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.


Faith-based healing kills kids: this time U.S. gets it right and Canadians screw up

November 15, 2014 • 10:31 am

One of the worst aspects of the science-vs.-religion conflict involves medicine, in particular the tendency of some groups to abjure scientific medicine in favor of either religiously-based healing or unsubstantiated methods of folk or spiritual healing that are also based on faith. It’s especially invidious when “faith healing” is given to children.

In many parts of the U.S., and apparently in Canada, it’s okay to withhold medical care from your children if you do so on religious or “traditional medicine” grounds. A chilling report from the U.S.’s National District Attorney Association lists, state by state, how you can get off for killing your kid by relying on prayer for healing.  As the report says:

37 states, the District of Columbia and Guam have laws providing that parents or caretakers who fail to provide medical assistance to a child because of their religious beliefs are not criminally liable for harm to the child.

But of course if you fail to provide medical assistance on nonreligious grounds, you can be criminally liable, so this is a completely unwarranted privilege “enjoyed” by the faithful. Not only that, but it’s resulted in the deaths of hundreds of childrens and newborns (you can abjure midwives and obstetricians) who are given prayer instead of medical care.

I write quite a bit about this in The Albatross, because it’s not only an example of the incompatibility between science and faith, but because it’s widespread in America, and because laws exculpating faith-healing parents were passed by state legislatures (and originally mandated by the Ford administration as part of standardizing child-abuse regulations throughout America), so that we’re all in a sense responsible for the many deaths and injuries to innocent kids. (The federal government eventually withdrew the requirement for religious exemptions, but it was too late: they had already become law in many states.)

And even when parents are prosecuted, the confusing tangle of laws, and the unwarranted sympathy that judges and juries have for religious parents, often mean that convicted parents get off virtually scot-free, sometimes even with unsupervised probation.

This privileging of religion has to stop: all desperately ill children should be required to be given real medical care and not prayer or untested herbs; and parents who don’t give it should be prosecuted just as strongly as parents who are abusive for nonreligious reasons. The Christian Scientists are the most guilty of this kind of neglect (I have a chilling story in The Albatross), but there are many religious sects that rely on faith healing, and there’s at least one estimate that as many as 81% of children who die after given faith-healing could have been saved by conventional medicine.

But this week the U.S. got it right in one case, as reported by in Oregon. Fortunately, that’s one of the states that has no religious exemptions, but does have a plethora of evangelical Christians who hold to faith healing:

After four hours of deliberating Monday evening, a Linn County jury found both Wenona and Travis Rossiter guilty of manslaughter in the first and second degree.

The couple is accused of recklessly and negligently causing the death of their 12-year-old daughter Syble last year, who died from diabetic ketoacidosis. The state argues the parents should have been aware of the girl’s health problems, and that a reasonable person would have sought medical care. The Rossiters claim they thought their daughter had the flu, which is why they did not bring her to a doctor.

The state also presented testimony to the jury that indicates the Rossiters belong to the Church of the First Born in Brownsville, a group that believes in faith-healing. Though Travis Rossiter says in his police interview that he believes it is a sin to see a doctor, Wenona Rossiter testified on Monday that the case was not a question of their religion because they were not aware that Syble had type one diabetes. She also told the jury that she once before took her husband to the emergency room.

The couple will be sentenced on Dec. 19.

Juvenile diabetes is a disease you come across over and over again in cases of faith healing. Parents simply pray while their children die, usually in agony, and yet the condition is easily controlled with insulin. And really, how credible is it that the parents didn’t know that the kid had diabetes? A kid in the last stages of the disease needs to go to a doctor, stat, and not get prayed over because of a suspected case of “flu.” We’ll see whether they throw the book at the Rossiters, as they should, for this is a case where deterrence of others is important. And we need to revoke every religious exemption law for vaccination or faith-healing in the U.S.

Meanwhile, the Canadians have yet to learn this lesson, for a court in Ontario rejected a hospital’s plea that a leukemia-stricken “aboriginal” girl (I guess that’s the term Canadians have for what we call “Native Americans”; they also use “members of “First Nations”) be given chemotherapy instead of the traditional and ineffective herbal medicine that her parents” are using.

As the CBC reports:

A judge rejected an application from a Hamilton hospital that would have seen the Children’s Aid Society intervene in the case of the girl whose family had stopped her chemotherapy at the hospital in favour of traditional medicine. The girl has been undergoing treatment for leukemia in Florida.

In a statement posted on a Six Nations community newspaper Friday night, the family of the girl at the centre of the case says the “stress our family lived until today was uncalled for” and that they would never compromise the child’s well-being, saying plans that included monitoring blood work was part of a care plan.

Excuse me, but that’s total garbage. The family’s “treatment” will kill the girl, and the judge will have her blood on his hands.  The doctors estimate that the girl has a 90-95% chance of survival with chemotherapy, but without treatment she’ll die.  And yet the “right” of aboriginals to do what they want to their sick kids is celebrated as a triumph, and is protected by law:

Judge Gethin Edward has presided over the complicated and potentially precedent-setting Brantford, Ont., court case  since it began on Sept. 25

“I cannot find that J.J. is a child in need of protection when her substitute decision-maker has chosen to exercise her constitutionally protected right to pursue their traditional medicine over the Applicant’s stated course of treatment of chemotherapy,” Edward said, as he read his ruling aloud.

Constitutional protection of religion is one thing, and something I favor, but where is the constitutionally protected right to abuse your children by withholding scientific medical care? Children can’t decide for themselves, and if their religious parents want to pray over them instead of taking them to the hospital, the right of the State to protect the child’s life supersedes, in my mind, the “right” to exercise your religious dictates.  The CBC report continues;

Edward, citing the testimony of two McMaster Children’s Hospital doctors, agreed the child wasn’t capable of making her own medical decisions. But he found it was the mother’s aboriginal rights — which he called “integral” to the family’s way of life — allow her to choose traditional medicine for her daughter.

. . . Judge Edward reiterated that no one, including the doctors from McMaster Children’s Hospital who have called for legal intervention, has suggested that the girl’s mother is negligent.

“Nobody is suggesting DH is anything but a caring, loving parent,” he said in his ruling.

“Aboriginal rights”? To treat a dying child with a vegetable diet and “positive attitudes”? That’s positively obscene. Click on the screenshot below to hear the 11-minute video giving infuriating arguments by advocates for “traditional” medicine:

Screen Shot 2014-11-15 at 11.02.41 AM

There is no “aboriginal right” that justifies withholding proven medicine in favor of woo. When the child dies, let us recall how this court’s decision and deference to “aboriginal rights” led to her death. The gloating is disgusting:

Outside the court, Six Nations Chief Ava Hill and New Credit First Nations Chief Bryan Laforme welcomed the ruling, saying it has broader effects across Canada.

Supporters of the aboriginal side in the case that was being heard by Judge Gethin Edward hold up signs outside the Brantford, Ont., court. (John Lesavage/CBC)

​”This is monumental,” said Laforme. “It reaffirms our right to be Indian and to practise our medicines in the traditional way.”

Hill said the mother is “overjoyed,” with the news.

When asked about what specific treatment the girl is receiving now, Hill declined to say, adding that was between the family and the girl’s traditional healer — which Hill said involves the same confidentiality of a doctor-patient relationship.

The mother, Hill said, “has the right to do whatever she wants to try and save her child.”

The hospital, sadly, will not appeal. A child’s life will be taken away by misguided respect for “First Nation” strictures, which deserve no more respect, in terms of children’s welfare, than U.S. “religious rights.”

I have a lot more to say about this issue, which infuriates me, but I’ll do it in The Albatross. All I’ll say now is that spiritual/religious healing and “traditional medicine” are both instantiations of faith that contravene science, and that while parents can choose their own treatment, they have no right to inflict death-dealing woo on innocent, uninformed, and often brainwashed children.

Religion is good for society, you say? How many children’s deaths will it take to counterbalance the so-called beneficial effects of faith?

h/t: Stephen Q.Muth, Butter’s staff

David Brooks and his weakness for the sacred

September 6, 2014 • 8:59 am

David Brooks, a conservative columnist for the New York Times, is one of the less noxious conservatives on their staff (think of Ross Douthat, for instance). Although he was in favor of our invasion of Iraq, and supported John McCain, he’s also not nearly as anti-Obama as are other right-wing columnists.  I still think, however, that the Times could produce a better stable of conservative columnists—unless good ones simply aren’t out there.

Brooks’s column on Thursday,”The body and the spirit,” looks as if were phoned it; an idea he had—a bad one—that he expanded into the Procrustean bed of his column.  His topic is why Americans are so revolted at the beheading of others, including the two journalists recently beheaded on video by ISIS.  His answer is because the human body is imbued with spirituality—he calls it “sacred”—and beheading degrades that sacredness. But what he’s doing is simply trying to inject religion (in the guise of “spirituality”) into a phenomenon that has other explanations. It’s not irrevelvant, I think, that Brooks is a believer: a Jew.

A few excerpts:

But the revulsion aroused by beheading is mostly a moral revulsion. A beheading feels like a defilement. It’s not just an injury or a crime. It is an indignity. A beheading is more like rape, castration or cannibalism. It is a defacement of something sacred that should be inviolable.

But what is this sacred thing that is being violated?

Well, the human body is sacred. Most of us understand, even if we don’t think about it, or have a vocabulary to talk about it these days, that the human body is not just a piece of meat or a bunch of neurons and cells. The human body has a different moral status than a cow’s body or a piece of broccoli.

We’re repulsed by a beheading because the body has a spiritual essence. The human head and body don’t just live and pass along genes. They paint, make ethical judgments, savor the beauty of a sunset and experience the transcendent. The body is material but surpasses the material. It’s spiritualized matter.

It’s not clear what Brooks means by “spiritual”, but clearly the word “sacred” has religious connotations, as if we had a soul.  In fact, he directly appeals to humans’ metaphysical dualism as a reason for this beheading.

Most of us, religious or secular, have some instinctive sense that there is a ghost infused in the machine. And because the human body is a transcendent temple it is worthy of respect. It is offensive to treat it the way you would treat an inanimate object. Even after a person is dead, the body still carries the residue of this presence and deserves dignified handling.

Where does he get the idea that nonbelievrs think there is a ghost infused in the machine? Has he done a survey? Does he not realize that we secular folks are just as revolted as religious people at seeing this, even though we have no truck with souls or God or sacredness. Perhaps that should tell Brooks that there is an explanation for our revulsion that is more general—one that doesn’t involve the numinous.

My alternative explanation is that beheading is a particularly gruesome and brutal way of killing someone, it is not instantaneous, and there’s a lot of suffering and blood. We have an instinctive revulsion for that kind of killing, perhaps from our evolutionary history. (I do note, though, that in medieval times people loved gruesome public torture and execution, so perhaps some of that revulsion is, as Steven Pinker maintains, a cultural change in morality.) If the state murders someone, we now prefer it to be quick, clean and bloodless. And Americans are much more willing to accept killing if it involves remote drones rather than a bullet in the head by a sniper.  We want to remove ourselves from the gruesomeness of death, but beheading puts us right there with the sawing knives, spurting blood, and gurgling as the victim tries to scream. Further, the severing of the head—the body’s command module and repository of personality and memory—is particularly upsetting because we know that only a few moments before that head was thinking and feeling.

But perhaps Brooks sees the “ghost” only as the memory of humans who once were alive, whose loss we mourn. We secularists treat the dead with respect not, I think, because we see them as having been sacred, but because there were humans: fellow species with which we could once communicate, or whom we liked or love. And now they are gone and all we can do to show our affection or affirm our common humanity is treat their remains with respect.

Brooks goes on to accuse the zealots of having no respect for the sacredness of the body because “physical reality is not important”:

Our revulsion makes us different from the religious zealots who are prone to commit or celebrate acts like beheadings. The zealots often hew to a fringe of their faith that holds that the spirit and the body are at war with each other. They have a tendency to extreme asceticism, to seek to deny themselves pleasures of the living world, to celebrate the next world at the expense of this world, to oscillate between masochistic self-flagellation, when they think they have been sensual, and bouts of arrogant spiritual pride, when they convince themselves they have risen above the senses. It doesn’t matter to them what they do to their enemy’s body, because this physical reality is not important.

Well, maybe he’s partly right here; I think that Islamic martyrs or jihadis might value their earthly existence less than other people, simply because they are so sure that they’ll get Virgins in Paradise. But I’m dubious about Brooks’s take beyond that. There are many Christian sects that do indeed see the body at war with the spirit (Catholicism is one, for instance, as it repeatedly tells people that their corporeal desires are sinful, and so is fundamentalist Protestantism that decries all the pleasures of the flesh). Further, Christian Scientists see the physical world as an illusion.  But none of these sects come close to the kind of brutality of fundamentalists Islam instantiated in ISIS. My view is that they degrade the body of their enemies not because his physical reality is not important, but because they know it will have a particularly horrible effect on their enemies, perhaps terrorizing them into submission and, in the case of the beheaded journalists, forcing America to make concessions. (That doesn’t work.)

In the end—and I’m spending too much time on a column I consider trivial—Brooks goes off the rails completely, taking it upon himself to tell us what “true” religions really are. And, in passing, he admits, without sensing the irony, that ISIS is “spiritual”:

If ISIS is to be stopped, there will probably have to be some sort of political and military coalition. But, ultimately, the Islamists are a spiritual movement that will have to be surmounted by a superior version of Islam.

The truest version of each Abrahamic faith revels in the genuine goodness of creation. These are faiths that love the material world, especially the body. They’re faiths that understand that the high and the low yearn for each other, and that every human body has some piece of the eternal, even if you’re fighting against him.

I love these people who think that they know what the “truest version” of faith is. In reality, I’d say the truest version of, say, Judaism would be the most brutal and misogynistic version, one adhering strictly to the strictures of the Old Testament. Indeed, Christians also take the Old Testament as scripture, too. Have you read Deuteronomy lately? And why is liberal Christianity, which embraces the material world, “truer” than fundamentalist forms of Christianity that abjure dancing, drink, premarital sex, and even coffee? Those “lows” don’t yearn for the highs. As for “every human body having some piece of the eternal,” I have no idea what Brooks means here, unless he thinks we have souls or afterlives. Perhaps he’s speaking metaphorically, but if so is he’s also speaking obscurely.

No, there are no “truer” versions of faith than others. There are versions that are “truer” to their scripture than others, but that’s not how Brooks is construing “truth.” If adherence to scripture were the criterion, the truest versions of Islam and Christianity would be the most brutal. What he means by the “truest” faith is “the faith that I, David Brooks, find most congenial.”

In the end, faith is faith, all of it is based on revelation and wish-thinking, and it’s all a delusion.  Are some delusions truer than others? I doubt it.