I contradict myself

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I contradict myself

A Friends Meeting House in Casco, Maine, USA. Photo by MyLoupe/Getty

I am an atheist and a Quaker. Does it matter what I believe, when I recognise that religion is something I need?

Nat Case is is a cartographer living and working in Minneapolis, who blogs at maphead.blogspot.com

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I read voraciously as a child, even obsessively. Our family drove across the US when I was 13, and I hardly noticed the scenery, eyes glued to a mammoth book of classic science-fiction stories. As I recall, this ticked off my parents.

Magical stories moved me to tears. I vividly remember, at the age of eight, being surprised at how deeply the second chapter of Astrid Lindgren’s The Brothers Lionheart (1973) affected me. The narrator dies and goes to the land where sagas come from, and when he arrives he finds that all that he had wanted — to be strong, healthy and beautiful like his older brother — has come to be, and that his beloved brother is there, too. And this is just the beginning of the story. I remember arriving at the end of Penelope Farmer’s The Summer Birds (1962) and weeping bitterly as the children, who have spent the summer flying about the English countryside, return gravity-bound to school while their lonely classmate and the strange bird-boy fly off together over the ocean.

This essay wasn’t supposed to be about the stories I read as a child. It was supposed to be about how I manage to be an atheist within a religious community, and why I dislike the term ‘atheism’. But however I wrote that essay, the words died on the page. That story comes down to this: I do not believe in God, and I am bored with atheism. But these stories, this magic, and their presence in my heart, they don’t bore me — they are alive. Even though I know they are fiction, I believe in them.

My main religious practice today is meeting for worship with the Religious Society of Friends: I am a Quaker. Meeting for worship, to a newcomer, can feel like a blank page. Within the tradition of Friends, it is anything but blank: it is a religious service, expectant waiting upon the presence of God. So it’s not meditation, or ‘free time’. But that’s how I came to it at first, at the Quaker high school I attended.

After almost 15 years away, I returned to Quakerism in 1997. During a difficult patch of my life, a friend said I needed to do something for myself. So I started going to the meeting house on Sunday mornings. What I rediscovered was the simple fact of space. It was a hiatus, a parenthesis inserted into a complicated, twisty life. Even if it held nothing but breath, it was a relief, and in that relief, quiet notions emerged that had been trampled into the ground of everyday life.

‘Truth’, in the sense that it was used by 17th-century Friends, had less to do with verifiable evidence, and more to do with sense of being a ‘true friend’, an arrow flying true

I am an atheist, but I’ve been bothered for a long time by the mushiness I’ve found in the liberal spiritual communities that admit non-believers such as me. I’ve spent the better part of two decades trying to put my finger on the source of this unease, but it is not a question to be solved by the intellect: it must be lived through.

Several years ago, Marshall Massey, a fellow Friend, pointed out to me that ‘truth’, in the sense that it was used by 17th-century Friends, had less to do with verifiable evidence, and more to do with sense of being a ‘true friend’, an arrow flying true. It was about remaining on a path, not about conforming to the facts of the world. This points to a deep truth: we humans are built for a different kind of rigour than that of evidentiary fact. It is at least as much about consistency, discipline and loyalty as it is about the kinds of repeatable truth that we hold up in a scientific world as fundamental.

This is a large part of what drew me to the Friends rather than the Unitarians or other study groups. Binding oneself to specific patterns, habits, and language seems to have the effect of providing a spine, and Quakers seemed to have more of this spine than other groups I was attracted to. It was a partial solution of my sense of mushiness, but it certainly didn’t solve everything.

If you are really going to be part of a community, just showing up for the main meal is not enough: you need to help cook and clean up. So it has been with me and the Quakers: I’m concerned with how my community works, and so I’ve served on committees (Quakerism is all about committees). There’s pastoral care to accomplish, a building to maintain, First-Day School (Quakerese for Sunday School) to organise. And there’s the matter of how we as a religious community will bring our witness into the world. Perhaps this language sounds odd coming from a non-theist, but as I hope I’ve shown, I’m not a non-theist first. I’ve been involved in prison visiting, and have been struck at the variety of religious attitudes among volunteers: some for whom the visiting is in itself ministry, and others for whom it’s simply social action towards justice (the programme grew out of visiting conscientious objectors in the Vietnam era). The point is: theological differences are not necessarily an issue when there’s work to be done.

But the committees I’ve been in have also had a curious sense of unease too, a sense of something missing, and I’ve now been on three committees that were specifically charged with addressing aspects of a sense of malaise and communal disconnect. The openness of liberal religion resonates strongly with me. It means I do have a place, and not just in the closet or as a hypocrite. But I wonder if my presence, and the presence of atheists and skeptics such as me, is part of the problem.

People need focus. There’s a reason why the American mythologist Joseph Campbell chose the hero’s journey as his fundamental myth: we don’t give out faith and loyalty to an idea nearly as readily as we give it to a hero, a person. And so a God whom we understand not as a vague notion or spirit, but as a living presence, with voice and face and will and command — this is what I think most people want in a visceral way. In some ways, it’s what we need.

And I do not believe such a God exists in our universe.

Here’s a peculiar sense I’ve been getting in Friends committee meetings: we often don’t know how to seek the will of God; we are uncertain whether God actually possesses will. And yet, I suspect that the way out of our tortuous debates is to stop arguing and submit. That submission — because that’s what it is, in the same sense that islam means submission — is what pulls us out of ourselves and gets us lined up to do what needs doing instead of arguing about whose idea is better.

In the 17th century, the Quaker theologian Robert Barclay argued for the bodiless Holy Spirit as the only way to reach Christ and then God. Nowadays, we might find comfort in the spirit alone, or the Light, as Quakers describe an inwardly detected sense of the divine. But submission to something so vague is difficult. We might love and treasure and ‘hold our beloved friends in the Light’, but that’s not a humbling of self, a laying low of ego, and that is what I believe we are missing.

How can we do that? How can I do that? Submitting to something I am pretty sure doesn’t exist? How can I bow down to a fiction? I did it all the time as a child. Open the cover of the book, and I’m in that world. If I’m lucky, and the book is good enough, some of that world comes with me out into the world of atoms and weather, taxes and death. It’s a story, and sometimes stories are stronger than stuff.

Maybe part of the trick is realising that it doesn’t have to be just my little bubble of fiction. I can read a novel, or I can go gaming into the evening with friends. I can watch a ballet on a darkened stage, or I can roar along to my favourite band in the mosh pit. I hated school dances with a passion, yet I have been a morris dancer for 23 years now: I just had to find the form that was a right fit. I don’t pray aloud, or with prescribed formulas. But I can ask Whatever-There-Is a question, or ask for help from the universe, or say thank you. And now that I’m in a place with a better fit, sometimes I get answers back. And so there I am, a confirmed skeptic, praying in a congregation.

Maybe that god would tell us not to tramp over the earth in armies, pretending we are bigger than we are, and that dying is OK

A year and a half ago, our family began worshipping with a smaller Conservative Friends group. Conservative Friends are socially and theologically liberal but stricter in adhering to older Quaker practices. The group uses the Montessori-based Godly Play curriculum for the children: it’s all about stories. Every session begins with a quieting and a focusing. The leader tells a story from the Bible or from the Quaker story book. Then ‘wondering’ questions are asked that spur the children to reflect on what’s going on, and what they would do in the same situation.

I wish I’d had this great programme as a child. The teacher is a good storyteller who clearly loves the kids, and they love the stories and the time with their friends. To me, it’s such an improvement on school-style lessons. It says: this is a different kind of knowing and learning — this is not about facts and theories you need to learn, but about the stories we want to become part of your life.

I love facts and theories, the stuff of the world. I spend most of my life wrestling and dancing with all this amazing matter. As the Australian comic Tim Minchin says in his rant-poem ‘Storm’ (2008): ‘Isn’t this enough? Just this world? Just this beautiful, complex, wonderfully unfathomable world?’ And yes, it’s enough. We don’t need to tell lies about the real world in order to make it magical. But we do still need impossible magic for our own irrational selves. At any rate, I do.

Because I don’t feel stuff-and-logic-based explanations deep down in my toes. There are no miracle stories of flying children there, or brothers reborn into the land where the sagas come from. The language of ‘stuff is all there is’ tells me that I can — even ought to — be rational and sensible, but it doesn’t make me want to be. ‘Atheism’ tells me what I am not, and I yearn to know what I am. What I am has a spine, it’s a thing I must be true to, because otherwise it evaporates into the air, dirt and water of the hard world.

Maybe I — we — need to start small, rebuilding gods that we talk to, and who talk back. Or just one whom we can plausibly imagine, our invisible friend. Maybe part of our problem is that we don’t actually want to talk to the voice of Everything, because Everything has gotten so unfathomably huge. George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, didn’t have to think about light years, let alone billions of light years. The stars now are too far away to be our friends or speak to us in our need. Maybe we could talk to a god whom we imagined in our house. Maybe we could ask what is wanted, and hear what is needed. Maybe that god would tell us not to tramp over the earth in armies, pretending we are bigger than we are, and that dying is OK, because it’s just something that happens when your life is over. Maybe we would ask for help and comfort from unexpected places, and often enough receive it and be thankful for it.

Maybe we need to name that little god something other than God, because maybe our God has a boss who has a boss whose boss runs the universe. Maybe we name this god Ethel, or Larry, or Murgatroyd. Maybe there is no god but God... or maybe there just is no God. And maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe we just tell stories that ring true to us and say up-front that we know they are fiction. We can let people love these stories or hate them. Maybe imagining impossible things — such as flying, the land where sagas come from, God — is what is needed. Maybe we don’t need the gods to be real. Maybe all we need is to trust more leaps of the imagination.

Read more essays on mood & emotion, religion and values & beliefs


  • http://facebook.com/dicetomice Sande Barrett Bihlmaier

    I am agnostic. After reading your thoughts I wonder if you are using the term atheist too loosely. Wouldn't you be more of an agnostic?

    • natcase

      Maybe, but to my mind agnosticism still admits that the question of the literal existence of God/gods is a meaningful question, but posits that the answer is unknown or even unknowable. To me, the LITERAL existence is a red herring, and the FICTIONAL existence is important. Or something like that.

      • Bjarki

        It is not just God that is a fiction. From the POV of materialism your identity, indeed human culture, is a convenient fiction as well as any meaning you might feel like your life possesses. Arbitrary relative texts to shore up other arbitrary relative texts.

  • Terrestrialhead

    Or maybe not

  • gthnk

    There is a growing trend of christian-atheists. I know of an Anabaptist that looks at the Bible as myth, and finds a message of love. Myth in the sense of Joesph Campbell, not as in a lie.

    You're not contradicting yourself, anymore than a Varjayana Buddhist does when they talk of Devas. They stand in as metaphors for the various aspects of humanity, be they virtues, vices or natural powers.

    Pagans had a similar concept with Daemons. It's a long tradition of mysticism, like Al-GHazadi proclaiming, "I am God".

  • Native

    So, religion in your life is simply a celebration of an admittedly fictional story? Your experience of 'worship' sounds not too dissimilar to a Trekkie attending a Star Trek convention. Both might satisfy one's innate desire for storytelling and fellowship. Perhaps, they both even could serve as some form of moral compass (admittedly dubious on both counts). However, in only one of those 'churches' is it acceptable to state openly that the stories are the creation of man rather than a god. May you live long and prosper.

    • Emz

      I have been to fandom gatherings, and I have been to Quaker meetings. Quakers are the less fanatical, dogmatic and more open to dissent of these groups. In my Quaker meeting there is a Taoist (philosophical), an Atheist (probably many other denominations as well, some people don't volunteer that info), lots of different people who get along without judging each other. Now try bringing up "J.J Abrams" with a group of Trekkies and watch the violence ensue. Or see if we can agree on Voyager. Just shows that people can become fanatical about anything! (even cheese...)

  • Gary


    You wrote: "Maybe imagining impossible things — such as flying, the land where sagas come from, God — is what is needed."

    Would it be fair to say that you 'believe in believing?'

    • natcase

      I don't think believing and imagining are synonymous, so not exactly.

      Part of our problem, discussing this in English, is that the same word is used for "I think this exists in actuality" and "I will follow this because it is something I think is good." So "I believe in black holes" is not the same as "I believe in democracy."

      • Sample1

        While I think what you clarified is good, I still don't think you answered Gary's question. Normally I wouldn't mind, but I think his question, related or not to your explanation, remains an important one in its own right.

        So, is it fair to say you "believe in believing?"

        • natcase

          I assume he means "believing" as in "thinking something is true without evidence". This is a common usage, as in "If you believe in Pater Pan, clap your hands three times." But it's premised on the idea that this is different from "knowing," which is based on concrete (preferably external) evidence. So when I say "imagining impossible things," it sounds like that's what I'm saying, that I believe in (follow because I think it is good) believing (thinking things exist without evidence.

          But imagining is different, at least to me, because it makes no claims of concrete actuality. In a sense, this word is an invention made necessary by the growth in the modern world of a separate field (what we generally contain in "science") of evidence-based understanding. Artists who deal in fiction then need a word to describe what they do: they aren't claiming their creations actually can ever be found in the real world, but they also are asking us to let ourselves, well, imagine that they are... in evidentiary terms, they are asking us to lie with them for a little while. And I do believe in that (in both senses, but especially in the sense that I think it is good).

          • Sample1

            Belief in belief as Gary is using it is the position that it doesn't matter if the subject of the belief is true or not. What matters for people who believe in belief is the result of the action of believing. That could be peace of mind or better bowel movements for all I know.

            Supporters of belief in belief are typically atheists in everything but the name. It's a fundamentally condescending position, in my opinion.

            Thank you for the replies. I think your article is unique and I do appreciate the thought that went into it.

  • chicfil8

    Thank you. It seems like you're bringing words to my journey. It's been a little more than twenty years, now, away from the church (Congregationalist Protestant/UCC).... and I find myself teaching Montessori. Strange coincidence.

  • http://truereligions.biz/ Invisible Deity

    I simply cannot be part of an ideology I know is wrong. There are other ways to be social and connect with people.

    • natcase

      I hear you. Been there, actually for most of my adult life. A few things:

      (1) You may "know" they are wrong, but do you know what is right? That is, while you can identify holes, can you identify un-holed places, consistently? The longer I go on, the more I see those holes, those "wrongs" as NOT the opposite of there. Earlier drafts of this essay talked about the island of belief and the ocean of unbelief. I and most people are not ocean-dwellers. We need land, and we need this sense of belief. So... How can we do that and not give in to hypocrisy?

      And that is the question I'm trying to live through.

      (2) I'm not sure there are other ways to live and be fully human. Sometimes we don't see them as ideologies because they don't jar so much with what we take as "given," but every group, including families, has consensus reality built into it. That's how human groups operate. That's been my observation anyway.

  • http://thewayitis.info/ Derek Roche

    When we enter the world of fiction, we automatically suspend our disbelief. Even children do so without being told. Especially children. They know the dragons aren't real. They know they're not supposed to take these stories literally, at face value. Even children, with so little life experience, somehow know that the only criterion of a good story is whether it rings true. How can this be? What is going on?

    I think it's because a story excises a finite segment from the great flux of time and confers wholeness upon it by giving it a beginning, a middle and an end as complete in itself as a life. The whole exists for and by means of the parts and the parts exist for and by means of the whole. The world is one and the child is an integral part thereof.

    Our scientific understanding of the world, however, has yet to reach this level of sophistication. The stories told by science don't yet ring true at the same level. They must be taken literally, at face value, because they represent, at best, a superficial understanding of the way things really are.

    • natcase

      Thanks for this. I've kind of skirted around the idea of "suspension of disbelief," because there's something about that phrase that bugs me, and while I think you are spot on, looking from one direction (from the direction of our "reality", I think you can also argue that what children (and all of us) do is not so much a suspension of disbelief as a temporary bifurcation of belief. If we say a story is "just made up" and that the real world is more important, then what's the point of paying attention. For the purposes of the story, dragons are real, until the story is over. If it's a good story.

  • Archies_Boy

    Well — you bring up an important point: organized religion is one thing; spiritual needs another. There is nothing as suffocating as those religious dogmas which must be "taken on faith" because otherwise they are on their face simply too idiotic and crazy to believe. "Faith" is the perpetual enemy of reason. But reasonable people are spiritual beings too. By that I mean people sensitive to a starry night, to a sunset, to a baby's laugh, to being in love with one's spouse. To all of those things, religion is irrelevant, redundant, even harmful. There were wisdom, kindness, compassion, reliability long before there were lists of religious do's and don'ts that suffocate the spirit and give dominant authority to high priests.

    • Thinks4Herself

      Beautiful post and spot on! I, too, can feel absolutely a "spiritual" moment when I look to the stars in the sky and realize that we are all made from exploding stars (carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, etc.) and that the Milky Way alone has at least 100 billion stars. That's awesome and real and no fairy story needed!

  • Amy Butler

    Hi Nat. You made me think, and I wrote about it here: http://talkwiththepreacher.org/2013/08/27/dancing-in-the-dark/

    • Native

      Your response "Dancing in the Dark" seems similar to something I often hear in the church community that goes something like the following... faith is a journey, not a destination. On the face of it that kind of statement seems benevolent and perhaps even noble. However, that statement disregards the importance of looking around every once-in-a-while to decide whether you have arrived at your destination.

      For me, after doing a lifetime of research and even some soul searching, I have arrived at the same conclusion as Nate Case... that there is no personal god as described in the The Bible (or other man-produced texts). Of course, a story (such as The Greatest Story) does not need to be real to be worthy of study, emulation, and maybe even devotion. However, to be truly worthy of WORSHIP a god must be real. If God is not literally real, he is simply a 'false idol'... and you know what the good book says about false idols.

      So, don't be afraid to look for the light switch, though you might find you're dancing with (and praying to) yourself.

    • natcase

      Thanks for the time you've taken with my article. I've made a few off-the-cuff comments on your site, and hope to take the time to respond more fully, either there or on my blog, depending on how extensive what I end up having to say is. I'm glad the article resonated with you.

  • Paul

    Minnesota Represent!

  • egrace

    Some of this I understand. I'm glad to hear you are worshipping with some Conservative Friends. As I understand them and have visited among them, I identify with them. I find myself following Jesus as leading my belief which means I need to keep reading the Bible and seeking community where spirituality and religion interface and sit down to eat pot luck dinners or visit people in a homeless shelter or even celebrate school graduations together. God is Love for me. Each one has that of God within and can offer that Good News to one another. Passion, everyday chores...everything is within that Loving.

    • Doug Doakes

      That's pretty good. If God is Love, we can say Love is God. Tautology aside, we all know that Love is real; ergo, God is real. I like that.

  • I am vegetarian but i eat meat

    Not to harsh your mellow, but you can't "claim" the good parts of a group but not buy into the fundamental premise of the raison d'etre. And while you go on a nice intellectual journey, let's not forget Quakers are Christian; you gotta buy the cow. You are welcome to enjoy our ways of worship and our community, but choose the right vocabulary. You can visit and engage, but a true Quaker, you aren't.... Sorry....

    • natcase

      So what you're saying is that the members of my monthly liberal Friends meeting who accepted me into membership (two meetings, actually), and the third (Conservative) that hasn't thrown me out on my ear in spite of openly discussing what you read here, are wrong, or not really Quakers either? I think they'd beg to differ.

      And I think your premise that membership is all or nothing is false. It's the kind of thinking that led, for example, to McCarthyism and it's House Committee on Un-American Activities. By that logic, most American Catholics are not Catholic, most Soviets weren't really Soviets, and good luck finding a real rationalist that doesn't require electricity to operate.

      Call me an imperfect Quaker. Actually, call all of us imperfect Quakers. I think most of us would feel more comfortable with that anyway.

      • Thinks4Herself

        Two thoughts: I wonder if the church members are hoping to convert you?

        Also, are you saying that you are culturally a Quaker and not religiously one? Sort of like many Jewish people who don't believe in a god or a holy book, per se, but they enjoy the culture, fellowship, feeling of support, maybe projects they work together on, holidays, etc.? I can understand that position to a large degree, and I agree that atheism can be isolating and rather flat, but I would still be worried that eventually you'll come upon a line in the sand or a fork in the road, and then where will you go? This happened to me.

        I was assisting a church (as an atheist) and enjoyed the charitable activities, kindness of the members, etc., though I don't believe in any god, but I ultimately faced a dilemma. I could no longer affiliate myself with an organization that's children's school was teaching kids fake science and misleading young minds. That was my line in the sand, and I snapped myself out of my delusional, hopeful state that somehow I could be involved with religious people, no matter how sweet and lovely, and once again proudly declared myself an atheist. It felt as though I was an enabler and hypocrite.

        I've instead committed myself to helping people in other ways, and really, there's so much to help with that I don't have time to waste going along with silly pretending/aka faith games that believers do (and as an atheist, you know that "Faith is believing what you know ain't so." If you want something to fulfill you and to bring joy into your life, fellowship, to provide acts of compassion, you should check out Foundation Beyond Belief. It's outstanding and you don't have to try and "fit" into the theist's world. You can become involved as much as you'd like and in your own community, too. I worked as a team leader for the Light the Night Lymphoma and Leukemia Walk, which is ongoing across the USA, and it was a fantastic overall experience. I've given money towards disaster relief campaigns, etc.

        To each his own, though, so if this lifestyle brings you fulfillment, contentment, satisfaction, go for it. For me, though, it didn't work as I couldn't overcome the feeling of being an enabler to wish thinking and, in this case, science deniers, not when this isn't just a Civil War re-enactment or movie or fiction book club--this is the foundation of people's lives and ultimately affects all of us. The longer that I went along with the church, the more I felt like a fraud and being true to myself is most important, in fact, more important than almost anything because, ultimately, I don't want to have lived a lie or enabled the self-deception of others either.

        • natcase

          I actually don't have many of the issues you describe. Of the fellow Quakers I know, very few are science deniers, and those that are, are on the "Monsanto is out to get us" end of issues with corporatized science... a view I have some sympathy with, honestly. And much of Quakerism is explicitly against evangelization. I know that some Friends are hopeful I'll "come around," but if there is a line in the sand in the communities I'm part of, it's oddly at least as much my drawing as anyone else. I don't want to be the hole in their boat. And so far, my wife (who is a theist) hasn't kicked me out.

          It's been important to me to be honest with those around me, and give them a chance to tell me that my presence as a non-believer makes their experience of community less useful. I am very thankful that the processes of our sect make such conversations not only possible, but encouraged. It sure cuts down to pretty much nothing any sense of hypocrisy I might feel.

  • Dan

    We all create our gods. Just some of us know it.

  • Ormond Otvos

    "People, who need people, are the happiest people in the world."

    What a waste of photons.

  • dug

    Help spread the TRUTH! Share this Link!
    Test your Faith!!! Read!!! You may never pray to god again!!!
    Learn the TRUTH about the God to whom you pray!!!

  • Sample1

    Quakerism could be a gateway drug to hard-core faiths. I'd be careful.


  • Scott M Collison

    Perhaps the practice of creating alternative narrative structures to the real world never stopped, as you suggest with the influence of science fiction stories on your childhood. Do children have a particular ability to interact with just regular old stories in a way that makes that interaction something like religious? Why aren't the narrative structures in culture-at-large sufficient for religious-like experience?

  • Cloe

    “There can be but little liberty on earth while men worship a tyrant in heaven.”
    Robert Green Ingersoll
    Whether you are atheist is of no concern. What is of concern is what you've chosen to support. The story book (Bible) is a book that supports mysogyny, homophobia, slavery, pedophilia and anihilation in the name of righteousness. The Judaic god's so called son was not much better in that he threatened many times with the burning and gnashing of teeth in hell's fire. These cults would most likely not exist if not for Constantine...and the support of people such as yourself that believe them to be harmless. Actually read the book as it should change your mind and your decision. http://skepticsannotatedbible.com/

  • Sarah

    I believe that Quakers have a lot of good beliefs and even though i don't believe in god, i still believe in the other aspects of Quakerism.

  • witheo

    Upon reading this, I found myself curiously reminded me of that evocative, dripping-with-pathos pop song, I’m Not in Love, by Gouldman and Stewart, of the British Band 10 CC, from their 1974 album, ‘The Original Soundtrack’.

    I'm not in love.
    So don't forget it.
    It's just a silly phase I'm going through.
    And just because,
    I call you up,
    Don't get me wrong, don't think you've got it made.
    I'm not in love, no no, it's because …

    I like to see you.
    But then again …
    That doesn't mean you mean that much to me.
    So if I call you,
    Don't make a fuss.
    Don't tell your friends about the two of us.
    I'm not in love, no no, it's because …

    I keep your picture
    Upon the wall.
    It hides a nasty stain that's lying there.
    So don't you ask me,
    To give it back.
    I know you know it doesn't mean that much to me.
    I'm not in love, no no, it's because …

    Ooh you'll wait a long time for me …
    Ooh you'll wait a long time …

    Be quiet … be quiet … big boys don’t cry …

    And so on and so forth.

    The other quote that came to mind was one of Bill Clinton’s classics, when he confessed to trying marijuana “once or twice”, but that (praise the Lord) he “didn’t inhale”.

    People who feel a need to proclaim, to anyone who will listen, whether proudly or humbly, that they “don’t believe in God”, I fear, always seem to conveniently ignore the sub-text. Yes, I’m afraid there is always a sub-text.

    In this case, what may be read between the lines is the implicit, yet unstated assumption that we are all supposed to agree on what that “God” should look like, act like, be responsible for, should require and proscribe, like and dislike and so forth.

    To say, “I don’t believe in God” seems for all the world to me like saying you don’t believe in a benign, white-haired old gentleman in a bed sheet with a long flowing beard, sitting on the edge of cloud nine, dangling his feet over the edge. I mean, you might as well go around saying you don’t believe in fairies. Who gives a toss?

    Surely, say what you like, what you believe is entirely and exclusively within your own purview. What you have in mind and of which you feel, for a time, most strongly persuaded is most assuredly accessible to none other. Whatever you may claim.

    Regrettably, the severe limitations of language, any language, dictates that all such, no doubt sincerely intended affirmations of faith or lack thereof are of necessity couched in all the usual conventional phrases and clichés, all of which rest squarely on the assumption that all those inside the tent and without, self-labeled “theists” and “atheists” all, are bound to have a particular deity, persona or celestial agent in mind, and that all who profess the same convictions in the same or very like words, for and against, are therefore expected to share the same object of devotion or derision.

    Of course we all know, don’t we, on the basis of at least two thousand years of religiously-inspired conflict, schisms and the most appalling bloodshed, that the slightest commonality of purpose, persuasion and devotion has most assuredly not been part of any liturgy yet devised.

    Agreement, concordance and consensus are certainly most fervent and widely shared aspirations. But, it seems to me, if and when only the very broadest possible catechism has been ratified and adopted, it’s when the business gets down to the nitty gritty, the devil in the detail, that every congregation of the faithful, as well as the ungodly, are bound to witness what I think is indefatigably inherent to the species: no two people anywhere on this tiny planet have ever apprehended the same truth.

    • natcase

      Depends what you mean by same. Yes, assuredly, none of us live the same life as anyone else, and to the extent that our truth is shaped by experience, even conjoined twins will argue with each other. But we also develop language and patterned ideas by which we create consensual realities. And within those, we identify and share aspects of truths. On a mundane level, it's how we can agree that a pound of meat is not actually two pounds. On a less mundane level, it's how we can agree to "be gathered together."

      So, must we be perfect to be right?

      And I'm sorry to harp on this, because it's such a small part of your argument, but it's a common enough atheist line (and one I've certainly used myself), and it's bugging me more and more: the citing of thousands of years of religiously-inspired violence. From what I can see, most of this is about the application of religious (i.e. relationship to the unseen super-natural) to tribal (my people vs your people) divisions. I think part of the problem is that word "religious." It means in our culture, essentially "the thing in any culture that looks like a church." In some cases that thing is intensely tribal: groups imagine the supernatural forming the basis of tribe and nation, and so it adds additional fuel to the fires of purifying identity within that group. But in other cases, it's much less so: Quakerism for its part has been notable in opposing and arguing strenuously against violence, even as we have seen historic schism after schism. This is not the place to completely take apart that word, but I think this needs doing.

      • docbets

        Religiously inspired violence isn't that. It is the abuse of religion to serve patently human - and nasty - ends. It doesn't make religion bad. The Quakers are the least of such problems, though it did take them some time to come round on race.

  • http://blog.billsamuel.net/ BillSamuel

    I'm a born-again Christian (with an experience somewhat similar to what George Fox reports when he came to really know his Teacher), but I don't react with the negativity of some of your commenters on the Christian side. I see you as seriously trying to wrestle with the fact that, altho you can't believe the Christian story is "true", you recognize it has real value which has undergirded Quakerism.

    This kind of wrestling is something we all need to do. It is a genuine and important part of the spiritual journey, and I believe those that insist on putting Christianity in a nice, neat box are missing something really vital. And key to it is trying to be as honest and authentic as we can be about how we see things and what aspects we're struggling with. I see you as doing that, and perhaps modeling that for others, so I really appreciate what you have written.

    I'm hoping that you will continue wrestling, and not hold to your "unbelief" as something you absolutely must hold onto. Try to hold it lightly as something that is genuinely where you're at for now, but a position that is open to change as you continue in the journey.

    • John

      Your entire post comes across as condescending and hypocritical, as though you stand astride some body of evidence which has thus endowed you with such certainty in the validity of your particular philosophy that you feel qualified to dole out guidance for others. You urge the author the question his current practice, but I wonder how often you subject your faith to similar inquiry.

      • natcase

        I actually appreciate and thank Bill for his message. But I think it's interesting that he's not the only one who thinks I'm clinging to unbelief in an external God. He doesn't say that word, "clinging," but it certainly sounds like the same as "hold to X as something you absolutely must hold onto."

        It doesn't feel like clinging to me. And I find it interesting that many skeptics in turn think of religious folk as "clinging" to superstition. I think (and I plan to blog on this more soon), that what we're calling "clinging" is what some kinds of real dedication, faith, truthfulness, loyalty, etc. look like from the outside. And I think that's an unexamined piece of the secular/sacred divide that's worth paying some attention to.

  • Luke Schray

    I've struggled with a similar problem, and find the following helpful.

    Like the word "Love", "God" has taken on many versions, many meanings, and has been ascribed many traits.

    For this comment, I ask that you constrain the definition of God to the hero aspect of God, a concept that provides the listener a model of how to BE in the world by telling them stories that exhibit how God would respond to the world, and then consider the following quote from Plato's Phaedrus.

    "'This invention, O king,' said [the egyptian god] Theuth, “will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memories; for it is an elixir of memory and wisdom that I have discovered.' But [the god] Thamus replied, 'Most ingenious Theuth... you, who are the father of letters, have been led by your affection to ascribe to them a power the opposite of that which they really possess. For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise."

    Perhaps God would react wisely, but perhaps the knowledge of wisdom is only possible through knowledge of the wholeness of our body (aka conscious perception recorded in memory). If an understanding of God requires understanding of wisdom, and understanding of wisdom comes from understanding our bodies, then perhaps those who have not plumbed the solitary depths of experience of their bodies have already lost the most fundamental aspect of the Godhead.

    you can lead a horse to water, but that doesn't make water any less transparent for the horse.

  • Nancy

    Hi, Nat. Thanks for the thought-provoking essay. Exactly what I was asking you for, over on FB.

    I arrive here as a born-and-raised atheist. Atheism describes what I don't believe, but it doesn't mean I have some hole that needs to be filled. I have a strong ethical structure. I can feel transcendence in love or beauty (but I wouldn't call that spirituality, because it doesn't seem connected to anything outside myself except evolution).

    Nonetheless I am seeking community -- and community that wrestles with big questions. I need to try more of the grassroots humanist groups here in Portland OR -- so far, I've mostly met ex-Christians who are a bit obsessed with the damage they feel.

    It's hard for me to believe that true Quakerism can fully encompass non-theists.Your fellowships are practicing acceptance, but if you die a non-Christian, will they be sad for you?

    Also, I'd love to hear you speak to the concept of worship.

    • Thinks4Herself

      I wish you lived closer! I'm in northern Washington.

    • natcase

      Hi Nancy!

      "It's hard for me to believe that true Quakerism can fully encompass
      non-theists.Your fellowships are practicing acceptance, but if you die a
      non-Christian, will they be sad for you?"

      Some will, probably. But Quakerism depends on the individual meeting for a lot of its self-definition, and so I really don't feel a lot of "us" and "them" with me. Honestly, I think the presence of honest, open non-theists in Quaker congregations (and there are a lot of them in the larger meeting I am still a member of) presents as much of a puzzle for theist members as it does for me. But it's a puzzle to be lived through, not to be solved with the stroke of a pen.

      But there is definitely push-back from those who believe that "true Quakerism" is inviolably Christian. That push-back is loving for the most part, sometimes a little painful on both sides, and, well, it's part of the conversation. I certainly think there can be impatience and hard-headed lack of listening on either side.

      And what I think of worship is a bigger topic than I can address here. I'm working on a piece for Friends Journal that might answer your question... also see my blog for some bits and pieces.

      • docbets

        Growing up Quaker, it was distinctly uncomfortable to be lumped in with Christians who believed Jesus was the son of God. We understood Jesus to be a great teacher. We didn't celebrate Easter because resurrection was outside of our understanding of Jesus' life. There is a branch of Quakerism, mostly in the west, that is more like the Christians we encounter on television.

    • docbets

      Not sure there is a "true Quakerism." I grew up in a Quaker family in the geographical heart of American Quakerism (southeastern Penna.) and there was so little dogma conveyed to me, I have little clear notion of what a "true Quaker" would be. As an adolescent I read some of George Fox's writings, and was shocked by his fervor and his public displays of spiritual connection; in my entire childhood and beyond, I never heard or saw anything resembling that.

      I have an idea that Really Actually True Quakers understand that part of the Truth is the search for the Truth, and that among its adherents there will always be wide variation in degrees of adherence to both faith and
      practice. Moreover, anyone who is a birthright Quaker is, de facto, a Quaker, and is never asked to account for one's religiosity. Since I stopped paying my Meeting dues years ago, I would have to apply like anyone else for membership now. And if I did so, I don't think I would be accepted on any faith basis. But I might well be accepted on the terms that I have a history, an affinity for the same values, and that I am seeking.

      Regarding whether others would feel sad about someone else's inadequate Quakerliness, few Quakers go round, like so many other religious people, judging and feeling sad about others' faithlessness. Quakers aren't trying to get into the Kingdom of Heaven, and they're a pretty well adjusted bunch.

      • natcase

        "Not sure there is a 'true Quakerism.'"

        Or rather, perhaps, there are a bunch of Quakerisms, each of them pretty darned certain about their collective perspectives, and we tend to schism when contradicted. What you describe is true for most liberal Friends, and is not necessarily (or even absolutely not) true for Conservative, Evangelical, or Pastoral Friends. Most of the latter are indeed very concerned about getting into the Kingdom of Heaven. I heard reports from the global Friends conference in Kenya last year that it was, erm, a bit tense at times. Good, honest tension, but not an easy lovefest by any means. In fact, the perspective you and I come out of is distinctly in the minority worldwide.

        • docbets

          And I admit to great surprise on learning ours was not the "real" one. My assertion above, which you aptly refuted, reflects the way our Meeting mostly didn't even acknowledge other Quaker ways. I am in Oregon now, and there is a George Fox College which I would not cross the street to visit, so foreign to me is their faith and, I assume, their practice.

          • natcase

            You might be surprised.

          • http://www.hugepatheticforce.org/ JonJ

            Many Friends in Oregon can be rather distressing, I know. But when I lived in Portland, decades ago, there was a quite liberal silent meeting, so it's not all bad. Perhaps it's still going.

  • ABK

    Thank you Nat. I'm a skeptic at core and I've been trained to look for empirical data and break things down logically. Because of that, I don't believe in anything supernatural. At the same time, the empirical data shows that religious people are happier! And it's not just because of their communities, it's because of the optimism and security of faith. Humans are wired to find symbols, think magically, and talk to someone who might or might not be real. Part of being human is being irrational. We also talk to our pets, look for happy endings in movies, knock on wood, and in stories we see the morals or meanings that we choose to see. But how can religion work for me if I don't really believe it? Placebos heal people, but do they work if you think they are placebos? Maybe there's a way to believe differently, as we did when we were kids. When I had imaginary friends as a kid, I knew the difference between fact and fiction, but I didn't care. Whether they were "real" or not just wasn't relevant. We are the totally irrational animals that we are. I think it's useful to find a mythology that corresponds to your values.

    • natcase

      Thanks. Bingo.

      • Micheal Planck

        While I am watching Lord of the Rings, I feel like it is real. Watching Boromir fall under the power of the ring is far more emotionally compelling than watching Sean Bean act in a movie.

        But at the end of the movie, I remember that it's not real.

        What you are doing is equivalent to pretending the movie is real after the credits roll. Sure, it's not doing any harm now; but eventually it will. "As long as men believe in absurdity, they will commit tragedies." As long as you go around willfully fooling yourself, eventually you will fool yourself when you didn't want to.

        I can't count how many junkies and alcoholics who have told me, "I've got it under control." Nobody has it under control; that's why we have to always strive for good practice and self-discipline, instead of giving ourselves a pass on something we know is wrong.

        • Aggy

          It is just as easy to commit tragedies based on sound scientific fact. "Sure, it's not doing any harm now; but eventually it will. " As will any thing, any idea. No matter how true or rational, no matter the self discipline, every thought or action has in it the potential of abuse. Having faith in spite of rational knowledge isn't giving yourself a pass on something wrong; it is recognising that there is more than one level of experience and truth, that as humans we are rational as well as irrational and that we need both. We have evolved the capacity for both because they both serve us, in different and meaningful ways.

          • Micheal Planck

            Just as easy? As in, there is _no_ difference between basing your decisions on sound scientific fact or faith?

            I don't think that's quite what you meant. Nor do I think you meant that basing your decisions off of truth is ever bad. I am going to assume that you meant that people can have scientific reason to think they are right when they aren't, and this mistake can cause tragedies.

            Except: that doesn't help your case at all. In any situation you are going to prefer that the other person makes their decision based on what they know at the time, rather than imaginary knowledge or feell

          • Aggy

            It seems that we are not discussing the same thing. I am not talking about facts, made up or otherwise. I believe that you can come up with plenty of examples of mistakes that have been made with tragic outcomes when the science was quite correct. This is because we learn a fact, and then we try to use if for our benefit, and unexpected shit happens. Science is neutral and cannot tell us what is right or wrong. That is where emotion and intuition comes in handy, tempered by faith.

            A person who believes that they are acting purely rationally and without input from emotions, intuitions or beliefs is a very dangerous person indeed- because that person is simply unaware of their emotions, intuitions, and beliefs. Bias that one is unaware of is the most dangerous kind. People who have that kind of contempt for emotion puzzle me, and not only because contempt is an emotion.

            "My problem with the article is that this is not a person who drinks at night; this is a person who lives in a perpetual state of irrationality, without any border between what he wants to believe and what he knows to be true."

            Your analysis describes a schizophrenic person off his meds. That is frankly a ridiculous and over the top statement, to the point where you seem not to have that great of a grasp of reality yourself. Did you somehow miss that what the article reveals is precisely a person who lucidly explains, at length, exactly where the border lies between what he wants to believe and what he knows to be true. You just don't like it, so you try to invalidate it. How rational.

            Just don't be so scared of things you can't relate to.

          • Micheal Planck

            There are a number of misconceptions in your comment.

            I do not hold emotion in contempt, nor do I deny its necessity or value to people. Deciding what to do, or what you want to do, is an emotional decision. Deciding _what is true_ should not be. Do you see the difference?

            The essay does not merely defend the value of artistic expression when speaking to the human spirit; such a position hardly requires a defense. Instead, the author wants to move beyond that. He wants validation for escaping the bonds his rationalism places on him. I don't want to give it to him.

            Finally, science is not morally neutral, insomuch as truth is not morally neutral. We actually do get our sense of right and wrong from science. Morality is an evolutionary strategy for maximizing the survival of self-aware, social animals. As a biological construction it is an objective feature of the universe. Just as science can tell us what the best diet is or the best exercise routine is, so it can tell us what the best moral code is.

            Now it is true that the outlines of a scientific morality are a bit fuzzy, but to be fair, the outlines of a scientific diet are still a bit fuzzy. Nonetheless we have made progress: we know that too much fat and sugar is not healthy, and on the moral front, we have made progress too: we know that women are people, slavery is wrong, racism is wrong, classism is wrong, and violence is not the most effective producer of wealth. None of these lessons were obvious until empirical investigation, logical analysis, and experimentation were applied. Aka, science.

          • Agga

            I see the difference, but you do not. There are different forms of truth, and not all of them is fact.

            The author does precisely what you say here: "Deciding what to do, or what you want to do, is an emotional decision. Deciding _what is true_ should not be." He decides what (he believes) is true, thus he is an Atheist. Then he decides what to do; he acts is if that "fact" doesn't matter more than the consequence of it.

            You don't have to give him anything, he is a free human being and religious freedom is one of the most basic freedoms we have. That you do not want to "give it" to him should make you stop and think about why you feel threatened when you are the one who is trying to enforce dominion on another.

            Your last paragraph is bizarre.

            Science has long denied what many people have known intuitively to be true, such as that much fat and sugar is not healthy, that women are people, slavery is wrong, racism is wrong, classism is wrong, and violence is not the most effective producer of wealth.

            Ghandi, Martin Luther King, the Quakers, Dalai Lama, Emma Goldman, they, and other non scientists, deserve the credit for these feats. That some people wouldn't listen to them because they didn't have a PHD and didn't arrive at these conclusions by reductionism and inference is troubling to your argument, not supportive of it.

          • Micheal Planck

            I've re-read the article, and I can see how you derived your interpretation. However, I can still see how I derived mine.

            Again, I completely agree on the value of fiction in human life; however, I feel that the author was seeking a bit more than that (particularly since the simple proposition is so anodyne it hardly requires a defense).

            Validation is mine to give or withhold; I am not required to enable a junkie's addiction. Whether or not this case fits that description is what we are allegedly talking about, although in fact our starting premises are too far apart to have that conversation.

            You assertion that "science has long denied what people have known intuitively" sets of the same alarm bells as I had with the article. You seem to be asserting that intuitive knowledge is superior (or equal) to scientific knowledge: this is exactly what I complained about in the first place!

            You also seem to think of scientific knowledge as PHDs and labcoats; again, this is far removed from an understanding of science as "empirical investigation." The Greeks did science too, you know.

            In conclusion, yes: you should not listen to people who didn't arrive at their conclusions by reductionism. This is not troubling to my argument, it is my argument. (We will ignore the jibe about PHDs because at no point did I suggest deference to authority.)

            You are in effect saying that what people "feel" is true can be just as valid as what we can "prove" is true through rigorous investigation and experimentation. This is exactly the slippery slope I detected in the article. Truth is not arrived at intuitively; it is arrived at through empiricism. If you think otherwise, then sooner or later you are going to meet someone with an intuitive truth that horrifies you - and you will have no method for disproving them, because you've thrown out the primacy of mere reality.

          • Agga

            "Truth is not arrived at intuitively; it is arrived at through empiricism. If you think otherwise, then sooner or later you are going to meet someone with an intuitive truth that horrifies you - and you will have no method for disproving them, because you've thrown out the primacy of mere reality."

            True, but often we come across facts that horrify us. Being horrified and outraged is part of the human condition. How we handle that outrage says quite alot about us. This is another area where science can only give us part of "the truth".

            And yes, what people "feel" is true can be as true as what they "know" is true. If I feel that I love my son, that is true, and it is true at a level that is entirely different, and entirely equal, to the fact that grass is green. Only one of these truths however empowers me to make right-and-wrong decisions.

            "You assertion that "science has long denied what people have known intuitively" sets of the same alarm bells as I had with the article."

            I imagine it does. Which sets off alarm bells for me as I just explained that most of the progress you mentioned didn't come from scientific fact, and yet you seem unable to see that other forms of knowledge and reasoning is equal. I think we have exhausted this discussion. Thank you for your time though.

          • Micheal Planck

            "True, but often we come across facts that horrify us."

            Do we do so intuitively? Does anyone ever intuit horrifying facts? If not, perhaps you can see a fundamental limitation of intuition. If they did, would you believe them? Again... perhaps you begin to see the problem.

            "If I feel that I love my son, that is true, and it is true at a level
            that is entirely different, and entirely equal, to the fact that grass is green."

            No, it isn't. Your love for your son can be measured objectively, both by observing your behavior (as my wife says, Love is an Action), and by putting you under an MRI and watching your brain waves.

            There is nothing mystical about love. It's a chemical bio-feedback loop like everything else (such as hunger).

            "most of the progress you mentioned didn't come from scientific fact"

            Yes it did. It absolutely did. Science - specifically the assumption that truth is empirical - is what finally overthrew racism and sexism. Actual experiments, observations, and logic demonstrated that black people were just as much people as white people. Genetics and sociology were crucial to overturning those old intuitions that the races were different - and guess what, in those places where science is less respected racism still thrives!

            Other forms of knowledge and reasoning are not equal. You took me to task for overstating the scope of the article; and now you've gone and jumped into it with both feet. I am still not sure the article went too far, but I am certain you have. This is the entire point. Other forms of knowledge are not equal.

            Science - meaning reductionist empiricism and metaphysical naturalism - is privileged. It is privileged because _it works_. All those other forms of knowledge do not work. This is not some kind of hypothetical claim. It is a brute fact of existence, easily verifiable with simple observation.

            It is true that science doesn't know everything. There are some questions we can't answer scientifically. But that just means there are some questions we can't answer. I am willing to accept this limitation. You are not. You demand the universe render itself intelligible not just to the determined, careful, rigorous investigator who is limited by Goedel's theorem; but also to your momentary whim, the eddies and currents of your subconscious, a bad bit of beef for dinner.

            And yet you think I'm arrogant.

          • Agga

            Your claim that science erradicated sexism and racism is inane, the struggle for equal rights for all people started before science decided to look into the matter. Suffragettes and abolitionists acted out of moral outrage. Following your logic they should have waited for some scientist to come along and prove first that women and people of ethnicity other than western white in FACT are equal. They didn't, they acted out of faith and feeling, and we should be grateful.

            I suggest that you look into the scores of studies from neuroscience that suggests that faith and meditation are as real in our brains that love and caring is. Measured objectively. Love IS mystical, if one chooses to see it as such. If one doesn't, well then one loses out. Your choice.. so let me have mine.

            "You demand the universe render itself intelligible not just to the determined, careful, rigorous investigator who is limited by Goedel's theorem; but also to your momentary whim, the eddies and currents of your subconscious, a bad bit of beef for dinner."

            Yes, you are arrogant, ignorant and full of contempt, as the above paragraph clearly proves. Your speak as if you actually believe that you are fully rational, just because you want to be. If you look to what we know about cognitive science you will find that the processes of analytical thought on one hand and affect and the subconscious on the other, are inextricably linked. There is no way someone can reason without using both modes; rational and "irrational". Your brain isn't comprised of two separate parts; one of which you can switch off to become a logical machine. Your gut is always there, it is a question of if you are aware or not.

            So you see, you are just as subject to your momentary whims, your subconscious and indigestions as me or anyone else. Talk about living in denial, talk about arrogance. You also don't understand where I am coming from. I do not expect (or demand) to be able to figure out the functions or structures of for example synapses or subatomic molecules by meditating upon them. But one can be careful and rigorous also when performing other knowledge seeking activities, and the information gleaned from them, wether it is relevant to only yourself or the larger world, is just as true and important. Believe it or not.

          • Micheal Planck

            Science =/= white lab coat. How many times do I have to say this? How many times do I have to invoke Archimedes?

            Looking at MRIs of brains feeling faith will only prove my point, not yours. I am the one who said love could be measured by MRI, so you arguing that faith can be measured by it is you agreeing with me.

            Love is not mystical if you choose to look at it that way, because you are not allowed to choose how you look at things. Again you are doing exactly what I complained about in the article: asserting that its OK for you to stare into the universe and see what you want to see.

            This is not OK. You are only allowed to see what is there. Seeing what you want to see because you want to see it is the problem!

            You say you do not demand to be able to figure the functions of synapses by mediating on them; but in fact, you do. Love (and faith) are functions of synapses (that's why we can measure them in MRIs). To the extent you demand the right to determine what the product of synapses are through meditation, you demand the right to determine the function of synapses through meditation.

            Yes I have emotions and irrationalities as much as anyone. I never suggested otherwise. The difference is that I know those things are not trustworthy when it comes to determining truth, however useful they might be in the search.

            You are allowed to have intuitions. All good scientists do. But for it to qualify as truth, you have to do your homework. No good scientist expects you to believe him based solely on his intuitions. Nor should you believe yourself based solely on your intuitions.

            Here is a suitable definition of science that explains everything I am trying to say:

            "The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool." - Richard Feynman

          • Agga

            Please step away from these straw men that you are flailing against. I haven't said anything about lab coats, in fact I haven't said anything about most of what you are raving about. For example, have I said or implied that one should make decisions based solely on intuition? No, I have made it quite clear that BOTH modes or reasoning are needed, and indeed always present. You are the one being led astray by your blind faith in absolute objectivity and reductionism. I am not against science, and haven't said that I am, yet you assume so because it fits with your preconceived half baked ideas on what fait and intuition is, who has it and how it works.

            "This is not OK. You are only allowed to see what is there. Seeing what you want to see because you want to see it is the problem!"

            Here you display your dogmatic, blind faith in a metaphysical position that is as ludicrous as the total opposite one that you are arguing against (which I don't hold to btw, another straw man). If you want to be a good scientist, one that is concerned with attaining the best knowledge rather than one that is concerned with following scientistic dogma, then you need to step away from the idiocy that is belief in the total fact-value dichotomy- and join the real world.

            "You say you do not demand to be able to figure the functions of synapses by mediating on them; but in fact, you do. Love (and faith) are functions of synapses (that's why we can measure them in MRIs). To the extent you demand the right to determine what the product of synapses are through meditation, you demand the right to determine the function of synapses through meditation."

            ^This is just nonsensical.

            Clearly discussion is futile.

          • Micheal Planck

            You said: "Following your logic they should have waited for some scientist to come along and prove first that women and people of ethnicity other than western white in FACT are equal."

            It was this (and other comments) that convinced me that your concept ion of science is limited to a caricature.

            I also have made it clear that both intuition and reason are necessary. What, then, are we arguing about? This: "your blind faith in absolute objectivity and reductionism,"

            You do not understand that science is defined by objectivity and reductionism.

            You also seem confused about the value of metaphysical naturalism. You dismiss it as "preconceived half baked ideas on what fait and intuition," "the total fact-value dichotomy," and "scientistic dogma." However, in the real world, the assumption that the world is rule-governed, consistent, and uniform has enriched our existence a thousand times more than the metaphysical doctrines of a thousand faiths.

            There is a real, objective world that is immune to your desires and impenetrable to your meditations - and mine, of course. It can never be fully grasped, only approximated: and logic, empiricism, and mathematics are the only reliable tools for the job.

            Like the article, you want to have your cake and eat it too: you want full validation as a reasonable person, and you want to believe in fairy tales too. Unlike the article, when you are called out on this dichotomy, you want to stamp your feet and huff off.

          • Agga

            "It was this (and other comments) that convinced me that your concept ion of science is limited to a caricature."

            No, that statement was a valid reductio in absurdum of your own statements and if anything shows that it is your concept of science that is limited to a caricature, along with this: "You do not understand that science is defined by objectivity and reductionism."

            How uncomfortable to be on one hand arguing against belief as a way to reach knowledge, and on the other hand relying on a faith system that is based on improbable and unprovable concepts such as absolute objectivity. Of course, you can believe in it if you want, it is clear that it is rational in the same way that belief in god is rational (they both work as way of making sense of the world) but not if you "want to be validated" as a person who doesn't have beliefs. Science could avoid this (and plenty of good science does) by utilising an incremental objectivity. I am not a relativist, I support neither extreme position.

            "However, in the real world, the assumption that the world is rule-governed, consistent, and uniform has enriched our existence a thousand times more than the metaphysical doctrines of a thousand faiths."

            No. Why don't you apply some of that reason you are so proud of before writing so you can avoid coming up with such bizarre statements. A more reasonable position from a more reasonable person would be to admit that many people gain real benefits from fact as well as faith.

            I am not "confused about the value of metaphysical naturalism"; I reject it as dogma, for good reason. I do not hold supernatural beliefs (I'm agnostic), including the one that the universe is rule-governed, consistent and uniform or that such a deity as objectivity exist. That is a belief, and in your case, clearly a dogma. Faith is unproblematic, dogma is highly problematic. You slate the first and spout the second.

            I don't want validation as a reasonable person, I am a reasonable person. What I want is tolerance between people, and the admittance from both extremes that we are better off not becoming fundamentalist over issues that neither camp can prove. Not believing is reasonable, believing is reasonable, being undecided is reasonable also. Demanding that everyone conform to your specific version of the world, whatever that is, now that is not reasonable, it is down right dangerous.

            If objecting to your flippant and arrogant tone in likening people of different faiths to "junkies" equals stamping my feet then:

            *stamp* *huff*

          • Micheal Planck

            People do not gain real benefits from faith, anymore than they gain real benefits from homeopathy - excepting for the placebo effect; but if your only claim for faith is placebo, then you're arguing for my position.

            Faith is problematic. Faith is "evidence of things unseen; assurance of things hoped for." This is the opposite of rationalism.

            There is a fundamental difference between faith and confidence based on past observations.

            I do not demand that people conform to my specific version of the world; however, reality is obdurate. Ignoring reality has proven down right dangerous, but not enough, it seems, to dissuade you yet.

            My comment about stomping off in a huff was in reference to this: "Clearly discussion is futile."

            Why don't you respond to Feynman's definition of science?

          • G

            So I take it that whilst making love, you've been known to cry out, "I'm having a seizure-like episode accompanied by involuntary muscular contractions and the release of dopamine and endorphins!" Yes?

            Methinks thou dost conflate mysticism and mystification. Do thyself the favor of looking up both words.

            Also, beware of quoting Feynman, he has a mischievous way of biting you in the butt when you least expect it. Such as with the example you just quoted.

          • G

            What you've run across there, is another axis of measurement, from cognitive flexibility at one end, to cognitive rigidity at the other end. These traits are independent of rationality or religiosity, and one can find them across the spectrum in all combinations.

            Cognitive rigidity in religion is fundamentalism; cognitive rigidity in rationalism is something else I can't find the name for at the moment. In any case there is also a fairly high correlation with the desire to dominate others.

            The problem isn't the belief system, it's the personality, and to the extent that personality consists of stable emotional traits, it would seem to be fairly hardwired in the brain and at least partially a product of genetics. This problem is going to be with us for a long time. The best we can do is to try to use whatever cultural influences are available, to encourage cognitive flexibility in the majority of the population.

            Here I should mention, I'm not suggesting that intuition or science are replacements for each other; only that a smart person knows their tools and how best to use them. One can start with an intuition and develop a testable hypothesis (often done in science); one can start from an empirically supported hypothesis and develop an intuitive forecast of how it will be applied (often done in good fiction). The entire range of our cognitive abilities is useful, satisfying, and meaningful, if we know how to apply it.

          • G

            Speaking here as a rationalist by principle and an engineer by profession: The most destructive fantasy in the world today is the purely secular and self-proclaimedly rational one of economic growthism, which has produced the climate crisis that threatens the ecosystems on which human life depends.

            Danger is not limited to irrational belief systems.

            The problem is the behaviour, not the beliefs.

  • SmilingAhab

    I feel the same way with the Unitarians, like they don't really stand for anything. By eliminating dogma and creed, it just feels like a libertine clubhouse. Which is fine with me, I certainly could use the company and work in the world on causes with like-minded people. But there's something missing. I've always been a deist and called It the Light, the Father of Understanding, but I was a very militant atheist for a long time. The flexibility of Unitarianism is the source of its mushiness. I too crave more structure. maybe I should join the Quakers, but around here they are less accepting of non-Christians into their flock.

    However, Unitarians also have their rituals and motivationals designed to subsume individual egos to a higher oneness, but a steadfast denial of definition of any of those things leaves this subsumption hollow. Will the ritual of Quakerism feel as hollow as well?

    I've always felt like adapting the Machine Cult of Warhammer 40,000 for just such a purpose: they needed this physical father of understanding you write about, so they literally built Him. The libertine and atheist in me screams at the loss of negative liberty, but it is a strangely satisfying thought to become little more than an extension of the Machine God.

    I miss the magic of my childhood, for my militant social Darwinist atheism quite effectively butchered it and I don't know how to get it back.

    One of the things I love about Aeon's comment section is that it is so remarkably mature and intellectual as far as comments sections go. However, I would like to add a trite non sequitur:


    • Nancy

      SmilingAhab, thank you for the sentence, "Unitarians have rituals and motivationals designed to subsume individual egos to a higher oneness." That's the part I can't get on board for.

      I keep meeting people who identify as atheist Unitarians (or pagan Unitarians) and people who suggest that Unitarianism can answer my need for community.

      A bit off-topic, I've even met Unitarians who claim that the monotheism stated by their parent organization is just a way of getting the U.S. tax dispensation....

      • SmilingAhab

        All religions have rituals to subsume self-awareness, it's part of the package, part of ritual itself really.

        Unitarian Universalism is a consolidation of two liberal Protestant derivatives - Universalists, who believe that everyone is saved no matter what, because God's grace is absolute, and Unitarians, who reject the Trinitarian nature of the Godhead, came together in a church all its own in 1961. Most UUs still have Christian roots in their faith, and most services follow Judeo-Christian traditions, and the God spoken of most often is more like the Masonic Higher Oneness that remains conveniently undefined but singular.

  • sbeadenkopf


    Thanks for articulating the thoughts and struggles that must be shared by many atheists in religious communities. I was born Jewish but adopted at birth and raised Quaker. I think I formed my core world view when I was quite young and asked my mother (a Catholic turned Quaker) what God was. She answered, "God is love." At the time, this seemed pretty lame to me, and I decided that, as a spiritual investigator, I was on my own. My father's religion seemed to be the Sunday NY Times.

    We continued attending Friends Meeting in Albany and became members when I was 12 or 13. I chose to join both for the community of young Friends and because the silent worship experience was increasingly meaningful for me. I enjoyed the space to be completely myself and was inspired by the application of Quaker principles to world problems. I was able to bleep over or translate God-related vocabulary into my mystical humanism. In my 20's I came across meditation techniques that helped me to center (to quiet the buzz of internal dialog), and meeting for worship became an ever richer experience in which I could join in the communal search for truth.

    In my late 30's I fell in love with a Jewish woman, we married, and I signed the ketuba promising to raise my children as Jews. (Actually, I would have signed anything!) I remained active in the Friends meeting but began dipping my toes into Judaism. I found my ministry in meeting often influenced by Jewish prayer. We settled near a suburban synagogue where our children attended pre-school and we became members. Eventually I realized that trying to be a member of two communities meant that I really belonged to neither, and I resigned from the Friends Meeting.

    I am still an atheist. In fact, I find it easier to be openly atheist in our Conservative Jewish congregation than in the Quaker meeting. Jews have a long history of wrestling with God and with each other, and a rabbinic tradition that says that Jews are saved by acts rather than by faith.

    Despite feeling welcomed, however, I have not taken the initiative to raise the discussion of atheism as clearly as we are now. So I want to state here a few principles that I feel quite comfortable with.

    1. There are many possible internally consistent world views that can explain the big questions of life and provide guidance for daily living. Some may be better than others, but that is a tough call. I like my somewhat mystical scientific humanism, but Christianity and Judaism both clearly work very well for some of my friends. As Robert Piersig says, in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, "There are many paths over the mountain of our own ego." (Probably not an exact quote)

    2. We live in a wonderful and awesome universe on a planet with amazing life forms and beauty everywhere we look, listen, smell and taste.

    3. I do not believe in good and evil, right and wrong. I believe in beauty, I believe in love, which is really just seeing the beauty in another human being in the special empathic way we humans have. I believe in sorrow, tragedy and grief. We die. We make mistakes, we lose perspective. This is what it is to be human. We care about each other and we feel bad when we see our loved ones in pain. We do great things and sometimes we do horrible things out of our anger and pain.

    Most of us learn, too late, how to be wise on our own, so it is useful to have some guidelines for action. We can find these in the teachings of the sages - or on Facebook.

    I think it will be very useful both for the theists and the atheists to embrace these differences and to see what can be learned.


    • natcase

      Lovely. Thanks, Scott.

    • Zachary_Bos

      Scott, your post was so well-put and cogent, we decided to quote it on our social media campaign (the purpose of which is to invite Oprah to reconsider her less-than-thoughtful comments about the purported incompatibility between atheism and the experience of awe and wonder).

      The image appears at https://twitter.com/BostonAtheists/status/393045490146635776/photo/1

      • sbeadenkopf

        Cool! Let me know if you need more. Scott

  • Felila

    I suppose I am a religious person. I am a Zen Buddhist. I don't believe in God, as most people understand HIM/HER/IT. I have no desire to put a face on the inscrutable. Yet I think I understand when Saint Teresa of Avila says, "The fish is in the sea and the sea is in the fish."

    You can be a Zen Buddhist sitting peacefully with Friends. Indeed, that's what I have done when there is no Zen group handy.

    • Serai 1

      I think that being a religious person isn't about the presence of a creator god. As you say, Buddhists do not have one, and yet Buddhism is definitely a religion. I think it's about connecting to the larger aspect of existence, that which is larger than humanity, larger than the world, larger than everything - that which we can never really know because we are simply too small. Whatever it is - and god is as good a term as any, I suppose - the gist of being religious is the desire and need to connect with it (as opposed to defining or categorizing or analyzing it).

  • Aggy

    Some people here are saying if you are going to kid yourself, then you'd do better watching LOTR or going to a sci fi convention. But I think that is missing the point slightly. It isn't fruitful to compare the feeling one gets when watching LOTR to the feeling discussed in this article. I would wager that the author brought up literature as an analogy, but not a perfect one, and that having religious or spiritual faith it is not equivalent, as someone claimed, to believing that Boromir is real. During the three or so hours when you are fooling yourself that Frodo is really a champion against darkness it is unlikely that you would experience a truly life-changing feeling or moment of revelation on a very deep level. It is unlikely that you would get the lasting benefits that we know faith can bring. I think a better equivalent, a better comparison of "deliberately fooling yourself" is the illusion of love. Most people who fall in love, or who experience the life changing event of bringing a child into the world, know intellectually that it is "just chemicals in the brain", or that they are simply ensuring passing on their genetic material. But that doesn't really matter to most people, because the experience of it all is wonderful, and gives most people meaning in their lives and much pleasure. It is rational on one level to try to suppress that feeling because we know there isn't anything magical about your new love, not really, and one day we can probably grow children in labs. But on another, perhaps higher, level it would be truly mad and irrational to deny yourself these illusions because they give us more than what the dry reality can provide.

    • natcase

      I actually think it's somewhere between an analogy and an equivalent. I think that the experience of virtually/vicariously living into a book or a movie is neither an arms-length self-conscious analogy, nor is it the same as external experience in our world with our body. And actually, I think people do have life-changing experiences through the arts and story, as they do through religion, but there is no social context for this in our public life. In large part this is because of the insistence that religious experience is "real," without differentiation between the reality a non-verifiable, non-duplicable experience of the supernatural, and the kinds of experience admissible as evidence in court or in scientific literature. Both are "real," but they are not the same.

      "Most people who fall in love, or who experience the life changing event
      of bringing a child into the world, know intellectually that it is "just
      chemicals in the brain", or that they are simply ensuring passing on
      their genetic material."
      No, actually, I think most people don't include that important minimizing words "just" and "simply" to these events. I think some devoted rationalists do this as a way of explaining why they are straying from their ideal state. But a lot of people use the same sorts of mental compartmentalization we moderns do around religion, because there is simply too much cognitive dissonance otherwise, and the experiences are too central to our humanity to in any way place under rational explanation.

  • Philip

    There is one, namely christ jesus, who can speak to my condition. And what is my condition?

    I liked your words:

    "...Maybe part of our problem is that we don’t actually want to talk to the voice of Everything, because Everything has gotten so unfathomably huge..."

    I think that christ's whole message was to enable us monkeys to finally accept that the god of this GREAT BIG THING was actually available inside, "the light within".

    I think this was George Fox's insight. Not the greatness of the natural world or the constructed grandness of religion, but the still small voice inside. There is a reason why Tyndale wrote his translation using the common thee instead of the formal you, and why ye olde quakers still use this. It is an intimate term. If we so decide, god resides within us, the creator within. thee and thou is not grand - its a common as, well, ...

    Isn't that a cool thing? The greatest is the smallest. And within us.

  • Mick

    Could it be that you simply enjoy the look of surprise that appears on a person's face after you make the announcement?

    • natcase

      Probably, but it's an announcement I've only begun making as part of "who am I" quite recently. But it's true, I am contrarian my nature.

  • Niagra falls

    You feel the need to fill a void that religions normally would fill yet you don't believe in a god that traditional organized religions would have you believe. I'm not sure if "atheist" is the best word to describe you. A true atheist might not have the same concerns and yearning to begin with. But your self-perception is at least as important as how others perceive you. You seem confused and still look for your way around the world. I hope one day you do.

    • natcase

      I will say though, that I think being comfortable with a certain amount of confusion makes people more likeable to me. There are more questions, and so more openness to those who are not part of the same tribe. My favorite example is Orson Scott Card, an author who I adored in his earlier writings. As he's gotten more sure of himself, I find him less and less interesting. But he's probably happier in himself, so it's a tradeoff.

  • Joz Jonlin

    I am an empiricist at heart, and therefore, because I can't see or hear or physically prove there is a god, an atheist. Every bit of logic I can must says to me there is no god. Look a the night sky. The enormity of the universe can't be overstated, and you tell me someone or something created that? Sheer madness! On the other hand, I feel a presence in my life, and always have, as far back as I can remember. Therein lies my torturous dichotomy. My brain knows there is no way this universe and everything in it was created by a being, yet my heart and, dare I say it, my spirit, say otherwise. I am an atheist who absolutely believes in God. It's my ever present dichotomy.

    • Serai 1

      Paradoxy is much more fulfilling than orthodoxy, I've found.

  • Dennis Goos

    " the founder of Quakerism, didn’t have to think about light years, let alone billions of light years." The basic reason for most believers...avoid thought!

    • Serai 1

      Wow. Talk about not getting the point.

  • John Atheist

    Atheists are more than "no gods" label
    We come in many shades.


  • sssssssssssssssssssssssssss

    Good to know that you're confused and felt like spending thousands of words on it.

  • Serai 1

    Lovely. You've articulated many things I've felt over the years. I'm not an atheist, having given it up long ago for a lot of the reasons you cite here, but mostly because I didn't like what it did to me or to the world. I found my own path, and am much the happier for it.

    Not being able to reconcile myself to Christianity enough to be part of it, I've found that the Sufi image of the Divine is one that I treasure. (The Sufis are the mystical branch of Islam, dedicated to joy, love, peace, music, dance, and ecstasy - all reasons why they've been persecuted by the more austere and well-known sects.) They see god as their special Friend, the one that cherishes and loves them, without any kind of frowning judgment or invasive punishments. Like a friend, this god is simply there, to be confided in and enjoyed as a friend, someone who embraces and cares. They worship this god through dancing, drinking wine, and celebrating the beauty of life, as well as through teaching stories which can also be seen as the world's oldest jokes. It's a mystery religion that is joyful and kind, and belies the frowning cliche of religion as something evil and horrid that should be gotten rid of. (If I were a Muslim, that's definitely the sort I would be.) Rumi is the best known of the Sufi mystics, and I heartily recommend his poetry for anyone who rejects the judgmentalism of most organized religion, and is looking for a very different image of god.

  • dr.c

    Beautiful....Thank you