Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Debate Dump #1

A while back I spent a few lunch breaks cruising the atheist forums at Reddit. I post my Examiner articles there since they are the only people that will talk to me about them. These conversations did not take place on my threads, just random ones I happened to comment on. Anyway, this is just a historical brain dump for me. Feel free to read through it if you think I’m so staggeringly brilliant that this stuff is interesting to you.


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JF:

[concerning a criticism of Christianity about how splintered the religion is.] Well the lack of a single identifying thread that binds all Christians together from all times is hardly a problem unless some sort of institutional stamp of approval is sought after. The same can be said of any political party or movement, and any school of philosophy. These entities are webs of multiple ideas, not single strands. And none of that speaks to the existence or properties of a proposed Deity. I disagree with most of my Christian community on several key doctrines such as the eternity of hell and the literalism of the Trinity, but I am still "a Christian" because I'm part of that community and have enough common ground to be so, though on the margins.

Respondent:

So are you a "Christian" because you're a firm believer, or are you a "Christian" simply because you belong to a social group where to be otherwise is completely unacceptable?

JF:

I'm a Christian for several reasons. First because it is the trajectory of my upbringing so I'm very comfortable and familiar with its social forms and practices. (Well, the ones in MY branch which is evangelical.) I could care less about the social aspects. And I live in the least-churched city in the U.S. and work in an industry where Christian beliefs are openly mocked. So it's definitely not about being accepted. As an agnostic I recognize that all religious truth claims are inherently flawed as they are attempting to describe with metaphor what is not able to be described due to the limitations of human language and thought. So I'm not really bothered by worshiping with those who believe some very different things about God than I. But I do find the central narrative of a creator God who redeems mankind to be a valid theory that has explanatory power and does not contradict observed phenomena or our perceived existential state in which we order values. In other words, I think that with some study, one can find a series of doctrine throughout the history of the Christian tradition that coalesce into a workable theory for life.

Accurate:

“I'm a Christian for several reasons. First because it is the trajectory of my upbringing so I'm very comfortable and familiar with its social forms and practices.”

Truth doesn't care about your upbringing.

“And I live in the least-churched city in the U.S. and work in an industry where Christian beliefs are openly mocked. So it's definitely not about being accepted.”

On the contrary, it could just as well be about rebelling.

“As an agnostic I recognize that all religious truth claims are inherently flawed as they are attempting to describe with metaphor what is not able to be described due to the limitations of human language and thought.”

But that's OK because you give these inherently flawed ideas the benefit of the doubt. That sounds a bit backward to me...

“But I do find the central narrative of a creator God who redeems mankind to be a valid theory that has explanatory power and does not contradict observed phenomena or our perceived existential state in which we order values.”

WTF kind of explanatory power does that hold at all? Seriously? Explanatory.... Is that the word you wanted to use for real?

“and does not contradict observed phenomena”

When this creator God pops up in this reality and says high and grows some amputees leg back then maybe I will say it doesn't contradict my observations. I don't know though. Maybe you see this God all the time. Next time you see him maybe you could ask him about cancer, starvation, wars, genocide, etc.

“In other words, I think that with some study, one can find a series of doctrine throughout the history of the Christian tradition that coalesce into a workable theory for life.”

Whatever the theory of life may be. I'm sorry, but it's way too significant for your dumb, pathetic goat-herder myths. And I'm pretty sure a theory of life, if there ever were one, would be based on objective facts (or as close as we can possibly get), and not based on outrageous notions of unfalsifiable super-beings that need to "redeem" us for some reason or another.

...

I mean, do you seriously... I MEAN DO YOU REALLY?! Do you ever seriously think about how fucking huge this universe is? You really think this Christianity shit matters... at all? In any sense? I mean, really..?

JF:

“Truth doesn't care about your upbringing.”

I'm aware of this fact. The question was about WHY I'm a Christian, not "why is Christianity True?".

“On the contrary, it could just as well be about rebelling.”

Possible. I don't pretend to have perfect knowledge of my motives. But again, the question was, "are you a "Christian" simply because you belong to a social group where to be otherwise is completely unacceptable?" And the answer to that is "no".

“But that's OK because you give these inherently flawed ideas the benefit of the doubt. That sounds a bit backward to me...”

What I'm acknowledging is the inherent limitation of language to describe what religious theories are attempting to describe. I was just talking about this in another thread... I'll quote myself:

I acknowledge that material processes are the basis for symbolic language. This is a vitally important point that most religious fundamentalists gloss over or sweep under the rug. (See this previous article for more detail on that: http://www.examiner.com/x-19272-Seattle-Faith--Agnosticism-Examiner~y2009m9d2-Out-on-a-limb )

In other words, language is necessarily symbolic, but falls along a continuum of consensus. Proper nouns have the most consensus. A man named Obama is the current president of the U.S. Few people argue this because there is very little room for interpretation. It can be falsified via processes that are universally agreed upon. But when one gets to concepts like politics, art, and religion, the symbolic nature of the words become increasingly loose and open to vastly different interpretive structures that belie consensus. The "looser" these signifier words become the more the materialist wants to pretend the signified doesn't exist because you can't peg them into a rigid, quantified grid of "knowledge". I reject that impulse and instead appreciate the attempt at understanding what cannot be truly apprehended. If any religious theory is correct than the subject matter is outside of categories (material) that we humans can form consensus about. Thus language breaks down when forced to conform to a material grid. That is why I can't tell you if Jesus is divine. You (and the doctrine builders) are asking for language to do what it cannot do. This is illogical and I believe at the root of much of the evil that has been committed in the name of religion. To be fair, it's also at the root of much of the good.

“WTF kind of explanatory power does that hold at all? Seriously?

Explanatory.... Is that the word you wanted to use for real?”

Yes, that is precisely the word I wanted to use. For real. There are two facets of our perceived reality that I seek explanation for. The material world, and the existential world that includes the ordering of values, love, and all that other interrelational stuff. Materialism necessarily conflates these facets, explaining away the later with the former. I think that would be a workable theory if not for the infinite regress it necessitates and the attending logical issues with an infinitely existing material world. It’s certainly possible that there are answers to these issues that I’m just not smart enough to grasp, but when you pair those problems with the existential demand to have validation for ontologically real values that order our existence it is enough to push me towards serious consideration of theories that EXPLAIN these things. That is exactly what religion attempts to do. Some do it better than others.

“When this creator God pops up in this reality and says high and grows some amputees leg back then maybe I will say it doesn't contradict my observations.”

You are mixing up contradiction and confirmation-of-some-prefabricated-expectation-of-what-a-Deity-would-or-should-do. I think that a good theology will not make claims that contradict obvious things like suffering and the improvability of God. If a theology claims that limbs should be grown back and fails to produce that effect the theology should probably be rejected. My theology does not make claims that it fails to support.

“Maybe you see this God all the time.”

Certainly not physically. But I do apply my interpretive grid over what I perceive and find things that confirm my theory or cause me to doubt it.

“Next time you see him maybe you could ask him about cancer, starvation, wars, genocide, etc.”

I’ve studied many different theodicies that attempt to explain evil, and found one that satisfies me. I’ve detailed it in length here:

http://joshuaforeman.blogspot.com/2008/12/book-review-john-hick-evil-and-god-of.html

I assume you don’t care enough to read this monstrous thing so I’ll summarize it poorly as follows: The physical world is a soul-making machine or process created by God in order to produce a certain kind of being. All evil, pain and suffering, man-made and natural, are a planned, deliberate mechanism for growing these beings. So yes, it is God’s fault that we suffer. Yes, He planned Hitler and rape and torture. And yes, He’s the one who made every single person who ever lived, die. He is ultimately responsible for every horror we collectively experience, and He can handle that responsibility. Because once we have become the beings that He designed us to be, we will look back on the process with nothing but gratitude. Something we are unable to do now due to our involvement in the discomfort, in the same way an infant cannot appreciate the pain of the inoculations it receives until it is grown.

“Whatever the theory of life may be. I'm sorry, but it's way too significant for your dumb, pathetic goat-herder myths. “

I agree with you that a compelling theory of life is too significant to be fully developed by bronze age people. (Though your description of any people group as “dumb” and “pathetic” seems supremely arrogant and immature.) I also think that it is too significant for us dumb and pathetic moderns to fully develop a compelling theory of life. Materialism certainly is not compelling to the vast majority of humanity. You might say, “Ah, but it is compelling to the smart ones!”, but that is the No-True-Scotsman Fallacy. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No_true_scotsman_fallacy )

“ And I'm pretty sure a theory of life, if there ever were one, would be based on objective facts (or as close as we can possibly get), and not based on outrageous notions of unfalsifiable super-beings that need to "redeem" us for some reason or another.”

This idea is predicated on the notion that all Truth is composed of facts that we have access to. Or that what is True cannot be outside our limited scope of observation. This is the basic circularity and close-mindedness of materialism. You say that all that exists is material, therefore materialism explains all that is. Under the premise of that circular argument, yes, the notion of a super-being is outrageous. But if you are open to the obvious possibility that our senses and tools could be missing a major aspect of reality than there is nothing outrageous about it at all. You have boxed your mind into a very limited perceptive mode and for some reason think that box is the best place to sling insults from.

“Do you ever seriously think about how fucking huge this universe is?”

Yes. It is mind-boggling. Which has absolutely nothing to do with the proposition that there could be dimensions of existence which we cannot perceive.

“ You really think this Christianity shit matters... at all? In any sense? I mean, really..?”

If your materialist premise is correct, then no, of course not. But I do not accept your premise.

Accurate:

“I'm aware of this fact. The question was about WHY I'm a Christian, not "why is Christianity True?".”

Apparently you don't give a shit about truth. You just believe wtf ever right?

“Thus language breaks down when forced to conform to a material grid. That is why I can't tell you if Jesus is divine.”

You believe Jesus is/was divine because you can't explain to people why its true. How convenient. And if you didn't mean this then I'm sorry I misrepresented your position. But, honestly... If you can't explain to me in human language why your specific deity is divine then why are going off on this notion that somehow your position is more logical than mine? Are you bitching because the constraints of logic don't bow to the whim of your magical fairy in the sky?

“The physical world is a soul-making machine or process created by God in order to produce a certain kind of being. All evil, pain and suffering, man-made and natural, are a planned, deliberate mechanism for growing these beings. So yes, it is God’s fault that we suffer. Yes, He planned Hitler and rape and torture. And yes, He’s the one who made every single person who ever lived, die. He is ultimately responsible for every horror we collectively experience, and He can handle that responsibility. Because once we have become the beings that He designed us to be, we will look back on the process with nothing but gratitude. Something we are unable to do now due to our involvement in the discomfort, in the same way an infant cannot appreciate the pain of the inoculations it receives until it is grown.”

and YOU tell ME:

“You are mixing up contradiction and confirmation-of-some-prefabricated-expectation-of-what-a-Deity-would-or-should-do.”

Oh that is just hilarious...

“And yes, He’s the one who made every single person who ever lived, die. He is ultimately responsible for every horror we collectively experience, and He can handle that responsibility.”

Oh he does? Oh he did? Oh he can? Wow, that's impressive. And you know this because you can't explain it to me in human language, correct? Oh, man I'm totally sold. This is so logical.

“Materialism certainly is not compelling to the vast majority of humanity.”

Therefore, less likely than Christianity? (ad populum)

“This idea is predicated on the notion that all Truth is composed of facts that we have access to.”

I never said that. And if I implied it then I didn't mean to. There are some truths that we cannot ever have access to. True. I'm more comfortable what we can know by basing them off of reason and objective reality. What we can't know simply doesn't matter because we can't know it. I'm not going to make up magical beings just because I know we can't know everything. That's silly.

“This is the basic circularity and close-mindedness of materialism.”

There's a difference between being closed-minded enough so that your brain doesn't fall out and just being plain closed-minded.

“You say that all that exists is material, therefore materialism explains all that is”

No... That's all we can possibly know. And it's funny that you called me arrogant before. I'm not the one postulating magical beings, thinking I can somehow know this is true or somehow more likely that magical beings exist as opposed to not existing? You have no fucking clue. Because you can't have no fucking clue about it. It's inherently ridiculous. And for you to get so specific about which magical being you postulate must exist is just 1000 fold more ridiculous.

“You have boxed your mind into a very limited perceptive mode and for some reason think that box is the best place to sling insults from.”

You've been boxed in your land of fairy tales, man. You act is if you have some secret knowledge that this specific deity is the right when you stated earlier you can't explain how this is. What is your internal dialog like, then? How do you fucking fit this together in your mind where it isn't batshit insane? You just finished writing a fucking diatribe to me how I can't possibly know that material is the only thing that exist but then you are so pompous in your own silliness by assuming some specific deity must exist. This is the height of fucking hypocrisy, honestly. Not only that, but at least with materialism and naturalism what you see is what you get. At least we can verify this on some objective level. You can't. You point to these obscure concepts like love, compassion, values, etc. because in there you can insert your bullshit. It's a thinly-veiled god-of-the-gaps.

Why don't you go start your own denomination since you apparently know more about how this magical being works than anyone else on the planet. Even though this magical being is by definition impossible to explain therefore impossible to know. Somehow you know certain characteristics about this magical being that allow it to be specifically Jesus.

You argue I can't know everything is material. Well you can't know the attributes of a fucking magical being that you can't know.

This is what your argument is like condensed.

God cannot be explained in human langauge (ie God cannot be known). Therefore, God exist and he is Jesus and he wants and does etc. etc. etc. Presumably you get this from some secret supernatural layer of knowledge of what magical beings want.

Josh Foreman:

Sorry if I made you angry. There is clearly a miscommunication here. I never claimed to Know what God is or that there is a God. I offered a theory that I personally find compelling. I'm not trying to convince you that I'm right and you're wrong. I'm not sure if you just assumed that or if I came across that way. I've been on the record for a long time as one who claims to Know nothing.

Proof:

http://www.examiner.com/x-19272-Seattle-Faith--Agnosticism-Examiner~y2009m9d2-Out-on-a-limb

Accurate:

I find lots of fiction compelling. I love good films and Greek mythology. I find them compelling for the creativity, not the impervious logic. That said, I love a good Greek myth, but I'm pretty confident there are no gods on mountain tops.

Why even call yourself a Christian? Are you more an agnostic-theist Christian? How can you possibly align the Christian aspect with the agnostic part? Certainly we cannot know everything, but we can be sure of something based off good reasons. There are degrees of what we can and cannot know within reason.

The spiritual-enthusiasts have a far higher mountain of problems to climb than the materialist. The game is rigged in favor of the materialist.

Let me explain this better in an analogy. There is a box that we are trapped in. All we can know is what is inside the box. What is outside the box is only speculation. There is a greater degree of reason to believe what we can see in the box with our senses is closer to the real world than any prophet could ever conjure up. The real world being inside the box. What is outside the box is irrelevant because we can't know it as well.

You are unduly more critical of materialists than the religious.

Materialist don't just make shit up... That's all I'm saying.

Josh Foreman:

“Why even call yourself a Christian? Are you more an agnostic-theist Christian?”

I call myself an agnostic conservative Christian Universalist. I’m agnostic before I’m Christian because I acknowledge the contingency of all truth claims. I’m conservative because I’m careful by nature and I believe that traditional structures and institutions contain time-tested utility. I’m Christian for several reasons that I’ve already gone over including its ability to explain the box we are in and our existential instinct that tells us there’s more outside the box. (Without the condescending, pat answer: “your instincts are vestigial monkey thoughts.”) I’m a Universalist because all other Christian options break down logically or define God as essentially a monster. (I acknowledge that if there is a God, He may indeed be a monster, I would just not serve or worship it.)

“How can you possibly align the Christian aspect with the agnostic part?”

The same way you align it with your atheism.

“Certainly we cannot know everything, but we can be sure of something based off good reasons.”

I don’t think we can be technically “sure” of anything.

“There are degrees of what we can and cannot know within reason.”

This, I agree with. But I qualify the word “know” as simply being a semantic device that makes life easier to interpret.

“The spiritual-enthusiasts have a far higher mountain of problems to climb than the materialist. The game is rigged in favor of the materialist.”

That depends completely on which data you are examining. If you stay within the materialist box you will a priori discount theories that address pressing concerns for us all. You would not accept a scientific endeavor that ruled out certain options a priori due to some bias. You should not accept a philosophical endeavor that rules out certain options a priori.

“There is a box that we are trapped in.”

I’m with you in that box.

“What is outside the box is only speculation.”

Agreed. But “speculation” needs to be better defined. It seems you are using the word in a derogatory sense, as though all speculation is equally void of evidence. In any mystery, such as a crime investigation, speculation is required to get from the point of not knowing who did it, to knowing who did it. Some of the speculation will lead to dead ends. And hopefully, one of the various theories will prove correct. The way you paint the theological project is as though a room full of wacky detectives are saying things like, “The man died of a broken heart!”, “No, he was killed by a flying invisible unicorn!”, “I’ve got it, he died because the earth started spinning too fast and he tripped!”. Certainly, there have been plenty of fanciful myths and religions like this, mostly to do with god-of-the-gaps, and I’m happy when scientific inquiry evicts those gods. However, as I’ve pointed out, there ARE some legitimate mysteries INSIDE this box that cannot be unraveled by the tools we have in here. We cannot explain how this box came to be, or why matter is asking about itself and its place in the box. And our tools and science certainly can’t address our deeply felt need for purpose. And while it’s possible that we have none, it’s not in any way “scientific” to conclude that.

“There is a greater degree of reason to believe what we can see in the box with our senses is closer to the real world than any prophet could ever conjure up.”

No, there is greater consensus, thus giving us the emotional support to declare our senses accurate; to be more confident in our assertions about life inside the box. When you emphasize the word “real”, you are just speaking existentially. You are speaking of what YOU personally find to be important. There is no objective way to determine that the inside of the box is more real – as in: True- than the outside of the box. You are simply stating a preference that you desire the inside to be free from any effects that may come from outside. My preference is otherwise. Is one more rational or logical than the other?

As to what prophets conjure up… Yeah, I’m with you on that. I’ve said that our pictures of “outside the box” are necessarily inaccurate. That’s only a problem if you demand the comfort of consensus to bolster your view; if you only accept potential Truth in the form of scientific, quantified, falsified data. I’m all for that kind of potential Truth. I’m just open to other potential Truth as well, especially if it’s internally logical and has explanatory power.

“What is outside the box is irrelevant because we can't know it as well.”

That is possible, but does not follow out of logical necessity. What is outside the box could be far more relevant to us humans than what is inside. I agree we can’t know that as well as we “know” stuff that’s inside the box. But ignorance does not change reality.

“You are unduly more critical of materialists than the religious.”

If you were familiar with my body of writing you wouldn’t say so. A common thread in my series of articles are illustrations of an atheist and a fundamentalist holding hands while committing the same mistakes. Believe me, I get more attacks from my “brothers” in the religious community. At least with atheist like you I’m only “fucking stupid” and “retarded” as opposed to an agent of Satan attempting to lure the youth into eternal hell with me.

“Materialist don't just make shit up... That's all I'm saying.”

Of course they do. Philosophy, political theories, educational systems, morality… All that stuff that makes life and culture work is made-up stuff. Just because there’s no god-name attached to it doesn’t make it somehow objectively obvious. Then you have the hallowed halls of science with their made-up stuff like the brontosaurus and 90% of quantum physics. Just because we have a nice consensus about what makes up our constituent parts does not mean we put them together with immaculate clarity or perfect logic. Every sphere of life requires intuition, interpretation, analysis by faulty brains and imperfect theories that explain enough to be useful. That’s exactly what religion does, but with far less data, more interpretation, more intuition, and less consensus.

I think the basic problem materialists have is that so much of humanity rules so much of their lives by theories that are this shaky. What materialists are not accounting for is that a materialist is also ruled by equally tenuous propositions. Whatever philosophy you use to guide your life, it is full of interpretive value judgments that cannot be based in an objective logical grid. Even if you boil your philosophy down to the biological imperative to propagate the species you have no way to logically frame that assertion beyond your own emotions. Logic does not dictate that any particular collection of matter and energy should remain in any particular state. Logic and science doesn’t care if humans live or die.

So please consider that inside this box we share, ultimately we are all pulled along our philosophical paths by emotion and desire. And whatever those attach to, the framework cannot be logic or material. Logic and material can and should be used, in my opinion, to find an apparently consistent theory, but ultimately none of us can Know or falsify the True framework that guides all the pieces of reality into their proper place.

“For anyone to think they're the center of anything is arrogance beyond all sense and reason, and for a religion to make such a claim is absolute blasphemy.”

Most religions do not place mankind at the center, but God. If there is a creator God, it is He that is at the center of this impossible-to-conceive huge universe. I’ve never claimed otherwise.

“Quantum physics was able to predict the mass of then-undiscovered particles with an uncanny accuracy. All these great religious works have yet to make a single prediction of such magnitude, or even anything moderately specific.”

Religion is not science. It’s simply silly to accuse something that is not science of not being scientific. You might as well kick your car for not being human. Different functions, different expectations.

“If you're not fundamentalist, I'd argue you're a fraud. You can't be living the "Christian" lifestyle without supporting all this bigotry, hate, and deception. It's inseparable. There is no Christ-Lite despite what people may think.”

Human impulses for good and evil are inseparable. No institution is free from this struggle, be it religious, political, educational, financial, etc. If I said you “can’t be a Democrat and be against universal health care or bailing out banks”you would rightly correct me. One can belong to a group or organization without supporting every single thing it does. That’s what the word “reform” is for.

“You're a fence-sitter.”

You’re uncomfortable with one who isn’t a straw man that’s easy to knock over like Kirk Cameron, so you commit ad hominem.

“You can either go with the group that likes to burn anything at the stake they think is a witch, lock up people for declaring the obvious, like the world is round or the Earth revolves around the Sun, or you can go with a group that would rather see people live and prosper without these artificial, self-imposed labels.”

Interesting. I know several hundred people personally who don’t want to burn witches or books or lock people up for dissent, yet happily live with self-imposed labels. Maybe you should meet some of them. Or would such a meeting cause you cognitive dissonance? … I’m just kidding, I know you were being hyperbolic. I hope.

ProgrammingAteMyLife:

“Most religions do not place mankind at the center, but God.”

More precisely, THEIR god.

“Religion is not science.”

Then it has no right claiming to have objective answers.

“Human impulses for good and evil are inseparable. No institution is free from this struggle,”

What distinguishes your chosen religion from any other human group, then? How are you changed? Where is your divine guidance?

Josh Foreman:

“More precisely, THEIR god.”

Yes, their interpretation of God. I don’t think any particular interpretation can be perfectly accurate.

“Then it has no right claiming to have objective answers.”

I believe that all alleged truth is contingent. Science acknowledges this, as old theories are superseded by new. I certainly don’t claim to have objective answers. I only share theories that I find compelling. But regardless of how we order our lives, whether by commands handed down by a fictional deity or by a philosophy cooked up by a lineage of old white guys, or our own home-brew we are all equally living according to non-objective and unfalsifiable standards.

“What distinguishes your chosen religion from any other human group, then? How are you changed? Where is your divine guidance?”

I simply find my chosen religion to be the most compelling theory for everything. I am changed by adhering to the ideals that it promotes. I pay all my taxes, even for the side work I do that apparently no one pays taxes on. I spend a lot of time with my kids. I support a needy child in Africa. I am honest to a fault. I contribute to community and church projects. I attempt to view every human as fundamentally equal and worthy of love. I would not be so if not for the structure and ideals of my faith. I’m not saying an atheist couldn’t be, or that there aren’t plenty of them who are better people than I. I’m just answering how I am changed by my religion. As to “divine guidance”, I don’t even know what that means. I certainly don’t have voices telling me what to do. I don’t view the Bible as 100% God-inspired, and I recognize that much of it could have been redacted. But I still find a direction there that is truly awesome and I suppose I take guidance from that highly interpretive, speculative body of work.

ProgrammingAteMyLife:

So, if I understand you correctly, you view religion as a framework for self-improvement/analysis?

JF:

That is part of it, but not the focus. I’m aware that I can use other frameworks for those things. To me, the primary point of a religion is to come up with the best guess possible about life, the universe and everything. I wouldn’t subscribe to any religion that I thought was untrue simply for some utility. I think that the central Christian claims are True, but I also think that their meanings are so subjective as to render a single “proper” interpretation of them impossible. So without a single church authority or book to point to, all I have is my own intuition, and I’m not about to try to pass that off as any sort of authority that other’s should follow. I can only testify to its internal logic, explanatory power and efficacy in my life.

ProgrammingAteMyLife:

Interesting views. Mind I ask more? I don't want to debate you for the sake of being right on the Internet, I'm genuinely happy to come across a person with such different views from mine who's courteous enough to share them and intelligent enough to convey them well.

First, I don't understand which claims you consider True with a capital "T" and what it means to you to know the Truth. Obviously, one can't approach it rationally.

Second, how do you think a spiritual seeker ought to choose a religion? Would you say it boils down to cultural and/or esthetic preference? And how strongly do you believe you have chosen well?

I'd also point out that religion has no explanatory power. I don't mean that as an insult. A theory has explanatory power relative to another theory if it provides an objective observation that falsifies the other theory. Since religion is independent of objective observation, it's meaningless to speak about its explanatory power.

If by "explanatory power" you simply mean "it addresses questions that science can't answer", that's not satisfactory either - because we can't know if its answers are correct. Alchemy, for example, was very comprehensive and internally consistent for its time. We also know it wasn't correct.

JF:

“Mind I ask more?”

Please do. I’m here to be asked, pushed in new directions, insulted, attacked, and critiqued. That’s how I grow.

“I'm genuinely happy to come across a person with such different views from mine who's courteous enough to share them and intelligent enough to convey them well.”

I also appreciate it greatly!

“First, I don't understand which claims you consider True with a capital "T" and what it means to you to know the Truth.”

Quite simply: I don’t know what is True with a capitol “T”. And I can’t think of a legitimate, non-circular way to justify a claim that anything is True with a capitol “T”. I do believe that there is Truth, for the simple reason that logic, and subsequently communication, would be impossible without a transcendent Truth. I think that Truth is all facts, combined and interpreted correctly. I think one can be full of facts and lack Truth due to a sorting or interpretation error. Therefore I don’t claim to Know Truth. I don’t claim to Know (with a capitol “K”) anything. I place my convictions on a continuum of certainty. I wrote this article specifically about that process if you’re interested: http://www.examiner.com/x-19272-Seattle-Faith--Agnosticism-Examiner~y2009m9d22-The-continuum

“Obviously, one can't approach it rationally.”

I’m not sure in what sense you are using the word “rationally” here. Can you elaborate?

“Second, how do you think a spiritual seeker ought to choose a religion?”

For me personally, I desire to discover as much Truth as possible. Whatever religion seems to contain the most Truth is what a spiritual seeker ought to choose. But then, I can’t fathom a God that "belongs" to a single religion. I conceive of a God that may have communicated with us, but put us in an epistemological dilemma of not being able to falsify many claims of that communication. So if this God wanted to communicate one single Truth, it did a poor job, unless it only wanted a specific group of people to receive it. (possible) I personally would not worship a God like that. I hope it would understand that conviction. My point is that I consider Truth a higher goal than dogma from any particular religion. The dogma must point to Truth or it is not worth burdening oneself with it.

“Would you say it boils down to cultural and/or esthetic preference?”

I would assume that Truth has no cultural or aesthetic boundaries as it is a collection of all facts, rightly interpreted.

“And how strongly do you believe you have chosen well?”

I’m far too young (34) and inexperienced (never belonged to any other religion, don’t speak any other languages, never went to a liberal arts college.) to be able to confidently promote my chosen religion as THE CORRECT RELIGION. And I’m particularly suspect since I live in a western, “christian” (with a small “c”) country and was raised in a seriously Christian (with a capitol “C”) home with very loving and moral parents. How silly would I be to insist that I have life figured out? How arrogant would I be to assume that my interpretation of my experiences and revelations were True? I simply work with what I have and try to connect the small amount of puzzle pieces that I have in the most honest way possible.

“I'd also point out that religion has no explanatory power. I don't mean that as an insult. A theory has explanatory power relative to another theory if it provides an objective observation that falsifies the other theory.”

Ok. I guess I’m misusing a technical term. Something that can happen when one is sadly under-educated. :( By 'explanatory power' I simply mean there is a proposed answer to a specific mystery. So: we have something, and not nothing. How that came about is a mystery. The conception of a creator God is a proposed explanation. We have a felt need for purpose and a narrative for ordering values. A loving God is a proposed explanation. Another proposed explanation is that these felt needs are vestigial coping mechanisms that any sufficiently complex mind would produce. I think both proposals can be correct. Anyway, thanks for the clarification!

“If by "explanatory power" you simply mean "it addresses questions that science can't answer", that's not satisfactory either - because we can't know if its answers are correct.”

That's right, according to your technical definition no religion provides falsifiable explanations. What it comes down to for me is that when surveying the totality of our life and the mysterious nature of our existence, I personally feel it’s better to at least have a proposed solution than none. The fact that one cannot falsify the propositions does make them less satisfying, but because the questions lay outside the realm of science and falsifiability by their nature, less satisfying propositions must do. I think this is key to understanding the psychological differences between the materialist and the theist. There is a threshold of certainty (or lack thereof) that the materialist will not cross. It seems too… uncomfortable(?) for them to have such perceived contingency in their worldview. I guess the only “message” I’m bringing into this community is that maybe we all (theist and materialists alike) ought to get comfortable with contingent ideas and be aware that our worldviews are built on bias and emotion as much as cold hard facts. But maybe I’m the only biased, emotional person… ;)

ProgrammingAteMyLife:

Thanks for the reply. And for the link. And, by the way, your tumbling skills are impressive!

Now, some issues I'm interested in:

“Quite simply: I don’t know what is True with a capitol “T”. And I can’t think of a legitimate, non-circular way to justify a claim that anything is True with a capitol “T”. Whatever religion seems to contain the most Truth is what a spiritual seeker ought to choose.”

Ok, if you don't know the "Truth", how do you recognize it? How can whether a religion possesses something of it? Why do you single out your belief in a personal God as true or high on the truth continuum, as you put it?

“I would assume that Truth has no cultural or aesthetic boundaries as it is a collection of all facts, rightly interpreted.”

Yes, but still, how does one opt for, say, Christianity and not, say, Islam? What led you to believe in, as you say in the article, the personal loving God rather than, say, the impersonal Tao?

“Ok. I guess I’m misusing a technical term. Something that can happen when one is sadly under-educated. :( By 'explanatory power' I simply mean there is a proposed answer to a specific mystery.”

No disrespect meant! Anyway, it's not about the term itself. The fact that religion has no explanatory power means it can't add to objective knowledge. It doesn't improve upon existing knowledge and can't be improved by new observations.

Unfalsifiability doesn't make a claim less satisfying. Unfalsifiability means that we can't know whether a claim is true (since we can't test it) and, therefore, can't arrive at a better understanding (since we can't provide a theory with greater explanatory power.) In other words, an unfalsifiable claim is a dead end in our search for objective knowledge.

One the other hand, you can argue that religion has psychological value - that it inspires morality or artistic endeavors, for example. You can say that it conveys some universal truths about human nature, like art does. But that doesn't make it a source of objective truth.

“I guess the only “message” I’m bringing into this community is that maybe we all (theist and materialists alike) ought to get comfortable with contingent ideas and be aware that our worldviews are built on bias and emotion as much as cold hard facts. But maybe I’m the only biased, emotional person… ;)”

We're all biased, emotional people. The difference between the theist and the materialist is how they cope with it.

The theist says, "We're all biased and emotional, so whatever I believe is valid."

The materialist says, "We're all biased and emotional, so whatever I believe must be examined by an objective and impersonal method."

JF:

Hey, sorry it took me so long to get back to you. I'm in the middle of moving. I've found our conversation very stimulating so I hope you'll continue it with me.

“Ok, if you don't know the "Truth", how do you recognize it?”

I never will Know Truth. At least not in this life. And if there is no other life I’ll never never Know. But I think there are two ways to at least narrow the field. First, I weed out things that are contradictory. I can’t rule them out completely since as a human my perception of any proposed “other” (supernatural world or beings) is spotty at best and self-deceiving at worst. So things that appear to contradict in my flesh-computer-mind may not actually, ultimately contradict. This is why my belief in a Loving and Just God forced me to lay aside the dominant Christian doctrine of eternal hell. I couldn’t keep both doctrines while still respecting logic.

The second way one can narrow down the field of what is True is by relying on the perceptions that lay on the periphery of our understanding and interpretation of reality. That intuitive, gut feeling. This is obviously problematic since people’s intuitions take them in so many mutually exclusive directions. Or do they? We can’t know. We can’t assume that a current trajectory will determine the end point, can we?

All this to say that thinking through this process is why I came to the conclusion I did a couple years ago. One cannot Know Truth. Well, they might guess some stuff correctly, but they can’t know that they Know. We can only feel that we Know. That’s where I am. I think that’s where all humans are. Consensus and falsifiability only push the problem back a step or two as they are still contingent upon human's senses and interpretations.

“Why do you single out your belief in a personal God as true or high on the truth continuum, as you put it?”

It’s rather inexplicable. I believe it’s simply Hope. I “feel it in my bones”. My bones could be wrong. I could be living a lie. That’s ok. I deal with the intellectual, emotional and possibly spiritual resources I’ve been given. I can do no better. I summed it up here: http://www.examiner.com/x-19272-Seattle-Faith--Agnosticism-Examiner~y2009m9d30-All-is-lost-but-hope

“how does one opt for, say, Christianity and not, say, Islam? What led you to believe in, as you say in the article, the personal loving God rather than, say, the impersonal Tao?”

I can only speak to how I personally opt for Christianity rather than Islam or the Tao. That’s what my current series of articles is specifically about.

http://www.examiner.com/x-19272-Seattle-Faith--Agnosticism-Examiner~y2009m10d6-Why-Im-a-Christian-1-God-vs-no-God

http://www.examiner.com/x-19272-Seattle-Faith--Agnosticism-Examiner~y2009m10d21-Why-Im-a-Christian-2-I-want-to-believe

There is a web of intersecting strands of thought that form a Gestalt interpretation of life that just ‘fits’ right with a Christian theory in my mind. Other theories also ‘fit’ to a certain extent, and of course I’m not nearly familiar enough with other traditions in order to completely determine that. Even if I was, I don’t have enough experience and wisdom to ascertain which fit all reality best.

My specific problem with the idea of an impersonal God is simply that it doesn't propose a solution to our felt need for purpose. And if God has no mind there is no proposal to the question of origin.

“The fact that religion has no explanatory power means it can't add to objective knowledge. It doesn't improve upon existing knowledge and can't be improved by new observations.”

Since I don’t see a way for objective knowledge to really exist, I don’t see this as a problem. Though I recognize that the stuff that lands higher on the certainty continuum is generally more “objective”. But that’s not always the case. I “know” that my wife loves me. That’s way up there on the continuum, but it’s not objective in many ways. I “know” that it’s better to be merciful than cruel. But that’s not objective at all. When I really examine the values I hold and their order of importance, there is absolutely no objective measure for them. Since a large component of religion is the ordering of values, religion does “add” to knowledge. It does not add to Facts, and perhaps you are conflating facts with knowledge.

I also disagree with your assertion that new observations can’t “improve” a religious theory. For instance: emerging science has shown some surprising coloration to previously ‘difficult’ theological assertions. And the Genesis myth has striking parallels to current geological and astronomical theories. These scientific inroads can illuminate, supplement and enliven religious ideas. So yeah, it can be “improved” by new observations. It can also be discredited by them. I’m all for this as the more religious ideas get discredited, the fewer “dead ends” humans have to explore. I'm glad there's no more debate about whether Zeus or Ra are more capable of bringing a good harvest.

“Unfalsifiability means that we can't know whether a claim is true (since we can't test it) and, therefore, can't arrive at a better understanding”

Falsifiability aside; we can test certain religious claims with logic and observation. Many religious theories –specifically the literalistic, anthropomorphic god-of-the-gaps types- have been tested and failed.

“(since we can't provide a theory with greater explanatory power.)”

Well, I wonder now… if we step back and view Reality as a whole, (At least the parts of it we have access to.) we have these different worlds of inquiry. We science, psychology, religion, philosophy, politics, Art, etc. There’s a lot of overlap since reality seems to defy categorization. (Stupid platypus!) But can’t these worlds of inquiry work as meta-theories and therefore be used to falsify each other? I think that’s essentially what I’ve been arguing for. Rather than taking one field and using it as a dominant mode to discredit or discount the others, (As Modernism seems to do utilizing 'science' as a scalpel.) one can fill in the gaps and weaknesses that each field has. I see the intrinsic weakness of materialism being its utter dependence on science as the default explanation for everything. I think that is fundamentally unbalanced when taking in the totality of our perceptions and modes of being. Science works fantastically at under-girding and falsifying ideas. But when you limit yourself to under-girding I think you end up with a clunky, barely functioning world. A materialist can maintain the illusion of beauty and comfort within their worldview. But I think that can be explained by the momentum that religion and romanticism and such have embedded in our culture. So a materialist can say they can have both the mechanical, reductionist theory of everything while still enjoying the artistic and moral fruits of the other worlds of inquiry. But materialist reductionism is necessarily destructive to them since it actively seeks to displace Gestalt wholes with a pile of constituent parts. I think that religion and many philosophies serve to maintain wholes, as modes of interpretation that speak more meaningfully to human needs than materialism does. When you look into the eyes of your lover there is something happening that is not best described with the anatomy of the eye and the electro-chemical synaptic processes that accompany that ‘something’. That data can inform and supplement the experience, but is not useful for interpreting it. Imagine Disney Land with all the art and sculpture stripped away and only the functioning scaffolding underneath. It would be fascinating to see. But it would lose its very purpose. Which is exactly what I am resisting in materialism. Humans need purpose. And reducing that desire to its constituent parts only compounds the dilemma.

So does “science” stand on its own as a suitable theory for everything? Does it provide us with a holistic system that meets our needs and explains everything? You can only claim that it explains everything if you establish what “everything” is. Since it is obviously possible that there is some portion of Reality, (I’m not talking about romantic notions of the mind here, but sheer, brute Reality.) that our perceptions and tools cannot detect with accuracy or consistency, I think science does not and cannot explain everything. Does Religion provide us with a holistic system that meets our needs and explains everything? You can only claim that if you ignore our need for consensus and the wide world of approaches to metaphysics. You could build Disney Land with no scaffolding and the place would fall apart halfway up Space Mountain.

Now reality is more complex than the worlds of science and religion and their particular interaction; but my point is that we can hold up these two theories and falsify them in imperfect, but still progressive, ways. They provide valuable balance to one another. Science (by which I mean individual humans and communities of scientists) tends to view Reality as parts interacting, and overlooks possibilities that could be lurking outside the range of their tools. It’s easy for them to gloss over the parts of Reality that don’t fit their interpretive framework. They could be missing something huge.

Religion (you know, those who think that way) tends to view Reality as a whole, and the parts are not that important because it’s the overarching Plan that motivates their revelations and teachings. It’s easy for them to gloss over the parts of Reality that don’t fit their interpretive framework. They could be missing something huge.

Maybe I’m imposing a symmetry that isn’t there, but if this premise of incomplete worldviews is correct, couldn’t these two modes of inquiry falsify each other? I'm not speaking rhetorically here, I would sincerely like your opinion about this.

“One the other hand, you can argue that religion has psychological value - that it inspires morality or artistic endeavors, for example.”

It seems pretty darn dirty to me to propose a system with truth claims in order to inspire honesty if the claims themselves are not considered True. That’s what that movie The Village was all about: instilling morality out of fear for theoretically benevolent purposes. It just doesn’t work. It’s hypocritical.

“You can say that it conveys some universal truths about human nature, like art does. But that doesn't make it a source of objective truth.”

Again, how are we defining “objective truth”? Is it defined as only data that can be measured and scientifically deconstructed? Let me ask you this: Can there be an “objective truth” that is unknown to any human?

“The theist says, "We're all biased and emotional, so whatever I believe is valid."”

I certainly hope I’m not saying that! I’m saying that what I believe is a reflection of my character and hopes. I’m saying I hope what I believe is True, but due to the human epistemological dilemma, I can’t Know that. I’m saying that probably every human’s interpretation of life is wrong in many respects since we have such little data and such limited minds to interpret the little data we do have access to.

“The materialist says, "We're all biased and emotional, so whatever I believe must be examined by an objective and impersonal method."”

But how would an objective and impersonal method back up any claim involving a Truth that is not in the arena of Science? How would you objectively and impersonally examine whether or not humans have purpose outside of their own whims? How do you objectively and impersonally examine whether our material reality is supplemented or created by a transcendent power? How do you objectively know that love is better than hate?

The only answer I’ve found from materialist is that they don’t try to examine those questions because they assume there are no answers. Well I’m just unsatisfied with any philosophy that shuts down inquiry based on an assumption.

I think that in order to progress in our conversation we need to work towards defining “objective knowledge.” Are you up for that? If so, give me your definition.

ProgrammingAteMyLife:

Hey, thanks for the time you took to write me such a thorough reply. Sorry it took me ages to get back to you. I read your reply and articles several times and gave them some thought.

I feel I should first say I've no problem with your religion. I disagree with you, but at the end of the day, I strongly believe in the inalienable right of every person to pursue whatever spiritual path they wish, provided it doesn't interfere with anyone else's rights or freedom. Your take on Christianity comes across as caring and positive.

Of course, looking at religion, I find that one's take on a religion always reflects the person pursuing it - another strong indication that religion is man-made. Say, you postulate a loving God and shape your beliefs accordingly. That's nice, but arbitrary. Hateful people (like Westboro Baptist Church) postulate a hateful and vengeful God, and defend the concept as persuasively as any religion does.

Now, to go to your last question, I define objective knowledge as knowledge that can be independently tested and applied regardless of any observer's beliefs or preferences. Can objective knowledge exist? Perhaps it will never be complete, but then, we don't know its limits yet. Our pursuit of objective knowledge and its applications led to impressive breakthroughs in science, engineering, humanities - in the overall quality of our lives. Subjective knowledge is a dead end - you don't learn how to build a computer by praying.

Ok, not everything is science, but our intuition and subjective knowledge still come from observing. Believing that mercy is good or that your wife loves you is not the same as believing in Christianity. You can observe your wife's behavior or the consequences of mercy vs. cruelty. You can challenge these beliefs. If you were, say, a Viking, you could show a counterexample to why cruelty is better than mercy.

Undoubtedly, phenomena exists that religion builds upon. Many among us crave purpose, justice, comfort, moral absolutes, truth and beauty. It's also true that no human pursuit has answered these needs fully. However, here's where you and I differ - I maintain that religion hasn't addressed these needs, either.

Religion doesn't really answer the question of origin, because attaching a name to an unknowable phenomenon isn't useful knowledge. If you got lost in the woods, it would be no help to simply invent the name for the woods. Such "knowledge" leads to no progress - it's at best aesthetically pleasing.

Religion doesn't really answer the question of purpose, either. There are countless interpretations of our purpose, one for each personality type - and none stand out like one would expect a connected-to-absolute religion should. It appears to me that the purpose comes from us and religion is just an interpretation, an embodiment. Religion doesn't answer our questions, it justifies our belief in what we want the answer to be. Which has its good sides, but can also be very dangerous, whenever some of us believe we're better or more deserving than our fellow humans.

Now, I don't know what else to say - I hope I provided you an insight into how a non-believer thinks and feels and hopefully didn't make this debate into a flamewar. I suspect further debate would lead to repeated arguments on both sides, but I remain interested in your Examiner post and grateful for any further insight into your worldview that you care to share.

Oh, and all the best with the new apartment.

JF:

“I read your reply and articles several times and gave them some thought.”

Wow… really? One of the few. I appreciate it! J I was writing to my dad about my work just yesterday and noting how it’s hard for me to get any truly engaging conversation from it. He says it’s because it’s so long winded and I agree. I just don’t know how to be otherwise. I also mentioned how I have tried to engage those in my faith community on Christian forums and such, but I just get ignored or banned. Only the atheists will talk to me. So anyway, I really do appreciate your patience and interest. It is wonderful to be able to have adequately lengthy debates on issues this complex. Debates that avoid the slogans and personal attacks.

“I feel I should first say I've no problem with your religion.”

Yeah, I’m not sure why anyone would be, aside from an atheistic impulse to be slightly disgusted by a grown man believing in something so fanciful.

“ I find that one's take on a religion always reflects the person pursuing it - another strong indication that religion is man-made.”

Well I think we are in agreement here. But I don’t think that the fact that something is man-made makes it less likely to be True. A religion is many things, but one important aspect is that it is a theory. A theory for explaining life, purpose, origin, morals, etc. Some of those theories may be closer to Truth than others. Of course it’s possible that they are all wrong, but the fact that men came up with them does not necessitate this.

“Now, to go to your last question, I define objective knowledge as knowledge that can be independently tested and applied regardless of any observer's beliefs or preferences.”

I like this definition. With the caveat that “knowledge” is a short-cut word for “emotionally satisfying consensus” rather than an absolute certainty. Now let me complain about this idea of independent investigation regardless of beliefs or preferences. Here’s the trouble I see with it. People can be stubborn. Set in their ways to such an extent that certain test results may not meet their unreasonable standards. And on the flip side, you can have a theory that is just really popular because it appeals to all the right emotions of a particular group, and their test result interpretation may be overly rosy as a result. Now, in both of these cases the theory or idea or whatever it is may be ultimately True. But the consensus can be flawed for a variety of reasons.

“Our pursuit of objective knowledge and its applications led to impressive breakthroughs in science, engineering, humanities - in the overall quality of our lives.”

And I’m sooo glad for that! I'm an artist at a computer game company. At no other point in history could I have had my creative impulses so fulfilled.

“Subjective knowledge is a dead end - you don't learn how to build a computer by praying.”

But this is question begging, isn’t it? If there is any Truth in religious claims than it’s quite possible that prayer can lead to “knowledge”. Probably not of the kind required for building computers, but the kind that lead one to spiritual Truth. Subjectivity is simply a lack of consensus, but as I’m sure we agree, consensus does not make an assertion any more or less True.

“Believing that mercy is good or that your wife loves you is not the same as believing in Christianity. You can observe your wife's behavior or the consequences of mercy vs. cruelty.”

Well, as you say, belief is built upon observation. Observation is the subjective combining of stimuli into interpretations. That’s what evidence is, right? I collect evidence that I exist, that the sky is blue, that my wife loves me, and that Jesus is God manifest in history. Some of these evidences have more consensus than others. All of them ultimately boil down to my interpretative association of ideas, beliefs, emotions, etc. So my collection of evidence, and subsequent evaluation of them, culminating in an interpretation is the same process when it comes to “knowing” that sound does not exist in space, my wife loves me, and that Jesus is God. Though, I think value judgments like morality are impossible to compose or “prove” with evidence. They can only be a matter of preferences.

“Religion doesn't really answer the question of origin, because attaching a name to an unknowable phenomenon isn't useful knowledge.”

Again, you are question begging by asserting that God is an unknowable phenomenon. I will grant you that if a God exists, He has decided to leave us in the dark epistemologically. But asserting a God is not mere naming. It is conceptualizing a Being whose definitions explain existence and stop infinite regress.

“If you got lost in the woods, it would be no help to simply invent the name for the woods.”

Because the concept of God is not a physically manifest phenomenon like a forest is, I don’t think this analogy works. God is not a name put on a thing. God is a proposed new thing, unlike any other thing.

“Religion doesn't really answer the question of purpose, either. There are countless interpretations of our purpose, one for each personality type - and none stand out like one would expect a connected-to-absolute religion should.”

Well, if religion is a set of theories concerning ultimate issues, then there will naturally be a bunch of competing claims since we all interpret reality differently and religion lacks the consensus that something like science provides. I’m certainly not claiming that all religion is connected to the absolute. I’m saying I think I’ve found one that is. I’m personally convinced that my theory is good enough to base my life on.

But none of this has to do with why I brought up Purpose as a need that religion fills. The reason I did so is because I find a gaping hole in the materialist platform where Purpose should be. I don’t know how one can fill that hole without a transcendent reality provided by a creator. Yes, one can interpret their Purpose any way they please, but I don’t see any justification for it from a materialist perspective. To a materialist, Purpose must ultimately be a meaningless word. It exists, just like love, mercy and justice in the realm of emotions which are simply a collection of electrical impulses and chemical reactions. We can placate our felt needs with various philosophical concepts like charting one’s own destiny or determining one’s own purpose, but at the root, there is nothing to actually address but matter spinning in the void.

“Religion doesn't answer our questions,”

But it does. It’s simply possible that the answers are wrong.

“ it justifies our belief in what we want the answer to be.”

Yes, it provides authority which lends weight to whatever we want to believe. That’s what all epistemologically blind beings will have to do to find solace. We band together in little tribes establish authority for our desires and argue with people in other tribes. This phenomenon is not limited to religion, it pervades every sphere of human activity.

“Which has its good sides, but can also be very dangerous, whenever some of us believe we're better or more deserving than our fellow humans.”

But isn’t this the case with any philosophy, political view, etc?

“Now, I don't know what else to say - I hope I provided you an insight into how a non-believer thinks and feels and hopefully didn't make this debate into a flamewar.”

It has been a pleasure. You articulated your views very well and caused me to think a lot, which is exactly what I’m here for.

“ I suspect further debate would lead to repeated arguments on both sides, but I remain interested in your Examiner post and grateful for any further insight into your worldview that you care to share.”

Yeah, this is an interesting place to be in a debate… Once one get’s beneath the facts of an issue or disagreement, and is left with only preferences, there’s really no place else to go, is there?

“Oh, and all the best with the new apartment.”

Thanks so much! Maybe we can pick this up again after I post my next article.

CrankyBadger:

From reading through your follow remarks, I'd argue you're 90% humanist, 10% self-described "Christian", though of course I'm only interpreting what you say and may in fact be wildly off base.

There are some rather dramatic declarations in your rebuttal, though, including a few zingers like "I simply find my chosen religion to be the most compelling theory for everything" or "the best possible guess about life, the universe and everything" which comes after having declared religion and science to be two entirely different things. If religion explains everything, then what need is there for science at all? Or is it that religion doesn't explain everything, only some things. Or more specifically, the things that science doesn't explain... Or hasn't yet explained... Or is simply never likely to explain...?

There's one thing I've noticed that stands out quite strongly between religion and science, and that's simply the more someone studies religion, really gets into it, the more disillusioned they become, and in many cases abandon it altogether. It is rare that anyone loses their faith in science because they got in too deep, even though many, like Einstein, have come to regret the applications of their work.

Why is it that when people really wrestle with their "faith" they're often driven away from the very thing they so desperately want to embrace?

Perhaps it's that the Christian mythology and tradition, such as it is, has been cobbled together out of bits and pieces over thousands of years and is far from a seamless or perfect product. The closer one looks, the more the imperfections and wild inconsistencies show, which in the end leaves one wondering if there's anything to be believed at all.

I'd argue the Bible is simply The Da Vinci Code of its era, a block-buster best-seller that's full of wildly improbable stories and fragments of pseudo-truth hammered together.

I find it bewildering that someone apparently capable of rational discourse wild still insist on using religion as some sort of crutch, as if incapable of making it through life without it.

You seem satisfied that there's some "internal logic" to Christianity, but I fail to see it, and I've seen many try and fail to justify such a claim. Religions are famous for their circular logic, after all.

Is there any aspect of Christianity that you firmly embrace that is a unique feature of that particular religion? For example, statements similar to the Ten Commandments have been made in many other religions, obviously Judaism. If your core set of beliefs is sufficiently narrow, it might be the case that you could find enough common ground with a number of other religions to the point where you may as well consider yourself a believer.

JF:

“From reading through your follow remarks, I'd argue you're 90% humanist, 10% self-described "Christian"”

Depending on which “humanism” you are referring, I think I can be 100% both. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_humanism

It’s quite easy to find in Jesus’ advocacy of basic humanists tenets such as dignity and equality for all humans, separation of church and state, social justice, etc. The only friction would come in equivocating over authority structures. I’ve already stated that I can’t accept any particular religious authority due to circularity and the epistemological dilemma. But I can’t accept any particular secular authority for the same reasons. The simple fact of life is that we choose authorities that we find most compelling. Sometimes the choice is difficult, as one who lives under dictatorship has only 3 options: accept it, escape, or die. I find the authority of Christ and His teachings compelling, and thus follow them. If they happen to line up with humanism that’s interesting in a peripheral way, but I don’t believe it defines me as an adherent of humanism.

“There are some rather dramatic declarations in your rebuttal, though, including a few zingers like "I simply find my chosen religion to be the most compelling theory for everything"”

I’m speaking existentially here, not universally. I, personally, Josh Foreman, find my chosen religion to be the most compelling theory for everything. You obviously don’t, and that’s ok. You may be smarter, better informed, wiser, more mature or just more enlightened than I.

“If religion explains everything, then what need is there for science at all?”

Religion does not explain everything. Religions are theories that provide context and narrative that propose answers to specific mysteries that science cannot. There are two worlds that we human know about: the physical world and the world of the mind which includes our philosophies, conceptions of God and/or the spiritual world, existential perceptions, felt-needs for purpose, etc. Science is a fantastic tool for getting facts. But the process of combining those facts into coherent theories is guided by philosophies, intuition, biased perceptions, etc. As humans, our biases are obviously human-centric and that provides plenty of opportunities for incorrect application of heuristic mistakes. As you know, experiments, even falsified ones can be carried out and verified within closed systems, that work perfectly well, provide explanatory power, and seem to us as iron clad laws, yet removed from the closed systems they break down. This is in no way an attack on “science”, I just want to establish that a human-centric approach to anything can be wrong. We apply our science to our world and feel very good about ourselves as a result, but the limits of science fall short of providing satisfactory answers to the world of the mind that is actually far more important to most humans.

Hm… sorry, I went off on a tangent there… Here’s what I should have said…

Science= Good, necessary, incomplete source of human happiness. Religion = Provides context, proposes answers that most humans need that science can’t.

When I say my Christianity is a “theory for everything” I’m referring to that contextual shell that it wraps everything into, including the physical world and thus science. I think it’s bizarre to attempt to use a subset of reality (science) to view all of reality. To do so means ignoring the greatest mystery of all, (why is there something instead of nothing?) and denigrates our felt needs for purpose and value.

“Or is it that religion doesn't explain everything, only some things. Or more specifically, the things that science doesn't explain... Or hasn't yet explained... Or is simply never likely to explain...?”

I’m saying that my theory, for me personally… as a single person.. and not you… explains everything including science. It doesn’t conflict, or fill gaps that can ever be filled by scientific inquiry. Science cannot determine values. Minds must do that. Science can examine minds and create wonderful theories of connections of facts related to the mind, but can never, by definition, determine what has more worth than what. Science can also never, by definition, propose a solution to why there is something rather than nothing. It can only offer infinite regress. So this is not a god-of-the-gaps sort of thing. A theory is a connection of facts in a particular pattern or narrative. A good theory will match what we perceive, or at least provide an explanation for why our perceptions are wrong. (such as the earth orbiting the sun even though our perception is otherwise.) This is what my theory does for me. Makes connections that explain what I perceive. But I recognize that my perceptions are not absolute and universal. They are contingent and biased. I believe this is true for everyone.

“the more someone studies religion, really gets into it, the more disillusioned they become, and in many cases abandon it altogether.”

Do you have any citation for this? I wouldn’t be surprised if it were the case. Either way it does little in providing evidence for or against the possibility of an “other”. (by which I mean a God, gods, another dimension that we can’t perceive, etc.)

“Why is it that when people really wrestle with their "faith" they're often driven away from the very thing they so desperately want to embrace?”

My guess is it is a matter of expectations. If one expects perfection from any given system they will be disappointed to find it otherwise. During my wrestling with my faith, rather than discarding the baby with the bathwater, I just pulled the drain plug. I think the Church, (by which I mean the totality of believers in Christ in all times and places.) has erred by placing their faith in their own institutions. It’s the institutional churches that mandated and composed “the” bible. The institutional churches that developed doctrine that fenced them off from the world and each other. So sure, if you go in expecting perfection from these institutions you either have to gloss over a lot of stuff or just accept that maybe God didn’t work the way you’ve been told He works. I think it’s silly to assume that because institutions are flawed that there must be no God. That is only logical if it were proven that God wanted to develop a perfect institution.

“Perhaps it's that the Christian mythology and tradition, such as it is, has been cobbled together out of bits and pieces over thousands of years and is far from a seamless or perfect product.”

Exactly.

“I'd argue the Bible is simply The Da Vinci Code of its era, a block-buster best-seller that's full of wildly improbable stories and fragments of pseudo-truth hammered together.”

Well, I’ve read a lot of books and listened to a lot of lectures, many recently on the “liberal” side, about this issue. My perception is that it’s not as crazy as its detractors such as yourself paint it. Nor is it a perfect revelation of ultimate Truth. As to the wild improbability of many of the stories… that’s only a problem if you insist in a literal and perfect document.

“I find it bewildering that someone apparently capable of rational discourse wild still insist on using religion as some sort of crutch, as if incapable of making it through life without it.”

Please remember that I see a big difference between the institutions of religion and a coherent theory of life. Religion and its institutions are simply the medium for transferring a variety of narrative theories. As to the “crutch” aspect. One might as well ask why a rational person needs something like love as a crutch to get them through life. Just because the meta-narrative you’ve cobbled together for your life is a fine crutch for you, doesn’t mean it’s the right one for everyone, or that your crutch is more True.

“You seem satisfied that there's some "internal logic" to Christianity, but I fail to see it, and I've seen many try and fail to justify such a claim.”

I’ve spent the last several years weeding out the logical errors of doctrines that I could not rationally swallow. I found a much older tradition within Christianity called Universalism that addresses the problem of hell, and a strain of theodicy in Irenaeus that solves the problem of evil without resorting to the infinite regress that plague free-will theodicies. Again, I’m not talking in absolute terms. I’m saying that I, personally, Josh Foreman, find them to be internally logical and matching my perceived reality. And I’m always open to critiques of my theory.

“Religions are famous for their circular logic, after all.”

Yes, all claims of revelation are circular. But so are all claims. Every claim, including scientific claims, are contingent upon other claims, other authorities. Ultimately looping back to a potentially fallible human interpretation of some phenomenon. Just like every definition in the dictionary is circular, requiring other words to define those definitions. No fact stands alone as non-contingent or non-circular. With religious claims, the loops are simply shorter. But circularity is not a logical method for determining Truth. From my latest article:

“Now you could say that one should reject all circular arguments. But that is not logical. For instance, if we are doing a trust exercise and I tell you that I will catch you if you fall backwards into my arms, the only evidence to back up my claim is my own assurance. I’m self-validating, and that is a circular argument. But the fact that it’s circular has absolutely no bearing on the Truth of my claim. I will catch you because that’s just my nature. I’m too empathetic to let someone fall no matter how much I dislike them."

http://www.examiner.com/x-19272-Seattle-Faith--Agnosticism-Examiner~y2009m10d21-Why-Im-a-Christian-2-I-want-to-believe

“Is there any aspect of Christianity that you firmly embrace that is a unique feature of that particular religion?”

Yes. Jesus. I consider Him the Lord of my life. The Way, the Truth, and the Life. I’m pretty well read concerning the milieu He lived in, I’m familiar with all the other supposed saviors, I understand the similarities of other teachings in other religions. I am convinced He stands alone as a unique touch point where God interacted with the world in history. I could be wrong, but that is my current conviction based on my current level of knowledge and experience.

“If your core set of beliefs is sufficiently narrow, it might be the case that you could find enough common ground with a number of other religions to the point where you may as well consider yourself a believer.”

I follow C.S. Lewis’s impulse in seeing God’s hand in all that is good. I don’t believe that God belongs to any one religion. But He could be manifest more clearly in some than others. And I believe Christ is the clearest. If He is a God worth worshipping and loving than He is doing something good with every human no matter their beliefs, religion, strengths, weaknesses, etc. I see Jesus as the best revelation of God, but I don’t think God limits Himself to a single moment in time to display His nature.

CrankyBadger:

At this point I'm left wondering how much of the Christian faith you're actually a believer in, as it sounds like you've run it through some kind of still to remove all the impurities.

It does sound like the way you describe yourself as a Christian I may as well consider myself a "Santaist". I don't really believe Santa personally drops off presents every year, but I like the idea, and what Santa stands for.

What is it about Christianity that makes it the best fit with your philosophy, anyway?

JF:

“At this point I'm left wondering how much of the Christian faith you're actually a believer in”

As with most religions, the Christian faith is manifest in many ways. There are the doctrines. There are the traditions. There are the customs, rituals, and other forms of worship. There is the institutional procedural component. There are the thousands of cultural and political ramifications. There are the philosophical components. And there is the personal experiential aspect. So while I’m fairly iconoclastic towards most of these things, I have so many ties with the whole of Christianity that I have no problem calling myself a Christian, albeit a heterodox one.

“it sounds like you've run it through some kind of still to remove all the impurities.”

I hope I am not so arrogant as to suppose myself wise or gifted enough to overturn the tables of thousands of years of accumulated experience and interpretation. The only “still” my faith is run through is that of my conscience. I simply cannot sign on the dotted line in agreement with that which I cannot possibly know, that which seems illogical to me, or that which seems immoral to me. I cannot worship a god that violates my conscience. (As a god who creates billions of souls with the knowledge that he will torture them eternally.)

“I don't really believe Santa personally drops off presents every year, but I like the idea, and what Santa stands for.”

But I do believe in Jesus and His message and attempt to live my life according to His precepts. I believe He was God’s manifestation on earth and His death and resurrection accomplished a specific purpose. These are not vague notions of goodness or the enjoyment of children’s giggles. These are ideas that I order my life around. The primary mechanism for interpreting the world, my place in it, and my purpose for it.

“What is it about Christianity that makes it the best fit with your philosophy, anyway?”

I’m not sure I know what my philosophy is. I’m pretty clear on the epistemological aspect of Knowing nothing. But other than that I just try to be open minded and follow my conscience. What Christianity fits for me is my curiosity. It proposes satisfying (for me) answers to some serious existential questions about purpose, origin and the ordering of values. It affirms the goodness of our physical world. It teaches that one ought to love even our enemies. It provides a context for passing my values onto my children. I'm sure I could do a lot of that stuff with other religious and even political or philosophical systems, but they lack the satisfying proposed answers I desire.

CrankyBadger:

Having ideas that you order your life around is having a philosophy, not a religion. I believe firmly in gravity, and it has a constant effect on my life, yet I don't think anyone would consider that belief to be a religion.

For one, I don't worship gravity, and I don't attend an institution that exists simply to praise it. That does seem rather silly, even though there's no doubting that the effect of gravity is real.

On the other hand, placing such strong faith in something that's based on such wobbly evidence and self-referential reasoning strikes me as dishonest at best. Not that people don't find comfort in that sort of thing, as it often hides uncomfortable truths.

Saying "Jesus and His message [...] are not vague notions of goodness or the enjoyment of children’s giggles." is quite a bold claim without some kind of proof. It's not too hard to argue the only difference between Jesus and Santa is that there's the enormous power of the church behind one of them and the other is left with a modest seasonal marketing budget at Coca-Cola.

As far as explaining power goes, Christianity is the philosophy with training wheels on it. Whenever there's something uncomfortable to talk about, like death, there's some sugary happy answer like "It's god's will!" or "Don't worry, everyone goes to heaven" instead of getting to the actual truth of the matter.

There's also this tendency of Christianity to be more about promoting itself, giving itself a pat on the back for every little thing, than actually proving any meaningful guidance.

To your credit, I think if you've extracted anything meaningful or profound from Christianity without being caught up in some kind of perverse fundamentalism or prophecy worship, you're doing far better than most.

JF:

“Having ideas that you order your life around is having a philosophy, not a religion.”

The lines between the two are fuzzy at best. The idea of the existence of God is firmly in both categories. I guess the further you push towards doctrine, the further you stray from philosophy, (though all doctrine has philosophical ramifications.) and since I’m having difficulties with doctrine I can see how you would put me in the philosophy category. But like I said, all the forms of worship and living in my faith are oriented towards an “other”, not a natural phenomenon like gravity. I worship through thoughts and actions a Mind.

“On the other hand, placing such strong faith in something that's based on such wobbly evidence and self-referential reasoning strikes me as dishonest at best.”

Well I don’t claim to be free of all self-deception. If dishonesty is the best you can ascribe to me, what’s the worst?! Now let’s talk about evidence. In any mystery there are going to be multiple threads, some leading to dead ends, some leading to Truth, and some that simply help you change your perspective, clearing away old assumptions and presenting current data in a new light. Generally, any single thread is not going to be a final solution to the mystery, and it seems that critics of Christianity tend to ignore the totality of threads, preferring to focus on one at a time and pointing out its inadequacy to “prove the case”. When it comes to the historical evidence for Christian claims there are all the associated difficulties with proving any historic event. And since the claims are so radical it makes perfect sense to apply a more critical eye to them. I will gladly admit that the historic case is not compelling enough to justify a life-altering commitment.

That is where the experiential, existential evidence comes into play. And that process is driven by modes of interpretation. Every human has a bucket of heuristics and interpretive tools provided by an assortment of sources. Things like teachers, books, parents, friends, political parties, religious ideas, cultural norms, etc. It is a rare person who tries to take the time to examine these tools that have such a radical influence on their interpretation of reality. Here’s what I think materialists do: they find the religious tools, throw them out, then think they are free from dogmatic close-minded systems of interpretation. I think they are just as burdened as the fundamentalist who doesn’t recognize that their mind’s eye is being directed by systems outside their conscious thought process. You are still operating under guidelines that are no more or less rational than a theist. You have values in a certain order that are not intrinsic to nature or reality, yet still blind you to some ideas, and open your mind to others. Can you tell me why rational inquiry is “better” than irrational revelation? You can argue that it provides “progress”, but towards what end? Something you desire. All value-ordering is a circular argument that simply states your own preferences and has no logical or rational evidence outside your will.

My point is that while you can pretend that your interpretation of reality is superior because you don’t utilize religious concepts, there is simply no logical foundation upon which to make that assertion. You’ve defined an arbitrary line in the sand of consensus and declare everything on one side to be rational and everything else as irrational. But your reliance on consensus is circular since it depends on authority which is intrinsically fallible as it has at its source human senses and interpretations. Reality is no more subject to the interpretation of the materialist as it is the fundamentalist. And your reliance on only certain kinds of evidence could be blinding you to Truth. You have no way of knowing that a God hasn’t hand-selected certain people to be messengers of His Truth any more than I can know that He did, or that He exists.

So I have existential evidence that I consider, in conjunction with historic evidence, in conjunction with philosophic evidence. None of these bodies of evidence provides and iron-clad case proving my faith. But when taken as a whole they are convincing to ME. Of course they aren’t convincing to you: you’re not working with the same detective kit. Maybe yours is way, way better than mine. Maybe it’s way, way worse. Who knows? But pretending that yours must be better because you arbitrarily discard a certain set of ideas based on a non-rational emotional feeling seems arrogant to me. I’m not pretending that mine is superior. I’m saying that it’s convincing to ME.

“Not that people don't find comfort in that sort of thing, as it often hides uncomfortable truths.”

This can be said of ANY philosophy or idea. Most atheists are extremely uncomfortable about the idea that an Ultimate Judge may be watching them. Should I then discard all their arguments and evidence because they could be driven by wish-fulfillment?

“Saying "Jesus and His message [...] are not vague notions of goodness or the enjoyment of children’s giggles." is quite a bold claim without some kind of proof.”

But it’s not about proof. It’s about evidence. It’s about interpretation. But anyone who seriously studies Jesus’ words and message can attest that it is fundamentally different than a mythical character in some social pop-culture niche.

“It's not too hard to argue the only difference between Jesus and Santa is that there's the enormous power of the church behind one of them and the other is left with a modest seasonal marketing budget at Coca-Cola.”

While this is a humorous statement it displays a dreadful ignorance concerning the scholarship, both ecumenical and secular, concerning Jesus life, times and teachings. It has nothing to do with church power.

“As far as explaining power goes, Christianity is the philosophy with training wheels on it. Whenever there's something uncomfortable to talk about, like death, there's some sugary happy answer like "It's god's will!" or "Don't worry, everyone goes to heaven" instead of getting to the actual truth of the matter.”

This is also a very ignorant statement. Have you ever actually read any philosophy by Christians? Dealing with suffering, death and evil is not an easy topic for any school of philosophy, with the possible exception of nihilism. You talk about the “actual truth of the matter” as though you could possibly know what that is. How can you possibly know?

As to “easy answers”, sure, religious people rely on them just as heavily as secular and atheist people do. Is there an easier answer to “is there life after death?” than: “no”? Does a “happy” answer mean it must not be a True answer? Again, how. Do. You. Know?

If you ask me, materialism is the philosophy with training wheels. They solve all the really hard and interesting questions with a brick wall of stubborn close-mindedness. They cut off all debate over legitimate questions based on an ASSUMPTION that only matter exists. How is that a robust and challenging philosophy? To ignore stuff that you don’t like doesn’t make you more mature or intelligent.

“There's also this tendency of Christianity to be more about promoting itself, giving itself a pat on the back for every little thing, than actually proving any meaningful guidance.”

Hahaha… and this is different than any other cultural form… how?

“To your credit, I think if you've extracted anything meaningful or profound from Christianity without being caught up in some kind of perverse fundamentalism or prophecy worship, you're doing far better than most.”

I think the best any of us can hope for is to extract anything meaningful or profound from any sources we can. Then utilize our best judgment about how to order our lives based on that. I’ve found the central claims of a creator God who worked through a historical man to bring salvation to the world to be a powerful, enlightening idea that I can wholeheartedly endorse and live accordingly without doing violence to my conscience, my observations, my intellect or my experiences. I hope that your worldview brings you as much satisfaction, hope and joy.

PrincessCake: [regarding the interpretation of the Bible] so, stop trying. you're wicked and you can't understand the book. so, don't use the book to impose any rules, especially on others, because you may be misinterpreting it.

JF: Well now, people of all beliefs attempt to impose their rules on others. That's what all laws are about.

I agree with you that the Bible is very ambiguous so cherry picking proof texts to back up whatever particular claim is pretty easy. We Christians don't acknowledge that. For example: how do you define "unrighteous"? How do you define "spiritual"? What is the proper method for "discernment"? These are all hotly debated words and ideas. The fact that we can blithely say: "The Bible clearly says..." shows deep epistemological ignorance. What those folks ought to be saying if they want to be accurate is: "My denomination's doctrine clearly says..."

Princess Cake: Well, I'm glad to hear you wouldn't feel comfortable using the bible as a source of law, but that doesn't equate it with how all laws are made. We hope that other laws are instituted because they are reasonable ways to protect what is most valuable to a society.

This is different from people using the bible or any other holy book because that is an appeal to authority and makes a group's chosen authority the larger group's authority.

And if all those words you mention are so unclear, what's the point? How is anyone going to come any closer to understanding them? How would they know when they are any closer? Throw them away and look at the world in front of you rather than trying to force-fit certain things and opening yourself to following what can be the dangerous interpretations of others.

I hope I don't sound disrespectful. I think it's way cool that any Christian would post here and have a thoughtful discussion. I just don't see the point in looking at one old book to figure out how to live in this world. There's many books worth looking at and holding up any particular one as sacred narrows one's view considerably. I mean, Jesus sounds awesome, but sticking to the bible for moral guidance makes him sound especially unique and this uniqueness adds to the sense of holiness. Read other books about awesome people! Look at the world to see how to live in the world!

And all this mystery with these words that become almost meaningless is damaging. Not just because it allows for manipulation, but because it makes people believe that they have no chance. Makes people feel that being righteous is out of reach. Being good and doing good isn't something we need to feel detached form.

This is different from people using the bible or any other holy book because that is an appeal to authority and makes a group's chosen authority the larger group's authority.

And if all those words you mention are so unclear, what's the point? How is anyone going to come any closer to understanding them? How would they know when they are any closer? Throw them away and look at the world in front of you rather than trying to force-fit certain things and opening yourself to following what can be the dangerous interpretations of others.

I hope I don't sound disrespectful. I think it's way cool that any Christian would post here and have a thoughtful discussion. I just don't see the point in looking at one old book to figure out how to live in this world. There's many books worth looking at and holding up any particular one as sacred narrows one's view considerably. I mean, Jesus sounds awesome, but sticking to the bible for moral guidance makes him sound especially unique and this uniqueness adds to the sense of holiness. Read other books about awesome people! Look at the world to see how to live in the world!

And all this mystery with these words that become almost meaningless is damaging. Not just because it allows for manipulation, but because it makes people believe that they have no chance. Makes people feel that being righteous is out of reach. Being good and doing good isn't something we need to feel detached form.

JF:

“Well, I'm glad to hear you wouldn't feel comfortable using the bible as a source of law”

That’s not exactly what I’m saying. I’m saying that individuals imbibe interpretations of the Bible and form individual and group moral law. In our semi-democracy the aggregate of individual moral law is what becomes law, therefore you cannot separate Biblical source material from secular laws since those voting and many of those crafting the laws are working within the framework of Biblically-derived morality. And I’m saying that’s inevitable and there’s nothing wrong with that. As you say:

“laws are instituted because they are reasonable ways to protect what is most valuable to a society.”

A lot of Biblically-derived morality is still valuable to our society. There are a lot of moral values that can be debated whether or not they are traceable to Biblical ideas or enlightenment ideas, and it’s pretty hard to separate one from the other since the enlightenment only happened in western Christian societies. Humanists want to say that the enlightenment was completely predicated on a rejection of Christian authority. Christians want to say that it was the result of the reformation’s biblically-based rejection of church authority, and so ultimately the ideals of human autonomy and equality are Christian ideas. And certainly Christians have been at the forefront of political movements that have increased those values for minorities and women. I don’t know which historical narrative is more accurate, but my ultimate point is that no matter how you slice it, our values come from generations of folks before us to found legitimacy for these values within Christian/Biblical interpretive frameworks.

“This is different from people using the bible or any other holy book because that is an appeal to authority and makes a group's chosen authority the larger group's authority.”

And I’m saying that a materialist’s only appeal to authority comes from raw power (such as Mao, Stalin, Pol Pot, etc.) or a democratic consensus. When it comes to democratic consensus you are dealing with the aggregate beliefs of people, most of which form their beliefs via holy books and religious authority. It’s inescapable unless you take the raw power approach.

“And if all those words you mention are so unclear, what's the point? How is anyone going to come any closer to understanding them?”

Are you familiar with Gestalt Psychology? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gestalt_psychology This philosophical understanding of human interpretive faculties touches on how our minds handle data that is too complex or incomplete to “nail down” and quantify. To answer your question: The major point of exploring spiritual concepts for ME is to look for a satisfying explanation for both the material world and the existential world of values, purpose, and relationships.

“How would they know when they are any closer?”

I don’t KNOW anything. But I can put more weight on religious theories that have explanatory power, that don’t make claims that contradict observation and logic. The fact of the matter is that we all operate with an intrinsic set of assumptions that directs our thoughts, attitudes and actions. I try to be deliberate and careful with that set. I find value in systems that have produced people I admire, and that have been tried and tested over the ages. I recognize that no single system has produced only saints and never scoundrels, so I don’t expect a system to be a perfect panacea, forming me into a perfect guy.

“Throw them away and look at the world in front of you rather than trying to force-fit certain things and opening yourself to following what can be the dangerous interpretations of others.”

I just don’t see life as an either/or proposition like this. Though, in a sense I do “throw away” that which I simply cannot accept in my tradition, such as the eternity of hell or a literal interpretation of the Trinity. I recognize that our beliefs are a projection of our desires, but often our desires are shaped by the system of belief we adhere to. But I would challenge you to recognize that you and I are both equally “open” to “following what can be the dangerous interpretations of others.” Just because you reject religious authority and terminology does not mean you are not integrating dangerous ideas into your world-view. Certainly the followers of Stalin and Mao weren’t motivated by religious adherence as they slaughtered millions. Yet they were still “following what can be the dangerous interpretations of others.” After all, the sanctity of life is merely a social construction predicated on outdated dogma, and thus can be jettisoned for utility’s sake.

“I hope I don't sound disrespectful.”

Not at all. Quite the contrary. You haven’t called me stupid, a liar, ignorant, or a douche, which is the norm on r/atheism. J

“I think it's way cool that any Christian would post here and have a thoughtful discussion.”

It is cool. It’s fun to be forced to think along unfamiliar paths and discover weaknesses in your world-view that you didn’t know existed. It’s humbling, challenging, and very rewarding since I’m seeking Truth above comfort.

“I just don't see the point in looking at one old book to figure out how to live in this world.”

I’m hoping that I’m painting a picture here that shows religious investigation as less about dogmatic rule-organizing, and more about exploration and world-view building. One is didactic, literalistic, institutional and dare I say it: materialistic. The other is poetic, adventurous, challenging and mysterious.

“There's many books worth looking at and holding up any particular one as sacred narrows one's view considerably.”

Let me ask you something. Is there a political party you most identify with? If so, does that mean all other parties are completely wrong in every respect on every issue? No. You simply find one to be superior to the others. It resonates with your heart more. It motivates you to good more. That’s how I view religious texts. I understand and am most knowledgeable about the Christian scriptures. I’ve found them motivating, challenging, full of life, and beneficial for me and my family. I’ve seen the “fruit” of following these systems. That does not deny the “fruit” that other religious systems may produce. If there is a “right” way to approach life it seems that many religions tap into that. (the golden rule for example)

“I mean, Jesus sounds awesome, sticking to the bible for moral guidance makes him sound especially unique and this uniqueness adds to the sense of holiness. Read other books about awesome people! Look at the world to see how to live in the world!”

I’ve taken my comparative religion classes. I’ve read my Joseph Campbell. I’m at least superficially aware of the basics of the other major world religions. I’m a huge fan of Gandhi. So I’m not speaking out of ignorance when I say that there IS something “awesome” about Jesus that elevates His message and life to supremely important to me and central to my worldview. He is the Lord of my life as a very deliberate serious of decisions and experiences. So thanks for the advice, I’ve been doing that, and I continue to do it. Because I believe that Christ is the savior of the WORLD, (http://www.savioroftheworld.net/ ) I can appreciate His working in all other religious systems without contradiction. I also see His beauty through the cracks of materialism and its myopic fascination with His creation.

“And all this mystery with these words that become almost meaningless is damaging.”

I’ll quote myself from another thread about the difficulties of language:

I acknowledge that material processes are the basis for symbolic language. This is a vitally important point that most religious fundamentalists gloss over or sweep under the rug. (See this previous article for more detail on that: http://www.examiner.com/x-19272-Seattle-Faith--Agnosticism-Examiner~y2009m9d2-Out-on-a-limb )

In other words, language is necessarily symbolic, but falls along a continuum of consensus. Proper nouns have the most consensus. For example: a man named Obama is the current president of the U.S. Few people argue this because there is very little room for interpretation. It can be falsified via processes that are universally agreed upon. But when one gets to concepts like politics, art, and religion, the symbolic nature of the words become increasingly loose and open to vastly different interpretive structures that belie consensus. The "looser" these signifier words become the more the materialist wants to pretend the signified doesn't exist because they can't peg them into a rigid, quantified grid of "knowledge". I reject that impulse and instead appreciate the attempt at understanding what cannot be truly apprehended. If any religious theory is correct than the subject matter is outside of categories (material) that we humans can form consensus about. Thus language breaks down when forced to conform to a material grid. That is why I can't tell you if Jesus is “divine”. You (and the doctrine builders) are asking for language to do what it cannot do. This is illogical and I believe at the root of much of the evil that has been committed in the name of religion. To be fair, it's also at the root of much of the good.

“Not just because it allows for manipulation, but because it makes people believe that they have no chance. Makes people feel that being righteous is out of reach. Being good and doing good isn't something we need to feel detached form.”

This is an interpretation that many materialists make. It’s like when Christians say that atheism makes people feel ok about doing horrible things and the only reason they reject God is so they can sin with impunity. Both arguments are nonsense. What you are refereeing to is, I assume, the doctrine of original sin. Every religion has a mechanism for gaining “righteousness”. This is one of the stunningly unique claims of Christianity, and specifically the version that I hold to called Universalism: God’s mechanism for righteousness is Christ, not a ceremony, not purity laws, not rule-following, and I believe, not even doctrine believing. Just like you, I feel bad when I do things that I wouldn’t want done to me. That’s enough of a law to live under. We don’t need additional guilt. And any religious system that burdens you with that ought to be rejected.

JF:

Christopher Hitchens:

“Wilson isn't one of those evasive Christians who mumble apologetically about how some of the Bible stories are really just "metaphors."… I much prefer this sincerity to the vague and Python-esque witterings of the interfaith and ecumenical groups who barely respect their own traditions and who look upon faith as just another word for community organizing.”

This is something I've seen from a few atheists here, and now I'm disappointed to see it in Hitchens. He is basically saying that he likes easy targets over challenging debates. Yes, it’s way easier to knock over the straw-men of fundamentalism than a sophisticated, philosophical take on spiritual possibilities. Hell, I’d love it if all the atheists here would stupidly insist that it is literally impossible for a God to exist and that they have absolute knowledge of that fact. That sure would make debating easy. But actually… I take that back. I wouldn’t love that. You know why? Because I LIKE the challenging aspects of vigorously comparing world views and being forced to think along different lines. I LIKE the fact that if my ideas are not sound then they will be crushed. Maybe Hitchens feels the same way, but that quote makes me wonder.

Accurate:

It's not easy to knock over with materialist tools because it's unfalsifiable, much like flying invisible unicorns and gnomes. None of these ideas, existing, love, values all do not require a God to explain them. You can believe whatever you want because it makes you feel all warm and fuzzy. But there is no sufficient reason to jump to the outlandish conclusion of a Christian God. All you do is make more unsolvable problems by adding a super complex being that can never be detected. There is NO REASON to accept a God as the answer to love and values and our existence. Other reasons can be given without postulating a world we don't and can't know will ever exist.

The only credible position to take that would involve some deity would be the vague deism or pantheism. It's ...fucking... retarded to think the Bible or Christianity in general has any fucking logical weight. Period.

JF:

“It's not easy to knock over with materialist tools because it's unfalsifiable”

This is true. The important question to me is whether unfalsifiability (I Know – not a word) has any bearing on the validity of the claim or its Truth. There is still the matter of internal logic and explanatory power. Gnomes and flying invisible unicorns lack these things to varying degrees. Religious systems vary in the amount of internal logic and explanatory power. And no matter how refined, a religious system is simply a theory providing a narrative that facilitates ordering values and action. As a materialist you have a different narrative that is no more falsifiable. All of our systems are circular because they all depend on verification from fallible sources.

“ None of these ideas, existing, love, values all do not require a God to explain them.”

I agree that evolutionary theories for explaining these are interesting and may be true. What materialism fails to speak to is our existential need for purpose. If you happy to think that you have no ultimate purpose beyond your own desires that’s fine. More power to you. I wish you well. But the existence of anything does provide an insurmountable problem for materialism with the logical paradox of infinite regress. The philosophical concept of God is a solution to the problem because within the conception is the definition that God is not made or caused. Just because you don’t like the solution does not make it more or less True. Just like my appreciation for it doesn’t make it more or less True.

“You can believe whatever you want because it makes you feel all warm and fuzzy”

Yes. We all do. Again, our emotional response makes no difference to what is True.

“But there is no sufficient reason to jump to the outlandish conclusion of a Christian God.”

You assume a “jump”. As opposed to a deliberate, rational approach examining various claims for internal logic and explanatory power. And just for the record, I don’t think Christianity owns God. If there is a God, it is God, not a Christian or Muslim or Greek God. And the only reason a God would be “outlandish” would be if it transcended our understanding, which is also within my definition of God. No system, including Christianity, can describe or contain what God is. It can only make guesses based in incomplete and questionable data.

“All you do is make more unsolvable problems by adding a super complex being that can never be detected.”

I don’t know about that. I’ve offered my religious system up for critique and I haven’t found any unsolvable problems with it yet. Feel free to point any out though. As for “detection”, what exactly are you looking for? Some kind of Godometer?

“There is NO REASON to accept a God as the answer to love and values and our existence.”

I’ve just listed them. 1. To address the logical problems with infinite regress. 2. To satisfy the existential need for purpose. And I’ll add: 3. To add ontological weight to strengthen the tenuous grasp we humans have on love. It’s hard enough for us to follow the golden rule when we think a God mandated it. If it’s simply a biological vestigial emotion it’s a small thing to drop it when it’s inconvenient or politically expedient. (See Mao, Stalin, etc.)

“Other reasons can be given without postulating a world we don't and can't know will ever exist.”

Yes, other reasons can be given. I’ve looked at them and find them lacking. They may explain a mechanism, but as all material mechanisms do: they cannot speak to a proper order for our values beyond our individual desires. As humans, we are defined by the order we put our values into. Do we love Truth over comfort, loyalty over self-expression, life over convenience, etc. Your evolutionary theories don’t help us to create systems that order these things because it places them all in the one-size-fits-all category of “ultimately meaningless”. Again, I’m not saying our evolutionary theories of value creation are wrong, just that they are not –on their own- sufficient for creating a system in which humans can thrive.

“The only credible position to take that would involve some deity would be the vague deism or pantheism.”

How about this?: God is not able to be described with human language. Various religious systems try, but ultimately all their doctrines are guesses. Some better than others. And we can test their validity by their internal logic and explanatory power.

“It's ...fucking... retarded to think the Bible or Christianity in general has any fucking logical weight. Period.”

I’m pretty sure my I.Q. is above 70. So technically, I’m not retarded. I may be an utter fool. Perhaps I’m blinded by warm fuzzies as you claim. But I challenge you to go ahead and point out the logical fallacies in Christianity. Chances are I’ve found them and rejected them already.

Accurate:

“How about this?: God is not able to be described with human language. Various religious systems try, but ultimately all their doctrines are guesses. Some better than others. And we can test their validity by their internal logic and explanatory power.”

  1. God is not able to be described with human language. (ie unknowable)
  2. Religious systems make guesses.
  3. we can judge which are "better" by their explanatory power and internal logic.
  4. Some are "better" than others.

I rearranged your argument a bit to make it valid. It wasn't valid before because the conclusion did not follow. Since rearrangement I think this argument is sound. However, it only shows which systems are better in terms of being consistent and having explanatory power. It does not argue which are better in terms of explaining the nature of God or if he exist. That would conflict with premise 1 and wouldn't follow. Essentially, you're not saying anything except that people can make up a fictional story that is logically consistent and has explanatory power. It can still be fictional.

“I’m pretty sure my I.Q. is above 70. So technically, I’m not retarded. I may be an utter fool. Perhaps I’m blinded by warm fuzzies as you claim. But I challenge you to go ahead and point out the logical fallacies in Christianity. Chances are I’ve found them and rejected them already. I've spent the last couple years finding older doctrines that don't conflict with reality or each other.”

Finding the logical fallacies in Christianity is like child's play. If we do continue this discussion I would rather, if you don't mind, argue against the existence of god in the deistic sense.

Josh Foreman:

I rearranged your argument a bit to make it valid.”

Heh… thanks. I always appreciate clarity.

““God is not able to be described with human language. (ie unknowable)”

I don’t agree with the unknowable part. For instance, if God is blue, and my theory says that He is blue, I could be said to Know something about God. However, I think I agree with the spirit of what you are saying in that I cannot know that I Know. I also agree that we cannon Know everything about God. But it is logically possible to make a certain number of guesses that could be accurate. Or to have revelation that is accurate.

“It does not argue which are better in terms of explaining the nature of God or if he exist.”

I’m not sure what you mean by “explaining”. We both agree that there is no mountain-top city of Greek gods. That narrows the field of what God is not. That is technically “explaining the nature of God” in a negative procedure. Much like ruling out a suspect in a murder investigation. As to explaining if a God exists, I agree, there is no way to do so and I don’t care to try. That is another thing I can “explain” about a possible God: He does not want us to (Or doesn’t care whether we) Know that He exists with falsifiable certainty.

That would conflict with premise 1 and wouldn't follow.”

It only fails to follow if you consider God unknowable in every way. If He has or does communicate through nature, history, revelation, etc. then the only problem is consensus. Dogs hear sounds we can’t but that doesn’t mean dog whistles make no sound, or that a dog’s reaction to them is irrational. There is nothing illogical about the proposition that some humans have faculties for picking up signals from a proposed God, while other humans do not. The only problem the non-signal-picker-uppers like you and I have is that we can’t know which claim of revelation, if any, is a True one. None of which speaks to the probability that such an exchange of information could be taking place.

“Essentially, you're not saying anything except that people can make up a fictional story that is logically consistent and has explanatory power. It can still be fictional.”

Yes, and when it comes to arranging our lives into consistent narratives based on themes we value, that’s the best we’ve got. It’s helpful to have a scientific process for eliminating the patently fictional stories like sun chariots and thunder gods. But to me, the point of speculating about a God and purpose is to address mysteries we have in this life. I do care whether or not the story/theory is True, and when one is shown to be false than I’ll be more than happy to discard it. But a fact of life is that we humans are driven by a world of structured fiction. That’s what values are. That’s why they matter to us. Outside of the physics occurring in our world there is no imperative for things such as loving your enemy or child or wife. There is no ultimate reason to attempt to accomplish anything besides self-satisfaction, but that satisfaction is derived from the fiction of our value system. So when you speak of religious ideas as merely fictional stories, I think you are not accounting for the fictional narrative that drives you and your life.

Finding the logical fallacies in Christianity is like child's play. If we do continue this discussion I would rather, if you don't mind, argue against the existence of god in the deistic sense.”

Well you can argue against that, but since I’m not a Deist I’ll probably not care to defend it. I’m a Panentheist. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panentheism (Not to be confused with Pantheist.) Perhaps your arguments will apply to both conceptions.

Accurate:

you say:

“For instance, if God is blue, and my theory says that He is blue, I could be said to Know something about God.”

you respond to yourself

“God is not able to be described with human language.”

I would add, a better response would be that you know from introspection. Though, logic doesn't care about your feelings.

Additionally, perhaps you meant the word blue is metaphysically close to describing the true nature of God, somehow. While that's a possibly, it's unfalsifiable (i.e. you can't know). Which is why I qualified it with unknowable. Thus, it wasn't a leap.

“But a fact of life is that we humans are driven by a world of structured fiction.”

It's refreshing to see a religious person actually admit this.

from a different thread: you say:

“Yes, that is precisely the word I wanted to use. For real. There are two facets of our perceived reality that I seek explanation for. The material world, and the existential world that includes the ordering of values, love, and all that other inter-relational stuff.”

you respond to yourself:

“But a fact of life is that we humans are driven by a world of structured fiction. That’s what values are.”

from a different thread: you say:

“The philosophical concept of God is a solution to the problem because within the conception is the definition that God is not made or caused. Just because you don’t like the solution does not make it more or less True. Just like my appreciation for it doesn’t make it more or less True.”

The reason I don't like the first cause argument is because it's riddled with fallacies. You would do well to read the "Identity of First Cause" section in that link. These objections to Acquinas have been around a long, long time. This is nothing new.

“Well you can argue against that, but since I’m not a Deist I’ll probably not care to defend it.”

That's too bad, it's pretty much the strongest philosophical position that posits the existence of God (that's not saying much, though). Except for maybe the vague brands of pantheism which basically says nature is God. Nature exist, therefore God exist. Tautological and uninteresting. Objections lead to solipsism, etc.

To be honest with you. I don't think I really want to continue this discussion. I know you are a very thoughtful person but it's just my opinion that you probably haven't taken the time to really dissect the counterarguments (obvious to me from the ease of which you pass by Socratic objections to all of Acquinas' arguments). These are not novel arguments and science has put many of them to rest with experimental data. In doing so, taking apologist to their knees about which they must clamor on Humes objections, the last bastion of counters for the person with no novel rebuttals.

In summation: There are good reasons to believe there probably is a higher-power. There are shitty reasons to believe there probably is a specific higher-power (the weakest arguments ever). There are better reasons to believe there probably is no higher-power.

Also, the universe doesn't give a shit about you. There is no purpose except the illusion of purpose which is a product of evolution. Just as well as love, and other values. God is dead. A remnant of an infantile time that is becoming increasingly unnecessary. You may see a materialistic world as a bland world. I see it as all we got because that's all I see. I don't make things up and ascribe all the traits to them that would make me feel better about what I cannot know. What I cannot know is what I cannot know. To assume you can know what you can't know is the height of arrogance and unappealing.

JF:

Since you don’t want to continue the conversation I’ll try to be brief.

Blue: Yeah, I thought using such an obviously infantile descriptor would indicate that I’m not actually proposing such a description for God, simply pointing out the difference between Knowing with a capitol K and knowing that one knows. You did not comment on this important point and in fact it seems to have escaped you since you later say:

“To assume you can know what you can't know is the height of arrogance and unappealing.”

I get the impression that you are ignoring or glossing over half the things I’m saying because I’m not following the rote course of atheist/theist debate you are used to, as evidenced by the script you produce here:

“you probably haven't taken the time to really dissect the counterarguments (obvious to me from the ease of which you pass by Socratic objections to all of Acquinas' arguments). These are not novel arguments and science has put many of them to rest with experimental data. In doing so, taking apologist to their knees about which they must clamor on Humes objections, the last bastion of counters for the person with no novel rebuttals.”

You are missing the entire heart of my argument because I am in no way using Tomas Aquinas as a primary source for my argumentation. Any Socratic objections don’t apply. If you can find a specific application, feel free to bring it up. My argument takes place in the epistemological basement underneath Aquinas. He and I fundamentally disagree about Knowledge. You seem to be frustrated by the fact that I don’t claim Knowledge since you continue to attack me as though I did.

“it's just my opinion that you probably haven't taken the time to really dissect the counterarguments”

I’ve spent a lot of time reading a lot arguments and counter arguments. I’m familiar with how Google works. Just as with the non-applicability of Aquinas and his detractors, my approach is not predicated on certainty and Knowledge. I’m working with a Gestalt web of input, including intuition alongside observation and science. I think this is the only truly honest way that I’ve found to approach the mystery that is life. I think it is fundamentally intellectually dishonest for the materialist (or the theist for that matter) to pretend that their worldview is free from intuition and non-rational heuristic interpretation of reality. All the arguments for and against the existence of a God bring up some good points, but in total leave a subjective interpretation. No argument is devastating to the other side because they all rely on the toolbox of language which is a symbolic medium dealing with concepts that are largely unknown or subjective. I don’t find the atheist interpretation of these arguments “wrong” or “bad”, any more than my interpretation is. They are simply interpretations based on incomplete information and biased by our interpretive faculties that are ultimately ruled by our emotions. Whose emotional impulses are right and whose are wrong is simply not something that can be settled with the data and biased brains we have.

“Also, the universe doesn't give a shit about you. There is no purpose except the illusion of purpose which is a product of evolution. Just as well as love, and other values. God is dead. A remnant of an infantile time that is becoming increasingly unnecessary. You may see a materialistic world as a bland world. I see it as all we got because that's all I see. I don't make things up and ascribe all the traits to them that would make me feel better about what I cannot know. What I cannot know is what I cannot know. To assume you can know what you can't know is the height of arrogance and unappealing.”

To me, this is the equivalent of wrapping up a debate with a Bible verse. This is empty rhetoric of which the only purpose is to emotionally reinforce a deeply desired belief. And as I’ve pointed out repeatedly: I DON’T CLAIM TO KNOW.

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