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Website_ Episode #022 Changing Our Myths (feat. Marissa Alexa McCool)

On this episode, I speak with my friend and LGBTQ-rights activist and speaker Marissa Alexa McCool. She graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with three degrees in English, Anthropology, and Cinema & Media Studies. She hosts multiple podcasts, including The Inciting Incident Podcast, The Cis Are Getting Out of Hand, and We Too – Our Stories, and in the space of two years has authored six books with a seventh in the works, including two novels. She won a 2014 Keystone Award for Excellence in Journalism and co-founded The Trans Podcaster Visibility Initiative with Callie Wright in 2017. According to her website, Marissa “tends to blend her theatrical background and fiery passion for atheism, humanist and secular values, and intersectionality.”

Marissa and I discuss her personal journey as a trans woman bringing her experiences to bear on her activism in the secular humanist movement, including the epic story of how she personally confronted an evangelical hate pastor on the campus of the university she attended. We also discuss the power of myths and the often-subtle ways storytelling and narrative influences culture and society as well as individual lives and attitudes. Along the way we critically examine the concept of echo chambers, identity politics, intersectionality, and how to be a true ally to minority groups and marginalized individuals.

Links:

Marissa’s website: http://rismccool.com/

Marissa on Twitter: https://twitter.com/RisMcCool

The Inciting Incident Podcast: http://www.incitingincident.libsyn.com/

The Cis Are Getting Out of Hand podcast: https://www.spreaker.com/show/the-cis-are-getting-out-of-hand.

Marissa’s GoFundMe page for “Operation Science Vagina Recovery”: https://www.gofundme.com/3z5hf2

 

Join the official discussion group of this podcast at www.facebook.com/groups/aleapofdoubt.

Consider supporting me Patreon if you enjoy the show: http://www.patreon.com/aleapofdoubt.

Thanks to Jeff Prebeg, Jeanne Ikerd, Torsten Pihl, Chris Watson, and Kim Bojkovsky for being my patrons!

Follow me on Twitter at https://twitter.com/TheNatheist

The opening clip is an excerpt from the audiobook “God is Not Great” by Christopher Hitchens, courtesy of Hachette Audio. Text Copyright 2007 by Christopher Hitchens. Audio production copyright 2007, Hachette Audio. Used with permission.

The opening and ending music is “Jade” by Esther Nicholson and is used under license. The editing was done by Rich Lyons of the “Living After Faith” podcast.

Check out our website: https://reasonrevolution.org.

Give us a like on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/reasonrevolution.

Episode-020_-Zerin-Firoze-Ex-Muslim-Atheist-and-Asylum-Seeker

 

 

On this episode, I speak with Zerin Firoze, a courageous young woman and ex-Muslim from Bangladesh, a country where many atheist and agnostic bloggers have been murdered by fundamentalist Muslims in recent years. She is currently living in the US as an asylum-seeker and describes herself as an atheist, feminist, NASA geek, and aspiring doctor.

Zerin has talked and written about her transition from Muslim to atheist feminist in other places. From a young age, she started questioning the Islamic faith of her community and school. When she first learned in school about the Battle of Badr, fought by Muhammad in 624 CE against the Pagan tribes of Mecca, she started to think about how morally backwards it is to praise the exploits of a religious warrior spreading his religious dogma by the sword. As an apostate in Bangladesh, boldly and openly taking the “leap of doubt” after being exposed to information on the Internet critical of Islam, she faced death threats from the same people who murdered atheist bloggers in that country who made themselves even more visible.

In our discussion on this episode, Zerin talks about her day-to-day life in the US as an asylum seeker and full-time nursing student, how she has managed the transition from one culture to another, and how that process has shaped who she is today and her love of science, medicine, and progressive humanist values.

Links:
Zerin M. Firoze, “Journey of a Bangladeshi Woman from Islam to Atheism,” Faithless Feminist, https://faithlessfeminist.com/blog-posts/journey-bangladeshi-woman-islam-atheism/

Zerin M. Firoze, “Journey of an Ex-Muslim Atheist from Bangladesh to the USA,” Faithless Feminist, https://faithlessfeminist.com/blog-posts/journey-ex-muslim-atheist-bangladesh-usa/

Zerin Firoze at the American Atheists 2017 National Convention: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=93h0fO78Gcw

This week’s shout-out: Guy P. Harrison, author of the new book “At Least Know This: Essential Science to Enhance Your Life” (https://tinyurl.com/y7qgmfys).

Check out the interview I did with Guy last year on the Trolling with Logic podcast: http://www.trollingwithlogic.com/055-race-even-real-guy-p-harrison/

Join the official discussion group of this podcast at www.facebook.com/groups/aleapofdoubt
Consider supporting me Patreon if you enjoy the show: http://www.patreon.com/aleapofdoubt

Thanks to Jeff Prebeg, Jeanne Ikerd, Torsten Pihl, Chris Watson, and Kim Bojkovsky for being my patrons!

Follow me on Twitter at https://twitter.com/TheNatheist

The opening clip is an excerpt from the audiobook “God is Not Great” by Christopher Hitchens, courtesy of Hachette Audio. Text Copyright 2007 by Christopher Hitchens. Audio production copyright 2007, Hachette Audio. Used with permission.
The opening and ending music is “Jade” by Esther Nicholson and is used under license. The editing was done by Rich Lyons of the “Living After Faith” podcast.

Check out our website: https://reasonrevolution.org

Give us a like on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/reasonrevolution

Support Us By Becoming A Member:
https://donorbox.org/support-reason-revolution

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https://www.patreon.com/reasonrevolution

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Website_ EPISODE 13_ PASSIONATE ATHEISM

On this episode, I speak with Sally Hunt, atheist activist and author of the blog and YouTube channel The Passionate Atheist. According to her website, she “advocates for the separation of church & state, comprehensive sex education, sex-positivity, feminism, social, racial, & economic justice, and equal human rights for all.” She is the Public Relations Director of The Original Motto Project, which seeks to replace the divisive and discriminatory U.S. motto, “In God We Trust,” with the original – and rightful – U.S. motto, “E Pluribus Unum,” (meaning “From many, one”) or the first three words of the U.S. Constitution, “We the People.”

Sally and I discuss her public, peaceful opposition to the huge “In God We Trust” display emblazoned in the town hall meeting room of the Board of Aldermen in Wentzville, Missouri, and of her experience being cut off and kicked out of the meeting. We discuss her appearance on Fox News’ show “The Ingraham Angle” following that event, where she faced off with Ingraham and MO State Senator Bob Onder. We also talk about the failure of abstinence-only sex education and Sally’s campaign against Thrive’s “Best Choice” program, a curriculum written by Christians with an agenda to insert religious doctrine concerning sex into public school classrooms.

Links:

Sally Hunt’s website and blog: http://thepassionateatheist.com/author/sallyhunt/

Sally Hunt YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/sallymander44

Sally Hunt on Twitter: https://twitter.com/sallybhunt

On Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/passionateatheist

Expose Thrive website: https://www.exposethrive.com/

Hemant Mehta, “Atheist Kicked Out of MO Town Meeting After Criticizing ‘In God We Trust’ Sign,” Friendly Atheist, February 16, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y7jlmchl.

The Original Motto Project’s video of Sally Hunt speaking at the Wentzville, MO council meeting opposing “In God We Trust”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=la7TJKVSwsM

Sally’s appearance on Fox News’ “The Ingraham Angle”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uzunZpw-jv4

Sally’s commentary and analysis on her Fox News appearance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RYpfG506JmY

 

Join the official discussion group of this podcast at www.facebook.com/groups/aleapofdoubt/

Consider supporting me Patreon if you enjoy the show: http://www.patreon.com/aleapofdoubt. Thanks to Jeff Prebeg, Jeanne Ikerd, Torsten Pihl, and Chris Watson for being my patrons!

Follow me on Twitter at https://twitter.com/TheNatheist

The opening clip is an excerpt from the audiobook “God is Not Great” by Christopher Hitchens, courtesy of Hachette Audio. Text Copyright 2007 by Christopher Hitchens. Audio production copyright 2007, Hachette Audio. Used with permission.

The opening and ending music is “Jade” by Esther Nicholson and is used under license. The editing was done by Rich Lyons of the “Living After Faith” podcast.

Website_ EPISODE 11_ FROM RELIGIOUS CULT MEMBER TO ATHEIST ACTIVIST

In this episode, I dive into the topic of religious exclusivity and cult-like doctrines. My special guest is Joseph Magestro, author of the book Ask an Atheist: What You Should Know When Discussing God and Religion. In this book, Joe describes himself as “just an average person – your average atheist” who enjoys “discussing religion with numerous individuals and being a resource for anyone who wishes to open their mind to something new.” But Joe’s backstory is not so average, and he has a fascinating personal story to tell. When Joe was a Christian believer, he was involved in Iglesia ni Cristo (or “Church of Christ”), a fundamentalist, cult-like Christian church whose members claim to be exclusively the only true Christians. The church has a small presence in the US and elsewhere, but they are historically and currently based in the Philippines, where it was founded in 1914 by Felix Malano.

In my discussion with Joe on this episode, we discuss what life is like inside the church, how he became involved with it initially, some of the scandals and controversies that have put the church in the news, and what chain of events and thought processes led him to abandon the church and abandon religious belief altogether to become the atheist activist he is today.

Links:

Joe Magestro’s book “Ask an Atheist: What You Should Know When Discussing God & Religion”: https://tinyurl.com/yacc94f5

Milwaukee Humanists on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/MKEHumanists/

Joe Magestro on the “Real Life Beyond Faith” podcast: https://reallifebeyondfaith.podbean.com/e/ep-25-joe-magestro-ex-cult-member/

Robert R. Reed, “The Iglesia ni Cristo, 1914-2000: From Obscure Philippine Faith to Global Belief System,” Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde(Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences of Southeast Asia and Oceania) 157, no. 3 (2001): 561-608. https://tinyurl.com/yd6h8n3t.

Eric Rankin, “Philippines-based church has ‘means and motivation’ to kill refugee if returned: IRB,” CBC News, January 25, 2018,  http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/refugee-philippines-church-lowell-menorca-1.4502614

ABS-CBN News, “Timeline: Iglesia ni Cristo in Crisis,” http://news.abs-cbn.com/nation/08/28/15/timeline-iglesia-ni-cristo-crisis.

INC Kids’ music video “Always Submit to the Church Administration,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3nmYOQIidqo

 

Join the official discussion group of this podcast at https://www.facebook.com/groups/alopdiscussion/

Consider supporting me Patreon if you enjoy the show: patreon.com/aleapofdoubt. Thanks to Jeff Prebeg, Jeanne Ikerd, Torsten Pihl, and Chris Watson for being my patrons!

Follow me on Twitter at https://twitter.com/TheNatheist

The opening clip is an excerpt from the audiobook “God is Not Great” by Christopher Hitchens, courtesy of Hachette Audio. Text Copyright 2007 by Christopher Hitchens. Audio production copyright 2007, Hachette Audio. Used with permission.

The opening and ending music is “Jade” by Esther Nicholson and is used under license.

Reason Revolution founder Justin Clark gives a lecture on the Freethinker Society of Indianapolis at the Society for German American Studies Conference in Indianapolis, Indiana.

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This episode, Justin spoke with author and activist Hypatia Alexandria. They talked about her Catholic upbringing, her path to atheism and humanism, issues within the Latino community and their relationship to religion, and how political activism and secular humanism can resolve some of these issues. A special thanks to Karen Garst for making this conversation happen.

Contact Hypatia: hypatia@arauco.com

Get her book: https://amzn.to/2KIXYRF

Check out our website: https://reasonrevolution.org

Give us a like on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/reasonrevolution

Follow us on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/reasonrevolutionorg/

Support Us By Becoming A Member: https://donorbox.org/support-reason-revolution

Become a Patron: https://www.patreon.com/reasonrevolution

Theme: “Jon’s on Fire” by Silent Partner

 

This episode, Justin had a conversation with atheist activist Damien Marie Athope. They talked about axiological atheism, skepticism, the value of reason, humanism, anarchism, and other topics.

Check out our website: https://reasonrevolution.org

Give us a like on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/reasonrevolution

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Support Us By Becoming A Member: https://donorbox.org/support-reason-revolution

Become a Patron: https://www.patreon.com/reasonrevolution 

Recently I wrote on how I was disappointed by the Matt Dillahunty and Jordan Peterson dialogue produced by Pangburn Philosophy. Although I still remain fundamentally disappointed by it, a few things have been clarified for me by Matt Dillahunty’s reflections on the discussion.

The thing that made the discussion so interesting was that Matt Dillahunty was not interested in debating or strawmanning Peterson. His goal, and I take him at his word, was to have a good conversation, be open and honest, seek clarification, and see where they agree and disagree. He wasn’t even the slightest bit disappointed in the dialogue, thinking he succeeded on many fronts. Maybe so. I just want to clarify a few open questions Dillahunty has concerning Peterson’s positions. Although it is quite odd Dillahunty did so little research on Peterson before the discussion, not even aware, in this recent video, of Peterson’s decades-long work as a clinician, the interchange seemed to have happened in good faith, and I have faith that this conversation can now move forward.

Language Use, the True, and the Real

One issue Dillahunty has with Peterson is he thinks people who no longer believe in God but still find religious language useful need to say they’re using religious language idiosyncratically, because they’re not talking about the God people believe in, but the human condition, and the kinds of Gods people invent to cope with that. This point on the face of it appears to be about simply being clear. In Peterson’s view, this is is actually indicative of Dillahunty’s primarily Enlightenment over Darwinian influences.[1] For Peterson, you can’t be a post-Enlightenment rationalist thinker and a Darwinian at the same time because what the latter explicitly conceptualizes the former ignores; that is, you can structure your world according to different presuppositions, and different systems of thought have different purposes. Furthermore, from his Darwinism, Peterson concludes that what is “real” subjectively and objectively, though they may be distinguished for analytical purposes, cannot be ultimately separated in reality. They have amorphous and porous borders, and this point seems lost on the post-Enlightenment thinkers.

Peterson thinks American pragmatists figured this out. The pragmatic concept of truth articulates the meaning of truth as that which works. As a result, the only kind of knowledge we can have about our environment is knowledge that is sufficient: knowledge that allows us to survive. To abstract ideas from survival value and assume that facts as they pertain to belief about morality, the world, and ourselves exist in and of themselves, separate from how they serve or diminish life, is suspect for Peterson. The assumption of post-Enlightenment thinkers is that the knowledge gained by this reduction doesn’t diminish the possibility for genuine human flourishing. Peterson says, “I think it’s dangerous to consider truth independent of its effect upon us.”[2]

This brings us to the question of the real and the true. Peterson takes what he calls a Darwinian position on the question of the real. The real is that which is consistent and endures across time. This is why Peterson is so fixated on religious myths. Dominance and competence hierarchies are some of the oldest evolutionary structures: over 300 million years old, older than trees. The patterns that constituted the competence hierarchy is the place from which ethics derives. What religious myth does is distill the grammar of competence hierarchies. Therefore to know the meaning of religious belief is to understand the millenia long solution to the problem of suffering and chaos, and this, Peterson believes, grounds our ethics.[3]

The question of what is real is actually connected to the question of the true because what is true is what is real, and what is real serves life. This is Peterson’s basic Darwinian position. Some things are only true for one thing, some things are true for ten things. Some are true for thousands of things. And that truth which is more pervasive and most enduring is the most true. Because the true and the real are connected in the notion of that which serves life, and in Peterson’s estimation, when we try to reduce the truth to just facts we have left out the thing that connects truth to reality. It’s not correspondence, and it’s not coherence. It’s life.

Are True Atheists Murderers?

One idea that got online atheist communities in an uproar is a comment Peterson made about nobody being a true atheist. Dillahunty seemed to have taken great offense at this, and perhaps rightfully so, for Dillahunty certainly doesn’t believe in a supernatural being, and he can ground morality in self-interest, of all things. Why do we need a god to be good?

The problem is Peterson isn’t actually taking the typical Christian apologist position on this issue. He’s rather concerned about the consequences of what would happen if the   of our culture is lost.[4] For Peterson, the person who lives after this event is the true atheist. People in the west who call themselves “atheists” do not in fact live after this event, for atheists of the west still live within the metaphysical substrate established by the Christian  myth. Atheists of the west today are different, for instance, from atheists in Athens. Lack of belief is where their commonalities begin and end, for atheists before the west without the Christian mythical substructure did not have a belief in the inherent dignity of individuals, the value of self-interest, natural law (which grounded the first human rights language), and the like. Although, for instance, somebody like Socrates could have argued for natural law, and so it would seem the philosophers of Athens were in effect taking a modern stance on morality, they still believed that the ordering of nature, with its natural inequality, made women and slaves naturally inferior to citizens who could participate in the polity.[5]

Another way to conceptualize Peterson’s idea is in the way Joseph Campbell did in the popular Myths To Live By. In chapter four, “The Separation of East and West,” he begins

“It is not easy for Westerners to realize that the ideas recently developed in the West of the individual, his self-hood, his rights, and his freedom, have no meaning whatsoever in the Orient. They had no meaning for primitive man. They would have meant nothing to the peoples of the early Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Chinese, or Indian civilizations. They are, in fact, repugnant to the ideals, the aims and orders of life, of most of the peoples of this earth. And yet—and here is my second point—they are the truly great ‘new thing’ that we do indeed represent to the world and that constitutes our Occidental revelation of a properly human spiritual ideal, true to the highest potentiality of our species.”[6]

He goes on to trace the history of cultures, to show that archaic civilizations operated according to a belief in a great cosmic law which left no room for the individual, and where one’s birth determined who one is, what one is to be, and what one can think. Indeed, strikingly Campbell points out that the “Sanskrit verb ‘to be’ is sati…and refers to the character of the devout Hindu wife immolating herself on her deceased husband’s funeral pyre.”

But the west (what he calls the “occident”) is different from the orient, and it is because of the myths it told. The God who judged an entire world for their sins and sent a flood to destroy them as a consequence implies that humans are not just cogs in a predestined universal machine. Especially in the Old Testament, as we see in Job,

“the focus of concern is the individual, who is born but once, lives but once, and is distinct in his willing, his thinking, and his doing from every other; in the whole great Orient of India, Tibet, China, Korea, and Japan the living entity is [rather] understood to be an immaterial transmigrant that puts on bodies and puts them off. You are not your body. You are not your ego. You are to think of these as delusory.”[7]

So what does this have to do with atheism in the west and, particularly, Dillahunty’s argument that from self interest he can establish a moral system that isn’t contingent on religion? Well, rationality is a recent invention, and Peterson thinks our concepts are abstractions from the myths we’ve told for millenia. This is why, for instance, the west is individualistic, democratic, tending to understanding justice in terms of liberty, whereas the east is susceptible to collectivism, communism, tending to understand justice in terms of social expectations. Our very sense that self interest is a viable candidate for moral belief in the first place is an outgrowth of the Christian myth.

This leads us back to the previous section: as Peterson said in the discussion, it is difficult to draw a bright line between what is real and what is useful. When you strip subjectivity from the world at the beginning of the analysis of the human condition or the world, Peterson thinks it creates two possible pathologies: totalitarianism and nihilism; neither of which fundamentally value life because they’ve separated vitality from mechanism, breath from logic.

The strange thing about Dillahunty’s reflections is that he’s actually much closer to Peterson than it appears in Pangburn’s video. As I have written, Peterson thinks religion has evolved by Darwinian mechanisms, religious myths provide for us the grammar of stories, and, because they rely on competence hierarchies, these stories set the background evolutionary setting to which we’ve adapted as a species, and the conceptual grounds from which our concepts of the individual derived. There is nothing supernaturalist about this position and, in fact, it’s a denial of special revelation, miracles, and divine inspiration altogether, at least, if these concepts are employed at all, they’re stripped of their traditional content. I would like to see Dillahunty and Peterson discuss these issues more fully, and I think for this to happen we have to get beyond, as I’ve said, the full stop question as to the existence of God. With or without God, how does religion affect our modern landscape? With or without God, what does the language of myth provide that, say, pure-hard logic can’t (if anything at all)? I’m hopeful the conversation might turn more interesting on these points, given that it appears both Dillahunty and Peterson had a good faith dialogue last time. Next time we might be in for something special.

 


 

[1] See Peterson’s discussion on this difference in “04 – Religion, Myth, Science, Truth.”

[2] Ibid.

[3] See much more in “Why Tell the Truth: On the Curious Notions of Jordan B. Peterson.”

[4] See much more in the article above. The logic of “mythical substrate” is basically that our ideas and rationalities derive from our behaviors which are abstracted into myths which are further abstracted into concepts. The loss of the mythical substrate is essentially the loss of the behaviors that give rise to it.

[5] See Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism for a much fuller picture of what the claim that the west was founded on both Jerusalem and Athens (i.e., Christianity) means. Note that this is not a normative judgment, entailing that now all our values must revert back to some Christian theology to be grounded. It’s simply a description of history, and the acceptance of value derived from Christian thought doesn’t entail the acceptance of Christianity to be intelligible today.

[6] Joseph Campbell, Myths To Live By, 61.

[7] Ibid., 69.

 

The Congressional Freethought Caucus

Something truly momentous  happened this week. On April 30, California representatives Jared Huffman and Jerry McNerney along with Maryland’s Jamie Raskin and Michigan’s Dan Kildee officially announced the creation of a Congressional Freethought Caucus. Spearheaded by the American Humanist Association and the Center for Freethought Equality, the Congressional Freethought Caucus will “promote public policy formed on the basis of reason, science, and moral values; protect the secular character of our government by adhering to the strict Constitutional principle of the separation of church and state; oppose discrimination against atheists, agnostics, humanists, seekers, and nonreligious persons; champion the value of freedom of thought and conscience worldwide; and provide a forum for members of Congress to discuss their moral frameworks, ethical values, and personal religious journeys.” This couldn’t have come at a better time. With around a quarter of Americans now identifying as religiously unaffiliated and 7% openly identifying as atheist, secular and humanistic perspectives will now get a larger voice in Congress.

Congressman Jared Huffman, who recently came out as a secular humanist, noted his excitement about the caucus and hopes it will “spark an open dialogue about science and reason-based policy solutions, and the importance of defending the secular character of our government.” Congressman Jamie Raskin, another open humanist, highlighted the “historic” nature of this event and its ties to the founders:

Two-and-a-half centuries after the Founders of our country separated church and state and guaranteed the individual freedoms of thought, conscience, speech and worship, it is a high honor to be a co-founder and member of the Congressional Freethought Caucus, which is organizing to defend these principles and values against continuing attack. We face a constant undertow in Congress of dangerous efforts to stifle science and promote official religious dogma and orthodoxy. Our job is to remind Congress of the kind of Enlightenment Republic that Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Adams, Tom Paine, Ben Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony, Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy were fighting for and to seek a democracy that protects both the rights of individual conscience and worship and the central role of reason, science and morality in the making of public policy.

Representative Jerry McNerney, who is also a scientist and mathematician, reiterated the Caucus’s philosophy and goals. “As co-founder of the Freethought Caucus, I believe strongly in the separation of church and state, and as a scientist, I understand clearly the need to bring rational decision-making to Congress for the good of our nation,” said Rep. McNerney. Huffman and Raskin will serve as the co-chairs for the caucus.

This step also pushes non-theist and humanistic perspectives more to the forefront of our politics. As Ron Millar of the Center for Freethought Equality put it, “this caucus will help end discrimination against nontheist candidates and elected officials, allow candidates and elected officials to be authentic about their religious beliefs, and encourage atheist, agnostic, and humanists to run for political office.” With the ever-growing creep of theocracy into our federal government after the election of Donald Trump, the Freethought Caucus is exactly the kind of move we should take as a nation. Huffman reiterated this in his statements on Monday: “There currently is no forum focused on these important issues, and with this Administration and certain members of Congress constantly working to erode the separation of church and state, this new caucus is both important and timely.”

Secular leaders all across the country also celebrated this formation. “We are delighted at the formation of a freethought caucus in Congress,” Freedom From Religion Foundation Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor said in a statement, “Finally, the significant portion of Americans who are not religious will have representation in Congress.” Harvard cognitive psychologist and FFRF honorary President Steven Pinker also praised the move, calling it a “historic achievement” on Twitter. Roy Speckhardt, the executive director of the American Humanist Association, agrees. “The very existence of this Congressional caucus for freethinkers and humanists is a marker of how far the movement for secular and nontheist equality has come. This significant step is also a new beginning for our country as both religious and non-religious leaders work to better the nation,” he said in a press release.

As for myself, I’m so excited about this event. The Freethought Caucus can become such an effective advocacy forum for secular and humanistic perspectives. I also appreciate their willingness to represent others who may not be as secular as them. Their dedication to the separation of church and state, as well as freedom of conscience, speaks to how they want to build bridges with other demographic groups while fighting for reason and science-based public policy. I think most people, non-religious and religious, can get behind that. Nearly 130 years since the founding of the nation’s first freethought organizations, the National Liberal League and the American Secular Union, and less than a century removed from the creation of the American Humanist Association, we now have a Caucus who will represent us in Congress. That’s definitely an achievement for the history books.

My Dissapointment with the Matt Dillahunty and Jordan Peterson Discussion

Since writing this article, Matt Dillahunty has released his reflections on the discussion. I’ve revisited the dialogue here in light of his comments.

I recently listened to the Matt Dillahunty and Jordan Peterson’s Pangburn Philosophy sponsored discussion and was extremely disappointed by it. The discussion represented something that has become commonplace in the secular movement when prominent thinkers attempt to discuss religion: there is a full stop at the question of the existence of God. This is unbelievably stifling and, frankly, uninteresting for (at least a few) reasons I will outline below. After a brief interchange with Dillahunty himself about this, I am still rather unsatisfied by his responses to my questions. He welcomed an email from me, and I will update you all when I hear his response.

As a precursor for my exposition below, I just want to give a brief description of my history with religion and religious people, specifically Christianity and Christians, to show that my ideas are not, indeed, foreign either to the study of this religion or these religious people themselves. Dillahunty had charged that I sounded like a person who has never talked with a fundamentalist or Evangelical Christian. In fact the truth is the opposite: these are the people I have known my whole life, and many friends of mine still live within both traditions. I grew up in a small town of 2,000 people in northwestern Indiana: a rural, mostly farmland community where 90% of the population was conservative, Christian, and Republican. I still attend a church there sometimes, although I live near Indianapolis now, and consider myself a secular humanist. I also attended a small, private Christian University (Anderson University in Indiana) to study philosophy and theology (although they cut their philosophy program my fourth year there and I dropped out). I attend seminary courses at the Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis in my free time and anticipate enrolling in their MTS program in the coming months. I like to, as Christopher Hitchens used to say, keep two sets of books. Though I’m a secular humanist, I am fascinated by belief in God and have a deep desire to understand it.

This is where the recent discussion comes in. It seems like the secular humanist movement really needs to get beyond the question of whether God exists, mainly because this question assumes it understands what religious people mean when they talk about the “existence” of God. I just want to briefly suggest here how difficult it is to understand what is meant by the “existence of God,” or the meaning of faith by referring to the ideas of a few prominent theologians.

The theologian Rudolf Bultmann wrote on the difference between talking about God and talking from the existential reality of God, effectively claiming that the person of faith can never talk about God (positing God as an object outside herself to be comprehended), but that for religious people God is something like the “Wholly Other” that exceeds all language and thought. Consequently, for him faith means “the abandonment of man’s own security and the readiness to find security only in the unseen beyond, in God.” This is a far cry away from the notion that religious people have some kind of rational grounding for believing in God, or that the average religious person strives to do so. The language Bultmann uses suggests an entirely different grammar from the logic of rationality.

Similarly, Paul Tillich defines faith as “ultimate concern.” As JBH commentates, “While faith may certainly involve rationality and emotion, for Tillich it transcends them both without destroying either, thereby overcoming the gap between subjectivity and objectivity.” Continuing, for Tillich, “God functions as the most fundamental symbol for ultimate concern. Regardless of whether one accepts or rejects ‘God,’ the symbol of God is always affirmed insofar God is a type of shorthand for what concerns humanity ultimately.” Here again, we find a robust definition of faith and belief which goes beyond the understanding that belief is merely the acceptance of a proposition without evidence. It is an open question, given Tillich’s understanding, whether faith can be obtained through reason, or whether faith itself provides a logic of its own for interpreting the world and its events.

Indeed, Friedrich Schleiermacher, the father of modern liberal theology, writes in his book to “Religion’s Cultured Despisers” that faith is different from physics, ethics, and art. This Christian thinker understands religious doctrines and dogmas as contemplations of a feeling of ultimate dependence on the universe. Schleiermacher recognizes that this exposition of religious language, as an expression of a certain feeling, puts it in a distinct discourse: “Religion, however loudly it may demand back all those well abused conceptions, leaves your physics untouched, and please God, also your psychology.” He goes on, in this light, to describe the uses of religious terms. A “miracle” is “simply the religious name for an event.” A “revelation” is every “original and new communication of the Universe to man.” I take this to mean that when language gives perspective to life, then it is revelatory language. He also makes a distinction between true belief and false belief: “Not every person has religion who believes in a sacred writing, but only the man who has a lively and immediate understanding of it, and who, therefore, so far as he himself is concerned, could most easily do without it.” Although Schleiermacher calls “God” and “immortality” ideas as opposed to feelings, he points to “God” as a unifying concept “in whom alone the particular thing is one and all.” “Is not God the highest, the only unity?” “And if you see the world as a Whole, a Universe, can you do it otherwise than in God?” With this kind of talk, we secular humanists are certainly standing on a strange continent. Yet we should not turn around, now, and give over thinking to cliches about what “God” or “faith” or “religion” must mean, but we should explore the jungles of religious thought in hopes to find what is worthwhile and intelligible, for in either case we learn about the common humanity that connects us all, whether secular or religious.

With a few questions, let’s further free our minds from the prejudices derived from overly simplistic understandings of religious belief and think for a second about what it would mean for religious people to understand God as a being like other beings. It would mean that fundamentalists themselves would say that we can get closer to God depending on where we stand on the earth, that we could see God if we had better qualities of perception, that we could hear God if our auditory system was more powerful. But this isn’t what even fundamentalists claim. They’ll say God is everywhere. And we have to take that seriously. God isn’t a being like other beings (see the debates surrounding the analogia entis).

You might ask why listen to the major thinkers of theology when we can ask everyday believers what their belief means. This is an important question and bears more attention than it has received. This is a question the philosopher of religion D. Z. Phillips took up in The Concept of Prayer. Just because someone knows how to paint, it doesn’t follow that they have anything to say about art theory. Just because a religious person prays, it doesn’t follow that they have some kind of robust understanding of prayer or can articulate it with symbols other than those passed onto them. Daniel Dennett makes this wonderful distinction between having competence in a game and comprehending the game (many pragmatist philosophers of language do as well, such as Robert Brandom in Making It Explicit). I can be competent at playing guitar, for instance, but it doesn’t follow that I comprehend what I’m doing when I play guitar: that I know what the chord names are or I know how to place musical symbols on a scale and write a song with notation. In the same way, not all religious people comprehend the meaning of their beliefs, although they are competent actors within the rituals and systems of discourse in their communities. So a discussion with the actors who are competent religious actors and comprehend religion’s history is paramount for understanding it. This, I think, is the import of Peterson’s point that Sam Harris doesn’t reference Eliade (virtually the founder of religious studies) once in his works.

Another point that D. Z. Phillips made over and over in his career is that distinct discourses (or “language games”) can infect each other, and this infection can either undermine discourses or revolutionize them. The undermining process occurs when the logic of one discourse (say science) is used to interpret the surface grammar[1] of another discourse (say religion), so that even religious believers begin to use scientific logic to think about their beliefs, despite this logic being foreign to their beliefs. So the problem with being a competent actor who does not also comprehend the discourse she participates in is that she is susceptible to this undermining. It creates cognitive dissonance. I think this happens a lot to religious people. And examples of this undermining can be seen when faith is reduced to the shallow understanding of belief (the acceptance of propositions without evidence), when God is reduced to a being (existing somewhere), and religious practices are reduced to their social benefits.

The secular humanist movement would be better off, especially in its relation to religious people and its understanding of religion and religious belief, if it sidestepped the question of the existence of God and asked what it means to say that God exists and what it means to believe or have faith in God. It seems to me that this change of emphasis must be granted purely out of the principles of charity and skepticism; the principle of charity because to arrive at a position about religion and religious belief, we have to engage with the best religious thinkers who do ask these questions; and from the principles of skepticism because we have to be skeptical of our own assumptions and ideas about what religion and religious belief are.

As we have seen, the father of modern liberal theology Friedrich Schleiermacher wrote on the relation between religion and the sciences and arts. And I think his answers still have pertinence  today. Is faith a feeling of ultimate dependence? Is “miracle” the religious word for any event, and the more religious you are the more miracles you see? Do religious beliefs, in fact, have nothing to do with ethics and physics, as he claims? These are open questions, I think, and can’t be answered just by taking a small sample size, as Dillahunty seems to do, of a small movement, of a relatively new branch of Christianity at its word (fundamentalist Southern Baptists, for instance). A certain sect’s view of theology isn’t necessarily the majority Christian view, nor is it the most traditionally representative. For instance, the Americas only house about a third of the world’s Christians, and at least half of the world’s Christians are Catholic. Why not engage with the thoughts of someone like the Catholic thinkers Karl Rahner or Thomas Aquinas?

As the theologian Paul Tillich defined faith as “ultimate concern,” a disposition toward reality as a whole shaped by an ultimate concern (for instance, maybe that being is good despite suffering), and another important theologian said that beliefs are the “thoughts of faith,” we can begin to see how the question of “what do you believe” is a little misleading and unhelpful for us who want to understand religion. The beliefs of religious people seem to be expressions of a disposition toward life as a whole, and aren’t themselves what is worthy of worship (the Reformers for instance distinguished between the letter of the Bible and the Spirit of the Word). Let’s therefore draw a distinction between faith and belief. Belief is an expression of faith and does not ground it. Our questions should be directed toward the lived reality and experiences indicative of faith rather than the propositions of belief. Wittgenstein once said that the concept “God” is something like the concept “object,” in that it is a basic concept for a way of conceiving the basic things in reality. I think it would be fascinating to explore the ways in which the word “God” is similar to that of “object,” for in answering that we might actually articulate an authentic abstraction of religious belief and, perhaps, distill the meaning of faith.

Why fixate on the question of the existence of God when even in theological circles it is a cliche that people do not come to faith through rational argument and, in philosophical theology, there is a distinction made between the God of the philosophers (something like the first mover, the idea greater than that which can be conceived, etc.) and the God of religion (who is worthy of worship, the God of love and hope and freedom, etc.)? Why argue against a God not worth believing in, even by religious standards (and quite likely nobody believes in), and not try to articulate the God who religious people put their faith in? It seems like the major thinkers in the secular humanist movement have done next to no homework on the variety of religious experiences and the different conceptions of religious belief and ritual (as these have been explored extensively in religious studies), and the secular humanist movement suffers for it. If indeed it is possible that the grammar of religious language differs from the logic of rationality, it seems absurd to dismiss it out of hand as not worthy of discussion or serious thought. It seems we have a long way to go before we can actually mount a criticism of religion, because we have yet to understand it. And I’m not advocating here for a distinction between the facts of religion and the values of religion, for us to see the social or psychological benefits or ill effects of religious belief, but an investigation into the phenomenology of religious experiences, and the kinds of experiences and the kinds of thinking that religious belief expresses.

I hope this makes some sense and that I have presented my question sufficiently enough (though of course not comprehensively) so that where I’m coming from might be at least basically understood. Is my concern here unfounded? Does the secular humanist movement have no more work to do in the realm of understanding religion, and the only work before it is to deny and refute it at every turn? Might there be a possibility for building bridges, to recognize the possibility that our common humanity might allow for different dispositions toward the world, and that understanding these differences might allow us all to work together better?

 


 

[1]  Some Wittgensteinians draw a distinction between “surface” and “depth” grammar. The surface grammar is the way the grammar of a statement appears to a person. So the surface grammar of “God is in heaven” appears for many nonreligious people as the same as the depth grammar of “Mom is in the kitchen.” Depth grammar is the intended logic that underlies a statement and motivates inferences and conclusions from that statement. So the depth grammar of “Mom is in the kitchen” could be something like “Dinner will be ready soon” or “Mom is not in the living room, basement, upstairs, etc.” The question I am raising here is something like: The surface grammar of the statement “God is in heaven” misleads us to think religious people are making an empirical claim when the depth grammar might mean something like “Come what may, existence is good.”

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