Up@dawn 2.0

Monday, March 28, 2016

Quiz March 29

1. Secularists can agree with Hamlet, that death is nothing to fear, if they dismiss what possibility?

2. What lies behind the sense of horror at the prospect of non-existence?

3. Meaningful lives do and do not require what?

4. Kitcher wants to resist what temptation?

5. What are the chief sources of pessimism?

6. By what does Kitcher want scriptures to be superseded?


  • Name a thinker who reacted against the outside imposition of meaning, emphasizing autonomy instead.
  • Kitcher thinks we should be committed to what, instead of salvation?
  • What does Kitcher say about a grandfather's joy?
  • What's wrong with the Christian and Muslim afterlife?

  • "What use is Darwin at a funeral?" 96 In fact, isn't there some consolation in the evolutionary hypothesis that individual mortality is inseparable from species evolution? Is there some further sense in which such "gibes... misunderstand the human situation"? 105
  • "Do you feel differently about your absence from different parts of the future?" 97 Are you also increasingly "indifferent" to the future? 98
  • COMMENT: "Mattering to others is what counts in conferring meaning."
  • What's your answer to the "religious challenger" who says bereaved secularists misunderstand the character of the afterlife? 103
  • Does an afterlife without striving nullify our acts and identities? 104
  • Did you have an "epiphany around (age) 16"? 107
  • COMMENT: "Lives matter when they touch others." 108 Presumably the touch should be positive and altruistic, not destructive and selfish. But how do you argue this with a confirmed Randian, for example, who says we should all live only for ourselves? Is there any point in having that argument with an egoist?
  • Does impermanence cancel meaning? 110 Is "lingering" in the memories of those who knew us enough to confer meaning? 111
  • What other "sources of the deepest satisfactions" would you suggest? 119
  • Do you agree that secular humanism faces practical but not intellectual problems in accounting for meaning? 122
  • Why would Charles Taylor or anyone insist that joy is not fully available to secularists? Is this simply prejudice? 127-8
  • Seeing God in all things is transformative, said George Herbert, but isn't it also potentially transformative to see no God? 129
  • Are epiphanies valuable, whatever their causes? 131
  • COMMENT: "Each life that goes badly... should be a stimulus to renewed human effort" and not to belief in "ultimate compensation" in heaven. 136
  • COMMENT: The properly strenuous life is humanist, not religious. 139
  • What's your takeaway from Kitcher's discussion of Shakespeare and Dostoevsky?

God Is a Question, Not an Answer

Near end of Albert Camus’s existentialist novel “The Stranger,” Meursault, the protagonist, is visited by a priest who offers him comfort in the face of his impending execution. Meursault, who has not cared about anything up to this point, wants none of it. He is an atheist in a foxhole. He certainly has not been a strident atheist, but he claims to have no time for the priest and his talk of God. For him, God is not the answer.

Some 70 years later, Kamel Daoud, in his 2013 novel “The Meursault Investigation,” picks up the thread of Camus’s story. In one scene late in that novel, an imam hounds Harun, the brother of the unnamed Arab who was killed in “The Stranger.” In response, Harun gives a litany of his own impieties, culminating in the declaration that “God is a question, not an answer.” Harun’s declaration resonates with me as a teacher and student of philosophy. The question is permanent; answers are temporary. I live in the question.

Any honest atheist must admit that he has his doubts, that occasionally he thinks he might be wrong, that there could be a God after all — if not the God of the Judeo-Christian tradition, then a God of some kind. Nathaniel Hawthorne said of Herman Melville, “He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief; and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other.” Dwelling in a state of doubt, uncertainty and openness about the existence of God marks an honest approach to the question... (continues)
A reply: "Many “honest” atheists, including me, don’t care to consider the question of God at all. Aside from the simple truth that the question does not interest me, the existence of a god or gods would not change the way I live my life, and therefore holds no value to me. I also find it a waste of time and attention to wonder about the unknowable when there are so many interesting and urgent questions with real answers waiting to be revealed..." More responses...
Clearly Calvin hasn't read Scheffler, Kitcher, Dewey, or Russell...

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Quiz March 24

1. Name one of Kitcher's assumptions he says "refined religion" abandons.

2. What is it about mortality and meaning that refined religion poses as a challenge to the secularist?

3. Name a famous defender of refined religion from the past century.

4. Full-blooded truth presupposes what?

5. What is a "true myth"?

6. What kind of future do secularists like Kitcher envisage?


  • Do secularists have as great a quarrel with refined religion as with fundamentalism? (Sam Harris, for example, has argued that it is an "enabler" of fundamentalism and must be equally confronted.)
  • What do you think of Emerson's abstract and figurative approach to the transcendent? Does it srrengthen his claims in defense of self-reliance and individualism? 66
  • What's wrong with identifying the transcendent with value itself? 67 Or the experience of value? Can transcendence be naturalized without "loss of dimensions of experience"?
  • Do you agree that the claims of the "subsidiary characters" in the Abraham story are disregarded? 70
  • COMMENT: "Faith adds a depth of seriousness" to life.
  • Is refined religious sophistication "a cover for sophistry"? 72
  • Do we really live in different worlds and escape to other realities? 73 Isn't our one shared human world big enough to contain innumerable sub-worlds, reflecting our various purposes and psyches?
  • Have you encountered truths in fiction? How do you think about and relate to them? Are they "endorsed" by their writers and readers, imagined, discovered, ...? Are they literally or figuratively true? For example: "Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player. That struts and frets his hour upon the stage. And then is heard no more: it is a tale. Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." True?
  • Is religion a language-game? How about irreligion? How do you decide whether a language-game is "worth playing"? 84
  • What does it mean to "abandon the assimilation of ethical truth to factual truth"? 85
  • Can atheists achieve the same purposes attributed to religion? 87-8
  • Is science free of superstition?
  • Is "purifying progress" an oversimplification? 92
  • COMMENT: "Refined religion is a way station, not a final destination." 94

The third Terry Lecture anticipates chapter 4.

Rebecca Goldstein, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction... appendix (edge.org)
1. The Cosmological Argument
2. The Ontological Argument
3. The Argument from Design A. The Classical Teleological Argument B. The Argument from Irreducible Complexity C. The Argument from the Paucity of Benign Mutations D. The Argument from the Original Replicator
4. The Argument from the Big Bang
5. The Argument from the Fine-Tuning of Physical Constants
6. The Argument from the Beauty of Physical Laws
7. The Argument from Cosmic Coincidences
8. The Argument from Personal Coincidences
9. The Argument from Answered Prayers
10. The Argument from a Wonderful Life
11. The Argument from Miracles
12. The Argument from the Hard Problem of Consciousness
13. The Argument from the Improbable Self
14. The Argument from Survival After Death
15. The Argument from the Inconceivability of Personal Annihilation
16. The Argument from Moral Truth
17. The Argument from Altruism
18. The Argument from Free Will
19. The Argument from Personal Purpose
20. The Argument from the Intolerability of Insignificance
21. The Argument from the Consensus of Humanity
22. The Argument from the Consensus of Mystics
23. The Argument from Holy Books Gold
24. The Argument from Perfect Justice
25. The Argument from Suffering
26. The Argument from the Survival of the Jews
27. The Argument from the Upward Curve of History
28. The Argument from Prodigious Genius
29. The Argument from Human Knowledge of Infinity
30. The Argument from Mathematical Reality
31. The Argument from Decision Theory (Pascal’s Wager)
32. The Argument from Pragmatism (William James’s Leap of Faith)
33. The Argument from the Unreasonableness of Reason
34. The Argument from Sublimity
35. The Argument from the Intelligibility of the Universe (Spinoza’s God)
36. The Argument from the Abundance of Arguments
Arguments analyzed here

Monday, March 21, 2016

Quiz March 22

Let's not forget to do last time's quiz first...

1. (Again:) Plato's Euthyphro poses what dilemma, and why does the popular perception of a tight link between religion and ethics persist?

2. Saying that ethical deliberations answer only to a local ethical code leads to what?

3. In the rudimentary ethical project of our ancestors, the likeliest emotion motivating conformity was what? (Hint: listen to the 2,000 Year Old Man...transcript)

4. What is the important achievement of ethical revolutionaries?

5. What Deweyan judgment does Kitcher say we should endorse?

6. The center of secular value is what?


  • Do you agree that most secular accounts "reduce ethical life to the expression of subjective attitudes"? 27 Are inter-subjective attitudes stronger?
  • Why do you think Kitcher considers Darwinian construals of goodness in terms of reproductive success inadequate? 29 Do you agree?
  • How do you explain the widely-shared recognition of the wrongness of slavery (30) and the growth of "responsiveness" (32)?
  • Was there a non-arbitrary threshold that truly began the ethical project? 36
  • Is "progress from," rooted in problem-solving, a better concept than progress to a fixed goal? (42) Is progress real?
  • Do you agree that "truth happens to an idea" rather than subsisting eternally? 45
  • Is there a cure for our "old disease"? 48
  • Is it fair to insist that participants in ethical discussions "accept a ban on appealing to substantive religious doctrines"? 50
  • Is a redistribution of material resources and reconfiguration of economic and political institutions essential to the ethical project? 51
  • Is there a place for Nietzschean "free spirits" in the evolution of ethics?  52
  • Do you agree that we're "always already" ethical? 53
  • Can fiction do philosophical and ethical work? 55 Does good fiction do it better than philosophy? Can you give an example?

Religious children are meaner than their secular counterparts, study finds

Children from religious families are less kind and more punitive than those from non-religious households, according to a new study.
Academics from seven universities across the world studied Christian, Muslim and non-religious children to test the relationship between religion and morality.
They found that religious belief is a negative influence on children’s altruism.
“Overall, our findings ... contradict the commonsense and popular assumption that children from religious households are more altruistic and kind towards others,” said the authors of The Negative Association Between Religiousness and Children’s Altruism Across the World, published this week in Current Biology... (continues)

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Quiz Mar17

Th 17 - Doubt Delineated (LAF 1); Midterm report presentations conclude. Happy St. Pat's Day. 

1. How did James characterize fervent unbelief?

2. What is the "core of secularist doubt"?

3. What's a sensu divinitatis?

4. Religious epistemologists neglect what?

5. What was Clifford's position on the ethics of belief?

6. What's "soft atheism"?

Kitcher on YouTube... Terry Lectures...

  • Do you agree with James's characterization of fervent unbelief?
  • Do you think transcendence can happen within the "mundane physical world"? 3
  • If you're religious, how would you describe your own "doctrinal profile" (5)? If you're not, what's your attitude towards believers whose profile is literalist, or indefinite?
  • Do you agree that nobody thinks all religious claims can be accommodated? 7
  • Why do you think so many religious people are credulous with regard to "privileged witnesses in a remote past"? 8
  • What doesn't it give everyone, believers and unbelievers alike, more pause to realize that if they'd been brought up in a different culture they'd "now affirm a radically different set of doctrines"? 8
  • Is "sophisticated" theology and "advanced" religion more likely to be rationally justified or true? 9
  • Do you agree that religious experiences always invoke familiar categories? 12
  • Are religious experiences more likely to happen to people who are psychologically disturbed or under the influence of substances that impair perception? 14
  • Do you think James's mountaineer and suitor (17) support a religious "leap of faith"?
  • Should secularists admit the possibility that we'll someday discover something "deep about the universe"  that vindicates religion? 20
  • COMMENT: "The proper secularist attitude is agnosticism." 22

The Case for ‘Soft Atheism’

The Stone is a forum for contemporary philosophers and other thinkers on issues both timely and timeless.

This is the sixth in a series of interviews about religion that I am conducting for The Stone. The interviewee for this installment is Philip Kitcher, a professor of philosophy at Columbia University and the author of the forthcoming book “Life After Faith: The Case for Secular Humanism.”

Gary Gutting: You have said that you “take religious doctrines to have become incredible.” Why do you think that?

It is possible to reject all religious doctrines as false without dismissing religion itself as noxious rubbish.

Philip Kitcher: An opening clarification: I don’t think focusing on religious doctrine, as opposed to religious experience or practice, is always the best way of considering a religious perspective. Nonetheless, most religions do offer doctrines about aspects of the world that go beyond the things of everyday experience. They tell us about gods or spirits or ancestors who return or special forces or sacred qualities of particular places.

The most basic reason for doubt about any of these ideas is that (when you understand words in their normal, everyday senses) nobody is prepared to accept all of them. Even if you suppose that Judaism, Christianity and Islam share some common conception of a divine being, the Hindu deities are surely different, the spirits and ancestors of African and Native American religions different again, and that’s before we get to Melanesian mana or the aboriginal Australian Dreamtime. It’s very hard to think that every one of these radically different conceptions picks out some aspect of our cosmos.

So asserting the doctrines of a particular religion, or family of religions, requires denying other contrary doctrines. However, when you consider the historical processes underlying the doctrines contemporary believers accept, those processes turn out to be very similar: Long ago there was some special event, a revelation to remote ancestors. Religious doctrine has been transmitted across the generations, and it’s learned by novice believers today. If the devout Christian had been brought up in a completely different environment — among aboriginal Australians or in a Hindu community, say — that person would believe radically different doctrines, and, moreover, come to believe them in a completely parallel fashion. On what basis, then, can you distinguish the profound truth of your doctrines from the misguided ideas of alternative traditions?

G.G.: But as you yourself suggest, doctrines aren’t necessarily the most important thing about religions. Many believers see doctrinal pronouncements as just halting ways of expressing experiences of a divine reality — experiences that are largely similar across the varieties of religious doctrines.

P.K.: The trouble with this proposal is that such happenings aren’t independent of the religious ideas available in the surrounding culture. Yes, people who grow up in quite different traditions have similar experiences — experiences they take to be religious — but they characterize them using the categories of the religions with which they’re familiar. Moreover, as people who have studied religious experience, from William James on, have understood very clearly, an experience someone takes to be an encounter with the divine might have all sorts of psychological causes — and, of course, such experiences are often claimed by people who are psychotic, or who are under the influence of drugs, or who are experiencing severe stress. The point has long been appreciated by the major religions of the world, which have taken pains to distinguish “genuine” experiences from those that might promulgate heresy.

Further, scholars studying the evolution of religious doctrines have learned that important ideas of major religions have been introduced in response to the political requirements of some historical situation — even though Jesus received a Roman punishment (crucifixion), it would not have been a bright idea, in a Rome-dominated world, to pinpoint the Romans as responsible, and the problem was resolved by finding a way to cast blame on the Jews (preparing the way for centuries of prejudice and hostility).

Further still, religions today adapt their doctrines so as to recruit particular types of people as converts — proselytizers often target people who have just moved to unfamiliar surroundings and who lack close friends (to cite just one example). The historical route to contemporary religious doctrines is full of transitions that have very little to do with the identification of truth. If you’re concerned to believe what is true, you should find all of these doctrines incredible.

G.G.: So you reject all religious doctrines, but you also say that you “resist the claim that religion is noxious rubbish to be buried as deeply, as thoroughly and as quickly as possible.” Why is that?

P.K.: The past decade has seen some trenchant attacks on religion, and I agree with many points made by people like Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins. (Dennett seems to me clearly the most sophisticated of the “new atheists”; much as I admire Dawkins’s work in evolutionary biology and in enhancing the public understanding of science, he is more often off-target in his diatribes against religion.) But these atheists have been rightly criticized for treating all religions as if they were collections of doctrines, to be understood in quite literal ways, and for not attending to episodes in which the world’s religions have sometimes sustained the unfortunate and campaigned for the downtrodden. The “soft atheism” I defend considers religion more extensively, sympathizes with the idea that secularists can learn from religious practices and recommends sometimes making common cause with religious movements for social justice.

G.G.: So on your view, Dawkins and company don’t refute all forms of religion, just unsophisticated literal assertions of religious claims.

P.K.: Yes, I think there’s a version of religion, “refined religion,” that is untouched by the new atheists’ criticisms, and that even survives my argument that religious doctrines are incredible. Refined religion sees the fundamental religious attitude not as belief in a doctrine but as a commitment to promoting the most enduring values. That commitment is typically embedded in social movements — the faithful come together to engage in rites, to explore ideas and ideals with one another and to work cooperatively for ameliorating the conditions of human life. The doctrines they affirm and the rituals they practice are justified insofar as they support and deepen and extend the values to which they are committed. But the doctrines are interpreted nonliterally, seen as apt metaphors or parables for informing our understanding of ourselves and our world and for seeing how we might improve both. To say that God made a covenant with Abraham doesn’t mean that, long ago, some very impressive figure with a white beard negotiated a bargain with a Mesopotamian pastoralist. It is rather to commit yourself to advancing what is most deeply and ultimately valuable, as the story says Abraham did.

G.G.: And so, since they don’t regard them as factual, refined believers don’t have to deny the stories and metaphors of other religions.

P.K.: Right, they don’t have to pick and choose among the religions of the world. They see all religions as asserting that there is more to the cosmos than is dreamed of either in our mundane thoughts or in our most advanced scientific descriptions. Different cultures gesture toward the “transcendent” facets of reality in their many alternative myths and stories. None of the myths is factually true, although they’re all true in the sense that their “fruits for life” are good. Prominent examples of refined believers include William James, Martin Buber and Paul Tillich, and, in our own day, Karen Armstrong, Robert Bellah and Charles Taylor. When refined religion is thoroughly embedded, religious tolerance thrives, and often much good work is done.

G.G.: Are you, then, willing to tolerate refined religion as a morally and intellectually respectable position?

Perhaps I’m a more insidious foe of religion than Dennett and Dawkins. For instead of ignoring important species of religion, I want to prepare the way for their gradual disappearance.

P.K.: I see refined religion as a halfway house. In the end, a thoroughly secular perspective, one that doesn’t suppose there to be some “higher” aspect of reality to serve as the ground of values (or as the ground of assurance that the important values can be realized), can do everything refined religion can do, without becoming entangled in mysteries and difficult problems. Most important, this positive secular humanism focuses directly on the needs of others, treating people as valuable without supposing that the value derives from some allegedly higher source. The supposed “transcendent” toward which the world’s religions gesture is both a distraction and a detour.

To sum up: There is more to religion than accepting as literally true doctrines that are literally false. Humanists think the important achievements of religions at their best — fostering community, articulating and supporting values — should be preserved in fashioning a fully secular world. That secular world ought to emerge from a dialogue between humanism and refined religion, one in which religion isn’t thrown on the rubbish heap but quietly metamorphoses into something else.

I’m a humanist first and an atheist second. Because I’m more sympathetic to religion than the prominent new atheists, I label my position “soft atheism.” But perhaps I’m a more insidious foe than Dennett and Dawkins. For instead of ignoring important species of religion, I want to prepare the way for their gradual disappearance.

G.G.: I wonder, though, why you say you’re an atheist at all. You find incredible the specific accounts of deity that doctrinal religions assert. But does that mean anything more than that you don’t believe any of these accounts? Why take the next, atheistic, step of saying that the accounts are all false? Wouldn’t it be more accurate to describe yourself as an agnostic, at least about some doctrinal claims?

P.K.: The clear message of all the conflicting doctrines of the world’s religions, when treated nonmetaphorically, is that, even if a “transcendent” should exist, all our categories for describing it are woefully inadequate. To borrow a phrase from the late, great philosopher Bernard Williams, any modestly literal thought about it is “one thought too many.” We should therefore reject substantive religious doctrines, one and all, even the minimal ones (“an intelligent source of the world’s order,” “a creator”).

So here’s a very simple reason I call myself an “a-theist”: theism embodies a very specific way of thinking about the “transcendent,” accepted by some but by no means all religious traditions — namely that there’s at least one deity — and if you suppose, as I do, that all substantive doctrines about any “transcendent” are wrong, you have to think theism is false.

G.G.: I don’t see the logic here. Your premise is “all our categories for describing the transcendent are woefully inadequate,” from which you conclude that “all substantive doctrines about any transcendent are wrong.” There are all sorts of things that our categories are inadequate for describing, from how bananas taste to what it means to love someone. We don’t conclude that bananas have no taste or that there’s no such thing as love. In any case, I don’t see why you say we should deny that the transcendent exists rather than taking no stance on its existence.

P.K.: I don’t see the parallel. It seems to me that we can say quite a lot about love and at least a bit about bananas. Partly that’s because we have plenty of uncontroversial experience of both.

But let me try to be more explicit. Why reject the “transcendent” rather than simply taking no stance on the issue of its reality? I start from the idea that all sorts of human inquiries, including but not limited to the natural sciences, have given us a picture of the world, and that these inquiries don’t provide evidence for any transcendent aspect of the universe. Epistemic humility should incline us to believe that our picture is incomplete, but if someone proposes that proteins fold into their three-dimensional configurations with the help of an army of ghostly beings, I don’t think I’m dogmatic in rejecting their suggestion. So why should I take a different attitude toward the proposal that there’s a “transcendent”?

G.G.: One reason is that many people have what they take to be direct experiences of something that transcends the domain of ordinary and scientific experience.

P.K.: To my mind, the experiences labeled “religious” come in two main types. There are some best understood in psychiatric terms. There are others, perhaps the overwhelming majority, that happen to people when they feel a great sense of uplift, often at the rightness of things. After all, experiences of this sort are felt by completely secular people who classify them without appeal to religious language. As Dewey pointed out, referring such experiences to some special aspect of reality is gratuitous speculation.

G.G.: I have in mind rather experiences people describe as of a transcendent reality — what William James calls experiences of a divine presence. But in addition to religious experience, there are respectable, even if not compelling, philosophical cases for the existence of a transcendent being — e.g., a first case of the universe, an ultimate source of value, a perfection that must exist.

P.K.: Even if people want to say that they feel a “divine presence” on these occasions, that seems to testify to the pervasive religious ideas that surround them, rather than to any reality beyond the mundane world. As to theistic arguments, some of the world’s religions have offered such arguments in support of their doctrines, although often different groups within a religious tradition will differ radically in judgments about the value of these exercises. Rational theology proceeds partly on the basis of principles also used in areas of rigorous inquiry (logical principles, for example) and partly on the basis of metaphysical additions, frequently varying across traditions. To my mind all these metaphysical add-ons are dubious. Indeed, many of them seem purpose-built to generate the desired conclusions. Concepts like that of a “necessary being” are problematic outgrowths of particular parochial traditions. We should think of the arguments of rational theology as supplements to a faith whose sources lie elsewhere (as, I believe, many theologians have always taken them to be).

G.G.: I agree that no theistic arguments are compelling, but I don’t agree that they all are logically invalid or have obviously false premises. I think the best arguments (especially, sophisticated versions of the cosmological argument) are dubious only in the sense that they use premises (e.g., any contingent thing requires a cause) that are not obviously true but that a rational person might properly believe. But settling our disagreement on this would require a thorough discussion of particular arguments.

P.K.: I agree that working that through would take a lot of words. But quite apart from that, I think religion at its best — the religion that prompts my admiration and sympathy — detaches itself from dubious metaphysics and from speculations about a “transcendent” to which our concepts are surely inadequate. It focuses on human problems, attempting to relieve want and misery, to provide opportunities for worthwhile life, and to deepen and extend important values.

Pragmatist that I am, I have little sympathy for strained discussions about whether God had to allow evil in order to create beings with free will, and even less for cheap gibes to the effect that religious faith is analogous to a child’s belief in the Easter bunny. Let’s be inspired by the world’s collection of religious metaphors insofar as they help us improve the human situation. Humanism first, atheism second. The atheism I favor is one in which literal talk about “God” or other supposed manifestations of the “transcendent” comes to be seen as a distraction from the important human problems — a form of language that quietly disappears.

This interview was conducted by email and edited. Previous interviews in this series were with Alvin Plantinga, Louise Antony,John D. Caputo, Howard Wettstein and Jay L. Garfield.
See also Michael Lynch's recent Stone essay "Googling is Believing: Trumping the Informed Citizen"...

Monday, March 14, 2016

Quiz Mar15

T 15 - Art; Architecture; Institutions (RA VIII-X)

1. Museums have what in common with universities?

2. What does deB think we could learn from "secular cycles of representative sorrows"? 

3. How does deB think museums should be reorganized?

4. Who gave "voice to the anti-aesthetic sentiment" of Protestantism?

5. How would a Temple to Perspective differ from a science museum?

6. What was the greatest conceptual error of Auguste Comte's Religion of Humanity?

American Atheists (@AmericanAtheist)
Happy #PiDay to everyone who knows that everything, including apple pie, is made of starstuff. pic.twitter.com/01G9TfxzO4


  • Are museums really our new churches? 208 Or sports stadia?
  • Is art a better medium than philosophy for reminding you of what matters? 215-217
  • Does any particular art increase your "feelings of solidarity & compassion"? 221
  • COMMENT: "We are most of us lambs in need of good shepherds..." 229
  • Is it art's responsibility to "call forth appropriate ethical responses from us" (235) and make us "good and wise"? (244)
  • Do you agree that we are significantly damaged by the presence of bad architecture? 253f.
  • Would your life be improved by the existence of "temples to spring, to kindness" etc.? 257
  • To what kind of "shrine" would you like to be a pilgrim? Have you ever traveled in search of "existential healing"? 273
  • COMMENT: "Writing books can't be enough if one wishes to change things." 279
  • Would we still "struggle to give Nietzsche a professional home" 284 (or even a publishing deal)? 
  • Should secularists admire and emulate the brand commitment and service reliability of McDonalds and Catholicism? 287f.
  • COMMENT: "Those of us who hold no religious or supernatural beliefs still require regular, ritualized encounters..." 298
  • Would you find deB project more appealing if he didn't call it "religion for atheists"? What would you call it?
Of related interest, from Buzzfeed: I Asked Atheists How They Find Meaning In A Purposeless Universe...

Jennifer Michael Hecht, author of Doubt:

“I spent many years of my life sad about there being no divine meaning, but having learned the history of doubt and unbelief, and thought it over for the next decade and a half, that issue isn’t on the table for me, in that way, any more. What I believe now is that we think we have a meaning problem because we recently got out of a relationship with a character named God, whose given traits included being the source of human meaning.

“Most people through history have not believed in an afterlife: We have records of the first time the ideas of an afterlife appeared in our culture and others, which means that people before lived without an afterlife. You don’t hear them calling death an abyss. The horror we have about there being no afterlife is entirely local to people from a culture that used to believe that everyone went on living after death, and these are an absurd anomaly.

“If I ask myself ‘What is life for?’ I have to answer: ‘Wrong question.’ You don’t ask how your foot knows to push the blood in your toes back up to your heart. It happens, but your foot doesn’t know how it knows to do it. Life isn’t for anything, but it does matter. We are a witness to the universe. We are the witnesses to each other. We believe each other into being. We generate things and people that matter to us and to others. Human life is such a bizarre, endlessly complex riot of emotions and processes; it is amazing to be one.”
Jan Doig:

“Three years and nine months ago I would have declared myself agnostic. Then my husband died without warning at the age of 47. My life fell to pieces. This is no exaggeration. As the terrible days passed in a fog the same question kept forming. Why? Why him? Why us? I was told by well-meaning friends that it was part of God’s plan and we would simply never know what that was. Or from friends with a looser definition of religion, that the Universe had something to teach me. I had lessons to learn.

“These thoughts caused me great fear, anger, and confusion. What sort of God, even if he had a plan for me, would separate a fine, kind, gentle man from his children? Why would God or the Universe look down and pick on our little family for special treatment? Why a good man with not a bad bone in his body who had never raised a hand to anyone? My best friend for 29 years. Any lesson the Universe had to teach me I would have learned willingly. He didn’t have to die!

“I thought about it a lot. I was raised Catholic so guilt ran through me like writing through a stick of rock. Had I been a bad wife? Was he waiting for me? There were days when, if I had been certain of a belief in an afterlife, I might have gone to join him. It was a desperate time. I needed evidence and there simply wasn’t any. I just had to have faith and believe.

“One day as I was sitting on his memorial bench in the local park I suddenly thought, What if no one is to blame? Not God. Not me. Not the Universe. What if he’s gone and that’s all there is to it? No plan. Just dreadful circumstances. A minor disturbance in his heart led to a more serious and ultimately deadly arrhythmia, and that killed him in a matter of moments. It is a purely scientific view of it. I may seem cold or callous but I found comfort in that. I cried and cried and cried, but that made logical sense to me and brought me great peace.

“My heart and head still miss my husband every day. I treasure everything he gave me and I love him as much today as the day he died. But I can remember him happily without wondering what we had done to deserve this dreadful separation.

“So I declare myself atheist (and humanist by extension) and my friends shake their heads. I stay on the straight and narrow without the guiding hand of a creator or any book of instructions.

“I’m not a religious or a spiritual person. (For some reason many of my female friends are shocked by this admission!) I don’t believe in God or the Universe. I don’t believe in angels, the power of prayer, spirits, ghosts, or an afterlife. The list goes on and on. I think there is a scientific meaning for everything, even if we don’t understand it yet. I find meaning in everyday things and I choose to carry on.

“The sun comes up and I have a chance to be kind to anyone who crosses my path because I can. I make that choice for myself and nobody has to tell me to do it. I am right with myself. I try my best to do my best, and if I fail, I try again tomorrow. I support myself in my own journey through life. I draw my own conclusions.

“I find joy in the people I love. I love and I am loved. I find peace in the places I visit. Cry when I listen to music I love and find almost childlike joy in many things. This world is brilliant and full of fascinating things. I have to think carefully for myself. I don’t have to believe what I’m told. I must ask questions and I try and use logic and reason to answer them. I believe that every human life carries equal worth. I struggle with how difficult the world can be, but when we have free will some people will make terrible decisions. No deity forces their hand and they must live with that.

“Life is a personal struggle. Grieving is never an easy road to travel. It’s painful and lonely at times but I use what I know to try to help when I can. I try to be loving and caring with my family and friends, and have fun. I will cry with friends in distress and hear other people’s stories and be kind because it does me good as well. I listen and I learn. It helps me to be better. Life without God is not a life without meaning. Everything, each and every interaction, is full of meaning. Everything matters.”

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Origin and History in Belief in the Afterlife

Posted for Tyler (this somehow ended up on the CoPhi site, Tyler) -


Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Some thoughts from Douglas Adams...

As I did this week's readings, I couldn't help but think of Douglas Adams. The thought-provoking quote above describes the main protagonist, Arthur Dent, rather perfectly. Arthur, despite mind-numbingly explosive space travel, and profound experiences in the depths of space, remains rather unhappy with the universe. He has "moved somewhere smaller" in his own mind and convinced himself that he can only be happy when not engaging with the wildness of the space-time continuum.

This, I think, is what Spinoza, Sagan, and de Botton are proposing we get away from. We've got to stop minimizing our mind-space and instead extend our internal horizons. Everything that is before us (the world, the cosmos) and all the collective potential we have within us intersects to reveal the awesome spectacle that is our existence.

Religion exerts incredible amounts of energy into doing this by inviting its participants to contemplate the nature of God and His creation. In certain sects of Christian worship there are two different kinds of meditation: kataphatic and apophatic. Kataphatic explores the known nature of God: goodness, omnipotence, etc. The apophatic meditation concentrates on not just the unknown but the unknowable: vastness, relationship to all life, etc. Buddhism promotes a clearing of the mind philosophy so that one can engage wholly in the universe. Nirvana itself is that act of becoming one with it. It is an act of flinging oneself beyond limitations.

Yet it is often thought that those who believe only in the physical world cannot engage in this same manner. But it is by the very same physical boundaries that such engagement is not only possible but necessary. The stars, our planet, life as we know it gives us hundreds of opportunities to acknowledge the transcendent. It is not our faith traditions or lack thereof that hinder our realization of the spectacular; it is our own minds. It is the Arthur Dents inside of ourselves that demand that we make our world smaller and smaller.

But this connection, as de Botton asserts, is necessary so that we are able to view ourselves within a larger scope and comprehend our own insignificance (hopefully more successfully than Zaphod Beeblebrox). Then our struggles--our trials and tribulations if you will--can deflate. We can redirect our curiosity toward the "unsettling big place" in which we survive.

The "quiet life," the one composed of tea and bills and bulldozers in our front yards, that we sacrifice this spiritual intensity for is bound to disappoint. It will cause us grief and heartache. Religion, though, offers an escape from the pains of the world through prayer, through its connection to the sublime. This is what our current knowledge and technology offer us. We are able, if for just a moment, to look beyond ourselves, our quiet life, our happy ignorance, and reckon the absurdity of ourselves with the universe.