Oh, The Believer and the Skeptic Should be Friends…

Quick question: Am I a total geek here? Will any other than me get the “Oklahoma” reference?

Ever since I wrote the “Transcendental Skeptic” piece on this blog, I’ve been thinking a lot about the skeptic/spiritual believer question. Questions, I should say. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the question of how agnostics/atheists/skeptics and religious/spiritual believers can get along — and why, sometimes, we really can’t.

I have friends — extremely dear and close friends — who have religious or spiritual beliefs, in some cases strongly held ones. And this is not a problem, either for me or (as far as I know) for them. I don’t feel superior to these folks, and I don’t pity them. I don’t happen to agree with them — but so what? I don’t agree with a lot of people about a lot of things. I don’t even agree with myself all the time. Not agreeing with someone doesn’t mean I can’t connect with them.

In a few cases I even think they’re flat-out mistaken — but again, so what? I’m sure people in my life think I’m flat-out mistaken, about this topic or any number of others. And I’m sure that, in some cases, they’re right. I would be shocked beyond measure to find that I wasn’t mistaken about anything. And ultimately, it doesn’t matter that much. It doesn’t feel like an insurmountable barrier, or even like much of a barrier at all.

But why is that? I mean, at least on the surface, the skeptical and the spiritual outlook would seem to represent seriously different values, fundamentally different ways of looking at the universe and our place in it — a difference that would seem to be irrevocable.

And yet, I don’t think it is. Not to me, anyway. Not always.


And why is it that sometimes the difference really is insurmountable?

Part of it, for me, is that I care more about what people do than what they think. A good example is a friend of mine, whose Christianity is a big part of what drives her to do progressive grass-roots political work. A whole hell of a lot more work than I do, I feel compelled to point out. And of course, you have all the obvious examples from history: Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, the Quakers in the underground railroad, etc. If people’s faith inspires them to do good in the world — and if their idea of “good” resonates with mine — then I don’t care very much why they do it, as long as they’re not doing it as part of a sinister plan for indoctrination or world domination or something.

There’s something else, though. Something both less utilitarian and more fundamental, something that does have to do with values and motivations.

Here’s what it is. I think there’s a profound difference between having a religious or spiritual faith that you hold despite there not being substantial evidence supporting it — and having a religious or spiritual faith that you hold despite the existence of substantial evidence that actually contradicts it.

And the former is something I can strongly identify with — while the latter is something that I just can’t.

See, science is different from life. In science, you don’t advocate theories that you don’t have any evidence for — or at least, you try like hell not to. In science, substantial evidence that’s carefully gathered, rigorously and double-blind tested, peer-reviewed, independently replicated, all that good stuff… that’s the name of the game. That’s what makes science special and cool: the fact that it takes the time — immense amounts of time, usually — to test its hunches thoroughly and see if they’re right. It often starts with hunches, with imagination and irrational inspirations, but it doesn’t rely on them.

But in life, you do that all the time. You have to. In life, you have to make decisions based on insufficient evidence, or even no evidence at all except your gut feeling. Big decisions, even. Especially if you’re going to have any kind of interesting and fulfilling life. You have to take risks and chances; you have to make leaps of faith.

I do, anyway. And while those leaps and chances have sometimes been disastrously wrong — the first several years of my romantic life leap to mind — much more often than not they’ve been right, and they’ve gotten more right as I’ve gotten older. The impulse to pick my college major based on two weeks of classes with an inspiring teacher; the impulse to quit a job I loathed despite having no other job prospects lined up; the impulse to call Ingrid ten days after we started going out to tell her that I loved her… I could go on for pages about life-changing decisions I’ve made, and important conclusions I’ve come to, based on little or no evidence other than a moment of calm, powerful clarity in which some inner voice spoke with confidence and certainty.

So the fact that some people have decided that Yes there is a God of some sort, or Yes there is an immortal soul of some sort, or Yes there is some sort of metaphysical energy permeating the physical world, despite not having solid evidence to support that hunch… that’s something I can identify with. I don’t agree with them about that particular hunch, but the fact that they’re making major life decisions based on a hunch isn’t alien to me.

But hanging on to a religious or spiritual belief despite actual compelling evidence that contradicts it — that’s profoundly different.

To hold on to a belief — religious or otherwise — that flies in the face of reality speaks of a special sort of arrogance. It says that you think the inside of your head is more interesting, more important, even more real, than the vast, mysterious, unimaginably complex immensity of reality itself. It’s an approach to life that puts your own opinions and beliefs on one side of a scale, and the universe on the other side — and sees your own opinions and beliefs as carrying the greater weight. (Creationism is the classic example, of course, although there are examples from the groovy alternative-spirituality end of the faith spectrum as well.)

And this is just baffling to me. I mean, even if you do believe in a God who created the universe, wouldn’t that make you respect and revere that universe more, and want to understand exactly what it is and how it works, as clearly as you could? Wouldn’t you think that God knew what He/She was doing — and when faced with hard evidence of how His/Her creation works, wouldn’t your religious humility and awe force you to revise your view of the world to better reflect His/Hers?

Faith that’s unsupported one way or the other by reality is one thing. Faith that flat-out denies reality is something else entirely. And it’s that kind of faith that reflects an approach to life that I find fundamentally and insurmountably different from mine.

It’s not that I can’t identify with it at all. The tendency to ignore reality when it contradicts your beliefs is probably a universal human trait, and it’s certainly something I’ve done more than once in my life, and will almost certainly do again.

But it’s not the foundation of my belief system. And I don’t think I’m right to do it. In fact, when I am doing it, I almost always feel a squirming in my belly, and an awkward foot-shuffling in my head, that tell me I’m being a jerk. And most of the time, after a certain amount of wrestling between my conscience and my opinionated stubbornness, I eventually let go of my old belief, and either revise it or abandon it to let the new evidence in.

And this willingness to revise your beliefs is key. The spiritual people I feel connected with — the ones whose beliefs don’t actually contradict real-world evidence, even though they’re not supported by it — are flexible about those beliefs, and willing to modify them as their experience grows. They’re willing to acknowledge that their faith is just that — faith, not objective truth — and they’re willing to admit that they might be mistaken. “To turn and to turn, it will be our delight/Till by turning, turning, we come ’round right,” and all that. And as a result, they’re accepting and supportive of people with different spiritual beliefs — and of people with no spiritual beliefs at all.

Which brings me back around to my first point — namely, the fact that I care more about how people act than how they think. See, the reality-deniers don’t just think like close-minded assholes. They act like close-minded assholes. The kind of faith — religious or otherwise — that denies reality is what makes the Catholic Church deal with its child-molesting clergy crisis by drumming out gay priests… when the evidence shows that most child molesters are straight, and that gay people overwhelmingly do not molest children. It’s the kind of faith that makes people oppose sex education in schools because they believe it’ll make kids have sex earlier… when the evidence shows the exact opposite. (You knew I’d get sex in here somehow, didn’t you?) It’s the kind of faith that makes the Bush administration pursue a military/foreign policy that runs counter to the evidence and counsel provided by their own military and intelligence advisors, and continue to pursue it in the face of overwhelming evidence that it’s not working… because that evidence contradicts their own unshakable belief in their own righteousness.

It’s the faith of life in the bubble.

And that is the insurmountable obstacle, the fundamental difference in values. To some extent, we all live in bubbles, the solipsistic bubbles of our own consciousness and experience. We all frame our observations and experiences with our beliefs and values. We all give more weight to facts that support our opinions, and less weight to facts that contradict it. But when someone consistently responds to solid real-world evidence that contradicts their beliefs by denying the evidence and clinging harder to their belief — and when they firmly believe that this is the right and moral thing to do — that represents a way of looking at the universe and your place in it that I simply can’t be tolerant of. And I don’t think I should be.

But that’s not a difference of spiritual versus skeptical. There are true-believer reality-deniers in the secular world, and flexible, open-minded people in the spiritual one. So when I find myself getting enraged at radical religious extremists — around the world and of every stripe, Christian and Muslim and Jewish and New Age and everything — who are trying to hammer a huge, messy world into a tiny square hole, I remind myself that this isn’t religious intolerance. It’s not the religion I’m intolerant of. It’s the rejection of reality — scientific, political, or simply human.

Oh, The Believer and the Skeptic Should be Friends…
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25 thoughts on “Oh, The Believer and the Skeptic Should be Friends…

  1. 1

    I got the title, so nope, you’re not the only musical theatre geek here (if you’d seen me geeking out at the sing- along West Side Story you’d have no doubts- I mean how many other people have been sent to the principals office for singing Officer Krupke in 2nd grade….oh yeah, I was a rebel and I’ll never ever be any good)
    Good points all. As Christian who hangs out with a bunch of rowdy heathens on a regular basis and connects with them on many levels, I actually feel like my belief system (my entire belief system of which Christianity is a part) has more in common with my agnostic and pagan friends than it does with many people who loudly proclaim themselves as Christian.
    Part of it is that I recognize belief as belief and not hard cold fact. I’m not sure if what I believe about God is true and I’m OK with not being sure. I am sure about some things like I should do my best to help people and not hurt them. For me, remembering that how I treat the most obnoxious and annoying person is how I’m treating Christ helps me do that when it’s really difficult (not that I’m always kind to obnoxious and annoying people or even people I care about who happen to be annoying or hurting me at the time- but I try)
    But if someone tries to be kind and live a good life doesn’t it please God even if they don’t believe in him? I think it does. There is a parable about two brothers. Their father asks them to work in the fields. One says he will but gives up after a short time. The other says he won’t but winds up coming back and working most the day. I think Jesus was making the point that it’s better to serve God than to proclaim that you are serving God. My friends lead good lives. The are kind people who make the world a better place. They don’t believe in God, but they believe in Good. The God I believe in isn’t going to quibble about an extra vowel.
    I don’t really understand hard core athiests. I don’t think they are bad people, I just don’t get how they can be 100% sure there is no God. I mean there is no solid proof either way- it’s how you view the evidence. They seem to me to be as closed minded as the people who won’t look at evolution as a possibility.

  2. 2

    You’re not the only one who gets the _Oklahoma_ reference, but I don’t know if that means you’re not a geek.
    (And there was a brief impromptu Sharks/Jet dance number while people were cleaning up after the PEERS Ball last night, so there are a _lot_ of musical-theatre geeks around.)
    At any rate, I really liked your poking at the question of why you can get along with some sorts of faith and not others, and I think your conclusion – faith in the absence of evidence, no problem; faith in the teeth of the evidence, kind of a problem.
    (Although there’s a flock of questions there about what ‘evidence’ is; the classic question is “how could a benevolent God allow *this* to happen?” But that’s sidestepped by the “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” mindset, which, by looking only at evidence that’s in the Bible, disregards the evidence of the physical world.)
    (On a tangent, I do have trouble getting along with people who believe – in the absence of evidence rather than in the teeth of the evidence – that fetuses are people, that is, immediately ensouled upon conception.
    I can actually make the imaginative leap to get to where I can see that people who sincerely believe fetuses are people would think that people who think fetus-killing is a matter of privacy rights and choice are not only full of shit but dangerous and needing to be stopped; I just can’t make the imaginative leap to actually think that fetuses are people.)
    — Alan

  3. 3

    I got the reference too — in fact, the song is now thoroughly stuck in my head — but then again I *am* a huge musical theater geek.
    And I think you left out a third option. I’m a rational, science-oriented person by nature and training. *And* I believe, as you put it, that “there is some sort of metaphysical energy permeating the physical world” — I just believe that science hasn’t gotten around to measuring it yet.
    I’ve had a huge amount of personal, anecdotal evidence to support my belief. I think it’s also attention-getting that a huge number of practices which produce undeniable physical phenomena (martial arts, tantra, acupuncture et al) are based on the idea of chi, or kundalini, or some other manifestation of “metaphysical energy.”
    However, when I ask my sex-medicine expert about the kundalini orgasm, for example, he tells me that as far as he’s aware nobody’s ever even tried to document the phenomenon in a scientific setting.
    My belief, as a rational person who’s had her ass kicked (in a good way) by “metaphysical energy” on many occasions, is that one day they’ll have a little box like a Geiger counter that you can hold up to measure where this “energy” is running and figure out how to get more of it. For now, though, I just have to go by what I feel in my body, which is after all how people have known what we know for millennia.
    So, the believer and the skeptic are sometimes not just “friends,” they’re sometimes the same person.

  4. 4

    Greta, I think you’re doubting the power of musical theatre, and I’m shocked.
    By the way, I was listening to Fresh Air the other day, and heard a great interview with Thomas Ricks who just wrote a book about the failures in Iraq. And one of his comments was that the initial reconstruction effort went in with a very ideologically driven agenda, and as you geussed, ignored the evidence on the ground. Thus setting the stage for failure in Iraq.
    I think mental flexibility, the kind that requires you to change your mind in the face of evidence to the contrary of your beliefs, is difficult to develop and maintain. It requires the ability to step back from one’s convictions, which is hard if you’ve built a self-image around them. And it’s a little scary sometimes. Hell, as a teacher I’m amazed at how hard it is to get people to let go of their ideas of how the world works even when faced with evidence to the contrary. I mean we’re talking about something as simple as why we have seasons. So I’m not surprised that folks can be drawn towards fundamentalism. But that kind of flexibility is so valuable. I’m all for a reality-based lifestyle.

  5. 5

    I, too, got the Oklahoma reference…we’re everywhere!
    Well said, Greta. Like Laura, my faith exceeds the usually accepted bounds of Christianity, but I believe we are all wired differently, physically and spiritually, and I still think of myself as a Christian. The fact that I don’t have any hard scientific evidence for my faith is part of what creates wonder and joy in my life. I love a good mystery.
    I also hang out with a lot of pagans, agnostics, Jews, Hindus, and the odd Satanist. All of them good people and most of them have taught me something new about my faith.
    I think the people who fly in the face of evidence about the mysteries of the universe are the same ones who do that with everything. “I wouldn’t beat my wife if she didn’t bring it on herself” or “There are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and Saddam is totally responsible for 9/11.” They are sad, broken people who, unfortunately, are allowed to run free and unmedicated in our shared world.
    Alan, what really pisses me off about the whole stem cell/right to life fight is that it is somehow okay to take fertility drugs and create way more viable fetuses than you need, and it’s okay to dispose of those viable fetuses, but not to use them for research.

  6. 6

    Well, Gee Whiskers, I believe I am the only one who did *not* get the Oklahoma reference. Does that make me some kind of geek?
    This essay *rocks*. No other word will do. You really do make a lot of strong points very eloquently.
    I have found that religion or its lack does not have any real effect on a person’s basic behavior. Good people who are religious will use their beliefs to justify their kindness, charity, and mercy. Evil people who are religious will use their beliefs to justify their violence, intolerance, and ignorance. And that is just about it, in my experience.
    You have identified something very true in the inability of a certain kind of person to modify her/his beliefs in response to external information, I think. This is the difference between liberal “mainline” churches and fundamentalists, of course; the fundamentalists reject modernity, science, and biblical interpretation as metaphor or myth. The other kind of believer can say, “this is what I believe, and maybe it’s not literally or completely true, and there are many paths,” etc.
    A lot of people are afraid of change, afraid of uncertainty. The lure of unchanging absolute truth is very strong. And this is why it is no use (not much use, anyway) to say to such people, “You can believe whatever you want, as long as you leave me alone/respect the democratic process/let others believe what they wish.” Because leaving other people alone, letting others have different beliefs, and admitting (as citizens of a democracy must) that in some spheres of life (religion, speech, sexuality, etc.) people need to choose their own path: all of these are just as threatening to the fundamentalist mindset, or whatever you choose to call the people who believe despite evidence to the contrary. If you think there is an unchanging truth, and you definitely have it, then science, democracy, or anything that admits of uncertainty and the need to suspend judgement and to compromise with other people is only another source of error and sin. This is really why they’re against the teaching of evolution, and against gay marriage, and so on and on. It threatens their closed little world view; it admits of alternatives. “Jesus said it, I believe it, that settles it.”
    I don’t know what we can do about it, though. People aren’t changed by arguing with them. The only thing that really changes people’s minds is when they have new experiences. We need to make people less afraid of change, less threatened by uncertainty. Better education, and a less generally brutalized existence, would help, I suppose.
    I agree with Janet that there is probably something behind human spirituality other than mere wishful thinking. I have experienced it, even though I am an atheist. (Some of my theistic friends have a very hard time understanding how I can be an atheist when I have had mystical experiences.) If it’s real, though, it’s not “mystical energy.” This deserves study, definitely. Why is it that spirituality has made no progress in the last 2000 years, when every other human endeavor has? Religion. Religion is the fossilized remains of spiritual experience. (Not my quote, BTW, but I don’t recall who first said it.)

  7. 7

    You’re touching on one of the big questions we wrestle with at my work – not musical theater, although I have the pleasure to work with someone who actually is having her musical produced on off-off-squared-Broadway! – what’s the difference between religion and spirituality. (Backstory: I have the odd position of being a resident skeptic & flag-waiver for scholarly research and academic method at the California Institute for Integral Studies. Not the only one, thankfully, but in an environment that attracts folks for whom Woo-woo is a Way of Life (with odd extra capitalization, too), I get to advise/push/harry graduate students on the limits of leaps of faith and intuition in academic research, and occasionally tromp on their most egregious grammatical excesses. That said, they can produce work that really couldn’t come from any mainstream diploma mill, and alot that I’m really proud of.)
    The reference team has been struggling to come up with a an operational definition of “spirituality”, at least based on how we and other CIIS folks frame it. (“We”, in this case, consists of a secular Jew, a serious Goddess scholar and once-upon-a-time would-be priest, and someone raised to be strongly anti-clerical*.) One distinction in the spirituality vs. religion dichotomy seems to be open-minded vs. close-minded, as you describe. Another aspect seems to be that in the former, it is expected that one’s faith will continually evolve, whereas religious creed is fixed. So far these distinctions – or poles at either end of spectra – can apply to anyone irregardless of their faith; I’ve seriously Christian & Orthodox Jewish friends and relatives who fit into the ‘spiritual’ category, and dance acquaintances who fit into the ‘religion’ side with their all-encompassing obsession with dance.
    For me, another important distinction is how much power and authority one’s belief wields. Every belief seems to pull like-minded people together into spiritual communities (faith has gravity, clearly), and community-building is one of the major social Goods that come out of faith. But once there’s a hierarchy, and someone higher up on that pyramid telling you what to think or what to do, then inevitably there’s abuse. The irony is that’s inherent in any faith – isn’t one of its main purposes to tell people how to behave and what to believe? So it can be a force for Great Good, and for Great Evil, and sometimes Both at Once. I’d argue that as soon as a belief gets political clout and/or noticeable property it’s partway down that slippery slope to abuse of power (and a lot closer to the religion side of the spectrum). Neil Stephenson got it right, imho, when he has one character observe that the main social value of religion is that sometimes it puts a brake on the more vicious of its adherents, although it can also be used to find justifications for anything – I’d add that all too often it taps into mob psychology and makes ordinary people act viciously. If a believer’s main struggle is over how to convince her/himself of the Truth and submit to the will of God – i.e., to force one’s perceptions into a certain mold – then you’ve got a ready political tool.
    Kage Baker has a brilliant observation (and it’s worth getting down _The Life of the World to Come_ from the shelf to quote it verbatim, from pp. 201-2):
    * Both my parents were refugees from Catholicism (great-aunt Esther gave up her name to become Sister Mary St. Bernard, fer Chrissake). My favorite story about the only instance of religious education I remember getting from my father is when, about age 9, I asked something about church. He went to the bookshelf, pulled down the Douai bible that lived there next to Graham Greene for some odd reason, and opened it to the Song of Songs for me to read. It was obviously hot sexy stuff. Then he pointed to the footnotes that explained that the Bridegroom was Christ, the Bride’s corporeal body (breasts and belly and eyes and all) was the Church, and even at that age I could tell this was, well, fucked. He only said “that’s what organized religion is all about”, closed the book, and put it back on the shelf.

  8. 8

    Whoops, the Kage Bake quote didn’t make it into that post. Here ’tis, from _The Life of the World to Come_ pp. 201-2):
    Any religion begins in a moment of transforming truth. That moment quickly shatters into falsehood and shame and stagecraft, bitter comedy, sometimes murder. Thieves catch hold of any chance for power. The early years of a faith are best not too closely examined by its faithful.
    But with the passage of enough time, the lie becomes truth again, the broken mirror flows together as though it were liquid. The nasty commonplace facts erode away and leave the white marble bones of the myth, beautiful certainly beyond proof.

  9. 9

    Damn. I love you all so much. This conversation is definitely proof that believers and skeptics can be friends, and I’m thinking hard about what everyone is saying. And I love what DB said about how good people will use religion to support their goodness, and evil people will use religion to support their evil. This has always been my big argument against the idea that we need dogmatic religion to keep people from behaving immorally — if that’s what it’s meant to do, it’s doing a piss-poor job. (Witness the Middle East, just for instance…)
    I do think I need to reply at a little more length to something Janet said. It’s simply not the case that there’s been no scientific exploration of the question of metaphysical energy. CSICOP — the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal — has been doing exactly that for 30 years. They take claims of paranormal and metaphysical activity — telepathy, communication with or by the dead, psychic medical diagnosis, psychic healing, astrology, reincarnation, foreseeing the future, I could go on and on — and test them, using rigorous protocols in keeping with the principles of the scientific method, the same kinds of protocols that are applied to claims of a new kind of quark, or a new treatment for diabetes.
    And so far, they’ve come up with exactly nothing.
    They bend over backwards to be fair to the claimants, and whenever they can, they include the claimants not only in the testing but in the design of the testing protocols. Interestingly, the claimants agree ahead of time to the testing prodecures… but when the testing is complete, they almost inevitably claim that the procedure wasn’t fair. (And often, of course, claimants refuse to be tested at all.)
    Now obviously, the fact that CSICOP hasn’t yet found evidence of metaphysical energy after 30 years of testing doesn’t mean it isn’t there. It’s notoriously difficult to prove conclusively that something doesn’t exist. And of course, it’s possible that they just haven’t come up with the right test yet. (If you have ideas on how metaphysical energy might be measured, I’m sure they’d be thrilled to hear from you.) But it’s also possible that metaphysical experiences aren’t actually metaphysical, but instead are a result of human physiology and psychology. I don’t know, and right now I don’t think anybody knows. The point is that it simply isn’t true that there has been no serious scientific examination of metaphysical energy. There has been. Extensively.
    I think a problem here is that, when believers in metaphysical energy hear things like “your experiences may be physical and psychological,” they feel like those experiences are being trivialized or diminished. But I don’t think that’s the case at all. To me, the idea that, out of meat and bones and nerve tissue, we’ve managed to develop consciousness and free will, and are able to experience transcendence and ephiphany, ecstasy and clarity, personal meaning and a sense of oneness with the universe and with one another… I don’t think that’s trivializing. I think it’s fucking astonishing.
    P.S. CSICOP is at http://www.csicop.org/ .

  10. 10

    A few people have mentioned the ” Jesus said it, I believe it, that settles it,” mentality. What really bugs me about the people who use that as an argument is often Jesus *didn’t* say it (or if he did, nobody bothered to record it). For example let’s look at what Jesus said about abortion.
    ” ”
    Oddly enough it’s exactly what he said about evolution and gay marriage and anal sex and how much God hates anybody.
    The old testament has things to say about these things, but it also forbids wearing cloth made out of two different fibers, and all kinds of animal sacrifices as well as many other things that nobody seems to be trying to getting Congress to pass a law about or the Supreme Court to rule on.
    Paul had a lot to say about things that the religious right have on their agenda, but Paul never claimed that he had a direct line to God. He is up front about the fact that his views are his views. Paul may have been sanctimonious and had serious issues with sexuality but he was just writing letters to his friends and coworkers about his beliefs about God’s will. Some of it fits with my beliefs and some of it doesn’t and that’s OK, as long as nobody pretends he speaks directly for God.
    The thing about Christian fundamentalists is they act like the whole bible claims to be the direct words of God and Christ, transcribed as they were spoken.
    But that’s not what the bible is. If it was, God would be a split personality and I like to believe that’s not the case.
    The bible is an anthology of writings by a bunch of different people. Some of them are meant to be historical accounts,but take a look at how well our modern history books and media represent what has gone on in recent times and you have and idea of how many grains of salt should be taken with something passed down as oral history then written, then translated over and over by people who were often hired by political leaders…
    So while there is probably truth there, it’s best not to try and be literal.
    Then there are the laws. When I finally admitted to myself that I was becoming a Christian (I went kicking and screaming into the fold believe me)
    I showed up at my pastor’s office with a list of laws in Leviticus and Numbers that I not only couldn’t believe but found offensive. He laughed and said that not even Jesus followed all those laws, so I could safely call myself Christian and not sacrifice any rams or believe my gay friends would burn in hell.
    There’s also poetry and letters and what have you, but all of these things are written by people who are exploring the history and journey of their faith. There are writings that are included in some bibles and not others. There are writings that used to be included in some bibles but aren’t any more. It’s like a lot of anthologies: just because one or more of the submissions speak to you, doesn’t mean all of them will. If I read an anthology of writings on science or politics or Buffy the Vampire Slayer nobody has a problem with me agreeing with one writer’s views and disagreeing with another’s. Why should the bible be different.
    I love some of the Psalms. Most of what Jesus is quoted as saying makes sense to me. Leviticus and some of what Paul has to say seems to contradict what I feel in my heart about God and living a good life.
    Whenever someone tries and use Jesus’s name to justify their hatred and oppression, I hear Jesus saying “Alas for you Lawyers and Pharisees, hypocrites that you are” (OK, I hear him singing it, because I am after all a musical theatre geek)

  11. 12

    Greta —
    We’re doing an excellent job of proving that the believer and the skeptic aren’t just friends, but in the end are probably the same person.
    The kind of “metaphysical energy” I’m talking about has exactly nothing to do with “telepathy, communication with or by the dead, psychic medical diagnosis, psychic healing, astrology, reincarnation, foreseeing the future” or anything like that. In fact, I think calling it “metaphysical” is probably misleading, since I think it’s quite physical, and manifests, as you note, as the “physical and psychological.”
    Whatever you call it, this “stuff” — animating principle, perhaps? — does exist, I’m convinced. And the way we experience it for now is in our bodies and brains.
    You can read something like “Why God Won’t Go Away” and interpret its findings as completely endogenous — the brain as generator of “stuff.” Or you can read it as the brain as receptor of “stuff.” Either way, what you get is that all that fabulous transcendence and connection and ecstasy is *real*.
    Bad Religion (to oversimplify to a remarkable degree) tells us that transcendence et al are bad, dangerous and scary. Good Religion tells us that anything that makes us more loving, connected, empathetic and open is just fine, whether we’re creating it ourselves or perceiving it from somewhere else.
    Science, of course, can easily be used as either Bad Religion or Good Religion, just like Christianity or Buddhism or Goddess worship. I think there’s at least as much danger in blind, inflexible acceptance of the deity we call Science as in blind acceptance of any other deity.

  12. 13

    Nicholas Humphrey has a great observation in his book _Leaps of Faith_.
    We are, he points out, more likely to believe something, especially something pretty outrageous, when 1) a group of people tell it to us, or 2) we are told it by someone in authority we trust, or 3) the person telling it to us solemnly swears that it’s true.
    From childhood, when people are taken to church, they hear a 1) group of 2) trusted adults (including, usually, their own parents) get together and 3) solemnly affirm the truth of their religious doctrine. Hmm.
    As a footnote: Is anyone else here familiar with Raymond Smullyan? He was a philosophy professor who wrote several books of chess and logic puzzles, some books exploring paradoxes (_What is the Name of the Book?_ and _This Book Needs No Title_, among others), and the wonderful _The Tao is Silent_. Highly recommended. You reminded me of him, Greta, when you said how astonishing it is to think that consciousness can arise from “mere” matter. This whole discussion reminds me intensely of dear old Raymond.

  13. 14

    I define religion as a system of beliefs that no objective tests can prove false. So my definition also includes, for example, astrology as well as other belief systems. Many people have trouble with believing versus knowing. If we define knowing as provable or testable and believing as unprovable, then things get a little clearer. So, the hymn that says “I know that my Redeemer livith” puts the burden of scientific prove/disproof on the singer/writer while “I believe” gets them off scott free.
    But here’s a challenge. String Theory, or one of its five or six forms, is somewhat provable mathematically, but, so far, untestable in the real world. So is it a science or a religion? Should I believe in String Theory just like efficacy of the magnetic vortices in Sedona?

  14. 15

    Well, Craig, what do you mean by “believe”? I have a firm belief in, but absolutely no understanding of, the high speed elevator that will get me to the top of a high-rise office building.
    I do not have the same level of belief in string theory, because, well… meh. I struggled for a C in Calculus; I’m pretty sure that the math involved in “proving” string theory is way beyond me.
    I find the idea of the Resurrection of Christ as plausible as string theory, in that they’re both concepts I can say, “well, okay, I have no idea how that would work, but it flows from the prior assumptions.”
    As far as the “scientific investigation of the paranormal”:
    1) Talk about your confirmation biases. “We don’t believe in this but we’re going to objectively investigate” sounds a little like “we’re going to give him a fair trial and then we’ll hang him.”
    2) If there is such a thing as the supernatural or the paranormal, then, by definition, the supernatural doesn’t play by the same rules as the natural. If a phenomenon is miraculous, then the phenomenon is inherently not a repeatable and controllable occurence, which doesn’t lend itself to good science.

  15. 16

    -“Talk about your confirmation biases. ‘We don’t believe in this but we’re going to objectively investigate’ sounds a little like ‘we’re going to give him a fair trial and then we’ll hang him.'”
    Except that’s the beauty of the scientific method. If it’s done right, if you set up your testing protocols right — double-blind, placebo-controlled when appropriate, making your testing procedures public so they can be questioned and/or replicated, spelling out your criteria for success and failure ahead of time, peer-reviewed, etc. etc. etc. — it doesn’t matter what your biases are. The test will still work. Scientists get surprised by the results of their experiments all the time — both pleasantly and unpleasantly.
    Which reminds me of a story Ingrid told me. She was watching a talk show with a guest who claimed to have been born in a domed city on Venus (Ingrid, do I have the details right on this?), and they got an astronomer on the show to question her about where exactly on Venus the domed cities were. The guest got very flustered and said the astronomer was pre-disposed not to believe her, and the astronomer replied, “Are you kidding? I would love for you to be right! If I could find domed cities on Venus, I’d be the most famous astronomer in history.”
    My point? If a researcher could prove — really, really prove, with hard, replicable evidence — the existence of a non-corporeal spirit, it’d be the most important scientific discovery of the era, and they’d be the most famous scientist in the world.
    BTW, CSICOP is, as far as I can tell, very careful about their testing protocols, and while it’s certainly true that they aren’t inclined to believe the claims they’re testing — or maybe *because* they aren’t inclined to believe them — they bend over backwards to make their tests fair. (Example: Even though they thought the psychic diagnosis girl should be able to get four out of five diagnoses right, they gave her the benefit of the doubt and decided to call it a successful test if she got three out of five. Or whatever the numbers were on that test — I don’t remember at the moment.) They involve the claimaints in setting up the test protocols, and the claimants agree ahead of time that the tests are fair.
    -“If there is such a thing as the supernatural or the paranormal, then, by definition, the supernatural doesn’t play by the same rules as the natural. If a phenomenon is miraculous, then the phenomenon is inherently not a repeatable and controllable occurence, which doesn’t lend itself to good science.”
    Ah, the “shy phenomenon” argument. The problem with this… actually, there are two main problems with it. One is that nobody has ever been able to satisfactorily explain why spirits or midichlorians or whatever only show up when they’re not being tested in a double-blind study.
    The other problem, and maybe the more troubling one, is that many — not all, maybe not even most, but far more than a few — believers in the supernatural or the paranormal want to have it both ways. They want to claim that these phenomenon — astrology, psychic healing, whatever — are real and reliable methods for creating effects and predicting results in the physical world. (Some of them even make substantial amounts of money making these claims, in fact.) But when it comes time to test them, they want to claim that these are mysterious phenomenon and not subject to the normal rules of cause and effect. If a phenomenon isn’t repeatable and controllable, then you shouldn’t be acting as though it is.
    So once again, I come back to my main point. Which is that I have no problem with believers who feel that their belief is exactly that — belief, not fact — and who modify their beliefs to incorporate new experiences of reality. But I do have problems with believers who insist that whatever metaphysical thing they believe in is every bit as reliably and knowably true as the physical world — and who reject the evidence of reality when it contradicts their beliefs.
    I’m not sure why I keep going on about this. I think it’s that, when I look around at the Godawful mess of a world we’re living in, it sure looks to me like huge gobbing heaps of the problems, from global warming to religious hatred and warfare, come from the “my belief is more important than the real world” mentality.
    Of course DB is right — arguing with reality-denying true believers won’t get you anywhere, pretty much by definition. But maybe that’s my own irrational reality-denying faith — the faith in reason and civil debate, the faith that, in the long run, the better ideas will win out.

  16. 17

    -“String Theory, or one of its five or six forms, is somewhat provable mathematically, but, so far, untestable in the real world. So is it a science or a religion?”
    Hi, Craig. Nice to see you here! I think I would answer your question by saying that string theory is science — and the fact that it’s currently unproven actually puts it more in that camp, not less.
    I think a lot of what makes science science is that it’s always in process. It’s full of hypotheses that have stronger or less-strong arguments supporting them but that don’t have enough evidence yet to put them solidly in the “generally accepted” canon. And until they do, they’re still considered hypotheses. If I’m not mistaken, that’s about where string theory is right now. (Last I read, it was still controversial — but I’m not really up on my string-theory reading, since I don’t really understand it.)
    What’s more, everything in science, even the canon of generally accepted facts and ideas, is at least in theory up for question. Which is a big difference between science and dogmatic religion. In science, even though individual scientists often hang onto their pet theories like barnacles, the scientific community as a whole demands solid evidence… and when evidence arises that contradicts existing theories, they demand better theories… and the whole process grinds on slowly and painfully towards a clearer understanding of the physical world.
    Which is cool.

  17. 18

    -“I think there’s at least as much danger in blind, inflexible acceptance of the deity we call Science as in blind acceptance of any other deity.”
    I’m wondering — can you explain a little bit more what you mean by this? I’ve heard comments and arguments like this before — “Oh, science is your God,” “you have as much blind faith in science as I do in God,” etc. — and I find it a little puzzling.
    See, I don’t see science as a collection of theories and beliefs and generally accepted facts, in the way a religion is. Not mostly, anyway. I think science is, more than anything else, a method — a method for trying to come to an understanding of what the physical world is and how it works.
    Now, I do think it’s a pretty damn cool method. The thing I like best about it is that it understands that bias and preconception (a) are unavoidable human traits and (b) can easily affect the outcome when you’re trying to figure out what’s true — and so it compensates for them as much as it possibly can. Hence the whole thing about being double-blind, placebo-controlled, peer-reviewed, replicable, having transparent testing protocols, etc. etc. etc.
    And it’s pretty much by definition not inflexible. The whole point of science is that any given theory is only as good as the evidence supporting it. Of course, any given scientist can be inflexible about her pet theories — but science as a method only works when the scientific community on a whole is flexible and open-minded.
    I think scientists and science-lovers get accused of inflexibility because (a) science is careful, and is therefore ungodly slow, (b) if evidence arises that contradicts a current theory, the theory doesn’t get immediately rejected — it takes time and a lot of evidence to unseat a widely accepted theory, and (c) scientists have to be miserly with their time and resources, and therefore don’t always investigate ideas that other people think are worth investigating. And of course, sometimes scientists are inflexible, what with them being human and all. But I think a lot of people unfairly accuse science of being inflexible, when what it’s really being is slow and careful.
    Now, obviously science is limited. Very much so. There are many extremely important questions that it can’t answer — questions of values, emotions, priorities, that sort of thing. (I do sometimes think a lot of people would be happier if they applied a bit more rationality and evidence-based thinking to their personal lives — doing so would have saved me many years of bad relationships, not to mention keeping me away from the last two Star Wars movies — but a life with no impulsive or purely emotional decisions would hardly be worth living.) Of course there are certain kinds of questions that science can’t answer, questions that it isn’t an appropriate method for answering. I’ve never met or read a scientist who thought otherwise.
    Anyway. My point is that science isn’t a belief system in the traditional sense. It’s not a set of beliefs or theories about how the world is and why — at least, that’s not what it primarily is. It’s a method for trying to figure out how the world is and why. I don’t believe in science the way, say, my grandparents believed in God. I believe in science the way a taxi driver believes in using Turk Street to get to the Richmond — it’s a technique that, for certain situations and under certain circumstances, works. I happen to think that it does what it does really well, and I’m full of admiration for the people with the smarts and patience and discipline to do it. But I’m a little confused as to how it constitutes either a religion or a deity.

  18. 19

    -“But here’s a challenge. String Theory, or one of its five or six forms, is somewhat provable mathematically, but, so far, untestable in the real world. So is it a science or a religion? Should I believe in String Theory just like efficacy of the magnetic vortices in Sedona?”
    -“I think there’s at least as much danger in blind, inflexible acceptance of the deity we call Science as in blind acceptance of any other deity.”
    Greta, thanks for answering these before I did, and much more eloquently and at length. I would second just about everything you said.
    I get this one myself from time to time from believers: “Oh, you believe in science. Science is your God. If Science said it, you believe it, and that settles it.”
    Well. No. Because I _don’t_ “believe” in science.
    Science is a method of investigation, and I believe that the method works well. I believe that certain propostions derived from that method describe the world fairly accurately.
    I don’t believe string theory in the same way people believe in the Holy Ghost, or magnetic vortices, or whatever. I believe it, to the extent that I do, because it is an explanation for observed phenomena that is supported by theory; and the theory is a well-established result of scientific observation and experimentation going back, step by step, to Galileo and Francis Bacon. Each step in the development of physics up to string theory can be understood and demonstrated in repeatable experiments. You can, if you want, go back and repeat every step of it yourself, if you’ve got the time. You can look at the phenomena scientists were trying to explain, and trace the development of our understanding of the universe as a regular system of physical interactions between material things. This is not ungrounded belief. This is, in fact, really well-supported belief.
    But you don’t have to have worked through all of it to know that string theory is derived from ideas that started with f=ma, and which have been argued over and confirmed through experiment by thousands of quarrelsome scientists over centuries of work. If there were good experimental results that tended to disconfirm string theory, I would accept that it probably wasn’t true, and that we need to think of something else.
    Believers sometimes say that “it’s just a theory” as an argument against evolution. Of course it’s a theory. A theory is an explanatory framework used to account for observed phenomena. Gravity is also just a theory. So is the existence of atoms. So is the germ theory of disease. So is the heliocentric model of the solar system. It’s all “just a theory.” Other data could come along tomorrow that change our understanding of things. But so far, the testing of these ideas has led to other discoveries that were predicted by each of these theories. Once the idea was born that the universe behaved in regular ways that were the result of material interactions, and scientists began looking for explanations for things that either confirmed or disconfirmed that idea, enormous progress has been made. Unlike religion.
    The fact that some aspects of string theory are possibly not provable does not place it in the same class as supernatural beliefs; it is, for the theory, a huge *obstacle*. That’s why it’s controversial. There is nothing at all in science that requires you to accept unproven ideas (by which I mean *untested* ideas). Unlike religion.
    Science is not a religion, nor a diety. If some people unquestioningly accept scientific ideas without understanding what they are or how they were derived, then those people do not really understand what science is.

  19. 20

    Science is a set of techniques for rational investigation of the world in a very precise way involving observation, experiment, mathematical modelling, etc. Not all questions about the world are (yet) open to investigation by those techniques; however, the answers offered to those questions by philosophy (the wider field of rational investigation) should at least be consistent with our best-corroborated scientific theories. At any rate, that’s how I see it. I don’t know, but I suspect that string theory is currently somewhere between science and philosophy, and the same might be said of other fields where the evidence is currently difficult to nail down and the conclusions difficult to test by experiment (evolutionary psychology comes to mind).
    Whatever else may be said about them, though, science and philosophy are not religion. They are methods of inquiry that use reason.
    In principle, such methods of inquiry could lead to a conclusion such as “A god of such and such a kind exists,” but the conclusion would be provisional and would be accepted only on the basis of evidence-based rational argument. For better or worse, that is not usually the basis on which religious doctrines are believed.

  20. 22

    Right on witht this one Greta. I find it funny how certain religious people and teachers seem to either consciously or unconsciously promote or adopt a stance that compels them to only hang out and listen to people like themselves. In Christianity, I suppose this stems from a bad interpretation of the whole “love not the world” concept. But who did Jesus hang out with in Scripture? Drunks, gluttons, tax collectors and prostitutes in many cases. Who were Jesus’ harshest words delivered to? Pharisees, Saduccees and other religious leaders of Christ’s time. I suppose the point of that little rant is to associate with whoever may stumble into your path, and not erect barriers based on perceived differences be they doctrinal or otherwise. I learn much more about life and my own beliefs from talking with people of different walks of life.
    Though their methodologies may often seem wildly apart, I look at science and religion as two sides of the same coin. Despite the pervasive misconception that these two fields are mutually exclusive, science and religion actually represent complementary templates for answering life’s basic questions. Although genuine differences exist between them, science and religion do not deal with separate realms; rather, they are better represented as two branches of a common ancestor, and that common ancestor is truth.
    A good general guideline is that the truth usually lays somewhere between two extremes, and in the final analysis the scientist and religionist are both in the same unsteady boat. After all, both are actively engaged in a search for answers, both work under the disadvantage of insurmountable difficulties and both believe in an objective reality that is what it is regardless of man’s opinions about the matter.
    Even so, religion generally demonizes science or any other field that disagrees with orthodox doctrine, and science is generally intolerant of religious explanations concerning the past, present or future. On one end we have the subjective religionist, spewing dogma that he doesn’t always necessarily know how to explain nor care to, and on the other end we find the dogmatic scientist, refusing to acknowledge anything that cannot be tested empirically and often drastically overlooking great gains science could make if it were possibly just a bit more tolerant of the metaphysical.
    In fact it can be staggering to reflect at how little we actually, empirically know in spite of exponential advances in science and technology that occurred last century. In 1905 the existence of the atom was still a debated proposition and the universe was generally thought to be eternal, while Albert Einstein was just a 26-year old patent clerk refining his theories of relativity in Bern, Switzerland. Fast forward one hundred years and we can theoretically map the entire known universe, currently thought to be about 13.7 billion years old, but we still lack compelling answers for the basic riddles of life.
    Geez I guess this post is kinda long – sorry to be so rude by hogging up comment land 🙂

  21. 24

    Greta, you’re amazing.
    I’ve been reading much of your atheism-centric blog, and I have to say, you’re an absolute inspiration.
    This blog here really helps me understand a conflict I’m having right now with my step-mom, who’s unwilling to admit she might be wrong, even after this happened:
    Me: yes, if I say evidence for the existence for a god, I would believe
    Her: that’s good.
    And she doesn’t understand the connection to being willing to be wrong.
    Of all the reading I’ve been doing trying to make the case for my lack of faith to her, only your post has helped me to understand that it’s less with her faith that I’m so ?angry at, it’s more her unwillingness to be wrong.
    Especially considering I didn’t even know much about her religiosity till she voted yes on prop 8 while knowing I am gay.
    Love you Greta, thank you.

  22. 25

    Necromancy post, responding to Chris, but I can’t help myself.

    Though their methodologies may often seem wildly apart, I look at science and religion as two sides of the same coin. Despite the pervasive misconception that these two fields are mutually exclusive, science and religion actually represent complementary templates for answering life’s basic questions. Although genuine differences exist between them, science and religion do not deal with separate realms; rather, they are better represented as two branches of a common ancestor, and that common ancestor is truth.

    Common ancestor, maybe. But advertising oneself as in search of the truth, like religion does, doesn’t make it so. Somewhere along the line, religion became inimical to a genuine search for answers.
    The crucial thing isn’t whether a system of exploration is “truth”-oriented (all that means is that it thinks it has answers, which most people do), but whether it’s curious. And despite what even the most liberal theist may have to say, religion itself is necessarily incurious. It won’t put itself on the line — it scoffs at the very idea of testability while still saying that some things are probably true.
    A rational mindset recognizes the contradiction there — you can’t call something true if there’s no conceivable world where you would consider it false. If religion were actually interested in truth, every single faith would long ago have ditched the idea of intercessory prayer (to use one example). Instead, even those few who are skeptical of prayer would never deign to rock the boat. After all, maybe it’s true for them if not for me. (And thud goes another body of a child whose parents chose prayer over insulin, and to whom no religious explanation can be given as to why they were wrong.)

    In fact it can be staggering to reflect at how little we actually, empirically know in spite of exponential advances in science and technology that occurred last century. In 1905 the existence of the atom was still a debated proposition and the universe was generally thought to be eternal, while Albert Einstein was just a 26-year old patent clerk refining his theories of relativity in Bern, Switzerland. Fast forward one hundred years and we can theoretically map the entire known universe, currently thought to be about 13.7 billion years old, but we still lack compelling answers for the basic riddles of life.

    And with that, the post manages to cover all the bases. “They laughed at Einstein!” Apparently, a key imperfection of science is
 that Einstein wasn’t instantly accepted when he was a patent clerk? That scientists had more to learn about something?
    My question is, where in the history of religion is there anything like the last hundred years of science — a period of rapid and enormous advancement in our understanding of the universe? I’m looking for solid, genuine facts that we didn’t know about God 100 years ago, but now know, and which are agreed upon by major faiths.

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