Trey Medley on NOMA

I have appreciated Trey Medley’s blog, Whytheology. His latest post is called “Why NOMA is inadequate.”

(http://whytheology.wordpress.com/2013/01/25/why-noma-is-inadequate/)

NOMA is Stephen Jay Gould’s acronym for “Non-overlapping magisteria.” A magisterium is “a domain where one form of teaching holds the appropriate tools for meaningful discourse and resolution.” Gould said the scientific tools of empirical observation work well in dealing with facts, whereas the tools of religion are suitable for non-empirical areas such as meaning and value. “The two are entirely distinct according to Gould. … There is no conflict because the two are talking about fundamentally different things, and thus the two can’t even be in dialogue, much less disagreement.”

Trey Medley thinks Gould is mistaken. I’ll second the motion, but for slightly different reasons. For one thing, I want to encourage theist-atheist dialogue. NOMA undermines the possibility that believers and unbelievers could fruitfully discuss factual matters.

I agree with Trey that Christianity typically sees the Bible as making lots of claims about the physical universe. Some of these assertions, such as the notion that Earth is just a few thousand years old, can be ignored without undermining core Christian doctrines. The same could be said about demon possession, which Medley mentions. Many church-goers agree with psychologists who say that all serious mental illnesses are due to brain malfunctions. But other Biblical claims are more essential to traditional Christianity, such as the idea that God interacts with the universe and even suspends natural law to perform miracles.

Trey also points out that acceptance of the empirical method can’t be justified by using the empirical method. He’s right to say that would be circular. But of course choosing a method for understanding reality is a prelude to actually using that method. When we decide to try using science to understand the universe we are not at that moment using science.

Medley’s essay states that when science makes claims about events that are non-observable, those “are, by their very nature, more than empirical claims.” I’d analyze that issue a bit differently. ANY scientific claim must go beyond empirical findings. A report which asserts facts based on scientific findings has already gone beyond the data. Typically data are fitted into theories which are considered well-grounded. Based on theory + data, we draw conclusions.

Suppose I observe that every time a one-ton boulder falls on someone’s head, that person dies. That is an empirical finding. To claim that the boulder killed those people, I have to go beyond this datum, although in this case not by very much! By using a widely-accepted theory of physical causation I can assert that the fatal results were more than mere coincidence.

I think Trey may be suggesting that claims about events in the very distant past or future are not scientific claims, because such events are not observable. But they are empirically-based claims, if research data is combined with scientific theories.

Without theory, science is mute.

Note, however, that sometimes scientists speculate about the cosmos in ways that seem to be based more upon their personal world-views than on well-proven facts. I’m thinking, for example, of some statements made by Stephen Hawking. Such speculations may be brilliant or misguided, but they are theology or philosophy, not science.

Medley is planning to say more about NOMA, and I’m looking forward to reading his next post.

Roger Christan Schriner

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The Heartblink

I’ve been thinking about the way good people often disagree about important life issues, especially in dealing with politics, morality, and religion. Part of the problem is that we don’t like feeling uncomfortable, and one way to stay comfortable is to close our minds.

With controversial issues, strong arguments may pull us in opposite directions, and it’s no fun to feel like the rope in a game of tug-o’-war. So we choose one side of the controversy, and screen out information that supports the other side. Blocking out threatening facts is similar to the way our eyes blink when we get hit with a bright light. It’s a sort of mindblink. Shutting out data in this way can be soothing, but it can also be dangerous.

What’s especially dangerous is a related phenomenon we could call the heartblink. To block out disturbing data we momentarily disable our moral instincts.

When I was a child, I read the Bible all the way through. But even though the Bible contains some extremely problematic verses, I didn’t let myself realize their significance. I remember sort of “blurring” after reading a troubling passage, feeling confused and quickly moving on. Mindblinks and heartblinks shielded me from distress.

Here’s an example: Leviticus 20:9 states, “For every one who curses his father or his mother shall be put to death; he has cursed his father or his mother, his blood is upon him.” Exodus 21:17 also demands the death penalty for parent-cursing.

Many Christians have been startled at this teaching. In Is God a Delusion? theistic philosopher Eric Reitan asks incredulously, “Would a good God call for the execution of children who curse their parents?”

Notice that this commandment is clearcut, black-and-white. Execute the child, period. Nothing is said about the child’s age. Are we talking about a twenty-year-old? A ten-year-old? A four-year-old? Nor are extenuating circumstances mentioned, such as mental illness, low intelligence, extreme provocation, or the child’s repentance. What if the child was temporarily enraged and apologized immediately? Or suppose a little boy or girl had reason to hate the parent, such as being the victim of sexual abuse? Sorry, little one. No excuses are allowed.

Furthermore, if this was the voice of higher guidance speaking, one would think that God would have revealed helpful principles of communication and mutual understanding. The creator of the universe would presumably realize that there are other ways of dealing with an angry child besides killing it.

I never cursed my parents, but as a child that passage should have gotten my attention. I should have asked myself, “If one of my classmates got mad and said, “Damn you, Mommy!” does God actually want that little kid to be stoned to death?

No doubt many Christians and Jews quickly heartblink Leviticus 20:9 and Exodus 21:17 because they are so obviously not the Word of God. But both of these verses are embedded in a long list of rules that are explicitly presented as God’s commandments.

I have posted a version of this essay on my new blog, Did God Really Say THAT!? A Blog about the Bible (didgodreallysaythat.wordpress.com) which focuses on Biblical literalism. In that blog I suggest that in order to accept verses such as Leviticus 20:9, people resort to mindblinks and heartblinks – suspending their ability to think and their ability to care. We can all learn to notice when we cope with an unsettling datum by momentarily immobilizing our own moral instincts, and learn to open our hearts instead.

The true visionaries, both religious and secular, urge us to open our hearts rather than hardening them. Regardless of their theologies, I think they would agree: Beware of the heartblink.

Roger Christan Schriner

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Concluding the Debate: Which One of Me Won?

Today I’ll finish reporting on a debate about the existence of God, in which I took both sides of the argument. I have become convinced that, in general, if a person cannot persuasively argue for both sides of a controversial issue, then he or she does not adequately understand that issue. So I tried to practice that principle a few weeks ago at a Unitarian Universalist church, and I had some fun in the process. When you read my posts quoting the debate, remember that debates tend to be feisty, so these entries are different in tone from most of my other blogs.

I began my presentation by assuming the role of a Christian minister, “Pastor Chris” (Chris is my nickname), and I responded to the pastor as the atheist, “Dr. Schriner.” In last week’s post, Pastor Chris quoted atheist Daniel Dennett as saying that religion gives people “sturdy support” in dealing with challenging life issues. The pastor concluded:

“Schriner never denies that the vast majority of people have sensed the presence of this sturdy support, for centuries, all over the world. The overwhelming testimony of this ‘great cloud of witnesses’ speaks far more eloquently than the outdated arguments of atheism.”

Dr Schriner then strode to the lectern:

“That great cloud of witnesses is a whole lot smaller than Pastor Chris thinks. I realize that the vast majority of Americans say they believe in God. However in Canada around 20 or 30% are atheists or agnostics. In the U.K. it’s 30-45%, and 65% in Japan. (See The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, p. 109.) Besides, he is supposed to prove there’s a personal God. But in a survey of sixty countries, only 45% thought a personal God exists, so those who believe in a personal deity are actually in the minority.” (See http://www.gallup-international.com/survey15.htm.)

Dr. Schriner then critiqued the claim that the universe is “fine-tuned” for intelligent life: “My opponent never responded to the idea that there could be an infinite number of universes, many of which could not support life. His claim that God created the universe is based on flimsy speculation and taking the word of assorted mystics about highly ambiguous religious experiences. It’s ironic that mystics often say they can’t even begin to put their spiritual experiences into words, and then they turn around and draw all sorts of theological conclusions from those experiences.

“I admit that religion does some people some good, and probably belief in leprechauns was helpful to some of the ancient Irish. But if religious people were in touch with a supreme goodness, they would tend, as a general rule, to be morally superior to us ‘heathens,’ and they are not. Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg’s comment rings true: Without religion ‘you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.’

“Thank you for listening. I hope you will agree with me that there is very little evidence that a personal God created the universe.”

Pastor Chris had the last word:

“As a religious person I get laughed at for believing in fairy-tale mythologies. But when scientists dream up wild stories about there being an infinite number of undetectable universes, all the secular humanists solemnly nod and agree. There is only one reason these bizarre multiple-universe scenarios get any press. People see that if this is actually the only universe, then it looks like the universe was fine-tuned for our benefit. Some great creative power intended for us to be here.” (For the context of this discussion of fine-tuning, see my October 14 and 20 posts.)

“When I try to think about the universe reasonably, I reject the idea of existence without any deliberate cause. This is not a faith-based argument. The idea of a godless cosmos offends my intelligence.

“When Dr. Schriner presents evidence that believers are no more moral than non-believers, it makes me sad but it is completely beside the point. Perhaps the human tendency to be selfish and unloving is so strong that religion has not overcome these faults in most people. But those who truly open themselves to God’s presence are changed for the better. I’ll again quote the atheist, Daniel Dennett, who says that from a sincere theist’s point of view, ‘God is the greatest thing that could ever enter our lives. It isn’t like accepting a conclusion; it’s like falling in love” (Breaking the Spell, p. 250).

Those who are open to God’s love do become better persons. The tragedy is that so few of us fully accept this boundless grace. But we always have the freedom to open our hearts to redemption, and perhaps some who are here today will embrace this possibility. At least I hope you will agree, based on a preponderance of the evidence, a personal deity did create the universe.”

Looking back at this debate about deity, ask yourself what you experienced when you heard something plausible that pushed against your own opinions. What did you feel inside? If you discover what happens when a good argument disturbs your belief-systems, then you can learn to notice your own mind closing, and perhaps learn to prop it open.

And here is an idea that is obviously true but difficult to fully accept: There is no objective place where we can stand and say, “Now I can see who is right about deity.”

Many people believe they have attained The Truth about God. Some say it is quite clear that God is real. Others find it equally clear that atheism is correct. But there is no “tie-breaker,” no super-objective vantage point that settles this dispute. Honestly admitting that no one knows the truth about god is likely to make us squirm (unless we happen to be agnostics).

It would be more comfortable if we had certainty about this important subject, so that all people who are good, smart, and well-informed would agree, but that is not where we find ourselves. We cannot dismiss either the testimony of intelligent and well-informed believers or intelligent and well-informed unbelievers.

Does ultimate reality have personal qualities, or should we think of it impersonally, in terms of an It rather than a Thou? Each of us makes our choice – yes, there is an invisible person hidden in the darkness, or no, there is not. Both theists and atheists are speculating, and that is unavoidable. But theists, atheists, and agnostics who understand that life is deeply mysterious and who sincerely search for greater truth are kindred spirits despite their differences.

Roger Christan Schriner

P.S. I would be happy to debate the existence of God in any public setting. I’ll take either side. Contact me by commenting on this posting.

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Theism Fights Back

In my recent postings I have described a presentation in which I argued for both sides of the proposition, Resolved: That a personal deity created the universe. I began by assuming the role of Pastor Chris (Chris is my nickname) and I responded to them in the role of the atheist, Dr. Schriner.

Last week I quoted “Dr. Schriner,” who offered evidence that religion does not typically make people more moral. In fact, it sometimes makes them more hostile to those of other faiths and cultures. Schriner concluded:

“If God doesn’t communicate with us, God probably does not exist. But if people do receive divine communications, that should make them wiser and better, and it does not. Closely examining the claim that God communicates actually undermines the case for deity.

This week I read an essay by philosopher Georges Rey called “Meta-Atheism: Religious Avowal as Self-Deception.” Rey cites a splendid passage from John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty which discusses the gap between theology and morality. I’ll quote it at length, boldfacing one key passage.

Mill notes that doctrines which should make a powerful “impression upon the mind may remain in it as dead beliefs, without being ever realized in the imagination, the feelings, or the understanding … [This] is exemplified by the manner in which the majority of believers hold the doctrines of Christianity. … These are considered sacred, and accepted as laws, by all professing Christians. Yet it is scarcely too much to say that not one Christian in a thousand guides or tests his individual conduct by reference to those laws. The standard to which he does refer it, is the custom of his nation, his class, or his religious profession. He has thus, on the one hand, a collection of [Christian] ethical maxims, … and on the other, a set of every-day judgments and practices, which go a certain length with some of those maxims, not so great a length with others, stand in direct opposition to some, and are, on the whole, a compromise between the Christian creed and the interests and suggestions of worldly life. To the first of these standards he gives his homage; to the other his real allegiance. All Christians believe that … it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven; that they should judge not, lest they be judged; … that they should love their neighbor as themselves; that if one take their cloak, they should give him their coat also; that they should take no thought for the morrow; that if they would be perfect, they should sell all that they have and give it to the poor. They are not insincere when they say that they believe these things. They do believe them, as people believe what they have always heard lauded and never discussed. But in the sense of that living belief which regulates conduct, they believe these doctrines just up to the point to which it is usual to act upon them. The doctrines in their integrity are serviceable to pelt adversaries with…. But any one who reminded them that the maxims require an infinity of things which they never even think of doing would gain nothing but to be classed among those very unpopular characters who affect to be better than other people. The doctrines have no hold on ordinary believers — are not a power in their minds. They have an habitual respect for the sound of them, but no feeling which spreads from the words to the things signified, and forces the mind to take them in, and make them conform to the formula. Whenever conduct is concerned, they look round for Mr. A and B to direct them how far to go in obeying Christ.”

(http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/m/mill/john_stuart/m645o/chapter2.html)

Here is how “Pastor Chris” replied to the claim that Christianity does not improve Christians, and the other charges made by Dr. Schriner:

How sad that such a smart young fellow as Dr. Schriner has to fall back on such outdated atheistic ideas. It is so “Twentieth Century” to proclaim that the grand march of science is closing every gap in our knowledge. Today new discoveries are opening up astonishing new mysteries! At one time we had no idea that the laws of nature are fine-tuned for intelligent life. Not all scientists have realized this is so, but it is truly revolutionary to hear brilliant physicists say the cosmos seems precisely designed to make our existence possible.

In the Twentieth Century biologists said we were on the verge of explaining the origin of life. Today we’re no closer than we were then. And many philosophers now admit that we have no idea how to show that consciousness could exist within a physical brain. The gaps in our knowledge remain, and in some cases are widening.

Schriner complains that people go to church and still do nasty things. But I once heard a preacher say that the church is the only organization in the world for sinners only. We sinners need churches and temples to help us become better people. But since sinful humans are in charge of religious institutions, they will sometimes pervert religion for terrible purposes. That’s why Jesus himself warned us against false prophets and corrupt priests.

Even fair-minded non-believers admit that religion is good for us. The atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett acknowledges that “for day-in, day-out lifelong bracing, there is probably nothing so effective as religion: it makes powerful and talented people more humble and patient, it makes average people rise above themselves, it provides sturdy support for many people who desperately need help staying away from drink or drugs or crime” (Breaking the Spell, p. 55).

Notice that Schriner never denies that the vast majority of people have sensed the presence of this sturdy support, for centuries, all over the world. The overwhelming testimony of this “great cloud of witnesses” speaks far more eloquently than the outdated arguments of atheism. [End.]

If you’re an atheist or agnostic, what would you say in response to these remarks? Post a comment and let me know. Next week I’ll conclude this series with final statements from Dr. Schriner and Pastor Chris.

Roger Christan Schriner

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A Case for the Existence of God

In my most recent blog-entry I invited readers to post Comments with arguments for and against God’s existence. Thank you for submitting items such as the cosmological argument and the argument from design.

A few weeks ago I gave a talk at a Unitarian Universalist church called “Does God Exist? Pastor Chris Debates Dr. Schriner.” In that presentation I debated with myself about the proposition, Resolved: That a personal deity created the universe. I defined “personal deity” as a God who does things persons do, such as thinking, feeling, and communicating.

Here are excerpts from the opening statement I made as Pastor Chris:

Obviously God is not literally a person, with arms and legs, and fingernails that need trimming once a week. But calling God a person conveys more truth than any other way of describing our Creator. As Thomas Aquinas wrote, we speak about God “indirectly, through analogy.” So in saying that a personal God exists, I mean that God is like a human being in many ways, and also far beyond us.

One thing persons do is communicate, and countless individuals testify that they have clearly experienced the presence of God, listening to them and speaking to them. Some communications are subtle, as when Elijah heard the still, small voice. Others are dramatic, as when Paul was struck blind while hearing the voice of Jesus.

And here’s what’s really important. This sense of communication with deity is extremely common. I do not believe that so many people, in all cultures, in all periods of history, and at all levels of education, could be so deeply mistaken.

God’s communications show us what God is like, and mystical experiences are especially important. In a wonderful book called Is God a Delusion? Eric Reitan notes that the typical features of mystical experiences are exactly what we would expect if mystics were in contact with a loving and powerful deity, a transcendent reality which has both the power and the desire to fulfill our deepest hopes.

So God’s communication with countless humans shows that deity is a personal being. My second point is that this personal being created the universe. People have always wondered where the world came from, but atheism has no answer to this question. Someone on the Internet defined atheism as:

the belief that there was nothing
and nothing happened to nothing
and then nothing magically exploded for no reason, creating everything
and then a bunch of everything magically rearranged itself
for no reason whatsoever into self-replicating bits
which then turned into dinosaurs.
 

“Makes perfect sense,” the author ironically concluded.

Some dedicated individuals have devoted their lives to spiritual exploration, with the same commitment as those who have studied physics or chemistry. Many of these spiritual seekers have felt an intuitive realization that this is what brought the cosmos into being. So these teachers have connected their own religious experiences with an understanding of how the world was made.

On top of that, there is compelling scientific evidence that the universe was created on purpose. Physicists report that if certain cosmic laws had been infinitesimally different, intelligent life would have been utterly impossible. Many scientists say that it looks as if the whole shebang was deliberately set up as a home for creatures like us.

So science shows that the cosmos was intentionally created, and the religious experiences of innumerable individuals show that a powerful and caring deity exists. These two ideas fit together. There is a God, and God created the universe.

What do you think? Do these ideas from “Pastor Chris” make sense? If not, what are their flaws?

After the Pastor spoke, I removed my ecclesiastical stole and put on my glasses, thereby transforming myself into the atheistic Dr. Schriner. Next week I’ll share his remarks.

Roger Christan Schriner

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Does God Exist? Pro and Con

In Bridging the God Gap, I suggest that both believers and atheists can make a good case for their positions. To back up this claim, I recently gave a talk in which I debated with myself about the proposition, Resolved: That a personal deity created the universe. I used a modified college debate format in which each side made one initial five minute presentation followed by two shorter rebuttals

 

The title of my talk was Does God Exist? Pastor Chris Debates Dr. Schriner. To help people keep track of the two contestants, I wore an ecclesiastical stole as Pastor Chris, doffing the stole and donning glasses when Dr. Schriner stepped to the mike. Why not have a little fun while discussing such weighty topics?

Pastor Chris had to show that (1) a personal deity exists and (2) this being created the universe, and he had to accomplish this task in about 10 minutes. Chris defined “personal deity” as a God who does things persons do, such as thinking, feeling, making judgments, and communicating with us.

It’s usually harder to prove that something is true than to show that it could well be false, so the negative side has an inherent advantage. To compensate for this imbalance, the affirmative side of a debate is allowed to begin the contest and also to have the last word. Next week I’ll share a few of the Pastor’s remarks, and then I’ll recap Dr. Schriner’s replies.

In the meantime, think about this matter yourself. What do you see as the most substantial arguments for and against the existence of a personal God that created the cosmos? I encourage you to pay special attention to arguments that contradict your own viewpoint.

When I ask people to think of the best arguments against their own position, they often come up with ideas that are emotionally appealing and yet unsound. For example, some people may want to believe in God because they feel lonely and would like to have a companion, but “I feel lonely” is not evidence of God’s existence.

So I’m not looking for the reasons people do or do not want to believe in God. I’m looking for legitimate reasons for believing that the existence of God is likely or unlikely. What do you see as two or three of the strongest points on each side?

Tune in next week for excerpts from Pastor Chris’ opening salvo.

Roger Christan Schriner

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Should Children Think for Themselves About Religion?

In my latest post, I mentioned that many churches ask children to commit themselves to a particular theology, even though they lack the knowledge and the intellectual ability to make an informed decision. One reader commented that “Children are able to cope with hearing more than one side of the story from quite a young age, even though their abstract reasoning skills are still developing. It would be great to hear of a church where they are told ‘Some Christians believe X, and others Y, and others Z’ …’”

I certainly agree, and I’ve been thinking about why this so seldom happens. It seems likely that the human brain is wired up so as to make small children believe just about anything grown-ups tell them. Although some of us revise our views later on, the words of Ignatius of Loyola still ring true: “Give me a child till he is seven, and I care not who has him after.”

Parents want to give their children factual information about safety, social customs, good health habits, and so on. Since people tend to think that their own religious views are correct, they naturally want to provide this accurate information to their sons and daughters.

Unfortunately this leads well-meaning grownups to systematically indoctrinate impressionable young minds. But they will continue to do this until they realize that sincere and well-informed individuals can disagree about spiritual matters.

Humility is a virtue, and true intellectual humility is one of the hardest virtues to attain.

Roger Christan Schriner

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