If science doesn’t make a case for God, what does?

March 11, 2015 • 12:11 pm

Over at PuffHo Religion, we see a smart rabbi go wrong. The rabbi is Geoffey A. Mitelman, founder of an organization called “Sinai and Synapses,” whose motto is this:

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To my chagrin, that organization offers programs like “Scientifically grounded Judaism,” which makes sense only if they purge Judaism of everything that’s not scientific. And if you did that, you’d be left with a form of secular humanism absent any supernatural beliefs, which is what most liberal Jews espouse anyway.

Mitelman’s piece has a heartening title as well: “Sorry, science doesn’t make a case for God. But that’s OK.” The good news is that he’s on the mark here, even rejecting the “fine-tuning” argument so beloved by apologists as a powerful argument for God.  He also says this: “But science is a search for an accurate understanding of our world, which means that it can change. And if we’re basing our view of God on the latest scientific research, we’re going to have a very fragile theology.” But that would seem to make hash of the “Scientifically grounded Judaism” program in his own Sinai and Synapses foundation (I have to chuckle when I write that name).

The bad news is that Mitelman, even though realizing that science doesn’t make the case for God, apparently still thinks that something makes the case for God. But what is that something? He doesn’t say, but instead spews out Gould’s discredited hypothesis of non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA):

Using science to prove God’s existence confuses two very different ways of thinking. Science progresses as new hypotheses get tested, questioned, refuted, expanded upon, discarded, and revised.

Religion, on the other hand, is a way to make sense of the world. It is an appreciation of awe and mystery, justice and compassion.

In other words, science is a search for truth, while religion is a search for meaning.

. . . In other words, religion doesn’t need science to prove God’s existence, because the question of God is not a scientific one.

Science is the best method we have for understanding how we got here. But religion isn’t science. It is not (or at least should not) be about provable or disprovable claims, because that’s not its purpose. Instead, it should be designed to help us improve ourselves and our world, here and now.

For me, as I look out at the universe, I am in awe of the fact that we are living here on this Earth. But that awe wouldn’t change for me if the parameters for life are actually one in a hundred rather than one in a septillion.

Instead, I am guided by the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: “Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy.”

NOMA has been rejected by philosophers and secularists for two reasons: religion isn’t the sole bailiwick of morality, philosophy and meaning: we have a long tradition of secular morality and philosophy beginning with the ancient Greeks. Second, as we all know, religions don’t limit themselves to questions of meaning alone. Creationism in America is the most obvious example, but so are any religious assertions about reality, such as those about the existence of God and Jesus, the nature of God, the existence of an afterlife, and so on. Religion, except for the most Sophisticated™ and apophatic sort, is resolutely wedded to claims about what is true. Mitelman either doesn’t see this or simply rejects what most religious people see as the nature of their faith.

And that is why NOMA has been largely rejected by theologians and believers, as I noted in my discussion of Gregg Caruso’s edited volume: Science and Religion: 5 Questions. In that book, one of the questions posed to the scientists, philosophers, and theologians was this:

Some theorists maintain that science and religion occupy non-overlapping magisteria—i.e., that science and religion each have legitimate magisterium, or domain of teaching authority, and these two domains do not overlap. Do you agree?

The almost universal answer among the 33 people asked was “no.” And the theologians’ answers were largely based on existence claims made by their religion. Mitelman’s “yes” answer is a rare exception.

So what makes Mitelman believe in God? The article, and the excerpt above, don’t say. Perhaps it’s the “feeling of awe” he gets by looking at the universe. Or perhaps he buys into Rabbi Heschel’s notion that living itself is holy, which is simply an assertion without proof, and wouldn’t convince anybody not already in the asylum that there was a God.

I’d like to ask the good rabbi whether he thinks that there’s any literal truth in the Old Testament, and, if so, what that truth is. Does he really think the Exodus happened, when archaeology shows that it didn’t? Where does he get the idea of God, and what kind of God does he believe in? Why does he reject the idea of Jesus as the son of God, belief in which is necessary to be saved? And if God is just the universe, then he’s a pantheist, not a true believing Jew.

I appreciate Rabbi Mitelman’s candor about the inability of science to give evidence for God. But if he really believes that, then he’s left with no credible evidence for God, and should become a humanist.  In other words, “Sinai and Synapses” is just one neuron shy of pure atheism.

85 thoughts on “If science doesn’t make a case for God, what does?

  1. Religion, on the other hand, is a way to make sense of the world.

    No; religion is an attempt to make sense of the world.

    And it’s an attempt that has failed miserably.

    Science, though its failures are extensive (cosmogenesis? abiogenesis? gravity?), has been vastly more successful than religions have ever dreamed of being.


    1. Yes. And when science determines it has failed to explain something about reality, it owns up, corrects and learns from its errors. THAT is something to be proud of.

    2. “its failures are extensive (cosmogenesis? abiogenesis? gravity?)”

      I don’t think you can claim any of those are complete failures, but that they are not fully understood.

      Reminds me of the turbulence work I saw yesterday, Kolmogorov’s old model failed when it came to transitions in turbulence. Another basic question not fully understood…

      1. Again, fair enough. My point is that there remain big and obvious gaps in our knowledge even as we’ve filled in all sorts of other really freakin’ huge gaps.


        1. “One thing I have learned in a long life: that all our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike — and yet it is the most precious thing we have.”

          – In honour of the great genius who happened to be born on Pi Day!

  2. “Using science to prove God’s existence confuses two very different ways of thinking. Science progresses as new hypotheses get tested, questioned, refuted, expanded upon, discarded, and revised.

    Religion, on the other hand, is a way to make sense of the world. It is an appreciation of awe and mystery, justice and compassion.”

    I really wonder how he misses that religion is about making unproven assertions, and that it gives “answers” only to the same extent a Magic 8 Ball gives “answers.”

    1. I asked my Magic 8 Ball if you were correct about that. It says: “Better not tell you now”. Now I need to know, why the delay?

  3. Jerry hits the nail on the head in his closing questions. I just saw Mitelman interview Michael Shermer and grill him over his new book, The Moral Arc. Mitelman seems to have no literal or supernatural interpretation or belief of the sacred books and doesn’t believe in a “bearded male God.” Whatever that means. So his very unorthodox, floating belief system allows him the flexibility to bend and twist science to his liking. He’s sort of like a more honest mystic than Deepak, coming from a Judaic perspective. He sort of said that science and religion can both lead us to morality but differed with Shermer on the practical application of moral law, saying that “a little force is a good thing.”

    1. I really hate it when the religious say they “don’t believe in a bearded male God” as if they’ve just made a huge point which will startle the atheists, making us sit up and take notice. Whoa, you don’t? Gosh, we’ve never heard that — tell us more about the Transcendence of Being, it sounds so novel and plausible!

      Come on. Virtually NONE OF YOU believe in a “bearded male God” who sits on a throne and says “fee fi fo fum.” That’s a combination of Jack Chick and a theological straw man. Whenever theists come out with this one I smile wider and secretly imagine myself slapping them.

      1. Agree. Shouldn’t we assume these religious have left their childhood? But then the only place they can go is: “sophisticated theologian”, at which point they lose there most favoritest audience.

  4. There is no case for god except belief. I would not want to live life without groundless beliefs of some forms I would also not want to live life positing them as having any basis in evidence.

  5. It seems like the good rabbi only has a few steps more to go in shedding the yoke of religious belief. Or perhaps he already has.

  6. I never understood, how people like this, can ever think that telling other people what they have to do is moral. As long as any religion is a list of prescriptions and proscriptions, then it cannot be a search for meaning.

  7. Looking only briefly at his organization,the Advisory Board Members are an interesting collection of Rabbis and Templeton foundation grant receivers. One of them started the Clergy Letter Project.

  8. I’m a colleague (and admirer) of Rabbi Mitelman’s, but I’m speaking for myself here, not him.

    I also believe in a rational religion. By that I mean that I accept the findings of science, pretty much without reservation (and, any reservations I have are scientific, not religious). To answer your questions — I absolutely do *not* believe in the literal truth of the Torah/Bible, or any of the other beliefs you list towards the end of your article.

    I think that the mistake you’re making here is a common one, and it’s best highlighted when you say “And if God is just the universe, then he’s a pantheist, not a true believing Jew.” First of all, I’m a Panentheist, not a Pantheist. The difference is subtle, but important. But, the *mistake* is in arguing that Panentheism is not a true, valid expression of / basis for Judaism. I’ll admit (it’s pretty obvious, after all) that Panentheism is not the most common belief in Judaism, by a long shot. But, one of the wonderful parts of Judaism is that it’s long contained a very wide spectrum of belief, and Panentheism has come up more than once as a sizable portion of that spectrum. Judaism has never been dogmatic, in the true sense of having one and only one Dogma which must be believed. If you are going to claim that anything other than literalist (or nearly so) “God out there” Monotheism is Jewish, then in dismissing those of us who believe differently, you’re using a tautology, but one not supported by history.

    The best explanation of Jewish Panentheism, and a defense of its place within Jewish history, is (in my opinion, anyway) the first two chapters of Rabbi Art Green’s “Radical Judaism.” But, let me just say, by way of inadequate summary, that I find Panentheism to be a powerful, sacred way to understand the world and my place in it, one which is much better (for me–I make no categorical claims) than atheism or humanism. And, one which finds a very easy home within Judaism.

    1. Well, fine, then you’re touting a non-theistic god, and I’ll buy that some Jews agree with you. But what on earth do you mean by “sacred,” then, if it’s neither divine nor supernatural? Why couldn’t I say that a work of literature or art that moves me is also “sacred”. That language enables conventional religion, so it’s better to find another word. Do you tell the members of your congregation who do believe in a real, person-like god that you don’t agree with them?

      1. I’ll cheat, by relying on Green, who says things better than I can.

        “‘The Sacred’ refers to an inward, mysterious sense of awesome presence, a reality deeper than the kind we ordinarily experience. Life bears within it the possibility of inner transcendence…” (Radical Judaism, p. 4) So, it’s an awareness of a reality different from what/how we usually see (I’d argue that it’s the awareness which changes, not the reality).

        If you feel that literature or art brings you to the same place, then that’s great–I have very little interest in converting people. Understanding that all of our sacred-language is metaphor for inner experience is one of the beauties and powers of non-Dualistic (e.g. Panentheistic) theologies.

        I’ve never been very moved by the “you’re enabling other, less enlightened religion” argument. Maybe that’s just psychological defensiveness, but I can’t accept that the beauty and power I experience, and can share with my congregants, is outweighed by the damage that little ole me can do. Or, if I want to be *really* hubristic, I can say that religion isn’t going away, because people seem to need it, so I’m hoping to be part of a movement which offers people a more rational, less problematic way to be religious.

        And, yes – I most certainly tell my congregants (and anyone else who will listen) what I believe. Not everyone agrees, and how hard I argue with them depends entirely on the situation (I’m not going to get into a theological debate with someone who just lost a loved one!), but my congregants know where I stand.

        1. I’m curious. What if science showed that those feelings of divinity inside of us were illusions? Would you change your position vis a vis Panentheism?

          1. Diana – what if science showed that those feelings of love inside of us were illusions? Would you change your position vis a vis love?

            I’m not being snarky; I’m trying to show what I really think here. My feelings of divinity are, absolutely on some level, illusions. But, much like with the feelings of love that I have for my family, they are so overwhelmingly real that I accept them as meaningful and real, even as I understand that they don’t reflect an a priori, objective reality.

            1. “I find Panentheism to be a powerful, sacred way to understand the world and my place in it, one which is much better (for me–I make no categorical claims) than atheism or humanism.”

              “My feelings of divinity are, absolutely on some level, illusions. But, much like with the feelings of love that I have for my family, they are so overwhelmingly real that I accept them as meaningful and real, even as I understand that they don’t reflect an a priori, objective reality.”

              I don’t mean to be snarky since you invested yourself in this religious display. But this looks to be a pathetic gods-of-the-gaps notion, manifestly empty of any reality and equaling “because it makes me feel better”. But not everything that makes some individuals better makes others so, nor are they always beneficial (say, smoking), and in the end we can always strive to make healthy choices such as aligning feelings with facts. (The latter, I note, is much preferred in humans when social pressures doesn’t come into it, for evolutionary reasons.)

              I am reminded of the recent find that when religious people try to adjudicate new moral situations they may try to imagine “what would [insert their magical being of choice here] do?”, and in fMRI scans the same brain centers lit up as when non-religious meet the same situations. E.g. the religious may in cases use their own sense of morality as a stand in for their “gods”.*

              Because it makes them feel better.

              * In this case one can argue that what religious do is morally problematic, pawning off or diminishing own responsibility, so it isn’t a neutral comparison. But it is such a good example that I thought I could mention it anyway.

            2. I should also add that feelings has a biological template. Love can be observed due to behavior but also hormone release.

              Confusing the reality of feelings with personal models of the experience is a common mistake, and when it comes to theological use it seems so common it is a fallacy. We could call it “Emotional Fallacy”, say.

        2. This religious mode sounds a lot like UU, and probably a lot of liberal religious groups. If one feels a need for religion I guess this is close to as good as it gets. The biggest value I suspect is to be with others who for whatever reason are not happy with more dogmatic forms. It can seem lonely if you sense your the only one with no interest in standard congregations. That’s perhaps why WEIT is popular. It’s a community.

      2. My understanding is that in panentheism God is a “cosmic animating force” which includes a capitalized Thought. Like vitalism, then, it would be supernatural.

          1. If Panentheism wasn’t a true understanding of reality, then what would you expect to be different, given that you apparently think the same sense of awareness and personal insight might be possible for an atheist?

    2. But, let me just say, by way of inadequate summary, that I find Panentheism to be a powerful, sacred way to understand the world and my place in it, one which is much better (for me–I make no categorical claims) than atheism or humanism. And, one which finds a very easy home within Judaism.

      So Panentheism is not a truth about reality, it’s just a personal form of therapy which you find useful? Then why does panentheism talk about an “animating force” which is connected to ‘deeds of kindness?’ It certainly appears to be a supernatural claim about the nature of reality.

      I think you’re conflating categories.

      1. Well, I’m not sure that I’d fully equate it with therapy. But, it is a way to see and understand the world. What I really object to is the word “just.” It’s a deeply religious, transformative way to see the world. Nothing “just” about that!

        And, I don’t know from where you’re taking
        “animated force.” I can tell you that if that’s a literal, objective, “out there” kind of force, then it doesn’t fit my idea of what Panentheism really is. I can promise you–I don’t believe in anything supernatural!

        1. The out there/in there distinction isn’t critical to the “supernatural,” which I’m defining as involving some sort of Pure Mentality which exists prior to or in ‘higher’ relationship to mindless matter and energy. It could be Mind, Consciousness, Awareness, Agency, Intention, Intelligence, Love, Justice, Peace, Purpose, Meaning, Value, Virtue, or similar alone or in combination.

          Do you strip every mental and moral aspect away from your understanding of God?

          1. Well, in my understanding, God isn’t an independent entity of any sort. God is the name that we give to the total, interconnected reality in which we exist. To use a favorite metaphor, God is an ocean; we are each a wave. So, God doesn’t “have” morality in the way in which you and I might “have” morality. But, morality is a part of God, if you will.

            1. In which case the claim is that the “total interconnected reality in which we exist” is somehow fundamentally Mental. Regardless of whether this is called “God” or not, it’s supernatural under the given definition.

              This I think is more or less the definition Jerry uses (along with many other atheist/humanist philosophers.)

              1. Metaphors are always dangerous here, because someone will take them too far. But…is love any less real for being fundamentally Mental? Love, while reducible to a series of neuronic firings, is actually a fundamental reality of life. At the risk of stretching the metaphor too far myself, God is as real as love, or music. And, in my day to day reality, they are very real, indeed.

            2. Your analogy between love, music — and God is a category error, since God is not an emotion, an art, or something which can considered on many levels, including the one which reduces it down to its material substrates. God is not reducible, that’s the whole point. It’s a Pure Mentality skyhook manifesting or expressing itself from the top-down through or into the world. It will not fit, like love and music, into a bottom-up approach of crane upon crane.

              By the way, thank you for your kindness and patience (and time) in dealing with my questions.

              1. First of all, you’re welcome, and thanks to you, too. I was a bit worried that this would be a snark-zone, but I always love serious discussion about these ideas.

                To me, it is very much a bottom-up phenomenon, if I understand what you mean by that. God is not some pre-existing reality out of which the world flows. God is the pattern which emerges from the whole. A better (and also favorite) metaphor is another musical one–God is a symphony; we are all notes. God is the (deliberately religious, devotional) term that we give to the transcendent reality which grows out of, but has not existence independent from, the smaller parts.

              2. To the Rabbi… 🙂

                As a musician I can tell you a whole load of stuff:
                History of my instrument
                An idea of how it was built
                The physics behind it producing a sound
                Basic musical theory
                How pitch & rhythm works
                A bit on musical criticism (*cough* theology *cough*)
                Blah blah blah
                But I can also pick up a guitar, make up a melody, and play it to you in such a way that you can hear it. I also have videos of me playing instruments on YouTube that anyone can watch. Might not be to your taste but it’s tangible!

                Demonstrate this “god” thing then…

            3. Is there any way in which your “God” differs from Sagan’s “Cosmos”? Sagan’s definition is, roughly, “All that ever was, is, or will be; all that is real.”


              1. I would think that it differs in its valence, but probably not in its content. In other words, I understand and relate to God in religious categories. I assume (although I may well be wrong) that my relationship with God is different from Sagan’s relationship with Cosmos. But, there are clearly strong similarities here.

              2. I’m sorry, but you’re using that word, “valence,” in some manner entirely foreign to me. Could you clarify?

                The only definitions of the term I’m familiar with are the ones from chemistry to do with electron counts; linguistics with the number of elements with which a verb combines; and decorative draperies.


            4. God is the (deliberately religious, devotional) term that we give to the transcendent reality which grows out of, but has not existence independent from, the smaller parts.

              Could an atheist believe in God?

              In other words, are you espousing religious humanism (describing naturalism with religious language)?

              1. There’s a lot of similarity between non-duality / Panentheism and Humanism. And, I’m not qualified (esp about Humanism) to say too much about that. But, part of what I love about Panentheism (as I understand it) is that it asserts the reality of the experience. I talk about God as a 3rd person (so to speak) not just because it’s required of me, but because it expressed a connection and personal relationship. In other words, my God is real, even if my God is not independently, objectively so.

        2. But, part of what I love about Panentheism (as I understand it) is that it asserts the reality of the experience. I talk about God as a 3rd person (so to speak) not just because it’s required of me, but because it expressed a connection and personal relationship. In other words, my God is real, even if my God is not independently, objectively so.

          There’s a popular (among us) slogan which says “Atheism: a Personal Relationship with Reality.”

          So forget the terms and consider the content. In your view:

          Could an atheist believe in ‘God?’

          Could a ‘Panentheist’ be an atheist?

    3. I had to look up Panentheism, but what I saw has even less evidence for it. I guess it is just pure faith, which is a character flaw, not an asset in my opinion.

      1. Well, where did you look it up? Without quibbling over terminology (i.e what is the “true” definition of Panentheism) I can promise you that my belief system contains no unsupportable fact/faith claims. It makes no pseudo-scientific assertions. Heck–I’ll even argue that “faith” as you seem to mean it is a Christian idea, and doesn’t really have a place within Judaism!

        1. …is a belief system which posits that the divine – whether as a single God, number of gods, or other form of “cosmic animating force”[1] – interpenetrates every part of the universe and extends, timelessly (and, presumably, spacelessly) beyond it.

          What is this based upon? Do you just know it? Feel it? Being a former Orthodox Jew in my youth, I saw nothing like this defined besides Kabbalah. Sound like faith or occult or new-ageism to me.

          1. A lot of the language has been taken from Eastern traditions, because they spoke about it so clearly. But, for example, much of the Hassidic world seems to embrace, or at least comport with this idea. For example, the Tanya (the original source text for Chabad/Lubuvitch) is extremely non-dualistic, asserting that everything is, in fact, God.

            But, as I said elsewhere, this is clearly not the mainstream, common understanding among Jews!

            1. From what I understand that would be *massively* unorthodox – in fact, about the only thing I remember seeing as agreement amongst the orthodox and conservative denominations was that god is not identical to the rest of the universe. (They are held to be in ontologically different categories.) The reform schools I read about and learned informally about would agree, if they are still theistic at all.

              On the other hand, the “god = everything” trick was Spinoza’s, and I trust you know what happened to him!

              1. I’ve been trying to stay away from this debate (I do have a job after all), but just for a moment…

                It’s an unorthodox point of view, in the general sense (i.e. it’s not what most people believe). On the other hand, as others have said here, Judaism isn’t really a dogmatic religion, so defining something as un-Orthodox (in the particular sense) is a tricky thing to do. This world view finds some expression in some places which are generally seen as very Orthodox (like the Tanya).

                But, ultimately that’s unimportant to me. Truth is truth, and as much as I love Judaism (and, I do love Judaism!), pretending to believe something, or not to believe something, simply because I’m supposed to–that makes no sense to me. So, if I was forced to choose between Judaism and what I believe to be true, I’d go with the latter. But, being as non-Dogmatic as it is, Judaism doesn’t really put me in that position.

                And, yes, I know what happened to Spinoza. I kinda doubt that what I think/write/say is going to get *quite* the same amount of scrutiny. And, it’s a different day, in any case.

        2. If this is the case, then why do you use the highly loaded term “God” to describe anything?

          I am aware that dictionaries define usage as opposed to meaning, but when you are talking to a collection of folks (the majority of commenters here) who have been raised in the western monotheistic tradition you need to be very careful indeed.

          It can be argued that pantheism and, in this case, panentheism are incompatible with this tradition. If this is the case then there is one thing that can be asked – what does this offer to us? Standard theism gives us entities with volition, but this? Where can we see it? How is it different from a “god”-less cosmos in the first place?

  9. The rabbi’s words seem to reinforce my belief that people believe in God for emotional reasons (maybe it’s a dependency issue of some kind). Even otherwise logical persons can believe in this way. They use their logic to rationalize what is fundamentally irrational. But the more they see the logic of science, the harder they have to work to defend their irrational beliefs. As others have noted, he seems to be near the tipping point, but still hanging on by a thread.

      1. If God does not exist, could he discover this? Would he care one way or another?

        If it makes no sense to talk about God existing or not existing, then why not?

        If you begin with the idea that God exists — or with the idea that it’s a good thing if God exists, an important thing — then you’re leaping into the middle of what ought to be a process which starts further back.

        1. Nah, they need to define what “to exist” means in the first place because it seems to contradict what we think of it!

      2. I think what I was trying to say is that if one continues to believe in God when one’s former grounds for belief (e.g., the design hypothesis) are stripped away by science, belief has to be emotional by nature, and by definition irrational.

  10. Personal experience. Any definition of god is nothing more than one’s attempt to develop a theory of the self.

    Furthermore, most people’s definition of god is inconsistent with science, save those who ‘rename’ god as Nature or Love or Energy or worse call god something that cannot be known.

    1. The fact that people can suffer from mental dysfunction should bury the whole “god experience” argument before it even starts.

      What I experience is, ultimately, subjective and *tentative*.

  11. But if he really believes that, then he’s left with no credible evidence for God, and should become a humanist. In other words, “Sinai and Synapses” is just one neuron shy of pure atheism.

    What makes this view different than atheism is that all the talk about love and meaning entails that it’s not atheism. Atheism isn’t true or not true, it’s unfulfilling.

    That’s a problem.

  12. Suppose that in the near future the stars will arrange in such a way that they read “Yahweh”, that angels appear and start praising His name and Yahweh himself will appear and/or speak through a burning bush. In other words: suppose some pretty convincing evidence arises that judaism is the right religion and that everything in the Torah is true.

    Would rabbi Mitelman still say that we should disregard the stars, the angels, Yahweh’s appeareance and all the other credible scientific evidence, because science and religion are non-overlapping magisteria? If he’s honest he’d say yes.

    Credit for this argument goes to Richard Dawkins who earlier wrote that theologians would be happy to accept scientific evidence if it suits their theology.

  13. “…. purge Judaism of everything that’s not scientific. And if you did that, you’d be left with a form of secular humanism absent any supernatural beliefs”

    Oh C’mon!! There’s got to be a really good joke in there somewhere! Where’s Woody Allen when you need him!?!

  14. The “proof” of gods’ existence resides in unsupported assertions and wishful/magical thinking. I’ve heard believers flirt with accepting that – “I’m a fool for Christ!” – but in the end it’s never quite enough. Believers just have to rail against science because reasons, and in the end they always come around to making fact claims while asserting they do no such thing. Why not just embrace the bullsh**t and carry on? Life would be much more pleasant for everyone and fewer people would, you know, die needless deaths. I mean, if you start to think someone in your Hogwarts cosplay group seems to *really* there’s an *actual* Harry Potter flying around on a broom somewhere, you will likely suggest otherwise and maybe recommend a good shrink. But you yourself can still put on the robes and still play an unsatisfying game of ground-based Quidditch!

    Peoples is weird.

  15. If you get this far from the mainstream religion which Panentheism does – it is no longer Biblical. In most cases this kind of difference would cause another religion. How do you put this under the same roof with the mainstream Jewish church and communicate or get along.

  16. I am a former Episcopal priest. My life journey was from Baptist fundamentalism as a child, through a mainstream Protestant Social Gospel (civil rights, anti-war) phase as a young adult, to a liberal, liturgicaly rich Anglicanism. I am also scientifically educated (physics, biology). As a formed adult my religious views coalesced into a panentheistic stance.

    While fully accepting science as the only way of knowing the what and how of reality, I persisted in believing that a complete account of lived existence required something more in order to ground a sense of the “sacred” which I had always been pursuing due to my natal religious indoctrination and my inescapable sense of wonder in the face of the universe arrayed before me in its depth and complexity and terror.

    As a priest and pastor, I did not hide my beliefs from my parishioners. I taught and preached from the position of Christianity as “our” formative story, not as literal or exclusive. Although I found that for many people this was a helpful and comforting practice, others really wanted to know the “simple truth” that G*d was their special friend who had a plan just for their own lives. I often heard: “Just tell me what G*d wants me to do.” Whenever I tried to engage such a person in deeper reflection, or moral discourse, I usually encountered resistance, even hostility.

    I eventually came to realize what I had intellectually discerned long before. I was pushing a boulder uphill, and the “more at the heart of being” that I had always pursued had left no evidence of its existence. I was pushed by rational thinking and often painful lived experience to conclude that it was a project of wishful thinking. For too long I had pursued a forlorn hope that people could somehow come together in ethically aware, responsible, and mutually supporting communities based on such “sophisticated theology”.

    I was “just one neuron shy of pure atheism”. I finally admitted it, and have been liberated. I have been fortunate to dodge the boulder careening back down the hill. My scientific and rational grounding has served me well on a different life path.

    For a good portion of my life I was granted an extended glimpse into the world of “faith”. I put lots of effort into that world. I have compassion for those who still inhabit that world, but I don’t live there anymore.

    1. I found your story very interesting, and very broadly similar to my own.

      I especially appreciate the feeling of liberation when you stop trying to reconcile religious beliefs with reality and true humanism.

      1. Thank you, Heather. It was a long and strange journey. But, the sense of liberation is significant and enduring.
        I am glad to hear it from you, also.

    2. A very gripping story indeed. Something of an epic. My own story is bland by comparison. Born an atheist. But, I can imagine the difficulty in taking that long round-about trip. Congratulations.

      1. Well, we were *all* born atheists!

        I was raised as a Catholic but never confirmed and never “a believer” as far back as I can remember.

        Thanks, for sharing your longer journey, Pascal.


  17. Very informative for me I have to say. As a life long Atheist the experience of going through what Pascal Nelson and others have done is amazing. I appreciate your taking the time to share it.

    1. Thank you, Randy. I only wish that I had made the break much earlier. I am glad that you did not have such an impediment in life. Perhaps stories such as mine will give others the glimmer of hope that there is a way out and a way forward.

  18. There is a significant difference between Christianity and Judaism: as a friend of mine once said, as we started a long epistolary debate, “God exists and Christ rose from the dead. Everything else is open for discussion.”

    In contrast there is no comparable truth-assertion that is sine qua non for identifying oneself as a Jew. That is why Rabbis Mitelman and Rosenberg, who do not believe in anything that I would consider calling a ‘god’, can not only identify as Jews but lead congregations.

    Yes, there are Jewish fundamentalists and non-fundamentalist theists, but they are a minority of those who call themselves Jews. Most Christians and quite a few Jews do not understand that Judaism is about the Law, not about the supernatural. This is why the vast majority of Jewish writing is not theological disputation, like Christian literature, but legal argument. Unlike Christians, Jews are not a religious but a political community.

    When my father died in 1983, I finally was able to put into words why, despite having cast off any last vestiges of supernaturalism a quarter of a century previously, I still identified as a Jew: Judaism is the language in which the history of my family, immediate and extended, is written. And so I spoke the Kaddish, knowing what it means, and not believing a word of it.

    The rabbis Mitelman and Rosenberg would no doubt express it differently, extending it beyond the purely tribal. If they want to call it ‘God’, it’s fine with me. Let us not get hung up on words and recognize that they are our allies, not our adversaries.

    1. . This is why the vast majority of Jewish writing is not theological disputation, like Christian literature, but legal argument.

      It not about law but, as I said earlier, it is about prescription and proscription. Law is about what is good for society. It is what makes living with others more possible. That is not was Jewish ‘law’ is about. Whether to mix meat and dairy or cloths from different animals or doing everything for a vicious, jealous God. They begin with 613 mitzvot, which means commandments. Only some of the Mishpatim are actually law related. The rest of the 613 are nonsense.

    1. Sorry, but that’s archetypal apologetic bullshit. “Sure, we don’t have any supportive evidence, but here’re all the reasons we wouldn’t expect any.” And so obviously and transparently so that it really doesn’t need any more explanation than that.

      Remember: Exodus is the story about YHWH personally smiting the greatest empire on the face of the planet back to the stone age to prove just how bad a badass he was. The apology itself makes that point; if Exodus is bullshit, then the Passover Seder is just a night like any other and nothing special at all. Well, something that spectacular doesn’t vanish without a trace…and, yet, there’s no trace.


      1. Well, one of the points raised in this essay is exactly that it wasn’t that spectacular at all – the number of people who left Egypt was dramatically overstated. Also the essay mentions some details of the Exodus story that could not have been known to a later author and suggest that the account dates back to 2nd millenium BCE.

        Now I don’t know and don’t pretend to know the motives behind this research – it very well may be religious apologetics – but I agree with the author’s view (discussed in the essay) that the Torah should be evaluated on its (de)merits as a historical document in the same way as historians evaluate other historical documents dating from this period.

        1. The Torah isn’t an historical document. Doesn’t even pretend to be.

          The fact that it opens with a story about an enchanted garden with talking animals and an angry wizard should tell you that. The fact that the story in question prominently features a talking plant (on fire!) that gives magic wand lessons to the reluctant hero really should seal the deal.

          We have lots of other ancient documents that fit the same mold as the Torah that are its contemporaries. Nobody ever mistrakes them for being historical documents.

          The only reason people ever mistrake the Torah for an historical document is because there’s metric fuckton upon metric fuckton of money and power to be had with that particular scam. It’s a well-proven winner and one of the most solid repeat performers in all of history.



        2. This is exactly parallel to the debates over historicity of (the relevant) Jesus.

          If someone holds some event was a small proto-Semitic family fleeing slavery in Egypt, that’s *not* the Exodus. So at some point, enough of the story is wrong that you don’t regard it as having any real connection to the story as we know it.

          Also, what the Christians call the “Old Testament” *has* been analyzed historically and archeologically. With modern scholarship the conclusion is as Ben suggests. I was (like when I started looking at Jesus mythicism) surprised at how poor the record actually is. (Source: http://www.amazon.ca/Bible-Unearthed-Archaeologys-Vision-Ancient/dp/0684869136/ )

  19. The older I get, the more offended I become when someone declares that there must be “meaning” as if lacking belief in the supernatural strips us of any awe or leaves us incapable of searching for the reasons, or the foundations that make us a particularly emotionally complex species.

    Lacking belief in an afterlife gives EVERYTHING in THIS life “meaning”. Every moment brings us one heartbeat closer to the infinite black abyss – how dare “they” accuse non-believers of almost robotic indifference to our existence, when in reality we are probably more acutely aware of this precious blink of time we’ve been afforded by chance.

    1. Thank you for articulating this so well and is exactly how I feel about it. Those who cling to this cosmic collective belief have a habit of speaking in a very condescending manner, with the attitude that someday I may find some abstract essential meaning in life.
      Sorry, no. I am absolutely thrilled with the simple reality of this complex, fragile existence. As the perfectly worded “Storm”
      (Tim Minchin) asks(and many others as well) Isn’t it enough?
      Anything past that, without solid evidence, is just wishful thinking and idle speculation.

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