Goodenough Gismo

  • Gismo39
    This is the classic children's book, Goodenough Gismo, by Richmond I. Kelsey, published in 1948. Nearly unavailable in libraries and the collector's market, it is posted here with love as an "orphan work" so that it may be seen and appreciated -- and perhaps even republished, as it deserves to be. After you read this book, it won't surprise you to learn that Richmond Irwin Kelsey (1905-1987) was an accomplished artist, or that as Dick Kelsey, he was one of the great Disney art directors, breaking your heart with "Pinocchio," "Dumbo," and "Bambi."

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I agree with Sam Harris that religion should not be shielded from reason; however, the problem is that most people believe in God, or a variant thereof, because it feels true to them. Despite all the horrific things that may befall them or that they perceive, for many it is an unshakeable conviction. And so while I agree that many theologies are absurd and thus should be relinquished, this feeling has to dealt with properly. Furthermore, this feeling may extend beyond a mere sense that God exists. It may actually further entail, for instance, a belief that Christ and Mary are divine (or at least saintly). That there really is something special going on in that case. And even in pagan cases, I think in most religions, ancient and modern, people are really tapping into something that is going on. I've often wondered, since I believe that people may eventually rise to a whole new level of being and thus become Buddhas, whether or not the Buddhas may adopt the believers rather than vice versa. Say for instance, the Virgin mary, or Athena is not real. Perhaps, however, there are Buddhas with particular qualities that may match up with say, the divine mother, or with truth and justice. So that when one devotes oneself to any particular deity, some Buddha responds, provided that the request or qualities are beneficient. So while the Mount Olympus line is effective in harassing traditional monotheists, it may not stand up.

Now in dealing with this feeling, the impulse as I infer from the site, is to make reference to some supposedly neuroscientific seat of spiritual inclination. But everyone knows that the existence of such a seat does not prove anything one way or the other.

Or perhaps more plausibly that religious feelings stem from a need to feel secure, to feel happy, to reduce stress etc. And when you couple that with a fancy brain, you get all sorts of crazy theologies. That is one tack; however, not only do I think that is deflationary and depressing, I think it is disingenuous. I have known people, close friends, who have had such vivid and repeated spiritual experiences that believing that it was just neural anomaly requires a much larger leap of faith. In these cases, and in my own less amazing spiritual experiences, while it is possible to deny them, it just feels dishonest to do so. I feel that these atheists close their eyes to the evidence of the weird stuff that goes on.

(Remember that girl you mentioned who supposedly could affect the winds. As I've mentioned I've had close friends that confided in me that they could do such things. That by itself, I could ignore, and might rather ignore, but in my short life, I'm inclined to think that there may actually be more going on in these scenarios, for I have heard many other first-hand accounts of extremely weird phenomena.)

But the most serious challenge posed by the atheist is that of theodicy, i.e. reconciling an all-good God with a deeply imperfect world.

You mentioned a while back a priest friend of yours who responded to the question of, "Is God all-good or all-powerful?" with, "All-good of course."

I respond in the same vein but aim to go further. The basic feeling is that there has to be a very good reason for why evil is permitted if God does indeed exist. The problem is few have posited very convincing explanations. Here is my attempt.
I think the major problem here is that Western religions have a very limited evaluation of a person, a person doomed forever to sychophantic worship of a wholly other God.

If you make the move that humans are all Buddhas or saints in training, one can see that our purpose here is much greater. If all we were was just sycophantic worshipers, I would certainly expect a good God to provide much stronger limitations on how bad, bad can get. But since the goal of Buddhahood is so lofty, so amazing, free-will is absolutely necessary. Because the purpose is to learn, to gain mastery and this cannot be done if our free will is constrained. I also feel that somehow, somewhere that the earth as it presently is, is not the norm. For reasons I don't quite grasp, this world is, for lack of a better term, "fallen." Somehow or another, humans have forgotten their purpose and their destiny. Most think the idea of Buddhahood is laughable, for instance.

While that deals with the problem of human evil, natural evil is still a problem. My response is that there must be some linkage between consciousness and physical law and physical conditions. Meaning, that the natural disasters we experience are in some sense a reflection of humanity's lack of peace, lack of spiritual development, and that if the race were much more developed the weather itself would even be more pacific. I mean Jesus could supposedly control the winds and waves after all. It may sound crazy, but frankly most new ideas sound crazy until they're proven. Relativity for instance. At this point, these ideas have not been fully tested and there is plenty of room for suspicion. However, eastern mystical texts point to such miraculous results following training. At this point, scientists may demand that those so trained march into the laboratory. Perhaps, the world is not ready for such things at this time. It may be premature. That may just piss off the atheists and they may exclaim why should we believe it. All I could say is that you haven't disproven it, and why don't you try it yourselves, and maybe listen a little more. You might meet people who will challenge your rigid beliefs. And consider that these supposedly supernatural things could actually be reconciled with science. You guys don't have a complete theory of consciousness or of why we have the physical laws we do, do you? Although this doesn't prove anything, it does demonstrate that the atheist's claims are not as strong as they first might appear.

And again while this may sound far-fetched to some, to me, the only plausbile reason for evil, if God exists, is that there is a very good reason that God constrains himself, and so far traditional religions haven't been so successful. At least I'm trying.

Finally, if God intervened in every single case, we could never learn anything. Also, I think divine intervention is in proportion to our openness to it on every level, not just in an I-want sense, but in a sense of submission to the divine in every possible respect, mentally and emotionally. This would be part of the reason why Jesus was able to work his miracles, and why for instance God could not just knock the two planes out of the sky before they hit the twin towers. It involves laws and a metaphysics that are not yet fully understood, if they are even suspected.


Sorry for the length but how else can I give a big-smackdown to the atheists?



There are stories about Native American medicine men's ability to summon rain out of a clear blue sky.

I'm sure the atheists would say that's like my husband's devout belief in the (car) horn. If you honk it as soon as the light changes and then the traffic in front of you moves, obviously it was you blowing the horn that made them move -- not their own torpid awakening to the fact that the light had changed. There are no coincidences.

That's what the atheists would say. It was going to rain anyway. I'm not so sure.

Richard Lawrence Cohen

The problem of evil mainly troubles people whose idea of God is a Judeo-Christian one. I don't think it bothers Vedantists much. Personally I've never seen any evidence that the force that created this universe is all-good, or should be. Nor do I see evidence that that force is a person. But that doesn't mean that such a force does not exist.

By debunking the god of monotheistic religions, the atheists are attacking a straw man. Perhaps the use of the word "god" is the problem.

Mr. Gobley's response is wonderful -- thanks for the link to him.


Richard is very right that most atheistic arguments are primarily directed against the Western notion of God. However, optimist that I am, I really believe that the principle/force that is behind creation IS all-good. That jives with my own spiritual experiences, and I believe insistence on the goodness of the divine is a near universal mystical/theological assertion. Brahman is sat/cit/ananda: Being, awareness, and bliss. As such, despite rejecting the traditional Western God, evil is still a major issue I must resolve. To slightly amend what I said above, as crazy as it might first sound, I think that we actually do live in the best of all possible worlds. I think the divine is constrained by the laws of logic, and that the laws we have are the best we can have without having a contradiction. I don't mean that there aren't obvious improvements that can be made to the world. What I mean is that if we had other laws in place we would lose much more. For instance, a lot of problems would vanish if we were constrained to be good. But, I think, in a sense, we ARE aspects of God, and when we evolve so does God. If we were mere creations, God could not advance through us. And if we were mere automatons, we could never be enlightened beings. The sheer glory of one Buddha, even a lowly one, makes clear why the price of free will is worth it.

And a lot of problems would also vanish if the physical world were constrained to behave "properly." However, if that were the case, we might actually lose the capability to affect it. It's a biblical idea that man is to take dominion over the earth. So if consciousness and physical law were separate, we couldn't alter the laws to suit our purposes. This is similar to the idea that, as we are aspects of God, we will become co-creators with this divine force of which we are a part. If consciousness and physical law were separate, we could never learn to create. And in fact, most eastern esoteric teachings would say we already are creating, via our feelings, and thoughts. We are creating good and bad karma. So to knock out this source of evil, we would knock out our ability to create, or at least greatly curtail it, which many would say is why we are here in the first place. The idea being that to learn to create, we have to incarnate. We have to be acquainted with the material worlds.

So the idea is that every possible change to improve our world would actually kill something far more important.

Furthermore, and most importantly, the idea would be that the evil can be eradicated, if humans so elect. And to do so, we must gain self-mastery, which is indeed the point of our being here in the first place. Thus, this framework places evil squarely at the feet of humanity. Now the difficult question is, well, how do we explain snakes and predatory animals. Surely humanity was not here at that time. Well, the esoteric teachings have a much expanded view of history and of other levels. This is a point that is not clear to me but explanations are advanced.

Nonetheless, my basic conviction is that the universe is fundamentally maximally good and that it is within our power to eliminate evil such as it is, on earth, over time. I kind of think that when the veils are lifted, everyone including then-atheists, will be just in awe about how beautiful and wonderful and GOOD the cosmos really is. But since we sort of live in the cosmic slums and don't see the big picture, it's very hard for us to see that.

The problem of evil is all tied up in the fact that people don't know why we're here. It's like we've been sent on a mission and don't really remember what that was. Without understanding that, it's easy to get pissed and wonder why everything isn't like the Hilton.

Tom Strong

Well, Michael Reynolds and Chris Hallquist don't seem to be chiming in, so I guess it will fall to me to defend the atheists. What a mercenary I am.

First of all, to Richard: Judeo-Christians are the majority, especially in the Western hemisphere. The idea of a personal, anthropomorphic, and entirely good AND powerful god remains very popular. As such, I fail to see how Mr. Harris is attacking a straw man.

To Adam: Consider for a moment the image of Mr. Harris as a bodhisattva. There is a lot in his essay that carries the pang of intense spirituality (I hate that word, but I'll descend to using it here). For instance:

Only the atheist is compassionate enough to take the profundity of the world’s suffering at face value.

Get beyond the egotism of that statement - and it is egotistical, but I know you're a guy who counsels egotism at times - and you find an immense concern for connection, for meaning, for existence itself. Does belief in God deepen that concern? Does it heighten those connections?

I've called myself a "mystical atheist" here recently. Part of the reason I did so is because I think belief or disbelief in God is a relatively unimportant matter - that it doesn't even mean what most people think it means.

A few weeks ago, Seth Chalmer posted a marvelous quote on his blog that for me, contains the core of all "spiritual" truth.:

Wonder or radical amazement is the chief characteristic of the religious man's attitude... To find an approximate cause of a phenomenon is no answer to his ultimate wonder. He knows that there are laws that regulate the course of natural processes; he is aware of the regularity and pattern of things. However, such knowledge fails to mitigate his sense of perpetual surprise at the fact that there are facts at all...

If you believe that wonder really is the chief characteristic of the religious man's attitude, I don't see why God is necessary, even from a mystical perspective. As an atheist, I have discovered far more wonder in my existence than I ever did as a theist. And it does seem at least possible to me that Sam Harris is right in the sense that believing in God could potentially interrupt our sense of wonder, and our sense of connection to the pain of existence.


"Well, Michael Reynolds and Chris Hallquist don't seem to be chiming in, so I guess it will fall to me to defend the atheists. What a mercenary I am."

LOL! I learned the first task is to define atheist. If it's someone who rejects the notion of the Western God, count me in! If it's someone thinks disbelieves in life-after-death or in any higher realms or beings such as heaven, angels,or Buddhas, well, we have to take those issues on a case-by-case basis. From what I read, Sam Harris claims that all such beliefs are obvious B.S. In which case, he's not thinking clearly enough. If someone wants to make the case that such entities are unlikely, well, in the end, it's a personal call. However, my main aim is make such entities plausible. I can't prove anything.

"First of all, to Richard: Judeo-Christians are the majority, especially in the Western hemisphere. The idea of a personal, anthropomorphic, and entirely good AND powerful god remains very popular. As such, I fail to see how Mr. Harris is attacking a straw man."

Well, I've used the term too in this situation. What I believe we are saying is echoing the (very rude) sentiment of David Hume: "The Christian religion not only was at first attended with miracles, but even at this day cannot be believed by any reasonable person without one." IOW, it's very easy to tear down traditional Christianity. It's contradictions and flaws are obvious to many. In this sense, it's a straw man. I agree with atheists that traditional Christianity comes pretty close to obvious B.S. But just because an atheist can tear down Christianity doesn't say much about, what I would consider, far more robust Eastern and hybrid metaphysical systems.

"To Adam: Consider for a moment the image of Mr. Harris as a bodhisattva. There is a lot in his essay that carries the pang of intense spirituality (I hate that word, but I'll descend to using it here). For instance:

Only the atheist is compassionate enough to take the profundity of the world’s suffering at face value."

I understand what Sam is getting at, and I do think that traditional monotheists' response to the problem of evil, and thus their response to natural disasters is woefully inadequate. There beliefs lead to capricious God who saves some and not others.
I believe that divine intervention, if it occurs, occurs of a lawful basis. Meaning the intervention is proportionate to the desire, faith, intensity, and spiritual maturity of the one's desiring intervention. Not because the divine is cruel, but because this world is our world, and the divine does not interfere uninvited. That said, in this model, it would still take a great deal of spiritual maturity, (unlikely to be attained by monotheists because they downplay the need for self-discipline, self-mastery, and spiritual advancement in comparison with Eastern religions) to save oneself or others in the face of a powerful Hurricane. But I would imagine that a Buddha or a Jesus could do it. Even if that were the case, I'm not sure that even Jesus could have caused a Cat 4 storm to just dissippate. If he had tried, his body probably would have likely given out. But enough esotetic speculation. I understand what you're getting at Tom, but I believe that a Buddhist or Buddhist influenced-person could do it. After all, the first noble truth is "all is suffering." And even a Christian could do it, but their notion of arbitrary grace hinders it. Again, in this point, I agree with Sam, but it's really an attack on Western monotheism.

"Get beyond the egotism of that statement - and it is egotistical, but I know you're a guy who counsels egotism at times -"

Yes, that is a problem a mine, but what I really mean when I counsel it is as follows:

(1)At least try. At least give reason a chance. It's worked well in science and we should try at least as hard when we approach metaphysics.

(2)Don't shield religion from reason. Let's have confidence that reason can work. However, I try to somewhat mitigate that when I'm talking to people whom I feel I would just damage if I let the full brunt of my skepticism out. Although I haven't always practiced it, I am attempting to be more friendly in my skepticism.

"and you find an immense concern for connection, for meaning, for existence itself. Does belief in God deepen that concern? Does it heighten those connections?"

It really depends. Sometimes religion can insulate and sometimes numb oneself from the world. What I personally try to do is realize that I really only have one fundamental belief, a belief that I feel I can rely on. Namely, that something else is going on, and that something else is truly, deeply, good. Although I obviously have a liking towards metaphysical argumentation that is primarily for advancing our thinking on these issues. If I allowed such thinking to become dogma in my own mind, it would dull my connection. The key difference is relying on experience vs. relying on argumentation. If I always keep in my mind that my speculation is just that, and just try to keep my connection to that feeling of benevolence, of charity, of awe than it can make me much more alive to the world. And to me attributing those feelings to the very structure and nature of the universe helps to amplify them and thus my connection to the world. And atheist only has his own feelings backing him up.
The theist can feel that not only does she or he care, but the entire universe cares and aims towards these same goals. Furthermore, the atheist in many ways kills off many of the most lofty aspirations. The aspiration towards enlightenment, the aspiration towards expanded awareness, the aspiration to eternal life is curtailed to one finite life. A person is viewed as a biological entity that will keel over at some point. A theist can feel that that person is an aspect of the divine who will continually grow, unfold, and experience for eternity.

"I've called myself a "mystical atheist" here recently. Part of the reason I did so is because I think belief or disbelief in God is a relatively unimportant matter - that it doesn't even mean what most people think it means."

Depends on how exactly you define it. I would say what really matters in openness to greater possibility, including openness to life after death, angels, Buddhas, higher realms, etc.. I would say that a fundamentalist Christian and a militant atheist are both closed to many possibilities. They're very shuttered.

"A few weeks ago, Seth Chalmer posted a marvelous quote on his blog that for me, contains the core of all "spiritual" truth.:

Wonder or radical amazement is the chief characteristic of the religious man's attitude... To find an approximate cause of a phenomenon is no answer to his ultimate wonder. He knows that there are laws that regulate the course of natural processes; he is aware of the regularity and pattern of things. However, such knowledge fails to mitigate his sense of perpetual surprise at the fact that there are facts at all...

If you believe that wonder really is the chief characteristic of the religious man's attitude, I don't see why God is necessary, even from a mystical perspective. As an atheist, I have discovered far more wonder in my existence than I ever did as a theist. And it does seem at least possible to me that Sam Harris is right in the sense that believing in God could potentially interrupt our sense of wonder, and our sense of connection to the pain of existence."

So I guess I anticipated some of your concerns. If theism is done right, it can enhance such things. If it's done wrong, it can kill such things.


"spiritual maturity, (unlikely to be attained by monotheists because they downplay the need for self-discipline, self-mastery, and spiritual advancement in comparison with Eastern religions)"

I can't agree with that, Adam. There are some awesome monastics and saints and rabbis whose self-discipline, self-mastery and spiritual advancement was/is on a par with that of their Eastern counterparts -- as recognized by the latter when they have met. The path of surrender and love is not inferior to the path of will and mastery -- the latter may even conceal more pitfalls of pride and self-inflation. This is just to say that the most committed and mystical practitioners of any tradition transcend its limitations. Jesus was one of your Buddhas, don't you think? (There's even a whole bunch of people who think he was over in India the 12 years we don't hear from him.)



As you'll see, and probably already saw, here, Sam Harris himself uses the word "mystical" -- and even "spiritual" -- for the experiences that can come through meditation.


How could believing in God interrupt one's sense of wonder when He is the Creator of it all in the first place? Maybe it has more to do w/individual character, these wonderwords you guys use for God.

I'm pretty close to nature and rely heavily upon it, as a farmer. And I've given birth four times... that is a miracle, birth is. A body springing forth from a body. After growing and developing inside that body for nine months. It's a phenomenom.(Damn, I like that word).

Why would the unbelieving care about public prayer and God in the Pledge and stone tablets and carvings on courthouses enough to have all these things removed and taken from those who do believe... isn't that egotistical? Isn't that an unspoken doctrine of non-faith? To not believe in something so much it becomes a life mission to destroy it?


Oh I agree, amba. (You're no fun!)I have much respect, for example, for St. Francis. Perhaps my claim is more precisely directed at Protestants who don't really have any saints or monks. It's hard for a tradition to encourage spiritual development when there's no place for those who devote themselves exclusively to spiritual practice. It's also hard for a tradition to encourage the highest level of growth if it encourages vicarious atonement or insists on the firm distinction between God and humans. It can be transcended but virtually ever time it is done, it's unwittingly commiting heresy and stealing ideas from Eastern religion. I mean mystics are celebrated in the East, but I wouldn't say that Sufis, Kabbalists, or Christian mystics have been exactly welcomed. They're lucky if they don't get stoned. But no, it's not ALL bad, and yes it can be done. But Eastern religion seems more conducive to it. And they've had fewer religious wars.

Basically you're making the claim that a bhakti yogi or karma yogi could rival that of a jnana or raja yogi. I can agree with that. I mean ideally you want to practice all four yogas. However, notice even here that only in Hinduism can you describe the major paths. Thus, it seems that Eastern religion has it all.

Besides by your own admission you mention Jesus going to the East, which, well, proves my point. That Judaism alone was insufficent, he needed to go Eastward to learn how "it was really done" :) (Oh I'm so sorry for being rude, but it just seems reasonable that by most criteria the Eastern religions win out. The notion that the world-focused nature of Western religion allowed the West to become technologically and scientifically sophisticated, while the other-worldly focus of the East allowed it to become spiritually sophisticated.)

But I will agree, however reluctantly like a child giving up its toys, that yes, I think the simplicity of Western religion facilitates greater humility and devotion than do the Eastern ones merely in virtue of the fact that the West's raja and jnana components are sublimated. You can't get easily tempted by them.

But above all, what makes Eastern religions cooler is that you can say things like dhammachakkapavattanasutta or avalokitesvara. If you'd could find a counterpart, you might win me over :)




Well Karen, if the religion is held dogmatically it can blind you to other wonders. I do agree that I believe it's a bit crazy when people make it there life's mission to remove all sacred symbols. But I think you have to understand that atheists feel persecuted, and in many ways they are. Saying atheist is like saying a bad word. You can't get elected in this country as an atheist. I think even Ralph Nader described himself as a Christian. (I'm don't know if he is actually is, but I'm somewhat suspicious). And I must admit that I have much childishness in me still remaining: mischevious rude adolescent behavior. I'm learning that I need to be more polite to both Christians and atheists. But it's hard because I find a lot of their beliefs just very amusing.

And when I was an atheist in high school it was my sport to harass Christians and cheerleaders. One time, this big black girl proclaimed to me that Jesus beat her heart and I told her, "No, Darwin does." And she got all up against me and kept saying, "Who Darwin? Who Darwin?" Maybe I shouldn't laugh, but I still think it's funny.

So I need to work more on the love thing. It's definitely there, but sometimes the rude adolescent in me comes out to play. I actually feel bad dissing Christianity but it's hard for me to speak plainly otherwise. If it were an audience of pure Christians, I would take a much more Socratic path. Although I may indulge in it, I don't think that the bellicose stance of Sam Harris is likely to be useful. I would rather gently encourage the replacement of harmful theological items with more beneficial ones. Only if someone were trying to spread negative beliefs would I take a forceful, yet calm stance. (Such as all non-Christians will go to hell.) It's a fine line between candor and rudeness, one that I am still learning to navigate.



Damn you amba, damn you straight to hell! ( :) )


Besides I'm sure when the Eastern monks met the Western ones, the Eastern ones were just trying to be nice. In a head-to-head spoon-bending contest, my money's on the Swamis! :)

michael reynolds

Sorry I didn't get in earlier, I'm on the road. I'm currently sitting in a freezing cold hotel room in Roanoke, VA, about half toasted on bourbon, and regretting that cheesecake, so God knows (hah) if I'll make any sense.

I read the piece in the Huffington Post. His main thrust is the "evil in the world" argument and, as someone pointed out, it applies almost exclusively to a modern, Judeo-Christian version of God, a moral God.

My argument for atheism is the simpler, less angry one: there is no evidence to suggest that God exists, and I make it a practice not to go around believing things for no good reason. If there was evidence of God I'd certainly want to take a look at it, just as I would be fascinated by evidence of the existence of elves. But there is no such evidence. None. So, I don't profess belief in elves, or consider myself an agnostic on the subject of elves, I'm pretty well forced to be an atheist when it comes to elves. Likewise God.

It is not a difficult conclusion for me to reach. In fact it seems self-evident.

The truth is I think pretty much everyone secretly agrees with me on this. Oh, I know 90 plus percent of Americans profess belief in God, but I think they're lying -- to themselves, primarily. I think religion is a vast conspiracy of self-deception. People know perfectly well there's no God, and their behavior demonstrates this fact.

Almost everyone behaves as if God does not exist, and almost no one behaves as though God does exist. You know what people do believe in? Walls. Follow me on this: everyone says they believe in both God and the solidity of walls. Almost everyone acts as though there is no God, but I've yet to meet a person who casually ignores the existence of walls. God is forever being disobeyed or ignored. Walls on the other hand, seem to command universal respect. No one ignores walls. People doubt God. They don't doubt walls. Why? Because walls are real. God is not. And we all know it.

Deep down everyone believes exactly what I believe: that God is a fairy story and the afterlife an absurdity. The difference is that they lie to themselves. They think life (and death) will be too scary without a magical parent figure in the story. So they bullshit themselves, and demand that others play along, always living in fear of the blunt little boy from the tale of the Emperor's New Clothes.

Of course they're right: life is scary. And as for death, well, while you have no good reason to be scared of your own (you won't be there,) the death of a loved one can be painful beyond enduring. Facing death, humiliation, disease, loss, pain, all the various terrors of life, people tell themselves it's all a sort of illusion: the real world isn't real, the end isn't the end, what we see is only a part of a much more reassuring story.

They invent God to replace the parents who soothed away their fears and offered what seemed like complete security. They willingly decieve themselves hoping to dispell their fears. But, the fact that their fears never really do go away, and their doubts are never finally assuaged, reveals the truth that there are two kinds of human being: atheists, and atheists who lie about it.


Yeah, but go see what the B said about spoon-bending and the like. I can't cite chapter and verse right now, but I believe he said something like, Don't get attached to special powers. They're just another phenomenon. They can block your way to enlightenment.


Stro-o-ong statement, Mikey.


Adam --

Gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha -- now that gives me the chills. You have to blow out a match or candle with "svaha" -- like the end of "The Usual Suspects."


Buddha said something to the effect that you will know that a man is not my follower if he attempts to work a miracle. In other words fiercely anti-yogi tricks. That is why I said swami and not buddhist monk.

And besides I chose spoon-bending in particular to be ridiculous.

To me, the ability to do supernormal things should be the natural unfoldment of one's spirituality. It should not be the focus, by any means. So we agree. I just thought it was particularly humorous to imagine a spoon-bending contest.

I'm tired so my comments won't be complete, but as regards Michael's comments actually I have the opposite experience. Even when I supposedly was an atheist, I still really believed in God. I couldn't be an atheist if I tried. It would feel dishonest. And I know other people who have told me the same. In fact, I was going to write something to the effect that even atheists usually have spiritual substitutes. They may read fantasy novels or watch sci-fi films. The fact that religious belief is so tenacious to me is evidence that the God-inclination just can't be beaten out of us. Maybe, it's just a convenient Darwinian adaptation. But maybe it's not.

Again, my experience would lead me to say the opposite. The fact that so many people believe in God despite all the seeming evidence to the contrary and despite the fact that their theologies are very weak, is because deep down people believe that there is something else going on, and that that something else is benevolent. Obviously, Michael is the counterexample to this, but I still think that somewhere deep down he has spiritual feelings but that his rejection of traditional theism has obscured this. He may say deep down I know I'm lying to myself. But it really doesn't feel that way to me. As regards my speculations, well I'm not very sure about those, but as regards the existence of something transcendent and benevolent, I can't not believe in something like that. Not because of reasons of emotional security, but because I really believe that it's true.

Michael is an expert at showing how ridiculous Western theology can be, but just because the model is dumb, doesn't mean that the phenomenon being modeled doesn't exist. It's like saying I don't believe in physics because Aristotle was an idiot. It doesn't allow for the possibility of a Newton to come along.

Furthermore, you ask for evidence of God's existence. Well here's a list of things for which God would be useful.

(1) As I said above, so many people have natural spiritual inclinations despite the fact that their theology is weak, and despite the fact that ever since the enlightenment people have tried to beat it out them.

(2) Why is there anything at all? Why do we have the physical laws we do?

(3) What is consciousness? How can a complex biochemical system have feelings and hopes and dreams?

(4) Why are you you? If you think it is possible that you could have been born at some other time and in some other place, than aren't you assuming that you're different from your body. And if this is true, how can atheism be correct?

(5) Near-death experiences. A friend of my family who is a doctor related his to me. Just because a natural explanation is available doesn't make it right. Possibility is not proof. This goes for both sides of the argument.

(6) A whole hell of a lot of art and music and architecture has been created for this purpose.

(7) I believe cognitive dissonance can be quite powerful, and that repression can't last forever. Ergo, millions of people lying to themselves is not as easy as you think. It's unpleasant and takes energy to deceive oneself.

(8) I feel people believe in Christianity, and other Western religions, despite all their absurdities, because they feel in their heart that some external force really does care about them and that Jesus (in the case of Christians) really is special. All this can be explained within a sophisticated Eastern pantheist perspective, however. People cling to the dumb theologies because they're afraid to leave them and haven't been exposed to other alternatives or somehow fall in love with a "good story."

(9)In my own experience, when I start thinking about atheism, I say to myself, "You know maybe that's right." And I continue evaluating, and continue adjusting my thoughts to fit my experience, until at the end of the process, I realize that my "atheism" somehow isn't atheism anymore. Like I've tried, but I can't seem to do it.

(10) Finally, while these questions and remarks do not PROVE anything, I think there's enough here to make belief in something higher at least plausible. But as I've tried to argue earlier, it requires a rather sophisticated metaphysics. Hey, but we can't get everything just right in physics either. I mean after all we're invoking 12-dimensional strings to somehow piece together quantum physics and general relativity. And those two things aren't particularly intuitive either! If our physics has the right to invoke very crazy things, and if we expect our metaphysics to be slightly more complex than that, it's going to be pretty damn fancy! So while Michael may call that unnatural gyrations, there's some precendent for weirdo entities in science. Why not metaphysics? Again, just because Christian theology is "dumb" that doesn't mean that atheistic materialism is correct. It just means that Christian theology is "dumb"!


Karen asked,"Why would the unbelieving care about public prayer and God in the Pledge and stone tablets and carvings on courthouses enough to have all these things removed and taken from those who do believe... isn't that egotistical? Isn't that an unspoken doctrine of non-faith? To not believe in something so much it becomes a life mission to destroy it?"

Here we go again, equating those who don't want public prayer and the removal of "God" in the pledge of allegiance, ect. with non-believers. I keep telling ya. Stay of Anchoress. :-)

michael reynolds

I don't mean to be offensive, but you got nothing. No part of any of those ten points even approaches being evidence.

Here we are considering the existence of some presumably major phenomenon - God, however defined - and no one can generate a single shred of evidence.

If some botanist came rushing up proclaiming the existence of some new species of lichen we'd demand proof. We'd want to see something - a specimen, a picture. Believers expect us to buy their contention of a great big old superbeing of some sort without offering any proof beyond a series of questions and speculations all of which amount to "Yeah, but maybe, right?"

Try this thought experiment, Adam: list all the proofs you have for the existence of God, and all the proofs you have for the existence of Santa Claus. And when you're done you'll find you have an infinitely stronger evidentiary case for Ole St. Nick.


That's cause St Nick actually did exist.

Michael, do you believe that couples can remain faithful to eachother, sexually and emotionally? Since you cannot be w/your spouse 100% of the time, how do you know this? Do you need proof to know the faithfulness of your wife?(If you are married?) Or, in any commited relationship. How do you know something k=like this? Because people tell you they will remain faithful?

It's a leap of faith


Michael, we have a series of unanswered questions. Both naturalism and a variant of theism can propose answers to each, but NEITHER have any proof. In each specific case, one answer may appear more promising than the other, but overall, IN THE ABSENCE of evidence, we have to make a choice.

My goal was not to prove anything, as I stated. You were attempting to demonstrate that any form of theism (perhaps non-atheism is more accurate, because I don't believe in a super being per se, I belive in an overarching intelligent principle that is and transcends the universe) was ludicrous. My point was that such an argument was premature. Besides, given the expansive definition of the divine that I have outlined, it isn't like some plant, fer Chrissakes. Rather, I'm talking about some transcendent reality. At this point, we can look at the data and see whether or not it is consistent with such a possibility. I don't think it's consistent with a Western God, but I think it is definitely consistent with a sophisticated hybrid of Buddhism, Advaita Vedanta, and Christian Mysticism. Therefore, given the vast scope of the things I'm trying to motivate, I think the most reasonable thing to ask of it is that this view REMAIN consistent with science as it progresses. And that the view become more PLAUSIBLE as our knowledge increases. I would argue that this already has taken place. Numerous scientists, including ones that I have personally worked under, find useful parallels between modern physics/neuroscience and Eastern Religion. In fact, if you see what concepts SCIENTISTS and philosophers invoke to attempt to explain consciousness, you'll see just how big a crack in materialism there is. Center for Consciousness Studies at the University of Arizona Journal of Consciousness Studies.

I believe it is more probable that not that current science is woefully inadequate and will undergo another major paradigm shift as we saw when we moved from classical to modern physics. Paradigm shifts are usually preceded by an increasing inability to explain phenomena in the current model. That's certainly happening with consciousness, and the fact that astrophysicts believe that 95% frickin' percent of the energy of the universe is a form that is totally alien to them, and that something similar can be said about matter (dark energy, and dark matter respectively) indicates that there's some weird shit going on. You'll never be able to take the divine into a laboratory and subject it to tests, rather it will become increasingly more or less plausible as the science progresses. It's too big of a concept to do otherwise.

My general premise was that there's something else going on, and that that something else is benevolent. Shit, there's even books out that examine the efficacy of prayer. And books out that examine near-death experiences. Dude, I've had experiences that very much corroborate this for me. Like 6-week long incredibly intense. Not some brief flicker of self-delusion. I mean it's possible that it was just some hormonal fluctuation or something, but given that I haven't been able to reproduce that experience to that degree despite becoming more proficient in spiritual techniques indicates that it was more than self-induced lunacy either. And I've known people who've had for more vivid experiences than I. And these are stable people who were not on LSD and were not sensory deprived or anything like that. I would consider these phenomena a plus for a non-atheist view. Why? Because it takes just as much FAITH if not more so to invoke a materialist explanation. Just because you can come up with some POSSIBLE natural explanation doesn't make it right. It is at this point, that the ATHEISTS engage in unnatural gyrations and hand-waving. Reverse mysticism.

Unlike, traditional Western religion, Eastern religions often view matter and spirit on a continuum. Therefore, unlike Western religion, one would expect that at some point we would start being able to measure these "finer spiritual entities" Meaning, unlike Western religion, it is conceivably testable. And the fact that we don't know what the hell 95% of the stuff out there is, and that current reductionist science just doesn't seem able to come up with a good explanation in favor of consciousness, to me are big points in favor of something else going on. This point bear repeating. Eastern religion proposes entities that actually should be able to be detected at some point. If a thousand years from now, we haven't come close to that, I would say we ought to junk it. However, science is so so young. Only a few hundred years. These "spiritual entities" are no more crazy or supernatural than a virtual particle or a teleporting photon would be to a Newtonian. We have seen a massive increase in our scientific ontology with modern physics. There is no clear reason to believe that the our ontology will not continually expand.

At this point, we're arguing about the future of science. And we're arguing about what is plausible to find. Given this, BOTH of us would be speculating. At this point, our respective temperaments will be our guides. And I should point out that my inclination to believe on the divine is rooted both in experience (also the French word for "experiment") and in the current state of science.

Even though I actually think it is more defensible to believe that science is headed in a more "mystical" direction than not, let me be charitable and assume equal footing for both views.

In this case, I feel an atheist is someone who desires to stick as closely to the data as possible and eschews all speculation. By contrast, in my view, a nimble theist (or non-atheist) strives to be as consistent with the data as possible, but loves to dance and play in the vast unknown that science has yet to illumine. At base, it's a question of temperament, not rationality.

(BTW, I absolutely love the irreverence of the Mighty Middle and Jehovah Blog, as well as South Park. But I can laugh, because really the criticisms don't touch my particular metaphysic. While you use such irreverence to damn any metaphysic, I would use such irreverence as an invation for people to shed the old views and strive to come up with more enlightened, rational and fulfilling ones.)


Mikey, I think the kid ran rings around ya there. Of course, you are 100% right in the sandbox you're playing in.


It also bears mention that a distinctive feature of Eastern religion is the ability to experience the divine through a series of spiritual exercises. So although it is possible to believe these spiritual exercises are merely techniques to induce particular brain states that feel like a transcendent experience, it is by no means necessary.

For the sake of argument, let's assume that the divine exists and that this divine, at least at a certain level is non-material. Why should you believe in it? What if you are told that you can directly experience it? And what if you do these exercises and have an intense spiritual experience? While you can say that doesn't prove anything, what if given the essential nature of the divine, this is the only possible way to experience it? So given what the divine is--not a concrete plant for instance--it is unfair to demand material evidence for it. It just isn't that kind of entity.
So while I believe that evidence can eventually strongly render plausible certain Eastern metaphysics, I believe at some level that the divine must be experienced. I believe that there is something transcendent and benevolent. I personally have experienced this in a strong and sustained way. How can you prove that I'm delusional? Isn't it at least possible that this transcendent benevolence exists?

At this point, after such an experience, again, I feel we have a choice. We can be really anal and deny our experience or we can let the little kid in us roam free and believe in it. After all, strictly speaking, on a philosophical level, you don't know that the external world exists or that I'm not just some sort of robot that acts like a human. Certainly, your experiences are consistent with an external world and with me NOT being a cleverly designed robot. But there's no logical way to prove that you're more than just a brain-in-a-vat or that I'm not an automaton. Nonetheless, everyone just takes the leap of faith and rejects such crazy notions. Sure you could believe in them, but why?

Could not the same be true of a very vivid and intense spiritual experience? Sure it could be a delusion. But it didn't feel like one, so why you should take it as such? Many mystics have described altered states just as concrete as the real world, after all. So in both cases, the external world and the spiritual world, we have vivid experience but not logical certainty.


I'm glad I redeemed myself in your eyes, amba. I was about ready to pass out at the computer last night.

Tom Strong

Wow, this is turning into a really awesome discussion.

I did indeed notice, amba, Sam Harris' defense of mysticism; it's part of why I ambled to his defense.

I think Michael's point about God being evidence-less and therefore fiction is the core of atheism, which after all just means "without gods". However, I do think fiction can be useful, and even profound, in ways that fact cannot be. Therefore, I don't think religion is pointless, or completely negative, even if it is fiction.

Which it is, by the way. ;)


What say you, Tom, of any physical evidence found on digs; such as this coin or insignia found in Israel that the Anchoress posted on a couple of weeks ago?

This insignia is of the House of David, I believe, and gives solid proof that Israel was in the hands of the Israelites and not the Palestinians. If this is the case and then you have the Bible giving date and *proof* of the House of David, would that be enough evidence to give creadence to the Good Book?

Isn't this what a lot of the fight is about between Palestine and Israel? Ownership?



Tom was being devious. Didn't you notice the wink-smile emoticon?

I was thinking about evidentiary criteria.

Well let me tell you about matter. You see matter is made up of proton, neutrons, and electrons.

Can I taste them?


Can I touch them?


Can I see them?

No, No, No! It's way too small for that.

And these little dudes follow something called quantum mechanics.

But didn't one of your scientists say that no one really understands quantum mechanics?

Well, yes, that it is true. But you see the experiments just work out nicely when you use it.

Right. Uh huh.

And these protons you see are really three things we call quarks bound together.

Well can you see these quarks?

No. And in fact, theory predicts that they can't exist in isolation.

How convenient.

But when we assume they're there, the math and the experiments work out nicely.

Seems like crazy speculation to me!

Wait till we get to the twelve-dimensional strings!

Do you have evidence for that? Well, the theory isn't quite complete yet.

Point being we allow weird stuff from science regarding evidentiary criteria, so it stands to reason that the evidence for "the divine", if it exists, wouldn't be your standard stuff. Modern physics sounds crazy until you methodically go through it all. Why not the same stuff for metaphysical theories? Just because something sounds loony doesn't necessarily make it so.


Just to be very very clear. My task is not to prove but to render plausible. It is an effort to combat statements such as Sam Harris's: There is no God (and you know it). Such thinking is very one-sided and shallow. We certainly need to get past the ancient ways, but he seems to be advocating a very sterile arid rationalism. Which is frankly no fun at all. He is proposing that our metaphysic be no metaphysic. And he ignores the negative affect that arid rationalism has already had. People will fill the metaphysical vacuum with material pursuits, and the culture will become hollow and depraved. Reality TV anyone? And he ignores the real positive effect that religion has had. Much of our best art and music has derived from religion. I have trouble believing that Bach would have produced the same music had he not had his transcendent longings.

Bottom line: Atheism sucks! Traditional religion sucks! We need a metaphysic for the modern world that will strengthen the best within us and one that will be in harmony with our reason and will adapt with the times and with science.

michael reynolds

This is really pretty simple: there remains zero evidence of the existence of God. The same when it comees to "the supernatural."

As for some big mystical something that is never defined, no one can either prove or disprove a notion so vague and without definition. It's like. . . dude . . . (taking a long toke and holding it in then speaking in a squeaky little voice till the lungs explode). . . there's like something, man, like something heavy, man. I mean, maybe we're all just this dude's dream, right? Maybe, like what we think is real, is like. . . what was I saying?

Your honor, ladies and gentlemen of the court, I propose to demonstrate the existence of. . . something. Location. . . out there. Definition. . . um, let's say benign non-specific force. Function. . . to provide a sense of mystery.

We've got ten thousand years of human history during which we have steadily moved phenomena from the "supernatural" category to the "natural" category. A million phenomena that used to be . . . something out there, man. . . and ended up being something measurable and replicable. You know how many things we've had to move from "natural" to "supernatural?" None.

It's a one way arrow. Every millenium, every century, every decade, the category of "supernatural" has shrunk, while the category of "naatural" has grown. This process has progressed with such relentlessness that the supernaturalists are now dependent on scientists to discover new phenomena about which mystics can speculate. We now have the amazing spectacle of mystics speculating about sub-atomic particles and 12 dimensional space -- theories we are only aware of because science has explained away a million other previously supernatural phenomena.

Look, folks, believe what you want to believe. Tell yourselves whatever fairy tales make you happy. Spin whatever rhetorical air castles you like. A hundred years ago you'd have been talking about "the ether" annd holding sceances with ectoplasms. A hundred years from now you'll be on to something else. None of it will mean anything real, but it's pretty harmless as entertainments go.



The "Universists" (see my new post) agree with you:

"If universal religious truth is ever found, it will no longer be religious truth. It will be science fact. . . . Universists adopt reasoned uncertainty about the metaphysical realm until truths in this area are made apparent through the light of science. . . . When an objective demonstrable fact becomes known, it is no longer religious. . . . We believe that the mysterious domain of Universism will shrink with every advancement of science and one day it may disappear completely."


Sounds like Michael's going quarky on us, Adam. Maybe that happens to him when he's 1/2 toasted on bourbon?

Did you ever believe in the supernatural, Michael?


Tsk, tsk, tsk Michael. You are making several assumptions. First, you assume that science must always proceed from supernatural to natural. Before we continue we must properly define supernatural.

If you want to define supernatural as something which is impossible to measure, then by definition, of course, science will move in this direction.

For the purposes of this discussion it is more appropriate to define "supernatural" as those things which are rejected by naturalism as it is currently understood such as psychic phenomena, higher realms, near-death experiences, angels etc.

As I said, unlike most Western religions, Eastern religions allow for a continuum of spirit and matter, and thus the previous "supernatural" entities could conceivably by measured at some time.

So what we're really arguing about is the direction science will take. If you look at the references I provided on consciousness, particularly the Journal of Consciousness Studies, published by a MAJOR UNIVERSITY with SCIENTIFIC contributers and mainstream philosophers, you would be shocked by the things they entertain in an attempt to explain consciousness: mysticism, parapsychology, alternate dimensions, etc. If that's not supernatural I don't know what is. Furthermore, a great number of the founders of modern physics were strongly influenced by Eastern religion. I think it is clear that science has moved in a direction that is favorable to Eastern religion in the last century.

Therefore, science actually has moved in a supernatural direction and seems to continue to do so, especially in the area of consciousness. Which would make perfect sense from an Eastern standpoint.

Zero evidence for the supernatural? Why then has there been a plethora of books written by scientists and medical doctors of these topics in recent years? Books on prayer, near-death experiences, hell even immortality.
Compared with the arid behaviorism of the 20's through 50's, psychology has definitely moved in a "supernatural" direction. It used to be a swear word to mention consciousness, a word that only cranks used, and now even hard-core materialists embrace it.

And do you not consider your perception of a brick wall to be evidence of its existence? Prove to me that you're not having a very vivid dream, or that your brain is not in an vat being manipulated by evil scientists.

If people have very vivid spiritual experiences, how is this not evidence for the divine? Sure, they all could be delusional, but your brain could be in a vat. I've had both very strong spiritual experiences and have um, experience with various um, substances. And while one is clear and vivid, the other is groggy and confused. In the first, one has control of one's faculties, not so much in the latter.

And Michael, without having had a spiritual experience, again how can you be so sure that all who have had them are delusional?

I'm not like Christians, who think it's so important to believe or not believe. I think atheism has its benefits. You don't have to worry about metaphysics, for instance. So frankly, as long as you're a reasonably decent person, in my world view, it doesn't really matter that you're an atheist.

You attempt to make the case that any form of theism is extremely likely to be bunk. However, your arguments only stand up if they are not vigorously examined. I'm not saying that atheism must be wrong. I personally think it is unlikely to be true. I would be okay if you just felt non-atheism (e.g. pantheism, transcendentalism, etc. etc.) is unlikely to be true. I, however, take issue with your high certainty that atheism is true.

Believe it or not, my background is in science, and I actually do have a rather skeptical side despite my sometimes advocacy of elaborate metaphysics. I think crystals, astrology, tarot cards, psychic readings is bunk. I like alternative therapies but only if good studies support their efficacy. I don't trust homeopathy for instance. I think those things are the eqivalent of your ectoplasm, spiritualism references. Some of my more spiritually-inclined friends think I'm a hard-ass on these issues. Most of the things I'm open to, I have either personal experience with, or I can make a rational case for.

I really do think it's a question of temperament. You're probably a very down-to-earth, just-the-facts-kind-of-guy. And that's okay. We need people like you. I'm much more willing to consider ideas, that on their face, given prevailing cultural norms, seem unlikely. But society needs their philosophers and theoreticians too. You have called my writings rhetorical air castles, but you haven't shown what's wrong with them.

All I'm really asking is that if you ever have a spiritual inclination, just sort of secretly say (when no one's looking), "Maybe." That's all I'm asking, Mikey. I know you can do it. Just say, "Maybe, it isn't so crazy after all."

michael reynolds


No, I'm not assuming science's direction, just reporting what's happened. It could suddenly go the other way, but it hasn't.

And no, it means nothing whatever that there are books on metaphysics by scientists. I've written something like 70 books involving aliens. You know what? I still see no evidence they exist.

And you can allow for as many continua, East, West and In Between, as you like, but none of that amounts to evidence.

And no, of course subjective "spiritual experiences" are not evidence, and yes, we could all be in The Matrix, and any number of exciting things could be true, but my point has never been that we are not in a vat, my point is we have no evidence of being in a vat.

And no, the question of whether or not I've had a spiritual experience is not probative of anything. It's like suggesting that only a person who has experienced a psychotic break can intelligently disscuss abnormal psychology -- it kind of goes the other way, if you see my point.

Look, kid, believe whatever you like. You want to believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny it is perfectly all right by me. Be as "spiritual" as you like. Believe the Great Cosmic All lives in your small intestine and speaks to you through farts, it's all fine by me.

But posing rhetorical questions does not constitute evidence. And speculation does not constitute evidence. And numbers of books published does not constitute evidence. And the construction of straw men does not constitute evidence. And "hey, let me write yet another rhetorical bit of circular logic," does not constitute evidence. And neither does the "how about if I fuzz all the definitions," or "how about if I imply that there's something wrong with your 'spirit'" or any of the other frankly tired tricks. None of it is evidence.

I require evidence. You don't have any. When you get some, let me know. But, dude, I am the last guy on Earth you're ever going to manage to dazzle with bullshit. There is no rhetorical technique, no run-around, no misdirection, no straw man, no sophomore dorm speculation that you can employ that I'm going to fall for. No matter how you strain yourself I will always know whether you are presenting evidence, or slicing lunch meat. If you have a single piece of evidence of God, of metaphysics, of spirits, of unicorns, of whatever, whip it on me. I have an open mind. I also have a pretty good bullshit detector.


Dude, I never ever claimed that I was providing hard evidence. I repeatedly tried to emphasize that I was merely attempting to render plausible. But I write so much that I realize it's easy to misconstrue the other's intentions.

What would
constitute evidence in your mind?

What exactly is your claim? If your claim is that there is no point in believing anything without hard evidence, and there is no hard evidence for God, therefore I do not believe in it, well, that's fine. A perfectly legitimate choice.

And it is a choice on which people can differ. However, for me, given that science is incomplete I do not chain my metaphysics to the science. I try to make it consistent with the science though. And I try to make it logically cohere, which many believers do not. Most likely if science is ever going to reveal hard evidence for God, we'll be dead by then. Since science doesn't, or possibly never will, answer these questions all we can do is speculate at this point.

But I thought you were making the stronger claim that it is ludicrous to believe that any supernatural entity exists. All I've been trying to do is to render it plausible that it MIGHT exist.

I think it is rational to believe in things for which we don't have hard evidence, because all the evidence is not yet in. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. If you are indeed making this stronger claim, it seems to me you're in the position of a 19th century gentleman who would laugh at the idea of a "virtual particle." Right? I mean science is not over yet. How do we know what it will eventually discover?

And if we're talking about this, aren't we both just speculating on the future of science?

Doesn't it all come down to a choice concerning what one does in the ABSENCE of evidence? You make the choice of not believing in anything for which there is no hard evidence. I prefer to play, as I said, in the darkness not yet illumined by science.

There is a famous Buddhist parable that talks about a man who is shot with an arrow and refuses to have it removed until he knows who shot it, what kind of wood it was made of, the kind of feathers that adorned it, etc. However, that man would have died before all those questions were answered. The Buddha said this man was like the person who demanded to have all his questions about the universe answered before he became a disciple.

I'm not as harsh as the Buddha was. But I really don't see how it is anything more than a choice between two RATIONAL options. You don't want to waste your time believing in nonsense and so refuse to believe in anything for which there is no hard evidence.

And I don't want to waste a spiritual opportunity waiting for evidence that may take a thousand years to arrive. Both choices have their benefits and pitfalls. But I'm not as irresponsible as you make me out to be. I really do try to make my "playing in the darkness" logically coherent, consistent with science, and consistent with my own experience.

I'm also very pragmatic. I only engage in spiritual disciplines that I have found make me a better person: calmer, happier, more loving etc. And although I may read speculative metaphysics at least I'm exercise my mind in exploring the possible. A classic philosophical exercise. I could be watching TV instead. So my choice to be spiritual improves my well-being, probably lowers my blood pressure, and serves as an intellectual challenge to keep my mind agile. So there really are practical benefits to being spiritual. As long as I recognize that what I'm doing is speculating, I don't feel that I comprimising my rationality in any way.


Adam is right about one thing: there are many things we now know that would have seemed quite fantastic 100 years ago. Lack of evidence for something can mean that the instruments to detect it have not yet been invented. The rules for evidence are always the same -- it has to be replicable and verifiable -- but the nature of evidence is not. If we had insisted on only what the naked eye could verify, the microscope and telescope, never mind the particle accelerator, would never have been invented.

What never fails to astonish me about atheism is the intensity of emotion invested in it -- the vitriol, the contempt. Where's that coming from? Having once been a credulous child who was betrayed and made a fool of by his credulity and vowed never again? It seems to me to have a little of the same quality as religious fanaticism, heretic-hatred. One doesn't react with such disgust and cruelty to something unless it is perceived as a threat. What threat??


Well, amba, I can probably explain it to some degree having once been a militant atheist. And just to clarify, I think Michael's actually pretty laid back about this. He's a very friendly atheist. I think he wrote that he doesn't have a fit every time some religious thing comes along.

My beef with Michael is that he seems to think that belief in any religious thing whatsoever is fully equivalent with believing in Santy Claus. I think that's a wee unfair--though the hyperbole can be quite funny.

For me the militancy was, as I think about it, all about power and pride. One can be very intellectually agressive. It is a kind of sadism. Basically, the atheist feels that he or she knows the truth and that he or she can easily crush any intellectual opponent. So there is a pleasure involved. In fact, I would imagine it's similar to the pleasure of beating the hell out of someone or a wolf ripping its prey to shreds. You really can be that intellectually aggressive.

However, since our culture doesn't think that thoughts and emotions really count, the intellectual agression can get out of control. But it need not always be that bad.

Being intellectually aggressive can be good. For instance, I like being intellectually aggressive but only with those who I feel are on the same level as I am. Then it's more like a joust. If the other person can beat me, I've learned something from them. That's actually how I sort of apprenticed myself to my adolescent spiritual mentor. I couldn't whip him like everyone else so I became his student--whether he liked it or not!

Also I think it flows from the certainty. Any time anyone feels certain about something there is the possibility for missionary activity. In this case, it all depends on what is being advocated. I'm pretty militant about centrism both spiritually and politically, for instance.
While certainty might seem always bad, if you don't have any convictions, it's really hard to act for change. I think that what's important is that one strive to remain open-minded and that one doesn't force one's beliefs on others. While, for instance, Sam Harris has a lot of insights, I feel that such militancy may only shake loose those who were already agnostic. And I think atheists such as he don't really understand the meaning and joy that people get from religious traditions. It's really hard to get someone to give up something if you don't offer anything useful in return. For the committed traditional religionists I would attempt to gently broaden their viewpoint Socratically. You got to be a Taoist in that case. A full-frontal attack is doomed to fail.


Speaking for myself, God is a mystery to me and probably always will be until I die. I grew up as a Methodist but also went to Baptist church functions. I don't have a problem with organized religion until they tell me their way is the only path to God. Furthermore, I don't even believe it when they say you have to be a Christian in order to get to heaven. That has never made sense to me. The only thing I understand in the bible is the golden rule, after that don't bother try to explain the rest of it. Otherwise how are the dumb people (like me) ever going to get to heaven. If there is no God, or higher being (force), then every thing we know today was an accident as I see it. Whether there is a God or not, I know one thing, science doesn't explain everything. Hell science doesn't even explain dowsing, but it works. When I was a kid I spent a lot of time at my Grandparents farm, my Grandmother whose faith in God was unshakeable used to say to me that there has to be a God because nature is so intricate and miraculous. Maybe that's how I see God, it's in nature. I'll find out when I my physical life ends, I assume.

michael reynolds


No, I'm not stating categorically that a man would be a fool to believe in God. I am saying that I have no evidence to support the existence of God, so I don't believe. This portion of my argument is the core.

Further, I challenge believers to produce a single bit of evidence to contradict my haughty assertion above. Then I listen to the deafening silence, or laugh coldly as they flop and wiggle trying to throw off that hook. This is the part of my argument where I define the terms of debate and force my opponents to admit that they are defending belief in the Easter Bunny.

Finally, I suggest that since no one acts as if they really believe in God, that said belief is a sort of desperate self-deception. I offer the observation that there are atheists, and then there are atheists who are desperately lying to themselves because they lack the strength to face the truth, but that in the end we are all atheists. This portion of my argument is where I amuse myself by cruelly poking people with a stick.

The argument is all a question of epistemology. (How do we know what we know ) Fight the battle on my epistemological grounds - science, evidence, objective data - and I win. And here's the thing: even the most religious or mystical believe that scientific evidence is fundamentally superior to poetic evidence, so they just about always accept my epistemological grounds, and lose.

The only way for the believer to stay alive in the game is to set aside what we might call modern epistemological beliefs and retreat into what I call (with admirable fairness) mumbo jumbo. Nothing makes me happier, of course, because although I don't accept mumbo jumbo epistemology, my opponents invariably buy the bulk of my epistemology. They don't want to accept the full implications of the mumbo jumbo method, they know they need to keep at least one foot in my camp, and that foot is left unsupported, waving in air whenever they try to argue the existence of God.



Aliens are an interesting case. There is no evidence that they exist (though folks like Whitley Strieber claim there is, but the government is conveniently concealing it), yet many rational people believe that they logically must exist -- that in a universe with squillions of galaxies, the likelihood that we are the sole intelligent lifeform (if, of course, we even make that cut) is virtually nil.

My dad, who is an atheist, once responded to a challenge to "name one thing you think we'll know in 100 years that we don't know now" by saying that he thought we would very likely have had contact with an intelligent species from another star. All speculation, of course -- but in this case it's the religious folks who prefer to speculate that this piddling planet is the only apple of God's eye.


Several questions, Michael.

Again what sort of evidence would suffice to demonstrate the existence of God in your view?

Somehow, I'm afraid the kind of evidence you're looking for may not be consistent with the very nature of the divine. In my view, you may be asking to "taste" a quark.

On one level, I believe that there are "finer" levels of reality that ARE amenable to science. Meaning, it is conceivable with better instrumentation that we may one day be able to measure them. But on another level, I feel some aspects of the divine can only be experienced. If some aspects of the divine are like this, meaning they have no material counterpart but can be experienced, it doesn't seem correct to use your epistemic criteria. Just like asking to taste a quark doesn't make any sense.

Again, I have had spiritual experiences. And after having them, although I can attribute them to a purely neural phenomena, it doesn't feel honest to do so. It did not feel like a hallucination. As I believe all mental events have neural correlaries, even if they scanned my brain and found reliable RESPONSES to spiritual experience, how would that prove that no "divine" anything was involved? If I eat an apple my brain responds predictably. If I experience "God" my brain also responds predictably. How can you be sure that this "divine" entity doesn't exist?

Back in the 20's-60's the behaviorism of B.F. Skinner dominated American psychology. Since the mind and emotions could not be measured, they concerned themselves only with behavioral data. Furthermore, in many cases, this metholodological criterion led to the philosophical idea that mind and emotions really didn't exist at all. It was all just behavior.

Now fast-forward to the present day. Since then, the cognitive revolution has occurred and now psychologists accept ideas such as the mind and emotions. When I worked in an fMRI lab, we always collected what we called self-report data. Meaning we trusted the patients to reliably report how they're feeling. All fMRI or other brain imaging techniques can do is CORRELATE self-report with brain activity. (Well, there are also behavioral measures taken, but we were studying emotion so self-report was crucial.) And you know, regardless of what is going on with someone physiologically, no one other than the subject can tell us that they're afraid, or that they're sad. We can't do the science without their self-report.

Now Michael, give me hard evidence that you have feelings. I don't want some goddamned plausibility argument. Yeah, I know I have feelings, and we have similar bodies so it seems plausible that you might too. But how I can be sure that you have feelings? Your heart may race, you may scream, you may threaten to beat me up if I don't believe that you have emotions. But all of that is just behavior or physiological responses. I want emotion. I want hard evidence. Show me your emotion, give it to me on a plate so I can dissect it. I don't give a rat's ass how many brain-scans you show me. That's just weak probabilistic reasoning. Mere correlation. Consistency isn't proof. I don't want no namby-pamby references to how you feel. You could be a good lier after all.

My point is that in many cases, we are forced to rely on what seems the most likely explanation, even though there's no hard evidence.

If I have a spiritual experience and I haven't been on hallucinogens and I don't have any known psychological problems, how can you assume that I must be deranged? If you take my spiritual experience as evidence of derangement that's circular reasoning. Just as in the case of other people's feelings, I can either decide that other people really do have feelings or that they're just behaving that way. In this case, I can either decide that I really had a spiritual experience or that I'm delusional. There's no evidence that can show one way or another, especially if I've ruled out obvious things like hallucinogens or psychopathology.

So just as most people choose to believe that other people really do have feelings with no hard proof, I choose to believe in the divine with no hard proof. Most people choose to believe that other people have emotions because it's plausible and useful to do so. I have no hard evidence that I really experienced something "divine" and you have no hard evidence that I didn't. It's a pragmatic choice. I'm NOT trying to prove that I MUST have had a spiritual epxerience. I'm just saying that it's possible. If you can't provide hard evidence to support your view, why should I believe you?

Frankly, you are very much an epistemic hard-ass. If you read the Universist FAQ that amba recently posted, they are leaps and bounds more flexible than you. Even though they are very aridly rationalistic and even though they consider atheism a major subclass of universism, they believe that reason and EXPERIENCE should be the basis of a person's metaphysical views.

There was a particular school of early 20th century philosophy called logical positivism which was like you, very hard-ass when it came to epistomology. One of their principles was called verificationism. Today, even by most hard-ass materialist philosophers, it is rejected for being too hard ass. In fact, one major philosopher, Daniel Dennett, who still in many ways subsribes to it, is called the "village verificationist" by his colleagues.

If you take your epistemic criteria to their logical conclusion, you will find that you have a whole host of very nasty and difficult to resolve philosophical questions which is really what brought down logical positivism in the first place.

Trust me, dude, even scientists today aren't are hard core as you are. They demand that the facts be CONSISTENT with the data, just as I demand that my metaphysical explanations be consistent with the facts as well. (My favorite explanation of this is that the hippies are now the tenured professors!)

If you want to treat the divine as a house plant, fine. I still think you're asking to taste a quark.


Jeez dude, all I've been trying to do is to show why it MIGHT not be so crazy after all. I've brought up hosts of reason why such a belief MAY indeed be correct. I've tried to connect it with modern science and have aimed to have my thoughts logically cohere.

I totally accept that you MAY be right. All I'm asking of you is that you grant that I too MAY be right. I personally would bet 80% in favor of a transcendent benevolence. It's okay with me if you place your bets exactly opposite. But, rightly or wrongly, if you give the possibility of any divine anything existing only a .00001% probability, I think you've closed your mind on this issue. Can I even get a 1%?

Tom Strong


Of course not. A work of fiction, after all, can be filled with facts and still be fiction. The Harry Potter books, after all, feature some scenes in London, which is an actual city in the actual world. That doesn't make them nonfiction.

I don't doubt that the Bible has significant historical value. But there's a huge leap to be taken from claiming it is a piece of priceless historical evidence from claiming it is an accurate history of the world we live in.

Tom Strong

However, the Bible being fiction doesn't make it untrue. As a work of truth it's value must be judged not by historical or (heaven forfend) scientific accuracy, but by its truth to the human heart. Fiction is often more true than history in this way.

The people who claim that the bible is literally, inerrantly true through and through are fools, more interested in maintaining a lie to themselves than in actually facing the world with open eyes. But those who claim that it is true to the human soul, to our sense of meaning? I can agree with that. I don't think its "soul-truths" are inerrant or without missteps, but the Bible contains some of the most stirring prose and poetry ever written.

Tom Strong

Adam & Michael,

I think you two are being kept apart by a basic problem, one which you may need to acknowledge before you two can find any resolution. Namely, that belief in the supernatural, including God, often requires the _suspension_ of disbelief before evidence can be provided. For skeptics, this can seem terribly convenient.

Christ himself acknowledged this much when he said - I'm paraphrasing because I don't have my Bible here - that he taught in parables because they would only make sense to those willing to understand them. I think he overstated that by the way - the parables are difficult even with an open mind.

This is different from science, which (at its best) is based on disbelief, and through converting through doubt rather than despite it. This is why modern Christian thinkers, most famously CS Lewis, devoted so much of their energy to figuring out how to convert people to Christianity through rational arguments.


But Tom, science requires the suspension of disbelief as well. You have to be open to the possibility that a theory MAY be correct before you can fairly evaluate it. Just because a theory is weird doesn't mean you can just ignore it.

That's really what I'm asking for. I think in the debate between atheism and non-theism, neither should be awarded the default position. Both most make their case. Given the purported nature of the divine, it's not fair to treat it as some elf. I mean come on. The fair point from which to evaluate these arguments is from agnosticism. Michael's trying to make the case that the default position should be atheism.

However, as two of my favorite commenters/posters at centerfield put it (Brian Keegan and Tully): "It takes just as much faith to be an atheist as it does to be a believer." And these guys usually argue AGAINST me on metaphysical issues. I really like them because I think they're very skilled rhetoricians. I think Brian has graduate training in logic and critical thinking. After all, atheism is the position that no spiritual entities whatsoever exist. That takes a whole hell of a lot of evidence to demonstrate.

In areas of such controversy, I think we are obliged to take the default position to be the golden Ambivablog "Or." (Hey amba, I just realized that l'or is French for gold. cool huh. the golden mean)


And in Hebrew, it means "light." Heh heh.


We so rule, amba! (high-five)

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