Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Einstein to atheists & Christians

I'm an atheist and materialist because I find objective evidence of material existence and no objective evidence of any spiritual existence.              Will, Sauk Rapids
Thank you for this pithy summary of materialist reasoning. To me evidence of spiritual existence comes daily, but, understandably, this will not suffice for a materialist who does not experience communication from the inner world. I regard some of my posts under “Paranormal” as evidence (see my blog index), and I hope this series provides more evidence. I ask Will and other atheists to keep reading, although I know any hint of Transcendence smacks of religion and religion’s horrors.

Do you believe in spiritual power?  Laura Stanley answers,
I'd like to believe it so I don't examine it too closely. That's enough for me. . . . The God debate is non-falsifiable. No one wins. We believe what we want to believe.
Laura may express the feeling of many. But I can’t stop mulling over these BIG questions, these Ultimate concerns. I write for those who seek assurance and corroboration that their vague perception of Transcendent Reality is real. For me, scientists, Carl Jung, and other writers who give SECULAR examples of being touched by the Transcendent give the most convincing evidence.
Chris, commenting knowledgeably on my previous post, assumes that I prefer an impersonal idea of God and states,
That doesn't mean that He cannot relate to us on the level of the empirical ego.

If Chris reads carefully my post “Materialism a.k.a physicalism,” he will realize that I describe precisely what he recommends—relating to the Source of All That Is “on the level of the empirical ego,” that is, personally. Like LaCugna, I relate to a loving and caring God.
During my formal education in theology I paid attention to the various spiritual traditions he mentions and, in fact, their descriptions helped to explain why worship of 3 guys in the sky is idolatry.

But I write for non-academic readers, for whom abstractions are meaningless. What’s needed is simply ridding God-talk of sexism—the exclusive use of “He” in reference to the Source, the Mother/Father Creator. I wish Chris would pay attention to this pressing need. Praying to Her or It as well as to Him, we can have our personal relationship with Transcendence while also realizing its utter ineffability.

 Einstein and Sagan
In my office is a little sign prepared for display at my presentations:
Does God exist?  Wrong question!    
The right question is, “What is your idea of God?” 
If you lack faith in the great guy typically named in prayers, your lack of faith earns my respect. I don’t believe in that either. But I disagree with atheists like Will who believe in materialism. The problem is religious believers who insist on their particular way of imagining God— their own familiar idea, whatever image of God they were trained in. This, they insist, is the only true God. Atheist scorn for this puny guy has merit.

In an MPR interview of Carl Sagan, he ended with this statement:
If by God one means the set of physical laws that govern the universe, as Einstein did, then clearly there is such a God.   

Sagan could accept an idea of God that made sense to him and Einstein. It’s agreeable to me too. Sagan said he was an agnostic.
To be certain of the existence of God and to be certain of the nonexistence of God seem to me to be the confident extremes in a subject so riddled with doubt and uncertainty as to inspire very little confidence indeed.

Sagan, however, accepts something that governs the universe, which suggests he is not entirely agnostic. The governor of physical reality would have to be an immaterial force.
Clearly, not everyone who rejects religious images of God rejects the Force responsible for the stuff we see and touch and wonder at and sometimes get mad at. In my experience, agnostics don’t really reject spiritual reality. They relate to Something mysterious but refuse to be dogmatic about it. Laura Stanley, for instance, confesses that she prays.

Einstein went further in accepting spiritual reality. Like Sagan, he did not believe in the anthropomorphic (humanlike) conception of God, but he respected a “cosmic religious feeling” found in “religious geniuses of all ages,” heretics, atheists, and saints. It is “the most important function of art and science” but gives “rise to no definite notion of God and no theology.” Insightfully stated. Einstein gives an effective rejoinder to both dogmatic Christians and dogmatic materialists. He says there is More than material reality but we can't know what it is.
This oft-quoted saying of Einstein also answers both materialists and religious fundamentalists.
Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind.
By “religion” Einstein clearly means “spirituality.” In his time the two were conflated—if you were spiritual you were religious. Today that has changed drastically. A 2012 Pew survey found nearly 1 in 5 Americans belong to no religion but few are atheist. They are spiritual without being religious. Einstein and Sagan talk about “religion” rather than “spirituality” but they really reject religious dogma while affirming spiritual reality as they understand it. So, again, the decisive question is, “What is your idea of God?”

I hear similar statements from mathematicians and scientists interviewed by Krista Tippett at On Being. Deep thinkers have an indefinable mystic feeling/awareness—intuitions that come from a deeper level and lead to the profound conviction of Something Beyond this surface world.
Organized religion with its bureaucratic and authoritarian trappings leads people astray, but religious thinkers tolerate it because they are drawn toward the mystic core of religion.

Unseen Reality, January 21
My promise to present views of Einstein and Carl Sagan will have to wait and so will my answer to other comments that have come in.
Comments from Chris to “Materialism a.k.a. physicalism” puzzle me greatly. I cannot understand why they were made or what is meant by them, but I will try to answer by stating my beliefs as clearly as I can.

Unseen or spiritual reality is energy is consciousness is intelligence/mind/thought. It has been given many names, among them God, Creator, Brahman, Allah, Ultimate Reality, The Force, Father, Mother, Source . . . and the list could go on.
All that we see, objective/external reality, arises from unseen inner reality. Outer physical reality arises from spiritual reality, not the reverse. I quote my friend Sondra to state it in yet another way,  
Physical reality is an effect of consciousness, not the cause of consciousness.  
Our thoughts, beliefs, emotions, outlook, intentions, attitudes, expectations, and so on, along with these elements of consciousness in others, create our external reality.

As the Source/Creator of all that is, what we call “God” is transcendent or beyond common sense perception. It is also the Creator of, therefore transcendent of, space/time, personhood, intellect, will, or anything else conceivable or inconceivable to our finite human selves. To ask whether the Divine, which is the origin of intellect and will, “has” intellect and will betrays an anthropocentric or human-centric view. Much Christian language betrays this limited perspective.

Religions are various ways of interpreting and relating to spiritual reality; they are types or brands of spirituality. Many scientific types reject belief in a “personal God.”  This is not my language. As the Creator of personhood, the Source certainly can be personal but not an individual humanlike person (per Catherine LaCugna and Karl Rahner). I object strongly to religious language that reduces the Transcendent Mystery to an anthropomorphic individual or set of individuals. God Is Not Three Guys in the Sky or three gals either!

I am an atheist in the sense that I reject the gods created by typical Christian language. Worship of the gods implied by what I call “sexist God-talk”  is condemned by the First Commandment, which prohibits idolatry. Religious images ought to be understood for what they are—images. As such they can be enlightening, uplifting, and transformative. They can lead to mysticism.
In answer to a specific question of Chris, dogma is not necessarily incompatible with mysticism, but dogmatism is incompatible with it. Dogma understood figuratively instead of literally is fine. We need to grow out of this literal stage:
Christianity mistakes its myth for history and its symbol for fact.
God Is Not Three Guys in the Sky
“Father” and “Son” are not facts; they are images that could be replaced with any number of other images. Until common Christian language does so, Christians will continue mistaking the myth of Christ for history and Trinitarian symbols for facts.

My statement here does not satisfy scientific materialists, I know. More on scientific materialism next time.

Chris comments:
It would seem that you are conflating classical theism
with theistic personalism. They are NOT the same. As a Catholic, I think it is especially important to understand the difference. I totally agree with you that God is not a person. The fact is, no major theologian of any of the Abrahamic faiths before the Reformation have ever made that claim.

God, as He is in himself, is, like Joe Campbell said, beyond all categories of human thought. He is unknowable, ineffable, inscrutable, the One, Being Itself, Actus Purus.

That doesn't mean that He cannot relate to us on the level of the empirical ego. Again, speaking from a Hindu perspective, Christianity is a bhaktic tradition par excellance, which stresses relationship primarily rather than identity with the Divine. It is neither incorrect nor inferior to the jnanic perspective that you apparently prefer.
An apophatic transpersonal Divine doesn't preclude a cataphatic personal point of view.

I agree with you, and with Buddhism, that "positive" language about ultimate reality can easily devolve into idolatry. As I understand it, the Buddha was a kind of Hindu Martin Luther who moved the focus away from metaphysics to "the one thing needful".

But, Roman Catholic theology has always been largely apophatic(within a theist context)- from the days of the church fathers right up to the Middle Ages, the theologians have stayed true to the doctrine of analogy. God is "personal" in the sense that "He" is not less than a person. Just because the adult mind is far beyond the child's mind, doesn't mean an adult cannot relate to and understand the child. Many spiritual seekers find the via negative to be too cold and sterile. Hence, the masses of humankind throughout the whole world have always tended to gravitate to the "path of love" and its devotional practices. That may be less "intellectual", but not any less true or salvific/enlightening. After all, ultimate reality is beyond our comprehension.

Respectfully, I think you might profit from looking at the difference between theistic personalism and classical theism.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Materialism a.k.a. physicalism

My assertion in "Epiphany vs materialism" that 93% of scientists believe God is a delusion conjured up by the brain must have come from Hagerty’s work. Theologian Vincent Smiles corrects it in his comment to my post and he emailed a fuller comment:
Elaine Howard Ecklund (sociologist) wrote a book (Science vs. Religion, 2010) about scientists and faith (based on numerous interviews with a wide variety of them).  She showed (among other things) that while it is true that a far higher percentage of scientists (53%) have no faith in God compared with Americans at large (16%), it is also the case that scientists “self-select … from backgrounds where religion was practiced only weakly” (26).

Among the non-believing scientists interviewed, “it is not the engagement with science itself that leads them away from religion” (17).            
I believe this; it seems more credible than the 93% figure. Vincent added:
As I’m sure you know, we cannot take scientists & philosophers like Dawkins, Harris, Dennett, Wilson, etc. as representative of science or scientific thinking.  Their reasoning is notoriously bad when it comes to religion, not to say profoundly biased.  Most scientists are not in their camp.
I have written about Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchins (God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything). Harris’ views I find agreeable, quite a contrast to  Hitchins’.
One materialist
My abiding aim being to challenge hardened assumptions, I take on atheists and agnostics as well as traditionalist Christians. In a friendly discussion with one atheist, I tried to find some common ground by asking whether we could agree on defining spiritual reality as consciousness, which includes thoughts, ideas, decisions, beliefs, affect, attitudes, intentions.
He said No, that's all material reality. There is no immaterial realitynothing beyond material reality exists. It's not just that the physical generates the spiritual, he declared, it's that there is no non-physical reality. 

According to this individual, science says that everything we perceive is due to the brain; thoughts and feelings are perceived and generated by the brain. Everything we perceive is material reality, even if we don't have a scientific explanation for it yet. There is no difference between the mind and the brain. 
This seems extreme, even for atheists.

Going on with the materialist position, phenomena like psychic events (the truly inexplicable ones) and the findings of quantum mechanics—a human intention determining a physical outcome—may seem to refute materialist belief but we trust that the explanation just hasn't been found yet.

I say materialism is not the inescapable conclusion of science but the materialist interpretation of science. I’d like to know if other atheists whom this reaches agree with him. When I read or listen to scientists, notably in interviews with KristaTippett, I try to infer their position on this. I would expect Sam Harris, to reject materialist belief, for instance.

Often I hear scientists profess disbelief in a personal God. I also do not believe in a personal God as they define it—a humanlike individual—but I have a deep personal relationship with God. Daily I seek spiritual guidance and receive it. Like the subjects in William James’ study (previous post), I cannot be shaken from my conviction, because my experience of spiritual reality suffuses my life.

As I stated in God Is Not Three Guys in the Sky, atheists take their image of God from the popular but pinched Christian image—a humanlike personality. I join atheists in rejecting this external deity. The esteemed theologian Catherine LaCugna in her acclaimed work, God for Us: The Trinity and Christian Life, draws a relevant distinction: God is not a person, that is, an individual; but God is personal, or loving and caring.

I consider LaCugna’s distinction useful to all thoughtful religious believers. Especially those who join me in saying, when we hear atheists describe the god they don’t believe in, “I don’t believe in that god either.”

My profession of belief and disbelief
I am an atheist because I do not believe in a god, an external deity, a certain God-image, a god-man Jesus or any other idol.
I revere Jesus as the manifestation of God to Christians, the Way-Shower whose unique spiritual teachings resound through earthly time and space.
Although an atheist, I am not a materialist because I believe in spiritual reality, which materialists deny.
Next time—the views of Albert Einstein and Carl Sagan. After that, more from Eben Alexander.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Epiphany vs. materialism

2014:   In my Epiphany post in 2010, I took a position independent of both traditional Christian belief and scientific materialism. To say more, I do not share Christian belief in Jesus being uniquely divine nor do I share materialist disbelief in spiritual reality.
An epiphany is a manifestation of divinity. It can happen unexpectedly in any circumstance. Most scientists refuse to believe that real epiphanies happen, which leads me to the topic for today.

Yesterday the Christian feast of Epiphany celebrated the wise men visiting the infant Jesus. In church I was disappointed that the homilist, a learned, highly-respected scripture scholar, spoke of the Magi story in the Gospel of Matthew as if it were fact. I nodded when he encouraged us to discern the direction of divine guidance at this beginning of a new era, expecting him to throw an inclusive light on the subject, but he floored me with his narrow interpretation.

He upheld the Christian claim that Jesus is the only Son of God and savior of the whole world, even adding the self-serving, christo-centric claim that Jesus saves Hindus, Buddhists, etc.etc, even if they don’t know it. I’m sure that, if questioned, he would be quick to agree in a politically correct way that other religions have as much validity as Christianity. But the two assertions contradict each other.
Darn, I was disappointed by the smallness of his vision!

A much more exciting and relevant explication of epiphany happened on NPR this past week. Fingerprints of God. Barbara Bradley Hagerty never speaks the word “epiphany” but that’s what she writes and talks about, somewhat reluctantly. She was a little embarrassed, “spooked” to find herself experiencing transcendence.

An NPR correspondent, Hagerty explores whether science can find physical evidence of God in her book, Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality. She wanted to know,
Does brain activity reflect encounters with a spiritual dimension? 
I’m glad she used terms like “spiritual dimension,” “transcendence” and “spiritual reality” and never reduced God to a humanlike individual or god.

Belief in matter-only dominates science—93% of scientists believe God is a delusion conjured up by the brain. Spiritual matters, it’s assumed, are no subject for scientific observation, but in the last 20 years some neuroscientists have started looking for physical evidence of the spiritual world.

Is God only the result of chemical processes? Of a God spot in the brain? Is it just the activity of nerve cells? Or do people actually touch the Transcendent? Hagerty concludes that science can’t prove or disprove God, but she believes there’s something there.

There is a lobe in the brain that apparently registers awareness of Spirit and there is a phenomenon called temporal lobe epilepsy, which leads some scientists to believe that religious greats like Moses, Joan of Arc, Mohammed, Teresa of Avila, Joseph Smith, the Buddha, and Paul on the way to Damascus merely had this condition. But Hagerty doesn’t buy it. She thinks the temporal lobe mediates spiritual experience instead of causing it, and she uses the distinction between a CD player and a radio to illustrate.

Turn off a CD player and the music is gone; it’s in the gadget. Turn off a radio and you don’t hear the music but it’s still being transmitted by the station. Just so, Spirit is always transmitting, but some brains turn it off or have the volume so low it’s hard to hear. Others are sensitively attuned to it, and a few have the volume so high they actually may need medical help. Hagerty thinks people with better antennae have more transcendent moments.
Added in 2013:  The messagethe thought or ideais independent of CD, radio, and every other physical means of transmission; it is spiritual reality. So are all thoughts, ideas, beliefs, etc. 

Right here is the crux of disagreement between non-believers and believers, and here I mean believers who are well aware of religious tyranny, fraud, and foolishness. We think some spiritual entity initiates transcendent events. We believe the epiphanies come from a reality outside of our individual consciousness, although we can cultivate habits that develop better antennae to receive them. We can’t be shaken from our profound conviction of Something Beyond this surface world, and we base this on experience. The philosopher/psychologist William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience quotes such persons:
God is more real to me than any thought or thing or person.
God surrounds me like a physical atmosphere.
And he comments about this conviction:
These feelings of reality . . . are, as a rule, much more convincing than results established by mere logic ever are. . . . if you do have them . . . you cannot help regarding them as genuine perceptions of truth, as revelations of a kind of reality which no adverse argument, however unanswerable by you in words, can expel from your belief.
James addresses rationalist pooh-poohing of anything spiritual.
If you have intuitions at all, they come from a deeper level of your nature than the loquacious level which rationalism inhabits. . . . something in you absolutely knows that [the transcendent moment] must be truer than any logic-chopping rationalistic talk, however clever, that may contradict it.
Because William James looks at spirituality as a disinterested observer, his conclusions have more credibility for me than those of any religious writer. The same applies to Barbara Bradley Hagerty’s Fingerprints of God. Both of them console and uplift me.
********  2014

To William James and Barbara Bradley Hagerty I add Eben Alexander. His Proof of Heaven does a good job of answering materialists and I plan on writing more about it.