Sunday, January 11, 2009

Pianism, Darwinism and Yet More Atheism

In The Sunday Times I interview the pianist James Rhodes - an incredible and appalling life story - and I discuss Darwin. In the course of researching the latter, I reread Marilynne Robinson's review of Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion. I love the bone dry line 'he is admired for his prose' and the description of Neo-Darwinian rhetoric as 'lost in the miasma of its own supposed implications'. But what struck me most was the Dawkins argument, summarised by Robinson thus, 'A creator God must be more complex than his creation, but that is impossible because if he existed he would be at the wrong end of evolutionary history. To be present in the beginning he must have been unevolved and therefore simple.' This is, as Robinson shows, an entirely futile argument. It is like saying God doesn't exist because he hasn't been seen shopping at Tesco. If, as theologians have always said, God is outside time and space, then the idea that he wouldn't have had time to evolve is absurd. Of course, such a God also lies outside Dawkins's rhetorical logic; indeed, it might be said he lies outside all logic. But that would seem to be the point of being God, though it should be added that Catholic theology does allow for the power of human reason to go some way to understanding God. Atheists would say this is all evasion. Maybe it is. But it is not as irrational as atheism. First, say Dawkins is right and God should be sought in the particular forms of materialism by which we currently understand the world. Since this materialism is, in every area, radically incomplete and since aspects of our knowledge indicate deep structures of matter and the universe, not to mention life and the human mind, of which we know nothing, then it is premature to say anything conclusive about the ultimate nature of material reality. Secondly, say God is not to be found in our forms of materialism, then it is vain to keep insisting that he must be there somewhere if he is to be said to exist. It is equally vain to construct an ideology - atheism - of simple negation. There is overwhelming evidence of the power of God in the human world and of our need to believe. This may not be evidence of his existence but, on the other hand, it may be. It is certainly evidence that there is something odd and probably unique about our place in the world. To say, in this context, that God does not exist is at least as irrational as to say that he does. In the absence of faith, the only rational position I can imagine is agnosticism. You may not think this is a very glorious position. I disagree. I'd go into battle beneath a flag bearing the legend 'we don't know'.

64 comments:

  1. It sounds like you are trying to concinve yourself that god exists.

    He doesn't, you know? It may be a pity, but that's life.

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  2. One of the main differences between you and Dawkins is that while you may disagree and disagree to the core of your being. You at least listen/read the other side. And here is where I disagree with Marilynne R. There is no point in debating with a Dawkins topic. For while I do not expect to convince, I do expect a hearing. And with it the admission that there is another side. The Dawkins cohort are what we have seen so many times before, dangerous fanatics who believe in their own 'rightness'.

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  3. I have spent many internet hours, until it became unbearably repetitive, defending a position that we ended up calling 'dunno-ism'.

    This is basically agnosticism but more specific. The problem with the terms is that people tend to use use 'atheist' when they should use 'agnostic' (hence the infamous and ridiculous Agnostic Bus) and 'agnostic' to mean 'I don't go to church or think about it much but I am a spiritual person'.

    Atheism, in the proper sense of the word, is, as you say, irrational.

    But some people can't help being atheist any more than others can help being believers. Their brains operate differently to rational people. Ironically, one or the other of them must be right, but only because of fluke.

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  4. Vince, you do of course realise you resemble your own assessment in even making it?

    Bryan and you seem to have a very serious anxiety about Dawkins and his flavour of atheism that isn't satisfactorily explained by the urge to conserve or at least shield mystery (which as far as I can tell is what the opposition boils down to when set apart from metaphysical chicanery). There's something in his stripped down logic that horrifies something in you both, and I'm afraid dismissing it as fanaticism is a very knowing self-deception.

    In defence of this 'militant' atheism, I think it's important to point out that it isn't capricious or unnecessary. It might well be if it was directed against tame christianity - like anglicanism. But it's a direct reaction to American Christian fundamentalism which has become a hugely skilful lobby, aggressively challenging secularism. So rather than vilifying campaigning atheism, your actual bugbear in all this should be the coercive evangelical fringe that fathered it.

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  5. I was disappointed though, Bryan, with the way you throw a bone to Michael Behe and credit him only with being a 'biochemist, rather than the anti-science phoney that he is.

    It’s all very well to talk of small mutations changing an organism, but how do such changes make, for example, an eye? Without all its bits and pieces, an eye does not work. It is, in the terms used by the biochemist Michael Behe, author of Darwin’s Black Box, “irreducibly complex”, beyond the reach of blind, random mutation.

    First, Behe's specific black boxes have all been pretty convincingly shown not to be.

    But more importantly, you yourself show the approach of 'black box' claims to be nonsensical, anti-science and premature when you criticise atheistic claims:

    Since this materialism is, in every area, radically incomplete and since aspects of our knowledge indicate deep structures of matter and the universe, not to mention life and the human mind, of which we know nothing, then it is premature to say anything conclusive about the ultimate nature of material reality.

    I appreciate you wanted to make a nice balanced article, but still...

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  6. To propose that the notion of God is beyond all human logic, is to acknowledge that there is no coherent, comprehensible content to belief in God. Not only is belief in God belief without reason or evidence, but it is a belief without coherent content. The proponent of such a view is, in effect, saying:

    "I have a belief, without reason or evidence, in a meaningless proposition."

    As Freud wrote in The Future of an Illusion:

    Philosophers...give the name of 'God' to some vague abstraction which they have created for themselves; having done so they can pose before all the world as deists, as believers in God, and they can even boast that they have recognized a higher, purer concept of God, notwithstanding that their God is now nothing more than an insubstantial shadow and no longer the mighty personality of religious doctrines.

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  7. Bryan, fascinating article about a sort of interesting piano player, his worship of Glenn Gould is significant, he sounds like a Gould waiting in the wings, oddball tinkler of the ivories. Kylie in the bath yes, her sister ? leave off, has the man no taste. As for the honey, pondered that one for a few minutes, would depend upon it's viscosity.
    You really must knock on the head this God / no God stuff, you're starting to attract the nutters.

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  8. you're starting to attract the nutters.

    That's rich, Malty.

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  9. I just don't care.

    A good article about Darwinism in the Times for the John Gray quote alone.

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  10. I have spent many internet hours, until it became unbearably repetitive, defending a position that we ended up calling 'dunno-ism'.

    And the tragedy is, Brit, that you were no more than a comment or two from converting us all, but since you quit we've all reverted to scriptural literalism and are now agitating for theocracy. That's the problem with you free-thinkers: no staying power.

    Gordon

    Tempting as it is to answer your objection with a resounding "So bloody what!", it sounds to me like you are just presenting a variation of Russell's Celestial Teapot argument, which I think was effectively answered by pointing out that no one believes in a Celestial Teapot or ever has. Do you ever reflect seriously on the fact that it is well over two hundred years since the scientific revolution, a hundred and fifty since Darwin and several generations since we established universal education and yet the only core of unbelief is among those Western classes who were rather dogmatically educated out of belief? I guess some meaningless propositions have have more resilience than others.

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  11. I loved both articles. They made me think, look out the window and ponder, want to go for a walk and perhaps buy a James Rhodes CD and generally get stuck into life. I don't see what more an article in a Sunday sheet can do.

    I'm out of the God debate. It cannot be resolved and simply produces first rancour then far worse. The nutters never get this. So much of it is culturally conditioned anyway, as your quote from John Gray makes clear. I'm with the "Japanese, Chinese or Indian" view that in some regards Darwin's insights are unremarkable. We are part of a comsic dance so vast it is beyond our comprehension but its presence is as real as air and water. Not understanding something is sometimes the only way of getting closer to it.

    “'I wouldn’t get out of bed for 25,000 genes,' says Le Fanu." That's a quote to treasure, as is the man imho.

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  12. As Mr McCabe has pointed out already, you seem to justify you position as a believer through almost no means whatsoever. To say that we, as a people, have a need to believe is a very vulnerable statement indeed. Equally, to assume that god must exist outside of our notion of space and time is a cop out. What's more, god is, therefore, an unnecessary assumption; the universe works perfectly without him there.

    I would like to see you tackle the first cause question, Bryan, or the "good god" assertion, as it may provide interesting reading. Yet, I fear, this would simply make me whince and grind my teeth, as I've been doing a lot lately when I read your highly ambitious attacks on atheism.

    Good luck.

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  13. Do you ever reflect seriously on the fact that it is well over two hundred years since the scientific revolution, a hundred and fifty since Darwin and several generations since we established universal education and yet the only core of unbelief is among those Western classes who were rather dogmatically educated out of belief?

    I was dogmatically educated out of belief in cathechism class.

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  14. If, as theologians have always said, God is outside time and space, then the idea that he wouldn't have had time to evolve is absurd.

    If that is what the theologians have always said, then that makes the other things that they have always said, that we are in his image, and by reverse logic he is, like us, a personal being, nonsensical. A human person is a creature of time and space. The resemblance cannot possibly carry across the divide.

    Theism is the proposition that a being without the constraints of time or space is constrained in its behavior by the same conditions of time, space and causality that gave rise to a mortal being on a small planet in a nondescript solar system in one of possibly countless universes.

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  15. The CofE don't seem so sure God exists either, on their adverts for the Alpha Course they ask the question.


    If God Did exist what would you ask?


    Not very sure are they?

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  16. 1. Here is a piano, one that bacteria and slime beings, similar to our evolutionary great-grandparents, played in concert, yet unsuccessfully, until it rotted: Old Abandoned Piano .

    2. Here is one chimp playing piano with one hand: Missy, a rescued chimpanzee, plays a toy piano.

    3. Here is one James Rhodes, making even better use of his left opposable thumb, playing piano with one hand: James Rhodes plays Blumenfeld l.h etude.

    4. And here we are in concert again, only as evolved human beings in a church, playing the first movement of Mozart's Jupiter Symphony: Mozart's Jupiter Symphony: The Church of Christ in Thailand Auditorium, Siam Philharmonic Orchestra, Trisdee na Patalung.

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  17. "This may not be evidence of his existence but, on the other hand, it may be."

    It's just evidence that human beings will believe anything. We're barely out of the jungle in evolutionary terms, how can we take as evidence that a certain species believes in a divine creator? And anyway, many Eastern religions don't believe in a creator.
    We aren't unique either. We're of exactly the same stuff as insects and bacteria. Do you think when a fly dies that it continues to exist somewhere else? We know instinctively that death is the end and it fills us with dread. That's where religion comes from as it takes away this fear and gives many people a peaceful death. We were probably better off eons ago when we had no self- consciousness.

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  18. "We" always had self-consciousness. There is no us without it. Our first experience is not of the physical. To use physical science to infer that we have evolved from what we perceive of as physical, is a serious error in logic. Yet this is the little loop that physical science finds itself as it tries to tackle matters outside its domain.

    It means to keep looking at the physical, hoping for an answer to how we spiritual beings got here, and maybe it was worth the shot. Either that or it means to look at the physical, hoping to prove that there is no spiritual, which cannot be done, because we are spiritual in essence, conscious from the beginning, such beings on this quest for proof.

    Correct: we won't find the spiritual in subatomic particles, atoms, things around us, planets, stars, universes, and so forth. Nor will we find it as we study the movement of physical substances, nor as we ponder all aspects of E=MC-squared. Nor will we find it in the biological sciences as we look at how plants and animals grow in their environs, or how they change as species.

    We cannot look to the physial and say we evolved from it. Science is quite out of its element when it comes to how we conscious beings got here. Quite the reverse, the physical has come from the conscious, and apparently continues to. There is apparently nothing physical unless there is a someone spiritual to observe it, which in a way is an act of creation.

    If we were to have evolved, we need to find the precursors to our conscious, spiritual side. Otherwise, all we can prove is that here we are.

    Yours,
    Rus

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  19. It's a little unfair to assign Dawkins to the literal meaning of "atheist". Dawkins, despite his faults, never does claim in his book that he is sure of God's Nonexistance, rather Dawkins is something more along the lines of an Atheistic Agnostic, which is a much more tenable logical position to hold.

    It's not so much a "No God Exists" as a "I seriously doubt God exists and I'm pretty certain that your god does not."

    That might not be true "Atheism", but it is a more accurate portrayal of Dawkins' position.

    Quite frankly I feel Dawkins is assigning himself the label of Atheist purely for branding, when really he's technically more of an agnostic. It seems clear in his book that he feels true agnosticism is silly and weak-minded.

    We don't yet have, as far as I know, a single term to accurately describe the beliefs of Dawkins, or the many, many other agnostics who lean towards atheism, but refuting Dawkins' argument based on a definition that does not apply to his beliefs is letting semantics corrupt the underlying discussion.

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  20. What if all time exists at once and is 'eternally present'?

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  21. An agnostic is an atheist who lacks the courage of his convictions.

    There is overwhelming evidence of the power of God in the human world and of our need to believe.

    You mean like Hurricane Katrina proving that god hates Americans? Or perhaps the Black Death meaning that god hates Europeans.

    I'll say this, if there is a god, I would not be willing to worship her. My first words to her would be "fuck you."

    Actually, I don't see any evidence of the power of god anywhere. But I will agree with you that many humans have a need to believe in something.

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  22. I recommend 'The reason for God'-Tim Keller. You lot would love it.

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  23. "I don't know"

    Thank you. I think that "I don't know" is the only rational conclusion one can come to on the topic. Not only is it rational, but it's not all bogged down in a bunch of intellectual nonsense. I wish there were more people who didn't know things.

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  24. Rus:

    I mean self-consciousness in the sense that we're aware that one day we will die. Other animals, as far as we can tell, aren't aware of this. In a Darwinian sense we were once like that too. Rousseau expressed something similar- that man in a state of nature had no memory and thoughts for the future and so was happier because of it.

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  25. Sorry to say this but James Rhodes sounds like your typical trustafarian tosser.

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  26. To Anonymous,

    That does not matter to my argument. To be self-conscious is to be conscious. Without that, is to be nothing. And I am not talking in the sense of peak experiences where we lose ourselves in our joys or actions. We are still spiritual beings doing this. Indeed, no argument for or against the existence of God exists without consciousness. As a corollary to this, evolution does not exist unless we create it.

    Yours,
    Rus

    ~~~~~

    To Tom P.

    There may be no worse argument against the existence of God, than black death and Katrina. I see you are from the US. So you know that a huge amount of charity comes from the different churches.

    Even while people accuse the government of not standing by, especially the poorer people in New Orleans during and after Katrina, we cannot say the same about religious organizations. Through calamities, what some of us would recognize as a good god, works though church organizations and people, to have a great effect on this physical world we are sharing.

    I'm not, but let's go Catholic with this, to get specific. In my neck of the woods, where boys I grew up with were being abused by Catholic priests, we see the negative part of the church. We have in such immorality another argument against God and religion, or that Catholicism must be a wrong religion. But within those immoral acts, we also recognize the hypocrisy involved. That hypocrisy has to do with knowing that the priests did not live up to the standards of there being a good God--granted, at this point in the discussion, if there is one.

    But, Catholic Charities was there to help rebuild in New Orleans. Here is one story: Lydia Taylor’s Story. A team of volunteers helped her rebuild. She is just one, and Catholic Charities is just one.

    We know that people suffer, sometimes en masse, sometimes because of tremendous and indiscriminate natural forces such as disease and hurricanes, sometimes at the hands of horrific national leaders. This is a given. We have all been born vulnerable into this. Even at the individual level, we each know we will die someday, some because of disease, some by animal attack, some because of human attack. Some of us will die violently, and some in our sleep or somehow peacefully leave this world.

    Yours,
    Rus

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  27. Rus, if your argument is that because churches spend a certain percentage of their money to help the poor that god must exist?

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  28. Actually, "I don't know" is a coward's answer. There are lots of things I don't know in the negative. I don't know that there aren't little angels dancing on the head of every pin in my house. There is no evidence that those little angels exist nor is there evidence that they don't exist. But I'm not about to answer "I don't know".

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  29. Rus, if your argument is that because churches spend a certain percentage of their money to help the poor that god must exist?

    Hi Tom,

    What do you mean money? What does God have to do with money? When did I say any such thing, or why would I think it?

    This is you putting words in my mouth, as if to make a point that God does not exist because people are driven by money. People can be driven by worse things than money, and I pointed out the immorality of abusing altar boys.

    Catholic Charities organized volunteers. Watch the vid. Volunteers helped Lydia Taylor.

    Yours,
    Rus

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  30. Tom P:

    An agnostic is an atheist who lacks the courage of his convictions.

    It's the other way about, Tom. You've got yourself in a pickle.

    I'm assuming you are defining an 'atheist' as someone who positively asserts the non-existence of God, and an 'agnostic' as someone who asserts neither the existence nor non-existence of God (although he may tend towards the probability of the nonexistence of God as the term 'God' is normally understood).

    In which case, atheism is a statement of faith just as much as theism. The principles of reason and knowledge via evidence can only get you to agnosticism.

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  31. "In which case, atheism is a statement of faith just as much as theism. The principles of reason and knowledge via evidence can only get you to agnosticism."

    Then you must be agnostic on every question, which is silly. Are you agnostic on the question of Atlantis? I doubt it. 'Atheist' just means that on the available evidence and balance of probablitiies you can see no reason to believe in a god or gods. You will generally find that most believers are pretty firmly atheistic when it comes to the existence of Zeus, say. They rarely declare themselves agnostic on that question (do you?).

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  32. There are degrees of agnosticism - on Zeus, Atlantis and fairies I am at the Very, Very Probably Not end of the scale.

    But 'atheism' can't have any degrees - it must be a positive assertion of the nonexistence of God - not just an absence of positive belief in His existence, or else it isn't a useful term as distinct from 'agnosticism'.

    Dawkins, for example, is an self-confessed agnostic, albeit at the Very Probably Not, fairies and Zeus end of the scale.

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  33. "But 'atheism' can't have any degrees - it must be a positive assertion of the nonexistence of God - not just an absence of positive belief in His existence, or else it isn't a useful term as distinct from 'agnosticism'."

    Then you have broadened the meaning of 'agnostic' to the point where it is practically meaningless. Athesism usually means that you do not believe there is a god. 'Agnosticism' indicates that you believe the balance of probabilities is too fine to judge. There is no need for the rest of the flim flam. 'Atheism' is no more a 'faith' position than the belief that there are no unicorns riding the central line is a position of faith. Neither position claims a 'positive' knowledge of the absence or lack of existence of the thing in question (what would that sort of knowledge be like?). It is rhetorical gibberish to claim otherwise.

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  34. It's an attempt to get a grip on the semantics, John. I would say that you have narrowed 'agnosticism' to the point where nobody is an agnostic, and broadened 'atheism' to the point where it has no useful meaning.

    The key point is that:
    (a) asserting the lack of a positive belief in something; and
    (b) positively asserting that that thing does not exist
    are different stances.

    On God, it is rational to take the former stance but not the latter. The problem is, if you use up the word 'atheist' on (a), then we need a new word for (b).
    So I think it makes more sense to call the (a) 'agnostic' and (b) 'atheist'. I'm not bothered if we disagree on the words so long as we acknowledge that there is a distinction.

    Actually I think that's why the 'Brights' chose to call themselves such, rather than 'atheists' - because their point is that they lack supernatural beliefs, rather than asserting the non-existence of a 'God' that, let's face it, can always be defined in extremely vague terms.

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  35. Get on the bus!

    http://www.thirdway.org.uk/494

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  36. Give 'em hell, Brit!

    i don't mean go on about Hell, i mean kill them all with a bloody great big machine gun like in The Wild Bunch. Except with concise logical arguments rather than bullets.

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  37. I feel very sympathetic to Bryan. Without him I would not have come across Marilynne Robinson's review of The God Delusion.

    Note that's a faith statement. I can't exactly prove it but it seems so obviously true, assembled skeptics, that there's no point arguing about it and thus denying me - or even merely delaying - the pleasure of gratitude to the all wise, I mean, at least, the good Mr Appleyard.

    Because of my sympathetic feelings towards the host I'll focus on something else I don't know.

    I don't know how far to take what Jesus taught (or Matthew taught that he taught, and so on, as far as anyone feels the need to take it) in the first canonical gospel, chapter 21, verses 28-32.

    Jesus seems to suggest that what we say matters very little, both to him and to the god he likens, here and in many other places, to a Father.

    Does that mean, for example, that it is of very little interest to Jesus and the Father - if either term continued to have meaning after the first century - what was said, say, at the council of Nicaea in 325 AD? Compared to what the assembled bishops actually did in their lives?

    I don't know. But I have my suspicions.

    Equally, I don't know how much of this conversation in the twenty first century has value.

    But I value Bryan's honesty and open-mindedness.

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  38. In the words of Scott Adams:

    Atheism is a belief in much the same that not collecting stamps is a hobby.

    I am an atheist because the concept of God is so unlikely for me that for all practical purposes I can say that I am sure that he does not exist.

    That is not saying that religion is a bad thing. Neither is Santa Claus.

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  39. Hi Richard,

    If I may, and even if I am not a churchgoer. Nor have I taken out the Bible in years. But, I took out my old RSV, which I have read through twice with notes I no longer have, to find your passage.

    In Matthew 31:28-32, Jesus is speaking to clerics, who were to be keeping the faith. So they had said they would be keeping the folds prepared for God to be in their lives. These clerics said they would, but aren't--and this the ultimate point. Jesus is saying that they cannot judge him, because they are blind to spirituality.

    Furthermore, Jesus has been seen hanging out with prostitutes and tax collectors, who weren't even close to saying they would be spreading the word, or keeping the faith. In fact, their dealings with people seem centered on being crass and self-centered, even physical, both bodily and financially.

    So, you already know this, because you selected the passage, that it deals with focusing one's life on the physical, versus focusing on the spiritual. It's pretty neat how is applies here to this discussion.

    Let's go a step further, into John the Baptist. He was saying to choose to be baptized, which means to change perspective from the physical to the spiritual. Actualize what stuff you are truly made of. But, how can a prostitute who deals in physical passion, say there is no God? How can a tax collector, who deals in money, say there is no God? As to this argument, how can a scientist, who deals in atoms and planets, say there is no God? Get spiritual.

    That standard fare. It's even preachy. But, that particular passage is even more damning than at first glance. It is not for us Christians to rally and say, hey I am a born again Christian, baptized in the spirit, and so forth, and so on, and because of this, Jesus knows what choice I have made. Jesus is saying, "Oh really, now."

    What if there was a spiritual person, who did not claim to be Christian? Would you recognize her or him? That's what he was saying to the Jewish clerics, what if there was a new way, would you recognize it?

    I have had the good fortune to be able to speak with several monks in Dharamsala, including the Dalai Lama's personal secretary. They don't say that they have accepted Christ in their lives, not that I asked, but it sure seems like they have, whatever they want to call it. I've gone into churches, thinking just how seeped in the organization and their own personal power some of the ministers are. They can probably give you some mightier interpretation of this passage from Matthew, but it means diddly if it is not spiritually applied. In fact, my spirituality is what gives me the authority to interpret scripture.

    Out of anywhere, at anytime, from anyone, can come a great spiritual leader for the world. The impostors might be bishops in the church. Knowledge and discernment in physical matters is fine. We need more spiritual discernment.

    Yours,
    Rus

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  40. "The key point is that:
    (a) asserting the lack of a positive belief in something; and
    (b) positively asserting that that thing does not exist
    are different stances.

    On God, it is rational to take the former stance but not the latter. The problem is, if you use up the word 'atheist' on (a), then we need a new word for (b). "

    You are conjouring distinctions without any differences. And this cavilling is only applied to the subject of religion, not other 'positive' beliefs. When we positively assert that anything does not exist (invisible unicorns, god, gigantic spaceships hovering ovger Utah) we are really only claiming that we have no positive reason to believe those things exiusts, we cannot know they do not excists, so your 'b's are all 'a's really. And the same follows for assertions of positives too, by the way, except in technical legal or mathematical meanings. When you claim that something happened, you are really only claiming that in your view in all probability it did happen. You cannot know or prove it beyond any doubt (how can you 'prove' that you did not spring into existence two seconds ago?). But you would not claim that you are 'agnostic' on the question of whether or not you got up this morning or whether or not the Holocaust took place (although many will try to play the same game that you attempt with god with that hypothesis too), it would be a peculair use of language. Dawkins, of course, constantly points out the blatant sleight of hand involved in this sort of argumentation and smoke blowing.

    'Agnostic' in the definition I gave is not meaningless. There are many things we cvan reasonably be agnostic about in such a sense, such as the viability of nuclear fission. It is a useful concept. If you think the balance of probabilities and evidence makes the beleief in god or otherwise too close a judgement to call, you can be 'agnostic'. If you can see no reason whatsoever to postulate the existence of supernatural creatures, you are an atheist, whether or not you can have a special pure 'knowledge' of the non-existence of god, the kind of knowledge, as I have pointed out, that we are never required to have to justify disbelief in other categories of being, object, or event.

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  41. You miss three important things, John.

    First, if you define an atheist as "someone who doesn't believe in God", then you are making an ambiguous statement. The someone could hold stance (a) or stance (b).

    This is important because both sides get confused. I'm not conjuring distinctions, I am exposing a major obstacle to coherence in this whole (I think rather ridiculous) 'debate'. So-called Brights often slip sloppily between scientific and rational arguments that only support stance (a) into stance (b) conclusions.

    Meanwhile their opponents often unfairly accuse Brights such as Dawkins of drawing impossible (b) conclusions when they only actually claim stance (a).

    Second, there is not a direct correlation between being 'agnostic' about whether you got up this morning and Agnostic about God. This is because God itself is a concept with endless ambiguities and different definitions. At the strong end is an interventionist personal being, but at the other end is a much more abstract notion of an entity existing outside of Time and Space. It is impossible to be rationally atheist about these more vague Gods. I would argue that there's not much point discussing them at all really, but that's another matter.

    Third, don't mix up religion with abstract philosophical discussions of God. This is where Dawkins goes off the rails of course.

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  42. Just came across this, on my travels:

    Summa scientia nihil scire - "The height of science is to know nothing."

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  43. "Second, there is not a direct correlation between being 'agnostic' about whether you got up this morning and Agnostic about God. This is because God itself is a concept with endless ambiguities and different definitions."

    But that makes no difference to the point I was making which is that there can be no certain knowledge of anything of the kind that is demanded so often of atheists. If atheism is a faith position, then so is every belief or non-belif, including the belief that you got up this morning. Of course there are many and variius descriptions of god, but none of them offer any evidence or reason for belief, so they don't advance the argument much, as far as I can see.

    "At the strong end is an interventionist personal being, but at the other end is a much more abstract notion of an entity existing outside of Time and Space. It is impossible to be rationally atheist about these more vague Gods. I would argue that there's not much point discussing them at all really, but that's another matter."

    But it isn't impossible to be 'rationally atheist' about the vague gods. If tyou can see no good reason to believe that things exist 'outside of Time and Space' (or if you cannot even make sense of the words and suspect they are just a bit of handwaving) it is rational not to believe in them. I might insist that it snows because snow fairies that exist outside of time and space want it to, biuut you would not be irrational in preferring an alternative explanation. Nor would you need to be 'agnostic' about snow fairies, whether or not they are the kind that come with impossible characteristics.

    I would agree with you, though, that there is not much point in discussing the kinds of gods about which we are told cannot know anything and which don't do anything or cause anything to happen. Even Dawkins has no beef with those kinds of gods (I think he calls them Einsteinian gods). But they are quite rare. Most believers think their gods are responsible for things in the real world, impact on real lives and entitle their believers to special privileges (very often accompanied by special sanctions for the non-believers, of course).

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  44. You're making perfectly good points, John. It's just that they are missing what I'm saying by 45 degrees or so.

    You're making a familiar and sound defence of the validity of holding position (a). Well, I agree with the validity of position (a).

    What I'm trying to get at is why arguments between Brights and God-botherers break down so quickly, and my contention is that both sides fail to properly distinguish between (a) and (b), first because they call both 'atheism', and second because the less-bright Brights make statements about religious belief from (a) as if they were from (b).

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  45. I just don't agree with that. I am pretty partisan on this I suppose, but it seems to me that arguments break down quickly because the positions are so completely at odds and all logic, evidence and reason is on one side. The reason they become so acrimonious is because, I think, religious believers build their identities so much around their faith groups and teachings, so criticism feels like a personal attack. That is the charitable view, anyway. The less charitable view is that religious believers have claimed privileges for their irrational beliefs for a long time and are unhappy at explicit attacks on those privileges.

    I wish we could drop 'brights', by the way. As far as I know, Daniel Dennett was the only person ever to adopt the term.

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  46. Hi John,

    There seems to be behind your arguments, suppositions or beliefs that we are all suppose to accept. Never mind unicorns and different types of gods for the moment, because poetically speaking, they may have at least the metaphorical existence to be able to stand in for truths or possible constructs, but also to represent these truths, and so to denote something spiritual, like fairies usually do. In language, we use physical yarns and beings to represent spiritual and psychological truths we are trying to point to.

    Metaphorically speaking, as a poet, I could use unicorns, fairies, or different types of gods in my next poem. I should then know what the historic metaphorical uses of them have been, such that people who would choose to refer to such knowledge, would more fully know what such use was communicating. But to say that these metaphorical snow fairies cause the snow that is physically outside my door right now, is not to argue that the fairies do not exist, but, rather, to point out that the snow fairies are to communicate something else again.

    Let's say we are all atheistic about certain physical beings with "impossible characteristics," like say naturally orange swans with blue polka dots. Let's agree to be so, anyway. We're good with the white ones, and know we're good with the black ones. But until we see that certain genetics have caused such a creature, as you say in "Time and Space," there are no such orange swans with blue polka dots.

    Of course, as I point this out, I am also pointing out that we now know that swans can be black--and that physical things we believe in, like black swans, also can be metaphorical. Australians knew about real black swans, just as many Norsemen were quite clear that earth was round, while more southern Europeans could hold onto a flat-world belief. Their sky hid the truth. But the impossible flat earth could be in their "Time and Space", until either scientists showed them otherwise, or they traveled to the arctic and looked up.

    What about out spiritual "Time and Space"? If someone says to me that snow fairies caused the snow to fall, because there are no physical snow fairies (just as there are no naturally orange swans with blue polka dots), then I would ask myself, what does that person mean by "snow" and what are these "snow fairies". I might spend some time online looking up snow fairies, looking for fables and myths. Otherwise, there is a vagueness to this simple statement, because out of context, those of us who don't know snow fairies, cannot discern to what the speaker would be referring. Or, if the speaker made up snow fairies for the sake of conversation, what else about the snow fairies of life, and the snow fairies of life have we missed?

    What about Apollo, Zeus, Athena, Medusa, what do these gods represent? What truths do myths and religions hold for us? That's the question, not how ridiculous is it to believe that someone's hair was turned into snakes.

    When we say that scientists "know they do not know," we are speaking mythologically of the Delphic Oracle. We are then asked to move through the story of Socrates as told by Plato, into the lives of modern scientists who would be Socrates. We are being asked to suppose that a spiritual quest is being taken up by these scientists. Similarly, when we are given a parable by Jesus, we are to apply it to our lives in Time and Space, to imbue our lives with it, try it on, get spiritual.

    That there are these myths and religions written down, is evidence that there is something beyond what scientists have yet to find. There is a spiritual life that we all attend to, outside the realm of physical science, not where scientists look, this reality you tried to define with your use of "Time and Space", as if we could all be boxed in by such a belief system, but it is here, believe it or not.

    Yours,
    Rus

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  47. "That there are these myths and religions written down, is evidence that there is something beyond what scientists have yet to find."

    It is no such thing. It is simply evidence of the human urge to make stories for various reasons. There is nothing magical about that. There are all sorts of plausible scientific explanations for it. Why choose a non-scientific one?

    "There is a spiritual life that we all attend to, outside the realm of physical science,"

    No there isn't, or, at least, I can see no evidence for it and it seems implausibel. If it outside the realms of the physical, how can physical beings such as ourselves communicate with it? Is there (as used to be thought) a special substance that can cross the divide? The trouble with theories like those (apart from their tendency towards comedy) is obvious.

    "not where scientists look, this reality you tried to define with your use of "Time and Space", as if we could all be boxed in by such a belief system, but it is here, believe it or not."

    Where is it? Simply asserting it is here is a bit feeble, isn't it? I could make all sorts of similar assertions without expceting you to take me seriously.

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  48. Hi John,

    If you choose a belief system that asserts that a spiritual life does not exist, then that these myths were written down, must not be evidence that such a spiritual life exists.

    If it outside the realms of the physical, how can physical beings such as ourselves communicate with it? Is there (as used to be thought) a special substance that can cross the divide? The trouble with theories like those (apart from their tendency towards comedy) is obvious.

    If you define yourself as a mere physical being, and look solely at your body, then you will miss the spiritual side. Go back to the myths being evidence of that spiritual side.

    Where is it? Simply asserting it is here is a bit feeble, isn't it? I could make all sorts of similar assertions without expceting you to take me seriously.

    No, it is not feeble. Your insistence that there is no spiritual aspect to people, does not make it so. This is our first experience, the spiritual. It may more likely be, that there is no physical, because we only perceive the physical. This physical aspect that we all share seems to be what we can use to communicate with each other with, or to encounter at least each other with, our common ground, as it were.

    A scientist will say that we have this really neat scientific method. The error is to go beyond this, and assert that nothing exists until science say it exists.

    Yours,
    Rus

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  49. These are not accurate definitions for agnostic and atheist:

    (a) asserting the lack of a positive belief in something; and
    (b) positively asserting that that thing does not exist

    An agnostic is a person unwilling to commit to an opinion about something. (Look it up in the dictionary.) So an agnostic says that there isn't any evidence for the existence of god therefore god might exist. An atheist says there is no evidence for the existence of god therefore god does not exist. The atheist puts god into the same category as the easter bunny and santa claus. But if he woke up one morning a little fuzzy pink rabbit handed him a colored egg then he might change his opinion.

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  50. Hi Tom,

    You saying God might be fuzzy and pink?

    Yours,
    Rus

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  51. "If you define yourself as a mere physical being,"

    What's so 'mere' about it?

    "and look solely at your body,"

    We creatures of matter need not be soley obsessed with our bodies. If you were at all familiar with mine, you might think that just as well.

    "Go back to the myths being evidence of that spiritual side."

    Rus, the myths are not evidence of any 'spiritual side' unless (as I suspect) you are using the word 'spiritual' as a general category to encompass all human desire, aspiration, imagination, moral life etc. But all those things can be plausibly explained without reference to anything non-material, so why assume that there is a non-material reality?

    "No, it is not feeble. Your insistence that there is no spiritual aspect to people, does not make it so."

    No it doesn't, but I am doing more than just 'insisting', I am pointing out that 'spirituality' in your sense (as I understand it) is not doing any work, itr isn't explaining anything, it is unnecessary and there is no evidence for it, so why assume it exists? Of course we are 'spiritual' in the vulgar sense of liking music and being capabale of being moved by art and beauty etc, but you mean something more than that.

    "A scientist will say that we have this really neat scientific method. The error is to go beyond this, and assert that nothing exists until science say it exists."

    Nobody makes such an assertion. Of course things exist that scientists are unaware of. DNA did not spring into existence when Watson and Crick worked it out. But it did turn out that many mysterious processes that some had attributed to god or 'spirit' were entirely explicable as combinations of complex amino acids. This keeps on happeneing, so why cling to the idea of the 'spirit'?

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  52. Tom:

    These are not accurate definitions for agnostic and atheist:

    (a) asserting the lack of a positive belief in something; and
    (b) positively asserting that that thing does not exist

    ...an agnostic says that there isn't any evidence for the existence of god therefore god might exist. An atheist says there is no evidence for the existence of god therefore god does not exist.


    Ahem.

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  53. Hi John,

    We creatures of matter need not be soley obsessed with our bodies. If you were at all familiar with mine, you might think that just as well.

    Your insistence that we are "creatures of matter" does not make it so. Like I say, matter may not exist as such, and then if it does not, (if we are merely physical), we would not exist either. But, of course we do.

    It is unnecessary that we believe in the physical. This is a choice, a leap of faith. But there is in fact we who believe, a "we" not based in this merely possible physical.

    A better question might be to ask what the heck is this possible apparition of matter doing here. What spiritual aspect of us who are spiritual beings, made it happen, or has it happen?

    Yours,
    Rus

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  54. If I conduct my life believing that I am a purely physical being in a purely physical world then it all collapses into absurdity. I can make no sense of my life/reality like that. It becomes nonsense. That way madness lies.

    It only makes sense if I consider myself as a spiritual being in a spiritual 'realm' - for want of a better word - having a wholly inexplicable physical experience or... hallucination?

    This is not absurd or illogical, this is how I make sense of things rationally (I have worked on this!). To do otherwise would be to grow down into physicality - a retrograde step, a slave to the shadows in the cave.

    Conscience decrees that I acknowledge this. I appreciate the scientific, purely physical view of the universe but if I accept only that then I put blinkers on, black holes open up inside me - i.e. I would be lying to myself.

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  55. Well, snakepit, whatever makes you happy.

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  56. You saying God might be fuzzy and pink?

    Makes as much sense as believing he is a grey haired old white guy with a really nasty temper.

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  57. Hi Tom,

    Right, and this is your train of thought, the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus are like God, that an atheist needs the fuzzy pink experience, or alternatively the white gray-bearded man.

    But it is true yes, that an atheist may demand that the skies open up and God show his face pink white or whatever, otherwise there would be no belief. God may choose to show himself otherwise, however. As snakepit pointed out, this "atheist" would need to be an honest seeker, and allow revelation to come by other means, on the revealer's terms. And this so-called atheist may find that such a belligerent and steeley pose is really made of mush when the time comes.

    Yours,
    Rus

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  58. One of the bad parts about being an atheist is that we don't get to say, "Told you so!" when we are proved to be right.

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  59. Hi Rus

    Thank you for the thoughtful exploration of what Matt 21.28-32 might be all about.

    I've only just clicked back here, having been mega-busy since my original post until this moment. Here's hoping you, and perhaps a few others, get to see this.

    One of the things I was trying to do, hopefully in not too heavy a manner, was to remind people that the term 'God' has had amazingly different referents in history. Just saying we believe in God means pretty much nothing. The ignorance is in and all around us, every one, not just the self-styled agnostics. We all dunno about such so much.

    However, one thing one can say, and that is that one person in history has had this outstanding magnetic force towards other human beings of vastly different cultures. And traditional Christian teaching is that Jesus of Nazareth is God. Not just close to or pointing to the reality - He was and is the reality himself.

    This is such a radical claim - and the implications are so great and so unnerving - that it's much easier to cop out and get into the power games you quite rightly see both in the original passage and in much of church history.

    So, I'm not interested in whether there's a God.

    I'm interested in what God is like. That's the hypothesis that makes a difference.

    If God is exactly like Jesus, if he and Jesus have a relationship of love so close that the only way we can talk about them - inadequately but meaningfully - is as perfect father and son ... then that's one thing.

    If God is the Allah of the Koran and Issa (Jesus) and Mohammed (and others) are his prophets ... well, it sounds pretty similar but it is in fact enormously different.

    If God is the god of the deists around the time of Voltaire and co ... incredibly different again.

    It must be a hard job being an atheist having to track all these possible meanings and entities and declaring that you are sure that not one of them exists!

    Agnosticism feels much more rational.

    But then (and this was my other point) I have nobody to whom to say "thank you" for the amazing experiences I have every day, as a extraordinarily-made, self-conscious being.

    I'm not just talking wish-fulfilment here. I'm talking downright ungratitude that leads to all kinds of other problems if I let it, to a choking, almost solipsistic darkness compared to peace, acceptance and light.

    It seems to be a fact of experience that the vast majority of mankind need this kind of balancing factor of our lives. Matthew Parris calls himself an atheist but he made the point much better than I could in The Times just after Christmas.

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  60. Hi Richard,

    I'm glad you're back.

    You say:

    If God is exactly like Jesus, if he and Jesus have a relationship of love so close that the only way we can talk about them - inadequately but meaningfully - is as perfect father and son ... then that's one thing.

    For all intents and purposes, this revelation may be enough, or all we can know. For Christians, Jesus represents God, or is at least the entire light at the window through which we can encounter God. And he has a personality that we can know and relate to.

    Billy Graham tells the story of a missionary, and I cannot recall if it was Graham himself. But the missionary went to a remote region of the Orient, and encountered a man, and told him of Jesus. The teachings of Christianity had never reached this region before, but the man recognized Jesus, and said he had had a relationship with him for some time.

    If I recall, this tale is told as in response to whether a person absolutely must have read the Bible and followed its teachings in order to be "Christian" or saved as they say. What about those who never heard of the Bible or Christianity? The answer here from this missionary tale, is that there is a way, that has to do with prayer and spiritual encounter, or mystic experience.

    Another practical application of such a yarn goes further. It indicates that there is a universal spirituality that applies to Christian scripture. This spirituality, of which Jesus is an embodiment of, is also what drives mystics and truth seekers everywhere.

    When Jesus says that nobody gets to heaven but by "me", that is where we each must start, with our own "me"--and I say that as if we must go to our own spirituality. These truths are not in the physical world, or not there without spiritual sight, and yet they are there for all, with or without a Bible or Koran, or any of the Sutras and so forth. The simplest inward turning that we know is prayer, and this is a door through which any seeker can go, with or without a Bible, and with or without an ism.

    Yours,
    Rus

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  61. Rus,

    The kind of reaction you remember Billy Graham describing is much more common in missionary work than some hardliners ever expected.

    I'd see it as the work of the Holy Spirit, who, as you may have heard, goes with Jesus and the Father in quite a special way!

    The God so revealed isn't I think wanting to be pinned down as much as his self-styled organisers on earth might feel is proper. On the other hand, He is enormous fun.

    Less fun are ideas the well-meaning take to be part of the Christendom package, such as eternal conscious torment for those who don't tick the necessary belief boxes. I mention that one because Bryan has done recently, albeit in the context of atheists claiming to have some enjoyment of sex. (Well I never.)

    Hell - a traditional part of how 'God' has been presented over many centuries, from Tertullian onwards, certainly. A necessary part of the picture, given the intelligent and compassionate love shown in Jesus ... I don't think so, nor do many otherwise very orthodox bible scholars these days.

    Each of these issues affects what 'God' means to us, even if we say we don't believe in Him or aren't sure.

    The only true answers for me are to be found in the face of Jesus Christ. As you may have gathered. Thanks again for the excellent responses.

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