A Gentler Atheism

When planning my trip to Portland, I envisioned walking in snowy woods. The view of the city from the plane did not disappoint – it was covered in a pristine white blanket. It was only when riding downtown on the MAX that I learned what a disaster this was for the residents. Portland rarely sees snow, and the city has been practically shut down for the last ten days.

I did get my walk in the woods out at Breitenbush, in between sessions of the Wild Grace workshop facilitated by Paula Byrne. The experience was refreshing, although challenging. I found myself revealing far more about my journey than I had intended. After my walk in the woods on Monday morning, however, I closed my eyes to offer my gratitude before breakfast, and when I opened them the two new friends at the table said “Thank-you for that.” I found acceptance among them.

Today was my first day driving over the ice and snow. The Dollar lot was kind enough to put me in an Impreza. I don’t know what would have happened without the 4-wheel drive. I was going to go down to the OMSI, but I needed a silk swab for my flute. I ended up bouncing around NW Portland, picking up some books at Powell’s to fill in the mornings and afternoons until heading out for the dance events that drew me here. And well that I did: the rain started this afternoon, turning the roads into an icy slushy mess, and prompting cancellation of tonight’s full-contact improv event.

I picked all my selections at Powell’s from the nature shelves. I’ve been paying far too much attention to the problems people have created for themselves, and feel a strong need to see the natural world through the eyes of people that cherish it. So I find myself with books on bees and nesting.

But I started with Frans de Waal’s The Bonobo and the Atheist. The author is a primate behavioral scientist, focusing on chimpanzees and bonobos (most similar among all the apes to our primate ancestors). Without dwelling on it, de Waal makes clear his preference for the matriarchy of the bonobos, whose casual sexuality supplants fear as social glue. But in both societies, primates evidence empathy, compassion and a sense of fairness that are often upheld by philosophers as markers of “moral” conduct. de Waal extends this attribution, through brief vignettes, to other species in the mammalian order.

Laced throughout the book are reflections on the work of the Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch, famous for his apocalyptic visions. Motivated perhaps by recent works that characterized Bosch as a deviant, de Waal reinterprets the artist as a humanist, noting that there is no representation of God in Bosch’s paradise. The artwork serves as an interesting device in the narrative: de Waal references it in drawing parallels between bonobo and human behavior.

As a work of moral philosophy, the book is weak. de Waal asserts that the cooperative socialization of apes proves that morality is innate, rather than learned. But this is the morality of the tribe that suppressed intellectual innovation for so much of human history. That is not always a bad thing: nerve gas and atom bombs are tools that we probably should do without. But it is the human capacity to innovate that creates social disparity that eventually sunders tribal bonds. I remark that the Greek root – religio – means “to bind again.”

Ignoring this problem, de Waal asserts that religion exists only to claim authority over our moral energies. This is accomplished by generalizing and abstracting the moral impulse. Without demonstrating deep religious insight, de Waal suggests that any such system of moral reasoning divorces us from the physiological and emotional roots of our natural morality. Paradoxically, he observes that natural morality applies only to individuals familiar to us, which leads to gross abuse of the rights of the “other” = whether of different cultures or different species. The book closes with an appeal to broaden our moral attachments – in effect, to repeat the sins of religion by generalizing and abstracting our morality.

Unlike his more intemperate peers (such as Christopher Hitchens), de Waal does concede the benefits that religion confers upon the believer, among them longer life, social amity and a sense of meaning. He believes, furthermore, that as our moral impulse is rooted in emotional experience, any attempt to reason people away from faith is misguided. Religion is to be tolerated.

At this point, of course, de Waal has joined the camp from which I am now seeking to disentangle myself. Every human culture brought forth the concept of the soul from its tribal past. It is the most obvious mechanism for explaining the sympathy felt between intimates when one is hurt (mirror neurons having been proven to be a fiction). Taking the existence of the soul as a given, religion is then best interpreted as an institutionalized orientation toward spirituality, and the ground staked out by the atheist (de Waal among them) subsides in the tidal surge of love that originates from the divine source.

Terms of Debate

I excerpt a conversation out at Dandelion Salad that illustrates the challenges of engaging dialog with well-meaning people that are scandalized by the things done in God’s name. James was responding to my earlier comment.


James of the Commons offers:

would it not have been possible for at least a portion of humanity to love a perfect creation, the perfect creator of the perfect creation, and the perfect will of that perfect creator ? I would argue that a perfect god would have in fact created a perfect world; a world in which every action ,reaction and phenomenom was in some sense of the word, perfect.

You have stated that love requires an object in order to exist. If this is what you believe then I must assume that you are not a bible believer. The bible clearly states that god is love. From the bible we also learn that god existed before all else. Surely you do not claim to be a bible believer?

You have stated that sin occurs when we oppose our own will upon others. If this is the case, it seems then we are instructed by even the bible to sin. There is a certain bible verse that commands believers to not allow witches to live. Perhaps like the elite of socioeconomic realm, the self prescribed elite of the spirit realm,” the believers,” are not held to the same laws as everyone else? I suppose I should not be asking you, because you after all, as I have already stated, most certainly not, a bible believer. Besides that point, I am fairly confident that you believe that there are times when one individual has a moral obligation to prevent another individual from acting upon their will. Indeed you would agree that it is good for a person to impose their will upon another, when say, the other intends to harm a child, or perhaps commit murder ?

I agree, it is usually unproductive to challenge the faith of the faithful. I have found that the faithful are so insecure in their faith as to often become enraged when reminded of the absurdity of what it is they know deep down inside, is not true.

Thanks for your well thought out comments Brian.


My response:

James:

I would agree that my understanding of the Bible is not that of common belief. I have published a book that presents that understanding (See The Soul Comes First on the side-bar of my blog).

The essential distinction is that I do not see love’s perfection manifested in creation, but in healing. The Almighty did not create all the personalities in his realm, but – faced with the evidence of their pain – chose to create this reality in which healing could occur.

To the extent that I would countenance the imposition of will upon others, it would be to separate predators from their prey (I believe that covers your examples). However, that is a strategy favored by people, trapped in our limited, linear view of time. The Divine, perceiving the preconditions that cause the predator to reject the fruits of loving relationships (See Cozolino’s The Neuroscience of Human Relationships) prefers the Law of Natural Consequences. Thus Cain was allowed to live, and Jesus offers this plea at Calvary: “Father, forgive them.”

One of the most significant episodes in the Bible, often overlooked, is the covenant with Noah in which God gives Mankind responsibility for the administration of human justice. Thus the Mosaic Law should be seen as a human construct. Its purpose was to foster the development of reason in the Hebrew people. The Law was deprecated by Jesus in the New Testament. In effect, he encouraged: “You have learned to think. Now think about love.”

Your observation regarding the common reaction to challenges to closely held beliefs is not unique to people of faith. I find that many atheists tend to use linguistic violence, denigrating the intelligence and moral integrity of people of faith, rather than seeking the common ground so essential to marshalling the will to address the enormous problems we face in attempting to avoid destruction of the biosphere that sustains us.

Steven Fry’s Challenge

Rocket Kirchner addresses Steven Fry’s critique of God out at Dandelion Salad. Fry interprets the existence of suffering as proof that the Christian God is a fantasy. My response to one skeptic follows:


Here is the conundrum: If the “fantasy God” made a perfect world in which everything unfolded according to his will, then there would be nothing to love, because his will would be all. Since love requires an object to exist, the creation of such a universe would be a form of self-annihilation.

So we are granted the option to not heed the will of God – we are allowed our own free will. Unfortunately, many of us chose to play at being gods ourselves, and it is in imposing our will upon others that sin occurs.

The Christian proposition is that if we learn to submit ourselves in service to one another, we obtain access to enormous amounts of power. I won’t bother you with how that manifests in the New Testament – you’d simply assert that science disproves the possibility of the events that transpired. But to the person of faith, the healing accomplished by Jesus and the Apostles indicate that many ills that we suffer are not of God’s will. In fact, if we surrendered ourselves to the dictates of love as Jesus did, those ills would be unable to obtain purchase upon us.

So Rocket is right: we are misguided to refuse (or worse, misuse) the gift of love and then decry the consequences of its absence. And it is hypocrisy for Fry to say “God, you didn’t intervene to save the children!” when God created Fry and gave him wealth to so intervene. We were made in God’s image, which can be interpreted as “we are his intervention.”

And, given the huge amount of charitable work and giving provided by people of faith, to challenge faith is also counter-productive. The faithful understand that the world is imperfect. We simply choose to keep on giving, in part because we feel our hope sustained by the endless love that arises in our hearts.

Faith and Intellect

The atheist’s complaint against religion is frequently rooted in charges of anti-intellectualism. This is evident in Nicholas Baker’s article in this quarter’s Skeptic (Volk. 20 No. 4), Christianity’s Negative Impact on Modern American Education.

I must admit to being befuddled by these charges. Upon encountering atheists decrying intellectual incoherence in the faithful, I often invite the critic to come out and respond to the writings under the New Physics page of this blog. I have also offered the material to scientists through various forums. So far, I have received no response.

A colleague at work invited me down to the atheist Sunday Service in Santa Monica. In the event, a couple of sarcastic remarks regarding faith rankled, but for the most part I found a group of well-meaning people that seemed to have no interest in their spirituality. I confirmed this with my friend later, saying that I didn’t think that I would fit in to the community. When I offered that my experience was that my very presence forced people to confront their spirituality, he confirmed my decision.

It is the anti-spirituality of atheism that concerns me most. Until it is recognized, I am afraid that it is going to be impossible to reconcile the two communities.

An anti-spiritual emphasis is not entirely unique to atheism – I had a Kabbalist tell me that men were not to enter spiritual experience until they were forty. The violence outbursts of nationalism that rocked the world in the 20th century may be symptomatic: where once European politics was dominated by the egos of kings, public education may have facilitated the formation of gestalts that were driven by the masculine urge to power. Jung’s work on the collective unconscious may have been an attempt to understand the dynamics, and he writes in his biography of looking up at the mountains before World War II and seeing a tide of blood pouring over them. I sometimes suspect that, in the aftermath of the war, psychologists settled on denial of spiritual experience as a necessary practice of quarantine to prevent future epidemics. I have encountered some that say they diagnose schizophrenia only if the voices create fear in the patient. And when I sought counseling to deal with family-related stress, once the therapist determined that I was stable, she began asking me questions about reincarnation and process theology, with a focus on understanding why so many of us are immature spirits.

Unfortunately, any policy of denial creates a context of conspiracy that feeds a revolutionary counter-reaction. I believe that this is probably the basis of the anti-intellectualism that Mr. Baker confronts.

The illustration for Mr. Baker’s article shows Jesus whispering a test answer into the ear of a struggling student. This is a point made explicitly in the article: “When it comes to academic achievement, helping a student solve a math problem, using math and the student’s actual brain, displays better family values than does teaching the student to distrust intellect while pleading for an answer to fall from the sky.”

Mr. Baker’s attitude is rooted in the conflation of the brain and mind. While I did not force my children to read the Bible, I struggled against this prejudice with making them aware of the nature of intellect. As I perceive the operation of my mind, the brain is not a logic circuit, it is an interface that ideas use to become invested in the world, and an anchor that they use to create new forms of association. Ideas are spiritual constructs. As possessors of brains, we are their dance partners.

The most painful part of parenting my children through the prejudice of scientific materialism was when my younger son, struggling with his studies, attempted to engage me in discussion only to have his older brother come downstairs and tell him how wrong he was. For years I had attempted to open Greg’s mind to the world of ideas that Kevin had gained access to as an infant. Before Kevin’s intervention, I had felt the door finally opening, and it broke my heart to have him slam it shut. I dealt with the matter pretty harshly, telling him “If you don’t stop abusing your brother, I am not putting a single cent into your college education.” In later conversation, I told Kevin that “ideas are strongest when they are shared.”

This is known among mature scientists. Edward Teller’s office at LLNL had pictures of all the great scientists of his era, and I could feel their personalities reaching out through them. In another incident, I saw a divorced father at dinner with his son, the beautiful mother, and the wealthy man she had married. The son had asked a technical question, which the father answered after a pause. The child challenged him “How do you know that?” To which the father could only answer “I was informed.”

Personally, I had the experience in high school AP Biology of working in a classroom of collaborative students. During the AP exam, I became stuck on a couple of questions and found the answers arriving during final review. The teacher reported that to her surprise – given the brilliance of students in prior years – we had achieved the highest average score on the test in all her years of teaching. And in discussing morality at work, I have shared that when I reach a road block, I frequently open my mind and  an answer comes to me. At times that has been as explicit as having a person’s voice come into my head and say “Do it this way…”

Baker does not articulate this experience, and given his reaction to Christian values, I think that he may not be conscious of the operation of his own mind. If he was, he would understand the preconditions for sustaining such exchanges. It requires surrender of the ego (something that nature often forces upon scientists) and a genuine concern for others. This is the teaching we find in the Bible. In denigrating the value of the book’s moral teaching, Baker and his colleagues are undermining the attempts by Christian parents to open the door to the gestalt of civilized ideas known to the faithful as “The Holy Spirit.” That is no small matter.

Until they arrive at an alternative technology, Baker and others might do well to be more gentle with their public pronouncements. The emotion they attach to their crusade is going to make it extremely difficult for them to reconcile themselves to Christ when those investigations force them to confront his existence.

Beyond Good and Evil Round II: A Response to John Zande

John:

The proposition of good and evil is not a functional moral dichotomy – there is simply too much conditionality in moral analysis. I think that there are really only two principles that inform a meaningful moral dialog. The first is power – the capacity to make reality conform to our will. The second is love – an irrational desire to create power in the object of our affection. Moral analysis focuses on “who are you loving with your exercise of power?” The ultimate moral condemnation is “only yourself.”

I do not deny that the world is full of pain, but that is an inheritance from our Darwinian past, which is a process free of morality. In Genesis, when the Bible heralds the Fall as the entry of sin into the world, it is to recognize a separation from that past into a future of rational moral analysis. “Adam and Eve” are a metaphor for the human struggle with shame, guilt, forgiveness and redemption (all in the context of human society – God doesn’t need to deal with these issues).

The question is whether there is a force that lifts us up from brutal biological competition toward rational moral discourse. The Christian proposition is that Jesus came and died to demonstrate that there is nothing that can alienate us from God’s love or qualify us for preferential treatment in his eyes. This was demonstrated even in the face of murder at the hands of the culture that he came most immediately to love. His victory was to create a foothold for divine love in the world, and that foothold has broadened enormously over time.

So my response to your position is: yes, things are still bad, but they are far better than they were. It is only by looking at the trends that one can form a judgment concerning the efficacy of love. I experience its power day-by-day in a world that you seem to not to experience.

You have a great deal of intellectual energy, which you seem to focus toward the purpose of creating pain in others. My experience is that such people often are “doing as was done unto them”, looking for someone strong enough to show them how to heal. I can only offer Hume’s response to Hobbes (the latter whom you echo, btw). Hobbes averred that life for most was a “war of all against all” and “nasty, brutish and short.” Hume’s response was: “Mr. Hobbes has forgotten the operation of his own heart.”

If you want a person committed to the proposition of loving to read your book, you should start by offering a testimony regarding the things that you do love. That’s a point of contact that might allow them to engage your view of the world.

As it is, those of us that love have improved enormously the condition of life on this Earth. We’re at a turning point in that process, having nearly exhausted the resources that were laid up in the past. Under those circumstances, it will ultimately be those that learn to work together that survive.

Brian

Zande’s response to this was an assertion that he was trying to clarify the true nature of the reality we inhabit. My response was:

John:

Thank you for your considered response. I find myself, however, still seeking a declaration of the allegiance of your love.

Truth is indeed terribly important. Those that divorce themselves from truth ultimately abandon power (the ability to make reality conform to our will). For those that love, the truth of suffering is an essential goad to action. But the truth is only what it is. The goal of any active intelligence is to create new truth. It is through creative action that I find greatest meaning in life, and my ability to create is largely contingent (in the “no man is an island” sense) on the good will of others. That means offering them good will in return.

From a Christian perspective: yes, in its foundational state, this creation was indeed a reflection of Lucifer’s character. But I see the action of Divine Love in the mechanisms that are provided to heal his insanity. It is the simple existence of that possibility that I celebrate.

Good luck on your journey!

Brian

Mr. Zande’s response was to ask me to remove my religion from his blog – which I found odd because the only religious statement was actually an affirmation of Mr. Zande’s thesis.