Belief: The unforgivable sin


“Embracing what is,” a four-part series:
As seen on TV: The new, improved hubris
• Belief: The unforgivable sin
Rationalism cannot save us.
Hell has an exit.

———— ♦ ————

A timely quote from Bertrand Russell:  “Zeal is a bad mark for a cause.  It suggests one is not quite certain.  It is not the vaccinationists, but the anti-vaccinationists, who are zealous.  No one is zealous about arithmetic.”

The homeless shelter where I stay makes us sit through chapel for an hour every night.  A few days ago, this new preacher addressed us for the first time.  Shortly into his presentation, he became hysterical, and stayed that way for fifty minutes.  He wept.  He screamed.  He did not persuade anyone of anything.

Jeffrey Tayler sets forth that atheism is just as settled as arithmetic; but he is just as zealous as that preacher — and just as unpersuasive.  In effect, he preaches only to the choir.

Why?

Let’s begin at the beginning.

connect the dots
Connect the dots any way you like. What you create, you will (or won’t) believe in.

We are all continuously connecting the dots.

The universe constantly presents us with innumerable discrete bits of data. One’s retinae alone are bombarded by billions of photons every instant. One cannot function without making choices of what data to attend to and what to ignore, and establishing at least theoretical patterns among the data one does attend to.

The particular way one happens to connect the dots can be referred to as one’s “reality.” This is how one will interpret the world. For many people, the image includes a concept of God, or a god, or gods. For many other people, it does not. Simply telling someone to discard his or her god-concept (or not-god concept) must fail, for this strips the person of his or her means for making sense of the world.

Crucial is one’s affect, one’s feelings, toward people who connect the dots differently, and toward the data that one’s own reality ignores.

Tayler’s piece [1] was the first time I met the term “New Atheist.”   Though Tayler disavows the label, everything I’ve read about New Atheists since then fits him to a T.  Certainly he agrees with the New Atheists that “religion should not … be tolerated but should be countered, criticized, and exposed by rational argument wherever its influence arises.”[2]  “Live and let live” isn’t in the picture.

Jeffrey Tayler seems to regard belief as the unforgivable sin.

The dots he omits from his model may be unforgivable also.  This may be taken as a dis-acceptance of what is, or an antipathy toward fact.

He quotes Christopher Hitchens to the effect that the Abrahamic texts inescapably portray God as a tyrant who scrutinizes every moment and will smite you for the least infraction.  I scratch my head.  The same texts lead me to believe instead in a God who loves each creature unconditionally and seeks to be intimately known by every one.  Jesus said, “Even the hairs of your head are all numbered.”

Either way, from his unwillingness to believe in the bogeyman god, Tayler draws the conclusion that no God of any description can exist.

This clearly has no relation to reason, nor science.

Tayler says, “The point is, I do not, cannot, believe, and do not wish to believe.  … For that matter, I have never had an experience for which I sought a religious – that is, supernatural or superstitious – explanation.”  Now, the term “supernatural” has no meaning for me.  I gather that by “superstitious,” he means “accepting a belief as true without evidence.”  This is also like the New Atheists, who “have been associated with … the idea that ‘absence of evidence is evidence of absence’ when evidence can be expected.”[3]  Different people have different experiences.  I cannot ignore the evidence available to me from my personal experience or in the serious literature examining similar events.  For me, evidence abounds exactly where I now expect it.

Tayler defines God functionally as what he refuses to believe in, and religion as whatever he dislikes.  He dislikes reactionary movements, and so holds religion to blame for them — exclusively.  “[R]eligion, since the Reagan years, has been abandoning the realm of private conscience (where it has every right to be) and intruding itself into national life, with politicians and public figures flaunting their belief, advocating and (passing) legislation that restricts women’s reproductive rights, attempting to impose preposterous fairy tales (think intelligent design) on defenseless children in science classes, and even, in the case of Texas, recasting the Constitution in school textbooks as a document inspired by the Bible.”  The facts speak otherwise.  Religion has a long history of involvement in national life, and not from a reactionary direction.

Before there was Bobby Jindal, there was Robert Drinan.  Before there was a Moral Majority, there was the AFSC.  Before there were any of those things, there were Robert McAfee Brown, Dorothy Day, Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann, Paulo Freire, Martin Luther King, Jr., Abel Muzorewa, Reinhold Niebuhr, Walter Rauschenbusch, Oscar Romero, Ron Sider, Desmond Tutu, Jim Wallis, the divestment movement[4], Abolitionism, Bread for the World, the Catonsville Nine, Sojourners, the New Oxford Review, the National Catholic Reporter, The Christian Century, and Orbis Press.  For his opposition to the sanctuary movement, Edwin Meese was the most hated man in Christian America in his time.  In the June 16, 1980 Fortune magazine, editor Herman Nickel famously complained of “Marxists marching under the banner of Christ.”

Something akin to hypocrisy appears if one condemns the right for being religious without also condemning the left.  Either that, or the aforementioned antipathy toward fact.

It does not appear to me that Tayler actually believes belief has any right to be in the realm of private conscience, either. Not one expression of belief does he mention, that he fails to condemn.

My religion calls me to love people I don’t even like.

When one condemns “religion,” one condemns that.

For years, I regarded forgiveness as the most essential tenet of Christianity.  Forgiveness is not so prominent in my belief today.  The fact remains that the church is the only institution in society that sets forth the concept.

When one condemns “religion,” one condemns that.

My church is in a blighted neighborhood, and my pastor has been actively involved in efforts to bring affordable housing to this area.

When one condemns “religion,” one condemns that.

We have an extensive garden ministry.  To my mind, this is one of the most important things we do.  The chaos of the ghetto is such that it is difficult for a child or adult to perceive any relation of cause and effect.  The gardens teach, in contrast, that it is possible for one’s efforts to bear fruit — literally.

When one condemns “religion,” one condemns that.

As narrow and rigid as is Tayler’s concept of the God he rejects and of religionists’ political orientations, so also Steve Siebold[5] presents a narrow and rigid assessment of the motivations for belief:  “The [Bible’s]authors … set out to control the world through their view of morality under the threat of eternal damnation for noncompliance, and it worked.” (Note: Eternal damnation is not a concept in the Hebrew Bible.) “The prospect of eternal death is too much for most people to bear.”  The most powerful and widespread motive I see in religiosity today is instead the desire to find meaning and purpose, even direction, in life; else Camus was right, and  existence itself is absurd.

As I have written elsewhere:

“Religiosity can express any of various impulses, including these:
(1) Desire to placate the gods.
(2) Desire magically to assure desired outcomes. …
(3) Desire to understand, and live in harmony with, the truth.

“My earliest childhood memories are of a sense that there is more to the world than we perceive with our five senses, and of a desire to understand and correctly relate to that larger world. I have my moments or months of what some call doubt, of agnosticism or atheism, but in the end this thing always comes back. I feel it in my flesh and bones. This is ONE foundation of my religiosity.”

I need no one to dictate my beliefs. I rely on no text that others hold inerrant. I recognize no authority other than what is.

Most Christians would say that makes me just as much an atheist as Tayler.  What is, for me, however, includes much that Taylor and Seibold won’t admit: the evidence of the human spirit.

In a so-called “physical” reading, Edgar Cayce would enter a sleep-like state, and begin speaking, from his couch in Virginia Beach, as if he were physically present with some person perhaps hundreds of miles away.  It is as if some aspect of his consciousness traveled to that remote location.  He would note incidentals about that person’s circumstances, such as objects present in the room.  A study was made of those remarks, and of those that could be verified, 80% were.

Thousands of these “readings” were documented verbatim.  Edgar Cayce said a great deal more, for example about ancient Egypt, that cannot possibly be verified.  Criticism of the Cayce material tends to boil down to dislike of what the critics regard as his strange ideas.  The evidence suggesting that these astral projections occurred, however, stands.

Laboratory experiments likewise suggest the existence of what could be termed a transpersonal affective field.  Duetting musicians sync brainwaves even when playing different notes.[6]  Pairs of romantically involved persons were separated and monitored, once via EEG and once via a different instrument measuring electrical impulses to the gut. When one partner contemplated a photograph of the other, within moments the latter person’s monitors indicated a response.[7][8]

It has been well known for decades that research in this field faces the conundrum of experimenter effect: whatever results the participants in the research want, they obtain.  Replicable, double-blind, controlled experiments are extremely difficult to design, apparently given inability to control for the transpersonal affective field.

Experimenter effect isn’t limited to psi research, however.

From one frame of reference, an electron appears as a particle. From a different frame of reference, it appears as a wave. The choice of frame of reference is irrevocable: once the decision is made to examine it as a wave, the information that would permit it to be examined as a particle ceases to exist, and vice versa. The observer and the thing observed are inseparable.[9]

Which happens to express my view of Creator and Creation in a nutshell.

Tayler says, “We must no longer ignore the propagation of apocalyptic fables that large numbers of people take seriously.” Who is this “we?” Whom is Tayler trying to persuade of what? Not the religionist who knows that his or her religion is not as Tayler prescribes. Not the non-religionist who knows most religionists are not that way. Tayler may please those anti-religionists who like to hear my kind insulted — but he won’t change their minds. They’re convinced already.

A field of points of light on a black background may appear random and chaotic from one frame of reference. From a different frame of reference, they may reveal the orderly lights of a city at night.

All the evidence available to me points to a frame of reference where affect is substantial.

In other words, where love matters.

[1]Religion’s sinister fairy tale: Extremists, the religious right, Reza Aslan and the fight for reason
[2] Wikipedia, “New Atheism
[3] Wikipedia, “New Atheism
[4]Basich v. Board of Pensions (ELCA), 540 N.W.2d 82 (1995), exemplifies the reaction against religious entities’ involvement in this movement. Ergo, religionists participated. Heavily.
[5]Don’t Just Question the 10 Commandments; Question the Entire Bible
[6]Duetting musicians sync brainwaves even when playing different notes
[7]Radin, D. I. Event-related EEG correlations between isolated human subjects. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 2004, Vol. 10, pp. 315-324. For a copy of this paper, see http://www.liebertonline.com/doi/abs/10.1089/107555304323062301
[8]Radin, D. I., & Schlitz, M. J. Gut feelings, intuition, and emotions: An exploratory study. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 2005, Vol. 11 (1), pp. 85-91. To purchase a copy of this study, see http://www.liebertonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1089/acm.2005.11.85
[9]The Reality of Quantum Weirdness

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