I get emails about everyone’s “personal spiritual quest”

February 14, 2023 • 12:15 pm

Someone named “Chuck” sent what’s below as a prospective comment on my recent post, “Is Wokeism on the way out?“. I decided to put it as a standalone post so I can solicit readers’ takes and then send them to Chuck. As you can see, he claims that ancient religionists (presumably Jews and Christians) faced the same “atrocities of humankind” as do people today.  And the ancients solved it (and soothed their trouble souls) by turning to religion and the balm found in Scripture.

Chuck concludes that all the modern folks going around riddled with angst, seeking some kind of “personal spiritual question about life the universe and everything”, are wasting their time. The solution already exists, he argues—in religious writings and doctrine. He even hints that if we didn’t have Abrahamic religions, people riddled with angst would come up with the “exact same conclusions.” Does that mean the same stories about Jesus, Muhammad, or Moses, the same Biblical strictures and homilies—or what? Would there be convergent evolution towards modern religion and its claims? I doubt it!

Well, read this and see what you make of it.  Any errors in the text (including omission of the final parenthesis) are from Chuck.

My thought on wokism – you won’t like it, I’m not an evangelist but here it is – with the rise of science and the happy decline in the religious mentality (“God works in mysterious ways” Not any more! Almost anything that was an “act of God” are now mostly just reasonably explainable natural processes, we can even blame storm damages on Exxon now, yea!) — the historical atrocities of humankind are really bugging young people. One took me to task over the “Trail of Tears” and of course US slavery.

It occurs to me that most ancient sacred texts actually deal with the exact same problem – our ancestors did these awful things! SO: you can either try to somehow compensate for this hugely long list of all the bad things people did in the past to settle the score, make up for it – and of course we focus on slavery as it is front and center – but history is just chock a block full of atrocities, many documented in the ancient sacred texts.

I’m not even saying you have to worship the text – just that people long ago just as intelligent as yourself struggled with the exact same issues and came up with some balm that ease their minds and get on with life. Otherwise you are going to have generations of people wasting time going on a personal spiritual quest about life the universe and everything, and some will come to the exact same conclusions.

OR you can just wander lost thru the church of reason in eternal search for the answer (which is fine if that pays your bills), cause what you are applying now certainly is not working. It may not be ‘scientific’ but a tree is known by it’s fruit and if the fruit of your church of reason (That’s a Robert Pirsig phrase, from zen and motorcycles 🙂 is rotten, there you go.

If you have a message for Chuck, leave it below, and I’ll email him in a couple of days giving him this site and saying “here are some responses.”

An article on the descent of the Unitarian Universalists into terminal wokeness

January 6, 2023 • 12:16 pm

If you want to stop reading because I used the word “wokeness”, in the title, be my guest, but I still haven’t found a word that expresses the same ideology in a concise way. If you have a concise term for the present (an pejorative) use of the term, by all means suggest it. But I asked this question before, and nearly all the readers said “wokeness” is fine.

At any rate, I used to think that Unitarian Universalism was, if you wanted a church, the best church to join. They don’t have a creed, just some humanistic principles, and you can go if you’re of any faith. I went to a service onee, and although I know that UU grew out of Christianity, there was not a single cross to be seen. If you feel that you need a church for the social vibe, then either join the UUs or Quakers. (I myself don’t feel the need for that, but some do).

Lately, however, the UUs (and, to some extent the Quakers) are getting woke; the dislike of Israel and Zionism, and embrace of CRT, are two symptoms of this fulminating “progressivism” (if you want to call it that).

The change in UU first struck me in 2019, when I wrote a piece about the Church’s attack on an antiwoke critic that smacked of authoritarianism and bullying. That piece was quoted by David Cycleback in his own critique of the change in UU published in Free Black Thought (click on screenshot below).

Here’s Cycleback’s bio from the article:

David Cycleback, Ph.D., is a philosopher and cognitive scientist, Director of Center for Artifact Studies, and a member of the British Royal Institute of Philosophy. He has written ten university textbooks, including Nature and Limits of Human Knowledge, Cognitive Science of Religion and Belief Systems, and Philosophy of Artificial Intelligence. His most recent book is Against Illiberalism: A critique of illiberal trends in liberal institutions, with a focus on Unitarian Universalism.

And he uses two quotes from me. One is praise from me used to start the piece:

Evolutionary biologist and religion critic Jerry Coyne (University of Chicago) concurs: “Of all existing religions that claim to be religions, Unitarian Universalism (UU) seems to be the least dogmatic and therefore the least harmful—and perhaps the most liberal and tolerant.”

Then comes Cyclebacks list of the Church’s recent descent into illiberal ideology.

Now not being a UUist, I can’t vouch for what Cycleback, who’s a white religious Jew, has to say about this church, but thought I’d report it as one person’s opinion. It’s certainly not just his alone, though, as my previous piece showed 500 UU ministers acting as penitentes for the church’s supposed white supremacy.

A few quotes is all I’ll give you. I know we have some UU readers, so please speak up and either criticize or support Cycleback’s views:

I am Jewish and I identify with Judaism’s strong tradition of embracing viewpoint diversity and free inquiry. I’m also neurodivergent (autistic and bipolar) and was raised in an academic family that promoted intellectual curiosity. With its slogan, “We don’t have to think alike to love alike,” my local Unitarian Universalist congregation was made for me and people like me.

UU has traditionally been mostly white, and, as with many organizations these days, aspires to become more diverse and welcoming to minorities. I support this goal. I am one of the small number of Jews in UU and the only practicing one in my congregation. Further, part of my research is in neurodiversity, including how to make organizations more welcoming and accommodating of neuroatypical people.

The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), however, has chosen a destructive, intolerant approach that not only won’t create racial harmony but will likely attract few minorities to congregations while driving away many liberals.

As happens so often, it’s a small vocal minority who seems to have coopted the UU “theology” and cowed everyone else. This is familiar to me, because it’s how wokeness invades academia. It spreads because nobody dares to oppose the vocal minority, loudly flaunting their virtue, for fear of being called a bigot or a racist:

The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), however, has chosen a destructive, intolerant approach that not only won’t create racial harmony but will likely attract few minorities to congregations while driving away many liberals.

In what one UU minister has described as a “coup” by “reactionaries,” the UUA was taken over by a small group of activists who wish to transform UU into an authoritarian, dogmatic church. The UUA has adopted as a kind of theological mandate an extreme, illiberal interpretation of critical race theory (CRT), incorporating the ideas of Ibram X. Kendi, Tema Okun, and Robin DiAngelo.

Rev. Dr. Thandeka, a black Unitarian Universalist minister, spelled out in 2007 the main tenets of the “antiracism” that was already then being adopted by the UUA:

One: All whites in America are racists.

Two: No blacks in American are racist. [… T]hey can’t be racist because racism in this conceptual scheme is defined as prejudice + power.

Three: Whites must be shown that they are racists and confess their racism.

As she pointed out at the time, these three tenets violate the principles of the UU covenant, misunderstand how power actually works in America, and over-attribute racism to white people.

As the three “antiracist” tenets identified by Rev. Dr. Thandeka suggest, the worst excesses of “woke culture” you can think of are now found in the national UU: Dogmatism, religious-like fanaticism and self-righteousness, racial essentialism and neo-racism, censorship, call-out and cancel culture, victimhood culture and caste systems, ideological language and language policing, expectations of ideological and political conformity, authoritarianism, punishment and even expulsion of perceived heretics.

. . .As UUA sees its views as unilateral and dogma, dissent and countering views are not only suppressed but many dissenters shut down and punished.

Longtime UU Ministers Richard Trudeau and Kate Rohde were censured for expressing dissent, Trudeau merely for asking questions in a ministers’ forum. Longtime progressive activist Rev. Dr. Todd Eklof was expelled from the UUA for writing a book criticizing the UUA’s new identity politics.[JAC: My piece was about the treatment of Eklof.] Rev. Rick Davis was removed from the Good Officers program for advocating for Eklof as his Good Officer. A Good Officer’s job is to act as a proverbial public defender for the minister they represent. Davis afterward called the whole process a “kangaroo court” and “a setup to provide a predetermined outcome.” He referred to the ministers association’s discipline procedures as “truly Kafkaesque.” Rev. Cynthia Cain sums up the situation:

UUs everywhere, but particularly clergy and particularly on social media, are afraid to speak their truth. Their fear is due to their perception that not only will they be shamed, shouted down, and piled upon metaphorically, but that they may actually lose their standing with our association and consequently their livelihoods. This I know for certain.

Following the new UUA orthodoxy, many newly ordained ministers work to stifle dissent in congregations. They often platform only the UUA-approved agenda and censor, punish, and even expel dissenting congregants. Congregants have been publicly called out for questioning the orthodoxy and even recommending the reading of unapproved books. A few ministers have promoted the idea that dissenting congregants should be re-educated or asked to leave. One UUA leader singled out older liberal congregants as having to change their way of thinking or leave UU.

I’m quoted again at the very end of the essay (below), but this time with my reservations about the Church:

At the beginning of this essay, I quoted Prof. Jerry Coyne’s praise of UU. However, in the same essay, he also wrote, “Since UU is one of the few ‘religions’ that I haven’t criticized strongly, as it is nondogmatic, liberal, and (I thought) charitable, I was truly disappointed to see it turning into The Evergreen Church of Perpetual Offense.”

How this will all ultimately play out in Unitarian Universalism only time will tell. However, the plummeting membership, dissolving congregations, and increasing strife do not point to a pleasant or productive future. Instead, we appear to be getting an object lesson in how to destroy a liberal church.

Must we have a god? The Beeb says yes

November 15, 2017 • 11:30 am

I guess I’ve known for a while about the BBC’s softness on religion, seen most obviously in its daily moment of faith (I can’t remember the name of that segment or find it on the Internet, but I’ve heard it many times), and the fact that the moment of faith never includes any secularists. (I believe Dawkins did it once—and that was the end of that.)  But now, according to the Economist (click on screenshot below), the BBC is broadcasting a bunch of new radio talks about religion and “religious culture” by Neil MacGregor, former head of the National Gallery and the British Museum. And those talks seem to be very very soft on faith, to the point that they apparently assert that humans need religion, for that society falls apart without it.


After doing a successful BBC series of twenty talks on “A history of the world in 100 objects”, MacGregor is about to do 30 new 15 minute BBC shows on “Living with gods,” based on the new eponymous exhibit at the British Museum.  Thirty!

I haven’t heard this show (there’s no way I know of to listen to the BBC from America), but here’s what the Economist says, and it doesn’t sound all that encouraging (emphases are mine):

It takes a deft communicator to pull off such verbal pirouettes. What holds the material together, though, is Mr MacGregor’s interest in the role of religion and ritual in human society. He speaks compellingly of the human mind’s need to find patterns in the universe and to situate itself within those giant matrices.

Jill Cook, who curated an important show at the British Museum in 2013 that explained how the Ice Age made the modern mind, is also the curator of this new exhibition. She shares Mr MacGregor’s desire to present religion as a social phenomenon that has been present in every age of history, cementing and expressing social bonds, and also violently dividing people. By including exhibits related to the communist cult of atheism, she shows that attempts to squeeze religion out of society have sometimes dramatically misfired: anti-religion can easily become a cult.

The “communist cult of atheism”? What about the Scandinavian PRACTICE of atheism, which is neither Communist nor a cult? Are Denmark and Sweden dysfunctional? If not, will MacGregor and Cook tell us? I don’t think so. Yes, there’s an admission that religion can divide people, but when coupled with the claim that without religion you get Godless Communism, the lesson is clear. And then there’s this (from the Economist):

Mr MacGregor is a social anthropologist on a vast plane, whereas Ms Cook leans more to the neuroscience of religion. By including sounds, such as softly heard bells and flutes, she draws attention to the aural stimuli that can arouse people’s spiritual antennae.

However, they have a common purpose: to bring home the ubiquity, and the social character, of religion to a mainly secular public. To the modern mind, speculating about moral and philosophical questions is something people engage in individually. In most eras of history, and in many parts of the world today, such freedom would be inconceivable. [JAC: But isn’t this a criticism of religion?]

As the exhibition and the radio series both proclaim, religion has generally been an activity, not a set of true-or-false propositions, and above all a collective activity in which the tribe or nation finds meaning.

Well, this “proclamation” is dead wrong. Religion of course is more than a set of true-or-false propositions, but virtually all religions are founded on such propositions and lose force and meaning unless one assents to them. What is Christianity without a divine and resurrected Christ? Or Islam without Allah dictating to Muhammed through an angel? I deal with the issue of religious truth claims in Faith Versus Fact, giving quote after quote from religious people who are honest enough to admit that religion is based on assertions of how the world is.  Here are four quotes from five believers:

Richard Swinburne:

For the practices of the Christian religion (and of any other theistic religion) only have a point if there is a God—there is no point in worshipping a non-existent creator or asking him to do something on earth or take us to heaven if he does not exist; or trying to live our lives in accord with his will, if he has no will. If someone is trying to be rational in practicing the Christian (or Islamic or Jewish) religion, she needs to believe (to some degree) the creedal claims that underlie the practice.

John Polkinghorne:

The question of truth is as central to [religion’s] concern as it is in science. Religious belief can guide one in life or strengthen one at the approach of death, but unless it is actually true it can do neither of these things and so would amount to no more than an illusionary exercise in comforting fantasy.

Ian Barbour:

A religious tradition is indeed a way of life and not a set of abstract ideas. But a way of life presupposes beliefs about the nature of reality and cannot be sustained if those beliefs are no longer credible.

Karl Giberson and Francis Collins (writing together):

Likewise, religion in almost all of its manifestations is more than just a collection of value judgments and moral directives. Religion often makes claims about “the way things are.”

By claiming that religion is not at all about truth claims, but only a form of refined social glue, both the British Museum and the BBC are not only adhering to Gould’s false “Non-overlapping Magisteria” dichotomy, but lying to the public.

Templeton-funded study shows that avoiding spiritual struggles worsens mental health

December 7, 2016 • 10:15 am

A new paper by Carmen Oemig Dworsky et al. in the Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science (reference below; only abstract available though I’ve got the whole paper) deals with the effects of spiritual struggle and its avoidance on people’s mental health. It’s a long read, but in short the authors surveyed 307 people (recruited from Amazon’s “Mechanical Turk” work database) who were self-described as experiencing spiritual struggles. They were then surveyed for indices of mental health (anxiety and depression) and for their levels of “experiential avoidance” (EA), which the authors define as  “efforts to escape or avoid unwanted internal experience, even when efforts to do so are harmful or contrary to personal goals.”

Science Daily, which, as its wont, basically regurgitated Case Western Reserve University’s press release, gives a summary. The upshot, as the paper summarizes below, is that those undergoing spiritual struggles show poorer mental health if they’re also showing EA, avoiding dealing with the struggles:

The present study examined the relations between experiential avoidance and mental health in a sample of people experiencing spiritual struggles. The first hypothesis predicted that experiential avoidance (EA) would be negatively associated with indices of psychological, physical, and spiritual mental health. Consistent with the prediction, general EA was associated with poorer mental health in all areas. With respect to avoidance tied specifically to the struggle, similar findings emerged. It was also hypothesized that the relationships between spiritual struggles and poorer mental health would be stronger among people with higher than lower levels of experiential avoidance. Some support was found for the prediction that higher levels of experiential avoidance exacerbate the relation between spiritual struggles and adverse symptoms. These findings were particularly robust for the measure of struggle-specific experiential avoidance.

The paper concludes that therapists should help people recognize and embrace their spiritual struggles. Senior author Julie Exline explains in the press release, adding other implications of the paper (my emphasis):

An unwillingness to accept spiritual struggle could contribute to major social ills, leading to lost opportunities to engage with people of different faith beliefs and backgrounds and come to view them as threatening.

“This avoidance may lead to the rejection of whole groups of people based on their religious differences or perceived incongruence between, for example, their sexuality or gender-based identity and religious teachings,” Exline said.

Mental health providers may find it useful to help clients with spiritual struggles face their difficulties in a more proactive way.

“People seem to be more emotionally healthy if they’re able to accept troubling thoughts,” Exline said. “Looking at spiritual doubts in an objective way seems to help. You may or may not work through them, but at least you can tolerate having them.”

Avoidance itself is not a problem; rather, the behavior can become problematic when escaping becomes harmful or contrary to personal goals and sets a rigid pattern of experiencing and responding to the world.

“Regular spiritual avoidance can make it difficult to identify, work toward or experience the qualities that lend a sense of purpose to life,” she said.

Using emotional and cognitive energy to push thoughts away will not stop them from continuing to intrude over time.

“Continually being re-visited by these thoughts can create strains on emotional health, especially if a person sees this kind of questioning as morally unacceptable and dangerous,” Exline said.

One problem with this study, not mentioned by the authors in the “limitations, implications, and future directions” section of the paper, is that it deals solely with spiritual struggles. What they really need is a control group—people experiencing other struggles (perhaps relationship or job struggles)—to see if EA has the same effect there. It’s not clear why the emphasis is on spirituality.  Further, the conclusion about how EA could exacerbate interfaith disharmony and rejection of gays seems unwarranted by the data themselves.

Now, who do you think supported this research? Yep, you guessed it:


Templeton works in mysterious ways, so I’ll leave it up to the readers to decide how the study fits into Templeton’s agenda, which is to promote harmony between science and faith, as well as to show that science gives evidence for the divine.


Dworsky, C. K. O., K. I. Pargament, S. Wong and J. Exline. 2016. Suppressing spiritual struggles: the role of experiential avoidance in mental health. J. Contextual Behav. Sci. 5: 258-265


March 27, 2016 • 11:00 am

A question I’m often asked is this: “What do you think about ‘spirituality’?” My response is this: the term is so elastic that it can stretch to cover everything from traditional religious belief to simple awe before the beauty of landscapes, music, or great art. Since the word has been so often co-opted—most notoriously by the Rice University sociologist Elaine Ecklund—to pretend that those who see themselves as “spiritual” can be lumped in with religionists, I prefer to avoid the term completely. “Emotionality before ______” (fill in item here) covers it pretty well.  If you must use the term, or say that you’re “spiritual,” define what you mean immediately and precisely.

So here, from College Humor, is The Church for People Who are Spiritual but Not Religious.

What is the “profound mystery of existence”?

January 17, 2016 • 9:30 am

Once again, while doing my early-morning grocery shopping, I listened to Krista Tippett’s “On Being” show on National Public Radio. If you ask why I listen to a show I dislike so much (Tippett, whose words are what cotton candy would sound like if it could speak, has never met a brand of religion or “spirituality” she doesn’t love), it’s for the same reason we sniff the milk when we already know it’s gone sour.

Today’s show wasn’t as bad as usual, as it featured a secular Buddhist, Stephen Batchelor (listen here if you must). Batchelor is a non-deist, but sees some value in Buddhist practice (I partly agree, especially vis-à-vis meditation), and he was quite eloquent. Tippett, on the other hand, was her usual unctuous self, punctuating Batchelor’s words with “uh-huh”s, up-talking, and agreeing with him even when what he said was unclear.

But leaving the oleaginousness aside; what I want to discuss is the idea of the “profound mystery of life”—something repeatedly mentioned and extolled by both Batchelor and Tippett. As the program proceeded and the pains in my lower mesentery increased, I noticed that neither of them specified exactly what those mysteries were. As far as I could discern, one was our existence and the other was our death.

Those, of course, are explained by science, especially evolution. The other “profound mysteries” remained mysterious.

We hear all the time from the spiritual folk about these “mysteries”, but I wonder what they mean. To me, a “mystery” is our lack of understanding of some phenomenon, like consciousness or our sensation of having free will. Or whether there are multiverses, and what is dark matter, anyway? Or even our feeling of joy or beauty when we encounter love, a beautiful landscape, or great music.  We already understand why we live, and largely understand why we die.

But those are scientific mysteries: things that can, at least in principle, be explained by research. And I have a feeling they are not what people like Batchelor and Tippett mean. What they seem to mean is either “amazement” or “emotionality” (I don’t use the word “wonder,” since that can be equivalent to inquisitiveness about the origin of a phenomenon). Amazement that a woodpecker doesn’t beat its brains out when it hammers a tree; “emotionality” of the sort that you feel when you hear music (I remember how I wept the first time I heard Beethoven’s Fifth); amazement that complex living beings evolved from inert chemicals derived from stars, and by a simple process of differential survival of replicators.

I’m probably going to be accused of scientism here, but every time I think of the “profound mysteries” of life, they turn out to be phenomena susceptible to scientific inquiry. And that even goes for our emotions, and why we react to some music with tears and other music with disdain. Many times I don’t know why I am moved or baffled or amazed by something I see or hear, but I don’t see that as a profound mystery that somehow transcends naturalism or materialism.

So, dear readers, perhaps you can explain to me what people consider to be the “profound mysteries” of life. Are do they really comprise wonderment about empirical phenomena, or is there something more? It it all numinous?

It’s a profound mystery why Tippett gets an hour each week to blather about spirituality on NPR, and is paid a lot of money for it.

Krista Tippett annoys me again

November 23, 2015 • 8:15 am

The one disadvantage of shopping very early on Saturday morning is that, if I’m unlucky enough to be driving after 7 a.m., I’ll have to listen to Krista Tippett’s “On Being” show on National Public Radio. The show was formerly called “On Faith,” but, probably realizing that the religious overtones might cost her listeners, Tippett changed the name. Unfortunately, the subject remains largely the same: spirituality, which Tippett tries to inject as often as possible into the discourse. (This resembles the sociologist Elaine Ecklund, who, funded by Templeton, spends her academic career trying to show that science and religion are compatible because many scientists are “spiritual”). And, of course, Tippett never defines “spirituality.” She has a weakness for religion, so, in her mouth, the word seems to flirt with the ambits of divinity.

This week’s show, an interview with artist Ann Hamilton, was particularly distressing, forcing me to keep my eyes on the road rather than bang my head on the dashboard. If you can bear to listen at the link (it’s a year-old interview from Minneapolis), you’ll hear two people talking almost entirely in Deepities, so that many times I had no idea what the hell they were talking about. Further, Tippett does her usual up-talking, a style of speaking that irritates me.

The show started off promisingly as Hamilton shut Tippett down at the very beginning, when the host tried to drag in spirituality. But then things went south when Hamlton began palavering about religion. Here’s my transcript:

Tippett: A lot people speak of you as a spiritual artist, or an artist who’s in the realm of spirituality. Actually I don’t really see you claiming that word so often.

Hamilton: I mean, I think that word makes me very nervous, because I don’t actually know exactly what it means. And I think it’s a word that is for a lot of people very loaded and means very particular things. And I think that artists are very slippery–that we want to not be categorized.

[JAC: Tippett doesn’t know exactly what it means, either!]

Tippett: So if I ask you, you know, what was the spiritual background of your childhood—in the best connotations that you fill that word with.What do you think of?

Hamilton: I’m a Calvinist, and I certainly grew up going to church with my family . . .

Of course what Tippett means by the “best connotations” of spirituality is opaque to any rational listener, but if you know of her show you’ll realize that she means religious connotations.

Conclusion #1: If you’re going to use the word “spiritual,” define it, for most people imbue it with religious overtones.

Conclusion #2: I still want to do an NPR show called “On Thinking,” in which I’d interview scientists, science-oriented philosophers, and rationalists of all stripes. When I suggested this before on this site, one reader responded, “They already have that show: it’s called Science Friday.” But that’s not the show I’d have; it would be more like Tippett’s show, with interviews, but it would deal instead with real issues— with the wonder of reality—rather than with insubstantial and woo-ish “spirituality.”


Picture and description from here (my emphasis): U.S. President Barack Obama (R) presents the 2013 National Humanities Medal to radio host and author Krista Tippett (L) during an East Room ceremony July 28, 2014 at the White House in Washington, DC. Tippett was honored for thoughtfully delving into the mysteries of human existence.

My snarky comment: she may have delved into them, but she hasn’t solved any of them. Solving them is for science!

(July 27, 2014 – Source: Alex Wong/Getty Images North America)

Here are Tippett’s two books; I read the later one—a fulsome dose of accommodationism—and won’t read the first:

  • Speaking of Faith: Why Religion Matters—and How to Talk About It (Penguin, January 29, 2008)
  • Einstein’s God: Conversations About Science and the Human Spirit (Penguin, February 23, 2010)


If cotton candy could talk. . .

May 17, 2015 • 8:45 am

. . . .it would sound like Krista Tippett. If you’re in the UK, you’ll know cotton candy as “candy floss”, which, like Tippett’s weekly radio show, is saccharine, fluffy and insubstantial.  Why does National Public Radio insist on broadcasting her show “On Being” (subtitle: “The Big Questions of Meaning”, earlier title: “Speaking of Faith”) just when I’m driving to the North Side to do my weekly grocery shopping? I can listen to either her, mariachi music, Christian broadcasting, or country music.  Thinking that Tippett would be the lesser of four weevils, I listened to the show—for 40 minutes of the hour.

Big mistake. Her guest this week was Maria Popova, creator of the site Brain Pickings, which I’ve looked at occasionally (and sometimes found something useful), but which in general seems to be a self-help site for New Agers who have a God-shaped hole in their psyche. Popova gleans “lessons” from writers and artists, which usually turn out to be something spiritual (sample Popova post: “The diffusion of useful ignorance: Thoreau on the hubris of our knowledge and the transcendent humility of not-knowing.“)  If you want the real candy floss, read Popova’s “7 things I learned in 7 years of reading, writing, and living,” where we learn that we should “build pockets of stillness into our lives” and to appreciate that “presence is far more intricate and rewarding an art than productivity.”

All of this nebulous spirituality made Popova a perfect guest for Tippett (who called Popova a “cartographer of meaning in a digital age”), and so, against my better judgment, I listened to these two natter on, desperately hoping to hear something substantive.  Alas, there was nothing: just a bunch of high-octane spirituality and excited agreement about things nebulous. When the overexcited Tippett called Popova an “old soul,” I knew I was in for a ghastly time.

Here are a few of the gems that Tippett unleashed on Popova (Tippett often tosses out her own aphorisms and asks the guests to react to them):

“Hope inspires the good to reveal itself.”

“I love that literature is ‘stewardship’.”

“They say that literature is the original internet.”

It was like eavesdropping on two Deepak Chopras in conversation.

If you want to listen to the show (and I hope at least one reader does, or already did), go to this link and hit “play episode” on the upper right. Trigger warning: Strong desire to bang your skull (or the radio) with your fists. If you find anything worth knowing, post it below.

In 2009, Tippett was paid $146,992 ($160,722 with deferred benefits and other compensation).

More nonsense at NPR about God

April 26, 2015 • 10:00 am

I am frankly amazed that National Public Radio (NPR) would publish this mushy reconception of religion, for it’s worse than that purveyed by apophatists like Karen Armstrong. In fact, Nancy Ellen Abrams, who is flogging her new book A God that Could Be Real: Sprirituality, Science, and the Future of our Planet, was given two mini-essays in NPR to write about her book. on her book. And that book apparently re-casts “God”, sort of, as “The Emergent Complexity of the Universe in All Its Scientific Wonder” (I’ve written about her thesis before), and so she pushes not deism, but the worship of some undefined aspect of science as a god.  Indeed, her “god” isn’t even vaguely human, or sentient. This is just a semantic trick. I could consider literature or art as “god,” too, and then I could say that we have a God That Could Be Real. Or food, or wine! In fact, I’d rather worship food than the Emergent Complexity of the Universe.

Abrams’s semantic argument is simply lame, and I doubt it will convince any believers, although Library Journal extolled it like this: “A fine addition to the growing library of alternative approaches to literalism in belief, this book is suitable for academic libraries, liberal churches, and individual seekers.” Yeah, seekers!

Moreover, her argument about words is disingenuous, for it co-opts most people’s notion of what God is like (a mind without a body, and one who cares about you), and tries to show people that, despite the nonexistence of such a god, they can still have a deity—indeed, one that’s The Only Kind of God Worth Wanting.

Does that remind you of anything else—like compatibilist free will? As science has debunked our notion of libertarian free will, philosophers have diligently redefined “free will” so that we can still have it. It is a pretty exact parallel to what Nancy Allen Abrams does: she simply redefines God in the light of scientific advances so that we can still have it as well.

This bothers me a bit on personal grounds, too, for I’m absolutely sure that were I to submit to NPR a piece or two giving the thesis of my new book—that science and religion are incompatible, and attempts to turn science into religion are dumb—NPR would reject it out of hand. That station and site simply have an overweening need to osculate the rump of faith, and there’s nothing to be done about it. I can’t remember a time I’ve seen an overtly atheist piece on the NPR site. Shouldn’t they be balancing their copious coverage of religion and spirituality with alternative views? Don’t they see that nonbelief is an important trend in American culture?

But I digress. Abrams’s first piece is called “‘A God that could be real’ in the scientific universe.” Her initial point is this (Abrams’s quotes are indented):

We have to have a god because people can’t live without one. 

Does God have to be part of our understanding of the universe? No. But if scientists tell the public that they have to choose between God and science, most people will choose God, which leads to denialism, hostility to science and the profoundly dangerous mental incoherence in modern society that fosters depression and conflict. Meanwhile, many of those who choose science find themselves without any way of thinking that can give them access to their own spiritual potential. What we need is a coherent big picture that is completely consistent with — and even inspired by — science, yet provides an empowering way of rethinking God that provides the human and social benefits without the fantasy. How can we get this?

Sounds a lot like what free-will compatibilists do, doesn’t it? (That’s not a coincidence, for several compatibilists have explicitly argued that we must tell people they have some kind of free will because society will fall apart if they lose their belief that they have real agency.) At any rate, I rarely tell people that they have to choose between God and science; I think I’ve said that once in my life. Rather, I try to show them that the scientific and religious ways to discern “truth” are incompatible, and then let them draw their own conclusions.

The traditional God doesn’t fly any longer because there’s no evidence for it. 

What if we thought this way about God? What if we took the evidence of a new cosmic reality seriously and became willing to rule out the impossible? What would be left?

We can have a real God if we let go of what makes it unreal. I am only interested in God if it’s real. If it isn’t real, there’s nothing to talk about. But I don’t mean real like a table, or a feeling, or a test score, or a star. Those are real in normal earthbound experience. I mean real in the full scientific picture of our double dark universe, our planet, our biology and our moment in history.

These are characteristics of a God that can’t be real:

  1. God existed before the universe
  2. God created the universe.
  3. God knows everything.
  4. God intends everything that happens.
  5. God can choose to violate the laws of nature.

Well, at least she admits that there’s no evidence for any kind of creator God or one with any characteristics of the Abrahamic God. But she won’t stop there and just admit that she’s an atheist. No, she has to make one god further—confecting a nebulous and fuzzy god. It’s a sort-of-sciencey and emergent god, one that she tries to describe in her second NPR post, “A new way to think about God.”

I’d like to explain what Abrams means by “god,” but it’s pretty obscure. In fact, I think it’s obscure because she wants it that way (the usual tactic of Sophisticated Theologians™). Or maybe she simply doesn’t know what she’s talking about. Regardless,  I have no idea what kind of god she’s describing, except that it comports with science, it has something to do with complexity, and  that it’s emergent (a word that almost invariably means you’re in Woo-Land). But here’s how she explains it:

Almost everything we humans do collectively spawns an emergent phenomenon. So, for example, people trading things has led to the global economy, an emergent phenomenon so complicated and unpredictable that not only does no one know the rules, but the professionals don’t even agree on what the rules should be about. The never-ending effort to get people to behave decently toward one another has spawned governments. Our innate desire for gossip has spawned the media. [it goes on, but you get the point]. . .

But we humans are not just traders, moralizers and gossips. Far beneath those behaviors, so deep it distinguishes us from the other primates, is this: We aspire. We aspire to different things, but we all aspire. Our aspirations are as real as we are. They are not the same as desires, like food, sex and security. Every animal has those desires from instinct alone. Aspirations reach beyond survival needs. Our aspirations are what shape each of us humans into the individual we are. Without aspirations, we are nothing but meat with habits. We humans are the aspiring species and may have been for hundreds of thousands of years.

Well, other species also have aspirations, and often for the same things that we do: food, status, and sex. Much of that, in us as well as other species, is a result of natural selection acting to spread our genes. But, Abrams says, we also aspire to meaning, and she somehow not only finds that meaning, but turns it into God. If you really understand this following bit, your’e better than I am! (my emphasis):

Something new has to have emerged from the staggering complexity of all humanity’s aspirations, interacting. What is that something — that emergent phenomenon both fed by and feeding the aspirations of every human being? It didn’t exist before humans evolved, but it’s here now, and every one of us is directly connected to it, simply by virtue of being human and having aspirations. It didn’t create the universe, but it has created the meaning of the universe, which is what matters to us. Meaning, universe, spirit, God, creation and all other abstract concepts are themselves ideas that took form over countless generations, as people shared their aspirations to understand and express what may lie beyond the visible world. This emergent phenomenon has created the power of all our words and ideas, including ideals like truth, justice, and freedom, which took millennia to clarify in practice, and which no individual could ever have invented or even imagined without a rich cultural history that made it possible.

This infinitely complex phenomenon, which has emerged and continues to emerge from instant to instant, growing exponentially and shape-shifting, can accurately be said to exist in the modern universe. It’s as real as the economy, as real as the government. It doesn’t matter if you’re Hindu or Christian or Jewish or atheist or agnostic, because I’m not proposing an alternative religious idea. I’m explaining an emergent phenomenon that actually exists in our scientific picture of reality. You don’t have to call it God, but it’s real. And when you search for a name for it, it may be the only thing that exists in the modern universe that is worthy of the name God.

Okay, what exactly is this emergent phenomenon that Abrams is banging on about? She doesn’t explain it clearly—and if you look at the largely positive reviews of this execrable idea on the Amazon site, it appears that her readers don’t, either. Could a reader tell me what “god” she is talking about? Please? It clearly has something to do with science, and with dark energy and dark matter, issues she raised in her first post as well as the excerpt from her book that I criticized a few weeks ago. Here’s that excerpt:

The power of praying comes from daring to enter that mysterious place between the emerging God and us. But it’s not an empty space—it’s our own selves on progressively larger size scales, where we are participating in multiple emerging phenomena and creating emergent identities. As the ancient Egyptian world blended outward into the spiritual world, so does ours. And the higher our consciousness goes along the Uroboros of Human Identity, the more it blends into the emerging phenomenon of God. In tuning our ordinary consciousness in to those higher levels that we may have scarcely ever visited before, we approach God.

Theobabble!  But people apparently lap this stuff up, for it sounds profound, although I can’t see any substantive content. If I were to grade Ms. Abrams’s effort, I’d give her a D and write this in the margins of her paper: “Could you please explain exactly what the emergent God is to which we’re supposed to pray? You dance all around the issue but are never explicit. Rewrite paper and submit.”

Nevertheless—and this does surprise me—the readers on Amazon have generally rated the book highly. There are clearly many Seekers out there! Here’s part of a review by “J. Peterson” on Amazon, who gives the book four out of five stars, even though he/she doesn’t seem to fully grasp what Abrams is saying (my emphasis):

This book provoked a variety of thoughts and emotions for me, thus I judge the book a very worthwhile read.

I fully admit that I did not (and still do not) grasp all of what the author is trying to say, so I need to read it again. I can’t say that about very many books.

Some of the author’s ideas are fascinating, while others I reject. I will leave other readers to decide for themselves on these, and won’t attempt to review all of them here.

One of the ideas I liked the best was her description of “god” as an “emergent” phenomenon. Perhaps I don’t get out enough, but I was not familiar with the whole concept of “emergence.” But now that I have been introduced to the concept by this book, many (non-religious) things are much more clear. Simply put, an emergent phenomenon is one that is literally greater than the sum of its parts, e.g. a living organism is composed of unthinking atoms that individually just obey the laws of physics, but when aggregated into a human body, a totally new and wonderful thing emerges – somehow. The author’s premise is that god is also emergent, which is quite interesting. I am still trying to decide if I buy this or not, but I *am* still thinking about it.

But this is offset by a one-star review by Geoff Arnold, an atheist, who said it better than I could. (Of course, I haven’t read Abrams’s book as he has, but I’ve read the long excerpts in Salon (here and here) and her two pieces on NPR). I can’t be arsed to read the book if it’s anything like what she’s already written.) Here’s part of Arnold’s review:

Now she provides no evidence for the existence of such an entity, nor does she attempt to explain what “emergence” might involve. She seems to view emergence as a mysterious process that requires no explanation — a bit like the Gaia hypothesis, or some of Deepak Chopra’s quantum nonsense. It is, of course, nothing of the kind. Biology is “emergent” from chemistry and physics, in that the latter provide a plastic framework in which information-theoretic processes can — contingently — emerge, but that doesn’t mean that biological phenomena are epistemologically mysterious. (I pinch myself for effect.)

So by the end of the first section we have an unsupported hypothesis which seems “worthy” of the term “god”. Most theists would wonder whether an entity which is so radically contingent and highly local (in both space and time) would fit the bill; it’s hardly a prime mover, or a ground of being, or a timeless and omnipotent father figure. Oddly, Abrams seems to feel that this is a case where people should just “get over it”, and the “god” is quickly capitalized. Prayers follow; rituals are not far behind.

Now, I’m an atheist, so I find most concepts of “god” pretty much incoherent. Nevertheless, as deities go, this is a pretty unsatisfactory one. After all, one errant asteroid could wipe out all human life in a moment, and since Abrams’ god is merely an emergent property of human consciousness, bang goes god. Of course we wouldn’t be around to notice it, but it all seems remarkably parochial.

Ultimately, this book left me annoyed, almost angry. A silly piece of imagination, unsupported by any evidence, framed in language which exploits and abuses scientific thought, proposed as a replacement for conventional deities. “Could be real”. What does “real” mean in this context? We’re not told. Ultimately Abrams’ decided that she wanted to believe, and made up something that she could believe in, without any evidence. That’s silly.

Give that man a Cuban cigar! He has a long career ahead as a religion debunker.