You Got Your Religion in my Humanism

This article (call it “Opening” is a comment on this article (call it “Closing” The “Opening” article was recently recommended to me by my cousin and facebook debating partner, Tom. For a wider audience, I here present my thoughts on both articles.

The “Closing” article expresses a Christian anti-science viewpoint. It creates a straw man by conflating the views of computationalists with all scientists of the mind, as if there was consensus in the scientific community around Ray Kurzweil’s vision of the coming Singularity (which there isn’t). It asserts a kinship between unlike categories (humanist and subjectivist/individualist): “A world that is intimidated by science and bored sick with cynical, empty ‘postmodernism’ desperately needs a new subjectivist, humanist, individualist worldview.” It commits this category error more than once (connecting science and ‘spiritual life’): “We need science and scholarship and art and spiritual life to be fully human.”

Humanists can balance subjective and objective views of reality just fine without any help from theists, as the Werner article quoted below demonstrates. And we see what the author of the “Closing” article did there, attempting to put faith and religious beliefs on an equal footing with science and art, so that he can suggest that those who eschew a spiritual life are not “fully human.” Later, he equates fads like Google glass (“computer glasses that superimpose messages on poor naked nature”) with the Stockholm syndrome. With approaches like these, the author of “Closing of the Scientific Mind” fails to convince us that science is in need of spirituality (i.e. the kind perhaps represented by the religious authorities to which he appeals, namely the Judeo-Christian texts) in order to somehow become more “fully human.” This is how Christian apologists attempt to give their ancient argument credibility by dressing it up in the language of science and secular humanism.

The author of the “Opening” article agrees, and extends that unconvincing argument. She asserts that materialism is to blame, that it has been “grafted onto science.” This promotes the myth that science owes its existence and future to faith, which has been debunked many times (for example, herehere, and here, and in Richard Carrier’s chapter “Christianity Was Not Responsible for Modern Science” in Loftus, The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails). It also ignores centuries of dark struggle during which Judeo-Christian authorities fought against the scientific revelations being produced within their own communities. When a community of science apart from belief was ultimately created, what Werner (quoted below) calls “the greatest democratic communal enterprise” exploded the amount of knowledge available to human beings, but again only while fighting the ever-dwindling influence of pseudoscience, faith, and myth constantly promoted from the religious world.

Philosophy is the latest tool to be grasped and wielded against science by religious apologists who must be desperate by now, watching their influence fade into inevitable extinction (see Pew Studies on the religiously unaffiliated). It seems as if religion, particularly the monotheistic, Abrahamic faiths, take to heart the adage “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em;” science broke free of religion, and so religion attempted to reattach science to itself by way of pseudoscience such as intelligent design and creationism. Science also distances itself from academic philosophy, inasmuch as it pursues metaphysical questions in parallel, and is gaining traction (see The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris, and Thinking: The New Science of Decision-Making edited by Brockman); and while the two disciplines of philosophy and science seem content to pursue truth in parallel, religion (at least that represented by the “Opening” and “Closing” articles above) has latched onto philosophy, retroactively claimed credit for it, and now utilizes its tools and lexicon in its desperation to remain afloat in the modern debate between science and religion, between rationality and faith, between reason and belief.

The following article expresses an important humanist view (which I happen to share) on these topics of spirituality, subjective vs objective philosophical views, and science:

This insight appears near the end of it:

“The word ‘spirituality’ does have deep, naturalistic meanings even for many humanists, but the word sells well to an American audience because it becomes a Rorschach test for everyone’s view of what is emotionally important to them. However, in the end it neither informs nor communicates, and most importantly, it skews religion toward a God of everlasting inwardness. Humanism, in contrast, honors individual conscience and inner evocative experience, but imbeds and tests those meanings and purposes in the greatest democratic communal enterprise: science. We know that our ability to delude ourselves must be checked by reason and open-minded critical thinking. We know that our own ability to delude ourselves requires that we listen to the voices of others in the spirit of free inquiry and courageously change our views when they are proven wrong. To look deeply means some might have to give up a giddy self-referentialism. Most Americans give in, either to theocratic control or listening exclusively to their inner voice, both of which are faith-based, ultimately lazy ways of thinking. Humanists, in contrast, seek progressive truth in union and solidarity with others. The path of humanism is a tougher one, but a truer one buoyed by the joy of joining hands with others in the ongoing search for truth and meaning.”

To conclude this little blog post of mine touching on philosophy, I first point you to my other recent posts called Philosophy and Theology WAR! What Is It Good For? and “Atheists Don’t Get God” Claims Arrogant Thomist, both of which discuss philosophy from slightly different angles. And then, to Richard Carrier, a PhD in the history of science, and his blog at, and specifically his recent presentation entitled “Is Philosophy Stupid?”, especially the ancillary materials linked there.

Philosophy and Theology WAR! What Is It Good For?

Absolutely NOTHING! Say it again…

Sam Harris in Moral Landscape said:

“Many of my critics fault me for not engaging more directly with the academic literature on moral philosophy. There are two reasons why I haven’t done this: First, while I have read a fair amount of this literature, I did not arrive at my position on the relationship between human values and the rest of human knowledge by reading the work of moral philosophers; I came to it by considering the logical implications of our making continued progress in the sciences of mind. Second, I am convinced that every appearance of terms like “metaethics,” “deontology,” “noncognitivism,” “antirealism,” “emotivism,” etc., directly increases the amount of boredom in the universe. My goal, both in speaking at conferences like TED and in writing this book, is to start a conversation that a wider audience can engage with and find helpful. Few things would make this goal harder to achieve than for me to speak and write like an academic philosopher. Of course, some discussion of philosophy will be unavoidable, but my approach is to generally make an end run around many of the views and conceptual distinctions that make academic discussions of human values so inaccessible. While this is guaranteed to annoy a few people, the professional philosophers I’ve consulted seem to understand and support what I am doing.” (Note 1, Chapter 1; emphasis mine)

I stood up and applauded when I read that. Well, mentally, anyway; I read most of the book in the break rooms at my job while I ate lunch, which means a literal standing ovation-of-one would’ve been awkward.

If I may repeat the gem here, in paraphrase: 
Academic philosophy “directly increases the amount of boredom in the universe.” That’s a fact!

The boredom property of philosophy impacts it’s relative value to human well-being, since that which bores gets ignored. That’s another fact. I’m sure that professional philosophers must highly value their work, and who am I to judge them unworthy of their pay, since no one is forced to pay them (except undergrads required to take Philosophy 101)?

But my twenty-year teaching career left me with the impression that if you want your lessons to be remembered (and thus impact your students and through them the world) then your first priority must always be to NOT. BORE. THEM.

And haven’t most of us had to endure a boring teacher? Or two? What positive or empowering impact did they have on us? Couldn’t we all agree that the time we spent ignoring boring teachers was time wasted?

It’s common sense, perhaps, that what is boring gets ignored, and certainly the advertising and visual mass media and video game industries have learned this lesson. Knowledge transmission to unmotivated learners is a thorny problem every teacher faces (excepting perhaps human sexuality teachers and military ordnance instructors; humans are pathologically obsessed with sex and weapons).
When I was a Christian, I was taught one doctrine more consistently than all others: God’s #1 priority is saving sinners, and He wants you to share His priorities.

While teaching Christian doctrine for twenty years, I wrestled with that thorny problem mentioned above. I studied theology with the intent of communicating Bible teachings to distractible, often religion-averse teens. My conclusions: say it fast, say it simply, and repeat it often. Otherwise, you might as well not bother saying it.

When I wasn’t teaching Christian beliefs I was teaching history classes– another area to which the average teen comes prepared to be bored by yet another worthless (to them) subject. And the majority of tools available to high school history teachers make no attempt to capture the ever-dwindling attention spans of social media saturated teens. The poor teacher is left with the task of creating their own tools for transmitting critical knowledge to his or her students.

Having to face that task week after week, in four or five different subjects, and in my tiny school often having the same students in two or more classes– pressuring the teacher to change up their strategies for every single class– this is often simply a physical impossibility.

The biggest single sense of relief I’ve ever experienced was when I finally got off that maddening treadmill, and no longer had to personally feel responsible for the knowledge, and moreover the eternal salvation, of each new batch of students sitting in my classroom. Quitting teaching was the best thing I ever did for my own sanity.

The problem with theology and philosophy is that boredom thing Sam Harris so eloquently stated above. The first post in the first blog I ever made (, which I maintained between 2005 and 2010) was titled “Theology is Worthless.” I was still a sold-out Christian, deep in the delusion, when I wrote it. Most of it appears below, for your reading pleasure (please remember, what follows is my former Christian believer self talking, and as such does not reflect my current atheist perspective):

Teaching high school kids is what I do. My job is to get across to them ideas about God and about history… Not an easy task.

Attention deficit is a disorder they all have. Some more than others. Without real energy and creativity put into a lesson, it simply will bounce around the room and never enter their minds. It’s gotta be practical, it’s got to have some usefulness that THEY can perceive to their immediate future. And why shouldn’t they demand that?

Mission work is something else that I have done. And occasionally still do. There, too, is an attention problem, but rooted in the weaknesses of translation. If it can’t be put into a simple form, they can’t get it, because the translator cannot take it from your language and put it into theirs.

Between mission work and teaching high school I have learned this: if you can’t say it simply, it isn’t worth saying. Which calls into question much of higher learning and theological studies. I’m not talking about science or math, here; just the humanities, especially my areas, history and religion. Most particularly, religion.

I believe that the highest priority of God for human beings is that they be saved. I think their eternal lives are the number one priority for Him, and should be for those who take His name in connecting to a religion.

… The high school in which I strive to teach teenagers is owned and operated by the SDA church. And in the twenty years I’ve been called a member of this denomination, I think many of my fellow members see this high priority of God the same way I do.

So, if the first priority is saving people for eternity, and the message must be simple enough to communicate to teenagers and to translate across all languages, then someone needs to explain to me why we waste so much time dissecting Biblical theology. When Jesus came, He quoted often from the Bible, but He didn’t say things that I can’t grasp. But many Bible teachers, preachers, and especially theology professors, speak in terms that I can’t fathom. I was taught the terminology, and research methods, and even a little Biblical Greek, but it never figured into my work with teens or in the mission field.

Many in my church pride themselves in being amateur theologians. I think they would even balk at being labelled amateurs, but I only use that term to distinguish them from the ones who get paid… There’s no shortage of amateur publishers and bloggers and preachers and teachers out there, investing enormous sums of money and hours and days cranking out material that never really saves a single soul.

What a tragedy, I think… meanwhile, the world is getting more and more crass and perverted and hard-to-reach. And what are the theologians busy doing? Wasting time, wasting money, diverting energy and funds from the number one priority, and often confusing people.

So this question remains, and weighs heavy on my mind: If you took Ockham’s razor and applied it to the academic disciplines of philosophy and theology, would anything remain? If the most salvific (what a stupid made-up theological term, eh?) way to express the Gospel and the most impressive and meaningful way to answer philosophical questions is the SIMPLEST way, then why bother with most of the pompous, technical, boring output of these twin disciplines? Wouldn’t Ockham’s razor cut away 99% of what philosophers and theologians have produced?

If there is a heaven, and any human is lucky enough to make it there, I wonder how many of its citizens will give testimonials of gratitude for the theologians and philosophers who helped them get there?

Sorry if I bored you.

"Atheists Don’t Get God" Claims Arrogant Thomist

This is a response to the article “Atheists Don’t Get God”, a review of David Bentley Hart’s book, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss.

To me, what commends the thinking and reasoning and explanations of scientists is not that they are very certain of the claims they make; it’s that they most often are the exact opposite of certain. Scientists are notoriously averse to drawing conclusions with any air of certainty, instead usually bathing each statement in a thick coating of qualification, moderation, and pensive hesitation. It’s as if the most dangerous way to behave within scientific circles is to behave as if you just figured something out to a mathematical certainty, even if you have done so. ‘Embrace doubt and skepticism’ seems like the unwritten code of science. The first impulse of the researcher upon making a possible discovery or breakthrough seems to be to turn to colleagues and say, “please prove me wrong.” 
Which, of course, is true, because of the importance of falsifiability and criticism to the scientific method. All findings of scientists will be scrutinized by other scientists, whose chief aim is to cast doubt– if possible– on said findings. And the genius of the method is that scientists are trained that this peer review is a non-negotiable part of the research process, and that this harsh scrutiny is to be welcomed, because if any findings survive review, they reliably increase our knowledge of the world and our ability to improve life in it. I can imagine that knowing your work will be ruthlessly poked and prodded, every potential weakness worked over and tested, is likely the reason why scientists tend to equivocate and hesitate when they communicate their findings to each other, and to those of us who try to understand what they are doing. Doubt and skepticism aren’t just healthy; they are essential to every attempt to expand the boundaries of what can know and do in this world.
Arrogance and certitude do not flourish within the scientific community for the reasons discussed above, and yet that doesn’t prevent religious apologists and theologians from falsely accusing scientists of arrogance. These same believers then hypocritically rely upon certitude and confidence in their authorities for the answers to their supposedly eternal questions. There is no place for doubt in Christian dogma, except as it is described as a stumbling block and a weapon of Satan. Imagine a preacher ending his sermon with a confession of doubt and a plea for his congregation to skeptically prove him wrong in what he taught them about God. Absurd! And yet whenever atheists and scientists share their doubts about God, theists line up to accuse the doubters of being mistaken, foolish, and –of all things– arrogant. The article linked above is a good example of this.
In “Atheists Don’t Get God,” a Father Robert Barron (“…the founder of the global ministry, Word on Fire, and the Rector/President of Mundelein Seminary”) reviews a book by a David Bentley Hart (The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss). The main point of Barron’s review is to assert that atheists who try to say things about God as if He is a being who exists in the material universe are making a category error. The reality of God should not even be debated between theists and atheists, Barron says, because not using the word “God” in the same way. And with characteristic theist arrogance, Barron confidently asserts that “It is not so much that Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins disagree with Thomas Aquinas on the existence of God; it is that neither Hitchens nor Dawkins has any real grasp of what Aquinas even means when he speaks of God.”
This last quote is the entirety of this review’s second paragraph. This is the first time Barron has mentioned any authority, much less one as specific as Thomas Aquinas. And everything that follows in the review continues under the massively unexplained but utterly trusted confidence Barron has in the conclusions of Thomas Aquinas. He could have just stopped writing the review with that second paragraph, ending it with a sentence like, “And we all know that Thomas Aquinas is right, and that means atheists are wrong.” Nothing that follows in Barron’s review offers any more substantive information that this opinion of his about Aquinas. But he doesn’t stop writing, he continues, and the arrogant, unfalsifiable assertions do, too:
  • “God is, in Aquinas’s pithy Latin phrase, esse ipsum subsistens, the sheer act of being itself.”
  • “God is not a supreme item within the universe or alongside of it; rather, God is the sheer ocean of being from whose fullness the universe in its entirety exists.”
  • “[T]he physical sciences, no matter how advanced they might become, can never eliminate God, for God is not a being within the natural order. Instead, he is the reason why there is that nexus of conditioned causes that we call nature — at all.”
  • “No amount of scientific progress can even in principle pose a threat to authentic religion, and no amount of experimental evidence can tell for or against the true God.”
  • “[R]eal religion begins with a particular type of wonder, namely, the puzzle that things should be at all.”
  • “This power of Being itself, which explains and determines all the contingent things or our ordinary experience, is what serious theists of all of the great religious traditions mean by the word ‘God.'”
  • “[T]he most interesting question of all is …: why is there something rather than nothing? Why should the universe exist at all?”
  • “[T]he question of God — the true God — remains the most beguiling of all.”
Toward the end of the review, Barron admits to teasing critics of religion for being proud of their rational thinking, and yet somehow shy about those last two questions quoted above. And as I said in my introductory paragraphs, theists like Barron are simply certain that their favorite Big Questions are just somehow the most meaningful and important. And they say these things without providing any loftier reason than, “St. Thomas Aquinas said so!” 
Well, theists like Barron can go ahead and tease, and assure themselves in reviews like these (and in books like the one reviewed) that they somehow have a monopoly on important questions. It’s plain to me that the arrogance of theists cannot in any important way satisfy the demands of the pressing questions of the day– the ones which extend knowledge about the real world, and help solve the problems real human beings currently face on our troubled little planet. Theists, please forgive atheists for preferring the truly humble presentations of scientists like Dawkins to your wildly overconfident and arrogant claims.

Comfortable Delusions

I’ve been thinking about what it was like to be a comfortable Christian church member; remembering the soothing feelings of belonging to a morally superior movement with a great commission directly from the throne room of Almighty God.

The high I experienced from just mingling with younger generations (as teacher, supervisor, chaperone, worship leader, etc.), reveling in their energy, soaking up their contagious attitudes of earnest, idealistic hopefulness and utter confidence in the Bible and the happy future it promised us– it reinforced the superiority complex and pride because the “high” was “natural,” not from supposedly satanic substances. And it felt good to know we were superior, and to be proud of that lofty status.

Thought experiment: If I could confront that past self with my current atheist understanding of the world, say in a dream or time machine, I’m fairly certain that Christian Jim (CJ) could not be convinced to agree with Atheist Jim (AJ). CJ would fear AJ was a Satanic apparition, and CJ’s beliefs about such visitations as predicted by his eschatology would be confirmed.

This confirms the truth of Peter Boghossian’s admonition in his Manual for Creating Atheists. That admonition instructs the counter-apologist (or as he calls it, Street Epistemologist) to stay away from facts and evidence when interacting with believers if you hope to move them closer to questioning their faith. Counter-intuitive as it is to me (AJ), who holds facts and evidence in such high regard, the use of such with the true believers will actually make them double down on their faith, which is counterproductive to the encounter.
It’s true. I see it. I know it from experience interacting with believers. And this thought experiment reinforces the truth of it. Yet I’m finding it terribly challenging to apply this admonition in my interactions.

Why? And what to do about it?

My first desire is for a role-playing opportunity to address this specific admonition, allowing me to practice, practice, practice the mental and social disciplines required. Otherwise each interaction devolves into that supreme waste of time (for street epistemology purposes) known as a debate.

Debate participants rarely change their mind as a result of a debate. Observers might, and thus debates have good uses. But turning discussions into debates is a great way to prevent any positive changes. And who wants to prevent that?