa Claus, or any other mass delusion including The Secret. The mere fact that something "works" for you is not a logical justification for its existence. Joe Vitale's marketing methods "work" for him, don't they?

As for the supposed parallel between love and faith, I don't get that at all, and I'm surprised that it comes up as often as it does in these discussions. What does one have to do with the other? In the course of daily life, we don't normally fall in love with disembodied entities (except maybe for that lady who fell in love with the Eiffel Tower). I loved my father because he was a great man and a wonderful presence in my life. I could not have loved him if he never existed--which would be the appropriate parallel with faith.

At the same time--to address KP's point--I have very little use for people like Dawkins, who are so incredibly smug in their denunciations of faith, because in truth--as I tried to say during that long debate around Christmastime--science doesn't have the answers, either.

Lena Phoenix said...

Part of the reason Sam Harris' book, The End of Faith, was so profound for me was that it was the first book I'd read that suggested the feelings of transcendence I'd taken as proof of my New Age belief system could be experienced independent of that belief system. His thesis is that those kinds of experiences can offer benefit and insight without a corresponding sacrifice of rationality if one recognized them as cognitive, rather that spiritual events.

For me, this was incredibly freeing, but it wasn't an easy transition to make. My own experience was that the desire of the brain to default to some magical story in the presence of awe and non-ordinary cognition was pretty built in, but Harris gave me a more rational framework to consider those experiences through, and eventually, it stuck.

Steve Salerno said...

Lena, I haven't read the book (though it seems to come up all the time on the Skeptic site), and I hate to say anything that "screws with" insights that have proved helpful to someone, as they have to you ... but ... on the surface, the paradigm you propose in quoting Harris sounds awfully like a rationalization to me.

Maybe I just need to read the book?

Steve Salerno said...

Lena, are you saying in essence that he's endorsing quasi-religious thoughts except without the actual religion involved? That, in turn, sounds like what the Beatles and the Maharishi were proposing back in the days of, well, acid... ;)

RevRon's Rants said...

"As for the supposed parallel between love and faith, I don't get that at all, and I'm surprised that it comes up as often as it does in these discussions. What does one have to do with the other?"

Yeah, we've gone over it before, but I don't think it ends badly... I might think otherwise if I felt you had proved me wrong. :-)

Quite simply, it points out that something can exist for which we can offer no concrete proof. I'm surprised that the point eludes you, as it goes to your own statement that you believe in God, even though your logical mind tells you that the belief is unfounded and must therefore be false. We humans tend to hold to the arrogant (and illogical) notion that our logical reasoning is potentially infallible, while our beliefs are borne of delusions. Were this the case, our "values" would be little more than empty gestures, and our very nature a barely-concealed exercise in sociopathy.

RevRon's Rants said...

Steve, religion is, in its essence, humanity's attempt to quantify and qualify the existence of spirit, and to structure humanity's relationship to spirit. As such, pure "spirituality" - a grossly overused and misused term - predates and transcends religion. Thus, the common connotation given to "quasi-religious" is actually putting the cart before the horse.

Steve Salerno said...

Ron: Maybe we can offer no concrete proof of the feeling, but certainly we can point to a specific person or thing and say "I love THAT. THAT is what I love." And--assuming we're sane--the thing is palpable, right there for the seeing. OTOH, I think we would both agree that a person who claims to be in love with another person or thing that we cannot see, and for which we have no proof of its having ever existed, is in need of mental-health services.

It's interesting. I saw the tail end of a Lifetime movie the other night, Invisible Child, in which a mother continues to act as if her deceased child is alive and well and an ongoing part of the family: She sets a dinner plate for the child, puts it to bed at night, etc. You and I might watch that movie and say, "Wow, that woman has gone off the grid; she's nuts."

Then we go to church and pray to an invisible entity for peace, harmony and salvation... ;)

Anonymous said...

Steve: I don't understand what you're talking about at all here. Do you believe in God or not?? You seem to want to have it both ways, touting science when it suits you but exempting yourself from that view so you can say you believe when you want to. I'm confused, and I don't think I'm the only one.

Steve Salerno said...

I believe at some gut level--sort of--but I recognize that I'm probably being ridiculous. Does that make any sense?

Lena Phoenix said...

Steve,

I'm not quite sure what you mean by rationalization. What do you think I am rationalizing?

Maybe I didn't express myself clearly enough. I was responding to your comment about religious people "wall{ing}off a part of their rationality in order to allow themselves to subscribe to an idea that would NEVER pass muster if they were applying the logical tests that they use in every other area of life."

In the New Age religion of which I was a part, personal experience of so-called "mystical" states was considered to be experiential proof of the existence of otherworldly realms. Harris' book helped me to understand that they are proof of no such thing, that while those states can be incredibly powerful to the person having them, the only thing they "prove" is that our brains are capable of some pretty trippy stuff.

It's been long enough since I read Harris' book that I'm not sure how accurately I'm representing what he writes. As for whether or not he's endorsing "quasi-religious thought," I couldn't say without having a better understanding of what you mean by that.

As for comparisons to Maharishi, I'm not familiar enough with that aspect of his "teachings" to know. But given that Maharishi was the head of an enormous, very religious group and Harris is an atheist neuroscientist, I'd be surprised if there was much similarity.

Steve Salerno said...

Lena: I may have been incorrectly interpreting what you wrote at first--and it sounds like I was especially off-base in my interpretation of Harris' position.

It sounds like what I was trying to say is pretty much what you're saying now: that so-called altered states of consciousness are in no way evidence of spiritual mechanisms at work. They're simply evidence that--as you put it--the mind is capable of "some pretty trippy stuff."

Kathryn Price said...

I'm writing from my Droid during a class break so please forgive clumsy errors...but are experiences such as wonder, awe and even transcendence altered consciousness or simply consciousness, part of who we are?

Gary said...

Anytime the world around us goes through some kind of tumultuous period (like a financial upheaval or social unrest), there's always these people who come into the forefront who want to be your personal self-help guru... for a fee.

What seems so contradictory to me with something like this "Divine Mother" intercession for $20, is that the person is making quite a bit of easy money off of this. Aren't "Divine gifts" supposed to be free? You aren't required to pay Jesus to forgive you for your sins... you have to pay a church for their upkeep to continue spreading the message, which is completely voluntary. This woman doesn't say "contribute what you wish"... she demands $20, and possibly more outside of public view for "special sessions."

It's this kind of thing which I find so deplorable.

Steve Salerno said...

Gary, thanks for joining the fray, and I agree with you about the $20. This is why when people say to me, "What are you getting so upset about; it's only 20 bucks?", I reply, "That's not the point." It's still predatory. At least if you could say that their heart is in it, that they truly believe they're on the side of the angels, but with many of these so-called gurus, it's just an easy living off desperate people.

RevRon's Rants said...

Steve, you reference our ability to see the OBJECT of one's love as being some form of qualification of the love itself. When you can't see the object, you doubt its existence, yet never seem to doubt the reality of the love. Perhaps "love" is the closest we humans can come to experiencing - much less, defining - that spirit. Doesn't really matter whether we believe in the spirit itself; so long as we feel that quickening inside, the spirit exists. You won't prove it with "logic," but neither can that logic disprove it, because, as we've discussed before, the logic and the emotion are built upon completely different criteria.

Steve Salerno said...

Ron, I get what you're saying. Honest. But do me a favor, as an exercise: Reread the comment you just wrote, and tell me if that same reasoning couldn't be used to justify the sentiments expressed in, say, Rhonda's new book, The Power, which is basically all about the connection between love and spirituality and the LoA.

RevRon's Rants said...

I'm not saying that *anything* couldn't be used to rationalize *anything.* Where the LOA crowd makes a loopy leap in logic is in their attempts to assign the immeasurable (love, spirituality) specific qualities and influences over the measurable/physical, ie: if you love something enough and hold it in your mind, it will come to be. It's the same rationale that was used by alchemists centuries ago. Nowadays, however, we are far too sophisticated to believe that someone could perform incantations over a piece of lead and turn it into gold. Or are we?

Kathryn Price said...

Ron: "I think one of the most poignant answers to the paradox of spirituality versus rationality was a line from the movie made of Carl Sagan's "Contact.""

"Contact" is one of a handful of DVDs that I actually own (not being much of a movie viewer), and I think it is a poignant representation of this kind of debate. I used to replay the final scene, when Ellie, unable to produce physical evidence of her experience, is asked: "Then why don't you simply withdraw your testimony and concede that this journey to the center of the galaxy in fact never took place?"
Ellie: "Because I can't."

I think that scene appealed to me because I was unable to trust some of my experiences, and yet unable to withdraw them (and they were hardly on the order of going to the center of the galaxy). In all intellectual honesty, could I simply write off parts of my experience because there were no means to measure them? However, if I accepted them as valid and worthy of exploration, what did that mean?

One of the questions I've struggled with is how does an indifferent universe wind up producing sentient creatures that are anything but indifferent? That it did so may be proof of nothing, sure. But the fact that we are not indifferent, that we search for meaning in our experiences, that we seek meaning, should not be written off as the lesser part, as superstition, as a crutch, even though some people will reduce it to those levels.

Steve Salerno said...

KP: I think it's the final part of your comment that has always given me such strong intuitive feelings about the existence of God. It's just so hard to accept that this is all "by accident." Not that I want to open up that whole can of worms again, but I also have a very hard time buying the cosmological "explanations" for how we got here.

And yet I am simultaneously able to recognize that my intuitions about God are just that--intuitions--that have no place in a more scholarly discussion of truth and reality. I ask again: Does any of this make sense?

Kathryn Price said...

Steve: "And yet I am simultaneously able to recognize that my intuitions about God are just that--intuitions--that have no place in a more scholarly discussion of truth and reality. I ask again: Does any of this make sense?"

It makes sense if by "truth and reality" you mean only those things that can be determined through repeated, measurable results or observation, reproducible by any researcher. If those are the criteria, then yes, intuition isn't going to meet them.

On the other hand, that doesn't mean spirituality (unfortunately the word has become tainted) isn't a legitimate field of inquiry. I think that the definition of religion that Ron gave yesterday is an excellent one: "Religion is, in its essence, humanity's attempt to quantify and qualify the existence of spirit, and to structure humanity's relationship to spirit." It's a different kind of search, and I think there are serious theologians who conduct scholarly discussions on the subject, some of them at my seminary. There it's not about attempting to prove God's existence, but about studying how spiritual/religious life has taken shape over the centuries, through different cultures and contexts, and how contemporary theology is taking shape. That's a much too simplistic description of nature of the field, but I'll leave it there for now.

Regarding something like The Secret: I quote: "In a few short weeks I had traced The Secret back through the centuries, and I had discovered the modern-day practitioners of the Secret."--Rhonda Byrne

In a few short weeks, she read the work of theologians, philosophers, scientists, and a few assorted industrialists and found the secret of the universe? Steve, if I thought she was sincere, my review might have read differently. I could be wrong and maybe she believes this with her whole heart. I know her followers do, and I have encountered many of them in the nearly 500 comments following my review. Some of them have told me that Byrne's version is extreme, that there is a more moderate LOA that isn't focused on mansions and cars or believing that the universe owes you everything you desire. I'm willing to listen to them and we've had some interesting discussions. What makes me sad is all the people who seem to have no means to evaluate such assertions as "LOA is a law like the law of gravity"--and I know this because they repeat it and believe it because Rhonda and her pals said so and they all became rich. The prosperity gospel is doing well these days, too. People want easy answers. Personally, after reading The Power I asked the universe for 50 million dollars, but it didn't pony up. I think it detected I was a bit skeptical when I asked.

RevRon's Rants said...

"Does any of this make sense?"

It does if one's "scholarly discussion of truth" assumes that the participants are in possession of all the facts. IMO, a true "scholarly discussion" must come from a place of humility, where one's sense of what "is" is allowed to challenge what is provable. IMO, the greatest obstacle to learning isn't the gullibility borne of hope, but the cynicism borne of bias - and it is equally present in both the believers and the nonbelievers.

Steve Salerno said...

I don't think we're going to reach a meeting of the minds here. I can only say that I think that some of the points made here--as well as my own tendency to cling to some vague form of faith--exhibit a level of double-think that we should all, ideally, strive to avoid. We want (need?) so much to find a psychic or logical mechanism whereby we can claim that we stand for logic and reason and yet at the same time claim an "exemption" for one very basic element of our lives that flies in the face of all that logic and reason.

To try to contrive a rational tent in which faith is equally welcome is, in my view, the height of sophistry. Yes, even when I myself am doing it.

Steve Salerno said...

But it's important to add that I think that many physicists and cosmologists are guilty of the very same kind of sophistry when they "extrapolate" the existence of phenomena that they can't prove.

RevRon's Rants said...

"To try to contrive a rational tent in which faith is equally welcome is, in my view, the height of sophistry."

I think where you're getting off track is demanding that faith be housed in a "rational tent" in the first place. Such an attempt is doomed to be as effective as storing water in a sieve or, to revert to a previous example, quantifying the love you feel.

IMO, the sophistry exists primarily in the insistence upon quantifying and qualifying spirituality according to (currently measurable) physical criteria, and stubbornly refusing to accept the possibility of [spirituality's] existence when those efforts prove fruitless. A more appropriate (and creative) goal would be to search for the areas where the two intersect sans conflict, which is, IMO, the core function of religion and the greatest challenge to science, at least once the need to impose control is set aside.

Steve Salerno said...

But Ron, I ask you again: If you want to wall off spirituality as separate and apart from logical scrutiny, then on what basis do you attack (or at least satirize) a Marianne Williamson or Rhonda Byrne? Or, for that matter, an adult who clings to a belief in Santa or the Easter Bunny? Can't they mount the same defense?

RevRon's Rants said...

It is irrelevant whether someone believes in a Santa Clause or a Tooth Fairy; it only becomes relevant if they expect those entities to intercede in their life experiences. I believe in the *spirit* of Santa Claus, which is - to me - the product of humans' attempt to personify and encourage the giving nature so many people (including non-Christians) experience during the Christmas season. If "Santa" started selling subliminal DVD's, workshops, call center coaching programs, or rides in expensive sleighs, my attitude would be different.

Byrne, Vitale, and others of their ilk strive to profit from the promotion of illusory cause & effect relationships between spirituality and the physical realm, despite being aware that those relationships are nonexistent. For that, they deserve not to be attacked, but definitely exposed. Santa Claus, on the other hand, is not in and of himself a profit center, but rather a source of inspiration. A good fable, offering a model for behavior, but minus the invoice for services rendered or promises of impossible services yet to come.

Steve Salerno said...

OK Ron. You get the last word. At least from my end of it.

Kathryn Price said...

Steve, when a "religion" has been jerry-built "in a few short weeks" and its founder markets it and then becomes inaccessible to her followers or their questions, then I think it becomes fair game for criticism.

As for reaching a meeting of the minds regarding the "rational tent" you're probably right that we won't reach such a meeting. It seems then, that we go back to my original question, though--are religious people irrational? It seems to me that you're saying in order to be a person who values reason and science I must relegate all thoughts, feelings and perceptions which do not easily yield to it in a substandard box marked "exemption," to which I cling because I need it. I don't think that states the case, or that it is how my theology developed, but I agree that we will probably disagree on that.

There is one thing I would like to make clear, or at least as clear as I can: "faith" is often posited as intellectual assent to an unlikely proposition, and I think that while it may function like that for some people, for others it is about commitment to a way of life. In another good movie but even better novel, The Year of Living Dangerously, the character Billy Kwan, a photojournalist, and the journalist Guy Hamilton, who has just arrived in Indonesia, talk about suffering as they walk through a slum one night. Kwan references the book What Then Must We Do? by Tolstoy (a title taken from the gospel of Luke). Tolstoy had walked the streets of Moscow one night, giving away his money to the poor, but ultimately deciding that this was an endless drop in the bucket, solving nothing of itself. Kwan goes on to say that he took a different tack, deciding that he wouldn't worry about the larger issues--such as why suffering exists or how to address it systematically--but that he would deal with whatever misery was in front of him "and the little bit of good that you do adds its light to the sum of light." He would love the person in his path. Kwan just started living it. I do worry about the larger issues, such as why suffering exists, and how poverty is created, and whether anything I could do would matter, but at some point, like Kwan, I realized I would just have to wade in and live it. It's not an idea in my mind that's going to matter here. It will only be realized in the living of it, as love can only be realized by loving. That's how I see religion.

In terms of rationality/spirituality I also like a citation from the same book: "In our current cartoon philosophy, opposites, and even two sides of the same coin, cannot co-exist. I prefer the medieval wisdom, which said that lust thwarted could become love, that barriers to the body could lift the spirit." That is not a perfect--or perhaps even good-- analogy for what we're talking about here. But I think that limits to reason might raise imagination, and limits to imagination might strengthen reason, and that somehow, they can co-exist in one person.

And if you can make sense of that, please let me know... ;)

RevRon's Rants said...

"But I think that limits to reason might raise imagination, and limits to imagination might strengthen reason, and that somehow, they can co-exist in one person."

Eminently quotable and right on the money IMO, Kathryn. There's no need to create angst because one has faith as well as reason; the challenge is always to discover where they converge, rather than focusing upon their seeming conflict.

roger o'keefe said...

I see merit on both sides, though I suppose I lean more towards Steve. I don't see my faith as a flaw in my personality. It makes me a better person. Having said that, I guess I'd have to say I do see my faith as a weakness in my rationality. Even as a man of faith, I don't honestly see how anyone can deny faith is irrational. That's what it is by definition. Is that the distinction you're trying to make, Steve?

Steve Salerno said...

Roger, much as I'd wanted to opt out at this point, I'd have to say in reply to your question (and comment): Precisely! Faith may make you a better person. But I don't see how anyone can argue that it doesn't detract from your credibility as a rational person.

a/good/lysstener said...

I was raised in the church as well. I would only add, when you take the fact that religion makes so little sense and you add the way people misuse religion to start wars and ethnic purges and the rest, I wonder why we need it.

Anonymous said...

You're looking at this whole thing too deeply. Faith is faith. To those of us who have it, it just IS. It was placed in there at the beginning by our Creator. That has nothing to do with intelligence or our ability to function as competent thinking beings in other areas of life.

Steve Salerno said...

'Lys: I agree, certainly when it comes to organized religion. I think a lot of this thread has to do with spirituality, which is a bit different.

Anon: You're making my point--that intelligent people "wall off" the area of faith such that it's not subject to the same logical scrutiny as other areas of life. Not to sound testy, but I think I said that about nine comments ago.

RevRon's Rants said...

"But I don't see how anyone can argue that it doesn't detract from your credibility as a rational person."

I would think that such a compromise in credibility would only matter to people who perceive themselves as wholly rational. The only person I've ever met who rightfully fit that description was a patient in a NY state mental hospital, who had undergone a bilateral frontal lobotomy. Oh, and Mr. Spock...

I abandoned the notion of absolute rationality the first time I fell in love. Moderation in all things... including rationality (and faith).

Lena Phoenix said...

"I would think that such a compromise in credibility would only matter to people who perceive themselves as wholly rational."

Sam Harris' argument is that such a compromise matters because irrational religious belief has been used to justify all manner of horrific behavior, be it flying planes into buildings or refusing condoms to the spouses of HIV infected people. If you're going to argue that some irrationality is okay when it comes to matters of faith, where, exactly, are you going to draw the line? Why is an irrational belief that makes someone feel better okay, when an irrational belief that inspires someone to kill another in the name of God not?

You can argue that any sane person can tell the difference between a belief that harms others and one that doesn't, but I think Harris has a point - if you're going to accept any aspect of an irrational belief system, it is the slipperiest of slopes to things like 9/11 or the murder of abortion providers. After all, those people genuinely believed they were doing the right thing, and if you're going to allow that some irrationality is acceptable in matters of the spirit, on what basis can you really argue that they're wrong?

RevRon's Rants said...

"Why is an irrational belief that makes someone feel better okay, when an irrational belief that inspires someone to kill another in the name of God not?"

Posing such a patently absurd question is, IMO, a denial of the existence of factors like common sense and human decency; the presence of either provides the answer, or at least renders the question moot.

Surely, there have been horrific acts committed in the name of religion, but only when the above aspects were missing. By the same token, there have been horrific acts committed in the name of rationality. It is quite possible, for example, that Dr. Josef Mengele's experiments on a few hundred people might have ultimately resulted in the discovery of a cure for some major disease, or helped to decrease the infant mortality rate. Even supposing that such results would be realized by someone else, but based upon Mengele's data, it could be "rationally" argued that the suffering of a few hundred was outweighed by the improvement of millions of lives. It is the "irrational" elements that lead us to summarily reject such a "bargain."

The "slippery slope" argument is too often used as a fear tactic when actual data to support an argument is lacking, or when logic tells us that the argument is false. Such a tactic is, in the vast majority of cases, disingenuous, because it presupposes our wholesale abandonment of the human principles that render us capable of living in a civilized society. There are elements within every society that abandon those principles, but the society is founded upon the aspiration to its highest ideals, rather than upon that lowest common denominator. For that most base of elements, we have a criminal justice system. Not everybody in a society belongs within that system, and most live their lives blissfully unaware of its function and milieu.

Bottom line is that IMO, the "slippery slope" only becomes precarious when we lose our moral footing.

Steve Salerno said...

Ron: In my view it is unfair to start from the premise of dismissing that as a "patently absurd" question. It's really what underlies this entire discussion.

RevRon's Rants said...

You're right, Steve. I should have said "what I believe to be an absurd question." That said, I do see proffering such stark either/or projections as being unrealistic and disingenuous in the context of human behavior, which is rarely altogether rational.

Kathryn Price said...

"You can argue that any sane person can tell the difference between a belief that harms others and one that doesn't, but I think Harris has a point - if you're going to accept any aspect of an irrational belief system, it is the slipperiest of slopes to things like 9/11 or the murder of abortion providers. After all, those people genuinely believed they were doing the right thing, and if you're going to allow that some irrationality is acceptable in matters of the spirit, on what basis can you really argue that they're wrong?"

If Harris wants to rid people of all that he considers irrational, what would that include? I believe compassion is the highest principle to which we can aspire--is that rational? Is there a state of pure rationality in which decisions are based solely on reason, and are thus, the correct ones? Descartes--"I think, therefore I am"--tortured live dogs to demonstrate that animals were merely unthinking biological machines and their expressions of pain mechanical in nature.

Out of the same spiritual beliefs that some have used for harm, we have people such as Oscar Romero, Thich Nhat Hanh, Dorothy Day--had they cleansed themselves of all inclinations that did not come from pure reason, they wouldn't have become who they are. How would we do such a cleansing, by the way? I tried to convince myself that all spiritual feeling was potentially suspicious. I suspected my own propensity to love rocks and dirt and ants was silly and useless, because I do love them--and it's probably not rational to love that way. That love doesn't have to lead to a belief in anything, or any system. But wouldn't it by itself be defined as irrational in Harris' system? I would argue, not having read the book, that Harris is going to have to define a system, a set of beliefs, about which "irrational" behaviors he wants to allow.

I have a high regard for rational thinking. However, the thought of a world filled with people who are purely rational, logical beings doesn't sound attractive to me (what happens to art, literature, vision?) and I don't think it's even possible.

Pure reason is appropriate for science, but what about ethics? I would argue that the foundation of ethics is compassion or at least fellow feeling, applied in a systematic way that incorporates rationality in its process. Scientists, in purely rational pursuits can leave ethics out of the laboratories, which is also dangerous.

How can we parse all this out? If "irrationality" in even the nth degree should be left out of the human equation, where does Harris begin? And who do we become?

I think we have no choice but to mediate between reason and what we consider "not reason" in our experience. Perhaps experience and the universe isn't going to conform to the parameters of the human mind, and in fact, it doesn't have to answer to the human mind. We are only part of it.

Steve Salerno said...

Ron: I don't think this is a "footnote-level" point, and I'm not merely arguing for the insertion of a qualifier ("what I believe...") in your denunciation of Lena's argument. If we're going to condone irrationality--in any form--then where DO we draw the line? It's a fair question. Whose irrationality is preferable to whose? And you can't just fall back on the argument that "well, at least in the case of religion, no one gets hurt," as that is "patently" untrue.

RevRon's Rants said...

"If we're going to condone irrationality--in any form--then where DO we draw the line?"

We draw that line from the context of common sense and human decency, which represent the synthesis of "rational" logic and "irrational" beliefs. Or do you discount common sense and human decency as being valid delineators of acceptable behavior?

I'll toss your question right back at you: Please describe (and justify the existence of) a purely rational human. Can such a being even exist? If it could, would it reflect the highest aspirations of humanity, and be a model which we should strive to emulate, in your opinion? (Remember... Mengele's work could well have been consistent with such rationality.)

IMO, arguing for absolute rationality in humans is akin to attempting to quantify the number of angels that could dance on the head of a pin. It simply cannot ever rise above the status of a mind game.

Steve Salerno said...

Ron: I'm not arguing for a "purely rational human," necessarily. I've already conceded, in prior comments, that there are aspects of irrational behavior that likely make for a better all-around person, albeit a less logical one.

I would simply like someone on the side of religious faith to acknowledge the following: "Yes, I know I'm being irrational in my faith, and I therefore lose (at least some of) my standing to attack the irrationality of others." That is what I object to in the arguments mounted by partisans of religion/faith/spirituality. They seem to want to have it both ways, to try to force-fit their religion into a framework where it doesn't violate the precepts of rational thinking.

RevRon's Rants said...

"They seem to want to have it both ways, to try to force-fit their religion into a framework where it doesn't violate the precepts of rational thinking."

I'm not attempting to "force-fit" anything, Steve. The way I see it, the supposed "rationalists" attempt to force spirituality to either conform to hypothetically "rational" standards or to admit to being invalid. It's no less disingenuous than the religionists' demands that others accept their definition of faith. Neither "side" deals with reality, preferring to cling to their own definitions.

Perhaps it would be easier to comprehend if we didn't insist that a different perspective constituted a "violation" of our own. Rather, consider that rationality might be independent from belief, and belief independent from rationality. Seeking the common ground is all we can hope to achieve, since the either/or is not only unachievable, the very effort has been clearly proved throughout human history to be destructive.

Steve Salerno said...

As I see it, your answer is precisely where we get into trouble. As Bill Maher likes to say, "Sometimes it isn't a 'double standard.' Sometimes it's actually two different things."

You can't really be saying that those who favor logic and evidence must be as accepting of spirituality as spiritual types must be of logic and evidence, can you? Because that outlook basically throws the established order of things out the window and opens life up to exactly the type of "designer reality" that we've been fighting on this blog for five years!

Lena Phoenix said...

I'm not qualified to defend Harris' argument - he does that plenty well enough on his own, and I'd suggest those who have quarrel with him read the book The End of Faith and take it from there.

Regarding Ron's comment about the patent absurdity of my question, the example I painted was clearly black and white, but this question impacts our lives in all sorts of gray areas for which the criminal justice system is no answer. It was fully legal for our local Catholic school to kick out the children of a lesbian family on the basis of religious belief and the people who did so are convinced of the ethical rightness of their position. The current battle over discrimination against homosexuals is IMO an excellent example of where your logic breaks down, since laws that genuinely hurt people are being proposed and decided entirely on the basis of irrational religious belief held by people who think they are doing the right and compassionate thing by, say, denying gays the right to adopt. Ethics are important, but if your ethics are based on an irrational belief system to begin with, I think it's fair to point out there are some serious problems there.

I don't believe that even the most scientifically oriented human beings are entirely rational; science has repeatedly demonstrated that we are anything but both inside and outside of religion. But I do think that science has done the best job of providing us with the foundation of information we need to make the best decisions we can at this time (which by no means excludes adding in qualities like compassion into the mix), but cracking open the door to irrationality in that process creates a set up for some very real negative consequences. Your suggestion that the "right" answer is obvious to people who have compassion just doesn't hold water when you consider how many people think that forcibly converting people to their religion IS the most compassionate thing to do.

RevRon's Rants said...

I'm only saying that nobody - not even those who profess to be Vulcan-like in their logical approach to reality or those who attempt to project an image of saintly demeanor - knows everything. I don't claim to have a lock on spirituality OR rational logic; I'm human. Lacking the realization - and the admission - that I am not omniscient, I have no prospect for improvement or growth, which would in my perspective render my life a waste of time.

The product (as well as the source) of such humility is a willingness to allow for the possibility that other perspectives than my own may well represent ultimate Truth, which exists independent of my or anyone else's "beliefs," whether those "beliefs" are borne of rational logic or faith. One need demand nothing of the other save for the right to exist. And that is the notion that I've been striving to share (for a bit longer than 5 years).

RevRon's Rants said...

Inasmuch as we seem to have come to an intellectual impasse, I'll leave the last word to you this time, Steve. Though I too reserve the right to respond to your "last word!" :-)

Lena Phoenix said...

"The way I see it, the supposed "rationalists" attempt to force spirituality to either conform to hypothetically "rational" standards or to admit to being invalid. It's no less disingenuous than the religionists' demands that others accept their definition of faith. Neither "side" deals with reality, preferring to cling to their own definitions."

Whaaaaaa? So you're saying, just to pose one example, that those who accept the theory of evolution on the basis of mountains of scientific evidence pointing towards it are "not dealing with reality" any more than those who insist the earth is only 6,000 years old because that's what their holy book says?

If that's the case, I think you and I have a very different definition of reality.

Steve Salerno said...

Ron et al: I entrust Lena with arguing my side of the case from here on. ;)

RevRon's Rants said...

Lena, I think an equally valid example would be many "rationalists'" demand that faith be disregarded as a pathological state. The extremes on both sides of the equation are obviously quite threatened by the mere existence of the other side, and that, IMO, is the source of the "argument."

My concept of faith is independent of the dogma that has been constructed over the centuries in the name of "religion." I certainly don't refute the significant body of evidence that supports the theory of evolution, but as we have discussed previously on this blog, even that science fails to answer the fundamental question of how the process began in the first place. It is my opinion that the only conflict between reason and faith is one of human construction, and that it is wholly dependent upon ignoring the essence of both.

Some things defy our logic, yet exist nonetheless. Other things challenge our faith, yet they exist as well. And yes, our definitions of reality might well be very different. On the other hand, if we could but eliminate the focus upon semantics, we might find that the "conflict" evaporates.

Lena Phoenix said...

Wow, Steve - let's hope I'm up to the task.

Ron, the primary issue I have with your argument is that I think there's a fundamental difference between how science based people and faith based people view the fact that there's a lot we don't know. At its core, science knows it doesn't know everything, which is why it is a discipline that is constantly evolving and changing based on new discoveries and information. Sure, the cognitive structures that make it hard for us to change our minds or fairly evaluate evidence that contradicts ANY belief affect scientists as well as the religious, but in the end, science is set up so that good, objectively verifiable evidence wins out in the end.

So science freely admits that it doesn't know everything, but is willing to change and amend its beliefs based on solid new evidence. Faith, on the other hand, takes the "we don't know everything" argument and uses that as justification for believing a host of stuff for which there is NO evidence, and part of some people's definition of faith is to maintain this position no matter how overwhelming the evidence to the contrary.

To me, this is a crucial distinction, since the latter allows all sorts of dangerous beliefs to claim validity that are eventually weeded out by the former.

As someone who has experienced a great deal of psychological and financial suffering from believing people who preached the "science doesn't know everything therefore what I believe is true," I hope you can understand why your theory that we should all just allow space for each other gives me serious pause. It all sounds peaceful and loving and open-minded to live and let live, but IMO it's a very short distance from "science doesn't know everything so maybe I can control the universe with my mind" to death by organ failure in an overheated sweat lodge.

Steve Salerno said...

Lena: You're doing a helluva lot better than I am! Which doesn't mean I expect you to continue to "engage" on my behalf, if it's inconvenient or grows tiresome. I'm just sayin...

RevRon's Rants said...

Lena, you're dealing in extremes, which is understandable given your hints at an abusive history. There are extremes (and extremists) at both sides of any belief system, but I'd hate to think that we define the systems as a whole, based upon the lowest common denominators of each.

I reject the religious fanatics' demands that everyone perceive reality as they do, every bit as much as I reject the "critical thinkers'" insistence that nothing can exist beyond their ability to quantify and qualify it. As I'd said, the abuses arising from either extreme are destructive, but those abuses should not be considered as representative of either's core ideology.

And that is where I believe we differ. I have experienced my own abuses, inflicted in the name of religion, yet I know that those abuses were not a manifestation of spirituality, much less, of a God. I cannot see any reason to abandon a faith that enriches me, simply because someone subverted the principles of that faith in order to conform to their own priorities.

Science does have its answers, and our lives have been immeasurably enriched by those answers. It also has its atrocities, the application of which has been the source of human suffering that I'd contend is equal to the suffering caused by abusive religions. That is no justification for abandoning our pursuit of logical answers, any more than religious fanaticism is justification for abandoning a belief in something more than we can perceive or understand.

There is room for both faith and logic, so long as we don't demand that either reign supreme and cancel out the other. There is room for both. Our rejection of the symbiotic coexistence of the two is a testament to our own lack of insight and our fear.

I managed to heal the abuses from my own past, at least enough to not allow those hurts to govern my future. But before I could do that, I had to recognize that not all that is done in the name of God or science is an accurate reflection of either.

Lena Phoenix said...

Thanks, Steve! You can take some credit for that, BTW - SHAM was one of the books that helped deprogram me ;-)

Steve Salerno said...

(I think it's unfortunate that this discussion got hijacked off into areas having to do with the backgrounds of the participants, since I believe that the arguments stand on their own, without any broader human context: A thing is either logical or it isn't. That said, the "door was opened" mutually, so I guess I should just stand back and let people have at it.)

Anonymous said...

Come on Ron! You're rationalzing and tap dancing this whole thread. Look up the very definition of faith, it says belief in what can't be proved. Science is about the evidence type of proof. Logic is about proof by thinking it through. Either way you can't fit religion into that. You either believe in science or you believe in faith and if you want to have an exception for faith in the middle of a scientific view of life at least man up and admit it.

RevRon's Rants said...

Unfortunate, Steve? Do you honestly believe that anyone's perspective - indeed, their logic - isn't formed or at least greatly influenced by their experiential base? The only way we can begin to truly communicate with each other is by understanding the filters we each have in place, and through which all that information must pass while we process and integrate it into our perspectives.

The only thing I find unfortunate is that the objective of this kind of discussion so frequently degrades to the point where someone must be "wrong" in order for another to be "right," when in fact, the most reasonable objective is a synthesis, where opposing ideas are not merely allowed, but accepted as being valid to those who hold them. *That* seems the more logical objective to me.

Steve Salerno said...

Ron: Now hold on there, podner. I'm not arguing right and wrong here, insofar as whether God exists or anyone has the right to believe in Him (or Her, for those who prefer to go the Divine Mother route). What I object to, and where I very definitely think there IS a right or wrong, is whether a given outlook or attitude or belief, if you will, fits into a logical/rational system of thought. That's the only thing I've been asking anyone to acknowledge here, is that if you're arguing for faith, you're arguing against rationality. As our recent Anon just said, that dichotomy is "by definition." Throughout this discussion I get the sense that you somehow want to be able to include your view of faith within a logical system of looking at life, and that's where I draw the line. To me, it's like me saying, "I prefer to think that 2+2=7." Sure, I have every right to say it, but are you seriously proposing that there's no Right/Wrong there?

Lena Phoenix said...

"Lena, you're dealing in extremes, which is understandable given your hints at an abusive history."

You keep talking about extremes, Ron, but I disagree that I am. If you think everyone who believes in any of the points I've raised as an example is an extremist, then this planet has billions of extremists on it.

Regarding the idea that my current position is a reaction to my past, I'll offer that my abandonment of faith was something that occurred in stages. I spent several years holding positions nearly identical to your own. Ultimately, however, further reading and study caused me to abandon that position as not only unsupported but also, in my case, as detrimental to my well being. The implication that I haven't come to the same conclusion as you because I haven't fully healed from my past is not accurate.

"Our rejection of the symbiotic coexistence of the two is a testament to our own lack of insight and our fear."

So if I'm reading this right, you're saying that we should all symbiotically coexist, but if I don't agree with you I am lacking insight and am afraid?

RevRon's Rants said...

Steve, as I've tried to make clear, I believe our challenge is to find the point at which our logic and our faith converge, rather than focusing solely upon the areas where they appear to me mutually exclusive. If that makes me irrational, fine. I don't happen to agree.

If you want to define faith only according to the parameters of science, of course it will be irrational. Similarly, if you define Catholicism strictly by the parameters established by Islam, Catholicism will, by that definition, be a false religion, and its followers infidels. The "right versus wrong" is sustained, but at horrible cost.

I guess the best description I can offer is my belief that the same Source that created spiritual laws also created physical laws - both along fundamentally similar criteria - and our task is to strive to perceive the continuum, rather than endeavor on a never-ending attempt to further dissect the individual *points* on the continuum. Post-rationalism? Post-religious? I don't know. I only know that we needn't dismiss as invalid everything we don't understand in order to remain true to ourselves, much less to act well - even logically.

Steve Salerno said...

Ron: Contrary to how it might seem, my goal here is not to (a) piss you off, (b) insult your faith, or (c) back you into some kind of corner. I just think it's critical that we all talk a common language, and that we use terms like "logic," "faith" and "rationality" in an accurate (or at least consistent) way. If nothing else, do you agree that we ought to be working from a common understanding of what those terms mean?

Anonymous said...

This is anon 2:30 pm. OK Ron so my religion is the law of attraction and I believe that if I pray to the universe it will answer my prayers and send me whatever I want. I assume that my faith is as equally valid as yours then based on everything you've said?

RevRon's Rants said...

"If nothing else, do you agree that we ought to be working from a common understanding of what those terms mean?"

That would be an admirable goal. The problem, however, is that the very definitions are often laden with a measure of judgmentalism which has the effect of rendering the definition less than concise, much less rational.

For the record, I don't feel pissed off or backed into any corner. I just think the discussion has polarized to the extent that we have blind people screaming at deaf people, who are angrily shaking their fists in response. Much of what is borne of faith cannot be defined in purely logical terms, and many things that fit within the definition of rational or logical are inconsistent with spiritual beliefs, yet force-fitting the dissimilar concepts seems to be what is being insisted upon. You really can't get there from here...

"So if I'm reading this right, you're saying that we should all symbiotically coexist, but if I don't agree with you I am lacking insight and am afraid?"

Let's be honest. NONE of us has absolute insight, and none of us is immune to fear. If you believe yourself to be freed of those human limitations, I can understand where you would tend to take the observation personally.

All I'm TRYING to say is that I think we'd be better served by striving to find the symbiotic relationship of our logic to our faith, rather than by staunchly defending the apparent points of divergence.

RevRon's Rants said...

Anon, you may assume anything you like, and it's none of my - or anyone else's - business. So long as you're living your life without doing anything that diminishes the lives of others, nobody has a right to try to stop you. Others are, however, fully within their rights not to share your beliefs (or mine). It's only when we begin misconstruing our beliefs to the point where we consider them to be universal truths and attempt to impose those beliefs on others that we get into trouble. One person's holy grail may be another's toilet.

Cosmic Connie said...

Jeez, I’m glad I’m a devout agnostic. :-)

Speaking of the late great Carl Sagan (since Ron and Kathryn brought up the topic way up there towards the beginning): I enjoyed both the movie and the book version of "Contact," though the Palmer Joss character (Matthew McConaughey) becomes more annoying to me the more I watch the movie. But I have often wondered if Sagan was simply playing Devil's Advocate (in relation to his own point of view) with those questions and implications about an intelligent/divine force behind all creation.

One of my favorite books is "Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors," by Sagan & his wife, Ann Druyan. One passage from Chapter 3, “Life Is Just A Three-Letter Word” really stuck out for me. Writing about mutations and their apparent randomness, the authors explained that most mutations are harmful, though a few are helpful, but even the helpful ones may represent “a tradeoff, a compromise.” From page 84 of the hardcover first edition:

“This is a principle means by which life evolves – exploiting imperfections in copying despite the cost. It is not how we would do it. It does not seem to be how a Deity intent on special creation would do it. The mutations have no plan, no direction behind them; their randomness seems chilling; progress, if any, is agonizingly slow. The progress sacrifices all those beings who are now less fit to perform their life tasks because of the new mutation – crickets who no longer hop high, birds with malformed wings, dolphins gasping for breath, great elms succumbing to blight. Why not more efficient, more compassionate mutations? Why must resistance to malaria carry a penalty in anemia? [CLS note: This is in reference to sickle-cell anemia, an unfortunate byproduct of some African people’s development of resistance to malaria.] We want to urge evolution to get to where it’s going and stop the endless cruelties. But life doesn’t know where it’s going. It has no long-term plan. There’s no end in mind. There’s no mind to keep an end in mind. The process is the opposite of teleology. Life is profligate, blind, at this level unconcerned with notions of justice. It can afford to waste multitudes.”

That said, the passage is followed by the authors’ observation that the evolutionary process couldn’t have progressed too far if the mutation rate had been too high, and for life to proceed there must be a delicate balance between too many mutations and too few. (With too few mutations, organisms would never be able to retool when changes in the external environment require them to adapt or die). Still, given the scenario as presented by Sagan and Druyan, it would seem that even if there is a divine intelligence at work, she/he/it is one of those careless creative sorts who loves to tinker and experiment, but, contrary to the romantic Biblical notion, doesn’t actually care all that much about the fate of every little sparrow.

I’ve probably gone off on a tangent, as I am wont to do, but at least this relates to those big questions behind the discussion, questions to which none of us really knows the answer. Steve, I think I can identify with the spiritual/intellectual tightrope you walk – your belief in God and your simultaneous acknowledgment that there might not be a God. The main difference between you and me, I think, is that I can’t bring myself to say with sincerity that I actually believe. I’m still an agnostic who generally leans towards belief and kinda sorta wants to believe, and who is often sympathetic with those who do believe, but I haven’t been able to throw myself wholeheartedly into belief. I also enjoy reading Hitchens and Dawkins, but find them insufferable after a while.

Being a fence-sitter myself, I’ve taken flak from believers who think I’m too critical and critical thinkers who think I’m not critical enough. Whatevs, as our pal Salty Droid might say. At any rate, I have no delusions that I am a rational or even generally a logical being. And most of the time, I’m fine with that.

Kathryn Price said...

"I reject the religious fanatics' demands that everyone perceive reality as they do, every bit as much as I reject the "critical thinkers'" insistence that nothing can exist beyond their ability to quantify and qualify it.'

I agree with Ron's statement. I would never demand that anyone accept the spiritual path I have chosen, nor would I claim that I possess the truth. Humility is my first stance in approaching a search for understanding. However, if in considering the possibility that there might be a spiritual component to life I am denied credibility as a rational person, then must all scientists be atheists to maintain scientific credibility? I worked with more than one chemist who is a person of faith at a time when I was not. Were they compromising their rational credibility by admitting to an experience of something beyond a rational process?

I think Harris' slippery slope argument may have the (perhaps unintended) result of attempting to suppress human curiosity, a charge he would slap on fundamentalists (as would I). It seems that he is saying that it is only a dogged rationality that can keep us safe from human error or malfeasance. I do not agree that such unadulterated rationality exists, and thinking that it does and that it alone possesses legitimacy in the human endeavor to understand ourselves and the universe, that anything outside it drags us down, strikes me as being as unfounded a claim, in terms of evidence, as what he is arguing against.

It also seems to me that there's a double standard potential (although I don't think I've heard it stated expressly here),in saying that a person of faith is disqualified from expressing concern and criticism about misuses of such, since we're all coming from irrationality in the first place. It seems, though, that a failure to speak out is exactly what people of faith are criticized for when progressives don't challenge fundamentalists (and they do, all the time; it's just that they're not nearly as loud or sound-bite worthy). Thus, only the "rational" are allowed to critique such systems or expose those who perpetrate frauds or shams in the name of spirituality. Is that where you want to go?

(Oh, and sorry about my somewhat groggy early morning post--before my first cup of coffee was downed--and for my absence from the discussion thereafter. A new warning of a foot of snow sent us scurrying out for supplies, reading material and other fortifications to make it through.)

Kathryn Price said...

"I just think it's critical that we all talk a common language, and that we use terms like "logic," "faith" and "rationality" in an accurate (or at least consistent) way."

Steve, I think part of the problem is the use of the term "irrationality." In common use, it has connotations that are far from simply "not (hard) evidence based" thinking. Those connotations tend to have to do with individuals who are incoherent or behaving in an erratic manner. Merriam Webster's examples of irrationality include: "He became irrational as the fever got worse." "She had an irrational fear of cats." Is there another term that would be useful in the discussion, as I don't think either example has to do with perspectives that arise from curiosity and wonder, or from a sense of reverence, or from something like the goosebumps that great music raises on the skin (or I am the only one?). :)

Lena Phoenix said...

Posted on behalf of Lena Phoenix (due to technical error):

"It's only when we begin misconstruing our beliefs to the point where we consider them to be universal truths and attempt to impose those beliefs on others that we get into trouble."

But Ron, that's exactly what you are doing. You're repeatedly arguing that your own perspective that there is a symbiotic relationship between logic and faith is the right one and people who don't agree with you are coming from a place of limited understanding. How is that not trying to impose your belief on others?

Steve Salerno said...

What's interesting about this whole line of debate to me is the apparent inability (or at least high degree of difficulty) for people to second-guess themselves in this area. Realize that I wrote everything in this thread from the perspective of someone who basically believes in God. So I am simultaneously declaring my belief in God, and declaring myself a probable idiot (or at least an irrational being) for doing so. I don't want applause for that...I just want to know why more people can't seem to do it.

Why do we invest so much of ourselves in what we think and believe?

RevRon's Rants said...

Lena, I ask no one to embrace my beliefs. Only that they allow the possibility that others' beliefs might actually have some merit, and allow them to hold their own perspectives sans derision. I agree with Kathryn; the terms "irrational" and "illogical" carry an inherent judgment that does not serve to further civil dialog. Neither does an insistence upon adhering to a stark black versus white perspective when discussing human thought and interaction. Humanity is a mass of gray areas, with few points of absolute clarity. Denying the fact does not make it false, it merely allows one the illusion of certainty where there is none.

And Steve, to answer your last question, perhaps others don't share your definition of what is rational, or perhaps they simply don't feel the need to apply the label. But you can certainly pat yourself on the back if you like; look at how effectively you've challenged others to re-evaluate their beliefs (or to cling more tightly to them, as the case may be). :-)

Lena Phoenix said...

"Why do we invest so much of ourselves in what we think and believe?"

I don't think humans are programmed to handle uncertainty very well, which is one of the reasons why religious belief is so comforting. It relieves the tension of not knowing, and I don't think most of us like having that messed with.

Lewis Wolport puts forth some interesting, evolutionary biology-based reasons for why that is in Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast.

RevRon's Rants said...

The very uncertainty which is supposedly a source of such discomfort is, at least for me, quite exhilarating. If I "knew" all the answers, I suspect life would become quite constrained and even boring. Not knowing where an idea (or an action) will take me adds greatly to its allure.

While there are certainly people who use religion as an escape, there are also those whose professed transcendence of any need for spirituality is borne of another fear: the unwillingness to acknowledge something that they are unable to explain logically.

No matter upon which side of the ideological fence one sits, it is apparently quite tempting to cast aspersions on those who choose the "other" side (or no side at all). It's one case in which good fences don't make for good neighbors, and all the more reason to strive to deconstruct the fence altogether.

Kathryn Price said...

"Speaking of the late great Carl Sagan (since Ron and Kathryn brought up the topic way up there towards the beginning): I enjoyed both the movie and the book version of "Contact," though the Palmer Joss character (Matthew McConaughey) becomes more annoying to me the more I watch the movie."

Connie, I agree on the somewhat annoying aspect of the Palmer Joss character. For me I think it has something to do with Matthew McConaughey--I didn't quite "buy" him in that role. I had read, a year or two before the movie, Sagan's The Demon Haunted World, and I was also surprised to find "Contact" take the perspective that it did--perhaps Sagan was playing devil's advocate.
The quotation on mutation brought to mind a passage that has always intrigued me from the book Death Be Not Proud. For those who might not be familiar with it, it's a memoir written by John Gunther about the death of his 17 year old son from a brain tumor. What intrigues me is the single chapter in the book written by the boy's (Johnny's) mother, Frances. I don't know a great deal about her faith, beyond that she was Jewish. She wrote that she believed in God and felt God was there with her during Johnny's illness, but God was also helpless. She wrote: "Life is a myriad series of mutations, chemical, physical, spiritual. The same infinitely intricate, yet profoundly simple, law of life ...which out of infinite mutation had produced Johnny, that law still mutating, destroyed him. God Himself, no less than us, is part of that law." I was intrigued by her perspective and her sense of grace about the loss of her son. I've done some research on her life and there isn't a lot of information about her, but there are collected writings and letters she left in a library in the East somewhere, and I tell myself that someday I'll travel there and read her papers and write a book about her life. (Ah, that "someday," it features in a lot of my plans...)

That may be a tangent, too, but I think Frances Gunther's perspective would fall into a contemporary theology known as process theology, offered at my seminary. I haven't taken it yet. I guess I bring this up to make the point that theology is not stagnant, not stuck in a rut of past centuries, as may be commonly perceived. Nevertheless, like other disciplines it builds on tradition and the work of previous scholars.

Loren Eiseley, an anthropologist and naturalist, in his essay "The Star Thrower" writes about evolution and his sense of compassion as he cast beached starfish back into the water: "From Darwin's tangled bank of unceasing, struggle, selfishness and death, had arisen, incomprehensibly, the thrower who loved not man, but life. It was the subtle cleft in nature before which biological thinking had faltered." He went on to allude to perhaps a faint concept of God: "Somewhere, I felt, in a great atavistic surge of feeling, somewhere the Thrower knew. Perhaps he smiled and cast once more into the boundless pit of darkness. Perhaps he, too, was lonely, and the end toward which he labored remained hidden--even as with ourselves."

I think Eiseley combines reason, experience and imagination in this essay, letting each speak to him while understanding the limits of each, and I think it is the kind of perspective that we absolutely can't do without. If that is irrationality per Harris, then so be it. I would like to make clear that there is rarely a day in my life in which I don't experience some doubt. I play devil's advocate with my own perspective, too.

Kathryn Price said...

"I don't think humans are programmed to handle uncertainty very well, which is one of the reasons why religious belief is so comforting. It relieves the tension of not knowing, and I don't think most of us like having that messed with."

That presumes that comfort is what people seek when they are deeply drawn to a spiritual path. For some, it has nothing to do with comfort or certainty. It has to do with feeling called to a life of radical love. I saw this when I went to El Salvador last year. On returning to the U.S., it seemed to me that we're only playing at life here much of the time. It could not be said that comfort is what drew the people I met there. That is the side that doesn't get represented in books like those written by Dawkins.

Steve Salerno said...

Just a few random observations:

There are many things in life that provide comfort. These include drugs, overeating, sexual addiction, and even, for the psychopathic killer, the next murder, which alleviates the tension that has built inside since the previous killing. The fact that something provides comfort to humans is not, in and of itself, a justification for the thing.

It is true that we "cast aspersions" on tendencies that we don't agree with or understand, but it is not casting an aspersion to simply state that something is illogical. Saying at the altar, when you are a mere sprite of 20 or even 30, "I will love honor and cherish this person till death us do part," is probably illogical. Surely it is out of conformity with empirical data. Nonetheless we all do it. And even before that, it is probably irrational to blurt to your newfound beloved, "I will love forever!" You do not have sufficient information to make that commitment so early on. But again, almost all of us do it. It is not "casting an aspersion" to point out the illogical basis of such (common) behaviors. God falls into the same category.

It is funny to me that when we're young, we believe in the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus, and then as we age either we gradually grow to suspect that it's all a lie and/or someone disabuses us of the comforting notions. Could it be that we cling to a belief in a supreme being because, having abandoned those youthful illusions, we still need some form of whimsy to carry with us into adulthood? And the idea of God is a permissible (even socially "required") one?

Steve Salerno said...

I also find it intriguing that many addicts or other social misfits emerge from rehabilitation as "born-agains" or with a belief in God that they never had before. (This became clear to me during my research for "SHAM.") Think about it.

RevRon's Rants said...

Steve, if your contention is that a belief in God or some other Divine Source is either a comforting crutch or the manifestation of a pathology exhibited by social misfits (all your descriptions, BTW), then it seems obvious that your statements belie your even allowing the possibility that such beliefs might be part of a process by which humanity might actually improve itself, and dare I say it, evolve. If that is the case, and you're not simply playing devil's advocate to keep the dialog going, I probably need to bow out of the discussion, as it likely has nowhere productive or positive to go. I'll be out and about all day, anyway, so the point is probably moot.

Steve Salerno said...

Ron: My statements do not "belie" any such thing. They apply to me as well. I am talking to myself in those comments as much as I am talking to anyone else.

But this discussion reminds me of a comment I have made repeatedly to my wife: "Someday I will love you enough to leave you."

It's good that you'll be out and about. I would always encourage people to get out and live rather than sit inside and communicate via blog, even if it's mine. ;)

Lena Phoenix said...

In my last post, I suggested that human beings don't deal with uncertainty very well, and a number of the other posters have interpreted my comments to mean a number of things I did not.

To clarify, Wolpert's thesis is that human beings, for whatever evolutionary reason, have developed a strong need to find causes for various effects. This need is so strong that, in the absence of a clear cause, we will make one up.

The comfort I spoke of earlier has to to with relief of tension that comes from believing there is a clear cause to what one is experiencing, even if the rational behind that cause isn't fully understood (the whole "God works in mysterious ways" thing). That's not to say that all religious people are only in it for the comfort, but rather, in the face of human suffering, the idea that there is in fact a Divine reason for that suffering, even if its one we don't fully understand, does provide a sense of comfort even as people get on with the very uncomfortable business of trying to save dying children or whatever other noble work they may have opted to do.

In the New Age of which I was a part, it was common for teachers to talk about how walking a spiritual path was the hardest thing a person could possibly do and it wasn't for the faint of heart because of the demands it would place on those who were truly committed. Yet underlying all of that was a clear belief that life (and also suffering) had a specific and intentional meaning. I would suggest that some people find it easier to face the suffering and hardship in the world if they believe there is a reason behind it, rather than thinking suffering is just random and meaningless. That's what I meant.

Steve Salerno said...

Lena: I basically agree with your analysis, and I especially endorse your final graph. In my case, for example, I find that since my sister died prematurely last year, my own "faith" has increased somewhat; certainly I think more about an afterlife. And that is because I miss her terribly and hope to see her again and hate the idea that she's just dead, and burned to pieces (she was cremated), and stuffed into an urn in some church vault, and that's all there is to it. But I also recognize that hope and longing do not reality make; that it is the hope and the longing that are driving my reinvigorated faith. And that's bogus. My desire for there to be some jubilant moment of reconciliation at the end has nothing whatsoever to do with whether any such event is likely, or even possible.

Lena Phoenix said...

Steve, despite my own lack of anything that could be considered faith, I sympathize a lot with your experience. It has on more than one occasion occurred to me that struggles I am currently dealing with would be made at least mentally easier with some kind of spiritual belief system. But your Santa Claus analogy is a particularly apt one for me, since I can no more choose to have faith in the absence of evidence than I can choose to believe in Santa Claus (which I also did at one time :-))

There are those among the faithful who would argue with this, claiming that "a leap of faith" requires just that. But in my own experience, the price I paid for choosing an irrational (and I use that word because large chunks of my previous religion were the very definition of that word) belief system was enormous, and ultimately, the damage it did to my life vastly outweighed the comfort it provided.

Ron talks about respecting others' faiths, but as I watch people I love who are still in that religion do things that I know are harmful to them, it is very, very difficult to sit on the sidelines. For the most part, I try to keep my mouth shut and respect their decisions, since their beliefs are ultimately none of my business.

That works okay until somebody comes down with cancer and their spiritual friends tell them to reject conventional medicine and treat their cancer with positive thinking and juice fasts, something that has happened twice to people I love in the last two years. Which brings me back to the slippery slope question - their spiritual beliefs heavily influence those medical choices, and I for one am not an evolved enough being to sit back and watch them die without at least trying to change those irrational beliefs.

To me, this is the front line of this whole argument, where allowing in one set of seemingly benign, non-evidence based beliefs opens the door to something much more dangerous.

Kathryn Price said...

"Could it be that we cling to a belief in a supreme being because, having abandoned those youthful illusions, we still need some form of whimsy to carry with us into adulthood? And the idea of God is a permissible (even socially "required") one?"

Steve, a form of whimsy? An adult tooth fairy? Sure, it's possible that for some people an idea of God is no more than that. I, and Ron, have said that this is not the case for everyone, though, and it seems that you are unwilling to consider that. You now bring up afterlife as a reason people invent God. That was not my motivation; that's not what fuels me. Many of the Hebrew scripture writers didn't believe in afterlife yet they still had a concept of God.

I became a hospice volunteer when I was on the fence. I did so because I thought (and think) the way our culture tends to abandon people when they are dying is wrong. I also knew that I was a good listener; I love the stories people have to tell, ordinary life stories. I was afraid someone might ask, "Why? Why is this happening to me?" but no one did. Even now I would not have an answer. I don't know the answer to that question. My faith doesn't consist of explaining it all. As Ron pointed out, a lifetime of certainty would be flat; I have often said that if we had all the answers there would be nothing left to discover, and life would become dull. Even so, speculating about the answers is natural, especially when we lose someone we love. Considering the possibility of afterlife at that time is not an indication of a breach in the rational fortress. "Hope and longing do not reality make" but they do tell us something about ourselves. You portray it as suspect because you considered it during a time when you experienced a loss in your life. But isn't that the most likely time to consider such things?

Ron has said, "it seems obvious that your statements belie your even allowing the possibility that such beliefs might be part of a process by which humanity might actually improve itself, and dare I say it, evolve." This is how I think of it (great comment, Ron). Could I be wrong? Yes. And so could you in portraying faith as inevitably some kind of maladjustment to reality, a cop out, a weakness, a whimsy or a fix. Why is it impossible to grant dignity to it as a legitimate inquiry?

Steve Salerno said...

Kathryn: I absolutely think that faith is a way for mankind to improve itself. That has nothing to do with the reasons why people embrace faith, or whether faith is irrational.

There are many irrational ideas that make life better. And don't forget, I am a (half-hearted) believer myself.

Yekaterina said...

"All I'm TRYING to say is that I think we'd be better served by striving to find the symbiotic relationship of our logic to our faith, rather than by staunchly defending the apparent points of divergence."

RevRon's comment above reminded me of something I read the other day while looking for information about right brain/left brain thinking. It seems that one of the characteristics of left-brain dominance is how the person tends to focus on differences while a person who processes information predominately with his/her right-brain tends to focus on similarities.

RevRon's Rants said...

Steve and Lena - Each of you acknowledges that your search for (and rejection of) faith was greatly affected by traumatic experiences in your respective lives, and you make the assumption that your experiences and motivations were pretty much universal, despite the fact that you do not and cannot have sufficient data to make such a determination. Or do either of you claim to know the workings of every believer's mind? Lacking data beyond your own experiential base or the theories put forward by others, reaching such a conclusion is irrational and inconsistent with "critical thinking." As a matter of fact, the formula being applied is pretty Pythonesque in its "logic."

I know of someone who claims to have been treated poorly by his ex wife. She claimed to hold New Age beliefs, so he became absolutely rabid in his hatred of all things New Age (or that even looked something like New Age), claiming that it and its followers represented absolute evil. He could/would not see how his own experiences had affected his logic, and he claimed to be one of the only "honest" thinkers.

Kathryn wrote, "Why is it impossible to grant dignity to it as a legitimate inquiry?"

Perhaps the very act of doing such a thing would constitute a betrayal of one's allegiance to all things black and white. In the gray area, there be dragons, eager to devour every last morsel of skeptical cred...

I do not suggest that this explanation is universal, of course, for the very reasons given in the first paragraph.

Steve Salerno said...

Perhaps the very act of doing such a thing would constitute a betrayal of one's allegiance to all things black and white. In the gray area, there be dragons, eager to devour every last morsel of skeptical cred...

All I can say, Ron, is that if you can even imply that such a passage applies to me, of all people--especially after having read what I've written in this thread about my own "gray areas" of faith and skepticism--then perhaps you are projecting the inflexibility of your own position upon me.

"All things black and white"? You say this of the same guy who for five years now has used this very blog to question "the givens" wherever he encounters them?

I will ask you a very simple question: Do you KNOW there is a God? Can you prove it? If the answer is Yes, then you need to get yourself an agent and start booking yourself on all the major shows, because you have a historic story to tell.

If the answer is--as I expect it to be--No, then by your act of faith, you are perpetrating an inherently irrational act, by swearing allegiance to something that may or may not exist. It is the same irrational allegiance that I swear, in my more emotional moments. That is all I'm trying to say.

Steve Salerno said...

I would also add this: What have the purveyors of CAM-based snake-oil therapies been saying for years in their own defense? "The Western medical establishment is too close-minded and set in its ways to accept the mechanism and promise of new mind-body therapies that they don't understand. There is more to medicine than just the physical." And what do we say in response? "Baloney. It's a smokescreen. They're just trying to shift the burden of proof and turn the argument back against us."

And yet many of the same people who vigorously attack alternative medicine--for which there is often at least a modicum of proof, if not enough to justify its validation and use--will nonetheless fall back on that same argument when their own religious beliefs are challenged. Is that not the case?

Kathryn Price said...

"That works okay until somebody comes down with cancer and their spiritual friends tell them to reject conventional medicine and treat their cancer with positive thinking and juice fasts, something that has happened twice to people I love in the last two years."

Lena, I've watched this happen, too, to a former colleague. Some people urged her to seek conventional treatment, and she sent out an e-mail to our entire department saying that those who were urging her to do so were not being supportive, and were not helping her. She has since passed away. Ultimately it was her decision, despite efforts from the conventional treatment side, which probably included "spiritual" people as well. You attribute the results of the cases you witnessed to her "spiritual friends" and I am not disputing that, but is that a case for the slippery slope argument, eradicating all spirituality from the human experience?

I read some reviews of Harris' The End of Faith last night (as we are snowbound here), and while I don't want to critique a book based on reviews rather than my own reading of it, I do have to say it raised alarms. My cautious statement yesterday that he may unintentionally suppress human curiosity must be revised to state that he would intentionally suppress it. It seems that he seeks a one world government (with rationalists in power, I presume), considers moderate religious people the most dangerous, because they enable, with their tolerance, systems of faith to exist at all, argues that we cannot tolerate religious diversity, that we have lost the right to our myths, and that it may be ethical to kill people with certain beliefs (the page number for this was given consistently as page 53). He also, according to reviewers, argues that mysticism is a rational enterprise and makes exceptions for his own favored faith expressions, a variant of Buddhism and Reform Judaism, which is apparently his own tradition. I also read that he wants to throw out the first amendment (this point was argued among reviewers as to whether it was an exact representation of what he said, or would be the practical result of applying his arguments, so I don't know if that's his actual mission).

Again, I should read the book before saying more, but just one point: His primary examples for his argument seem to be 9/11 and examples from the medieval era. Would we judge the current state of medicine by medieval practices and beliefs (some of which were frankly bizarre and harmful to patients)? No. Why do we do so with faith?

Steve Salerno said...

[This might be a good place to interject: I hope that no one here thinks that I am attacking religious faith or arguing for its abolition! My skepticism of religion has been limited throughout to a very simple question--Is faith irrational or not? No more and no less.]

Steve Salerno said...

Analogy: Almost all of the research on happiness suggests that kids cause unhappiness; certainly the newer studies, which are presumably more valid due to better controls, leave no doubt on the point. Married couples are happier when they don't have kids, period. (I learned this during the research phase of my long cover story for Skeptic on "happyism.") Thus it can be plausibly argued that having children is an irrational act, if you care about your own happiness. But I am not proposing that we call an end to the human race by refusing to produce any further children. Some things we just do, rational or not. Perhaps elements of irrationality are endemic to the species?

RevRon's Rants said...

Don't get all huffed up, Steve. I'm not attacking you; just challenging the viability of your argument's logic. Even as you acknowledge those gray areas in your own thinking, you simultaneously relegate those areas to the realm of human weakness and human flaws. I'm not judging you; certainly not as much as you seem willing to judge yourself. I don't harbor the notion that skepticism - and a willingness to believe in only those things which we can currently document - is in all cases a product of the obsessive need for absolute, explicable order, and wonder why some skeptics are unable or unwilling to take an equivalent approach in their description of people for whom faith is an important factor.

"Do you KNOW there is a God? Can you prove it?"

The answer is "yes" to the first question. To the second, the answer is, "Not in the manner and according to the criteria you can accept."

Demanding that a believer provide proof of the existence of spirit within the context of the physically quantifiable is akin to a believer demanding that you prove that God doesn't exist. Neither can be done. You demand conformance to a standard of rationality in things that fall within a wholly separate realm, and cannot be documented (much less quantified), or apparently even discussed within that context.

And the only things to which I swear allegiance nowadays are the people I love and my own (frequently failed) attempts to live honorably and well. My sense is that even a god would have it no other way.

RevRon's Rants said...

"Thus it can be plausibly argued that having children is an irrational act, if you care about your own happiness."

Is caring about one's happiness not itself an irrational act, especially as compared to an act as purely rational as the need to maintain the species?

From my own experience, having children has been a source of some of my greatest joy, as well as my deepest heartache. All things considered, I'd have to say that they've added far more happiness than they have taken away.

Steve Salerno said...

Ron: Then I think you were right earlier. If you are stating flatly that you "know" there is a God, then there is indeed nowhere for this discussion to go.

RevRon's Rants said...

By the same token, doesn't your claim to "know" the source of human spirituality (especially given the absolute lack of the kind of empiric data you would otherwise demand to support such a conclusion) render further discussion moot? This is truly a circular argument.

Steve Salerno said...

Ron, it amazes me that in this one case, and this one case only, you are putting arguments for the unknowable and invisible on an equal footing with arguments for logic and data and empiricism. You are asking me to prove a negative--that something that can't be seen or tangibly experienced doesn't exist. (And when I say "experienced," private moments of spiritual transport don't count.) If Rhonda Byrne were to make the same argument in favor of the LoA or her concept of a beneficent Universe, you'd laugh her out of the room. You KNOW you would. (We have both done so on many occasions.) But because we're debating your own private-label brand of spirituality, you suddenly sing from Rhonda's song sheet? I don't get it. I honestly don't.

This reminds me of when the guy from the CAM movement wrote a letter to Skeptic daring us to "prove" that therapeutic touch doesn't cure various ailments. It is not our burden to prove that it doesn't; it is his burden to prove that it does.

roger o'keefe said...

Ron, I have to say the more you talk the more I side with Steve. I say this even though I'm a practicing Christian myself. You can't really talk of knowing there's a god. If what you mean is that you believe strongly, I share that sense and I know what you mean. In my heart I feel I know there's a god. That's not the same as knowing the refrigerator in the kitchen is next to the dishwasher.

RevRon's Rants said...

"I don't get it. I honestly don't."

IMO, that is because you are demanding that things which you acknowledge to be unknowable be measured within the standards and according to the criteria of that which you know and are capable of measuring. You want someone to prove to you that something unquantifiable exists, yet reject the suggestion that such a demand is no more valid than the demand that you DISPROVE its existence, using the same set of standards and criteria. Logic would suggest that you can't have it both ways.

Steve Salerno said...

Ron: That last comment is the exact same reasoning used by the alternative-medicine community in justifying its products and services. "You can't measure what we do according to the same criteria that apply in traditional medicine." That's why I say again--and I say this totally without the animus that you seem to think you hear in my comments--there is nowhere to go from here. If anything can be anything, and each individual person has the exclusive right to decide what criteria apply in weighing/judging, then what is there to talk about? You are arguing for a designer reality.

RevRon's Rants said...

Roger, perhaps there's a semantic hurdle we can't seem to overcome here. My "knowing" means that the whole of my experiential base has led me to accept something as being real. That certainty is as genuine to me as is the refrigerator in my kitchen, yet I also accept the possibility - even the likelihood - that the subjects of my certainty might change at some point. That is the definition of the kind of humility a recommend. It denies us the right to be altogether certain about many things, but also frees us to learn things that are beyond the scope of what we currently know. The arrogance of "knowing" that other perspectives are misguided or borne of flaws is the greatest single impediment to discovering the weaknesses of our own thoughts and ideas. It also serves to alienate those who think differently, rather than to help people who hold different ideas reach some sort of workable relationship.

Cosmic Connie said...

To me it doesn't matter so much whether faith is "rational" or "irrational." Maybe if we took away the presumed value judgments -- i.e., rational=good; irrational=bad -- there wouldn't be such passionate arguments here. Of course that might make this blog less interesting. (I was just speaking with Ron about this and he suggested an alternative term: "arational.")

As many of you probably know, there has been a great deal of brain research over the past couple of decades exploring the biological aspects of faith/religion/mystical experiences, or lack thereof. Is our desire for or experience of God simply a product of brain chemistry, relative activity or inactivity of certain parts of the brain, and so forth? Beats the heck out of me. A complex array of inherent as well as environmental factors (trauma, drug use, illness, etc.) can make people more or less faithful, religious, spiritual, or mystically inclined. But in some cases it seems to be kind of a chicken-or-egg question. Are the brain/biochemical factors a result or a cause of faith, religious tendencies, spiritual proclivities, or even mystical experiences?

I would like to think we are more than our biology, but hey, maybe we're not.

Kathryn (this is in response to a couple of your earlier comments -- I'm running behind as usual), I'm glad you brought up Loren Eiseley. In fact it was your invocation of him in one of your own blog posts some time ago that inspired me to dig out my Eiseley books, which had been packed away for years, and re-read "The Star Thrower." (His autobiographical work, "All The Strange Hours," is well worth reading too.) He's long been one of my favorites. A modern-day Eiseley of sorts (at least in the sense of penning thoughtful and eloquent musings about science and life) is Chet Raymo, author of the Science Musings blog and the book, "When God Is Gone, Everything is Holy."

An even earlier remark of yours (Kathryn) struck a nerve for me: "I believe compassion is the highest principle to which we can aspire--is that rational?" It may not be rational, but I think I agree with you.

And you have given me more food for thought in your short comment about some religious/faithful/spiritual folks "feeling called to a life of radical love." You're right when you say that many skeptics, atheists, and rationalists -- and even wishy-washy agnostics such as myself -- have given short shrift to this aspect. In an essay I wrote many years ago I wasn't very kind to religion (and I'm still not, if we're talking about organized religion). I suggested that both New-Wage spirituality and traditional religion were partly the results of people's desire for entertainment (through transcendence), and partly because (as Lena has suggested here), humans have a deep fear of uncertainty. [Here's a link in case you haven't seen it http://home.swbell.net/moonshad/wet-blanket.html ] Even though I think I made some legitimate points I also recognize my own arrogance when writing that piece.

RevRon's Rants said...

"You are arguing for a designer reality."

Not at all; merely for an end to the arrogance that demands absolute adherence to that which is consistent with one's concept of reality. It's like trying to accurately describe a bird in flight to someone who has been blind from birth, or, for that matter, for the blind person to describe the experience of being blind. The very criteria upon which the speaker's experience is measured is absent from the listener's frame of reference. The only logical outcome is for both to realize that their perspective, while completely valid to them, is unavailable to the listener.

"To him who has had the experience, no explanation is necessary; to him who has not, none is possible."

Lena Phoenix said...

"Steve and Lena - ... you make the assumption that your experiences and motivations were pretty much universal, despite the fact that you do not and cannot have sufficient data to make such a determination. Or do either of you claim to know the workings of every believer's mind?"

Ron, is it possible for you to see that your accusation consists of you doing to us exactly what you claim we are doing to believers, namely, knowing our minds? I'm asking since at no point did I say anything even remotely supportive of the accusation you make. I suspect that the men in Saudi Arabia who use the Koran to violently suppress their women think that's a great deal for them and are thrilled with their faith system and all the benefits it brings them. It is true that I happen to think that's morally indefensible no matter how fantastic it is for the men, but if I'm reading you correctly, that makes me unacceptably judgmental.

Katherine, you are correct that you can't adequately discuss Harris' arguments without actually reading his book. His book has ignited a firestorm of criticism by people who feel threatened by it, and his words have been widely and ludicrously distorted by those who are mightily threatened by the precision of his arguments. Like you, many of them have not even read it, rendering their criticism rather suspect.

One point I feel I have to address, however, is that it is completely false to claim he is basing his arguments strictly on 9/11 and past medieval times - people are suffering enormously today on the basis of restrictive religious beliefs that condone things like the beating of disobedient wives, the murder of homosexuals, the refusal of abortion to save the lives of mothers who already have living children, and the denial of condoms to the spouses of HIV infected people. These are real and damaging effects of various forms of our current religions, and to willfully ignore them is to deny the suffering of giant chunks of humanity that is directly influenced by religion. Harris does condemn moderate believers because he argues very well that mild irrational belief forms the foundation on which extremist irrational belief stands. As for this suppressing curiosity, however, that is way off base given that the man has dedicated his life to exploration and discovery in the lab with a strong interest in finding ways to experience the positive mystical benefits of spirituality without the irrational beliefs that make such good justifications for us killing each other.

Kathryn Price said...

Steve, just to state at the outset that I'm not going towards CAM medicine in the point I'm about to make: one of the best books I've ever read is The Nature of Suffering and the Goals of Medicine by Eric J. Cassell, a physician at Cornell Medical Center. I read it because I was interested in palliative medicine, which shared the floor with the inpatient hospice unit at the hospital where I volunteered. Cassell's premise is that medicine has lost its original goal of alleviating suffering, rather than just pain. Suffering happens to a person, pain happens to a body. Cassell made a case for addressing the suffering of the person, not just the pain, and this often incorporates factors such as the relationship of the doctor to the patient, how a patient views his/her disease, etc. Those are factors that can't be measured externally, yet they matter and they matter significantly in whether and how patients suffer, as opposed to merely feeling pain.

The doctor-patient relationships and its effects on the experience of suffering may be not quantifiable according to laboratory standards, but I think its effects are real, according to the case studies Cassell provided (and it was an exhaustive book as well as one of the most humane I have ever read). I guess I would have to say I "believe" the doctor-relationship patient matters because I can't measure it. If pure rationality and measurement are the only tools we allow in defining what is real and the "reality" of human experience, they are not enough. Not nearly enough. They are useful in evaluating measurable factors, but not applicable in things that can't be measured, which are still nevertheless real. "Suffering" can't be quantified, pain can (to a degree, although it is still partly subjective). As it has been said much earlier in this discussion, we experience love; we can't measure it. That doesn't mean it doesn't exist, in our experience. So where do we draw the line from those experiences into flat-out delusion? As I said before, I think we have to mediate between reason and experience, and I think we can do so as reasonable human beings, and I think we have no choice but to do so unless we want to delimit our humanity severely. Or, I'll go with what Connie wrote: "I have no delusions that I am a rational or even generally a logical being. And most of the time, I’m fine with that." Or with what Ron has argued, respect both aspects of being human. We don't have to deny or fear one side because the other exists. We need to work with them both.

Steve Salerno said...

Connie: Thank you as usual for that note of sanity and insight. I have never argued that "irrational = bad." HOWEVER, we must understand that if we're going to carve exceptions for certain favored aspects of irrationality, then we can't be nearly as hard on the SHAMsters who sell their brand of irrationality, either. Catholicism doesn't deserve a place of honor above the law of attraction (or the Tooth Fairy) simply because there are 1.2 billion Catholics in the world, or because there is a great deal of institutional gravitas (and money) behind the concept. Remember, there was a time when just about everyone thought the Earth was flat. Popularity does not = credibility.

Steve Salerno said...

By the way, individual grievances aside, I do feel that this is one of the better and more cosmically relevant discussions we've had on SHAMblog.

Anonymous said...

RevRon, I'd like to go back to your first comment at the top of this thread. I quote you as you talk about The Divine Mother:

"You just gotta pay the lady to each you the secret handshake. Pay her a little more, and she might even bequeath unto you the Divine Decoder Ring."

How do you reconcile your smugness and sarcasm when talking about her beliefs, when you get so defensive about your own? She's a kook, but you're a spiritual man, is that it?

Are you actually a reverend, by the way?

Anonymous said...

Steve: I thought you weren't going to let people make personal comments about other people?

Steve Salerno said...

If you're talking about the previous Anon's challenge to Ron, I think it's allowable because that comment could've been made based solely on the material Ron provided the person to work with during the course of this thread, without any contextual knowledge of Ron (the person) at all. Though I did have a "moment" of hesitation when it first came through, it seemed to me that Anon's point had to do with a seeming contradiction in Ron's statements here, not any personal aspects of Ron himself.

Lena Phoenix said...

"The very criteria upon which the speaker's experience is measured is absent from the listener's frame of reference. The only logical outcome is for both to realize that their perspective, while completely valid to them, is unavailable to the listener.

"To him who has had the experience, no explanation is necessary; to him who has not, none is possible.""

Part of the problem I have with this statement is that it assumes people who disagree with a position do so because they don't have the experience to understand it. This just isn't accurate. There are plenty of people who understand faith perfectly from personal experience, but have, for whatever reason, done the exceedingly difficult thing of changing their minds about it. Abandoning faith does not mean all the experience we used in the past to support faith has suddenly evaporated; it simply means we've come to different conclusions about it. Ron's insistence that those who don't agree hold that position because they are incapable of understanding is seriously flawed here. Some of us understand very well, we just happen to disagree.

RevRon's Rants said...

I have to state that there's little that I feel I can add to Kathryn's last comment. We needn't discount the subjective aspects of reality in order to bolster the objective. Doing so diminishes our humanity (which is itself beyond the realm of rationality).

Demanding that all things conform to the criteria of rationality is about as feasible as establishing the atomic weight of hatred and/or love.

Finally, I don't think the "Divine Mother" in question is a kook. I do think that people who strive to make a profit by selling what they claim to be unique "keys to the kingdom" of spirituality are nothing more than hucksters (or money-changers, in Biblical context). And they are as welcome to defend their commercial efforts as I am to challenge their claims that their efforts are spiritually-driven. Anon has mistaken my disgust for smugness.

Anonymous said...

Anon 1:13 again, I don't know that I buy that, Steve.

Also I'm curious does anyone think that some religions are better than others, in the sense of being more valid?

RevRon's Rants said...

"I have never argued that "irrational = bad."

The inference in your remarks, however, is that a belief in God is primarily (if not wholly) a product of human frailty and need, and that anything not measurable within the constraints of a "rational" framework is best viewed as an affectation. I find such an attitude both myopic and dismissive. Perhaps not "bad," but it could be much more productive, IMO.

The inference in my remarks (at least, as I intended) is the acknowledgment that there might be more than we know, and that our learning is best approached from an attitude of common sense, tempered by humility, rather than dismissiveness.

Steve Salerno said...

Ron, I think those are fair points.

Kathryn Price said...

"Catholicism doesn't deserve a place of honor above the law of attraction (or the Tooth Fairy) simply because there are 1.2 billion Catholics in the world, or because there is a great deal of institutional gravitas (and money) behind the concept."

Steve, just for the record I'm not a practicing Catholic (and I noticed a few glaring errors in my previous post that Sister Remunda would have kept me after school over in the third grade--such as "doctor-relationship patient"--ugh! my thoughts are getting ahead of my typing; sorry everyone.)

There is no way to even define the Catholic church; it varies across people and countries to such a degree that from one end of it to the other, there would be not be a consensus about "who" it is. I found it so different in El Salvador than what I knew from my experiences in it growing up in the U.S. that I'm still stunned by the experience. There are progressive people in the church who are passionately working for change in it, see all its flaws, and yet still love it, still see beautiful aspects of the faith in it. I have come to love Oscar Romero deeply, although it has been almost 31 years since he was assassinated. I was in El Salvador last year on the 30th year commemoration of his assassination, and I marched with thousands and thousands of people from all over the world holding candles and singing songs of joy and love in his honor. It was the most amazing night of my life. There are people in that church whom I dearly love, including some sisters who have dedicated their lives to social justice so completely that I'm put to shame. However, until the Pope stops wearing funny hats and being so backwards, I'll probably not be able to be a formal member of it.

But fair enough, Steve. If you say that I can't evaluate a book like The Power because I identify as a progressive Christian panenthenist (not pantheist), who is a Jain at heart and even a Catholic at moments, I'll seriously consider it. Actually I get critiques of my beliefs all the time and I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. What I'm concerned about is being called "irrational" for considering that there may be more to life than what I can measure, and for investigating it to the best of whatever human faculties I possess. If you say irrational does not mean bad, I'll accept that, although I must say that since the word has a connotation associated with something like hysterical I don't see how it's possible to use the label without considering it "less than"--not just different from rational, but a substandard side of being human.

RevRon's Rants said...

"Ron's insistence that those who don't agree hold that position because they are incapable of understanding is seriously flawed here."

Sigh... Once more... my only "insistence" is that it is counterproductive and disingenuous to insist that others' belief system must adhere to the criteria upon which your own is built, and to insinuate that belief systems other than your own are the product of others' ignorance, weakness, or other human flaws.

Steve Salerno said...

Kathryn: We are all entitled to evaluate The Power or whatever we wish, and to do so through our own lens(es). Despite how some of this may have come across, it was never my intent to insult anyone (and let's remember that the first person I'd be insulting is me, since I self-identified several times here as a grudging theist). I just think it never hurts for us to have our perspectives bounced back at us from a different angle. (And again, I include myself in that.) We are all, being humans, philosophical hypocrites to one degree or another. The adulterer points his finger at the tax cheat; the tax cheat waves his fist at the pedophile; the pedophile scorns the serial killer; the serial killer wants to know why it's OK for a president to order young men into battle under false pretenses.

Kathryn Price said...

"One point I feel I have to address, however, is that it is completely false to claim he is basing his arguments strictly on 9/11 and past medieval times - people are suffering enormously today on the basis of restrictive religious beliefs that condone things like the beating of disobedient wives, the murder of homosexuals, the refusal of abortion to save the lives of mothers who already have living children, and the denial of condoms to the spouses of HIV infected people."

Lena, I stand corrected then and that is one of the reasons I'm usually reluctant to discuss a book in an analytical way until I have read it myself. I do care about the issues you have cited. Recently I read Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. Although the subtitle put me off a bit, it's an excellent, but most difficult book to read. The way women are treated in large parts of the world brings out a word in me I probably can't use on Steve's blog. Some of that is fundamentalist religion, and some of it is patriarchal crap that we've been dealing with for centuries. We've only recently allowed women to vote in this country--if you take the span of our human history into account, it happened just yesterday. It is also religious movements that have agitated for human and civil rights in many cases. Therefore, it is still concerning to me that Harris "condemns" moderate religious people across the board for the extremes of some. I would need to read more of his argument to comment further. However, even from here I can say that the one world government idea chills me. That's also one of those ideas that might sound nice in theory--a world in harmony--but the world of nature exists in diversity and I wonder if diversity is a healthier option for humans--if we can stop killing each other over it. I'm also interested in why he condemns nonviolence. As a peace and justice student, nonviolence is something to which I aspire not only as a concept, but as a strategy in human conflict.

a/good/lysstener said...

I hope this doesn't sound incredibly stupid and simple-minded in light of the eloquence of so much of what has been written here, but what's wrong with what my mother used to say: Live and let live?

Steve Salerno said...

Alyssa: I guess, if we're talking about purely personal matters, that's one thing. The problem arises when other people want to "live" by perpetrating a fraud on the rest of us. And in my view, again, the kind of reasoning that supports spirituality can also be used (perverted?) to support many of the scummy New Age schemes/scams this blog has covered over the past five years. That's really all I've been trying to say during this discussion.

Lena Phoenix said...

Katheryn,

I really would recommend you read Harris' book directly before you become overly concerned about either of the issues you cited; Harris' positions have been so violently distorted that he recently did a blog post in which he pointed out that, among other things, he has never advocated the nuclear annihilation of the entire Middle East. That's just one of many massive misstatements that have been made about him in the wonderful world of the internet.

I read the book 4-5 years ago so my recall of its exact details is limited, but I have no memory of his call for a one world government. I have heard plenty of conspiracy theorists claim that as an underlying motivation of those they don't like, however, so I'd be very suspicious of anyone painting him with that brush. If you want to know what he really thinks, the book is going to be your best source.

Steve Salerno said...

By no means am I calling a halt to debate (like it's my place to do so in any case), but I want to take a moment to thank all of you for your participation, and especially for the quality of the thinking and writing (and sheer time commitment!) that went into the many comments here. This is turning into one of my all-time-favorite discussions. I will ponder what's been said here for a long time.

Dimension Skipper said...

I mainly just want to say that I've enjoyed following this discussion. There are very few places on the web which get this sort of debate going without devolving completely into dogma and name-calling. I think that's a testament to both Steve, as host and moderator, and the various contributors.

I have not jumped in myself because, frankly I just don't feel I have anything all that useful to add. I am a fence-sitter on the whole religion / spiritual / agnostic / atheism spectrum. There are times I lean one way or another, but I usually end up right back picking fence-splinters out of my butt.

There have been various comments that have almost made me jump in, but I've remained reluctant. I think that much of this discussion is simply an effort to pin down terms and a commonly agreed-upon frame of reference. I'm not sure if it's possible to get there, but it's interesting to watch/read.

The following article (which I just read today) may not add anything significant to this particular discussion, but it sums up the defining-of-terms problem...

When Our Worldview Is Our Own Backyard
By Kim Wombles at Science 2.0 (Feb 21st, 2011)

. . .

"When our own back yard is as far as we can see, when we think that's how the rest of the world looks, we're asking for some serious miscommunication. If we want to rewrite the meaning of labels and what we want to label a dysfunction, a disorder, or simply a difference, then we need to agree on the definitions. Otherwise, we're speaking different languages using the same words."


It's my opinion there's a significant degree of that going on here. Doctors ask patients to rate their pain on a 1 to 10 scale, 10 being "Oh God, please just take me already!" Each person has their own frame of reference, but can we ever reach any sort of agreement as to what levels 1 or 10 are like, let alone the gradations between?

We're each of us products of our genes, environment, upbringing, experiences, brain chemistry, whatever... All of THAT constitutes our personal and inescapable (no matter how hard we may try) back yards. No man is an island and yet EVERY man is his own island. It's hard to think outside the box when you ARE the box.

It's a wonder we can communicate at all.

Kathryn Price said...

Connie,

I went to your link and I thought your essay was extremely well thought out and written. (By the way, I am a big fan of Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death.)

There were years when I was critical of organized religion and was certain I'd never step foot in a church again. I read a lot on spirituality, though, in those years. I had some New Age leanings for a while and I probably have a book or two among my stash representing those leanings. Ultimately, I did find much of New Age material to be too much about play for my tastes. I felt it was spirituality "lite," and often seemed to be about self-aggrandizement rather than something truly meaningful in the world. I began to hunger for things like "devotion" "honor" "fidelity"--(but to what?)--and "the good, the true and the beautiful."

How I got from those yearnings to where I am currently is a story perhaps to be told on my own defunct blog. One aspect of it I will mention here is that I've been an idealist all my life and that made it hard for me to choose to work within an organization. I want purity, I'll admit it. I want people to meet the standards that our ideals express. And they don't. I don't, either. I found my idealism crushed even in an animal advocacy organization, where you'd think there would be nothing to argue over. There was. I came back to organized religion because for one, to be a chaplain I have to do so, and that's a good thing--it means I have to submit to professional requirements that try to screen out people who might do harm in such a role, although they still can slip through the cracks. Another reason is that I realized if I were going to become a progressive Christian, I wouldn't be able to do it very well just hanging around by myself. Christianity is a religion that is about community with others, inherently. Believe me, I cringed, I sidled, I shrunk back into church hoping that I wouldn't even be noticed and could just sorta hang back, only to find out that a lot changed while I was gone. All this is not to encourage anyone into an organization. I'm just explaining why I went back. It's not about dogma, and of course I picked the most liberal denomination I could find. Now I think that without the interaction and the scrape and the exchange of ideas and the occasional tension and the outright disagreements and the friendships and the mix of people, my experience would be less rich. I didn't see it that way at a younger age.

It's funny that it was the Eiseley post on my blog that caused you to get out your Eiseley books, because I started the blog and essentially abandoned it due to time constraints of being in seminary. I've tried to get a blog going again, but with writing papers all the time, I'm not usually up for posting anything. I have linked to Chet Raymo's blog from yours and I like his work, although I haven't explored a lot of it at this point. I do find holiness in just about everything--the hundreds of red mites that appear on my porch in the summer bring me to amazement and contemplation, and where it might send others for insecticide, I do my darnedest not to step on them. Fortunately my partner is kind towards my tendency to love all things (even ants on the kitchen counter). I guess my love for the natural world is why I put the "panentheist" in my string of labels in my previous post--and misspelled it there--good heavens! Time to go out and shovel some snow.

Dimension Skipper said...

As a scattershot P.S....

I've had many favorite quotes tangentially pop to my mind at various points along the way. If nothng else they may be indicative of the sorts of ideas I find of interest and thus why I find THIS discussion of interest. Where possible I will link to their sources (where I found them, anyway) for the sake of completeness, but the quotes themselves are really all that are relevant, though possibly only vaguely so, if only according to my own mind. It's possible that unlinked quotes came from the daily quote box on this page.

I make no claims to being familiar with or knowledgable about the lives or works of the people being quoted, nor am I necessarily endorsing anything about the people or the quotes. For that matter I cannot even claim that the quotes are ultimately 100% accurate, only that they are accurate as far as where/when I myself came upon them as presented.

In no particular order...

"For every complex human problem there is a solution which is simple, straightforward and wrong."
—H.L. Mencken

"The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt."
—Bertrand Russell
[NOTE: I'm not saying or implying this quote applies to anyone here, but I think if this discussion took place elsewhere it would be *VERY* applicable.]

"When everyone shares the same bias, it’s not even recognized as bias–it just goes unnoticed as "fact.'"
—Linda Bacon, Ph.D, author of Health At Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight

"When I was young I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people."
—Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

"Learning to ignore things is one of the great paths to inner peace."
—Robert J. Sawyer, in his SF novel Calculating God
[NOTE: I *DO* recommend folks click *THIS* link because it goes to Sawyer's blog entry which contains the full context passage from the novel and I think it has more direct bearing on the discussion at hand.]

"Caught up in life, you see it badly. You suffer from it or enjoy it too much."
—Gustave Flaubert

"Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts."
—Daniel Patrick Moynihan

"At the end I feel constrained to confess that there is nothing in all that I formerly believed to be true, of which I cannot in some measure doubt."
—Rene Descartes

"Somebody’s personal faith is no more my business than their personal choice of music. To me it may sound like meaningless noise, but it’s got nothing to do with me. It’s somebody else’s music. And it apparently gives them what they need.

"Turning your nose up at somebody else’s faith is like sending back someone else’s food in a restaurant. The dish may not be palatable to you. But they’re the ones who have to swallow it."

—Earl Pomerantz

And finally I present today's Calvin & Hobbes rerun.

Steve Salerno said...

It's hard to think outside the box when you ARE the box.

I really like that DimSkip. Also for some reason makes me think of one of those Mandelbrot-type reductions, like a snowglobe within a snowglobe within...

Dimension Skipper said...

P.P.S.: My list of quotes grew from RevRon's unattributed quote: "To him who has had the experience, no explanation is necessary; to him who has not, none is possible."

I googled it to see who said it and found out it's attributed to one Ram Dass. Not being immediately familiar with the name, I almost dismissed it as a weird joke, but then looked closer to find his name formerly was Richard Alpert. I didn't read the bio, but I gather the name and person are real. I like the quote a lot, but I can also see why someone would leave it unattributed. ;-) It may be juvenile, but I would have a hard time taking someone named Ram Dass seriously. I mean no disrespect or insult, I'm simply conveying my initial unfiltered reaction and I doubt I'm alone in that among first-time discoverers.

I can't help wondering if the man's original name has some direct correspondence/significance with the Nestor Carbonell Richard Alpert character on Lost which also had some other symbolically named characters, most notably John Locke, of course... And which, btw, was a show I loved right up until the last 15-20 minutes or so of the finale when their resolution essentially invalidated the full six seasons as far as I was concerned. The point of the series seemed to evaporate amidst some sort of religious / mystical / spiritual / new age-y mumbo jumbo which they didn't even bother to try to present in any sort of way as arising "logically" from the story and characters up to that point.

That's not to say that I always am quick to reject religious and spiritual matters as irrational nonsense. I'm not, and I don't. But within the fictional context of that show, I just couldn't buy it arising at that point, seemingly out of thin air. I rejected the show's utilization of the concepts, not the concepts themselves as far as any sort of relevance to real lives and experiences.

At any rate, now that I've strayed so far afield, I just want to finish up by reiterating how much I've enjoyed the discussion and also add that I really do respect the views expressed here on both sides (or even in the middle) of the debate.

I also fully recognize that it's not for me to tell anyone else what to believe or where to look for answers. By the same token I can usually tolerate almost any view so long as it's presented with a certain air of humility and not as obvious irrefutable FACT, especially when I see such views as infringing too far on my own (as far as I can determine them at any given time) in an unwelcome/intrusive way. It's in those instances that I may morph into something of a reflexive contrarian. Fortunately, my reactions while reading through this discussion over the last however many days has never approached knee-jerk contrarian levels.

I still tend to agree with Steve's premise about how certain "arational" tendencies or views may somewhat undercut one's otherwise "rational" arguments in other areas by means of setting up some inconsistencies. But I also agree with those who say that none of us is or can ever completely be purely rational (whatever that may mean) and there could be more to life than what the senses perceive. Imo it's perfectly acceptable to look for and accept (tentatively?) "arational" answers, but one should never completely abandon the pursuit of "rational" scientific answers to life's little and not so little mysteries. I guess that puts me squarely back on that metaphorical fence with my metaphorical splinters.

Namaste.

Steve Salerno said...

...I can usually tolerate almost any view so long as it's presented with a certain air of humility and not as obvious irrefutable FACT...--Dimension A. Skipper, 2-21-11

But what about views that are wholly unsupported by fact (save for the, well, fact that a lot of people subscribe to them)? Do they not--must they not--take a back seat to the patently (and repeatably) observable in the hierarchy of argument?

Dimension Skipper said...

First of all... uh, "A.?"

;-)


Second, as to your question...

Absolutely. Hence my use of the qualifying phrases "usually tolerate" and "almost any..." But I judge on a case by case basis as they arise, also depending on context/setting and the people involved as well as how they are presenting theselves. My own mood probably factors in as well. Yes, there are hierarchies and/or lines drawn (within my own brain anyway), but they are not easily defined and properly expressed, perhaps even fairly fluid when I get right down to it.

Also, it may be semantics, but I feel I must note that "wholly unsupported by fact" may be subtly different from "actively refuted or countered by fact." To be fair, I suspect that you really meant (or were implying) the latter, Steve.

You also touch on one of my presented quotes: "When everyone shares the same bias, it’s not even recognized as bias–it just goes unnoticed as 'fact.' " —Linda Bacon It reminds us that sometimes even the agreed upon "facts" are not really factual, just shared assumptions or worldviews, which then leaves us with the issue of just how do we separate "real" facts from "fake" facts (and then get anyone else to see it the same way)?...
_____

Fortunately I am rarely—if ever—in situations where these sorts of issues and discussions come into play in any significant way. Which, come to think of it, may in and of itself convey some information about me as a person.

Steve Salerno said...

Ad idem.

Dimension Skipper said...

All of this vaguely puts me in mind of a Yes, Prime Minister episode I saw again recently in which Sir Humphrey (H) has a discussion with Bernard (B) regarding the Prime Minister's wish that Humphrey could only know certain things on a need-to-know basis...

H: Now, go in there and inform me of their conversation.
B: Well, I’m not sure I can do that, Sir Humphrey. It might be confidential.
H: Bernard, the matter at issue is the defense of the realm and the stability of the government.
B: But you only need to know things on a need-to-know basis.
H: I need to know EVERYTHING! How else can I judge whether or not I need to know it?
B: So that means you need to know things even when you don’t need to know them. You need to know them not because you need to know them, but because you need to know whether or not you need to know. If you don’t need to know, you still need to know so that you know there’s no need to know…
H: Yes!
B: Good. That’s very clear.


So at what point does a fact become a fact? How many times have we "known" something, only to have it suddenly discovered that the truth is 180° opposite or that the "fact" itself may be essentially true, but the underlying mechanism which makes it so is something other than was previously thought or commonly accepted, even by scientists/doctors?

It happens. Of course, that also starts us on that slippery slope toward arguments/views in support of CAM and other such things which may be even less scientifically supported, but at that point the barn door of doubt is open. As it turns out, maybe the difference is just simply which side of that door one was on to begin with even before it opened.

Once again I fall back on one of my old standbys that it's an analog world and digital ways of looking at it may not always stand up to close scrutiny even though that's essentially what we humans tend to do (see things "digitally") as we continually label and categorize what we see and do.

Kathryn Price said...

Dimension Skipper: I enjoyed the thought-provoking quotations; thanks for the food for thought.

Steve: I'm thinking of changing my avatar ID to "Arational Kat" (thanks to Ron's term), or even better, maybe that should be the name of my blog. :)

Steve Salerno said...

I do not disagree with your overarching point, DimSkip, except that of all the realms to which you could viably apply "DimSkip's Uncertainty Principle" ("How many times have we 'known'..."), religion would have to be last on the list, or damn close. Leaving aside ancient history, for which there is no reliable "chain of custody," and with the exception of a few anecdotal reports of more recent vintage (e.g. Fatima and/or all those Madonnas appearing on people's toast), there is probably LESS evidence for the existence of God than for any other fact or phenomena, INCLUDING the Tooth Fairy. We have lived on Earth for (biblically) thousands of years or (evolutionally) a few million years, and in all that time, God has yet to appear in Times Square or the medieval equivalent. No priest has yet pointed to a confessional and thundered, "Confessional! Move over here!", with the result that the confessional actually moved. The heavens have remained fairly fixed in their movements, and each day picks up pretty much where the previous one left off.

There is evidence (minimal but there) for the effectiveness of echinacea vs. colds; there is evidence that positive thinking can help you ace a test (if only because it reduces anxiety); there is evidence that a mother who believes that she can lift a car can, in a moment of sheer terror, lift a car that pins her child.

Has there been ONE time when Jesus appeared, verifiably, WITH photos, and lifted a schoolbus that had plummeted into a ditch?

And yet still I believe, at some level. Go figure.

RevRon's Rants said...

DS - I assure you that my failure to attribute the quote was due to feeling rushed. I read Ram Dass' "Be Here Now" many years ago, and found some powerful insights scattered among the '60s cliches. While Hatha Yoga has always seemed a bit extreme and extraneously demanding for my tastes, I found Ram Dass altogether brilliant. How I'd respond to his writings nowadays might be another matter altogether.

Lena Phoenix said...

I just read a blog post from Dr. Gorski that I think is relevant to this discussion. In it, he discusses how the state of Oregon has proposed a bill to remove religious protection from parents who opt to treat severely ill children with faith healing instead of medical care. There is a religious sect in Oregon that has a particularly troubling history in this regard; 20 of their children have died of causes that could have been cured by scientific medicine if they had only been taken to doctors.

Gorski argues that parents should have the right to reject medical treatment for themselves if they want to, but they do not have the right to let their children suffer horribly and die in the name of their faith.

http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2011/02/oregon_on_the_verge_of_stripping_legal_p.php

This (along with larger faith healing religions like Christian Science) is another example of the disturbing consequences that can occur when faith is considered equivalent (or superior) to reason. Medical science is far from perfect, but it allows itself to change and grow with new information and has improved by leaps and bounds in the last century. The same cannot be said for the healing techniques of Christian Science.

In a previous post, Kathryn asked, "...but is that a case for the slippery slope argument, eradicating all spirituality from the human experience?"

Personally, I think it is a case for why elevating faith to equal footing with science is, to be diplomatic, extremely problematic. But I can't say that "eradicating all faith from human experience" follows from recognizing the failures of faith in cases like this. While I agree with Harris that even moderate religion creates an atmosphere that undermines the rational processes of science and makes it much more difficult to justify condemning the actions like those of the parents who turn exclusively to God to heal their children - as evidenced by the disturbingly high number of states who have religious exemptions to parental negligence laws specifically for this reason - I also know there are people who can have faith in some areas but still recognize the value of science in others.

But the question of how much we permit faith to inform our decisions is not an academic one. I do believe that placing faith on equal footing with science leads directly to situations like these, and those who argue that these are extremist cases need to explain why, if they're so extreme, we have laws saying that this sort of thing is okay.

Steve Salerno said...

I don't think there's any controversy on the point that faith plays a highly intrusive role in American life. In one of my earlier Skeptic pieces, on the criminal-justice system, I noted that the hierarchy of crime in this country is rooted in a Judeo-Christian conception of the severity of sin, which may have little or nothing to do with which crimes do the greatest damage to modern society. I would argue that financial crimes at the Goldman-Sachs level are far more socially destructive than anything ever thought up, or perpetrated, by Charles Manson.

So yes, there are many aspects to this discussion that go well beyond a person's right to worship as he or she wishes.

Kathryn Price said...

"I do believe that placing faith on equal footing with science leads directly to situations like these, and those who argue that these are extremist cases need to explain why, if they're so extreme, we have laws saying that this sort of thing is okay."

That argument could be turned around to say that scientists practicing science ethically must justify extreme cases where scientists are causing damage. In fact in "moderate" labs, I'm concerned about what some of the agribusinesses are doing, how their scientists are creating genetically modified seeds and how those are patented and marketed, (quite unethically IMO), the subject of the documentary "The World According to Monsanto."

I don't demand that all scientists must answer for extreme cases and how their unique status gives rise to the laws that exist that protected those activities. I'd probably agree with the bill in Oregon, not having read it, but I also know of parents, who, without faith being part of the equation, are opposed to vaccinations for their children because they're concerned about risks. Those cases cut very close to matters of conscience, and how much control do we want to give the state over that?

"In one of my earlier Skeptic pieces, on the criminal-justice system, I noted that the hierarchy of crime in this country is rooted in a Judeo-Christian conception of the severity of sin, which may have little or nothing to do with which crimes do the greatest damage to modern society. I would argue that financial crimes at the Goldman-Sachs level are far more socially destructive than anything ever thought up, or perpetrated, by Charles Manson."I would argue that financial crimes at the Goldman-Sachs level are far more socially destructive than anything ever thought up, or perpetrated, by Charles Manson."

Steve, you and pretty much all of the Hebrew prophets, as well as Jesus, who was also a Jew. The number of scriptures denouncing greed and the injustice of poverty are far greater than any others; someone has done an actual count, but I don't have the number on hand. If our criminal justice system determined a hierarchy that counts financial crimes as less destructive, perhaps it has to do, as it typically does, with how those in power tend to protect their interests.

"I don't think there's any controversy on the point that faith plays a highly intrusive role in American life."

Yes, it does play a role. I have no more wish for it to be an intrusive role than you do. I also do not want the state to be able to tell an army chaplain holding a dying soldier's hand that he can't pray for him if the soldier asks, because that's leading us down a slippery slope.

Steve Salerno said...

Following are the 10 commandments. (I've seen minor variations in verbiage, but the basic content applies across all versions.)

http://tinyurl.com/5scxphd

The only one that really has to do with money is "you shall not steal." However, the very next commandment could be read as a justification for greed and excess, by instructing followers NOT to "covet" thy neighbor's property, etc. (So in a sense, that commandment is singing from the Republican rulebook.)

Incidentally, many states (including mine, PA) still have "blue laws" that force people to "honor the sabbath." Myriad other laws clearly owe their philosophical heritage to one form of religious tradition or another.

Cosmic Connie said...

DS -- Yes, Richard Alpert grew disillusioned with establishment academia way back in the 1960s (getting kicked out of Harvard for tripping on hallucinogenics had something to do with that), and he changed his name to Ram Dass. Actually his guru in India gave him that name and it stuck. He was pals with Timothy Leary and those guys.

I think of him more as a colorful and unconventional character than a harmful influence -- though people who revile the hippies and 1960s counterculture as planting the seeds for today's New-Wage madness might disagree.

And yes, I recognize the seeming inconsistency between my own snideness about New-Wage and my willingness to give some of the founding fathers a pass. But I do think Ram Dass had many intelligent things to say, despite the 60s cliches that Ron pointed out.

I read Be Here Now years ago, but an even more interesting work of Alpert/Dass, in my opinion, is a much more recent one, "Still Here: Embracing Aging, Changing and Dying." A crippling stroke in the late 1990s gave him some new perspectives, as implied in the book's subtitle.

Here's the Amazon link for those who are interested.
http://www.amazon.com/Still-Here-Embracing-Aging-Changing/dp/1573228710

RevRon's Rants said...

Yanno, I find it particularly amusing when the demand for adherence to "rational" standards is punctuated with emotionally-charged buzzwords such as "disturbing," "insidious," "and troubling." Is adherence to such standards only required when it serves the purpose of an argument?

I'll grant that there have been many atrocities committed in the name of religion throughout history, but there have also been plenty committed for purely rational reasons, such as commerce, defense of the realm, etc. For that reason, I suggest we lay off using horror stories as tools to bolster arguments.

And if it will make anyone feel better, I'll say that spirituality and "reason" aren't on equal footing. My meaning might not be quite what someone else might prefer, but that is ultimately their problem, isn't it?

Stepping out of the "yeah, but..." circle once again.

Steve Salerno said...

What's fascinating to me is that so many of the debaters here seem to be arguing this as though it were a purely political rift between, say, Republicans and Democrats, with the "truth" residing in the realm of the subjective. I am very surprised by this.

Kathryn Price said...

"I read Be Here Now years ago, but an even more interesting work of Alpert/Dass, in my opinion, is a much more recent one, "Still Here: Embracing Aging, Changing and Dying." A crippling stroke in the late 1990s gave him some new perspectives, as implied in the book's subtitle."

Connie, by coincidence I've read Dass' "Still Here: Embracing Aging, Changing and Dying"--actually it's not really very coincidental, but because of my work with the dying someone recommended it to me. I appreciated Dass' insights. Also my fiance, Geoff, references Dass frequently when he talks about his own spirituality, which includes some yoga but he considers himself a Buddhist. Geoff has been supportive of my own inclinations, even when they took a path neither of us expected. My original interest in hospice came from reading about the work of a Zen Buddhist hospice chaplain, so go figure.

Steve, Lena, et al: I have been enjoying this discussion overall. I don't see the point of continuing to toss examples of people behaving badly on our respective sides of the discussion. Please let me explain something, which I hope will make the reasons I have taken my position more clear.

Perhaps where I am now stems partly from my own experience with a chaplain on staff at my hospital from whom I sought solace during my watch with a patient who was having a difficult death, alone, with no family or friends--just me at his side, a total stranger. I wasn't a religious person myself then, but as the hours wore on I needed the advice of a spiritually minded person, someone who could hear my concerns and my own pain over this patient, which were, after all, spiritual concerns. I sought out the chaplain on staff. He listened carefully, gave me thoughtful advice, and blessed me in my work even though I didn't believe in that sort of thing (he asked me, first, respectfully if he could do so). His grace and compassion were immense.

I would not want to create a world where that man was not there, in that place, where, frankly, pretty much no one else wants to go, because we decide the world doesn't need his kind. This is why I argue that spiritual/religious pursuits should not be denounced as something deficient across the board, by their very nature. I love science and have the books in my house to prove it (and once worked in an R&D lab), and I love this thing I might be called to do in the world which is not science, but has beauty in it as well.

Again, from the movie "Contact":

The alien (appearing in the form of Ellie's father):
"You're an interesting species, an interesting mix. You're capable of such beautiful dreams and such horrible nightmares."
Ellie: (who doesn't want to return to earth yet): "I have so many questions."
Alien: "This was just a first step. In time you'll take another...small moves, Ellie, small moves."

I do have so many questions. In the meantime, I'd like to take the small moves I can towards understanding the beautiful dreams of which we are capable.

RevRon's Rants said...

IMO, "Truth" lingers somewhere between beliefs and quantifiable evidence, while apparently evading both's attempts to claim it as their own. It would seem that it especially enjoys befuddling arrogance.

Steve Salerno said...

Well Kathryn, I'm glad you wandered by our small side of the galaxy here on SHAMblog, and I hope you stick around. There is much more understanding to be sought, by the lot of us.

RevRon's Rants said...

I think it's finally time to make the s'mores! And I'll be first in line to own up to having an awful lot to learn. :-)

Kathryn Price said...

"What's fascinating to me is that so many of the debaters here seem to be arguing this as though it were a purely political rift between, say, Republicans and Democrats, with the "truth" residing in the realm of the subjective. I am very surprised by this."

Steve, (I guess I'm still here):

I think my point has been missed. I'm saying that rational analysis is the best tool for those aspects of ourselves and the universe that are measurable. Not everything conforms to measurable criteria and it may not ever! Are you positing a world in which science will some day have all the answers, solve every problem? If we're still human beings at that point, I don't think it will. Is it about having the right data, or having the right kind of--and I know I'm heading for trouble here--heart? Yes, heart! The metaphorical heart. The data alone isn't going to lift us up--dare I say magically--to confront what it means to be human. As Eiseley said, "A little whirlwind of comminging molecules had succeeded in confronting its own universe." (How the heck did that happen?) That is the holy grail of inquiry--consciousness. Will we ever be able to take its measure? Even if we can someday take its measure, we will still be confronted with what it means to be human. Maybe that's not going to be answerable by science; it seems to be the realm of philosophy/religion/literature/art/music, etc.

Lena Phoenix said...

What surprises me the most about this discussion is the concern expressed by the advocates of faith that a life without faith somehow equates to a life devoid of compassion, mystery, awe, and transcendence.

My own experience is exactly the opposite - dropping my religious ideas about how the universe worked left me (and still leaves me) flat out gobsmacked at the magnificence of it all. It's also enabled me to be much more present with people as they go through there most difficult times because I'm no longer evaluating their experiences through the filter of a belief system that used to stand between me and them.

From my perspective, rationality isn't cold and unfeeling but passionately, insatiably curious, committed to discovery and wonder and a constant engagement with the biggest mysteries of our lives. It's rooted in the awareness that we've discovered but a tiny fraction of what there is to know, but that answers will continue to be forthcoming so long as we keep asking questions.

Steve Salerno said...

This post, by the way, has now generated the second- or third-most comments in SHAMblog history (and unless I'm wrong, it will prove to have pretty fair shelf-life, as well). True, I contributed a fair number of those comments ma'self. But still, and overall, a fine example of this medium at its best, I think. Thanks again to all.

Kathryn Price said...

“What surprises me the most about this discussion is the concern expressed by the advocates of faith that a life without faith somehow equates to a life devoid of compassion, mystery, awe, and transcendence.”

That is not the concern that has been expressed here. Rather it is the concern that skeptics equate a spiritual life with a live devoid of rationality, logic, and even skepticism, and that indeed, we are not entitled to those things.

“My own experience is exactly the opposite - dropping my religious ideas about how the universe worked left me (and still leaves me) flat out gobsmacked at the magnificence of it all.”
I have no religious ideas about how the universe works. Any faith that I have consists of a belief that love matters, and that it does indeed change the shape of the world, for it can change us and our actions in the world. It can cause us to put down our arms and build other things, concrete things, right here and now, not in some gauzy otherworld.

I chose a path that challenges me and inspires me to a kind of love I might not have conceived on my own (“love your enemies”). I do not know whether it goes on after this, and I did and would choose it anyway, for this way of love makes the most sense to me in this world. It will go on in that it will leave behind some of itself in a better world for others. In that way I do believe love is transformative, in a very concrete sense.

The path has been tried ingloriously by some, but it has also taken others to the highest expressions of that love. It has nothing to do with creeds and reciting a set of beliefs and I do not evaluate others "through the filter of a belief system that used to stand between me and them." You're talking about your experience there, not mine.

RevRon's Rants said...

Kathryn, thank you for your most eloquent clarification of waters too often muddied.

"It can cause us to put down our arms and build other things, concrete things, right here and now, not in some gauzy otherworld."

IMO, the very notion of that afterlife is as much a promise of reward (or punishment, as the case may be) as anything else, and plays little part in my own perspective. If we act well in hopes of some future reward or in avoidance of punishment, we're just following our own mercenary and fearful nature, rather than a commitment to grow and evolve.

Where Lena claims to have seen abuse in the name of religion (and I don't doubt that she has), I have seen the end result of following rational logic while ignoring an "arational" incentive to be better than our logic might lead us to be. Hiroshima, Vietnam, and Iraq were all well rationalized, each filling as logical a need as the greater body of research. On the other hand, and from a purely rational standpoint, the lives of Ghandi and Mother Teresa were exercises in futility. Extreme examples, certainly, but valid ones nonetheless. We each must choose our own beacons to follow. It is when we need to place our own beacons above those followed by others that we screw up and ultimately lose sight of the things that inspired us in the first place.

Lena Phoenix said...

Katheryn, perhaps we are dealing with a language problem. My comment was in part inspired by your own about the chaplain who inspired you:

"I would not want to create a world where that man was not there, in that place, where, frankly, pretty much no one else wants to go, because we decide the world doesn't need his kind."

You've made several comments along these lines, that, to me at least, implied that choosing strict rationality would remove some of the best of humanity from the world. Perhaps I have misunderstood your meaning, but my intention was to clarify my own point that choosing to see things from a rational perspective doesn't mean people who express the qualities of your chaplain friend will no longer exist. The qualities you admire in him are not exclusive to the spiritual realm, they are the best of humanity and available to all of us regardless of our beliefs.

Regarding your own point that "skeptics equate a spiritual life with a live devoid of rationality, logic, and even skepticism, and that indeed, we are not entitled to those things", I don't think anyone here has argued that. My entire focus on this thread has been on the edges, those places where rationality ends and belief that is not based on rationality is permitted. That doesn't mean everyone who believes in God is 100% irrational in all aspects of their lives. My position is simply that choosing to accept some non-evidence based beliefs makes it much harder to reject others that cross the line into territory that is demonstrably harmful. I do not think that eliminating non-evidenced based belief systems will eliminate all human irrationality, since it seems to be built in to how we work. But I think it would help eliminate so many of the problems we have today that are based in religious belief.

"Any faith that I have consists of a belief that love matters, and that it does indeed change the shape of the world, for it can change us and our actions in the world."

For the record, I agree with that. Where we differ is that I don't see that as a matter of faith. It's a testable proposition, at least on a personal experiential level.

Steve Salerno said...

I don't know if we can ever find any sort of higher truth in "propositions" that are tested at the level of personal experience. I am always amazed, for example, when I'll do a radio show in which I attack AA, and we'll get a call from someone who excoriates me with a rebuttal like, "But AA saved my life! I wouldn't be here without AA." First of all, we don't know--even the caller doesn't know--that that's true. (I'm reminded of when I'd go to dinner with my insufferably indecisive mother. She'd always vacillate back and forth between ordering two entrees, then finally decide, then it would arrive, and she'd say, "It's a good thing I ordered this one. It's delicious." How did she know the other one might not have been better?) But beyond that, any conclusions reached through personal experience leave us in the iffy and highly misleading realm of the anecdotal.

I too am mystified by the implications that a world without spirituality is a world without compassion, conscience, etc. Although many children can be mean and self-seeking until their conscience kicks in, you also see many, many acts of kindness in the behavior of children at, say, age 6 or 8--long before they're cognitively equipped to appreciate the realm of the spiritual and what it implies. Indeed, though one doesn't mean to anthropomorphize (sp?), you see many acts of ostensible "compassion" (or certainly tenderness), mixed in with the normal brutality of Nature, in the behavior of our friends from the animal kingdom; while I won't presume to speak for them, I don't think that lesser animals have organized religion or any true sense of faith.

Lena Phoenix said...

"I don't know if we can ever find any sort of higher truth in "propositions" that are tested at the level of personal experience."

I agree, Steve. Pardon my sloppy language, but I was trying to clarify what I see as a distinction between personal life philosophy about how to live vs. statements about something like the existence of a God. I don't agree that personal experience can be used as "proof" of the existence of something like God, or an afterlife, or divine meaning behind life. But I think we all make choices about how best to live our lives based on our experiences of what has and hasn't worked for us. Evidence can inform that to some extent, but I agree with the other posters that it does have its limits in these realms.

As I write this, the distinction feels a little shaky to me, but I guess it comes down to I think there's a difference between "God exists," which is a statement about the nature of reality affecting everyone, and love is a good thing to cultivate, which is a personal belief about how to live life.

RevRon's Rants said...

"you also see many, many acts of kindness in the behavior of children at, say, age 6 or 8--long before they're cognitively equipped to appreciate the realm of the spiritual and what it implies."

Perhaps, just perhaps, the kindness, the "irrational" act of putting another's well being before one's own, is an innate characteristic that is often trained out of a child's repertoire.

You suggest that personal experience be eliminated as valid criteria for making broad decisions about things like world-view and ideology. Find me one person in all of human history whose world-view and ideology have not been significantly influenced by their experiences, and I will personally kiss that person's butt on national television. In primetime. If we discount all of them from the equation, it will be a very silent discussion.

The challenge, as I see it, is to apply the understanding gleaned from our experiences when making our decisions. Logical reasoning is important, but actual understanding comes when we weigh the logical against our core values (which are frequently arational). Placing one above the other is as reasonable as saying you prefer the "heads" side of a coin, and want nothing to do with the "tails." It's a package deal, no matter how anyone tries to deny it. It would see more "logical" to understand the influences in any situation, rather than to deny the existence or applicability of one and call for its sublimation in favor of the other.

Anonymous said...

OMG Steve, I read the story about your mother and going to dinner, and my jaw fell open. Not b/c you made me hungry but b/c I can't believe you actually think about such things. How do you enjoy anything in life??

Steve Salerno said...

Ron, that observation ("find me one person...") is overused, IMO, and often taken as a debate-stopper, and I'm not buying it. There are MANY settings in life where a reasonably objective balance sheet can be drawn up with pluses and minuses that lead you toward at least a tentative "finding" on whether or not something is broadly beneficial. I will grant you that I'm not sure this debate--faith vs. rationality--is one of them. But I thought this might be a good place to put that oft-invoked canard to rest.

At least that's what my experience tells me. Wink.

Steve Salerno said...

Anon 11:01, who says I enjoy things?

But seriously, yes, it's not easy being Steve.

Kathryn Price said...

"For the record, I agree with that. Where we differ is that I don't see that as a matter of faith. It's a testable proposition, at least on a personal experiential level."

What I said was "any faith I have". I started using the term faith here because it was brought up earlier in the conversation and seemed to be a common term of understanding for what people were discussing. I explained then that it is not faith in the sense of intellectual assent to a set of beliefs or something incoherent, but a commitment to a way of life. If there is any "faith" on my part, it is a trust that committing to a path of love will matter and make a difference, even when I don't want to love my enemies, which is pretty much every day. I make a commitment to try, nonetheless. That's whatever you want to call it. Yes, one can commit to that without any sense of spirituality.
Frankly, I'm not really concerned about whether it's a testable proposition. You can see its results when it is practiced and I don't need to have an authority with a slide ruler measure it to tell me so. Such insistence on pulling out the ruler at every instance of life is also perfectly capable of being doctrinaire and dogmatic.

RevRon's Rants said...

"I thought this might be a good place to put that oft-invoked canard to rest."

"Oft-invoked" is not necessarily synonymous with "false." And saying something is "overused" doesn't refute its validity. Despite the fact that we humans apply purely rational data to our decision-making process, that data is inevitably filtered through our experiences. Thus, the validity of the statement stands, at least until someone can provide something beyond a broad dismissal to challenge it. And I'm not worried about having to go on television anytime soon. :-)

Steve Salerno said...

I'm simply saying--and this actually makes for a convenient bridge to today's (2/23) topic--that if your child (a) got vaccinated and (b) later was diagnosed with autism, you cannot expect the rest of the world to accept your "personal experience" as indicative of the fact that vaccinations are dangerous--not when the great bulk of evidence through the passing decades demonstrates quite clearly how effective vaccines have been at preventing disease in millions upon millions of children. We don't like to think of ourselves as being aberrational--or the "unlucky bastard," to put it more colorfully--but that's the great danger in trying to extrapolate universal meaning from our own experiences.

Can we at least get some agreement on that? Or no...

RevRon's Rants said...

Perhaps we'd be better off to abandon our attempts to apply the quality of universality to anything beyond that which falls within a narrow spectrum. No belief system is universal, and in the vast majority of cases, neither are the interpretations of even seemingly irrefutable data. If we humans were capable of purely logical interpretation, we'd only have need for one statistician per study, and political parties would be rendered obsolete, because we'd all interpret the data the same way. The addition of multiple statisticians doesn't render any one's analysis "right," and all the others' "wrong." And the existence of multiple political parties doesn't infer superior governing qualities on one over another. The"rightness" and "superiority" are subjective assessments, made by applying logical reasoning AND personal perspective to a set of circumstances or other elements. Either side will strive (obsessively, it would seem) to prove the inherent superiority of their conclusions and methodology, despite the fact that each ideology has been proven wrong at various times.

I look logically at the possible effects brought about by my actions, but also weigh the possible effects that have nothing to do with logic. Hopefully, in more instances than not, I will choose the course that makes me a better human and makes others feel better about themselves and their lives. Not to the exclusion of logic, but as a necessary supplement to it. In my opinion, of course.

Steve Salerno said...

To those of you who have faith or consider yourselves spiritual, let me ask a simple question that I hope will have a simple answer: Can you understand why others might regard you as irrational and/or might see no difference between your faith and concepts like The Easter Bunny?

I intend no sarcasm in that. I am not trying to make anyone look or feel foolish. It is a simple and literal question that, to me, is relevant here.

RevRon's Rants said...

"Can you understand why others might regard you as irrational and/or might see no difference between your faith and concepts like The Easter Bunny?"

Especially given the acknowledged experiential biases described in the comments, I can understand (but not agree with or condone) the inability (or unwillingness) to differentiate between beliefs that actually guide the lives of intelligent adults and fairy tales that soothe the fantasies of naive children. By the same token, can those who dismiss spirituality as being subordinate to critical thinking understand why spiritually-inclined people might find their dismissiveness and condescension less than valid, and even offensive?

Kathryn Price said...

"To those of you who have faith or consider yourselves spiritual, let me ask a simple question that I hope will have a simple answer: Can you understand why others might regard you as irrational and/or might see no difference between your faith and concepts like The Easter Bunny?"

Steve, for heaven's sake!(or for hell's sake!): I thought we just spent 3-4 days or more (I've lost count) discussing this. The answer is no because the concepts are nothing like The Easter Bunny. If you want to call faith/spirituality/religion irrational, do not do so on the basis of a comparison with The Easter Bunny. It's not even comparable. Do people build hospitals, or form truth and justice committees for nations trying to heal from civil wars, or welcome war refugees into their homes, or give their lives for civil rights because they believe a bunny visits during the night and leaves eggs? That is a reductionism that just ignores everything we've talked about. I can get huffy myself now and say something earlier of how I felt upon returning from El Salvador to the U.S. "We're just playing at life here much of the time." Do you think those people gave their lives (and many of them were the priests and nuns the military slaughtered, a military funded by the U.S.; they went after the clergy because they dared to give the people a sense that they mattered and had rights)--do you think they gave their lives because they had a concept as simple as the Easter Bunny? I saw the photographs of the carnage, Steve, because El Salvador doesn't hide things the way we do here. You may call that an unfair, personal, emotional anecdote--but so is your invocation of the Easter Bunny as a summary of faith--unfair, personal and anecdotal, and I would add, more emotional than I think you realize.

Kathryn Price said...

Strangely, I just recalled that I have written a blog post called "The Reasonable Thing" on the very subject of the four U.S. churchwomen who were killed in El Salvador. One of them herself had invoked "the reasonable thing." Here's an excerpt:

I suppose I was asking the question everyone asks: what calls someone to such situations [El Salvador during the civil war], and even more, what makes them stay when the personal risks become so great? An excerpt from one of Donovan’s letters to a friend, cited in Salvador Witness, reveals something of her struggle:

"Several times I have decided to leave El Salvador. I almost could, except for the children, the poor, bruised victims of this insanity. Who would care for them? Whose heart could be so staunch as to favor the reasonable thing in a sea of their tears and loneliness? Not mine, dear friend, not mine."

I thought of Donovan’s words often in the months before and after my trip to El Salvador. “The reasonable thing,” she had written. "Whose heart could be so staunch?" In San Salvador, I stood before the Wall of Memory and Truth and found Donovan’s name etched there, and then Clarke’s, Ford’s and Kazel’s, one by one. Looking at their names, it might be said that to stay had not been the reasonable thing. But perhaps Donovan and her companions had been listening to a deeper reason. It was the reason of their very being, what they had committed their lives to, and what they lost them for. I could only stand there in the sunshine and honor them with my whole heart.


(This is the second blog I've started with only three entries in it, so I haven't said anything about it, but here's a link to the post):
http://northernlightsobserver.com/2010/12/03/the-reasonable-thing/

Sure, by the common standards of human behavior, it's unreasonable to risk your life over an attachment to children in a country not your own. But please don't overlook the deeper reason I mentioned. That reason is not anything like the Easter Bunny.