Confession: Dogmata, Faith, Science, and Belief

I am a natural atheist. I was not raised in any particular faith tradition, and my earliest questions about religion and what it meant were often met by my parents with further questions rather than any answers. I came in the end to reject religion and belief in God in general because I could see no way to determine which of the conflicting views presented by the religions I knew about was correct. All of them seemed to claim that they were correct and the claims they made were incommensurable. I came to this understanding of the world at a very early age, and it seemed like a very natural and correct position to me. So much so that I recall very specifically being shocked a couple of times in my childhood that other kids hadn't come to the same conclusions. As early as the first grade I remember being taken aback when I was at friends houses and they said grace before a meal, or when someone that I thought was smart reacted strongly against some offhand remark I made about the stupidity of belief in God.

As I got older the battle became more pitched. In middle school I remember distinctly a strange moment when nearly an entire classroom of students I was in reacted strongly and negatively to the fact of evolution, mocking it as the belief that "we're just monkeys." This got worse in High School, when a brave teacher announced that evolution was a fact and that there would be no pandering to creationism in her classroom and several of my friends got in an uproar about it. This was baffling to me. I'd discovered Darwin and evolution in the third or fourth grade when I read a book about the voyage of the Beagle and an introduction to tOn the Origin of Species for young adults. Even at that age, the correctness and beauty of natural selection and the relatedness of species, the evolution of vertebrates, and the separation of animals into variously related classes and phyla depending on common ancestry was so obvious to me that it hardly seemed worth arguing about. The violence and vehemence with which my peers reacted to such a wonderful understanding of the world drove me even further away from the religious beliefs that their reactions were clearly rooted in. I became a militant atheist.

By the time I graduated from high school I had done the circuit of the big atheists. I'd read Nietzsche, Sartre, Russell, Marx, & Voltaire on the issue of god and found them convincing. After all, it could not be denied that churches and religions had done some truly terrible things throughout history. Moreover, as I grew into a wider appreciation of the world, it became clear that much of the opposition to political and moral positions that I felt strongly about were almost inevitably grounded in some wild religious dogma. From the Pro-Life movement to the crazy conservative Christians who felt oppressed in a society in which the vast majority of people were their co-religionists and who insisted on making me say "under god" in the pledge of allegiance (a practice I gave up in Kindergarten, remaining silent on those lines), it seemed every time I ran into some idiotic and amoral political position whereby some group of people was trying to assert their correctness and thereby delegitimize the beliefs of everyone else, that position was inevitably a result of some religious belief, and most often espoused by a Christian. At eighteen, it would be fair to say that I felt nothing but disdain for Christians, with the bulk of my ire directed toward the fundamentalist, literalist, and creationist versions of it. My disgust with religion was really only leavened slightly when it came to other faiths, although the Buddhist non-theistic faith aimed so fundamentally at the elimination of suffering was something that I respected, and the practicality and esotericism of Taoist philosophy also made some sense, at least in comparison to ideas as goofy as literal Biblical creation.

All of this history, I think, makes an important point. Far from being disillusioned with religion, my encounters with it were of a character where believers by their expressions of their religiosity and through their adherence to dogmata pushed me away from them and the faith that they thought was so important. Far from their avowed creed of having an apostolic mission to bring the faith in Christ to the world, every time I ran into a Christian, I felt like I was in an uphill fight against a sanctimonious jerk who insisted that I come to him rather than try to bring his faith to me. That struck me, based on what I knew of religion, as a decidedly unChristian attitude. But I'm a scrapper and I decided fairly early on that if that was how it was going to be for an atheist in a world of believers, I needed to be able to fight them on their own terms. So at probably the age of 16 or 17 I started reading the Bible systematically. What I discovered was pretty amazing.

What amazed me was that this book which was supposedly the holy word of God written by prophets directly to mankind was something that Christians didn't really bother to read all the way through. I knew this had to be the case because large swaths of it, particularly early on, are almost entirely incoherent. The same stories get told and then retold in slightly different ways. Something said at one point will be contradicted later. And throughout much of the Pentateuch at least the almighty, praiseworthy, and wise God who "is love" behaves like a petulant child, repeatedly flying into temper tantrums and committing horrible atrocities because humans, who he gave free will, don't do what he wants them to do. I didn't see much that was deserving of worship, and was a bit baffled that anybody would think otherwise. More problematic was all the nasty stuff God's favorites did to other people, sometimes even in their own families, out of naked grabs for power. The whole story of the founding of the house of Israel is the type of myth myth about a jealous mother showing favoritism for one child over that of another wife which is common to polygamous societies, and of the spoiled favorite child winning out unjustly through being a conniving dick. And this is who God picked to father his "chosen people."

The New Testament doesn't come out much better. Bear in mind that at the time the extent of my exposure to theology was of the evangelical born-again variety, guys like Kirk Cameron whose infantile understanding of the Christian message is that by saying a few magic words you are cleansed of sin and receive a "get out of hell free card," and that it doesn't matter how good a person you are, God really only cares about the magic words. These are people who apparently haven't read the Letter from James the Just, wherein the Pillar of the Early Church in Jerusalem plainly rejects the idea that forms the core of these people's understanding of their faith that salvation comes through faith and faith alone, not good works.

It really is a fascinating book, the Bible, and there is a richness and texture to it that is largely unique. And some of it is strikingly beautiful. Ecclesiastes, the original statement of the postmodern view that "there is nothing new under the sun" (rendering postmodernism itself postmodern), is a moving and gorgeous bit of true poetry, particularly in the King James translation. Song of Songs comes closer than anything I've read, with the possible exception of Love in the Time of Cholera, to describing the agony and beauty of true romantic love. Jeremiah, the original pissed off radical, encapsulates beautifully the rage that all right thinking people feel at their fellows who are so content to live in an unjust, imperfect, and fallen world and who do nothing to make the world the place that it could be. Some of the Psalms are gorgeous. The Sermon on the Mount, another bit of the new testament all of these so-called Christians who are always trying to make us pray in public don't seem to have read, is as close to a completely correct statement of how to live a moral and just life as anything I've encountered.

But of course, that really has to be contrasted with some of the real drudgery and stupidity also present in the book. Very little in my life has been as tedious as working my way through Leviticus, Deuteronomy, The Letters to the Romans and the Ephesians, or Isaiah. Daniel and John the Revelator were clearly on drugs. And some of the stuff that the book asks you to swallow about itself, such as that Moses wrote a story that describes his own death, is frankly just dumb. What is clear though is that there is more going on in this book than the dogmatic "revealed truth of Gods words penned inerrantly by his chosen prophets" idea allows for. So I dug deeper. To my surprise there was a group of Biblical scholars who had been teasing this stuff out for a couple hundred years, and were firmly convinced that not only was a lot of the Bible just plain make-believe, but that most of the books which claimed to be by this or that authoritative author weren't by that person at all, and sometimes weren't even originally single books but had been pieced together from earlier texts and redacted into their current form. These ideas, primarily the documentary hypothesis about the pentateuch, which deconstructs the five books of the Torah plus Joshua into four or so pre-existing source texts now lost, and the Q hypothesis about the synoptic gospels which assumes an earlier collection of sayings that the writers of Matthew and Luke, and possibly Mark, relied on in writing their stories about Jesus, frankly shocked the hell out of me. Primarily because the people who believed this stuff were themselves religious believers like John Dominic Crossan or Robert Funk. For years I found the fact that people could know that many of the writers and editors of the "sacred" scriptures were largely just making shit up for political reasons and still believe in God utterly baffling. Still more, I couldn't understand why more Christians didn't know this stuff. I mean, if I genuinely believed that I held in my hand the revealed word of the omnipotent and all loving creator of the universe, I would want to know absolutely everything I could find out about that book, and I probably wouldn't stop until I'd got to the point that I could read it in the original languages so I didn't have to rely on translators to get at the meat of the thing. And yet here I was, an atheist and decidedly so, and apparently taking this book and what it claims much more seriously than the people who see it as an answer to every important question that can be asked about life. If you think about it, I think you'll agree that's sort of mind boggling.

Still, as time went on, I found it difficult to maintain that sort of absolutism. For one thing, it's undeniable that religion has for many many people been a great source of comfort and solace. And the vast majority of the most humane and righteous developments in history, from the abolition of slavery and the opposition to european colonialism to the earliest movements to prevent war and end hunger and poverty in the world have all grown out of expressly religious movements. It's difficult to ignore the examples of John Brown, Martin Luther King, Gandhi, the radical pacifism and egalitarianism of the early Quakers, and other such examples. And once you acknowledge that for all the bad it's done, religion has accomplished great good as well, it's no longer possible to maintain a real hostility to it in general. Whatever opposition I felt, if I am intellectually honest, must be necessarily particular.

And once you start thinking about particular complaints about the metaphysical and epistemological positions of religion, it's very difficult to not put everything under that microscope. Again, this is a necessary consequence of trying to have an honest and consistent worldview. And what I found in doing that was that the metaphysical beliefs I did have, and they're very difficult not to have in some form, didn't hold up much better than the notion of God. The early cracks started to appear when I started my second Bachelor's degree in Philosophy and had the good fortune to, on a whim, take an upper level course with the Philosopher Arthur Fine tracking the historical development of the scientific notions of space, time and motion from Aristotle through to present relativistic conceptions. As part of the class, Fine had us read Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions about which he opined that no one should be given an undergraduate degree without having read it. I'm inclined to agree.

One of the great joys of my life has been on the occasions when I have been able to interact with a subtle and brilliant thinker wrestling with matters on which they are an undoubted expert. Fine is such a thinker, and my encounter with him shook many of my previously held beliefs at their foundations. In laying out the history of scientific thinking on space, time, and motion, Fine made the case in great detail for the philosophical position known as anti-realism. Exactly how anti-realism works is not particularly important, except to note that it's a very difficult to overcome challenge to the claims of science to get at the grounds of reality. Fine's own answer to this problem, the famous neo-pragmatic position known as the natural ontological attitude, which he staked out in the eighties in various papers as well as in his seminal work on Einstein and philosophy, basically holds that there's a point at which science has to stop asking questions because it's crossing over into the realm of metaphysics, about which he famously once quipped that doing metaphysics is like having a protracted series of small strokes. Fine's work followed from the previous generation of philosophers of science of which Kuhn was one, who challenged the notion of the previous generation, most notably Karl Popper and the logical positivism of The Vienna Circle, that science works at establishing truth because of its objective method. Writers like Kuhn as well as Paul Feyerabend decided to take the empirical claims of scientific realists at face value and turn the lens of science on science itself. The result is a crisis about the foundations of science which is still unresolved but of which, again, many of the adherents to scientific materialist beliefs seem blissfully unaware. Kuhn showed, through a variety of examples, most notably the incommensurability of certain aspects of Newtonian physics with both quantum mechanics and relativity, that in fact what scientists claimed they were doing, gradually through experiment and refinement approaching an ever greater approximation of truth, was not what they were doing at all. In fact, Kuhn showed, that scientists by and large adhere to a paradigm that describes the world and work largely within that paradigm until something happens which causes a crisis for that paradigm and the whole thing is thrown out the window in favor of trying to find a new model within which to work. He coined the term "paradigm shift" to describe this process, and in reading his description of it, like Darwin it resonated with me with such obviousness and clarity that I find it difficult to even challenge. Feyerabend took this notion even further, going so far as to claim that pretensions to objective method were counterproductive and hold that scientists should employ a sort of "epistemological anarchy" drawing challenges and alternate theories to prevailing views from whatever sources are available, including pseudoscience and religious fundamentalists, because doing so can only help their work.

Here, tho, as with my encounter with Darwin, I was again shocked to discover that there are people in the world who react in a violently negative manner to these sorts of claims. They are much fewer in number than are the creationists who can't stomach the idea that there may have been a chimpanzee like creature in their family tree a couple of million years ago, but their dogmatic reaction is no less intense for all their limited population. The fact that a good number of them have PhDs in hard sciences of one sort or another makes their adherence to dogmata all the more perplexing. The dogmata which I am referring to is something that I think is best described as scientific materialism.

Scientific materialism is a world view that encompasses a metaphysical and an epistemological claim. The epistemological claim is pretty straightforward, and it is that science is the best means to come to an understanding of how matter in its various states and forms behaves. As far as that goes, it's not particularly troubling. It could well be right, and if it's wrong, it doesn't really make a difference because either way we still reap the benefits of scientific knowledge in new ideas and technologies and in providing for the human appetite for discovery which is science's real value, no matter what people say about its value as a theory of knowledge. The metaphysical claim, however, is a troubling one that manages to undercut everything that Scientific Materialists believe, and yet they cling to it with a rigid determination that to me looks an awful lot like religious fundamentalism. The metaphysical claim is that monism is true and that all substance is either matter or some sort of amalgam of matter and energy. This idea is absolutely inane, but to show why we need to take a detour through Wittgenstein country.

My disillusionment with science as the final answer to questions about reality didn't come right away. I had problems with it, but I wasn't yet sure that, to paraphrase Nietzsche, "Science is Dead." The philosopher who underscored that point for me and put great big neon lights around its tombstone was Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Wittgenstein, or Uncle Ludwig as I tend to affectionately refer to him, was the most important philosopher of the last 300 years. Not since probably Francis Bacon or René Descartes has a thinker of such monumental importance emerged, and the breadth of his impact is probably still a wave that is developing in philosophy the full manifestation of which may not emerge for another generation or two. I am of course a bit biased on this point as Wittgenstein is the one area of philosophy (and it's telling that Wittgenstein is a singular "area of philosophy" in a way that only a few other philosophers like Kant and Aristotle are) where I feel sufficiently well versed to go toe to toe with anyone. Wittgenstein is a complicated philosopher who is extremely difficult to grasp and that requires a lot of intensive close reading to fully come to grips with. That said, the fundamental insight of Wittgenstein's thought is remarkably simple to state: 1. There are limits to what language is able to express, 2. there is more to the world than what can be meaningfully talked about, and 3. the stuff we can't talk about is probably the most important aspect of human life. As simple as those ideas are, however, their repercussions are far reaching and more importantly the reasons that he held those things to be true themselves have far reaching repercussions.

Most germane to this stuff about belief is that, at least on most interpretations, Wittgenstein denied that language about metaphysical topics was meaningful. What that means is, essentially, not that metaphysical claims (like "I have free will" "The substance of the world is dual: spirit and matter" "all that exists is material" or "there is no god") are all false. Because a false statement has a meaning. The sentence "I own a cat" is false. I don't own a cat. In fact I don't get along with the species well at all. But even though it is false, the sentence is still meaningful. In fact, what Wittgenstein demonstrated and that too few philosophers have yet to grasp is that a sentence must first be meaningful in order for it to be a proposition that can be held to be either true or false. Therefore if metaphysical sentences like "God does not exist" or "the world is composed solely of matter" aren't meaningful, then you can't say that they are true or false. They are simply meaningless, and that's the end of it. This is a limit of language. I don't want to go into a full argument for how this aspect of metaphysical sentences falls out of Wittgenstein's views on how language works. This is a more personal story than that, and it's really a quite long and technical argument that's difficult to make without recourse to symbolic predicate logic. What matters for my purposes here is that my reading of Wittgenstein convinced me of his correctness on that point, and many others. And once you jettison metaphysical language, there's an awful lot of stuff that people say about science that immediately becomes suspect.

Not the least of which is that the epistemological claim of scientific materialism can't support the metaphysical claim. Metaphysics by definition is the aspect of the world that lies behind and beyond the physical, and the physical world of empirical observation and bodies in space is all that scientific investigation has access to. Therefore if science is the only means by which we can get at truth, science can't possibly say anything about metaphysics and therefore by its own lights the scientific materialist view is incoherent. Or to put it another way, for a scientific materialist, metaphysical statements can't be meaningful. Since meaningless statements can't be true or false, neither can the claim that the substance of the world is only matter because it is a metaphysical claim. Again, this is only a sketch of the argument and I'm not really interested in proving it, just to describe my own changing beliefs. What matters is that my rejection then of scientific materialism rendered some of the specific claims of scientific materialism, that there is no god, no free will, and no objective moral goodness equally untenable. Of course, the attempt to go beyond that to make specific claims that there is a god, that we are free, and that there is such a thing as goodness in an ultimate and objective metaphysical sense is equally problematic. All I was left with was a sort of null. An absence of the ability to take a position. Which is where the third part of Wittgenstein's thought comes into play, partially by way of Martin Heidegger, and partially under the influence of William James.

Wittgenstein knew and read James and engaged with his thought directly in the Philosophical Investigations, but one of the great misfortunes of 20th century philosophy was that the political and social situation in Europe during their lives prevented a greater exchange between Heidegger and Wittgenstein. In many ways Wittgenstein and Heidegger were coming at the same issue of philosophy but from radically different directions. Both came to the conclusion fairly early in their careers that philosophy had gone fundamentally awry and was obsessing over irrelevant minutiae. But where Wittgenstein perceived this, correctly I think, as a failure of philosophers to recognize the limits of language, Heidegger saw in the absence of a way to talk about the fundamental issue of philosophy an area into which language could be extended. In many ways, both philosophers were trying to get at the problem of describing and accounting for the experience of being in the world. For Wittgenstein, where this was an abyss beyond which was a mystical and indescribable experience that language was incapable of addressing. Heidegger by contrast, set about erecting a systematic scaffolding of new language and grammar to talk about beingness, the phenomenon of being an embodied person always already in and of the world. To a certain extent he was successful. Much of what he says about Dasein, the being that recognizes its own beingness i.e. people, in his famous work Being and Time are things that I think Wittgenstein would have found interesting and insightful, a useful and meaningful extension of language. By the same token, however, Heidegger in particular in his grappling with time and the ontological grounding of metaphysics would have benefitted greatly from Wittgenstein's admonishments to be wary of bewitchment by language. There are moments when I think he has clearly gone astray and is just talking nonsense.

But the fundamental issue, that is the inadequacy of a certain rational, objective attempt to capture in language the experience of being in the world, or to put it another way what it means to be a human being, is apt and common to both philosophers. And it is also the great failing of empiricism and the science that is founded on it. The objective observation of embodied subjective experience is an inherently contradictory endeavor. The minute you step back from subjective experience and try to describe it, you are no longer doing that which you are trying to observe. Heidegger's attempt to capture this through extending language into the realm of the strange and incomprehensible and Wittgenstein's patent refusal to accept that it was even doable define the boundaries of a fundamental problem that any attempt to describe this phenomena of being in the world will inevitably fall short. The example of cognitive science is probably the most telling here. The reduction to the physicality of brain function of consciousness is never anything but a description of something physical happening, but it can't ever get at what it feels like in the being in which it is happening for that thing to be happening.

This is most real for me in my experiences of having loved and having been broken hearted. The cognitive science description of these feelings which reductively relies on the observed behavior of neurotransmitters and the firing of neurons in certain ways is perfectly accurate and acceptable so far as it goes, but all it is describing is the outwardly observable mechanics of the experience. It is no more a satisfying explanation of the experience of embodied consciousness and emotional elation and pain than a mathematical model of a combustion engine firing rapidly captures the experience of driving at high speeds. There is something left out of this modeling which is the absolute incontrovertible experience of being in such a state which no amount of description can describe, because what is being described is absolutely different from the thing that we want most to understand. Here again the ability of a certain kind of explanatory or descriptive language to explain or describe comes to an end. This is what Wittgenstein meant by the limits of language.

More than that though, is the fact that at some point I developed a habit of playing chicken with Nietzsche's Abyss. As melodramatic as that sounds it basically means spending a lot of time laying on my back and staring at the stars or the sea or the desert whenever possible. An unexpected consequence of such flirtations with the void is that I inadvertently have found myself having a number of what most people would describe as a religious experience, by which I sensed the weight and meaning of my place in the cosmos, the sheer beauty inherent in the vastness of the universe, and the overwhelming sensation that I was not only part of it but a participant in it. It's a feeling that is at once profound and terrifying and is an encounter with this sense of being a part of this sublime machine while at the same time recognizing the absolute uniqueness of my particularity and agency in it that I have defaulted to calling the divine for lack of a better word, because I think, although I can't really know, that the presence of this awesome web of existence as it pours itself forward through time is, at least in part, what a lot of people mean by God.

So where then does the natural atheist who doesn't believe in even the possibility of saying something meaningful about metaphysical reality go when he encounters God? This is the question that I have been struggling with for some time and has led me to turn, of all places, to theology in order to try to come to terms with my own experience of being in the world. Again, the moment of being shocked by the obviousness of much of what I found came. Because far from the straw-men of faith that so many of the atheists I know and have read get an adolescent thrill from eviscerating, I found in Baruch Spinoza, Soren Kierkegaard, and Alfred North Whitehead a reflection of my own struggles with religion in the mirror of faith. More than that tho, I found a great and humane empathy and a revitalizing hope for a better future more present in this work than in anything I had read elsewhere. More importantly though, these were theists whose problems with certain aspects of Judaeo-Christian Dogmata ran even deeper and wider than my own problems. And yet they had faith and if anything I find my own encounters with divinity to be nothing if not fleeting, confusing, and frustrating. Because for all the wonder one can find breaking down in tears about the overwhelming beauty of, say, Puget Sound or Mt Rainier on a warm spring day feeling nothing but grateful that even such fleeting and impermanent experiences of such marvelous things are available to us, there is also ever present in the encounter the crushing despair of an undeniable reminder of our own impermanence and insignificance on a cosmic scale. I remain amazed that anyone, myself included, is even able to function after contemplating the vast distances of interstellar space and the epic spans of time since the beginning of the universe in comparison to the terrible smallness and mediocrity of our own small piece of time and space. It is such thoughts that still makes me turn up my nose at flaccid platitudes like "God loves us all" or "What would Jesus do?" Mere sloganeering is an inadequate response to the terror that any thinking being must feel when finally burdened with his or her own cosmic insignificance made all the more acute the more he or she understands of the sciences of Astronomy, Geology, Biology, and Cosmology.

It was inevitable, I suppose, that all of this would lead me to turn to the modern debate between current theology and the so-called New Atheism movement which has, in its pervasive smugness, made me reject even more the scientific materialism on which such shallow atheism is based. I say this because I believe in a secular understanding of goodness and morality rooted firmly in humankind's need for community and the strength with which we infuse our life with stories of the empathetic, the just, and the kind. These things are real and observable and I don't think that acknowledging their existence and reality necessitates any particular religious commitments beyond recognizing the great acts of generosity and grace that we as a species are capable of. Nor do I think that the fact that we are also capable of monstrous horrors like genocide or slavery detracts at all from the fact of the goodness that we all have the power to participate in. On the contrary, I take hope from the fact that civilization has progressed to the point where all the people of the world can come together to agree to something like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a grand symbol that not only are we capable of great compassion embodied in such attempts to make the world more just for the weakest among us, but we are also getting better at it over time as a species. To be sure we are far from perfection, but remind yourself that the Sainted author of Utopia burned dozens of heretics at the stake for Henry VIII a mere four hundred years ago, and that the previous thousand years of history in europe is little more than the jockeying of petty thugs for economic advantages gained from the control of ever greater tracts of land, and then compare that fifteen hundred years against the entire million year span of human existence and I think it's quite clear that we've come a long way.

And it is this basic decency and respect for the dignity and shared humanity of our fellows that maybe isn't inherent in people but that in a sense is an inalienable possibility that comes to us as a birthright that makes the cynical, sarcastic, and smug anti-religious attitude of the New Atheism so alienating to me. Certainly, in my life I have been prone to bouts of misanthropy and disgust with our species. I have said unkind things and been cruel to people I love. I am far from perfect. But I have it in me to be better, as does everyone, and for many the path to being better is through religious faith with the divine, and frankly the desire to strip that from people disgusts me. Moreover, it has become ever more clear to me that folks like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, for all their brilliance both as writers and the understandable righteous fury that they feel for the wrongs done in the name of God, are in large part tilting at windmills. The point is made better than I can make it by theologian John Haught in his slim book God and The New Atheists. Haught is a Catholic theologian at Georgetown who has written extensively on evolution and religion, and he's also a wonderfully gracious and accommodating man. After I read God and the New Atheists I sent him an email asking some questions about how he felt the issue of theodicy (aka the problem of evil, or "how can a perfectly good God allow so much terrible suffering in his creation") fit into his theology which is heavily informed both by Darwin and by the Jesuit geologist Pierre Teillhard de Jardin. Not only did he write back, but he offered to speak to me on the phone so we could talk about the questions in detail, an act that I can only see as an gesture of kindness to a stranger that couldn't help but have been informed by his faith. And it is such acts that have made me reevaluate my own position with respect to religion.

I am a natural atheist. But I am also committed to living an honest and authentic life and today I find myself a man who can no longer deny the existence of God. I don't know what that makes me, because I can't affirm it either, nor can I say that the existence of God is unknowable. But maybe that's sort of the point. I came up with the notion of experimental theology as a sort of in joke for myself, but as time has gone by, I've found that it's much more than that. Experimental Theology is a practice of trying out various religious rituals trying to be as open minded about them as possible in an attempt to learn more about how people understand the divine and its relationship to human acts gesturing in its direction. In pursuit of this I've dabbled in the occult, chanted the rosary, practiced zazen and studied koans, twirled about my living room trying to be one with god like a sufi dervish and knelt in humble prayer and asked God to forgive me and lift my burdens. The results have been mixed, but I can't report that these various ritualized practices have had no results at all. At times I've felt the weight of the world lifted from me by a divine something infused with loneliness and good faith. Other times, there has been a resounding silence. In the end, I have come to think that in all the years I spent as a militant atheist were hardly wasted on an incorrect world view. Rather, I just had the wrong target, and really it was not the notion of god but the dogmata surrounding his praise and worship.

Dogma is a word that gets bandied about quite a bit, and I sometimes think that people don't really know what it means. Essentially a dogma is a belief that cannot be doubted. From this it has gained a negative connotation as it's often been applied to people who are just stubbornly refusing to see reason. But just because something isn't doubted by a given person or group doesn't mean it is actually undoubtable. More to the point, things have gotten so bad that I think some people actually use the word to mean "unfounded yet stubbornly insisted on." Which isn't the sort of belief that I'm talking about at all. What I'm actually referring to are what Wittgenstein referred to in On Certainty as "hinge" propositions. A hinge proposition is, in Wittgenstein's view, a belief that a person holds so strongly and is so certain of that no contrary evidence could be well grounded enough to disprove it. This is my understanding of what dogmata are, and the fact of the matter is that we all have many of these beliefs. Some of them are quite simple grammatical truths like believing that people call you by a certain name. Others are more complicated but equally potent, like the belief we all share that gravity won't suddenly weaken and the earth's atmosphere will atomize into outer space. In a case like that, it's almost difficult to imagine doubting, for example, that people really do call me "Jason." But there are other beliefs that take on a certain character of dogma that we certainly treat as dogmatic, but which are in fact quite open to being challenged. Call them pseudodogmata. I think religious beliefs, for many people, are psuedodogmatic in this way. And I think beliefs like these in the correctness and absoluteness of science and reason that people are referring to when they say things like "atheism and science are just another religion." And that's because we treat these things as dogmas, no matter how much the scientific materialists insist on the purity of their skepticism, none of them really truly disbelieves that their bodies might spontaneously devolve into a puddle of marrow bone jelly and liquid methane. The reason that we treat them as dogmas is not because of their surety. In fact, the unsteadiness of them as principles is almost always universal. But rather, we treat them as certain because they fulfill a key role in how we make sense of the world and our own place in it. Giving up on them would require us to completely abandon our entire understanding of our whole lives. That prospect is terrifying, and rightly so, and is probably universal to the human experience. At the same time, despite its obviousness, this realization about the crucial role of pseudodogmata in our lives came to me as an epiphany.

The undiscovered country beyond that epiphany is where I am now, I think. Because once I recognized pseudodogmata for what they were, it became very difficult for me to want to take them away from anyone. I've caused myself enough misery and mental conflict in working through my doubts about my own pseudodogmata that the notion of trying to force that experience on someone else has become a sort of evil in my mind. Which, in itself has lead me to a sort of radical pluralism as regards faith and ideology. While I think that we as a society can, indeed must, have an open and frank dialog about morality, must disagree and debate and attempt to persuade on issues of right and wrong and in so doing we may be forced to attack the theoretical underpinnings of the beliefs of others, that must always be a nuclear option held out as a last resort. Because the truth here, and the truth that can be found in all humanity, is plural. What satisfies me and gives me my place in the world, my experience of the divine, as almost certainly different from what a devout Catholic like Haught finds in his relationship with a personal God, or that a convinced atheist like Carl Sagan found in his wonder at the natural world. But it gives me solace, and I am learning to have faith in it, and it is my truth so far as that goes. And because it is a necessarily private truth, there is no contradiction in different private people finding a different way of relating to that ineffable something of the universe that sits above, and beyond, and behind it all. Whether that something is faith in Science, faith in Christ, faith in the release from suffering that the Buddha promises, or a merely finding joy and solace in the poetic impossibility of pure being, all of these things belong to us. They are true because while doubting them for ourselves, wrestling with them as Jacob wrestled with God, is probably an important aspect of having a mature understanding of these things that mean so much to us, accepting them or rejecting them is solely within our power to do. There is nothing that anyone else can say about such convictions to make us abandon them. We know our own doubts much better and more clearly see the cracks in our faith than any other person ever could, and because these things are such cherished possessions is it any wonder that we react harshly, even violently, against those people who challenge them? And again, I'll note that violence and internecine strife are elements of morality, a secular and objectively real realm of debate that doesn't necessarily require challenging the pseudodogmata of an opponent to challenge. And certainly there may be people who in their radicalized ideologies make pseudodogmata out of incorrect ethical positions, such as the idea that abortion is wrong or that women should be made to wear burkas, or that one group or another has a right to control the real estate in gaza to the exclusion of all other groups. The violent reactions that come from such ideas are as predictable as they are tragic.

But Christopher Hitchens and other such militant atheists are wrong to attribute this sort of thing to religion. It is rather a plague on humanity that is all too understandable and is omnipresent in our interactions. While scientific materialism, to its credit, has yet to produce many such radical nut cases, although the eugenics movement and Ted Kaczinski are possible examples of such, that's probably just because it hasn't been around all that long. It has been less than two hundred years since Darwin's theory of evolution Charles Lyell's geological uniformitarianism have given scientific materialism its creation myth, and less than one hundred years since Georges Lemaitre's development of the Big Bang Theory gave scientific materialists a story to help understand where the universe came from. At the same point in the timeline of Christianity the Bible hadn't even been canonized, the early church fathers were still bickering with each other and getting excommunicated over whether Christ, God, and the Holy Spirit were one thing or three things, and all of them were doing their best to avoid pissing off Rome too much and getting fed to lions at the pagan equivalent of the Super Bowl for their trouble. This point South Park made quite eloquently in their parody of Richard Dawkins: no group of people will ever have a monopoly on assholes, no matter what ideology rules the day no doubt someone will come along and use it as a reason to be a dick.

In the end then, I think that maybe that's all you can say about life, the universe and everything. We should never forget that, in the words of the revolutionaries that populated Terry Gilliam's Brazil, we're all in this together. Goodness is there to be had, and we should do our best to strive for it. Evil is out there too, it will never make any sense, and all we can do about it is try to agree about what it is and work against it where we find it. We'll never really be able to say the things that are most important, but maybe if we stop trying to be right and spend a little more time trying to understand where other people are coming from, we may be able to make ourselves more whole in the process. That sounds like some hippy bullshit, and I'll forgive you for thinking that, but I don't know how to go on otherwise. At some point, an investigation like this reaches an end, beyond which we can go no further. This, for now, is where I stop. These conclusions are trite and have been said before. There is nothing new under the sun. I might as well say that everybody should be good as much as possible and try not to ever be evil. But there's a sense in which that statement is inherent in the meaning of the words "good" and "evil." And this is the problem of trying to get at all of this. Maybe the most important idea that I'm trying to express here is that it's been a profound paradigm shift for me to go through my own pseudodogmata and question their real value, and in doing so I think I have become a better, more compassionate, and kinder person. And as such, it's something I'd recommend for everyone. I think also I may have finally hit on the real wisdom of Jesus's prayer for "forgiveness as we forgive those who trespass against us" because in recognizing the soup of belief and life experience that exists in all people and underlies their motivations for what they do, we can come to see a being very much like ourselves. And in forgiving that being in its confusion, pain, and error, we can forgive ourselves for our own failings and in doing so move toward making the world a little more fair, a little more just, and all of us a little less alone in the endless chaos of it all.

Comments

I think I need to read that again...

OK... so i didn't really get through the whole thing without skimming through large chunks, it's early, my brain isn't fully working, and I don't have nearly the academic background on the subject that you do. But I'll add my thoughts anyway...

Religion has always struck me as coming from 2 roots. First, it is there to explain. Where do rainbows come from?... It's gods way of saying he will never flood the earth again. Secondly, it is there to dictate behavior. You use the same basic tools for long enough and you are bound to end up with both contradictions and people who defend the tools to the death. In the modern educated world it would make sense that we can understand why we should not steal, why we should take care of the poor, and all the other ethical dictations of religion. However many will still sit and say that without the bible we have no moral grounding, as if we cannot tell what is right and what is wrong without being told so. In the old day this may have held some truth. when people are struggling to live their concern is with themselves and then their family, not with the wider community. Even in todays world many educated individuals have trouble seing the world as a community, and want to protect the local country with trade barriers.

My second view is my own personal belief... which I consider hopeful agnostic. I have absolutely no reason to believe there is a god, yet I hope there is one. First, this hope is based in the obvious reunion with those that have died. Second the hope is based on the little piece in my head that cannot comprehend how many coincidences and chances needed to fall just right for the humans and the world to end up where we are. Not speaking of a creationism here, but rather if the universe is massive Rube Goldberg machine, or if key parts had influence to make sure that the right mutations occurred. the best scientific description of genetic mutations still comes down to randomness. I think that these thoughts are largely because I cannot comprehend being part of a massive structure of randomness. My final view of belief is that if there is a god, it would be compassionate and all accepting. It would not throw out 2/3s of the souls because they were not christian, or 1/6 because they were not muslim, or 1/2 because they were not abrahamic believers. And again, there is no founding for this belief beyond my own personal hopes.

Epic. But a fascinating read.

Epic. But a fascinating read. My only quibble is that you refer to Spinoza as a Christian (ahem).

oops. i meant

oops. i meant judaeo-christian. let me reword now.

Resonates with Tillich's account o faith as "ultimate concern."

Wonderfully frank, subtle, and informed. Thank you for sharing this account of your journey.

I'm wondering, have you read any Paul Tillich? I think that you'd find his understanding of faith as ultimate concern would resonate with your views on pseudodogmata and their role in life. Check out Dynamics of Faith, and I think you'll find out that a person can agree with you AND find room for that agreement within a frank, subtle, and informed Christian theology.

From what I see here, it would be exciting to see you interact with Tillich's thought.

I've read bits and pieces of

I've read bits and pieces of Tillich, and I have a lot of respect for what I have read. Unfortunately, I'm in law school right now and I don't have a lot of time for deep reading beyond the stuff I have to wrestle with for my classes. I hope at some point after I'm done with all this stuff I'm going to have a chance to sit down with Tillich's Systematic Theology and really get to grips with it. No doubt if that ever happens, there will be a huge outpouring of written material about it on WetAsphalt. So please stay tuned.