Partial Response to Someone Else’s Conversation

I’ve been following this really interesting (to me) exchange between an atheist blogger that I like and some of her believing followers. She started by posting 10 Serious Questions for Believers, which have garnered a number of interesting responses, and more questions. I plan to respond to most or all of her questions eventually, because I think they’re all interesting. For now, though, I’m doing things terribly out of order by responding to a response to a question about a question.Rather than re-blogging the full long conversation (since this will be long enough):

greaterthanlapsed said:

“As science and reason continue to uncover truths about the universe, our world, and even the human mind, faith and religion become increasingly unnecessary and regressive anachronisms….Regardless, the sort of faith required to hold to religion is, in fact, incompatible with science.”

About this second point – I think the idea that religion and science are incompatible stems from a misunderstanding of the purpose of both.

Science observes and analyzes the physical, observable world.

Spirituality, by definition, deals with the unobservable, the purely subjective, that which takes place in the mind, heart, soul, spirit.

Science deals with facts.

Spirituality deals with meaning.

The purpose of spiritual texts are to enlarge and challenge the soul. Religion is not supposed to describe the physical universe but rather to wake our souls from habitual slumber. Toward this end, religious writings employ poetry, story, parable, hyperbole, symbolism, imagery, paradox, allegory, and any number of other devices. Spiritual writing is supposed to engage the imagination. While spiritual writing can certainly include fact, it deals not so much with facts (descriptive accuracy) as with truth (revelation, epiphany, eureka!), which has a different flavor.

By the same line of reasoning, science has no business concerning itself with spiritual questions. While some facts in science have “meaning”, these kinds of meanings are only relevant to other physically observable facts. For example, the evidence for evolution can “mean” that animals, including humans, have changed over time. The same evidence cannot “mean” anything for or against the existence of G-d. The physical facts bear no causal proof one way or another. The belief “the universe is the result of a long string of accidents” is just as much a statement of faith as the belief “ G-d presided over that long chain reaction in order to bring us to our present state.”

You cannot prove that G-d exists from scientific fact. Neither can you disprove that G-d exists. A G-d big enough to create the universe, the atom, and the human brain will, by definition, be ultimately incomprehensible and inscrutable to any system in which that brain tries to fit and categorize Him/Her. So you can be an atheist, but you can’t say that science proves you right.

A few words here on an assumption that always seems to surface in these conversations. One of the things that I love and appreciate about atheists is that they ask all the really good, important questions. I know very few atheists who are coasting blissfully and ignorantly through life. They are intentional people. But they do tend to regard their theological position as being purely rational, devoid of myth, story, and all that interpretive nonsense.

I beg to differ. I think that humans can’t live without stories, without meaning. To be human is not to tell stories, to be human is to be stories. As such, I think that atheists do not escape mythology. They can’t help it – and they usually end up making mythologies out of science. Which is fine. We all need our mythologies. Atheists just have trouble admitting it. And I think they can get just as defensive about their myths as creationists do about their own. Speaking as a former atheist.

For more on making myths out of science, see C.S. Lewis’s rather brilliant essay “The Funeral of a Great Myth.” You can see part of it here by clicking “search inside this book” and then flipping through to page 82. I recommend finding a full copy of the essay, though. It’s dense, but very insightful.

For a little more on the topic of being both spiritually devout and scientifically rigorous, read this interview with Dr. Francis Collins, director of the Human Genome Project at the National Institutes of Health. Here’s an excerpt:

“I came to my faith sort of in a later time in life than many people. I didn’t really experience a conversion until I was 27. And I was already interested in genetics, and I worried that there was gonna be a collision here in terms of my interest as a scientist and what I’d come to believe as a person of faith. But, actually, this has been a wonderful, synthetic experience. For me, as a person who believes in a personal God, the opportunity to uncover something about us that nobody knew before but God knew is really a moment not to be missed. It expands the experience of discovery in ways that people who are not believers, I think, don’t quite get to experience. It’s an opportunity both for scientific exhilaration and actually for worship….”

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8 responses to “Partial Response to Someone Else’s Conversation

  1. Grant C

    “Spirituality, by definition, deals with the unobservable, the purely subjective, that which takes place in the mind, heart, soul, spirit.”

    Beg to differ myself, unless you are restricting your comments to the fringe of religion and simply excluding the world’s major religions.

    None of the Abrahamic religions for instance come anywhere near restricting themselves to the realm of the purely subjective. The claim that God exists is not a question of subjective meaning unless you are going to assert that it is only claimed that God exists in the heads of believers and not as an actual independent entity out in the real world?

    The claim the Jesus died on the cross and was resurrected is not a question of subjective meaning.

    The claim that the universe was created by an all powerful entity who has moral and ethical guidelines we are to follow is not a question of subjective meaning.

    They are claims to fact, and they thus need to be held to the appropriate standards… those to which science holds itself when it makes claims of the same nature. And when we do that the claims religions make fail miserably.

    • Regarding the claim that the universe was created by an all-powerful entity, etc., I do believe it is objective fact – I believe that G-d existed back when I didn’t believe in him, and should I change my mind some day, my un-belief will in no way affect G-d’s reality. But my experience of G-d is subjective. I have lived a relationship with G-d, but because G-d is not restricted to the physical universe, and does not interact with me in ways that are quantifiably observable to an external observer, I can’t prove it to you or offer you verifiable evidence, and so by scientific standards I call it subjective. Also, even among believers, the experience of G-d is highly subjective, although here I prefer the word personal. G-d does not interact with me in exactly the same way as my mother, my friends, or anyone else. This does NOT mean that I think G-d only exists in our heads, but again, not really quantifiable and catalogue-able, so I call it subjective here.

      And just to play devil’s advocate, why do you believe that scientific standards should be applied to religion to verify its authenticity? Scientific standards describe and explain the physical universe. By definition, if G-d exists, then G-d is before, through, and beyond the universe. Indulge me for a minute here. If there is a G-d who is factual Spirit, and if G-d created the universe, and then created humans within the physical universe, and then humans created science to describe and explain the physical universe, and then humans demand that Spirit G-d reveal Himself through the physical universe in ways that play by science’s rules, doesn’t that cheapen G-d? Just a little bit? Empirical materialists, atheists, atheist scientists, etc., all like to say that because religion’s claims can’t be verified by science, that proves them invalid. What it proves is that science only measures physical, observable, and repeatable phenomena, and religion by definition involves the non-physical, the sometimes observable, and the un-manipulatable. That doesn’t make religion automatically untrue, it makes science limited. I have great respect for science, but I don’t think it has anything to say about the existence of G-d or the validity of prayer one way or another.

      Regarding the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, I see your point. Whether it actually happened is tremendously important, because as a Christian, I believe that Jesus is the singular point in history in which G-d became physical and verifiable. I think there is sufficient physical evidence that Jesus lived. And died. Very few dispute that. There are also multiple accounts of His miracles and His rising from the dead, and of course the millions upon millions of people who have walked with Him and experienced His love and miracles since that time. All of whose testimonies are generally dismissed by those seeking scientific evidence as being delusional, emotionally desperate, ignorant, etc, precisely because they are considered to be subjective in the same way that I described above. Again, this doesn’t prove that they all lied, or that they’re all delusional, it proves that science is limited and cannot prove or disprove their experience either way. I believe there is sufficient evidence to make the life, death, and resurrection of Christ plausible (if you are willing to read it – lots of books on the subject). The final step of belief will always be a step through darkness.

  2. Grant C

    “Regarding the claim that the universe was created by an all-powerful entity, etc., I do believe it is objective fact – I believe that G-d existed back when I didn’t believe in him, and should I change my mind some day, my un-belief will in no way affect G-d’s reality. But my experience of G-d is subjective.”

    Which is irrelevant. THAT is subjective… fine. That doesn’t make the claim to the fact of God existing just disappear and so I repeat that no, religion does not bother restricting itself to the purely subjective matters of the mind/heart/soul/spirit.

    And where it does not do so, it is subject to the same standards of evidence as anything else. And it fails them. Horribly.

    “And just to play devil’s advocate, why do you believe that scientific standards should be applied to religion to verify its authenticity? ”

    Any claim to fact should be supported or not made in the first place. It’s really just that simple. If you want to declare something is true, back it up. Religion has spent the last several thousands years making truth claims and absolutely refusing to back them up. Which is why in the last several thousand years the contributions religion has made to the knowledge humanity has of the world in which it live is…

    …well, I can’t actually think of one single item to put on that list. And I’m dead serious, I’ve *tried* to think of something. Not. One. Item.

    Moving on to the subject of the resurrection…

    “There are also multiple accounts of His miracles and His rising from the dead…”

    Which are mutually contradictory and when placed in contrast to each other resemble nothing so much as snapshots of a rumor being progressively embellished.

    Mark originally ended at 16:9…. nobody is ever even mentioned seeing a risen Jesus. Nobody. Kind of conspicuous detail to leave out don’t you think? Later the ending of Mark gets some creative edits to add that bit in. We go from one account saying there was an empty tomb and some guy saying Jesus had risen and that’s it… to an empty tomb and people totally actually seeing him risen.. to an empty tomb and men in shining white garments announcing his resurrection and people seeing him… to the ultimate embellishment where it’s been inflated to the point where all of a sudden there was a great earthquake! And angles descending from heaven! And a government cover-up to hide the truth!!! (Matthew)

    And you’re stretching the bounds of the reasonable usage of metaphor when you speak of millions of people “walking with Jesus” in the context of it being evidence of his existence. Unless you’re claiming he showed up and actually took a hike with them… in which case I must have somehow missed the coverage of that event.

    • Sigh. *That awkward moment when I realize my tone has gone from pompous to downright shrill, and my discussion is sliding into argumentation, and I have to go back and re-write the whole comment.*

      We may be at an impasse. It seems to me that we are having irreconcilable differences of epistemology.

      [For those of you who just stopped reading because I got all big-headed and used the word “epistemology,” I’m really sorry. Really. I am crippled by years of using the word in long conversations with my father, and I just don’t know a better way to say what I’m trying to say here. And just in case you’ve never happened across this obscure and specialized word before, it’s the philosophical field that deals with the questions “What is know-able? What kinds of knowing are there? And how do we know what we know?” There’s a decent article on Wickipedia about it.]

      I have experienced G-d. I don’t know G-d the way I know about the periodic table, I know G-d the way I know my mother. In French, the verb would be connaitre, not savoir. Does G-d show up in a corporeal body? No. Does G-d exists solely in my head? No. So how does G-d communicate with me? Spirit to spirit, Life to life. For sci-fi geeks, something like trans-dimensional telepathy (or nothing like that at all – I’m grasping for metaphors).

      You do not share this experience, you do not accept my word for it, and you say I do not support my claim because I do not offer you verifiable physical evidence (which I have already suggested might be an inappropriate standard if there is, in fact, a spiritual dimension which extends beyond the observable physical dimension – a proposition which you did not address yet). I have told you the truth about my experience. You do not believe me. Ok. Seeing as how we just met and all, I would have been surprised if you did.

      I’m not really into arguing for the sake of arguing. I like inter-faith dialogue because I like hearing how others experience the world, and the sacred, and I like bridge-building, when it’s possible. On this particular issue, I think we are at an impasse, because I am not going to offer you a scientific proof, and you are not going to allow any evidence that is not scientific. And if we’re not going to get anywhere, I’d like to leave this topic behind for now.

      The question of the history of the gospels is a whole other conversation, which I will also bow out of for now, because I don’t know where I put my folder with all the historical documentation stuff, and because I suspect we would still end up coming back to the same argument as above, or a similar one about the burden of proof, and also just because I’ve had a reeeeaaaaallly long week (and it’s only Wednesday Thursday!!!) and I’m feeling lazy and tired and sick.

      Grant C., if the conversation ends here, please know that I have really appreciated all the time you have put into it (truly, truly, no sarcasm – I’m pleased that you thought this was worth the trouble), and I hope you will stop by once in a while and weigh in again, and perhaps we can find a topic for discussion where we can find more common ground. I do plan to post more along the lines of religion, spirituality, G-d, faith, reason, ethics, etc. Of course, if you have any more thoughts on this topic, you’re welcome to post them here. Maybe we’ll hit on a new way of talking about it. Or perhaps someone else will want to jump into the fray.

      Also, it seemed to me that the level of sarcasm in your last post was increased somewhat from previously, and so I’m sorry if this conversation stressed you in any way (although I have friends for whom increased sarcasm is a symptom of excitement, so maybe you’re just enjoying yourself?).

      Do you have a blog? I’d be interested in reading it. I’d like to hear what you think about things when you’re not reacting to what I think about things 😉 For example: What, if anything, do you hold to be sacred?

      Cheers,
      Fairybear

  3. Grant C

    Sorry for the delay, life outside the internet asserted itself.

    I don’t think our fundamental issue here is a difference in epistemology (though it certainly exists) but rather simply a lack of rigor in the use of certain terminology… and I frankly never particularly like the idea of people throwing their hands in the air and declaring that arriving at a mutual understanding of an issue is impossible so we should just give up… but if you are not inclined to discuss the issue further just say so and this will be my last post on the topic.

    In the meantime… to isolate one of those instances of terminology problems:

    If you are saying that God has independent existence outside your personal perceptions (which is what you and the vast vast majority of other religious believers I have encountered maintain) then you are saying he exists objectively. That’s a simple matter of the definition of the term.

    One of the things I originally took exception with was your assertion that religion dealt with the purely subjective and that science dealt with facts.

    While it is quite right that science deals with facts, I’m assuming since you just explicitly stated that you believe the existence of God to be objective fact that we’re both now agreed that religion does not restrict itself to the subjective.

    That being the case, my question is this. If religion is allowed to venture forth and make objective fact claims, why is religion held except from objective standards of inquiry to support those claims? You just provided a list of the reasons/evidence that you use to support the proposition that God exists. Every one of them was, without exception, subjective.

    That is a problem, no? If not, why isn’t it? What justifies religion being allowed to assert the existence of objective facts based on subjective perceptions when we do not permit anything else to get away with that kind of thing?

    And yes, I am naturally sarcastic person… so it’s appearance shouldn’t necessarily be taken as an indicator that I’m getting aggravated. And I don’t hold anything to be “sacred”… but if you wanted to find the thing that came closest it would probably be ‘the truth’ (and in some trivial “I can never tell a falsehood so I’m going to tell mom she looks fat in these jeans as a matter of principle” sense).

  4. Grant C

    P.S.
    To clarify… it is not at all that I don’t believe you had the experiences you believe you had, or that you are for some reason lying about having had them. The issue is that, being subjective experiences, they simply cannot be meaningfully employed to make objective claims to fact… either to me *or to yourself*.

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