Do atheists reject the “wrong kind of God”? Not likely

Dorothy_0011b God-Satan Desk Signsby Daniel Linford

Why is it that some people do not believe in God? Some popular religious writers have claimed that atheists reject God because they were presented with the wrong kind of God. Atheists reject a god that is too small, it is claimed, and most have not considered the more sophisticated God that is really worth believing in. If only atheists considered the proper sort of deity, these authors insist, they would have long abandoned their atheism.

This is the position of several authors who have written popular books on the subject over the last two decades: Karen Armstrong [1], John Haught [2], and David Bentley Hart [3], to name a few. I think these authors are incorrect. There are good reasons for rejecting belief even in their gods. Here I will focus on Armstrong’s version, but several of my remarks will be applicable to a number of other theologies.

What sort of gods do these writers have in mind? If the wrong sort of God is “too small,” the right sort of God is much bigger: a radically transcendent being about which human languages can only speak indirectly. Armstrong claims that her God is beyond any of our conceptions of what a god might be like. God is so far beyond human comprehension, she insists, that when we try to imagine God we instead imagine a false idol. God, she tells us, “is the God beyond [our idolatrous conception of] God” [4].

Armstrong, and others of a similar view, are mystics who insist that the way that we speak of God comes in stages.

First, we speak of God directly: we might say “God is good,” where the word “good” means the same thing of God as it does when we talk about a virtuous human. Here we affirm one of God’s properties [5].

Second, we learn that our initial way of speaking about God was naive: we cannot mean the same thing when we talk about God’s goodness as we do when we speak of humanly goodness. We say: “God is not good.” Here we deny that God has some (human) property [6].

Many mystics insist that we should alternate between these two stages, affirming and denying, until we are left in a silence pointing to God. In the end, we learn that we do not know what we are saying when we speak of God. Some theologians, such as Denys Turner [7] and Thomas Aquinas [8], have suggested that we do not even know what it means to say that God exists. Armstrong agrees. She writes that God is “not a being at all. […] We could not even say that God ‘existed,’ because our concept of existence was too limited” [9].

For Armstrong, because we cannot speak literally of God, we should resort to poetry, “which takes us to the end of what words and thoughts can do” [4]. It remains unclear, then, why Armstrong’s many books about God are not books of poetry.

If we do not know what we mean when we speak of God, how can atheists know what they are objecting to? Thus, the mystical theologian insists that the atheist could not have rejected God after all. And a variety of traditional objections to theism, naturally, disappear as well.

For example, no longer could one say that the widespread suffering in our world is incompatible with an all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving God because we would be unable to say what these properties indicate about God. If God is “all-knowing,” “all-powerful,” and “all-loving,” but in no way that we can understand, then, whatever that way is, it might be compatible with any degree of suffering whatsoever.

Still, the god of the mystical theologian, as I shall call it, is subject to at least three problems.

First, as Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga has pointed out, concerning a similar view, why should we think that God has this sort of transcendence — the sort where we do not possess words adequate to describe God — and not some other [10]? Armstrong’s theology seems to be nothing more than a vague assertion.

Plantinga continues by pointing out that a God beyond words is not coherent. Consider that the property of being God can be expressed in English. If mystical theologians insist that no property of God can be expressed in English, then the property of being God is not one of God’s properties. But how can God not be God? Similarly, God is not a bottle of beer. Yet mystical theologians could not say that God literally has the property of not being a bottle of beer. If none of the properties that we can attribute to God in human languages can be applied literally to God, then God is incoherent [11].

Second, the theist would have no reason to maintain belief in religious doctrines that had been provided only through divine revelation. Why not? As philosopher Erik Wielenberg has pointed out, there is a significant problem for revelation if we can know so little (nothing, really) about God. Consider the statement “God is good.” The mystical theologian insists that the word “good,” as it appears in this statement, cannot be understood by finite humans. If that is so, we cannot know what God’s goodness entails. For all we know, God may have reasons, beyond our comprehension, for lying to us [12].

But wait, you say, God cannot lie because God is morally perfect! I am not claiming that God lies. I am only claiming that believers have no reason to rule out the possibility of God lying. According to the view maintained by the mystical theologian, we cannot know what God’s moral perfection entails. It may be good, in a way that we cannot understand, for God to lie to us.

The mystical theologian wishes to say that God is truthful and trustworthy, but this would involve knowing things about God’s goodness which the mystical theologian maintains we cannot know. The mystical theologian may change her mind concerning what we can or cannot know about God, yet remember where we started. If we could more definitively say what God is, it would expose God to the atheist’s traditional objections (regardless of whether one finds them convincing or not).

If we cannot rule out the possibility of God lying to us, then we have no reason to trust those doctrines which humans learned about only through divine revelation. These include the Trinity, the Eucharist, the nature of the afterlife, and so on [13]. There would be little reason to accept Christianity, or any other traditional religion.

Armstrong does not appear to accept divine revelation in a traditional sense. For her, all of the world’s religions are each attempts to make sense of the same Divine Reality [14]. However, Armstrong would have to say that there is some sense in which the revelations made to each religion contain truths. But it is difficult to make sense of this position, given her take on God.

There is a related problem. Armstrong has written that, “[i]f a conventional idea of God inspires empathy and respect for all others, it is doing its job” [15]. But if we do not know what it means to talk about God’s goodness — or about any of God’s properties at all — why should we think that God is connected with the property “empathy and respect for all others”?

And now the third problem. Consider those doctrines for which we might have some evidence. This may include God’s hand in the creation and the maintenance of the universe or in miracles. Mystical theology entails that these cannot be evidence for God after all.

Consider some phenomena behind which one might suspect the handiwork of God. Such phenomena can only count as evidence for God if we have reason to think that God was likely to produce the phenomena in question. Indeed, if God was comparatively unlikely to produce some phenomenon, the latter may actually count as evidence against the existence of God. Yet mystical theology tells us that we cannot know what God is likely to do or to want. For all we know, any purported evidence of God’s presence is actually evidence of the contrary.

Mystical theologians may object that God is not to be inferred through evidence of design in nature (as Intelligent Design advocates insist) but is instead to be experienced [16]. This is no better: if we cannot know what sort of phenomena God is likely to produce then we cannot know what sort of experiences God is likely to trigger within us.

Mystical theologians should find it troubling that religious experience cannot provide us with reason to believe in God, but apparently they don’t. Both Armstrong and Haught argue that we can only come to know God experientially while at the same time implicitly barring the intelligibility of religious experience, thus leaving us without God.

Mystical theology gives us no justification for its radical (and seemingly incoherent) transcendence, without trust in scripture, without evidence for God, and without religious experience. Do atheists reject the wrong kind of God? How could we even know?

_____

Daniel Linford is an adjunct professor of philosophy at Thomas Nelson Community College. His main interests are in philosophy of religion, philosophy of science, and early-modern atheism. Dan recently earned his master’s degree at Virginia Tech and is currently applying to PhD programs.

[1] Armstrong, K. (2009) The Case for God. New York: Random House.

[2] Haught has made this claim in a number of works, but see especially Haught, J. (2006) Is Nature Enough? Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[3] Hart, D.B. (2014) The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss. Grand Rapids: Yale University Press.

[4] NPR, Karen Armstrong builds a ‘case for god’.

[5] Armstrong, 2009, pp 125-126, 140-141.

[6] Ibid. Readers may be skeptical whether Armstrong states that God is “not good,” at least in any way that we understand. Yet she writes on the first page of the introduction to The Case for God: “[…] we don’t understand what we mean when we say that [God] is ‘good’, ‘wise,’ or ‘intelligent’” (2009, p ix).

[7] Turner, D. (2007) How to be an atheist. New Blackfriars 83:977-978.

[8] Aquinas, T. Summa Theologiae, 1a q3 prol.

[9] Armstrong, 2009, pp ix-x.

[10] Plantinga, A. (2000) Warranted Christian Belief. Oxford: Oxford University Press. See the discussion of Gordon Kauffman’s and John Hick’s theologies in chapter 2.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Wielenberg’s argument was in response to skeptical theism: the conjunct of theism and the view that the kinds of goods, their interrelations, and their implications of which we are aware are not representative of the kinds of good, their interrelations, and their implications of which there are (Wielenberg, E. (2010) Skeptical theism and divine lines. Religious Studies 46(4):509-523; also see Hudson, H. (2012) The father of lies? Oxford Studies in Philosophy of Religion 5:117-132). The mystical theology considered in this essay entails skeptical theism, or something very close to it.

[13] See, for example, Thomas Aquinas’s discussion of the after-life in Summa Theologica, Prima Pars, Question 1, Article 1. Of course, which doctrines are taken to be accessible only through revelation will depend upon the particular religion. See also the discussion on the distinction between natural and revealed theology in Brent, J. (2008). Natural theology. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

[14] Armstrong states: “Many of the most influential Jewish, Christian and Muslim thinkers understood that what we call ‘God’ is merely a symbol that points beyond itself to an indescribable transcendence.” In the same article, she appears to imply that Taoists, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Christians, and Muslims use different symbols to approach the same transcendent reality.

[15] Armstrong, 2009, p xvii.

[16] Haught, 2006, pp 31-32.

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123 thoughts on “Do atheists reject the “wrong kind of God”? Not likely

  1. Following up:

    Observation 1 The objections seemed to aim at revealing a fundamental opposition between the mystical theologians and other kinds of religionists. The tension between mystics and systematizers of dogma has in fact been recurrent throughout the history of many religions, but has resulted only occasionally in mere sectarianism, never disavowal of religion or any other kind of enlightenment. If that was the aim of the post? I don’t think it will happen now either. I’m afraid I don’t even think it will exacerbate any latent tensions between the systematizers and the mystagogues.

    Observation 2 The term “religion” is used to cover a large number of institutions and practices in a bewildering array of societies, yet is supposed to meaningfully refer to personal experiences that have a family resemblance. I think that is not true. Any given religion may have a physical continuity of some sort but the differing life situations over the generations will invest the practices of the religion with meanings that make the experiences incommensurable. The notion of experiential continuity is nonsense, purely ideological. It is as nonsensical as saying that contemporary members of a religion share the same experience. And this is a fortiori true of ineffabie mystical experiences.

    Observation 3 Atheism is a philosophical impossibility because religious people as a whole neither accept the necessity for rational justification nor do they use offer a agreed coherent conception of God, regardless of rhetorical concessions by individuals. If nothing else, God is the personification of Good. If you’re in favor of Good, then denying God is therefore morally perverse, hence incoherent, hence unphilosophical. QED. The critique of religious bigotry remains but is highly controversial. It requires the notion that personal experience does not constitute knowledge, but this is a major element of what is called scientism. The case against superstition as such is then foreclosed by the repudiation of scientism , leaving only the case by case rebuttal of incidental excesses. As in, this faith healer is a fraud, but we’ll pray for a cure. (Being in favor of Bad is just Satanism, another religion.)

    I can’t refute the Armstrongs but since I don’t understand what they’re offering it doesn’t matter to me. Absent the shared experience there’s nothing to accept. What really matters is religious bigotry. Does their philosophizing contribute to or covers for religious bigotry? So far as I can tell, they don’t want to admit that there is such a thing, much less reject it. But since so far as I can tell the same can be said of atheists, I don’t know what is left so urgent to say about the mystical theologians.

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  2. Hi Coel,

    As I’ve mentioned, you can approach and approximate something that cannot actually be reached from within an axiomatic system … thus I think it is a bit unfair of you to say that god talk MUST be about wishful thinking.

    I also think it is a bit unfair to say that when scientists assume things without proof it is o.k., but when theologians do it, it is wrong.

    Also, I’ve encountered your argument about political influence over the NAS before. If you ask me, if what you are saying is true, it makes the anti-theist position even WORSE than I have stated. It is basically saying that scientist have no integrity and would willingly lie to you if they found it convenient. How then can you trust them any more than a bible banger? Most people have never performed the experiments themselves, do not know how to construct proofs of various theorems, and wouldn’t be able to understand the proofs if the proofs were handed to them. If you say that you can’t trust what the scientists tell you, then where does that leave you?

    Also, it is a bit ironic to criticize theologians for believing things without proof, then go on to suggest that people with the stature of Peter Higgs are saying false things for political purposes — without presenting any evidence of that claim.

    P.S. It seems that these comments are edited. If so, I wish some indication was included as to where changes were made in the post.

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  3. socraticgadfly, regarding your comments to me,
    I concede there are more people i should meet, read, and listen more carefully to; one can always do better in this.
    Case in point: i haven’t read coel’s article you reference and so don’t understand your riff about laundry lists, etc.
    Same goes for heidegger the nazi philosopher dude; haven’t read enough of him to understand your linkage of him to what i said.
    I think more elaboration was in order.
    You seem either very disappointed or very pleased that i capitalized some words.
    Either way, i regret the distraction as i would have rather enjoyed a more “socratic” gadfly. (not that I begrudge a man’s enjoying himself)

    Regarding your comments to ‘all’.
    I claimed mystical experience of the brute fact of my own existence in the world in addition to experiences of love, awe, bliss, etc.
    i’ve never done drugs of any kind.
    i use the word ‘mystical’ precisely because these experiences are not quantifiable or measurable for me. if this doesn’t happen to you, i’m sorry for you, but they are real experiences.

    Because i see this sort of expression often with atheists, i’m interested in your diminutive use of ‘just’ in ‘just brain activity’ to describe these experiences.
    In all the atomic configurations of the universe that we’re aware of, is there anything in relation to which the diminutive ‘just’ is properly applicable to that configuration we call ‘human brain activity’? i’d be curious as to what that would be.
    This rather ties in with the ubiquitous and amusing rebuke of ‘egotism’.
    What in the universe is more entitled to egotism than egos?
    To countenance that perhaps entities completely unaware of anything, much less themselves, even when they are very large and ancient, somehow qualify — is funny.
    But not as funny as the egotism of an ego proudly decrying egotism.

    I think you may be mistaking mysticism for gnostic charlatanism. Mysticism, as I understand and experience it, is exultation in the immeasurable and unquantifiable which exists in everything but mostly in experience itself. From discussion, i gather this seems to disturb people more likely to find their atheism very important to them. It’s interesting. I think I sense it more in those atheists for whom a political agenda of saving the world from religion is the Main Thing for them. Darn the caps!

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  4. Tripping reindeer and Santa Clause. There are certain experiences or visions or what have you that are incredibly strange and challenging and do seem to contain information about what this universe is doing beyond the normal logical or philosophical channels. Even someone hyper rational and atheistic could potentially have their entire worldview upended in a few hours on a heroic dose of psilocybin in a dark room. Not for the faint of heart, I’ve been there. There is something mystical I would say about having a deep scientific insight into nature or realizing something you didn’t know for the first time. Taking that kind of humble scientific feeling and intuition and marrying it to the reality dissolving hyperstrangeness of a five gram shroom trip is one of those things that makes it interesting to be alive right now as a human being. Who really cares if there is a god or not, those little kinds of games tend to drop away when you start to open up the heart of the beast. That’s my two cents.

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  5. Hi Aravis,

    Can you please cite a statistically sound survey of religious people that substantiates this allegation, concerning their motives? I doubt it.

    What people’s motivations are and what they think they are are two different things. Human beings are hugely prone to wishful thinking (confirmation bias, expectation bias, projection and egocentricity are just some examples). For instance, if you ask people to rate their own driving ability or leadership ability you typically get about three-quarters of people rating themselves above average. If you then polled them on whether this was merely wishful thinking they’d say “no”, even though it largely is.

    The supernatural claims of religion are particularly replete with wishful thinking. For instance, belief in life after death is widespread, and arises primarily from wishful thinking. If one consoles the recently bereaved by suggesting that they’ll be re-united in heaven, it might be comforting, and laudable for that reason, but it is wishful thinking.

    The idea that there is a benevolent god who loves us and will look out for us and see that everything is right in the end is also primarily the product of a human wish for this to be the case. The idea that the good get rewarded in heaven and the bad punished is invented because it suits human notions of justice (I’ve even encountered the argument: “if there is no god, then Hitler is not being punished, therefore there is a god”, or at least “… therefore I like to think there is a god”).

    Thus, I’m sticking to my claim that the primary source of the supernatural claims of religions are human cognitive biases, with wishful thinking being dominant. Indeed, nearly all the arguments for a God (by which I mean something sufficiently god-like to merit the term “God”, not an apophatic god stripped of all god-like properties) are pure anthropocentric wishful thinking.

    Why do you feel the need to disparage and insult the worldviews of others, …

    It is very common to try to disallow atheistic critiques of religion like that (it’s strange, since if I were to suggest a role of wishful thinking in the claims about economic policy made by the capitalist right, or by the socialist left, I’d rarely get that response). Yet, the recognition of the strong role of human biases is necessary if we want to understand ourselves.

    This applies, not only to the religious but to all humans. For example, the insistence of double-blind medical trials (with the doctors being blinded as well) is a recognition of the effect of wishful thinking on doctors. The difference is that in science one recognises the strong biases owing to wishful thinking and tries hard to overcome it (hence, e.g., double-blind, controlled trials) whereas the religious attitude is rather to indulge and wallow in the wishful thinking.

    [By the way, I’m talking about “religion” is the dictionary sense of: “belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods”. I realise that you may instead be talking about a shared social and cultural activity that can be non-theistic.]

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  6. Tom, I very rarely edit comments. In this caseI deleted an offensive statement from yours because I tried to contact you to allow you to resubmit yourself, but you provided a fake email address, which is explicitly against the rules on this web site.

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  7. Theistic approaches to spirituality are rife with wishful thinking. Even materialists who insist on the nonexistence of anything beyond death are engaging in wishful thinking, as if they somehow had proof that this is the situation. The belief that the universe is even understandable or that one day science will arrive at a grand unified theory is another kind of wishful thinking a scientist might engage in. Look at multiverse cosmologies in physics or the belief that consciousness is solely a byproduct of brain activity in neurology, sometimes scientific ideas get elevated almost to the level of dogma without much hope of being able to conclusively prove them. Whether its in spirituality or science, when you start to think you know how things really are, you are closing your eyes to further messages from the cosmos. Keep exploring your actual situation.

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  8. Son of Sharecroppers,

    “Yes, all 2 billion Christians and 1.5 billion Muslims and 200 million Buddhists and however many Hindus can be wrong”…

    I’m not saying that they are right or wrong, what I’m saying is that religion is a clear example of communal language whether the believers are right or wrong.

    “Most believers hold their beliefs simply because of where they were born and how they were raised. The various geographical accidents of their births do not obligate me to give any credence to their creeds”.

    I disagree, monotheistic religions such as Judaism, Islam and Christianity believe in one God despite the place in which the believers live.

    “Such claims are of course based on private revelations that cannot be experienced or observed by other persons”.

    This is a common and wrong statement provided that I don’t believe in divine and transcendental revelations. I solely believe in a hard, uncomfortable work that aims to open the current mind to the mystic, spiritual experience. For instance, Jesus didn’t visit the temples, he wasn’t attached to liturgic ceremonies and the people that was close to him shared with him a communal, spiritual view. Buddha went to the woods not for reaching a transcendental, private truth, but to do a personal work that lead him to wisdom. Socrates, Epicurus and Diogenes led similar path.

    It is also wrong to state that the spiritual experience can’t be observed and experienced by others. Many eastern and western mystics gathered around lot of people because these experienced, observed and shared the spiritual event. They were happy feeling and sharing such experience.

    “Such opinions are amenable to resolution through the scientific method, as they may be subjected to additional modeling, testing, and observation”.

    Agreed. But before reaching a common consensus there are different models, conjectures and hypothesis, namely, there are different private truths.

    “Finally, it is clear that you’re a dualist”.

    No, I’m not a dualist. As I said above I don’t believe in transcendental and divine revelations. I do believe in a hard, natural, horizontal way that may lead to reach wisdom.

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  9. Steven Johnson has submitted some comments directly responding to my article. I’ll take each of his rebuttals at a time.

    “Rebuttal 1a There is no logical necessity for God to eschew the arbitrary, merely an emotional preference on the part of some people”

    You’ve misunderstood me.

    What I said was that Armstrong’s notion of transcendence is abitrary, in the sense that we have little reason to believe it to be true about God. That’s not the same thing as saying that God “eschew[s] the arbitrary”. No where did I say that God did or did not “eschew the arbitrary”.

    My claim was about what we are justified in believing.

    “Rebuttal 1b Philosophy uses a coherence notion of truth, which is why it fancies itself in opposition to religion. Religion uses a correspondence notion of truth in which the evidence of emotional experience tells us about reality. (Neither religion nor philosophy are committed to scientific materialist notions of what constitutes evidence, i.e., both oppose scientism.)”

    I have no idea what you are talking about here. Some philosophers hold to a correspondence notion of truth. Other philosophers hold to a coherence notion of truth. You claim that religion has a particular stance on this philosophical problem, but I find that rather implausible. Furthermore, it is absurd to say that all of philosophy is some monolithic block that opposes scientism. Some philosophers oppose scientism. Other philosophers do not.

    At any rate, I put several questions forward as to why Armstrong’s epistemological stance does not work. You have not succeeded in answering any of them.

    “Rebuttal 2a The outward form of religion created by revelation does not require justification, being in the nature of a performative utterance rather than a system of metaphysical propositions. Perhaps the most perfect disavowal of rationalism is the obedience of the unbeliever.”

    Your claim is that revelations are “performative utterances” (do you mean speech acts?) as oppose to “metaphysical propostions” (do you mean truth evaluable statements?). It sounds as though you think revelations should be interpreted non-cognitively. I see no reason to think that, but, if so, how do you propose we resolve the Frege Geach problems?

    “Rebuttal 2b The experience is the evidence. The evidence points to the truth. The impossibility of a logical derivation is irrelevant, since coherence is not the standard of truth.”

    I never asked for a logical derivation. I asked for reason to think that such experiences are veridical. You’ve failed to meet that objection.

    “Rebuttal 3 The experience of creation can serve as emotional truth, for which no material referent or logical proof is required.”

    I don’t know what that means.

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  10. Following up to Steven Johnson’s followup….

    “Observation 1 The objections seemed to aim at revealing a fundamental opposition between the mystical theologians and other kinds of religionists.”

    I don’t know why you’d think this.

    That’s not the aim of the essay.

    “Observation 2 The term ‘religion’ is used to cover a large number of institutions and practices in a bewildering array of societies, yet is supposed to meaningfully refer to personal experiences that have a family resemblance. [….] The notion of experiential continuity is nonsense, purely ideological. It is as nonsensical as saying that contemporary members of a religion share the same experience. And this is a fortiori true of ineffabie mystical experiences.”

    I agree with this. It’s also clearly a problem for Armstrong’s view and not for my article.

    “Observation 3 Atheism is a philosophical impossibility because religious people as a whole neither accept the necessity for rational justification nor do they use offer a agreed coherent conception of God, regardless of rhetorical concessions by individuals.”

    Surely, whether or not one’s interlocutors monolithically accept that something is impossible has very little to do with whether a position is possible. There may also be people who have faith that unicorns exist and who do not accept that rational justifications can be given for unicorns nor accept that an agreed upon coherent conception of unicorns can be provided. That doesn’t mean that I cannot disbelieve in unciorns. In point of fact: I can disbelieve in unicorns and I can disbelieve in gods.

    “If nothing else, God is the personification of Good. If you’re in favor of Good, then denying God is therefore morally perverse, hence incoherent, hence unphilosophical. QED.”

    That’s a bunch of question begging malarky.

    One can believe that the Good exists without thinking that it should be personified. A number of contemporary philosophers think this. David Enoch, for example, thinks that there is a Platonic Good but denies that the Good should be thought of as a person.

    But one can also believe in the reality of moral properties without being a Platonist. Richard Boyd, for example, thinks that there are moral properties but, unlike Enoch, thinks that all of the moral properties that there are are reducible to natural properties.

    Furthermore: whether something is morally perverse has very little to do with whether it is incoherent. In fact, in at least the technical sense used by philosophers, that x could be morally perverse implies that x is not incoherent. If x really were incoherent, it couldn’t have moral properties (whether such properties are perversity or otherwise).

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  11. Hal Morris: “Sounds very much like The Cat in the Hat Comes Back. I always suspected there was something very deep about that book.”

    Dr. Seuss had intuitively addressed two very important issues.
    One, the ad infinitum process is a part of all ‘life systems’, moving forward without end; such as counting (countable) or even the Godel process.

    Two, the end of an ad infinitum process. While every life system is ‘moving forward’ ad infinitum, it is always a ‘finitude’ at every instant. Thus, many ad infinitum life-processes must be ‘concretized’. That is, the ad infinitum process must be end in some way. In physics, this ‘end’ process is done ‘arbitrarily’ (in a practical convenience sense) in a process of ‘renormalization’.

    The fact that it can be done arbitrarily shows that the concretization of ad infinitum is guaranteed. This is the key issue addressed in the book “Linguistics Manifesto, (ISBN 978-3-8383-9722-1)” [available at http://www.worldcat.org/title/linguistics-manifesto-universal-language-the-super-unified-linguistic-theory/oclc/688487196&referer=brief_results ), and I will not discuss it in detail here. At this Webzine, I did briefly discussed it with the 3P issue (see https://scientiasalon.wordpress.com/2014/12/01/on-the-disunity-of-the-sciences/comment-page-2/#comment-9923 ) as follow:
    :
    Physics 1 (P1): Expression 1 = physical universe {prequark, quark, (baryon, lepton), atoms, … galaxies; DNA… etc.}

    Physics 2 (P2): Expression 2 = bio-‘attributes (not functions)’ {intelligence, consciousness, mortality, spirituality, etc.}

    Physics 3 (P3): Expression 3 = Math {zero, finite numbers, infinities}

    As these 3P are only the different ‘expressions’ of the Nature (with capital ‘N’), they must have the same DNA (being isomorphic). Ye, P3 encompasses infinities while the P1 is a finitude. Thus, there must be concretize process(es).

    In your comment, there are two issues.
    First, will there be a horizontal ad infinitum process for the pop(s)? Practically, I know it is not. Theoretically, we can handle it with the concretizing process.

    Second, will there be ‘vertical’ ad infinitum process for the pop(s)? Obviously, this is no different from the horizontal issue in principle, but it is a much important issue psychologically and metaphysically. Yes, it will stop when pop (all) cannot or need not be popped.

    I have showed that ‘nature constants’ are popped by ‘timelessness-process (TP)’, and ‘Standard Model fermions’ are popped by ‘immutability-process (IP)’. Then, these TP and IP are popped by ‘nothingness’ (see https://scientiasalon.wordpress.com/2014/10/31/mark-english-on-philosophy-science-and-expertise-a-naive-reply/comment-page-2/#comment-9356 ). It is not too difficult to prove that ‘nothing’ needs no ‘pop’.

    With ‘nothingness’ sits at the bottom, this pop-down process will be stopped when it reaches that bottom. How can ‘nothing’ pop out something? See the above link (#comment-9356).

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  12. Daniel Linford,
    Thanks for the interesting piece. I haven’t read Armstrong so this is a response to how you portray her along with other mystics who posit an ineffable transcendent God. Here is how I see it.
    There’s a youtube in which Dennett lecturers about Hume’s strange inversion. The strange inversion is what happens when we say ‘honey is sweet’, or ‘that woman is sexy’. We project what happens to us when we eat honey or see a nice butt as inherent properties in the honey or the butt. Honey is not sweet and butts are not sexy; sweetness happens and sexy happens when we encounter these things; i.e. the reality of sweetness and sexy is ‘in our wiring’.

    I want to say ‘God’ is a strange inversion. Like ‘sweetness’ and ‘sexy’, ‘god’ is not inherent in anything, but nevertheless, happens. There is this crucial difference though: there are specific encounters of the same types (honey or butts) in which ‘sweetness’ or ‘sexy’ happens. This is not the case with “God”. This is because ‘God’ is what happens when we encounter ourselves in our relation to our self, our world, and our community.
    (That is, “God” is always with us in all our encounters.) The non-specificity of ‘god’ exists precisely because of the non-specificity of these relations. These relations are not less real because they are not specific. Likewise, “god” is as real as “sweetness” and “sexy” is. Humanity creates sacred conditions, in solitude or in community, where ‘god’ can have some specificity. They have to make the honey in order to get the sweetness. It may be drumming, music, dancing, a narrative, a mythological person, an idol, a ritual, a theology, a projection on natural phenomena, etc.

    To me, many atheists I encounter are like people who can’t get over the fact that other people seem to think sweetness is in the honey and they make it a major project in their lives to disillusion them of this. I just scratch my head and ask ‘why’? Particularly when most believers even fundamentalists, with a little bit of talking, will arrive at the same place Armstrong is; god transcends specificity. Which leaves atheists all by themselves in their backward, fundamentalist, approach to god. There is a danger in this for atheists in that an exorbitant focus on the fact that the sweetness isn’t in the honey can lead to a denial that sweetness exists. I’ve seen this happen with atheists I argue with. Its a concern Sam Harris expresses here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AMa-0Fjn2sU
    Here is the Dennet video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wY9Xm5xgiEE

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  13. Mario Roy: The “communal language” of any set of believers is a false communal language in my sense of the term as each such language is shared only by other believers. Each such “language” excludes billions of other language users. By contrast, virtually anyone can use the languages of mathematics and physics. They reflect very minimal commitments to anything beyond themselves.

    Further, the fact is that the schismatic history of all major religions shows that believers really don’t agree very much with one another. And, of course, the major religions all disagree with one another.

    I don’t see how you can avoid being a dualist given this sentence: “I solely believe in a hard, uncomfortable work that aims to open the current mind to the mystic, spiritual experience.” You must have a very different understanding of dualism than I have. Either that or you deny that there is a natural world–i.e., a material world.

    You also state the following: “It is also wrong to state that the spiritual experience can’t be observed and experienced by others. Many eastern and western mystics gathered around lot of people because these experienced, observed and shared the spiritual event. They were happy feeling and sharing such experience.” No, the people who “gathered around” the mystics were not sharing the experiences of the mystics. They were sharing the mystics’ narratives of those experiences.

    I can tell you what it’s like to drink a cup of coffee, and I may offer a very good description of the experience. You can feel as if you have had my experience. But you haven’t. You’ve had a different experience. We can sit down together, pour coffee from the same pot into two identical cups, and drink our drinks at the same time. We can talk about those experiences. They can be as similar as we can make them. But they are different experiences.

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  14. Hi Coel,

    It is very common to try to disallow atheistic critiques of religion like that (it’s strange, since if I were to suggest a role of wishful thinking in the claims about economic policy made by the capitalist right, or by the socialist left, I’d rarely get that response).

    Really? You are saying that if I go onto a left wing discussion board and state that left wing economics is largely if not completely motivated by wishful thinking that people would not respond to me pretty much as Aravis has responded to you?

    I have a different hypothesis – that a significant part of the response from the commenters would be to:

    1. Ask me if I had evidence for the contention and
    2. Suggest that I was simply substituting insult for reasoning and evidence

    I suppose we could test the two hypotheses – how confident are you that yours would hold up?

    I imagine that if you were to make the same charge against anybody in any field then that response would be likely.

    Human beings are hugely prone to wishful thinking (confirmation bias, expectation bias, projection and egocentricity are just some examples. This applies, not only to the religious but to all humans.

    Including you.

    For example, the insistence of double-blind medical trials (with the doctors being blinded as well) is a recognition of the effect of wishful thinking on doctors.

    And Aravis’s insistence that you provide sound, objective evidence for your contention. is also a recognition of the same thing.

    But you sidestepped the request and restated your confidence that your original claim was correct. You may think that you have completely accounted for your own biases. But that may, in itself, be due to bias.

    Note that you are claiming that you understand the motivations of a large group of people better than they understand it themselves and are admitting that this claim is based on no objective evidence and yet you are confident that you are correct.

    Are you aware that the British Humanist Association and Richard Dawkins put quite a lot of money into an advertising campaign with the slogan: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”?

    In other words the British Humanist Association and Richard Dawkins were once prepared to wager quite a lot of money on the proposition that atheism better fulfilled peoples wishes than theism.

    Personally I think that the human mind is probably way more complex than most people are prepared to allow.

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  15. Per Wm. Burgess: “Particularly when most believers even fundamentalists, with a little bit of talking, will arrive at the same place Armstrong is; god transcends specificity.”

    The “New Atheists” were energized and gained prominence after 9/11, which they and many others took to be a singular illustration of why we should try to “talk religion to death” (none of them that I know of suggests we should criminalize it). There was a sort of “double whammy” fanatical Islam was integral, not incidental, to the explosion of suicide bombings, *and* the U.S. for 8 years seemed very much under the sway of Christian fundamentalists, indeed the president was one of them. One of their core beliefs was that millions of Americans – those who’ve participated in abortion no matter at how early a stage – were murderers.

    If you can, with a little bit of talking, persuade fundamentalists that “god transcends specificity”, then I’m sure we can get this whole thing to blow over. The New Atheists will keep writing but won’t be so prominent as talking heads. My hope is that you are somewhat right. A more promising route to peace and sanity in the near future would, I think be for the monotheisms (mostly) to go back into a more moderate phase, as they mostly did around the end of the 17th century after people had had their fill of religious wars.

    But frankly, the existence of a huge portion of the human race, divided in two, each thinking god wants to torture the other half, along with the nonbelievers for eternity is frightening. What they think god wants them to do about it varies from time to time, but that one core belief of Islam and Christianity if nothing else sets quite a bad example for its believers.

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  16. Hi Tom,

    I also think it is a bit unfair to say that when scientists assume things without proof it is o.k., but when theologians do it, it is wrong.

    I didn’t say that. What I said is that it is ok to make tentatitive hypotheses and working assumptions so long as you recognise that that’s what you’re doing and then try hard to test and refute the hypotheses.

    Also, I’ve encountered your argument about political influence over the NAS before.

    I agree with your complaint about “political” statements on religion put out by the NAS. In my opinion silence on such matters would be better.

    Hi Robin,

    And Aravis’s insistence that you provide sound, objective evidence for your contention.

    What Aravis effectively asked for is opinion poll data of religious believers saying “yes, we hold this belief owing to wishful thinking”. Which is not how human biases work.

    and are admitting that this claim is based on no objective evidence

    No, I am not admitting that (though the topic is not easily dealt with in 500-word comments). But, for example, the role of wishful thinking in believers reassuring the recently bereaved that they’ll be re-united in heaven, is blatantly obvious.

    You may think that you have completely accounted for your own biases.

    Nope I do not think that. Indeed, I explicitly noted the biases in everyone and the need to try hard to account for it. The recognition of bias in the scientific method (e.g., the requirement for controlled, double-blinded medical trials) contrasts with the wallowing in bias typical of religion (e.g. “Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed”).

    Are you aware that the British Humanist Association and Richard Dawkins put quite a lot of money into an advertising campaign …

    Sure am, and indeed I donated to that campaign myself. (Note, by the way, that the campaign and the slogan were a response to an advertisement by a Christian group telling people to go around worrying that they were heading for hell.)

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  17. Hi Coel,

    I am sorry to interrupt in the conversation, but I find it quite baffling how you can feel so confident in making such sweeping statements time and te again concerning such wide a range of topics while at the same time never tiring to (rightfully) praise scientists for their diligence and their care whenever they come to their conclusions. Have you actually ever read any study on the cultural or psychological roots of religious belief? I sure have not but that’s why I would not proclaim to know much about it.

    Nevertheless, the fact that religions manage to maintain concepts of hell and punishment and vengeful gods that forbid otherwise pleasurable practices makes it appear implausible to me that mere “wishful thinking” would be the most important factor in explaining the adoption of a belief or even a very relevant factor at all.

    If I were to guess, I would say that cultural conditioning is much more important. At least here I could hint to data that shows that the likelihood of adopting belief system x is highly dependent on the pervasiveness of belief system x among peers (especially parents) and I would wager that it is quite independent of the purported benefits of system x (I don’t actually know of any study on the second claim).

    But just because I would find my view much more plausible than yours, I would not put much stock in it, since I realize that I am quite uneducated on the topic and the motivations for adopting complex cultural practices could very well be complex themselves. Don’t you agree there?

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  18. Thanks for the response to the rebuttals. I’m sorry I misunderstood the point about the arbitrariness of ascribing transcendence to God. Unfortunately, the mystics hold their personal experiences as justification for this claim, which means it is not arbitrary. I tried to read carefully but you didn’t say that some sort of empirical testing (loosely, “science,”) is required to validate evidence, and many philosophers insist this is an invalid, even offensive, claim. I’m afraid that we also cannot acquit philosophy as whole in denying a correspondence notion of truth and rejecting scientistic epistemologies for the simple reason that coherence notions of truth and other forms of knowledge than science are upheld as valid positions. In religion, no one should accept the claim that a person who acknowledged both the Trinity and Odin and Viracocha as God was a Christian. Philosophy as a whole cannot stand upon a demand for empirical evidence about the reality of God when it’s perfectly willing to deny this is not a legitimate standard. I don’t know of any school of thought rejected by philosophy as a whole. (Well, except Marxism. But everybody expects that.)

    “…do you mean speech acts?…” Participation in institutions and practices of any given religion may be more than a speech act. My point is that such performances are not abstract beliefs, not even psychological events, but obedience to the demands of the religion. The meaning or function depends upon the religion.

    “…do you mean truth evaluable statements?…” I mean to deny the notion of religion as an assent to a system of truth claims. This is because first of all, not all religions have systematic theology to assent to. But also because assent to the truth evaluable statements made by religion may be made by misunderstanding or from tact. What matters in religion is obedience, not necessarily literal belief in the truth evaluable statements made. Besides, unless you commit to an epistemology that denies authority to revelation, all truth claims made by religion are “evaluable.”

    “…how do you propose we resolve the Frege Geach problems?…” By labeling them a defect of natural language, and using compact among parties in particular cases when necessary. Or perhaps convention. Or maybe decree by authority. Socratic definition or Confucian Rectification of Names has not been successful after millennia. This suggests the whole project undertaken by so many brilliant people is insoluble. Is the project still worth pursuing? Maybe stumbling into a Frege Geach problem means you’ve lost your way.

    You tell me you asked why we should believe the mystics’ experiences are true, but I cannot see where you did that. But many of your objections seem to ask how we can make sense of their claims.

    You say that you didn’t understand the third rebuttal. Although you didn’t ask, I will put it more plainly, even though I must sound more combative. You wrote “…if we cannot know what sort of phenomena God is likely to produce then we cannot know what sort of experiences God is likely to trigger within us.” This is a non-sequitur. I think the argument that ineffable personal experience could not be recognized as divine absent prior expectations is a justified inference from our scientific knowledge (physical and social sciences both!) But that’s not what you wrote.

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  19. And thank you for the response to the observations. My apologies for misreading the fundamental aim. I’m a little lost as to why so much of this seemed to be about how mystical theology is too incoherent to relate to ordinary religion.

    I’m glad you agree with my second observation. I was just explaining why I personally disagree with mystical theologians, and wasn’t in this case commenting on your post at all. I’m sorry for being off topic here.

    You are quite correct that I misused the term “incoherent” in my third observation. It’s merely self-contradictory to claim you believe in Good, then to deny God the Personification of Good. I did have the impression you rejected self-contradiction, unlike the mystical theologians. However your objection that “…one’s interlocutors monolithically accept that something is impossible…” Is confused. It is the philosophers who need to reject the impossibility of my proof. I know of no reason to think this. Of course some philosophers deny that Good need be personified. The point is, that philosophically the argument is valid if you choose to accept the premise. And in philosophy you can always choose the premises for an argument. But you can’t definitively reject any premises for lack of fidelity to reality, either. (Again unless you commit to a scientistic epistemology, but again, philosophy does not.) Once you’ve accepted the validity of talking about “religion” you have already given up all concern about vague terms that can mean whatever you want. So you can’t even accuse the argument of equivocating, without being inconsistent in accepting equivocation!

    Besides, it’s hard to see how mystical God is any more of a problem than any other kind of dualism. Cartesian dualism is out of fashion but Kantian dualism isn’t. Mystical God, a kind of Ontology an Sich, hardly seems to present any more of a philosophical problem than any other der Ding an Sich.

    Lastly, to spell it out, I am scientistic in my epistemology, so I deny that the mystics’ experiences constitute evidence and deny that formal validity qualifies as a legitimate argument. I am aware that is unphilosophical but I can’t help it.

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  20. Interestingly as she points out the pre-17th century idea of belief was the embrace or religion was pure sociology. Post scientific age finds religion as a conflict of ideas or not about belief but ‘belief in belief’. If each religion embraces a holy book for that sociology, then the universal book of transcendent belief is not the physical book but the language cortex of mankind or a search for universal culture.

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  21. HI Hal,
    I should say that I think ‘new atheists’ are no different than any other group of people in that most of them are humane, responsible, members of the community who are trying to contribute to making the world a better place. I’m a big fan of all four of the four horsemen. I think some of their methods have unintended consequences that outweigh any possible benefits. I really don’t want to get into politics, but maybe much of ‘new atheism’ is just another overreaction to 9/11. Politics thrives on overreactions. As idiotic an overreaction as the Iraq invasion was, there were overreactions (for political purposes) to it in turn. e.g. George Bush was a fundamentalist engaged in a religious war with Muslims that he thinks are going to hell. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XzjCHlRA_Yc

    The way forward is to assume, and look for, the best of people in our interactions with them. We can do this and still be prepared for the worst. I don’t see the point in saying, as Harris and Maher do, that “Islam is a fountain of bad ideas”. People identify with their religion and there is no way this is going to be taken as anything less than an attack on them. It’s counterproductive. Islam has had some good ideas too. If we focus on that, along with moderate Muslims who do that, then we are supporting the moderates rather than undermining them. Theology is not going away. Denying it’s legitimacy is a non-starter. The way forward is not to deny theology, but to do theology with people. There are significant numbers of people of every religion who embrace the fact that god transcends the specificity of their religion. This is empirical proof that each religion has within it concepts amenable to this. This is not something to be ignored at best and sneered at as ‘rationalization’ at worse; it’s our only hope.

    My father is a minister in one of the most sectarian fundamentalist christian sects in existence. He’s as true a believer as exists. I talk with him every day. I always come away convinced that his world view has within it the seeds for a wider perspective. Indeed, my own growth out of fundamentalism was much more about taking certain tenants of what I was taught more seriously (the primacy of love, the universality of ‘the gospel’, the inscrutable transcendence of god qua god, the incarnation of god in humanity as all we can ‘know’ of him, etc.) than it was about some argument from the outside against it.

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  22. Hi Wm Burgess. I appreciate your thoughtful response. Years ago I wrote something about the kind of attitude you express. Everyone has multiple personalities in some sense, and it pays to speak to peoples’ better natures — maybe even when we have no evidence that such better natures exist. See

    http://ontologicalcomedian.blogspot.com/2010/05/it-really-might-depend-on-what-meaning.html and
    http://ontologicalcomedian.blogspot.com/2010/05/when-someone-says-islam-is-based-on.html

    We are so driven to divide up into teams. It is unconscious and almost unstoppable. If I’d let my “Go Team Atheist!” nature take charge when responding to your saying “Particularly when most believers even fundamentalists, with a little bit of talking, will arrive at the same place Armstrong is; god transcends specificity.” it could have come out pretty snide, so I’m glad that between us we managed some forbearance.

    For the most part this has been a pretty dismal discussion, but do admire Massimo, and there did seem to be sparks of promise here and there, so I waded through it.

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  23. Hi miramaxime,

    Have you actually ever read any study on the cultural or psychological roots of religious belief?

    Yes, some (Pascal Boyer and Scott Atran for example), though I wouldn’t claim much expertise in it.

    Nevertheless, the fact that religions manage to maintain concepts of hell and punishment and vengeful gods that forbid otherwise pleasurable practices makes it appear implausible to me that mere “wishful thinking” would be the most important factor in explaining the adoption of a belief or even a very relevant factor at all.

    Wishful thinking is indeed key, but the scheme has to be remotely plausible, and thus it also involves a huge amount of rationalisation.

    A benevolent god that loves us and wants what’s best for us is a nice thing to believe. But, it is prima facie incompatible with the amount of suffering and bad things in the world (and religion is often stronger the worse off people are). Therefore, to be remotely in line with obvious facts, the living-in-paradise with a loving god has to be removed to an after-life. Thus, this world has to be a preparation and trial for that, and the bad things that happen are part of that test. Thus heaven is for “us” who pass the test and hell is for “them” who fail it (it’s notable how many religions say that “we” get to go to heaven whereas “they” get hell).

    If I were to guess, I would say that cultural conditioning is much more important.

    Agreed, that is hugely important. But cultural conditioning doesn’t explain which beliefs the culture adopts in the first place.

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