Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Atheist Fundamentalism on the Rise: Don’t let your friends turn newther

Most people of faith will agree: there’s a huge difference between the secular person who isn’t convinced of God’s existence and the atheist who thinks religious people should shut up and that only secularists have anything to say on ethical issues.

A good friend of mine from high school made the following Facebook post recently. I was disheartened to see it. Not that I hadn’t seen plenty such memes in recent years, but coming from him it seemed to be a declaration of sorts.

In recent months I’d engaged in edgy online debates with Steve and several others over the role of religion in America. If Steve’s post especially depressed me, it was because he’d graduated from one of America’s best universities and had always shown himself to be open-minded on the various tribes that battle in the cultural arena. That he’d put this up for his thousand-and-more friends showed he’d grown closer to the militant atheist line. Here he was echoing some of their most tired tropes.

Atheist fundamentalists have gotten the traction they have in recent years in part because they offer such a simple narrative. To agnostics too busy to think through the complexity of the issues, it becomes seductively easy to see the world as neatly divided between those who believe in science and those who believe in Christ.

As it turned out, Steve wasn’t toeing the line I thought. At least he finally explained, pointedly, that his post didn’t quite mean what it seemed to mean. But still, I’ve seen my friend various times on this edge, once averring that the world would be better if Christianity were done away with, other times echoing this or that New Atheist sound bite.

What can one do to keep moderate, secular friends from turning newther [a term I’ve adopted for those who subscribe to or ape the New Atheist mode of discussing religion: explanation here]?

This particular FB discussion covers a lot of ground and raises points some Christians won’t like, but still I think nearly all will find parts of it worthwhile. Exactly what my friend Steve intends by “magic”, I can’t quite grasp, and he has yet to make it clearer.

Eric Mader

STEVE JOHNSON: I'm a believer in efficacy. If magic works, I'd roll with that. Just give me something that works. And I don't mean, after massive interpretations that try to reframe something that didn't work as something that did.

July 21 at 4:25am

ERIC MADER: Steve, the whole of history is and always has been a matter of interpretation and reinterpretation. And the borderline between what you think of as magic and what you think of as science isn't as clear as you take it to be. The fact you believe there is an identifiable object--religion--you can point to as "something that didn't work" in the past is just more proof of the degree to which your thinking it tied to the logic of one particular reinterpretation--that of the 18th and 19th centuries. And yes, for all of us, to one degree or another, our thinking is trammeled to Enlightenment models, because we were all educated in the modern West. But the point is to learn to be conscious of it as a questionable bunch of assumptions that has deviously set our discourse and thought to repeat the same tracks over and over. For us it is an overarching structure, taken for granted, where Science is the bedfellow of Technology, who in turn is the bedfellow of Progress, and where all three keep loving it up to the rocking tunes of the Free Market.

I find this structure, as I say, deeply questionable. Because, hey, that we keep singing this same song with such lame confidence may finally do us in. (And note: Part of this song has always been those few catchy verses where Science and Religion are posited as opposites. And here your meme is singing that same old refrain again, as if, again, we had to choose one or the other. It is a false choice.)

Your meme reverences the man in a lab coat as a potential savior. “If only we’d let him do his work we’d be on track.” That's the implicit message, no? But this reverence for the man in the lab coat is part of our problem. After just a couple hundred years of the Enlightenment culture he represents, here we are literally on the verge of collective suicide. Think about it, Steve. Homo sapiens has been around for 200,000 years, living according to a wide variety of religious codes ("magic") and social structures, but once modern science and the culture of scientism arrive on the scene--here we are at the brink of mass extinction.

All of which is not to say that I’m against science education. Only that I don't see anything in our Enlightenment culture that will get us out of the mess we're now in. I don't see anything there, and I have yet to hear anything from you, Mr. Johnson, that "will work".

Furthermore, when scientism (i.e. science as promoted by the New Atheists) thinks it can offer our culture a more meaningful philosophical ground than religion or theology--in those cases I'll do my damnedest to kick it over. Because then it is trying to replace things it cannot replace. It is being as dumb as Fundamentalist religion, and in fact is a Fundamentalist religion. And it poses a greater threat than the Biblical Fundamentalists.

In short: We cannot escape reinterpretation, which is what culture does. To the extent we think we can throw out things that have been deeply rooted in humanity for eons--to that extent we don't understand humanity. We only put ourselves in deeper peril--prey to utopian pipe dreams like those offered by Bolsheviks or Maoists, themselves children of the Enlightenment who got too excited about science, who got too eager to rid their societies of religion and "backward" cultural norms. July 21 at 11:15pm

STEVE JOHNSON: Actually Eric, I gotta hand it to you. I didn't really think about the dude in the lab coat, nor did I notice there was a cross on the 'chalkboard'. And although I am in technology, I see technology as nothing short of magic in many ways. So considering what my comment was, based on the fact that I only saw the words cognitively, and then posted... here is what I was hoping to convey: Frankly, I don't care what 'thing' we use as a species, as long as it works. If Wands and Spells do the trick, and we can fix what was made wrong, then I am all for it. If prayers to deities of all manners and ilks works, then lets get on our knees, or sit in the lotus position. I couldn't care less. But, lets let efficacy be the guide. Not wishful thinking. There are myriad proofs that science doesn't answer many things. There are myriad proofs that none of our "theories" or "world views" are an answer to any larger or specific question in particular. Why are the bees dying? I want a definitive answer, and I want it to stop. If religion, or magic, or science, or ass wiping gets the answer, so be it. But if you are huge believer in ass wiping (and I presume you are not except in the same way it is effective to you) then let ass wiping rule the day on finding and answering the problems we face. But if it turns out that ass wiping isn't the way, please don't tell me that it did work, but I don't have enough faith, or that I need to run more tests, or that in lab environments it works, just not today. Or that the outrageous side effects of ass wiping although worse than the original problem, did in fact solve the original problem. So, I think, believe it or not, we are exactly on the same page. What you said above is in fact what I believe. The difference is, I have no sacred cows. The markets? Pffft. Epic Failure. Only the those who have the undying faith of a religionist can still believe in them. Science? Pfftt. Its good, maybe our best tool, but it cannot explain so many things its sad. Religions? Ha. Nearly all the concrete facts that Science was able to prove came by fighting off religions. So, Magic? I think I am a buyer. And I don't think Religion qualifies as magic. But pushing a button and something happening might just qualify. Either way, I should get back to my original thought. Efficacy is my 'god' of choosing. If it works, I'm in. And that goes for religion too. If it works, I'm a buyer. If not, I'm out. And the evidence that it works, whichever form of thought you are going to deploy needs to be provable, at some level, without constant reengineering the situation to make the proof be there. July 22 at 6:04am

DEBRA SERBANIC: Bottom's a comic and each is entitled to their own opinion not trying to fuel the fire. I thought the comic was funny. Like the bible, didn't take it literally. I believe in ass wiping. July 22 at 6:08am

STEVE JOHNSON: I have always believed in the efficacy of ass wiping. July 22 at 6:19am

ERIC MADER: Steve, your argument simply reduces all aspects of culture (and ultimately human being itself) to material efficacy.

This Sunday at Mass I stood with the other congregants and prayed for peace in the Ukraine, Palestine and Iraq. If you think that myself and the other people there believed that we were delivering a "to-do list" to a deity who would then, because of our prayer, immediately go and effect peace in these regions by divine fiat, then you simply don't understand religion (as usual, I might add). Because part of the efficacy of our prayer is in our own witness in standing there, in our togetherness, in our meditating for a moment on the crises in the world and how our actions (in voting, volunteering, etc.) might improve or worsen things; part of the efficacy is in our coming together there and then, and that because of the truth we celebrate some of us will be moved, beyond our Sunday participation, to work for and push for settlements of the terrible conflicts now raging. Because we believe in peace as a goal in itself, regardless of strategic interests. Because we strongly believe that this is God's will, as conveyed through Christ.

I submit that if we are on the same page, as you say, then you need to broaden your perspective regarding the complexity of how culture(s) find meaning, assert meaning, and apply it to the world. And you can do this regardless of whether or not you believe God exists or what you think of claims of miracles, etc.

Again: If the individual human being is a particular organization of carbon-based molecules (which is all science can ultimately tell us about human being) then the reasons to respect individual human lives are no more compelling than the reasons to respect the life of a snail or a gnat. When the next totalitarian movements begin to sweep over the planet, I believe those who have faith in a soul, in a God, rather than those who depend only on what can be empirically demonstrated by science, will be better prepared to resist and more courageous in resisting. In other words, their faith will be EFFICACIOUS in defending our liberty. As it is currently efficacious is running schools and orphanages, caring for the homeless, giving voice to the oppressed. July 22 at 10:11am

DENNIS LOWELL: OK - We've gotta smoke a big fat joint together this weekend..... July 22 at 10:41am

ERIC MADER: Dennis knows efficacy when he sees it. July 22 at 11:05am

STEVE JOHNSON: Eric, my argument DOES NOT reduce all aspects of culture and the human being itself to material efficacy. Let's take the case of Magic. Or Prayer. I read a study that confirmed that something like 50 Buddhist Monks prayed for peace for the city of Washington DC. During the experiment, violent crime and rape fell an astonishing 75% (or something like that). So is this efficacious? In my view, if it is in fact true, then yes, it is. IF Voldemort, the head of the new-found Republican Party, were to stand up at the Republican convention, and wave his wand, thus making all the "attendees" understand the plight of the poor, I would say that was efficacious. It worked. How it worked is a mystery. Why it worked is a mystery. But that it did in fact work, is all that I want to base my belief structure on. If you and the congregation of praying Catholics are able to bring peace to the Ukraine and the Israel/Palestine conflict, than I will stand with you all, and demand that we all practice this because it worked. How? Why? Again, a mystery. However, if 6 years from now, a nuke goes off and everyone in either region is killed, and then peace comes because of it...And the Priest who lead the congregation of prayers that your group did last night, claims that the prayer of last night, done 6 years prior IS THE REASON that peace is now there, I will not support that is a causative link. As that would require so many lenses of 'so called' truth to be lacquered onto the facts that it makes anything true. My view is fairly simple. It does not deny reality, nor does it deny that reality may not be knowable or understandable. It does however put front and center 'the effectiveness' of whatever approach is utilized. There will clearly be some forms of action that will be amoral, and so, it might be effective, but it is not moral. So, effectiveness may not be the only guide post, and it may not be the preeminent one in any given situation. But, effectiveness being absent usually leaves so much room for interpretation that we are left without any real truth. I am not saying that a person who may find a prayer effective for 'whatever' it is they utilize prayer to fix/heal/change/express, and if it is effective for them individually and in groups, by all means...please practice it. Because for them, it is effective. And I honor that. But if two parties are attempt to resolve an issue, than effectiveness is a great guide, and for me, most often, the only real arbiter of what is and what isn't. Excuse typos, words missing, just had to get this out, despite errors. July 23 at 1:24am

ERIC MADER: I see I may have misinterpreted your meaning here, Steve, and that my assumption as to what you were getting at led me into attack mode. Let me explain. I read the photo and remarks in the context of our long-term debate/dialogue on religion in America. One of the lengthiest FB threads you've ever hosted was a couple months back where you, myself and several others debated the New Atheism, religious education, evolution, etc. In that debate one of the main topics taken up was the importance of interpretation--namely, the fact that Christianity, like all religions, has gone through many stages of development, change of stress, literalism vs. figurative thinking, etc. It’s pretty clear that the New Atheists do their best to suppress this complex history. Which is significant because very much of the debate online has been influenced by their prefab reduction. What the New Atheists have tried to do is reduce Western religion to a caricature they can then knock down in favor of the narrowly positivist materialism they support. It's a classic strawman. And so: To listen to them, religion = magical thinking = a naive literalism like that of the small child who believes there is a literal Tooth Fairy. Thus, as these folks argue, religion should be extirpated, should be laughed out of the public arena, etc. To me and to most people educated in the humanities (poli sci, anthropology, philosophy) this view of religion is an idiotic reduction of a multifaceted human phenomenon. In fact many atheists are deeply embarrassed by the likes of Dawkins and Harris--embarrassed by the epistemological shallowness. Whether you like it or not, your post echoes this whole prefab reductionism we then debated. Consider: Your post offers a meme showing a guy in a lab coat equating Christianity with "magic" and lamenting that science is being "cancelled" because of such magical thinking. And you, in your comment, criticize people who use "interpretation" to try to validate a "magic" that “never worked” in the first place. In the context of our debates and other things you've posted in recent years, this seemed to me to be saying: "A lot of modern folks have newfangled interpretations of what religion means, but hey, we all know that religion is just a kind of naive magic, so don't try to make it anything else. Science is what can give us answers, because magic doesn't work!” That's how I understood your meaning, in the context of our previous debates and in the context of the meme itself. If that's indeed what you meant, it’s not simply something I disagree with, but you are basically declaring yourself not just a guy I can debate differences with, but my ideological enemy. Because you are subscribing to the New Atheist soundbite that “one must choose” between religion and science--and since religion "didn't work", then science is the answer.

Like most educated religious people, I don’t see any need to choose between religion and science, because each addresses different levels of the reality we experience. When religious people clash clearly with scientists over matters of biology (for example, when biblical literalists claim the earth is 6,000 years old) I think it’s obvious the scientists are right. But that is not a big deal to educated religious people, it is not in any sense a “serious blow to Christianity”, because through the whole history of the faith, going back to ancient times, there have been thinkers in the Church who argue that the biblical account of creation is NOT literal, but figurative or symbolic. Which has also been my view from the beginning. So you can see my ire for contemporary atheists: they’re working overtime to misrepresent what religion is, to tell ME what I believe so that they can then refute me, all the while spending virtually no time going to actual Christian writers or theologians to check if their portrayal is right.

If I’ve written with some bitterness, it’s because all the evidence pointed to your post being a restatement of their general argument. I now see from your last long remark that this might not have been your original meaning. You’re apparently still among the sane people who see that religion, like science, is a mixed bag. Each is an immensely complex part of culture that brings both good and bad, and the essential is to support the good and lessen the bad. If you indeed still subscribe to this kind of basic wisdom, then I owe you an apology. But honestly: If my first understanding of your meaning was correct, if you think humanity “must choose” between religion and science, and that religion should be steadily but completely pushed from the public arena, then I’d have to conclude that you’re just shallow, because you don’t understand what you’re talking about, and what’s more, you’ve betrayed the basic American respect for pluralism. You’re becoming illiberal in the classic sense.

If you want to respond to this, please weigh my arguments carefully. If you don’t respond, fine and good. I’ll take it to mean you accept the apology and that my revised assessment, i.e., that you’re not becoming just another New Atheist loudmouth, is the right one. July 23 at 2:06pm

DENNIS LOWELL: Eric Mader - Your post is thought-provoking. Thanks! I like your point about religion evolving - if scientists have been wrong for centuries and are "allowed" to evolve, why shouldn't religion. I do, however, see a difference. I've always had more respect for people who listen and absorb the facts (which is why I enjoyed your thread) and I've valued their contributions over those who just echo a few "cherry picked" talking points. Along these lines, I believe that you should start with the facts and end with a conclusion - not the other way around. Maybe I'm wrong (it's happened before), but I've felt that religion starts with a conclusion (Jesus is God; the Bible is the word of God....) and works backwards to include/exclude facts that support/oppose their views. This has always been my rub with organized religion. It would be interesting to hear your thoughts. - Cheers July 25 at 9:01am

STEVE JOHNSON: Eric: I think I said in the thread that I never noticed the cross on the chalk board when I posted. When I read it, it seemed to me to be saying that Science had some kind of answer for everything, and frankly, it doesn't. I like the overall notional construct of science, but it is flawed too. I have had too many personal experiences that Science doesn't even deem an actual question worthy of finding an answer to. But, what I also fully comprehend is that you feel religion is under attack from the New Atheists. Candidly I am not an atheist. I believe in what religions call a god. I prefer to use words that come from our own modern 'stories' 'the force' or the 'all pervasive love'. I don't however subscribe to any literal translations of ancient works (or interpreted properly or otherwise), as I have found them PERSONALLY as lame as Science in answering the questions of the Spirit. If I were to have to join a team or religious brand (and yes, that is how I perceive them) I would join the Buddhists. Mainly because they don't appear to own property, or corporate 501c's nor do they appear to have followers who congregate in packs that then vote in blocks or attempt to enforce a code of ethics on others, where those codes are derived by their decree from a god head. Granted, the texts those followers cite may state exactly the opposite of the followers claims, but the followers themselves do not agree or understand the works they utilize to make their points often enough. So, I don't consider myself a new Atheist in any way, and I would most likely consider their arguments fairly mundane and trivializing of many of personal experiences I have had that are real, and could only fall into a category for science that would be labeled "unexplainable". Which leaves the term Magic. If you fully comprehend what is actually happening inside of a computer, it is as close to what one might call magic (even though it is explainable) as one can get. And it works. And so I add my call for efficacy. So, whether or not Science will answer all the questions that matter is still up for debate, and what I see from most of the religious folk is not what you say or believe but something vastly less sophisticated and nuanced...and so, I turn to a word that is still relatively clean. And I like it. Magic. So, yes, I believe in Magic, and yes, it is preferable to Science and Religions because it has at a level something that neither posses. It has efficacy and answers things that are relevant to the spirit and the soul. I hope at some level, I have redeemed myself in your eyes. July 25 at 11:09am

ERIC MADER: Dennis Lowell - Thanks for weighing in here. I think you hit on something that needs to be recognized by more Christians: namely that the arguments many of them give for their religion are merely circular, and they perhaps “believe” these arguments because they internalized them from their upbringing. And so, to hear some Christians tell it: The Christian God is real because the Bible says so; and the Bible is a trustworthy source because it was inspired by God.

My own experience of Christianity is very different from this. Though raised a Lutheran, even as an adolescent I found, when I questioned myself as to what truth there was in it, that I couldn’t believe. At 16 I declared myself an atheist. I began to study literature and philosophy, a bit in high school on my own, and seriously in university. Then, at the end of the 1980s, partly based on my study, and partly based on my own experiences, I came to believe there was a compelling truth, or at least a reflection of truth, in some of the basic assertions of the Christian faith: 1) the material universe is not all there is; 2) there is a God behind the universe; 3) we are endowed with a soul (we ourselves are not merely flesh and bone: there’s another level to us); 4) the man Jesus was in fact a privileged conveyor of how God relates to humanity and the world, how God intends to relate to us, and how we must respond by bringing ourselves into closer harmony with an emerging “kingdom of God” (however that term may be understood).

As I say, I came to be convinced of these few things at the end of the 1980s. It may seem to you that this would make me a Christian, a member of that two-billion-strong body of believers worldwide. But actually these elements I was convinced of didn’t really make me a Christian, because for most Christians the litmus test for the true faith is the Nicene Creed: a “real” Christian, according to most, is someone who can recite this creed as a series of propositions that are true. But there was much in the Creed that I didn’t believe true. Probably some of the things I didn’t accept were precisely those things that many Christians “believe” without actually examining them--things they’d been taught to accept and defend as true without first, as you put it, arriving at the truth of the statement after carefully considering all the facts.

Nonetheless, regardless of my eccentricity during those years, I insisted I was a Christian and argued that anyone who believed in a few basic tenets should also be considered one. Thus the Christian, to me, is someone who can say: 1) I believe there is a God; 2) Jesus is a privileged voice for God (the “anointed one”, or, in Hebrew, Messiah); 3) I believe there is a spiritual element in the universe and in each of us as individuals; 4) I will try to follow Jesus’ teachings as best I understand them.

And so, to anyone who finds Jesus a “great teacher”, to the extent he or she makes this finding more determinant in his or her life--i.e., to the extent he or she becomes an avowed follower of Jesus--to that extent the person may be called a Christian. Do you believe all the currently existing species were created by God in a brief period of time? Do you believe in the stories of virgin birth? Do believe Jesus was physically resurrected from the dead? Do you believe his first followers stood and watched as he was literally taken up into heaven? In my thinking, which I still hold to on this point, you can be a Christian without believing any of these things as literal happenings. Because the essentials of Christianity are in points 1-4 above.

In the 1990s and 2000s I worked to define more clearly both how I believed and how I came to understand the truth of Christianity. I coined a term for this particular way of believing: it was a “durationist” Christianity. A lot of that work ended up in my book HERETIC DAYS.

I go this roundabout way in answer to your comments because I feel too many people have been set up to take our religious traditions as either/or constructs. Either you subscribe to the whole program, including the belief in a relative literalism of biblical texts, or you reject the whole program. This is deeply wrong and deeply destructive to our cultural and spiritual possibilities. It is far better for contemporary people to approach Christianity as a tradition of which they might make what they want. (I say approach, as in: during the early stages of one's engagement with Christianity.) The individual, as in you yourself, can find whatever truth in the Gospel texts you deem valid. You are not asked to believe all these things literally happened or that the orthodox Christian reading is the only one. As happened with me, these texts and this tradition can then become the fascinating matter of a long-term work of spiritual and historical sleuthing. Do the texts represent what Jesus really taught? Are there not perhaps many hints in the texts of something different, something that was repressed by orthodox Christianity in the course of its development? Is not orthodox Christianity perhaps keeping us from making contact with something more essential in Jesus that Jesus would want us to find?

In any case, the story of Jesus of Nazareth and the God he meant to tell us about is one of the most contested and tantalizing historical mysteries we have. Especially given that the movement created from this man’s life work has shaped our world more than the work of any other individual. And this is true whether one is a believer or not. We live in a culture whose intellectual grounds are thoroughly Christian: our basic understanding of history (as a progressive process “going somewhere”), of justice, of how the individual relates to society--all these derive from our Christian background.

But I’ve gone on too long. You may want to check out the following few links, if you’d like to know more about my own route pursuing these questions.

The Durationist Gospel

Heretic Days: First Reactions

July 27 at 12:43pm

ERIC MADER: Steve Johnson: Yes, you’ve redeemed yourself. Of course. And I agree with you that far too many Christians (especially in America, where many have become living advertisements against the faith) have come to stand for things their own scriptures consider deeply wrong. In my view this sad situation is largely a result of the perilous linkage made between Protestants and the GOP back in the 1980s. Christians have been misled by this alliance to equate their religion with specific right-wing political goals. I think Pope Francis has offered some sorely needed, and truly Christian, answers to the sick nonsense we get from Fox News and friends.

But as for what you call “magic”: In fact I like your conscious choice to adopt a term, to try to set it off from both science and religion. I do, however, think you need to formulate more clearly how you see “magic” relating to “the force” or whatever you prefer to call the guiding power in your universe. Especially: How can anything you might call magic--as it evidences itself in computer technology for example--be expected to help fulfill the goals of “the force”? How can we get any guidance as to whether “magic” is being employed to further or undermine “the force”? Also: If there is a “force” or “pervasive spirit of love”, as you say, why is the universe not already determined by it? Why, in other words, is there hate and violence and bigotry if indeed the spirit of love is “pervasive”?

You say you reject reverence for ancient scriptures, regardless of how they are interpreted. Does that mean that “magic” was not an active force in ancient times? Or that Jesus or the Buddha had no access to this power we now are starting to access?

I submit that the main thing behind your finding that ancient scriptures offer “lame” solutions is that you haven’t really studied the range of interpretations of ancient texts. Of course the predicaments ancient people found themselves in were both similar to and different from the predicaments we are in. And the genius or possibility of spiritual insight on the part of ancient people was, I would argue, equal to our own. But whatever.

I do know of a book, now written a while ago, that may turn you on if you’re thinking in these directions. Erik Davis: Techgnosis. Maybe you know of Davis already. The book is dated in some respects, but it is absolutely not dated in essentials.

And if you want to have a “double dose” of gnosis that might get your attention, order Davis’ book along with Ron Miller’s The Gospel of Thomas: A Guidebook for Spiritual Practice. In this second book you’ll get a surprisingly different version of Jesus, based on a long-lost ancient collection of his sayings, that will possibly show him more in line with your currently developing notion of “magic”.

But again: I’d be very interested to see how you explain the connection between “the force” and what you call “magic”, especially as this latter might manifest itself in or through technology. July 27 at 1:44pm

ERIC MADER: I’ve often taught Philip K. Dick's work here in Taipei. Here's a nice piece of Davis' writing on what made the master tick:

Philip K. Dick’s Divine Interference

July 27 at 1:47pm

DENNIS LOWELL: Eric Mader: Thanks, again, for your thoughtful reply. I enjoyed reading of your background and found that it has some parallels to mine. Though we may have ended with somewhat different conclusions, I think our thought processes are aligned. (By calling them conclusions, I don’t want to imply that we aren’t still both working through things.) I’ve been interested in (and struggled with) religion and spirituality my entire life. When I was younger, I traveled to see the Dalai Lama and identified pretty strongly with Buddhism. I enjoy reading the very approachable books that Bart Ehrman writes about historical Jesus, etc. I took my kids to church at the local Unitarian Church when they were younger. I enjoyed their approach to religion – the Dalai Lama called it the “fruit salad” approach. Take a little of the best of everything and mix it up (something that must churches would really frown on). However, even the UU church finally turned me off.

This was back around 2002, when the Iraq war was starting. Even though I was strongly opposed to the war at that time, I didn’t want to hear about it from a pastor on Sunday. I REALLY wanted the spiritual piece [peace], without the baggage. Therein lies my conundrum: Religion and Spirituality are separate. There is a relationship between the two, but they have very different goals and these have been at odds since the earliest days of Christianity. The goal of religion is to build a congregation with followers. I know that this could be argued, but for the biggest churches (including the Catholic church) this is true. In order to best build a congregation, churches use things like rituals, patternicity, and the discouragement of individualism. I’m not saying that EVERY church does this or everything in the church is designed to build a following, but in general, religion says “stop asking questions, we have the answer… God”. This is exactly the opposite of what spirituality calls for.

In a gross simplification, religion is supposed to facilitate finding “The Truth” (but still build a congregation). In order to find the truth, you have to spend real time thinking about it and probably have to go down many wrong paths. So religion has to do this crazy dance of letting you stray down those paths, but not so far that you don’t still land at “The RIGHT Truth”. Honestly, Eric, I think that this is how the more liberal churches view it. For the more conservative churches, they don’t do the dance at all - “it’s our way or good luck in hell." (OK – I know that hell could be interpreted as the eternal separation from God’s love, but still, does my love for a different God, or different understanding of God, mean that I end with separation?)

Anyway, that’s my struggle with religion in general. My struggle with Christianity is more complex and involves conflicting scriptures that were written 30+ years after Jesus’ death, their misinterpretation, and the conflicting goals of the church that I’ve outlined. I know this is being a little harsh on the churches and I don't mean to imply that the people within the congregation all share the same views. I’m looking forward to reading your book (you’ll have to put your next one on audible, as that’s how I get most of my reading in these days – long commute). Cheers! August 2 at 1:54a

ERIC MADER: Dennis Lowell: You're right that we have a lot in common in our general route. And so most of your considerations here are congenial to me, and of course I get the distinction between religion and spirituality you present. But personally, for a long time now, I don't see the two as being necessarily in conflict in the way you do. With some religious communities, yes, the conflict can be very real. Try to tell a Fundamentalist where you think he's wrong, and he'll tell you how he knows he's right and why are you "outside" real Christianity. But I don't think this kind of inside and outside divide is characteristic of many Christian communities now. And so it doesn't steer me away from Christianity as a whole.

I'll offer a metaphor for religion vs. spirituality that may give some idea of how I see them. Think of the relationship as something like that between nation and individual. You, for instance, are part of the American population, an American citizen, and presumably you support many of the things America stands for. But you'll define these things that "America stands for" in your own way. In other words, you may support America's codification of civil rights, its history of progress in this area, and the value it places on a free press and free civil debate. While insisting these are what America is at heart, you may think its international role as "exceptional nation", its free-wheeling capitalism, its willingness to treat the world as its playground--who cares what other countries say--you may find all these things to be aberrations, not truly what is great about America. But at the same time, while you're reading this, there's another American down the block from you who emphatically supports the international hubris, who thinks the market is in fact way too regulated, and who wants the world to become culturally more and more like America, malls and all. In short: You and this guy both subscribe to “America”; you both hold the passport and feel patriotism. Yet your ideas of what is great in America and what is excess dribble are very different. But neither of you would like to renounce your citizenship based on these differences.

I don't see why it should not be the same with churches. I have gone a long route through atheism, through a kind of gnosticism, and now have converted to Catholicism. There are things in the Catholic tradition that I think make it great and true, other things that I think are wrongheaded and aberrant. Another Catholic down the block from me might stress a different set of elements. In other words: We each have our own spirituality; we don't quite agree; but those things in each other we disagree with are not enough to make us renounce our citizenship.

Just as the blanket phenomenon called America can foster different kinds of patriotism, so the phenomenon called Christianity can foster different kinds of spirituality. I will not leave a church just because I disagree with some of the things a pastor or priest says from the pulpit. Rather: I'll try through my own engagement to move the church in the direction I find true.

There's another point here I'd like to raise, having to do with the value of conditional acceptance of doctrine. A very important phrase in my own development is Credo ut intelligam: “I believe in order to understand." If one sees a religious tradition as a very complex symbolic system for conveying spiritual truth, it is necessary, if one ever wants to find that truth, to learn the system. And just as one learns a foreign language, or learns a new dance step, by doing it, so one learns a religion's understanding of reality by seriously entertaining its tenets. Part of my final decision to convert to Catholicism was that I saw in it the most complete repository of spiritual, theological, and experiential wisdom about the meaning of Jesus Christ as conveyed in the New Testament. And so I decided to enter this church, to begin to think and move according to its promptings; and moving in this slightly new way, positioned in this slightly new place, I would see a different spectrum of reality. Simple as that. If some parts of the tradition left me unconvinced, that didn't matter. I would understand more and more in terms of my own spirituality simply because the seriousness and depth of the tradition I was living with and studying was far greater than anything I could come up with on my own. Credo ut intelligam.

The problem with the fruit salad approach you mention is that, not really learning any one tradition, you risk missing certain depths. To make another analogy, I'd much rather learn to be a very good pianist than learn to be a dabbler in piano, a dabbler in guitar, and an amateur flautist. Immersed in piano, I'd learn more about music as such. Which is the point.

At one point you write: "Even though I was strongly opposed to the [Iraq] war at that time, I didn’t want to hear about it from a pastor on Sunday. I REALLY wanted the spiritual piece [peace], without the baggage." I'd say that one doesn't get spiritual piece or peace without struggle--whether that be struggle with the vagaries of one's own skewed perceptions and nagging worries and desires, or struggle with the injustices in the world. Quietism is a possible response to the world, and it may have some fundamental validity, but it's never been the kind of approach that has attracted me.

Also, regarding the historical Jesus, I've done a lot of study in these areas also, and I believe they are well worth the effort. The kinds of things Ehrman works on are seen as a threat by some believers, but they don't bother me in the least; in fact I relish the problems and contradictions of the textual and historical record. The crucial thing to me is not that the Gospels are second-hand accounts or were redacted by different hands, but that such an extraordinary figure as Jesus existed, that some core of this tradition we have about him, a core collection of parables and a core of historical events, are true. The vagaries of the Gospels are just what you'd expect from an ancient community of followers and believers who'd experienced such a figure as Jesus was. In short: We don't know exactly what he was and what he said, but we know roughly. We know as much or more about Jesus than we do about many important ancient figures: Socrates, the Roman emperors, Virgil.

Before I finish I want to make sure I'm not misunderstood in my remarks on Credo ut intellegam above. I used the analogy of learning a foreign language, but didn't really explain. If I say that I've chosen to "believe in order to understand", this is not to say that I'm pretending to believe, that I'm putting on an effort of belief in order, some day, to actually believe. No, it's rather that I'm learning a new language; I'm believing in the sense one believes when, learning German, one repeats a new sentence several times: one's grasp of the syntax may be a bit slippery, one doesn't quite feel how this series of sounds means what one knows it means (there's the English translation on the right-hand page) but one is confident even so that there's a compelling representation of the world in this series of sounds: that German is a real language and that this way of saying the world is as valid as one's native English way. Thus, learning a language, one must believe in order to understand. This is similar to the way I've begun to believe Catholicism, with one crucial difference. Since I'm convinced the Church has been guided by the Holy Spirit over the course of history, this "language" I'm now learning is more profound, and very likely offers a truer representation of reality, than any theological pidgin I could put together on my own (which I think is true regardless of whether or not said pidgin may itself be guided in places by the Spirit).

Still waiting for Steve Johnson to address my last remarks to him. And truly: Those two books I suggest, Steve, I really think you'd dig a whole spectrum of things in them. Take the plunge. August 3 at 7:58pm

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